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Batyr Berdiev: Poems from Prison
Thursday, September 21, 2017

And when we leave our house, where all is so familiar –
The flower vase and the worn out carpet –
The shadow of our quiet hope will stay at home,
Reflected in the eyes of those who remember us.
And life will continue, as our life was once lived,
And, of course, other songs will be sung,
But human hearts, like soldiers of hope
Will again and again both suffer and dream.

                                                            —Batyr Berdiev

On September 15, the NGO campaign “Prove They Are Alive!” published a book of poems written by Turkmenistan’s former Foreign Minister and former Ambassador to the OSCE Batyr Berdiev, one of more than a hundred people who have disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prisons.

The poems appear to have been written between December 2002 and March 2003 and were smuggled out of prison, most likely in 2003. Most are dedicated to Berdiev’s wife and son; they speak of his love for them, of freedom, and of their life while he was serving as Ambassador to the OSCE in Vienna. The book was unveiled at a side event at the 2017 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, Poland, with the participation of Helsinki Commission staff.

Berdiev was arrested in December 2002 in connection with an alleged coup attempt against then-President Niyazov in November 2002. His “confession” was broadcast on Turkmen television later that month, and he was convicted in January 2003 in a closed trial and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment.

There are credible reports that he was tortured following his arrest. His relatives have had no information about his fate or whereabouts since, although there have been several conflicting reports of his death in Turkmenistan’s notoriously inhumane high-security Ovadan Depe prison.  The Helsinki Commission has continued to raise his case – along with others who have disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prisons – over the fifteen years since Berdiev’s arrest, in meetings with Turkmen officials, letters, and public briefings.

The “Prove They Are Alive” campaign has also published an updated list of persons who have disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prisons, which has now grown to 112. Some of the new additions include persons who were arrested only this year. Following the arrests of Berdiev and hundreds of others in the wake of the alleged 2002 coup attempt, the United States and nine other countries invoked the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, which triggered an international investigation and report on the situation and treatment of those accused of being involved. Every year at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the United States makes a special statement urging the government of Turkmenistan to provide information on and access to those who have disappeared in the country’s prison.

Read the book of poems by Batyr Berdiev.

Parting Song

To Bakharochka and Rakhmasha
My Beloved and Dear Ones

It happened like this; this is how it was written in the stars –

Along the winter road, through the haze of dawn,

Tearing me away from you, life chases me to this:

A prison transfer into the unknown, delirious from cholera.

And a cry of anguish froze on my lips,

And my heart broke into a painful gallop.

If you can, forgive me for leaving you alone

In this world of enslaved backs and minds,

Forgive me that this was how things were, and that fate broke

Our life in half, to the noise of court fools howling,

But the heavenly judge has still not had his say

And no one knows which way our compass points.

And yet, I believe, one day through tears of prayer

Heaven will smile on us again, through our son’s eyes,

And hope will reveal us its secrets

And different voices will speak out.

One has to continue living, one has to endure

The pain of separation, the prison host,

And then I will return home,

Never to leave you again.

And when I return, we will summon our friends –

Those who didn’t betray us, or disappear, or perish –

And over a lavishly spread table we three will embrace

And remember this journey, remember these words…

                                                                —Batyr Berdiev

Poems translated from Russian by Catherine Fitzpatrick, James Womack, and the “Prove They Are Alive!” campaign team.

Photograph and poems courtesy of the “Prove They Are Alive!” Campaign.

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  • Statement on Human Rights in Central Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

    First, let me thank the organizers of this conference for inviting me to speak.  I applaud the co-sponsors for putting together this timely and sober gathering to mark the one-year anniversary of the Andijon events. 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Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are suspicious of our allegedly revolutionary goals but still want to maintain good ties – as long as they are not threatened by civil society.  And Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan surely assume that we want their oil and gas too much to stir the pot. What can we do about this?  How can we try to make things better, especially keeping in mind that U.S. influence is limited?   This week I will be re-introducing my Central Asia bill, to help ensure that the United States is doing everything possible to encourage these governments to respect human rights and democratization.  The act will also bring greater consistency to U.S. policy, creating a framework to guide our bilateral relations in Central Asia.   The Central Asia Democracy and Human Rights Promotion Act supports the President’s freedom agenda by providing $118 million in assistance for human rights and democracy training and $15 million for increased Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America broadcasting.    The new Act will also establish a certification mechanism for the distribution of assistance to each government. 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The limitation prevents funding to the Uzbek Government unless the Secretary of State determines the government is “making substantial and continuing progress” towards respect for human rights and that the Uzbek Government begins a “credible international investigation” of Andijon.   In addition, the new Act mirrors European Union sanctions by establishing a visa ban and an export ban on munitions.  The sanctions section also establishes an asset freeze for Uzbek officials, their family members, and their associates implicated in the Andijon massacre or involved in other gross violations of human rights.   Ladies and gentlemen, it is hard to promote democratization in strategically important countries whose leaders want to keep all real power in their own hands. Our task is especially complicated by the fact that Russia – which has re-emerged as a major international player, thanks to sky-high oil prices – is working hard to undermine our efforts.  But I think the measures which I’ve outlined here in brief offer a good chance of achieving our goals.   Thank you for your attention.  I look forward to hearing the other participants’ views and your comments.   

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  • Attack on Chasidic Synagogue in Moscow

    Mr. President, on January 11 of this year, at the Moscow Headquarters and Synagogue of Agudas Chasidei Chabad of the Former Soviet Union, a so-called "skinhead" attacked worshippers with a knife and wounded eight persons. I know that all Members of this body deplore this terrible crime and send our prayers and best wishes to all those injured during the assault. The victims of this senseless violence include Rabbi Isaac Kogan, who testified before an April 6 Helsinki Commission hearing I convened last year concerning Chabad's ongoing efforts to retrieve the Schneerson Collection of sacred Jewish texts from Moscow. The Rabbi is a noted refusenik who was appointed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, to be part of Agudas Chasidei Chabad of the Former Soviet Union. In addition to nurturing Judaism throughout the former USSR, that organization has fought tirelessly to win the return of the Schneerson Collection to its rightful owners in the United States. The entire U.S. Senate has twice petitioned the Russian leadership to release those holy texts.  As chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I have followed closely the issue of anti-Semitism and extremism around the world. Unfortunately, the brutal attack at the Agudas Chasidei Chabad synagogue fits what appears to be a rising trend of attacks on ethnic and religious minorities in Russia.  Let me present one disturbing statistic. According to an article in the Moscow News last year, the Moscow Human Rights Center reports that Russia has up to 50,000 skinheads with active groups in 85 cities. This is opposed to an estimated 70,000 skinhead activists throughout the rest of the world.  To make matters worse, there are indications that the police themselves are sometimes involved in racist attacks. Earlier this month, a Russian newspaper carried a story about the Moscow police assault of a passerby who happened to be from the North Caucasus. According to persons from the North Caucasus, such beatings are a common occurrence.  What was uncommon was the fact that the gentleman in question is a colonel in the Russian Army and an internationally known cosmonaut. Let me be clear, anti-Semitism, bigotry, extremist attacks and police brutality are not found only in Russia. Our own country has not been immune to these challenges to rule of law and human dignity.  Nevertheless, as Russia accedes to the chairmanship of the G-8 and the Council of Europe, there will be increased scrutiny of its commitment to internationally recognized standards of human rights practices. I urge the authorities in Russia to do everything in their power to combat ethnic and religious intolerance and safeguard the religious freedom and physical safety of all it citizens.

  • Remarks by Benjamin L. Cardin Urging the Russian Federation to Withdraw Legislation Restricting the Establishment of Nongovernmental Organizations

    Mr. Speaker, I rise in support and as a cosponsor of H. Con. Res. 312, to urge the Russian Government to alter or withdraw the proposed legislation affecting nongovernmental organizations, NGO's, operating in Russia. The Russian legislation would severely restrict foreign assistance to NGO's in Russia and would also force existing Russian NGO's to reregister with the government.   The draft Russian bill raises a number of serious concerns, and may violate Russia's commitments to the OSCE. Several hundred thousand nongovernmental organizations currently operate in Russia, representing all sections of society. By forcing all NGO's to reregister, the Russian Government will have the power to subjectively deny registration to some organizations and limit the activities of others. This legislation strikes at the heart of basic democratic freedoms: the right of individuals to freely associate and participate in society. Some of the provisions in this bill would also increase the oversight of financial auditing of NGO's, which the government could use to place restrictions on opposition groups.   Just months ago, the Russian President Vladimir Putin outlawed any foreign funding of political parties in Russia. This legislation goes further and affects human rights groups and other NGO's who are only seeking to improve the nature of Russia's civil society. Foreign organizations would be required to register as legal Russian entities, seriously hindering their attempts to promote democracy and accountability in Russia. Many organizations which have conducted prominent and important human rights work in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union would see their activities curtailed under the Russian bill, which may lead to the partial or complete closure of critical offices inside of Russia.   Last month, the State Duma in Russia approved the first reading of the bill by 370 to 18 votes, despite more than 1,000 NGO's appealing for the Duma to reject it. This Friday, December 16, the Duma has scheduled a second reading of the bill. As the ranking member of the Helsinki Commission, I have worked closely with Commission Cochairman Chris Smith in opposition to this bill. The Helsinki Commission sent a bipartisan, bicameral letter in November--which I cosigned--to the Chairman of the Russian State Duma urging the rejection of this legislation. In particular, the letter emphasized the importance that nongovernmental organizations play in civil society and in fulfilling Russia's obligations as a democratic state and member of the international community.   Russia has made great strides since the end of the Cold War. There were serious concerns that Russia would not have a smooth transition to a fully functioning democracy. I am gravely concerned about recent developments in Russia. President Putin himself has said that “modern Russia's greatest achievement is the democratic process (and) the achievements of civil society." I therefore call on President Putin and the State Duma to be true to their word and reject this bill, to reaffirm their commitment to the democratic process and civil society.

  • Remarks by Benjamin L. Cardin on Recommending Integration of Croatia into NATO

    Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to support this resolution as the ranking member of the Helsinki Commission. I visited Croatia in 2000, shortly after new leadership came into power, and I was confident of the country's commitment to reform. I believe, 5 years later, we have seen that the people of Croatia truly are committed to reform.   Of particular interest to me as a determinant of U.S. policy toward southeastern Europe has been the degree to which countries cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, located in The Hague. While Croatia has had a generally good record in this regard, the Gotovina case remained as a blot on that record. Fortunately, with Gotovina's recent apprehension on Spain's Canary Islands, Croatia can put this issue behind it.   I hope, however, that the people of Croatia will view the work of the Tribunal as a necessary step to determine guilt or innocence, and that Croatian courts will similarly seek justice regarding cases relating to war crimes and crimes against humanity that it considers, regardless of who was responsible for these crimes and who were the victims.   I also call for all remaining indictees to be apprehended and transferred to The Hague, in particular Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. The House made a similar call earlier this year when passing the resolution marking the massacre at Srebrenica in Bosnia. There has been some progress this year, but both Bosnian Serb and Serbian authorities need to do more. Otherwise, they will fall further behind in European and Euro-Atlantic integration to their own detriment.

  • Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

    Hon. Chris Smith, Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, highlighted key policies of repression by Uzbekistan such as refusing registration for religious groups seeking legal status and perpetrating acts of aggression against members of these groups, and emphasized the lack of religious freedom for practicing Muslims in the country. Additionally, recent violations of religious freedom in Turkmenistan in spite of attempts at reform were evaluated. Witnesses testifying at the hearing - Witness One, a Baptist from Turkmenistan; Felix Corley, Editor of Forum 19 News Service; John Kinahan, Assistant Editor of Forum 19 News Service; and Joseph K. Grieboski, President of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy – presented personal testimonies and illustrated the importance of addressing the commitments of the governments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to upholding religious freedom as members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

  • Remarks by Christopher H. Smith Urging Russian Federation to Withdraw Legislation Restricting Establishment of Nongovernmental Organizations

    Mr. Speaker, I rise in very strong support of H. Con. Res. 312, introduced by the very distinguished chairman of our full committee, Chairman Henry Hyde, urging the Government of the Russian Federation to withdraw or modify proposed legislation that would have a chilling effect on civil society in that country.   Amazingly, as Russia prepares to assume leadership of the G-8 and the Council of Europe next month, Russian lawmakers have been working feverishly to subordinate pockets of independent thought and action to state control. The focus of recent days has been on nongovernmental organizations, especially those working in the fields of human rights and democracy. In essence, the provisions would require all nongovernmental organizations to re-register with a government commission empowered with invasive powers to monitor NGO activities.   The Duma has passed amendments to the Law on Public Associations by a vote of 370-18, but the measure must go through further readings scheduled for next week and signed then by Vladimir Putin before it becomes law. In mid-November, members of the Helsinki Commission, which I am co-chair of, sent a letter which I will make a part of the RECORD to the Speaker of the Russian Duma, Boris Gryzlov, urging the Duma to reject the pending proposed amendments, purportedly crafted with input from Putin's advisers.   The move against NGOs, Mr. Speaker, is not occurring in a vacuum, but is calculated to move in a lead-up to the critical parliamentary elections that are scheduled for 2007 and a presidential contest the following year to replace Putin, who is prevented from seeking another term.   In response to expressions of concern from the United States and others, some modifications to the draft are apparently being considered, though it is still unclear the extent to which the amendments will be revamped. We will not have a full picture until next week. By then, it may be too late to change before landing on President Putin's desk. Thus, consideration of Chairman Hyde's measure comes at a critical time for the House to be on record opposing the burdensome compulsory registration requirements being proposed.   As originally drafted, the proposed amendments will require Russia's approximately 450,000 NGOs to re-register with a government commission under a complicated registration procedure and would expand the ability of the government to deny registration permission.   Financial auditing, a tactic currently used to harass opposition NGOs, would also become more intrusive under the bill's provisions. No doubt there would be negative impact on foreign-based organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and the Carnegie Foundation, while increasing controls over NGOs of Russian origin.   Mr. Speaker, whatever package of amendments to the legal framework for NGOs in Russia finally emerges, they must be evaluated in light of that country's commitments as a member of the Council of Europe and participating state in the Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe. Do the proposals under consideration in the Russian Duma fully respect the right of individuals to freedom of association, or do they undermine that fundamental freedom under the guise of fighting corruption and terrorism? That is the key question. This resolution gets us on record, and hopefully it will have some sway with the Duma and with President Putin.   Mr. Speaker, I include for the Record the letter I referred to earlier to the Chairman of the Russian State Duma, Boris Gryzlov.

  • Human Rights in Iran: Prospects and the Western Response

    By Ronald J. McNamara, International Policy Director In response to ongoing developments in Iran, on June 9 the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also called the U.S. Helsinki Commission, held a hearing entitled, “The Iran Crisis: A Transatlantic Response,” to examine the continuing pattern of serious human rights violations in Iran and consider how to formulate an effective transatlantic response. The hearing is part of a series to explore emerging threats to countries in the OSCE region. Iran shares borders with several OSCE participant States: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan and also borders Afghanistan, an OSCE Partner for Cooperation. Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) focused squarely on the deteriorating human rights climate in Iran: “Across the border, Iran's human rights record is dismal and getting worse. The Iranian regime employs all of the levers of power to crush dissent, resorting in every form of persecution, even so far as execution. No effort is spared to silence opposition.” “Freedom denied” sums up the regime’s approach to fundamental human rights across the board, observed Chairman Brownback, “the tyrants in Tehran time and time again have shown a zeal for crushing outbreaks of free thought. Having come down hard on vestiges of independent media, the regime has pursued those who sought refuge on the Internet as a domain for democratic discussion.” Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) drew attention to the extensive economic ties between many European countries and Iran, suggesting that such interests influence policy toward Tehran. Smith also questioned the effectiveness of existing UN human rights structures and the need for major reform of the system. Dr. Jeff Gedmin, Director of the Aspen Institute Berlin, testifying before the Commission, noted the paradigm shift in U.S. foreign policy following the 9/11 terrorist attacks: “It’s changed our thinking about democracy, not only for the moral reasons, but because, as the president and others have said, the old realism, the old stability sort of policies didn't keep us safe, either. They weren’t fully moral, and they didn’t keep us safe.” Gedmin urged a more assertive approach toward Iran that would link the security approach and the human rights and democracy approach, and warned against concentrating on the former to the exclusion of the latter. Gedmin called for ensuring that promotion of democracy is part of any dialogue with the regime, while admitting that European commercial interests could complicate matters. In his testimony, Tom Melia, Deputy Executive Director of Freedom House, focused on the dynamics of democracy promotion more generally and efforts to foster related U.S. and European cooperation through the Trans-Atlantic Democracy Network initiative involving senior government officials and NGO activists from both sides of the Atlantic. He admitted that there are a variety of European perspectives on how best to encourage democratic change, contrasting “the more traditional Western European officials around Brussels and the newly arrived officials from Central and Eastern Europe….who are willing to be strong allies.” Citing the recently released report How Freedom is Won, Melia noted that broad civic engagement can speed democratic reform and that the absence of opposition violence in the struggle for change ultimately enhances the prospects for consolidation of democracy. Turning to Iran, he noted that the June 17th elections in that country “are not about filling the offices that matter in Iran.” Ms. Goli Ameri, Co-Founder of the Iran Democracy Project, addressed the complexities faced by Iranian-Americans who have thrived in the freedom and opportunity offered in the United States, and who hope that such liberties will be seen in Iran itself. She explained some of the differing approaches advocated within the community: “In my experience, there are three different views on U.S. policy towards Iran amongst Iranian-Americans. One group believes that the U.S. needs to take an active role and make regime change an official U.S. policy. The second group believes that freedom from decades of oppression can only come from the Iranian people themselves without any type of outside involvement.” Ameri continued, “In my travels, the majority of Iranian-Americans I met have a third, more considerate way in mind. They speak as concerned citizens of the United States and independent of political opposition groups or extremist political doctrines. They care about U.S. long-term interests as much as they care for their compatriots in Iran…Iranian-Americans support the promotion of a civil society and a civil movement in Iran. However, they want to ascertain that the format of support does not hurt the long-term security and interests of the United States, as well as not sully the mindset of the Iranian people towards the United States.” Ameri emphasized that Iranian-Americans, “differentiate between support for civic organizations and support for opposition groups, with the latter being of zero interest.” Dr. Karim Lahidji, an Iranian human rights activist since the late 1950s who fled Iran in 1979, pointed to contradictions that exist within the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the “farce” that the regime is somehow based on popular sovereignty. He noted that “power itself is dual in the sense that, on one hand, there is this [unelected] supreme guide, who is kind of a Superman, who supersedes over the other branches of government” and exercises “100 percent real executive power.” Under the current structures in place in Iran, Lahidji stressed, “the underlying and governing principle, it's not equality. It is discrimination that really rules” in which “the rights of the common citizen are different from the rights of Muslims, or the rights of non-Muslims are different from the rights of Muslims. Women don't have the same rights as men. But common people don't have the same rights as the clergy.” He concluded, “Under the present constitution, any reform of the power structure in the country that would lead to democracy or respect of human rights is impossible.” Manda Ervin, founder of the Alliance of Iranian Women, focused on the daily difficulties facing the average Iranian, including rising unemployment, unpaid workers, and other hardships that have spawned manifestations of civil disobedience that are in turn repressed by security and paramilitary forces. Hunger strikes and sit-ins by university students and journalists are common and are met with repression by the authorities. Citing arrests of activists, including members of the Alliance of Iranian Women, Ervin stated, “The regime of Iran practices gender apartheid and legal abuse of children. The constitution of this regime belongs to the 7th century and is unacceptable in the 21st century.” In an impassioned conclusion Ervin said, “the people of Iran need our support, our moral support, our standing in solidarity with them. They don't want words any more. They don't trust words. They want actions. They want United States and Europe to stand together against the regime of Iran.” The panelists repeatedly cited Iranian youth and the efforts of NGO activists as key elements in building a brighter future for Iran. 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.

  • The “Yukos Affair” and Its Implications for Politics and Business in Russia

    Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation, Hon. Chris Smith, addressed the subject of the rule of law in Russia and its relationship to business and politics in the context of Russia’s approaching chairmanship of the G-8 at the end of the year. An argument was made that the Yukos case was characterized by selective prosecution and blatant legal arbitrariness. The potential outcomes of Russia indifference or hostility to the rule of law were also addressed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Leoni Nevzlin, Former Executive of Yukos Oil, and Peter Roudik, Senior Foreign Law Specialist for the Law Library of Congress – examined the deficiencies of Russia’s legal system and the shortcomings of the criminal justice reform that was supposedly implemented and completed successfully.

  • The Uzbekistan Crisis: Assessing the Impact and Next Steps

    This hearing focused on the protests in the Andijon that were met by a violent government response and the lack of meaningful democratization reform in Uzbekistan. The Commissioners touched on the lack of separation of powers in the government and the authoritarian governing institutions that cannot produce a reliable investigation into the violent government response to the protest. Human rights activists and journalists from Uzbekistan gave testimony on their experience of the oppressive leadership of the government and first-hand account of the horrific and bloody response by the government police to remove peaceful protestors. The hearing discussed what actions the United States can take, within the OSCE framework, to push for meaningful reform.

  • Russia: Human Rights and Political Prospects

    Mike McIntyre and other lawmakers evaluated the degree to which human rights were being respected in Russia in light of increasing authoritarian trends via so-called power institutions. The effect of the war in Chechnya on Russian society as a whole was also a topic of discussion. Valentin Gefter, General Director of the Human Rights Institute in Moscow spoke to several factors that had led to issues regarding human rights, including the situation of military conflict in Chechnya, protests initiated by individuals displeased with social and economic policies, and preventative action taken by the state.

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