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US lawmakers vote to sanction Belarus for protest crackdowns

The US House of Representatives on Tuesday passed the Belarus Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2011 [text, PDF], imposing new sanctions on Belarus [JURIST news archive] in reaction [press release] to what the bill's author calls "the worst political crackdown in Europe in well over a decade." If signed, the law would label President Alexander Lukashenko [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] a dictator and state that he "established himself in power by orchestrating an illegal and unconstitutional referendum that enabled him to impose a new constitution, abolishing the duly elected parliament." The new sanctions require the US to investigate Belarus' arms deals and its possible censorship of the Internet, as well as denying visas to a list of Belarusian officials. The bill also calls on the International Ice Hockey Federation [official website] to change the location of the 2014 International World Ice Hockey Championship, currently scheduled in Minsk, which the US believes will "legitimize" the Belarusian government. Forcing Belarus to respect peaceful protesters is one of the primary goals [floor remarks text, PDF] of the new US sanctions:

HR 515 states a US Government policy of strong support for the Belarusan people in their struggle against Lukashenko to live in a free, independent country where their human rights are respected. The bill encourages those struggling despite overwhelming pressures from an antidemocratic regime. It calls for a full accounting of the 1999 to 2000 disappearances. ... It calls for a release of all of the political prisoners. We can't say that enough. We can't say it one day and forget it the next. We need to redouble our efforts, beginning today, to promote a free Belarus where all can live in peace, freedom and prosperity without that knock in the middle of the night by the KGB.
On Thursday, three Ukrainian activists from the group Femen [official Facebook profile] were released [RFE/RL report] from Belarus custody after protesting Lukashenko's regime. The women allege that they were kidnapped by Belarus KGB [RFE/RL report], stripped and beaten. US Sanctions will not be lifted until there is an unconditional release of all political prisoners and new elections are held. The bill is expected to be signed by US President Barack Obama [official website], who last sanctioned Belarus in June [UPI report].

Belarus has been under increasing criticism for what many see as a rapid decline of human rights in the Eastern European nation. Last month, a Belarus court convicted [JURIST report] human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, the president of Viasana and vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) [advocacy websites], of tax evasion, sentencing him to a four-and-a-half-year prison term amid international criticism. In September, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay [official profile] suggested a need for UN intervention in Belarus [JURIST report] and demanded the nation free non-violent political prisoners. Her report also cited Belarus as the only European nation to still enforce the death penalty. Ambassador Mikhail Khvostov said his country disagrees with the UN on what constitutes a peaceful demonstration and that Belarus is committed to human rights. The month before, members of the Belarus Parliament introduced a bill that would ban so-called "silent protests" [JURIST report], including those involving large groups of people basically doing nothing. Nonetheless, silent protests continue [RT report], largely in defiance of Lukashenko. Earlier this year, Belarus' Minsk City Court delivered suspended sentences for two former presidential candidates, Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu and Vital Rymasheuski, convicted of organizing protests following the re-election [JURIST reports] of Lukashenko. The two-year suspended sentences were handed down days after former presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau [Free Belarus Now profile] was sentenced to five years [JURIST report]. Hundreds of activists were arrested after protesting Lukashenko's 2006 presidential win, including opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich [JURIST reports]. While Lukashenko has since sought to improve his country's ties with western nations, the US State Department has historically criticized Belarus' human rights record [JURIST report]. The UN General Assembly Third Committee and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights [JURIST reports] have similarly denounced Belarus for human rights abuses.

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