Repression Spreading in Belarus

Repression Spreading in Belarus

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
108th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Mr. Speaker, Europe's last dictator, Belarus' Alyaksandr Lukashenka, appears determined to ignore the voices of the people of Belarus calling for basic respect for human rights and democratic principles a decade after that country gained its independence and joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

 

As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I am disturbed by recent developments which demonstrate the growing repression in Belarus. There have been further restrictions imposed on the independent media, with the recent suspension of independent newspapers Navinki and Ekho. Just a few days ago, the publication Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta was suspended for three months. The offices of the trade union paper Solidarnost have been sealed by the authorities. Still other publications have received warnings that could lead to their closure. These actions were preceded by the three-month suspension of two prominent independent newspapers--Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta and BDG--For Internal Use Only.

 

The Lukashenka regime is also targeting schools. The National Humanities Lyceum, a highly respected high school promoting study of the Belarusian language and culture, is under fire, with its acting head to be replaced by a reportedly non-Belarusian-speaking official. Why? Because professors at the school support democracy and the Belarusian language and culture which ironically is anathema to the Belarusian strongman. Mr. Speaker, what kind of leader actively suppresses his nation's language and culture?

 

Moreover, a new crackdown on Pentecostal home meetings in western Belarus is underway, with fines being handed down on church members who permit their homes to be used for prayer meetings--a result of last year's restrictive religion law.

 

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are also facing increasing scrutiny, often for truly spurious reasons such as minor mistakes in registration documents. Several, including Ratusha, Varuta and the Youth Christian Social Union, are under threat of liquidation. Just a few days ago, the Homel regional court ordered the closure of the area's largest NGO, Civic Initiatives. The intensified campaign against NGOs and the independent media are widely regarded among domestic and international observers as a concerted attack on active and independent civil society structures.

 

Repressive actions against individuals continue as well. Recently, 18-year-old ZUBR activist Tatiana Elovaya was sentenced to 10 days imprisonment for manifesting her support in an April 3 demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy for the campaign to liberate Iraq. Several others, including 19-year-old Lyubov Kuchinskaya had served 10-day sentences earlier. Unfortunately, these are just some recent examples of a longstanding pattern of the Lukashenka regime's flouting of its OSCE commitments and continued disregard for the four OSCE criteria set forth three years ago by the Parliamentary Troika for Belarus.

 

Despite steps by the OSCE community, including the re-opening of the OSCE Office in Miensk (albeit under a more limited mandate), the seating of the National Assembly and the lifting of a visa ban, not only have reciprocal steps not been taken by the Belarusian authorities but the situation has indeed deteriorated further.

 

Earlier this year, I introduced H.R. 854, the Belarus Democracy Act, designed to assist the people of Belarus in regaining their freedom and enable them to join the European community of democracies. Key provisions of this Act also have been incorporated into the Foreign Relations Reauthorization bill. Mr. Speaker, the Lukashenka regime's continuing suppression of the longsuffering Belarusian people underscores the need for the Belarus Democracy Act and other efforts--including within the OSCE--to restore respect for human rights and institutions of democratic governance.

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Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chaired the hearing, noted concerns expressed by many, including the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, about Russia’s attempts to assume the mantle of leadership in the counterterrorism sphere, through efforts that include placing Russian nationals in senior counterterrorism positions in international organizations.  Rep. Hudson further expressed concern regarding overly broad use of “terrorism” and “extremism” labels by the Kremlin and authoritarian regimes across Central Asia, in contravention of their commitments to human rights Rep. Hudson was joined by other Helsinki Commissioners. Sen. Cory Gardner (CO) underscored the inherently destabilizing nature of Russia’s counterterrorism policies and practices and recalled legislation he has introduced that would require the Department of State to formally determine whether Russia should be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.  Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised questions regarding Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine and whether such an action amounts to state-sponsored terrorism, as well as the impact of Russia’s counterterrorism policies on its Muslim population.  Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) drew upon his experience in the Federal Bureau of Investigation to highlight the challenges of sharing investigative techniques and best practices for fighting terrorism with Russia, as opposed to other countries in the region.  Dr. Omelicheva discussed how the Kremlin has increasingly prioritized fighting terrorism, both as a policy and as a political theme. She described how punitive measures, rather than a focus on socioeconomic improvement to address root causes of radicalization, have long been a preferred method of Russia’s military and security services for addressing terrorism.  She also noted that some Central Asian states have copied the Kremlin’s heavy-handed methods.    Ms. Denber noted the broad criminal code Russian authorities inappropriately apply—under the guise of fighting terrorism—to persecute people “inconvenient” to the Kremlin.  She discussed in detail other domestic applications of Russia’s counterterrorism criminal laws, including monitoring and storing of Russian citizens’ internet metadata, as well as labeling groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist organizations.  Russia’s counterterrorism policies may well have alienated segments of Russia’s Muslim population and led individuals to join extremist organizations such as the Islamic State and Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ms. Denber stated.       Dr. Carpenter asserted that active U.S.-Russia counterterrorism cooperation runs counter to U.S. interests and values—highlighting Russia’s penchant for claiming to be fighting extremism while actually punishing dissidents, notably individuals in Crimea critical of the ongoing occupation of the peninsula.  “A single mother was recently imprisoned on extremism charges because she had posted comments critical of Russia’s annexation of Crimea on her social media feed,” he said.    Dr. Carpenter’s experience in government led him to conclude, “Russia approaches counterterrorism from the position of counterintelligence;” when Russia cooperates, it is with the aim of eliciting information rather than pursuing common solutions. Using Syria as an example, he emphasized how Russian leadership does not think in win-win terms when it comes to counterterrorism, even when the U.S. does.  “Moscow will be happy, of course, to host dozens of international conferences, and will periodically suggest that a solution is within reach.  But at the end of the day, its interests are best served when Iran, Hezbollah and Assad are in power to make mischief in the region, because that’s when Russia’s influence with the Europeans, with Israel, and the Gulf States is at its peak,” he said.  Dr. Omelicheva added to these comments with an overview of lessons the Russian government has learned in past failed counterterrorism operations, including the Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis of 2002 and Beslan school siege of 2004.     “The key lesson that the government learned was that they have to have sufficient force to secure the perimeter of the counterterrorism operation, that they need to be able to constrain the freedom of movement, the freedom of mass media, and other types of freedom.” 

  • Hastings and Wicker Condemn Recent Arrest of Ivan Golunov

    WASHINGTON—Following the recent arrest of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov by Russian authorities, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Journalism remains a dangerous profession in Russia, especially for reporters like Ivan Golunov who investigate corruption at the highest levels of government. His arrest proves once more that Russian authorities don’t simply fail to protect investigative journalists; they actively seek to muzzle them by alleging criminal behavior and even resorting to brute physical force.” Golunov, of the Latvia-based Russian news outlet Meduza, was arrested on drug charges on June 6 in Moscow—a common tactic used by Russian authorities to target journalists and dissidents.  In the hours after his arrest, he was denied numerous rights enshrined in Russian statutes, including a phone call to friends and family, an attorney, and a meal.  He also allegedly was beaten while in custody, and faces up to 20 years in prison. According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Russia ranks 149 out of 180 countries in media freedom based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of the legislative framework, and safety of journalists.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Russia’s Approach to Counterterrorism

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIA’S COUNTERPRODUCTIVE COUNTERTERRORISM Wednesday, June 12, 2019 10:30 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The Kremlin actively seeks to present Russia as a global leader in the practice of counterterrorism and countering extremism. However, Moscow’s policies and practices in this area may be problematic at best and counterproductive at worst. Witnesses will offer expert views on how the Kremlin’s counterterrorism approach has evolved over time; its effectiveness; the extent to which it complies with Russia’s commitments to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms; regional implications; and whether Kremlin actions dovetail—or not—with U.S. interests.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement; former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia; former National Security Council Director for Russia Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Professor of Strategy at the United States National War College, National Defense University; author, “Russia’s Regional and Global Counterterrorism Strategies” and “Russia’s Counterterrorism Policy: Variations on an Imperial Theme”

  • Chairman Hastings on Upcoming Meeting Between President Trump and Prime Minister Orban

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of Monday’s meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Thirty years after Central European nations threw off the mantle of communism and oppression, I recall the unwavering support of the United States for the democratic aspirations of their citizens, and the warm welcome Hungary received when it joined the ranks of self-governing, free nations. I echo Secretary’s Pompeo’s message, delivered in Central Europe in February: Upholding democracy in each and every country is vital to human freedom. “President Trump must urge Prime Minister Orban to end Hungary’s anti-Ukraine policy at NATO, resolve concerns about the relocation of the Russian International Investment Bank to Budapest, ensure that Hungary’s ‘golden visas’ are not used to evade U.S. sanctions, and address document security problems to ensure the integrity of the visa waiver program. In addition, the president must prioritize meaningful democratic change in Hungary and encourage the Hungarian Government to repeal the 2017 and 2018 laws curtailing freedom of speech, assembly, and association.” U.S. authorities have identified at least 85 criminals who fraudulently obtained Hungarian passports to enter or attempt to enter the United States. At an April 2019 Helsinki Commission briefing, Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute noted that the chairman of the International Investment Bank has long-standing ties to Russian intelligence agencies, raising concerns that the relocation of the bank from Moscow to Budapest could provide a platform for intelligence-gathering operations against U.S. allies. In April, U.S. Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker visited Budapest and urged Hungary to end its anti-Ukraine policy in NATO. In February, during a visit to Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Every nation that raises its voice for liberty and democracy matters, whether that’s a country that’s as big as the United States and with as large an economy as we have in America, or a smaller country. They’re each valuable. Each time one falls, each time a country – no matter how small – each time it moves away from democracy and moves towards a different system of governance, the capacity for the world to continue to deliver freedom for human beings is diminished. And so I would urge every country, no matter its size . . . to stay focused, maintain its commitment.”

  • Hastings and Wicker Mark World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—On World Press Freedom Day, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “On World Press Freedom Day, we reflect on the importance of the free media to the strength of our own democracy and to the cause of freedom worldwide. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right we cannot take for granted. If we do, we weaken our ability to fight corruption, speak truth to power, and defend the disadvantaged and oppressed. “Throughout the OSCE region, journalists working in conflict zones or under authoritarian regimes regularly risk their freedom and their lives to show the world the truth. They persist in the face of intimidation, arrest, and even the threat of physical violence. We honor their work and pledge to protect journalists around the globe, to support independent journalism, and to foster transparency on the part of our government and governments worldwide.”

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Protect and Promote Rights of People of African Descent Worldwide

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.R.1877, the African Descent Affairs Act of 2019. The bill would establish a U.S. strategy to protect and promote the human rights of people of African descent worldwide. “The vestiges of colonialism and slavery continue to negatively affect people of African descent around the world, resulting in continuing racial bias and discrimination,” said Chairman Hastings. “We must reverse these disturbing trends and facilitate the full and equal participation of people of African descent in our societies, promote knowledge of and respect for the diverse heritage, culture, and contributions of people of African descent, and strengthen and implement legal frameworks that combat racial discrimination.” The African Descent Affairs Act would establish an Office of Global African Descent Affairs at the U.S. State Department to develop global foreign policy and assistance strategies beyond the African continent. The bill also would create a fund to support antidiscrimination and empowerment efforts by civil society organizations; require annual State Department human rights reports to include a section on discrimination faced by people of African descent; and create similar initiatives at the United States Agency for International Development.  Previous State Department initiatives such as the Office of Global Women's Issues, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, and special programs focusing on disability, LGBTQ+ and other communities helped aid other vulnerable populations around the world and inspired Chairman Hastings’ measure. “Across the globe we find racial disparities between those of African descent and other populations in education, employment, health, housing, justice, and other sectors. At the same time, hate crimes and racial profiling targeting black populations are increasing; this affects not only local populations, but also our diverse American military, diplomats, and students traveling abroad,” said Chairman Hastings. “A global strategy ensures we are monitoring whether countries around the world are providing equal protections and opportunity to all within their borders, and also strengthens black communities as they engage with their governments to address these issues.” In 2008, Chairman Hastings first drew attention to continuing issues of racism and discrimination in Europe and North America at a Helsinki Commission hearing on racism in the 21st century. Over the past decade, the Helsinki Commission has continued to highlight the challenges faced by diverse populations on both sides of the Atlantic, most recently through a September 2018 briefing on race, rights, and politics in the European Union.

  • Chairman Hastings Recognizes Black European Fight for Inclusion

    WASHINGTON—As the world commemorates the International Decade for People of African Descent, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.Res.256, recognizing the achievements and contributions of people of African descent and black Europeans in the face of persistent racism and discrimination. H.Res.256 encourages the celebration of the collective history and achievements of those of African descent in Europe. It supports efforts by the European Parliament, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the U.S. Congress to promote racial equality and combat racial discrimination. It also encourages European governments and members of civil society and the private sector to work with black European communities to implement national strategies to address inequality and racism, and urges the U.S. government to support such efforts. “While the presence of blacks in Europe can be traced to enslavement, colonization, military deployments, voluntary or forced migration, the movement of refugees and asylum seekers, or educational and other professional exchanges, the story of Europeans of African descent and black Europeans still remains largely untold, rendering many of their past and present contributions unseen or forgotten,” said Chairman Hastings. “This is unacceptable.”   The resolution endorses recommendations to overcome racial disparities in Europe made at the 2018 People of African Descent Week. Yesterday, the European Parliament passed a similar resolution recognizing that African descendants have long been a part of the fabric of Europe, and seeking to address findings on discrimination and harassment documented in the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency report, “Being Black in the EU.” The European Parliament resolution calls on EU Member State governments to acknowledge and address the impact of enslavement, forced labor, racial apartheid, massacre, and genocide in the context of European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, and for the EU to develop strategies to address structural racism and underrepresentation in EU institutions. In 2008, Chairman Hastings first drew attention to the racism and discrimination faced by black Europeans during a Helsinki Commission hearing. In 2009, Chairman Hastings co-hosted the Black European Summit in Brussels, bringing together black and minority political and intellectual leaders to discuss barriers to political participation and strategies for inclusion. Over the past decade, the Helsinki Commission has continued to highlight the challenges faced by black and minority populations in Europe, most recently through a September 2018 briefing on race, rights, and politics in the European Union.

  • Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s release by the State Department of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I welcome the release of this year’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. These reports, mandated by law and prepared by the Department of State, exemplify Congress’ intent to keep human rights front and center in U.S. foreign policy. As members of Congress consider foreign assistance and military aid, as we build alliances and take the measure of our foes,  these reports help ensure that democracy and fundamental freedoms are given full consideration.” The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements. The State Department must submit these reports to Congress on an annual basis, in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974, which require that U.S. foreign and trade policy take into account countries’ performance in the areas of human rights and workers’ rights.

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