Title

Democratization and Human Rights in Kazakhstan

Thursday, May 06, 1999
10:00am
485 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20002
United States
Members: 
Name: 
Hon. Chris Smith
Title Text: 
Chairman
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Witnesses: 
Name: 
Ross Wilson
Title: 
Principal Deputy to the Ambassador-at-Large and Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for the NIS
Body: 
Department of State
Name: 
H.E. Bolat Nurgaliev
Title: 
Ambassador to the United States
Body: 
Kazakhstan
Name: 
Akezhan Kazhegeldin
Title: 
Chairman/Former Prime Minister
Body: 
The National Republican Party of Kazakhstan/Kazakhstan
Name: 
Yevgenyi Zhovtis
Title: 
Chairman
Body: 
Board of Directors to the Soros Foundation in Kazakhstan
Name: 
Pyotr Svoik
Title: 
Chairman
Body: 
Azamat Movement
Name: 
Dr. Martha Brill Olcott
Title: 
Senior Associate
Body: 
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

This hearing reviewed the democratization process, human rights, and religious liberty in Kazakhstan. This was one in a series that the Helsinki Commission has held on Central Asia. The hearing focused on Kazakhstan for two reasons: first, the country held a presidential election, almost 2 years ahead of schedule. The OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, used unusually strong language, and criticized the conduct of the election as far short of meeting OSCE commitments. The witnesses gave testimony surrounding the legal obstacles in the constitution of Kazakhstan and other obstacles that the authoritarian voices in the government use to suppress opposition.

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Leadership: 
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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 Urges Turkish President to Lift State of Emergency

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

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

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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. 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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.  

  • Political Participation and Ethnic Division in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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  • 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). Contributors: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor, Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor, Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor, Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law, and John Engelken, Intern

  • The 2017 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting: An Overview

    Each year,1 the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) organizes the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, Poland. As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress.  The 2017 HDIM will be held from September 11 to September 22. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2017 The HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma.  Each year, three special topics are selected for a full-day review.  2017 special topics will be 1) ensuring “equal enjoyment of rates and participation in political and public life,” 2) “tolerance and nondiscrimination,” and 3) “economic, social and cultural rights as an answer to rising inequalities.”  This year’s meeting will take place at the Warsaw National Stadium (PGE Narodowy), the site of the NATO summit earlier this year. The meeting will be webcast live. Background on the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting When the Helsinki Final Act was signed in Finland in 1975, it enshrined among its ten Principles Guiding Relations between Participating States (the Decalogue) a commitment to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion" (Principle VII). In addition, the Final Act included a section on cooperation regarding humanitarian concerns, including transnational human contacts, information, culture and education. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as trafficking in human beings and refugees), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (e.g., countering anti-Semitism and racism). One of the innovations of the Helsinki Final Act was agreement to review the implementation of agreed commitments while considering the negotiation of new ones. Between 1975 and 1992, implementation review took place in the context of periodic “Follow-up Meetings” as well as smaller specialized meetings focused on specific subjects. The OSCE participating States established permanent institutions in the early 1990s. In 1992, they agreed to hold periodic Human Dimension Implementation Meetings” to foster compliance with agreed-upon principles on democracy and human rights. Additional changes to the modalities for the HDIM were agreed in 1998, 2001, and 2002, which included shortening the meeting from three weeks to two weeks, and adding three “Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings” annually on subjects selected by the Chairmanship-in-Office on particularly timely or time-sensitive issues. One of the most notable features of the HDIM is the strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a strong advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE modalities allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. 1 In exceptional years when the OSCE participating States hold a summit of heads of state or government, the annual review of human dimension commitments is included as part of the Review Conference which precedes the summit, and also includes a review of the political-military and economic/environmental dimensions.

  • Journalists Persecuted 2017: Illustrative Cases

    By Jordan Warlick, Staff Associate Natasha Blaskovich, Intern Katya Kazmin, Intern With a section on the “improvement of working conditions for journalists”, the Helsinki Final Act explicitly recognizes the importance of journalists for democratic and open societies. Despite the signing of the agreement in 1975, the situation for journalists is still very grim in several countries in the region. The U.S. Helsinki Commission continues to monitor these conditions closely and remains concerned with: (a) murder, violence, and other egregious acts that harm the safety of journalists; (b) imprisonment of journalists for their work; (c) other restrictions that impede the work of journalists and a free press. The journalists featured below are representative of those persecuted so far this year. Afqan Muxtarli (Azerbaijan) – Muxtarli and his family fled to neighboring Georgia in 2015 after Muxtarli received threats related to corruption investigations into Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and other officials. Following Muxtarli’s disappearance on May 29, 2017, Muxtarli’s lawyer told Radio Free Europe that the journalist was abducted in Tbilisi and handed over to Azerbaijani officers at the border. Muxtarli believes that these officers planted €10,000 on him and then promptly arrested him, in order to incriminate him for illegally crossing the border with a large sum of money and no passport. Amnesty International and other international human rights organizations have criticized the Azerbaijani government for its oppression of journalists and suppression of free speech. Georgia’s Interior Minister has stated that Georgia has launched an investigation into this allegedly unlawful imprisonment. Mehman Huseynov (Azerbaijan) – Huseynov, a well-known journalist and blogger in Azerbaijan, was sentenced to two years in prison on March 3, 2017 on defamation charges. Huseynov had been under a travel ban since 2012, and was reportedly harassed and intimidated by the police for years. In early January 2017, Huseynov was arrested in Baku, taken to the Nasimi police station where he was held incommunicado, and repeatedly beaten and abused. Although he filed a formal complaint with the prosecutor’s office and made his abuse public, Huseynov’s allegations were declared groundless and not investigated. Huseynov was accused of defamation by the Nasimi police chief, and was found guilty in May 2017. Halina Abakunchyk (Belarus) – Abakunchyk is a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a U.S.-government-funded service. She was detained overnight on March 12, 2017, accused of “participating in an unsanctioned rally,” and then fined approximately $300 for covering large nationwide protests in March over a tax on the unemployed. Abakunchyk was one of 32 journalists arrested and/or fined for similar offenses while covering the protests.   Zhanbolat Mamay (Kazakhstan) – Mamay is the editor of the Tribuna newspaper, one of the few independent papers in Kazakhstan to have survived a recent trend of pressure and harassment from the government. Arrested on February 10, 2017, Mamay stands accused of being an accomplice to money-laundering, along with opposition leader and former head of BTA Bank, Mukhtar Ablyazov, in 2009. Before his arrest, Mamay told RFE/RL that he felt he was being followed. Since his arrest, Mamay has complained of being beaten and extorted while in prison. There are concerns for the safety of Mamay and his family as well as the provision of a fair trial. The Committee to Protect Journalists and other organizations have called for his release. Nikolai Andrushchenko (Russia) – Andrushchenko was a Russian journalist known for reporting on issues provocative to the Russian regime, including corruption. When Andrushchenko was attacked by assailants in St. Petersburg on March 9, 2017, he was in the midst of investigating reports of corruption and human rights abuses, allegations including the involvement of local police. He was found unconscious several hours later and taken to a hospital where brain surgery was performed, leaving him in a coma. He died on April 19, 2017. Prior to the March 9 attack, Andrushchenko had been attacked at least two times in the last decade. In November 2016, assailants attacked him on his doorstep. He was also attacked in November 2007, weeks before he was jailed for two months on false charges of defamation and obstruction of justice. The police have not informed the newspaper which Andrushchenko co-founded, Novy Peterburg (New Petersburg), of any progress in the investigation. Dmitry Popkov (Russia) – Popkov, the chief editor of local independent newspaper Ton-M in Siberia, was found shot dead in his backyard in Minusinsk on May 24, 2017. Popkov was known for investigating alleged abuses of power and corruption. Ton-M’s motto, “We write what other people stay silent about,” made the newspaper – and Popkov himself – long-time targets. Shortly before his murder, Popkov had published reports regarding a federal parliamentary audit that revealed corruption in the local administration. An investigation has been launched by the regional branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee and Popkov’s journalism is being treated as a potential motive for the murder. Nur Ener (Turkey) – Ener, a journalist for the daily Yeni Asya, was detained by police after they raided her apartment in the middle of the night on March 3, 2017. Accused of being affiliated with the Fethullah Gülen network, Ener’s formal charges are unknown to her lawyer and she is allowed only 45 minutes of family visits a week and one hour with her lawyer. A former roommate of Ener, who was arrested after the July 2016 coup attempt, is said to have given Ener’s name to the police in the aftermath of the coup. Some of Ener’s critical reporting, including an interview where the guest criticized certain government policies, may have also been a reason for her arrest. According to the Committee to Project Journalists, Ener is one of over 80 journalists imprisoned in Turkey – the largest jailer of journalists in the world. Oguz Guven (Turkey) ­­– Guven is the website editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet daily. He was detained on May 12, 2017 for spreading terrorist propaganda, a popular charge against journalists in Turkey. The arrest allegedly was prompted by the newspaper’s tweet about the death of Mustafa Alper, a senior Turkish prosecutor involved in prosecuting suspects in the July 2016 coup attempt. Cumhuriyet has come under extreme pressure from the Turkish government, with 17 journalists and board members standing trial on July 24. Guven and his colleagues could face prison sentences as long as 43 years. Stanyslav Aseyev (Ukraine) – Aseyev, a freelance journalist who contributed to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty under the name Stanyslav Vasin, has been missing from Donetsk since June 3, 2017.  On July 16, Yehor Firsov, a former Ukrainian lawmaker and close friend of Aseyev, said he received information through unofficial sources that the journalist was detained by pro-Russian separatists. Aseyev allegedly faces charges of espionage by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), who have threatened him with up to 14 years’ imprisonment. Other journalists highlighted in Political Prisoners in Russia: Mykola Semena (Ukraine) – Semena, a Crimean journalist, has been charged under Article 280.1 of Russia’s criminal code, which penalizes "public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation." The law was added to the Russian criminal code in December 2013, and came into force in May 2014 - several weeks after Crimea was annexed by Russia. Semena was one of the only independent journalists to remain on the peninsula following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. He contributed reporting to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and its Crimea Desk. On April 19, 2016, after Russian police searched Semena’s home and confiscated computers and storage media, the de facto Crimean prosecutor-general ordered Semena to remain on the peninsula while he was investigated for alleged “calls to undermine Russia’s territorial integrity via the mass media.” Semena has been forced to stay in Crimea ever since, despite his requests to travel to Kyiv for urgently needed medical care. Semena’s trial has been adjourned and delayed several times this year. If he is found guilty, he could face five years in prison. Roman Sushchenko (Ukraine) – Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist, is charged under article 276 of Russia’s criminal code (espionage). He has worked as a Paris-based correspondent for Ukraine’s state news agency, Ukrinform, since 2010. He was detained at a Moscow airport on September 30, 2016, upon his arrival from Paris on private business. He was accused of collecting classified information on the activities of Russia’s armed forces and the National Guard. Mr. Sushchenko denies any involvement in espionage. His employer, Ukrinform, also considers the accusations false and called his detention a “planned provocation.” Mr. Sushchenko’s attorney is Mark Feygin, who previously represented Pussy Riot and Nadezhda Savchenko. Sushchenko’s pre-trial detention has been extended several times by the Lefortovsky District Court of Moscow since his arrest, and is currently set until September 30, 2017. Photos Cited: Afqan Muxtarli: Facebook Mehman Huseynov: Facebook Halina Abakunchyk: RFE/RL Zhanbolat Mamay: RFE/RL Nikolai Andrushchenko: RFE/RL Dmitry Popkov: TON-M Nur Ener: Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) Oguz Guven: Twitter Stanyslav Aseyev: RFE/RL

  • Engaging Belarus on Human Rights & Democracy

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing titled, “Engaging Belarus on Human Rights and Democracy” on July 21, 2017, which built on renewed interest in Belarus after members of the Commission traveled to Minsk earlier in the month for the annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting. The panelists for the briefing included Stephen Nix, Regional Program Director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute in Washington, DC; Katie Fox, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Department at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC; and Sanaka Samarasinha, the United Nations Chief in Belarus. Brief remarks were also delivered by Belarusian Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky. Stephen Nix began the briefing by highlighting the importance of Belarus in U.S. foreign relations, including the relationship between Belarus and Russia, especially in light of the increased Western presence in the Baltics and the surrounding area. Mr. Nix “applaud[ed] Belarus’s expressed intent at engagement” and offered some examples demonstrating optimism for the democratic process in Belarus, such as the appointment of opposition party members to parliament with limited power. Katie Fox echoed this optimism when addressing “democratic openings,” such as the concessions the Belarusian government made in response to protests, increasingly democratic electoral processes, and “the growth and development of the democratic parties.” Sanaka Samarasinha discussed engagement in relations to the human rights issues Belarus presents today and the areas of particular concern to the UN. The UN in Belarus has focused primarily on “development activities,” but also issues such as human trafficking and the rising number of HIV/AIDs cases. Samarasinha also highlighted the need for a “safe space” for discussions of human rights issues and transparency to allow Belarusians and Belarusian civil society to be able to have a conversation. Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky highlighted ways that Belarus is working with its NATO neighbors through defense cooperation, including relinquishing nuclear weapons and inviting representatives of NATO to observe the Belarusian-Russian strategic joint exercise scheduled for September 2017. Shidlovsky also stated, “Belarus has always regarded normalization of relations with the United States as a priority of its foreign policy. Yes, we have had our ups and downs, but never has the leadership of Belarus underestimated the importance of full-fledged engagement with the U.S.” In the final Q&A session the panelists were cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the improvement of human rights practices in Belarus and improvements in the electoral code that could someday lead to elections that could be certified as free and fair by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  However, they also stressed that it is critical to continue to fight for changes that are sustainable, beginning with the removal of restrictions on peaceful assembly and freedom of speech.

  • One Year After Coup Attempt, Helsinki Commission Calls on Turkish Government to Respect OSCE Commitments, End Crackdown

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the one-year anniversary of the attempted coup in Turkey, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statements: “Last July, thousands of Turks took to the streets to stand against a military coup attempt. Turkish democracy still hangs in the balance one year later,” said Chairman Wicker. “I urge the Turkish government to restore stability and trust in its institutions by ending the state of emergency, releasing all prisoners of conscience, and guaranteeing full due process to all those who face credible charges.” “The Turkish government’s campaign against parliamentarians, academics, journalists, and thousands of others is marked by grave human rights violations,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “The Turkish courts’ support for this campaign is a sad sign of the challenges ahead – we recently saw this in a court’s confirmation of the expropriation of a Syriac Orthodox monastery. I call on the Turkish government and courts not to continue down the path to dictatorship.” Ahead of the May 2017 meeting between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Helsinki Commission leaders urged President Trump to seek guarantees that several U.S. citizens currently jailed in Turkey will have their cases promptly and fairly adjudicated and receive full consular assistance. They called for the prompt release of imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson; for consular access and fair trials for American dual citizens like Serkan Golge; and for timely and transparent due process for long-standing U.S. consulate employee Hamza Uluçay. Chairman Wicker also submitted a statement to the Congressional Record expressing his concern about the outcome of the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey, which approved Turkey’s conversion from a parliamentary government into an “executive presidency,” further weakening crucial checks and balances.

  • 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report – the OSCE Region

    By Allison Hollabaugh, Counsel Human trafficking remains a pressing human rights violation around the world with the International Labor Organization estimating that nearly 21 million people are enslaved at any given time, most of them women and children. As part of U.S. efforts to combat human trafficking, the U.S. Department of State today released the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), reflecting the efforts of 187 countries and territories to prosecute traffickers, prevent trafficking, and to identify and assist victims, as described by the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. Trafficking Victim Identification and Care: Regional Perspectives According to the new TIP Report, in the 2016 reporting year, countries in the OSCE region identified 304 more trafficking victims than in the previous year, for a total of 11,416 victims.  This increase is particularly notable when compared to the East Asia and Pacific, Near East, South and Central Asia, and Western Hemisphere regions, where victim identification declined, but still maintained a generally upward trend over 2014.  Trafficking victim identification and care is critical for proper management of refugee and migrant flows.  In order to help law enforcement and border guards identify trafficking victims among the nearly 400,000 migrants and refugees entering the region last year, the OSCE Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Human Beings launched a new project to conduct multiple trainings, including simulation exercises, through 2018.  The first training in November 2016 included participants from 30 OSCE participating States. Victim identification and care are also critical for successful prosecutions.  Nearly every region of the world saw a drop in prosecutions of human traffickers, but an increase in convictions in the 2016 reporting year.  This trend may reflect a growing knowledge among prosecutors of how to successfully investigate and prosecute a trafficking case.  It also may reflect an overall increase in trafficking victims who have been identified, permitted to remain in-country, and cared for such that the victims—now survivors—are ready, willing, and able to testify against their traffickers.  Despite the dramatic decline in prosecutions (46 percent) in the OSCE region, convictions held steady at nearly the same numbers as the previous year. Individual Country Narratives Along with regional statistics, the TIP Report also provides individual country narratives, recommendations for the most urgent changes needed to eliminate human trafficking, and an assessment of whether the country is making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 1 countries meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 2 countries do not yet meet the standards, but are making significant efforts to do so.  Tier 2 Watch List countries do not meet the minimum standards and are making significant efforts to do so, but have a very large or increasing number of trafficking victims, have failed to demonstrate increasing efforts over the previous year, or lack a solid plan to take additional steps in the coming year. Tier 3 countries do not meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. Twenty-five OSCE participating States qualified for Tier 1 in the TIP Report.  Nineteen participating States qualified for Tier 2, including Ukraine, which was upgraded this year after four years on the Tier 2 Watch List.  Five participating States were designated for the Tier 2 Watch List, including Hungary, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, and Bulgaria.* Four participating States were on Tier 3, including Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  States on Tier 3 may be subject to sanctions. Legislation authored by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith—who also serves as the Special Representative for Human Trafficking Issues to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly – requires the TIP Report to be produced every year.  In recent years the report has also included an assessment of the United States.   Since the inception of the report, more than 100 countries have written or amended their trafficking laws, with some nations openly crediting the report for inspiring progress in their countries’ fight against human trafficking. * OSCE participating States Andorra, Monaco, Lichtenstein, and San Marino are not included in the TIP Report.

  • A Call to OSCE Commitments in Aftermath of Turkish Referendum

    Mr. President, I rise today to express my concerns about the outcome of the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey, when more than 50 million Turkish citizens voted on constitutional amendments to convert Turkey’s parliamentary government into a presidential system.   Turkey is a longstanding friend of the United States and a NATO ally.  Our bilateral partnership dates back to the Cold War when Turkey served as an important bulwark against the creeping influence of the Soviet Union.  Time has not diminished Turkey’s geostrategic importance. Today, Ankara finds itself at the intersection of several critical challenges: the instability in Syria and Iraq, the threat of ISIS and other extremist groups, and the refugee crisis spawned by this regional upheaval.     The United States relies on Turkey and other regional partners to help coordinate and strengthen our collective response.  I was deeply troubled when renegade military units attempted to overthrow Turkey’s democratically elected government last July.  Turkey’s strength is rooted in the democratic legitimacy of its government – a pillar of stability targeted by the reckless and criminal coup attempt.         As Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or U.S. Helsinki Commission, I take very seriously the political commitments made by the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  These commitments – held by both the United States and Turkey – represent the foundation of security and cooperation in the OSCE region.  They include an indispensable focus on human rights, rule of law, and democratic institutions.    In the OSCE’s founding document, the Helsinki Final Act, participating States affirm “the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” and consider respect for these to be an “essential factor” for international peace and security. This vision is consistent with long-established U.S. foreign policy promoting human rights and democracy as cornerstones of a safer, more stable international order.      With these principles in mind, the United States must pay urgent attention to the current situation in Turkey and the danger it poses to Turkish and regional stability.  Eroding respect for fundamental freedoms, rule of law, and democratic institutions in Turkey has proceeded at an alarming pace.  The government’s planned “executive presidency” will further decrease government accountability. Since the attempted coup more than nine months ago, Turkey has operated under a state of emergency that gives the government sweeping authority to curtail rights and silence opponents.  Certain extraordinary measures may have been justified in the immediate aftermath to restore order, investigate events, and bring perpetrators to justice, but the government’s actions have stretched far beyond these legitimate aims.  The ongoing purge has touched every institution of government, sector of society, corner of the country, and shade of opposition – military or civilian, Turk or Kurd, religious or secular, nationalist or leftist, political or non-political.   An atmosphere of fear and uncertainty has settled over Turkish society as more than 100,000 people have been detained or arrested.  Tens of thousands have been fired from their jobs, had their professional licenses revoked, and had their names released on public lists without any recognizable due process.  The government removed and replaced thousands of judges and prosecutors within hours of the coup’s defeat, compromising the independence of the judiciary at a moment when an impartial justice system had become more important than ever. The government has also closed more than 150 media outlets.  Upwards of 80 journalists are behind bars.  The offices of the country’s oldest newspaper were raided, and the paper’s editor-in-chief and other staff were arrested.  The media environment was already under extraordinary pressure before the coup. Last spring, the government seized control of the country’s highest-circulation paper.  Self-censorship is now widely practiced to avoid provoking the government’s ire.   Additionally, state of emergency decrees have given regional governors the ability to curtail freedom of assembly rights, harming the ability of civil society organizations to organize rallies concerning the referendum.  Since July, the government has detained more than a dozen opposition parliamentarians. Many more continue to face criminal charges for political statements they made before the coup attempt.    It is difficult to overstate the chilling effect these measures have had on political debate in Turkey. And yet, these are the circumstances under which Turks voted on April 16.  These major constitutional changes passed with a slim majority of 51 percent.  The OSCE’s international observation mission stated in its preliminary conclusions that the vote “took place on an unlevel playing field” and that “fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed.”  Under the revised constitution, the once largely ceremonial position of president will convert into an “executive presidency” and the position of prime minister will be abolished.  The president will be elected along with the national assembly every five years and has the ability to dissolve the assembly and call new elections at will.  The president will also appoint a larger proportion — nearly half — of the country’s supreme judicial council.  In a report on these new constitutional provisions, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe concluded that the amendments are a “step backwards” and pose “dangers of degeneration … towards an authoritarian and personal regime.”    Turkey is undergoing a disturbing transformation, and I am concerned these changes could undermine the strength of our partnership.  President Erdogan’s government has dramatically repressed dissent, purged opponents from every sector of government and society, and is now poised to consolidate power further under his self-described “executive presidency.” In the short term, the Turkish government should act swiftly and transparently to investigate credible claims of voting irregularities in the referendum as well as the legality of a surprise electoral board decision to admit an unknown number of ballots that should be deemed invalid under existing rules.  Public trust in the outcome of such a consequential vote is of utmost importance.  Sadly, until now, the government has responded to these challenges with dismissiveness and suppression.  In the past week, dozens of activists have been detained for participating in protests against the election results. Furthermore, the government should lift the state of emergency, stop all forms of repression against the free press, release all imprisoned journalists and political activists, and urgently restore public confidence in the judiciary.  Only then can it credibly and independently adjudicate the tens of thousands of cases caught up in the government’s months-long dragnet operations. A country where disagreements are suppressed rather than debated is less secure. A country where institutions are subordinated to personalities is less stable.  A country where criticism is conflated with sedition is less democratic.  Unless President Erdogan moves urgently to reverse these trends, I fear our partnership will inevitably become more transactional and less strategic.  It will become more difficult to justify long-term investment in our relationship with Turkey if the future of the country becomes synonymous with the fortunes of one party or one individual. The United States and Turkey need a solid foundation for enduring cooperation to tackle regional instability, terrorism, migration, and other challenges. The future of this partnership is difficult to imagine in the midst of a prolonged state of emergency, wide-scale purges, and weakened democratic institutions.

  • Turkey Post-Referendum: Institutions and Human Rights

    Human rights abuses by the Turkish government have proliferated under the state-sanctioned emergency measures imposed in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup attempt.  Turkish authorities have fired as many as 130,000 public workers, including teachers, academics, police officers, and soldiers, and thousands have been arrested. Hundreds of journalists have had their credentials revoked and dozens of media outlets have been shut down. Human rights groups have documented widespread reports of intimidation, ill-treatment and torture of those in police custody. On April 16, 2017, Turkey held a referendum on a package of amendments that transforms the country’s institutions in major ways. The position of prime minister was eliminated and the executive powers of the president were expanded, enabling him to appoint ministers without parliamentary approval, exert more influence over the judiciary, and call early elections. Coming on top of the post-coup crackdown, how will Turkey’s changing institutions affect human rights in the country? Panelists at the briefing discussed how U.S. policymakers can most effectively encourage the protection of human rights to promote the interests of the Turkish people given the strategic importance of the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship.

  • Political Prisoners in Russia

    Principle VII of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act recognizes the right of individuals to know and act upon their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. The following individuals who were profiled in the Helsinki Commission's April 2017 hearing, "Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight," illustrate the many cases of political prisoners in Russia today. Dmitry Buchenkov – Buchenkov was charged under Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”) for his participation in the 2012 Bolotnaya Square protests against fraud in the 2011 presidential elections. He was arrested in December 2015 and is currently under house arrest.  He is recognized by Memorial as a political prisoner not only because the alleged offense did not take place, but also due to the lack of a fair trial and the disproportionate use of pretrial detention in light of the charge against him. His case illustrates the prosecution of individuals for engaging in nonviolent public protest against the government in general and the Bolotnaya Square cases in particular. Oleg Navalny – Navalny was charged under Article 159 (“swindling on a large scale”), article 159.4 (“swindling on a particularly large scale in the entrepreneurial sphere”), and article 174.1.a (laundering of funds on a large scale acquired by a person through a crime committed by him”).  He was sentenced to 3 ½ years in a closed proceeding, Memorial considers him a political prisoner because the alleged offense did not take place and he was not given a fair trial. In reality, Oleg Navalny was targeted because he is the brother of prominent political activist Alexei Navalny.  It appears the authorities are unwilling to make a martyr out of Alexei Navalny but seek to exert pressure on him by persecuting his brother. Oleg Navalny’s case illustrates the willingness of the government to target family members as a means of exerting pressure on political activists, which is specifically prohibited under the OSCE 1989 Vienna Concluding Document. Darya Polyudova – Polyudova was charged under article 280 of the Russian criminal code (“public appeals for extremist activity” and “public appeals for actions aimed at a violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation”) in connection with her participation in preparation for a march that did not take place.  In reality, she was indicted for criticizing Moscow online for its support of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's east.  She is recognized as a political prisoner because the offense did not take place, her right to a fair trial was violated, and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention given the nature of the charges.  She was sentenced to two years in prison, becoming the first person in Russia convicted under a 2014 law criminalizing calls for separatism on the Internet. Her case illustrates the government’s prosecution of Russian nationals who criticize Russia’s actions and policies in Ukraine. Sergei Udaltsov – Udaltsov was charged under Article 30 of the Russian criminal code (“preparation of actions aimed at organizing mass riots”) and Article 212 (“organization of mass riots”) after participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests. He has been arrested multiple times before for protesting against the government. Memorial recognizes him as a political prisoner on the grounds that he was charged with an offense that did not take place; his right to a fair trial was violated; and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He was sentenced to four years and six months in prison. Ivan Nepomniashchikh – Nepomniashchikh was charged with Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”). He is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that he is being prosecuted for exercising his right to freedom of assembly; he is being charged with an offense that did not take place; he was not allowed a fair trial;  and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He is another example of those being prosecuted for participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests against the 2011 fraud in the presidential election. Alexei Pichugin – Pichugin was charged under Article 162 of the Russian criminal code (“robbery”) and Article 105 (“murder”). At a closed trial, Pichugin, the former head of internal economic security for the Yukos Company then headed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sentenced to life imprisonment in a special-regime penal colony. He has been in prison since 2003 and is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that his prosecution was conducted without a fair trial.  The European Court on Human Rights also has held that Pichugin was denied a fair trial.   Oleg Sentsov – Senstov is a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in Russia since 2015, and was the focus of a separate Helsinki Commission briefing. Sentsov was arrested in the Russian-occupied Crimean territory of Ukraine and charged under Article 205.4 of the Russian criminal code (“organization of a terrorist group”), Article 205 (“terrorist act committed by an organized group”), Article 30 in connection with Article 205 (“preparation of a terrorist act”), Article 30 in connection with Article 222 (“attempted illegal acquisition of firearms and explosive devices”), and Article 222 (“illegal acquisition and storage of far arms and explosive devices”).  He was accused of planning an attack on a monument to Lenin, a charge he denies. He was sentenced in a Russian military court to 20 years in a strict regime penal colony for terrorism. Other Illustrative Cases Alexander Kolchenko – Kolchenko, a Crimean activist, was charged under article 205 of Russia’s criminal code (art. 205.4 part 2: "Participation in a terrorist organization," and art. 205, paragraph "a," part 2: "A terrorist act conducted by a terrorist group"). He refuted the accusations of terrorism. Mr. Kolchenko was detained in May 2014, in Simferopol, Crimea, shortly after Russia took control over the peninsula. On August 25, 2016, the North Caucasus District Military Court of Russia sentenced Mr. Kolchenko to 10 years of imprisonment in a strict-regime colony. He is serving his sentence in the Chelyabinsk Oblast, in the city of Kopeysk, a facility notorious for its poor treatment of convicts. Mr. Kolchenko is recognized as a political prisoner by Russia’s Memorial watchdog group. Mykola Semena (under a travel ban) – Semena, a Crimean journalist, has been charged under Article 280.1 of Russia’s criminal code, which penalizes "public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation." The law was added to the Russian criminal code in December 2013, and came into force in May 2014 - several weeks after Crimea was annexed by Russia. Semena was one of the only independent journalists to remain on the peninsula following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. He contributed reporting to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and its Crimea Desk. On April 19, 2016, after Russian police searched Semena’s home and confiscated computers and storage media, the de facto Crimean prosecutor-general ordered Semena to remain on the peninsula while he was investigated for alleged “calls to undermine Russia’s territorial integrity via the mass media.” Semena has been forced to stay in Crimea ever since, despite his requests to travel to Kyiv for urgently needed medical care. Roman Sushchenko (in pre-trial detention) – Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist, is charged under article 276 of Russia’s criminal code (espionage). He has worked as a Paris-based correspondent for Ukraine’s state news agency, Ukrinform, since 2010. He was detained at a Moscow airport on September 30, 2016, upon his arrival from Paris on private business. He was accused of collecting classified information on the activities of Russia’s armed forces and the National Guard. Mr. Sushchenko denies any involvement in espionage. His employer, Ukrinform, also considers the accusations false and called his detention a “planned provocation.” Mr. Sushchenko’s attorney is Mark Feygin, who previously represented Pussy Riot and Nadezhda Savchenko. Memorial, a Russian organization established to report on the crimes of Stalinism, documents cases of political prisoners as well as cases of those persecuted for their faith.This information was compiled by Helsinki Commission staff from Memorial, the U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices, and news sources. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also tracks cases of individuals imprisoned in connection with their faith.

  • How the State of Russian Media Becomes the State of International Media

    It was a bad week for reports on freedom of the media in Russia. On Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders released its 2017 world press freedom index. Russia came in at 148, after such bastions of independent media as South Sudan and Thailand. On Thursday, a Ukrainian human rights delegation briefed the Helsinki Commission on the case of Oleg Sentsov — a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in a Siberian penal colony for his opposition to the annexation of Crimea — and abuses of Ukrainian journalists and creative professionals more broadly. On Friday, Freedom House unveiled its Freedom of the Press 2017 report. That report gives Russia partial credit for the world’s 13-year low in press freedom. “Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia has been a trailblazer in globalizing state propaganda. It continues to leverage pro-Kremlin reporting around the world,” the report states. The three taken in tandem tell a story — one in which violence against journalists in Russia and the region is connected to violence against journalism around the world. Consider the case of Oleg Sentsov. In 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for planning terrorist attacks in Crimea. In his trial, he said he had been tortured. The international human rights community believes this to have been payback for the filmmaker’s outspoken stance against the annexation of Crimea (it is also worth noting that Russia treated Sentsov, a Ukrainian, as though he were a Russian citizen; after the annexation of Crimea, Russia considered all who did not explicitly apply for Ukrainian citizenship to be Russian, to which Sentsov objected in court by saying, “I am not a serf to be transferred with the land”). Russian-backed media reported it as a terrorism case. And so the case contains both the physical threat that looms over journalists and creative types who fail to parrot the party line and also the threat that Russian state-backed media can pose to understanding in the wider world. “Many people perceive [Russian state-backed media] not as propaganda, but as an alternative point of view,” Natalya Kaplan, Sentsov’s cousin, told Foreign Policy in an interview before heading to the Helsinki Commission briefing. “They tend to trust what Russian propaganda says.” In the case of Sentsov, that means some outside of Russia (to say nothing of those in it) thought he was neither filmmaker nor terrorist, but some combination of the two. Americans can no longer tell the difference between actual fake news and fake fake news, Ukrainian PEN member Halya Coynash told FP. “The thing is that you really think the media and information you get from Russian media, it is media. Which is wrong. We have state media, and state media are part of [the] strategy of [the state],” said Mustafa Nayyem, journalist turned Ukrainian member of parliament. Alternative facts are not facts, and false equivalences are not equivalent. But consumers of Russian state-backed media around the globe can be duped into treating them as such, Nayyem said. He argued Russia presents reality and a bold-faced lie as though they are but two different perspectives, the truth of which lies somewhere in the middle, for viewers to decide for themselves. “We know that [Sentsov] never was involved in some attacks, or in some revolution, in terroristic things. He’s a filmmaker, and his movies are recognized internationally. The lie is that this guy was a terrorist, and no one even tried to understand the basis of this [accusation] … There is guy: a filmmaker, and a terrorist. What is true? They think that maybe he’s some filmmaker-terrorist. It’s insane.” Nayyem ardently believes those who want to protect freedom of media and speech need to build up conventions regulating what are accepted as media outlets and news. But there’s a thin line between banning propaganda and furthering censorship and repression. Russia’s independent Dozhd (TV Rain), for example, was recently banned in Ukraine for reporting that Crimea is part of Russia. “Recent democratic gains have bolstered media freedom overall,” the Freedom House report states, “but restrictions on Russian outlets and attempts to foster ‘patriotic’ reporting raise questions about the government’s commitment to media autonomy.” And besides, even Ukrainians, more prepared for Russian media influence than their western counterparts, are not entirely immune. “The Russian media are much better funded” than their Ukrainian counterparts, Kaplan said, and it takes time and resources to counter reports put out by the Russian state-backed media machine. “Even my Ukrainian friends who live in Kiev, after watching two hours of Russian TV, start to question themselves. ‘Am I a fascist?’” Kaplan does not, at present, see much reason for optimism. While it was a bad week for reports on the state of Russian media, it was inevitably a much worse week for those trying to correct or improve it. “Journalism in Russia is dead. It happened quite a while ago,” Kaplan said. “There are small islands of freedom of speech in Russia,” she said, but they aren’t on TV, and they aren’t available to those who don’t know how to access certain sites. Besides, she said, the sophisticated propaganda machine will figure out how to move onto the internet, too. “Russian journalists face the biggest challenge. Their job is simply to survive.” Hanging in the air is the idea that, at present, surviving is actually journalism’s job, too.

  • Oleg Sentsov and Russia's Human Rights Violations against Ukrainian Citizens

    On April 27, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing focusing on human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens. In particular, this hearing was used as a platform to raise awareness for Oleg Sentsov, a political prisoner being held in Siberia. Sentsov was honored by PEN America this year with their 2017 Freedom to Write award for his work exposing Russian human rights violations. Panelist included Natalya Kaplan, cousin of Oleg Sentsov and campaigner for his freedom, and journalist in Kiev; Mustafa Nayyem, Member of Ukrainian Parliament and former journalist and early organizer of the 2013 Euromaidan protests; and Halya Coynash, spokesperson for Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. The panelists provided much context and background detailing Sentsov and others’ cases. Natalya Kaplan spoke to the audience about the terrible conditions her cousin faces in Siberia, including torture, while Mustafa Nayyem spoke about the need to pressure Russia publically to end these human rights abuses. Halya Coynash reminded the audience of the severity of this case by highlighting that Sentsov was the first Ukrainian to be so brazenly imprisoned after the Russian occupation of Crimea; in her eyes, this was the first time the full force of Russian government had been used to fabricate charges and host a show trial against a Ukrainian. The panelists agreed that the media freedom situation in Russian-occupied territory is dire and only growing worse. Of greatest concern was the length to which Russia is willing to go in their efforts to arrest and prosecute journalists. Russia also sets a dangerous precedent with its recent attempts to foist Russian citizenship onto Ukrainians in Crimea, in efforts to undermine international court rulings and give legitimacy to its actions. When it comes to monitoring the human rights situation in Ukraine, the panelists expressed concerns with the lack of access to political prisoners and the inability to target individual Russians involved in creating the sham trials. The panelists believed that the ability to target individuals involved in these trials would be extremely helpful in de-escalating the situation, and they made many references to the Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Overwhelmingly, the response to these issues was a desire to work with Congress to strengthen and update the Magnistky Act, as well as broaden civil society and NGO engagment. Mustafa Nayyem expressed hope that NGOs, such as PEN America, would play a more pivotal role in helping prevent future repression. News articles following the briefing expressed hope that there would be work within Congress to better address issues involving Ukrainian political prisoners.

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