Madam Speaker, last month, I chaired a Helsinki Commission briefing with a delegation of leading political opposition figures and democratic activists from Belarus. The briefing was entitled, “The Future Belarus: Democracy or Dictatorship” and focused on the prospects for change in a country located in the heart of Europe that has Europe’s worst track record with respect to human rights and democracy. Unfortunately, developments since the delegation’s visit to Washington have been deeply discouraging and do not bode well for Belarus’ democratic future.
One of the young people who testified at the briefing, 19-year-old Zmitser Fedaruk, spoke eloquently of the dangers that young human rights activists face in Belarus. His words were prophetic, as a few days later, back in Belarus, he was beaten and knocked unconscious by riot policemen, then rushed by ambulance to the hospital. Just last week, the Minsk district prosecutor’s office in Minsk refused to open an investigation into Zmitser’s beating.
A day earlier, my friend Anatoly Lebedka, one of Belarus’ staunchest defenders of democratic rights, who also testified before the Commission, was roughed up by Belarusian police as well. It was far from the first time that this leader of the democratic opposition had been beaten up or repressed by the Lukashenka regime. On January 4, the Lukashenka regime banned Anatoly from travelling abroad in what was obviously a politically-motivated decision. Today, Anatoly is in jail serving a 15-day sentence, along with several dozen other pro-democracy and small business advocates who participated in a January 10 protest against restrictions on activities of small businesses. Some of the activists–mostly young people–received injuries during their arrest. Tatyana Tsishkevch, who was severely beaten during her arrest and presented her bloodstained jacket in court, received a 20-day sentence. Arsien Pakhomau, a freelance photo correspondent for “Nasha Niva” weekly–one of the very few remaining independent publications in Belarus–was also sentenced to 15 days’ administrative arrest. On the day of the protest, a number of websites that cover social and economic affairs in Belarus, such as Charter ’97 and Radio Liberty, were partially or fully blocked by the authorities.
These most recent repressive actions follow the sentencing of opposition activist Artur Finkevich to 18 months in prison; the arbitrary use of judicial power to put out of business independent newspapers such as “Novi Chas”; steps to liquidate the opposition Belarusian Communist Party; and the fining of Baptist pastor Yuri Kravchuk for unregistered religious activity. Belarus is the only country in Europe with compulsory registration before religious activity can take place.
Unfortunately, the indications in just the first few weeks of this New Year are not encouraging. Lukashenka’s presidential administration has recently rejected the opposition’s proposal to hold talks on the upcoming 2008 parliamentary elections, refusing an offer by the Belarusian opposition to consider joint proposals on conducting parliamentary elections in accordance with democratic standards.
Madam Speaker, as Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and as someone who has long been involved in the OSCE process to promote security, cooperation, democracy and human rights among the 56 OSCE countries, including Belarus, I am deeply disappointed in the Belarusian Government’s continual flaunting of freely undertaken OSCE commitments. It is my strong hope that Mr. Lukashenka will cease the self-imposed isolation of his country–threatening, most recently, to expel U.S. Ambassador Karen Stewart–and will give serious thought to the offers of cooperation that have come from the United States and the European Union if Belarus releases political prisoners and displays respect for basic democratic norms. In the meantime, the Lukashenka regime can be assured that my colleagues and I on the Helsinki Commission are determined to stand by Anatoly Lebedka, Dzmitri Fedaruk and all those in Belarus–young and old–bravely struggling for freedom, democracy and respect for human rights.