Written by Vladimir Dubrovsky
OTTAWA - Leading members of the Belarusian democratic opposition visited Ottawa last week to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, federal cabinet ministers speaker Peter Milliken, senators, MPs and other senior government officials.
Their invitation to Canada had been issued by the House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights (SDIR) at the initiative of B'nai Birth Canada. The delegation included Jaroslav Romanchuk, the presidential hopeful of the United Civic Party; Anatoly Lebedko, chair of the shadow government; Andrey Dmitriev, chief of the international office of the United Civil Party of Belarus, and famous Belarusian poet and civic activist Vladimir Neklyaev, whose 'Tell the Truth' campaign has quickly gained prominence in Belarus before presidential elections that must occur by February 2011.
The main purpose of their visit was to inform Canadian parliamentarians and the government about the grave human rights situation in Belarus. Today, the last dictatorship in Europe brutally persecutes its political opponents, independent mass-media, NGOs and all segments of civil society, the delegation said, adding that ethnic and religious minorities are also ostracized and oppressed.
The Lukashenko regime is a danger to the entire world since it actively deals with such rogue states as Iran and Syria, they said.
Currently, the US Congress is considering a bill called the Belarus Arms Transfers Accountability Act of 2009. The draft legislation accuses Belarus of supplying "rockets, mortars, anti-tank weapons and mines to Palestinian extremist groups and to state sponsors of terrorism such as Iran and Syria, as well as Mi-24 helicopters artillery systems and Russian-origin armoured combat vehicles to the Government of Sudan, tanks to the communist regime in North Korea, and military aircraft and aircraft engines to Iran."
The bill also suggests that Russia has supplied S-300 air defence missiles to Iran through Belarus and that Belarus "is the proxy route whenever Russia wants to deny it is doing the sale."
According to the US State Department's 2009 Human Rights Report, there are between 30,000 and 50,000 persons in Belarus who identify themselves as Jewish. In that year, "religious sites were vandalized and some religious sites were destroyed to make way for commercial development. The government did not promote anti-bias and tolerance education." For example, "in October, Vaukavysk town authorities began laying water and sewage pipes on the site of a Jewish cemetery. During construction, workers unearthed human remains, and then quickly reburied them.... In July a Jewish community in Pinsk repeatedly voiced concern about the destruction of the Karalin historic Jewish neighbourhood in the city centre. Karalin was a sacred place where Chassidic Judaism originated. Despite numerous appeals to the culture ministry, authorities demolished the majority of the buildings in Karalin for construction of facilities for the local university."
During their testimony before the SDIR, the Belarusian representatives specifically thanked B'nai Brith Canada and Michael Mostyn, B'nai Brith's national director of public affairs, for organizing and facilitating their visit. Their evidence ranged from the existence of well-documented death squads, to a brutal breakdown on activists of the 'Tell the Truth' campaign, to the unequal rights of Protestants, Catholics and Jews compared to the nominally official state Orthodox religion. When asked why B'nai Brith became involved in this issue, Mostyn said, "Belarus is a problem that demands attention from the world community."
In a member's statement from the floor of the Senate, Senator Doug Finley reminded Canadians that in Belarus political and civil society activists are routinely assaulted, beaten and jailed: "The KGB, the security force for Belarus, labelled the opposition as terrorists seeking a violent revolution, as one of their many ways to intimidate voters.
"For the upcoming election, Canada must encourage a legitimate, free and fair election that complies with international standards.... It is our responsibility as one of the world's great democracies not only to do what we can to ensure that Belarusians have this choice, but to send a clear message to all Belarusians that Canada stands clearly in favour of an open, fair and democratic process."
Speaking by phone, Lebedko said that this visit exceeded their expectations. They found high levels of interest from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, ministers Jason Kenney, Peter Van Loan, Stockwell Day and others they had met with.
Lebedko emphasized the constructive role of B'nai Brith and Michael Mostyn, who also helped bring to Canada other Belarusian democratic leaders in the past. He noted that the United Civic Party of Belarus, a major democratic opposition political party, which has many prominent Belarusian figures in its ranks, is ruled by a triumvirate. "I am a Belarus Orthodox Christian, my deputy and candidate for President Jaroslav Romanchuk is a Polish Catholic and my other deputy, Lev Margolin, is Jewish. Our close working and personal relations make our team very effective."
The delegation subsequently travelled to Washington, where the Belarusian delegation met with many high-ranking officials, including Senator John McCain, who accepted their invitation to visit Belarus this fall.