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One Year Later, U.S. Consulate Employee in Turkey Remains Behind Bars
Turkey’s Sweeping Post-Coup Dragnet Has Ensnared Three Consulate Employees and Several American Citizens
Friday, February 23, 2018

By Everett Price,
Policy Advisor

One year ago today, Turkish authorities detained Hamza Uluçay, a 36-year veteran Turkish employee of the U.S. Consulate in the southern city of Adana. After decades of service to the United States, he spent the last year behind bars on unsubstantiated terrorism charges.   

Authorities initially questioned Uluçay last February about his communications with local Kurdish contacts. Such communication with local contacts, including peaceful Kurdish groups, would have been a routine part of the U.S consulate’s work. Yet within hours of his initial detention, the Turkish press claimed that Uluçay was suspected of inciting public support for the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that has been engaged in a more than three-decade armed conflict with the Turkish state.

After more than a week in custody, Uluçay was released for lack of sufficient evidence only to be re-detained hours later due to a prosecutor’s objections. This time Uluçay was formally arrested and faced graver charges. He stood accused of “membership in a terrorist organization,” a reference purportedly to the PKK and the Gulen movement, the religious and social movement the Turkish government accuses of orchestrating the failed coup in July 2016.

Little is known about the prosecution’s evidence against Uluçay. According to Turkish press, authorities seized 21 U.S. dollar bills from Uluçay’s home. As seen in the case of imprisoned U.S. citizen and NASA scientist Serkan Golge, Turkish prosecutors regularly cite one dollar bills as “evidence” of a defendant’s involvement with the Gulen movement.

The government claims that the founder of the movement and alleged coup mastermind, Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, gave blessed dollar bills to his followers, particularly those with serial numbers beginning with “F” for “Fethullah.” Uluçay’s experience is another sobering reminder of the state of the rule of law in Turkey, where a single dollar bill can stand as “evidence” of terrorist activity. 

Authorities also seized on Uluçay’s possession of books about Kurdish politics and terrorism: typical possessions for a political specialist whose job is to help American diplomats understand conditions in southeast Turkey.

U.S. embassies and consulates around the world hire local staff like Uluçay to facilitate engagement with local contacts and to advise on political and cultural dynamics in the host country.  Since U.S. diplomats rotate among overseas posts every few years, locally employed staff (or LES, as they are known) often serve as important focal points of continuity and institutional memory in the work of a diplomatic mission. In Uluçay’s case, he offered successive rotations of American diplomats in Adana decades’ worth of established relationships and experience working with local groups and individuals.  

As LES directly support U.S. diplomatic representation in a country, it is rare for host nation authorities to openly interfere with their work, least of all in countries with friendly relations with the United States. For this reason—and in the absence of credible evidence to support the serious allegations against him—the detention of Uluçay last February represented a significant diplomatic incident. 

The affront was compounded seven months later when Turkish authorities detained another longtime Turkish employee of a U.S. consulate, this time in Istanbul. Metin Topuz was taken into custody on September 25 and shortly thereafter charged with “membership in a terrorist organization,” “gathering state secrets for espionage,” and “attempting to overthrow [the Government, Turkish National Assembly, and the Constitutional Order].” 

Topuz had spent more than 20 years working for the U.S. consulate where he helped officers of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration liaise with Turkish counterparts. According to Turkish press reports, his official communications had brought him into contact with suspected Gulen-affiliated officers in the Turkish security services. Topuz, therefore, was accused of belonging to the so-called “Fethullah Terrorist Organization,” or “FETO.”

U.S. officials tried in vain to obtain a credible justification from Turkish authorities for Topuz’s arrest only to see them target a second employee of the Istanbul Consulate General for arrest, Mete Canturk.  In response to these developments, on October 8 the United States announced the indefinite suspension of non-immigrant visa services in Turkey. Then-U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass announced the decision in a videotaped statement, commenting, “Despite our best efforts to learn the reasons for [Topuz’s] arrest, we have been unable to determine why it occurred or what, if any, evidence exists against the employee.”

“This arrest,” he continued, “has raised questions about whether the goal of some officials is to disrupt the long-standing cooperation between Turkey and the United States.” 

The State Department resumed limited visa services in Turkey on November 6 and restored full services on December 28 after receiving assurances from Turkish authorities that no additional local employees were under investigation, that local staff will not be detained for performing their official duties, and that Turkish officials would provide the United States advanced warning of any future arrest. Nevertheless, both Uluçay and Topuz remain in custody to this day.

In addition, on January 31, 2018 authorities placed Canturk, the other LES who was sought by authorities in October, under house arrest allegedly for links to the Gulen movement. Although formal charges have yet to be filed, he has been unable to return to work.

The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing on November 15 to examine the deterioration of Turkey’s rule of law and the ongoing detention of Uluçay, Topuz, and several U.S. citizens on coup-related charges. In his testimony before the Commission, State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Turkey Jonathan R. Cohen stated, “It appears to us that Mr. Uluçay and Mr. Topuz were arrested for maintaining legitimate contacts with Turkish government and local officials and others in the context of their official duties on behalf of the U.S. government.”

Helsinki Commissioners have raised their cases on several occasions and will continue to do so until they are released. In May, the Helsinki Commission’s bicameral, bipartisan leadership led a letter with the bipartisan House co-chairs of the Lantos Human Rights Commission urging President Trump to raise Uluçay’s case directly with President Erdogan during the latter’s official visit to Washington that month.  Later in the year, ten Commissioners wrote to Turkish President Erdogan calling on him to help swiftly resolve Uluçay and Topuz’s cases, among others.

While chairing the Commission’s November hearing, Senate Commissioner Thom Tillis said, “The harassment and detention of our consulate staff has…overstepped the bounds of diplomatic conduct among partners.”

Sen. Tillis clearly expressed that the United States should “not accept anything short of true and timely justice for our detained consulate staff and our citizens behind bars.” One year since his detention, justice for Hamza Uluçay—like others—remains a distant prospect.

 

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    WASHINGTON—In response to mounting casualties from clashes between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces in northwestern Syria and the Turkish government’s decision to open its borders to refugee flows toward mainland Europe, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “A vicious Russian and Syrian government offensive in Idlib province is responsible for the unacceptable military escalation, civilian suffering, and displacement crisis we have witnessed in recent days and weeks,” said Chairman Hastings. “Presidents Putin and Assad must stop this assault immediately and comply with international humanitarian law requiring them to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure. I further urge the Trump administration to deploy appropriate resources to address these pressing security and humanitarian challenges, which will undoubtedly impact the OSCE region. We must sustainably meet the needs of the most vulnerable and the countless refugees resulting from Russian and Syrian aggression.” On February 27, Russian-backed Syrian forces killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers in the northwestern Idlib province of Syria. Following this incident, the Turkish government announced the opening of Turkey’s borders for refugees and migrants to go westward to European Union member countries, despite the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement “to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU.” That agreement is founded on the multi-billion euro EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey established in 2015. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in a March 2 statement, the daily rate of refugees and asylum-seekers arriving in Greece from Turkey has increased in March.     Since early December, fighting in northwestern Syria has displaced more than 948,000 people, including 569,000 children and 195,000 women, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Along with the United States, Tukey is a NATO ally. The United States, Russian Federation and Turkey, are  participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

  • Restrictions on Civil Society in Hungary

    Since returning to power in 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government, which is now in its fourth (third consecutive) term. This has included introducing significant changes to the legal framework for parliamentary elections; stripping hundreds of faiths of their state recognition in 2011 and then channeling money to religious groups that do not challenge government positions (increasing dependence of those groups on the state); overseeing the consolidation of most Hungarian media, first into the hands of government-tied oligarchy and then into a single foundation exempt from anti-trust regulation; and eroding judicial independence by, for example, expanding and packing the constitutional court. In light of restrictions imposed on political opposition, faith organizations, the media and the judiciary, the role of Hungarian civil society in holding the government to account (by, for example, suing the government for non-compliance with the Hungarian constitution or Hungary’s international legal commitments) has taken on heightened importance. At the same time, civil society organizations have become the targets of escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions, including laws that significantly lower the bar for what it takes to jail people who seek to exercise their freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law and Daniela Ondraskova, Max Kampelman Fellow

  • Senators Cardin and Wicker Introduce Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act (S. 3026). The CROOK Act would establish an anti-corruption action fund to provide extra funding during historic windows of opportunity for reform in foreign countries as well as streamline the U.S. Government’s work building the rule of law abroad. On July 18, 2019, Rep. Bill Keating (MA-10) and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) introduced a similar bill in the U.S House of Representatives. “Corruption has become the primary tool of authoritarian foreign policy,” said Sen. Cardin. “Reprehensible regimes steal the livelihoods of their own people and then use that dirty money to destabilize other countries. No leader deploys this strategy more blatantly and destructively than Vladimir Putin, who has devastated the Russian economy and the lives of ordinary Russians to advance his own interests.” “This bill would bolster the legal and financial defenses of U.S. allies against the influence of Russia, China, Venezuela, and other authoritarian regimes,” said Sen. Wicker. “By working together, we can close off opportunities for corrupt actors to undermine democracy around the world.” The anti-corruption action fund established in the legislation would assist countries where U.S. assistance could significantly increase the chances of successfully transitioning to democracy, combating corruption, and establishing the rule of law, such as Ukraine in 2014, Ethiopia after the election of a new Prime Minister who instituted important reforms in 2018, or Armenia after the December 2018 parliamentary election. This no-year fund would establish a mechanism to allocate aid and take advantage of ripened political will more quickly. The monies for this fund would derive from a $5 million surcharge to individual companies and entities that incur Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) criminal fines and penalties above $50 million. The legislation would also establish several complementary mechanisms to generate a whole-of-government approach to U.S. efforts to strengthen the rule of law abroad. These include an interagency taskforce; the designation of embassy anti-corruption points of contact to liaise with the task force; reporting requirements designed to combat corruption, kleptocracy, and illegal finance; and a consolidated online platform for easy access to anti-corruption reports and materials. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, endeavors to counter corruption and malign influence in all its forms. Helsinki Commissioners have sponsored and cosponsored other anti-corruption legislation such as the Kleptocrat Exposure Act (H.R. 3441), the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (H.R. 4140), the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act (H.R. 4330/S. 2483), and the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (H.R. 835/S. 259).

  • Public Diplomacy, Democracy, and Global Leadership

    For more than a century, the United States has advanced shared human rights, economic, and security policy goals in the transatlantic relationship by cultivating people-to-people ties through public diplomacy initiatives.  As democracies around the world face new challenges emanating from demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats, the need for public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance, grows more relevant. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to focus on U.S.-led public diplomacy international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region. Presiding over the hearing, Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) stated, “This year, under my leadership, the Helsinki Commission has held events on the importance of international election observation, good governance, and focused on democratic backsliding in particular countries as part of our continued commitment to the underlying principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  Common to all of these issues is the role good leaders can play in ensuring free and fair elections; laws that are equitable, transparent, and enforced; and laying the groundwork to ensure protections and rights for all in their constituencies […] for the long-term stability of our nation and the transatlantic partnership.”  In his opening remarks, Chairman Hastings also noted that he planned to introduce legislation to support of leadership exchanges and knowledge-building between diverse transatlantic policymakers, and to encourage representative democracies. He also announced a February program for young OSCE parliamentarians to strengthen their political inclusion and advance peace and security efforts. Chairman Hastings was joined by Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Veasey raised the importance of metrics in assessing the impact of leadership programs and soft diplomacy, while Rep. Cleaver stated, “For the first time since the end of World War II, the extreme right is actually winning seats in the German Parliament,” highlighting increased security risks related to public diplomacy programs operating in countries that have seen an increase in hate crimes and racial prejudice. Witnesses included Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director of the Socrates Program at the Aspen Institute; Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair of the American Council of Young Political Leaders; and Lora Berg, Counselor for Inclusive Leadership at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Carter reviewed the Aspen Institute’s public policy programming on transatlantic relations and discussed the importance of promoting democratic values, including efforts to strengthen the capacity of congressional staff and encourage dialogues around the United States on being an “inclusive republic.”  He concluded by asking Congress to create more opportunities for public discourse on issues that threaten the stability of democracies around the world. Fujii discussed the importance of international exchanges in supporting democracies and the work of American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL). ACYPL was founded in 1966 to strengthen transatlantic relationships by promoting mutual understanding among young political leaders in Western Europe and the former Soviet Union.  Critical aspects of the program include offering international leaders the opportunity to come to the U.S. to observe campaigning, polling stations, election returns, and the response of the American people to elections, complemented by follow-on educational conversations about democratic processes in their countries.  Berg highlighted the importance of public diplomacy initiatives in advancing inclusive leadership and observed that nations gain in richness and capacity when diversity is reflected in leadership. She also noted that inclusive leadership not only plays an important role in promoting social harmony, but it also helps to ensure economic growth, stating that “the places with the highest social cohesion are the most reliable for investment.” Berg explained that the GMF’s Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) grew out of work she engaged in while working for the Department of State. TILN is an innovative network of young, diverse leaders across the United States and Europe supported by the Helsinki Commission and State Department.    Berg argued for the expansion of U.S. Government-supported public diplomacy inclusive leadership initiatives targeting youth and diverse populations in western democracies, including through public-private partnerships, the creation of a public diplomacy officer position in Europe to foster Europe-wide next generation transatlantic leadership, and increased political participation measures domestically and abroad for diverse populations.   

  • It's All About the Money

    As the countries of the Western Balkans continue to seek the integration that promises stability and prosperity, the inability to genuinely confront and overcome official corruption through good governance measures has undoubtedly slowed their progress. Foreign investment—vital to improved economic performance—is discouraged by a business climate characterized by weak adherence to the rule of law.  As a result, the countries of the region are witnessing a “brain drain” as the most talented and well-educated leave.  They also remain vulnerable to malign foreign investors, including Russia, that pursue political influence rather than profits.    Current political leaders have little incentive to make further democratic changes that could lead to their removal from power; they instead rely on lingering nationalist sentiments to continue benefiting from the corrupt practices they tolerate. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, experts from Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina analyzed the gaps in governance that facilitate the inflow of “corrosive capital” and subsequent foreign meddling in the Western Balkans, and encourage an exodus of the best and brightest from the region. Panelists also suggested specific ways to strengthen economic resiliency, democratic transition, and the possibilities for integration.        

  • Helsinki Commission to Review Role of Professional Exchanges in Strengthening Democratic Institutions

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PUBLIC DIPLOMACY, DEMOCRACY, AND GLOBAL LEADERSHIP An Approach for the 21st Century Thursday, December 5, 2019 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For more than a century, the United States has advanced human rights, economic, and security policy goals in Europe by cultivating people-to-people ties across the Atlantic. More than 500 heads of state, 100 Members of Congress, and thousands of professionals have participated in U.S. Government-sponsored exchanges, including the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, while public and private organizations have hosted similar programs to bring leaders together.    Witnesses at the hearing will explore the origins and role of professional exchanges and other public diplomacy programs that strengthen relationships with U.S. allies in the face of shared challenges including eroding trust in democratic institutions, demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats. In particular, the hearing will focus on international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Lora Berg, Senior Fellow, Leadership Programs, German Marshall Fund of the United States Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director, Socrates Program, The Aspen Institute   Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair, American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL)   Photo credit: German Marshall Fund of the United States

  • The Importance of the Open Skies Treaty

    The Trump administration reportedly is considering withdrawing the United States from the Open Skies Treaty, a key arms control agreement that has enjoyed bipartisan support for decades. The treaty underpins security and stability in Europe by providing for unarmed aerial observation flights over its 34 signatories. The treaty allows even small countries greater awareness of military activities around them—more crucial than ever given the Kremlin’s demonstrated willingness to violate established borders. The principles of military transparency embodied by the treaty flow from the same fundamental commitments that led to the creation of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Open Skies Consultative Commission, which oversees implementation of the treaty, meets monthly at OSCE headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Witnesses at the hearing, organized jointly with the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment, explored the continued contributions of the Open Skies Treaty to the security of the United States, as well as its benefits to U.S. allies and partners. Witnesses also assessed Russia’s partial non-compliance with elements of the treaty and strategies to address this challenge, and evaluated the implications of a possible U.S. withdrawal on security and stability in Europe and Eurasia.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mark 10th Anniversary of Death of Sergei Magnitsky

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the ten-year anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky’s death on November 16, Helsinki Commission leaders issued the following statements: “Sergei Magnitsky was a fearless truth-teller who wanted to make his country a better place,” said Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20). “Unfortunately, his brave actions were rewarded not with accolades from the Russian Government, but with vicious abuse and death in a cold jail cell. Not much has changed in today’s Russia. We must honor his legacy by continuing to stand up for those who are voiceless and defend human rights at home and abroad.” “The recent ruling against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights is an important vindication for the Magnitsky family, but real justice remains elusive,” said Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). “Russian authorities still have made no effort to punish those involved in Sergei Magnitsky’s detention and abuse. America has not forgotten Sergei Magnitsky—his legacy continues to inspire people around the world to hold fast to the truth in the face of intimidation and violence by authoritarian regimes.” “Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a perilous place for those who dare to challenge the authorities. No one knew that truth more than Sergei Magnitsky,” said Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02).  “Ten years on, his death reminds us that defending human rights is vital to promoting democracy. I honor Sergei Magnitsky’s memory and hopefully await the dawning of a new age in Russia in which Sergei will be acknowledged as a hero instead of vilified and falsely accused.” “Sergei Magnitsky’s faithfulness to the truth cost him his life. His legacy spurred a quest for justice in Russia and around the world,” said Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD). “The Sergei Magnitsky and Global Magnitsky Acts make clear to all that the United States stands with those whose rights and basic freedoms are repressed. It should never be U.S. policy to normalize the behavior of human rights abusers and despots. Human rights cannot and should not be open to compromise; it must be a cornerstone of our foreign policy agenda. A decade after his death, we both mourn Sergei Magnitsky and remember his courage. Through his actions, he taught us that we are all capable of rising to the challenge and standing up for justice.” In 2008, Sergei Magnitsky, who advised Hermitage Capital Management in a dispute over alleged tax evasion in Russia, discovered a $230 million fraud being committed by Russian law enforcement officers assigned to the case. Magnitsky reported the fraud to the authorities and was arrested soon after by the same officers he had accused. For almost a year, Magnitsky was held in squalid prison conditions, denied visits from his family, and beaten by guards. Despite developing serious cases of gallstones, pancreatitis, and cholecystitis, he was denied medical attention. On November 16, 2009, Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death in his cell. He had been imprisoned for 358 days, just seven days short of the maximum legal pre-trial detention period in Russia.

  • Helsinki Commission and Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment to Hold Joint Hearing on Open Skies Treaty

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment have announced the following hearing: THE IMPORTANCE OF THE OPEN SKIES TREATY Tuesday, November 19, 2019 10:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2172 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The Trump administration reportedly is considering withdrawing the United States from the Open Skies Treaty, a key arms control agreement that has enjoyed bipartisan support for decades. The treaty underpins security and stability in Europe by providing for unarmed aerial observation flights over its 34 signatories. The treaty allows even small countries greater awareness of military activities around them—more crucial than ever given the Kremlin’s demonstrated willingness to violate established borders. The principles of military transparency embodied by the treaty flow from the same fundamental commitments that led to the creation of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Open Skies Consultative Commission, which oversees implementation of the treaty, meets monthly at OSCE headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Witnesses at the hearing, organized jointly with the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment, will explore the continued contributions of the Open Skies Treaty to the security of the United States, as well as its benefits to U.S. allies and partners. Witnesses also will assess Russia’s partial non-compliance with elements of the treaty and strategies to address this challenge, and evaluate the implications of a possible U.S. withdrawal on security and stability in Europe and Eurasia. Witnesses scheduled to participate include: Jon Wolfsthal, Director, Nuclear Crisis Group; Senior Advisor, Global Zero; Former Special Assistant to the President for National Security; Former Senior Director for Nonproliferation and Arms Control at the National Security Council Damian Leader, Ph.D., Professor, New York University; former Chief Arms Control Delegate for the United States Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Amy Woolf, Specialist in Nuclear Weapons Policy, Congressional Research Services Witnesses may be added.  All members of the media wishing to attend the hearing must be accredited through the House Radio-Television Correspondents’ Gallery. For more information on accreditation, please contact the gallery at 202-225-5214.  

  • Putin's Shadow Warriors

    Reports of shadowy Russian mercenaries in unexpected locations have grown more frequent and alarming. Yet, western understanding of the Kremlin’s use of private contractors — useful to Moscow for their deniability and relatively low cost — remains limited. Policy responses can be complicated by the potential conflation of Russian organizations, like the Wagner Group, with the private military and security companies used by the United States and its allies. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, experts shone a spotlight on the Kremlin’s destabilizing use of mercenaries around the world, clarified the difference between Moscow’s approach and that of the United States and its allies, and reviewed efforts underway internationally, within the OSCE and elsewhere, to develop and promote norms that would govern the use of private security and military companies (PMSCs). During the briefing, the audience heard from the RAND Corporation’s Dara Massicot, University of Denver Professor Dr. Deborah Avant, and recently retired U.S. Government technical expert on armed contractors Col. Christopher Mayer, U.S. Army retired. The briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Alex Tiersky. Mr. Tiersky explained in his opening remarks that even though reports of Russian mercenaries have become more frequent and alarming, our understanding of the Kremlin’s use of private security contractors remains somewhat limited. He pointed to The New York Times’ headline from the day before, which confirmed suspicions of Russian mercenaries in Libya, as an example of the relevancy of the issue today. Ms. Massicot began the panel with a broad overview about Russian PMSCs. She explained that there are two types of contracting groups in Russia: private security companies, which are legal entities in Russia that are more selective in their recruitment and types of missions, and private military companies (PMCs), which are illegal yet have proliferated in recent years. The most well-known Russian private military company is the Wagner Group, best known for its involvement in eastern Ukraine, Syria and Africa. Massicot also noted that Russian PMCs support both Russian grand strategy and the commercial interests of their owners. Dr. Avant remarked on the double-edged sword of the flexibility of PMSCs. On the one hand, they provide services for unexpected or necessary demands. For example, if a government needed French-speaking troops but did not have many of them, they could hire a private security company who could provide those forces. On the other hand, they are managed outside of regular political and military channels, resulting in an increased risk of misbehavior by the contracting government and the PMSC personnel. Dr. Avant briefly delved into the work of the International Code of Conduct Association, which seeks to define appropriate behavior for PMSCs. Col. Mayer spoke about the international and national efforts the United States government participated in to regulate the conduct of PMSCs. He specifically spoke about the Montreux Document, which details international legal obligations and good practices for states involved in the PMSC process, United States national laws that regulate PMSC conduct, and the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers. Col. Mayer also remarked on the current decrease of State Department and Defense Department involvement in international activity regarding PMSCs. This is concerning as it coincided with increased activity among mercenary groups, thereby threatening the gains made in the past 15 years by international agreements. However, Col. Mayer noted that there is hope for future United States reengagement, citing one promising initiative as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s recent resolution on PMSC activity.

  • At What Cost?

    Sparked by the recent Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, increased tensions between the United States and Turkey have reignited the debate about the future of U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations. The Helsinki Commission convened this hearing to discuss how the United States should respond to the Turkish Government’s continuing abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Expert witnesses at the hearing reviewed prominent cases of politically-motivated prosecution, failures of due process, and prospects for judicial reform as they relate to Turkey’s commitments as a member of both the OSCE and NATO. The panel also evaluated President Erdogan’s plan to return millions of Syrian refugees to their war-torn country or push them to Europe, and the human consequences of his military incursion into Syria. Presiding over the hearing, Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson affirmed that as co-chair for the Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations & Turkish Americans he supports the people of Turkey and the U.S.-Turkish alliance. He cautioned, however, that President Erdogan’s actions threaten to undermine that alliance and damage the security of the region. Rep. Marc Veasey noted that Turkey is being “torn between two worlds”: one of democracy and one of autocracy. Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Steve Cohen were also present at the hearing. The Commission heard testimony from Gonul Tol, Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute; Merve Tahiroglu, the Turkey Program Coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED); Henri Barkey, the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor at Lehigh University; Eric Schwartz, the President of Refugees International; and Talip Kucukcan, professor of sociology at Marmara University. Dr. Tol testified that “most freedoms under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been dramatically curtailed” but counseled that Turkey “is not a fullblown dictatorship.” The Turkish government has targeted activists, journalists, and opposition politicians with “trumped-up terrorism charges and “largely criminalized Kurdish political expression.” She highlighted the opposition’s recent victories in mayoral elections as “a testament to the peoples of Turkey, the great majority of whom refuse to give up on the idea of democratic rule.” Dr. Tol further urged the United States to view “the Kurdish question…[as] a matter of democratization and human rights” for the Turkish state. Ms. Tahiroglu explained the deterioration of the rule of law under Erdogan’s government. According to her testimony, Erdogan’s administration has politicized the judiciary and rendered it “a main weapon against government critics and opponents” through repressive laws and false terrorism charges. She noted key judicial cases against civil society activists, journalists, opposition politicians, professors, U.S. citizens, and employees of U.S. consulates in the country. Ms. Tahiroglu testified that the breakdown of the rule of law in Turkey matters for U.S. interests because it has swept up U.S. citizens, “fuels anti-Americanism,” and “embolden[s] Turkey’s aggressive policies abroad by suppressing dissenting voices.” Dr. Barkey focused his testimony on the Turkish government’s suppression of the struggle for recognition of Kurdish social and political identity. Barkey explained the significance of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—Turkey’s second largest opposition party—in providing an opportunity for Turkey’s Kurdish population to participate in Turkish politics. “From that perspective, they have been very, very successful,” Barkey assessed. “It may have been far too successful for its own good.” Dr. Barkey detailed President Erdogan’s “relentless campaign to dismantle and delegitimize the HDP.” Mr. Schwartz spoke about the humanitarian implications of Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria. The reports of human rights abuses and civilian deaths are cause for deep concern, he said. He criticized the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria instead of implementing a strategic departure. Schwartz concluded with a recommendation for the United States to support locally based NGOs that provide humanitarian assistance to populations by the Turkish operation. Dr. Kucukcan reminded the audience that Turkey’s incursion occurred with President Donald Trump’s consent. The incursion, he noted, serves to protect Turkey’s national security and preserve the territorial integrity of Syria.  Dr. Kucukcan disputed that Turkey plans “ethnic cleansing” or “demographic engineering in places where [military] operations took place.”

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