Title

Dispatches From Moscow: Luke Harding’s Chilling Tale of KGB Harassment

Wednesday, February 22, 2012
210 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
United States

This briefing, moderated by Kyle Parker, Policy Advisor at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, addressed issues of human rights abuses in Russia in the context of the then imminent elections and widespread protests.

The witness – Luke Harding, a journalist with the Guardian – remarked on Russia’s human rights abuses which blatantly ignore their commitments to the Helsinki Accords, citing anecdotal evidence. Harding, who had been the only Guardian correspondent to have actually reported from Russia since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, had suffered more at the hands of the FSB than any other Western correspondent, due to the fact that, during his four year tenure in Moscow, he comprehensively and repetitively busted Russia’s taboos that make it the security state it is today.

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    On May 19, 2018, African-American Meghan Markle wed Prince Harry at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, England. Black culture was celebrated throughout the event: Queen Elizabeth II’s first female black chaplain offered prayers, a black British choir sang African-American Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” and Chicago-based African-American Episcopalian bishop Michael Curry quoted civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. during his wedding address, preaching on “the power of love.” However, the public discussion leading up to the wedding was riddled with racial stereotyping and prejudice spurred by Markle’s biracial identity—her father is white and her mother is black. British news outlets were heavily criticized for racial insensitivity after commenting on Markle’s “unconventional family,” and using phrases like “unlikely pairing” to further differentiate between the prince and Markle. Unfortunately, racial bias is not confined to Markle—now Duchess of Sussex—but instead extends to many black people in Europe. According to four comprehensive reports from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Commission, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, and Open Society Foundations, a significant percentage of the estimated 15–20 million people of African descent living in Europe have experienced high rates of prejudice and discrimination. Just days before the wedding, racial equality advocates from across Europe gathered in Brussels to address this problem. At the inaugural People of African Descent Week (PADWEEK), organized by the European Parliament Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup, Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference, Each One Teach One, and the European Network Against Racism, more than 100 black European activists discussed current racial injustices in Europe and recommended ways for European leaders to respond to increasing hate and discrimination across the region. Attendees included black policymakers, business leaders, and human rights activists from across Europe. Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20) and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) were two of nine honorary hosts. “Whether in America or Europe, we must all do more to uphold the democratic values of our nations,” Commissioner Hastings said in a statement. “Skin color should not determine one’s access to rights, protections, and opportunities in a democracy.” Though the agenda was full with discussions ranging from BREXIT to migration to Africa-EU relations, PADWEEK addressed issues of racial discrimination head-on and introduced new ways to find solutions. It called for change to a well-ingrained European system that has left black people by the wayside for centuries. Race and legal issues were raised repeatedly in discussions. German legal expert and human rights activist Thomas Ndindah called for justice for Oury Jalloh, an asylum seeker who burned to death in a German police cell while handcuffed to a mattress in 2005. Participants also questioned a so-called “Marshall Plan” for Africa, the name of which alludes to the American-European economic plan that helped rebuild Western Europe following World War II. Participants voiced concerns that African countries were not being viewed as equal partners in the negotiations or consulted on the name. Instead, many attendees viewed the plan as Europeans paying African governments to keep unwanted African migrants from reaching Europe, while at the same time purposefully attracting Africa’s highly skilled professionals to Europe. This raised one question: how would Africa benefit from this “Marshall Plan” for Africa if Africa’s brightest and best were contributing to countries elsewhere? The week ended with a list of recommendations from participants and a passionate speech by Mirielle Fanon-Mendes-France, daughter of twentieth century philosopher Frantz Fanon. She called on European institutions to deliver on longstanding promises to address the ongoing impact of colonialism and slavery on the present-day well-being of black Europeans. Recommendations from PADWEEK included: Recognizing the history of past injustices by adopting a European Black History Month and a Remembrance Day for victims of colonialism and enslavement Supporting empowerment and anti-discrimination initiatives by funding black-led civil and human rights organizations Adopting legislation in the European Parliament on an EU Framework for National Strategies for Equality and the Inclusion of People of African Descent in Europe

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  • And then, they took her cellphone

    Yesterday I received word that Pavla Holcova, a brave and unflappable Czech journalist, had been summoned by Slovakian police, who are investigating the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciakearlier this year. She took a 4-hour train ride from Prague to Bratislava and voluntarily presented herself at their headquarters. She has cooperated with the investigation since its earliest stages, but on this occasion, she was interrogated for eight hours. She was eventually released, but not before her cellphone was confiscated. The prosecutor who signed the order to take her cellphone and access its data is not assigned to the murder case, and he declined to explain why the authorities needed her phone. Holcova is not under any sort of criminal investigation. Quite the opposite, in fact. But Slovak authorities, acting suspiciously like the thuggish security forces found in repressive states, appear to be trying to shut her down. During the interrogation, she was repeatedly told that her reporting was “always against the system.” Not only is Slovakia a member of the European Union, until last year it ranked — along with much of Europe — as having one of the world’s freest media landscapes. Not anymore. This was merely the latest attempt by Slovakian authorities to harass the colleagues, friends and family of a reporter who was killed for doing his job. I met Holcova last week. She and I were part of a panel discussion in Washington titled “A Deadly Calling,” organized by the Helsinki Commission and designed to raise awareness for and address the assassinations of two investigative journalists in the European Union: Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta last October, and Kuciak in Slovakia this February. The panel included Caruana Galizia’s son, Matthew — himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter — and Holcova, who worked closely with Kuciak to report on official corruption and the Slovakian government’s ties with organized crime. It was this reporting that, many believe, prompted the murders of Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova. Our panel — which also included Robert Mahoney of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a watchdog group that tracks attacks on press freedom — offered an unvarnished look at the rising threats to freedom of expression around the world. In Slovakia, the Kuciak case represents a fundamental test of a young democracy. There has been a major public backlash there, with tens of thousands of ordinary citizens joining street protests demanding justice for the killings. Several high-level resignations have resulted, with the most notable casualty being Prime Minister Robert Fico. Holcova believes there is reason to hope that justice will prevail, and that reform and the rooting out of corruption are possible. But she remains skeptical. “Even though the changes made in the government are rather cosmetic,” she told me. “The most influential government members were replaced by people from the very same political party.” Less visible to the public, though, are the lasting scars these attacks have on loved ones of the slain journalists and the ongoing attempts to deter them from seeking justice. Holcova says she is lucky in that she has a strong support network of friends and family, “but sometimes I feel I might be indeed ‘toxic’ and I am afraid someone might get hurt because of me. This potential guilt is painful and even sometimes paralyzing.” That’s a familiar feeling to many journalists operating in authoritarian societies or scrutinizing high-level corruption. But this isn’t a situation we should tolerate in silence. Impressively, Holcova says she remains undeterred. I asked whether she had ever thought about giving up the effort to find her friend’s killers. “Yes, sure. I will stop pursuing this case, when the people really involved (not just the proxies) will be brought to justice.” Incidentally, this interview was conducted entirely by email. Why? Because Slovakian authorities still have Holcova’s phone, and have offered no indication of when they plan to return it. The public shaming of governments — especially fragile ones — for their bad behavior is one of the best tools available in places where the rule of law has not been completely eviscerated. Slovakia is one of those countries hanging in the balance. We should do all we can to support their struggle to mature into a viable democracy with a strong future. Officials there, Holcova wrote, “did not care that much in past. But I believe they do now. At least a bit more. The reputation of Slovak government is very much damaged, the trust in state institutions such as police or prosecutors is very low.” There’s one very simple way the Slovakian authorities can begin to repair their image. They should return Pavla Holcova’s cellphone immediately.

  • Democracy Deferred

    After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission examined these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.  In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • A Deadly Calling

    Over the last year, several journalists investigating public corruption have been murdered for their work in Europe and Eurasia. Two of these victims—Jan Kuciak of Slovakia and Daphne Caruana Galizia of Malta—came from states within the European Union. While protests erupted in Slovakia after Kuciak’s murder, ultimately leading to the resignation of the Prime Minister and other senior government officials, Caruana Galizia’s murder did not trigger a similar outcome. Those who hired her murderers continue to enjoy anonymity and impunity. The briefing examined the assassinations of journalists throughout Europe and Eurasia, why they are targeted, and how future murders can be prevented. It also investigated the shrinking space for investigative journalism in Europe and Eurasia, where there is less investment in investigative journalism and fewer outlets for investigations to be published.

  • Ending the War in Ukraine

    The Russian-manufactured war in Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 people, injured at least 25,000, and created a humanitarian crisis endangering millions more. Amid daily ceasefire violations and threats to critical infrastructure, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the cost of the needless, four-year-old conflict. In July 2017, the U.S. Secretary of State appointed Ambassador Kurt Volker as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Volker has since repeatedly met with senior Russian counterparts to explore ways to end the conflict, including the possibility of an international peacekeeping mission. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Ambassador Volker explored the way ahead for U.S. and international policy on Ukraine in the wake of President Putin’s re-election. During his opening statement, Ambassador Volker noted that the conflict will only be resolved if Russia decides to remove its forces from the territory of Ukraine and to allow a genuine security presence to enter. He highlighted a proposal to institute a U.N.-mandated peacekeeping force that would help fulfill the Minsk Agreements by establishing security, controlling the border, and creating conditions to hold local elections. This peacekeeping force would be funded through voluntary contributions by nations and coordinated by a special representative of the secretary-general. In the Q&A, Ambassador Volker underlined that a U.N. mandate for such a mission would necessarily depend on Russian agreement. He noted that it is possible that after President Putin’s reelection, there may be greater political space for such a decision to take place, particularly as Russia continues to suffer significant economic and human costs from its occupation and will gain little by continuing the conflict. Regarding Crimea, Ambassador Volker noted that, although it is fortuitous there is no active military-style fighting, the centralized Russian rule has created a dire human rights situation on the illegally occupied territory. The Muslim Crimean Tartar population in particular has suffered greatly under Russian rule. As a result, many Crimean Tartars have fled for other parts of the country. He also stated that he has made it clear to his Russian counterparts that the United States does not accept Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea. Ambassador Volker highlighted some areas where the OSCE’s role could be enhanced. He said that a U.N. peacekeeping force would support the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in executing its mandate in full. Furthermore, the OSCE could help provide supervision and training to local police forces to fill any potential security vacuum after illegal armed groups are removed. The OSCE could also be instrumental in creating and monitoring local elections.  Ambassador Volker closed the briefing by emphasizing the utility of working toward implementation of the Minsk Agreements rather than seeking to negotiate a new format. Even though the agreement has to date seen little implementation, attempting to create an alternative would just start a new open-ended negotiating process. He reiterated his belief that a U.N. peacekeeping force has the potential to unlock significant progress towards implementation of Minsk. He asserted that the United States would continue to be an active contributor to creating a prosperous and successful democratic Ukraine which could help foster a positive security and political environment in Europe going forward.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Review State of Fundamental Freedoms in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DEMOCRACY DEFERRED: THE STATE OF ELECTIONS AND FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS IN AZERBAIJAN Wednesday, May 9, 2018 10:30 a.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 215 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission will examine these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.   The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Audrey L. Altstadt, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts – Amherst Emin Milli, Director, Meydan TV Maran Turner, Executive Director, Freedom Now Additional panelists may be added. In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • Kurt Volker to Discuss War in Ukraine at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: ENDING THE WAR IN UKRAINE: KURT VOLKER, U.S. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR UKRAINE NEGOTIATIONS Tuesday, May 8, 2018 2:00 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 106 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The Russian-manufactured war in Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 people, injured at least 25,000, and created a humanitarian crisis endangering millions more. Amid daily ceasefire violations and threats to critical infrastructure, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the cost of the needless, four-year-old conflict. In July 2017, the U.S. Secretary of State appointed Ambassador Kurt Volker as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Volker has since repeatedly met with senior Russian counterparts to explore ways to end the conflict, including the possibility of an international peacekeeping mission. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Ambassador Volker will explore the way ahead for U.S. and international policy on Ukraine in the wake of President Putin’s re-election.  

  • Co-Chairman Smith Chairs Hearing on Plight of Russian Family, Possible UN Corruption in Guatemala

    WASHINGTON—Congress should investigate and hold accountable the United Nations’ International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) for its role in the prosecution of a Russian family in Guatemala fleeing Putin’s Russia, said Congressman Chris Smith (NJ-04), co-chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, at a Friday hearing titled “The Long Arm of Injustice.” The hearing examined CICIG’s role in the prosecution of the Bitkov family in Guatemala. “Congress has a special responsibility in this matter because the United States is one of the largest contributors to CICIG’s budget. There has been little congressional oversight of CICIG – it’s clearly time for that to change,” Rep. Smith stated at the hearing. The case of the Bitkovs was examined at the hearing, which featured testimony from the lawyers representing the family as well as from Bill Browder, a human rights advocate and founding director of the Global Magnitsky Campaign for Justice, who has investigated the case and CICIG’s role in it. The Bitkovs fled Russia in 2008 following a series of events that began in 2005 with Igor Bitkov refusing to let a senior official at one of Russia’s state banks, Sberbank, buy over half of his North-West Timber Company. His daughter Anastasia was kidnapped and repeatedly raped in 2006, and the family paid $200,000 to ransom her. In 2008, the banks demanded full repayment of their loan to Bitkov’s company despite the company’s good credit. The company was forced into bankruptcy, its assets sold at fire sale prices, and the Bitkovs fled Russia fearing for their lives after hearing of threats made against them. This case was a textbook scheme of Russian officials persecuting those who refuse to do business with them, Browder said. “First, in Russia people who run successful businesses are routinely victimized through a process called ‘Raiderstvo’. I was a victim of Raiderstvo and so were the Bitkovs. It is a standard practice in Russia where organized criminals work together with corrupt government officials to extract property and money from their victims,” stated Browder in his written testimony before the commission. Browder was expelled from Russia in 2005 after fighting corporate corruption there. After Russian authorities seized his companies, Browder’s lawyer Sergei Magnitsky investigated the matter; he was arrested and was tortured to death in Russia in 2009. Since then, Browder pushed for the passage and enactment of Magnitsky laws. After fleeing Russia, the Bitkovs entered Guatemala through a legal firm, Cutino Associates International, that offered them travel documents, and took on new identities there. However, they were eventually indicted and prosecuted for passport fraud, and although the country’s appeals court sided with them, a lower court ruled against them and sentenced them to long prison terms. CICIG was involved in the ultimate prosecution that resulted in their current sentences for passport fraud: 19 years in prison for Igor, and 14 years each for his wife Irina and their daughter Anastasia. The prosecution was “notoriously disproportionate and even more aggressive and shocking than high-impact crimes such as drug trafficking, murder or even terrorism,” stated Rolando Alvarado, a lawyer representing the Bitkovs, at the hearing. “They channelled their criminal prosecution before special courts that know of crimes of greater risk.” The very prosecution violated the law of the country, said another lawyer who represents the Bitkovs. “In Guatemala, the Palermo Convention is in force, as well as the Guatemalan Migration Law. Both laws establish that migrants cannot be criminalized for the possession or use of travel documents or ID documents. Even so, the State of Guatemala has decided to prosecute, illegally, these cases and has issued suspended sentences in other similar cases,” stated Victoria Sandoval, who also represents the Bitkov family. The role of CICIG was examined at the hearing, along with its relationship with Russian officials who were pursuing the prosecution of the Bitkov family in Guatemala. “The Russian government routinely abuses international institutions in order to persecute its enemies who are outside of Russia. In my opinion, the Russian government succeeded in compromising CICIG and the Guatemalan Prosecutor for their own purposes in the Bitkov case. CICIG and the prosecutor’s office have jointly taken up the Russian government’s vendetta against the Bitkovs with no good explanation,” Browder stated. “CICIG did not distance itself from this Russian persecution. They’ve touted it on their website and they’ve actively tried to overturn the Bitkovs’ vindication by the Appeals Court.” Rep. Smith further noted that “the facts of the case strongly indicate” that CICIG “became deeply involved in the Kremlin’s persecution of the Bitkov family. Indeed that CICIG acted as the Kremlin’s operational agent in brutalizing and tormenting the Bitkov family.” “And then there must be accountability for the grotesque wrong that has been done to them. There must be further inquiry, and we must get to the bottom of this,” Smith said. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) said in a statement for the record, "The case of the Bitkovs illustrates the Kremlin’s pattern of abuse involving the world’s courts and legal institutions. Russia should be called out for the mafia state it is and the illegitimate and politically influenced decisions that come out of Russian courts not given the time of day. We must find a way to protect our institutions from malign outsider influence and avoid becoming unwitting participants in Kremlin vendettas." Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Commissioner at the Helsinki Commission, said in a statement for the record, “This miscarriage of justice cannot be tolerated and today’s hearing is a strong first step in bringing this matter to light. It is important for both Kremlin and Guatemalan officials to understand that the world sees what is happening and will not accept Russian malign influence in the Western Hemisphere or the destruction of Guatemalan judiciary.” Sen. James Lankford (OK) said in a statement for the record, “We should be diligent in exercising oversight over any foreign entity which receives U.S. taxpayer funding to ensure our nation's own resources are used to advance national interests. I applaud the Commission for looking into the issue of the Bitkov family as well as exercising oversight over the U.S.-funded CICIG.” Sen. Mike Lee (UT) said in a statement for the record, "CICIG should be operating to root out real corruption, rather than building up or tearing down political winners and losers. It pains me to see sovereignty continually thrown by the wayside as has been the case in Guatemala. It is unfair to average citizens. It has been unfair to the Bitkovs. It is unfair to all who seek a free and prosperous Guatemala."

  • The Long Arm of Injustice

    In 2008, Igor and Irina Bitkov, along with their daughter Anastasia, fled Russia in fear for their lives. Having seen their successful company bankrupted in a textbook raider scheme, their daughter kidnapped and raped, and facing death threats, the Bitkovs took refuge and began a new life with new identities in Guatemala. The family now finds itself separated, imprisoned in squalid Guatemalan jail cells, and facing nearly twenty years in prison for alleged paperwork irregularities normally punishable by a simple fine. There are grave reasons to question the role of the government of Russia and the UN’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in their imprisonment. “I am deeply concerned about grave injustices suffered by the Bitkov family—brutalized in Russia, now apparently re-victimized in Guatemala, where they languish in jail,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who chaired the hearing. “Evidence indicating that the government of Russia may have enlisted the UN’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala to persecute this family is troubling and must be thoroughly scrutinized.” The hearing sought answers to key questions: Did the Kremlin enlist CICIG in its vendetta to destroy the Bitkovs? Is this another example of the frightening reach of Putin’s government and its ability to co-opt institutions designed to further the rule of law, as it has Interpol and Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties? Has the government of Russia corrupted a UN anti-corruption agency? What does this teach about the government of Russia, the UN, and the global fight against the scourge of corruption? The Helsinki Commission examined the specifics of the Bitkov case, including Russian influence on CICIG and Guatemala’s Attorney General’s office, and reviewed policy options to protect U.S. taxpayer-supported institutions from abuse and undue pressure from authoritarian governments. Selection of Additional Materials Submitted for the Record Response of William Browder to Questions for the Record Submitted by Rep. James McGovern Report: CICIG and the Rule of Law | Ligo ProPatria, Instituto de Servicios a La Nacion, Guatemala Immortal, ProReforma Sign-On Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Civil Society Representatives Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Ligo ProPatria, Instituto de Servicios a La Nacion, Guatemala Immortal, ProReforma Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Migration Groups Letter to President Maldonado of Guatemala | Bill Browder Letter to President Maldonado of Guatemala | Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker Invitation to Ivan Velasquez to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing Communication from Loreto Ferrer, CICIG Letter to the Helsinki Commission | VTB Bank Information from RENAP Cover Notes from Aron Lindblom,Diakonia Guatemala, Regarding: Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Indigenous Ancestral Authorities of Guatemala Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Christian Council of Guatemala Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Asociation de Mujeres Q'eqchi'es Nuevo Horizonte Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Comite de Unidad Campesina Guatemala Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Asociation Grupo Integral de Mujeres Sanjuaneras The Wall Street Journal: Kremlin Revenge in Guatemala (March 25, 2018) The Wall Street Journal: Russia’s Dubious Guatemala Story (April 15, 2018) The Wall Street Journal: A Crisis in Guatemala, Abetted by the U.N. (April 22, 2018) National Review: Microscopic Dots. Let's Look at Them. (April 25, 2018) National Review: Why Are They Doing This to the Bitkovs? (April 26, 2018) The Economist: A corruption spat in Russia endangers crime-fighters in Central America (April 28, 2018) Materials submitted by Victoria Sandoval, criminal and human rights attorney representing the Bitkov family Audio: CICIG supports VTB petitions Affidavit: Harold Augusto Flores confesses that he was threatened by CICIG Medical reports on Anastasia Bitkova issued by the National Forensic Science Institute BBC: Inside the 'world's most dangerous' hospital Ruling issued by the tribunal presided over by Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios  

  • Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Cardin on Anniversary of Death of Joseph Stone in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—On the one-year anniversary of the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) recalled Stone’s tragic death, criticized the pressure put on international monitors, and called for the Russian government to end the cycle of violence that resulted in Stone’s death.  Stone’s life was cruelly cut short when his vehicle struck a landmine in separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. “Civilian OSCE monitors like Mr. Stone risk their lives to tell the world what is happening, even as they face violent harassment and physical obstruction. Monitors should be able to travel throughout the country without restriction or intimidation, as their mandate requires,” Sen. Wicker said. “Russia’s continued fueling of this war must end. Putin and those he supports should live up to their commitments under the Minsk agreements and get out of Ukraine.” Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Ranking Senate Commissioner, praised the work of the monitors and condemned Russia’s leaders for their role in the conflict. “Joseph Stone gave his life in service to a mission that shines a light on a war that has killed thousands and affected millions more.  Every day, these brave, unarmed monitors report the ground truth from a conflict manufactured by Putin and his cronies to advance his vision of a weak and destabilized Ukraine,” Sen. Cardin stated. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is one of the most serious breaches of OSCE principles since the signing of Helsinki Final Act in 1975. The Russian regime must put an end to the cycle of violence it perpetuates in Ukraine and live up to its OSCE commitments.” The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. It is the only independent monitoring mission in the war zone. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine.  It currently fields roughly 700 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The United States supports the SMM by providing more than 60 monitors and other resources to the mission.

  • A Crisis in Guatemala, Abetted by the U.N.

    In the struggle to defeat transnational crime in Central America, the U.S. is financing a United Nations prosecutorial body in Guatemala. Yet these U.N. prosecutors are thumbing their noses at the rule of law and seem to be using their power to politicize the Guatemalan judiciary. This is dividing and destabilizing a pivotal democracy in the region. The fragile Guatemalan state is in the crosshairs of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro and Cuba’s Gen. Raúl Castro. If their allies seize control of Mexico’s southern neighbor via its institutions, as Daniel Ortega has done in Nicaragua, it will have implications for Mexican and American security. The U.N. body, known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG by its Spanish initials), has been in the country since 2007. It has busted some criminals. But its unchecked power has led to abuse, and this should concern U.S. backers. Some of CICIG’s most vociferous defenders hail from Guatemala’s extreme left, which eschews equality under the law and representative democracy. CICIG’s rogue justice has come to the attention of Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. He has scheduled a hearing April 27 to review CICIG’s role in the Guatemalan prosecution and extralegal conviction of a Russian family on the run from Vladimir Putin’s mafia. As I detailed in March 26 and April 19 Americas columns, Igor and Irina Bitkov, and their daughter Anastasia, fled persecution in Russia and became victims of a crime syndicate in Guatemala that was selling false identity documents. Yet Guatemala and CICIG tried the family alongside members of the crime ring that tricked them. They were convicted and given unusually harsh sentences. Guatemalan law and the U.N.’s Palermo Convention say that such migrants are victims, and a Guatemalan constitutional appeals court ruled that the Bitkovs committed no crime. CICIG and Guatemalan prosecutors ignored that ruling, went to a lower court and got a conviction. CICIG will not say why, or why it didn’t prosecute the law firm that solicited the fake documents given to the Bitkovs. Matías Ponce is “head of communications” for CICIG but there is no contact information for him or his office on the CICIG website. I managed to get his cellphone number from a third party and, after repeated tries, made contact with him. I requested his email and wrote to him so I could share with readers CICIG’s explanation of what appears to be abuse of power. He sent me a boilerplate response about CICIG’s work against criminal networks but no answers to my questions. It is unlikely CICIG will answer questions before the Helsinki Commission. Its co-chairman, Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), invited CICIG to appear at a similar hearing he proposed for April 24 in the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee monitoring human rights and U.N. entities. CICIG declined the invitation. That hearing was not scheduled, though the office of Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) told me it’s not dead. If CICIG refuses to cooperate with the Helsinki Commission, it will fuel the feeling among rule-of-law advocates that it has something to hide. CICIG says it is in Guatemala merely to “support” the attorney general in her work “identifying and dismantling” criminal networks and is not involved in politics. But an academic analysis of CICIG by Jonatán Lemus, a Francisco Marroquín University political science professor, suggests otherwise. Mr. Lemus observes that “CICIG has also been criticized for the very same reasons others have praised it: becoming a player in judicial appointments, proposing some controversial reforms to the Guatemalan constitution, and the use of televised conferences to shift the public in its favor. From this perspective, instead of strengthening Guatemalan institutions, the Commission is making national institutions dependent on its assistance.” This dependence drives CICIG deeper into politics. As Mr. Lemus notes, “once immersed in a polarized political system,” an international body designed like CICIG naturally “will face incentives to behave as any domestic bureaucracy trying to maximize its power and resources to ensure its survival.” Without an explanation for the bizarre Bitkov convictions, Guatemalans are left to speculate about CICIG’s motives. Incompetence is one possibility. But once the injustice was publicized and not corrected, that reasoning collapsed. A foreign businessman also makes an easy target for a politically correct prosecutor seeking approval from anticapitalist nongovernmental organizations. Kremlin “influence” cannot be ruled out. Nailing the Bitkovs was a priority for Russia because the family had refused to “donate” large sums to the Putin kitty in Kaliningrad. It would hardly be surprising to learn that Moscow leaned on prosecutors and judges to put the family behind bars. There’s no doubt that something fishy went on, and CICIG prosecutor Iván Velásquez’s unwillingness to address it is troubling. The truth matters for the family, for Guatemala and for the U.S.

  • Use Magnitsky Act to Fight Russian Thuggery

    In “Kremlin Revenge in Guatemala” (Americas, March 26) Mary Anastasia O’Grady rightly draws attention to the determination of Vladimir Putin’s cronies to hurt those who defy their corruption. The yearslong ordeal of the Bitkov family—their harassment, persecution and ultimate imprisonment in a Guatemalan jail after fleeing Russia—is astonishing because of its cruelty. However, the story also reveals a much larger truth about the global web of complicity that the Kremlin will weave to suppress the rule of law and human rights outside its own borders. As chairman and former chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which works to advance international human rights, we are encouraged by the release of the first-ever sanctions list under the Global Magnitsky Act late last year. We ask that the administration put those responsible for the harm done to the Bitkovs on this list. These individuals should be held accountable for the flagrant torture and oppression they have inflicted upon this family, once at the helm of a thriving paper-mill company and now unjustly sentenced to years in a Guatemalan jail. Russia’s message of intimidation to the Bitkovs is a familiar one. We’ve seen before what the kleptocracy will do to those who challenge its crimes. We know the stories of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Sergei Magnitsky. In 2012, we championed the Magnitsky Act for the wrongful punishment and death of Magnitsky, who uncovered massive fraud at the hands of Russian authorities. Under the law, those who were complicit in his death would have their U.S. assets frozen and any travel to the U.S. denied. The Global Magnitsky Act, passed four years later, broadens America’s response to human-rights offenders around the world. We have refused to respond to these stories with silence, and we cannot tolerate impunity now. Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.)

  • The Opioid Crisis and the Dark Web

    The opioid crisis is devastating the health and well-being of Americans. Following a dramatic increase in the use of prescription opioid painkillers in the late 1990s, the crisis now kills more than 40,000 people in the United States annually. Experts estimate that millions more abuse prescription opioids each year, many of whom later turn to heroin. Transnational criminal organizations are one of the driving forces behind the intensity of the opioid crisis. By taking advantage of anonymous online marketplaces and legal delivery services, they can smuggle deadly drugs like fentanyl into the United States in a low-risk, high-reward way. This briefing traced the criminal networks that produce these drugs, market them on the dark web, and smuggle them into the United States to better understand how the public and private sectors can more effectively respond to this crisis and save thousands of American lives.

  • Transnational Criminal Organizations and the Opioid Crisis to Be Examined at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: THE OPIOID CRISIS AND THE DARK WEB: HOW TRANSNATIONAL CRIMINALS DEVASTATE U.S. COMMUNITIES Wednesday, March 28, 2018 3:30 p.m. Russell Senate Office Building Room 485 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The opioid crisis is devastating the health and well-being of Americans. Following a dramatic increase in the use of prescription opioid painkillers in the late 1990s, the crisis now kills more than 40,000 people in the United States annually. Experts estimate that millions more abuse prescription opioids each year, many of whom later turn to heroin. Transnational criminal organizations are one of the driving forces behind the intensity of the opioid crisis. By taking advantage of anonymous online marketplaces and legal delivery services, they can smuggle deadly drugs like fentanyl into the United States in a low-risk, high-reward way. This briefing will trace the criminal networks that produce these drugs, market them on the dark web, and smuggle them into the United States to better understand how the public and private sectors can more effectively respond to this crisis and save thousands of American lives. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Kemp Chester, Associate Director of the National Heroin Coordination Group, Office of National Drug Control Policy John Clark, Vice President and Chief Security Officer, Global Security, Pfizer Inc. Louise Shelley, Director, Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center (TraCCC); Professor, George Mason University

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Welcomes New Russia Sanctions

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s announcement by the Trump administration of the first Russian individuals and entities to be sanctioned under the 2017 Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I welcome today’s action by the administration. The targets of this first round of sanctions demonstrate that the United States will not tolerate Russian cyberattacks on our critical infrastructure, and we will not accept attempts by the Putin regime to interfere in U.S. elections. I encourage the administration to continue to expand and enforce sanctions against those in Russia who violate our laws and harm our national security.” CAATSA was passed overwhelmingly by Congress in July 2017 and signed into law by President Trump on August 2, 2017. It codifies certain executive order sanctions and directs the administration to impose additional penalties on the Kremlin’s clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of international norms.

  • Could U.S. Law Help Punish Russians for Doping Scheme?

    WASHINGTON — In recent months, the United States has punished the following people for alleged human rights violations and corruption: A former Gambian president who led terror and assassination squads. A Chechen leader involved in torture, kidnapping and murder. A Pakistani man at the center of a human-organ trafficking network. And a former Russian sports minister who was implicated in a nation’s systematic doping scheme that tainted several Olympics and other international competitions? Well, not the last person — at least not yet. The United States Anti-Doping Agency is exploring the use of government sanctions to punish Russian officials involved in the state-supported doping program that turned the 2014 Sochi Games into a sham. On Tuesday, Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the agency, attended a workshop here sponsored by the U.S. Helsinki Commission to see if the Global Magnitsky Act, a 2016 law that allows the sanctions, could apply to the Russians. The law calls for individuals who have committed human rights violations or significant corruption to be barred from obtaining United States visas and blocked from using the American financial system, which effectively blacklists them from doing business with major world banks. Powerful, wealthy people don’t like to have their assets frozen. “What happened in Sochi was the worst case of corruption that we’ve ever seen in sport, so why shouldn’t the act apply to us?” Tygart said. “We have to look down every avenue if we’re working for clean athletes, particularly in light of the I.O.C.’s failure do anything.” Tygart said American athletes have been demanding that the antidoping agency find ways to better protect clean athletes in the future so the Russian doping debacle is never repeated. The International Olympic Committee punished Russia, sort of, for its widespread doping. It barred the Russian Olympic Committee, the Russian flag and the Russian national anthem from last month’s Pyeongchang Games, while letting some Russian athletes compete under a neutral flag. It also barred for life one top Russian official: Vitaly Mutko. (He was implicated in the doping program as the Russian sports minister. After the scheme was exposed, he was promoted to deputy prime minister.) Three days after the Pyeongchang Games ended, the I.O.C. reinstated Russia’s Olympic committee — even though two Russian athletes had failed drug tests during the competition. So the United States antidoping group is looking for additional ways to punish the Russians. The Global Magnitsky Act is in its infancy and the sports angle might be a long-shot, but why not try? Besides, the United States government often has to do the dirty work for sports leagues and federations that refuse to police themselves. To take down the principles and athletes involved in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative steroids scandal that ensnared athletes like Barry Bonds and Marion Jones, law enforcement made arrests and prosecutors took it from there. To address the widespread doping problem in Major League Baseball, Congress had to drag players and management in to testify. To uncover corruption in FIFA, United States prosecutors took the lead and indicted more than two dozen officials and businessmen from all over the world — much to the dismay of soccer’s global establishment. And now it could be the Global Magnitsky Act that delivers a staggering blow to the Russians for corrupting the results of major global sports competitions — including, but certainly not limited to, the Olympics. Among the people who could be targeted for sanctions are Mutko; Yuri D. Nagornykh, the former deputy sports minister; Irina Rodionova, the former deputy director of the Center for Sports Preparation; and others mentioned in an affidavit by Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, Russia’s former longtime antidoping laboratory chief who blew the whistle on the whole operation. Does such sports corruption rise to the level covered by the law? William F. Browder thinks so. He’s a prominent investor who worked with Congress on the original Magnitsky Act, which was passed in 2012 in response to the death of Browder’s Russian lawyer, Sergei L. Magnitsky. The lawyer had uncovered a $230 million tax-theft scheme before he was arrested and died in prison. “There’s one important issue and that’s the doping scandal at the Sochi Games led to what I believe were murders,” Browder said, referring to two officials from Russia’s antidoping agency who died within two weeks of each other in 2016. “There were a number of people involved who died very suspiciously who were most likely liquidated to cover up a crime.” He added: “There were people who effectively ruined institution of sport and have committed crimes to do so. That would reach the standard of Global Magnitsky, in my opinion. These people involved in sports doping, they’re shameless. So there needs to be really hard consequences. They need to pay a very dear price.” That price would be losing access to their money and the freedom to move about the world. And they would be on a list with some of the world’s worst criminals. “If the Olympic Games are unquestionably tainted, that has huge economic ramifications for not just U.S. athletes, but for U.S. industry, and the U.S. government has an interest in making sure that doesn’t happen,” said Robert G. Berschinski, senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First and a former deputy assistant secretary of state. I asked him if he thought the individuals involved in the Russian doping case could be sanctioned under the law. “Without getting into specifics,” he said, “it seems that you can make a case.” Tygart thinks so, too. He left the workshop on Tuesday thinking that sanctions were a last resort but “a viable option.” Is it truly a viable option, and will the antidoping agency act on it? A certain group of Russians might not be eager to learn the answers.

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