Mr. President, I rise to speak today about the dramatically deteriorating situation in Belarus. As of Sunday, March 26, more than 100 opposition activists remained in custody after a rally on Saturday that turned from a peaceful event into a demonstration that saw police clubbing protesters with nightsticks, hitting journalists covering the event and sending armored cars into Central Minsk. More than 500 people were detained, most of whom were not formally charged until Monday. This is only one of the examples of how, in Belarus, the Lukashenka regime continues to try to suppress the will of the people.
In November, Senator Campbell and I introduced a resolution condemning the Lukashenka regime and its actions towards the country. The sad reality is that Belarus is being left behind while the rest of Europe is building a foundation of democratic governance, respect for human rights, and the rule of law. Since 1996, President Lukashenka has been responsible for numerous unconstitutional steps. He unilaterally extended his term until 2001 after he promised to hold democratic elections in 1999. He replaced the 13th Supreme Soviet with a rubberstamp parliament and he rewrote the country’s constitution.
Belarus has turned into a country where those who choose to participate in civil society by speaking truth to power must do so at great risk to their freedom, and even their lives, under Lukashenka’s rule. Two prominent opposition figures, General Yuri Zakharenko and Viktor Gonchar, as well as another associate, Anatoly Krasovsky, have disappeared. Many of the people arrested on March 25 as well as other peaceful protesters were members of the opposition. Belarus’ economy is apparently imploding and neighboring countries, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, are concerned about regional instability.
Our resolution condemns the arrest of opposition figures and the disappearance of others; calls for a dialogue between Lukashenka and the opposition; calls for the restoration of a democratically-elected government and democratic institutions; calls on the U.S. President to fund travel by Belarusian opposition figures and non-governmental organizations in Belarus; and supports information flows into Belarus. Belarus is not making progress. We must do what we can to sustain the remarkable progress of the other countries that have transformed themselves into fully democratic market democracies, and encourage the development of a democracy in Belarus.
Mr. Campbell: Mr. President, on March 25, Belarusian authorities harshly suppressed a pro-democracy demonstration in the capital of Minsk, arresting and detaining hundreds of peaceful protestors, including nearly 30 domestic and foreign journalists. Riot police, deployed with dogs and armored personnel carriers, used excessive force against some peaceful demonstrators. Among those detained and beaten was democratic opposition leader Anatoly Lebedka, Deputy Chairman of the 13th Supreme Soviet.
Many of my Senate colleagues met Mr. Lebedka last September when I introduced him right here on the Senate floor. Mr. Lebedka was just in Washington earlier this month to testify at a Helsinki Commission hearing about the deteriorating situation in Belarus. Based on information I obtained from the State Department, I am advised that Anatoly Lebedka was arrested by plainclothes police during the demonstration, kept in detention, and reportedly beaten over the course of two days. He spent most of Monday in a police van outside the courthouse awaiting trial, but was released at 5:00 p.m. His trial has been scheduled for April 4. Mr. President, the harsh overreaction by the authorities to this peaceful demonstration represents a clear violation of the freedom of association, assembly, and information guaranteed both by the Belarusian constitution and OSCE agreements.
In addition, the Belarusian authorities detained a U.S. citizen who is an accredited diplomat and a member of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Belarus, and who was observing the demonstration in line with his official responsibilities. This action also violates international conventions. It appears that the green light for the most recent crackdown was given by Belarusian President Lukashenka, who praised the police for their actions. Reports indicate that earlier this month, he cautioned that the riot police will “beat the stuffing out” of any protestor who “gets out of line.” Unfortunately, the suppression by the Belarusian authorities of peaceful protest, along with the sentencing last week of a prominent member of the opposition, does nothing to encourage a constructive dialogue with the democratic opposition that can lead Belarus out of its continuing constitutional impasse and end its self-imposed international isolation.
Mr. President, I call upon the Government of Belarus to thoroughly investigate reports of police brutality during the course of the demonstration and subsequent detentions and take measures to ensure that citizens are guaranteed their rights to engage in peaceful protests, keeping with that country’s OSCE commitments. I was pleased to join Senator Durbin as an original cosponsor to Senate Concurrent Resolution 75 which we introduced last November. That resolution summarized many of the political problems facing the democratic opposition in Belarus expressing strong opposition to the continued egregious violations of human rights, the lack of progress toward the establishment of democracy and the rule of law in Belarus, and calls on President Lukashenka to engage in negotiations with the representatives of the opposition and to restore the constitutional rights of the Belarusian people. In light of the recent violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators last weekend, I urge my colleagues to support passage of the Durbin/Campbell resolution.
Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that a news report from the Washington Post on this latest crackdown be printed in the Record. There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: [From the Washington Post, Mar. 26, 2000] Belarus Police Crack Down on Protest Minsk, Belarus.: “Hundreds of police beat back thousands of protesters at an opposition rally, sending armored personnel carriers into central Minsk and detaining 400 people in one of the country’s harshest crackdowns on dissent in recent years. The rally was held to commemorate the founding of the Belarusian Popular Republic on March 25, 1918, when German forces were ousted from Minsk in the waning days of World War I. The independent state was short-lived and within a year, much of Belarus was part of the Soviet Union. Belarus’ hardline government had said it would allow the rally to be held on the outskirts of Minsk, but several thousand demonstrators went instead to a central square in the capital.”