Title

The Rule of Law and Civil Society in Azerbaijan

Thursday, November 05, 2015
2:00pm
311 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC
United States
Members: 
Name: 
Robert Aderholt
Title Text: 
Commissioner
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Moderator(s): 
Name: 
Shelly Han
Title Text: 
Policy Advisor for Economics, Environment, Technology and Trade
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Witnesses: 
Name: 
Ambassador Richard Morningstar
Title: 
Founding Director
Body: 
Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council
Name: 
Natalia Bourjaily
Title: 
Vice President-Eurasia
Body: 
International Center for Not-for-Profit Law
Name: 
Dinara Yunus
Title: 
Daughter of Imprisoned Azerbaijani Human Rights Defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus

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.  

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  • Helsinki Commissioners Announce Re-introduction of Combatting Global Corruption Act

    On Tuesday, Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Steve Cohen, Rep. Joe Wilson, and Senator Ben Cardin re-introduced the Combatting Global Corruption Act in both the House and Senate, along with Rep. Bill Keating, Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar and Senator Todd Young. This bipartisan, bicameral legislation formally designates global corruption as a key U.S. national security policy. It would require the State Department to identify corruption in countries around the world and publicly rank their levels of corruption in a three-tiered system. For more information click here. The Combatting Global Corruption Act was first introduced in the 117th Congress. Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin and Senator Todd Young introduced the Act in the Senate, along with companion legislation in the House of Representatives, led by Rep. Tom Malinowski and Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen, Commissioner Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, Rep. Dan Crenshaw and Rep. Dean Phillips are original co-sponsors of the legislation. 

  • The Crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh Highlights Russia’s Waning Global Influence

    Mariam Abrahamyan is a hard woman to get in touch with. She appears on the screen for just a few moments before the picture freezes and she drops off the video call. “Sorry,” she says after phoning back a minute later, “our power went out again and the internet went down.” For more than a month now, the 30-year-old Armenian mother of three has been cut off from the rest of the world by a near-total blockade on the only road in or out of Nagorno-Karabakh—a disputed territory nestled between Armenia and Azerbaijan—that she and her family call home. Regular supplies of food and medicine have been stopped by Azerbaijan, and locals say supermarket shelves are empty and pharmacies are running out of essential prescriptions, while officials warn a famine could now be on the cards. “We didn’t think it would last this long,” Abrahamyan says. “But what’s really frightening is not knowing when it will end. We made the decision to stay here, and I dread the day one of my children might turn around and ask why we chose to live in a place like this.” Nagorno-Karabakh has already seen two wars within Abrahamyan’s lifetime. In the 1990s, as the Soviet Union unraveled, erstwhile members Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a series of fierce battles over the mountainous region, with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris displaced from the region, and thousands killed on both sides. Nagorno-Karabakh is located inside Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognized borders, but locked behind a line of landmines and defensive positions, and for three decades it was accessible only from Armenia. Governed as the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, its officials point to two referendums held in 1991 and 2006 as proof that those living there have chosen independence. But in 2020, Azerbaijani troops launched an offensive to retake Nagorno-Karabakh, conquering swathes of territory and leaving Karabakh Armenians in control of just their de facto capital, Stepanakert, and the surrounding area. Only a Moscow-brokered ceasefire ended the war, putting the sole highway linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia—known as the Lachin Corridor—under the control of a 1,500-strong Russian peacekeeping contingent, with Azerbaijani troops stationed behind the wire fence on both sides of the road. Yet with Russia bogged down in Ukraine, there are fears the battle-scarred Nagorno-Karabakh could see conflict once again as Moscow fails to step in. Road to nowhere On the morning of Dec. 12, a group of self-described Azerbaijani eco-protesters pushed past the Russian peacekeepers and set up camp on the Lachin Corridor, stopping traffic. They allege Karabakh-Armenians have been using the road to export illegally-mined gold at the expense of the environment, while importing landmines and other military hardware as the Russians watch on. Now, officials say the Russian peacekeeping convoys and a smattering of Red Cross relief vehicles are the only ones that are able to pass—nowhere near enough to replace the 400 tons of goods that used to arrive daily from Armenia. “We don’t see much of the Russians,” Adnan Huseyn, one of the Azerbaijani organizers of the sit-in says. “During the first few days, we had eye-to-eye contact with the peacekeepers, but there were no problems. We watched the World Cup together, which was actually nice. Most of the time they kept quiet.” While Huseyn’s group insists it is moving aside for humanitarian convoys and denies it is staging a blockade, Armenia alleges they were sent by Azerbaijan in order to spark a crisis and lay the ground for “ethnic cleansing” of the region. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, whose government has repeatedly cracked down on political protests at home, has described the demonstrators as the pride of the nation, while observers have been quick to point out few have any prior record of environmental activism. Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and author of several books on the conflict, has argued that the protesters had “evidently been sent there by the government in Baku,” and Western nations including the U.S. have called on Azerbaijan to unblock the road. Now, anger is building as the humanitarian situation grows dire and Russia appears reluctant to force a reopening of the road. “Armenia is a firm supporter of the Russian peacekeepers,” the country’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in December, as it became clear the protesters were there to stay. “But it is unacceptable for us that they are becoming a silent witness to the depopulation of Nagorno-Karabakh.” Broken promises In Stepanakert, propaganda posters of the Russian peacekeepers hang in shop windows, looking out over the rows of empty shelves. “Karabakh, live in peace,” one reads. For many ethnic Armenians in the breakaway region, Russian is a native language on par with Armenian, and Moscow has long been seen as a close ally. But since the 2020 war, many locals say their existence feels more precarious than ever and that Azerbaijan is intent on asserting control over their unrecognized state. In a poll published by the Caucasus Research Resource Center in January, fewer than half of 400 Karabakh-Armenian respondents said independence would help settle the conflict in the disputed territory. Almost one in four said they would prefer to be annexed by Moscow and given special status as part of the Russian Federation—slightly more than the number that back unification with Armenia. “I’m not political,” says Abrahamyan. “I only know that the Russians have a duty to protect us, and they’re not doing that.” On Dec. 24, a delegation of Karabakh-Armenians marched to the peacekeepers’ checkpoint on the Lachin Corridor, where the Azerbaijanis have been staging their sit-in, to demand the road be reopened. “The Russian officer there told us to go home and not to worry,” says Marut Vanyan, a 39-year-old blogger from Stepanakert who joined the group. “He told us the road would be reopened within two days, like it was before. That never happened.” According to Vanyan, one of the protest organizers told the peacekeepers that locals were losing trust in them and, if the worst comes to the worst, they would take their families and leave—with Moscow losing its foothold in the region. Three days later, dozens of men, women, and children walked to the gates of the peacekeeping headquarters to demand answers. “Putin, keep your word,” read one sign carried by a young boy. Guards told the crowd that they were unable to get hold of their commander, Major General Andrey Volkov, and he was the only one who could answer their questions. Many Karabakh-Armenians now fear a protracted blockade or another Azerbaijani military offensive could see them forced to flee their homes for good. Man from Moscow? Azerbaijan has long accused Armenia of being a Russian puppet state, pointing to Yerevan’s membership of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and the close economic ties between the two countries. At the same time, just two days before Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Aliyev himself traveled to meet with President Vladimir Putin and sign a deal upgrading their relations to alliance level. But the standoff between the two sides has only worsened in recent weeks after an enigmatic Russian-Armenian oligarch, Ruben Vardanyan, announced he was moving to Nagorno-Karabakh in September. The Yerevan-born billionaire was initially coy about seeking political office but, two months later, was suddenly appointed State Minister of the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, making him effectively the most powerful man in Stepanakert overnight. Since then, talks with Azerbaijan have broken down, with Aliyev accusing Vardanyan of having been “sent from Moscow with a very clear agenda.” Officials in Baku point to the fact that he has been sanctioned by Ukraine as proof of his close ties to the Russian state. Kyiv says his business interests “undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine.” Speaking via video link from his office in the blockaded region, Vardanyan rejects those charges. “People don’t understand when someone like me decides to give up his family and his lifestyle,” he says with a half-smile. “I decided it is the right time to be with my people and [the Armenian] nation.” The 54-year-old banking magnate is careful to avoid directly criticizing the role of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, but firmly denies Moscow has any undue influence over the region. “I can’t just pick up the phone and call Vladimir Putin,” he laughs, “the peacekeepers are only 2,000 people standing between the Armenian population and the sizable Azerbaijani army. It’s tough, and it’s clear Russia’s attention isn’t here—it’s in the West, given Ukraine.” Crisis in the Kremlin “For Putin, conquering Ukraine has become an all-encompassing issue and there’s little interest at the top for anything else,” says Jade McGlynn, a researcher at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. “Moscow’s quest to increase its influence has left it a diminished and less formidable power in the South Caucasus. Putin may not see that, but the Foreign Ministry does—it’s just being sidelined. Junior diplomats are in despair.” While Karabakh-Armenians fear their calls for help are falling on deaf ears, others are questioning whether Moscow was ever a reliable security guarantor in the first place. “Russia is exploiting the conflict to further its own interests. Ultimately, its strategy is about maintaining an imperial grip on the region,” says Michael Cecire, a senior policy advisor at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a U.S. government agency. From Yerevan, Pashinyan is now calling on the international community as a whole to step up and put an end to the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, arguing a U.N. peacekeeping mission should take over if the Russians cannot fulfill their commitments. The U.S., along with the U.K. and a number of European nations, have expressed concern over the situation, while France has emerged as a leading ally for Armenia, tabling an unsuccessful motion condemning Baku at the U.N. Security Council. On Tuesday, RFERL reported that the E.U. has now agreed to send a monitoring mission to Armenia for as long as two years, in a sign that Brussels is concerned about the prospect of new clashes along the internationally-recognized border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While the civilian team will not enter Nagorno-Karabakh, the move has been interpreted as a sign that the West is stepping up to fill the power vacuum left by Russia. But Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Britain, says that no outside power will be able to impose a solution to the standoff over the region. “Armenia’s problem is structural dependency—and now they’re looking to the West and hoping France will be their big daddy.” For Vardanyan, confined to the blockaded region he moved to just months ago, the outside world feels a very long way away, and he warns the Karabakh-Armenians can’t expect to depend on anyone but themselves. “It’s like a Russian fairytale—there’s a hero standing in front of a crossroads,” he says. “One way, you lose your independence, another, you lose your home. The third way is to fight. We don’t want war, but of these three options we have to make a choice, even if it is dangerous and you can lose your life. We need to be ready for this.”

  • Congressmen Cohen and Wilson Introduce Resolution Recognizing International Day of Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Commission’s Ranking Member, Congressman Joe Wilson (SC-02), today introduced a resolution recognizing October 30 as International Day of Political Prisoners. Congressman Cohen was recently named the Special Representative on Political Prisoners by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and has been speaking out and calling attention to the treatment of an estimated 1 million political opponents, dissidents, academics, human rights activists, journalists and others worldwide imprisoned for their commitment to democracy and transparency. The resolution calls attention to repressive regimes engaged in “systematic destruction of independent voices, including but not limited to the Russian and Belarusian Governments.”  It clarifies that October 30 was chosen because on October 30, 1974, “Soviet human rights activists and dissidents initiated the idea of marking the day of political prisoners in the USSR and consequently held a hunger strike that day while in jail.” The measure also says that the U.S. House of Representatives “deplores all forms of political repression and imprisonment” and supports State Department efforts to call attention the problem. See the entire resolution here.

  • Congressmen Cohen and Wilson Introduce Resolution Recognizing International Day of Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Commission’s Ranking Member, Congressman Joe Wilson (SC-02), today introduced a resolution recognizing October 30 as International Day of Political Prisoners. Congressman Cohen was recently named the Special Representative on Political Prisoners by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and has been speaking out and calling attention to the treatment of an estimated 1 million political opponents, dissidents, academics, human rights activists, journalists and others worldwide imprisoned for their commitment to democracy and transparency. The resolution calls attention to repressive regimes engaged in “systematic destruction of independent voices, including but not limited to the Russian and Belarusian Governments.”  It clarifies that October 30 was chosen because on October 30, 1974, “Soviet human rights activists and dissidents initiated the idea of marking the day of political prisoners in the USSR and consequently held a hunger strike that day while in jail.” The measure also says that the U.S. House of Representatives “deplores all forms of political repression and imprisonment” and supports State Department efforts to call attention the problem. See the entire resolution here.

  • My "Hell" in Russian Captivity

    Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine include the brutal and unlawful detention of thousands of Ukrainians. At this hearing, Yuliia “Taira” Paievska, a well-known Ukrainian volunteer medic who was detained in Mariupol in March and held by the Russians for three months, testified about her capture, the deplorable conditions of her captivity, the plight of those who continue to be detained unlawfully, and her lifesaving work since 2014 providing medical assistance to those wounded by Russia’s war.   Taira outlined the daily experience of torture, psychological manipulation, and inhumane living conditions she and others were subjected to by their Russian captors. She explained that she was detained during a document check, and when a guard recognized her name, she was singled out for especially cruel treatment.    Held in the occupied territories but under the direct control of Russian forces, Taira spent three months in captivity. Her captors attempted to force a public confession from her for crimes she had not committed. Taira knew they would use this footage to drive the Russian propaganda narrative of Ukrainian cruelty and defend their own atrocities. She had seen footage of friends and colleagues admitting to crimes she knows they did not commit in order to escape the torture that she herself faced. Taira noted that the Russians spared no one, capturing and torturing civilians as well as soldiers.   After thanking the United States for all the support it has given to Ukraine, she asked for help fighting Russian propaganda. She believes that the world must challenge Russian narratives. Taira requested additional shipments of modern weapons from the United States, stating that Ukrainians have proved themselves as responsible stewards of American weaponry and will use them to continue fighting with honor. She also asked for American help in facilitating international access to prisons in occupied Ukraine, in order to ensure fair treatment of prisoners according to the Geneva Conventions. Finally, Taira requested that the United States designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, continue supporting Ukraine financially, and recognize the violence and oppression committed by Russia in Ukraine as a genocide.     

  • Helsinki Commission Slams Shutdown of Novaya Gazeta

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today condemned the shutdown of Novaya Gazeta in Russia, following the decision of a Moscow court to strip the outlet of its print media registration. They issued the following joint statement: “The Kremlin assault on the last vestiges of independent media in Russia confirms that Vladimir Putin is afraid of the truth. Novaya Gazeta has been a pillar of free Russian media since it was founded in 1993 by future Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, with the support of late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “Putin has spent years attacking truth-tellers in Russia’s information space in order to build a country where lies and distortion of reality serve his interests. Russia’s horrific war against Ukraine, the atrocities committed by the Russian army, and the state-sponsored justification and praise of this violence are the terrible consequences of this dark and cynical manipulation. Russia needs independent journalism now more than ever.” In March 2022, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on “Putin’s War on Truth,” which examined Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on independent media in Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission leadership lauded the award of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to Russia’s Dmitry Muratov, longtime editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta. Muratov dedicated his Nobel Prize award to his slain Novaya Gazeta colleagues Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasiya Baburova, and Natalya Estemirova. In a November 2009 Helsinki Commission briefing on violence against journalists and impunity in Russia, Muratov, who provided testimony, said, “I would like to ask you a huge favor. In every meeting, in any encounter with representatives of the Russian political establishment and government, please, bring up this meeting. Please ask these uncomfortable questions. Please try not to be too polite.”  

  • Ukrainian Medic to Testify on “Hell” in Russian Captivity, War in Ukraine at Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: MY “HELL” IN RUSSIAN CAPTIVITY Taira Paievska on Russia’s War in Ukraine Thursday, September 15, 2022 9:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 106 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine include the brutal and unlawful detention of thousands of Ukrainians. At this hearing, Yuliia “Taira” Paievska, a Ukrainian volunteer medic who was detained in Mariupol in March and held by the Russians for three months, will testify about her capture; the deplorable conditions of her three-month captivity; the plight of those who continue to be detained unlawfully; and her lifesaving work since 2014 providing medical assistance to those wounded by Russia’s war. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Yuliia “Taira” Paievska, Ukrainian veteran and volunteer paramedic; Commander, “Taira’s Angels” Dr. Hanna Hopko, Co-Founder, International Center for Ukrainian Victory; Former Chair, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Parliament of Ukraine

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Discusses Role as Special Representative for Political Prisoner

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep Steve Cohen (TN-09) today spoke at a virtual hearing of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA)about his new role as the assembly’s special representative for political prisoners. Co-Chairman Cohen thanked OSCE PA President Margareta Cederfelt of Sweden for naming him to the special representative role and expressed his disappointment at the increased need to call attention to attacks on human rights as conditions around the world continue to deteriorate. He spoke in particular on the cases of Russian politicians Vladimir Kara-Murza, Alexei Navalny, and the former mayor of Yekaterinburg, Yevgeny Roizman, as well as politicians, journalists and dissidents in Belarus, Egypt, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Co-Chairman Cohen said of Kara-Murza, arrested after returning home to Moscow: “I will not let him be forgotten.” He also said in part: “I appreciate President Cederfelt’s appointment and her faith in me to execute this position as special representative on political prisoners. I take it very seriously and have been working on it regularly, notifying through posts on social media, press releases and calling on governments to release political prisoners. Unfortunately, this role is becoming more and more significant as we have more and more political prisoners… “I’ve contacted Secretary Blinken to work with him and the State Department. We’ve brought attention to political prisoners not only in Russia and Belarus but also in Myanmar and Egypt and, unfortunately, in several of the OSCE countries there are political prisoners as well…Conditions all around the world are getting worse…and Russia is the worst.” See his entire remarks here.

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Deplores Arrest of Former Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeniy Roizman

    WASHINGTON—Following the arrest of the Kremlin critic and former Yekaterinburg mayor Yevgeniy Roizman, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “The arrest and prosecution of Yevgeniy Roizman is another milestone in the Kremlin’s descent into a full-blown dictatorship. “Putin’s brutal war against Ukraine is what dishonors the Russian military. Mr. Roizman simply has reminded his fellow citizens of that truth. “As Mr. Roizman noted in a recent interview covered by the New York Times, ‘the worst thing is when you suddenly see that there is a lot of evil, that evil is winning, that evil is being supported. Evil can only win when it joins together with a lie.’ “Mr. Roizman also served as the mayor of Yekaterinburg, the same city where Brittney Griner played since 2014. “The Russian government should drop all the charges against Mr. Roizman and not put any restrictions on his work and activism, and I continue to call for the immediate release of other political prisoners including Vladimir Kara-Murza, Alexey Navalny, and Ilya Yashin, as well as Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan, Marc Fogel, and other journalists, dissidents, and wrongfully detained individuals in Russia.”  

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Calls for the Release of Political Prisoners in Belarus

    Washington – On the second anniversary of the sham presidential election in Belarus, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Two years ago today, Belarus’s autocrat Aleksander Lukashenko put up a show of an election that he had hoped would legitimize his unconstitutional power grab. Despite the many and well-documented cases of election abuse, the people of Belarus did not fall for the tricks of the one-man ruler of Belarus. They voted Lukashenko out, but, predictably, he refused to leave. He ignored the will of the people and chose vicious violence to suppress the peaceful dissent. “In the year following the unprecedented in scale peaceful rallies against the 2020 election results, Lukashenko’s troops arrested, tortured and imprisoned a reported 35,000 Belarusians for the simple act of demanding the government respect their choice and rights. He personally presided over the largest ever domestic repression that saw thousands behind bars and tens of thousands flee the country, including the opposition leader and likely legitimate winner absent election fraud, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been welcomed by neighboring countries. “Since that time, Lukashenko has continued a crackdown on civic participation in Belarus with arrests of civilians protesting the Russian war in Ukraine, changes to Belarus’s non-nuclear status, and the ongoing Lukashenko regime during last year’s March 25th anniversary of Belarus’s ‘Freedom Day,’ adding to the already sizeable number of politically motivated detainments in the country. “There are now close to 1200 individuals languishing in Belarusian prisons for speaking out against authoritarianism, corruption and war. Included among the political prisoners are: Syarhey Tsikhanouski, husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and potential candidate against Lukashenko detained in May 2020; Roman Protasevich, journalist and opposition figure accused of inciting mass protests and detained after a false bomb threat forced the landing of Ryanair flight FR4978 destined for Lithuania in Belarus in May 2021; Sofia Sapega, Russian citizen and girlfriend of Protasevich who also was aboard Ryanair flight FR4978; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Belarus Service journalists Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk and Aleh Kruzdzilovic; and Ales Bialiatski, founder of Viasna Human Rights Centre, a human rights organization based in Minsk that provides financial and legal support to political prisoners. These are but a few names representing political candidates, oppositionists, activists, journalists and other Belarusian and non-Belarusian citizens detained by Lukashenko’s regime. “Lukashenko must immediately order the release of all political prisoners and wrongfully detained individuals and stop the systematic violations of human rights.  I call on the U.S. Department of State and our allies abroad to work together during this time of heightened tension with Belarus and Belarus’s benefactor, Russia, to ensure the unjustly imprisoned Belarusians are released at the earliest date possible.”

  • CO-CHAIRMAN COHEN CALLS FOR THE RELEASE OF ALAA ABD EL-FATTAH

    WASHINGTON— Concerning Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s imprisonment, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) released a letter calling for Secretary Blinken to prioritize “the swift release of Mr. Abd el-Fattah”. The letter read in part: “In 2011, the people of Egypt achieved something remarkable – they ousted a corrupt regime and brought about a change in government through largely peaceful protests. Alaa Abd el-Fattah was one of the leaders of the movement that advocated this change. Through his writings and public appearances, he provided an intellectual backbone for the disparate groups that shared in the vision for a more democratic Egypt. “Tragically for him, this very purpose led to his arrest and conviction. Mr. Abd el-Fattah was arrested, then released to only be arrested again. He has been in prison for eight years now. His family reports they have irregular contact with him, and his physical condition has reportedly deteriorated.” “Mr. Abd el-Fattah is one of the many political prisoners in Egypt; yet his release would bring hope to them all. As the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Representative for Political Prisoners – an organization to which Egypt is a Mediterranean Partner for Co-operation – I request that your department include among its immediate priorities in Egypt the swift release of Mr. Abd el-Fattah, and in the interim, urgently impress upon the Egyptian government the expectation of more humane conditions during his incarceration, including exercise time, freedom of movement outside of his cell, and reinstatement of half hour – if not longer – visits by his son and others.” “Alaa is not a danger to the Egyptian government and his only fault is being a true patriot of his country.”

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest July 2022

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Condemns Execution of Democracy Activists in Myanmar

    WASHINGTON—Following the execution of four democracy activists by Myanmar’s military junta, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “I strongly condemn the execution of these courageous activists by Myanmar’s unelected and illegitimate regime. These men—Kyaw Min Yu, Phyo Zeya Thaw, Hla Myo Aung, and Aung Thura Zaw—were political prisoners who were deprived of their right to due process and a chance to defend themselves. The junta sentenced them to death in secret trials, once again demonstrating the complete lack of respect for human life and common decency as well as a total disregard for rules-based order by which countries should abide. “The regime has jailed thousands, including the Nobel Peace laureate and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, after seizing power in a coup in February 2021. Following a series of closed-door hearings and a string of trumped-up charges and convictions each carrying additional sentencing, she was sentenced to a total of 11 years in prison as of April 2022.  In an obvious attempt to ensure she is jailed for life, she still faces added bogus charges that could see her imprisoned for more than 190 years by some reports. This is appalling and concerning as the recent executions confirm that the junta will not hesitate to murder political prisoners to further strengthen their rule of terror. “The world should unite to pressure Myanmar to release all political prisoners. At least 117 activists have been sentenced to death since the coup. We must do everything in our power to ensure that they do not face the grim fate of their four compatriots.”

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Deplores Arrest of Ilya Yashin in Russia

    WASHINGTON—In response to the arrest of Ilya Yashin, a Russian politician critical of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Putin’s government has been engaged in a systematic assault on Russian citizens who dare speak the truth about Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine. Ilya Yashin, a Russian patriot and a fierce critic of the war in Ukraine, is one of the victims of this regime. “Ilya spoke out against the war despite the cynical law Russia has adopted that punishes people speaking the truth on this conflict with up to 15 years in prison. He was arrested on trumped-up charges and is facing a lengthy jail term for no crime other than publicly speaking out against Russia’s war in Ukraine. Ilya is a political prisoner and should be given all protections afforded by this status. The Russian government has a complete disregard for international law and customs but if they have an ounce of respect for their own laws, they will immediately release Ilya and other political prisoners.” Ilya Yashin, a co-founder of the Solidarity movement, is a member of a Moscow city district council. Throughout his career, he advocated for fair elections, rule of law, and democracy in Russia. Prior to his arrest, Mr. Yashin was one of the few Russian opposition activists who had not been killed, forced to flee, or imprisoned.

  • Wicker Stands in Solidarity With Russian Dissident

      WASHINGTON – Mr. President, I rise this afternoon to make sure that the plight of Russian leader Vladimir Kara-Murza is not forgotten. That the outrageous imprisonment of Vladimir Kara-Murza by the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is not forgotten. We remember three decades ago what hope we had for a new Russia. Russia entered a new age of possibility some three decades ago, after more than 70 years of communist repression, the Soviet order had collapsed, and with it the Iron Curtain that kept freedom away from millions was torn down. As the red flags came down in Moscow, the free world watched with anticipation, hoping that democracy and the rule of law might finally take root in a free Russia. Regrettably, that has not happened. Instead of democracy and freedom, the Russian people got Vladimir Putin, a man who has used his office to murder, imprison, and force into exile anyone who threatens his grip on power -- all the while, enriching himself beyond anyone's wildest imagination while ordinary Russians, especially out in the countryside of Russia, live in squalid conditions. One of his latest victims is Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian patriot and a friend I had the privilege of hosting in my office just four months ago. As a matter of fact, I have hosted him several times. Today, Vladimir Kara-Murza spends his days in a prison cell, where the only thing you can see through the window is a barbed wire fence. What was his crime? He simply spoke the truth about Putin's war on Ukraine. His trial, if it can even be called a trial, was held in secret. No journalists, no diplomats or spectators of any kind were allowed to be there. And for his offense of talking about the Russian war against Ukraine, he now faces up to 15 years in prison. This is not the first time the Russian dictator has tried to silence him. Mr. Kara-Murza has been poisoned twice, in 2015 and 2017, and almost died in both cases. Since then, his wife and three children have had to live abroad, though he himself has chosen to spend most of his time in Russia. In a recent interview with National Review, his wife, Evgenia explained why he insists on working in Russia: “He believes that he would not have the moral right to call on people to fight if he were not sharing the same risks.” Or as Mr. Kara-Murza put it in a recent CNN interview the day of his arrest. He said, “The biggest gift we could give the Kremlin would be to just give up and run. That's all they want from us.” What a contrast in character to the man currently running the Kremlin. The National Review's story goes on to describe Mr. Kara-Murza's courageous work for democracy through the eyes of his wife of Evgenia, as well as the costs that he and his family have endured along with so many other Russian dissidents. And, Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent at this point to insert the National Review story that I referred to into the record. Mr. Kara-Murza’s imprisonment is part of Mr. Putin's larger assault on what remains of political freedom in Russia. In Mr. Kara-Murza’s words, Putin's regime has gone, “from highly authoritarian to near totalitarian almost overnight.” In March, Russian officials passed a new censorship law, forbidding all criticism of Mr. Putin's war in Ukraine. That law has been the basis for more than 16,000 arrests since the war began in February, including that of Mr. Kara-Murza. Another 2,400 Russians have been charged with administrative offenses for speaking out against the war. Meanwhile, Putin's propaganda machine is ramping up. Independent Russian media outlets have all but vanished, having been blocked, shut down, or forced out of the country by the Kremlin. The last embers of freedom in Russia are going cold. Putin's crackdown on domestic freedom began in 2003, when Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested on trumped up charges of tax fraud after he simply criticized the government. A former member of the elite, Mr. Khodorkovsky, had successfully led the Yukos Oil Company through privatization after the Iron Curtain fell. And contrary to the Kremlin's claims, the company consistently paid its taxes. But that didn't stop Vladimir Putin from plundering its assets, throwing Mr. Khodorkovsky in jail, where he stayed for ten years. I would note that just before his arrest, Mr. Khodorkovsky displayed the same courage and patriotism that we now see in Vladimir Kara-Murza. Like Mr. Kara-Murza, he knew very well he could go to jail for speaking out against the government. But Mr. Khodorkovsky did so anyway and refused to flee the country, saying, “I would prefer to be a political prisoner rather than a political immigrant.” Of course, by then, Mr. Putin had already shown himself willing to violate the international laws of war, having leveled the Chechen capital of Grozny in his own Republic of Russia in 1999. In 2008, he launched a new assault on international law with the invasion of Georgia. In 2014 he started a bloody war in eastern Ukraine, and in 2016, Soviet Russian dictator Putin and his forces attacked the Syrian city of Aleppo, killing hundreds of civilians and prolonging the rule of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Putin ramped up his attacks on domestic freedom as well. In 2015 Boris Nemtsov, leader of the democratic opposition, former deputy prime minister of Russia, was shot to death in broad daylight just yards away from the Kremlin. Three months later, Mr. Kara-Murza was poisoned for the first time. More recently, in 2020, Alexei Navalny, the current leader of the opposition, was himself poisoned and had to seek treatment in Berlin. This is Vladimir Putin's Russia today. When Navalny recovered, he chose to return to Moscow, knowing the risks, and immediately upon landing, he was arrested. This is the deplorable state of Russia and freedom under Vladimir Putin. Time and again, he has shown that he is bent on stamping out the aspirations of his people for freedom and the rule of law. As leader of the free world, America must continue to condemn Putin's lawless acts and stand in solidarity with our Russian friends, who are courageously fighting against all odds for a better future in Russia -- and are suffering as a result. These are modern day heroes: Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and we should not forget them. My friend, the distinguished senior senator from Maryland, Senator Cardin and I, along with Congressman Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson, are the four House and Senate leaders of the Helsinki Commission, which monitors human rights and former Soviet countries. We recently sent a joint letter to President Biden calling on the administration to name and sanction all of those who have been involved in the arrest, detention and persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza. I issue that call again today, and I invite my colleagues from both parties to stand with Vladimir Kara-Murza and work for his release. Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.  

  • Helsinki Commission Urges Administration to Work to Free Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today released a letter urging the Biden Administration to “use every instrument in our toolbox” to free Russian political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza. The letter read in part: “The United States has a proud history of standing up for political prisoners and working relentlessly to help them return to freedom. We stared down the Soviet Union, Communist China, military regimes in Latin America and South-East Asia, and succeeded in helping secure the release of those who deserved freedom the most – innocent and peaceful activists and freedom fighters representing a vision for better governments in those countries. Mr. Kara-Murza represents a hope for a democratic Russia at peace with its neighbors and own citizens, and now is someone who the U.S. should advocate for his release… “The Helsinki Commission continues to raise the issue of political prisoners in Russia, Belarus, and other countries across the OSCE region, and specifically Vladimir Kara-Murza’s case…Now, we call on your Administration to use every instrument in our toolbox to secure the release of Mr. Kara-Murza. This is in the interest of our national security, his well-being, and importantly, the well-being of his incredibly brave children and spouse. Mrs. Kara-Murza and their three children reside in the U.S and despite the distance, the Kremlin has been poisoning – literally and figuratively – their lives for decades now. We should do everything in our power to help free Vladimir Kara-Murza and reunite him with his family.” On April 12, Vladimir Kara-Murza was arrested in Russia on charges of disobeying police orders when he allegedly “changed the trajectory of his movement” upon seeing Russian police officers at his home. This carried a 15-day sentence in jail. With five days remaining in his sentence, new charges were levied against him for spreading “deliberately false information” about Russia’s war on Ukraine.  He now faces up to 15 years in prison. On March 29, he testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing examining Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on truth, where witnesses discussed the Kremlin’s use of propaganda and censorship. “Those who speak out against this war are now liable for criminal prosecution,” he said. The Helsinki Commission has a long tradition of advocating on behalf of political prisoners worldwide. Earlier this month, Co-Chairman Cohen was appointed the first-ever OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners.

  • CO-CHAIRMAN COHEN APPOINTED AS OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE ON POLITICAL PRISONERS

    WASHINGTON—Margareta Cederfelt, President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), has appointed Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) as the first-ever OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners. “I welcome the chance to serve as the voice of political prisoners across the OSCE region,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Every day, we witness more political arrests of opposition politicians, journalists, activists and civilians in Russia, Belarus, and other participating States that are cracking down on free speech, freedom of the press, and free thought. Through this position, I am committed to working tirelessly to elevate the issue of political imprisonment as the egregious violation of human rights that it is.” In his new role, Co-Chairman Cohen will collect and share intelligence on political prisoners throughout the OSCE region; raise awareness of participating States with high rates of political prisoners; advocate for the release of political prisoners; and promote dialogue at the OSCE PA and OSCE executive structures about political imprisonment.  Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman Chris Smith were reappointed as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues, respectively.

  • Switzerland, Playground of Russian Oligarchs, Emerges as Sanctions Weak Link

    ZUG, Switzerland—After Switzerland said in February it was joining European Union sanctions against Russian oligarchs, this quiet Alpine getaway seemed like an obvious place to hunt for targets. The streets are clustered with the offices of companies founded by Russia’s wealthiest men, along with the headquarters for landmark natural-gas pipelines Nord Stream 1 and 2 and the energy-trading department of Gazprom PJSC. So many Russian billionaires have homes or businesses here that the local opposition party had begun taking sightseers on an Oligarch’s Tour. Swiss newspapers nicknamed Zug “Little Moscow” and joked that local leaders wanted to build a Kremlin wall around the town. It didn’t seem so easy to the six local officials charged with helping implement sanctions. Working from a fifth-floor conference room, the team had a hard time identifying homes or local businesses officially owned by any of the hundreds of Russian oligarchs on the Swiss government’s list of sanctioned people. They struggled with Cyrillic names and often couldn’t make sense of the 300-page list, said Heinz Tännler, the financial director for the Canton, or state, of Zug. They also struggled with the implications for the local economy, added Mr. Tännler, who worries that sanctions have jeopardized his canton’s reputation as a safe place for foreign investment. “This is a very difficult time, especially for the Canton of Zug,” he said. In the end, the officials found exactly one company out of the roughly 30,000 registered in Zug that they believed was owned or controlled by a sanctioned individual. Zug’s slow start is emblematic of the country as a whole. Switzerland has pledged to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. So far, that promise hasn’t triggered much action against Russian companies doing business there, bolstering concerns in world capitals that the Alpine financial hub isn’t doing enough to forestall the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allies. Eighty percent of Russia’s commodities are traded through Switzerland, mostly through Zug and the lakeside city of Geneva. Swiss banks manage an estimated $150 billion for Russian clients, according to the country’s banking association. Thirty-two of the oligarchs closest to Mr. Putin have property, bank accounts or businesses in Switzerland, according to Zurich-based transparency group Public Eye. In the four months since Swiss authorities began sanctions, $6.8 billion in Russian financial assets have been frozen, alongside 15 homes and properties, according to the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, or SECO. By contrast, EU countries have collectively frozen $14 billion in alleged oligarch assets spanning funds, boats, helicopters and real estate, in addition to over $20 billion in Russian central-bank reserves. EU countries have also blocked around $200 billion in financial transactions. Authorities on the U.K. island of Jersey alone froze over $7 billion in assets they said are linked to oligarch Roman Abramovich, who didn’t respond to requests for comment. U.S. senators have privately petitioned Swiss officials to do more to locate Russian money and property. “Instead of enabling Russia’s abuse of the global financial system, they should stand against it,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), chair of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation, which promotes human rights, military security and economic cooperation. Switzerland’s government has rejected that kind of criticism, stressing that its adoption of EU sanctions marks a historic shift and that it is doing everything possible to hunt down blacklisted assets. “It is clear that the sheer volume of the sanctions against Russia and Belarus, as well as the speed with which they were adopted, creates certain challenges for implementing authorities, in Switzerland and elsewhere,” said a SECO spokeswoman. Western sanctions have increasingly been used to squeeze Russia since 2014, when it annexed Crimea. Since then, Mr. Putin and a tight circle of allies have been exploiting gaps in the global financial system to evade blacklists and hide wealth overseas. Despite Switzerland’s status as a global financial hub, the country’s regulators are hamstrung by limited resources—SECO had just 10 officials fully dedicated to sanctions until recently, when the government hired five more. Their work is also frustrated by an old structural problem: The business of registering companies remains a hive of secrecy, making it difficult to identify ultimate ownership of assets, according to Western diplomats. Swiss bankers and transparency campaigners say billions of dollars of Russian clients’ assets have been transferred to the names of spouses and children in recent years—a phenomenon that accelerated in the run-up to the war, they say. The Gateway The Putin regime’s presence in Zug can be traced to the early days of his presidency, and a ceremony in the canton’s sprawling art nouveau palace, Theatre Casino. While Russia’s military was bombing the restive republic of Chechnya, Mr. Putin was awarded the 2002 “Zug Peace Prize” by the Nuclear Disarmament Forum, an organization of influential local businessmen that has since disbanded. The meeting, attended by business and political leaders close to the Kremlin and serenaded by the Russian National Orchestra, heralded the flourishing of Russian commodity trading in the town, according to local politicians. Many oligarchs have businesses in Zug that remain untouched by sanctions. They include Mr. Abramovich, the largest shareholder of Evraz PLC, a Russian steelmaker and mining company that has a trading arm in the canton. Evraz was sanctioned in the U.K., where it traded on the London Stock Exchange, but hasn’t been sanctioned in Switzerland or the EU, even though Mr. Abramovich has. Not far from Zug, in Winterthur, is the headquarters of Sulzer AG , an engineering company that is 48.8%-owned by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, who is sanctioned by the U.S. and the U.K. When Poland sanctioned Sulzer’s operations, the Swiss embassy in Warsaw unsuccessfully lobbied the Polish government to reverse the move, according to a Polish government official and the Swiss department of foreign affairs. Sulzer said Poland’s decision was wrong given that Mr. Vekselberg is just a minority shareholder and neither owns nor controls the company. Sulzer isn’t sanctioned anywhere else, a spokesman said. Representatives for Mr. Abramovich and Evraz didn’t reply to requests for comment. The SECO spokeswoman said the agency is in close contact with the U.K. authorities about sanctions, but “is not bound by their assessment.” A spokesman for the department of foreign affairs said that under Swiss law the government can assist Swiss companies abroad, and that sanctioning Sulzer’s Polish subsidiaries threatened jobs and hurt Sulzer clients. U.S. and European officials say they are counting on the Swiss government to find which companies and homes in Switzerland belong to sanctioned Russian oligarchs and freeze them. Switzerland’s history of financial secrecy, enshrined in its law, can make it exceedingly difficult to identify who owns what. Under Swiss legal precedent, lawyers can still open a company on behalf of a client and claim attorney-client privilege to block authorities from uncovering that person’s identity. That, officials say, hinders them from finding more companies whose accounts should be frozen under sanctions. It is also an obstacle for banks with small compliance teams. Swiss business registries don’t require firms to list true owners, which are often hidden by opaque companies in Switzerland held by trusts in financial havens, a loophole exploited by businessmen from Russia and elsewhere eager to mask the true ownership of their assets, according to Swiss opposition politicians and advocates for financial reform. “A Swiss lawyer hides the name of the beneficial owner in his vault, and there’s no way the Swiss authorities can get to the name,” said Mark Pieth, a former head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s bribery division now at the Basel Institute on Governance. “The government has deliberately tied its own hands behind its back.” EuroChem Trusts came into play earlier this year when Switzerland, following the EU’s lead, sanctioned Andrey Melnichenko, one of Russia’s richest oligarchs and a longtime Swiss resident. On March 9, the EU added Mr. Melnichenko’s name—No. 721—to its blacklist, describing him as part of the “closest circle of Vladimir Putin ” and involved in businesses vital to the government. It mentioned a meeting he attended in Moscow with Mr. Putin in the first hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, along with 35 other oligarchs. In Italy, police seized his sailing yacht, the world’s largest. Left untouched was EuroChem AG, a company founded by Mr. Melnichenko in 2001 that grew into one of the world’s top producers of fertilizer, with revenue last year of $10.2 billion. Based in a small glass tower in Zug nicknamed the Dallas Building, the company is deeply entwined in the supply chains of Europe’s largest chemical giants. The day before the sanctions were announced, the tycoon disclaimed his interest in a Cyprus trust that held the company, according to a document signed by EuroChem’s chief financial officer. That left Mr. Melnichenko’s wife, Aleksandra, a former Serbian pop star, as the trust’s sole beneficiary. “Given that Mr. Melnichenko no longer owns, holds or controls any funds and economic resources of EuroChem Group…neither EuroChem Group nor any member of EuroChem Group are subject to EU asset freeze measures,” stated a document viewed by The Wall Street Journal. EuroChem lawyers also wrote to SECO that the company wouldn’t provide economic resources to Mr. Melnichenko or pay dividends to his wife. On March 28, SECO rendered its judgment: EuroChem didn’t need to have its assets or bank accounts frozen. Officials in Zug followed suit. Mr. Tännler, the canton’s financial director, bridled at criticism that local officials aren’t looking hard enough. “I think people know that we did a good job, that we did what we can do,” he said. He washed his hands of the EuroChem decision. “SECO made a determination that EuroChem is clean,” Mr. Tännler said. The European Commission in June countered that decision, ruling that Ms. Melnichenko was unduly benefitting from her husband and should be sanctioned. Switzerland then followed suit, blacklisting her but leaving EuroChem untouched. Credit Suisse, which needs to answer to tougher U.S. regulators because of its U.S. dollar business, has frozen the accounts EuroChem held at the bank. A spokesman for the couple said Mr. Melnichenko considers the sanctions against him unjust. “The formal justifications are nonsense,” said the spokesman, who denied that Mr. Melnichenko is a member of Mr. Putin’s inner circle or provides substantial revenue to the Russian government. Ms. Melnichenko has appealed to the Council of the European Union, saying the sanctions against her have complicated EuroChem’s ability to sell fertilizer, “leading to the famine and death of millions of people.”

  • HELSINKI COMMISSION DIGITAL DIGEST JUNE 2022

  • The Helsinki Process: An Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

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