Prison sentence for flag burning

August 2, 1996

A Belarusian pro-democracy activist, Andrey Romasheuski, deputy chairman of the Beer-Lovers' party, has received a two-year suspended prison sentence in connection with a student demonstration in May1995.

The sentence is suspended subject to good behaviour. However, in the increasingly authoritarian climate of Belarus, virtually any expression of opposition to the views of President Alexander Lukashenka is liable to be interpreted as illegal.

Mr Romasheuski was charged with malicious hooliganism after a demonstration protesting President Lukashenka's plan to change the state symbols. The current white knights coat of arms on a white-red-white flag was adopted in 1991 and its historical significance in the region dates back several centuries. President Lukashenka wants this replaced with what would be, in effect, the flag and coat of arms of the defunct Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, but without the Soviet hammer and sickle emblem.

Although less than 50 per cent of the electorate required according to the constitution endorsed the change in a referendum, the president announced that the change would go ahead. The protest, organised by Mr Romasheuski and pro-democracy pro-independence student societies, took the form of filing around the presidential residence with hands clasped behind the necks like exercising prisoners .

The protesters then burned an old flag of Soviet Belarus which included the hammer and sickle. Since the state it symbolised no longer existed in law, the protesters maintained that they could not be charged with insulting today's Belarus. This subtlety failed to save them from arrest. Almost all participants in the demonstration were rounded up by the police, taken for questioning, and then released.

Mr Romasheuski, however, was arrested only on May 6 this year, shortly after the Chernobyl memorial rally. His detention and trial appears to be part of the general clampdown on democracy and dissent over the past few months.

Symptomatic of that clampdown, is the news, reported by the independent Belarusian newspaper Svaboda, that millions of textbooks printed since independence in 1991 are to be shredded because they are allegedly "soiled". The textbooks cover the whole of primary and secondary education, and deal with Belarusian history and language.

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