Mr. Speaker, on Sunday, March 25, Belarusian-Americans commemorated Belarusian Independence Day. On that date in 1918, during World War I, the Belarusian National Republic was declared. Although independence was short-lived and Belarus forcibly subjected to Soviet rule, it did mark an historically significant milestone in the aspirations of the Belarusian people for freedom and their own unique identity.
While Belarus became independent in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this independence today is under threat thanks to the dictatorial rule of Alexander Lukashenka, who has relentlessly squelched dissent, strangled democratic institutions and the rule of law, stifled human rights and political liberties, and refused to reform the Soviet-type state-dominated economy. This has made Belarus dangerously vulnerable to Russian influence and has greatly weakened its prospects for integration into the European family of nations.
The brutal crackdown that began 15 months ago with the fraudulent December 19, 2010 election persists. Its most recent manifestation is the barring of numerous opposition leaders, human rights activists and independent journalists from traveling abroad--yet another in a litany of violations of Belarus' OSCE commitments. Especially egregious is the continued imprisonment of democratic opposition leaders and activists, and human rights defenders Andrei Sannikau, Mikalai Statekevich, Zmitser Bandarenka, Ales Byalyatski, Syarhei Kavalenka, Zmitser Dashkevich, Pavel Seviarynets, and others, many of whom face inhumane conditions in detention. I'd like to add my voice to those of countless Belarusians and Belarusian-Americans calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Belarus.
Mr. Speaker, in January the President signed into law the Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2011, which I authored. This law strengthens, in view of Lukashenka's crackdown, two earlier laws I wrote promoting democracy and supporting the Belarusian people in their struggle to replace the Lukashenka dictatorship with a representative government that will respect human rights and democratic values. But Congress's efforts on behalf of the Belarusian people can't end there--I'd like to ask my colleagues to continue to raise Belarusian human rights issues with the administration, with foreign parliamentarians, and, whenever we encounter them, with officials of the Lukashenka dictatorship.