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Criminal Defamation and "Insult" Laws: a Summary of Free Speech Developments in Romania
Friday, May 24, 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 dollars 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. . . .”

(See: “Statement Regarding Key Issues and Challenges in Freedom of Expression,” agreed by Santiago Canton, OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression; Freimut Duve, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media; and Abid Hussain, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, February 2000, www.article19.org. See also “Insult Laws: An Insult to Press Freedom,” published by the World Press Freedom Committee.)

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.

Free Speech Cases in Romania

Since the end of the Ceausescu era, non-governmental human rights groups, free speech advocates, journalists’ associations and others have called for the repeal of Romania’s criminal defamation and insult laws. These laws have been widely criticized and their use documented, including by Amnesty International (www.amnesty.org), the non-governmental free speech watchdog Article 19 (www.article19.org), Freedom House, the Romanian Helsinki Committee, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Resolution 1123/1997), and the U.S. State Department (“Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” for calendar year 2001). While similar reports on other countries in Central Europe often detail specific cases of individuals charged with criminal defamation or insult, cases in Romania are so numerous they are often described not by individual names but, collectively, by triple-digit figures. For example, according to a statement by Article 19 and the Center for Independent Journalism, Romania, delivered at the March 2001 OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Expression – convened during the Romanian Chairmanship of the OSCE – official statistics indicated that over 225 people were in prison at that moment for speech “offenses” against the authorities. More recently, the Associated Press reported: “Currently some 400 journalists are being sued for libel and insulting authorities” (“Romania pledges to abolish communist-era laws restricting free speech,” May 5, 2002).

When individual cases are reported in detail, they illustrate the conflict between Romania’s criminal defamation/insult laws and basic free speech norms. For example, in December 2001, the General Prosecutor announced that he was investigating whether the singing of the Hungarian national anthem at a private meeting constituted a violation of article 236 (defamation of national symbols). That is, he used scarce taxpayer resources to consider whether people should actually be sent to prison, for up to three years, for singing.

Renewed calls for Romania to repeal articles of the criminal code that restrict free speech have often followed controversies triggered by government actions perceived as hostile to free speech and an independent media. In May 2001, Justice Minister Rodica Stanoiu called for increasing criminal penalties for defamation, exactly contrary to the recommendations of, i.a., the Council of Europe and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Although President Ion Iliescu and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase subsequently stated they did not support jail terms for press offenses, they failed to call for the full repeal of the range of articles in the penal code that, at present, still permit journalists and others to face criminal charges for their speech.

In January 2002, another controversy erupted when the General Prosecutor ordered the arrest of Ovidiu Cristian Iane and the search of Mugur Ciuvica’s home. The two men, a journalist and former government official respectively, were suspected of circulating email messages (under the title “Armageddon II”) accusing Prime Minister Nastase of corruption. These actions were portrayed by the General Prosecutor as damaging to national security and Romania’s international relations and a violation of article 168 of the criminal code (disseminating false information, a provision, in other penal codes, generally intended to cover acts that might create a threat to the public, such as making a false bomb threat). Although Prime Minister Nastase later acknowledged that he had overreacted, he failed to call for the full repeal of the range of relevant articles in the penal code.

The latest controversy unfolded after the Wall Street Journal published a report on May 3, 2002, entitled “Among NATO Applicants, Romania Draws Particular Scrutiny.” Romanian journalists then reported on the story, including the assertion that the continued presence of Securitate agents in Romania’s security services is a matter of concern in the context of Romania’s candidacy for NATO. On May 10, Minister of Defense Ion Mircea Pascu issued – in writing – a warning to journalists that “life is too short, and your health has too high a price to be endangered by debating highly emotional subjects.” In addition to heightening concern that old Securitate practices, if not actual agents, are alive and well in Romania’s security services, the written threat triggered yet another row between the government and journalists. On May 16, Minister Pascu issued another statement, saying he regretted that his May 10 statement had been misinterpreted and that it was only intended to be humorous.

The event nearly overshadowed an announcement by Prime Minister Nastase that the government plans to amend the criminal code to bring it into conformity with Romania’s free speech commitments. The government’s proposal, however, which would reduce prison terms for some speech offences but not actually repeal them all from the criminal code, falls short of what is needed to achieve the Prime Minister’s stated goals.

Relevant Romanian Laws

The articles of the Romania criminal code which are not consistent with Romania’s freely undertaken commitments are:

  • article 205 (insult; punishable by up to two years in prison);
  • article 206 (defamation; punishable by up to three years in prison);
  • article 236 (defamation of national symbols; punishable by up to three years in prison);
  • article 236/1 (defamation of the country or nation; punishable by up to three years in prison);
  • article 238 (insult or defamation of public officials; punishable by up to seven years);
  • article 239 (insult or defamation of civil servants; punishable by up to seven years in prison).

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

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    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “Internet Freedom in the Age of Dictators and Terrorists” March 3, 2016 10:00AM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 The original promise of the internet as a mechanism for free exchange of information and greater democratization seems a dream from a distant past. Authoritarian leaders in China, Russia and around the world seek to build walls around their country’s internet and censor incoming information and online discourse, while in free societies we are grappling with the right balance between security and privacy of online information in the face of terrorist threats. The briefing will focus on internet freedom broadly, including censorship and surveillance; and trends in how internet companies are evolving to handle increased government requests from law enforcement. In addition, panelists will discuss the role of export controls in ensuring that U.S. and European technologies do not contribute to human rights abuses. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Lisl Brunner, Director of Policy and Learning, Global Network Initiative Rebecca MacKinnon, Director, Ranking Digital Rights Tim Maurer, Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

  • OSCE Foreign Ministers Meet in Belgrade

    Serbia’s year-long chairmanship of the OSCE culminated in Belgrade in the annual meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council on December 3 and 4, 2015.  Key issues addressed in the context of Ministerial discussions included: Ongoing efforts to de-escalate the Russia-Ukraine crisis and the need for Russia to fully implement the Minsk Agreements. Reaffirmation of the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent commitments and the comprehensive nature of security (i.e., respect for fundamental freedoms within a state has an impact on the security between states). The assault on human dignity and human rights, including through terrorist attacks, the continued rollback on rights and freedoms in the OSCE area, and the refugee and migration crisis. Secretary of State John Kerry led the U.S. delegation, which also included Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Robert Berschinski; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia Daniel N. Rosenblum; and Helsinki Commission Senior Senate Staff Representative Ambassador David T. Killion. The atmosphere was strained, as tensions between Ukraine and Russia, Russia and Turkey, and Armenia and Azerbaijan spilled over into the negotiations. As Russia blocked virtually all decisions on human rights, as well as on the migration crisis and on gender issues, only a handful of documents were adopted. Successful declarations addressed recent terrorist attacks in the OSCE region, combating violent extremism that leads to terrorism, and addressing the illicit drug trade.

  • OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2015

    “The Human Dimension” is OSCE-speak for human rights, democracy, and humanitarian concerns.  When the Helsinki Final Act (HFA) was signed in Helsinki, Finland in 1975, it enshrined among its ten Principles Guiding Relations between participating States (the Decalogue) a commitment to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion" (Principle VII). In addition, the HFA included a section on cooperation regarding humanitarian issues that provided an umbrella for addressing (among other things) family reunification and working conditions for journalists. "The Human Dimension" was a term coined during the drafting of the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document to serve as shorthand to describe the human rights and humanitarian provisions of the agreements concluded within the framework of the Helsinki process. Today, it has come to include the OSCE’s watershed commitments on democracy, the rule of law, and free and fair elections. In any given year, the OSCE participating States address human dimension issues in multiple fora.  The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting – HDIM – attracts the largest number of participants, covers the greatest range of issues, and is open to participation by civil society. That work includes formal sessions on the full range of human rights  issues as well as rule of law, free elections, and democracy-building issues. National minorities, Roma, and tolerance and nondiscrimination are also on the agenda.  U.S. Delegation Led by David Kramer The 2015 HDIM was held September 21 to October 2 and drew 1,386 participants.  The U.S. delegation was led by David J. Kramer, Senior Director for Human Rights and Human Freedoms at the McCain Institute and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.  It also included U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Robert Berschinksi; Department of State Special Advisor for International Rights Judith Heumann; and Helsinki Commission Senior Senate Staff Representative Ambassador David T. Killion.  Helsinki Commission staff participated in all aspects of the delegation’s work. In addition to active engagement in the formal sessions, the United States participated in side events focused on specific countries or issues organized by civil society, OSCE participating States, or international organizations, and held numerous bilateral meetings with other delegations to raise and discuss human rights.  Special Advisor Heumann led a panel highlighting the importance of disability rights for OSCE countries as part of a U.S. side event cosponsored with Finland. Russia: External Aggression and Internal Repression During the HDIM, Russia’s aggression in and against Ukraine was raised in connection with almost every agenda item for the meeting.  The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) also issued a joint report prepared with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities detailing widespread human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea.  Increasing levels of repression within Russia also were raised throughout the HDIM and served to highlight the relationship between external aggression and internal repression. In early 2015, Boris Nemtsov, an advocate for the rule of law and accountability in Russia and an outspoken Russian critic of the Russian government’s war against Ukraine, was gunned down just outside the Kremlin.  Russia’s increasingly repressive government has eroded the democratic institutions that ensure a government’s accountability to its people. A free and independent media is virtually nonexistent and the remaining state-controlled media is used to propagandize disinformation, fear, bigotry, and aggression. Azerbaijan’s Record Draws Sharp Criticism In 2015 Azerbaijan unilaterally shuttered the OSCE Mission in Baku, effectively blocked the OSCE’s independent election observation in October, and sentenced journalist-heroine Khadija Ismayilova to 7 ½ years in prison for reporting on government corruption.  The government of Azerbaijan has also escalated pressure against the family members of its critics, in a further effort to stifle dissent.  As a consequence, throughout the HDIM, Azerbaijan was the subject of singular attention and criticism. In one particularly sharp exchange with the moderator during the discussion of fundamental freedoms in the digital age, Azerbaijan challenged its critics to name at least 25 of an estimated 100 political prisoners.  A partial list – 25 names – is below. Abilov, Abdul Aliyev, Intigam Aliyev, Nijat Akhundov, Rashadat Guliyev, Araz Hasanov, Nasimi Hashimli, Parviz Hazi, Seymur Ismayilova, Khadija Jabrayilova, Valida Jafarov, Rasul Karimov, Fara Mammadli, Anar Mammadov, Hilal Mammadov, Igar Mammadov, Omar Mirkadirov, Rauf Ramazanov, Rashad Rustamov, Aliabbas Rustamzada, Ilkin Seyidov, Elnur Yagublu, Tofig Yunusov, Arif** Yunus, Leyla** Zakharchenko, Irina **Leyla and Arif Yunus have been released from prison since the HDIM but remain under house arrest.

  • What is the OSCE Doing in Ukraine?

    In Ukraine, the OSCE monitors the cease-fire, weapons withdrawal, and overall security situation in eastern Ukraine. In addition, the OSCE has observed local elections and reports on widespread human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea. Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) Mandate adopted by consensus on March 21, 2014 and extended until March 31, 2016 634 international monitors as of November 18, 2015 Posts daily updates at OSCE.org Has encountered episodes of hostage-taking and been fired upon OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk Mandate adopted by consensus on July 24, 2014 Gathers information and reports on the security situation at the two checkpoints Minsk Agreement Adopted September 5, 2014, by Russia, Ukraine, and Russian-backed separatists under OSCE auspices OSCE tasked with monitoring its implementation, including the cease-fire and weapons withdrawal Minsk II Adopted February 11, 2015 Continues work of Minsk agreement OSCE Election Observation Observed local elections in 2015 Joint report by ODIHR & HCNM on Russian-occupied Crimea ODIHR and HCNM report released September 17, 2015, identifies widespread human rights violations

  • I Was Locked Up and Tortured by Putin’s Spooks

    Yuriy Yatsenko is an activist of the Euromaidan who was illegally imprisoned in Russia on political grounds and recently released. This is a shortened version of his testimony before the US Helsinki Commission in Washington on December 11, 2015. I am a Ukrainian citizen who was illegally arrested and detained by the Russian Federation for over a year for political reasons. Nadiya Savchenko, Oleg Sentsov and others who are less known have suffered and continue to suffer the same fate. In May 2014, I was in Russia's Kursk region with a friend on a business trip. During a routine document check that Russian police officers often practice, I was detained. At the police department, an FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) agent showed me a photograph of myself taken during the Euromaidan protests, which I suspect he had found on social media. The agent demanded that my friend and I provide false testimony; he wanted us to admit that we had been recruited by Right Sector or by the head of the Security Service of Ukraine to commit acts of terrorism in Russia. At the time, I was an ordinary student from western Ukraine and could not believe that such absurd accusations were being made against me. My western Ukrainian origin became an additional reason for Russian law enforcement personnel to harass me. After we refused to incriminate ourselves, they began beating us at regular intervals. We were also offered an option of going on Russian TV and giving a predetermined speech about being sent to Russia from Ukraine to commit subversive acts, but instead we turned to the FSB for protection to save us from the Ukrainian authorities and their persecution. We refused, so the harassment continued and turned into physical and psychological abuse. One FSB official threatened to hand me over to the president of Chechnya. At first, the abuse and the beatings were constant. I was regularly placed in punishment cells and solitary confinement. I remember one particularly brutal instance. Some special forces soldiers, wearing masks and uniforms bearing no insignia other than the colors of the Russian flag, put a bag over my head, took me into the woods and tortured me. They hanged me by my handcuffs for hours and beat me in the head, groin and other parts of the body. They strangled me. They also simulated an execution, firing a gun next to my head. The next morning, which was two weeks after my arrest, I used a shaving blade to cut my abdomen and the veins on my arms to stop this abuse. Only then was I taken to the hospital; there, I finally managed to inform my family about my whereabouts. Despite a court decision ordering our deportation, my friend and I were illegally kept at a special detention center for illegal immigrants for three months. During this period, beatings and torture were constant. Three months later, my friend was released and taken to the Ukrainian border, while I was suddenly charged with possessing explosives. The court found me guilty in spite of the absurdity of these accusations and the absence of any evidence. At first, I was sentenced to two years in prison, but an appeals court reduced the sentence to nine months. By that time, I had already spent a year in detention, so I was released. The fact that I'm free now is a testament to the publicity campaigns, international pressure and coordinated work of human rights advocates and lawyers. When I was in detention, guards informed me from time to time that another article about my case appeared in the press, or that another press conference dedicated to my case was held. They seemed to be alarmed by this activism, and kept saying that it should be stopped, that everything should be "done quietly." That is why public events in support of prisoners are extremely important; they signal to the repressive regime that it is being watched closely and that none of the prisoners are forgotten. At least 13 Ukrainians are detained illegally somewhere in the Russian Federation, and at least eight prisoners are being held in occupied Crimea, both Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. The criminal cases against them are fabricated, most have been brutally tortured and some have been deprived of their right to meet with an attorney or a Ukrainian consul for over a year. These are people of various ages, professions and politics, but they share one thing—their lives have become an instrument of Russian state-sponsored propaganda that has created the image of Ukraine as a mortal enemy. Kremlin officials constantly look for ways to justify their hybrid war in Ukraine, which is why innocent Ukrainian citizens are proclaimed to be terrorists, spies and fascists. I appeal to you on behalf of the #LetMyPeopleGo campaign. There are no independent courts in Russia; this is why politically motivated cases have no chance of being decided fairly. Only international pressure can help achieve the release of those detained. We are waiting for the return of Savchenko, Olexandr Kolchenko, Sentsov, Gennadiy Afanasiev, Olexii Chirnii, Sergiy Lytvynov, Mykola Karpiuk, Stanislav Klyh, Olexandr Kostenko, Haiser Dzhemilev, Yurii Soloshenko, Valentyn Vyhyvskii and Viktor Shur. We also demand that Russia stop occupying Crimea and that Akhtem Chyihoz, Ali Asanov, Mustafa Dehermendzhy, Yuriy Ilchenko, Ruslan Zaytullaev, Nuri Primov, Rustam Vaytov and Ferat Sayfullaev be freed. It is likely that this list is incomplete. Nevertheless, we demand that Russia release all of its prisoners who have been subject to politically motivated persecution.

  • It's Time to Hold the Azerbaijan Regime Accountable

    Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's habit of brutally silencing dissent may be finally catching up with him. A new bill introduced in Congress last month would require the U.S. State Department to deny visas to senior members of Aliyev's government until the country can prove it has ceased harassment of independent media and NGOs and made significant progress toward freeing its political prisoners. Despite facing long odds, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 marks a major turning point. For years, the United States has struggled to muster any real condemnation of Azerbaijan's government, one of the most corrupt and repressive in the world. U.S. officials and lawmakers still routinely refer to their Azerbaijani counterparts as "friends" despite the fact that the former Soviet country's latest crackdown has been accompanied by a general turn away from the West. Or should we say partial turn. Azerbaijan wants to be at the table with Western nations when money is up for grabs, but it hasn't acquired the same taste for values about human rights and dignity. This juxtaposition was perhaps most apparent earlier this year when the country hosted the inaugural European Games, a 17-day competition featuring 6,000 athletes from 50 countries. The capital city of Baku spared no expense to project a modern, glamorous image during the event--even flying in Lady Gaga for a surprise performance. For many people, it was a first glimpse of Azerbaijan. But that glimpse was carefully choreographed. Foreign reporters who agreed to play by the government's rules were rewarded with access to the games; others,including Guardian sports correspondent Owen Gibson, were banned from attending after calling out human rights abuses in the country. What the cameras did not capture that night was the escape of Emin Huseynov, the founder of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, who fled Azerbaijan for Switzerland on the private plane of the Swiss foreign minister. Huseynov first sought refuge at the Swiss embassy ten months earlier after Azerbaijani authorities raided his office. Other human rights advocates and journalists have not been as fortunate. Within a 10-day period in August 2014, Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, and Leyla and Arif Yunus all were arrested. They were later subjected to speedy show trials resulting in lengthy prison sentences for crimes they did not commit. Leyla and Arif, both seriously ill, have recently been released to serve suspended sentences but still face charges of treason. Employees of Meydan TV, whose founder reported receiving a high-level threat during the European Games, have been barred from leaving Azerbaijan, repeatedly questioned at the prosecutor's office, and detained without cause. Their families have also faced pressure. Two brothers of editor Gunel Movlud are currently being held on bogus drug charges. Most tragically, in August, Rasim Aliyev, a journalist and chairman of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, died after he was severely beaten by attackers. Although the assault was reportedly connected to a criticism Aliyev made of a soccer player on Facebook, Aliyev had previously experienced threats against his life. The attack was one of hundreds against Azerbaijan's journalists in the past decade, including at least two other murders. Quiet diplomacy from the United States and the European Union has failed to reverse Azerbaijan's relentless pursuit of critics and civil society groups. The State Department called Leyla Yunus' release earlier this month a "welcome" development and a "positive step." Meanwhile, the deputy chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, was arrested the day before, and the treason trial of dissident journalist Rauf Mirqadirov is still underway. But perhaps President Aliyev's luck is running out. In November, in an unprecedented step, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, its Parliamentary Assembly, and the European Parliament all canceled monitoring missions to Azerbaijan to protest the irregularity of the country's parliamentary elections. Last month, Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, made a bold move of his own, announcing an inquiry into Azerbaijan's implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights. And on the same day, U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act and held a hearing on the case of Khadija Ismayilova, one of the few journalists in Azerbaijan who dared to report on corruption among the country's ruling elite. Ismayilova was arrested last year and is now serving a seven and a half-year prison sentence. Ismayilova has kept up the pressure on her country even from behind bars. On the eve of the European Games, with the help of Sport for Rights, a coalition of international press freedom groups that recently published a report on Azerbaijan's human rights record, she managed to get a letter out of jail to The New York Times. "The truth is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a human rights crisis. Things have never been worse," she wrote, urging the international community: "Do not let the government of Azerbaijan distract your attention from its record of corruption and abuse." Maybe now the world is ready to listen.

  • Attacks on Press Freedom in Azerbaijan Investigated at Congressional Hearing

    WASHINGTON—At a hearing convened today by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) and other lawmakers examined the plight of political prisoners in Azerbaijan and in particular the imprisonment of journalist of Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist known for her reports into the wealth of the senior leadership of the Government of Azerbaijan. “Much of Khadija’s reporting was done as a journalist for U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. This means that the U.S. government has a special obligation to do everything it can to secure Khadija’s release,” said Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “Our government must take every opportunity, must leave no stone unturned, in the effort to secure her release. The State Department must make Khadija’s release a true diplomatic priority.” Following several months of harassment by Azerbaijani authorities, Ms. Ismayilova was arrested on spurious charges in December 2014. RFE/RL was subsequently raided and closed by the Government of Azerbaijan. After a lengthy trial that was widely condemned by the international community for numerous irregularities, in September Ms. Ismayilova was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison. Her appeal was denied on November 25. “Human rights organizations have documented Azerbaijan’s crackdown on civil society over the last three years,” Rep. Smith continued. “The human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Azerbaijan, causing damage to its relations with the United States and other countries, and has damaged its own society by imprisoning or exiling some of its best and brightest citizens. The time has come to send a clear message.” Nenad Pejic, Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of Programming at RFE/RL, testified at the hearing. He said, “The arrest and imprisonment of Khadija Ismayilova and the closure of RFE/RL’s Baku bureau represent a targeted and coordinated effort by the country’s most senior leadership to punish journalists who report on the government’s corruption, silence independent journalism, and end RFE/RL’s operations in Azerbaijan.” “[We urge] the Commission, the Obama Administration, and Members of Congress to raise the issue of restrictions on freedom of the press in meetings with senior Azerbaijani officials, to demand the immediate release of all Azerbaijani journalists, to put an end to these trumped-up prosecutions, to abandon the practice of collective punishment and to investigate the murders of journalists,” said Delphine Halgand, the U.S. director of Reporters Without Borders. “President Obama should meet with Khadija Ismayil’s mother, and members of Congress visiting Azerbaijan should visit Khadija Ismayil in prison,” said T. Kumar, International Advocacy Director for Amnesty International USA. The Helsinki Commission has long pressed the Government of Azerbaijan to end its repression of the political opposition, journalists, and religious minorities. Earlier today, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, landmark legislation to deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government following years of systematic efforts by the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In 2015 alone, the Commission has issued numerous statements on the rapid decline of human rights in the country and held a November briefing examining how the government of Azerbaijan uses its judicial system to intimidate and imprison critics of the government.

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Acts to End Human Rights Violations in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—Following years of systematic efforts by the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) today introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, a landmark bill that will deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government. “We recognize that there are important national security and economic ties that exist between our two countries, but the United States can no longer remain blind to the appalling human rights violations that are taking place in Azerbaijan,” said Rep. Smith. “Journalists and activists are routinely arrested and imprisoned; opposition politicians are in jail and elections are not free and fair; human rights lawyers have been harassed and disbarred; and religious freedom is under attack.  The Azerbaijan Democracy Act demonstrates that the United States takes human rights and fundamental freedoms seriously, and that we will not compromise when faced by a government that represses the political opposition, the media, and religious minorities.” 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. “It is unacceptable that senior members of the Azerbaijani government are free to visit the United States while courageous women and men like investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, attorney Intigam Aliyev, opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov, and activist Anar Mammadli are locked away in prisons with inadequate access to legal or even medical assistance,” Rep. Smith said. “If they can pay the price for standing up for human rights, the least we can do is to stand with them.” Rep. Smith is a long-standing advocate for human rights in Azerbaijan. Following the introduction of today’s legislation he will chair a 2PM hearing to examine Azerbaijan’s persecution of Ms. Ismayilova, who was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in early September.

  • U.S. Bill Seeks Sanctions On Azerbaijani Officials For 'Appalling' Rights Record

    A U.S. lawmaker has introduced legislation that would deny U.S. visas to senior Azerbaijani officials due to what he calls Baku's "appalling human rights violations." U.S. Representative Chris Smith (Republican-New Jersey) introduced the bill, titled the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, in the House of Representatives on December 16. "The human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Azerbaijan, causing damage to its relations with the United States and other countries, and has damaged its own society by imprisoning or exiling some of its best and brightest citizens," Smith told a hearing of Congress's Helsinki Commission held in conjunction with the announcement of the legislation.

  • Human Rights Violations in Russian-Occupied Crimea

    The briefing reviewed the current condition of life in Crimea under Russian rule. Panelists highlighted the illegal nature of Russian rule over the peninsula and described the human rights abuses commited by the new authorities. Several of the panelists described the propaganda campaign and censorship that the Russian government has been carrying out to tighten its grip on the peninsula. Participants also outlined possible responses by the international community -- particularly sanctions -- to address the situation in Crimea.

  • Chairman Smith Underscores Plight of Political Prisoners in OSCE Region on International Human Rights Day

    WASHINGTON–To mark International Human Rights Day on December 10, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “The number of political prisoners is growing in several OSCE countries. For example, Russian human rights organization Memorial estimates that there are currently 50 political prisoners in Russia – a spike in recent years. Their so-called ‘criminal’ activities include protesting Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, blogging on police misbehavior, or exchanging open source information with a foreign research partner. “The government of Azerbaijan has in recent years imprisoned scores of people—including human rights activists and journalists. The recent release of Leyla and Arif Yunus is a positive first step. President Aliyev now must insist that the spurious charges against not only the Yunuses, but also against Khadija Ismayilova, Intigam Aliyev, and many other political prisoners, be dropped. “The number of political prisoners in central Asia has been high for years and it is not declining. In Turkmenistan, former Foreign Ministers Batyr Berdiev and Boris Shikmuradov are just two of the more than 100 people who have disappeared into Turkmenistan’s prison system, which is known for shockingly terrible conditions. In Tajikistan, members of the opposition Islamic Renewal Party of Tajikistan have been arrested, alongside the lawyers who tried to defend them. Uzbekistan has jailed human rights activists, members of certain religious groups, and journalists – including Muhammad Bekjanov, who has been held since 1999 – after poorly conducted trials and despite allegations of torture and abuse.” “On International Human Rights Day, I call on the OSCE to place the release of political prisoners at the top of the organization’s agenda.” Smith also issued a statement calling on the administration to sanction the Chinese government egregious human rights violations. December 10, International Human Rights Day, commemorates the Universal Declaration on Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

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