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Georgian Government Complicity in Mob Violence against Minority Religious Groups
Friday, May 03, 2002

By H. Knox Thames, CSCE Counsel

Over the past two years, mob violence against minority religious groups has plagued the Republic of Georgia, a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) since 1992. A country of five million people, Georgia has seen more than its share of sectarian violence, as individuals propagating religious chauvinism conduct a campaign of brutality against other religious communities. Adding to this, police units have reportedly participated in violence against minority religious groups, or have failed to respond to attacks in an adequate fashion. As a result, a number of minority religious communities remain at risk in Georgia today as depredations continue with impunity.

As an OSCE participating State, Georgia pledged to uphold freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief for all individuals, without distinction. As stated in the 1983 Madrid Concluding Document, participating States “agree to take the action necessary to ensure the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.”

Since 1999, organized mob brutality against minority religious groups has gradually escalated, with the Jehovah’s Witnesses being a repeated target. As stated by the Department of State’s 2001 International Religious Freedom Report, local “police and security officials at times harassed nontraditional religious minority groups and were complicit or failed to respond to attacks by Orthodox extremists against Jehovah’s Witnesses and other nontraditional religious minorities.” Despite the inability of Georgian authorities to incarcerate the perpetrators, the 1995 Georgian Constitution does guarantee protection.

Despite constitutional protections, over the past two years, approximately 80 attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses have taken place, mostly led by Vasili Mkalavishvili, a defrocked Georgian Orthodox priest, and Paata Bluashvili, the director of the Orthodox “Jvari” Union. While victims have filed more than 700 criminal complaints, the authorities have not responded, leaving the perpetrators free to repeat their attacks.

Reports give startling examples of individuals being dragged by their hair into a group, only to be pummeled with punches, kicks and clubs. Buses taking Jehovah’s Witnesses to various events have been stopped by police, and then attacked by Mkalavishvili’s and Bluashvili’s mob. In September 2001, Bluashvili led an attack during a Jehovah’s Witness religious service, with some of his militants brandishing firearms. In addition, Mkalavishvili, viewing himself as a pugilist defending Georgian Christianity, reportedly declared Jehovah’s Witnesses “should be shot, we must annihilate them.”

Soon thereafter, with the violence steadily increasing and the government declining to intervene, Jehovah’s Witnesses conducted their activities in private, and for four months no violence occurred. However, in April of this year, that calm was shattered when Mkalavishvili’s and Bluashvili’s mob attacked on two separate occasions private homes that were hosting meetings. Considering the brutality Mkalavishvili and Bluashvili have displayed, it is astonishing that to date no fatalities have occurred.

While the Jehovah’s Witnesses have borne the brunt of these attacks, other minority religious communities have also suffered under this vigilantism. Last year, during choir practice of a Pentecostal church, Mkalavishvili’s militants raided the building, seriously injuring twelve church members. A mob exceeding 100 hooligans targeted an Evangelical church two days before Christmas 2001, clubbing members and stealing property. In February of this year, Mkalavishvili’s mob tried to raze a warehouse owned by the Baptist Union, burning Bibles and religious materials. Mkalavishvili organized approximately 150 followers in three buses to accomplish this goal. In addition, Mkalavishvili has targeted the offices of government ombudswoman Nana Devdariani, the Tbilisi based NGO Liberty Institute, and the Rezonansi newspaper. The police have consistently refused to restrain the attackers, with only a few exceptions to note.

Unfortunately, the judicial system has proven equally inept. On January 25th, prosecutors commenced legal proceedings against Mkalavishvili and one of his lieutenants for two mob attacks, although the minor charges brought do not reflect the gravity of their crimes. Yet, since the first hearing, the commitment of Georgian officials to vigorously prosecute Mkalavishvili has been evanescent. The case has been postponed five times, most recently due to the prosecutor failing to appear. These delays can be attributed to Mkalavishvili’s mob, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, maintaining a menacing presence both outside and inside the Didube-Chugureti District Court. At several hearings, large numbers have crashed into the court while carrying wooden and iron crosses, as well as banners with offensive slogans. Obviously feeling immune from government action, Mkalavishvili has used the courtroom itself as a platform, reportedly threatening lawyers and victims through a megaphone. Evidence of these events is readily available as local television stations are usually tipped in advance, airing footage of the attacks and interviews of Mkalavishvili and Bluashvili on the nightly news.

Despite fervent appeals by victims and their lawyers, the police have refused to provide adequate courtroom security. Attorneys for the victims even petitioned the court for assistance, only for the judge to decide no more than 10 police officers would be permitted. Inexcusably, the judge put no limit on the number of Mkalavishvili’s followers granted access to the courtroom. In a stark contradiction, more than 200 police and a SWAT team were ordered to protect officials from the Ministry of Interior when Mkalavishvili was brought to trial under different charges.

In sum, the Georgian Government is proving ineffective in ameliorating the situation and protecting its citizens, regardless of their religious faith, from mob violence. Meanwhile, President Eduard Shevardnadze has held meetings with faith communities to demonstrate religious tolerance.

He has also issued a presidential decree calling for the Ministry of Interior to take action, but by allowing lawless bands of militants to attack peaceful gatherings, his illusory actions are speaking louder than his words. By allowing the strength of the police and judicial systems to become a farce, it will only further encourage contravention of Georgian laws. However, despite actions demonstrated to date, the Georgian Government can end the attacks and bring to justice the perpetrators of this brutality.

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    WASHINGTON—The Presiding Officer, on behalf of the Vice President, yesterday announced the appointment of Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) as chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, throughout the 117th Congress. "For 45 years, the Helsinki Commission has tirelessly defended human rights and democratic institutions at home and abroad. It has promoted the enduring value of multilateralism and fought to ensure that the United States lives up to our core values, remaining a beacon of hope to those who are oppressed. However, the most trying time in our history may be ahead of us,” said Chairman Cardin. Over the past year, the world has suffered the crippling impact of COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected our most vulnerable citizens and allowed some governments to exploit the pandemic to limit fundamental freedoms. Racist violence has once again reared its ugly head in many OSCE participating States, including our own. Corruption threatens peace, prosperity, and human rights across the region, and the Kremlin remains intransigent in its overt violence against its neighbors as well as its covert attempts to undermine democratic institutions elsewhere. These challenges may seem daunting, but my fellow commissioners and I will always fight to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, encourage tolerance within societies, battle corruption, and defend the principles of liberty and sovereignty.” Chairman Cardin has been a Helsinki Commissioner since 1993 and previously chaired the commission in the 111th and 113th Congresses. He is an outspoken champion for human rights and throughout his career in public service has advocated for accountability and transparency measures to promote good governance and to combat corruption. Since 2015, Chairman Cardin has served as the Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Chairman Cardin is the lead author of the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, a law that imposes sanctions on Russian individuals and entities responsible for the death of Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, as well as individuals who commit gross violations of human rights against rights defenders in Russia. He also authored the Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act, which gives the United States the power to deny travel and banking privileges to individuals worldwide who commit gross violations of human rights against rights defenders and dissidents, and leaders who commit acts of significant corruption. Most recently, Chairman Cardin and Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) introduced the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act, which would establish an anti-corruption action fund to provide extra funding during historic windows of opportunity for reform in foreign countries and streamline work strengthening the rule of law abroad. Chairman Cardin also is one of the lead authors of Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Act, also known as the Cardin-Lugar Energy Security Through Transparency Act. The provision requires extractive companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges to disclose, in their SEC filings, payments made to governments for oil, gas and mining. Revenue transparency increases energy security and creates U.S. jobs by reducing the operating risk U.S. companies face. It also provides information so that people in resource-rich countries can hold their leaders accountable for the money made from their oil, gas and minerals.

  • U.S. Election Practices: An International Perspective

    Madam Speaker, this chamber recently passed H.R. I, the "For the People Act,'' significant legislation making it easier for American citizens to vote in U.S. elections and improve transparency and accountability in our election process. The White House also recently announced a new executive order to assist this effort. These are positive developments that I welcome and support, but, as we all know, not everything regarding the conduct of elections can be done at the federal level. Unfortunately, many state legislatures are now undertaking efforts that would make it more difficult for eligible Americans to participate in the electoral process and vote. As Chair and in the leadership of the Helsinki Commission, I have supported the positive steps we are trying to take on this issue, yet I remain deeply concerned about those who want to move our country backward. Perhaps it would help our debate to look at the conduct of the 2020 U.S. elections from an international perspective, including the conduct of elections in conformity with international commitments first proposed and advocated by the United States more than 30 years ago. The United States has been one of five countries thus far where the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has observed elections during the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, and a German parliamentarian reported on its findings on February 26. He did not point fingers at us and accuse. He mentioned the positive as well as the negative. He is clearly a friend who cares, as most of the OSCE observers undoubtedly were. As a previous election observer in the OSCE region, I can also attest, that the code of conduct makes it is extremely unlikely that the OSCE election observation could be steered in support of any particular agenda other than better democracy. I therefore want to commend to my colleagues the full OSCE Final report "United States of America General Elections, 3 November 2020, ODIHR Limited Election Observation Mission," which can be found at https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/7/7/477823_2.pdf. It offers an important perspective on our elections from persons who rightly care about the process, not the result. They have observed not only our elections since 2002 but elections in dozens of other countries on a regular basis. The issues raised in the report are the same issues we Americans debate here in Washington, in our state capitals and through the media. I take the conclusions and recommendations, including criticisms, in this election observation report seriously. It serves as a helpful guide on what next steps we should take to improve our electoral system. I believe our election officials and state legislators should read this report; indeed, I recommend it to any American who cares about his or her country. It is a broad snapshot of our entire, complex electoral system. Several of the priority recommendations in the report deal with voting rights and voter identification. Specifically, it says that "authorities should review existing measures to further reduce the number of unregistered voters, including addressing burdensome procedures and obstacles faced by disadvantaged groups.'' It also says that "states should make every effort to ensure that voter identification requirements are equally accessible to all voters.'' It also makes specific recommendations regarding specific groups of American citizens. We do not need to agree about every conclusion and recommendation in this report to take it seriously. It is a contribution to our debates from a unique perspective. Moreover, our acceptance of international observation serves a useful function in our foreign policy. OSCE election observation has encouraged practices giving voters a real choice in numerous other countries, many of which were once repressive, one-party communist states but are now our friends and even, in some cases, allies. The United States initiated this effort with the OSCE and contributes significantly to election observation missions elsewhere, providing the expertise that comes with our experience. If we are to encourage other governments to take this effort seriously and implement recommendations, we need to set the example ourselves. Unfortunately, several U.S. states greatly restrict or even prohibit international observation. This is something which must change as we prepare for mid-term elections in 2022 and general elections in 2024.

  • Ten-Member Congressional Delegation Demonstrates Ongoing U.S. Engagement With the OSCE

    By Bob Hand, Senior Policy Advisor Approximately 270 parliamentarians from across the OSCE region gathered virtually from February 24 – 26 for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Winter Meeting, the first statutory meeting of the Assembly held since the COVID-19 pandemic limited inter-parliamentary diplomacy to online gatherings.  The ongoing impact of COVID-19 on security, the economy, the environment and the human rights and democratic development of the 57 OSCE States remained the focus of the annual gathering.  Supported by the U.S. Helsinki Commission, the U.S. Delegation remained actively engaged, fielding a bicameral, bipartisan delegation of 10 Members of Congress who participated remotely in the debates.  Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) served as Head of the U.S. Delegation.   The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) is an independent institution of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) created in 1991 for parliamentarians to complement the inter-governmental work of the 57 participating States. Unlike other OSCE bodies, countries are represented based on population rather than each having a single seat at the table (the United States has the largest representation with 17 seats), and decision-making is based on a majority vote rather than consensus. The Annual Session each summer is the principal gathering, with a Winter Meeting in February and an Autumn Meeting in October to initiate and conclude the year’s work. Despite a busy congressional schedule, the members of the U.S. Delegation successfully raised critical country, issue, and institutional concerns, including the attempted poisoning and incarceration of Alexei Navalny, Russian aggression in Ukraine, the brutal crackdown in Belarus and corruption and authoritarian tendencies elsewhere in the OSCE region. Active U.S. engagement demonstrates the depth of U.S. commitment to European security, and reflects the importance of the OSCE PA as a vehicle for advancing U.S. interests and building support on issues like human trafficking, attacks on the media, manifestations of anti-Semitism, racism and intolerance, as well as country-specific concerns.  Such a large delegation of Members of Congress reflected the diversity of opinion in the United States, setting an example of openness and honesty for others to follow, deflecting accusations of double standards on U.S. performance, and strengthening the message on human rights concerns in other countries where the Members of Congress can and do express a united view. Improvising Engagement Amid Pandemic Since 2002, Winter Meetings have been held in Vienna, Austria to facilitate direct interaction among parliamentarians, OSCE officials, and diplomatic representatives of the OSCE participating States.  The Winter Meeting also allows the Assembly’s general committees to discuss work for the coming year.  The outbreak of the COVID pandemic in early 2020 forced the cancellation of the Annual Session scheduled for July in Vancouver and the Autumn Meeting scheduled for October in San Marino.  Without rules dealing with such situations, the OSCE PA Secretariat maintained inter-parliamentary engagement by organizing a dozen or more inter-parliamentary web dialogues from April into November to substitute for the traditional gatherings. While no replacement for traditional meetings, these unofficial events provided needed continuity and contact among delegates.  First the first time in the history of the OSCE PA, no annual declaration was adopted, but the then-Assembly President George Tsereteli provided summaries of the web debates on relevant issues, a record of dialogue even in the midst of pandemic. The OSCE PA resumed election observation where possible and responded to political impasse within the OSCE itself by issuing a “Call for Action” urging a reaffirmation of the organization’s once common purpose.    For 2021, the OSCE PA has been seeking to resume its regular meeting schedule, although conditions still required the Winter Meeting to be held remotely.  Five sessions were scheduled during hours that best accommodated participants across some 16 time zones, from Vancouver to Ulaanbaatar.     At the meeting of the Heads of Delegation, known as the Standing Committee, it was announced that the 2021 Annual Session would be unable to be held in person as planned in Bucharest, Romania, in early July.  As a result, the Standing Committee amended the Assembly’s rules of procedure to allow statutory meetings to go forward online, including permitting elections for OSCE PA officers and other decisions to be handled remotely. Maintaining Focus on Substantive Issues and Concerns Beyond scheduling and procedures, the Standing Committee also looked at substance. Following reports from current OSCE PA President Peter Lord Bowness (United Kingdom), Secretary General Roberto Montella (Italy), and OSCE PA Special Representatives appointed to address particular concerns, there were heated exchanges between Azerbaijan and Armenia regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as on Russian aggression against Ukraine and the brutal crackdown on protesting opposition in Belarus—issues that would be raised repeatedly throughout the meeting.  Sen. Cardin, attending not only as Head of Delegation but also as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, delivered a report on his activities, as did Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who serves as the Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues.   “The coronavirus pandemic has created an unprecedented health crisis in the OSCE region, exacerbated by pre-existing inequities and disproportionately impacting people of color. Heightened anti-Asian discrimination, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and violent attacks targeting diverse populations have followed… My report details a response to these developments, as well as the global racial justice movement spurred by the tragic death of George Floyd.” ​ Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Head of U.S. Delegation, U.S. Helsinki Commission Rep. Smith noted, “Traffickers did not shut down during the pandemic—they simply adapted their methods. Meanwhile, vulnerable people were made even more vulnerable by both the virus and its deleterious impact on the global economy… As we worked to address these challenges, it was crucial to have information and recommendations based on real, concrete data.” The Joint Session of the General Committees effectively served as the opening plenary. President Bowness opened the session with a defense of principled-based dialogue, and guest speakers included Ann Linde, Sweden’s foreign minister and this year’s OSCE Chair-in-Office, as well as Helga Schmid (Germany), the OSCE’s new Secretary General.  The chairperson outlined plans for 2021, asserting that the she will “prioritize the comprehensive concept of security across all three dimensions,” namely the Security, Economic and Human Dimension, which she argued “contributes to making the OSCE truly unique.”  The Secretary General expressed her hopes to provide needed support for the organization and its mission, and she credited the OSCE PA for bringing emerging security issues into the OSCE debate.      Sen. Cardin thanked the Assembly and its parliamentarians for their expressions of concern and support for the United States in light of efforts to delegitimize the November 2020 presidential elections and the related violent mob attack on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021.  He also expressed support for the comments of Lord Bowness and the priorities announced by the Swedish Chair-in-Office, including to have the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in 2021. “We must challenge those who are seeking to weaken the OSCE or aren’t living up to their commitments. That’s our priority as parliamentarians … and we must as parliamentarians support the mission of the OSCE and help strengthen it through our actions and our capitals,” he said.  Finally, speaking on behalf of Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20), who was unable to attend, Sen. Cardin asked the Swedish chair about how the OSCE can engage Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to address outstanding issues and encourage a return to the Minsk Group settlement process to achieve a sustainable resolution of the conflict. Taking a Closer Look at the Security, Economic and Human Dimensions of OSCE Following the Joint Session, each of the three General Committees heard from OSCE officials in their respective fields, or dimensions, of OSCE work.  Presenters included the ambassadors serving as chairs of the counterpart committees of the OSCE’s Permanent Council and the head of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. The three committees also heard from their respective rapporteurs on plans for drafting substantive reports that will be the basis of further activity at the Annual Session. Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chairs the General (First) Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted the myriad of security and political issues confronting the OSCE during the past year, including the war in Ukraine, conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and political turmoil in countries of concern like Russia, Belarus, and most recently Georgia.  “Our engagement with critical issues in the OSCE space has been consistent and impactful,” he concluded. Speaking during the session, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Phil Reeker called the erosion of the European security environment the “biggest challenge we face today in the organization” and highlighted U.S. plans for the Forum for Security Cooperation (FSC) during its four-month chairmanship.  The Acting Permanent Representative of the United States to the OSCE and FSC chair, senior diplomat Courtney Austrian, was present for the discussion. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) took the floor during subsequent debate to condemn Russian violations of Helsinki Principles in its aggression in Ukraine.  He said that “Moscow must withdraw proxies in eastern Ukraine” and “respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” asserting that relevant sanctions will remain in place until that happens.  Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) also responded to an intervention on youth and drugs by a delegate from Belarus, arguing that citizens need to be given greater freedom if young people are to feel a commitment to the country. Three other Members of Congress participated in the session of the General (Second) Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and the Environment, which covered issues ranging from corruption to climate change.  Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) focused on addressing corruption. “It should come as no surprise to anyone … that legislatures have one of the most important roles to play in combating corruption—that of establishing a transparent and accountable legal and financial framework that empowers law enforcement officials and is maximally resistant to fraud,” he said.  Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) said that the United States “is back” in efforts to combat climate change and noted recent U.S. legislation designed to address shell companies that support a global dark economy by sheltering “assets of thieves.”  Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) spoke about the devastating impact of the pandemic on women in the healthcare industry as well as on small business, and she expressed concern about risks to supply chains and business ties to both China and Russia.   Three Members of Congress also participated in of the General (Third) Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions.   Rep. Cohen asserted that human rights has reclaimed its place in U.S. foreign policy, and emphasized human rights in concerns in Russia, Belarus, and Hungary. He expressed particular concern about the poisoning and recent arrest of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and called for Belarus to release political prisoners and to hold elections with OSCE observers. Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) took the floor in a later debate, responding to a report on the OSCE’s observation of the U.S. general elections in November 2020.  He stressed the need for U.S. states that currently prohibit or restrict international observation to consider a more open approach and   concluded that “our election officials and state legislators should read this report,” along with “any American who cares about his or her country.  It is a broad snapshot of our entire electoral complex system that we have here.”  Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised concerns about discriminatory restrictions on religious assembly during the pandemic, as well as on the diminishing free media environment in many participating States. “Press freedom in the OSCE region has continued to decline as some governments are using economic, legal, and extra-legal tools to silence independent media and also to bolster loyal outlets and dozens of journalists are imprisoned in the OSCE region,” he said. “We’ve seen that in Russia, we’ve seen that in Belarus, we’ve seen that in Turkey, detaining scores of journalists in recent national protests.” There was one side event held in conjunction with the Winter Meeting, organized by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in cooperation with the Lithuanian Mission to OSCE. Seven panelists in two sessions highlighted how international instruments—such as the Moscow Mechanism, Magnitsky-like legislation, the International Criminal Court, the European Court of Human Rights, and the promotion of a universal criminal jurisdiction—could increase accountability of state actors, support Belarus’ democracy movement, and deny financial safe havens to Russian kleptocrats.  Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom chairman Vladimir Kara-Murza were among the event panelists. Assessing the Effort The virtual three-day, five-session Winter Meeting could not replace an in-person gathering in Vienna, a point frequently made by the parliamentarians themselves.  However, it did allow for a resumption of constructive debate in the general committees and interaction among parliamentarians and other OSCE institutions, paving the way for a return to more traditional work as the year progresses. The need to cancel the Annual Session planned for July in Bucharest was a major disappointment, but the adoption of rules governing such emergency situations now permit some continuity of effort.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Welcome Sanctions on Russian Officials Implicated in Crimes against Navalny

    WASHINGTON—Following Tuesday’s announcement that the United States will impose sanctions on seven senior Russian figures implicated in Alexei Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment, Helsinki Commission leaders Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statements: “Our actions signal that we continue to stand with the Russian people,” said Rep. Hastings. “The United States will always defend those like Mr. Navalny who battle against the oppression of their fellow citizens, fight for basic freedoms, and offer a path to democracy.” “The Kremlin’s attacks on Mr. Navalny are meant to serve as a warning to any Russian who dares to defy Putin,” said Sen. Wicker. “The United States will not tolerate such threats against the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Russian people without imposing serious consequences to deter Putin and his criminal regime.” “The Kremlin will insist that sanctions are anti-Russian. On the contrary, there is nothing more anti-Russian than authorities who cheat, harm, and steal from their fellow citizens,” said Rep. Wilson. “These sanctions provide a concrete check on the bad acts of Putin’s flunkies.” “Only in a free Russia can justice truly be served. Sanctioning perpetrators of the crimes against Mr. Navalny is a necessary first step,” said Sen. Cardin. “We must make it clear that the United States and our allies will not tolerate attempts by the Kremlin to silence its critics—whether through assassination, imprisonment, or harassment.” In August 2020, Alexei Navalny was the victim of an assassination attempt by the Russian FSB that used a Russia-developed chemical weapon in the Novichok family. He spent months recovering after being flown to Berlin for treatment. Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17, 2021, and immediately was arrested. On February 2, a Russian judge sentenced Navalny to three and a half years in a prison colony for violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 case that the European Court of Human Rights deemed arbitrary and unreasonable. Previous time served under house arrest reduced his prison time to two years and eight months. Navalny is likely to serve the remainder of his sentence at one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies in the Vladimir region, about three hours east of Moscow.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: February 2021

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Slam Detention of Georgian Opposition Leader Nika Melia

    WASHINGTON—Following the February 23 detention of Georgian opposition leader Nika Melia by authorities, Helsinki Commission leaders Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following joint statement: “As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Georgia has committed to respecting democratic institutions, human rights, and the rule of law. “Storming the headquarters of an opposing political party and arbitrarily detaining its leader is not in keeping with democratic progress. We urge the Government of Georgia to release Nika Melia, deescalate the crisis, and recommit to dialogue rather than aggression.”

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces Federal Jobs Act to Increase Diversity, Ensure Access to Federal Jobs for All Americans

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) on Thursday reintroduced the Federal Jobs Act, a bill to establish a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure fair access and opportunity to federal jobs for all Americans.  “My colleagues and I have engaged in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in the federal government not because they are nice or politically correct, but because they are is in the best interest of the longevity of our nation,” said Chairman Hastings. “Sustaining the well-being of our country will require that we hire—and retain—a more diverse federal workforce in every area, from the military, intelligence, and diplomatic services to the health and education sectors.” The bill would require the development of a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure that all branches of the federal government are engaged in multi-year strategic planning that recruits, hires, promotes, retains, and supports leadership representing America’s diverse talent pool. It also calls for a review of diversity in government contracting and grant-making. “Diversity and inclusion underpin truly democratic societies,” said Chairman Hastings. “It is time that we ensure that all segments of our society have both the access and the opportunity to contribute to our democracy.” The Federal Jobs Act complements President Biden’s recent executive orders on racial equality by providing an essential tool to address discrimination and disparities in the workplace. Chairman Hastings originally introduced the Federal Jobs Act in March 2020, following a February 2020 GAO report highlighting problems in the State Department and legislative initiatives to increase diversity in the national security workforce.  For close to a decade, Chairman Hastings has been a part of bipartisan Congressional efforts to support annual funding for State Department and USAID diversity fellowship programs such as the Rangel, Payne, Pickering, and ICAP programs. He also has collaborated with Helsinki Commissioners to support initiatives focused on equality and justice globally, such as the 2019 Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act, and was a lead sponsor of the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2019 (S.497). Efforts to advance societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable and promote racial justice are central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. Commissioners regularly introduce and champion legislation addressing diversity, inclusion, and racial justice issues in the United States and abroad; support programs to address inequities in employment, political participation, and other sectors for women and minorities; and strive to empower communities to unite against bias and discrimination to foster truly democratic, inclusive, and free societies. Representatives Gregory Meeks, Gwen Moore, and Sheila Jackson Lee are original cosponsors of the bill.

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