The Belarus Democracy Act is heading to the Senate

As Belarusian protests continue for the 129th day since the widely disputed August 9th presidential election, the bill HR 8438 (more commonly known as the Belarus Democracy Act of 2020) is making its way to the Senate after the House of Representatives passed it on November 18th. To raise awareness of the importance of this bill, an initiative group of Belarusians in the US created a website, where everyone can easily send a letter of support for the bill to Congress. 

“Within the first day after the website went public, we were getting 28 unique visitors on average and around 25 instances of reaching out to the Congress members (via a contact form or phone) every 30 minutes. So each user was making an effort to reach out to about one Congress member,” summarized Andrey, one of those who worked on the website. Most of the people were reaching out to Senate Majority Leader McConnell and House Speaker Pelosi with the rest being close behind, he noted. Among the most active parts of the US that contacted the Congress members through the website were West Coast and East Coast, with New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, and Los Angeles within the top five cities. 

According to Andrey, despite the daily activity on the website, there’s still a void to be filled when it comes to how well Americans are informed about critical situations in other countries, including Belarus. 

The Belarus Democracy Act was first introduced in 2004, and then in 2011. HR 8438 is the third version of the bill. Some of the new amendments relate to increased support of media and internet freedom in Belarus, as well as denial of recognition of “any incorporation of Belarus into a ‘Union State’ that is under the control of Russia.”

Additionally, the Act enables personal visa and economic sanctions against a broader circle of individuals, including police involved in violence and torture, as well as government officials responsible for falsifying this year’s presidential elections results. Notably, this year’s bill also enables sanctions on “any Russian individual that has significantly participated in the crackdown on independent press or human rights abuses related to political repression in Belarus, including the Russian propagandists sent to replace local employees at Belarusian state media outlets.”

“Russia is using this crisis as a pretext of their monopoly of power. They would love just to take the whole of Belarus into their orbit, which is why we must act now,” said Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), who’s been the sponsor of the bill in 2004, 2011, and 2020. 

In his House floor remarks, Smith also pointed out the disproportionate brutal force used by the Belarusian police in an effort to disperse daily peaceful demonstrations.

“Police in helmets and body armor throw women holding balloons and flowers into police vans. Officers tear-gas elderly people on a pensioners’ march. Belarus peaceful protesters are battered, bruised but defiant after 100 days. They took to the streets and they are still on the streets,” Smith emphasized.

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