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Inside the Turkish Election
A Firsthand Account of the OSCE’s Election Observation Mission
Wednesday, July 11, 2018

By: Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor
With Contributions from Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor

On June 24, Turkey held its first presidential and parliamentary elections since the passage of controversial constitutional amendments last year that began Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The victors in this election are to preside over the transition to this new form of government and begin to shape the operation of its revamped institutions.

In accordance with its commitments as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey formally invited the OSCE to observe the vote. This invitation paved the way for the OSCE’s first-ever full-scale deployment of election observers to Turkey. Although the OSCE observed previous elections in Turkey—including last year’s constitutional referendum—it had never done so with a full complement of hundreds of short-term observers that deploy all over the country to record their observations on election day. In the absence of short-term observers, OSCE observation missions rely primarily on a smaller cohort of long-term observers who spend as much as a month in the country monitoring every dimension of the campaign period and balloting. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.)

Altogether, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed 22 long-term observers and more than 300 short-term observers to observe the election across the country. Most STOs are drawn from cadres of experienced volunteers offered by individual OSCE participating States. In addition, the parliamentary assemblies of the OSCE (OSCE PA) and Council of Europe (PACE) contributed 72 and 32 members of parliament and parliamentary staff, respectively, to serve as STOs.

The U.S. Helsinki Commission regularly participates in OSCE PA election observation missions. What follows is a first-person account from two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff who served as short-term observers during the Turkish elections. These observations are not an authoritative account of the conduct of the Turkish election, however. Readers interested in such an account should review the OSCE’s official statement of preliminary findings and conclusions.


In the days before the election, experts from the OSCE’s ODIHR and the OSCE PA organize a series of in-depth briefings in Ankara to acquaint short-term observers with the context and process for the coming vote. In opening these briefings, Mr. Ignacio Sanchez Amor, a Spanish parliamentarian tasked as the special coordinator and leader of the OSCE short-term observer mission, noted numerous ways in which this election was exceptional.

Turks would be voting under a nearly two-year-old state of emergency imposed by the government following a failed coup attempt in July 2016. The state of emergency gave Turkish President Erdogan sweeping powers to rule by decree and authorized provincial governors to curtail basic freedoms, such as the freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. Presidential decrees purged tens of thousands of civil servants from their work, shuttered over a hundred news outlets, blocked thousands of websites, and contributed to the arrest of scores of independent journalists, often on dubious national security charges.

Sanchez Amor further commented that the transition to a presidential system and the country’s newly-approved election laws made this election especially complex. Most of the constitutional amendments approved in last year’s referendum would take effect after the election. The victorious presidential candidate, for instance, would be the first to assume unprecedented executive powers that international monitors and the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), criticized as undermining the separation of powers. Likewise, successful parliamentary candidates would take up seats in a somewhat neutered institution that is given no say in ministerial appointments and can be unilaterally dissolved by the president.

One of the constitutional amendments abolished a previous prohibition on new electoral laws taking effect less than 12 months before an election. This meant that the June election would be governed by election regulations passed in November and March that President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had muscled through parliament without any opposition support. Opposition leaders sharply criticized provisions in the laws that allowed the government to relocate voting locations on security grounds, loosened rules governing the police presence around polling stations, and weakened protections against election fraud by admitting ballots that are missing a required polling station stamp.

Sanchez Amor also expressed concern that one of the country’s major presidential candidates had been in pre-trial detention since November 2016 and was being forced to campaign from his jail cell. This treatment of Selahattin Demirtas, the presidential candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was one of many restrictions severely disadvantaging the HDP.


Campaign banners of two opposition parties stretched across a primary avenue in downtown Ankara.

The briefings we received from journalists, civil society organizations, and political parties largely focused on concerns that President Erdogan and the AKP enjoyed overwhelming and unfair advantages incompatible with a free and fair democratic process.

Independent journalists noted that Turkey is the world’s largest jailer of reporters with approximately 150 behind bars. They further remarked on dramatic changes in Turkey’s media landscape in recent years that had seen nine out of 10 mainstream TV channels, and most of the print media, fall under the ownership of government aligned businessmen. As a result, the ruling party benefited from nearly wall-to-wall positive media coverage. Additionally, under recent legal changes the Supreme Election Board was stripped of its ability to impose penalties on broadcasters for violating regulations that mandate equal election coverage.

All opposition parties complained about Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold—the highest in the world—that requires a party to garner 10 percent of the national vote to secure seats in parliament. During this election, they feared that the ruling party would manipulate the vote to deprive the pro-Kudish HDP of a ten percent share, allowing AKP as the likely runner-up in Kurdish-dominated areas to assume the seats forfeited by HDP. This would be the AKP’s quickest route to a commanding majority in the legislature.   

Opposition party leaders warned that the government could use a combination of tactics to suppress the vote for HDP, particularly in the Kurdish southeast. The government had already announced that it had invoked its new authorities to relocate and merge nearly a thousand polling stations in the southeast for security reasons, affecting more than 150,000 voters. Election authorities could also use the admission of unstamped ballots to artificially diminish HDP’s share of the vote. In addition, several briefers noted that deadly violence could be used to intimidate voters. Indeed, less than two weeks before the election a campaign-related altercation in the south left three HDP supporters dead, along with the brother of an AKP candidate for parliament. Many briefers noted that the pro-government media had cast the AKP as the victim of the melee, where in reality the fight had been instigated and escalated by the ruling party’s side.

The opposition’s indictment of the fairness of the election was met by an AKP-led campaign to smear those who might tarnish perceptions of the credibility of the outcome. The OSCE observation mission was one of the targets of this campaign. The government denied two OSCE PA parliamentarians entry to the country to participate in the election observation mission, citing political opinions they had expressed in the past. A government spokesperson decried the OSCE’s interim report on the election on June 15 as “political.” Additionally, just two days before the election, Turkey’s semi-official news agency published a story citing anonymous security sources that claimed OSCE observers planned to create “chaos” in the country.

It was in this climate of heightened mutual suspicion between the ruling party and the opposition, and between the government and the OSCE observation mission, that we deployed to Istanbul to undertake our election day observation.


We were assigned to observe the election at precincts in and around Sisli, a mixed-income neighborhood in central Istanbul that historically supports the secular opposition. Each precinct in Turkey contains numerous voting rooms, with a maximum of 400 voters assigned to each. In all we visited nine so-called ballot box committees (BBCs) in five precincts throughout the day.

Sisli delivered its largest share of votes (48.7 percent) to Turkey’s leading secular opposition party CHP in the last parliamentary election in November 2015, and overwhelmingly opposed the transformational 2017 constitutional amendments (71.8 percent). Given the district’s political profile, it was unsurprising to find observers from CHP and other secular opposition parties deployed in full force at our first precinct where we observed the opening procedures for the polls.

We arrived just before 7:00 a.m. as the ballot box committee (BBC) was assembling to open the sealed election materials and prepare for voting to begin. The seven-person BBC, chaired by a civil servant and composed of bureaucrats and political party representatives, began to count and record the number of ballot envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—a tally that is important for later confirming that no election materials are unaccounted for. 

The mood was serious but amiable and cooperative. With a solitary exception, BBC members worked together constructively without so much as a hint of their diverging political loyalties. Soon, an NGO observer (who was accredited as a political party observer, since there is no legal framework for NGO observation) appeared with a tray of traditional Turkish tea for everyone, observers and BBC members alike. (Tea stands were ubiquitous at the entrance to polling stations, fueling weary poll workers throughout the day and contributing to a generally festive atmosphere around the otherwise dreary school buildings.) 


Voters congregate outside a polling station in central Istanbul on election day.

Over steaming cups of black tea, the poll workers set about the onerous task of applying the BBC’s identifying ink stamp to each of the more than 300 envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—nearly 1,000 stamps in all. Every BBC we visited that morning noted that they had labored well after the polls opened to complete this cumbersome but mandatory and important process.

With two of their colleagues still engrossed in stamping and the eight o’clock opening just minutes away, the BBC’s other five members forged ahead with preparations, sealing the clear plastic ballot box with a wax stamp. More or less promptly at eight, the BBC chairwoman announced the opening of the polling station. 

An elderly gentleman who had already shuffled through the open doorway before the announcement immediately presented his ID to receive his ballot papers. His punctual appearance quickly revealed the disorganization of this particular BBC, which had failed to organize the somewhat convoluted voting procedure into an orderly workflow. 

Voters were to hand over their identification for confirmation against the printed voter rolls and then receive two oversized ballots for president and parliament, one undersized envelope, and a stamp to mark their choices. To cast their ballots, voters entered a curtained booth, marked one choice each for parliament and president, stuffed the large sheets into the small envelope, sealed it with a lick, and emerged to drop the envelope into the ballot box. Before departing, voters returned the stamp back to the BBC, signed the voter roll, and retrieved their identification and any bags or cellphones they left behind with the BBC.

Keeping track of identification cards, remembering to provide all four necessary voting materials (two ballots, envelope, and stamp), and managing the coming and going of voters proved difficult for our first BBC. In just the first twenty minutes the chairwoman twice pulled open a voting booth’s privacy curtain to locate a misplaced ID and missing stamp—an act that should rarely—if ever—occur, since it can compromise the secrecy of the vote. 

This procedural dysfunction may have slowed the vote and caused undue confusion for voters, but it had negligible if any implications for the outcome of the balloting. Indeed, the majority of other BBCs we visited were capably managed and all demonstrated admirable transparency. In each classroom we visited—and they were all classrooms—the BBC chair graciously welcomed us, answered our questions, and allowed us to review the voting materials.

Political party and NGO observers were common and none complained of being restricted in their work on election day. By the end of the day we had grown particularly accustomed to the sight of observers from the HDP party. These observers were almost uniformly impressive, assertive, young, and female. It became clear that what is generally described simply as a “pro-Kurdish party” has developed political purchase far beyond the Kurdish-dominated southeast, attracting many young, progressive Turks concerned with the rights of women and minorities. 


Presidential and parliamentary ballots and envelopes prepared for distribution to voters.

In our experience, the transparency protected by professional BBCs and capable local observers was only undermined by skittish security services who seemed uneasy about the role of international observers. Under new election laws passed earlier this year, Turkish police were allowed to patrol closer to polling stations and—for the first time—enter voting rooms at the request of any citizen. One instance of police involvement we witnessed was legal and appropriate; in several other cases it appeared to overstep the prescribed bounds.

At a polling station we visited in Gultepe, a more conservative neighborhood just outside Sisli, a heated argument erupted over a poll worker who allegedly exceeded his mandate in assisting a confused voter, sparking allegations of election interference. Consistent with their mandate, the police entered on at least three occasions during the prolonged shouting match to respond to the disturbance and to remove unauthorized people who had entered the voting room. These same police entered another time to exercise their prerogative to check our credentials but departed shortly after.

As the day wore on, however, our interactions with the police grew more frequent and contentious. At another polling station in Sisli, police greeted us almost immediately upon our arrival and insisted on escorting us throughout the building. When we entered a voting room to conduct our observations, the police followed us in without any discernible invitation and sat down to watch us until we were through. 

Arriving at our final polling station of the day, we were stopped at the entrance to have our credentials checked against a screenshot of approved individuals the policeman had received via the encrypted messaging application, WhatsApp. He informed us that several foreigners had been caught “posing as OSCE observers” so they were under orders to apply extra scrutiny. Although we were not on his screenshot, the officer relented after a few minutes’ delay and followed us inside while respecting the rules about entering the voting room.

After a short break, we returned to the same polling station to witness the closing and counting procedure, but this time the police refused us entry. They said they had still not been able to find us on their list, despite our accreditation by the Supreme Electoral Board. With the five o’clock closing swiftly approaching, we insisted on the importance of entering before the polls closed. They offered that we could observe the voting room from the hallway, but we were obligated to decline since the OSCE’s methodology requires unfettered access to the polling area. At the last minute, they said we could observe from a designated area inside the room. Once inside the room, it turned out no such area existed and the police displayed no interest in enforcing one. In contravention of the rules, however, they remained standing directly behind us inside the room nearly the entire time.


Consistent with OSCE observations across the country, vote counting at our BBC began promptly once the polls closed. In much the same sprit of cooperation we witnessed at the opening in another precinct, the members of this BBC worked smoothly together to perform the critical, final procedures: securing the voting materials and counting and recording the results. 

The BBC’s genuine effort to conduct this process fairly and transparently was marred by some critical procedural errors and the persistent presence of the police, which risked undue oversight by the security services of a sensitive political process. Most procedural faults took place early on and introduced avoidable opportunities for mistakes or manipulation. 

Rather than count the unused voting materials after the polls closed, for instance, the BBC departed from the prescribed procedure and counted them before the room was open to the public to observe the count. By depriving observers of the opportunity to verify this tally, the BBC undermined a safeguard that confirms the number of votes cast matches exactly the number of voters who participated. 

Another significant oversight involved the BBC’s failure to enter crucial figures directly into the official register, known as a “protocol.” By having one member of the committee simply jot down the tallies of voting materials on a scrap piece of paper, the BBC failed to guard against subsequent mistakes in transcription or intentional alterations. 

Oddly, the otherwise attentive and assertive political party observers in the room did not raise these issues with the BBC, possibly out of ignorance of the procedures or disinterest in the importance of these steps. They seemed most focused when it came to the centerpiece of the process: the all-important counting and adjudication of ballots.  In this, the BBC acquitted itself quite well—holding up each ballot in full view of all present, loudly announcing the vote, and recording it only once all were satisfied with the chairman’s judgment (i.e. valid, invalid, or blank). 


U.S. Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland reviews voting materials with Ballot Box Committee members.

Given the considerable pre-election controversy about the admission of unstamped ballots, it was surprising that no observer raised a question about whether the ballots or envelopes were appropriately imprinted with the BBC’s seal, which was often faint and on the reverse side of the papers. Late on the day of Turkey’s controversial 2017 constitutional referendum, the government unilaterally decided to count unstamped ballots despite the widespread understanding that the stamps protected against fraud. The number of admitted unstamped ballots last year allegedly accounted for the government’s slim margin of victory in that vote. As a result, opposition leaders protested earlier this year when the government used its absolute majority in the parliament to codify the validity of unstamped votes beginning with the 2018 presidential and parliamentary election. This decision created frustrating ambiguity about the need for the elaborate stamping process that tied up BBCs in the morning, sometimes for more than an hour. 

The last steps of the vote count turned out to be the most cumbersome. The astonishingly analog voting process created numerous frustrations, significantly delaying delivery of the ballots to the District Electoral Board responsible for tabulating all the votes in Sisli before forwarding them to the Provincial Electoral Board that oversees a third of Istanbul. The chairperson was consumed for almost an hour manually copying detailed voting results onto nearly a dozen copies of the official protocol for distribution to political party representatives and observers. Another time-consuming process involved sealing all the ballots and sensitive voting materials in a cloth sack using twine and a wax seal. All present watched in quiet agony as the chairperson struggled to melt the nub of wax with a lighter, singing his fingers and nearly setting fire to the bag in the process.

Out of the 250 votes counted in our BBC, leading opposition presidential candidate Muharram Ince prevailed with 65 percent of the vote and his party, CHP, took 50 percent of the parliamentary ballots. The simultaneous presidential and parliamentary election afforded voters the opportunity to split their votes between the two ballots. Specifically, many analysts speculated that opposition supporters would endorse Ince as the favored presidential candidate while casting a vote for HDP in the parliamentary election to help the party clear the ten percent threshold. The outcome in our BBC seemed to bear this theory out: Ince received 15 percent more support for president than his party did in the parliamentary vote, while HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas secured only 4 percent in the presidential but his party garnered 24 percent in the parliamentary.


Once counting was complete in all the precincts’ voting rooms, members of the BBCs boarded a municipal vehicle with the sealed sacks and official protocols for delivery to the District Electoral Board. Per OSCE instructions, we jumped into a separate vehicle to tail the municipal van through the narrow streets of Istanbul to the DEB to confirm the official results were delivered directly without interference. 

A long line of vans packed with other BBCs was in front of the District Electoral Board waiting their turn to offload. When it came our turn I—accompanied by a police escort—followed the voting materials past heavily-armed guards and crowd control fencing into the building. It was a cramped but sprawling high-rise divided into a warren of small, austere rooms. A crush of poll workers pressed into the building’s narrow corridors trying to reach their designated room. In each room were half a dozen election workers waiting to receive election materials from every corner of the district, double-check the calculations in the protocol, and forward the results for district-level tabulation. 

After verifying the secure delivery of our BBC’s materials, I sought to follow the process a step further. Instead, I was offered a meeting with the judge who chairs Sisli’s electoral board. 


Supporters of President Erdogan and AKP celebrate their election victory in Taksim Square.

It was now well past 9:00 p.m., more than four hours since the polls closed. The judge sat in his office watching two sets of election returns roll in: semi-official results were being broadcast via cable news on a large television across the room while a map on his computer screen that read “Supreme Election Board” was being populated with the official numbers. Although it was impossible for me to tell what discrepancy might have existed between the figures at that moment, opposition leaders were simultaneously turning to social media to reassure their supporters that pro-government media were broadcasting premature results to discourage them. These hopeful claims appear to have been inspired more by optimism than reality—the official results released the next day differed little from what the media was reporting in the evening. At least in central Istanbul, the election results at that time of night were still in the early stages of being compiled at the district level.

The judge explained how in the coming hours the district’s protocols would be digitized, loaded onto a public website, and used to generate a district-level protocol of official election results. As chairman, his role would be to adjudicate disputes and discrepancies in the tabulation and certify the final results. Satisfied that I had followed the process as far as I could, our observation ended. 

Around 10:00 p.m., President Erdogan declared victory. With 52.6 percent of the vote, he had won outright in the presidential election, avoiding a runoff with the leading secular opposition candidate by a comfortable margin. In parliament, AKP fell just short of an absolute majority for only the second time in its 16 years in power. The AKP’s election coalition partner, the nationalist MHP party, surprised many with its strong performance, earning 49 seats in the 600-seat parliament and easily supplying the six seats AKP needs to reach 301 votes in the legislature. Importantly, HDP cleared the ten percent threshold and will be the third-largest party in parliament with 67 seats behind CHP’s 146. Altogether, an impressive 86.2 percent of the population had participated in the vote.


Over a late night dinner in a gentrifying secular neighborhood of Istanbul, I could hear some nearby diners discussing the election results with resignation over glasses of wine. Further off in the distance, the blaring of car horns announced the beginning of celebrations by the President’s supporters. I followed lines of cars festooned with Turkish flags and AKP banners as they streamed toward centrally-located Taksim Square. There, a spontaneous victory party had broken out. A jubilant AKP loyalist was being carried aloft, leading the gathering crowd in chants of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Recep Tayyip Erdogan!” 

The evening stroll between these two contrasting scenes was a journey across a wide social and political chasm in Turkey—a chasm the president may choose to widen or narrow in his new mandate. Recent studies have revealed acute polarization within Turkish society that reflects high levels of social distrust and political intolerance. These ills present critical challenges for governance.

During the campaign, President Erdogan pledged to lift the nearly two-year-old state of emergency upon his reelection. AKP statements since the election suggest that Erdogan may decline to renew the state of emergency when it expires on July 18. This would be an appropriate first step toward rebuilding trust and one the U.S. Helsinki Commission called for in an October 2017 letter to President Erdogan. But lifting the state of emergency might only be a superficial gesture if it is not accompanied by significant prisoner releases and amnesties—particularly for human rights defenders and journalists—as well as meaningful judicial reform to restore the credibility and independence of Turkey’s politicized justice system.

In accordance with its mandate, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will continue to monitor Turkey’s implementation of its commitments as an OSCE participating State to respect human rights and democratic principles. In this most recent election the Turkish people demonstrated formidable levels of political participation and civic engagement. Now and in the future, the government must succeed where it has recently failed to ensure that all its citizens have an opportunity to participate in Turkish society and institutions on the basis of fundamental equality.  


The morning after the election, a woman crosses Taksim Square.

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    Since his full-scale military attack on Ukraine began on February 24, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has cracked down severely on Russia’s information landscape. In addition to blocking access to almost all social media outlets and international news sites and criminalizing speech that does not conform to the Kremlin narrative, Putin has deliberately and forcefully spread propaganda about the war and the Ukrainian state and people.  By depriving the Russian people of access to credible information and controlling state-run media, Putin aims to drum up domestic support for his war of pure aggression on the peaceful, democratic citizens of Ukraine. At a hearing on March 29, 2022, the U.S. Helsinki Commission heard from three expert witnesses who discussed Putin’s propaganda tools and narratives and offered recommendations for the United States to help ensure that the people of Russia are not cut off from the truth. Parliamentarians from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) also attended, including President of the OSCE PA Margareta Cederfelt (Sweden), and OSCE PA Vice Presidents Pascal Allizard (France) and Irene Charalambides (Cyprus). Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), who presided over the hearing, compared Putin’s current propaganda and censorship campaigns and practices to the Stalin era and called out claims that Russia is trying to “denazify” Ukraine. “Putin is building a new iron curtain and attempts to justify his indefensible war and continued attacks against the Ukrainian people,” he said. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) described recent and upcoming hearings, emphasizing the Helsinki Commission’s focus on the war in Ukraine. He stated, “There’s no higher priority that we have right now than to deal with what Russia has done in violating every single principle of the Helsinki Final Act – every single principle.” Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) praised the unified bipartisan stance that Republicans and Democrats have taken in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and highlighted the dire consequences ordinary Russians have faced in speaking out against Putin or the war. “I am particularly grateful to the brave Russians… armed only with truth who have spoken out at great risk to their personal safety,” he said. Senator Richard Blumenthal (CT) remarked on the intrinsic connection between the war in Ukraine and the war on truth in Russia, emphasizing that as the West fortifies Ukrainian freedom-fighters with arms and equipment, we must also fortify the efforts of truth-tellers. Fatima Tlis, a journalist with Voice of America, described contemporary Russian propaganda as a combination of old techniques and new technology, comparing disinformation deployed by the Kremlin to a soap opera—intriguing and engaging to the audience. Tlis emphasized that full force propaganda has been deployed against the Russian people for decades and it will require an intelligent strategy to counteract it. She recommended utilizing humor, referencing a satirical TV show that Putin shut down shortly after coming to power. “He’s afraid of being laughed at because, you know, the great czar cannot be laughed at,” she observed. “He loses his power. People are not afraid of him anymore if they can laugh at him.” Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, described the need for a coordinated, three-pronged response to Russian propaganda by government entities, tech companies, and media. While Russia is the most pressing challenge, Pomerantsev pointed out that China, Saudi Arabia, and other countries are also engaging in these practices. He called for comprehensive action to combat the Russian disinformation complex and said, “Where they have troll farms, we will have online town halls.  Where they use disinformation to manipulate people, we will use communication to engage with them as citizens.” Vladimir Kara-Murza, Russian journalist, author, and former host at Echo of Moscow Radio, spoke to the comprehensive program of disinformation that Putin has installed in Russia from his first days in office, and highlighted the difficulties independent media outlets in Russia face, including being forced to cease operations. He also recalled the Soviet-era example of using radio broadcasts to combat a new information Iron Curtain. “Nothing beats totalitarian propaganda better than the truth,” he said. Members brought a number of concerns and questions to witnesses, ranging from how to support Russian dissidents, to which techniques would be the most effective in distributing accurate information to Russian citizens. Related Information Witness Biographies Vladimir Kara-Murza: "Why the West should help Russians learn the truth about Putin’s war in Ukraine"

  • With oligarchs in the crosshairs, alleged Western 'enablers' attract fresh scrutiny

    As governments scramble to seize high-profile assets owned by Russian oligarchs, a quiet effort is gaining momentum in the West to target their alleged “enablers” – the lawyers, lobbyists and money-handlers who critics say help them hide, invest and protect their vast wealth in U.S. and European institutions. “The yachts and jets and villas get the most attention, but a lot of the oligarchs’ money is in private equity and hedge funds – places we can’t see,” said Maira Martini, a researcher with the corruption watchdog Transparency International. “That’s the money that really matters to them.” For decades, wealthy business tycoons with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin have enlisted the services of reputable bankers and lawyers in the West to navigate loopholes that obscure their identity. While it's not necessarily illegal to use obscure entities and agents to protect finances, critics say the laws need to be strengthened to create more transparency. rganized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a global investigative reporting platform that focuses on corruption, organized crimes and illicit financing, claims to have uncovered over 150 assets worth $17.5 billion held by 11 Russian elites and their alleged enablers, while a Forbes report identified more than 82 properties across the world -- a collective of $4.3 billion -- held by 16 sanctioned Russian oligarchs. Assets that have surfaced are likely only a fraction of these oligarchs' actual wealth. The true extent is difficult to track because they often use a convoluted network of shell companies, obscure entities and stand-ins to keep their finances hidden, experts said. But now, with war raging in Ukraine, lawmakers and corruption watchdogs are calling on governments to close those loopholes and crack down on the middlemen who know how to exploit them. “Putin’s oligarchs cannot operate without their Western enablers, who give them access to our financial and political systems,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. “These unscrupulous lawyers, accountants, trust and company service providers and others need to do basic due diligence on their clients to ensure that they are not accepting blood money. This isn’t rocket science – it is common sense policy to protect democracy.” In Washington, Cohen and others have introduced the ENABLERS Act, which would require real estate brokers, hedge fund managers and other entities to “ask basic due diligence questions whenever somebody comes to them with a suitcase full of cash,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., the lead sponsor of the bill. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a global network of journalists and newsrooms that have tracked the wealthy's tax havens and financial secrecy, has identified at least a dozen networks of facilitators, offshore agents and banks across the world that have allegedly helped Russia's elites move and hide their money based on its analyses of public records and leaked financial documents the group has obtained over the past decade. This includes a range of actors, from global offshore law firms that create shell companies and other obscure entities to help wealthy Russians keep their finances clouded, to one-man shops in offshore tax havens that help set up "nominee" shareholders and paid stand-ins to conceal the real owners of entities. ICIJ also points to the roles of major law firms in helping shape the modern tax avoidance system as well as the roles of big financial institutions and banks in helping wealthy Russians move their money. Last year, The Washington Post, as part of its collaboration with ICIJ's Pandora Papers project, reported on how South Dakota, with its limited oversight, vague regulations and trust secrecy, has become a tax haven for secretive foreign money. Malinowski stressed that the United States "has become one of the easiest places in the world for corrupt kleptocrats around the world to hide money." “What we've basically allowed is a system where people can steal their money in countries without the rule of law and then protect their money in countries like ours where they can count on property rights and courts and privacy rules to safeguard his loot for life," Malinowski said. "We should not be complicit in the theft that supports dictatorships like Putin." Experts warned that sanctions and asset seizures, while effective in the short term, may be toothless over time if secrecy loopholes remain in place. On Wednesday, Transparency International published an open letter calling on Western leaders to take steps to stem rules that foster opacity. “To disguise their wealth and keep them out of the reach of law enforcement authorities, kleptocrats will turn to lawyers, real estate agents, banks, crypto-service providers and banks in your countries,” the letter reads. “You must redouble your supervision efforts over the gatekeepers of the financial sector.”

  • Chairman Cardin Emphasizes the Importance of the Global Magnitsky Act

    Madam President, reserving the right to object to the request from the Senator from Idaho, it is my understanding that the Senator’s modification would not include provisions that were included in the Housepassed legislation that modifies the global Magnitsky sanction regime. I just would like to speak for a moment, if I might. There is no question that we stand with the people of Ukraine against the unprovoked attack by Mr. Putin. We are inspired every day by the courage of the Ukrainian people and by their inspirational leader, President Zelenskyy. The United States has shown leadership, and I congratulate the Biden administration. We have led the free world in providing defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine to defend itself. We have provided humanitarian assistance, joining the global community, including dealing with 3 million Ukrainians that are now refugees in other countries and 10 million that have been displaced as a result of Mr. Putin’s unprovoked attack. And we have led on sanctions. We have led in getting the global unity to impose sanctions against not just the Russian sectors, but also against individuals. And when Mr. Zelenskyy spoke before the Members of Congress, he specifically mentioned the importance of these sanctions; and he asked us to expand those covered by the sanctions to include the enablers, those that are enabling Mr. Putin—the oligarchs—to be able to fund his aggression against Ukraine. So what did the House send over to us? In their bill, they sent over a global Magnitsky modification. It is identical to legislation that was filed by Senator PORTMAN and myself that included the revocation of PNTR for Russia, along with the global Magnitsky. First and foremost, it removes the sunset that is in the legislation that would sunset this year. Mr. Zelenskyy asked for us to be resolved in being willing to stand up to Mr. Putin, that it would take some time. A clear message is that we remove the sunset on the global Magnitsky statute. And we know how difficult it is to get legislation passed in this body. It also expands the global Magnitsky to include the enablers—exactly what Mr. Zelenskyy asked us to do—those that enabled—the oligarchs that allowed him to be able to finance this. The language that is included in here is very similar to the language that was included in President Trump’s Executive order. This is critical legislation. Now, let me just tell you how appropriate it is that it is included in a PNTR bill—because the first Magnitsky sanction bill—and Senator WYDEN was very important in getting this done—was included in the original PNTR bill for Russia, and we were able to get it done at that time. We then made it a global Magnitsky, and my partner on that was the late Senator McCain. It has always been bipartisan. My partner now is Senator WICKER. The two of us have joined forces to make sure we get it done now. It is critically important in order to impose banking restrictions on those that are targeted under the global Magnitsky, as well as visa restrictions on being able to travel. How important is it? Ask Mr. Usmanov, who is one of the principal oligarchs to Mr. Putin, who solves Mr. Putin’s business problems. Guess how he solves those problems? Well, his yacht has now been confiscated in Germany. That is how important these sanctions are and how we have to move them forward. So, if I understand my colleague’s request, it would deny the opportunity for us to act on the global Magnitsky, which Mr. Zelenskyy has specifically asked us to do. We would lose that opportunity. We would be sending this bill back to the House that is not in session, which means there will be a further delay in repealing PNTR for Russia, which is something we need to do now, today. We can get it to the President for signature today under the majority leader’s request. And as the majority leader has indicated, I support the energy ban—I support the Russian energy ban. President Biden has already taken steps to do that. And I agree with my colleague from Idaho. I would like to incorporate that in statute, but there is no urgency to do that as there is on repealing PNTR and the global Magnitsky. That is the urgency. That is what we need to get done today. That is what we can get to the President this afternoon under the majority leader’s request, and that will be denied if my friend from Idaho’s request were granted. So, for all those reasons, I object.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Russian Propaganda and Censorship

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PUTIN'S WAR ON TRUTH Propaganda and Censorship in Russia Tuesday, March 29, 2022 2:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2172 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Since his full-scale military attack on Ukraine began on February 24, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has cracked down severely on Russia’s information landscape. In addition to blocking access to almost all social media outlets and international news sites and criminalizing speech that does not conform to the Kremlin narrative, Putin has deliberately and forcefully spread propaganda about the war and the Ukrainian state and people.  By depriving the Russian people of access to credible information and controlling state-run media, Putin aims to drum up domestic support for his war of pure aggression on the peaceful, democratic citizens of Ukraine. Witnesses will examine Putin’s propaganda tools and narratives as well as the rapidly shrinking options for Russians to access credible information, and will recommend options for the United States to help ensure that the people of Russia are not cut off from the truth. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Fatima Tlis, Journalist, Voice of America Peter Pomerantsev, Senior Fellow, Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University Vladimir Kara-Murza, Russian journalist and author, former host at Echo of Moscow radio  

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Disturbed by Suspension of RFE/RL Operations in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the suspension of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) operations in Russia after a years-long pressure campaign on the outlet by Russian authorities and an escalating crackdown on all forms of independent media, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “I am disturbed by the suspension of RFE/RL’s operations in Russia, which has had a physical presence there since 1991 and has been a trusted news source for the Russian people since 1953. The Kremlin’s outrageous financial and legal attacks on RFE/RL are simply tactics to silence reporting that does not conform to Vladimir Putin’s narrative, and I applaud RFE/RL’s refusal to label its content as coming from a ‘foreign agent.’ “Putin’s absolute destruction of independent media in Russia is rooted in the repression of the Soviet era. The recent legislation that subjects journalists to a 15-year prison sentence for deviating from Kremlin lies about the Russian invasion of Ukraine is part of Putin’s effort to create a totalitarian state. He does not want the Russian people to see the truth about the war on the people of Ukraine, a war of his own choice that is inflicting terror on a peaceful neighbor.” RFE/RL has been the target of financial and legal attacks in Russia, including fines resulting in more than $13.4 million for its refusal to submit to labeling its content. In addition, 18 RFE/RL journalists have been individually designated as “foreign agents.” Since his full-scale military attack on Ukraine, which began on February 24, Putin has escalated his attacks on independent media, including passing harmful legislation criminalizing content about the war on Ukraine; blocking international news sites such as Meduza, BBC, and Deutsche Welle; and forcing the shutdown of independent Russian media outlets such as TV Rain and Echo of Moscow.

  • Helsinki Commission Recognizes Key Contributions from Allies and Partners

    WASHINGTON—In light of Russia’s continued criminal war on the peaceful citizens of Ukraine, 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) issued the following joint statement: “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s barbaric war against the Ukrainian people has inspired global outrage and condemnation. Many countries have risen to the moment, especially our Baltic Allies, Poland, and Romania. We also recognize those other OSCE participating States that have taken particular risks and stepped up during this moment of great danger and clear moral purpose.  “We thank the Government of Turkey for its significant and robust support for Ukraine. Turkey has long been among Ukraine’s most ardent and consistent advocates, and its closure of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits to warships from Russia and Ukraine, consistent with the Montreux Convention, effectively supports Ukraine and the cause of European security. Turkey plays an indispensable role as a NATO Ally and strategic linchpin in Europe. We look forward to working closely with our Turkish allies on additional steps to support Ukraine. “We also recognize Moldova for serving as a safe haven for refugees and for its strong support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. To date, on a per capita basis, Moldova has welcomed more refugees than any other country. Despite limited resources and the unlawful presence of Russian troops on its soil, President Maia Sandu and the Government and people of Moldova have shown their mettle. We congratulate Moldova on its European Union application. We see your heroic efforts and will continue to work diligently towards supporting Moldova’s transatlantic aspirations. “In addition, despite initially concerning and confusing statements, we applaud the Government of Georgia for its increasingly robust support for the people of Ukraine, particularly given Russia’s threats and occupation of Georgia’s territory. We are grateful for Georgia’s co-sponsorship of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its participation in a call for the International Criminal Court to investigate Russian war crimes, and the strong statements of support by Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili in particular. We congratulate Georgia on its application to the European Union and look forward to doing our part to reinvigorate our bilateral partnership and deepening our transatlantic bond. “We are moving to limit Russia’s ability to wage war on its neighbors and will work closely with our friends to navigate this dangerous moment in history.” On February 28, the Turkish government exercised its authority as a custodian of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, per the 1936 Montreux Convention, and closed their use to warring parties in the Black Sea. On March 2, Turkey provided the Ukrainian military with additional Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial combat vehicles. Since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Moldova was among the first to open its borders to Ukrainian refugees and hosts more refugees per capita compared to any other European state. Russia illegally maintains a garrison of approximately 1,500 troops on Moldovan territory in Transnistria and supports a separatist government. On March 2, the Government of Georgia co-sponsored a UN General Assembly resolution that condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine. On the same day, Georgia joined 37 other countries formally calling for an International Criminal Court investigation of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. 

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest February 2022

  • Conflict of Interest?

    Turkey is at a crossroads. Even as the Turkish Government insists that it remains committed to its NATO partners and to future EU integration, its actions—both foreign and domestic—call those promises into question. Turkey has been a steadfast supporter of Ukraine and Turkish officials have announced plans to normalize relations with Armenia and moved to restore ties with several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Israel. At the same time, the government has reiterated its commitment to the use of Russian military equipment, eroding relations with the United States and other members of NATO. Despite being a founding member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey is struggling to live up to the principles of respect for fundamental freedoms outlined in the Helsinki Final Act.  A record number of Turkish journalists are behind bars. The failure of the Turkish government to comply with a ruling of the European Court for Human Rights on the case of Osman Kavala paved the way for the country’s potential expulsion from the Council of Europe, and thousands of others arrested following the attempted 2016 coup also languish in prison on dubious charges.  The briefing, held on February 16, 2022, investigated the intersection of Turkey’s OSCE and NATO commitments related to human rights and security, and its domestic policies that fail to hold true to these principles. Panelists also explored practical policy recommendations to help Turkey overcome this disconnect. During the briefing, attendees heard from Dr. Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for the Near East, and Deniz Yuksel, Turkey Advocacy Specialist with Amnesty International. The briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Bakhti Nishanov. Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) opened the briefing by remarking on the importance of Turkey and his personal history with Turkey.  He also emphasized that human rights abuses in Turkey have long been a subject of concern, particularly those brought about by President Erdogan’s empire-building attempts. “We need to do what we can to see that the whole world is fair for citizens to express themselves, for press to express themselves, and for people to get information, without which we will not have independent democracies,” he said. Mr. Nishanov explained in opening remarks that Turkey’s position is complex and multi-faceted—while Turkey has been making efforts to normalize relationships with Armenia, Israel, and Egypt as well as bearing a large refugee burden, recent years have been challenging as Turkey experienced economic pain, inflation, and governance issues. Additionally, Turkey’s record of human rights abuses, anti-immigrant sentiments, and other obstacles cast a pall on recent progress, and bring into question the future of Turkey’s democratic development. Dr. Soner Cagaptay spoke about President Erdogan’s declining domestic popularity and the looming threat of economic hardship in Turkey. He also remarked on President Erdogan’s attempts to restore ties with Turkey’s Gulf neighbors, as well as with the United States and Europe. Dr. Cagaptay asserted that as tensions heightened between Russia and Ukraine, Turkey would adopt a neutral public-facing identity, but support Kyiv militarily. While Russia and Turkey are often compared, he pointed out that Turkey has measures of democracy that Russia does not. “The lesson of Turkey under Erdogan is that it takes a long time to kill [democracy]. Turkish democracy is resilient, it is not dead,” he said. Deniz Yuksel spoke to Turkey’s human rights crisis and the dangers opposition politicians, journalists, and citizens face. Reports of torture and detention are common, and those calling out such abuses face persecution themselves. She recommended that U.S. officials raise human rights concerns in every engagement with Turkey. She emphasized, “From the record-breaking imprisonment of journalists to the persecution of LGBTI people, an ongoing crisis of gender-based violence, and the unlawful deportation of refugees, the failures of Turkey’s judicial system cut across societal lines and undermine the human rights of all.” During the question-and-answer segment of the briefing, panelists addressed a range of questions including how specific ethnic minorities are treated in Turkey, how human rights abuses may affect Turkey’s relationship with the United States, and what challenges will arise alongside Turkey’s 2023 elections. Related Information Panelist Biographies Will Turkey Help Washington If Russia Invades Ukraine? | The Washington Institute Human Rights in Turkey | Amnesty International – USA: Turkey Regional Action Network  Turkey’s Careful and Risky Fence-Sitting between Ukraine and Russia | Foreign Policy Research Institute 

  • Olympic skater’s entourage could face trouble under US law

    ZHANGJIAKOU, China (AP) — Legal troubles for the coach and others in Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva’s orbit could emerge in the United States even after her doping case from the Beijing Games has been resolved. Anti-doping experts say the episode falls under the scope of a recently enacted U.S. law that criminalizes doping schemes in events involving American athletes. The law calls for fines of up to $1 million and prison sentences of up to 10 years for those who participate in doping programs that influence international sports. “Doctors and coaches who give performance-enhancing drugs to athletes are directly liable” under the new law, said one of its authors, attorney Jim Walden. “They are at risk of jail, steep fines, and forfeiture. And I suspect the FBI is already hot on this trail.” On Monday, The Court of Arbitration for Sport cleared Valieva to compete in the women’s competition this week. Still unresolved is what to do about the gold medal the Russians won — with Valieva as the headliner — in last week’s mixed team competition. Because Valieva is 15, and considered a “protected person” under global anti-doping rules, the sanctions against her could be light. That does not exempt her entourage from possible anti-doping penalties beyond the possible stripping of the medal from the Russian team. Walden and others expect those same people to come under investigation by U.S. law-enforcement, as well. “The latest Russian doping scandal in Beijing is exactly why we passed the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act. Doping is corruption,” said Sen Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, who is involved in anti-doping issues. Walden represents the bill’s namesake, Grigory Rodchenkov, the Russian lab director who blew the whistle on the complex, widespread Russian doping scheme designed to help the country win medals at the 2014 Sochi Games and elsewhere. Rodchenkov now lives in hiding. The Rodchenkov Act wasn’t designed to go after athletes. It targets coaches, doctors and other members of an athlete’s entourage who are accused of arranging doping programs in any event that involves U.S. athletes, sponsors or broadcasters. The bill, supported by Walden, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and others, passed by unanimous consent through both houses of Congress and was signed into law in December 2020. It was considered a remarkable achievement considering the polarization in U.S. politics. Officials at the White House drug control office in both the Trump and Biden administrations have been critical of global anti-doping regulators. They threatened to withhold funding from the World Anti-Doping Agency, but recently paid their remaining dues despite some major concerns. The law’s first test came last month when federal officials charged a doctor of providing drugs to an “Athlete A,” who The Associated Press identified as Nigerian sprinter Blessing Okagbare. The IOC and WADA lobbied against parts of the bill. Their main argument was that it gave U.S. law enforcement too much leverage in policing anti-doping cases that occur outside its own borders. This case — a Russian who was found to have doped on Dec. 25 at a national championship — appears, at first glance, to fit that profile. WADA said it took six weeks for officials to receive the test from a lab in Sweden because Russia’s anti-doping agency (RUSADA) failed to flag it as a priority. That Valieva was allowed to compete at the Olympics turns it into an international episode. WADA said in a statement that it was “disappointed in the ruling,” and that it, too, would “look into” Valieva’s support personnel. Russia’s anti-doping agency has also begun an investigation. But critics of WADA and the IOC argue the bill was passed because the international anti-doping system has proven it can’t police its own. They point to the sanctions handed to Russia over the past eight years as Exhibit A. Part of those sanctions resulted in years’ worth of suspensions and reforms for RUSADA, which is overseeing this case. Critics contend the case involving Valieva might not have erupted had the country — whose athletes are competing in Beijing under the banner of “Russian Olympic Committee” due to the sanctions — been penalized appropriately. “If I were a betting man, I’d say there’s a 95% chance that this is a good case for” the law, said Rob Koehler, the head of the advocacy group Global Athlete. Though there are harsh penalties under the law, it’s hard to imagine U.S. authorities would ever get their hands on Russians if they were indicted. Still, an indictment would have an impact. It could curtail their ability to travel or coach outside of Russia, since the United States has extradition deals with dozens of countries across the globe. Valieva tested positive for the banned heart medication trimetazidine. “We need more facts, but you can envision a case like this under Rodchenkov,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said. “This drug doesn’t just show up out of nowhere. Assuming the facts play out that someone was involved in giving it to her to enhance performance, it fits like a glove.”

  • Chairman Cardin on Doping Scandal At 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) released the following statement: “The latest Russian doping scandal in Beijing is exactly why we passed the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act. Doping is corruption. It defrauds clean athletes and honest sponsors, and insults the spirit of international competition. “Putin—like other strongmen—regularly uses corruption as a tool of foreign policy. The Olympics are no exception. I call on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate all alleged doping crimes during the Beijing Olympics and hold the perpetrators responsible under the Rodchenkov Act.” The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, which became law in December 2020, criminalizes doping in international sport. In January 2022, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced the first charges filed under the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act for a doping scheme at the Tokyo Olympics.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Intersection Between Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: CONFLICT OF INTEREST? Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Turkey Wednesday, February 16, 2022 11:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3Je5Ck4 Turkey is at a crossroads. Even as the Turkish Government insists that it remains committed to its NATO partners and to future EU integration, its actions—both foreign and domestic—call those promises into question. Turkey has been a steadfast supporter of Ukraine and Turkish officials have announced plans to normalize relations with Armenia and moved to restore ties with several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Israel. At the same time, the government has reiterated its commitment to the use of Russian military equipment, eroding relations with the United States and other members of NATO. Despite being a founding member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey is struggling to live up to the principles of respect for fundamental freedoms outlined in the Helsinki Final Act.  A record number of Turkish journalists are behind bars. The failure of the Turkish government to comply with a ruling of the European Court for Human Rights on the case of Osman Kavala paved the way for the country’s potential expulsion from the Council of Europe, and thousands of others arrested following the attempted 2016 coup also languish in prison on dubious charges.   The briefing will investigate the intersection of Turkey’s OSCE and NATO commitments related to human rights and security, and its domestic policies that fail to hold true to these principles. Panelists also will explore practical policy recommendations to help Turkey overcome this disconnect. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Soner Cagaptay, Director, Turkish Research Program, Washington Institute for the Near East Deniz Yuksel, Turkey Advocacy Specialist, Amnesty International  

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest January 2022

  • Helsinki Commission Marks One-Year Anniversary of Navalny’s Imprisonment

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the one-year anniversary of Alexei Navalny’s arrest on January 17, 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) issued the following statements: “In the past year, while Alexei Navalny has remained unjustly imprisoned, the Kremlin has doubled down on its absurd persecution of his anti-corruption organizations as ‘extremist,’” said Chairman Cardin. “Nevertheless, Mr. Navalny’s colleagues, friends and allies, in the face of grave threats, continue to risk their own freedom to expose Putin’s thuggery across Russia.” “Putin would not have gone to the trouble to imprison Alexei Navalny unless he perceived a serious threat to his power,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Mr. Navalny and his team across Russia were instrumental in revealing the ill-gotten gains of Putin and his cronies. This tells you all you need to know about why they are a target.” “During his imprisonment, Alexei Navalny has used his own suffering to call attention to the plight of the hundreds of other political prisoners in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “We have not forgotten him or others who are persecuted for their beliefs, and we look forward to a Russia in which they finally are free.” “Despite the Kremlin’s attempts to push Alexei Navalny out of public view and prevent him from challenging Putin, we will not stop calling for his release,” said Rep. Wilson. “Russians who challenge Putin should not have to fear for their safety in their own country.” In August 2020, Alexei Navalny was the victim of an assassination attempt by the 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 was arrested at the airport. In February, 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 is widely considered to be politically motivated. Previous time served under house arrest reduced his prison time to two years and eight months. In June, the Moscow City Court ruled that Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional networks would henceforth be considered “extremist” organizations, essentially outlawing these groups and criminalizing their activity. In September, Russian authorities opened a new probe against Navalny and his closest associates for creating and directing an “extremist network.” This, combined with other ongoing criminal investigations, could lead to additional jail time for Navalny and threaten those associated with his organizations, many of whom have been forced to flee Russia.

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes First Charges Under the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act

    WASHINGTON—Following the first charges filed under the Helsinki Commission’s Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act for a doping scheme at the Tokyo Olympics, Helsinki Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and former Commissioner Rep. Michael Burgess (TX-26) issued the following statements: “Swift utilization of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act is exactly what we hoped for with this legislation,” said Chairman Cardin. “I thank the U.S. attorneys and investigators who put in long hours of work pursuing this case. They understood the importance of cleaning up cheating and corruption in international sports, which often is a tool of autocratic governments. These first charges are only the beginning and serve as a very public part of the global anti-corruption strategy supported by the Biden administration and spearheaded by the Helsinki Commission for many years.” “I welcome this first enforcement action under the Rodchenkov Act and urge the Department of Justice to continue unraveling the corruption that infects international sport,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Sports should bring people together and celebrate achievement—they should not be an opportunity for fraud. My own GOLD Act would expand the Rodchenkov Act and I call on my colleagues to pass it swiftly.” “These charges are the culmination of years of work to hold administrators, doctors, and officials accountable for their role in corrupting international sport,” said Sen. Wicker. “They demonstrate that our new approach is working. I thank the public servants at the U.S. Department of Justice and urge them to continue their efforts to enforce this critically important law.” “Dictators and their cronies interfere in everything we hold dear, including sports. They view victory in international sport as a way to trumpet the greatness of their oppressive systems. Cheating in sports is part of their foreign policy,” said Rep. Wilson. “With the Rodchenkov Act, we are holding these corrupt networks to account. I applaud the Department of Justice for prosecuting fraudsters at the Tokyo Olympics and call on them to do the same in Beijing.” “From a young age, professional athletes dedicate themselves to becoming the best in their sport. For those skilled enough to make it to the Olympics, their efforts should not be tainted by doping schemes,” said Rep. Burgess. “Yesterday’s charges provide hope to those that have been defrauded. They would not have been made possible without the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act. I worked to enact this law to maintain sport integrity and keep all American athletes safe and protected from fraud. Further, yesterday’s action is a win for athletes such as Katie Uhlaender, whose moving testimony spurred Congress into action. I hope that yesterday’s charges are only the beginning of combatting fraud in international sport competition.”   “This is exactly the kind of action we hoped for following the enactment of this groundbreaking anti-doping legislation,” said Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory and the Russian whistle-blower after whom the law is named. “We are grateful to United States Attorney Damian Williams for taking this monumental first step toward restoring the Olympic games to their role as a cherished forum for nations to convene in the spirit of peace, fairness and cooperation. We cannot continue to allow corrupt states and the overlords of sport commerce to exploit our athletes and traditions of peace to advance the economic and geopolitical interests of the few. Yesterday's action is entirely appropriate and puts real teeth into anti-doping enforcement, while also setting an example of international cooperation and fair play for future generations.” The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, which became law in December 2020, criminalizes doping in international sport. In July 2021, the Helsinki Commission hosted a hearing on the enforcement of the Rodchenkov Act at the Tokyo Olympics. Earlier that year, Dr. Rodchenkov spoke out publicly for the first time about the impact of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act on a Helsinki Commission podcast, calling it a “game-changer.” On Wednesday, the New York Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced the charges against Eric Lira, who they allege “obtained various performance enhancing drugs (‘PEDs’) and distributed those PEDs to certain athletes in advance of, and for the purpose of cheating at, the 2020 Olympic Games held in Tokyo in the summer of 2021.”   

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Peaceful Solution in Kazakhstan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the violent clashes between protesters and authorities in Kazakhstan, 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) issued the following joint statement: “We are deeply concerned about the situation in Kazakhstan and condemn the violence that has accompanied widespread protests across the country. The reported deaths of both protesters and police are extremely disturbing. “We call on President Tokayev and Russian troops not to use disproportionate force against protesters. At the same time, we call on protesters to cease any violent attacks against police, public buildings, or private property. “We urge both sides to find a peaceful way to resolve this crisis. We also urge President Tokayev to ensure respect for human rights, especially freedom of the media and the right to due process for those who have been arrested in connection with the protests.” A wave of protests began on January 2 in the western part of the oil- and gas-rich country in response to a sharp increase in the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). The unrest spread quickly to other parts of Kazakhstan and grew increasingly violent. Authorities deployed tear gas and stun grenades against protesters and blocked internet access in an effort to quell the unrest, while demonstrators attacked government offices. There are reports of deaths among both law enforcement and protesters, as well as of widespread looting. Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared a nationwide state of emergency on January 5, accepted the resignation of his cabinet, and reduced LPG prices, but protests continued. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a security alliance among select former Soviet states including Russia, is sending Russian troops at the request of President Tokayev. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated already strained economic and social disparities, and demonstrators are demanding increased political liberalization and accountability for government corruption. OSCE observers concluded that the 2021 parliamentary elections “lacked genuine competition” and underscored the need for political reform.

  • Helsinki Commission Cautions Russia Against Dissolving Russian Human Rights Organization Memorial

    WASHINGTON—As the latest court proceedings conclude for Russian human rights group Memorial International, U.S. 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) issued the following joint statement: “The Kremlin continues to twist Russia’s so-called justice system to punish civil society, opposition politicians, and independent media who dare to speak out against the abuses of Putin’s regime. The United States should raise the stakes and impose concrete consequences on any officials who support such vindictive action against the Russian patriots who defend the human rights of their fellow citizens.” In a December 17, 2021 letter, Chairman Cardin, Co-Chairman Cohen, Sen. Wicker, Rep. Wilson, and Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) urged President Joe Biden to sanction 17 Russian officials and associates involved in the harassment and prosecution of Memorial and its leadership. “The United States has a moral duty to prevent this attack on universal rights and freedoms,” they said. “Publicly sanctioning the Russian officials involved in the attack on Memorial and their enablers would be an effective way to support pro-democracy forces in Russia and deter perpetrators.” In November 2021, Russia’s Supreme Court notified Memorial that the General Prosecutor’s office was suing to dismantle the organization for alleged violations of Russia’s “foreign agent” laws. In a November 17 statement, the Helsinki Commission expressed concern about the organization’s potential dissolution, noting, “We continue to see an alarming increase in attacks on civil society, opposition politicians, and independent media in Russia. Now the Kremlin actively seeks to dismantle Memorial, a respected network of organizations dedicated to revealing and preserving the history of Soviet repression and fighting for political prisoners in Russia today. Memorial’s efforts to defend truth and human rights are essential and must be protected for generations to come.” Memorial, established in the final years of the Soviet Union by dissidents including Andrei Sakharov, is one of the most respected and enduring human rights groups in the region. Its local chapters focus on preserving the truth about Soviet repressions, particularly under Stalin, and honoring the memories of those lost. Memorial also maintains a comprehensive database of current political prisoners in Russia and continues to advocate for the rights of the people of Russia, especially in the North Caucasus. The Helsinki Commission has convened numerous events featuring Memorial representatives.  

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes Passage of Trap Provision in 2022 National Defense Authorization Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today welcomed the passage of the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) provision as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022. “By co-opting and undermining the rule of law to harass and intimidate dissidents and political opponents, corrupt regimes threaten our national security,” said Chairman Cardin. “Our provision will make it U.S. policy to fight exploitation of INTERPOL, including by naming and shaming member states that abuse its mechanisms. This amendment will protect the United States, our allies, and all those fighting or fleeing authoritarian regimes from extraterritorial and extrajudicial abuse.” “We’ve seen time and again how corrupt dictators take advantage of INTERPOL to intimidate and harass those who expose their immoral deeds, even after they have fled their homes and their country in search of safety,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The TRAP provision will protect these dissidents and ensure that our own institutions are not used against us—or them.” “There is no reason for any democracy, especially the United States, to be forced to play a part in authoritarian regimes’ blatant abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices,” said Sen. Wicker. “I am pleased Congress has taken action to name publicly the abusers, such as Russia and China, and prevent American law enforcement from having to do the dirty work of these repressive autocrats.” “INTERPOL should enable us to crack down on criminals worldwide,” said Rep. Wilson. “Instead, the criminals have taken over the institution, using it to target those who oppose them. The TRAP provision will protect the United States from this abuse and ensure that we do everything we can to restore the rule of law to INTERPOL.” “Increasing transparency and accountability at INTERPOL underscores the bipartisan commitment of the United States Senate to push back against countries, large or small, seeking to distort legitimate law enforcement cooperation to instead pursue political opponents or personal vendettas,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This new provision will strengthen protections for human rights defenders, political dissidents, and journalists, and pave the way for the international community to join the United States in pressing for reforms and standing against the abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices by China and Russia, among others.” The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act was introduced in 2021 in the Senate by Sen. Wicker and Chairman Cardin and in the U.S. House of Representatives by Co-Chairman Cohen and Rep. Wilson. The legislation makes fighting abuse of INTERPOL a key goal of the United States at the organization, mandates that the United States name the worst abusers of INTERPOL and examine its own strategy to fight INTERPOL abuse, and protects the U.S. judicial system from authoritarian abuse.

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