The Bully of Belarus

Mr. President, during the recent 2-week recess, I was invited to speak to the Parliament of the nation of Lithuania in the capital of Vilnius. It was a great honor. This country holds a special place in my family. My mother was born in Lithuania. One hundred years ago this year, my grandmother brought her, her brother, and sister to America. My mother was 2 years old. They landed in Baltimore, and somehow our family found its way to meet up with my grandfather in East St. Louis, IL, where a lot of Lithuanian immigrants were coming to take jobs--hard, manual labor jobs, which immigrants took in those days and still do--manual labor jobs that gave them a chance they did not have in the old country.

I was asked to speak to the Parliament on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of what has come to be known as bloody Sunday. It recalls the time, 20 years ago, when Mikhail Gorbachev, as head of the Soviet Union, made his last, desperate, violent effort to stop Lithuania from breaking away from the Soviet Union.

I recall that period because I followed it closely as a Member of Congress. You can still see some details of what life was like in Lithuania under the Soviets. The old police headquarters, the KGB headquarters, has been preserved as a museum--basically, a horror museum to show and catalog the torture and killings that took place during Soviet rule.

In February 1990, the people of this tiny nation on the Baltic decided they had had enough. They swept the ruling Communist Party out of power in an open parliamentary election. A month later in March 1990, the new Parliament voted 124 to 0 to restore the country's independence. They were the first Soviet Republic to do so. It was bold. It was historic. That is when Gorbachev turned the screws. He ordered Soviet tanks and paratroopers to stop the breakaway effort of Lithuania.

In the early morning hours of January 13, 1991, 14 Lithuanians, just regular people, common people in the country, were killed and as many as 1,000 were rounded up by those the Economist magazine described as the ``bullies of Vilnius.''

The crackdown failed. By August of 1991, Lithuania had won its independence again.

Today, because of the brave efforts of those ordinary Lithuanians, it is a free country, it is democratic, chair of the Community of Democracies, is a member of the European Union, and one of America's allies in NATO.

Imagine my surprise at what I saw during a stop in the neighboring country of Belarus. I saw a step back into Soviet times, a step back into the barbarism we found in the KGB Museum in Lithuania. Sadly, though, this was not a museum show. It was real life.

Often known as the last dictatorship of Europe, Belarus has defied the democratic transformations that have swept across Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country has been ruled with an iron fist for most of the last few decades by a strongman, Alexander Lukashenko. In Lukashenko's two-decade-old totalitarian nightmare, opposition figures--anybody who had courage to step up and defy him--had been subjected to harsh repression and imprisonment. Over the years, those who might have been alternatives to Lukashenko in any election have disappeared or have been thrown in jail.

In fact, Lukashenko proudly still calls his police force the KGB.

In recent years, there was a glimmer of hope that perhaps Lukashenko was going to move away from his dictatorship. A Presidential election was scheduled for last December 19, one that some hoped would finally meet the most minimum international standards for democracy.

Those hopes were dashed when Lukashenko quickly claimed another term as President amid elections described by international monitors as seriously flawed. He ended up with 80 percent of the vote and said that was a good indication that it was a real election. He did not get 99 percent, as usual.

Lukashenko ordered his KGB thugs to brutally suppress opposition candidates, activists, and supporters who gathered in protest on election night in Independence Square in downtown Minsk in the nation of Belarus on December 19, last year. Six of the seven political opponents who ran against Lukashenko and more than 600 of their followers were arrested. Several of the Presidential candidates who are being held incommunicado still today face charges that can carry up to 15 years in jail. Their crime? They ran against him and they lost. They get to go to jail now.

Since then, Lukashenko's KGB has continued daily raids on the homes and offices of those with suspected ties to democratic parties and organizations, human rights organizations, and what remains of the independent media in Belarus.

Lukashenko has ignored election monitor reports questioning the credibility of the election and international demands to release all these political prisoners. He has pulled the country further into isolation and made it the subject of international scorn.

He follows the old Soviet playbook. His government has tried to blame outside forces in other countries, everyone but himself, for the shameful political mess he has created.

I was in Minsk last week, and I met with Sergey Martynov, who is the Foreign Minister to Lukashenko. He pleaded with me to give his ``new democracy'' credit, new democracy in Belarus. He said: Senator, you live in a country that has had democracy for 200 years; we have only had it for 20 years. He said: Give us credit. When we arrested all these people--including seven of the people who ran against him--we didn't use tear gas. There were no rubber bullets, no police dogs. Give us credit, he said.

No, I said, you didn't use those tools, but you systematically arrested and threw into jail everybody who ran against you. That is not even close to democracy.

I had the chance to meet with some of the family members of those who are in jail. I could not help but think that just a few hours before I had been in Lithuania, a 3-hour drive from Minsk in Belarus, where 20 years ago ordinary people, such as these families, stepped up and said: We are willing to fight for freedom. Fourteen of them lost their lives and 1,000 were injured--just ordinary people. These are not the political class. These are folks who are sick and tired in Belarus of the authoritarian rule.

I wish to show some of the people I met who I think are worth being part of the record today.

First--and this was in a meeting established by our consulate in Minsk, Belarus. They threw out our Ambassador a few years ago. So we have five people trying to represent the United States of America in this country. Bless them for trying. It is a hard job. They are constantly monitored, eavesdropped, followed. Life is not pleasant. When we start getting down on people working for the United States of America, remember these five who are risking their lives for us every day so there is an outpost for the United States and for freedom in this authoritarian country.

This lady was at the meeting in the consulate. Svyatlana Lyabedzka is the wife of Anatol Lyabedzka, chair of the United Civic Party. Anatol has been regularly harassed, fined, and imprisoned for his political activities. In 2004, he was severely beaten by Lukashenko's police force.

His wife told me, in tears, that her husband has been taken away to jail and she has had no information about him. That has been almost 1 month. She does not know what is happening to him or where he is being held.

The second person I would like to make a part of this record is Tatsyana Sevyarynets. She is the mother of Paveal Sevyarynets, the head of Presidential candidate Vital Rymasheuski's campaign. He has already served several years in jail for protesting previous sham elections in Belarus. That is right, thrown in jail while protesting rigged elections, when it is those doing the rigging who ought to be in jail. Her letters go unanswered. Her complaints filed against the government have been ignored. She has been prevented from traveling, and her passport has been taken away for some time. She told me it is impossible to find an explanation for what is happening. ``My son has been persecuted for 16 years.''

This photo shows--forgive me as I struggle with these names. These people deserve better. I will do my best--Kanstantsin Sannikau, Ala Sannikava, and Lyutsina Khalip. These three were at the meeting.

Kanstantsin and Ala are the son and mother of a detained Presidential candidate, Andrei Sannikau.

Ala told me, in tears, that she had no contact with her son for 14 days, nor had his lawyers. She had no information on his condition.

Lyutsina is the grandmother of the candidate's 3-year-old son Danil. You might have read about this little boy in the newspaper. What Lukashenko did was arrest this Presidential candidate and his wife and then said the State was going to take custody of his 3-year-old child. The grandmother stepped up and said: I will take custody. I will take care of the boy. For the longest time, it was in doubt whether he would remain with the family. They relented yesterday and said the boy could remain with the family.

This is a picture of him--a cute little fellow, Danil. In Belarus, not only did they arrest the candidate Sannikau but they take the boy out of the house and family. That is what they planned on. When they arrested the wife Irina, a journalist and automatically considered dangerous in Belarus, they decided to go after her child. The grandmother fought a winning battle and now has custody of the child.

Let's hope America's attention and the world's attention will make a difference.

The last one I wish to show is particularly compelling. Milana Mikhalevich is a 34-year-old mother of two whose husband Alex was also a Presidential candidate. She told me of her harassment by Belarusian officials since her husband's arrest. Mr. President, 34 years old, and this young woman was standing there with this beautiful little girl, scrambling around on the floor all around her. She had a 10-year-old at home. She was trying to describe how she was keeping things together, while her husband, who had the courage to run for President and lose against the dictator Lukashenko, sat in prison.

Incidentally, they do not get attorneys. That is not part of the deal. Anyone who says they will defend the people arrested is subject to disbarment as an attorney and charged with crimes themselves. It is not exactly a fertile field of attorneys stepping up to represent these people. They take their lives in their hands to do so. The families have no access, no communications, no correspondence, no way of visiting those in prison. They have no idea when they are going to be charged or tried. There is no indication that there is going to be a public trial.

This is going on in Belarus today, and this woman with her little girl is trying to figure out when and if she will ever see her husband and the father of this little girl again.

The nightmare she described to me was incredible. She literally has had her house raided by the Belarusian KGB. She has been stopped from going to Poland, where she was trying to find support for her husband. She doesn't even know how he is, physically.

I was so glad to be in Lithuania and to join in the celebration of their quest for freedom and independence. After 20 years pass, sometimes you forget how much courage it took for that to happen.

But a 3-hour drive from Vilnius to this event in Minsk reminded me. These people in Belarus are waging the same battle today that was waged in Lithuania and so many other places many years ago. They are trying to find the thing we in America take for granted every day--freedom, the freedom to practice the religion of their choice, the freedom to write a newspaper or do a blog, the freedom to vote for the candidate of their choice, their freedom to oppose government policy. As a result they have been arrested and imprisoned.

I am calling on the government of Belarus to immediately and unconditionally release these political prisoners. The fact they continue to languish in jail without access to family, lawyers, or medical care is an outrage and an embarrassment to Europe and the world. These actions show the desperation and fear of a dictator whose reign belongs in the dustbin of history.

The European Union will decide by the end of January whether Belarus should face renewed sanctions, including targeted travel and asset freezes against Lukashenko and his top elite political figures. The United States should waste no time joining this effort. I have spoken directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She understands, as I do, what is at stake here is today's fight for freedom. What is in question is whether the United States will stand and fight with these families. The European Union is prepared to lead and we should be by their side. We should be working together to put the pressure on this dictator to tell him in the 21st century there is no place for the bully of Belarus and the terrible oppressive tactics in which he has engaged.

Mr. President, I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.