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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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Other efforts focus more broadly on building the skills that students will need to work in international affairs. The Charles B. Rangel Summer Enrichment Program provides undergraduate students, especially those from underrepresented communities, the opportunity to enhance their knowledge of U.S. foreign policy and the global economy through summer coursework. The Department of State and the Department of Defense also fund several scholarship programs, such as the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, the Boren Scholarship, and the Critical Language Scholarship, that enable students to study and travel internationally and serve as pipelines to international careers Fellowship programs like the Charles B. Rangel, Thomas R. Pickering, and Donald M. Payne Fellowships, named in honor of those in government who made a major impact in foreign affairs, aim to recruit, train, and retain the best and brightest from all corners of the United States and draw from the extensive perspectives of the American public. Over the years, these programs, which have historically received bipartisan support, cumulatively have produced nearly 1,000 fellows, many of whom are current Foreign Service Officers serving with the State Department or USAID in over 65 countries. In addition to graduate foreign service fellowships, the U.S. government and key partners have encouraged efforts to diversify the diplomatic corps through programs like the International Career Advancement Program (ICAP) at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and State Department affinity groups such as the Thursday Luncheon Group, which has been working to increase the participation of African-Americans and others in the formulation, articulation, and implementation of United States foreign policy since 1973. Inside government agencies and the public sector, affinity groups working to increase diversity include the Hispanic Employees Council of Foreign Affairs Agencies, the Asian American Foreign Affairs Association, Executive Women at State, GLIFAA, LGBT+ Pride in Foreign Affairs Agencies, and the Sunday Brunch group. The Public Policy and International Affairs Program promotes inclusion and diversity in public policy; Black Professionals in International Affairs focuses on expanding roles in global policy; and TruDiversity, an initiative of the Truman National Security Project, aims to attract more underrepresented minority groups to the field of national security. Increased efforts to recruit and retain diverse populations for diplomatic corps in other agencies have also begun at USDA, and been called for at the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security, the Peace Corps, and other agencies. “The diversity of the American people is one of our greatest assets as a nation. Our national security agencies, especially those on the frontlines representing America around the world, should reflect this reality.” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (MD), Ranking Member, U.S. Helsinki Commission Helsinki Commission Efforts Members of the Helsinki Commission have a long history of supporting diversity and inclusion efforts in the diplomatic corps and in national security careers more broadly.  For close to a decade, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland (MD) have joined bipartisan Congressional efforts to support annual funding for State Department and USAID diversity fellowship programs such as the Rangel, Payne, Pickering, and ICAP programs. Chairman Hastings and Sen. Cardin are both lead sponsors of the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2019 (S.497), which would strengthen employee diversity in the U.S. national security workforce through enhanced hiring, retention, and growth practices targeting gender, race, ethnicity, disability status, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, and other demographic categories. In March, Chairman Hastings introduced the Federal Jobs Act to require a government-wide diversity and inclusion strategy. “Estimates indicate that by 2050, more than half of the U.S. workforce will be made up of Americans from diverse populations.  Effectively governing our nation will require that we fill federal jobs—whether they are in the military, intelligence, foreign service, health, or education sectors—with an equally diverse federal workforce who can meet the needs of our country.” Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) is a lead sponsor of the Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act, which works to increase study abroad opportunities for diverse populations. Study abroad is often a precursor to professions in the diplomatic corps. Chairman Hastings also amended the Matthew Young Pollard Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019, which directs the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to implement a plan to expand the intelligence community’s recruitment efforts so that rural and underserved regions in the U.S. are more fully represented.  In 2017, Sen. Cardin worked with then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Bob Corker (TN) to include several strong diversity provisions, including support for the Donald M. Payne Fellowship and diversity data collection, in the 2018 State Department authorization bill. Most recently, Sen. Cardin helped lead Senate and House Foreign Relations Committee efforts to improve diversity at the State department Supporting policies that strengthen diversity and inclusion in the diplomatic corps and across the federal government ensures that the United States will become a shining example of the power and strength diversity can bring.  A diplomatic corps composed of individuals from all parts of the U.S. society not only presents a more accurate snapshot of America to the world and proves that the U.S. abides by its human rights principles, but also equips the country to handle complex challenges at home or abroad with the widest variety of skills, knowledge, perspectives, ideas, and experiences at the ready. 

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Human Rights At Home

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AT HOME Implications for U.S. Leadership Thursday, July 2, 2020 11:00 a.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and the rule of law, even under the most challenging circumstances. Recent developments in the United States—including George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of police and subsequent protests—have put U.S. human rights commitments to the test in the eyes of the world. During this online hearing, witnesses will discuss these events, the U.S. response, and the resulting implications for U.S. leadership in foreign policy. Witnesses scheduled to participate include: Ambassador (ret.) Ian Kelly, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Malcolm Momodou Jallow, Member of Parliament (Sweden) and General Rapporteur on Combating Racism and Intolerance, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Nkechi Taifa, Founding Principal & CEO, The Taifa Group, LLC; Convener, Justice Roundtable; and Senior Fellow, Center for Justice, Columbia University

  • Hastings: To Promote Human Rights Abroad, We Must Fiercely Protect Them at Home

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of a 57-nation OSCE meeting on freedom of expression, media, and information, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “In the United States, we have witnessed a devastating series of attacks by authorities against journalists covering the nationwide protests calling for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In many cases, reporters have been injured, harassed, or arrested even after explicitly identifying themselves as members of the press. “If the United States wants to remain a credible voice in the promotion of human rights abroad, we must fiercely protect them at home. This Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on the critical topic of freedom of expression, media, and information represents an important opportunity to take an honest and critical look at America’s own record in recent weeks on protecting journalists and safeguarding press freedom.” According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, as of June 15, there have been more than 430 reported press freedom violations since the beginning of the national Black Lives Matter protests on May 26. This includes at least 59 arrests; 268 assaults (including the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets and projectiles); and 57 cases of equipment/newsroom damage. OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings (SHDM) are convened three times annually on topics chosen by the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office. The first SHDM organized by the Albanian chairmanship,  “Addressing All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination,” took place May 25-26, 2020. The June meeting on freedom of expression, media and information includes participation by non-governmental civil society organizations, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and representatives from OSCE participating States.

  • Chairman Hastings Demands Release of Paul Whelan

    WASHINGTON—Following the sentencing of U.S. citizen Paul Whelan to 16 years in a maximum-security prison by a Russian court, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “In clear violation of Russia’s OSCE commitments, Paul Whelan was denied his right to due process. His long and harsh pre-trial detention, and the secretive nature of Paul’s trial and the spurious ‘evidence’ against him, show that Russia’s authorities are not concerned about justice. This is nothing more than a politically-motivated stunt that has inflicted serious damage on an American citizen. Paul Whelan must be released.” Paul Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December 2018, where he planned to attend a wedding. FSB agents broke into his hotel room and found a flash drive that Whelan’s Russian friend had told him contained photos from a recent trip.  Authorities claimed that the flash drive contained classified information. Whelan has been detained in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, unable to contact his family and friends, alleging abuse from guards, and suffering from health problems.

  • 8:46 (George Floyd)

    George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer—recorded for a wrenching eight minutes and 46 seconds—shocked the world. During this online briefing, political and civil rights leaders from the United States and Europe discussed the impact made by resulting protests and the need to change policing tactics, alongside an honest review of how racism stemming from the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism persists today. Related Information Panelist Biographies Podcast | Communities at Risk: The Impact of COVID-19 on the OSCE’s Most Vulnerable Populations Press Release | Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the Atlantic Press Release | Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce Press Release | Chairman Hastings Recognizes Black European Fight for Inclusion Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Helsinki Commission Initiatives on Racial Justice, Minority Rights, and Tolerance and Non-Discrimination ENAR demands to address racist police violence and structural racism

  • Political and Civil Rights Leaders to Discuss Impact of George Floyd’s Death at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following staff-led online briefing: 8:46 (GEORGE FLOYD) A Time for Transformation at Home and Abroad Friday, June 12, 2020 10:00 a.m. Register to attend. George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer—recorded for a wrenching eight minutes and 46 seconds—shocked the world.  During this online briefing, political and civil rights leaders from the United States and Europe will discuss the impact made by resulting protests and the need to change policing tactics, alongside an honest review of how racism stemming from the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism persists today. Panelists scheduled to participate include: Abena Oppong-Asare, Member of Parliament, United Kingdom Adam Hollier, Michigan State Senator Mitchell Esajas, Chair, New Urban Collective (Netherlands) Karen Taylor, Chair, European Network Against Racism (ENAR) Panelists may be added.

  • Disinformation, COVID-19, and the Electoral Process

    Listen to audio of the briefing on Facebook.  Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of 2020, the stakes could not be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing featured three expert panelists who each examined the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explored opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects.  Some of the more urgent concerns they noted were the increased politicization of the information space and the rise of nonstate actors.  Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic International Studies, noted, “Russia does not create the weaknesses; they simply exploit them.  And this is where I think it’s very important to understand that in the U.S. system they’re exploiting, obviously, our partisanship.  So we are offering them the weakness, and then they use it wherever they can.” Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program and author of the upcoming book How to Lose the Information War, said the goal is often simply to bombard the information space with so much conflicting information, the voter loses interest: “They want people to consume less news and to feel like participation at all stages of the process is futile, whether that means communicating with our elected representatives, participated in civil society, or even the act of voting itself.” She added that partisanship cannot be permitted to frame the response to disinformation. “Disinformation is not a partisan issue,” she said.  “If we’re to make any progress in protecting our democracies, we need to not only clearly recognize the threat that disinformation poses but reject its tactics whole cloth.  Any government that uses disinformation cannot hope to fight it.” Chatham House’s Sophia Ignatidou called for a US-EU approach to combatting disinformation that was rooted in international human rights. She noted, “The reason for doing that is that international human rights law is suitable to deal with an issue that doesn’t respect any physical boundaries.  And it can provide a more holistic view of the issue of disinformation which we are lacking sometimes.” Ignatidou also challenged one of the primary arguments that some of the big tech companies use to push back against regulation – freedom of expression – as misleading, because “the problem with disinformation is dissemination patterns and scale, not content, per se.  And freedom of speech does not equate [with] freedom of reach.” Other questions centered on the importance of OSCE election monitoring missions paying more attention to how disinformation impacts the atmosphere surrounding an election in the months leading up to it.  The discussion ended on a positive note as all three panelists, when asked to cite examples of successful efforts to mitigate disinformation, spoke about the importance of using trusted, credible voices at the grass-roots level and of building resilience among voters in a nonpartisan fashion.  Related Information Panelist Biographies Podcast: Helsinki on the Hill | Defending against Disinformation A Global Pandemic: Disinformation Hearing: The Scourge of Russian Disinformation Briefing: Lies, Bots, and Social Media

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Commends Decision by Belarus to Refuse Extradition of Jehovah’s Witness to Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the April decision by the Prosecutor General of Belarus to reject the Government of Russia’s request to extradite a Russian national to face criminal charges for being a Jehovah’s Witness, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I commend the government of President Alexander Lukashenko for releasing Nikolai Makhalichev and rejecting the Kremlin’s request to extradite him. If forced to return to Russia, Mr. Makhalichev would face detention, a criminal trial, certain conviction, and imprisonment—merely for practicing his sincerely-held religious beliefs. “In keeping with Belarus’ OSCE commitments and other international obligations, Belarusian authorities should continue to resist the extradition of Mr. Makhalichev to Russia, allow him to move freely, and respect his human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of whether the Government of Belarus grants him refugee status or another country gives him legal protection.” Background Amendments in 2006 to Russia’s Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity criminalized a wide range of religious activities as “extremist,” without precisely defining extremism or requiring that such activities have a violent element. The Russian Government invoked the law as it began relentlessly targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses, a peaceful faith community, with investigations, raids, arrests, detention, trials, the closure of local congregations, website and literature bans, and more. In July 2017, the Supreme Court of Russia upheld an earlier ruling in favor of the Ministry of Justice that Jehovah’s Witnesses are an “extremist” group, criminalizing and effectively banning their activities, and ordering their property to be seized and liquidated. Since then, Russian authorities have conducted criminal investigations into at least 333 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including Makhalichev; courts have convicted at least 32 of them. The authorities have engaged in raids, detentions, house arrests, travel restrictions, property confiscations, and even torture. In February 2020, Belarusian police detained Makhalichev, citing the criminal charges against him in Russia. He then applied for refugee status in Belarus. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office formally requested extradition in March. The Belarusian Ministry of Interior is currently adjudicating Makhalichev's refugee application. In September 2019, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing highlighting how the Kremlin and other autocratic governments engage in transnational repression against people they perceive as hostile to them: using tools such as INTERPOL to request arrest and extradition, and sometimes even surveilling, abducting, and assassinating targeted persons on foreign soil. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L Hastings (FL-20), Co-Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act to combat such threats. Like all participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia and Belarus have repeatedly committed themselves to recognizing, respecting, and protecting freedom of religion or belief. In December 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo redesignated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries that have committed severe violations of religious freedom, per the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. Since 2017, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended designating Russia as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Belarusian law authorizes the government to grant refugee status to a foreigner if he or she has a “well-founded fears of being persecuted in the country of his/her citizenship for the reason… of…religion,” and prohibits the government from expelling the applicant to that country, even if the government denies, revokes, or otherwise removes their refugee status. The law also requires the government to give foreigners requesting refugee status or related legal protection access to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Corrosive Impact of Disinformation on the Electoral Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DISINFORMATION, COVID-19, AND THE ELECTORAL PROCESS Thursday, May 21, 2020 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Register to attend. Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many countries still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of the year, the stakes cannot be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing will examine the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explore opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects. Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program; author of “How to Lose the Information War” Sophia Ignatidou, Academy Associate, International Security Programme, Chatham House

  • Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic

    The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments around the world to take extraordinary measures in the interest of public health and safety. As of early April, nearly two-thirds of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared “states of emergency” or invoked similar legal measures in response to the crisis. Often such measures have enabled governments to enact large-scale social distancing policies and suspend economic activity to save lives and preserve the capacity of national public health infrastructure to respond to the spread of infections. At the same time, human rights organizations and civil society activists have expressed concern regarding the breadth of some emergency measures and recalled the long history of government abuse of emergency powers to trample civil liberties. Exactly three decades ago, OSCE participating States unanimously endorsed a set of basic principles governing the imposition of states of emergency, including the protection of fundamental freedoms in such times of crisis. In 1990 in Copenhagen, OSCE countries affirmed that states of emergency must be enacted by public law and that any curtailment of human rights and civil liberties must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the Copenhagen Document, emergency measures furthermore should never discriminate based on certain group characteristics or be used to justify torture. Building on these commitments a year later in Moscow, participating States underscored that states of emergency should not “subvert the democratic constitutional order, nor aim at the destruction of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Document stresses the role of legislatures in imposing and lifting such declarations, the preservation of the rule of law, and the value of guaranteeing “freedom of expression and freedom of information…with a view to enabling public discussion on the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the lifting of the state of public emergency.” In some corners of the OSCE region, however, national authorities are violating these and other OSCE commitments in the name of combatting coronavirus. While many extraordinary responses are justified in the face of this crisis, government overreach threatens the well-being of democracy and the resilience of society at a critical time. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Hastings and Wicker Troubled By Mounting Harassment of Opposition Members, Activists, and Journalists by Government of Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the Government of Azerbaijan’s mounting harassment of Azerbaijani opposition members, activists, and journalists, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “During this pandemic, public health precautions do not excuse politically-motivated repression. We are deeply troubled by reports that the Government of Azerbaijan is further squeezing its people’s access to free expression, media, and information through arrests, fines, harassment, and possibly torture. Authorities should cease exploiting this global crisis to limit the speech of members of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and other activists and reporters.” In recent weeks, Azerbaijani authorities have detained, questioned, jailed, fined, and, in one case possibly tortured opposition members and journalists affiliated with the country’s main opposition party, the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), and opposition-aligned media outlet Azadliq. Since the global spread of the novel coronavirus, the Azerbaijani Government has intermittently cut off internet and phone access to PFPA Chair Ali Karimli, preventing him from communicating with the outside world, including conducting interviews with media. Last week, a coalition of opposition parties accused the government of torturing PFPA activist Niyameddin Ahmedov while in custody. Other PFPA affiliated activists and writers, including Aqil Humbatov, Faiq Amirli, and Saadat Jahangir, have been detained for allegedly violating quarantine rules after speaking or reporting critically about the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Wicker and Cardin Urge Pompeo to Work with EU High Representative to Advance EU Magnitsky Sanctions

    WASHINGTON—In a letter released today, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ask the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, to expedite the adoption of EU sanctions on human rights abusers, include provisions for sanctioning corruption, and ensure that the EU sanctions regime bears Sergei Magnitsky’s name. The letter reads in part: “In this time of global crisis, dictators and kleptocrats are only increasing their bad actions, making it more important than ever that the EU move quickly to make the EU Magnitsky Act a reality... “It has become clear that corruption and human rights abuse are inextricably linked. The lack of provisions to sanction corruption would weaken the comprehensive Magnitsky approach. It would also lead to difficulties synchronizing U.S. and EU sanctions by enabling corrupt officials barred from the United States to continue operating in the EU, thus diminishing our deterrent and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to exploitation... “It was Sergei Magnitsky who started this very effort to end impunity for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Omitting the name of Magnitsky, who was jailed, tortured, beaten, murdered, and posthumously convicted, would indicate a lack of resolve to stand up to brutal regimes around the world.” The U.S. Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which authorizes the President to impose economic sanctions and deny entry into the United States to any foreign person he identifies as engaging in human rights abuse or corruption, has been an important asset in the U.S. diplomatic toolkit. In December 2019, High Representative Borrell announced that all Member States unanimously agreed to start preparatory work for an equivalent of Global Magnitsky, adding that such a framework would be “a tangible step reaffirming the European Union’s global lead on human rights.” The Baltic States, Canada, and the UK already have adopted similar legislation. However, the current proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act does not include sanctions for officials involved in corruption, nor does it include any reference to Sergei Magnitsky by name. The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Mr. Secretary, As the original sponsors of the Magnitsky Act, we aim to increase the impact of the legislation worldwide by encouraging our allies to join us in sanctioning bad actors. At the moment, the European Union (EU) has agreed in principle to adopt their own sanctions similar to those provided by the Global Magnitsky Act, but certain issues remain. Therefore, we ask that you work with Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to ensure the EU adopts and implements the most thorough and effective sanctions package possible. Our first concern is that the EU seems to have stalled in putting together the details of their Magnitsky sanctions regime because of the global health crisis. In December, High Representative Borrell announced that there was political agreement to move forward on a Magnitsky-like piece of legislation, which his team would begin drafting. Since then, we fear this work has been sidelined. In this time of global crisis, dictators and kleptocrats are only increasing their bad actions, making it more important than ever that the EU move quickly to make the EU Magnitsky Act a reality. Our second concern is that the proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act does not include sanctions for officials involved in corruption. It has become clear that corruption and human rights abuse are inextricably linked. The lack of provisions to sanction corruption would weaken the comprehensive Magnitsky approach. It would also lead to difficulties synchronizing U.S. and EU sanctions by enabling corrupt officials barred from the United States to continue operating in the EU, thus diminishing our deterrent and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to exploitation. Finally, we are concerned that the EU is not planning to include Magnitsky’s name on the sanctions regime. It was Sergei Magnitsky who stood up to a ruthless, violent, and corrupt state and demanded fairness and accountability for his fellow citizens. And it was Sergei Magnitsky who started this very effort to end impunity for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Omitting the name of Magnitsky, who was jailed, tortured, beaten, murdered, and posthumously convicted, would indicate a lack of resolve to stand up to brutal regimes around the world. Therefore, we request that you ask the High Representative Borrell to expedite the adoption of their sanctions, include provisions for sanctioning corruption, and ensure that the EU sanctions regime bears Sergei Magnitsky’s name. It is important that we do not let our guard down and continue our global leadership in this important area. Sincerely, Benjamin L. Cardin                                                       Roger F. Wicker Ranking Member                                                          Co-Chairman

  • Remarks from Sen. Cardin Concerning COVID-19 Emergency Responses

    OSCE PA Webinar: Respecting Human Rights And Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency Thank you, Mr. President Tsereteli and Secretary General Montella, for organizing this dialogue.  Director Gisladottir and Mr. Abramowitz, thank you for the work each of you is doing to shine a light on the human rights and democracy implications of emergency measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the implications of other government actions taken during this public health crisis that may threaten the health of our democracies. As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to ensure that the measures we introduce and which our governments implement are consistent with OSCE standards on human rights and democracy, including the 1991 Moscow Document’s commitments regarding states of emergency. Those actions must be necessary, proportional, transparent, and temporary. Emergency provisions which restrict freedom of speech or freedom of the media are especially concerning and may actually undermine our efforts to address this health emergency. We need to ensure that journalists, medical professionals, scientists and others can provide the public with information we need to battle covid.  Muzzling independent voices undermines public confidence in government at a time when that confidence and public cooperation is critical to the success of the safety measures we need.  And yes, sometimes this means governments are going to hear they they’re not getting it right and sometimes governments will need to make course corrections. But there’s a big difference between addressing bad news and suppressing bad news.  A robust civil society is a critical partner to each of our governments and will strengthen our resilience.  Unfortunately, just this virus exploits vulnerabilities of pre-existing conditions, some governments may exploit the human rights limitations already in place before this pandemic, including laws or practices that unduly restrict civil society, or limit the freedoms of expression, association, or assembly. President Tseretelli, your appointment of a Special Representative on Civil Society last August could not have come at a more important time.  I hope members of this assembly will advance efforts to protect the core fundamental freedoms that are essential for civil society voices to be heard and support the work of my colleague, Special Representative Pia Kauma. We also need to ensure that civil society voices continue to be heard within the OSCE.  As we look ahead to how the participating States organize human dimension activities this year, and particularly the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, it is critical that we preserve the access and openness that have made the OSCE such an important forum for human right defenders.  Whether OSCE meetings are in person or online, those standards of access should be preserved. Finally, democratic institutions, including as the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and free elections, must be preserved even during states of emergency.  I think this is really one of the most important contributions of the 1991 Moscow Document — it speaks to these exact points: “A state of public emergency may not be used to subvert the democratic constitutional order.” “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the normal functioning of the legislative bodies will be guaranteed to the highest possible extent during a state of public emergency.”  “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the legal guarantees necessary to uphold the rule of law will remain in force during a state of public emergency.”  We may need to make changes in how our courts hear cases or the mechanics of our elections.  But a health emergency does not diminish our commitment to ensure the integrity of our democratic institutions. The United States will proceed with our elections in a manner that ensures the public’s safety and respects the rights of voters, and consistent with our OSCE commitments.  Thank you.

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