Mr. Speaker, earlier this month, March 9, I chaired a hearing of the Helsinki Commission at which we heard compelling and disturbing testimony about the deterioration of human rights and democracy in Belarus. I was pleased to have as one of our witnesses Anatoly Lebedka, Deputy Chairman of Belarus’ legitimate parliament, disbanded by Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka following an illegitimate 1996 referendum.
Unfortunately, Mr. Lebedka was one of some 500 people arrested last weekend, during a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration in Miensk. He was reportedly beaten and spent two days in detention before he was released. He is scheduled to go to trial on April 4. Also detained without explanation were more than 30 Belarusian, Russian and Polish journalists. Film shot by press photographers was reportedly confiscated. Aleh Hrudzilovich, a journalist with the opposition newspaper Nasha Svaboda and Radio Liberty who was initially detained on March 25, was summoned for interrogation on March 27, handcuffed, and then hit several times in the face while being transported by police to a detention center. He was released later that day. Other detainees also reportedly suffered physical abuse by the police. Several demonstrators have been put on trial, and some have already been sentenced to short-term detentions.
Mr. Speaker, during the Helsinki Commission hearing, I asked Mr. Lebedka about the scheduled March demonstrations, where he expressed the fear that there might be deliberate provocations by the police, as had been the case at a Freedom March rally last October. Fortunately, a large peaceful protest held on March 15 was held without any problems. According to many observers, including Mr. Lebedka, the growing number of participants in the officially-approved 30,000 strong March 15 demonstration prompted Lukashenka to take harsh measures against the March 25 demonstrators. Indeed, this comports with Lukashenka’s recent warning that protestors who `get out of line’ will have `the stuffing’ beat out of them.
Mr. Speaker, the suppression of the March 25 demonstration is yet another illustration of the Lukashenka regime’s disregard for fundamental human rights, including freedom of assembly and association, and information. It is another among a long list of outrages perpetrated by Lukashenka upon the people of Belarus. It is yet another in a pattern of violations of human rights commitments, which Belarus freely undertook when it joined the OSCE in 1992.
Mr. Speaker, I wish to reiterate my strong concern for the safety of Anatoly Lebedka and all the other pro-democracy activists in Belarus, and I look forward to the day when democracy will flourish someday in Belarus.