Title

Prerequisites for Progress in Northern Ireland

Wednesday, March 21, 2012
United States
Members: 
Name: 
Hon. Christopher Smith
Title Text: 
Chairman
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Hon Michael Burgess, M.D.
Title Text: 
Commissioner
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Hon. Eliot Engel
Title Text: 
Member of Congress
Body: 
The United States House of Representatives
Witnesses: 
Name: 
Geraldine Finucane
Title: 
Widow of Murdered Human Rights Lawyer Patrick Finucane
Name: 
Christopher Stanley
Title: 
Lawyer
Body: 
British-Irish Rights Watch
Name: 
Mark Thompson
Title: 
Director
Body: 
Relatives of Justice
Name: 
Patricia Lundy
Title: 
Senior Lecturer
Body: 
University of Ulster
Name: 
Brian Gormally
Title: 
Director
Body: 
Committee on the Administration of Justice

This hearing assessed the progress towards peace made in Northern Ireland and discussed ways to ensure the sustainability of the peace.  Witnesses condemned the British government for backtracking on the Good Friday Agreement, as well as the United States for not putting enough pressure on Great Britain. Witnesses identified the murder of human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane, whose widow Geraldine was in attendance, as an obstacle to peace.

Relevant countries: 
Leadership: 
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  • 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 [[{"fid":"3378","view_mode":"full","attributes":{"alt":"Former Senator and Helsinki Commissioner George Voinovich","title":"Former Senator and Helsinki Commissioner George Voinovich","height":"1024","width":"682","style":"margin: 10px 25px; width: 250px; height: 375px; float: right;","class":"media-element file-full"},"type":"media"}]]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.

  • 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.

  • 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).

  • Religious Freedom, Anti-Semitism, and Rule of Law in Europe and Eurasia

    In this hearing ODIHR Director Michael Link discussed the importance of the OSCE's work on human rights through ODIHR.  He focused on the fight against anti-Semitism and the human rights situation in Ukraine.  He spoke about ODIHR's newest project to combat anti-Semitism, called "Turning Words into Action," which will give leaders the knowledge and tools to address anti-Semitism in their communities.   Director Link also noted that in Ukraine he was particularly concerned about the human rights violations in Crimea and expressed his support for a cease-fire as a pre-condition of the implementation of the Minsk package.

  • OSCE Foreign Ministers Meet in Belgrade

    Serbia’s year-long chairmanship of the OSCE culminated in Belgrade in the annual meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council on December 3 and 4, 2015.  Key issues addressed in the context of Ministerial discussions included: Ongoing efforts to de-escalate the Russia-Ukraine crisis and the need for Russia to fully implement the Minsk Agreements. Reaffirmation of the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent commitments and the comprehensive nature of security (i.e., respect for fundamental freedoms within a state has an impact on the security between states). The assault on human dignity and human rights, including through terrorist attacks, the continued rollback on rights and freedoms in the OSCE area, and the refugee and migration crisis. Secretary of State John Kerry led the U.S. delegation, which also included Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Robert Berschinski; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia Daniel N. Rosenblum; and Helsinki Commission Senior Senate Staff Representative Ambassador David T. Killion. The atmosphere was strained, as tensions between Ukraine and Russia, Russia and Turkey, and Armenia and Azerbaijan spilled over into the negotiations. As Russia blocked virtually all decisions on human rights, as well as on the migration crisis and on gender issues, only a handful of documents were adopted. Successful declarations addressed recent terrorist attacks in the OSCE region, combating violent extremism that leads to terrorism, and addressing the illicit drug trade.

  • OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2015

    “The Human Dimension” is OSCE-speak for human rights, democracy, and humanitarian concerns.  When the Helsinki Final Act (HFA) was signed in Helsinki, Finland in 1975, it enshrined among its ten Principles Guiding Relations between participating States (the Decalogue) a commitment to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion" (Principle VII). In addition, the HFA included a section on cooperation regarding humanitarian issues that provided an umbrella for addressing (among other things) family reunification and working conditions for journalists. "The Human Dimension" was a term coined during the drafting of the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document to serve as shorthand to describe the human rights and humanitarian provisions of the agreements concluded within the framework of the Helsinki process. Today, it has come to include the OSCE’s watershed commitments on democracy, the rule of law, and free and fair elections. In any given year, the OSCE participating States address human dimension issues in multiple fora.  The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting – HDIM – attracts the largest number of participants, covers the greatest range of issues, and is open to participation by civil society. That work includes formal sessions on the full range of human rights  issues as well as rule of law, free elections, and democracy-building issues. National minorities, Roma, and tolerance and nondiscrimination are also on the agenda.  U.S. Delegation Led by David Kramer The 2015 HDIM was held September 21 to October 2 and drew 1,386 participants.  The U.S. delegation was led by David J. Kramer, Senior Director for Human Rights and Human Freedoms at the McCain Institute and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.  It also included U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Robert Berschinksi; Department of State Special Advisor for International Rights Judith Heumann; and Helsinki Commission Senior Senate Staff Representative Ambassador David T. Killion.  Helsinki Commission staff participated in all aspects of the delegation’s work. In addition to active engagement in the formal sessions, the United States participated in side events focused on specific countries or issues organized by civil society, OSCE participating States, or international organizations, and held numerous bilateral meetings with other delegations to raise and discuss human rights.  Special Advisor Heumann led a panel highlighting the importance of disability rights for OSCE countries as part of a U.S. side event cosponsored with Finland. Russia: External Aggression and Internal Repression During the HDIM, Russia’s aggression in and against Ukraine was raised in connection with almost every agenda item for the meeting.  The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) also issued a joint report prepared with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities detailing widespread human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea.  Increasing levels of repression within Russia also were raised throughout the HDIM and served to highlight the relationship between external aggression and internal repression. In early 2015, Boris Nemtsov, an advocate for the rule of law and accountability in Russia and an outspoken Russian critic of the Russian government’s war against Ukraine, was gunned down just outside the Kremlin.  Russia’s increasingly repressive government has eroded the democratic institutions that ensure a government’s accountability to its people. A free and independent media is virtually nonexistent and the remaining state-controlled media is used to propagandize disinformation, fear, bigotry, and aggression. Azerbaijan’s Record Draws Sharp Criticism In 2015 Azerbaijan unilaterally shuttered the OSCE Mission in Baku, effectively blocked the OSCE’s independent election observation in October, and sentenced journalist-heroine Khadija Ismayilova to 7 ½ years in prison for reporting on government corruption.  The government of Azerbaijan has also escalated pressure against the family members of its critics, in a further effort to stifle dissent.  As a consequence, throughout the HDIM, Azerbaijan was the subject of singular attention and criticism. In one particularly sharp exchange with the moderator during the discussion of fundamental freedoms in the digital age, Azerbaijan challenged its critics to name at least 25 of an estimated 100 political prisoners.  A partial list – 25 names – is below. Abilov, Abdul Aliyev, Intigam Aliyev, Nijat Akhundov, Rashadat Guliyev, Araz Hasanov, Nasimi Hashimli, Parviz Hazi, Seymur Ismayilova, Khadija Jabrayilova, Valida Jafarov, Rasul Karimov, Fara Mammadli, Anar Mammadov, Hilal Mammadov, Igar Mammadov, Omar Mirkadirov, Rauf Ramazanov, Rashad Rustamov, Aliabbas Rustamzada, Ilkin Seyidov, Elnur Yagublu, Tofig Yunusov, Arif** Yunus, Leyla** Zakharchenko, Irina **Leyla and Arif Yunus have been released from prison since the HDIM but remain under house arrest.

  • What is the OSCE Doing in Ukraine?

    In Ukraine, the OSCE monitors the cease-fire, weapons withdrawal, and overall security situation in eastern Ukraine. In addition, the OSCE has observed local elections and reports on widespread human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea. Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) Mandate adopted by consensus on March 21, 2014 and extended until March 31, 2016 634 international monitors as of November 18, 2015 Posts daily updates at OSCE.org Has encountered episodes of hostage-taking and been fired upon OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk Mandate adopted by consensus on July 24, 2014 Gathers information and reports on the security situation at the two checkpoints Minsk Agreement Adopted September 5, 2014, by Russia, Ukraine, and Russian-backed separatists under OSCE auspices OSCE tasked with monitoring its implementation, including the cease-fire and weapons withdrawal Minsk II Adopted February 11, 2015 Continues work of Minsk agreement OSCE Election Observation Observed local elections in 2015 Joint report by ODIHR & HCNM on Russian-occupied Crimea ODIHR and HCNM report released September 17, 2015, identifies widespread human rights violations

  • I Was Locked Up and Tortured by Putin’s Spooks

    Yuriy Yatsenko is an activist of the Euromaidan who was illegally imprisoned in Russia on political grounds and recently released. This is a shortened version of his testimony before the US Helsinki Commission in Washington on December 11, 2015. I am a Ukrainian citizen who was illegally arrested and detained by the Russian Federation for over a year for political reasons. Nadiya Savchenko, Oleg Sentsov and others who are less known have suffered and continue to suffer the same fate. In May 2014, I was in Russia's Kursk region with a friend on a business trip. During a routine document check that Russian police officers often practice, I was detained. At the police department, an FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) agent showed me a photograph of myself taken during the Euromaidan protests, which I suspect he had found on social media. The agent demanded that my friend and I provide false testimony; he wanted us to admit that we had been recruited by Right Sector or by the head of the Security Service of Ukraine to commit acts of terrorism in Russia. At the time, I was an ordinary student from western Ukraine and could not believe that such absurd accusations were being made against me. My western Ukrainian origin became an additional reason for Russian law enforcement personnel to harass me. After we refused to incriminate ourselves, they began beating us at regular intervals. We were also offered an option of going on Russian TV and giving a predetermined speech about being sent to Russia from Ukraine to commit subversive acts, but instead we turned to the FSB for protection to save us from the Ukrainian authorities and their persecution. We refused, so the harassment continued and turned into physical and psychological abuse. One FSB official threatened to hand me over to the president of Chechnya. At first, the abuse and the beatings were constant. I was regularly placed in punishment cells and solitary confinement. I remember one particularly brutal instance. Some special forces soldiers, wearing masks and uniforms bearing no insignia other than the colors of the Russian flag, put a bag over my head, took me into the woods and tortured me. They hanged me by my handcuffs for hours and beat me in the head, groin and other parts of the body. They strangled me. They also simulated an execution, firing a gun next to my head. The next morning, which was two weeks after my arrest, I used a shaving blade to cut my abdomen and the veins on my arms to stop this abuse. Only then was I taken to the hospital; there, I finally managed to inform my family about my whereabouts. Despite a court decision ordering our deportation, my friend and I were illegally kept at a special detention center for illegal immigrants for three months. During this period, beatings and torture were constant. Three months later, my friend was released and taken to the Ukrainian border, while I was suddenly charged with possessing explosives. The court found me guilty in spite of the absurdity of these accusations and the absence of any evidence. At first, I was sentenced to two years in prison, but an appeals court reduced the sentence to nine months. By that time, I had already spent a year in detention, so I was released. The fact that I'm free now is a testament to the publicity campaigns, international pressure and coordinated work of human rights advocates and lawyers. When I was in detention, guards informed me from time to time that another article about my case appeared in the press, or that another press conference dedicated to my case was held. They seemed to be alarmed by this activism, and kept saying that it should be stopped, that everything should be "done quietly." That is why public events in support of prisoners are extremely important; they signal to the repressive regime that it is being watched closely and that none of the prisoners are forgotten. At least 13 Ukrainians are detained illegally somewhere in the Russian Federation, and at least eight prisoners are being held in occupied Crimea, both Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. The criminal cases against them are fabricated, most have been brutally tortured and some have been deprived of their right to meet with an attorney or a Ukrainian consul for over a year. These are people of various ages, professions and politics, but they share one thing—their lives have become an instrument of Russian state-sponsored propaganda that has created the image of Ukraine as a mortal enemy. Kremlin officials constantly look for ways to justify their hybrid war in Ukraine, which is why innocent Ukrainian citizens are proclaimed to be terrorists, spies and fascists. I appeal to you on behalf of the #LetMyPeopleGo campaign. There are no independent courts in Russia; this is why politically motivated cases have no chance of being decided fairly. Only international pressure can help achieve the release of those detained. We are waiting for the return of Savchenko, Olexandr Kolchenko, Sentsov, Gennadiy Afanasiev, Olexii Chirnii, Sergiy Lytvynov, Mykola Karpiuk, Stanislav Klyh, Olexandr Kostenko, Haiser Dzhemilev, Yurii Soloshenko, Valentyn Vyhyvskii and Viktor Shur. We also demand that Russia stop occupying Crimea and that Akhtem Chyihoz, Ali Asanov, Mustafa Dehermendzhy, Yuriy Ilchenko, Ruslan Zaytullaev, Nuri Primov, Rustam Vaytov and Ferat Sayfullaev be freed. It is likely that this list is incomplete. Nevertheless, we demand that Russia release all of its prisoners who have been subject to politically motivated persecution.

  • It's Time to Hold the Azerbaijan Regime Accountable

    Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's habit of brutally silencing dissent may be finally catching up with him. A new bill introduced in Congress last month would require the U.S. State Department to deny visas to senior members of Aliyev's government until the country can prove it has ceased harassment of independent media and NGOs and made significant progress toward freeing its political prisoners. Despite facing long odds, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 marks a major turning point. For years, the United States has struggled to muster any real condemnation of Azerbaijan's government, one of the most corrupt and repressive in the world. U.S. officials and lawmakers still routinely refer to their Azerbaijani counterparts as "friends" despite the fact that the former Soviet country's latest crackdown has been accompanied by a general turn away from the West. Or should we say partial turn. Azerbaijan wants to be at the table with Western nations when money is up for grabs, but it hasn't acquired the same taste for values about human rights and dignity. This juxtaposition was perhaps most apparent earlier this year when the country hosted the inaugural European Games, a 17-day competition featuring 6,000 athletes from 50 countries. The capital city of Baku spared no expense to project a modern, glamorous image during the event--even flying in Lady Gaga for a surprise performance. For many people, it was a first glimpse of Azerbaijan. But that glimpse was carefully choreographed. Foreign reporters who agreed to play by the government's rules were rewarded with access to the games; others,including Guardian sports correspondent Owen Gibson, were banned from attending after calling out human rights abuses in the country. What the cameras did not capture that night was the escape of Emin Huseynov, the founder of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, who fled Azerbaijan for Switzerland on the private plane of the Swiss foreign minister. Huseynov first sought refuge at the Swiss embassy ten months earlier after Azerbaijani authorities raided his office. Other human rights advocates and journalists have not been as fortunate. Within a 10-day period in August 2014, Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, and Leyla and Arif Yunus all were arrested. They were later subjected to speedy show trials resulting in lengthy prison sentences for crimes they did not commit. Leyla and Arif, both seriously ill, have recently been released to serve suspended sentences but still face charges of treason. Employees of Meydan TV, whose founder reported receiving a high-level threat during the European Games, have been barred from leaving Azerbaijan, repeatedly questioned at the prosecutor's office, and detained without cause. Their families have also faced pressure. Two brothers of editor Gunel Movlud are currently being held on bogus drug charges. Most tragically, in August, Rasim Aliyev, a journalist and chairman of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, died after he was severely beaten by attackers. Although the assault was reportedly connected to a criticism Aliyev made of a soccer player on Facebook, Aliyev had previously experienced threats against his life. The attack was one of hundreds against Azerbaijan's journalists in the past decade, including at least two other murders. Quiet diplomacy from the United States and the European Union has failed to reverse Azerbaijan's relentless pursuit of critics and civil society groups. The State Department called Leyla Yunus' release earlier this month a "welcome" development and a "positive step." Meanwhile, the deputy chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, was arrested the day before, and the treason trial of dissident journalist Rauf Mirqadirov is still underway. But perhaps President Aliyev's luck is running out. In November, in an unprecedented step, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, its Parliamentary Assembly, and the European Parliament all canceled monitoring missions to Azerbaijan to protest the irregularity of the country's parliamentary elections. Last month, Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, made a bold move of his own, announcing an inquiry into Azerbaijan's implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights. And on the same day, U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act and held a hearing on the case of Khadija Ismayilova, one of the few journalists in Azerbaijan who dared to report on corruption among the country's ruling elite. Ismayilova was arrested last year and is now serving a seven and a half-year prison sentence. Ismayilova has kept up the pressure on her country even from behind bars. On the eve of the European Games, with the help of Sport for Rights, a coalition of international press freedom groups that recently published a report on Azerbaijan's human rights record, she managed to get a letter out of jail to The New York Times. "The truth is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a human rights crisis. Things have never been worse," she wrote, urging the international community: "Do not let the government of Azerbaijan distract your attention from its record of corruption and abuse." Maybe now the world is ready to listen.

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Acts to End Human Rights Violations in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—Following years of systematic efforts by the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) today introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, a landmark bill that will deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government. “We recognize that there are important national security and economic ties that exist between our two countries, but the United States can no longer remain blind to the appalling human rights violations that are taking place in Azerbaijan,” said Rep. Smith. “Journalists and activists are routinely arrested and imprisoned; opposition politicians are in jail and elections are not free and fair; human rights lawyers have been harassed and disbarred; and religious freedom is under attack.  The Azerbaijan Democracy Act demonstrates that the United States takes human rights and fundamental freedoms seriously, and that we will not compromise when faced by a government that represses the political opposition, the media, and religious minorities.” 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. “It is unacceptable that senior members of the Azerbaijani government are free to visit the United States while courageous women and men like investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, attorney Intigam Aliyev, opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov, and activist Anar Mammadli are locked away in prisons with inadequate access to legal or even medical assistance,” Rep. Smith said. “If they can pay the price for standing up for human rights, the least we can do is to stand with them.” Rep. Smith is a long-standing advocate for human rights in Azerbaijan. Following the introduction of today’s legislation he will chair a 2PM hearing to examine Azerbaijan’s persecution of Ms. Ismayilova, who was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in early September.

  • Attacks on Press Freedom in Azerbaijan Investigated at Congressional Hearing

    WASHINGTON—At a hearing convened today by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) and other lawmakers examined the plight of political prisoners in Azerbaijan and in particular the imprisonment of journalist of Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist known for her reports into the wealth of the senior leadership of the Government of Azerbaijan. “Much of Khadija’s reporting was done as a journalist for U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. This means that the U.S. government has a special obligation to do everything it can to secure Khadija’s release,” said Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “Our government must take every opportunity, must leave no stone unturned, in the effort to secure her release. The State Department must make Khadija’s release a true diplomatic priority.” Following several months of harassment by Azerbaijani authorities, Ms. Ismayilova was arrested on spurious charges in December 2014. RFE/RL was subsequently raided and closed by the Government of Azerbaijan. 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. “Human rights organizations have documented Azerbaijan’s crackdown on civil society over the last three years,” Rep. Smith continued. “The human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Azerbaijan, causing damage to its relations with the United States and other countries, and has damaged its own society by imprisoning or exiling some of its best and brightest citizens. The time has come to send a clear message.” Nenad Pejic, Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of Programming at RFE/RL, testified at the hearing. He said, “The arrest and imprisonment of Khadija Ismayilova and the closure of RFE/RL’s Baku bureau represent a targeted and coordinated effort by the country’s most senior leadership to punish journalists who report on the government’s corruption, silence independent journalism, and end RFE/RL’s operations in Azerbaijan.” “[We urge] the Commission, the Obama Administration, and Members of Congress to raise the issue of restrictions on freedom of the press in meetings with senior Azerbaijani officials, to demand the immediate release of all Azerbaijani journalists, to put an end to these trumped-up prosecutions, to abandon the practice of collective punishment and to investigate the murders of journalists,” said Delphine Halgand, the U.S. director of Reporters Without Borders. “President Obama should meet with Khadija Ismayil’s mother, and members of Congress visiting Azerbaijan should visit Khadija Ismayil in prison,” said T. Kumar, International Advocacy Director for Amnesty International USA. The Helsinki Commission has long pressed the Government of Azerbaijan to end its repression of the political opposition, journalists, and religious minorities. Earlier today, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, landmark legislation to deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government following years of systematic efforts by the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In 2015 alone, the Commission has issued numerous statements on the rapid decline of human rights in the country and held a November briefing examining how the government of Azerbaijan uses its judicial system to intimidate and imprison critics of the government.

  • U.S. Bill Seeks Sanctions On Azerbaijani Officials For 'Appalling' Rights Record

    A U.S. lawmaker has introduced legislation that would deny U.S. visas to senior Azerbaijani officials due to what he calls Baku's "appalling human rights violations." U.S. Representative Chris Smith (Republican-New Jersey) introduced the bill, titled the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, in the House of Representatives on December 16. "The human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Azerbaijan, causing damage to its relations with the United States and other countries, and has damaged its own society by imprisoning or exiling some of its best and brightest citizens," Smith told a hearing of Congress's Helsinki Commission held in conjunction with the announcement of the legislation.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Scrutinize Azerbaijan’s Persecution of RFE/RL Reporter Khadija Ismayilova

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Azerbaijan’s Persecution of RFE/RL Reporter Khadija Ismayilova” Wednesday, December 16, 2015 2:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: http://bit.ly/1VRaf3G 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 and the RFE/RL Baku Bureau has remained shuttered by the Government of Azerbaijan.  As Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) noted at the time of her sentencing, “[Ms. Ismayilova] is being robbed of her freedom for exposing corruption within the Azerbaijani government. Her arrest last December and the subsequent shutdown of the RFE/RL bureau in Baku were direct attacks on media freedom.”  Ms. Ismayilova is known for her well-documented investigative reports into the wealth of the senior leadership of the Government of Azerbaijan and had suffered harassment from the security services for some time before her arrest.  This hearing will examine the conduct of the trial against Ms. Ismayilova and whether or not the U.S. Government has done all it can to secure her release and to address the closing of the Baku bureau of RFE/RL. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Nenad Pejic, Vice President / Editor-in-Chief of Programming, RFE/RL Delphine Halgand, U.S. Director, Reporters Without Borders T. Kumar, International Advocacy Director, Amnesty International USA Shelly Han, Policy Advisor, Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe  

  • Human Rights Violations in Russian-Occupied Crimea

    The briefing reviewed the current condition of life in Crimea under Russian rule. Panelists highlighted the illegal nature of Russian rule over the peninsula and described the human rights abuses commited by the new authorities. Several of the panelists described the propaganda campaign and censorship that the Russian government has been carrying out to tighten its grip on the peninsula. Participants also outlined possible responses by the international community -- particularly sanctions -- to address the situation in Crimea.

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Welcomes Release of Leyla Yunus as “First Step”

    WASHINGTON–Following today’s announcement that the Azerbaijani government has released human rights defender Leyla Yunus from custody due to her ill health, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “The long-overdue release of Leyla Yunus from prison to house arrest is a welcome first step—but only a first step.  The Government of Azerbaijan must go further and now make immediate arrangements for her medical treatment. Leyla and her husband Arif are gravely ill and it is the responsibility of the government, which persecuted and imprisoned them unjustly, to see that they have top-quality care. Furthermore, the spurious charges against Leyla and Arif must be dropped and the Yunuses permitted to resume their peaceful efforts on behalf of human rights in Azerbaijan.”

  • The Rule of Law and Civil Society in Azerbaijan

    This briefing discussed the current state of democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan following the 2015 parlimentary election.  Ambassador Morningstar, who was the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan from 2012 until 2014, recommended that the United States focus on building trust and opportunites for cooperation with the Azerbaijani government, in order to have leverage to encourage respect for human rights. Natalia Bourjaily spoke about the increasing number of legal restrictions on foriegn NGOs in Azerbaijan and Dinara Yunus discussed the conditions under which her parents, Azeri human rights activists, were held.  

  • The Rule of Law and Civil Society in Azerbaijan

    Azerbaijan's parliamentary election in November 2015 provided further evidence of the absence of rule of law in Azerbaijan. The majority of opposition candidates were not allowed on the ballot, there was no mechanism for debate on television, election monitors faced intimidation, and Azerbaijan generally failed to abide by minimum standards of elections it has committed itself to in the OSCE. Rule of law means that governmental powers are restricted by certain standards, which includes that citizens are allowed mechanisms to hold government accountable, such as through the media and civil society. These freedoms are greatly restricted in Azerbaijan. This briefing sought to better understand the situation in Azerbaijan through the testimonies of experts, including a particularly moving testimony by Dinara Yunus, the daughter of two imprisoned Azerbaijani human rights defenders. 

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Serious Decline in Respect for Human Rights in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “The Rule of Law and Civil Society in Azerbaijan” Thursday, November 5 2:00PM Cannon House Office Building Room 311 The last two years have witnessed a precipitous decline in the respect for rule of law and human rights in Azerbaijan. Many independent civil society organizations have been forced to close due to onerous regulations, threats of intimidation, or the arrest of the organization’s leaders. Independent media has been severely curtailed or closed down. Opposition parties are harassed and often shut out of the election process. High-profile politicians are serving lengthy prison sentences on charges that many observers believe were politically motivated. This briefing will have a particular focus on the rule of law and how the government of Azerbaijan is using its judicial system to intimidate and imprison critics of the government. The briefing will also analyze the results of the November 1 parliamentary election and its implications for Azerbaijan’s future direction. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Ambassador Richard Morningstar, US Ambassador to the Republic of Azerbaijan from July 2012 to August 2014 and Founding Director of the Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council Natalia Bourjaily, Vice President – Eurasia, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Dinara Yunus, Daughter of imprisoned Azerbaijani human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus

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