Elections in Belarusby Senator Richard J. Durbin
Posted on 2014-01-16
DURBIN. Mr. President, 3 years ago, the country of Belarus held a
presidential election that marked--instead of finally joining the rest
of democratic Europe--a brutal crackdown on freedom of expression and
basic democratic principles. There was a glimmer of hope that perhaps
this would finally be an opportunity for the Belarusian people to
freely choose their own president in an honest and open election. No
longer would the Belarusian people have to endure under the ``Last
Dictator of Europe,'' strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
Tragically, those hopes were quickly dashed when Lukashenko simply claimed another term as president amid elections described by international monitors as seriously flawed.
On election night, December 19, 2010, hundreds of Belarusian citizens were beaten and arrested by KGB henchman--that is right, Belarus still has a KGB security service--for having the [[Page S433]] nerve to run in the election or peaceably demonstrate for an honest accounting of the election results. It was the worst crackdown in decades--although certainly not the first under Lukashenko's iron first in which he uses a combination of repression, intimidation, and torture to cling to power.
I have come to the Senate floor a number of times during the past 3 years to talk about the tragic events in Belarus, where the Lukashenko regime has imprisoned and mistreated numerous political and human rights activists. Let me add with great irony and sadness--that Russia is presently trying to strongarm our friends in Ukraine to join a Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan trade bloc instead of letting it sign an association agreement with the European Union. Sign up with the last dictatorship of Europe or the European Union--not much of a choice if you ask me.
I have been glad to see that with a push from the international community, some of Belarus's political prisoners have been released, including most of the 2010 presidential candidates who had the temerity to run for office.
Some of you may have seen an op-ed in the Washington Post last month, written by one such presidential candidate from the 2010 election in Belarus, Andrei Sannikov. Mr. Sannikov was sentenced to 5 years in jail for having the nerve to run against Lukashenko. At his trial, Sannikov said prison guards threatened to harm his wife and small son in an effort to secure a confession. Lukashenko's henchmen even threatened to take custody of his son, who was then 3 years old. Yet, he has not stopped working for a democratic Belarus. In his December 27 op-ed, he argues, . . . it is important to remember that Ukraine's northern neighbor Belarus, [is] a country that lies geographically in the heart of Europe but politically is more akin to a Soviet backwater. The majority of its citizens want to be free, but they are repressed by a brutal dictator .It is not a question of if but when Belarusians will rid themselves of Europe's last dictatorship and join the community of European democracies.
He reminds us that there is still work to be done.
Take for example, president candidate Mikalai Statkevich. Statkevich, who was sentenced to six years in a medium-security prison following the 2010 election, remains in jail. He can barely receive medical assistance or meet with his family or lawyers. He is constantly harassed and pushed to sign bogus confessions for crimes he never committed.
Or for example, Ales Byalyatski, a prominent human rights activist still in jail. He is Vice-Chairman of the International Federation for Human Rights and President of the Human Rights Center Viasna, an organization that offers financial and legal assistance to political prisoners and their families. I don't think Ales or his wife, Natalia, who has visited with my office, ever thought their family would be among the ones they typically helped.
Moreover, the Lukashenko government targeted not only various political and human rights activists after the December 2010 election and protests, but it did so even before anything had happened, arresting for example, Eduard Lobau who had been a member of the youth democracy movement. Lobau was arrested and assaulted for peaceably protesting in the days leading up to the election.
Considering what they have fought for and what they have been through, it is no wonder that Statkevich, Belyatsky, and Lobau had been short-listed for the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament, as well as receiving a wide variety of international attention. While the Sakharov prize ultimately went to Malala Yousafzai, a worthy recipient, we cannot forget these three men and the others who rot in Belarusian KGB jails on dubious and trumped up charges. Their families, too, are continuously denied basic legal rights.
In 2012, I joined with my colleagues in the Senate to introduce Senate Resolution 105, which passed unanimously, condemning the sham elections and calling on the Belarusian regime to release all political prisoners. The resolution also called for new elections in Belarus that meet international standards, supported the tightening of sanctions against the Belarusian state oil and petrochemical company, and urged the International Ice Hockey Federation to suspend the 2014 Ice Hockey Championship in Minsk until all Belarusian political prisoners are released.
Sadly, our calls have gone unheeded by the International Ice Hockey Federation, which still plans to hold its 2014 championship in Minsk while political prisoners languish in KGB prisons. I simply cannot understand how the International Ice Hockey Federation can give hockey- loving strongman Lukashenko such a propaganda hook amid his country's human rights travesty.
I visited Belarus just weeks following the sham elections. I met with the family members of many of these jailed activists. The stories of missing or harassed loved ones, including children, were heartbreaking.
But the perseverance we have seen from civil society groups and human rights defenders in Belarus has been deeply inspiring. Despite intimidation and threat, these activists continue to fight for their freedoms. They did so through parliamentary elections during September 2012, also decried by international observers, and they do so through the many anniversaries of the election and ensuing protests. And they persevered most recently, when Lukashenko signed a law that requires future parliamentary elections to be held in single rounds and bans any calls to boycott elections.
I can only hope their efforts come to fruition in 2015 when Belarus is slated to host its next presidential election.
Until then, I will continue to stand in the Senate to call on Lukashenko to release the remaining political prisoners and stand with the people of Belarus in their quest for democracy and justice.