Written Testimony on Human Rights and Democracy in Belarus of the Belarus Freedom Forum before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

Belarus today is in a state of a near-total collapse of the rule of law. Every Belarusian-American has a friend, relative, or former neighbor who has been imprisoned, fired from their jobs, or harassed by security forces. Regardless of their age, family, or health status, people are unlawfully detained, tortured, kept in inhumane conditions, tried, sentenced, and left without necessities in overcrowded prisons. The Belarusian people are deprived of essential freedoms by way of force and violence. We urge the commission to develop a comprehensive foreign policy to end repressions, release political prisoners, and establish a pathway for a peaceful transition of power in Belarus.

The Belarus Freedom Forum is a bipartisan advocacy group working to facilitate a democratic breakthrough in Belarus. We envision a strong Belarusian-American community that positively contributes to the fabric of American society and promotes its democratic values in the global arena. Our mission is to support the democratic movement in Belarus, create an informational resource about culture, history, and current events in Belarus, offer a platform for discussion of U.S. policy related to Belarus, and facilitate a constructive dialogue between Belarusian and American societies.

We believe that only a steady and coordinated U.S. foreign policy concerning Belarus and sharing knowledge about and experience with democratic principles will help the Belarusian people achieve freedom, guarantee human rights, and build a democratic government system. We also believe that a democratic and independent Belarus will contribute to the security and prosperity of Eastern Europe.

We urge the U.S. Congress to assist in setting the consequences for the unlawful regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka through political isolation and economic sanctions targeting the financial foundation of the power vertical and helping the Belarusian people to sustain their nonviolent struggle for freedom. The Belarusian opposition to the regime needs political and financial support, communication channels, funding for independent media, and civil education to develop adequate democratic structures.

Human Rights Violence in Belarus

The magnitude and persistence of the 2020–21 protests have been unprecedented in Belarusian history. The widespread unrest shattered any illusion of popular support for Lukashenka. The regime is forced to rely on excessive violence and repressions to hold onto power. Instead of engaging in a public dialogue, Lukashenka launched a relentless attack on the independent media, civic organizations, and the Belarusian culture and language.

Every day we hear stories from family and friends in Belarus. People are kidnapped on the streets, and their homes are invaded over even the smallest signs of protest.

Lukashenka has been publicly diminishing the danger of COVID-19. Yet, he also uses it as a biological weapon to harm the unlawfully arrested. COVID-19-positives have been intentionally and purposefully put together with other Belarusians in overcrowded and unventilated cells to damage their health.

Doctors who raised their concerns about the mistreatment of detainees have been arrested—and some faced criminal charges for telling the truth. Anesthesiologist Artsiom Sarokin received a two-year sentence for revealing the details of the last moments of the life of Raman Bandarenka, a detainee who was beaten to death.

More than 4,500 claims were filed with the police and the Prosecutor’s Office documenting the violence of law enforcement authorities, including the death of peaceful protestors. Not a single case has been initiated to investigate the brutality, violence, torture, and murders made by police and other forces.

Yet, the protests continue. People find new peaceful ways to manifest their aspiration for freedom. After nine months of struggle, they are not giving up.


The human rights organization Viasna reports on the scope of repressions. As of May 3, 2021, in a country of 9.5 million people, 361 people have the status of “political prisoners.” The regime has been particularly ruthless in its persecution of journalists and Telegram channel and public chat admins, labeling them and their media “extremist” and seeking to silence the voices of the protest. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, 481 journalists were detained in 2020, twice as many as in the previous six years combined. In their attempts to gain control of media coverage, the authorities endeavor to change the narrative about the nonviolent protests—increasingly attempting to present protesters as criminals plotting the violent overthrow of the government.

More than 3,000 politically motivated criminal cases against protesters have been opened since August. Ninety-eight people received sentences in politically motivated criminal cases in April. The trials proceed with violations of the fair trial principles.

Since August 2020, more than 30,000 people have been detained, tried, and received administrative sentencing. Physical force is estimated to have been used against 57% of the detainees. 74.3% of the detainees reported psychological violence, threats, and blackmail. Displaying or wearing white and red colors is considered “unlawful picketing” by the authorities and leads to detention and trial.

Along with the journalists, the regime specifically targets and persecutes human rights activists and independent lawyers to eliminate any available defense mechanism against the unlawful actions of the regime’s judiciary and prison systems. At the same time, new laws are adopted to allow militia and special forces to cover their faces in court and testify under pseudonyms.

Russian Influence

The situation in Belarus is part of the broader context of the global rise of authoritarianism actively supported by the current government of Russia. The former republics of the Soviet Union, with their history of ethnic and cultural suppression, human rights abuse, and a lack of freedom, are going through a bumpy developmental process. These societies have inherited autocratic and repressive governmental structures—along with underdeveloped economies, lingering Soviet imperial mentality, and state-controlled media. The rigid governmental structures grew to become a threat to the security in the region as the regimes actively sought to spread their influence.

In Belarus, human rights violations have been systemic. Since Lukashenka first won the presidency in 1994, he has methodically dismantled democratic institutions, taken control of the electoral, legislative, and judicial systems, and built repressive security apparatus. The repressive machine that destroys the lives of Belarusians today is made possible by the decades of political and economic support of the Russian Federation.

The unfree and undemocratic Belarus became a critical outpost for Russia’s political and economic influence and the authoritarian regimes’ survival. Belarus’ crossroad geographical location and the de-facto economic and political protectorate status give Russia a chance to project its power onto Eastern Europe’s young democracies and more influence in the world. The rise of authoritarianism in Belarus and around the globe has become essential for Putin’s own regime’s survival, distracting from the political crisis in Russia and using Belarus as a guinea pig for practicing different and new tools to remain in power.

A democratic breakthrough in Belarus will likely inspire and trigger the development of civil society in the Russian Federation. Putin is well aware of this threat to his power and will stop at nothing to prevent a peaceful transition of power to any political force not personally beholden to him.

What we expect from the United States

A long-term U.S. foreign policy focused on Belarus will support the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people, check the global rise of authoritarianism, and improve security across Eastern Europe. There must be material consequences for people and organizations responsible for human rights abuse. The corrupt regimes of Lukashenka and Putin must be held accountable. Civil society initiatives and independent media urgently need funding, along with support, training, and education. Opportunities for cultural exchange, such as inviting Belarusian students to study in the United States, will strengthen the interest of Belarusian society in democratic institutions. The independent media, a source of objective information, suffer from massive repression and are in dire need of funding.

We call for the most robust economic sanctions on the regime. We think that the United States must target Lukashenka’s power vertical that operates as a financial pyramid: taxes, revenue from state-controlled enterprises, and financial schemes pay to its upper tier. The sanction design should consider the close political, military, and economic ties of the Lukashenka and Putin regimes.

The historical examples demonstrate that policies must be set and consistently implemented. 2006 and 2011 economic sanctions have been exceptionally effective in forcing the regime to release political prisoners and stop suppressing people’s political freedoms.

There are concerns that sanctions might affect ordinary people’s well-being—however, little trickles down to people who are paid the bare minimum in the state-controlled economy. Opposition in Belarus is asking to implement even more sanctions as soon as possible. The situation is made worse by the ongoing and relentless repressions of large groups of people.

At the same time, economic sanctions on Belarusian enterprises might be insufficient and dangerous on their own. Russian companies tied to the Putin administration have been aiming to buy major Belarusian companies. Imposing sanctions on Belarusian enterprises and weakening them can consequently lead to the buyout by Russian companies. Linking sanctions for both Belarusian and Russian companies potentially participating in such transactions would prevent the buyout.

In other words, sanctions must be implemented on any companies trying to buy Belarus companies or their products. Such sanctions would declare any change of ownership of Belarus companies after August 2020 illegal, and those companies which have done or will do it are put on the sanction list.

The economic sanctions will have a maximum effect in combination with the political support of the opposition and funding to form democratic institutions in Belarus. Without deliberately supporting civil society and the emergence of democratic structures, the downfall of Lukashenka’s regime might only lead to yet another authoritarian regime.

We believe that U.S. policies are most effective in coordination with the E.U. and countries of the Eastern partnership on developing a concentrated effort against the unlawful regime of Lukashenka and Putin.

Finally, the Belarus Freedom Forum strongly advocates for the creation of the Belarus Caucus in the U.S. Congress. The establishment of the Belarus Caucus would send a strong signal to Lukashenka’s regime that the United States would continue promoting freedom and democracy for the people of Belarus. We believe that the Caucus is an essential tool for raising awareness about the current state of affairs in Belarus and its tragic past under the repressive Soviet Union and the Lukashenka regime. It would help advocate for Belarus freedom and promote democratic principles and human rights. It would also be critical in advocating for legislation—such as the 2020 Belarus Democracy Act and economic sanctions—that bolsters the Eastern European region’s defense and protects Belarus from any sort of incorporation into a Union State with Russia.


Since 1995, the United States and Europe have been attempting to establish the consequences for the Lukashenka regime’s violation of freedom of speech and human rights. Yet, inconsistencies in the foreign policy towards the regime allowed the dictator to strengthen his power vertical further, expand its repressive mechanisms, and further suppress political freedom and voters’ rights.

The consistent long-term policy towards the unlawful regime will help facilitate a peaceful transfer of power and transition from a dictatorial to a democratic system of government. Belarus as a democratic nation will strengthen economic and political relationships and cooperation with democratic countries of Eastern Europe. The democratic changes in Belarus will have an enormous effect on the development of civil society in the Russian Federation, possibly triggering a demand for more political accountability in the country.