Mr. Speaker, I strongly urge passage of H.R. 5948, the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006, to provide sustained support for the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the Republic of Belarus, as well as encourage the consolidation and strengthening of Belarus’ sovereignty and independence. Mr. Speaker, I especially thank you for your commitment to bring this legislation before this Congress. Your deep personal interest in the cause of freedom in Belarus, as demonstrated by your recent meetings in Vilnius with the leaders of the democratic opposition, has been particularly appreciated by those struggling for the rule of law and basic human freedoms. This legislation enjoys bipartisan support, and I want to recognize and thank the tremendous collaboration of Rep. Tom Lantos, an original cosponsor of this bill.
As one who has followed developments in Belarus over many years through my work on the Helsinki Commission, I remain deeply concerned that the Belarusian people continue to be subjected to the arbitrary and self-serving whims of a corrupt and anti-democratic regime headed by Aleksandr Lukashenka. Since the blatantly fraudulent March 19 presidential elections, which the OSCE condemned as having failed to meet international democratic standards, the pattern of repression and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. While those who would dare oppose the regime are especially targeted, the reality is that all in Belarus outside Lukashenka’s inner circle pay a price.
Recent news regarding Lukashenka’s regime
Last week in Riga, President Bush pledged to help the people of Belarus in the face of the “cruel regime” led by President Lukashenka. “The existence of such oppression in our midst offends the conscience of Europe and the conscience of America,” Bush said, adding that “we have a message for the people of Belarus: the vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace includes you, and we stand with you in your struggle for freedom.” Mr. Speaker, this legislation would be a concrete expression of Congress’ commitment to the Belarusian people and would show that we stand as one in supporting freedom for Belarus.
Just within the last few months, we have witnessed a series of patently political trials designed to further stifle peaceful, democratic opposition. In October, 60-year-old human rights activist Katerina Sadouskaya was sentenced to two years in a penal colony. Her “crime”? “Insulting the honor and dignity of the Belarusian leader.” Mr. Speaker, if this isn’t reminiscent of the Soviet Union, I don’t know what is. And just a few weeks ago, in a closed trial, Belarusian youth activist Zmitser Dashkevich received a one-and-a-half year sentence for “activities on behalf of an unregistered organization.”
A report mandated by the Belarus Democracy Act and finally issued this past March reveals Lukashenka’s links with rogue regimes such as Iran, Sudan and Syria, and his cronies’ corrupt activities. According to an October 9, 2006, International Herald Tribune op-ed: “Alarmingly, over the last six years, Belarus has intensified its illegal arms shipment activities to the point of becoming the leading supplier of lethal military equipment to Islamic state sponsors of terrorism.”
I guess we shouldn’t be all that surprised that in July, Lukashenka warmly welcomed to Minsk Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. In keeping with their bent, both pledged cooperation and denounced the West. More recently, Belarusian Foreign Minister Martynov traveled to Iran where President Ahmadinejad pledged further cooperation in the energy and defense industries. Not long ago, a member of Belarus’ bogus parliament asserted on state-controlled radio that Belarus has the right to develop its own nuclear weapons. Mr. Speaker and Colleagues, Belarus is truly an anomaly in Europe, swimming against the rising tide of greater freedom, democracy and economic prosperity.
Three years ago, I introduced the Belarus Democracy Act which passed the House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Bush in October 2004. At that time, the situation in Belarus with respect to democracy and human rights was already abysmal. The need for a sustained U.S. commitment to foster democracy and respect for human rights and to sanction Aleksandr Lukashenka and his cronies is clear from the intensified anti-democratic policies pursued by the current leadership in Minsk. Mr. Speaker, I am pleased that countries throughout Europe have joined in a truly trans-Atlantic effort to bring the promise of freedom to the beleaguered people of Belarus. Prompt passage of the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006 will help maintain this momentum aimed at upholding the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people. With the continuing decline on the ground in Belarus since the fraudulent March elections, this bill is needed now more than ever.
This reauthorization bill demonstrates the sustained U.S. support for Belarus’ independence. We seek to encourage those struggling for democracy and respect for human rights in the face of the formidable pressures and personal risks from the anti-democratic regime. The bill authorizes such sums as may be necessary in assistance for each of fiscal years 2007 and 2008 for democracy-building activities such as support for non-governmental organizations, including youth groups, independent trade unions and entrepreneurs, human rights defenders, independent media, democratic political parties, and international exchanges.
The bill further authorizes monies for both radio and television broadcasting to the people of Belarus. While I am encouraged by the recent U.S. and EU initiatives with respect to radio broadcasting, much more needs to be done to penetrate Lukashenka’s stifling information blockade. Mr. Speaker, I hope that the Administration will make this a priority.
In addition, H.R. 5948 calls for selective sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, and the denial of entry into the United States for senior officials of the regime – as well as those engaged in human rights and electoral abuses. In this context, I welcome the punitive sanctions imposed by both the Administration and the EU which are targeted against officials – including judges and prosecutors – involved in electoral fraud and other human rights abuses.
The bill expresses the sense of the Congress that strategic exports to the Government of Belarus should be prohibited, except for those intended for democracy building or humanitarian purposes, as well as U.S. Government financing and other foreign assistance. Of course, we would not want the exports to affect humanitarian goods and agricultural or medical products. The U.S. Executive Directors of the international financial institutions are encouraged to vote against financial assistance to the Government of Belarus except for loans and assistance that serve humanitarian needs. Furthermore, we would encourage the blocking of the assets (in the United States) of members of the Belarus Government as well as the senior leadership and their surrogates. To this end, I welcome the Treasury Department’s April 10 advisory to U.S. financial institutions to guard against potential money laundering by Lukashenka and his cronies and strongly applaud President Bush’s June 19 “Executive Order Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus.”
Mr. Speaker, I want to make it crystal clear that these sanctions are aimed not at the people of Belarus, but at a regime that displays contempt for the dignity and rights of its citizens even as the corrupt leadership moves to further enrich itself at the expense of all Belarusians.
Ongoing Anti-Democratic Behavior
To chronicle the full litany of repression over the course of Lukashenka’s 12-year misrule would go well beyond the bounds of time available here. Let me cite several more recent illustrations of anti-democratic behavior which testify to the true nature of the regime.
Belarus’ March 19 presidential elections can only be described as a farce, and were met with condemnation by the United States, the OSCE, the European Union and others. The Lukashenka regime’s wholesale arrests of more than one thousand opposition activists and dozens of Belarusian and foreign journalists, before and after the elections, and violent suppression of peaceful post-election protests underscore the contempt of the Belarusian authorities toward their countrymen.
Illegitimate parliamentary elections in 2004 and the recently held presidential “elections” in Belarus brazenly flaunted democratic standards. As a result of these elections, Belarus has the distinction of lacking legitimate presidential and parliamentary leadership, which contributes to that country’s self-imposed isolation. Albeit safely ensconced in power, Lukashenka has not let up on the democratic opposition. Almost daily repressions constitute a profound abuse of power by a regime that has blatantly manipulated the system to remain in power.
In the last few months, the regime continues to show its true colors, punishing those who would dare to challenge the tin-pot dictator. Former presidential candidate Aleksandr Kozulin was sentenced to a politically-motivated five-and-one-half-years’ term of imprisonment for alleged “hooliganism” and disturbing the peace. His health is precarious as he is now well into his second month of a hunger strike.
In early August, authorities sentenced four activists of the non-partisan domestic election monitoring initiative “Partnerstva”. In a patent attempt to discourage domestic observation of the fraudulent March 19 presidential elections, the four had been kept in custody since February 21. Two were released, having served their six month sentences. Two others, Tsimafei Dranchuk and Mikalay Astreyka, received stiffer sentences, although Astreyka has been released from a medium security colony and is now in “correctional labor”. Other political prisoners, including Artur Finkevich, Mikalay Autukhovich, Andrey Klimau, Ivan Kruk, Yury Lyavonau, Mikalay Razumau, Pavel Sevyarynets, Mikalay Statkevich also continue to have their freedom denied, languishing in prison or in so-called correctional labor camps.
Administrative detentions of ten or fifteen days against democratic opposition activists are almost a daily occurrence. Moreover, the Lukashenka regime continued to stifle religious expression. It refuses to register churches, temporarily detains pastors, threatens to expel foreign clergy, and refuses religious groups the use of premises to hold services. Despite the repressions, Protestant and Catholic congregations have increasingly become more active in their pursuit of religious freedom. I am also concerned about the recent explosion at a Holocaust memorial in western Belarus, the sixth act of vandalism against the monument in 14 years. Unfortunately, the local authorities have reportedly refused to open a criminal investigation. Lukashenka’s minions have closed down independent think tanks, further tightened the noose around what remains of the independent media, suspended the activities of a political party, shut down the prominent literary journal Arche, and evicted the Union of Belarusian Writers from its headquarters. Of course, Lukashenka’s pattern of contempt for human rights is nothing new – it has merely intensified with the passage of time.
Moreover, we have seen no progress on the investigation of the disappearances of political opponents – perhaps not surprisingly, as credible evidence points at the involvement of the Lukashenka regime in their murders.
Mr. Speaker, it is my hope that the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006 will help end to the pattern of violations of OSCE human rights and democracy commitments by the Lukashenka regime and loosen its unhealthy monopoly on political and economic power. I hope our efforts here today will facilitate independent Belarus’ integration into democratic Europe in which the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law are respected. The beleaguered Belarusian people have suffered so much over the course of the last century and deserve better than to live under a regime frighteningly reminiscent of the Soviet Union. The struggle of the people of Belarus for dignity and freedom deserves our unyielding and consistent support.
This legislation is important and timely because Belarus, which now borders on NATO and the EU, continues to have the worst human rights and democracy record of any European state – bar none.