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Christopher Smith

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  • Escalating Violence against Coptic Women and Girls: Will the New Egypt be more Dangerous than the Old?

    This hearing examined evidence that, as Egypt’s political and social crisis persists, violence against Coptic women and girls is escalating, including kidnappings, forced conversions, and other human rights abuses.  According to a new report released at the hearing by Michele Clark, at least 550 Coptic women and girls over the last five years have been kidnapped from their communities.  The few who have been found suffered human rights abuses including forced conversion, rape, forced marriage, beatings, and domestic servitude while being held by their captors, raising the question whether developments in the new Egypt are leaving Coptic women and their families more vulnerable than ever.  The hearing also included testimony and suggestions about possible initiatives the United States can take that may drastically curb the human rights issues in Egypt as they pertain to Coptic rights.

  • Justice In The International Extradition System, The Case Of George Wright And Beyond

    This briefing discussed the case of George Wright.  In 1963, Wright was implicated in the robbery of a gas station, during which he fatally beat and shot a man named Walter Patterson (a veteran of World War II and a Bronze Star recipient). Wright was sentenced to prison, but escaped to Algeria in the middle of his stay at Leesburg State Prison. 41 years later, Wright was discovered in Portugal. In spite of the U.S.’s and Portugal’s firm commitment regarding extradition, a court in Portugal inexplicably refused to extradite Wright. This hearing’s goal was to scrutinize what transpired in this case and what could be achieved in order to bring Wright to justice, raising the broader question about the international extradition system.

  • Ukraine's Upcoming Elections: A Pivotal Moment

    This hearing focused on concerns of democratic backsliding in Ukraine under President Viktor Yanukovych.  In particular, the witnesses and commissioners discussed their concerns with the October 2010 local elections, the March 2012 mayoral elections. The witnesses, including the representative from several different non-governmental organizations working on democratic development in Ukraine, spoke about the impact of corruption, controls over the media and harassment of NGOs on the electoral process.  Evheniya Tymoshenko, the daughter of imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, also spoke about her mother’s case.

  • Commemorating Belarusian Independence by Fighting for Human Rights in Belarus

    Mr. Speaker, on Sunday, March 25, Belarusian-Americans commemorated Belarusian Independence Day. On that date in 1918, during World War I, the Belarusian National Republic was declared. Although independence was short-lived and Belarus forcibly subjected to Soviet rule, it did mark an historically significant milestone in the aspirations of the Belarusian people for freedom and their own unique identity. While Belarus became independent in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this independence today is under threat thanks to the dictatorial rule of Alexander Lukashenka, who has relentlessly squelched dissent, strangled democratic institutions and the rule of law, stifled human rights and political liberties, and refused to reform the Soviet-type state-dominated economy. This has made Belarus dangerously vulnerable to Russian influence and has greatly weakened its prospects for integration into the European family of nations. The brutal crackdown that began 15 months ago with the fraudulent December 19, 2010 election persists. Its most recent manifestation is the barring of numerous opposition leaders, human rights activists and independent journalists from traveling abroad--yet another in a litany of violations of Belarus' OSCE commitments. Especially egregious is the continued imprisonment of democratic opposition leaders and activists, and human rights defenders Andrei Sannikau, Mikalai Statekevich, Zmitser Bandarenka, Ales Byalyatski, Syarhei Kavalenka, Zmitser Dashkevich, Pavel Seviarynets, and others, many of whom face inhumane conditions in detention. I'd like to add my voice to those of countless Belarusians and Belarusian-Americans calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Belarus. Mr. Speaker, in January the President signed into law the Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2011, which I authored. This law strengthens, in view of Lukashenka's crackdown, two earlier laws I wrote promoting democracy and supporting the Belarusian people in their struggle to replace the Lukashenka dictatorship with a representative government that will respect human rights and democratic values. But Congress's efforts on behalf of the Belarusian people can't end there--I'd like to ask my colleagues to continue to raise Belarusian human rights issues with the administration, with foreign parliamentarians, and, whenever we encounter them, with officials of the Lukashenka dictatorship.

  • Prerequisites for Progress in Northern Ireland

    This hearing assessed the progress towards peace made in Northern Ireland and discussed ways to ensure the sustainability of the peace.  Witnesses condemned the British government for backtracking on the Good Friday Agreement, as well as the United States for not putting enough pressure on Great Britain. Witnesses identified the murder of human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane, whose widow Geraldine was in attendance, as an obstacle to peace.

  • More Democratic Setbacks in Ukraine

    Mr. Speaker, last week, former Ukrainian Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko was sentenced to four years imprisonment in yet another politically motivated trial. This comes after the imprisonment--also the result of an unfair trial on specious charges--of his ally, former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, who continues to languish in prison in ill health. The sentencing of Mr. Lutsenko is a further confirmation that the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych is not taking its OSCE human rights and democracy obligations seriously. The imprisonment of opposition leaders Tymoshenko and Lutsenko prohibits their participation in October's parliamentary elections, raising serious questions about whether Ukraine will meet OSCE election standards. This could be especially troubling given Ukraine's assumption of the OSCE Chairmanship in January, 2013, two months after these elections. As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, it is also of concern to me and my colleagues, who have long advocated an independent, democratic, and free Ukraine. Mr. Lutsenko's conviction is disconcerting in that it starkly illustrates the deterioration of human rights, democracy and the rule of law under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, who has pressed the pause button on Ukraine's once-promising advance towards democracy--and increasingly it seems he is switching to the reverse button. Instead, what we now see is something increasingly reminiscent of the kind of authoritarianism that exists in Russia, Belarus and elsewhere in the post-Soviet space. Ukraine's democratic backsliding is harming relations with the EU and the United States, and both have repeatedly made clear that for relations to improve, respect for human rights and the democratic process must improve. Most importantly, this now two-year deterioration negatively affects the Ukrainian people, who, following the Orange Revolution, had tasted the fruits of freedom, and are now increasingly experiencing the burden of its undoing. It is time for President Yanukovych to show respect for the dignity of his own people by putting an end to political prosecutions and other reprisals against those who oppose him and allow their full participation in political life. In order to find credibility with both the Ukrainian people and the international community, he must end restrictions on freedom of speech and association and reverse the debilitating corruption and judicial subservience to the executive which has so eroded the rule of law. Mr. Speaker, the time has come for the Ukrainian authorities to stop their slide to authoritarianism and resulting isolation which will only harm Ukrainians who for so long--and at such great cost--have struggled for freedom, dignity and justice. 

  • Healing the Wounds of Conflict and Disaster: Clarifying the Fate of Missing Persons in the OSCE Area

    The hearing examined efforts by governments and their partners in clarifying the fate of persons missing within a number of OSCE participating States and partner countries, especially in the western Balkans and northern Caucasus. The hearing also appraised the adequacy of assistance to governments and other entities engaged in locating missing persons, the obstacles that impede progress in some areas, as well as how rule of law mechanisms help governments fulfill their obligations to the affected families and society in clarifying the fate of missing persons. Currently, over a million persons are reported missing from wars and violations of human rights. In addition, there are thousands of reported cases a year of persons missing from trafficking, drug-related violence, and other causes. Locating and identifying persons missing as a result of conflicts, trafficking in humans and human rights violations and other causes remains a global challenge, with significant impact within the OSCE area.

  • Irish Chairmanship of the OSCE

    Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Eamon Gilmore and others discussed what had transpired in regards to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) while Ireland was at the helm of the organization. This included priorities set by Gilmore involving Internet freedom. Congressman Smith also praised Gilmore for incorporating his experiences in Ireland into his leadership of the OSCE, such as drawing on Ireland’s experience in Northern Ireland’s peace process in reference to protracted conflicts elsewhere in the OSCE region. The hearing attendees went on to discuss the status of the agenda as it related to ODIHR and human dimension meetings.

  • Kazakhstan: As Stable As Its Government Claims?

    This hearing was led by Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) and Benjamin L. Cardin following the shooting of protesters by security forces in Kazakhstan. The implication for this was less certainty concerning the stability of Kazakhstan’s repressive government. The hearing examined was whether Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record factored into the country’s instability.

  • Combating Anti-Semitism in the OSCE Region: Taking Stock of the Situation Today

    By most accounts, and thanks to the work of many courageous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) the despicable evil of anti-Semitism has decreased in most parts of the OSCE region in recent years – but it still remains at higher levels than in 2000. This is simply unacceptable, and it was the topic discussed in this hearing. Concerns raised included political transitions in the Arab world and how they might affect Muslim-Jewish relations, including in Europe; the importance of engagement with Muslim communities in Europe; and growing nationalist and extremist movements that target religious and ethnic minorities.  Additionally the roles of the OSCE, U.S. government, and Congress in addressing continuing issues of anti-Semitism at home and abroad were discussed.

  • U.S. Congressman Pledges to Push for ICC Indictment of Belarusian President Lukashenka

    The chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission has pledged to call on the Obama administration to push for the indictment of hard-line Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka by the International Criminal Court (ICC). While the chances of an indictment are unlikely, the pledge by Representative Chris Smith (Republican, New Jersey) was a clear sign that U.S. lawmakers have not forgotten the egregious human rights situation in the country ruled by the man some dub "Europe's last dictator." At a Helsinki Commission hearing that focused on Minsk's continuing crackdown on political opposition and civil society, Smith said he would send a letter to members of the Obama administration and the UN Security Council asking them to push for the indictment. In an interview with RFE/RL, he later said, "When you commit atrocities for 17 years, as [Lukashenka] has done, the time has come." "[Although] Belarus is not a signatory to the ICC, to the Rome Statute -- and nor are we, frankly -- we've done this before, and we did it with [President Omar al-] Bashir in Sudan. It will take a lot of work, but we need to begin that effort now to get the [UN] Security Council to make a special referral to begin that process," he said. "I'm sure China and Russia will object, but that's worth the fight, because this man commits atrocities on a daily basis against his own people," Smith added. The congressman made his pledge following the testimony of former Belarusian presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich, who is in Washington for the first time since his release from a detention center in Minsk on February 19. Mikhalevich was one of seven opposition candidates and more than 600 people arrested during the regime's violent crackdown on protesters following Lukashenka's disputed reelection in December 2010. The official reaction to demonstrations drew widespread international condemnation and a coordinated sanctions program by Brussels and Washington. The financial and travel restrictions were accompanied by a boost in funding for the country's beleaguered civil society, journalists, and activists. As the one-year anniversary of the election approaches, watchdogs say the jailing and harassment of human rights defenders and protesters continues, while the independent media and judiciary face intense, often institutionalized, pressure. Mikhalevich says he had to sign agreement on collaborating with the Belarusian state security forces, which are still called the KGB, in order to secure his release. He has since been granted political asylum in the Czech Republic. Ahead of meetings with State Department officials and Washington-based NGOs, he told U.S. lawmakers that supporting Belarusian civil society -- and not holding out hope that Lukashenka will reform -- is the only way to effect change. "I'm absolutely sure that Lukashenka is ready to defend his power by all possible means. Unfortunately, we can compare Lukashenka with [former Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi. So I urge the United States, the European Union, and the international community not to trust another game of liberalization badly played by the regime," he said. "Cooperate only with independent civil society in Belarus: nongovernmental organizations, both unregistered and registered, independent newspapers and media, and democratic activists." Analysts say Lukashenka has long employed the tactic of pledging to loosen to grip on the country in exchange for a reprieve from sanctions -- a tactic that has worked in the past. Observers say he has also sought to capitalize on rifts between the United States and the EU, as well as between neighboring Russia and the West, to inhibit united action against his regime. After testifying, Mikhalevich told RFE/RL that he hoped the United States would more fully take on the role of "bad cop" if the EU, which borders Belarus and relies on it as a transit country for gas from Russia, hesitates to do so. "I'm absolutely sure than in order to succeed, the international community should have both the good cop and bad cop. Someone should play the role of the bad cop, and unfortunately, the European Union would not play this role. So I hope that the United States will be ready to do it," Mikhalevich said. Mikhalevich also offered a harrowing account of what he called "constant mental and physical torture" during his two months in custody, including being "stripped naked and forced to assume various positions." "Our legs were pulled apart with ropes and we could feel our ligaments tear," Mikhalevich said in his prepared remarks. Smith appeared visibly moved by account. "Rather than calling them the KGB, it ought to be called the KGB 'P' for 'perverts.' Masked men who strip other men naked, and women, presumably, as well -- those are acts of perversion that should not go unnoticed by the international community," said the Congressman. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill sponsored by Smith that would strengthen existing sanctions against Minsk. It is awaiting consideration in the Senate. Smith told RFE/RL that Western attention on the situation in Belarus had been "obscured" to some extent by the events of the Arab Spring, and especially by the global economic downturn. He said that pushing for ICC action would be a sign that human rights are not "taking a back seat." "I've been very much involved for years in the special [UN-backed] court that [U.S. prosecutor] David Crane oversaw for Sierra Leone, and what I learned from that, and from the Rwandan court, and of course from the Yugoslav court, which held [Slobodan] Milosevic and [Ratko] Mladic and [Radovan] Karadzic to account, is that these thugs are frightened by the fact that they may be held to account. And Lukashenka will fear it, I believe, if we make a very serious effort to hold him to account at the International Criminal Court," said Smith. Mikhalevich told RFE/RL that he thinks the chances of ICC action against Lukashenka are slim, but that the prospect of such a move could help pressure the regime to release its political prisoners. "I think that definitely, it's very difficult to organize any [such] political process unless thousands of people are being killed, but still, it's necessary to do all attempts," he said. "And you never know how this regime will develop -- and how many victims we will have next year."

  • From Arab Spring to Coptic Winter: Sectarian Violence and the Struggle for Democratic Transition in Egypt

    On Sunday, October 9, 2011, 25 people were killed and more than 300 injured when the Egyptian military attacked a peaceful group of Coptic Christians protesting the burning of a church in Aswan. In what has been deemed the “Massacre at Maspero,” referring to the location of the demonstration, witnesses say the army fired on the demonstrators with live ammunition and plowed into the crowd with armored vehicles. The military denied the use of live ammunition and claimed that their soldiers were attacked by an armed mob. The military has arrested at least 28 people, almost all Copts, including prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, and brought them before military prosecutors. The hearing focused on violence perpetrated against the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the implications of the events for that community and the current Egyptian leadership, and prospects for the consolidation of democracy in Egypt.

  • Human Trafficking and Transnational Organized Crime: Assessing Trends and Combat Strategies

    Helsinki Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), and other lawmakers examined how human trafficking laws need to adapt to the maturation of the illicit activity, specifically in light of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act that Smith introduced in 1998. In addition, Smith, Rubio, and others examined the link between transnational organized crime and human trafficking. Witnesses testifying at the hearing – including Greg Andres, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division, with the Department of Justice; Piero Bonadeo, Deputy Representative with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime; and Martina Vandenburg, Esq., Pro Bono Counsel with the Freedom Network USA – focused on legislative proposals to combat organized criminal activity, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNDOC’s) efforts, and, of course, human trafficking’s implications and consequences.

  • Commemoration of the Anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising

    Mr. Speaker, as Chairman of the Helsinki Commission and Co-Chairman of the Poland Caucus, I have long been struck by the way in which history casts both long shadows and rays of light in Poland. I have had the privilege of traveling to Poland, one of America's closest allies, and was overwhelmed by the weight of history when I met with those who are building the Museum of the History of Poland's Jews. Institutions like this are not only critical for Poland's future generations, but for what all of us, around the world, can learn from Poland. Today, I rise today to commemorate the 67th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, a courageous act of defiance by the people of Poland against the brutal Nazi occupation during the Second World War. On August 1, 1944, the Polish Underground began its struggle to liberate Warsaw, to further weaken the collapsing German eastern front and to establish Polish sovereignty in response to the Red Army's advance to the city's outskirts. Despite the courage and fortitude of the Polish people, the Underground could not overcome the Nazis' determination to oversee the complete destruction of the Home Army and the city, bolstered by official orders and a directive that the massacre was to serve as a "terrifying example'' to Europe. More than 200,000 civilians and members of the Home Army were killed in Warsaw over a 63-day period. Between August 5 and August 8, the Nazis murdered more than 40,000 people--overwhelmingly civilians--in the Wola district of Warsaw alone. Survivors, describing the horror of the executions, told of the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of women and children. Approximately 700,000 Warsaw residents were expelled from their homes and forced out of the city--many sent to death, labor, or POW camps. Hitler ordered that Warsaw should be razed to the ground; Heinrich Himmler declaring in the most chilling terms that Warsaw "must completely disappear from the surface of the earth.'' To that end, the Nazis systematically targeted buildings filled with deep meaning for the Poles, including cultural treasures, monuments, palaces, libraries, churches, and the Old Town. By the beginning of October, the Polish capitol was reduced to rubble--85 percent of the buildings in Warsaw had been destroyed. But from ashes come diamonds and, despite this barbaric campaign, the Polish desire for freedom and liberty could not be extinguished--not even by the decades of communist oppression which followed the end of the war. Such courage and resilience continues to define the Polish people. Today, Poland is a successful democracy and one of our strongest military allies. More to the point, Poland's leadership on issues related to democracy and human rights gives true meaning to the alliance concept of "shared values.'' Poland has tirelessly support democratic movements in Northern Africa and Eastern Europe, particularly in Tunisia, through democracy activists and transition experts, and Belarus. Poland has served as a regional force in the effort to encourage human rights and democracy in Belarus in the wake of the December 2010 post-election political crackdown, maintaining free media outlets that operate in Belarus and opening Polish universities to students expelled for pro-democracy activities. On July 1, Poland assumed the six-months rotating Presidency of the European Union. It can only strengthen our transatlantic alliance to have the EU led by a country that has accomplished so much over the past 20 years both political and economically. As it happens, Poland has one of the fastest growing economies in Europe and is the only EU country not faced with a recession amidst the global financial crisis. As chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and co-chairman of the Congressional Poland Caucus, I commend Poland's leadership on democracy and human rights throughout the OSCE region and globally. Polish-American ties remain strong and steadfast because of such dedication to these common values. More than that, however, I have unwavering respect and admiration for the people of Poland, whose courage and determination in the face of so many historic tragedies--of which the Warsaw Massacre is only one example--is a source of continued inspiration.

  • U.S. Policy and the OSCE: Making Good on Commitments

    This hearing examined the United States' policy towards the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in particular  how to support the OSCE’s human rights work in the face of opposition to it from several countries within the OSCE. The witnesses and commissioners discussed ways in which the U.S. can strengthen the priority given to human rights and humanitarian concerns within the OSCE.  Priorities identifed were: supporting oppressed people of Belarus; turning back the trend to restrict Internet and media freedoms, supporting democracy in Kyrgyzstan and democratic activists throughout all of central Asia.   The discussion also focused on using the OSCE partnership program to promote human rights for minorities, particularly the Copts in Egypt.

  • Minority at Risk: Coptic Christians in Egypt

    This hearing, chaired by Commissioner Christopher H. Smith (NJ-04), focused on the current state of affairs of Coptic Christians in Egypt and their future in light of the Arab Spring. Coptic Christians, who make up eight percent of Egypt’s population, have historically been marginalized, discriminated against, persecuted, and even physically attacked. The perpetrators have been not only Muslim extremists, but also the Egyptian government itself. However, violence against Copts has escalated since the revolution. Witnesses present at this hearing included Caroline Doss, JD, Vice President of Coptic Solidarity; Michele A. Clark, Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs; and Jean Maher, president of the French Office at the Egyptian Union for Human Rights Organization.

  • The Thirty-Seven Year Occupation of Cyprus

    Mr. Speaker, I rise today to address ongoing human rights violations in occupied northern Cyprus . Today is the 37th anniversary of the illegal 1974 invasion--a terrible tragedy, and an ongoing one, as the continued occupation of that country by tens of thousands of Turkish troops continues to deprive of their homes all those forced to flee the north--estimated to number approximately 200,000. Many Greek Cypriots escaped the north with little more than the clothes on their backs. While some have returned to visit their own homes or ancestral villages, none have been allowed to take back their rightful property--those despoiled include an estimated 5,000 Americans of Cypriot descent. Several hundred courageous Greek Cypriots, mainly elderly people, refused to be uprooted and today live in enclaves, the remnant of once-thriving Greek Cypriot communities which have effectively been ethnically cleansed.  Hundreds of churches, chapels and monasteries once dotted the rugged landscape of the region, part of Cyprus's rich religious cultural heritage. Indeed, St. Paul visited the island nation on one of his early missionary journeys, and St. Barnabas, a native of the Cypriot city of Salamis, was martyred nearby for his defense of Christianity. The Helsinki Commission, of which I am the Chairman in this Congress, has documented the desecration and destruction of some of the over 500 religious sites in the occupied area looted of their priceless icons, mosaics and frescoes once revered by the faithful. Many of these sacred objects, stolen from churches inside or adjoining Turkish military bases, have landed on the international art market. Even the dead are not allowed to rest in peace with destruction of cemeteries rampant throughout the region. Cypriot authorities interdicted a container originating in the occupied area filled with metal destined for a recycling facility in Asia. Upon inspection agents found that the unit consisted of metal crosses and stolen grave markers.  Mr. Speaker, I remain deeply concerned over ongoing violations of freedom of religion and other rights in northern Cyprus. Let there be no mistake, the Turkish government is responsible for what happens in the occupied part of the island. Last Christmas, a small group of Orthodox believers gathered in the village of Rizokarpaso to celebrate the divine liturgy--only to have their worship disrupted by Turkish security forces, who ordered them to disperse. The Helsinki Commission continues to receive reports of the demolition of churches in the region even as others are converted to commercial use as warehouses, barns, or casinos.  Mr. Speaker, the nearly four-decade-long illegal occupation of northern Cyprus by Turkey is an affront to the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and an encroachment on the fundamental freedoms and human rights of Greek Cypriots living in the region's enclaves and those forced to flee the area following the 1974 invasion. Our government must continue to engage on behalf of the human rights of Greek Cypriots.

  • THE PROMISES WE KEEP ONLINE: INTERNET FREEDOM IN THE OSCE REGION

    This hearing covered the online dimension of human rights- freedom of expression and of media. Intrusive infringement of online material, such as blogs and other social media, among OSCE members: Turkey, Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan have been the newest to use intimidation.  Witnesses who testified in front of the commission stressed the importance of the Helsinki process of safeguarding human dignity, civil society and democratic government in the digital age. The hearing focused on the efforts conducted by the U.S. government and what else may be needed to address repressive laws aimed against online communication.

  • Ukraine’s Democratic Reversals

    Mr. Speaker, I rise to express my deep concern about the deterioration of democracy in Ukraine over the past 16 months, and the current Ukrainian leadership's use of politically motivated selective prosecution to harass high-ranking officials from the previous government. The country's once-promising democratic future is in jeopardy. While we face many serious challenges in every region of the world today, nonetheless it is imperative that Washington focus attention on what is happening in Ukraine--especially given that country's vital role in the region. As a long-time member and current Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I have followed and spoken out on developments in Ukraine since the early 1980's, when the rights of the Ukrainian people were completely denied and any brave soul who advocated for freedom was brutally persecuted. Mr. Speaker, for nearly two decades, independent Ukraine has been moving away from its communist past while establishing itself as an important partner to the United States. Both the executive branch and Congress, on a bipartisan basis, have provided strong political support and concrete assistance for Ukraine's independence and facilitated Ukraine's post-Communist transition. In the wake of the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine even became a beacon of hope for other post-Soviet countries, earning the designation of "Free" from Freedom House--the only country among the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics to earn such a ranking. And while many of the promises of that revolution have sadly gone unfulfilled, one of its successes had been Ukraine's rise from "Partly Free" to "Free", reflecting genuine improvements in human rights and democratic practices. Under President Viktor Yanukovych, elected in February 2010, this promising legacy may vanish. Today we see backsliding on many fronts, which threatens to return Ukraine to authoritarianism and jeopardizes its independence from Russia. Among the most worrisome of these trends are: consolidation of power in the presidency which has weakened checks and balances; backpedaling with respect to freedom of expression and assembly; various forms of pressure on the media and civil society groups; attempts to curtail academic freedom and that of institutions and activists who peacefully promote the Ukrainian national identity; and seriously flawed local elections. Meanwhile, endemic corruption--arguably the greatest and most persistent threat to Ukrainian democracy and sovereignty--as well as the weak rule of law and the lack of an independent judiciary, which were not seriously addressed by the Orange governments, have only become more pronounced under the current regime. Moreover, in recent months, we have seen intensified pressure on opposition leaders, even selective prosecutions of high-ranking members of the previous government. The vast majority of observers both within and outside Ukraine see these cases, which have targeted former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko and former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko among others, as politically motivated acts of revenge which aim to remove possible contenders from the political scene, especially in the run-up to next year's parliamentary elections. Mr. Speaker, the Helsinki Commission has closely monitored these troubling trends as have the U.S., other Western governments, and the European Parliament and Council of Europe. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian authorities have largely downplayed concerns voiced by the European Union, which they aspire to join someday, and by the United States, with which Kyiv professes to seek better relations. The U.S. also desires enhanced bilateral ties. Yet, moving in the wrong direction on human rights, democracy and the rule of law decidedly works against strengthening U.S.-Ukrainian relations. More importantly, the erosion of hard-won democratic freedoms weakens Ukraine's independence and harms the people of Ukraine, who have endured a painful history as a captive nation over the course of the last century. Indeed, as Ukraine this week marks the 70th anniversary of the brutal Nazi invasion, we mourn the loss of life and untold human suffering of that horrific war. Against this backdrop of devastation wreaked by totalitarian regimes in the 20th century, Ukrainians deserve to have the promise of democracy made possible by their independence fully realized. A few days ago, President Yanukovych said that he would take into account the criticisms in Freedom House's recent "Sounding the Alarm: Protecting Democracy in Ukraine" report. His promise is encouraging, but words alone are not enough. All friends of Ukraine should measure his words by actual and meaningful changes that improve the state of democracy and human rights for the Ukrainian people.

  • Addressing Ethnic Tensions in Kyrgyzstan

    During four days in June, 2011, ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks clashed in the southern region of Osh, leaving some 470 dead and over 400,000 displaced.  Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Although international assistance prevented a humanitarian disaster, rebuilding has barely started. Human rights abuses continue and ethnic nationalism is on the rise. An independent international investigative report made numerous recommendations to the Government of Kyrgyzstan about addressing the serious ethnic situation.  So far, the reaction by the Kyrgyz authorities has been mixed, and it is unclear which proposals Bishkek will accept. In this complicated atmosphere, Kyrgyzstan is also facing presidential elections this fall, the final step in putting in place a new governmental system following the revolution that overthrew former President Bakiyev in April 2010

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