Belarusian Authorities Continue to Stifle Democracy

Belarusian Authorities Continue to Stifle Democracy

Hon.
Ben Nighthorse Campbell
United States
Senate
108th Congress Congress
Second Session Session
Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Mr. President, as Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I want to update colleagues on developments in the Republic of Belarus, a country with the poorest human rights record of any country in Europe today. In the last year, Belarusian dictator Lukashenka's assault on civil society has steadily intensified, with the liquidation of NGOs, violence against opposition activists, and repression of the independent media and trade unions. The situation in Belarus continues its downward spiral with daily reports of growing repression and new human rights violations.

 

Since the beginning of the still relatively New Year, NGOs such as the Belarusian Language Society and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee have experienced increased harassment. The Minsk City Court has ordered the liquidation of the Independent Association of Legal Research. Leaders of the opposition "Five Plus" bloc, who are in Washington this week, were recently detained and searched by customs officials at the Polish-Belarusian border. The officials were reportedly looking for printed, audio or video materials that could "damage the political and economic interests of the country." Human rights activists or independent journalists such as Natalya Kolyada, Nina Davydowskaya, Iryna Makavetskaya, Aksana Novikava and Aleksandr Silitsky continue to be subjected to threats, detentions or heavy fines. Others, including activists of the youth group ZUBR, have been arrested for holding an unauthorized picket demanding a thorough investigation of the disappearances of three democratic opposition members Yuri Zakharenka, Victor Gonchar, Anatoly Krasovsky, and journalist Dmitri Zavadsky.

 

Independent media outlets also continue to feel the wrath of the powers that be, including libel proceedings against Narodnaya Volya, Belarus' largest independent daily; the confiscation of Asambleya, a bulletin of the Assembly of the Belarusian Democratic NGOs; the refusal by the Belarusian Postal Service to distribute the independent newspaper Regionalniye Novosti; the confiscation of copies, in the town of Smorgon, of the independent newspaper, Mestnaya Gazeta; and the censoring of the independent newspaper Volnaya Hlybokaye in the Vitebsk region. Several Jewish cemeteries are being destroyed, Baptist congregations are being fined and Krishna followers detained.

 

In an unusual step, the International Labor Organization, ILO, has established a commission of inquiry, only the eleventh time in the body's 84-year history, to examine violations of trade union rights in Belarus. Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights unanimously ratified a report on political disappearances in Belarus. The just-released report severely criticizes the Belarusian authorities, stating that "steps were taken at the highest level of the State actively to cover up the...disappearances" of several high-profile members of the opposition in 1999 to 2000 and that senior Belarusian officials may be involved.

 

Last year I introduced the Belarus Democracy Act of 2003, S. 700, which is designed to help promote democratic development, human rights and rule of law in the Republic of Belarus, as well as encourage the consolidation and strengthening of Belarus' sovereignty and independence.

 

While some might be tempted to dismiss Belarus as an anomaly, the stakes are too high and the costs too great to ignore. It is important for us to stay the course and support Belarus in becoming a genuine European state, in which respect for human rights and democracy is the norm and in which the long-suffering Belarusian people are able to overcome the legacy of dictatorship- past and present. The Belarus Democracy Act, which enjoys bipartisan support, is an important, concrete way to exhibit our support. I urge colleagues to support this measure and look forward to timely consideration of the Belarus Democracy Act.

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    WASHINGTON—Following reports of a mob attack against the Roma community and a police station in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) today issued the following statement: “I am very disturbed by the increasing frequency of mob attacks on Roma in Europe—most recently in Bulgaria, but also in Italy, France, and the Czech Republic. Governments must do more to counter the corrosive effects of hate-mongering and protect their most vulnerable communities from bias-motivated crimes. “The violence in Bulgaria is particularly concerning. As they say in the horror movies, ‘the call is coming from inside your house.’ An attack on a government institution like a police station is an attack on democracy itself.” Reports indicate that earlier this week, an anti-Roma group attacked the police station in Gabrovo when officers refused to turn over three Roma to the mob following an altercation at a local shop. Some Romaní homes were subsequently destroyed. The attack comes on the heels of recent anti-Roma rhetoric at the highest levels of the Government of Bulgaria. In February, Bulgarian Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Krasimir Karakachanov proposed offering free abortions to limit the Roma birthrate. In early April, a mob attacked 70 Roma, including children, in a suburb of Rome, Italy. Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the attack.  Similar attacks on Roma in the town of Dvorec in the Czech Republic forced a Romani family to leave the area. Three Romani children were subsequently attacked in the Czech village of Lipník nad Bečvou. In France in late March, false kidnapping accusations against Roma circulated on social media were associated with gang attacks on Roma in France. Local police issued statements to quell the disinformation. 

  • Wicker and Cardin Introduce Legislation to Defend U.S. Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecution in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) today introduced the Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act of 2019 (S. 1075) to address the ongoing wrongful detentions of U.S. citizens and diplomatic staff by the Government of Turkey. U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (IL), who has actively supported efforts to secure the release of political prisoners around the world, is an original co-sponsor of the legislation, along with Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (MD). “More than two and a half years have passed since Serkan Gölge, an American citizen, was detained in Turkey. Since then, we have witnessed the sham convictions of two Americans, including Pastor Andrew Brunson, and one local employee of the U.S. government on baseless terrorism charges. At least two other local staff of our consulate in Istanbul continue to face similar politically-motivated convictions without credible evidence of wrongdoing,” said Sen. Wicker. “Turkish authorities should immediately cease this harassment of our citizens and personnel. The bipartisan measure we are introducing today puts Turkey on notice that it can either quickly resolve these cases and free our citizens and local staff or face real consequences. Turkey is a valuable NATO ally—I expect it to start acting like one.” “The Turkish government’s false imprisonment of Americans and Turkish citizens employed by the United States in Turkey is a gross violation of their human rights,” said Sen. Cardin. “Our bill makes clear that the United States will not tolerate years of Turkish recalcitrance on these cases. Officials in the Erdogan regime responsible for these crimes must be held accountable under Global Magnitsky standards for their ongoing injustices. I am eager to begin restoring constructive cooperation between our countries, but we simply cannot do so while these innocent men languish in wrongful and prolonged detention.” “These arbitrary arrests are yet another example of Turkey’s deteriorating democracy and respect for human rights under autocrat President Erdogan,” said Sen. Durbin.  “That Erdogan continues to jail a U.S. citizen and Turkish staff that work for our consulates, not to mention prop up Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, warrant greater action by the Trump Administration.” “Erdogan’s government continues to undermine the rule of law in Turkey, including by targeting American citizens and locally-employed U.S. diplomatic staff.  I’m proud to join this bipartisan effort to hold senior Turkish officials who are knowingly responsible for the wrongful detention of or politically-motivated false charges against American citizens and U.S. local employees at our diplomatic posts accountable,” Sen. Rubio said. “The Turkish government must live up to its commitment and act like a NATO ally if they wish to continue to be treated like one.” “While the Turkish government made a step in the right direction with the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson last October, more needs to be done for Turkey to show good faith and act like a NATO ally,” said Sen. Tillis, co-chair of the Senate Human Rights Caucus. “This bipartisan legislation will impose sanctions on those responsible for the wrongful imprisonments of American citizens and diplomatic staff, and I hope progress will be ultimately made through the release of Serkan Gölge and other U.S. citizens currently imprisoned in Turkey.” “Turkey’s blatant disregard for the rights of American citizens and diplomatic staff within their country is unacceptable. This legislation makes clear to Turkey that we will not accept the status quo. I urge the Senate to take up this bill immediately, so we can levy swift sanctions on senior Turkish officials and apply some serious pressure to get Turkey to release these wrongfully detained Americans and diplomatic staff,” said Sen. Van Hollen, co-chair of the Senate Foreign Service Caucus. The bill would require the U.S. administration to impose sanctions on all senior Turkish officials responsible for the wrongful detentions of U.S. citizens and staff, including barring the officials from travel to the United States and freezing any U.S. assets. It further calls on President Trump to urge Turkey to restore due process guarantees and respect for the fundamental freedoms of all its people, thousands of whom are victims of the same politically-motivated prosecution and indefinite detention. U.S. citizen and NASA scientist Serkan Gölge is one of several American citizens, including Pastor Andrew Brunson, who were caught up in the sweeping government-led purge that followed the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Brunson was convicted on fabricated terrorism charges and released in October 2018 but Gölge remains in jail serving a five-year sentence because of a similar conviction. He has been in jail since July 2016. Since early 2017, Turkish authorities have targeted three veteran Turkish employees of U.S. consulates in Turkey on trumped-up national security charges that appear to stem in part from routine contacts they maintained as part of their professional responsibilities. All three men have worked as locally employed staff of the United States Government in Turkey for more than three decades. A Turkish court in January 2019 convicted Hamza Ulucay, who was imprisoned since February 2017, on terrorism charges without any credible evidence of wrongdoing. He was sentenced to four and a half years in jail, but released on time served. Two other local staff from the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul, Metin Topuz and Mete Canturk, remain in custody or under house arrest on similar trumped-up charges. After 18 months in jail, Metin had his first court hearing last month. The court adjourned his trial until May 15. In November 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the detention of American citizens and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey. In the months prior to the hearing, Helsinki Commission leaders raised these cases in letters to President Erdogan and President Trump.

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