(Washington) - President George W. Bush signed the Belarus Democracy Act into law Wednesday, stating, “At a time when freedom is advancing around the world, Aleksandr Lukashenka and his government are turning Belarus into a regime of repression in the heart of Europe, its government isolated from its neighbors and its people isolated from each other.”
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 on October 4 and the United States Senate on October 6. The original measure had been introduced in the Senate by Commission Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO).
President Bush’s signature comes three days after Belarus held fundamentally flawed parliamentary elections and a referendum allowing Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenka unlimited terms as president. Lukashenka’s current “term” expires in 2006.
“The Belarus Democracy Act will help us support those within Belarus who are working toward democracy,” Bush added. “We welcome this legislation as a means to bolster friends of freedom and to nurture the growth of democratic values, habits, and institutions within Belarus. The fate of Belarus will rest not with a dictator, but with the students, trade unionists, civic and religious leaders, journalists, and all citizens of Belarus claiming freedom for their nation.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, with nearly 300 election observers, said Belarus’ elections fell significantly short of OSCE commitments for democratic elections.
“Given the state's domination over the media and constant assault on the independent press, and given the authorities’ near total control of all facets of the electoral apparatus, the referendum and parliamentary elections in Belarus were neither free nor fair,” said Chairman Smith. “Yet again there was no hint of a level playing field nor transparency in the electoral process. The Government of Belarus has failed to address the four OSCE criteria for free and fair elections in Belarus which were established more than four years ago. It was evident throughout the electoral period that a chilling climate of fear remains in Belarus.”
“The rigged referendum certainly did nothing to legitimize Lukashenka's now ten-year repressive rule. Likewise, the new National Assembly will lack legitimacy because of the fundamentally flawed nature of these elections,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Campbell. “These farcical elections underscore the importance of the Belarus Democracy Act, with its strong commitment to democracy, human rights and rule of law in Belarus.”
Chairman Smith and Co-Chairman Campbell expressed outrage at Tuesday’s vicious beating by security forces of United Civic Party leader Anatoly Lebedka, causing him to be hospitalized. Both Smith and Campbell have met with Lebedka on several occasions in Washington and in Europe during meetings of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
Some 40 individuals were beaten, arrested and detained for peacefully protesting the “official results” of Sunday’s elections and referendum.
“The violence perpetrated by the authorities only serves to further expose the nature of Lukashenka’s dictatorial regime,” said Chairman Smith.
“One would think that with his referendum ‘victory,’ Lukashenka would have enough confidence to allow peaceful expression of views without resorting to brutal force,” added Co-Chairman Campbell.
The Belarus Democracy Act promotes democratic development, human rights and the rule of law in Belarus, and encourages the consolidation and strengthening of Belarus’ sovereignty and independence. The bill authorizes assistance for democracy-building activities such as support for non-governmental organizations, independent media – including radio broadcasting into Belarus – and international exchanges.
The Belarus Democracy Act also encourages free and fair parliamentary elections; supports imposition of sanctions on Lukashenka’s 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.