Title

The Gang: 15 Years On and Still Silent

Wednesday, December 17, 2014
HVC-201 Capitol Visitor Center
Washington, DC 20515
United States
Official Transcript: 
Moderator(s): 
Name: 
Orest Deychakiwsky
Title Text: 
Policy Advisor
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Witnesses: 
Name: 
Raisa Mikhailovskaya
Title: 
Founder and Director
Body: 
Belarusian Document Center
Name: 
Irina Krasovskaya
Title: 
Co-Founder and President
Body: 
We Remember Foundation

Orest Deychakiwsky, Policy Advisor of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, presided the briefing on the screening of the documentary, "The Gang: 15 Years and Still Silent", with the participation of Freedom House and The German Marshall Fund.

The documentary told the story of three opposition politicians and one journalist that disappeared under unknown circumstances.

Mr.  Deychakiwsky was joined by Raisa Mikhailovskaya, a prominent Belarusian human rights defender and producer of the documentary, and Irina Krasovskaya, co-founder and president of "We Remember Foundation", which seeks justice for the politically oppressed in Belarus.

 

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  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine State of Internet Freedom in OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: INTERNET FREEDOM IN THE OSCE REGION: TRENDS AND CHALLENGES Tuesday, November 14, 2017 1:00PM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 215 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission For seven straight years, internet freedom in Eurasia has been on the decline, with countries like Russia and Turkey among the worst offenders. Independent websites are frequently censored and bloggers and netizens are being jailed for promoting human rights or documenting abuse. Meanwhile, governments are employing manipulation and disinformation campaigns to control the online information landscape and silence opposing voices, weaponizing social media to preserve power. On November 14, Freedom House will release the newest edition of its Freedom on the Net report, an annual assessment of internet access, censorship, and user rights in 65 countries, encompassing 87 percent of all internet users. Featuring the report’s main findings, this briefing will examine declining internet freedom globally and in the OSCE region, and its impact on broader democracy and human rights; growing cyberattacks against human rights defenders in Russia and the former Soviet sphere; and government use of social media to manipulate discussions and attack critics. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Sanja Kelly, Director, Freedom on the Net, Freedom House Dariya Orlova, Senior Lecturer, Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv, Ukraine Berivan Orucoglu, Human Rights Defenders Program Coordinator, The McCain Institute Jason Pielemeier, Policy Director, Global Network Initiative

  • Belarus: 25 Years after Signing the Helsinki Final Act

    In July 2017, Belarus hosted the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Annual Session.  However, two decades ago, the OSCE PA refused to even recognize the legitimacy of Belarus’ putative elected representatives.  What has changed? Download the full report to learn more.

  • International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists

    By Jordan Warlick, Staff Associate and Olivia Leggieri, Intern November 2, 2017, marks the fourth International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists since the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution in December 2013. The UN chose this date in November to commemorate the assassination of two French journalists who were murdered while on assignment in Mali. This day serves as a reminder of the obligation of nations to take urgent measures to protect journalists and media workers and to bring the perpetrators of such targeted violence to justice. Currently, only one in ten cases committed against journalists worldwide ends in a conviction; since 1992, 695 journalists have been murdered with impunity in connection with their work. The assassination of Russian journalist Natalya Estemirova in 2009 illustrates these cases of impunity. Estemirova was a courageous investigative reporter who covered government atrocities in the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation, particularly after Vladimir Putin launched the second Chechen war in 1999 in response to a series of apartment bombings.  In 2006, she visited the Helsinki Commission to discuss her findings regarding human rights violations by Chechen authorities.  At the meeting, she also expressed concern about the rising justification for the use of torture as a tool of counterterrorism in many countries, observing, “You cannot protect the law using illegal methods.” Estemirova was abducted in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, on the morning of July 15, 2009, and found murdered in Ingushetia later that day. She was the fifth Novaya Gazeta journalist killed since 2000; to this day no one has been held responsible for her murder. At the time of her assassination, she was 51 years old and left behind a 15-year-old daughter. Then-Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin, Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee Hastings, and Ranking Members Senator Sam Brownback and Congressman Chris Smith condemned her murder. Chairman Cardin stated, “Murder and intimidation of activists and journalists is both a serious violation of human rights and an affront to any democracy.” On the one-year anniversary of Estemirova’s murder, then-Co-Chairman Representative Alcee Hastings introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives to express solidarity with human rights defenders in the Russian Federation. The resolution called for an end to impunity for those responsible for such acts through the conduct of timely, transparent and thorough criminal investigations into the unresolved murders of human rights defenders, journalists, and political opposition members and the prosecution of all of those responsible for these crimes. Chechen nationalists have also targeted Russian journalist Karina Orlova, who participated in a recent Helsinki Commission briefing on systematic violence against journalists in Russia and other OSCE participating States in the region. These threats ultimately led her to flee Russia and become a correspondent for Radio Echo of Moscow in Washington, D.C.  She emphasized that attacks such as the ones she received force journalists to self-censor, but vowed to never do so herself. Ruthless regimes do not have to kill every independent, critical, investigative journalist, just enough so that others will get the message and fall silent or leave.  Violent attacks against journalists are often preceded by government-sanctioned or led smear campaigns and other forms of harassment. Participating States of OSCE are committed to protecting the freedom of the media and improving working conditions for journalists. However, violence against journalists in OSCE participating States signals a lack of compliance with the Helsinki Accords, and further, the need to bring justice to those attempting to silence the independent press. 

  • Helsinki Commission Urges Turkish President to Lift State of Emergency

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

  • Helsinki Commission Advisor Discusses ZAPAD 2017

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

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

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

  • Witness to ZAPAD

    For months, watchers of European security have focused unprecedented attention on one, singular scheduled event:  ZAPAD 2017, a Joint Strategic Military Exercise conducted by Russia and Belarus from September 14 to September 20, 2017. The author, the political-military affairs advisor for the U.S. Helsinki Commission staff, attended the final phase of the exercise as a Distinguished Visitor at the invitation of the Government of Belarus.    ZAPAD 2017, the most anticipated—and, in some quarters, feared—military exercise in recent memory concluded on September 20. The extensive maneuvers by Belarusian and Russian forces took place at a number of training ranges in Belarus and on nearby Russian territory and featured a broad range of military capabilities. The planned exercise was in some ways routine; it followed a well-known Russian schedule of readiness-enhancing exercises that rotates among Russia’s military districts on a quadrennial basis (“ZAPAD,” or “West,” takes place in the Western Military District). However, unlike previous exercises, ZAPAD 2017 took place in a strategic context now defined by Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia—incursions that were, according to western analysts, facilitated by Russian exercise activity.  The Russian leadership's track record of aggression, dismissiveness towards transparency, and geopolitical unpredictability understandably put its neighbors to the west on edge.  These countries have seen prior Russian exercises serve as cover for force build-ups that enabled, for instance, the illegal attempted annexation of Crimea. Leading officials ranging from Baltic defense ministers, to the Ukrainian President, to the Secretary General of NATO raised concerns about what ZAPAD 2017 might mean for the security of Belarus' neighbors, both before the exercise and during its execution. Download the full report to learn more.

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

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

  • Batyr Berdiev: Poems from Prison

    And when we leave our house, where all is so familiar – The flower vase and the worn out carpet – The shadow of our quiet hope will stay at home, Reflected in the eyes of those who remember us. And life will continue, as our life was once lived, And, of course, other songs will be sung, But human hearts, like soldiers of hope Will again and again both suffer and dream.                                                             —Batyr Berdiev On September 15, the NGO campaign “Prove They Are Alive!” published a book of poems written by Turkmenistan’s former Foreign Minister and former Ambassador to the OSCE Batyr Berdiev, one of more than a hundred people who have disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prisons. The poems appear to have been written between December 2002 and March 2003 and were smuggled out of prison, most likely in 2003. Most are dedicated to Berdiev’s wife and son; they speak of his love for them, of freedom, and of their life while he was serving as Ambassador to the OSCE in Vienna. The book was unveiled at a side event at the 2017 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, Poland, with the participation of Helsinki Commission staff. Berdiev was arrested in December 2002 in connection with an alleged coup attempt against then-President Niyazov in November 2002. His “confession” was broadcast on Turkmen television later that month, and he was convicted in January 2003 in a closed trial and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. There are credible reports that he was tortured following his arrest. His relatives have had no information about his fate or whereabouts since, although there have been several conflicting reports of his death in Turkmenistan’s notoriously inhumane high-security Ovadan Depe prison.  The Helsinki Commission has continued to raise his case – along with others who have disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prisons – over the fifteen years since Berdiev’s arrest, in meetings with Turkmen officials, letters, and public briefings. The “Prove They Are Alive” campaign has also published an updated list of persons who have disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prisons, which has now grown to 112. Some of the new additions include persons who were arrested only this year. Following the arrests of Berdiev and hundreds of others in the wake of the alleged 2002 coup attempt, the United States and nine other countries invoked the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, which triggered an international investigation and report on the situation and treatment of those accused of being involved. Every year at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the United States makes a special statement urging the government of Turkmenistan to provide information on and access to those who have disappeared in the country’s prison. Read the book of poems by Batyr Berdiev.

  • Human Rights and Democracy in Russia

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

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