WASHINGTON —Legislation authored by Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) responding to the Belarusan government’s latest crackdown on human rights that began with the fraudulent December 19, 2010 Belarusan election, was passed by the House of Representatives today by a voice vote. Since last year’s fraudulent election, the Belarusan government of Alexander Lukashenka, infamous for heading “Europe’s last dictatorship,” has stepped up its campaign of repression against human rights and democratic activists.
The bill now goes to the White House where President Obama is expected to sign it.
The bill – H.R. 515, the “Belarus Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2011” – strengthens and expands previous legislation authored by Chairman Smith, the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004 and the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006. The new legislation:
Expands the list of Belarusan officials who may be subject to visa and financial sanctions so as to include security officials involved in the post-election crackdown;
Requires the release of all individuals jailed in connection with the post-election crackdown as a condition for ending U.S. government sanctions on the government of Belarus;
Requires the State Dep’t to report to Congress on the government of Belarus’s arms sales and cooperation with other governments in censoring or surveilling the Internet;
States a U.S. government policy to condemn the fraudulent December 19, 2010 election and work for the release of all Belarusan political prisoners and an end to repression of civil society;
Calls for new presidential and parliamentary elections that will comply with OSCE standards; and
Calls on the International Ice Hockey Federation to suspend its plan to hold the 2014 International World Ice Hockey championship in Minsk, Belarus – a major sporting event which the Belarusan government plans to use to legitimize its unjust rule, just as the Chinese Communist Party used the 2008 Olympics.
Chairman Smith’s bill was originally passed by the House of Representatives on July 6, 2011. (Click here to read Smith’s floor remarks during House debate.) In anticipation of the tragic one-year anniversary of the crackdown, and the desire of Senate leaders to send a strong message to the dictator Lukashenka, Rep. Smith’s bill was “hotlined” in the Senate, which made technical amendments requested by the State Dep’t, approved by unanimous consent on December 14, and, in view of the amendments, was scheduled for final passage by the House. The House debate on the bill fortuitously came on the December 19 commemoration of the crackdown that inspired the legislation. (Click here to read Congressman Smith’s floor remarks.) Final passage by voice vote came on December 20.
“This new law will send a powerful message to the Belarusan dictator,” said Smith, a long-time advocate for human rights and democracy in Belarus and other countries of the former Soviet Union. “This law addresses the two indispensable tools of every dictator – security services and propaganda. It puts Lukashenka’s secret police on notice that we are paying attention to who they are and what they do. And it gathers information on how he is expanding his control over the Internet in Belarus. It also sends a signal to the Belarusan people – the United States government hasn’t forgotten what happened last December, and we stand in solidarity with them, not their oppressor Lukashenka and his henchmen.”
On December 19, 2011, Rep. Smith held a press conference at which he called for the release of Belarusan political prisoners. One of the speakers at the press conference was Irina Krasovskaya, whose husband was kidnapped and presumed murdered in 1999 by Belarusan secret police. She is now president of the We Remember Foundation and was on the square in Minsk one year ago with friends when police beat and arrested the protestors, and she was also in Minsk one week ago to meet with the families of political prisoners.
“The situation today is even worse than it is described in the press,” Ms. Krasovskaya said. “The physical pressure on political prisoners is dramatically increasing, and I believe that now there is a real threat to the lives of political prisoners. Please do not allow Lukashenko to kill again (as happened in 1999 with political kidnapping and extrajudicial execution of his opponents). The release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners can become the first step in the effort to save ten million people from dictatorship and create a new democratic and free Belarus.” (Click here to read the rest of Ms. Krasovskaya’s statement.)
In November Smith chaired a Helsinki Commission hearing on Lukashenka’s post-election crackdown, at which Ales Mikhalevich, an opposition candidate for the presidency, described how he was jailed and tortured following the election. It was in response to revelations made at this hearing, building on a long record of violent harassment of the democratic opposition, which has included torture and murder, that Smith pledged to push for an indictment of Lukashenka by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Lukashenka’s long record of egregious human rights abuses has been amply documented by the U.S. State Department in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights. In 2009, Chairman Smith, along with Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and other members of the Helsinki Commission, met with Lukashenka in Minsk.