President of Belarus gives himself immunity from prosecution and bars potential challengers

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has signed a new law giving himself lifelong immunity from criminal prosecution and preventing opposition leaders living abroad from running in future presidential elections.

The law theoretically applies to any former president and members of his or her family. In reality, it only is relevant to the 69-year-old Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for almost 30 years.

The new measure appears aimed at further shoring up Lukashenko’s power and eliminating potential challengers in the country’s next presidential election, which is due to take place in 2025.

The law significantly tightens requirements for presidential candidates and makes it impossible to elect opposition leaders who fled to neighbouring countries in recent years. Only citizens of Belarus who have permanently resided in the country for at least 20 years and have never had a residence permit in another country will be eligible to run.

Demonstrators carry a huge historical flag of Belarus as thousands gather for a protest at Independence square in Minsk, 2020.

Belarus was rocked by mass protests in August 2020 during Lukashenko’s widely disputed re-election for a sixth term, which the opposition and the West condemned as fraudulent.

During the ensuing demonstrations, Belarusian authorities detained more than 35,000 people, many of whom were beaten at protests or tortured in custody. A large number left the country altogether fearing reprisals.

Lukashenko has also been accused of involvement in the illegal transfer of children from Russian-occupied towns in Ukraine to Belarus.

According to the text of the new law, Lukashenko, were he to leave power, “cannot be held accountable for actions committed in connection with exercising his presidential powers.”

The law also says the president and members of his family will be provided with lifelong state protection, medical care, life and health insurance. After resigning, the president would also become a permanent lifelong member of the upper house of parliament.

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is welcomed by supporters at a rally by the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, 2020.

‘Inevitable future’

Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighbouring Lithuania in 2020, said the new law is Lukashenko’s response to his “fear of an inevitable future,” suggesting Lukashenko must be concerned about what happens to him when he leaves power.

“Lukashenko, who ruined the fates of thousands of Belarusians, will be punished according to international law, and no immunity will protect him against this. It’s only a matter of time.”

The country’s political opposition is seeking an investigation into the disappearances of opposition politicians and the removal of Ukrainian children from Ukraine.

“We will ensure that the dictator is brought to justice,” Tikhanovskaya said, emphasising that there are still about 1,500 political prisoners behind bars in Belarus, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski.

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