Belarus’ authoritarian president signed a law that threatens demonstrators with years in prison, the latest move in a relentless crackdown on protests against his rule.
The law envisages a prison sentence of up to three years for the participants in unsanctioned protests who had faced sanctions for joining them on at least two occasions over a year.
Previously, taking part in unauthorised demonstrations was punishable by fines or brief jail terms ranging from several days to two weeks.
President Alexander Lukashenko has faced months of protests fuelled by his reelection to a sixth term in a vote last August that was widely seen as rigged.
The Belarus authorities have responded to demonstrations with a fierce crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.
The wide-ranging repression was spotlighted again on May 23, when Belarus diverted a Ryanair flight travelling from Greece to Lithuania to Minsk where authorities arrested Raman Pratasevich, a dissident journalist who was aboard.
Since his arrest, 26-year-old Mr Pratasevich has been shown in several videos on state TV, tearfully repenting for his activities and praising Mr Lukashenko in remarks that the opposition slammed as coerced.
The new bill signed by Mr Lukashenko also toughens punishment for the “rude violation of public order” from three years to five years in prison.
The authorities have widely levelled those charges against protest participants.
The legislation also introduces two-year prison terms for posting “banned information”, such as calls for the government’s ousting, on the web.
It follows up on another law approved by Mr Lukashenko last month that bans news media from doing live reports on unauthorised demonstrations and allows the information ministry to shut down a media organisation without a court order.
Belarus authorities have relentlessly cracked down on journalists, including blocking several major news websites and outlawing opposition-leaning messaging app channels as extremist.