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Criminal Defamation and “Insult” Laws: A Summary of Free Speech Developments in the Czech Republic
Wednesday, January 09, 2002

Numerous international documents, including those adopted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), establish freedom of expression as a fundamental right. The right to free speech, however, is not absolute. Consistent with international law, certain kinds of speech, such as obscenity, may be prohibited or regulated. When governments restrict speech, however, those restrictions must be consistent with their international obligations and commitments; for example, the restrictions must be necessary in a democratic country and proscribed by law. Criminal defamation and “insult” laws are often defended as necessary to prevent alleged abuses of freedom of expression. They are not, however, consistent with OSCE norms and their use constitutes an infringement on the fundamental right to free speech.

Criminal Defamation Laws

All individuals, including public officials, have a legitimate right to protect their reputations if untruthful statements have been made about them. Untrue statements which damage a person’s reputation constitute defamation. Oral defamation is known as slander; defamation in writing or other permanent forms such as film is libel. In some instances, criminal codes make defamation of public officials, the nation, or government organs a discrete offense, as distinct from defamation of a person. Truthful statements – as well as unverifiable statements of opinion – are not legally actionable as defamation. Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights has held that public officials must tolerate a greater degree of criticism than private individuals: “The limits of acceptable criticism are accordingly wider as regards a politician as such than as regards a private individual. Unlike the latter, the former inevitably and knowingly lays himself open to close scrutiny of his every word and deed by both journalists and the public at large, and he must consequently display a greater degree of tolerance.” (Lingens v. Austria, Eur. Ct. H.R., 1986.)

Criminal defamation laws are those which establish criminal sanctions for defamation. Those sanctions may include imprisonment, fines, and prohibitions on writing. Individuals convicted of defamation in a criminal proceeding and sentenced to suspended prison terms may be subjected to the threat of immediate imprisonment if, for example, they violate an order not to publish. The existence of a criminal record may also have other social and legal consequences. In a criminal defamation case, state law enforcement agents (police and prosecutors) act, using taxpayer money, to investigate the alleged defamation and to act on behalf of the alleged victim. It is sometimes argued that criminal defamation laws are necessary to achieve the legitimate goal of providing the victims of defamation with redress. But general laws against libel and slander, embodied in civil codes, provide private persons as well as public officials the opportunity to seek redress, including damages, for alleged defamation. In such cases, the plaintiff and defendant stand in court as equals. Accordingly, specific criminal laws prohibiting defamation are unnecessary.

“Insult” Laws

"Insult" laws make offending the "honor and dignity" of public officials (e.g., the President), government offices (e.g., the Constitutional Court), national institutions, and/or the “state” itself punishable. Unlike defamation laws, truth is not a defense to a charge of insult. Accordingly, insult laws are often used to punish the utterance of truthful statements, as well as opinions, satire, invective, and even humor. Although insult laws and criminal defamation laws both punish speech, significant differences exist between them. Defamation laws are intended to provide a remedy against false assertions of fact. Truthful statements, as well as opinion, are not actionable. The use of civil laws to punish defamation is permissible under international free speech norms. The use of criminal sanctions to punish defamation, however, chills free speech, is subject to abuse (through the use of state law enforcement agents), and is inconsistent with international norms. In contrast, recourse to any insult law, whether embodied in a civil or a criminal code, is inconsistent with international norms. Their Use Today

At one time, almost all OSCE countries had criminal defamation and insult laws. Over time, these laws have been repealed, invalidated by courts, or fallen into disuse in many OSCE participating States. Unfortunately, many criminal codes contained multiple articles punishing defamation and insult. Thus, even when parliaments and courts have acted, they have sometimes failed to remove all legal prohibitions against insult or all criminal sanctions for defamation. In communist countries and other anti-democratic regimes, such laws are often used to target political opponents of the government. Today, when insult and criminal defamation laws are used, they are most often used to punish mere criticism of government policies or public officials, to stifle political discussion, and to squelch news and discussion that governments would rather avoid. It is relatively rare for a private individual (someone who is not a public official, elected representative, or person of means and influence) to persuade law enforcement representatives to use the tax money of the public to protect their reputations. In some OSCE countries, such laws are still used to systematically punish political opponents of the regime. Even in countries where these laws have fallen into a long period of disuse, it is not unheard of for an overzealous prosecutor to revive them for seemingly political purposes. The International Context

Numerous non-governmental organizations have taken strong positions against criminal defamation and insult laws. These include Amnesty International; Article 19; the Committee to Protect Journalists; national Helsinki Committees such as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Croatian Helsinki Committee, Greek Helsinki Committee, Romanian Helsinki Committee and Slovak Helsinki Committee; the International Helsinki Federation; The World Press Freedom Committee; Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression; national chapters of PEN; and Reporters Sans Frontières. Moreover, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression issued a joint statement in February 2000 which included the following conclusions, based on relevant international norms:

  • “Expression should not be criminalized unless it poses a clear risk of serious harm. . . . Examples of this are laws prohibiting the publication of false news and sedition laws. . . . These laws should be repealed.”
  • “Criminal defamation laws should be abolished.”
  • “Civil defamation laws should respect the following principles: public bodies should not be able to bring defamation actions; truth should always be available as a defense; politicians and public officials should have to tolerate a greater degree of criticism. . . .”

Finally, the United States Department of State regularly reports, in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, on cases where criminal defamation or insult laws have been used and, at OSCE meetings, regularly calls for the repeal of such laws. Recent Free Speech Cases in the Czech Republic

Although the Czech Constitutional Court and the Parliament acted (in 1994 and 1997, respectively) to reduce the number of articles in the penal code under which one may be convicted for speech offenses, there has been no discernable decrease over the past decade in the volume of cases threatened or actually brought under the remaining provisions of law which permit criminal prosecution for one’s speech.

The following summary, based on available reports, describes cases that were at some stage of investigation or legal proceeding during 2001:

  • In December 2001, police asked that the parliamentary immunity of MP Ivan Langer be lifted in order to permit them to bring a charge against him of defaming businessman Peter Kovarcik.
  • Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman threatened in October 2001 to have criminal defamation charges brought against Peter Holub, editor of the political weekly Respekt, in an explicit effort to bankrupt the paper and force its closure. Zeman’s threats followed the paper’s reporting on corruption in the Czech Republic. Holub, in turn, accused Zeman of incitement to hatred of a group of people. This case has generated broad international condemnation.
  • On October 23, 2001, Frantisek Zamencnik, former editor-in-chief of Nove Bruntalsko, was sentenced to sixteen months in prison for criminal defamation in connection with his remarks regarding Bruntal Mayor Petr Krejci, Social Democrat Deputy Jaroslav Palas, and Ludmila Navarova, editor of a rival newspaper. Zamencnik had been convicted of criminal defamation twice before, but in those cases he was sentenced to suspended prison terms. The World Association of Newspapers has protested his most recent conviction and sentence.
  • On September 27, 2000, police charged Vratislav Sima, formerly an advisor to Prime Minister Milos Zeman, with criminal defamation in connection with his alleged role in an effort to discredit Social Democrat Chairwoman Petra Buzkova. Subsequently, Jiri Kubik and Sabina Slonkova, two journalists from Mlada fronta dnes, were charged with abetting a crime, a violation of article 166 of the penal code. (The underlying “crime” in this instance was Sima’s alleged defamation of Buzkova, a charge that in and of itself violated international norms.)
  • In October 2000, President Havel pardoned the two journalists, although the journalists subsequently called for the case to go to trial in order to establish a legal precedent regarding the right of journalists to protect their sources. The investigation of the journalists therefore continued until March 2001, at which time investigators concluded that Kubik and Slonkova had not committed any crime. The criminal investigation of Sima was not dropped until June 2001.
  • In September 2001, Minister of Interior Stanslav Gross announced that he would seek to prosecute Jan Kopal for anti-American statements. Kopal, a far right-wing political figure, reportedly said on September 15, “[a] country like the United States – which committed so much evil in the past, which essentially has been supporting international terrorism and participated in missions like Yugoslavia where innocent civilians were being murdered – does not deserve anything else but such an attack.” Kopal was charged with violating article 165 of the penal code (approving a criminal offense), punishable by one year in prison. (Interestingly, Gross had previously made remarks associating Kopal’s party with neo-Nazis and fascists, prompting Kopal to seek to have criminal charges brought against Gross in December 2000 for 1) defamation, 2) spreading false alarm, and 3) defamation of a nation, its language or a race or a group of inhabitants in the Republic because of their political conviction, religion or lack of religious faith.) Journalist Tomas Pecina, while stating that he disapproved of Kopal’s remarks, then asserted that he had to associate himself with Kopal’s remarks for the sake of defending Kopal’s right to free speech. On December 6, Pecina was arrested and also charged with approving a criminal offense. (Ironically, an opinion poll conducted in September suggested that a majority of those questioned believe that U.S. foreign policy was one of the causes of the September 11 terrorist attacks.2) At present, the charges against Kopal have reportedly been dropped, but the status of the charges against Pecina is unclear.
  • In September 2001, David Pecha, editor of the far left-wing paper Nove Bruntalsko, was indicted for criminal defamation (as well as supporting a movement aimed at suppressing human rights or which promotes national, racial, class or religious hatred, and spreading false alarm). In August 2001, Ministry of Justice Spokesperson Iva Chaloupkova reported that, during the first six months of 2001, seven people were convicted of criminal defamation. Three were given suspended sentences, three were fined, and one received no punishment.
  • In July 2001, two reporters from state-owned Czech Television reportedly sought to have criminal defamation charges brought against Vladimir Zelezny, Director of private television NOVA, in connection with Zelezny’s critical remarks about alleged Czech Television practices.
  • In May 2001, police reported that they were investigating the possible defamation of former Foreign Minister Josef Zielenic by current Foreign Minister Jan Kavan and Prime Minister Milos Zeman. In the same month, journalist Tomas Pecina was fined for failing to respond to police summonses for interrogation in connection with his articles criticizing police behavior. Miroslav Stejskal, Deputy Director of the Municipal Police force in Prague district 1, has reportedly begun an investigation of Pecina for the same writings.
  • On May 20 and August 24, 2001, Vilem Barak was interrogated on suspicion of having committed the crime of incitement not to fulfill, en masse, an important duty imposed by law (in this case, not to participate in the national census), in violation of article 164 of the penal code. Barak had disseminated leaflets warning that personal information gathered by the 2001 census would be insufficiently safeguarded and urging a boycott of the census.
  • In January 1998, police in Olomouc arrested and handcuffed television NOVA journalist Zdenek Zukal in connection with his 1997 reporting on alleged corruption in that locality. Zukal was originally charged with criminal defamation under article 206 of the penal code. One day before a presidential amnesty – which would have covered this offense – the charges were reclassified under article 174 and Zukal was charged with falsely accusing another person of a crime with the intent to bring about criminal prosecution of another, an offense that carries a maximum three-year prison sentence or eight years if the court determines the offender has caused substantial damage. No further prosecutorial action was taken until December 1999, when the case was revived. The case was still at trial as of June 2001 and, at the close of 2001, still appears to be before the courts. Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists have both protested this case.

In the decade since the Velvet Revolution, official censorship has completely ceased and the Czech Republic has witnessed tremendous improvements with respect to freedom of expression. At the same time, some problem areas remain. Leading political figures, such as current Prime Minister Milos Zeman and Speaker of the Parliament Vaclav Klaus (a former Prime Minister) are often openly hostile toward the media. Some politicians resort to criminal defamation charges as a means of silencing their critics; at a minimum, cries of “libel!” and “slander!” are popular substitutes for policy debate.

Finally, there are struggles in Czech society with the issue of “extremist” speech (emanating from both the far-right and the far-left) and the question of what are the acceptable parameters of public discourse. With respect to criminal defamation cases, President Vaclav Havel has pardoned many of those convicted. In other instances, those convicted have been given suspended jail sentences. Because such cases do not result in people actually going to prison for their words, they do not generate as much international scrutiny as, for example, the case of Zamencnik.

Nevertheless, the threat of imprisonment, the cost associated with defending oneself in a criminal trial, and restrictions associated with a suspended sentence (e.g., having to report to a parole officer, the possibility of being prohibited to write or publish, the possibility of being sent to jail without a new trial in the event that conditions of the suspended sentence are not met) all serve to chill free speech and the public debate necessary for a vibrant democracy.

Criminal defamation charges, however, are not the only laws used to restrict speech in the Czech Republic. There are also a number of laws that are not, per se, contrary to international norms but which may be used in ways that are inconsistent with the Czech Republic’s international commitments to free speech. One such law is the prohibition against spreading false alarm (article 199). Laws which prohibit “spreading false alarm” are justified as necessary to punish, for example, someone who falsely yells “fire” in a crowded theater or makes false bomb threats over the phone, acts which potentially or actually create a danger to the public and/or public panic.

Such laws, however, are not intended to gag journalists, quash political debate, or silence those who question the safety of the Temelin nuclear power plant. (Article 199 was used as a basis to deport Greenpeace demonstrators in July 2000 and a German environmentalist in March 2001.) Other criminal laws subject to abuse are the prohibition of defamation of a nation, race or group of people (article 197), the prohibition of incitement to hatred of another nation or race (article 198) and the prohibition against supporting a movement aimed at suppressing human rights or promoting national, racial, class or religious hatred (article 260). Such laws are generally justified as necessary to protect the most vulnerable minorities, and those who support them often point to the Czech Republic’s unhappy experiences with fascism and communism.

In addition, those who support such laws sometimes argue they are useful if not necessary tools to address the criticism that the Czech Republic has failed to do enough to combat racially motivated violence against Roma and others. In some cases, however, it appears that these laws are being used in ways that are not compatible with international free speech norms. In November 2001, a prosecutor in the Breclav region charged Roman Catholic Priest Vojtech Protivinsky with defamation of a nation, race, or group of people. In this case, the “group of people” were members of the unreconstructed, hardline Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia who were offended when Protivinsky actively called on people not to vote for them in upcoming elections. The case was cut short when President Havel pardoned Protivinsky.

In September 2001, David Pecha (case noted above) was charged with supporting a movement aimed at suppressing human rights, defamation and spreading false alarm. In June 2000, Michal Zitko, now 29, was charged with supporting a movement aimed at suppressing the rights and freedoms of citizens. His Prague-based publishing house, Otakar II, had issued a Czech-language edition of Mein Kampf. (Zitko had previously published the U.S. Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.) He was convicted later that year but, in February 2001, a higher court sent the case back to a district court for reconsideration in light of several errors identified by the higher court. In November 2001, Zitko’s conviction was upheld, and he was sentenced to three years in prison, suspended for five years, fined two million crowns, and ordered to report to a probation officer twice a year to prove that he is leading an orderly life.

Zitko, who has portrayed himself as an easy scapegoat for the government’s failure to prevent embarrassments such as the erection of the ghetto wall in Usti nad Labem, is appealing the decision. Sources include: Amnesty International; Article 19; Britske listy; the Committee to Protect Journalists; Czech News Agency; East European Constitutional Review; Freedom in the World (reports published by Freedom House); Index on Censorship; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; and U.S. State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices; World Press Freedom Committee. Relevant Czech Laws

News reports about persons charged with criminal defamation or “insulting” public officials, government offices or national institutions often do not cite the specific legal basis for the charges. In Czech Republic, the laws which appear to give rise to such charges include the following: Article 49 (1) (a) of the Simple Offenses Act provides that anyone who offends another person by insulting or exposing him or her to ridicule may be punished by a fine. Article 154(2) of the Penal Code prohibits gross insults or defamation of an organ of state administration in the exercise of its function or in connection with its function, punishable by up to one year in prison. Article 206 of the Penal Code prohibits the dissemination of false and discrediting information about another person, punishable by up to two years in prison. If the defamation occurs in the broadcast or print media, the punishment may increase to five years. In addition, someone convicted under this article may be banned from working as a journalist. Other Laws of Concern

The laws listed above are, on their face, inconsistent with international free speech norms. In contrast, the laws below are not, per se, in violation of international norms. Rather, they may be applied in a manner that unduly restricts free speech.

  • Article 164 of the Penal Code prohibits incitement to commit a criminal act or not to fulfill, en masse, an important duty imposed by law, punishable by up to two years in prison.
  • Article 165 of the Penal Code prohibits publicly approving of a crime or praising the perpetrator of a crime, punishable by up to one year in prison.
  • Article 166 of the Penal Code prohibits assisting an offender with the intent of enabling the offender to escape prosecution or punishment, punishable by up to three years in prison.
  • Article 174 of the Penal Code prohibits falsely accusing another person of a crime with the intent to bring about the criminal prosecution of that person. This crime is punishable by up to three years in prison or up to eight years of a court determines that the offender caused substantial damage.
  • Article 197 of the Penal Code prohibits defamation of a nation, its language or a race or a group of inhabitants in the Republic because of their political conviction, religion or lack of religious faith, punishable by up to two years in prison or three years if committed with at least two other people.
  • Article 198 of the Penal Code prohibits incitement to hatred of another nation or race or calls for the restriction of the rights and freedoms of other nationals or members of a particular race, punishable by up to two years in prison.
  • Article 199 of the Penal Code prohibits intentionally causing the danger of serious agitation among a part of the population by spreading false, alarming information (sometimes translated as “scaremongering”), punishable by up to one year in prison. If the information is transmitted to the mass media, to the police or other state organ, the crime is punishable by up to three years in prison.
  • Article 260 of the Penal Code prohibits supporting or propagating a movement aimed at suppressing human rights or which promotes national, racial, class or religious hatred, punishable by up to five years in prison. Punishment may be up to eight years in prison if the offender commits this act using the media, as a member of an organized group, or during a state defense emergency.
  • Article 261 of the Penal Code prohibits publicly expressing support for a movement aimed at the suppressing human rights or which promotes national, racial, class or religious hatred, punishable by up to five years in prison.
  • Article 261 (a) of the Penal Code prohibits publicly denying or approving or trying to justify Nazi genocide or other communist or Nazi crimes against humanity, punishable by up to three years in prison.

Note: After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia both inherited the former federation’s penal code. In the case of the Czech Republic, a new criminal law was adopted in 1993, retaining all the communist-era prohibitions on defamation. In 1994, the Czech Constitutional Court struck down those provisions of Article 102 which prohibited defamation of the parliament, the government, the constitutional court, and public officials. In 1997, Articles 102 (prohibiting defamation of the Republic) and 103 (prohibiting public defamation of the President) were repealed.

(1) In addition to the cases outlined here, news reports describe many other cases where prominent individuals are either the alleged victim or perpetrator of defamation, but the reports do not make clear whether the legal action was based on the civil code or criminal code.

(2) “Poll shows majority of Czechs blame US foreign policy for terror attacks,” Prague CT1 Television in Czech (September 22, 2001). Translation by Foreign Broadcast Information Service, September 23, 2001.

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  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest July 2022

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Condemns Execution of Democracy Activists in Myanmar

    WASHINGTON—Following the execution of four democracy activists by Myanmar’s military junta, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “I strongly condemn the execution of these courageous activists by Myanmar’s unelected and illegitimate regime. These men—Kyaw Min Yu, Phyo Zeya Thaw, Hla Myo Aung, and Aung Thura Zaw—were political prisoners who were deprived of their right to due process and a chance to defend themselves. The junta sentenced them to death in secret trials, once again demonstrating the complete lack of respect for human life and common decency as well as a total disregard for rules-based order by which countries should abide. “The regime has jailed thousands, including the Nobel Peace laureate and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, after seizing power in a coup in February 2021. Following a series of closed-door hearings and a string of trumped-up charges and convictions each carrying additional sentencing, she was sentenced to a total of 11 years in prison as of April 2022.  In an obvious attempt to ensure she is jailed for life, she still faces added bogus charges that could see her imprisoned for more than 190 years by some reports. This is appalling and concerning as the recent executions confirm that the junta will not hesitate to murder political prisoners to further strengthen their rule of terror. “The world should unite to pressure Myanmar to release all political prisoners. At least 117 activists have been sentenced to death since the coup. We must do everything in our power to ensure that they do not face the grim fate of their four compatriots.”

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Deplores Arrest of Ilya Yashin in Russia

    WASHINGTON—In response to the arrest of Ilya Yashin, a Russian politician critical of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Putin’s government has been engaged in a systematic assault on Russian citizens who dare speak the truth about Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine. Ilya Yashin, a Russian patriot and a fierce critic of the war in Ukraine, is one of the victims of this regime. “Ilya spoke out against the war despite the cynical law Russia has adopted that punishes people speaking the truth on this conflict with up to 15 years in prison. He was arrested on trumped-up charges and is facing a lengthy jail term for no crime other than publicly speaking out against Russia’s war in Ukraine. Ilya is a political prisoner and should be given all protections afforded by this status. The Russian government has a complete disregard for international law and customs but if they have an ounce of respect for their own laws, they will immediately release Ilya and other political prisoners.” Ilya Yashin, a co-founder of the Solidarity movement, is a member of a Moscow city district council. Throughout his career, he advocated for fair elections, rule of law, and democracy in Russia. Prior to his arrest, Mr. Yashin was one of the few Russian opposition activists who had not been killed, forced to flee, or imprisoned.

  • Wicker Stands in Solidarity With Russian Dissident

      WASHINGTON – Mr. President, I rise this afternoon to make sure that the plight of Russian leader Vladimir Kara-Murza is not forgotten. That the outrageous imprisonment of Vladimir Kara-Murza by the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is not forgotten. We remember three decades ago what hope we had for a new Russia. Russia entered a new age of possibility some three decades ago, after more than 70 years of communist repression, the Soviet order had collapsed, and with it the Iron Curtain that kept freedom away from millions was torn down. As the red flags came down in Moscow, the free world watched with anticipation, hoping that democracy and the rule of law might finally take root in a free Russia. Regrettably, that has not happened. Instead of democracy and freedom, the Russian people got Vladimir Putin, a man who has used his office to murder, imprison, and force into exile anyone who threatens his grip on power -- all the while, enriching himself beyond anyone's wildest imagination while ordinary Russians, especially out in the countryside of Russia, live in squalid conditions. One of his latest victims is Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian patriot and a friend I had the privilege of hosting in my office just four months ago. As a matter of fact, I have hosted him several times. Today, Vladimir Kara-Murza spends his days in a prison cell, where the only thing you can see through the window is a barbed wire fence. What was his crime? He simply spoke the truth about Putin's war on Ukraine. His trial, if it can even be called a trial, was held in secret. No journalists, no diplomats or spectators of any kind were allowed to be there. And for his offense of talking about the Russian war against Ukraine, he now faces up to 15 years in prison. This is not the first time the Russian dictator has tried to silence him. Mr. Kara-Murza has been poisoned twice, in 2015 and 2017, and almost died in both cases. Since then, his wife and three children have had to live abroad, though he himself has chosen to spend most of his time in Russia. In a recent interview with National Review, his wife, Evgenia explained why he insists on working in Russia: “He believes that he would not have the moral right to call on people to fight if he were not sharing the same risks.” Or as Mr. Kara-Murza put it in a recent CNN interview the day of his arrest. He said, “The biggest gift we could give the Kremlin would be to just give up and run. That's all they want from us.” What a contrast in character to the man currently running the Kremlin. The National Review's story goes on to describe Mr. Kara-Murza's courageous work for democracy through the eyes of his wife of Evgenia, as well as the costs that he and his family have endured along with so many other Russian dissidents. And, Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent at this point to insert the National Review story that I referred to into the record. Mr. Kara-Murza’s imprisonment is part of Mr. Putin's larger assault on what remains of political freedom in Russia. In Mr. Kara-Murza’s words, Putin's regime has gone, “from highly authoritarian to near totalitarian almost overnight.” In March, Russian officials passed a new censorship law, forbidding all criticism of Mr. Putin's war in Ukraine. That law has been the basis for more than 16,000 arrests since the war began in February, including that of Mr. Kara-Murza. Another 2,400 Russians have been charged with administrative offenses for speaking out against the war. Meanwhile, Putin's propaganda machine is ramping up. Independent Russian media outlets have all but vanished, having been blocked, shut down, or forced out of the country by the Kremlin. The last embers of freedom in Russia are going cold. Putin's crackdown on domestic freedom began in 2003, when Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested on trumped up charges of tax fraud after he simply criticized the government. A former member of the elite, Mr. Khodorkovsky, had successfully led the Yukos Oil Company through privatization after the Iron Curtain fell. And contrary to the Kremlin's claims, the company consistently paid its taxes. But that didn't stop Vladimir Putin from plundering its assets, throwing Mr. Khodorkovsky in jail, where he stayed for ten years. I would note that just before his arrest, Mr. Khodorkovsky displayed the same courage and patriotism that we now see in Vladimir Kara-Murza. Like Mr. Kara-Murza, he knew very well he could go to jail for speaking out against the government. But Mr. Khodorkovsky did so anyway and refused to flee the country, saying, “I would prefer to be a political prisoner rather than a political immigrant.” Of course, by then, Mr. Putin had already shown himself willing to violate the international laws of war, having leveled the Chechen capital of Grozny in his own Republic of Russia in 1999. In 2008, he launched a new assault on international law with the invasion of Georgia. In 2014 he started a bloody war in eastern Ukraine, and in 2016, Soviet Russian dictator Putin and his forces attacked the Syrian city of Aleppo, killing hundreds of civilians and prolonging the rule of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Putin ramped up his attacks on domestic freedom as well. In 2015 Boris Nemtsov, leader of the democratic opposition, former deputy prime minister of Russia, was shot to death in broad daylight just yards away from the Kremlin. Three months later, Mr. Kara-Murza was poisoned for the first time. More recently, in 2020, Alexei Navalny, the current leader of the opposition, was himself poisoned and had to seek treatment in Berlin. This is Vladimir Putin's Russia today. When Navalny recovered, he chose to return to Moscow, knowing the risks, and immediately upon landing, he was arrested. This is the deplorable state of Russia and freedom under Vladimir Putin. Time and again, he has shown that he is bent on stamping out the aspirations of his people for freedom and the rule of law. As leader of the free world, America must continue to condemn Putin's lawless acts and stand in solidarity with our Russian friends, who are courageously fighting against all odds for a better future in Russia -- and are suffering as a result. These are modern day heroes: Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and we should not forget them. My friend, the distinguished senior senator from Maryland, Senator Cardin and I, along with Congressman Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson, are the four House and Senate leaders of the Helsinki Commission, which monitors human rights and former Soviet countries. We recently sent a joint letter to President Biden calling on the administration to name and sanction all of those who have been involved in the arrest, detention and persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza. I issue that call again today, and I invite my colleagues from both parties to stand with Vladimir Kara-Murza and work for his release. Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.  

  • Helsinki Commission Deeply Concerned Over Latest Electoral Reform Initiative in Bosnia and Herzegovina

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and  Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) today expressed deep concern about an effort by the international community’s High Representative in Bosnia to impose changes on the country’s electoral system barely two months prior to general elections in early October. They issued the following joint statement: “We share the concerns of members of civil society, academia, and the political community in Bosnia and Herzegovina about the current proposal of the international community’s High Representative to make changes to Bosnia’s electoral system shortly before the upcoming general elections.  These changes effectively only benefit the leading ethnically-based political party among Bosnia’s Croats and further entrench the divisive force of ethnicity in Bosnian politics as a whole.  They fail to tackle the broader issues of citizen-based democracy that so obviously need to be addressed for the country to overcome destabilizing impasse and move forward. The timing of their introduction also is problematic. “The Helsinki Commission has long supported electoral reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina that remove ethnicity from governance. Such reforms should be designed to give citizens a wider range of truly democratic choices, an ability to hold their elected official accountable, a deserved sense of stability, and needed hope for European integration.  We also have supported a more assertive role for the international community and its representatives in the country, including the Office of the High Representative, in responding to the lack of democracy and stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, we believe that this specific action, if imposed now, will not represent the true progress Bosnia needs and may effectively make things worse.”

  • Helsinki Commission Urges Administration to Work to Free Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today released a letter urging the Biden Administration to “use every instrument in our toolbox” to free Russian political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza. The letter read in part: “The United States has a proud history of standing up for political prisoners and working relentlessly to help them return to freedom. We stared down the Soviet Union, Communist China, military regimes in Latin America and South-East Asia, and succeeded in helping secure the release of those who deserved freedom the most – innocent and peaceful activists and freedom fighters representing a vision for better governments in those countries. Mr. Kara-Murza represents a hope for a democratic Russia at peace with its neighbors and own citizens, and now is someone who the U.S. should advocate for his release… “The Helsinki Commission continues to raise the issue of political prisoners in Russia, Belarus, and other countries across the OSCE region, and specifically Vladimir Kara-Murza’s case…Now, we call on your Administration to use every instrument in our toolbox to secure the release of Mr. Kara-Murza. This is in the interest of our national security, his well-being, and importantly, the well-being of his incredibly brave children and spouse. Mrs. Kara-Murza and their three children reside in the U.S and despite the distance, the Kremlin has been poisoning – literally and figuratively – their lives for decades now. We should do everything in our power to help free Vladimir Kara-Murza and reunite him with his family.” On April 12, Vladimir Kara-Murza was arrested in Russia on charges of disobeying police orders when he allegedly “changed the trajectory of his movement” upon seeing Russian police officers at his home. This carried a 15-day sentence in jail. With five days remaining in his sentence, new charges were levied against him for spreading “deliberately false information” about Russia’s war on Ukraine.  He now faces up to 15 years in prison. On March 29, he testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing examining Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on truth, where witnesses discussed the Kremlin’s use of propaganda and censorship. “Those who speak out against this war are now liable for criminal prosecution,” he said. The Helsinki Commission has a long tradition of advocating on behalf of political prisoners worldwide. Earlier this month, Co-Chairman Cohen was appointed the first-ever OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners.

  • CO-CHAIRMAN COHEN APPOINTED AS OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE ON POLITICAL PRISONERS

    WASHINGTON—Margareta Cederfelt, President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), has appointed Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) as the first-ever OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners. “I welcome the chance to serve as the voice of political prisoners across the OSCE region,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Every day, we witness more political arrests of opposition politicians, journalists, activists and civilians in Russia, Belarus, and other participating States that are cracking down on free speech, freedom of the press, and free thought. Through this position, I am committed to working tirelessly to elevate the issue of political imprisonment as the egregious violation of human rights that it is.” In his new role, Co-Chairman Cohen will collect and share intelligence on political prisoners throughout the OSCE region; raise awareness of participating States with high rates of political prisoners; advocate for the release of political prisoners; and promote dialogue at the OSCE PA and OSCE executive structures about political imprisonment.  Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman Chris Smith were reappointed as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues, respectively.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSION DIGITAL DIGEST JUNE 2022

  • The Helsinki Process: An Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • European Energy Security Post-Russia

    Russia is weaponizing energy to prolong its unlawful invasion of Ukraine. Unfortunately, the sanctions that Europe and the United States have put in place have not been enough to curb Russian aggression thus far and the European Union pays Russia almost a billion euros a day for energy resources—mostly gas— that fund the Russian war machine.  Germany, in particular, has struggled to move away from its dependence on Russian gas. At the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany imported 55 percent of its gas from Russia. As of June 2022, Russian gas imports had decreased to 35 percent, with a goal to decrease to 10 percent by 2024, but progress is slow and buying any energy from Russia means that Germany continues to fund their unlawful invasion. Dr. Benjamin Schmitt, Research Associate at Harvard University and Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, pointed to the resurgence of Ostpolitik, a German diplomatic theory which seeks to build relationships and spread good governance through trade. First introduced in the Cold War era, Ostpolitik was put into action once more in the early 2000s by former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who became infamous for lobbying for Kremlin-backed projects in office and for sitting on the board of the Russian state-owned energy company, Gazprom, after leaving office. However, Russia attempted to leverage such projects, including the Nord Stream 1 project and its ultimately bankrupted predecessor, Nord Stream 2, to increase the vulnerability of Western Europe toward Russia. According to Dr. Constanze Stelzenmüller, Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, domestic political will exists in Germany to diversify energy sources, even if most are wary of making those changes immediately. German polling shows that one-third of Germans are willing to cut off Russian gas immediately, while two-thirds would prefer a slow gradual decrease in gas. Dr. Stelzenmüller explained that if Germany were to immediately cut off Russian gas supplies, it is likely that a recession would affect not only Germany, but also many surrounding Eastern European countries, most of which have less capacity to manage a recession. She stated, “Much of [Germany’s] manufacturing supply chains go deep into Eastern Europe. So, a recession in Germany would absolutely produce a massive, and perhaps worse, recession in our neighboring economies.”  Any actions taken against Russia should ensure that sanctions hit Russia harder than those countries imposing the sanctions. Mr. Yuriy Vitrenko, CEO of Naftogaz Ukraine, and Dr. Schmitt also emphasized the importance of the following recommendations outlined in the REPowerEU plan, the European Commission’s plan to make Europe independent from Russian energy before 2030, and the International Working Group on Russia Sanctions Energy Roadmap: Full European/US embargos on Russian gas. Creation of a special escrow account that will hold net proceeds due to Russia until the Kremlin ceases all hostilities. Diversification of energy dependance away from Russia through energy diplomacy that identifies other potential suppliers, like Qatar. Funding and construction of energy infrastructure around Europe. Termination of Gazprom ownership of all critical energy infrastructure in Europe. Designation of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, which would automatically trigger secondary sanctions on any country that imports Russian goods. Sanctioning of all Russian banks. Strengthening of Ukrainian capacity to participate in the energy sector through the creation of modern energy infrastructure during the post-war reconstruction period. Pass the Stop Helping America’s Malign Enemies (SHAME) Act, banning former U.S. government officials from seeking employment by Russian state-owned-enterprises, or Schroederization. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • European Energy Security Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: EUROPEAN ENERGY SECURITY POST-RUSSIA Tuesday, June 7, 2022 2:30 p.m. Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The United States and European allies have largely cut Russia out of the global economy following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, given European reliance on Russian natural gas and oil, sweeping energy sanctions have lagged. The European Union spends nearly a billion euros a day on Russian energy, and several EU Member States are struggling to wean themselves off Russian resources in order to implement a full embargo. This hearing will examine plans to create a Europe that is wholly free from Russian oil and gas. Witnesses will discuss the importance of a robust energy embargo to starving the Russian war machine; options to ensure that Ukraine’s energy needs are met; alternative sources of energy for Europe; and the perspective of Germany, which plays an outsize role as the most powerful economy in Europe and a primary consumer of Russian natural resources. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Yuriy Vitrenko, CEO, Naftogaz Ukraine Constanze Stelzenmüller, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution Benjamin Schmitt, Research Associate, Harvard University; Senior Fellow, Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis

  • Helsinki Commission Slams Legislation in Belarus that Would Extend Use of the Death Penalty to Pro-Democracy and Anti-War Activists

    WASHINGTON—Following the approval of legislation in Belarus that would apply the death penalty to pro-democracy activists and those opposing Russia’s war in Ukraine, and ahead of the May 21 commemoration of the Day of Political Prisoners in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “With these amendments to the criminal code, Aleksandr Lukashenko and other senior officials in his regime seek to frighten brave Belarusian citizens into silence. These craven attempts to mute pro-democracy and anti-war activists are doomed to fail. Belarusians have demonstrated time and again that they are stronger than those who seek to oppress them, and that they will not cower even in the face of outright death threats from authorities. “The real criminals here are Lukashenko and his henchmen who attempt to muzzle political opponents, civil society, and the free press. We demand that all political prisoners in Belarus be released, and that Belarusian authorities cease their attempts to terrorize those who freely speak their minds.” Earlier this week, Lukashenko approved changes to the Belarusian criminal code that would extend the use of the death penalty against those convicted of “attempted acts of terrorism.” According to the U.S. Department of State, the Lukashenko regime “has levied politically motivated charges of ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ against many of [Belarus’] more than 1,100 political prisoners and used such labels to detain tens of thousands more.”  

  • Chairman Cardin, Colleagues Introduce Resolution Calling for Release of Russian Opposition Leader Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, and colleagues introduced a resolution Monday honoring Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza and his work for “freedom, democracy and human rights for the people of the Russian Federation.” Kara-Murza was detained in Moscow outside of his home one month ago, just days after testifying before the Helsinki Commission. The resolution calls for his release and urges calls for the U.S. Government to support the cause of democracy and human rights in Russia. Sens. Marco Rubio (FL), Dick Durbin (IL), Jim Risch (ID), Bob Menendez (NJ), Roger Wicker (MS), Ron Johnson (WI), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Dan Sullivan (AK) and Chuck Grassley (IA) also are original cosponsors. “Vladimir Kara-Murza is a genuine hero, speaking truth to power in Russia, and mobilizing the world to support the Russian people,” said Chairman Cardin, who also is a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Without his leadership, several countries in Europe would not have enacted their versions of the U.S. Global Magnitsky laws that have broadened the impact of our own sanctions program.  We call for his immediate release form unjust imprisonment in Russia.” Last week, Chairman Cardin led a bipartisan letter calling on the Biden administration to sanction publicly “every Russian official and associate involved with the false arrest, detention, and political persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza.” The full text of the resolution follows. It is scheduled to be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. Calling for the immediate release of Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was unjustly detained on April 11, 2022. Whereas Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza (referred to in this preamble as “Mr. Kara-Murza”) has tirelessly worked for decades to advance the cause of freedom, democracy, and human rights for the people of the Russian Federation; Whereas, in retaliation for his advocacy, two attempts have been made on Mr. Kara-Murza’s life, as— (1) on May 26, 2015, Mr. Kara-Murza fell ill with symptoms indicative of poisoning and was hospitalized; and (2) on February 2, 2017, he fell ill with similar symptoms and was placed in a medically induced coma; Whereas independent investigations conducted by Bellingcat, the Insider, and Der Spiegel found that the same unit of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation responsible for poisoning Mr. Kara-Murza was responsible for poisoning Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and activists Timur Kuashev, Ruslan Magomedragimov, and Nikita Isayev; Whereas, on February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin launched another unprovoked, unjustified, and illegal invasion into Ukraine in contravention of the obligations freely undertaken by the Russian Federation to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the Minsk protocols of 2014 and 2015, and international law; Whereas, on March 5, 2022, Vladimir Putin signed a law criminalizing the distribution of truthful statements about the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation and mandating up to 15 years in prison for such offenses; Whereas, since February 24, 2022, Mr. Kara-Murza has used his voice and platform to join more than 15,000 citizens of the Russian Federation in peacefully protesting the war against Ukraine and millions more who silently oppose the war; Whereas, on April 11, 2022, five police officers arrested Mr. Kara-Murza in front of his home and denied his right to an attorney, and the next day Mr. Kara-Murza was sentenced to 15 days in prison for disobeying a police order; Whereas, on April 22, 2022, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation charged Mr. Kara-Murza with violations under the law signed on March 5, 2022, for his fact-based statements condemning the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation; Whereas Mr. Kara-Murza was then placed into pretrial detention and ordered to be held until at least June 12, 2022; and Whereas, if convicted of those charges, Mr. Kara-Murza faces detention in a penitentiary system that human rights nongovernmental organizations have criticized for widespread torture, ill-treatment, and suspicious deaths of prisoners: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate— (1) condemns the unjust detention and indicting of Russian opposition leader Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, who has courageously stood up to oppression in the Russian Federation; (2) expresses solidarity with Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, his family, and all individuals in the Russian Federation imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly, and belief; (3) urges the United States Government and other allied governments to work to secure the immediate release of Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, Alexei Navalny, and other citizens of the Russian Federation imprisoned for opposing the regime of Vladimir Putin and the war against Ukraine; and (4) calls on the President to increase support provided by the United States Government for those advocating for democracy and independent media in the Russian Federation, which Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza has worked to advance.

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