Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Serious Decline in Respect for Human Rights in AzerbaijanThursday, October 29, 2015
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “The Rule of Law and Civil Society in Azerbaijan” Thursday, November 5 2:00PM Cannon House Office Building Room 311 The last two years have witnessed a precipitous decline in the respect for rule of law and human rights in Azerbaijan. Many independent civil society organizations have been forced to close due to onerous regulations, threats of intimidation, or the arrest of the organization’s leaders. Independent media has been severely curtailed or closed down. Opposition parties are harassed and often shut out of the election process. High-profile politicians are serving lengthy prison sentences on charges that many observers believe were politically motivated. This briefing will have a particular focus on the rule of law and how the government of Azerbaijan is using its judicial system to intimidate and imprison critics of the government. The briefing will also analyze the results of the November 1 parliamentary election and its implications for Azerbaijan’s future direction. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Ambassador Richard Morningstar, US Ambassador to the Republic of Azerbaijan from July 2012 to August 2014 and Founding Director of the Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council Natalia Bourjaily, Vice President – Eurasia, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Dinara Yunus, Daughter of imprisoned Azerbaijani human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus
The Russian Government Violates Its Security, Economic, Human Rights Commitments and AgreementsThursday, October 22, 2015
Mr. Speaker, yesterday I chaired a hearing of the Helsinki Commission that examined the Russian government’s repeated violations of its international security, economic, and human rights commitments. In accord with the three dimensions of security promoted by the OSCE and the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the Commission looked at Russia’s respect for the rule of law through the lens of three ‘‘case studies’’ current to U.S.-Russian relations—arms control agreements; the Yukos litigation; and instances of abduction, unjust imprisonment, and abuse of prisoners. Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, we face a set of challenges with Russia, a founding member of the organization, that mirror the concerns that gave rise to the Helsinki Final Act. At stake is the hard-won trust between members—now eroded to the point that armed conflict rages in the OSCE region. The question is open whether the principles continue to bind the Russian government with other states in a common understanding of what the rule of law entails. In respect of military security, under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum Russia reaffirmed its commitment to respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and existing borders. Russia also committed to refrain from the threat or use of force or economic coercion against Ukraine. There was a quid pro quo here: Russia did this in return for transferring Soviet-made nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil to Russia. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in the Donbas region not only clearly violate this commitment, but also every guiding principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. It appears these are not isolated instances. In recent years, Russia appears to have violated, undermined, disregarded, or even disavowed fundamental and binding arms control commitments such as the Vienna Document and binding international agreements, including the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF), and Open Skies treaties. In respect of commercial issues, the ongoing claims regarding the Russian government’s expropriation of the Yukos Oil Company are major tests facing the Russian government. In July 2014, GML Limited and other shareholders were part of a $52 billion arbitration claim awarded by the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In response, the Russian government is threatening to withdraw from the ECHR and seize U.S. assets should American courts freeze Russian holdings on behalf of European claimants, while filing technical challenges that will occupy the courts for years to come. All of this fundamentally calls into question Russia’s OSCE commitment to develop free, competitive markets that respect international dispute arbitration mechanisms such as that of the Hague. I note that U.S. Yukos shareholders are not covered by the Hague ruling for their estimated $6 billion in losses. This is due to the fact that the United States has not ratified the Energy Charter Treaty, under which European claimants won their case, as well as the continued absence of a bilateral investment treaty with Russia. This has handicapped U.S. investors in Russia’s energy sector, leaving them solely dependent of a State Department espousal process with the Russian government. We were all relieved to learn that Mr. Kara-Murza is recovering from the attempt on his life—by poisoning—in Russia earlier this year. His tireless work on behalf of democracy in Russia, and his personal integrity and his love of his native country is an inspiration—it is true patriotism, a virtue sadly lacking among nationalistic demagogues. Sadly, the attempt on Mr. Kara-Murza’s life is not an isolated instance. Others have been murdered—most recently Boris Nemtsov—and both his and Mr. Kara-Murza’s cases remain unsolved. In other cases, such as the abductions, unjust imprisonments, and abuses of Nadiya Savchenko, Oleg Sentsov, and Eston Kohver, we are dealing the plain and public actions of the Russian government. Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot and elected parliamentarian, was abducted by Russian government agents, imprisoned, subjected to a humiliating show trial, and now faces 25 years in prison for allegedly murdering Russian reporters—who in fact were killed after she was in Russian custody. Meanwhile, a Russian court has sentenced Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov on charges of terrorism. Tortured during detention, Sentsov’s only transgressions appear to be his refusal to recognize Russia’s annexation of the peninsula and his effort to help deliver food to Ukrainian soldiers trapped on their Crimean bases by invading Russian soldiers. And the kidnaping and subsequent espionage trial against Estonian law enforcement officer Eston Kohver demonstrates the Russia’s readiness to abuse its laws and judicial system to limit individual freedoms both within and beyond its borders. The Magnitsky Act that I had the honor to co-sponsor was in part meant to address human rights abuses such as these. It sanctions those involved in the abuse, and works to discourage further human rights violations while protecting those brave enough to call attention to their occurrence. It troubles me greatly to hear that the Administration’s listings of sanctioned individuals has thus far only targeted ‘minor players,’ rather than those who pull the strings.
Helsinki Commission Chair Chris Smith Shines Light on Egregious Rule-of-Law Abuses by Russian GovernmentWednesday, October 21, 2015
WASHINGTON—At a Congressional hearing today, the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, spotlighted the many recent violations of the rule of law committed by the Russian government. “Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, we face a set of challenges with Russia, a founding member of the organization, that mirror the concerns that gave rise to the Helsinki Final Act,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who called the hearing. “At stake is the hard-won trust between members, now eroded to the point that armed conflict rages in the OSCE region. The question is open whether the principles continue to bind the Russian government with other states in a common understanding of what the rule of law entails.” “Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in the Donbas region not only clearly violate this commitment, but also every guiding principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. It appears these are not isolated instances. In recent years, Russia appears to have violated, undermined, disregarded, or even disavowed fundamental and binding arms control commitments,” Smith continued. “[I also] question Russia’s OSCE commitment to develop free, competitive markets that respect international dispute arbitration mechanisms...[and recent government actions] demonstrate Russia’s readiness to abuse its laws and judicial system to limit individual freedoms both within and beyond its borders.” Witness testimony highlighted case studies corresponding to each of the three dimensions of comprehensive security established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE): politico-military security; economic and environmental security; and human rights and fundamental freedoms. Tim Osborne, executive director of GML Ltd., the majority owner of the now-liquidated Yukos Oil Company, said, “It is clear that the Russian Federation is not honoring its obligations and commitments under the rule of law or in a manner consistent with the Helsinki process. Russia’s tendency, more often than not, has been to ignore, delay, obstruct or retaliate when faced with its international law responsibilities…Russia cannot be trusted in international matters and that even when it has signed up to international obligations, it will ignore them if that is what it thinks serves it best.” “Russia had engaged in the uncompensated expropriation of billions of dollars of U.S. investments in Yukos Oil Company,” observed former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs Ambassador Alan Larson. “American investors—who owned about 12 percent of Yukos at the time of the expropriation—have claims worth over $14 billion, and they are entitled to compensation under international law even though they have no option for bringing claims directly against the Russian Federation.” Vladimir Kara-Murza, a well-known Russian activist and the coordinator of the Open Russia Movement, said, “Today, the Kremlin fully controls the national airwaves, which it has turned into transmitters for its propaganda…the last Russian election recognized by the OSCE as conforming to basic democratic standards was held more than 15 years ago.” “There are currently 50 political prisoners in the Russian Federation,” Kara-Murza continued. “These prisoners include opposition activists jailed under the infamous ‘Bolotnaya case’ for protesting against Mr. Putin’s inauguration in May 2012; the brother of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny; and Alexei Pichugin, the remaining hostage of the Yukos case.” “A clear pattern emerges when one looks at Russia’s implementation of its arms control obligations overall,” observed Stephen Rademaker, former Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and Nonproliferation. “Should Moscow conclude such agreements have ceased to serve its interest, it will ignore them, effectively terminate them, violate them while continuing to pay them lip service, or selectively implement them…Russia believes that this is how great powers are entitled to act, and today Moscow insists on acting and being respected as a great power.” Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a panel of lawmakers including Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) and Representative Robert Aderholt (AL-04).
Bipartisan Congressional Delegation Represents US at OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; Also Visits Ukraine, Czech RepublicMonday, August 17, 2015
Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act established the precursor to today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), five members of the Helsinki Commission and four other members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Helsinki to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere. Led by Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger F. Wicker (MS), the bicameral, bipartisan delegation organized by the Helsinki Commission included Commission Chairman Representative Chris Smith (NJ- 04); House Commissioners Robert B. Aderholt (AL-04), Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Alan Grayson (FL-09); and Representatives Gwen Moore (WI-04), Michael Fitzpatrick (PA-08), Richard Hudson (NC-08) and Ruben Gallego (AZ-07). Before attending the Annual Session from July 5 to 7, several members of the delegation also visited Ukraine and the Czech Republic. A central concern to the delegation throughout the trip was Russia’s restrictions on democracy at home and aggression in Ukraine, along with Russia’s threat to European security.
Northern Ireland: Stormont, Collusion, and the Finucane InquiryWednesday, March 18, 2015
This hearing, presided over by Christopher H. Smith (NJ-04), focused on the ongoing efforts for accountability, justice and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It also focused on recent revelations of British government collusion in crimes committed by paramilitaries during the Troubles and the government’s response to these revelations.
Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs to Testify at Helsinki Commission HearingWednesday, February 18, 2015
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Serbia’s Leadership of the OSCE” Wednesday, February 25, 2015 2:30PM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Serbia’s 2015 Chairmanship-in-Office of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) comes at a pivotal point in European security. The OSCE, a regional security organization based known for its work in promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, operates on the front lines of Russia-Ukraine conflict and seeks to counter backsliding on human rights in other countries of the OSCE region. Serbia’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, H.E. Ivica Dačić, will testify before the Helsinki Commission in his capacity as Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE. He takes the helm to conclude the implementation of a joint leadership plan developed with Switzerland, which chaired the OSCE in 2014. Minister Dačić is expected to discuss the Serbian Chairmanship-in-Office’s priorities, including resolution of the conflict in and around Ukraine; reconciliation and cooperation in the Western Balkans; reforming security sector governance; combating transnational threats, including foreign terrorist fighters, terrorism, and cyber-security; safeguarding journalists; fostering freedom of expression, assembly, and association; combating organized crime and its linkages to human trafficking; combating corruption; and improving water governance. He will also provide insights regarding the ongoing work of the OSCE.
Helsinki Commission Chair Calls for Huseynov’s Safe Passage Out of AzerbaijanThursday, February 12, 2015
WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s disclosure that Azerbaijani press freedom advocate Emin Huseynov has spent the past six months sheltering in the Swiss Embassy in Baku, Helsinki Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statement: “Through the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), Emin Huseynov has worked tirelessly to defend journalists and promote media freedom in Azerbaijan. I appeal to President Aliyev to immediately allow Mr. Huseynov to leave the Swiss Embassy and give him safe passage out of Azerbaijan. Sadly, the persecution of Mr. Huseynov is part of a larger crackdown on human rights activists – I have met some of their family members and friends, and join my voice to those calling for their release.” Mr. Huseynov heads the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), an independent NGO that has provided training and legal support to journalists under threat in Azerbaijan since 2006. Approximately eight months ago, the Azerbaijani authorities froze IRFS’ bank account and seized the organization’s computers and other work materials. Mr. Huseynov was forbidden to leave the country and sought asylum in the Swiss Embassy after learning that he was likely to be arrested.
Rep. Chris Smith, Sen. Roger Wicker to Lead Helsinki CommissionWednesday, February 04, 2015
WASHINGTON—Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) has been appointed by Speaker of the House John Boehner as chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, during the 114th Congress. Senator Roger Wicker (MS) has been appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to co-chair the Commission. “Today, the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act are under attack. The Russian government is blatantly violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” said Chairman Smith. “More than 20 million people are trafficked each year for sexual or other forms of exploitation. Journalists in the OSCE region are being imprisoned, tortured, and even murdered for exposing corruption or publishing controversial pieces. In Europe, violent anti-Semitism is again rearing its ugly head, and in some OSCE countries religious people face restrictions and even persecution merely for practicing their faith.” “The United States must advocate much more vigorously for those who are victims and are voiceless. As the chair of the bipartisan, bicameral Helsinki Commission, I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms and to safeguard the principles shared by the 57 participating States of the OSCE,” said Chairman Smith, who has been an active member of the Helsinki Commission since 1983. “I am pleased to join Chairman Smith and the other members of the Helsinki Commission in defending democratic values and the rule of law,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Peace and security are under threat in the wake of escalating Russian aggression – impacting our economic and strategic interests in the region. This situation calls for a unified response from the United States and our OSCE partner countries. We should work together to ensure a safe, free, and prosperous Europe for this generation and those that follow.” Chairman Smith has previously chaired the Commission and serves as a member of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), which facilitates inter-parliamentary dialogue among the 57 participating States; he is also the OSCE PA’s Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. Senator Wicker also serves as a member of the OSCE PA, where he chairs the Committee on Political Affairs and Security.
Chairman Smith and Rep. McGovern Introduce “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act”Friday, January 30, 2015
WASHINGTON—Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-02), today introduced the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” (H.R. 624). The bill prohibits foreign human rights offenders and corrupt officials operating anywhere in the world from entering into the United States and blocks their U.S. assets. It effectively globalizes and strengthens the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012,” which was directed at individuals and entities from Russia. “The ‘Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act’ is a game-changer, and demonstrates America’s commitment to protecting human rights worldwide,” said Chairman Smith. “We are sending a message to the world’s worst human rights violators: we will shine a spotlight on your crimes. We will deny your visas. We will freeze your assets. No matter who you are or how much money you have, you won’t be enjoying the fruits of your misdeeds by visiting the United States or taking advantage of our financial institutions.” “We have made important progress in the last few years,” Rep. McGovern said. “But since the introduction of the original Magnitsky Act, human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists worldwide have urged us to pass a law that covers similar violations in countries other than Russia. Through the Global Magnitsky Act, we can better standardize our approach to human rights violators and provide clear guidance to the executive branch on how we expect these perpetrators to be held accountable.” “Conscripting child soldiers, kidnapping political opponents, and brutalizing people based on their religion are horrifying acts for which people must be held accountable – and this bill will do it,” said Chairman Smith. “The earlier Magnitsky Act enjoyed overwhelmingly bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. I expect the Global Magnitsky Act to move forward with the same level of commitment in both chambers, and on both sides of the aisle.” Earlier this week, Senators Ben Cardin (MD) and John McCain (AZ) introduced similar legislation in the Senate, which also applies worldwide and employs visa bans and property freezes. Unique aspects of the House bill include the requirement that the President impose sanctions if he or she determines that a foreign person has committed gross human rights offenses. The bill also permits the President to sanction perpetrators regardless of whether the victims were exercising or defending basic human rights; requires that the annual Global Magnitsky List be released each year on Human Rights Day; and directs the Comptroller General to assess and report on implementation. Both the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” and the earlier “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012” were inspired by Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and imprisoned by the Russian government following his investigation into fraud involving Russian officials. He was beaten to death by prison guards in 2009 after being held in torturous conditions for 11 months without trial. Summary: The “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” This act requires the President to publish and update a list of foreign persons or entities that the President determines are responsible, and who the President has sanctioned, for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights – including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, and prolonged, arbitrary detention – or significant corruption. Known as the Global Magnitsky List, the list will be due annually on December 10 (Human Rights Day). Although the bill directs the President to prioritize cases where the victims were seeking to exercise or defend internationally recognized human and rights and freedoms, like freedom of religious, assembly, and expression, or expose illegal government activity, the President can act regardless of the victim. Sanctions on these individuals and entities will include: Prohibiting or revoking U.S. visas or other entry documentation for foreign individuals. Freezing and prohibiting U.S. property transactions of a foreign individual or entity if such property and property interests are in the United States; come within the United States; or are in, or come within, the control of a U.S. person or entity. This act also requires the Comptroller General of the United States to assess the implementation of the law and report to Congress, so that Congress can ensure it is being executed fully.
U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Slams Verdicts in Navalny TrialWednesday, December 31, 2014
WASHINGTON—Following Tuesday’s guilty verdicts and subsequent sentencing of Alexei and Oleg Navalny in Moscow, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “I am deeply troubled by the guilty verdicts handed down in the latest manipulation of Russia’s so-called justice system against brothers Alexei and Oleg Navalny. The decision further demonstrates how the Russian government has warped what should be an independent voice and check on executive power into a tool to retaliate against its political opponents, continuing its ongoing crackdown on civil society in general. “By punishing those who dare to voice their dissent, the Russian government undermines only itself. The Russian people deserve better than leaders who attempt to strangle their freedoms under the guise of deterring criminal activity. As I noted in my statement Tuesday regarding the addition of names to the U.S. government’s visa ban and asset freeze lists, accountability and transparency are sadly lacking in President Putin’s Russia. “I remind Russia, as an OSCE participating State, that the Helsinki Final Act establishes principles and commitments including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms within states which it has pledged to uphold. I urge the government of Russia to uphold its obligations and commitments to respect the freedoms of expression, assembly and of the media. The Russian people must be allowed the right to voice their opinions openly, without fear of retaliation by their own government.” Alexei and Oleg Navalny were accused by the Russian authorities of fraud, charges which are viewed as politically motivated; Alexei Navalny is Russia’s leading anti-corruption crusader and a key member of the political opposition. In 2010, Alexei Navalny appeared at a Helsinki Commission briefing on fraud schemes in the Russian market.
U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Welcomes Additions to Magnitsky ListTuesday, December 30, 2014
WASHINGTON—Following Monday’s addition of four Russian individuals to the Magnitsky List by the Obama Administration, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “I welcome the announcement made by the Obama Administration that it has added four additional individuals to the visa ban and asset freeze lists mandated under the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. I applaud the work of the U.S. Departments of State and Treasury to continue to focus attention on Russian government officials implicated in the death of Sergei Magnitsky and to demonstrate America's willingness to penalize human right violators when their own country refuses to act. "These sanctions are not sanctions against Russia, but against individuals who have committed serious human rights violations against Russians. The American people will continue to support Russians like Sergei Magnitsky who speak out about injustice and seek redress. “While I am pleased that additional names have been added to the Magnitsky List, there remain a significant number of Russians – both government officials and private individuals – against whom evidence exists of their involvement in the conspiracy and cover-up of Magnitsky’s death in 2009, but who have yet to be added to the visa ban and asset freeze lists. I strongly encourage the Administration to continue its examination of the information available with regard to these individuals and add them to the List. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act must continue to be used to demonstrate to the world that the voices of those who seek justice and who speak out about human rights violations are heard and valued by the United States of America.”
The Gang: 15 Years On and Still SilentWednesday, December 17, 2014
Orest Deychakiwsky, Policy Advisor of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, presided the briefing on the screening of the documentary, "The Gang: 15 Years and Still Silent", with the participation of Freedom House and The German Marshall Fund. The documentary told the story of three opposition politicians and one journalist that disappeared under unknown circumstances. Mr. Deychakiwsky was joined by Raisa Mikhailovskaya, a prominent Belarusian human rights defender and producer of the documentary, and Irina Krasovskaya, co-founder and president of "We Remember Foundation", which seeks justice for the politically oppressed in Belarus.
U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Notes Challenges, Need for Action on International Human Rights DayWednesday, December 10, 2014
WASHINGTON—To mark International Human Rights Day, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: "It has been a difficult year for those of us who are active in human rights in the OSCE region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has flagrantly violated the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act, exacerbated regional security, and further revealed the weaknesses of Russia’s own democracy . The space for civil society – the guardians of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms – is shrinking in more than a few of our participating States, including Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary, breeding abuse of power and corruption. We have been appalled by violent anti-Semitic attacks and a rising tide of intolerance across the OSCE region against minorities and other vulnerable populations. Uzbekistan holds the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist, who languishes alongside of thousands of political prisoners. "Clearly, the challenges for the countries of the OSCE are as great as ever. We look forward to supporting Serbia’s 2015 chairmanship of the OSCE, which offers an opportunity both for the country and for the organization. As the effective successor to the only country to be suspended from the Helsinki process, Serbia is a concrete example of how a country can turn things around and how the OSCE can contribute. "In particular, we urge Serbia to build on decisions adopted at last week's Basel Ministerial Council on combating anti-Semitism and corruption. These are challenges faced by virtually every OSCE participating State. We hope that Serbia will move forward with conviction to support these initiatives and to defend and advocate for the Helsinki principles throughout the region." December 10, International Human Rights Day, celebrates the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.
U.S. Helsinki Commission to Host Premiere Screening of "The Gang"Wednesday, December 10, 2014
WASHINGTON—The U.S. Helsinki Commission, with the participation of Freedom House and the German Marshall Fund of the United States, today announced the following event: The Gang: 15 Years On and Still Silent A Documentary about Enforced Disappearances in Belarus Wednesday, December 17 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm United States Capitol Visitor Center, Room HVC-201 First Street, SE, Washington, DC In 1999 and 2000, during the first presidential term of Alexander Lukashenka, four prominent leaders were abducted in Belarus: Viktar Hanchar, a member of the dissolved parliament; Anatoly Krasovsky, his close associate; Yuri Zakharenka, a former Minister of the Interior; and Dmitri Zavadski, a journalist known for his critical reporting. Each of the cases has remained under separate investigation, plagued by minimal progress and multiple inconsistencies. Fifteen years later, as the statute of limitations is running out, a leading Belarusian human rights defender meticulously analyzes rare documentary evidence, including the testimonies of family members, lawyers, and former Belarusian investigators, to piece together a nuanced and unsettling picture that links the unsolved disappearances together. The Gang examines the complicity of senior Belarusian officials in the enforced disappearances, alongside the failure of the Belarusian authorities to properly investigate. The premiere screening of the film is open to the public, and will be followed by a discussion with Raisa Mikhailovskaya, producer and prominent Belarusian human rights defender, and Irina Krasovskaya, co-founder of the We Remember Foundation and the widow of the disappeared businessman Anatoly Krasovsky.
Helsinki Commission Chairman Urges Russia to Cease Blatant Violations of OSCE PrinciplesFriday, December 05, 2014
WASHINGTON—On the conclusion of the December 4-5 OSCE Ministerial Council in Basel, Switzerland, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statement: “The OSCE Ministerial this year has been exceptional. I welcome the fact that an overwhelming majority of OSCE countries condemned the unlawful occupation of Crimea, defended the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and called for Russia to end its support for violence in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s illegal activities in Ukraine have violated the most fundamental principles of the Helsinki Final Act, on which the OSCE is based. “Moving forward, the OSCE must focus on the implementation of its core commitments. The OSCE PA has spoken to this issue by passing a resolution I introduced in July, calling on Russia to cease its clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of Helsinki principles, not only in Ukraine but regarding other neighbors and at home as well. “Other serious human rights concerns in the OSCE region were spotlighted by the absence of some leading figures from this year’s Ministerial meeting. “While Turkmenistan’s current ambassador to the OSCE addressed his counterparts in Basel, the fate of his predecessor, Batyr Berdiev – as well as some 100 other prisoners – remains unknown. I welcome the Swiss Chairmanship’s efforts to address the issues of torture and enforced disappearances during their chairmanship and call on Turkmenistan to tell the families of Ambassador Berdiev and the other disappeared persons what has happened to their loved ones. “In addition, Rasul Jafarov was prevented from leading a civil society discussion on freedom of expression in Basel. Jafarov remains imprisoned in Azerbaijan in retaliation for his activism. Eldeniz Hajiyev, another human rights activist, was unable to travel to Basel because she is under house arrest in Baku. I commend the 43 OSCE countries which worked to advance an OSCE decision on freedom of expression and urge Azerbaijan to cease its flagrant persecution of independent civil society activists.”
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The Tyranny You Haven't Heard OfSunday, November 30, 2014
You could call it a stealth North Korea: a country in the same league of repression and isolation as the Hermit Kingdom, but with far less attention paid to its crimes. The country is Uzbekistan, one of the Central Asian nations that emerged out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991. It has brought some unique touches to the conduct of a dictatorship. When political prisoners have served their full terms, they often have their sentences extended for violations such as improperly peeling carrots in the prison kitchen or failing to sweep their cells correctly. At harvest time, millions of students, teachers and other workers are temporarily enslaved to pick cotton to the profit of the regime. It has been known to boil its prisoners alive. But in most ways, it is a classic, hard-core police state, among the worst in the world. Like Zimbabwe, it has a president who will not go away: Islam Karimov, who assumed power as Communist Party boss in 1989. After a quarter-century, Karimov, 76, appears as ensconced as ever, though Uzbekistan’s GDP per capita of $3,800 puts it 171st in the world. Like China, it had its Tiananmen Square massacre: the shooting of hundreds of unarmed protesters in the city of Andijan in 2005, after which the government ramped up its repression nationwide. And like North Korea, it confines in brutal conditions thousands of political prisoners. How many thousands? Probably not the 80,000 to 120,000 who populate North Korea’s gulag. Human rights groups have offered estimates of 10,000 or 12,000. But, as Human Rights Watch noted in a recent report, no one really knows, because, like North Korea, “Uzbekistan has become virtually closed to independent scrutiny.” Foreign correspondents and human rights monitors generally are not granted visas. No U.N. human rights expert has been allowed in since 2002. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is permitted almost everywhere because it never publicly embarrasses a country, had to pull out of Uzbekistan last year because of interference in its attempted prison visits. Drawing the curtains has helped Uzbekistan avoid scrutiny. But the nation has stayed below the radar for another reason, too: The United States and other Western nations have been reluctant to confront Karimov and his regime. They have needed to ship military supplies through Uzbekistan to reach Afghanistan. And as Russian President Vladimir Putin has become increasingly hostile, the West has competed with him for the favor of neighboring nations. Thus the tenor of this White House summary of a telephone call between President Obama and Karimov in 2011, unimaginable if Kim Jong Un had been on the other end of the line: “President Obama congratulated President Karimov on Uzbekistan’s 20 years of independence, and the two leaders pledged to continue working to build broad cooperation between our two countries. The President and President Karimov discussed their shared desire to develop a multi-dimensional relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan, including by strengthening the contacts between American and Uzbek civil societies and private sector.” Never mind that Karimov has virtually eradicated Uzbekistan’s “civil sector.” It’s hard to read of such a phone call without thinking of, say, Muhammad Bekjanov, 60, possibly the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist. Uzbek security agents kidnapped Bekjanov in 1999 in Ukraine, where he was living in exile. He has been beaten, shocked, subjected to temporary suffocation (the “bag of death”) and tortured in other ways. He has contracted tuberculosis, and beatings have cost him most of his teeth and much of his hearing. When his term was set to expire in 2012, he was sentenced to another five years for unspecified “violations of prison rules.” Bekjanov’s crime was to have served as editor of an opposition party newspaper. “There may be legitimate national security concerns that the U.S. needs to engage on,” Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told me. “That doesn’t mean you have to shove everything else under the rug.” There are some encouraging signs that Congress, at least, may be lifting a corner of that rug. In October the congressional Helsinki Commission, which is chaired by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and co-chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), held a briefing on political prisoners in Uzbekistan. Last week eight senators, including Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), sent Karimov a letter urging the release of five prisoners, including Bekjanov. These are small steps, but they shine some light on Uzbekistan’s crimes. Karimov cares about his reputation, his access to Western weaponry and his officials’ freedom to travel to Europe and the United States. If Obama also would take some small steps, it might make a big difference to the inmates of Uzbekistan’s invisible gulag.
U.S. Helsinki Commission Marks Five-Year Anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky’s DeathMonday, November 17, 2014
WASHINGTON—Sunday, November 16 marked the five-year anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested by the Russian government following his investigation into fraud involving Russian tax officials. He died in prison after being held for 11 months without trial. U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “It is with sadness and respect that we mark the 5th anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky at the hands of Russian government authorities. During the past five years, the crimes that Sergei first exposed have been further documented. Despite credible evidence of criminal conduct resulting in Mr. Magnitsky’s death, Russian government officials have failed to bring those responsible to justice. “Perhaps worse, the facts of the case – including misappropriation of Russian tax resources and the ensuing cover-up by Russian government officials – have been distorted, to the extent that the Russian government has posthumously prosecuted the late Mr. Magnitsky for the financial crimes perpetrated by those answerable for his death. “After five years, my outrage at the continuing refusal of Russian leaders’ to confront their own transgressions in the death of Sergei Magnitsky has not abated. Instead, I continue to be amazed at how Russian authorities continue to concoct conspiracy theories attributing blame to others, with tragic consequences: they prohibit their young people from participating in U.S. high school exchange programs, strangle political activity and civic involvement of NGOs, and restrict the media. “The Russian government has forsaken its obligation to ensure for citizens of the Russian Federation the freedoms of expression, assembly and the right to fair, impartial judicial processes. This rejection has consequences for Russia and its people; for its neighbors, especially Ukraine; and more broadly for us all. “As we remember Sergei Magnitsky and his sacrifice for justice and transparency in Russia, we and our partners must reaffirm our unwavering support for the international commitments to basic freedoms. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, enacted in 2012, must continue to be used to demonstrate to the world that the voices of those who seek justice and who speak out about human rights violations are heard and valued by the United States of America.”
Annual OSCE Human Rights Meeting Dominated by Russia and UkraineThursday, November 06, 2014
Representatives of governments and civil society from OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, from September 22 to October 3, 2014 for the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The meeting was organized by the OSCE office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) under the leadership of its newly-appointed Director Michael Link. This year’s annual OSCE human dimension implementation meeting drew 1,225 participants from 53 countries, including 700 NGOs. There were an unprecedented 82 side events on specific countries or issues. The session on tolerance and nondiscrimination was the most oversubscribed of the three-hour sessions with 85 people vying for the speaker’s list. Other specific topics for HDIM sessions included violence against women, rights of migrants and right of national minorities. In this issue: About the U.S. HDIM Delegation Russia Takes Propaganda Campaign to Warsaw OSCE Ambassadors Visit Auschwitz Civil Society Speaks Up
Imprisoned in Uzbekistan: Politically Motivated CasesTuesday, October 28, 2014
David Killion, chief of staff at the Commission, addressed the limited freedom of expression in the former USSR and the imprisonment of those who speak out against their governments. Uzbekistan was the focus of the briefing, as it has one of the highest numbers of persons imprisoned on politically motivated charges of any former Soviet country. Human rights activists, journalists, and members of certain religious groups fall victim to restrictive laws and policies that curb basic human rights. He was joined by Steve Swerdlow, Sanjar Umarov, Aygul Bekjan, and Cathy Cosman, who emphasized the consistent reports of widespread abuse and torture in Uzbekistan’s prisons, more than a decade after the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur on Torture concluded that torture was "systematic" in the country's prisons and detention camps. They referenced the Human Rights Watch report that detailed the cases of 34 of Uzbekistan’s most prominent individuals imprisoned on politically-motivated charges, from poor conduct of trials to mistreatment in prison.
Helsinki Commission to Hold Briefing on Politically and Religiously Motivated Imprisonment in UzbekistanWednesday, October 22, 2014
WASHINGTON–The United States Helsinki Commission today announced a briefing: “Imprisoned in Uzbekistan: Politically Motivated Cases” Tuesday, October 28, 2014 11:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Uzbekistan has one of the highest numbers of persons imprisoned on politically motivated charges of any former Soviet country. Human rights activists, journalists, and members of certain religious groups fall victim to restrictive laws and policies that curb basic human rights. In addition, there are consistent reports of widespread abuse and torture in Uzbekistan’s prisons, more than a decade after the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur on Torture concluded that torture was "systematic" in the country's prisons and detention camps. Human Rights Watch has issued a new report detailing the cases of 34 of Uzbekistan’s most prominent individuals imprisoned on politically-motivated charges, from poor conduct of trials to mistreatment in prison. While some governments claim that ensuring stability and fighting extremism are paramount, laws restricting political participation, independent journalism, civil society, and freedom of religion may have the opposite effect. This briefing will discuss the Human Rights Watch report and look at what impact such cases may have in Uzbekistan, as well as hear about the human cost directly from a former prisoner and a family member of a current prisoner. Briefers: Steve Swerdlow, Esq., Human Rights Watch Central Asia Researcher and Director, Bishkek Office Dr. Sanjar Umarov, Former political prisoner Aygul Bekjan, Daughter of imprisoned journalist Muhammad Bekjanov Cathy Cosman, Senior Policy Analyst, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
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 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.