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Belarusian Regime Resolutely Dashes Any Hopes for Democratic Liberalization
Thursday, January 06, 2011

By Orest Deychakiwsky, Ronald McNamara, and Josh Shapiro
Commission Staff

Hints of any democratic progress in Belarus came to a screeching halt on December 19, 2010, in the aftermath of the country’s most recent electoral exercise, the latest in a long line of fundamentally flawed elections. The brutal and bloody election-night crackdown against political opposition supporters, including mass arrests of demonstrators, as well as candidates, who challenged the 16-year rule of Alexander Lukashenka, was unprecedented. Even the prospects of inducements from the EU and others failed to restrain a regime bent on maintaining power. The strong-arm tactics employed on election night, and since, confirm the nature of Lukashenka’s rule – one that perpetuates a pervasive, albeit subtle, climate of fear to squelch dissent.

The OSCE Election Observation Mission (EOM) post-election statement, issued on December 20, concluded that “Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments, although some specific improvements were made. Election night was marred by detentions of most presidential candidates, and hundreds of activists, journalists and civil society representatives.” The Helsinki Commission, the U.S. and European governments, as well as Western NGOs, condemned the regime’s violent campaign of repression and called for the release of jailed opposition presidential candidates, hundreds of peaceful protestors, and some two dozen journalists covering the demonstrations. Moreover, cyber police shut down numerous internet and social networking sites. Repressive actions have continued, including raids on opposition party offices, NGOs, individual residences of activists and journalists, and independent media outlets by police and the KGB.

Displaying his displeasure with the OSCE’s negative assessment of the elections, Lukashenka refused to extend the expiring mandate of the organization’s office in Minsk, effectively ousting the OSCE. The only other leader to order such an expulsion was Slobodan Milosevic. The development comes as neighboring Lithuania assumes the chairmanship of the Vienna-based 56-nation organization.

Helsinki Commission staff were part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s contingent to the EOM, headed by Tony Lloyd, a member of the British Parliament. We observed the balloting and vote count in Minsk and Polotsk, a historic city located 120 miles north of the capital. Our election-day observations were consistent with those of the 450 other OSCE observers representing 44 participating States deployed throughout the country. The voting process was assessed as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ in the vast majority of observed polling stations, while the critical vote count was judged as ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ in nearly half of the precincts observed, giving fresh currency to an adage attributed to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin: “It is not the votes that count, but who counts the votes.”

The vote count in Novopolotsk was decidedly non-transparent as both international and domestic observers (virtually all of the latter appeared to be so-called GONGOs, or government organized non-governmental organizations) were kept far enough away from the table on which the votes were being counted, making it impossible to see how the ballots were marked. When queried several times by Commission staff as to the reason, the precinct chairman politely insisted that it was a decision that he and other members of the election commission had made on the pretext of preventing observers from “interfering” in the counting process. Meanwhile, at a polling station in Minsk, staff were allowed closer access to the vote count, though were prevented from seeing what was written on each ballot. With an ambiguous way of counting votes, those in attendance had little clue as to how the chairman of the election commission counted ballots. An outspoken domestic observer was subsequently voted out of the polling station by election commissioners because he was a “nuisance to the vote count.”

While the run-up to the election had shown some procedural improvements and an easing of restrictions on normal political activity, the electoral machinery at every level remained firmly under the regime’s control. There were greater opportunities than in previous elections for candidates to speak on live television, and candidates were for the most part able to more freely meet with voters. This, however, did not translate into a level playing field for all candidates as the state-controlled media disproportionately favored Lukashenka. Very telling was the fact that only 0.26 percent of all precinct electoral commission members and 0.70 percent of territorial election commission members were from opposition political parties.

Clearly, even the limited improvements did not lead to a free and fair outcome, with only the margin of Lukashenka’s victory to be announced. A December 20 statement issued by the White House, citing the critical OSCE assessment, stressed: “The United States cannot accept as legitimate the results of the presidential election announced by the Belarusian Central Election Commission” issued earlier the day. Even regime-sponsored exit polls contradicted the official CEC results, giving a lower percentage of the vote to Lukashenka and higher percentages to Andrei Sannikau and Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, the leading opposition candidates who were victims of violence by the authorities and remain incarcerated along with several other contenders. Independent pollsters and analysts also gave Lukashenka far less of the vote than the nearly 80 percent he officially garnered, with some giving him less than the 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a second round against a single opposition candidate.

Given the unconscionable crackdown and fraudulent elections, hopes and expectations for even limited progress with respect to democracy and human rights have been thwarted. Through his repressive and undemocratic actions, Lukashenka has shown that he will not tolerate meaningful reform and that he will do whatever it takes to maintain absolute power. This overarching imperative clearly trumps improved relations with the United States and especially the European Union which were in the offing prior to election day, and could have resulted in badly needed financial assistance.

In a rambling two-and-a-half hour televised press conference the day after the election, Lukashenka belittled what he termed “mindless democracy” while boldly declaring his lack of fear. Despite his bravado, clearly the Belarusian leader fears the prospect of submitting to a vote in a genuinely free and fair electoral contest. Against the backdrop of a decade of rigged presidential and parliamentary elections and an illegal referendum, Belarus is regrettably no closer to restoring legitimacy to executive and legislative structures, and the prospects for meaningful change appear remote. To the detriment of the Belarusian people, the Lukashenka regime has, yet again, chosen the path of self-imposed isolation.

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    By Jordan Warlick, Staff Associate Natasha Blaskovich, Intern Katya Kazmin, Intern With a section on the “improvement of working conditions for journalists”, the Helsinki Final Act explicitly recognizes the importance of journalists for democratic and open societies. Despite the signing of the agreement in 1975, the situation for journalists is still very grim in several countries in the region. The U.S. Helsinki Commission continues to monitor these conditions closely and remains concerned with: (a) murder, violence, and other egregious acts that harm the safety of journalists; (b) imprisonment of journalists for their work; (c) other restrictions that impede the work of journalists and a free press. The journalists featured below are representative of those persecuted so far this year. Afqan Muxtarli (Azerbaijan) – Muxtarli and his family fled to neighboring Georgia in 2015 after Muxtarli received threats related to corruption investigations into Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and other officials. Following Muxtarli’s disappearance on May 29, 2017, Muxtarli’s lawyer told Radio Free Europe that the journalist was abducted in Tbilisi and handed over to Azerbaijani officers at the border. Muxtarli believes that these officers planted €10,000 on him and then promptly arrested him, in order to incriminate him for illegally crossing the border with a large sum of money and no passport. Amnesty International and other international human rights organizations have criticized the Azerbaijani government for its oppression of journalists and suppression of free speech. Georgia’s Interior Minister has stated that Georgia has launched an investigation into this allegedly unlawful imprisonment. Mehman Huseynov (Azerbaijan) – Huseynov, a well-known journalist and blogger in Azerbaijan, was sentenced to two years in prison on March 3, 2017 on defamation charges. Huseynov had been under a travel ban since 2012, and was reportedly harassed and intimidated by the police for years. In early January 2017, Huseynov was arrested in Baku, taken to the Nasimi police station where he was held incommunicado, and repeatedly beaten and abused. Although he filed a formal complaint with the prosecutor’s office and made his abuse public, Huseynov’s allegations were declared groundless and not investigated. Huseynov was accused of defamation by the Nasimi police chief, and was found guilty in May 2017. Halina Abakunchyk (Belarus) – Abakunchyk is a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a U.S.-government-funded service. She was detained overnight on March 12, 2017, accused of “participating in an unsanctioned rally,” and then fined approximately $300 for covering large nationwide protests in March over a tax on the unemployed. Abakunchyk was one of 32 journalists arrested and/or fined for similar offenses while covering the protests.   Zhanbolat Mamay (Kazakhstan) – Mamay is the editor of the Tribuna newspaper, one of the few independent papers in Kazakhstan to have survived a recent trend of pressure and harassment from the government. Arrested on February 10, 2017, Mamay stands accused of being an accomplice to money-laundering, along with opposition leader and former head of BTA Bank, Mukhtar Ablyazov, in 2009. Before his arrest, Mamay told RFE/RL that he felt he was being followed. Since his arrest, Mamay has complained of being beaten and extorted while in prison. There are concerns for the safety of Mamay and his family as well as the provision of a fair trial. The Committee to Protect Journalists and other organizations have called for his release. Nikolai Andrushchenko (Russia) – Andrushchenko was a Russian journalist known for reporting on issues provocative to the Russian regime, including corruption. When Andrushchenko was attacked by assailants in St. Petersburg on March 9, 2017, he was in the midst of investigating reports of corruption and human rights abuses, allegations including the involvement of local police. He was found unconscious several hours later and taken to a hospital where brain surgery was performed, leaving him in a coma. He died on April 19, 2017. Prior to the March 9 attack, Andrushchenko had been attacked at least two times in the last decade. In November 2016, assailants attacked him on his doorstep. He was also attacked in November 2007, weeks before he was jailed for two months on false charges of defamation and obstruction of justice. The police have not informed the newspaper which Andrushchenko co-founded, Novy Peterburg (New Petersburg), of any progress in the investigation. Dmitry Popkov (Russia) – Popkov, the chief editor of local independent newspaper Ton-M in Siberia, was found shot dead in his backyard in Minusinsk on May 24, 2017. Popkov was known for investigating alleged abuses of power and corruption. Ton-M’s motto, “We write what other people stay silent about,” made the newspaper – and Popkov himself – long-time targets. Shortly before his murder, Popkov had published reports regarding a federal parliamentary audit that revealed corruption in the local administration. An investigation has been launched by the regional branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee and Popkov’s journalism is being treated as a potential motive for the murder. Nur Ener (Turkey) – Ener, a journalist for the daily Yeni Asya, was detained by police after they raided her apartment in the middle of the night on March 3, 2017. Accused of being affiliated with the Fethullah Gülen network, Ener’s formal charges are unknown to her lawyer and she is allowed only 45 minutes of family visits a week and one hour with her lawyer. A former roommate of Ener, who was arrested after the July 2016 coup attempt, is said to have given Ener’s name to the police in the aftermath of the coup. Some of Ener’s critical reporting, including an interview where the guest criticized certain government policies, may have also been a reason for her arrest. According to the Committee to Project Journalists, Ener is one of over 80 journalists imprisoned in Turkey – the largest jailer of journalists in the world. Oguz Guven (Turkey) ­­– Guven is the website editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet daily. He was detained on May 12, 2017 for spreading terrorist propaganda, a popular charge against journalists in Turkey. The arrest allegedly was prompted by the newspaper’s tweet about the death of Mustafa Alper, a senior Turkish prosecutor involved in prosecuting suspects in the July 2016 coup attempt. Cumhuriyet has come under extreme pressure from the Turkish government, with 17 journalists and board members standing trial on July 24. Guven and his colleagues could face prison sentences as long as 43 years. Stanyslav Aseyev (Ukraine) – Aseyev, a freelance journalist who contributed to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty under the name Stanyslav Vasin, has been missing from Donetsk since June 3, 2017.  On July 16, Yehor Firsov, a former Ukrainian lawmaker and close friend of Aseyev, said he received information through unofficial sources that the journalist was detained by pro-Russian separatists. Aseyev allegedly faces charges of espionage by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), who have threatened him with up to 14 years’ imprisonment. Other journalists highlighted in Political Prisoners in Russia: Mykola Semena (Ukraine) – Semena, a Crimean journalist, has been charged under Article 280.1 of Russia’s criminal code, which penalizes "public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation." The law was added to the Russian criminal code in December 2013, and came into force in May 2014 - several weeks after Crimea was annexed by Russia. Semena was one of the only independent journalists to remain on the peninsula following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. He contributed reporting to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and its Crimea Desk. On April 19, 2016, after Russian police searched Semena’s home and confiscated computers and storage media, the de facto Crimean prosecutor-general ordered Semena to remain on the peninsula while he was investigated for alleged “calls to undermine Russia’s territorial integrity via the mass media.” Semena has been forced to stay in Crimea ever since, despite his requests to travel to Kyiv for urgently needed medical care. Semena’s trial has been adjourned and delayed several times this year. If he is found guilty, he could face five years in prison. Roman Sushchenko (Ukraine) – Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist, is charged under article 276 of Russia’s criminal code (espionage). He has worked as a Paris-based correspondent for Ukraine’s state news agency, Ukrinform, since 2010. He was detained at a Moscow airport on September 30, 2016, upon his arrival from Paris on private business. He was accused of collecting classified information on the activities of Russia’s armed forces and the National Guard. Mr. Sushchenko denies any involvement in espionage. His employer, Ukrinform, also considers the accusations false and called his detention a “planned provocation.” Mr. Sushchenko’s attorney is Mark Feygin, who previously represented Pussy Riot and Nadezhda Savchenko. Sushchenko’s pre-trial detention has been extended several times by the Lefortovsky District Court of Moscow since his arrest, and is currently set until September 30, 2017. Photos Cited: Afqan Muxtarli: Facebook Mehman Huseynov: Facebook Halina Abakunchyk: RFE/RL Zhanbolat Mamay: RFE/RL Nikolai Andrushchenko: RFE/RL Dmitry Popkov: TON-M Nur Ener: Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) Oguz Guven: Twitter Stanyslav Aseyev: RFE/RL

  • Engaging Belarus on Human Rights & Democracy

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing titled, “Engaging Belarus on Human Rights and Democracy” on July 21, 2017, which built on renewed interest in Belarus after members of the Commission traveled to Minsk earlier in the month for the annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting. The panelists for the briefing included Stephen Nix, Regional Program Director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute in Washington, DC; Katie Fox, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Department at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC; and Sanaka Samarasinha, the United Nations Chief in Belarus. Brief remarks were also delivered by Belarusian Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky. Stephen Nix began the briefing by highlighting the importance of Belarus in U.S. foreign relations, including the relationship between Belarus and Russia, especially in light of the increased Western presence in the Baltics and the surrounding area. Mr. Nix “applaud[ed] Belarus’s expressed intent at engagement” and offered some examples demonstrating optimism for the democratic process in Belarus, such as the appointment of opposition party members to parliament with limited power. Katie Fox echoed this optimism when addressing “democratic openings,” such as the concessions the Belarusian government made in response to protests, increasingly democratic electoral processes, and “the growth and development of the democratic parties.” Sanaka Samarasinha discussed engagement in relations to the human rights issues Belarus presents today and the areas of particular concern to the UN. The UN in Belarus has focused primarily on “development activities,” but also issues such as human trafficking and the rising number of HIV/AIDs cases. Samarasinha also highlighted the need for a “safe space” for discussions of human rights issues and transparency to allow Belarusians and Belarusian civil society to be able to have a conversation. Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky highlighted ways that Belarus is working with its NATO neighbors through defense cooperation, including relinquishing nuclear weapons and inviting representatives of NATO to observe the Belarusian-Russian strategic joint exercise scheduled for September 2017. Shidlovsky also stated, “Belarus has always regarded normalization of relations with the United States as a priority of its foreign policy. Yes, we have had our ups and downs, but never has the leadership of Belarus underestimated the importance of full-fledged engagement with the U.S.” In the final Q&A session the panelists were cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the improvement of human rights practices in Belarus and improvements in the electoral code that could someday lead to elections that could be certified as free and fair by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  However, they also stressed that it is critical to continue to fight for changes that are sustainable, beginning with the removal of restrictions on peaceful assembly and freedom of speech.

  • One Year Later: Seeking Justice for Pavel Sheremet

    When investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet died in a car explosion in central Kyiv on July 20, 2016, his assassination garnered global media attention. Upon learning the tragic news, then-OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović condemned the murder, saying, “This killing and its circumstances must be swiftly and thoroughly investigated, and the perpetrators brought to justice.” However, one year later, virtually no progress has been made on his case. Furthermore, the escalating harassment and attacks against journalists in Ukraine, coupled with a culture of impunity for perpetrators, is worrisome for Ukraine’s democratic future. To ensure they meet the aspirations of the Ukrainian people, authorities in Kiev must reaffirm their commitment to freedom of the press by ensuring the perpetrators of Sheremet’s murder—and similar cases of killing, assault, and harassment—are brought to justice. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Meet with OSCE Election Experts

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law On July 11, Helsinki Commission staff met with Dame Audrey Glover, head of the OSCE election observation mission during the 2016 U.S. elections. Other members of the OSCE team included Mr. Jan Haukass (Vienna Representative of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR), Dr. Richard Lappin (ODIHR-Warsaw), and Mr. Radivoje Grujic (ODIHR-Warsaw).  The meeting was part of OSCE’s standard consultations following the deployment of an election observation mission.  The election team also held meetings in Washington with Members of Congress and the Department of State. OSCE election observation is based on the 1990 Copenhagen Document in which the participating States agreed that “the will of the people, freely and fairly expressed through periodic and genuine elections, is the basis of the authority and legitimacy of all government.” The commitment fosters universal suffrage, equality, fairness, freedom, transparency, accountability, and secrecy of the ballot. The original proposal for a commitment to hold free and fair elections came from the Helsinki Commission in 1989 but, at that time, was unacceptable to communist countries. In 1990, as communist regimes began to fall, agreement on the new commitment was adopted and signaled the rejection of the one-party systems that had previously dominated Eastern Europe. However, implementation of this commitment continues to be restricted in some countries where civil society is limited or faces repression. OSCE election observation in the region represents the “gold standard” in international election observation. In some instances, when even the fundamental conditions for free and fair elections are lacking, the OSCE may decline to observe elections rather than give them a degree of legitimacy that is unwarranted. In 2015, restrictions imposed by the government of Azerbaijan compelled the OSCE to cancel a planned election observation mission. Some countries, such as Russia, have sought to undermine OSCE election observation by promoting observation through the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a post-Soviet grouping that includes Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.  CIS election observers consistently praise elections that are considered to be significantly flawed by independent observers, particularly the OSCE.  Helsinki Commissioners and staff have participated in well over 100 election observation missions since 1990 – the vast majority of them as members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly contingent that is part of the larger OSCE-led international observation missions. The Commission continues to support OSCE observation efforts, focusing on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest.  The Commission has also actively supported the right of domestic election observers to monitor the elections in their own countries. Learn more about OSCE election observation.

  • 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report – the OSCE Region

    Human trafficking remains a pressing human rights violation around the world with the International Labor Organization estimating that nearly 21 million people are enslaved at any given time, most of them women and children. As part of U.S. efforts to combat human trafficking, the U.S. Department of State today released the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), reflecting the efforts of 187 countries and territories to prosecute traffickers, prevent trafficking, and to identify and assist victims, as described by the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. Trafficking Victim Identification and Care: Regional Perspectives According to the new TIP Report, in the 2016 reporting year, countries in the OSCE region identified 304 more trafficking victims than in the previous year, for a total of 11,416 victims.  This increase is particularly notable when compared to the East Asia and Pacific, Near East, South and Central Asia, and Western Hemisphere regions, where victim identification declined, but still maintained a generally upward trend over 2014.  Trafficking victim identification and care is critical for proper management of refugee and migrant flows.  In order to help law enforcement and border guards identify trafficking victims among the nearly 400,000 migrants and refugees entering the region last year, the OSCE Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Human Beings launched a new project to conduct multiple trainings, including simulation exercises, through 2018.  The first training in November 2016 included participants from 30 OSCE participating States. Victim identification and care are also critical for successful prosecutions.  Nearly every region of the world saw a drop in prosecutions of human traffickers, but an increase in convictions in the 2016 reporting year.  This trend may reflect a growing knowledge among prosecutors of how to successfully investigate and prosecute a trafficking case.  It also may reflect an overall increase in trafficking victims who have been identified, permitted to remain in-country, and cared for such that the victims—now survivors—are ready, willing, and able to testify against their traffickers.  Despite the dramatic decline in prosecutions (46 percent) in the OSCE region, convictions held steady at nearly the same numbers as the previous year. Individual Country Narratives Along with regional statistics, the TIP Report also provides individual country narratives, recommendations for the most urgent changes needed to eliminate human trafficking, and an assessment of whether the country is making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 1 countries meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 2 countries do not yet meet the standards, but are making significant efforts to do so.  Tier 2 Watch List countries do not meet the minimum standards and are making significant efforts to do so, but have a very large or increasing number of trafficking victims, have failed to demonstrate increasing efforts over the previous year, or lack a solid plan to take additional steps in the coming year. Tier 3 countries do not meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. Twenty-five OSCE participating States qualified for Tier 1 in the TIP Report.  Nineteen participating States qualified for Tier 2, including Ukraine, which was upgraded this year after four years on the Tier 2 Watch List.  Five participating States were designated for the Tier 2 Watch List, including Hungary, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, and Bulgaria.* Four participating States were on Tier 3, including Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  States on Tier 3 may be subject to sanctions. Legislation authored by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith—who also serves as the Special Representative for Human Trafficking Issues to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly – requires the TIP Report to be produced every year.  In recent years the report has also included an assessment of the United States.   Since the inception of the report, more than 100 countries have written or amended their trafficking laws, with some nations openly crediting the report for inspiring progress in their countries’ fight against human trafficking. * OSCE participating States Andorra, Monaco, Lichtenstein, and San Marino are not included in the TIP Report.

  • A Call to OSCE Commitments in Aftermath of Turkish Referendum

    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 Rights

    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 Act

    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 Sight

    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.  

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