Title

Politically-Motivated (In)Justice

Thursday, September 27, 2018
2:00pm
Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2261
Washington, DC
United States
The Extradition Case of Judge Venckiene
Members: 
Name: 
Rep. Randy Hultgren
Title Text: 
Commissioner
Body: 
U.S. Helsinki Commission
Witnesses: 
Name: 
Karolis Venckus
Title: 
Son of Judge Neringa Venckiene
Name: 
Dr. Vytautas Matulevicius
Title: 
Member of Lithuanian Parliament, Way of Courage Party (2012-2016)
Statement: 
Name: 
Abbe Jolles, Esq.
Title: 
International Human Rights Litigator, AJ Global Legal
Name: 
Professor Mary G. Leary
Title: 
Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law

Since 2008, Lithuanian judge and parliamentarian Neringa Venckiene has been seeking justice for her young niece, who was allegedly sexually molested by two Lithuanian government officials. Despite a court ruling that there was enough evidence to indict the child’s mother for facilitating the molestation, the niece was taken from Judge Venckiene and returned to the mother’s care, preventing the girl from testifying further in an ongoing trial against her alleged abusers. 

In 2013, Judge Venckiene fled Lithuania to seek political asylum in the United States, fearing retribution not only for her efforts to protect her niece but also for her leadership in a new anti-corruption political party.  Lithuanian prosecutors have charged Judge Venckiene with at least 35 crimes, ranging from petitioning the court on her niece’s behalf, to speaking to journalists about the case, to bruising an officer during her struggle to keep her niece from being returned to the accused mother.

Five years after arriving in the United States, Judge Venckiene’s political asylum case has still not been heard, but U.S. authorities are moving to extradite her under the U.S.-Lithuania extradition treaty for bruising the officer who was returning the girl to the accused mother during the trial.  The hearing explored the limits of extradition among allies, especially when charges appear politically motivated.

Witnesses discussed the evidence of political motivation, including statements made publicly by the recent Chairman of the Lithuanian Supreme Court calling Judge Venckiene “an abscess in the judicial and the political system,” and “the trouble of the whole state.” Several witnesses argued forcefully that these and other actions by Lithuanian authorities demonstrate blatant political motivation.  Dr. Vytautas Matulevicius, a member of the Seimas from 2012 to 2016 for the anti-corruption political party led by Judge Venckiene said, “...[T]he case of N. Venckienė itself can be regarded as a typical recurrence of the Soviet legal system—a person who talks too much about the crimes of influential people can be turned into a criminal herself.”  Human rights litigator Abbe Jolles calling Judge Venckiene’s extradition to a system with “no chance of a fair trial” a “likely death sentence.”

The hearing examined other lenses through which to view the legal case for extradition. Law Professor Mary Leary explored the definitions of human trafficking established by Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-386) and by the Palermo Protocol. She advised that [as has been alleged], “if evidence exists that the abusers provided financial and other benefits to the mother of the child victim, this child sexual abuse could also implicate child sex trafficking.”   

Concerns were also raised about the humanitarian standards of the Lithuanian prison system. As Ms. Jolles noted, several countries have previously refused Lithuanian extradition requests over concerns of unacceptable conditions and the possibility of torture.  In addition, the United States cited Lithuania in a 2017 report for prison conditions below international standards.

The litany of charges against Judge Venckiene that have been added and subtracted was also considered. In particular, the legitimacy of the charge of assaulting a police officer during the seizure of her niece was questioned.  It remains unclear why Lithuanian prosecutors did not arrest Judge Venckiene while she was living in Lithuania for a year after the alleged assault, or why they would have allowed an alleged felon to immigrate to the United States and reside there for over two years before eventually filing for her extradition.  This, again, suggested the possibility of political motivation behind the charges.

The Government of Lithuania was invited to participate in the hearing, or to suggest a witness to represent its perspective, but declined. Instead, the Embassy of Lithuania provided a written statement.

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  • U.S. senators introduce bill to sanction Turkish officials over detentions

    Two U.S. senators on Tuesday introduced a bipartisan bill requiring the imposition of sanctions on Turkish officials responsible for the detentions of U.S. citizens and local consulate staff in Turkey, a statement on the legislation said. The bill, introduced by Republican Senator Roger Wicker and Democrat Ben Cardin, also calls on President Donald Trump to urge Turkey to respect for the fundamental freedoms, saying thousands were victims of politically-motivated prosecution. “The Turkish government’s false imprisonment of Americans and Turkish citizens employed by the United States in Turkey is a gross violation of their human rights,” Senator Cardin said in the statement. “Our bill makes clear that the United States will not tolerate years of Turkish recalcitrance on these cases.” The detention of U.S. consulate workers and American citizens is one of many issues dividing NATO allies Ankara and Washington, also at loggerheads over Syria policy and Turkey’s planned purchase of Russian missile defenses. Their detentions prompted Washington in October 2017 to suspend all non-immigrant visa applications from the country, triggering a reciprocal move from Ankara that contributed to a deep crisis in bilateral ties. The bill introduced Tuesday would require the U.S. administration to impose sanctions on all senior Turkish officials responsible for the “wrongful” detentions of U.S. citizens and staff, including barring the officials from travel to the United States and freezing any U.S. assets. Turkey has detained tens of thousands of people following a failed coup in July 2016, saying they were linked with the network of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric blamed by Ankara for orchestrating the putsch. U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson was among those jailed in the aftermath of the coup. He was released last October. “While the Turkish government made a step in the right direction with the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson last October, more needs to be done for Turkey to show good faith and act like a NATO ally,” said Republican Senator Thom Tillis, one of six original sponsors of Tuesday’s bill. Serkan Golge, a dual Turkish-U.S. citizen, was found guilty of being a member of an armed terrorist organization earlier this year and sentenced to seven years, six months in prison. Three other Turkish citizens who were working at the U.S. consulates in Turkey have been under investigation or jailed over similar charges. A Turkish court last month ruled that one of the consular workers, Metin Topuz, a translator and fixer in Istanbul, should remain in jail until his trial resumes in June.

  • Developments in Hungary

    At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Susan Corke, Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group at the German Marshall Fund; Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society at Human Rights First; and Dalibor Rohac, Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute explored recent developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption. “Every nation that raises its voice for liberty and democracy matters, whether that’s a country that’s as big as the United States and with as large an economy as we have in America, or a smaller country. They’re each valuable. Each time one falls, each time a country – no matter how small – each time it moves away from democracy and moves towards a different system of governance, the capacity for the world to continue to deliver freedom for human beings is diminished. And so I would urge every country, no matter its size . . . to stay focused, maintain its commitment.” – Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, February 12, 2019 Mr. Rohac discussed Hungary’s measurable decline on various indicators of good governance and the rule of law; patterns of politically organized corruption; and the implications of developments in Hungary for the United States. He observed that Hungary has experienced a steady erosion of freedom, the rule of law, and quality of governance according to virtually any indicator, including the assessments of the World Bank, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute. He noted that the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom places the protection of property rights in Hungary in the mostly unfree territory. This stems in part from the seizure of pension fund assets as well as the concentration of ownership in the hands of Fidesz-connected oligarchs. The same index notes a marked decline in government integrity measures, placing Hungary into the oppressed territory on those sub- indices, with a score dramatically worse than in 2009. While Mr. Rohac observed that corruption is a problem across central Europe and across post-communist countries, Hungary’s case is notable for the extent to which corruption has been embedded into the political system, centralized, connected to the ruling party, and has served as a mechanism of political patronage and political mobilization. “[T]here is something special about the nexus of legal patronage and graft and authoritarianism. The two cannot be separated.” Panelists also described something of a paradox. On the one hand, the Orban government has exploited EU funds to build its corrupt oligarchy. Tax and procurement-related irregularities have been cited by the EU anti-corruption agency OLAF as the source of millions in suspect deals involving Orban’s family and friends, many of which also involve Russian state actors. On the other hand, the EU – precisely because it is not a federal government but depends on the consent of the EU member states – has limited ability to rein in this corruption and hybrid forms of governance. Mr. Rohac asserted that this embrace of crony authoritarianism by Hungary is a direct threat to U.S. interests in the region as well as to the West’s interests more broadly. He rejected the notion that competing for positive influence in the region means we should not hold our allies to high standards. He suggested that such a view is enormously detrimental because it’s precisely the authoritarianism, the graft, and the cronyism that opens the way for foreign revisionist powers to enter Hungary and influence the country, pulling it away from the West.  “The U.S. stood by Central European nations as they liberated themselves from communism in the 1990s, in the 90s when they joined the ranks of self-governing free nations of the West,” he observed. “The idea that the U.S. should now either be silent or cheerleader for policies that are now driving Hungary away from the West strikes me as a particularly misguided one.” Ms. Corke described the concerns about trends in Hungary and other countries in the Euro-Atlantic region which led to the formation of a bipartisan group, the Transatlantic Democracy Group, focused on democratic erosion and the need for U.S. leadership.  She joined with 70 signers for NATO’s 70th anniversary on a declaration to reaffirm commitment to democracy.  Ms. Corke is sometimes asked, “why is your group so concerned about Hungary? It’s a small country. Why are you so concerned about Central European University?” She observed that Central European University is a joint American-Hungarian institution and Victor Orban’s campaign against it is a highly symbolic move against a vital institution founded to promote the transatlantic values of democracy, openness, and equality of opportunity and was therefore a direct challenge to the United States. She concluded that Moscow is using Hungary and other NATO members as backdoors of influence, and that Hungary’s centralized, top-down state has enabled an increasingly centralized, top-down system of corruption. Ms. Corke also suggested that a lesson learned from recent developments in the region is that transparency is a necessary, but alone insufficient, condition to fight corruption.  She asserted that the concept of a linear progression of democracy is outdated and new approaches to supporting civil society are needed. In addition, Ms. Hooper stated that while the Obama-era policy of limited high-level engagement precluded some of the Hungarian government’s controversial actions, it did not appear to motivate fundamental change. The Trump-era policy of transactional engagement devoid of values has fared no better, she said, and the U.S. should therefore re-examine its policy toward Hungary.  First, the United States should reinvest in democracy promotion.  Second, the United States should announce publicly that it is reintroducing support for civil society in the region, and specifically in Hungary, due to a decline in the government’s ability to or interest in protecting democratic institutions.  Third, Congress should be more vocal and pointed in expressing its concern and even alarm in Hungary’s antidemocratic movement and should support for individuals such as journalists or other members of watchdog organizations that are targeted by government campaigns or blacklists.  Finally, the United States should not shy away from applying targeted sanctions, such as the Global Magnitsky law, when clear lines are crossed. When visa bans were used against some officials in 2014, they had an impact in Hungary. Background materials available for the briefing included panelist biographies; Department of State materials including statements by Secretary Michael Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein; recent Helsinki commission statements and publications; and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum FAQs on the Holocaust in Hungary.

  • Hastings, Wicker, Watkins, and Cardin Introduce Resolutions Celebrating Romani American Heritage

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of International Roma Day on April 8, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Steve Watkins (KS-02), and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced resolutions in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.Res.292) and the U.S. Senate (S.Res.141) celebrating Romani American heritage. They issued the following joint statement: “Roma enrich the fabric of our nation. They have been part of every wave of European migration to the United States since the colonial period, tying our country to Europe and building the transatlantic bond. Through this resolution, we celebrate our shared history and applaud the efforts to promote transnational cooperation among Roma at the historic First World Romani Congress on April 8, 1971.” In addition to recognizing and celebrating Romani American heritage and International Roma Day, the resolutions commemorate the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the so-called “Gypsy Family Camp” at Auschwitz when, on August 2-3, 1944, Nazis murdered between 4,200 and 4,300 Romani men, women, and children in gas chambers in a single night. They also commend the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its critically important role in promoting remembrance of the Holocaust and educating audiences about the genocide of Roma. April 8 is recognized as “International Roma Day” around the world. It celebrates Romani culture and raises awareness of the issues facing Romani people. 

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Explore Recent Developments in Hungary

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DEVELOPMENTS IN HUNGARY Tuesday, April 9, 2019 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1539 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission At this Helsinki Commission briefing, panelists will explore recent developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Susan Corke, Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Democracy Working Group, German Marshall Fund Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society, Human Rights First Dalibor Rohac, Research Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

  • Helsinki Commission Marks Fifth Anniversary of Illegal Referendum In Crimea

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the illegal Russian-organized referendum in Crimea, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Five years ago, the Government of Russia tried to legitimize its illegal occupation of Crimea by organizing a fake referendum in Ukrainian territory.  By orchestrating this so-called vote, the Kremlin blatantly flouted international law. By definition, citizens living under armed occupation lack the freedom to determine their collective destiny.  “This tragic anniversary also reminds us of the suffering this occupation continues to inflict on innocent Ukrainian citizens who have been forced to flee Crimea, as well as on those who remain behind. Ethnic minorities such as Crimean Tatars and activists who object to the illegal Russian occupation, including Oleg Sentsov, are targets of persecution and violence by the Government of Russia. “We will not forget; Crimea is Ukraine.”  Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014. Since then, the Helsinki Commission has hosted numerous hearings and briefings on the war in Ukraine, including an April 2014 hearing with then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; December 2015 and November 2016 briefings on human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea; an April 2017 briefing on Oleg Sentsov and Russia's human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens; a May 2017 hearing on the growing Russian military threat in Europe; and briefings with Alexander Hug, then-Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, and Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.

  • Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s release by the State Department of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I welcome the release of this year’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. These reports, mandated by law and prepared by the Department of State, exemplify Congress’ intent to keep human rights front and center in U.S. foreign policy. As members of Congress consider foreign assistance and military aid, as we build alliances and take the measure of our foes,  these reports help ensure that democracy and fundamental freedoms are given full consideration.” The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements. The State Department must submit these reports to Congress on an annual basis, in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974, which require that U.S. foreign and trade policy take into account countries’ performance in the areas of human rights and workers’ rights.

  • Jackson Lee and Hudson Introduce Legislation to Fight Illicit Tobacco Trade

    WASHINGTON—Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Richard Hudson (NC-08) today introduced the Combating the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products Act (CITTPA) in the House of Representatives. Both Rep. Jackson Lee and Rep. Hudson serve on ad hoc committees of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which facilitates interparliamentary dialogue to advance human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in Europe, Central Asia, and North America. “The illicit trade in tobacco underpins some of the gravest transnational threats to the United States and our allies. Illicit tobacco trafficking is not a victimless offense; it facilitates other, more heinous crimes including money laundering and trafficking in weapons, drugs, antiquities, diamonds, counterfeit goods, and—worst of all—human beings,” said Rep. Jackson Lee. “Cigarette smuggling is not just an economic issue, it’s a public safety issue. Illegal cigarettes help finance organized crime and terrorism. Smuggled cigarettes are also more likely to end up in the hands of children and teens. The Combatting the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products Act will give the United States better tools and more information to combat this dangerous activity,” said Rep. Hudson. The Combatting the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products Act (CITTPA) would improve the U.S. Government’s ability to identify and deter those engaging in the trade of illicit tobacco. The bill would: Provide better information on countries involved with the illicit tobacco trade. The legislation requires the U.S. Secretary of State to report annually on which countries are determined to be a major source of illicit tobacco products or their components, and identify which foreign governments are actively engaged and knowingly profiting from this illicit trade. Enable the United States to deter countries involved in the illicit trade in tobacco, and better assist its allies. The bill grants the U.S. Secretary of State the ability to withhold U.S. foreign assistance from those countries knowingly profiting from the illicit trade in tobacco or its activities. In countries where the government is working to stop these trafficking efforts, the Secretary of State would be able to provide assistance for law enforcement training and investigative capacity. Help the United States target individuals assisting in the illicit tobacco trade. It authorizes the President of the United States to impose economic sanctions and travel restrictions on any foreign individual found to be engaged in the illicit tobacco trade, and requires the president to submit a list of those individuals to Congress. The Helsinki Commission organizes U.S. delegations to OSCE PA annual sessions and other meetings, as well as official delegations to participating States and other OSCE meetings to address democratic, economic, security, and human rights developments. The commission also convenes public hearings and briefings with expert witnesses on OSCE-related issues. In July 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on illicit trade in tobacco products, which included testimony from the academic community, the public health advocacy community, and industry.

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