A Call to OSCE Commitments in Aftermath of Turkish ReferendumThursday, May 04, 2017
Mr. President, I rise today to express my concerns about the outcome of the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey, when more than 50 million Turkish citizens voted on constitutional amendments to convert Turkey’s parliamentary government into a presidential system. Turkey is a longstanding friend of the United States and a NATO ally. Our bilateral partnership dates back to the Cold War when Turkey served as an important bulwark against the creeping influence of the Soviet Union. Time has not diminished Turkey’s geostrategic importance. Today, Ankara finds itself at the intersection of several critical challenges: the instability in Syria and Iraq, the threat of ISIS and other extremist groups, and the refugee crisis spawned by this regional upheaval. The United States relies on Turkey and other regional partners to help coordinate and strengthen our collective response. I was deeply troubled when renegade military units attempted to overthrow Turkey’s democratically elected government last July. Turkey’s strength is rooted in the democratic legitimacy of its government – a pillar of stability targeted by the reckless and criminal coup attempt. As Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or U.S. Helsinki Commission, I take very seriously the political commitments made by the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). These commitments – held by both the United States and Turkey – represent the foundation of security and cooperation in the OSCE region. They include an indispensable focus on human rights, rule of law, and democratic institutions. In the OSCE’s founding document, the Helsinki Final Act, participating States affirm “the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” and consider respect for these to be an “essential factor” for international peace and security. This vision is consistent with long-established U.S. foreign policy promoting human rights and democracy as cornerstones of a safer, more stable international order. With these principles in mind, the United States must pay urgent attention to the current situation in Turkey and the danger it poses to Turkish and regional stability. Eroding respect for fundamental freedoms, rule of law, and democratic institutions in Turkey has proceeded at an alarming pace. The government’s planned “executive presidency” will further decrease government accountability. Since the attempted coup more than nine months ago, Turkey has operated under a state of emergency that gives the government sweeping authority to curtail rights and silence opponents. Certain extraordinary measures may have been justified in the immediate aftermath to restore order, investigate events, and bring perpetrators to justice, but the government’s actions have stretched far beyond these legitimate aims. The ongoing purge has touched every institution of government, sector of society, corner of the country, and shade of opposition – military or civilian, Turk or Kurd, religious or secular, nationalist or leftist, political or non-political. An atmosphere of fear and uncertainty has settled over Turkish society as more than 100,000 people have been detained or arrested. Tens of thousands have been fired from their jobs, had their professional licenses revoked, and had their names released on public lists without any recognizable due process. The government removed and replaced thousands of judges and prosecutors within hours of the coup’s defeat, compromising the independence of the judiciary at a moment when an impartial justice system had become more important than ever. The government has also closed more than 150 media outlets. Upwards of 80 journalists are behind bars. The offices of the country’s oldest newspaper were raided, and the paper’s editor-in-chief and other staff were arrested. The media environment was already under extraordinary pressure before the coup. Last spring, the government seized control of the country’s highest-circulation paper. Self-censorship is now widely practiced to avoid provoking the government’s ire. Additionally, state of emergency decrees have given regional governors the ability to curtail freedom of assembly rights, harming the ability of civil society organizations to organize rallies concerning the referendum. Since July, the government has detained more than a dozen opposition parliamentarians. Many more continue to face criminal charges for political statements they made before the coup attempt. It is difficult to overstate the chilling effect these measures have had on political debate in Turkey. And yet, these are the circumstances under which Turks voted on April 16. These major constitutional changes passed with a slim majority of 51 percent. The OSCE’s international observation mission stated in its preliminary conclusions that the vote “took place on an unlevel playing field” and that “fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed.” Under the revised constitution, the once largely ceremonial position of president will convert into an “executive presidency” and the position of prime minister will be abolished. The president will be elected along with the national assembly every five years and has the ability to dissolve the assembly and call new elections at will. The president will also appoint a larger proportion — nearly half — of the country’s supreme judicial council. In a report on these new constitutional provisions, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe concluded that the amendments are a “step backwards” and pose “dangers of degeneration … towards an authoritarian and personal regime.” Turkey is undergoing a disturbing transformation, and I am concerned these changes could undermine the strength of our partnership. President Erdogan’s government has dramatically repressed dissent, purged opponents from every sector of government and society, and is now poised to consolidate power further under his self-described “executive presidency.” In the short term, the Turkish government should act swiftly and transparently to investigate credible claims of voting irregularities in the referendum as well as the legality of a surprise electoral board decision to admit an unknown number of ballots that should be deemed invalid under existing rules. Public trust in the outcome of such a consequential vote is of utmost importance. Sadly, until now, the government has responded to these challenges with dismissiveness and suppression. In the past week, dozens of activists have been detained for participating in protests against the election results. Furthermore, the government should lift the state of emergency, stop all forms of repression against the free press, release all imprisoned journalists and political activists, and urgently restore public confidence in the judiciary. Only then can it credibly and independently adjudicate the tens of thousands of cases caught up in the government’s months-long dragnet operations. A country where disagreements are suppressed rather than debated is less secure. A country where institutions are subordinated to personalities is less stable. A country where criticism is conflated with sedition is less democratic. Unless President Erdogan moves urgently to reverse these trends, I fear our partnership will inevitably become more transactional and less strategic. It will become more difficult to justify long-term investment in our relationship with Turkey if the future of the country becomes synonymous with the fortunes of one party or one individual. The United States and Turkey need a solid foundation for enduring cooperation to tackle regional instability, terrorism, migration, and other challenges. The future of this partnership is difficult to imagine in the midst of a prolonged state of emergency, wide-scale purges, and weakened democratic institutions.
Turkey Post-Referendum: Institutions and Human RightsTuesday, May 02, 2017
Human rights abuses by the Turkish government have proliferated under the state-sanctioned emergency measures imposed in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup attempt. Turkish authorities have fired as many as 130,000 public workers, including teachers, academics, police officers, and soldiers, and thousands have been arrested. Hundreds of journalists have had their credentials revoked and dozens of media outlets have been shut down. Human rights groups have documented widespread reports of intimidation, ill-treatment and torture of those in police custody. On April 16, 2017, Turkey held a referendum on a package of amendments that transforms the country’s institutions in major ways. The position of prime minister was eliminated and the executive powers of the president were expanded, enabling him to appoint ministers without parliamentary approval, exert more influence over the judiciary, and call early elections. Coming on top of the post-coup crackdown, how will Turkey’s changing institutions affect human rights in the country? Panelists at the briefing discussed how U.S. policymakers can most effectively encourage the protection of human rights to promote the interests of the Turkish people given the strategic importance of the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship.
Helsinki Commission Calls for Proclamation Recognizing Importance of Helsinki Final ActWednesday, April 26, 2017
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced a bipartisan Senate resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act – the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – and its relevance to American national security. The resolution was cosponsored by all other Senators currently serving on the Helsinki Commission: Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. John Boozman (AR), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. Tom Udall (NM), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI). “Peace and prosperity in the OSCE region rest on a respect for human rights and the preservation of fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and economic liberty. Unfortunately, the commitment to these ideals by some OSCE participating States is eroding,” Chairman Wicker said. “The shrinking space for civil society in many nations has become reminiscent of the Communist era – a time when many Helsinki Monitoring Groups were violently persecuted for their courageous support of basic human rights,” he continued. “With its actions in Ukraine and Georgia, the Russian Federation in particular has demonstrated how closely such internal repression can be tied to external aggression. We were reminded of these abuses in this morning’s Helsinki Commission hearing. I urge the President to make it clear that Helsinki principles are vital not only to American national interests but also to the security of the OSCE region as a whole.” “What was remarkable about the Helsinki Final Act was the commitment that these standards we agreed to would not only be of internal interest to the member country, but that any country signatory to the Helsinki Final Act could challenge the actions of any other country,” said Ranking Commissioner Cardin, who is also Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We have not only the right but the responsibility to call out countries that fail to adhere to the basic principles that were agreed to in 1975.” Defining security in a uniquely comprehensive manner, the Helsinki Final Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, among them respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief (Principle VII). Other principles include respect for sovereign equality (Principle I), the territorial integrity of states (Principle IV), and states’ fulfilment in good faith of their obligations under international law (Principle X). S.Con.Res.13 encourages President Trump to reaffirm America’s commitment to the principles and implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. The resolution also calls on the President to urge other participating States to respect their OSCE commitments and to condemn the Russian Federation's clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of all 10 core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act.
Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in SightWednesday, April 26, 2017
The U.S Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Wednesday on “Democracy and Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight.” It was the first hearing in the 115th Congress focused on internal human rights repression in Russia. Vladimir Kara-Murza, vice-chairman of pro-reform movement Open Russia; Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President of Freedom House, testified about the crisis of Russian democracy and the country’s worsening human rights record under President Vladimir Putin. In his opening statement, Mr. Kara-Murza underscored the necessity for the OSCE participating States to give an honest assessment about what is happening in Russia, where the number of political prisoners now exceeds a hundred people (a number that has doubled in less than a year). Mr. Kara-Murza, a vocal critic of the Kremlin who has survived two poisoning attempts, estimated that more than 30 activists have been murdered by the Putin regime since Vladimir Putin assumed power in 2000. He also called for an end to impunity for human rights violations in Russia. “The U.S. does have a mechanism for such accountability in the Magnitsky Act that provides for targeted sanctions on human rights abusers. This law should continue to be implemented to its full extent,” Mr. Kara-Murza said. His concerns were echoed by Human Rights Watch’s Rachel Denber, who noted that today, “Russia is more repressive that it has ever been in the post-Soviet era.” At Chairman Wicker’s request, Ms. Denber provided detailed information about each of the Russian political prisoners who were featured on posters in the room, and also spoke at length about the repression of gay men in Chechnya. Dr. Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House highlighted the fact that Mr. Putin was the primary author of the modern authoritarian’s playbook, which has subsequently been replicated by many autocratic rulers in the region. “His methods for suppressing civil society and political opposition have inspired other dictators, and his media manipulation has impacted most of Eurasia directly and extended to Europe and the United States,” Dr. Calingaert said. However, despite the grim situation, Mr. Kara-Murza voiced some optimism about the future. “Increasingly, the young generation in Russia – the very generation that grew up under Vladimir Putin – is demanding respect and accountability from those in power,” he said. Mr. Kara-Murza pointed to a wave of anti-corruption demonstrations that took place in dozens of cities across Russia in late March, with tens of thousands of people, mostly young protesters, taking out to the streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Dimitriy Medvedev. “This movement will continue. And these growing demands for accountability are the best guarantee that Russia will one day become a country where citizens can exercise the rights and freedoms to which they are entitled,” he added.
First Person: Election Observation in ArmeniaThursday, April 13, 2017
By Everett Price, Policy Advisor As the Helsinki Commission’s policy advisor for Armenia, I participated in the election observation mission (EOM) to Armenia organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from March 31 to April 3, 2017. On April 2, the Republic of Armenia held its first parliamentary election since approving constitutional amendments in a popular referendum in 2015 that transition the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. The election was also significant as the first nation-wide vote held under sweeping 2016 revisions to the country’s electoral code that implemented a new process for allocating legislative seats, improved transparency, mandated advanced voter authentication measures, and increased female and minority representation quotas. I was one of a 63-member delegation of parliamentarians and staff deployed by the OSCE PA to serve as short-term observers to the Armenian election. This parliamentary delegation complemented the work of a team of 14 experts, 28 long-term observers, and over 300 short-term observers sent throughout the capital and across the country by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Representatives from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament (EP) also participated. The OSCE PA and ODIHR regularly lead EOMs in the OSCE region at the invitation of the host country. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) In the days before the vote, our OSCE PA observation team received extensive briefings on the election process and current political dynamics from ODIHR experts and from Armenian government officials, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. These briefings focused on allegations of electoral violations, the complexity of the electoral code, the role of international and local observers, and the tenor of the campaign. We heard a “unified message of concern” from civil society representatives. Citizen activists, journalists, and opposition members told us that the ruling party would abuse its access to administrative resources to get out the vote and that it, and other parties, would engage in voter intimidation and vote buying. They warned that while new electoral procedures might mitigate concerns about the casting and counting ballots, the ruling party and powerful oligarchs would wield improper influence outside the voting booth, diminishing the fairness of the vote. One political commentator assessed that the difficult economic situation experienced by many voters during this election season would make them especially susceptible to selling their vote. Briefers also discussed the complexity of Armenia’s new electoral code and the extent to which it would address past electoral violations. Significantly, this was Armenia’s first time employing electronic voter identification, multiple ballots, and a partial open list voting system that allows voters to express their preference for specific candidates. The code incorporated many recommendations from Armenian civil society, ODIHR, and other international experts and was generally assessed as a positive step forward. Concerns remained, however, about the complexity of voting procedures, voter registration policy, relatively weak campaign finance transparency provisions, and restrictions on citizen observer participation, among other issues. Civil society activists specifically raised concerns about the overall number of citizen observers and the rules governing their access to polling stations. Armenia registered over 28,000 citizen observers in a country of less than 3 million people, prompting concerns about overcrowding at polling stations and questions about the origins of the organizations and individuals behind these observation missions. One civil society representative said that only 600 of the citizen observers were from known NGOs and that many of the rest are likely from NGOs established by political parties. Some worried that the large number of citizen observers was meant to suppress the participation of legitimate groups since the electoral code stipulates that a maximum of 15 citizen observers are allowed in a polling station at one time. Ruling party officials, meanwhile, noted that hundreds of citizen observers were foreigners registered under local NGOs. They intimated that these observers could be a vehicle for unwelcome foreign influence. One media representative characterized the content of the campaign as “the most primitive” in recent memory, while another political commentator lamented the “poverty of ideas” and “competition of personalities” on display. Several members of the media and some political party officials regretted that lack of any televised debate among candidates—only three of the nine parties and political coalitions on the ballot were willing to hold such a debate. What’s more, several journalists noted that many parties actively avoided the press and restricted most of their candidates from interacting with the media. Before dawn on election day, two other observers and I deployed to our first assigned polling station to watch the opening procedures. At a school in downtown Yerevan, I watched as the precinct chairwoman capably organized the precinct committee that worked together to prepare the space and voting materials for the arrival of the day’s first voters. The importance of orderliness at this particular polling station became evident within the hour when presidential security arrived to prepare for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to cast his vote there. Despite this exceptional circumstance, in other ways the experience at this polling station typified the voting I observed elsewhere throughout the day. I saw non-credentialed citizens hovering watchfully—and in violation of the electoral code—outside the polling station and engaging voters—likely local party officials keeping tabs on voter participation. Inside the polling place there was some overcrowding, a malfunctioning electronic voter authentication device, and modest voter confusion about the voting procedure, which involved selecting among nine separate ballots and optionally marking a candidate preference on the reverse side. I visited a total of seven polling places that day, stretching from downtown Yerevan to the shores of Lake Sevan and the surrounding hinterland 60km northeast of the capital. In larger precincts I witnessed large contingents of party proxies and citizen observers monitoring the vote. In several instances, citizen observers credentialed under the name of a local NGO turned out to be from foreign countries and were unable to explain to me the mission of their organization, highlighting the opaque origins of some citizen observation efforts. In most precincts I saw a mix of credentialed and non-credentialed individuals from political parties and local NGOs mingling inside and outside the polling station, engaging voters, and generally making their presence felt. Our day ended in Yerevan where we observed the closure procedure at a polling place where about 700 votes had been cast. The precinct chairwoman carefully walked the precinct committee through the process step by step, openly acknowledging to us the difficulty of carrying out the complex procedure for the first time. The tallying took place transparently in front of us and in full view of several local observers and party proxies that stayed late into the night to oversee the count. We had the opportunity, along with our fellow observers, to ask questions of the precinct chairwoman about how she and her team were adjudicating individual ballots and counting votes. Although my observations here are anecdotal, they are consistent with the preliminary findings and conclusions of the international election observation mission that the elections “were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected” although the vote was “tainted by credible information about vote-buying and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.” The end result was a vote that suffered from “an overall lack of public confidence and trust.” (Read the full Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions.) While Armenia’s democracy took some important strides in the procedural conduct of this election, much work remains to be done. With the vote tallying complete, Armenia now embarks on a critical period of transition to a parliamentary system that will be fully realized at the end of the President’s final term in April 2018. All political actors, but particularly the new governing coalition, must shoulder their responsibilities to ensure that this new system of governance earns the trust of the public it serves. To build this trust, Armenia would benefit from a process of political evolution that accompanies its institutional transition and procedural reforms. Specifically, Armenia’s political parties and new parliament would do well to ensure a competition of ideas replaces the all too common clashes of personalities and patronage networks on display during this election.
Helsinki Commission Leaders to Azerbaijan: Release All Political PrisonersMonday, March 20, 2017
WASHINGTON—On the traditional holiday of Nowruz, Helsinki Commission leaders called on the Azerbaijani government to immediately release all remaining political prisoners and honor its OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. “It is disappointing that President Aliyev released only a small number of political prisoners among several hundred pardons he issued prior to Nowruz,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). “OSCE participating States commit to respecting freedom of expression, including the freedom to exchange information and views without interference from public authorities. The Government of Azerbaijan should uphold this commitment by releasing opposition figures, civil rights activists, journalists, and religious leaders who are currently in jail for peacefully exercising their rights. This is particularly true in the case of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, who recently entered his fifth year in prison on politically-motivated charges.” “President Aliyev’s pardons left dozens of human rights activists, journalists, and political dissidents languishing in prison and subject to mistreatment,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “I call on President Aliyev to respect human rights and democracy in his country and immediately release all prisoners of conscience.” In 2016, the Government of Azerbaijan pardoned 148 inmates in the days leading up to Nowruz, including more than a dozen people identified as political prisoners by leading human rights organizations. This year, the Government issued pardons to more than 400 prisoners, but only four political prisoners were freed.
Helsinki Commission Chairman Wicker Comments on Poisoning of Pro-Democracy Russian Activist, Fighting in UkraineWednesday, February 08, 2017
WASHINGTON–Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today issued the following statement regarding the recent acts of aggression perpetrated by the Russian government: “In today’s Russia, there is a disturbing trend of violence that targets members of the political opposition. I am particularly concerned about Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is fighting for his life in a Moscow hospital after being poisoned. Mr. Kara-Murza has appeared at multiple Helsinki Commission events and is a tireless advocate for restoring democratic freedoms to the Russian people. The United States should have no illusions about the nature of the Russian regime. “Meanwhile, fighting in eastern Ukraine continues to spread. Last week, the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine reported the heaviest fighting since combined Russian-separatist forces captured Debaltseve in January 2015. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has repeatedly condemned Russia’s ‘clear, gross, and uncorrected’ violations of OSCE principles with respect to Ukraine. “I stand with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in condemning the escalation of violence. Russia should respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Vladimir Kara-Murza has a longstanding relationship with the Helsinki Commission. He first appeared at a Helsinki Commission briefing in 2011. He testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing on Russia in 2015 and briefed Commission staff before the 2016 Russian parliamentary elections.
Smith Denounces Azerbaijan Law Criminalizing Online ‘Insults’ To PresidentTuesday, December 06, 2016
WASHINGTON—Following the amendment of Azerbaijan's criminal code last week, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) made the following statement: “Make no mistake, anyone imprisoned under the new provisions of Azerbaijan’s criminal code – which make online ‘insults’ of the president a punishable offense – will be a political prisoner. These new provisions clearly violate international human rights standards and Azerbaijan’s OSCE commitments. I urge the government of Azerbaijan to repeal these provisions and to release political prisoners, including Ilgar Mammadov, Seymur Haziyev, and Abdul Abilov, who have been wrongly jailed for criticizing the government.” Chairman Smith is the sponsor of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.
Smith: Azerbaijan Referendum Lacks LegitimacyTuesday, September 27, 2016
WASHINGTON—Following today’s announcement of the results of the constitutional referendum in Azerbaijan, in which the government reported 91 percent approval of sweeping constitutional changes, including extending the presidential term and increasing the president’s powers, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statement: “It is clear that the package of constitutional changes put to a vote yesterday is designed to degrade checks on the power of the president. Regardless of the final tally, this referendum is the culmination of a process that lacks legitimacy. The Azerbaijani government rushed these significant changes to a vote while depriving the Azerbaijani people of their fundamental rights necessary to freely debate the matters under consideration. For weeks, political activists and journalists have withstood rounds of detention and harassment by the government, part of an effort to suppress the voices of those who oppose the government’s planned changes. Only a year ago, Azerbaijan blocked OSCE election observation of its parliamentary elections, illustrating Baku’s unwillingness to allow its citizens to cast ballots consistent with its OSCE commitments. I remain deeply concerned that this illegitimate process will further delay the democratic future Azerbaijanis desire and deserve. I renew my call for the Government of Azerbaijan to release all prisoners of conscience and drop charges and travel bans against them and their colleagues in civil society serving suspended sentences.” On September 8, Chairman Smith and other Members of Congress wrote an open letter to President Aliyev about the content of the Azerbaijani government's proposed amendments. In December 2015, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, a bill that would deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government until such a time that Azerbaijan makes substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.
Moldova at a CrossroadsThursday, September 22, 2016
Twenty-five years after its independence, Moldova is at a crossroads as it prepares for presidential elections scheduled for October 30. While it seeks to overcome significant internal challenges, the country is also squarely in the crosshairs of Russian destabilization efforts intended to maintain Moscow’s influence and strike at the foundation of Moldovan democracy. The experts at this briefing offered valuable insight on the significant internal and external challenges Moldova faces as it approaches presidential elections in October 2016. The speakers addressed continued threats to Moldovan territorial integrity and sovereignty; hostile Russian actions including disinformation campaigns, an economic blockade, and threatening rhetoric; and the roles of the Moldovan government and external actors, including the OSCE, in addressing Moldovan vulnerabilities. Commissioner Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) opened the briefing with a statement on Moldova and the Transnistrian conflict, as he has been deeply interested and engaged in Moldova throughout his career. Witnesses Ambassador William Hill and Matthew Rojansky then discussed Moldova's internal and external challenges in greater depth. As a veteran diplomat in Moldova and the region, Ambassador William Hill assigned an absence of rule of law as Moldova’s central challenge. Mr. Rojansky, a renowned scholar on this subject, offered historical perspective on Russia’s objectives in maintaining instability in neighboring countries like Moldova. Before beginning audience Q&A, the event also welcomed comments from Tatiana Solomon, Chargé d’Affaires ad interim of the Moldovan Embassy, who thanked the witnesses and the Helsinki Commission for engagement on the issues discussed. All participants encouraged U.S. support for Moldova and the region as it works towards a stable, democratic, and prosperous future.
Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Referendum Creates Crisis of LegitimacyThursday, September 15, 2016
WASHINGTON—In a recent letter to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) expressed deep concern about the country’s September 26 constitutional referendum, which proposes changes that would undermine Azerbaijan’s international obligations to protect democracy. The bipartisan letter urging President Aliyev to reconsider holding the referendum and to live up to his government’s commitment to human rights was also signed by Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Adam Schiff (CA-28). “By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people,” the Members of Congress wrote. “We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability.” Proposed changes to Azerbaijan’s constitution include extending the presidential term from five to seven years; removing the age limits for holding elected office; providing immunity for vice presidents; allowing the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections; and reorganizing the presidential line of succession. The Government of Azerbaijan has already faced international criticism for its crackdown on journalists, activists, opposition politicians, and members of religious minorities. The referendum would further restrict fundamental freedoms by placing limits on freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” “The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy,” the letter read. “Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable.” In December 2015, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, a bill that would deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government until such a time that Azerbaijan makes substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections. The full text of the letter is below. September 8, 2016 His Excellency Ilham Aliyev President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Presidential Palace Istiglaliyyat Street 19 Baku, AZ 1066 Dear President Aliyev, We write to you to express our deep concern regarding Azerbaijan’s upcoming constitutional referendum on September 26, 2016. We believe that the proposed changes to the constitution and the means for adopting them will undermine your government’s international obligations to protect democracy and human rights. By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people. We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability. Shortly following independence, the Government of Azerbaijan in 1992 joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) thereby expressing its commitment to the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms as one of the basic purposes of government. We regret that in the years hence Azerbaijan's human rights record fails to reflect this commitment. Time and again, the credibility of Azerbaijani elections has been marred by credible reports of ballot stuffing and irregularities with vote counting, as well as limitations on freedom of expression and freedom of association. These troubling precedents motivate our concern about the upcoming referendum. If successful, the vote would change the constitution to extend the presidential term from five to seven years, remove the age limits for holding elected office, provide immunity for vice presidents, allow the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections, as well as reorganize the presidential line of succession. Additionally, it would subject fundamental rights to vaguely worded restrictions, circumscribing freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” We are deeply concerned that Azerbaijani voters are being asked to consider such consequential changes to Azerbaijan’s constitutional framework in a climate that makes free debate all but impossible. In recent days, it has been reliably reported that a number of political activists campaigning against the referendum and several journalists have been detained on trumped-up charges and some have faced mistreatment and torture at the hands of authorities. Even before the latest round of arrests and intimidation, half a dozen journalists were already in jail, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has remained closed since December 2014, and other independent journalists and media outlets faced official harassment. The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy. Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable. We urge you to reconsider this constitutional referendum and to re-invigorate your government’s flagging commitment to promote the freedom and dignity of its people by ceasing all harassment and proceedings that target political activists and journalists who peacefully express their visions for Azerbaijan. We are inspired by the example of these brave voices and hope that your government will recognize that Azerbaijan’s strength and stability derives from the liberty of its people. Sincerely, Christopher H. Smith Member of Congress Joseph R. Pitts Member of Congress Adam B. Schiff Member of Congress
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It’s Time for the United States to Act on AzerbaijanThursday, September 08, 2016
David J. Kramer is senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Richard Kauzlarich is an adjunct professor at George Mason University and former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Earlier this year, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan looked like he was softening his authoritarian grip on his country. In March, he released 14 political prisoners ahead of his visit to Washington for President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit. Even the harsh anti-American rhetoric from Azerbaijani officials and regime media seemed to subside. While in Washington, Aliyev had sit-downs with Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John F. Kerry. But since the April summit, Aliyev’s regime has intensified its crackdowns on freedoms. Azerbaijan’s rapid, dangerous deterioration demands more decisive action from the United States, yet the Obama administration has remained largely silent. The government in Baku has increased its arrests and detentions of another dozen opposition figures, peaceful religious believers and civil society activists. Nearly 100 political prisoners are languishing in the country’s jails. Azerbaijani writer Akram Aylisli was detained at the national airport and prevented from leaving the country. Faig Amirli, financial director of Azadliq newspaper and assistant to the chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, was arrested last month. Other opposition politicians arrested in August include Natiq Jafarli, executive secretary of the REAL movement, and NIDA civic movement activist Elgiz Qahraman. The situation on the ground may get even worse. On Sept. 26, Aliyev’s regime plans to force a referendum which aims to enhance his powers. The result of the referendum is already known; we can be sure that the government will ensure its approval. That means that Aliyev can extend his term from five to seven years, create new positions of vice president (to which he might name a member of his family) and lower the age for members of parliament — opening the door for his son Heydar to be elected. It would not be a surprise if elections were called early under the new constitution to ratify these authoritarian steps. Quiet diplomacy, we are told, is the only way to protect American interests in Azerbaijan. Along with its strategic location on the Caspian Sea between Russia and Iran, the country of 8 million is rich in oil and gas resources, and plays a role as a national security ally to the United States. No American interests are served if Azerbaijan’s increasing authoritarianism explodes into a political and social crisis. Moreover, Azerbaijan is following in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin’s media tactics in Russia by increasingly painting the United States as the enemy. An editorial in the state-approved media outlet, Haqqin, accused the United States of “losing” Azerbaijan, “driving it into a corner” and “neglecting a valuable partnership” with Baku. The editorial warned that Azerbaijan will be left with no option but to establish closer relations with its immediate neighbors, Iran and Russia. Aliyev’s supporters have pointed to the failed Turkey coup and have accused the United States of supporting opposition forces not only to spoil the upcoming referendum — but to plot a coup in Azerbaijan. Aside from legislation introduced by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) last December and the cries of activists and human rights groups, Azerbaijan has received a free pass from the Obama administration. Rarely do either the U.S. Embassy in Baku or the State Department in Washington speak out against human rights abuses. Even the 2014 raid on U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the arrest of one of its journalists, Khadija Ismayilova, triggered a mild response from Washington. Ismayilova was released from prison earlier this year but has been refused permission to travel outside the country. RFE/RL is still barred from operating in Azerbaijan, as are most American nongovernmental organizations. In the past, we have called for sanctions — asset freezes and visa bans — against Azerbaijani officials involved in and responsible for gross human rights abuses, similar to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act for Russia. President Obama doesn’t need new legislation to take such measures; he can do so under existing presidential authorities. Beyond that, we should withhold U.S. support for International Monetary Fund and World Bank assistance should Azerbaijan request it amid its deteriorating economic situation and end Overseas Private Investment Corporation and Export-Import Bank lending to Azerbaijan. The United States should consider recalling our ambassador for extended consultations over human rights concerns as well as the rising anti-American rhetoric of Azerbaijan officials and government-sanctioned media. We also need to get the Europeans on board with similar measures. These steps should be taken unless and until all the political prisoners are released and the referendum enhancing Aliyev’s powers is voided. Letting Azerbaijan follow through on its threat to form closer ties with Moscow and Tehran without balance from the United States may be a necessary, albeit unpleasant, learning experience for the regime in Baku. The problem in Azerbaijan is not that Aliyev has too little power; it is that he exercises the power he has in the wrong ways against innocent people. America’s silence as the situation on the ground worsens risks making us accomplices to a looming human rights disaster in Azerbaijan.
U.S. Delegation to OSCE PA Drives International Action against Human Trafficking, Discrimination, and Anti-SemitismFriday, July 08, 2016
WASHINGTON—Seven members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Annual Session in Tbilisi, Georgia last week to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act, including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. At the Annual Session, which brought together nearly 300 parliamentarians from 54 of the 57 OSCE participating States, the U.S. lawmakers introduced several successful resolutions and amendments targeting current challenges facing the OSCE region, ranging from human trafficking to discrimination and anti-Semitism to the abuse of Interpol mechanisms to target political opponents and activists. The delegation included Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Commissioner Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Commissioner Rep. Randy Hultgren (IL-14), Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (PA-08), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. David Schweikert (AZ-06). Rep. Aderholt currently serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, while Sen. Wicker was re-elected to a third term as chair of the OSCE PA Committee on Political Affairs and Security, also known as the First Committee, during the annual meeting. Chairman Smith led international lawmakers in battling international human trafficking and child sex tourism through a successful resolution calling on all OSCE participating States to raise awareness of sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT), especially by convicted pedophiles, business travelers, and tourists. Chairman Smith, who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues, also hosted a July 3 briefing on U.S. efforts to prevent SECTT through a new international reciprocal notification system – known as International Megan’s Law – that facilitates timely communications among law enforcement agencies. A second U.S. resolution, authored by OSCE PA Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance and Helsinki Commission Ranking Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), called for action against the anti-Semitic and racist violence sweeping across North America and Europe. The resolution, which passed overwhelmingly, urged members of the OSCE to develop a plan of action to implement its long-standing body of tolerance and non-discrimination agreements, called for international efforts to address racial profiling, and offered support for increased efforts by political leaders to stem the tide of hate across the region. The resolution was fielded by Commissioner Hultgren. Chairman Smith also called on participating States to more effectively prevent and combat violence against European Jewish communities through the introduction of two amendments to the resolution of the OSCE PA General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions (also known as the Third Committee). His first amendment called for the explicit recognition of the increase in anti-Semitic attacks in the region, while the second encouraged participating States to formally recognize and partner with Jewish community groups. Responding the abuse of Interpol systems for politically motivated harassment by Russia and other members of the OSCE, Co-Chairman Wicker authored a successful amendment to the First Committee resolution, which called on participating States to stop the inappropriate placement of Red Notices and encouraged Interpol to implement mechanisms preventing politically motivated abuse of its legitimate services. The amendment was fielded by Rep. Hudson. During the Annual Session, members of the delegation also offered strong support for important resolutions fielded by other countries, including one by Ukraine on human rights in illegally occupied Crimea and another on the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. They voted for a highly relevant resolution on combating corruption fielded by Sweden, and helped to defeat a Russian resolution attacking the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine in the context of combating neo-Nazism. U.S. delegates indicated their support for the work of attending Azerbaijani human rights activists, and met with attending members of the Israeli Knesset. While in Tbilisi, the group also met with several high-ranking Georgian officials, including Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili; Tedo Japaridze, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Parliament of Georgia; Mikheil Janelidze, Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs; and David Bakradze, Georgian Minister of European and Euro-Atlantic Integration.
Chairman Smith Leads International Legislators against Human Trafficking, Child Sex TourismMonday, July 04, 2016
WASHINGTON—The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly passed a resolution authored by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) against international human trafficking and child sex tourism. The resolution was passed at the 2016 annual session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and has an agenda-setting effect for the 57-member intergovernmental organization. Smith, who leads the U.S. Delegation to this year’s OSCE PA Annual Session, introduced a resolution calling on all OSCE participating States to work with the private sector and civil society to raise awareness of sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT), especially by convicted pedophiles, business travelers, and tourists. The resolution also urges all OSCE participating States to enact laws allowing them to prosecute their citizens and legal permanent residents for child sexual exploitation committed abroad, and to strengthen international law enforcement cooperation to ensure that nations know about travel by convicted pedophiles prior to their arrival. “More children than ever before are being exploited – child sex tourism is soaring while protection lags,” said Chairman Smith. “We must work together to protect children from convicted pedophiles and opportunistic predators who exploit local children with impunity during their travels abroad. Prevention and prosecution should go hand in hand.” In addition to introducing the SECTT resolution, Chairman Smith hosted a July 3 briefing on U.S. efforts to prevent SECTT through a new international reciprocal notification system – known as International Megan’s Law – that facilitates timely communications among law enforcement agencies. “Child predators thrive on secrecy – a secrecy that allows them to commit heinous crimes against the weakest and most vulnerable,” said Chairman Smith. “Recent changes in the laws of the United States and partner countries are putting child predators on the radar when they travel internationally, but much remains to be done.” Chairman Smith has served as OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues since 2004. His efforts to raise the profile of the human trafficking problem in the OSCE region are reflected in the 2013 Addendum to the OSCE Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings, and have prompted other parliamentarians to take the lead in addressing human trafficking in their respective capitals. Chairman Smith first raised the issue of human trafficking at the 1999 St. Petersburg Annual Session, the first time it appeared on the OSCE agenda. Since then, he has introduced or cosponsored a supplementary item and/or amendments on trafficking at each annual session of the OSCE PA, including on issues such as sex tourism prevention, training of the transportation sector in victim identification and reporting, corporate responsibility for trafficking in supply chains, and special protections for vulnerable populations. In addition to authoring the 2016 International Megan’s Law to Prevent Child Exploitation and Other Sexual Crimes through Advanced Notification of Traveling Sex Offenders, he authored the landmark U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and its 2003 and 2005 reauthorizations. Chairman Smith co-chairs the United States Congressional Human Trafficking Caucus.
Chairman Smith Champions Improved Security for European Jewish Communities at Annual Meeting of OSCE ParliamentariansSunday, July 03, 2016
WASHINGTON—At the 2016 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Annual Session, meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia this week, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) today called on participating States to more effectively prevent and combat violence against European Jewish communities in the face of increasing anti-Semitic violence in the region. “Violent anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise in several European countries – and there is a lot more we can do to stop it,” said Chairman Smith, who led the U.S. delegation to the event. “European police and security forces should be partnering with Jewish community security groups, and the United States government should be working with the European governments to encourage this. The terrorist threat to European Jewish communities is more deadly than ever. We must act to prevent a repeat of the horrific massacres of Paris and Copenhagen.” Chairman Smith offered two amendments to the draft resolution of the OSCE PA General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions (also known as the Third Committee). His first amendment called for the explicit recognition of the increase in frequency, scope, and severity of anti-Semitic attacks in the OSCE region, while the second called on participating States to formally recognize and partner with Jewish community groups to strengthen crisis prevention, preparedness, mitigation, and responses related to anti-Semitic attacks. Both amendments reflect consultations with and requests from European Jewish communities. Chairman Smith has a long record as a leader in the fight against anti-Semitism. He co-chairs the Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism in the U.S. House of Representatives and authored the provisions of the U.S. Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004 that created the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism within the U.S. State Department. In 2015, he authored House Resolution 354, a blueprint for strengthening the safety and security of European Jewish communities. Following his landmark 2002 hearing on combating the escalation of anti-Semitic violence in Europe, “Escalating Anti-Semitic Violence in Europe,” he led a congressional drive to place the issue of combating anti-Semitism at the top of the OSCE agenda. As part of this effort he authored supplemental resolutions on combating anti-Semitism, which were adopted at the 2002, 2003, and 2004 Annual Sessions of the OSCE PA. In 2004 the OSCE adopted new norms for its participating States on fighting anti-Semitism. Chairman Smith is a founding member of the the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism (ICCA), where he also serves on the steering committee. In the 1990s, he chaired Congress’s first hearings on anti-Semitism and in the early 1980s, his first trips abroad as a member of Congress were to the former Soviet Union, where he fought for the release of Jewish “refuseniks.”
Helsinki Commission Leaders Welcome Release of Khadija IsmayilovaWednesday, May 25, 2016
WASHINGTON – Following today’s announcement that the Azerbaijani government has freed investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova from prison, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman of the Commission, issued the following statement: “We welcome the release of Khadija Ismayilova from her unjust imprisonment. However, we call on the Government of Azerbaijan to drop all charges against her and reopen the RFE/RL Baku bureau. “Khadija’s case is not the only one in which Azerbaijan has used its judicial system to punish those who have voiced independent opinions. Others, like opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov, remain jailed for their efforts to promote human rights, the rule of law, and democracy. We salute their courage and once again urge the Government of Azerbaijan to live up to its OSCE commitments, ending its repression of the political opposition, journalists, and religious minorities.” Chairman Smith convened a December 2015 hearing on the plight of Ismayilova and her fellow prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan. He is also the author of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections. Chairman Smith has also spoken out on multiple occasions on behalf of Ismayilova and other political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
On World Press Freedom Day, Helsinki Commission Chair Urges Azerbaijan: Free Khadija!Tuesday, May 03, 2016
WASHINGTON—On May 3, Chairman Rep. Chris Smith of the Helsinki Commission Issued the following statement: “Today marks World Press Freedom Day. Freedom of the media is an essential foundation for democracy and human rights every day of the year. Journalists play a critical role in ensuring free and fair elections, combating corruption, and holding governments accountable. In some OSCE countries, they do so at extraordinary personal risk. Let’s not forget Anna Politkovskaya or the many other Russian journalists murdered in the past fifteen years – whose killers have still not been brought to justice. Press freedom remains unknown in Russia. But today we remember above all Khadija Ismayilova, a fearless investigative journalist harassed and currently imprisoned by the government of Azerbaijan.” Anna Politkovskaya testified on human rights abuses in the Chechnya war before a hearing Rep. Smith chaired in 2003 – and was murdered in Moscow in 2006. In 2007 Chairman Smith authored H. Con. Res. 151 on Politkovskaya and other independent journalists killed in Russia since 2000, which passed the House by a vote of 388-1. Beginning in 2010 Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist in Azerbaijan, published hard-hitting investigative reports on corruption at the highest levels of the Azerbaijani government. In response, the Azerbaijani state security services tried to intimidate her. When that failed, in 2014, the government arrested her on trumped-up charges. “If the Government of Azerbaijan thought it could deflect attention from its abuses by locking up Khadija, they were sorely mistaken. In fact, Khadija’s continued imprisonment only serves as a constant reminder of the corruption she sought to expose. Her imprisonment is wrong and she should be released immediately." In December 2014 the Government of Azerbaijan arrested investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova on spurious charges and subsequently raided the offices of her employer, U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). After a lengthy trial that was widely condemned by the international community for numerous irregularities, in September Ms. Ismayilova was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison. Her appeal was denied on November 25, 2015, and the RFE/RL Baku Bureau has remained shuttered by the Government of Azerbaijan. The Helsinki Commission’s hearing on Azerbaijan’s Persecution of RFE/RL Reporter Khadijah Ismayilova can be found here. Her recent editorial in the Washington Post can be found here. Chairman Smith is the sponsor of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced on December 16, 2015, to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.
'Don't let Azerbaijan use political prisoners as props'Friday, April 01, 2016
The Washington Post Don’t let Azerbaijan use political prisoners as props By Khadija Ismayilova Khadija Ismayilova is an investigative journalist and contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service. She has been imprisoned in Azerbaijan since December 2014. I am writing this letter from jail in Baku, Azerbaijan, where I’m serving a 7½ -year sentence for a crime I never committed. I am a journalist and my only “crime” was to investigate high-level corruption within the government and family of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev . Aliyev inherited power from his father in 2003 and changed the constitution in 2009 so he could stay in power indefinitely. He has been called an enemy of the press by international watchdogs, while abusing other fundamental freedoms and violating people’s right to truth and decency. Aliyev is in Washington this week to attend the Nuclear Security Summit that began Thursday. To get an invitation to this event from President Obama, he had to pardon several political prisoners. A lthough they have been released from jail, they remain confined within the country, barred from leaving, and justice has not been restored. This is a very costly invitation for Aliyev, who for years refused to accept international pressure or criticism on this issue. His response was, always, that Azerbaijan doesn’t have political prisoners. In December, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act to recognize Azerbaijan’s violations of human rights and freedoms and to hold individual officials accountable. It must pass. But why were some of the political prisoners suddenly set free? What has changed? Aliyev needed these prisoners so that in exchange for their release, he could shake hands with Obama or get a loan from the World Bank to finance his failing currency and crippled economy after the sudden fall of oil prices. Aliyev is shamelessly trying to use political prisoners as bargaining chips to advance his foreign policy agenda. And they are supposed to be happy that they were freed. I am happy — very happy — that some political prisoners have been released. But their fights, and mine, are not over. I am not a toy to be exchanged for diplomatic gain by Baku or Washington so that officials can continue to pretend that it is business as usual. We are hostages of the regime, whether we are inside or outside of prison. Freedom is my universal and constitutional right, and Aliyev failed to protect it as the head of state. I am not going to ask to be pardoned for a crime I never committed. I am free even now, in jail, and my freedom is not for sale. So President Obama, please ask President Aliyev to stop muzzling the independent media and civil society. Ask him to explain the billions of petrodollars wasted on white-elephant projects for the benefit of a few. Ask him when he is going to hold free and fair elections. Ask him when he is going to let all the political prisoners go free. Ask him when fundamental freedoms can become a right, in practice — not a gift that he can give or take away. I asked these questions, and I ended up in jail. These are important questions. They must not go unanswered. And we will fight until justice is fully served.
Smith Responds to the Release of Political Prisoners by AzerbaijanThursday, March 17, 2016
WASHINGTON—In response to the release of 14 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, made the following statement: “I am relieved to know that these wrongly-held prisoners will be home with their families soon, but I remain concerned about the plight of the many other prisoners in Azerbaijan who are being held on politically-motivated charges. Anar Mammadli, the founder of an independent election monitoring group, was released, but he should have never been in prison. There are many others who should be released as well, such as Khadija Ismayilova, Intigram Aliyev, Ilgar Mammadov. I respectfully request President Aliyev to not only release all political prisoners, but also repeal the many undemocratic laws and regulations that prohibit the exercise of universally-recognized human rights in Azerbaijan.” Human rights organizations estimate there are approximately 100 political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Despite the release of 14 prisoners today, there continue to be new arrests of journalists, bloggers and others who voice opinions the government deems critical. Chairman Smith is the sponsor of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced on December 16, 2015, to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.
German Foreign Minister to Testify at Helsinki Commission HearingThursday, February 25, 2016
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Germany’s Chairmanship of the OSCE: Priorities and Challenges” March 1, 2016 2: 00 PM Cannon House Office Building Room 334 Live Webcast:www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Germany’s 2016 Chairmanship-in-Office of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – the world’s largest regional security body – comes at a turbulent time. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine continues to have serious ramifications on pan-European security; the refugee crisis has exposed cracks in the European approach to migration; and some question the OSCE’s relevance and role in twenty-first century Europe. Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, H.E. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, will discuss Germany’s plans to “renew dialogue, rebuild trust, and restore security” as it assumes the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office, including resolving the conflict in Ukraine; supporting negotiations in Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdniestra, and Georgia; renewing discussions on key European security agreements; counterterrorism and cybersecurity; and strengthening OSCE capacities.
On February 5, 2018, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan announced that the country’s presidential elections—originally scheduled for the fall—instead would be moved forward to April 11, 2018.
While some pro-government commentators offered more innocuous explanations for the move—such as aiming to avoid simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in 2025—many independent analysts saw it as a ploy to disadvantage the opposition. Since Azerbaijani law requires campaigning to cease 30 days prior to the vote, candidates had very little time to rally support. This constraint, among others, contributed to the mainstream opposition boycott of the election.
The vote was the first since Azerbaijan passed constitutional amendments in a widely criticized popular referendum in September 2016 that extended the president’s term from five to seven years. Having done away with term limits in another set of constitutional amendments in 2009, President Aliyev used the snap election to secure his position until 2025. The official tally gave Aliyev 86 percent of the vote—he has never won with less than 84 percent.
Since signing the founding document of the OSCE, the Helsinki Final Act, in 1992, no national vote in Azerbaijan has met the OSCE’s minimum requirements for a free and fair election. Nevertheless, consistent with its commitments as an OSCE participating State, Azerbaijan invited international observers to view the election. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) all scrambled to assemble a robust Election Observation Mission (EOM) in Azerbaijan under difficult time constraints.
Two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff members joined the OSCE PA EOM. The article below summarizes their experience in Azerbaijan.
By Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor
and Jordan Warlick, Office Director
Briefings Reveal Shortcomings in the Field of Candidates and Lack of Media Access
From the beginning, it was clear that the Government of Azerbaijan was paying lip service to established OSCE norms for holding elections without providing voters with the necessary conditions to make an informed choice free of coercion.
For example, prior to the vote, we and other short-term members of the OSCE PA and PACE observation missions met with representatives of the eight candidates who had been approved by Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission to run in the April 11 contest. During the 20-minute sessions with the candidates or their representatives, we heard almost nothing in the way of criticism of the sitting president, nor anything resembling a platform for running the country should they win.
During briefings the following day, members of opposition parties, as well as representatives of civil society and the media, pointed out the gulf of approximately 1.9 million Azerbaijanis entered on voter registration lists (5.3 million), and the number of Azerbaijanis known to be of voting age (7.2 million). Since voter registration is automatic—and all citizens who are 18 years of age by election day have the right to vote—his dramatic shortfall appeared to reflect the disenfranchisement of an astonishingly large number of Azerbaijani voters. In a separate briefing earlier, the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan addressed this concern by claiming that the voter registration lists were published on the Internet, providing a maximum level of transparency.
Civil society representatives were unanimous in their view that none of the “opposition” candidates running were real candidates. The best opposition leaders had either been imprisoned or were otherwise prevented from running, they explained.
Several parties that civil society groups considered to be legitimate were boycotting the elections. Among the reasons they offered for the boycott was the fact that there were no real opposition parties in Parliament, no media freedom in Azerbaijan, and many political prisoners.
One opposition group, the Musavat Party, claimed that “clone” parties—such as the “Modern” Musavat Party, headed by Hafiz Hajiyev—had been set up to mimic true opposition parties. Hajiyev seemed to confirm those suspicions on election day by revealing that he himself had voted for President Aliyev. He also reportedly expressed his hope that President Aliyev would return the favor by appointing him prime minister.
Both civil society groups and political parties raised concerns about the potential for election fraud, due to the dramatic increase in use of de-registration voter cards (DVCs), which allow a voter to come off the voter roll in one polling station and to vote in another. We were told that while only 30,000 DVCs had been used in the previous election, 150,000 had been printed for the election on April 11. The discrepancy left many suspicious that DVCs could be abused by allowing voters to vote multiple times in different polling stations.
Civil society representatives also were concerned about voter access to information, noting that restrictive laws and lack of funding made it nearly impossible to educate voters about their choices. They also found the lack of election commission reform frustrating, pointing out that both the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission provided explicit recommendations to the Azerbaijani government following previous elections. Finally, they stated that the government’s claim that 50,000 people had been registered as observers was misleading, since many of the registered observers were state employees and could not be fair and impartial observers.
A journalist briefing the observers also drew attention to the 10 Azerbaijani journalists currently in prison, saying that the regime had “made telling the truth in Azerbaijan illegal.”
Voting on April 11—Mostly by the Book
On election day, 350 international observers deployed across the country. Our team was assigned to the Khatai district in eastern Baku. We watched the opening of one polling station at 7:00 a.m., observed voting in 14 different polling stations throughout the day, and witnessed the counting process at another precinct once the polls closed at 7:00 p.m.
The Precinct Electoral Commissions (PECs) at all 16 locations were cooperative, and we could move freely around the polling stations to observe the entirety of the voting process. The chairwoman of the PEC where we observed the opening was willing to answer every question we had, often going into great detail.
While we were unrestricted in our ability to access polling sites, the spots in the polling stations reserved for observers were often poorly situated, being either in a corner out of direct sight of the registration tables, or in one case on another floor entirely.
One irregularity we consistently observed related to guaranteeing that each voter cast only one vote. Voters were supposed to have their left thumb coated in invisible ink once they were processed to vote, and all voters were to have their left thumbs checked before entering a polling station to ensure they had not voted elsewhere. One of the many problems with this method became obvious at the first polling station we visited, where the person checking voters’ thumbs was scanning the wrong hand.
Fellow OSCE PA observers noted that some voters showed up at the wrong polling station, where they had their thumbs sprayed in invisible ink. Once they were directed to the correct voting station, they were allowed to vote regardless of the invisible ink on their hands.
Citizen “Observers” in Name Only
During a pre-election briefing, the chair of the Central Electoral Commission proudly claimed that 57,313 Azerbaijanis had been registered as citizen observers—a large number in a country of only 9.7 million. The statistic presumably was intended to demonstrate that the elections would be both transparent and credible.
We soon noticed that few, if any, of these citizen observers paid attention to the voting. At almost every polling station, we found one or more observers who could not tell us what party they were representing. They often had to check their observer ID cards to before replying; when we then asked them which candidate from that party was running for president—information not available on their observer IDs—many were stumped.
The Polls Close—Let the Counting … and the Shenanigans … Begin
While the polls were open, election regulations appeared to be broadly respected. However, at the precinct where we observed the counting process, vote tallies were rushed and established procedures were not followed.
For example, voter registration lists were not checked to determine how many people voted in that location—a figure that should have been compared to the number of ballots in the ballot box. Unused ballots were counted and destroyed according to the established procedure, but none of this information was entered onto the protocol, the written record of votes that is supposed to be maintained throughout the vote-counting process.
Instead, poll workers opened the ballot boxes almost immediately after the unused ballots were destroyed. The ballots then were dumped onto a table in the middle of the room and quickly sorted into several piles.
We were allowed to approach and circle the table, and had good views of the ballots on every part of the table. Most—easily 80 percent to 90 percent of the ballots—ended up in one of several piles for President Aliyev. Of the non-Aliyev piles, the largest was for ballots which appeared to be spoiled.
One member of the PEC explained to us that although some ballots had several names marked, they would not necessarily be considered spoiled; instead, they would be discussed later. Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, that discussion never took place.
In just over an hour, the protocol was hastily composed and finalized. Under Azerbaijani law, copies should be made available to bona fide observers; however, election officials declined to provide us with a copy. We then asked if we could at least take a photo of the protocol, and were told that the precinct would have to obtain permission from higher authorities.
We were not the only international observers who noted problems with the counting process. About 50 percent of OSCE PA observers determined that the count was either “bad” or “very bad,” well above the OSCE norm of 17 percent.
In a press conference in Baku the day after the election, observers from the OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE PA, and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly announced that the presidential election in Azerbaijan took place “within a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections.”
“Against this backdrop and in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine competition,” they said.
The preliminary statement from the three groups noted that other candidates refrained from directly challenging or criticizing the incumbent, and that no distinction was made between his campaign and his official activities. Observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, a lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, including ballot box stuffing. More than half of the vote counts were assessed negatively, largely due to deliberate falsifications and an obvious disregard for procedures.
At the same time, observers noted that the authorities were cooperative and international observers were able to operate freely in the pre-election period, and the election administration was well resourced and prepared the election efficiently.
Announcing the conclusions, Portuguese parliamentarian Nilza de Sena said, “We have noted the positive attitude displayed by the national authorities of Azerbaijan towards international election observation, as well as the professional work of the Central Election Commission in the pre-election period. We stand ready to continue our co-operation and turn it into a joint effort to tackle the fundamental problems that a restrictive political and legal environment, which does not allow for genuine competition, poses for free elections.”
The beginning of de Sena’s statement was interrupted by a pro-government journalist who surged threateningly towards the speakers, shouting angrily that the report had been prepared in advance and that its findings were all lies. It was clear that the pro-government journalist intended on disrupting the conference to distract from the content of the findings. The press conference was suspended until the atmosphere calmed and the representatives from ODIHR, OSCE PA, and PACE could deliver their statement.
“A few weeks of campaigning during which candidates could present their views on television cannot make up for years during which restrictions on freedom of expression have stifled political debate,” said Margareta Kiener Nellen, Head of the Swiss delegation to the OSCE PA who led the 48-member OSCE PA delegation. “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will certainly continue to support all steps by the authorities that will bring the country forward on a path towards creating the open political environment necessary for truly free and fair elections.”