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.

Relevant countries: 
  • Related content
  • Related content
Filter Topics Open Close
  • Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Referendum Creates Crisis of Legitimacy

    WASHINGTON—In a recent letter to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) expressed deep concern about the country’s September 26 constitutional referendum, which proposes changes that would undermine Azerbaijan’s international obligations to protect democracy. The bipartisan letter urging President Aliyev to reconsider holding the referendum and to live up to his government’s commitment to human rights was also signed by Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Adam Schiff (CA-28). “By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people,” the Members of Congress wrote. “We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability.” Proposed changes to Azerbaijan’s constitution include extending the presidential term from five to seven years; removing the age limits for holding elected office; providing immunity for vice presidents; allowing the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections; and reorganizing the presidential line of succession. The Government of Azerbaijan has already faced international criticism for its crackdown on journalists, activists, opposition politicians, and members of religious minorities.  The referendum would further restrict fundamental freedoms by placing limits on freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” “The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy,” the letter read. “Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable.” In December 2015, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, a bill that would deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government until such a time that Azerbaijan makes substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections. The full text of the letter is below. September 8, 2016 His Excellency Ilham Aliyev President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Presidential Palace Istiglaliyyat Street 19 Baku, AZ 1066 Dear President Aliyev, We write to you to express our deep concern regarding Azerbaijan’s upcoming constitutional referendum on September 26, 2016. We believe that the proposed changes to the constitution and the means for adopting them will undermine your government’s international obligations to protect democracy and human rights. By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people. We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability. Shortly following independence, the Government of Azerbaijan in 1992 joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) thereby expressing its commitment to the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms as one of the basic purposes of government. We regret that in the years hence Azerbaijan's human rights record fails to reflect this commitment. Time and again, the credibility of Azerbaijani elections has been marred by credible reports of ballot stuffing and irregularities with vote counting, as well as limitations on freedom of expression and freedom of association. These troubling precedents motivate our concern about the upcoming referendum. If successful, the vote would change the constitution to extend the presidential term from five to seven years, remove the age limits for holding elected office, provide immunity for vice presidents, allow the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections, as well as reorganize the presidential line of succession. Additionally, it would subject fundamental rights to vaguely worded restrictions, circumscribing freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” We are deeply concerned that Azerbaijani voters are being asked to consider such consequential changes to Azerbaijan’s constitutional framework in a climate that makes free debate all but impossible. In recent days, it has been reliably reported that a number of political activists campaigning against the referendum and several journalists have been detained on trumped-up charges and some have faced mistreatment and torture at the hands of authorities. Even before the latest round of arrests and intimidation, half a dozen journalists were already in jail, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has remained closed since December 2014, and other independent journalists and media outlets faced official harassment. The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy. Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable. We urge you to reconsider this constitutional referendum and to re-invigorate your government’s flagging commitment to promote the freedom and dignity of its people by ceasing all harassment and proceedings that target political activists and journalists who peacefully express their visions for Azerbaijan. We are inspired by the example of these brave voices and hope that your government will recognize that Azerbaijan’s strength and stability derives from the liberty of its people. Sincerely, Christopher H. Smith Member of Congress Joseph R. Pitts Member of Congress Adam B. Schiff Member of Congress           

  • It’s Time for the United States to Act on Azerbaijan

    David J. Kramer is senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Richard Kauzlarich is an adjunct professor at George Mason University and former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Earlier this year, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan looked like he was softening his authoritarian grip on his country. In March, he released 14 political prisoners ahead of his visit to Washington for President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit. Even the harsh anti-American rhetoric from Azerbaijani officials and regime media seemed to subside. While in Washington, Aliyev had sit-downs with Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John F. Kerry. But since the April summit, Aliyev’s regime has intensified its crackdowns on freedoms. Azerbaijan’s rapid, dangerous deterioration demands more decisive action from the United States, yet the Obama administration has remained largely silent. The government in Baku has increased its arrests and detentions of another dozen opposition figures, peaceful religious believers and civil society activists. Nearly 100 political prisoners are languishing in the country’s jails. Azerbaijani writer Akram Aylisli was detained at the national airport and prevented from leaving the country. Faig Amirli, financial director of Azadliq newspaper and assistant to the chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, was arrested last month. Other opposition politicians arrested in August include Natiq Jafarli,  executive secretary of the REAL movement, and NIDA civic movement activist Elgiz Qahraman. The situation on the ground may get even worse. On Sept. 26, Aliyev’s regime plans to force a referendum which aims to enhance his powers. The result of the referendum is already known; we can be sure that the government will ensure its approval. That means that Aliyev can extend his term from five to seven years, create new positions of vice president (to which he might name a member of his family) and lower the age for members of parliament — opening the door for his son Heydar to be elected. It would not be a surprise if elections were called early under the new constitution to ratify these authoritarian steps. Quiet diplomacy, we are told, is the only way to protect American interests in Azerbaijan. Along with its strategic location on the Caspian Sea between Russia and Iran, the country of 8 million is rich in oil and gas resources, and plays a role as a national security ally to the United States. No American interests are served if Azerbaijan’s increasing authoritarianism explodes into a political and social crisis. Moreover, Azerbaijan is following in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin’s media tactics in Russia by increasingly  painting the United States as the enemy. An editorial in the state-approved media outlet, Haqqin, accused the United States of “losing” Azerbaijan, “driving it into a corner” and “neglecting a valuable partnership” with Baku. The editorial warned that Azerbaijan will be left with no option but to establish closer relations with its immediate neighbors, Iran and Russia. Aliyev’s supporters have pointed to the failed Turkey coup and have accused the United States of supporting opposition forces not only to spoil the upcoming referendum — but to plot a coup in Azerbaijan. Aside from legislation introduced by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) last December and the cries of activists and human rights groups, Azerbaijan has received a free pass from the Obama administration. Rarely do either the U.S. Embassy in Baku or the State Department in Washington speak out against human rights abuses. Even the 2014 raid on U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the arrest of one of its journalists, Khadija Ismayilova, triggered a mild response from Washington. Ismayilova was released from prison earlier this year but has been refused permission to travel outside the country. RFE/RL  is still barred from operating in Azerbaijan, as are most American nongovernmental organizations. In the past, we have called for sanctions — asset freezes and visa bans — against Azerbaijani officials involved in and responsible for gross human rights abuses, similar to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act for Russia. President Obama doesn’t need new legislation to take such measures; he can do so under existing presidential authorities. Beyond that, we should withhold U.S. support for International Monetary Fund and World Bank assistance should Azerbaijan request it amid its deteriorating economic situation and end Overseas Private Investment Corporation and Export-Import Bank lending to Azerbaijan. The United States should consider recalling our ambassador for extended consultations over human rights concerns as well as the rising anti-American rhetoric of Azerbaijan officials and government-sanctioned media. We also need to get the Europeans on board with similar measures. These steps should be taken unless and until all the political prisoners are released and the referendum enhancing Aliyev’s powers is voided. Letting Azerbaijan follow through on its threat to form closer ties with Moscow and Tehran without balance from the United States may be a necessary, albeit unpleasant, learning experience for the regime in Baku. The problem in Azerbaijan is not that Aliyev has too little power; it is that he exercises the power he has in the wrong ways against innocent people.  America’s silence as the situation on the ground worsens risks making us accomplices to a looming human rights disaster in Azerbaijan.

  • Five Years of the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network

    2016 marks the fifth anniversary of the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN), an innovative project of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, in cooperation with the U.S. State Department, German Marshall Fund, and other stakeholders that prepares diverse, young leaders with a global outlook. TILN bridges the transatlantic divide between the U.S. and Europe by annually bringing together driven individuals from a range of political backgrounds for a week-long workshop focused on inclusive leadership. Workshops take place in European cities ranging from Copenhagen to Brussels to Turin – allowing participants to immerse themselves in international policy-making at national and regional levels.  Participants engage with public and private sector figures while shaping their personal missions and strengthening leadership skills to support careers in public service and transformative initiatives that will promote more equitable societies.  The TILN project already boasts an impressive list of alumni, including U.S. Congressman Ruben Gallego, Swedish Parliamentarian Said Abdu, UN Expert on Minority Issues Rita Iszak, and other Parliamentarians, Ministers, Mayors, City Councilpersons, regional and local leaders. During its five-year history, TILN annual workshops have highlighted issues of special interest to the US Helsinki Commission from the ongoing struggle to realize Roma and migrant rights to racism, anti-Semitism, and religious discrimination.  Additionally, many TILN alumni support innovative initiatives that promote equality and inclusion in their home countries through alumni Action Grants that allow former participants to maintain their connections, further the work of multinational inclusion, and maximize the impact of collective action. For example, former German and Dutch participants have launched national inclusive leadership programs inspired by TILN. The German “Network Inclusive Leaders” program (NILE), created by Gabriele Gün Tank and Daniel Gyamerah of the TILN class of 2013, is a week-long seminar that provides 20 diverse young adults with an opportunity to engage with German political leaders, academics, artists, and others on anti-racism and anti-discrimination efforts. Following the 2016 TILN event, Dutch alumni Mpanzu Bamenga and Kamran Ullah – along with GMF’s Marshall Memorial Fellows Ahmed Larouz and Mei Ling Liem – launched the “Inclusion Leaders Network” in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The event successfully brought together more than 40 community and political leaders from different parties and sectors to discuss tools and strategies to increase inclusion in political, economic, and education sectors. Both the NILE and the Inclusive Leadership Network have enjoyed the support of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, State Department, GMF, and other stakeholders. Hosted by Helsinki Commissioner Representative Alcee L. Hastings, TILN experts and alumni Simon Woolley, Assita Kanko, Gabriele Gün Tank, and David Mark also attended the 2014 three-day Quad Caucus meeting of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL), the National Asian Pacific Caucus of State Legislators (NAPACSL), the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators (NCNASAL), and the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL) in the United States.  In his opening remarks to the Quad Caucus, Commissioner Hastings highlighted the importance of inclusive and representative governance in all countries.  The TILN delegation followed with a panel discussion on the similarity between the U.S. and Europe on experiences of Roma, Muslim, Afro-descent, and other diverse communities, leading to support for joint U.S.-Europe partnerships and initiatives from members of the Quad Caucus. As a result of these meetings, the TILN alumni network was able to organize a speaking tour in Germany for Ajenai Clemmons of NBCSL – a 2015 TILN participant – to share the U.S. minority caucus model in Germany. The momentum of the Quad Caucus also advanced development of anti-discrimination legislation authored by TILN alumni Mpanzu Bamenga in the Netherlands, which was later adopted by Eindhoven City Council. The U.S. Helsinki Commission congratulates TILN on five successful years, and looks forward to witnessing further fruits of the Network as alumni continue to advance inclusive policymaking, thought, and leadership in our societies.

  • Fox Business: Sen. Wicker on Turkey

    Following the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Senator Roger Wicker joined Fox Business Network to provide his perspective on recent events in the OSCE participating State and NATO Ally. Calling President Erdogan's subsequent actions "very disturbing," Co-Chairman Wicker noted, "There has been an all-out assault not only on the military -- on admirals and generals -- but also on the judiciary, on universities, on religious leaders." In addition to serving as the co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Senator Wicker is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and chairs the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Committee on Political Affairs and Security.

  • President Erdogan's Assault on the Human Rights of the Turkish People

    Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I rise to remind our government that the human rights abuses committed by Turkish President Erdogan are grave and ongoing, and to distinguish between the Turkish president and the Turkish people--and to stand with the people. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in recent years been aggressively violating the human rights of Turkish citizens and undermining the rule of law, in order to root out dissent and consolidate his personal power. The freedom of the press and the rights of common citizens to run schools, businesses, and volunteer associations have come under direct threat. Since assuming the presidency two years ago, President Erdogan has undermined the independence of the judiciary, jeopardizing access to a fair trial and undercutting government accountability. In 2014, he worked to stack the country's High Council of Judges and Prosecutors with party loyalists, enabling his government to ease arrest procedures and curtail opportunities for appeal. This facilitated the detention of thousands of activists, journalists, and businessmen under the country's overbroad terrorism statute. The President has exploited his growing leverage over the courts: his government's reshuffling last month of 3,700 judges and prosecutors rewarded pliant members of the judiciary while punishing others who ruled against the government or heard cases involving official corruption. A law passed earlier this month dismissed most of the judges on Turkey's highest courts, leaving it up to the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors to reappoint them or pick their successors. Mr. Speaker, in addition to undermining government institutions, President Erdogan's tightening grip on Turkey is also weakening the vitality of Turkish society. Under President Erdogan's direction, state authorities are undertaking a campaign of retribution against Erdogan's critics. Since Erdogan assumed the presidency in 2014, the government has opened nearly 2,000 cases against people suspected of “insulting the president” – a crime in Turkey. Professional journalists and major news outlets in particular have incurred the wrath of the President. For reporting that is unflattering to Erdogan, whether on national security issues, the conflict with the Kurds, or official corruption, press outlets have been charged with “supporting terrorism” or have had their entire operations taken over by government-appointed trustees. In one of the most egregious examples, Turkish authorities in March raided the offices of the nation's highest-circulation newspaper, Zaman, and overnight placed it under hand-picked, pro-government management. Mr. Speaker, President Erdogan has taken to politicizing the charge of “supporting terrorism”--undermining the serious business of fighting terrorism, one of the gravest threats faced by the Turkish people. One persistent critic of Erdogan's centralization agenda and authoritarian tendencies is Fethullah Gulen, the founder of Hizmet, a moderate, Islamic civic movement dedicated to promoting education, popular piety, and civic engagement. Because of this criticism, Hizmet and its followers have suffered wave after wave of unfounded terrorism charges and forcible government seizures of businesses, universities, and schools. In May, the Turkish Cabinet approved a decision to designate Hizmet a “terrorist organization,” guaranteeing that this campaign of political retribution will continue. Gulen's followers have been placed in the crosshairs of the very arbitrary policies they criticize. Yet neither our State Department, nor the European Union, nor any other respected body outside Turkey, has ever characterized Hizmet as a terrorist group or anything like it--the Cabinet's designation is absurd. Mr. Speaker, in recent months, the Turkish people have been struck by a wave of violent attacks perpetrated by Islamist and Kurdish terrorists--most recently, a triple-suicide attack at Istanbul's international airport by Islamist extremists killed 44 innocent civilians. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those maimed in these attacks, to all those who lost beloved family and friends. I am confident that the Turkish people--for centuries renowned for their bravery--will never be cowed by terrorists, and that they will equally resist President Erdogan's attempt to undermine their rights, laws, and freedoms. Our government should stand with the Turkish people on both fronts.

  • U.S. Delegation to OSCE PA Drives International Action against Human Trafficking, Discrimination, and Anti-Semitism

    WASHINGTON—Seven members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Annual Session in Tbilisi, Georgia last week to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act, including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. At the Annual Session, which brought together nearly 300 parliamentarians from 54 of the 57 OSCE participating States, the U.S. lawmakers introduced several successful resolutions and amendments targeting current challenges facing the OSCE region, ranging from human trafficking to discrimination and anti-Semitism to the abuse of Interpol mechanisms to target political opponents and activists. The delegation included Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Commissioner Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Commissioner Rep. Randy Hultgren (IL-14), Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (PA-08), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. David Schweikert (AZ-06). Rep. Aderholt currently serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, while Sen. Wicker was re-elected to a third term as chair of the OSCE PA Committee on Political Affairs and Security, also known as the First Committee, during the annual meeting. Chairman Smith led international lawmakers in battling international human trafficking and child sex tourism through a successful resolution calling on all OSCE participating States to raise awareness of sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT), especially by convicted pedophiles, business travelers, and tourists. Chairman Smith, who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues, also hosted a July 3 briefing on U.S. efforts to prevent SECTT through a new international reciprocal notification system – known as International Megan’s Law – that facilitates timely communications among law enforcement agencies. A second U.S. resolution, authored by OSCE PA Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance and Helsinki Commission Ranking Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), called for action against the anti-Semitic and racist violence sweeping across North America and Europe. The resolution, which passed overwhelmingly, urged members of the OSCE to develop a plan of action to implement its long-standing body of tolerance and non-discrimination agreements, called for international efforts to address racial profiling, and offered support for increased efforts by political leaders to stem the tide of hate across the region. The resolution was fielded by Commissioner Hultgren. Chairman Smith also called on participating States to more effectively prevent and combat violence against European Jewish communities through the introduction of two amendments to the resolution of the OSCE PA General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions (also known as the Third Committee). His first amendment called for the explicit recognition of the increase in anti-Semitic attacks in the region, while the second encouraged participating States to formally recognize and partner with Jewish community groups. Responding the abuse of Interpol systems for politically motivated harassment by Russia and other members of the OSCE, Co-Chairman Wicker authored a successful amendment to the First Committee resolution, which called on participating States to stop the inappropriate placement of Red Notices and encouraged Interpol to implement mechanisms preventing politically motivated abuse of its legitimate services. The amendment was fielded by Rep. Hudson. During the Annual Session, members of the delegation also offered strong support for important resolutions fielded by other countries, including one by Ukraine on human rights in illegally occupied Crimea and another on the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. They voted for a highly relevant resolution on combating corruption fielded by Sweden, and helped to defeat a Russian resolution attacking the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine in the context of combating neo-Nazism.  U.S. delegates indicated their support for the work of attending Azerbaijani human rights activists, and met with attending members of the Israeli Knesset.  While in Tbilisi, the group also met with several high-ranking Georgian officials, including Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili; Tedo Japaridze, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Parliament of Georgia; Mikheil Janelidze, Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs; and David Bakradze, Georgian Minister of European and Euro-Atlantic Integration.

  • Chairman Smith Leads International Legislators against Human Trafficking, Child Sex Tourism

    WASHINGTON—The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly passed a resolution authored by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) against international human trafficking and child sex tourism. The resolution was passed at the 2016 annual session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and has an agenda-setting effect for the 57-member intergovernmental organization. Smith, who leads the U.S. Delegation to this year’s OSCE PA Annual Session, introduced a resolution calling on all OSCE participating States to work with the private sector and civil society to raise awareness of sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT), especially by convicted pedophiles, business travelers, and tourists.  The resolution also urges all OSCE participating States to enact laws allowing them to prosecute their citizens and legal permanent residents for child sexual exploitation committed abroad, and to strengthen international law enforcement cooperation to ensure that nations know about travel by convicted pedophiles prior to their arrival. “More children than ever before are being exploited – child sex tourism is soaring while protection lags,” said Chairman Smith. “We must work together to protect children from convicted pedophiles and opportunistic predators who exploit local children with impunity during their travels abroad. Prevention and prosecution should go hand in hand.” In addition to introducing the SECTT resolution, Chairman Smith hosted a July 3 briefing on U.S. efforts to prevent SECTT through a new international reciprocal notification system – known as International Megan’s Law – that facilitates timely communications among law enforcement agencies. “Child predators thrive on secrecy – a secrecy that allows them to commit heinous crimes against the weakest and most vulnerable,” said Chairman Smith.  “Recent changes in the laws of the United States and partner countries are putting child predators on the radar when they travel internationally, but much remains to be done.” Chairman Smith has served as OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues since 2004. His efforts to raise the profile of the human trafficking problem in the OSCE region are reflected in the 2013 Addendum to the OSCE Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings, and have prompted other parliamentarians to take the lead in addressing human trafficking in their respective capitals. Chairman Smith first raised the issue of human trafficking at the 1999 St. Petersburg Annual Session, the first time it appeared on the OSCE agenda. Since then, he has introduced or cosponsored a supplementary item and/or amendments on trafficking at each annual session of the OSCE PA, including on issues such as sex tourism prevention, training of the transportation sector in victim identification and reporting, corporate responsibility for trafficking in supply chains, and special protections for vulnerable populations. In addition to authoring the 2016 International Megan’s Law to Prevent Child Exploitation and Other Sexual Crimes through Advanced Notification of Traveling Sex Offenders, he authored the landmark U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and its 2003 and 2005 reauthorizations. Chairman Smith co-chairs the United States Congressional Human Trafficking Caucus.

  • Senator Wicker Re-Elected as Head of OSCE Parliamentary Assembly First Committee

    TBILISI, Georgia—Senator Roger Wicker, Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, has been reelected as Chairman of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Committee on Political Affairs and Security – known as the First Committee – at the group’s 25th Annual Session. “I am honored to be re-elected by my fellow parliamentarians as Chairman of the First Committee. I look forward to continuing our work to address critical security challenges in Europe, Russian aggression against Ukraine, and the scourge of international terrorism. This Committee serves as a key avenue for constructive dialogue and action that can benefit the entire OSCE region,” Senator Wicker said. First elected as First Committee Chairman in November 2014, Senator Wicker will continue to focus on sustaining a productive dialogue about security and ensuring compliance with international commitments. “Chairman Wicker has shown tremendous dedication to the urgent causes of peace and security in Europe, Eurasia and beyond. He is a constant advocate for the importance of U.S. leadership in finding solutions in the OSCE space,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who led the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE PA Annual Session. Wicker’s election capped off several days of Committee meetings, where he led the Committee on Political Affairs and Security as the group debated, amended, and passed seven resolutions related to international terrorism and security challenges in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, among other pressing issues on the OSCE agenda. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) comprises 57 countries. It addresses a wide range of security-related concerns, including arms control, confidence- and security-building measures, human rights, national minorities, democratization, policing strategies, counter-terrorism, economic, and environmental activities.

  • Chairman Smith Champions Improved Security for European Jewish Communities at Annual Meeting of OSCE Parliamentarians

    WASHINGTON—At the 2016 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Annual Session, meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia this week, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) today called on participating States to more effectively prevent and combat violence against European Jewish communities in the face of increasing anti-Semitic violence in the region. “Violent anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise in several European countries – and there is a lot more we can do to stop it,” said Chairman Smith, who led the U.S. delegation to the event. “European police and security forces should be partnering with Jewish community security groups, and the United States government should be working with the European governments to encourage this. The terrorist threat to European Jewish communities is more deadly than ever. We must act to prevent a repeat of the horrific massacres of Paris and Copenhagen.”  Chairman Smith offered two amendments to the draft resolution of the OSCE PA General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions (also known as the Third Committee). His first amendment called for the explicit recognition of the increase in frequency, scope, and severity of anti-Semitic attacks in the OSCE region, while the second called on participating States to formally recognize and partner with Jewish community groups to strengthen crisis prevention, preparedness, mitigation, and responses related to anti-Semitic attacks. Both amendments reflect consultations with and requests from European Jewish communities. Chairman Smith has a long record as a leader in the fight against anti-Semitism.  He co-chairs the Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism in the U.S. House of Representatives and authored the provisions of the U.S. Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004 that created the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism within the U.S. State Department. In 2015, he authored House Resolution 354, a blueprint for strengthening the safety and security of European Jewish communities. Following his landmark 2002 hearing on combating the escalation of anti-Semitic violence in Europe, “Escalating Anti-Semitic Violence in Europe,” he led a congressional drive to place the issue of combating anti-Semitism at the top of the OSCE agenda. As part of this effort he authored supplemental resolutions on combating anti-Semitism, which were adopted at the 2002, 2003, and 2004 Annual Sessions of the OSCE PA. In 2004 the OSCE adopted new norms for its participating States on fighting anti-Semitism. Chairman Smith is a founding member of the the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism (ICCA), where he also serves on the steering committee. In the 1990s, he chaired Congress’s first hearings on anti-Semitism and in the early 1980s, his first trips abroad as a member of Congress were to the former Soviet Union, where he fought for the release of Jewish “refuseniks.”

  • Witness Profile: Dr. Valery Perry

    Dr. Valery Perry was one of four expert witnesses at the Helsinki Commission’s May 25, 2016 hearing, “Combatting Corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Dr. Perry’s interest in Bosnia began in 1997, when she helped supervise the country’s first municipal elections. Seeing it as a “fascinating example of a peace process,” she completed her Ph.D. research in Bosnia while simultaneously working for several organizations on aspects of peace implementation, democratization, and good governance. During the early post-war years, Perry believes that many Bosnians felt that the situation in the country was improving. However, today there seems to be a sense that the country’s development has not only stagnated, but may even be regressing. During the negotiations of the Dayton Accords, Bosnian citizens were not consulted about the ramifications of the agreement or the new constitution, Perry notes, although they have had to live with the consequences. “It’s troubling for me to think that the United States and some of its allies put in place a peace agreement and a framework constitution that may have served its purpose at one point, but is now actually limiting the ability for citizens to create the vision that they want and to hold their leaders accountable,” she says. “One thing you hear all the time when you talk to people who are from Sarajevo is that the city was very different before the war,” Perry continues. “There are so many people in Bosnia who just want the same things anyone anywhere wants – a decent job, good education for their children, safe streets…. and yet they are so poorly served by this post-war system.” As a result, she observes, the lack of social trust in Bosnia is pervasive. “There’s almost a built-in, learned helplessness, especially among young people who have grown up in a fairly dysfunctional system…assuming that if they don’t join a political party they’ll never get a job, and if they’re not prepared to either use connections or possibly even pay a bribe they won’t pass their exams at the university.” “It became very clear to me that corruption is at the heart of what happens when you don’t have good governance, when you don’t have an accountable electoral system, when you don’t have independent media, and when you don’t have a functioning judiciary,” she says. For example, in Bosnia it is rare to hear of corruption cases that are investigated, prosecuted, and have successfully progressed through the entire appeals process. “The judicial system is really not independent,” she says. “We see a lot of cases where someone is found guilty of corruption or abuse of office, but then there are simply repeated appeals until they get the judge and the decision that they want…everything is politicized and divided according to ethnic and national affiliation rather than merit and civic responsibility.” As a first step to addressing the systematic corruption, Perry recommends strengthening laws on conflict of interest, political party financing and state enterprise regulation and transparency. “It would be useful to look at a number of pieces of legislation that are either weak or have recently been weakened, and try to strengthen those…any reforms that lead to legislation need to be accompanied by very clear articulation of which agencies are competent and responsible for seeing them through,” she suggests. “There [also] needs to be vigorous oversight by investigative journalists and civil society actors and others to move forward.” According to Perry, the United States and the international community can support anti-corruption efforts, but the challenge is complicated. “These issues should become a part of election campaigns and debates,” she says. “I think that this is where the US and other international actors involved in Bosnia can get involved as well: by supporting activists and citizens who are in the public debate and together asking, why any officials or candidates would be against more transparency in terms of appointment to the enterprises, or support opaque financing from the public purse?” In addition to her anti-corruption work, Dr. Perry is also working on a documentary film – “Looking for Dayton” – which follows the experience of three men who fought in Sarajevo during the siege and who visit the US and Dayton Ohio 20 years after the end of the war to find out more about the place that shaped the peace and the Dayton Agreement. She says, “We have a lot of work to do but we’re hoping to use the medium of film to tell a story that is interesting in terms of broader issues related to war and its aftermath and its effect on regular people.”   

  • Chairman Smith Sends Strong Message of Support to Poland Ahead of NATO Summit in Warsaw

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) is sending a strong message of support to Poland and other Allies on NATO’s eastern border. “In the face of ongoing Russian aggression, the United States must ramp up its commitment to the security of Poland and our other Allies in the region,” said Chairman Smith. “Russia’s intolerable actions – ranging from military incursions into Georgia and Ukraine, to the threatened use of tactical nuclear weapons, to the abandonment of key transparency measures – are attempts to strike at the very foundation of the European security order.” “This year’s Summit – hosted by a staunch eastern flank Ally that not only contributes troops to NATO operations and hosts NATO facilities, but also devotes the benchmark 2 percent of GDP to defense – comes at a critical moment for European security,” he continued. Chairman Smith, who also co-chairs the Congressional Caucus on Poland, led members in organizing a June 27 letter urging President Obama to ensure that NATO meets the needs of Allies in Eastern Europe in an increasingly hostile and uncertain security environment. The letter was signed by Congressional Caucus on Poland Co-Chairs Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL-03), Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09), and Rep. Tim Murphy (PA-18), as well as Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL-09), Rep. Dan Donovan (NY-11), Rep. Debbie Dingell (MI-12), Rep. Trent Franks (AZ-02), Rep. Mike Quigley (IL-05), and Rep. Brian Higgins (NY-26).  In April 2016, Chairman Smith also signed a letter supporting funding for the European Reassurance Initiative, which demonstrates the U.S commitment to the security of NATO Allies in the face of Russia’s destabilizing foreign policy. On June 23, the Helsinki Commission held a public briefing titled “NATO’s Warsaw Summit and the Future of European Security.” Panelists – including representatives from NATO, the Embassy of Poland, and the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins University – commented on the need for a stronger U.S. security commitment to Poland and other NATO Allies.

  • NATO’s Warsaw Summit and the Future of European Security

    This briefing, conducted two weeks prior to the NATO summit in Warsaw, discussed the prospects and challenges expected to factor into the negotiations. Key among these were Russian aggression and NATO enlargement, cybersecurity, and instability along NATO's southern border. Mr. Pisarski's testimony focused mainly on the challenge posed by Russian aggression and the role played by NATO's partners in maintaining stability in Eastern Europe. Dr. Binnendijk commented on seven areas he argued the Alliance should make progress on at the Warsaw summit, centering mainly around unity, deterrent capability, and the Alliance's southern strategy. Rear Admiral Gumataotao provided a unique insight into NATO Allied Command Transformation's core tasks and their expectations for Warsaw. The question and answer period featured a comment from Georgian Ambassador Gegeshidze, who spoke about his country's stake in the Summit's conclusions in the context of the ongoing Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

  • Helsinki Commission to Preview Outcomes of July NATO Summit in Warsaw

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “NATO’s Warsaw Summit and the Future of European Security” Thursday, June 23, 2016 3:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room  2360 NATO’s next Summit, slated for July 8-9 in Warsaw, Poland, is expected to be a seminal moment in the evolution of the transatlantic relationship.  At the Summit, the Alliance will need to tackle uncertainty about the range of security threats confronting its members, with some in the east prioritizing Russian aggression, while others are seeing instability to the South (including the migration crisis) as the most immediate threat.  Heads of the 28 member states will need to demonstrate cohesive unity of purpose despite differences on these issues and others, ranging from NATO’s potential contribution to fighting terrorism to the continued role of nuclear weapons in NATO’s deterrence and defense posture. These discussions will be heightened by the Summit’s strategic location in the capital of a staunch eastern flank Ally that contributes to NATO operations and exercises, hosts NATO facilities, and – crucially – leads by example by devoting the NATO-agreed benchmark 2 percent of GDP to defense. Panelists will comment on the outcomes they expect from the Summit, implications for the broader transatlantic relationship, and the future of relations with Russia. The following experts are scheduled to participate: Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, Deputy Chief of Staff, Strategic Plans & Policy, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Mr. Maciej Pisarski, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of the Republic of Poland to the United States of America Dr. Hans Binnendijk, Senior Fellow, Center for Transatlantic Relations, The Johns Hopkins University

  • Witness Profile: Ambassador Jonathan Moore

    Ambassador Jonathan Moore is the OSCE’s ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and has spent most of his career working on the Balkans. He testified at the Helsinki Commission’s May 25, 2016 hearing, “Combatting Corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Corruption is one of the biggest problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Ambassador Moore is particularly concerned about its dire effects on young people. “It’s an obstacle that drives young people out of the country and it keeps investors away,” he says. “Corruption needs to be combatted on all levels and I am very glad this hearing talked about it.” He identifies part of the problem as lack of privatization, and notes that political patronage plays a significant role in public enterprises like schools and universities. “There hasn’t been much privatization in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” he says. “Imagine you are a 14-year-old and you’re very smart and have great grades. You want to go to a certain kind of public high school—a gymnasium. Well, you might not get admitted unless you have the right kind of political connections. As a 14-year-old, you are not selected because you don’t have the right connections, or you’re not bribing the right people.” The cycle continues at the stage of university applications; graduates seeking jobs in public enterprises continue to face the same challenge. “Again, political patronage and political control,” he explains. “If you don’t fulfill the right criteria politically—it’s not about how smart you are—you don’t get the job you want. So it’s easier to say, ‘Enough,’ and leave. The bottom line is that politics is everything in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that’s why I started and ended [my testimony] by saying all politics is local.” Ambassador Moore argues very strongly for action at the local level, especially in the 143 municipalities around the country, each with its own mayor. “In many of these cases, these mayors are very innovative and very perceptive,” he notes. “They’ve worked across religious and ethnic lines with their constituents, their fellow neighbors. Mayors don’t hide themselves off in offices in some capital city. They live there, they see these people every day who ask, ‘Why is the school falling apart?’ and say, ‘Fix the sidewalk,’ or ‘The sewer is backed up into my apartment building.’” Ambassador Moore thinks it is important to shine a light on those local officials who have desegregated the schools and are speaking up for different ethnic communities. “We have examples from the flood of 2014, where we saw [a mayor] who made sure that the resources went to all the victims and not just to his friends. Giving credit where credit is due to the positive examples, rather than just saying, ‘It’s a huge problem and nothing can be done,’ is of great merit.” Ambassador Moore believes that it is important to understand the importance of investing in the security and stability of the international realm. Countries without conflict, including Bosnia, are safer, better trading partners, and are more conducive to developing the innovative skills of the young generation. “When you have a country in this cycle of conflict, nobody has the time, resources, energy, or money to put ideas on the table in a positive way,” he says.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mourn Passing of Former Senator and Commissioner George Voinovich

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of former U.S. Senator and Helsinki Commissioner George Voinovich on Sunday, Helsinki Commission Chairman Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04) and Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: “During his time in the Senate, Senator George Voinovich was a staunch supporter of the Helsinki Commission and its human rights mandate,” said Chairman Smith. “His dedication to the Helsinki principles of respect for the sovereignty of countries and for the human rights of people was an inspiration to his colleagues.  At meetings of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly as well as Commission hearings and events in Washington, the Senator particularly focused his work on promoting peace and stability in the Balkans, and tirelessly supported efforts to combat anti-Semitism.” “We continue to pursue Senator Voinovich’s vision for a Europe that is free and peaceful,” said Co-Chairman Wicker.  “Just last month, the Commission held a hearing on the Balkans that sought to build a better, more prosperous future for the region.  In the Senate, Senator Voinovich personally spearheaded the expansion of NATO to members of the Transatlantic Alliance who would otherwise have fallen prey to Russia.  He understood that as times change, one thing does not: America can still make a difference.  Senator Voinovich’s legacy is a reminder of this fundamental truth and an inspiration to all of us.”

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Welcome Savchenko Release; Urge Russia To Comply With Minsk Agreements

    WASHINGTON – Following today’s release of Ukrainian fighter pilot Nadiya Savchenko from prison in Russia, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman of the Commission, issued the following statement: “We welcome Nadiya’s long-overdue release, but we must not forget about other Ukrainian citizens unjustly imprisoned in Russia. We must also remember that Russia still occupies Crimea and continues its aggression in eastern Ukraine, bringing misery and suffering to millions of Ukrainians.” “Russia should honor the Minsk agreements – which it violates with impunity – if there is to be peaceful resolution to the conflict. Above all, Russia needs to get out of Ukraine.” Last September, the House passed a resolution calling for Savchenko’s release, which was strengthened by Chairman Smith’s amendment calling for the imposition of personal sanctions against individuals responsible for the imprisonment of Savchenko and other Ukrainian citizens illegally incarcerated in Russia. A resolution sponsored by Co-Chairman Wicker and Helsinki Commission Ranking Senate Commissioner Ben Cardin (MD) calling for her release passed the Senate in February 2015.

  • Combatting Corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina

    Twenty years ago, Bosnia and Herzegovina was beginning a process of recovery and reconciliation following the brutal conflict that marked its first four years of independent statehood and took outside intervention to bring to an end. The United States, which led that effort culminating in the Dayton Peace Accords, has since invested considerable financial and other resources to ensure the country’s unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as to enable a population devastated and traumatized by conflict to rebuild. Many European and other countries have as well. Today, beyond well-known ethnic divisions and weaknesses in political structure, Bosnia’s progress is stymied by official corruption to the detriment of its citizens’ quality of life and the prospects for the country’s integration into Europe. Amid recent press reports on scandals involving various government officials; public perceptions of corruption rank Bosnia and Herzegovina among the worst in the Western Balkans.    This hearing examined the current situation regarding corruption and its causes at all levels of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and looked at efforts by the United States and the international community, along with civil society, to combat it. It featured witnesses from OSCE, USAID, and from civil society. “Left unchecked, corruption will hinder Bosnia and Herzegovina’s integration into Europe and NATO,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Roger Wicker (MS), “Twenty years after Dayton there is no excuse for corruption and the risk it brings to prosperity for future generations.” Last year, Senator Wicker and Senator Shaheen (NH) were among a presidential delegation sent to Bosnia to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica. And in November of that year, they introduced the Bosnia and Herzegovina-American Enterprise Fund Act to grow small- to medium-sized businesses. The United States has a long-standing and deep commitment to maintaining the sovereignty, stability, and recovery of Bosnia, while fostering future prosperity within the country. Senator Wicker has seen a lot of progress since he first visited Bosnia in 1995, but he called for even more to be done by Bosnian officials and the international community. The first witness was Ambassador Jonathan Moore, head of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, he spoke on various topics and outlined the OSCE’s goals and plans for Bosnia. Beyond ending corruption, the OSCE seeks to revitalize the lagging education system and to combat violent extremism. He emphasized the importance of transparency, “It is clear that simply having laws and institutions is not enough.  Laws must be implemented and obeyed, and prosecutors and judges must do their jobs.  Furthermore, old patterns of political patronage must stop.” The next witness was the Honorable Thomas Melia, assistant administrator at USAID for Europe and Eurasia, who reinforced Amb. Moore’s testimony, focusing the economic ramifications of corruption. “Corruption leads to a weakening of democratic institutions, economic decay by discouraging investment, increased inequality, and deprives states of the resources they need to advance their own development.  In the wider European region, states weakened by corruption are also more susceptible to malign pressure and manipulation from Putin’s Russia, as any semblance of a rules-based order often seems to take a backseat to power, influence and greed.” The final two witnesses spoke of the bleak state of civil rights in Bosnia. Corruption has all but ended Bosnian citizens’ abilities to access justice, work out for a better life, and speak freely. Each of witnesses emphasized the need for further and tougher action; simply scolding officials is not enough. “Past experience shows that simply calling on leaders to undertake reforms and to take responsibility is not sufficient. Generating a genuine and articulated internal demand for reforms is key to achieving sustainable progress,” said Mr. Srdjan Blagovcanin, the third witness, is chairman of the board of the Bosnia Chapter of Transparency International. The final witness, Dr. Valery Perry, suggested that election reform was a necessary step to ending corruption in Bosnia. Co-Chairman Wicker was joined at the hearing by a panel of lawmakers including Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04), Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Representative Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Representative Scott Perry (PA-04).

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Welcome Release of Khadija Ismayilova

    WASHINGTON – Following today’s announcement that the Azerbaijani government has freed investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova from prison, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman of the Commission, issued the following statement: “We welcome the release of Khadija Ismayilova from her unjust imprisonment. However, we call on the Government of Azerbaijan to drop all charges against her and reopen the RFE/RL Baku bureau. “Khadija’s case is not the only one in which Azerbaijan has used its judicial system to punish those who have voiced independent opinions. Others, like opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov, remain jailed for their efforts to promote human rights, the rule of law, and democracy. We salute their courage and once again urge the Government of Azerbaijan to live up to its OSCE commitments, ending its repression of the political opposition, journalists, and religious minorities.” Chairman Smith convened a December 2015 hearing on the plight of Ismayilova and her fellow prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan. He is also the author of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections. Chairman Smith has also spoken out on multiple occasions on behalf of Ismayilova and other political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Examine Corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Combatting Corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina” Wednesday, May 25, 2016 2:00 PM Capitol Visitor Center Senate Room 212-10 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Twenty years ago, Bosnia and Herzegovina was beginning a process of recovery and reconciliation following the brutal conflict that marked its first four years of independent statehood and took outside intervention to bring to an end.  The United States, which led that effort culminating in the  Dayton Peace Accords, has since invested considerable financial and other resources to ensure the country’s unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as to enable a population devastated and traumatized by conflict to rebuild. Many European and other countries have as well. Today, beyond well-known ethnic divisions and weaknesses in political structure, Bosnia’s progress is stymied by official corruption to the detriment of its citizens’ quality of life and the prospects for the country’s integration into Europe.  Amid recent press reports on scandals involving various government officials, public perceptions of corruption rank Bosnia and Herzegovina among the worst in the Western Balkans.    The hearing will examine the current situation regarding corruption and its causes at all levels of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and look at efforts by the United States and the international community, along with civil society, to combat it.     The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Jonathan Moore, Head of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina Thomas Melia, Assistant Administrator for Europe and Eurasia, USAID Srdjan Blagovcanin, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Transparency International, Bosnia and Herzegovina Valery Perry, Sarajevo-based Independent Researcher and Consultant and Senior Associate at the Democratization Policy Council

  • On World Press Freedom Day, Helsinki Commission Chair Urges Azerbaijan: Free Khadija!

    WASHINGTON—On May 3, Chairman Rep. Chris Smith of the Helsinki Commission Issued the following statement:   “Today marks World Press Freedom Day. Freedom of the media is an essential foundation for democracy and human rights every day of the year. Journalists play a critical role in ensuring free and fair elections, combating corruption, and holding governments accountable.  In some OSCE countries, they do so at extraordinary personal risk.  Let’s not forget Anna Politkovskaya or the many other Russian journalists murdered in the past fifteen years – whose killers have still not been brought to justice. Press freedom remains unknown in Russia. But today we remember above all Khadija Ismayilova, a fearless investigative journalist harassed and currently imprisoned by the government of Azerbaijan.” Anna Politkovskaya testified on human rights abuses in the Chechnya war before a hearing Rep. Smith chaired in 2003 – and was murdered in Moscow in 2006. In 2007 Chairman Smith authored H. Con. Res. 151 on Politkovskaya and other independent journalists killed in Russia since 2000, which passed the House by a vote of 388-1. Beginning in 2010 Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist in Azerbaijan, published hard-hitting investigative reports on corruption at the highest levels of the Azerbaijani government. In response, the Azerbaijani state security services tried to intimidate her. When that failed, in 2014, the government arrested her on trumped-up charges.   “If the Government of Azerbaijan thought it could deflect attention from its abuses by locking up Khadija, they were sorely mistaken.  In fact, Khadija’s continued imprisonment only serves as a constant reminder of the corruption she sought to expose.  Her imprisonment is wrong and she should be released immediately." In December 2014 the Government of Azerbaijan arrested investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova on spurious charges and subsequently raided the offices of her employer, U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).  After a lengthy trial that was widely condemned by the international community for numerous irregularities, in September Ms. Ismayilova was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison. Her appeal was denied on November 25, 2015, and the RFE/RL Baku Bureau has remained shuttered by the Government of Azerbaijan.  The Helsinki Commission’s hearing on Azerbaijan’s Persecution of RFE/RL Reporter Khadijah Ismayilova can be found here. Her recent editorial in the Washington Post can be found here.  Chairman Smith is the sponsor of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced on December 16, 2015, to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.

Pages