Title

From Arab Spring to Coptic Winter: Sectarian Violence and the Struggle for Democratic Transition in Egypt

Tuesday, November 15, 2011
210 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
United States
Official Transcript: 
Members: 
Name: 
Hon. Chris Smith
Title Text: 
Chairman
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Hon. Joseph Pitts
Title Text: 
Commissioner
Body: 
Commissioner on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Michael Posner
Title Text: 
Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Body: 
Department of State
Name: 
Hon. Robert Aderholt
Title Text: 
Commissioner
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Hon. Gus Bilirakis
Title Text: 
Congressman
Body: 
U.S. House of Representatives
Witnesses: 
Name: 
Dina Guirguis
Title: 
Attorney
Body: 
Egyptian American Rule of Law Association
Name: 
Samuel Tadros
Title: 
Research Fellow
Body: 
Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom
Name: 
Dr. Michele Dunne
Title: 
Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East
Body: 
Atlantic Council

On Sunday, October 9, 2011, 25 people were killed and more than 300 injured when the Egyptian military attacked a peaceful group of Coptic Christians protesting the burning of a church in Aswan. In what has been deemed the “Massacre at Maspero,” referring to the location of the demonstration, witnesses say the army fired on the demonstrators with live ammunition and plowed into the crowd with armored vehicles. The military denied the use of live ammunition and claimed that their soldiers were attacked by an armed mob. The military has arrested at least 28 people, almost all Copts, including prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, and brought them before military prosecutors. The hearing focused on violence perpetrated against the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the implications of the events for that community and the current Egyptian leadership, and prospects for the consolidation of democracy in Egypt.

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  • Parliamentarians and Commissioners Discuss Europe’s Changing Landscape and BREXIT

    By Mischa Thompson, Policy Advisor As part of a week of activities, top European legislators participated in a Capitol Hill event hosted by Helsinki Commissioners Representatives Gwen Moore (WI-04), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) on the potentially far-reaching impact of BREXIT and several European elections for the 57 North American and European countries that make up the region of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).   Member of the European Parliament and former Italian Integeration Minister Cecile Kyenge launched the event with the assertion that the United Kingdom’s June 23, 2016 decision to leave the European Union (EU)—often described as BREXIT—“shook the European Project to its core with the unprecedented case of [a] Member State parting from the EU.”  Beyond BREXIT testing the EU, she also said it was a test for EU values.  Reminding the audience that “the motto of the EU is ‘United in Diversity’ [and] its significance in Europeans coming together for peace and prosperity [across cultures],” she also noted how BREXIT had divided communities throughout the EU. Building on these remarks, Commissioner Representative Sheila Jackson Lee highlighted the global leadership role the UK has played in human rights and asked the European delegation how BREXIT might impact this role going forward. UK Parliamentarian David Lammy noted that the BREXIT vote was an extraordinary break from the past.  “The British put politics before the economy [to] end the free movement of people across Europe,” he stated.  “BREXIT will lead to economic decline in the short to medium term [and] will not lead to an end to immigration […] because when Britain goes to negotiate free trade agreements with [for example]  India, the first thing they will say is they want visas for their people to come to the UK […]  We will be trading immigration from Eastern Europe from other parts of the […] Commonwealth.”  He also acknowledged that while a “UK-US FTA (free trade agreement) is being discussed,” an agreement could have negative implications for the British on issues from the “National Health Service [to] genetically modified foods and crops.” Observing that BREXIT was part of a long-standing conversation on immigration, refugees, and the economy of the European Union, Swedish Parliamentarian Momodou Jallow said, “Europe has an aging population and that means we need as many people as possible with the competencies we need to sustain the living conditions we created.”  Critical to sustaining European economies and standards of living, he highlighted the importance of “creat[ing] conditions for people to come work [under] the same labor conditions as Swedes and the need for social investments so all can work, pay taxes, [and] for a better society.”   “Policymakers have to do better to explain there is no conflict to have everyone work and maintain the living conditions we have created,” he stated.  He also raised the EU’s history of defending human rights and challenges to that image during the current refugee crisis. Noting that Britain has a need for trained adult workers “to scale up its workforce” in addition to a huge regional problem with wealth and power being centralized in London and resources not being adequately distributed throughout the country, Lammy said, “We should blame successive domestic governments for this failure in those communities.  The EU was giving us little bits of substantive money to actually make things easier for people [in other regions].  Unfortunately, we could see the breakup of the UK,” he lamented. Despite the uncertainty presented by BREXIT, Commissioners Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee and Gwen Moore vowed to continue transatlantic cooperation.  Closing remarks by Representative Moore reminded participants of the role in global security and leadership the UK has played including in human rights and the continuing importance of U.S. civil rights leaders working with civil society across the Atlantic.  “We are concerned and wondering about the global implications BREXIT has for human rights,” she said.   In the spirit of accountability and transparency “It is important for us to remain citizens and partners,” she said. In addition to meetings with representatives of the U.S. government, private sector, and civil society, the European delegation also spoke at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference. For more information on the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference, download the full report.

  • Organization Profile: Forum 18

    The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 recognizes religious freedom as a “human right and fundamental freedom.” Participating States of the OSCE “will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.” The Helsinki Commission promotes and defends the religious freedom of people in the OSCE region, particularly prioritizing the cases of individuals and communities whose religious freedom has been violated and laws and policies that conflict with the Helsinki Final Act. Forum 18 is a news organization dedicated to reporting on violations of religious freedom in several OSCE participating States, including in Central Asia and the South Caucasus; Russia; Belarus; and Turkey. Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Nathaniel Hurd interviewed the editors of Forum 18 by email to learn more about their work and views about religious freedom in the countries they cover. According to the editors, “The mission of Forum 18 is to provide original, reliable and detailed monitoring and analyses of threats and actions against the freedom of religion and belief of all people, whatever their religion or belief (including atheism and agnosticism), in an objective, truthful and timely manner.” Violations of Religious Freedom in the Former Soviet Union Forum 18 focuses its work on the states of the former Soviet Union, which the organization considers the worst violators of freedom of religion in the region. “The worst violators of freedom of religion and belief in the territories Forum 18 monitors – governments – target anyone and any religious community they see as actually or potentially outside their control,” the editors noted. “Azerbaijan, for example, claims to be ‘an example of tolerance’ yet has repeatedly closed Sunni Muslim mosques. A 2014 police list of banned books [in Azerbaijan] includes Islamic texts by theologian Said Nursi, Jehovah's Witness texts, and the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible used by Christians and Jews. Police have long confiscated these texts and others during raids on Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, and Baptist private homes and meetings of people exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. There are many prisoners of conscience, especially human rights defenders and journalists. On July 3, 2017 Shia Imam Sardar Babayev was jailed for three years for leading mosque prayers because he was educated abroad.” “The reality of freedom of religion and belief violations by governments in these territories and the necessity of documenting them is why we were founded,” noting that they work to protect the freedom of everyone whatever their religion or belief (including atheism and agnosticism). “Our founders and staff were and are totally convinced as a matter of Christian conviction that everyone with no exceptions – including people who would completely disagree with the Christian faith – must…be able to freely exercise the freedom of religion and belief, and related rights such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly…Our personal experience in the territories we monitor and other states (such as the former East Germany), as well as our own convictions, make us committed to Forum 18’s work of monitoring and analyzing governments’ violations of their international human rights law obligations.” In addition to its work on Azerbaijan, Forum 18 is also focusing on Uzbekistan’s raids, fines, jailing, and torture of Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as the increasing number of prisoners of conscience being jailed in Kazakhstan for exercising freedom of religion and belief, including alleged adherents of Muslim missionary movement Tabligh Jamaat, Jehovah’s Witness Teymur Akhmedov, and Seventh-day Adventist Yklas Kabduakasov. Kazakhstan has also banned all mosques outside state control; expressions of non-Sunni Hanafi Islam; and discussion of faith by people without state permission, or not using state-approved texts, or outside state-approved locations. Kazakhstan’s persecution of atheist writer Aleksandr Kharlamov is also of concern. In Russia, Forum 18 actively monitors the government’s “anti-extremist” nationwide ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as “anti-extremist” prosecutions, fines and jailing of Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses, including cases like that of Muslim Yevgeny Kim, who in in June 2017 was sentenced to three years in prison. Forum 18 is also concerned about nationwide religious literature bans, with the possessors of such texts being liable to criminal prosecution. Accuracy and Objectivity Are Key “Our overriding editorial objective is to as accurately as possible present the truth of a situation, both implicitly and explicitly,” note the editors of Forum 18. “It is vitally important that we cross-check information with local people, including religious communities and other human rights defender organizations where these exist. It is equally vital that in our published articles we carry the views of local people and human rights organizations – this enables local people to make their views on human rights violations known.” “Similarly, we always seek the comments of relevant officials, such as public prosecutors, police and secret police officials, within the country being written about,” they continued. “Every article we publish includes information on all the sources used, even if some have to be described as remaining anonymous for fear of state reprisals.” According to Forum 18, the organization’s efforts have resulted in “significant respect and usage among victims of human rights violations, human rights defenders (including journalists), diplomats, intergovernmental organizations, academics and others.” “Accuracy is in itself an effective advocacy for human rights by countering with accurate information the false information presented by repressive regimes, who often seek to conceal their human rights violations,” the editors said. The Worst of the Worst? When asked which of the countries Forum 18 monitors should be considered the “worst of the worst,” the editors noted that developing such a ranking is difficult. “Territories where serious…violations take place are places where people have a strong incentive to not discuss the state’s violations, for fear of state reprisals, making any reliable ranking of territories difficult,” they observed. “Because in all the territories Forum 18 monitors governments violate individuals’, informal groups’, and communities’ freedom of religion and belief apparently as part of a declared or undeclared policies of increasing state control of society – even in states such as Georgia in the south Caucasus – we think it is best for readers to judge for themselves which countries are the worst violators of freedom of religion or belief at any one time,” the editors added. Similarly, Forum 18 finds it difficult to rank the individual cases monitored by the organization. “In our view, each one of these cases where a government has violated an individual’s or group’s freedom of religion and belief can fairly be described as compelling. We think this view is reinforced by the individual cases being part of a much broader pattern of intentional, systemic government violations of the human rights of everyone they rule.” One case Forum 18 has followed close is that of Protestant Pastor Bakhrom Kholmatov in Tajikistan, who was jailed for three years for allegedly “singing extremist songs in church and so inciting ‘religious hatred.’” The regime has threatened family members, friends, and church members with reprisals if they reveal any details of the case, trial, or jailing. Cooperation is Key Cooperation is vital to the Forum 18 approach. “Cooperation in defense of human rights for all is both right in principle and more effective than competition,” the Forum 18 editors argue. “It is important to cooperate with others – including in our case providing accurate information – to help responses to violations of freedom of religion and belief and interlinked other fundamental freedoms to be as effective as possible. Our work with victims of freedom of religion and belief violations and other human rights defenders convinces us that this approach is the right one to follow.” Twitter: @Forum_18 Facebook: @Forum18NewsService

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Briefing on OSCE Field Missions in the Western Balkans

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “THE WESTERN BALKANS: PERSPECTIVES FROM OSCE FIELD MISSIONS” Wednesday, November 1, 2017 10:00 AM Senate Visitors Center Room 202 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Since the outbreak of the conflicts associated with Yugoslavia’s break-up in the early 1990s, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its field missions have been a central part of the international community’s response. Early OSCE efforts to counter the spillover effects of those conflicts were followed by ongoing assistance in post-conflict recovery and reconciliation. Today, OSCE field missions continue to exist in virtually every country of the region. They encourage the reform and cooperation essential to the long-term stability of the region through activities that broadly support democratic institutions and governance, particularly to strengthen rule of law; programs to promote integration of minority communities, especially Roma, and to counter violent extremism, and more; and regular reporting to the OSCE Secretariat and participating States. The briefing features three Americans who currently hold, or have recently held, senior positions on the OSCE Missions deployed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia, reflecting the importance which the United States attaches to having an OSCE presence in countries of concern.  Panelists will comment on developments in those countries during their assignment, the efforts undertaken by their respective missions to assist those countries, and the effectiveness of the OSCE as a multilateral tool for enhancing stability and promoting reform.  An OSCE official will also participate on the panel to comment on the organization’s field work from the Secretariat perspective, and the challenges not only to OSCE field activity in the Western Balkans but throughout the OSCE region. The following experts are scheduled to participate: Ambassador Jonathan Moore, former Head of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina (2014-2017) Mr. Jeff Goldstein, Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission to Skopje (2016-present) Mr. Michael Uyehara, former Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission to Serbia (2014-2017) Ambassador Marcel Peško, Director of the Conflict Prevention Centre, OSCE Secretariat (2015 – present)

  • Averting All-Out War in Nagorno-Karabakh

    Last year, the worst outbreak of violence over Nagorno-Karabakh in more than two decades erupted as the so-called Four Day War in April 2016 claimed approximately 200 lives and demonstrated that the conflict is anything but “frozen.” The Line of Contact separating the parties sees numerous ceasefire violations annually and each one risks igniting a larger-scale conflict that could draw in major regional players, such as Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Since 1997, the United States, France, and Russia have co-chaired the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the principal international mechanism aimed at reaching a negotiated solution to the conflict. The U.S. Helsinki Commission hosted two former United States Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group process as well as a renowned, independent expert on the conflict to assess the current state of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Minsk Group format, and the prospects for achieving a lasting peace. Magdalena Grono, an expert from the International Crisis Group, underlined the serious potential for further flare-ups in the fighting, which could have severe humanitarian impacts and draw in regional powers. She contextualized the recent clashes and assessed that the conflict was among the most deadly, intractable and risky in Europe. According to her assessment, the conflict is beset by two worrisome trends: deteriorating confidence between the parties and in the settlement process itself as well as increasingly dangerous clashes due in part to the deployment of heavier weaponry. Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh discussed the role of the Minsk Group in the settlement process while voicing his concern that positions have hardened on all sides. Growing tensions have created risks not only of intentional but also accidental conflict, he said. The Ambassador outlined the limits of the Minsk Group’s mandate, underscoring that it is charged with helping the sides find a solution rather than imposing one from the outside. He lamented that the recent meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents apparently failed to achieve agreement on certain confidence and security building measures (CSBMs). In order to stem further escalation, he noted the importance of implementing CSBMs and establishing a direct communication channel between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. He concluded by calling on the leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan to demonstrate the political will to work toward a resolution, for instance by preparing their populations for the compromises that will inevitably be required to achieve peace. Ambassador James Warlick asserted that while this was a time of significant danger, peace remains within reach. He urged the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to engage together on principles that they know can lead to peace, saying that meetings without progress undermine confidence in negotiation efforts. Citing past negotiations, Ambassador Warlick laid out six elements that will have to be part of any settlement if it is to endure.  The Ambassador concluded by underlining that it is up to the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan to take the first step toward peace by considering measures, even unilateral ones, that will demonstrate their stated commitment to making progress, reducing tensions, and improving the atmosphere for negotiations. 

  • Helsinki Commission Urges Turkish President to Lift State of Emergency

    WASHINGTON—In a letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday, the four senior members of the Helsinki Commission – Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), and Ranking Commissioner Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20) – urged him to lift the state of emergency that has been in place in Turkey since July 2016 and immediately restore Turkey’s commitment to international standards of due process and judicial independence. The bipartisan letter, which came just hours after President Erdoğan announced a fifth three-month extension of the country’s state of emergency, was also signed by Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Rep. Roger Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Randy Hultgren (IL-14), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). It reads in part: “We are concerned about your government’s continued actions to undermine human rights and democratic principles in Turkey. The prolonged state of emergency is gravely undermining Turkey’s democratic institutions and the durability of our countries’ longstanding strategic partnership, including more than half a century as NATO allies. Last year, the Turkish people defeated a violent and illegal challenge to their democratic institutions; today, the 15-month-old state of emergency poses a different threat to these same institutions, particularly the judiciary. By facilitating sweeping purges with no evidentiary standards, the state of emergency has upended countless innocent lives and undercuts domestic and international confidence in Turkey’s rule of law… “As a member of the Council of Europe and participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), your country officially recognizes the rule of law as a cornerstone of democratic governance. Restoring respect for fair judicial treatment would remove a persistent distraction in our bilateral relationship and help to rebuild a principles-based partnership rooted in shared commitments to collective security, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” The letter highlighted the cases of American citizens Andrew Brunson, a pastor, and Serkan Gölge, a NASA scientist, both of whom were arrested in Turkey following the coup attempt. As of mid-2017, at least seven additional American citizens were jailed in Turkey. The letter also noted the cases of two detained Turkish employees of the U.S. consulates in Turkey as well as a group of Turkish and international activists—known as the Istanbul 10—who were arrested this summer while holding a routine human rights defenders workshop in Istanbul. The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear President Erdoğan, We are concerned about your government’s continued actions to undermine human rights and democratic principles in Turkey. The prolonged state of emergency is gravely undermining Turkey’s democratic institutions and the durability of our countries’ longstanding strategic partnership, including more than half a century as NATO allies. Last year, the Turkish people defeated a violent and illegal challenge to their democratic institutions; today, the 15-month-old state of emergency poses a different threat to these same institutions, particularly the judiciary. By facilitating sweeping purges with no evidentiary standards, the state of emergency has upended countless innocent lives and undercuts domestic and international confidence in Turkey’s rule of law. In February, many of us joined over 70 of our colleagues from the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to appeal to you for the immediate release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been held without trial for a year on baseless terrorism charges. We continue to be dismayed by your government’s unwillingness to heed our calls for his release and the recent imposition of four additional charges on Mr. Brunson for allegedly conspiring to overthrow your government. These allegations are preposterous. We urge you to recognize them as such, drop all charges against Mr. Brunson, and release him. Since the failed coup attempt, Turkish authorities have arrested a number of American dual citizens and two long-time Turkish employees at U.S. consulates on terrorism charges. Some of these individuals—including American citizen and NASA scientist Serkan Gölge—have been in jail for more than a year despite the prosecution’s ability to present only circumstantial evidence against them. Our citizens have also been denied the courtesy of U.S. consular assistance that would help them and their families cope with these difficult and confusing circumstances. It is clear that terrorism charges under the state of emergency are also being manipulated to suppress the activism of a group of human rights defenders arrested in early July. Authorities seized a group of ten Turkish and international activists holding a routine human rights defenders workshop in Istanbul. The group of activists, which has come to be known as the Istanbul 10 and includes Amnesty International’s Turkey Director, Ms. İdil Eser, is charged with “committing crime in the name of a terrorist organization without being a member.” A month earlier, Amnesty International’s Turkey Board Chair, Mr. Taner Kılıç, was arrested on charges of being a member of an alleged terrorist organization. Ms. Eser, Mr. Kılıç, and many of their colleagues remain in pre-trial detention. We urge you to ensure the timely, transparent, and fair adjudication of the aforementioned cases, lift the state of emergency and immediately restore Turkey’s commitment to international standards of due process and judicial independence. As a member of the Council of Europe and participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), your country officially recognizes the rule of law as a cornerstone of democratic governance. Restoring respect for fair judicial treatment would remove a persistent distraction in our bilateral relationship and help to rebuild a principles-based partnership rooted in shared commitments to collective security, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Thank you for your attention to this important matter. Sincerely, 

  • Kyrgyzstan election: A historic vote, but is it fair?

    For the first time in the history of Kyrgyzstan, an elected president is due to peacefully hand over power after elections take place on Sunday. But critics say the political environment in Central Asia's "island of democracy" is deteriorating. Here's a look at the issues there - and who's likely to come out on top. Elections in Central Asia are usually easily predictable - the incumbent or the ruling party's candidate wins the vote with an overwhelming majority. But the vote in Kyrgyzstan offers a real competition and choice. Nearly 60 people applied to run in the race, 13 of whom were registered to stand. Two later dropped out. The incumbent, President Almazbek Atambayev, must leave office after six years. Under the Kyrgyz constitution, he may only serve one term. In neighbouring states, laws have often been changed to allow the incumbent to run again but this did not happen in Kyrgyzstan. President Atambayev also promised not to go for the prime minister's job in order to stay in power. Although one of the main candidates - Sooronbay Jeenbekov - is from the president's party, he is not guaranteed to win the vote. He faces a strong opponent - Omurbek Babanov, a prominent businessman and a former prime minister. Some candidates made the unusual move of endorsing their opponents after the campaign started. Experts say that they went through all the trouble of getting into the race in order to increase their political influence. They try to build a greater support base, which they use to negotiate a favourable deal with stronger candidates before pulling out of the race. Politicians can easily change sides, because it's not ideology or a political platform but their own personality that they use to appeal to the voters. Observers say that over the last couple of years the political climate in Kyrgyzstan has been deteriorating. The Helsinki Commission wrote that "the vote takes place amid mounting concerns of democratic backsliding, particularly regarding the government's treatment of political opposition, civil society and human rights defenders". President Atambayev has demonstrated increasing intolerance to criticism. The Sentyabr TV station which opposed him was closed last year for extremism, and activists say that there were blatant procedural violations during the trial. Several popular independent media outlets were sued and heavily fined for insulting the president. The government also tried to intimidate critics on social media. Security services identified Facebook users who criticised the president, and gave them warnings. Several political opponents of President Atambayev have also been sent to prison. Earlier this year, leaders of the opposition People's Parliament movement were jailed for allegedly plotting a coup. Omurbek Tekebayev, a former ally of President Atambayev who turned into a prominent critic, was sentenced to eight years in prison for corruption and fraud and subsequently barred from running for the presidency. Experts saw this case as politically motivated. The atmosphere got particularly tense following a major diplomatic spat between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It started last month after a meeting between the president of neighbouring Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Mr Babanov. In an unusually harsh speech, President Atambayev accused his Kazakh counterpart of interfering in Kyrgyzstan's affairs, and warned them of worse to come. "I will speak differently if our neighbours don't come to their senses," he said. Since the beginning of the campaign, there have been numerous reports of violations by various candidates. There have been reports of people going house-to-house with a list of names and addresses and offering money to citizens if they vote for Mr Jeenbekov. Mr Babanov was also accused of vote-buying, and the Central Elections Committee issued him three warnings for violation of campaign rules. The Babanov team complained that security services were putting pressure on their candidate by recording their meetings and conversations and arresting his supporters. An influential MP, Kanatbek Isakov, was detained and charged with an attempt to organise a coup. Security services denied any political motive for the arrest, but Mr Babanov said that Mr Isakov had been arrested because he endorsed him. Despite all this, many voters feel encouraged by the fact that there are several strong candidates. In their view, this will ensure that the outcome is not rigged. "Our politicians know that the people will rise if there are serious violations, so they won't go into that," said one voter in the second city, Osh. Kyrgyzstan has experienced two major uprisings that ousted presidents in the past. And in both cases, rigged elections fuelled the protest mood.    

  • Helsinki Commission Advisor Discusses ZAPAD 2017

    On September 27, 2017, Helsinki Commission Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor Alex Tiersky joined Ambassador Kurt Volker, Dr. Stephen Blank, and Ambassador Eitvydas Bajarunas at a public seminar to discuss the execution, outcomes and aftermath of Russia’s large-scale ZAPAD 2017 military exercise. Hosted by the Central and East European Coalition, Russia on NATO’s Doorstep: The West's Response to the Kremlin's Wargames was moderated by Dr. Mamuka Tsereteli. During the discussion, Tiersky shared his experience as one of only two American officials who was invited by the Belarusian government (who partnered with Russia for the joint military exercise) to be present for the conclusion of ZAPAD 2017. Tiersky commended the Belarusian government for offering the Distinguished Visitors program that he participated in along with representatives of the OSCE, the Red Cross and NATO, as well as defense attachés from various countries. The program included an extensive briefing on the aims, parameters, and intent behind the exercise, as well as an opportunity to witness an impressive live-fire demonstration at the Borisov training ground.  Belarusian briefers underlined that the aim of the program was to offer as much transparency as possible; the exercise was purely defensive in nature and neighboring countries had nothing to fear, Tiersky was told.  However, Tiersky added, the program offered by Belarusian authorities – while commendable – fell short of fulfilling the spirit of commitments to military transparency under the Vienna Document, which would have provided a greater opportunity for evaluating the exercise's scale and scope through broader participation by OSCE participating states and more intrusive inspection measures.  While impressive and worthwhile, the distinguished visitors program was thus not in itself sufficient to draw broad conclusions about ZAPAD, according to Tiersky. Tiersky concluded by describing how ZAPAD did little to assuage broader concerns related to Russian unwillingness to fulfill its commitments to military transparency, including under the Vienna Document (through for example its increasing use of snap exercises), as well as Russian violations of various arms control measures that have been essential contributors to peace and security in Europe for decades.

  • Systematic Attacks on Journalists in Russia and Other Post-Soviet States

    Representative Steve Chabot, Co-Chair of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus, opened the briefing with a statement highlighting the importance of a free and independent press in Russia and Eastern Europe, saying that it was more important now than ever to counter an increasingly bold Vladimir Putin and the spread of Kremlin-backed media. The Congressman affirmed support for the Broadcasting Board of Governors and how their work helps foster a greater independent press in the region. Jordan Warlick, U.S. Helsinki Commission staffer responsible for freedom of the media, introduced the panelists: Thomas Kent, President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL); Amanda Bennett, Director of Voice of America (VOA); Nina Ognianova, Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists; and Karina Orlova, Washington correspondent for Echo of Moscow. Thomas Kent summarized the work and reach of RFE/RL in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He outlined the pressures that RFE/RL journalists face in the region covering the issues that matter to local people. Kent described the plight of several RFE/RL journalists who have been either attacked or detained due to their work, including Mykola Semena in Russian-occupied Crimea and Mykhailo Tkach in Ukraine. He added that reporting on corruption is often the most likely cause for attacks on journalists and that social media has expanded the reach of journalists work in the region. Amanda Bennett discussed the work of Voice of America in the region and its efforts to expand freedom of speech in the region. She outlined the vast audience of VOA broadcasting and emphasized that the Russian government has directly attacked VOA reporters. Bennett stated that VOA’s mission in Russia and the former Soviet Union, as with other regions around the world, was not only to provide high quality content to the audience and journalists alike, but also help foster an independent media, free from harassment. Representative Adam Schiff, Co-Chair of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus, gave remarks about the importance of an independent media in the former Soviet Union. He noted that journalists are often the first to suffer a backlash from authorities, as they investigate and report on issues that regimes do not want to draw attention to. Representative Schiff told the panel that he, along with then-Congressman Mike Pence, reestablished the House Freedom of the Press Caucus not long before the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. He thanked the panelists for the work to not only highlight attacks and harassment against journalists in the region, but also their efforts to protect and assist them and to further press freedom. Nina Ognianova highlighted numerous cases that the Committee to Protect Journalists had worked on in recent months with specific discussion of the situations in Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan. Ognianova detailed the case of the harassment and temporary flight of Russian reporter Elena Milashina following her work on the torture and murder of gay men in Chechnya. Also listed were the cases of Belarus-born journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed in a car bombing in Kyiv in July 2016, the abduction and detention of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli for his investigation of President Ilham Aliyev’s assets in Georgia, and the concerning claims of slander against journalists by the Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev. Providing the audience with a firsthand perspective, Karina Orlova described her decision to flee Russia due to her work as a journalist. Karina spoke of how her Radio Echo of Moscow talk show garnered unfavorable attention from Chechens, following discussion of the Charlie Hebdo attacks on 7 January, 2015, and the magazine’s depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Ramzan Kadyrov directly threatened her station and her editor, Alexey Venediktov, right after the show. She detailed threatening phone calls from self-described Chechens her that labeled her as an enemy of the state. Karina raised other incidents of violence and intimidation against journalists, such as the attack on Oleg Kashin, which was directly ordered by the Governor of Pskov, and a lack of action to bring the perpetrators to justice. She also spoke of censorship by the Russian authorities, particularly towards any journalists that refer to the annexation of Crimea. Karina emphasized that sanctions against the Russian state and elite are working, despite claims to the contrary. Although some journalists are unfortunately forced to self-censor due to safety concerns, Karina refuses to do so herself.

  • Helsinki Commission Advisor Observes German Elections in Berlin

    By Scott Rauland, State Department Senior Advisor On September 24, 2017, over 50 parliamentarians and staff from 25 countries fanned out across Germany as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) team that was invited to observe German parliamentary elections.  This marked the first time that an OSCE PA Election Observation Mission (EOM) has deployed to Germany.  Although the OSCE PA does not have the resources to observe every election, the organization tries to be present in major elections that are politically important. I was pleased to represent the U.S. in that effort as the State Department’s Senior Advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Members of the OSCE PA team were briefed by German government officials, representatives of the major political parties, political analysts, and other experts in the two days leading up to the election.  On election day, members of the OSCE PA observation mission visited over 300 polling stations in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Cologne and Duesseldorf, just a fraction of the more than 90,000 polling stations located in Germany in 299 constituencies.  In a press conference held on September 25, George Tsereteli, the Special Coordinator for the EOM, noted, “Germany has once again demonstrated that its commitment to democracy is undiminished. Highly competitive and well-run, these elections were an opportunity for voters to express their choice in a process that benefits from and is based on broad trust among society.”  One sign of that trust was the almost complete absence of election observers from any of the participating political parties at the 14 polling stations my team visited in Berlin – all six major parties seemed to be relatively confident that the elections were being administered fairly. While the OSCE PA team was in Germany at the invitation of the German government, and although the public has the right to observe the voting process in Germany, my observation team was denied access to one of the polling stations we had hoped to observe.  That incident was thankfully the exception amongst the 300 polling stations visited by the OSCE PA EOM, but was a reminder that efforts to promote transparency in the conduct of elections must be ongoing, even in countries where the commitment to democratic elections is high. With more than 4,800 candidates running, and numerous strong political parties, Germany’s 61 million voters had a wide range of options to choose from. Women represented slightly less than 30 per cent of candidates, but played a prominent role in leadership positions in parties’ campaigns. “This was the first time we’ve deployed a full observer team to Germany, and the welcome of our mission by all German officials and political parties that we met is a positive signal that the country is ready to pay continued attention to democratic processes,” said EOM Head of Mission Isabel Santos. “Changing political cultures in many countries and new challenges such as cyber attacks mean that we must all dedicate time and effort to preserving democratic systems.”

  • Helsinki Commission, House Freedom of the Press Caucus to Hold Briefing on Attacks on Journalists in Russia, Post-Soviet States

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the House Freedom of the Press Caucus today announced the following joint briefing: “SYSTEMATIC ATTACKS ON JOURNALISTS IN RUSSIA AND OTHER POST-SOVIET STATES” Wednesday, October 4, 2017 3:00 PM Senate Visitors Center SVC-208 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission A free press is an essential pillar of democracy, keeping governments accountable and citizens informed. Autocratic regimes seek to intimidate and silence the press by systematically targeting journalists. A muzzled independent media is powerless to prevent the domination of the state-driven news narrative and public misinformation. Today, journalists in Russia and post-Soviet states risk intimidation, harassment, arrest, and even murder for their work. Those who criticize the government or investigate sensitive issues like corruption do so at their own peril. More often than not, cases remain unresolved and victims and families do not see justice. This briefing will address key questions regarding journalists in Russia and other post-Soviet states: their important role and impact; concerns over their rights, safety, and protection; and future support and promotion of media freedom in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) region. Opening remarks will be provided by the Co-Chairs of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) The following panelists are scheduled to speak: Thomas Kent, President and CEO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Amanda Bennett, Director, Voice of America Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists Karina Orlova, Washington DC Correspondent, Echo of Moscow

  • Kyrgyzstan: Prospects for Democratic Change and the Upcoming Presidential Election

    Two weeks before the upcoming presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan—potentially the first peaceful transfer of power under regular circumstances in the region—campaigning is in full swing. On October 15, Kyrgyz citizens will participate in democratic elections, though serious concerns remain.   This briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Everett Price. In his remarks, he positively noted the current president’s decision to respect his constitutionally-determined term limit and hold regularly-scheduled elections for his successor. He cautioned, however, that the country’s weak political institutions and the ruling party’s abuse of administrative resources could undermine the fairness of the vote. He also observed that the disqualification of certain opposition candidates and restrictions on journalists have adversely affected the election climate. Dr. Erica Marat from the National Defense University discussed the political situation on the ground in Kyrgyzstan and reviewed the political background of the two main candidates, Atambayev loyalist Sooronbay Jeenbekov and Kyrgyz billionaire, Ömürbek Babanov. Anthony Bowyer, Senior Program Manager for Europe and Eurasia at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), reviewed ongoing electoral monitoring efforts in Kyrgyzstan, underscoring the importance of these elections for the region and U.S. interests therein. Finally, Freedom House representative Marc Behrendt offered his insight on Kyrgyzstan’s enduring interethnic tensions and poor human rights record, offering a sobering reminder of the work that remains to be done in order for the Kyrgyz Republic to become a full-fledged democracy. During the briefing, questions pertaining to Russian influence over the country and its politics, as well as other regional, geo-political considerations were also highlighted as part of a general discussion of Kyrgyzstan’s democratic development and the trajectory of Central Asian politics.

  • Human Rights and Democracy in Russia

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. The Russian Federation has adopted, by consensus, OSCE commitments relating to human rights and fundamental freedoms, free and fair elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary. However, in many areas the Russian government is failing to live up to its commitments. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Democratic Change in Kyrgyzstan Topic of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: KYRGYZSTAN: PROSPECTS FOR DEMOCRATIC CHANGE AND THE UPCOMING PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION Tuesday, September 26, 2017 10:30 AM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 202 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The Kyrgyz people will go to the polls in October in a pivotal election that will determine the country’s next president and the next chapter in its fragile democracy. In contrast to some other leaders in the region who have manipulated term limits to remain in power, current President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev is abiding by his constitutional term limit. However, the vote takes place amid mounting concerns of democratic backsliding, particularly regarding the government’s treatment of political opposition, civil society, and human rights defenders. Additionally, the election marks only the second peaceful transition of power through elections following two revolutions – in 2005 and in 2010. This turbulent history serves as a reminder of the importance of building the popular legitimacy of Kyrgyzstan’s political institutions. The briefing will examine the political dynamics surrounding the vote, the conduct of the election campaign thus far, and broader human rights issues in Kyrgyzstan. The following experts are scheduled to participate: Marc Behrendt, Director for Europe and Eurasia Programs, Freedom House Anthony Bowyer, Caucasus and Central Asia Senior Program Manager, International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) Dr. Erica Marat, Associate Professor, College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University

  • Profile: Dr. Petra Gelbart

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns.  In particular, OSCE agreements address issues relating to the human rights of Roma, Holocaust remembrance, and preserving sensitive sites of remembrance. During the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands, an internment camp in the Czech village of Lety became a concentration camp for Roma. Around 1,300 people were imprisoned there, including many children.  Some died in Lety as a result of the horrible conditions in the camp.  Many more were deported and perished at Auschwitz. An estimated three hundred survived.  In some ways, Lety is as emblematic of the experiences of Roma both during the and after the Holocaust. During the communist period, a pig farm was established on the site of the former concentration camp.  After the fall of communism, the existence of the pork processing facility became an enduring controversy, generating progressively more frequent protests. In recent years, Czech officials moved closer to a decision to remove the pig farm.  In August, the Czech government announced agreement had been reached with the owners of the site on a purchase price, paving the way for the farm’s removal. The United States subsequently welcomed the progress made by the Czech Republic.  Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker observed, “[t]his achievement is the culmination of decades of work on the part of survivors, human rights groups, members of the Helsinki Commission, and others. It paves the way for a dignified and appropriate memorial for the thousands of men, women, and children who suffered and died there.” At the opening of this year’s OSCE’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the Czech Republic – the only European Union country to speak at the opening in its national capacity, in addition to supporting a joint EU statement – drew attention to this breakthrough: “Against the backdrop of the deteriorating situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the OSCE, heightened attacks leveled at civil society, media and persons belonging to minorities, it remains crucial to continue promoting and protection fundamental OSCE commitments and principles.  In this context, we would like to highlight the recent positive developments in the implementation of the Czech Republic’s Roma Integration Strategy 2015-2020.  I have in mind the issue of the former Gypsy Concentration Camp in Lety u Pisku.” In light of these developments, the Helsinki Commission had a conversation with Dr. Petra Gelbart.  Dr. Gelbart is a Romani ethnomusicologist who uses music and academic research to advocate for the remembrance of Romani victims of the Holocaust.[iv] She frequently speaks to a wide range of audiences about Romani music, culture, and their persecution during the Holocaust.  She has also served as a Public Member on a U.S. delegation to an OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting. Born in Czechoslovakia and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Dr. Gelbart was introduced to Romani language, music, and culture at a young age. Her personal background drove her passion to study Romani culture further and to become an educator in Romani music, history, and other socio-political issues. “My family’s experience during the Holocaust was the primary motivator in my decision to become involved in commemoration efforts,” Dr. Gelbart says. “Increasingly, I am also coming to terms with how much this background has shaped my personal identity and psychological makeup, so continuing the work is important for my mental wellbeing.” She first studied musicology at UC Berkeley. Shortly after finishing her degree, she went on to pursue her postgraduate studies and earned a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Harvard University. Dr. Gelbart co-founded the Initiative for Romani music at New York University and is currently the music curator for RomArchive. She has also taught ethnomusicology, music psychology, as well as Romani music and language at the university level.  Her research has focused on interethnic communication, the Holocaust, music psychology, and institutional ethnography. “I try to take what people think they know about so-called ‘Gypsies,’ and replace it with something that's much more based in reality,” she explains. Dr. Gelbart passionately advocates for the use of music to not only educate about Romani culture, but also to reflect upon the difficult aspects of this community’s history. “Oral traditions and personal memoirs have kept the memory of the Holocaust alive among Roma and Sinti even in the absence of sympathetic institutions,” she observes. “The song Chajori Romani, for example, is considered an anthem of both Czech and Slovak Roma. It has a generic, happy text about a Romani girl, but also an alternate text that recounts the conditions of a concentration camp. Thus, even though the Holocaust-related text is sung less frequently, it looms in the background of this popular memory, which has come to be known as ‘the Romani lament’ regardless of which lyrics are being sung.” “When people pay close attention to Romani music, they can learn not only things they may not have expected to find out about Roma and Sinti, but also about themselves,” Dr. Gelbart notes. “For example, many people associate Manouche (French Romani) people with Gypsy Jazz, and Gypsy Jazz with emotive passion. On objective analysis, however, it turns out that strong sentiments tend to be projected onto Gypsy Jazz and its performers, based on stereotypes of ‘Gypsies,’ rather than being inherent in the music itself. Also, some of the composers and performers who may be perceived as wild musicians have in fact produced decidedly tame, deeply reflective musical pieces, including a few with Holocaust-related themes.” She continues, “Students and lecture audiences are surprised by the existence of Romani Holocaust songs, and as a consequence some of them ask why they were previously never exposed to the voices of Roma and Sinti in Holocaust education. At that point, it is useful to point out that just as Roma and Sinti expressed their grief and ongoing fears for their safety in songs during and after World War II, some of them also wrote memoirs or formed organized commemoration narratives. The image of Romanies as unschooled or illiterate is persistent, and yet Holocaust-related education shows Romani traditions in a rather different light.” Dr. Gelbart works to educate her students and colleagues about the discrimination Romani face in Europe and to correct the offensive misconceptions many hold about them. One challenge she faces in educating people about the Romani experience during the Holocaust is undoing the erasure of Romani victimhood from historical narratives. Throughout much of Europe, the Romani were formerly not a legally recognized ethnic group and thus were excluded from regional Holocaust memory and discouraged from speaking out about their experiences. “It is absolutely true that the continued, state-sponsored shaming of Romani cultures made surviving Romani families very unlikely to speak out about their wartime experiences,” Dr. Gelbart explains. “There is an enduring misconception that Romani Holocaust remembrance is typically private,” she continues. “In reality, Romani attempts to give public testimony about genocide have largely paralleled post-war developments in Jewish families, albeit at a slower pace.” In August, the Czech government agreed to remove the pig farm from the Lety concentration camp site. Dr. Gelbart believes that this decision is symbolic of the gradual inclusion of Romani Holocaust experiences in mainstream discourse. “The pig farm at Lety, along with the recreational complex on the site of the Hodonin camp (where my great-great-grandmother was murdered by a Czech guard), are symbolic of not only the imperative to include Roma and Sinti fully in mainstream discourse on the Holocaust, but also the need to examine why the Romani Holocaust tends to be relegated to footnotes,” she says. Though she sees improvement in the perspectives and treatment of Romani communities and history, Dr. Gelbart argues that the Romani experience during the Holocaust is understudied and that this trend reflects itself in lasting discrimination towards the community. “In my opinion, the most important part of remembrance is making connections to present-day perils,” she explains. “We can honor the work of the Roma and allies who have fought for the dignity of the Lety victims, but we must not stop publicly pointing out the larger context of this struggle.” Dr. Gelbart is committed to expanding the study and inclusion of Romani history and culture in the public sphere. She urges governments to take greater care in promoting Romani rights and society to learn more about the Romani, while elevating their memory above mere victimhood. “Every book, every college course, every school curriculum and every ceremony commemorating the Holocaust should strive to make its audience aware of the difference between how Romanies are assumed to be and how they actually live their lives. It can be as simple as saying that ‘Roma and Sinti are a highly diverse ethnic group, with many communities striving for social integration. The same ideologies that labeled Romanies as subhuman in times of genocide are hindering their education, employment, and even physical safety in the twenty-first century.’ If nothing else, we need to show Romani students in both Europe and the Americas that their existence and their heritage are worth as much as any other group’s,” she says. Dr. Gelbart’s activism within the Romani community extends beyond the classroom. She works with Czech families who foster or adopt Romani children. She is also interested in the role music plays in therapy, specifically in rehabilitative and developmental therapy. She is based in New York.

  • At Forum, Experts Slam Russian 'Disinformation' Campaigns Aimed at West

    WASHINGTON — The German Marshall Fund says it has documented Russian interference in the elections or political affairs of at least 27 countries since 2004, ranging from disinformation campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and other social media to cyber attacks. The Helsinki Commission held a hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill focusing on what it called the "scourge" of Russian disinformation conducted both at home and abroad. “Through its active measures campaign that includes aggressive interference in Western elections, Russia aims to sell fear, discord, and paralysis that undermines democratic institutions and weakens critical Western alliances such as NATO and the EU,” charged Republican Senator Corey Gardner. “Russia’s ultimate goal is to replace the Western-led world order of laws and institutions with an authoritarian-led order that recognizes only masters and vassals.” US election meddling Other experts agreed during a session in which few if any defenders of Russia were represented, reflecting the increasingly adversarial relationship between the two countries. Molly McKew of the communications consulting firm Fianna Strategies spoke with VOA about reports that Russia targeted U.S. voters on social media during last year's presidential election campaign. “I think even the Kremlin is surprised at how easy it is to use social media as an amplification tool for the kind of narrative that they do,” she said. McKew said opinion polls show most Americans do not believe disinformation could work on them. But she says the Russian government uses marketing and basic psychology to influence people to vote for a certain person or to stay at home on election day. In an era when many get their own personalized news feeds on Facebook or Twitter, she said, people can be targeted individually with what she calls ads, smears or lies. RT, Sputnik broadcasts U.S. complaints of Russian disinformation have focused frequently on the broadcasts of the Moscow-backed RT television network and Sputnik news agency, which have denied they are spreading propaganda. When it was reported this week that the FBI recently questioned a former White House correspondent for Sputnik as part of an investigation into whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin, the news agency said in a statement: "We are more than happy to answer any questions the [Department of Justice] or the FBI might have. Sputnik is a news organization dedicated to accurate news reporting. Our journalists have won multiple media awards throughout the world. Any assertion that Sputnik is anything but a credible news outlet is false." However Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO John Lansing, who also spoke at the forum, agreed with others on the magnitude of the Russian threat and said the United States must counter Russian disinformation, but do so by with objective news and information. “The United States will not do propaganda,” said Lansing, whose agency oversees U.S.-funded broadcasting around the world. “And in fact we have a firewall protection, a legislative firewall that makes it impossible for the government to interfere with our independent editorial decision-making.” Lansing, who oversees the Voice of America and several other U.S. government-funded broadcasters, said he has seen a "global explosion of propaganda and lies," and that his agency is focused on getting accurate information to Russian speakers around the world. The forum was shown a promotional video for "Current Time," a Russian-language news network jointly operated by VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which Lansing said, "helps viewers tell fact from fiction." "The Russian strategy seeks to destroy the very idea of an objective, verifiable set of facts," Lansing said. "The BBG is adapting to meet this challenge head on by offering audiences and alternatives to Russian disinformation in the form of objective, independent and professional news and information." Germany, France elections Melissa Hopper of Human Rights First said Germany appears set to fend off attempts by Russia to interfere in its elections later this month. She said Berlin acted early, after the U.S. election last November, to establish a government-wide task force to counteract Russian manipulation of social media. Hopper also said France was successful in thwarting Russian interference during its elections in April and May, with the French media agreeing not to cover information that came from cyber attacks. But she warned that Russia has quite an “arsenal” at its disposal, including a worldwide media program with an annual budget of more than $300 million. She said Russian online media “weaponizes” false media narratives, especially about minority populations such as immigrants or LGBT communities, which can lead to physical threats in the real world.

  • The Daily 202

    ...How can the United States combat the war of information that Russia is waging against the West? Lawmakers and witnesses at a U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing yesterday sought to examine Moscow’s propaganda efforts — both domestically and abroad — and questioned whether our country is any more prepared to stop a similar attack in the future. How can the United States combat the war of information that Russia is waging against the West? Lawmakers and witnesses at a U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing yesterday sought to examine Moscow’s propaganda efforts — both domestically and abroad — and questioned whether our country is any more prepared to stop a similar attack in the future. “In their weakness, the Kremlin bets big. So far, the gamble has paid off — because for years they have been strolling across an open battlefield,” testified Molly McKew, an information warfare expert. “To secure our information space, we need an integrated understanding of the threat, and an integrated set of measures that can be taken to counter it[.]” Here's what the experts recommend to stop similar attacks: A whole-of-government response, which includes reevaluating the role of U.S. military and counterintelligence actors to secure cyber space. “Our most experienced assets should not be boxed-out of defending the American people,” McKew said. More information. This includes telling Americans about Russian information operations, and what they aim to achieve. Stopping the bots, which robotically amplify information and articles based on an algorithm, since “the U.S. does not protect the free speech of computer programs,” said Human Right’s First Melissa Hooper, who specializes in Russian policy and human rights law. Hooper also stressed the need for creating an appeals process where consumers can contest instances of content removal “and receive quick and efficient redress.” “We cannot use the same means of information control as the Kremlin to secure our information space,” McKew said. “Our mirror-world version of Russian information control: not to control the internal information environment, but ensure its integrity; not to harden views, but to develop positive cognitive resistance efforts to build resilience in our population; not to argue that there ‘is no truth,’ but to promote the values and idea that we know matter.”

  • Religious Freedom in Kazakhstan: The Case of Teymur Akhmedov

    By Nathaniel Hurd, Policy Advisor The case of Teymur Akhmedov, a 61-year-old Jehovah’s Witness in Kazakhstan, illustrates the life-threatening consequences that can result from attacks on religious freedom. Restrictions on Religious Freedom in Kazakhstan Becoming an OSCE participating State includes the voluntary accession to all OSCE commitments, including those related to freedom of religion. From the founding Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the language is clear: “The participating States will 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… the participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.” Yet of the 10 countries currently designated by the U.S. State Department as “Countries of Particular Concern” with regard to religious freedom, three of them – Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan – are in the OSCE region. Since the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requirements came into effect, the U.S. Secretary of State has annually reviewed and reported annually on the status of religious freedom in foreign countries. When there is evidence the government of that country has “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom in that country,” the Secretary is supposed to designate the country as a CPC. Although Kazakhstan has not been designated as a CPC and its constitution includes provisions providing for religious freedom, in its International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, the State Department reported “the government continued to arrest, detain, and imprison members of religious groups, criminalize speech ‘inciting religious discord,’ question congregation members about their choice of faith, punish individuals for ‘illegal missionary activity,’ and label ‘nontraditional’ religious groups as ‘destructive sects’ in the media.” This has led the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to classify Kazakhstan as one of three OSCE participating States – along with Azerbaijan and Turkey – on its “Tier 2” list, which identifies countries where religious freedom violations do not meet the criteria for the State Department’s CPC designation, but that still need ongoing scrutiny. Kazakhstan has been on the Tier 2 list every year since 2013. USCIRF notes in its 2017 annual report, “The country’s restrictive 2011 religion law bans unregistered religious activity and is enforced through police raids, detentions, fines, and the closing of religious institutions. Increasingly, terrorism and religious extremism laws with multiyear prison sentences are deployed against religious nonconformity and political opposition, blurring the line between violent extremism and peaceful dissent.” The Case of Teymur Akhmedov A retired bus driver, Jehovah’s Witness Teymur Akhmedov is a married father of three. In 2016, he was approached by several men who identified themselves as students who were interested in the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They invited Akhmedov to an apartment to discuss his faith and later visited his home. Acting on behalf of the National Security Committee (a Kazakh intelligence agency), the men secretly recorded their discussions. In January 2017, Akhmedov was arrested and charged with violating Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code (Article 174) regarding “inciting religious hatred.” The presiding judge concurred with the charges and also accused Akhmedov of “inciting religious discord” and promoting the “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority of citizens on grounds of their religion.” He sentenced Akhmedov to five years in a labor camp and banned him from “ideological religious activity.” His appeal was denied in June 2017. Since his pre-trial detention began in January, authorities have denied Akhmedov access to cancer treatments at a hospital. He also says he has been tortured in detention. His family and his fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses are concerned that his health will rapidly deteriorate. Jehovah’s Witnesses have asked for him to be immediately released and for the Kazakh government to stop using the Criminal Code and legislation to violate religious freedom in the name of combating extremism. Jehovah's Witnesses in Kazakhstan There are 18,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan, more than in any other central Asian country. Over the years, the Kazakh government has fined more than 60 Jehovah’s Witnesses for engaging in missionary activities without registration. In May 2017, a government inspection of Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters in Almaty alleged non-compliance with Kazakh law regarding requirements for the number of security cameras at public venues, although the government had approved – and Jehovah’s Witnesses had implemented – a camera plan for the headquarters earlier that year. In June, a judge suspended all activities at the headquarters and imposed fines. At an appeals hearing on August 3, the judge amended the sentence, ordering Jehovah’s Witnesses to refrain from holding religious meetings in the headquarters, but permitting all other activities at the headquarters to continue. This has forced 14 congregations to meet elsewhere.  

  • The Scourge of Russian Disinformation

    Russian disinformation is a grave transnational threat, facilitating unacceptable aggression by Russia both at home and across the 57-nation OSCE region. Russian disinformation helps support rampant violations of OSCE norms by the Putin regime, ranging from internal human rights abuses to military intervention in neighboring states to interference in elections in several countries. On Thursday, September 14, 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Russian disinformation in the OSCE region. Sen. Cory Gardner (CO) presided over the hearing on behalf of Commission Chairman Sen. Robert Wicker (MS). Witnesses included Mr. John F. Lansing, CEO and Director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors; Ms. Molly McKew, CEO of Fianna Strategies; and Ms. Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society Programs at Human Rights First. In his opening statement, Sen. Gardner described the serious threat that Russian disinformation poses to the liberal international order, and underscored “how it undermines the security and human rights of people in the OSCE region.” Russia’s goal, he said, is “to sow fear, discord, and paralysis that undermines democratic institutions and weakens critical Western alliances such as NATO and the EU.” Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) highlighted the impact of Russian disinformation campaigns in Ukraine in conjunction with the recent invasions of Crimea and the Donbas. He also noted the extent of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and observed that such disinformation campaigns take advantage of our democratic institutions to advance Russia’s strategic agenda. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) characterized Russia’s disinformation efforts as a part of a strategy of “hybrid war,” and emphasized the need for the United States and its allies to develop counter-disinformation strategies as part of a “hybrid defense.” Mr. Lansing, the first witness to testify, outlined the structure and scope of the BBG’s broadcasting operations, and the role it plays in countering disinformation abroad. “The Russian strategy seeks to destroy the very idea of an objective, verifiable set of facts,” he said. “The BBG is adapting to meet this challenge head on by offering audiences an alternative to Russian disinformation in the form of objective, independent, and professional news and information.” He also described the BBG’s recent expansion of programming in the Post-Soviet space, and its flagship Russian-language program "Current Time," launched in February 2017. In her testimony, Ms. McKew described Russia’s disinformation campaign as “the core component of a war being waged by the Russian state against the West, and against the United States in particular.” She noted, “These manipulations don’t create tendencies or traits in our societies.  They elevate, exploit, and distort divides and grievances that already are present.” She also emphasized the need for a coordinated response from the United States Government and its allies, and proposed an increased role for the U.S. military in countering disinformation. Ms. Hooper reminded the Commission that, while Russian disinformation has taken center stage in recent U.S. policy debates, it is only one of many methods employed by the Russian government to advance its agenda. “It’s part of a coordinated effort to disrupt and attack liberal norms wherever the opportunity arises using economic influence, electoral disruption, [and] the weakening of multilateral institutions,” she said. She also discussed the upcoming German parliamentary elections, and the potential for disinformation to influence its outcome. She commended the German government’s efforts to warn the public about disinformation, but criticized recent legislation that would increase censorship on social media. In response to a question from Sen. Gardner, Ms. Hooper noted that countering disinformation requires more than fact-checking false claims, and emphasized the need for a strategy of proactive narrative communication. Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) concurred with Ms. McKew’s statement that, in order to combat the threat of Russian disinformation, it is necessary for the Administration and Congress to come to a consensus on the existence of Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) inquired about the potential for Russian influence in upcoming elections by means of anonymous campaign spending, and about the role that the international banking system plays in sustaining corruption in Russia and neighboring states. Rep. Smith and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) sought the witnesses’ opinions on the recent news that Russian state-owned networks RT and Sputnik are being investigated for possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Ms. McKew spoke in favor of stricter enforcement of FARA, while Mr. Lansing responded that he has concerns about retaliatory restrictions on U.S.-funded media in Russia. “I believe that this disinformation is one of the biggest threats that our democracy faces today,” said Sen. Shaheen. “This is a threat to the foundations of American democracy. It has nothing to do with Republicans and Democrats.”

  • Political Participation and Ethnic Division in Bosnia and Herzegovina

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. While denial of equal opportunities for all citizens to participate in the political life of their country is a concern in many OSCE countries, the ethnic restrictions in the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina which deny Bosnian citizens the right to run for certain political offices is perhaps the most blatant example of this problem among the OSCE participating States. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Democratic Elections in the OSCE Region

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. In the 1990 Copenhagen Document, the OSCE participating States adopted, by consensus, watershed commitments on free and fair elections. They stated that the participating States: “. . . solemnly declare that among those elements of justice which are essential to the full expression of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings are the following: [ . . . ] — free elections that will be held at reasonable intervals by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedure, under conditions which ensure in practice the free expression of the opinion of the electors in the choice of their representatives; [ . . . ] — a clear separation between the State and political parties; in particular, political parties will not be merged with the State;”  Accordingly, the participating States rejected the concept of a one-party state or “modified” democracy (e.g., communist- or socialist-democracy).  In a summit held later that year, the OSCE Heads of State or Government declared, “We undertake to build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations.” In spite of the OSCE commitment to hold free and fair elections, some OSCE participating States have demonstrated even more resistance—if not complete unwillingness—to hold free and fair elections. In a few, a transfer of power is more likely to be the result of death than an election.  In some cases, a generation has come of age under a single ruler or ruling family. Download the full report to learn more. Download highlights of conclusions and recommendations drawn from OSCE election reports (October 2016 to September 2017).

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