Two criminal charges have been brought against opposition activist Syarhey Kavalenka, who created a scandal by putting a white-red-white flag on top of Vitsyebsk’s tallest Christmas tree on January 7.
Mr. Kavalenka was initially charged with persistent hooliganism, an offense that carries a penalty of a "restricted freedom" term of up to five years or imprisonment for up to six years under Part Two of the Criminal Code’s Article 339.
He is now charged with "deliberate actions that grossly disturb the public order and show evident contempt of society" under Part One of Article 339, which provides for imprisonment for up to three years, and with resisting police officers, which is penalized by Article 363 and carries a penalty of between two and five years in prison.
"At the moment I`m undergoing an examination in a Vitsyebsk hospital," the 34-year-old member of the Conservative Christian Party told BelaPAN over the phone on Wednesday afternoon. "The investigators sent me here for an assessment of my physical and mental health."
At about noon on January 7, Mr. Kavalenka climbed the 130-foot (40-meter) high collapsible Christmas tree and placed the historically national flag on top of it before the eyes of hundreds of people who were present in Vitsyebsk’s downtown Victory Square, which was for the first time made the city’s main venue for New Year/Christmas celebrations.
The 6x12-foot flag remained on the tree for 15 minutes before it was removed by emergency workers with the help of an aerial ladder. Police cordoned off the place and apprehended Mr. Kavalenka. Although the Vitsyebsk city prosecutor sanctioned the detention of Mr. Kavalenka for two months on January 10, the opposition activist was released on his own recognizance two days later.
Between 1991 and 1994, the white-red-white flag was one of the state symbols of Belarus. In a controversial 1995 national referendum, held on President Alyaksandr Lukashenka`s initiative, 75 percent voted for replacing the white-red-white flag by a Soviet-style red-green flag, with 65 percent of those eligible taking part in the vote.
Pressing for replacing the white-red-white flag, Mr. Lukashenka explained that this flag had been used by the Belarusian collaborators of the Nazis.
After the 1995 referendum, the flag became a symbol of opposition to the Lukashenka government and an indispensable attribute of street protests in the country. In this quality, the flag strongly irritates police and government officials.