U.S. Calls on Belarus To Respect Citizens' Rights as Vote Nears

State Department condemns repression; Bush sends report to Congress

By Louise Fenner

Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Two days before the presidential election in Belarus, the United States March 17 urged the Belarusian government to respect the rights of its citizens and warned that "any use of force or violence against peaceful demonstrators will be met with a strong response."

State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States condemns statements by Belarusian security chief Stepan Sukhorenko equating street protests to terrorism. "These comments are outrageous and suggest that Belarusian authorities are intent on unjustified use of force and violence against their own people," Ereli said.

On March 16, President Bush transmitted to the U.S. Congress Report on Belarus, the Last Dictatorship in Europe, including Arms Sales and Leadership Assets, a report required by the 2004 Belarus Democracy Act.

The report cites "numerous reports of Belarusian sales or delivery of weapons or weapons-related technologies to states of concern, including state sponsors of terrorism."

It also cites "credible information" that senior government leadership in Belarus "abuses public resources, including for personal use," and says that Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko "is likely among the most corrupt leaders in the world."

The Belarus Democracy Act provides assistance for Belarusian political parties, nongovernmental organizations and independent media while prohibiting U.S. government agencies from providing loans and investment to the Belarus government, except for humanitarian goods. (See related article.)

The Belarus Democracy Act specifically encourages free and fair presidential, parliamentary and local elections. In the past year, the United States has focused, through both diplomatic and assistance efforts, on the March 19 presidential election.

On March 13, the State Department again called on the government of Belarus to "cease repression of political campaigns and civil society groups, and to respect the rights of Belarusian citizens." It condemned the detention of aides to opposition candidate Aleksandr Milinkevich, the beating and detention of opposition candidate Aleksandr Kozulin and the detention of activists from the nonpartisan civic group Partnership. (See related article.)

Ambassador Julie Finley, U.S. permanent representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), reminded Belarus that its behavior in the period leading to Election Day is part of the equation in determining whether there has been a free and fair election process. She specifically condemned the beating and arrest of Kozulin and the seizure of 250,000 copies of the independent newspaper, Narodnaya Volya, which reported on the incident.

"These actions are clearly inconsistent with a government that claims it intends to hold free and fair elections," said Finley on March 9. (See statement.)

On March 14, the U.S. Helsinki Commission also condemned the continuing repression by the Belarusian government and warned that "authorities who engage in attempts at intimidation, electoral abuse or violence will face repercussions from the international community." (See related article.)

The letter of transmittal and the text of the report to Congress on Belarus are available on the State Department Web site.

A summary of the Belarus Democracy Act is available on the Web site of Representative Chris Smith, co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission.