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Activists Brief Commission on the War in Chechnya, Civil Society and Military Reform in Russia
Thursday, July 01, 2004

By John Finerty
CSCE Staff Advisor

The United States Helsinki Commission held a briefing entitled “The War in Chechnya and Russian Civil Society” on June 17, 2004 with representatives of one of the largest and most active nongovernmental organizations in Russia, the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia.

Valentina Melnikova, National Director of CSM, and Natalia Zhukova, Chairwoman of the Nizhny Novgorod Committee of CSM, briefed the Commission on their efforts to publicize and protest human rights abuses in the Russian military and the current state of civil society in Russia.

Helsinki Commission Senior Advisor Elizabeth B. Pryor opened the briefing, noting concerns that President Vladimir Putin’s verbal attacks on human rights organizations and their funding sources – delivered on May 26 during his annual State of the Federation address – may indicate future trouble for Russian NGOs perceived as politically hostile to the Kremlin.

Ms. Zhukova described the work of her committee and addressed the impact of Putin’s recent comments on the committee’s activities.  The Nizhny Novgorod Committee is one of 300 such bodies under the umbrella of CSM, comprising approximately 30 volunteer workers and handling nearly 2,000 requests for assistance from parents and soldiers annually.  “The problem is that most [people] have simply no idea of what’s going on in their military…because television is censored,” she said.

According to Zhukova, the Nizhny Novgorod Committee also provides assistance to approximately 700 deserters annually, precipitated by “beatings, harsh hazing on the part of officers and other soldiers, a criminal environment in the unit, lack of medical assistance, cases of extortion of money, [and] use of soldiers for slave labor.”   In cooperation with the Foundation for Civil Liberties, CSM provides mediation services with authorities and legal assistance to the military deserters and their families.

The Committee also works to ensure social protection for veterans of the Chechen wars with disabilities, lobbying and leading demonstrations in support of adequate allowances for wounded soldiers, and the families of those killed in action.

Regarding the recent condemnation of Russian NGOs by top military and administration officials, Ms. Zhukova noted, “I can’t say that we experience direct persecution.… But after the onslaught announced by the Minister of Defense and after the State of the Nation address by President Putin, we believe that we have to expect financial pressure.”

President Putin’s May 26 address, in which he accused some NGOs of serving “dubious group and commercial interests” rather than those of the Russian people, has been “viewed by the local authorities as an order,” according to Ms. Zhukova.  Since Putin’s speech, she noted, the local governor has revoked the Committee’s discount on their office rent, resulting in a tenfold cost increase.  Moreover, local funding has been depleted because “local businessmen have been so intimidated by the onslaught against us by the Ministry of Defense and by President Putin that we cannot expect anything from them,” she said.

Neither does CSM receive substantial financing from abroad, Zhukova maintains, “We serve the interests of millions of Russian soldiers and their parents, defending them from arbitrary rule and lawlessness of the authorities.”

Ms. Melnikova addressed the effects of the Putin administration on Russian civil society.  The Russian people, she asserted, have been deprived of both political opposition and independent media since Putin came to power.  She listed “the closed nature of the Chechen war, lack of information, [and] direct deceit of the population by the authorities,” as the negative effects of his administration’s actions.  As a result of Putin’s policies, she said, “The war in Chechnya has ceased to exist as far as the Russian public is concerned.” 

Through media controls and a vigorous propaganda campaign, she said, the Russian Government has led the people to believe “that what’s going on in Chechnya is a counterterrorist operation, that we are fighting Arab mercenaries and Al Qaeda units.”  “In reality, the Chechen problem has nothing to do with international terrorism or Islamic fundamentalism…. There is no trace of stabilization in Chechnya, and there are no attempts by the Russian authorities to strive for a peaceful resolution of the problem,” Melnikova stated.

Portraying the Russian military as a “decrepit, poorly managed, federally-corrupted structure,” she described the same grim situation as Ms. Zhukova.  In Chechnya, she charged, Russian officers force young men to become military criminals.  If they return from service alive, they are often psychologically or physically disabled, and abandoned by the government that sent them to Chechnya.

In answer to a question by Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) regarding the recently enacted Russian legislation on alternative military service, Melnikova called the alternative civil service law “inadequate.” She noted that it requires that soldiers serve terms double the length of ordinary military service, perform tasks that do not serve civil society, and often work hundreds of miles away from home. 

The panelists requested that Chairman Smith raise such issues as the fate of a bill regarding civilian control of the armed forces, which has been introduced in the State Duma, and the possibility for a second amnesty for military deserters when he meets with the Speaker of the State Duma at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in early July.

Chairman Smith indicated that U.S. officials have, in past meetings with Russian leaders, raised concerns about violent hazing of military conscripts.  In response, Melnikova provided Smith with recent copies of “The News of the Committee of the Soldiers’ Mothers,” featuring vivid photographs of soldiers that had suffered serious injuries as a result of such hazing.  “Russian officers do not treat their soldiers as human beings,” she said, “therefore, everything goes on as before.”

Regarding the international community’s response to the Chechen conflict, Melnikova claimed: “There is not enough pressure exerted on Mr. Putin. … Ten years of war have infuriated both the Russian military and the Chechens to such an extent that we don’t see any possibility of peaceful resolution....  But I think Russia’s partners simply have to exert pressure on Putin to make him make at least some tentative steps toward peace, maybe offer some intermediate negotiations, maybe seek some mediation efforts on the part of governments or nongovernmental organizations.  At least something has to be done.”

Ms. Melnikova further criticized “the active connivance of the leaders of Western countries, including the United States” as one of the key reasons for the continued restriction of human rights in Russia.  She voiced concern that Washington leaders now believe “that the Russian people don’t need democracy…. That the West supports the anti-democratic policies of the Russian authorities is simply absurd,” she said.

She concluded by stating that the CSM “advocates and conducts a social campaign for military reform, for abolition of conscription and for the [establishment] of a professional armed force,” as well as for peace in Chechnya and the expansion of civilian control over the military.  The CSM provides direct aid to more than 50,000 soldiers and their families annually.

Finally, Melnikova argued that the “legal slavery, chaos, and corruption at all levels of the Russian military compromises not only Russian civil society but also the strategic objectives of Russia’s allies, including nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  Absent democracy,” she said, “there can be no safe Russia.”

Asked about recent attacks on nongovernmental organizations by Putin administration officials, Melnikova mentioned that Putin’s criticisms were preceded by comments by the Minister of Defense and Deputy Minister of Justice to the effect that NGOs were pursuing subversive or illegal activities.  Although she hopes that NGOs will not be targeted by the national authorities, she said that the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky has tempered her optimism.

Responding to questions about funding from Russian oligarchs, Melnikova stated, “Oligarchs dread to touch us [because] there is always a chance that the authorities can charge any businessman with any crime and throw him in prison, and they know it.”

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords.  The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.


United States Helsinki Commission Intern Christen Broecker contributed to this article.

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With special thanks to Leah Perry, former Professional Staff Member, House Oversight Committee, for her assistance in providing background information for this article. 

  • HELSINKI COMMISSION TO REVIEW NEW WAYS TO FIGHT FOREIGN BRIBERY

    THIS HEARING HAS BEEN POSTPONED. RESCHEDULING INFORMATION WILL BE AVAILABLE SHORTLY. WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: ANTI-CORRUPTION INITIATIVES TO FIGHT EMERGING METHODS OF FOREIGN BRIBERY  Thursday, October 24, 2019 10:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2128  Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission   The methods of foreign corrupt actors in the global economy have changed dramatically since America assumed the mantle of international anti-corruption champion with the passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in 1977. The integration of formerly closed states into the global economy and the development of transformative technologies have led to unprecedented wealth, but also unprecedented corruption. This globalized variant of corruption hollows out rule-of-law institutions and threatens to dismantle the liberal world order that underpins U.S. national security and prosperity. This hearing will examine new anti-corruption trends and initiatives to determine how the United States can most effectively engage the evolving threat of foreign bribery. Currently, while the United States still leads the world in investigating and prosecuting this crime, the foreign corrupt officials who demand bribes are not liable under U.S. law. The Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (FEPA), developed with the support of the Helsinki Commission, seeks to close this loophole. The hearing also will examine dual-use technologies such as blockchain, which have the potential to help fight foreign bribery, but also to facilitate it. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Patrick Moulette, Head of the Anti-Corruption Division, OECD Directorate for Financial and Enterprise Affairs Casey Michel, Journalist David Lawrence, Founder and Chief Collaborative Officer, RANE Eric Lorber, Senior Director, Center on Economic and Financial Power, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Additional witnesses may be added.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Statement on Developments in Northern Syria

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today issued the following statement on reports that Turkey has launched an attack on Kurdish troops in northern Syria: “Kurdish troops bravely fought alongside Americans and our other allies to defeat the ISIS caliphate. The small deployment of special operators we had in northern Syria supported the fight against extremism and protected our partners. We should continue to stand by our Kurdish friends and oppose Turkey’s invasion. Those who support the United States deserve nothing less. Otherwise, we undermine our country’s interests in the region and our credibility around the world.”

  • INTRODUCTION OF THE TRANSNATIONAL REPRESSION ACCOUNTABILITY AND PREVENTION ACT OF 2019 (TRAP ACT)

    Mr. HASTINGS. Madam Speaker, as Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission—a congressional watchdog for human rights and democracy in Europe and Eurasia—I am frequently reminded of the new opportunities that technology and globalization present for human rights defenders around the globe. For those struggling to defend their liberty and human dignity, our interconnected world brings with it the possibility of sharing information, coordinating action, and demonstrating solidarity across thousands of miles in fractions of a second. It means that truth is more capable of piercing the veil of enforced ignorance erected by the world’s most repressive states Technology also further empowers dissidents in exile to connect with, and influence the foot soldiers of freedom who march on in their homelands. But with these new openings for liberty come novel approaches to repression. Authoritarian and autocratic regimes are appropriating agile, 21st century technology to prop up sclerotic systems of brutality and corruption. Technological developments have provoked greater feelings of insecurity in these brittle regimes and propelled them to extend their repression far beyond their borders, sometimes reaching into the refuge of democratic societies where political opponents, independent journalists, and civil society activists operate in safety. Madam Speaker, I recently introduced bipartisan legislation to tackle these emerging challenges with my friend and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member, Representative JOE WILSON of South Carolina We are confident that this legislation, supported by the bicameral leadership of the Helsinki Commission and other leaders on human rights, will place the United States on course to lead the free world in holding the line against these modern manifestations of political persecution, or what some have called ‘‘transnational repression.’’ The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act—or TRAP Act—is designed to counter one key instrument in the autocrat’s 21st century toolkit politically-motivated abuse of the International Criminal Police Organization, more commonly known as INTERPOL. INTERPOL is a legitimate and potent tool for international law enforcement cooperation—one that the United States relies on heavily to bring criminals to justice and thwart threats to security around the globe. Sadly, autocrats have recognized the potential for repression in INTERPOL’s worldwide communications system that ties into the law enforcement agencies of its 194 member countries. The Helsinki Commission regularly receives credible reports from human rights defenders, journalists, political activists, and businesspeople who have fallen victim to the efforts of corrupt regimes to ensnare them using INTERPOL’s system of international requests for arrest and extradition, known as Red Notices and Diffusions. These are the modern-day ‘‘traps’’ addressed by the TRAP Act. Because of these notices, innocent individuals live in fear of traveling mternationally and have been detained, had their bank accounts closed, and, sometimes, been returned into the hands of the very regimes from which they escaped. Madam Speaker, our legislation opens three new fronts agamst the threat of INTERPOL abuse. First, it clearly states that it is the policy of the United States to use our influence in INTERPOL to advance specific reforms that increase transparency and accountability for those that abuse the system while helping the organization to live up to its stated obligations to uphold international human rights standards and resist politicization It further establishes that the United States will use its diplomatic clout to confront countries that abuse INTERPOL and work to ensure the freedom of movement and ability to engage in lawful commerce of victims of this abuse the world over. Second, the TRAP Act exerts oversight over the United States’ internal mechanisms to identify, challenge, and respond to instances of INTERPOL abuse. The bill requires the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State—in coordination with other relevant agencies—to submit to Congress an assessment of the scope and seriousness of autocratic abuse of INTERPOL, an evaluation of the adequacy of the processes in place domestically and at INTERPOL to resist this abuse, and a plan for improving interagency coordination to confront this phenomenon. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the TRAP Act places strict limitations on how the United States Government can use INTERPOL notices in legal or administrative proceedings that could interfere with the freedom or immigration status of individuals in our country. We have been deeply concerned by reports that some authorities in this country have improperly cited INTERPOL notices from autocratic countries to detain individuals and place them in danger of being returned to the very countries from which they fled. The TRAP Act will make crystal clear that autocratic regimes cannot use INTERPOL notices to weaponize the U.S. judicial system against their political targets. Madam Speaker, these measures are critical to restricting the freedom that some autocratic regimes have enjoyed to harass, persecute, and detain their political opponents around the world. Authoritarian and autocratic states like China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Venezuela must be called out by name and held to account for their repeated manipulation of legitimate law enforcement tools for petty political ends. Madam Speaker, I would also like to place the TRAP Act in the context of the other work that the U.S. Helsinki Commission has done to address the grave threat of transnational repression and malign influence by authoritarian regimes. The Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy—or ‘‘CROOK’’ Act, the Kleptocrat Exposure Act, and the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act have all been the result of a focus by Commissioners and Commission staff on developing a bipartisan congressional response to the existential threat of global authoritarianism. We can no longer sit idly by, content that those who wish to do us harm are on the other side of the world. In this new age of autocracy, the threat is here—now—and it comes in the form of abusive Red Notices, dirty money, and bought-and-paid-for lawfare tactics The purpose of these tactics is to silence journalists and activists, hollow out the rule of law, and ensure that no one ever dare pursue this new class of transnational kleptocrats whose sole goal is the wholesale looting of the countries they claim to serve and the seamless transfer of those ill-gotten gains to our shores and those of our allies. 

  • 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    From September 16 to September 27, OSCE participating States will meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress. During the 2019 meeting, three specifically selected topics will each be the focus of a full-day discussion: “safety of journalists,” “hate crimes,” and “Roma and Sinti.” These special topics are chosen to highlight key areas for improvement in the OSCE region and promote discussion of pressing issues. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2019 Since the HDIM was established in 1998, the OSCE participating States have a standing agreement to hold an annual two-week meeting to review the participating States’ compliance with the human dimension commitments they have previously adopted by consensus. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as refugee migration and human trafficking), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (such as countering anti-Semitism and racism). Each year, the HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma and Sinti. Unique about the HDIM is the inclusion and strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a stout advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE structures allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. Members of the U.S. delegation to the 2019 HDIM include: Ambassador James S. Gilmore, U.S. Permanent Representative to the OSCE and Head of Delegation Christopher Robinson, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Roger D. Carstens, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Elan S. Carr, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Alex T. Johnson, Chief of Staff, U.S. Helsinki Commission

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Introduce Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act (H.R. 4330) in the House of Representatives. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the TRAP Act (S. 2483) in the Senate on Tuesday. The legislation addresses politically-motivated abuse of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) by autocracies. “Today’s autocrats don’t simply try to silence journalists, activists, and other independent voices at home. They also hunt them down in their places of refuge abroad,” said Chairman Hastings. “Such repressive regimes even manipulate INTERPOL—a legitimate and potent tool for international law enforcement cooperation—to trap their targets using trumped-up requests for detention and extradition. The United States must act to prevent this flagrant abuse and protect those who fight for freedom, human rights, and the rule of law." “Instead of facing consequences for their serial abuse of INTERPOL, autocratic states like Russia and China have instead jockeyed for senior positions in the organization,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “The United States and other democracies should impose real costs for this global assault on the rule of law. This legislation would ensure that the United States remains at the forefront of defending the vulnerable against the long arm of state repression.” “The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act continues the tradition of U.S. leadership in combating INTERPOL abuse, holding perpetrators accountable, and advancing necessary reforms within the U.S. Government and INTERPOL to respond to this threat,” said Rep. Wilson. “This legislation makes it clear that the United States stands on the side of freedom for those who defy repression, resist corruption, and defend human rights wherever they seek refuge and a voice.” “Autocratic regimes are increasingly exporting their repression overseas, including to our own country. The United States must respond more forcefully to these attacks against the rule of law and deter the serial abuse of INTERPOL by repressive governments,” said Sen. Cardin. “This legislation is critical to establishing stronger protections for dissidents and other independent voices whom these regimes wish to apprehend in the United States on politically motivated charges.” The Helsinki Commission regularly receives credible reports from political dissidents, human rights defenders, and members of the business community who are the subject of politically-motivated INTERPOL Notices and Diffusions requested by autocratic regimes. These mechanisms, which function effectively as extradition requests, can be based on trumped-up criminal charges and used to detain, harass, or otherwise persecute individuals for their activism or refusal to acquiesce to corrupt schemes. Following reports that U.S. immigration authorities have cited such politically-motivated INTERPOL requests to detain some individuals and consider removing them from the United States, the TRAP Act formally codifies strict limitations on how INTERPOL requests can be used by U.S. authorities. The TRAP Act further declares that it is the policy of the United States to pursue specific reforms within INTERPOL and use its diplomatic clout internationally to protect the rights of victims and denounce abusers. The bill requires the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State, in consultation with other relevant agencies, to provide Congress with an assessment of autocratic abuse of INTERPOL, what the United States is doing to counteract it, and how to adapt United States policy to this evolving autocratic practice. The State Department would also be required to publicly report on the abuse of INTERPOL in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights to create a transparent, public record of these violations of the rule of law. Russia is among the world’s most prolific abusers of INTERPOL’s Notice and Diffusion mechanisms. Other participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—principally Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—and other authoritarian states, such as China, also reportedly target political opponents with INTERPOL requests that violate key provisions of INTERPOL’s Constitution, which obligate the organization to uphold international human rights standards and strictly avoid involvement in politically-motivated charges. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commission members Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) are also original co-sponsors.

  • Simulating a Baltic Security Crisis

    By Brittany Amador, Intern On August 29, 2019, U.S. Helsinki Commission personnel, joined by Congressional staff from several relevant offices, participated in a simulated security crisis in the Baltic region centered on the U.S. and NATO response to a hypothetical act of Russian aggression. The event followed the Helsinki Commission’s historic field hearing on Baltic Sea regional security, where members of Congress convened senior Allied and partner leaders from Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the United States European Command (EUCOM) and the U.S. Mission to NATO, to better understand current and evolving security threats in the region.  Participants in the simulation. Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern, a former Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs and Deputy Chief of Mission to the U.S. Mission to NATO, led the simulation. Ambassador Heffern, who currently serves as a Distinguished Fellow of Diplomacy and Entrepreneurship at Georgetown University, was assisted in the facilitation of the game by Andrew Carroll, an officer with the United States Air Force who recently completed his Max Kampelman Policy Fellowship at the Helsinki Commission. 2d Lt Andrew Carroll describing the parameters of the simulation. During the three-hour event, attendees played the roles of various regional actors, and debated possible actions in response to realistic scenario inputs. Participants were provided immediate feedback on their strategic decisions, knowing in real time the impact of their simulated actions. The scenario underlined the challenges and opportunities inherent in any response to a security crisis in the Baltic Sea region. Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern explaining tactical movements.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Probe Autocratic Abuse of Interpol

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: TOOLS OF TRANSNATIONAL REPRESSION How Autocrats Punish Dissent Overseas Thursday, September 12, 2019 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission As modern technology has allowed political dissidents and human rights defenders to operate from almost anywhere on the planet, repressive regimes have searched for opportunities to reach those who threaten their rule from afar.  To silence dissent from abroad, autocrats often turn to the International Criminal Police Organization, known as INTERPOL, to file bogus criminal claims seeking the arrest and extradition of their political targets. This abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices and Diffusions enables autocratic governments to harass and intimidate their opponents thousands of miles away, even within free and democratic societies. The U.S. Helsinki Commission will convene an expert panel to highlight how autocrats today use INTERPOL and other means such as surveillance, abduction, and assassination to punish dissent overseas. Witnesses will suggest how the United States and other democratic nations can defend against these threats to the rule of law domestically and internationally. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Alexander Cooley, Director, Columbia University's Harriman Institute for the Study of Russia, Eurasia and Eastern Europe; Claire Tow Professor of Political Science, Barnard College Sandra A. Grossman, Partner, Grossman Young & Hammond, Immigration Law, LLC Bruno Min, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor, Fair Trials Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research, Freedom House Additional witnesses may be added.

  • House Majority Leader, Helsinki Commissioners Decry Efforts to Shutter Community Center in Hungary

    WASHINGTON—Following renewed efforts by authorities in Hungary to shutter the Aurora Community Center in Budapest, House Majority Leader Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (MD-05), Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) issued the following statements: “During my visit to Budapest earlier this summer, I saw firsthand the important resources Aurora provides to the community,” said Majority Leader Hoyer. “The latest attempt by Hungarian authorities to shut down Aurora speaks volumes about the country’s shrinking space for civil society. On the thinnest of pretexts, the rule of law in Hungary is being hijacked to serve one party's political interests.” “Aurora nurtures a vibrant community of civil society groups and has become a symbol of independent organizations in Hungary,” said Sen. Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. “Unfortunately, such activism is viewed as a threat by those in power, who—through constant legal harassment—are attempting to permanently close Aurora’s doors. Aurora and organizations like it should be protected, not targeted.” “In a time when those who spew hate and divisiveness seem to be ascendant, initiatives like Aurora that build inclusive societies and strengthen democracy are needed more than ever,” said Rep. Moore. “I was honored to visit the center and meet with its president, Adam Schonberger, with my colleagues earlier this year.” Majority Leader Hoyer, Sen. Cardin, and Rep. Moore visited the Aurora Community Center in Budapest in July, en route to the 2019 OSCE PA Annual Session in Luxembourg. Marom, a Hungarian Jewish association, established and runs Aurora Community Center, an umbrella organization that provides office space to other small civil society groups in Budapest, including the Roma Press Center, migrant aid, and Pride Parade organizers. Over the past two years, Hungarian authorities repeatedly have accused Marom of administrative violations ranging from mismatched dates on official documents to, most recently, lacking an appropriate agreement with the center’s landlord. Under the Orbán government, the conditions for independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Hungary have deteriorated. In 2014, armed police carried out raids on 13 civil society organizations, seizing computers and documents for alleged financial misconduct. No charges were ever brought against the NGOs.  In 2017, Hungary adopted a Russian-style "foreign agent" law which, according to the U.S. Department of State, “unfairly burdens a targeted group of Hungarian civil society organizations, many of which focus on fighting corruption and protecting human rights and civil liberties.” In 2018, Hungary passed a law establishing a 25 percent tax on organizations which engage in “propaganda activity that portrays immigration in a positive light.” It is a tax on government-disfavored speech.  Hungary also adopted amendments to its "law on aiding illegal migration" that makes handing out know-your-rights leaflets punishable by up to one year in prison.  Hungary will hold municipal elections on October 13.

  • A Push to Let the U.S. Charge Foreign Officials With Bribery

    One of the hallmarks of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act has been that it cannot be used against a foreign official who demands or takes a bribe for helping a company win a contract or retain business. A bill introduced in Congress this month seeks to change that. Called the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act, the legislation would expand the prohibition on bribery to foreign officials who demanded or solicited bribes. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act’s prohibition on paying bribes abroad is limited to companies in the United States and those acting in this country. It has always excluded the foreign official who takes the bribe, and courts over the years have reaffirmed that. In United States v. Castle, a 1991 decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that two Canadian officials could not be prosecuted for a conspiracy to violate the F.C.P.A. because Congress exempted foreign officials. In United States v. Hoskins, a 2018 ruling, the federal appeals court in Manhattan held that a foreign national who was never in the United States could not be prosecuted under the foreign bribery law because “Congress did not intend for persons outside of the statute’s carefully delimited categories to be subject to conspiracy or complicity liability.” The bill, which has both Democrats and Republicans as sponsors, would put the prohibition on a foreign official’s accepting a bribe under the federal anti-bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 201, rather than the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The proposal would also make it a crime for a foreign official “otherwise than as provided by law for the proper discharge of official duty” to demand or accept anything of value for being influenced in the performance of official responsibilities. But putting the prohibition under the federal anti-bribery statute would subject it to the limitations the Supreme Court placed on the law in its 2016 ruling in McDonnell v. United States. That case overturned the conviction of a former governor of Virginia by rejecting a broad reading of what is an “official act.” The justices explained that it must involve “a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit, administrative determination or hearing.” They found that “merely setting up a meeting, hosting an event or contacting an official — without more — does not count as an ‘official act.’” Favoring a business by arranging meetings or contacting other foreign officials to help it win a contract may not rise to the level of an “official act,” especially if the foreign official who received the bribe did not have the direct authority to decide who should be awarded a contract. So the potential limitations on the federal bribery statute could be read into prosecutions of foreign officials for accepting bribes that violated the F.C.P.A. The F.C.P.A. also contains two defenses that were added in 1988. One is the “local law” defense, which allows a defendant to show that under the written laws and regulations of the place where the bribe occurred that it was not illegal. Another defense permits small “facilitation payments” to obtain routine government action in the country. In both situations, a foreign official could argue that these defenses should preclude liability for accepting a payment. A greater potential issue for the Justice Department if the legislation becomes law is whether a foreign official will be brought to the United States to face a criminal charge. If the person is still in office, a foreign government may be reluctant to send the person to America. But a criminal indictment would most likely limit where the foreign official could travel. The person would need to avoid countries that have an extradition treaty with the United States. The Department of Justice has not been without tools to punish foreign officials who engage in bribery. The money-laundering statute allows a foreign official receiving money through bribery, misappropriation or theft of public funds to be charged with a crime. Federal prosecutors could also use the Travel Act, which prohibits traveling into the United States to engage in bribery. Both statutes, though, require either travel to the United States or a financial transaction using the United States financial system. The new legislation would make it much easier to pursue a foreign official. The Justice Department would not have to show a connection to the United States beyond a payment by an American company. Whether it would result in an increase in prosecutions is a different question. Still, simply charging the official could have the effect of identifying who was responsible in a country for accepting illegal bribes. That should make it easier for American companies and their employees to demand fairness from foreign officials rather than being extorted for payments.

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