(Washington) - The Belarus Democracy Act (H.R. 854), sponsored by United States Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), unanimously passed the House of Representatives late Monday. Among bipartisan supporters of the measure were Commissioners Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA), Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-NY), and Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL). The move comes less than two weeks before voters in the former Soviet republic elect a new parliament and decide whether to extend the rule of President-turned-dictator Alexander Lukashenka. Consideration of the Belarus Democracy Act by the United States Senate is expected prior to adjournment.
Chairman Smith hailed passage of the bill as an opportunity to promote democratic development in a country held hostage by Lukashenka’s dictatorial regime.
“With important parliamentary elections and a questionable referendum to extend Lukashenka’s rule beyond his two-term tenure set to expire in 2006, the United States has demonstrated our unwavering support for pro-democracy forces in Belarus,” said Chairman Smith. “With passage of the Belarus Democracy Act, we send a strong signal that we stand firmly on the side of those who long for freedom.”
“Lukashenka’s regime continues to trample upon basic rights and freedoms with impunity, giving Belarus the worst human rights record in Europe today,” Chairman Smith added. High- ranking Belarusian officials have been implicated in the disappearances and presumed murders in 1999 and 2000 of political opposition leaders Yuri Zakharenka, Victor Gonchar, Anatoly Krasovsky and journalist Dmitri Zavadsky. Not surprisingly, these cases remain unresolved. Furthermore, over the last year, Lukashenka has increased harassment, arrests, detentions and violence against independent media, non-governmental organizations, independent trade unions, religious groups and political opposition leaders.
“The Belarusian people – who have suffered so much under the current and previous dictators – deserve to live in a society where democratic principles and human rights are respected,” Smith said. “As matters stand now, the cards appear to be stacked in Lukashenka’s favor in the upcoming October 17 elections, since the regime has almost total control over the electoral process.”
The Belarus Democracy Act is designed to promote democratic development, human rights and the rule of law in Belarus, as well as encourage the consolidation and strengthening of Belarus’ sovereignty and independence. The bill authorizes necessary assistance for democracy-building activities such as support for non-governmental organizations, independent media – including radio and television broadcasting into Belarus – and international exchanges.
The Belarus Democracy Act also encourages free and fair parliamentary elections; supports imposition of sanctions on the Lukashenka regime; and requires reports from the president concerning the sale or delivery of weapons or weapons-related technologies from Belarus to rogue states and reports on Lukashenka’s personal wealth and assets as well as those of other senior Belarusian leaders.
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.