Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
The United States continues to be deeply concerned about the grave violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Belarus, particularly those enshrined in OSCE commitments. We have expressed repeatedly our deep concerns about the lack of respect for the OSCE norms, principles and commitments, as well as international human rights standards in Belarus, notably in respect of freedom of assembly and association, freedom of expression, and the rule of law.
We are specifically concerned about new legislation that could further curb the free flow of information on the Internet in Belarus. We note the amendment enacted on January 6 that adds administrative penalties for commercial entities that violate the Presidential Decree “On Measures to Improve the Use of the National Segment of the Internet.” The commentary commissioned by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media notes that while the Decree contains several provisions aimed at enhancing freedom of information on the Internet, the merits of the Decree are ambiguous and are outweighed by shortcomings that restrict freedom of expression and freedom of the media on the Internet. The Government of Belarus has restricted these freedoms by requiring Internet Service Providers to maintain data on Internet users and the sites they view and to provide such data to officials upon request, and by creating a government body with the authority to require Internet Service Providers to block Web sites. This, taken along with recent legislative amendments criminalizing foreign funding of NGOs, can only have a further chilling effect on civil society in Belarus.
We are deeply concerned about the continuing harassment and detention of independent journalists in Belarus. We note that BelSat journalist Alyaksandr Barazenka was sentenced to 11 days in jail for attempting to film a one-person protest in front of KBG headquarters on January 8. We are further concerned that Mr. Barazenka’s lawyer was not allowed to see his client while in detention. We join the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media in condemning this action and likewise call on the Government of Belarus to allow journalists to cover any political event, whether officially sanctioned or not, for the sake of society’s right to know. We also urge the government to show its willingness to cooperate with the OSCE by allowing a long-awaited visit by the RFOM to Belarus.
We continue to have grave concerns regarding the treatment of political prisoners in Belarus. We note that the lawyer and family of former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov have not been allowed to visit him since at least November 8 of last year and that only selected written correspondence has been allowed. We are also concerned that former presidential candidate Mikola Statkevich has received harsher detention in a “closed regime” for three years as a result of a hearing held in camera. [Note that a similar in camera hearing will be held for Mikalay Autukhovich January 17]. These are no doubt meant to silence any voice of opposition to the Lukashenka regime.
We reiterate our call on Belarus to immediately release and rehabilitate without preconditions all political prisoners and to stop harassment of members of the opposition and civil society, including human rights defenders, independent journalists, defense attorneys and students.
We note that President Obama signed into law the Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2011 on January 3. This Act will allow for the imposition of additional actions targeted against individuals involved in violations of human rights, including violations of human rights committed in connection with the presidential election of December 19, 2010. We will continue to work closely with our European partners in this regard.
As we look forward to the upcoming parliamentary elections in Belarus, respect for and protection of fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, and association in accordance with OSCE commitments is an absolute must for free, fair and credible elections. We remain committed to supporting the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people through our assistance and engagement.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.