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Bulgaria Holds Early Parliamentary Elections; OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission
Tuesday, May 28, 2013

By Helsinki Commission Staff

Country-Wide Street Protests Trigger Snap Elections

In early 2013, 30 Bulgarian cities were rocked by demonstrations. In some instances, violence erupted between demonstrators and police. In addition, in the months immediately preceding the elections, six people committed suicide by self-immolation in acts of public protest and desperation.

The street demonstrations were triggered by sharply rising electricity rates in a country widely described as the poorest of the EU’s 27 members. Discontent was further fueled by dissatisfaction with political leaders across the board and widespread corruption.

In February, following the street demonstrations, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned, paving the way for May 12’s early parliamentary elections.

For those elections, 8,100 candidates stood for seats in the 240-member unicameral National Assembly allocated by proportional representation from 31 multi-mandate constituencies (with a 4% threshold for both parties and coalitions to enter parliament). Altogether, 63 parties (38 outside of coalitions and 7 coalitions) were registered as well as two independent candidates.

The resulting ballot was roughly a yard long.

OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission

The OSCE mounted a full scale Election Observation Mission (EOM) – the first in Bulgaria since 1997 and the first ever in an EU country.

Eoghan Murphy (MP, Ireland) was appointed by OSCE Chair-in-Office Leonid Kozhara to serve as Special Coordinator and leader of the short-term observer mission (parliamentarians and observers seconded by OSCE participating States). The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) long-term observer team was headed by Miklos Haraszti. Roberto Battelli (MP, Slovenia) headed the OSCE PA delegation. Andreas Gross (MP, Switzerland) headed the observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

On Election Day, there were 158 observers deployed from 39 countries.

Of an estimated 6.9 million voters (a number that, in any case, the OSCE and Council of Europe Venice Commission suggest may be high), 3,541,745 went to the polls. Voter turnout was at about 50 percent – the lowest turnout since the fall of communism – reflecting the voters’ antipathy even more than apathy.

Approximately 850,000 votes were cast for parties that failed to overcome the 4% threshold to get into parliament.

Reportedly 107,799 Bulgarian citizens voted abroad, with 63,152 votes cast in Turkey.

The Mysterious Case of the Extra Ballots

The administration of the elections on E-Day was largely unremarkable. It was, however, preceded by two separate but related wiretapping scandals suggesting that the Ministry of Interior had bugged journalists and state officials. The day before the elections, an “extra” 350,000 ballots were discovered in a printing house in Sofia. (A week after the elections, it was reported that more than 2,000 extra stamps for electoral commissions had also surfaced.)

In its preliminary findings, the Election Observation Mission drew particular attention to the alienation of voters, lack of confidence in the electoral process, concerns over ballot security (the “extra” ballots), and persistent allegations of vote buying or voter intimidation. (A final report from the Mission is forthcoming.)

Roma and Other Minorities in the Electoral Context

Bulgaria has a population of 7.36 million (from almost 8 million in the 2001 census and roughly 8.4 million in the 1992 census). This continuing drop reflects declining birth rates and labor migration to other parts of Europe.

The ethnic Turkish minority comprises 8.8 percent of the population. Almost 5 percent of the population self-identified as Romani on the last census, but Roma are estimated to be roughly 10 percent of the population. Last year, the Bulgarian Government estimated that 23 percent of the working age population is Romani.

The Bulgarian Constitution prohibits the formation of political parties on ethnic, racial or religious lines, which is contrary to OSCE and other international norms on freedom of assembly. The OSCE has criticized this restriction in previous reports on Bulgarian elections.

The Electoral Code stipulates that the election campaign must be conducted in the Bulgarian language only, also contrary to standards on free speech and minority language use set out in the 1990 Copenhagen Document. These restrictions also impede get-out-the-vote efforts.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms is, de facto, an ethnic Turkish minority party, although it has largely been allowed to function with a wink and a nod from the authorities. After the elections, it was reported that Lyutvi Mestan, head of the MRF party, was fined in Sliven for campaigning in Turkish.

Bulgaria's last two local and Presidential elections (which were held simultaneously in 2007 and 2011) were preceded by outbreaks of anti-Roma violence. In 2011, just a few weeks before the elections, 14 Bulgarian cities erupted into anti-Roma riots. In July 2012, the headquarters of the EuroRoma political party were firebombed, killing one man. The investigation has not produced any results.

On April 8, 15 Romani civil society organizations withdrew from their advisory role with the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues, effectively deeming the government’s work in this area and the consultative process to be a sham.

There were no Roma in electable positions on the lists for any of the leading parties. As a result, the National Assembly produced by the May 12 elections will be the first Bulgarian parliament since the fall of communism to have no Romani MPs.

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    Ambassador Jonathan Moore is the OSCE’s ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and has spent most of his career working on the Balkans. He testified at the Helsinki Commission’s May 25, 2016 hearing, “Combatting Corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Corruption is one of the biggest problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Ambassador Moore is particularly concerned about its dire effects on young people. “It’s an obstacle that drives young people out of the country and it keeps investors away,” he says. “Corruption needs to be combatted on all levels and I am very glad this hearing talked about it.” He identifies part of the problem as lack of privatization, and notes that political patronage plays a significant role in public enterprises like schools and universities. “There hasn’t been much privatization in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” he says. “Imagine you are a 14-year-old and you’re very smart and have great grades. You want to go to a certain kind of public high school—a gymnasium. Well, you might not get admitted unless you have the right kind of political connections. As a 14-year-old, you are not selected because you don’t have the right connections, or you’re not bribing the right people.” The cycle continues at the stage of university applications; graduates seeking jobs in public enterprises continue to face the same challenge. “Again, political patronage and political control,” he explains. “If you don’t fulfill the right criteria politically—it’s not about how smart you are—you don’t get the job you want. So it’s easier to say, ‘Enough,’ and leave. The bottom line is that politics is everything in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that’s why I started and ended [my testimony] by saying all politics is local.” Ambassador Moore argues very strongly for action at the local level, especially in the 143 municipalities around the country, each with its own mayor. “In many of these cases, these mayors are very innovative and very perceptive,” he notes. “They’ve worked across religious and ethnic lines with their constituents, their fellow neighbors. Mayors don’t hide themselves off in offices in some capital city. They live there, they see these people every day who ask, ‘Why is the school falling apart?’ and say, ‘Fix the sidewalk,’ or ‘The sewer is backed up into my apartment building.’” Ambassador Moore thinks it is important to shine a light on those local officials who have desegregated the schools and are speaking up for different ethnic communities. “We have examples from the flood of 2014, where we saw [a mayor] who made sure that the resources went to all the victims and not just to his friends. Giving credit where credit is due to the positive examples, rather than just saying, ‘It’s a huge problem and nothing can be done,’ is of great merit.” Ambassador Moore believes that it is important to understand the importance of investing in the security and stability of the international realm. Countries without conflict, including Bosnia, are safer, better trading partners, and are more conducive to developing the innovative skills of the young generation. “When you have a country in this cycle of conflict, nobody has the time, resources, energy, or money to put ideas on the table in a positive way,” he says.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mourn Passing of Former Senator and Commissioner George Voinovich

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of former U.S. Senator and Helsinki Commissioner George Voinovich on Sunday, Helsinki Commission Chairman [[{"fid":"3378","view_mode":"full","attributes":{"alt":"Former Senator and Helsinki Commissioner George Voinovich","title":"Former Senator and Helsinki Commissioner George Voinovich","height":"1024","width":"682","style":"margin: 10px 25px; width: 250px; height: 375px; float: right;","class":"media-element file-full"},"type":"media"}]]Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04) and Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: “During his time in the Senate, Senator George Voinovich was a staunch supporter of the Helsinki Commission and its human rights mandate,” said Chairman Smith. “His dedication to the Helsinki principles of respect for the sovereignty of countries and for the human rights of people was an inspiration to his colleagues.  At meetings of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly as well as Commission hearings and events in Washington, the Senator particularly focused his work on promoting peace and stability in the Balkans, and tirelessly supported efforts to combat anti-Semitism.” “We continue to pursue Senator Voinovich’s vision for a Europe that is free and peaceful,” said Co-Chairman Wicker.  “Just last month, the Commission held a hearing on the Balkans that sought to build a better, more prosperous future for the region.  In the Senate, Senator Voinovich personally spearheaded the expansion of NATO to members of the Transatlantic Alliance who would otherwise have fallen prey to Russia.  He understood that as times change, one thing does not: America can still make a difference.  Senator Voinovich’s legacy is a reminder of this fundamental truth and an inspiration to all of us.”

  • 40th Anniversary of the U.S. Helsinki Commission

    Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, on June 3, 1976, U.S. President Gerald Ford signed into law a bill establishing the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, more commonly known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission. I bring this 40th anniversary next week to my colleagues’ attention today because the commission has played a particularly significant role in U.S. foreign policy. First, the commission provided the U.S. Congress with a direct role in the policymaking process. Members and staff of the commission have been integrated into official U.S. delegations to meetings and conferences of what is historically known as the Helsinki Process. The Helsinki Process started as an ongoing multilateral conference on security and cooperation in Europe that is manifested today in the 57- country, Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE. As elected officials, our ideas reflecting the interests of concerned American citizens are better represented in U.S. diplomacy as a result of the commission. There is no other country that has a comparable body, reflecting the singular role of our legislature as a separate branch of government in the conduct of foreign policy. The commission’s long-term commitment to this effort has resulted in a valuable institutional memory and expertise in European policy possessed by few others in the U.S. foreign affairs community. Second, the commission was part of a larger effort since the late 1970s to enhance consideration of human rights as an element in U.S. foreign policy decision-making. Representatives Millicent Fenwick of New Jersey and Dante Fascell of Florida created the commission as a vehicle to ensure that human rights violations raised by dissident groups in the Soviet Union and the Communist countries of Eastern Europe were no longer ignored in U.S. policy. In keeping with the Helsinki Final Act’s comprehensive definition of security—which includes respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as a principle guiding relations between states—we have reviewed the records of all participating countries, including our own and those of our friends and allies. From its Cold War origins, the Helsinki Commission adapted well to changing circumstances, new challenges, and new opportunities. It has done much to ensure U.S. support for democratic development in East-Central Europe and continues to push for greater respect for human rights in Russia and the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Commission has participated in the debates of the 1990s on how the United States should respond to conflicts in the Balkans, particularly Bosnia and Kosovo and elsewhere, and does the same today in regard to Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. It has pushed U.S. policy to take action to combat trafficking in persons, anti- Semitism and racism, and intolerance and corruption, as well as other problems which are not confined to one country’s borders. The Helsinki Commission has succeeded in large part due to its leadership. From the House, the commission has been chaired by Representatives Dante Fascell of Florida, my good friend STENY HOYER of Maryland, the current chairman, CHRISTOPHER SMITH of New Jersey, and ALCEE HASTINGS of Florida. From this Chamber, we have had Senators Alfonse D’Amato of New York, Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, Sam Brownback of Kansas and today’s cochairman, ROGER WICKER of Mississippi. I had the honor, myself, to chair the Helsinki Commission from 2007 to 2015. That time, and all my service on the commission, from 1993 to the present, has been enormously rewarding. I think it is important to mention that the hard work we do on the Helsinki Commission is not a job requirement for a Member of Congress. Rather than being a responsibility, it is something many of us choose to do because it is rewarding to secure the release of a longtime political prisoner, to reunify a family, to observe elections in a country eager to learn the meaning of democracy for the first time, to enable individuals to worship in accordance with their faiths, to know that policies we advocated have meant increased freedom for millions of individuals in numerous countries, and to present the United States as a force for positive change in this world. Several of us have gone beyond our responsibilities on the commission to participate in the leadership of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Representative HASTINGS served for 2 years as assembly president, while Representative HOYER, Representative ROBERT ADERHOLT of Alabama, and I have served as vice presidents. Senator WICKER currently serves as chairman of the assembly’s security committee. Representative Hilda Solis of California had served as a committee chair and special representative on the critical issue of migration. Today, Representative SMITH serves as a special representative on the similarly critical issue of human trafficking, while I serve as special representative on anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance. Our engagement in this activity as elected Members of Congress reflects the deep, genuine commitment of our country to security and cooperation in Europe, and this rebounds to the enormous benefit of our country. Our friends and allies appreciate our engagement, and those with whom we have a more adversarial relationship are kept in check by our engagement. I hope my colleagues would consider this point today, especially during a time when foreign travel is not strongly encouraged and sometimes actively discouraged. Finally, let me say a few words about the Helsinki Commission staff, both past and present. The staff represents an enormous pool of talent. They have a combination of diplomatic skills, regional expertise, and foreign language capacity that has allowed the Members of Congress serving on the commission to be so successful. Many of them deserve mention here, but I must mention Spencer Oliver, the first chief of staff, who set the commission’s precedents from the very start. Spencer went on to create almost an equivalent of the commission at the international level with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. One of his early hires and an eventual successor was Sam Wise, whom I would consider to be one of the diplomatic heroes of the Cold War period for his contributions and leadership in the Helsinki Process. In closing, I again want to express my hope that my colleagues will consider the value of the Helsinki Commission’s work over the years, enhancing the congressional role in U.S. foreign policy and advocating for human rights as part of that policy. Indeed, the commission, like the Helsinki Process, has been considered a model that could be duplicated to handle challenges in other regions of the world. I also hope to see my colleagues increase their participation on Helsinki Commission delegations to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, as well as at Helsinki Commission hearings. For as much as the commission has accomplished in its four decades, there continues to be work to be done in its fifth, and the challenges ahead are no less than those of the past.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Welcome Savchenko Release; Urge Russia To Comply With Minsk Agreements

    WASHINGTON – Following today’s release of Ukrainian fighter pilot Nadiya Savchenko from prison in Russia, 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 Nadiya’s long-overdue release, but we must not forget about other Ukrainian citizens unjustly imprisoned in Russia. We must also remember that Russia still occupies Crimea and continues its aggression in eastern Ukraine, bringing misery and suffering to millions of Ukrainians.” “Russia should honor the Minsk agreements – which it violates with impunity – if there is to be peaceful resolution to the conflict. Above all, Russia needs to get out of Ukraine.” Last September, the House passed a resolution calling for Savchenko’s release, which was strengthened by Chairman Smith’s amendment calling for the imposition of personal sanctions against individuals responsible for the imprisonment of Savchenko and other Ukrainian citizens illegally incarcerated in Russia. A resolution sponsored by Co-Chairman Wicker and Helsinki Commission Ranking Senate Commissioner Ben Cardin (MD) calling for her release passed the Senate in February 2015.

  • Combatting Corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina

    Twenty years ago, Bosnia and Herzegovina was beginning a process of recovery and reconciliation following the brutal conflict that marked its first four years of independent statehood and took outside intervention to bring to an end. The United States, which led that effort culminating in the Dayton Peace Accords, has since invested considerable financial and other resources to ensure the country’s unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as to enable a population devastated and traumatized by conflict to rebuild. Many European and other countries have as well. Today, beyond well-known ethnic divisions and weaknesses in political structure, Bosnia’s progress is stymied by official corruption to the detriment of its citizens’ quality of life and the prospects for the country’s integration into Europe. Amid recent press reports on scandals involving various government officials; public perceptions of corruption rank Bosnia and Herzegovina among the worst in the Western Balkans.    This hearing examined the current situation regarding corruption and its causes at all levels of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and looked at efforts by the United States and the international community, along with civil society, to combat it. It featured witnesses from OSCE, USAID, and from civil society. “Left unchecked, corruption will hinder Bosnia and Herzegovina’s integration into Europe and NATO,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Roger Wicker (MS), “Twenty years after Dayton there is no excuse for corruption and the risk it brings to prosperity for future generations.” Last year, Senator Wicker and Senator Shaheen (NH) were among a presidential delegation sent to Bosnia to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica. And in November of that year, they introduced the Bosnia and Herzegovina-American Enterprise Fund Act to grow small- to medium-sized businesses. The United States has a long-standing and deep commitment to maintaining the sovereignty, stability, and recovery of Bosnia, while fostering future prosperity within the country. Senator Wicker has seen a lot of progress since he first visited Bosnia in 1995, but he called for even more to be done by Bosnian officials and the international community. The first witness was Ambassador Jonathan Moore, head of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, he spoke on various topics and outlined the OSCE’s goals and plans for Bosnia. Beyond ending corruption, the OSCE seeks to revitalize the lagging education system and to combat violent extremism. He emphasized the importance of transparency, “It is clear that simply having laws and institutions is not enough.  Laws must be implemented and obeyed, and prosecutors and judges must do their jobs.  Furthermore, old patterns of political patronage must stop.” The next witness was the Honorable Thomas Melia, assistant administrator at USAID for Europe and Eurasia, who reinforced Amb. Moore’s testimony, focusing the economic ramifications of corruption. “Corruption leads to a weakening of democratic institutions, economic decay by discouraging investment, increased inequality, and deprives states of the resources they need to advance their own development.  In the wider European region, states weakened by corruption are also more susceptible to malign pressure and manipulation from Putin’s Russia, as any semblance of a rules-based order often seems to take a backseat to power, influence and greed.” The final two witnesses spoke of the bleak state of civil rights in Bosnia. Corruption has all but ended Bosnian citizens’ abilities to access justice, work out for a better life, and speak freely. Each of witnesses emphasized the need for further and tougher action; simply scolding officials is not enough. “Past experience shows that simply calling on leaders to undertake reforms and to take responsibility is not sufficient. Generating a genuine and articulated internal demand for reforms is key to achieving sustainable progress,” said Mr. Srdjan Blagovcanin, the third witness, is chairman of the board of the Bosnia Chapter of Transparency International. The final witness, Dr. Valery Perry, suggested that election reform was a necessary step to ending corruption in Bosnia. Co-Chairman Wicker was joined at the hearing by a panel of lawmakers including Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04), Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Representative Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Representative Scott Perry (PA-04).

  • Chairman Smith Holds Hearing on Terrorist Threats to European Jewish Communities

    WASHINGTON— The growing risks to European Jewish communities and the actions that countries should take to address the threats faced by their Jewish citizens was the focus of a hearing of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (aka, Helsinki Commission) chaired today by Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “The recent terrorist attacks in Brussels were reminders that Europeans of all religions and ethnicities are at risk from ISIS,” said Smith. “But there can be no European security without Jewish security. As we have seen so many times in so many places, violence against Jewish communities often foreshadows violence against other religious, ethnic, and national communities. ISIS especially hates the Jewish people and has instructed its followers to prioritize killing them. The group’s cronies targeted the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May 2014, the Paris kosher supermarket in January 2015, and the Great Synagogue in Copenhagen in February 2015, and murdered people in all of them.” Click here to read Chairman Smith’s opening statement. A number of other members of Congress spoke at the hearing, including Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), CSCE co-chairman, Rep. David Schweikert (AZ-06), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Alan Grayson (FL-09), and Rep. Randy Hultgren (IL-14). Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Jewish Affairs at the American Jewish Congress, and the OSCE’s Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson, thanked Smith for the “pioneering work” he has done in identifying and addressing the problem of anti-Semitism in Europe, and pressing the United States government and European States and in mobilizing the OSCE to confront the “age-old scourge” of anti-Semitism. “One of the problems we have faced and we continue to face is that governments are slow to recognize the very problem itself, let alone to marshal the necessary resolve and expertise to confront it,”  Baker testified. For the past two years, witnesses John J. Farmer, Jr., Rutgers University Professor of Law, has led an initiative at Rutgers designed to identify the best ways to protect vulnerable communities in light of the evolving threat.  "We have worked with U.S. communities to develop what FBI officials have called an 'off-ramp' to radicalization," said Farmer. "This is a time of particular peril for the Jewish future in Europe, and it is incumbent upon us to do what we can to assure that future." Jonathan Biermann, Brussels attorney and elected city councilman, and a former political adviser to the President of the Belgian Senate, the Development Minister, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, described the current atmosphere among Belgian Jews. “Community members are nowadays used to see Police, guards, military in front of Jewish buildings and schools,” Biermann said, recommending establishing Memorandums of Understanding as an important step. “Creating the tools to communicate amongst communities with the government will be considerably facilitated by the ‘See something Say something strategy,’”Beirmann said. “The collaboration with Law enforcement agencies has to be based on trust and confidence, in respect of international laws and rules protecting individual freedom, civil liberties and privacy.” Paul Goldenberg, a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, serve on the Countering Violent Extremism Sub-Committee, Co-Chair the Foreign Fighter Task Force and Vice-Chair of the Faith-Based Advisory & Communications Sub-Committee. He also works with the Faith-Based Communities Security Program at Rutgers University. He is Executive Director of the Crisis Cell for the Belgian Jewish community “I have made countless trips in recent months overseas, traveling to multiple European cities,” Goldenberg said. “What we have seen, heard and learned has confirmed our initial hypothesis: while the levels of cooperation and partnerships between Jewish and other minority religious communities with their respective policing services–in many parts of Europe–is as diverse as the communities themselves, more work needs to be accomplished to move closer to a medium and standard of safety and security. While this presents distinct challenges, there is also hope. For much of what we have learned, innovated, tested and improved upon here in the United States, as well as in other progressive nations, can be imparted to, and replicated by, many of our partners.” Smith also chairs the Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations subcommittee. Documents, video and other information about today’s CSCE hearing, will be posted here. In 2015, Smith held a hearing in, “After Paris and Copenhagen: Responding to the Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism,” on the crucial role of the U.S. and other participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in battling anti-Semitism and called for strong American leadership.

  • Anticipating and Preventing Deadly Attacks on European Jewish Communities

    This hearing was organized in response to the growing number of violent anti-Semitic attacks (namely Belgium, Copenhagen and Paris credited to ISIS), and assessed what needed to be done - particularly by law enforcement agencies - to anticipate and prevent future attacks against the European Jewish communities. The threat to Jewish communities comes not only from Islamic militants, but also from Neo-Nazi groups across the continent, and from acts of anti-Zionists. The panelists expressed concern over the low levels of cooperation and consistency  in government responses to this violence. Witnesses Rabbi Andrew Baker, Jonathan Biermann (from Brussels), John Farmer, Paul Goldenberg also discussed counter terrorism strategies and methods to improve security and cooperation.  They suggested plans to further engage Muslim communities on integration and to gain their inside knowledge on “potential radicals.” This led to a debate on the “see something, say something” policy, with the Jewish community as pilots. The panelists debated  whether the military could play a role in the implementation of this, or if it would be best to keep engagement solely with the local police. All agreed that collaboration with law enforcement agencies would have to be based on trust and confidence and be in respect of international laws and rules protecting individual freedom, civil liberties and privacy.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on the Prevention of Violent Anti-Semitic Attacks in Europe

    WASHINGTON – The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Anticipating and Preventing Deadly Attacks on European Jewish Communities” Tuesday, April 19 1:00 PM Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Violent anti-Semitic attacks doubled in some European countries between 2014 and 2015 – in some others they quadrupled. ISIS has instructed its followers to prioritize targeting European Jewish sites and killing European Jewish people. The terrorists who attacked the Jewish Museum of Belgium, Great Synagogue in Copenhagen, and kosher supermarket in Paris, all claimed ISIS allegiance. In the wake of the recent terrorist bombings in Brussels, the hearing will focus on violent threats to European Jewish communities from the full range of groups and individuals, and what needs to be done – particularly by law enforcement agencies – to anticipate and prevent future attacks. It will also feature lessons from the partnerships between Jewish communities and law enforcement agencies that can help counter terrorism and improve security in European countries more broadly.  Scheduled to testify: Rabbi Andrew Baker: Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office on Combating Anti-Semitism, and Director of International Jewish Affairs, American Jewish Committee Jonathan Biermann: Executive Director, crisis cell for the Belgian Jewish community John Farmer: Director, Faith-Based Communities Security Program, Rutgers University Paul Goldenberg: National Director, Secure Community Network

  • 'Don't let Azerbaijan use political prisoners as props'

    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 Azerbaijan

    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.

  • Germany’s Chairmanship of the OSCE: Priorities and Challenges

    At this hearing, the U.S. Helsinki Commission welcomed Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, H.E. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to discuss pressing issues in the OSCE region as Germany assumes the 2016 Chair-in-Office. Steinmeier began by honoring the historical connection between Germany and the institution of the OSCE. In his words, Germany would not forget the “instrumental work” of the Helsinki Commission and the “unequivocal support” of the U.S. in the reunification of the East and West. Steinmeier then introoduced the German theme for their chairmanship, "renewing dialogue, rebuilding trust, restoring security," and called for the return of strong cooperation with the application of OSCE commitments in the face of current conflicts, such as Russian aggression in Ukraine, terror and religious radicalism in the Middle East and Northern Africa, and the refugee crisis across Europe. Members included Chairman Rep. Christopher Smith, Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker, Commissioner, Senator Ben Cardin and Commissioner Rep. Joseph Pitts. Each raised their concerns, but in some instances also pressed Minister Steinmeier to take certain political action (e.g. to condemn the Azerbaijani government for unlawfully imprisoning journalist Khadija Ismayilova). Priorities were also set to advocate for freedom of the media, to fight against discrimination, racism, and intolerance, and to combat human trafficking. Both parties agreed that the year ahead would be challenging, but discussed strong policies to build a more peaceful, stable international system and to ensure comprehensive security.

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