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Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights: Belarus protests hit home

(Photo by Homoatrox via Creative Commons)

For three months now I have not been able to recover from the aftershock from the recent events in Belarus. It takes me several hours daily to read independent Belarusian information sources, otherwise I cannot function normally. On my first trips to the U.S. in the mid-2000s, I had to explain to people where I came from. At best, my interlocutors thought that Belarus was somewhere in Russia. This August, the situation changed dramatically, and the front pages of the world’s leading publications were full of stories about the courage of the Belarusian people who dared to challenge the 26-year-old dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko.

It was the first time I had a chance to observe how hundreds
of thousands of peaceful protesters came out onto the central streets of
Belarusian cities. I felt proud of my people. Then there was anger when
thousands were detained and hundreds were subjected to torture and inhuman
cruel treatment (the U.N. alone reported 450 cases.) Several people died at the
hands of law enforcement. Despite all this lawlessness of the authorities,
proud and brave Belarusians have continued to go out to daily protests for two
months now.

Many commentators have called this protest season “the birth
of the Belarusian nation.” And I would compare it to coming out. For the first
time in 26 years, Belarusians not only realized that they were free people, but
also announced this through peaceful protests attended by thousands.

Belarusian LGBT+ did not stand aside. Victoria Biran,
perhaps the brightest activist of her generation, dropped all business in
Berlin and flew to Minsk to be with the people in this most important period
for the whole country. Rainbow flags flashed regularly at the protests. Like
other participants in the rallies, LGBT+ activists did not escape detentions
and arrests. My friend Natallia Mankouskaya was detained several times in
recent months. On Sept. 29, a transgender activist Zhenya Velko was released
from detention.

Victoria Biran was detained by masked riot police on her way
to the Women’s March in Minsk on Sept. 26 and was likely targeted because she
was carrying a rainbow flag. The police officer who later testified as a
“witness” against her in court via a video link did not disclose his name and
hid his face with a black mask. Although Victoria has committed no offense and
was only intending to exercise her rights to freedom of expression and peaceful
assembly, she was sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention. She is
serving her sentence in the detention center on Akrestina Street, which has
lately become synonymous with torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual
violence, against detainees. Considering that Victoria was likely targeted by
police as an LGBT+ activist, I am concerned that she may be targeted with
violence in detention. 

Amnesty International recognized Victoria Biran a prisoner
of conscience, deprived of her liberty solely for peacefully exercising their
human rights, and her case is emblematic of thousands of persons in Belarus
detained in recent weeks.

The U.S. government is slowly responding. Secretary of State
Mike Pompeo has rejected the results of the Aug. 9, 2020, presidential
election. On Oct. 1, the Belarus Democracy, Human Rights, and Sovereignty Act
of 2020 was introduced in Congress. The Act would provide for the promotion of
democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Belarus as well as support the
aspirations of the Belarusian people to preserve the independence and
sovereignty of their country in the face of the threat posed by Vladimir
Putin’s Russia.

I would also like to bring to your attention the upcoming
hearings to confirm former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Julie Fisher as
the next U.S. ambassador to Belarus. Appointing an ambassador would strengthen
American diplomatic presence and help advance U.S. national interests in
Belarus and in the region. However, the timing of her arrival in Minsk and
official interactions with the illegitimate and illegal regime could not be
more unfortunate and could bring serious political implications for the U.S. I
believe a special envoy should be appointed instead. The ambassador’s
appointment, and the presentation of credentials to Alexander Lukashenko will
serve as the de-facto recognition of his legitimacy as a 6-term president. The
U.S. cannot normalize diplomatic relations with Belarus while Lukashenko
remains in power illegally. The return of the U.S. ambassador should be
pre-conditioned on the new presidential election in Belarus recognized by the
OSCE as democratic, free and fair.

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Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights