(Washington) - The House International Relations Committee of the United States Congress today incorporated key elements of the Belarus Democracy Act of 2003 as part of H.R. 1950, the State Department reauthorization bill.
The Belarus Democracy Act was sponsored by United States Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) who hailed today’s move as another step toward bolstering desperately needed democratic assistance in Belarus, a former Soviet Republic held hostage by the dictatorial regime of Alexander Lukashenka.
"I am pleased the Committee has recognized the importance of the bipartisan initiative and the critical need for U.S. support for those struggling to promote democracy and respect for human rights in Belarus, despite the personal risks and formidable pressures they face at the hands of Lukashenka’s anti-democratic regime," said Co-Chairman Smith.
Key provisions of the Belarus Democracy Act of 2003 have now become Title XV of H.R. 1950, the Foreign Relations Reauthorization bill. While the sections were amended in the process, the essence of the Democracy Act will now move faster through Congress. The full Committee is expected to vote on the larger reauthorization bill on Thursday, May 8, paving the way for consideration by the full House.
Reports continue to circulate of arms deals between the Belarusian regime and rogue states, including Iraq and North Korea. Lukashenka and his regime openly supported former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
The Belarus Democracy Act, incorporated as Title XV, includes language requiring reports from the President concerning the sale or delivery of weapons or weapons-related technologies from Belarus to rogue states.
"The Belarusian people have suffered so much under dictators--both past and present. They deserve our support as they strive to overcome the legacy of the past and develop a genuinely independent, democratic country," Smith continued.
There are credible allegations of the Lukashenka regime’s involvement in the disappearances of leading opposition figures and a journalist. "Here in Washington and at OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meetings in Paris and Berlin," Mr. Smith noted, "I’ve had occasion to meet with the wives of the disappeared. These meetings have been heart-wrenching. The cases of their husbands--who disappeared in 1999 and 2000 and are presumed to have been murdered--are a stark illustration of the climate of fear in Belarus."
Belarus has the worst human rights record in Europe, thanks to Alexander Lukashenka, whose regime has blatantly and repeatedly violated basic freedoms of speech, expression, assembly, association and religion. Independent media, non-governmental organizations and democratic opposition have all faced harassment. Independent journalists have been sentenced to "corrective labor" for their writings. In October, Lukashenka signed into law the most restrictive religion law in Europe.
"Belarusians deserve a society where democratic principles and human rights are respected and the rule of law is paramount," Smith added. "We will keep faith with courageous and determined advocates of democracy and civil society in Belarus, who need our support to help wage the battle for democracy in Belarus."
A companion to the Belarus Democracy Act of 2003, S. 700, introduced by Commission Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, is pending in the United States Senate.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.