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The Ongoing Tragedy of International Parental Child Abduction
Thursday, January 11, 2018

Each year, between 600 and 800 American children are taken from the United States by one parent without the consent of the other. 

The parent left behind can only wonder if the children are safe, warm, well-fed, and loved, and what – if anything – their precious children are being told about them.  Many children are intentionally misled by the taking parent to hate and distrust the left-behind parent. 

Abducted children also suffer tremendously from the abduction and the subsequent loss of contact with the left-behind parent.  Research shows that abducted children who are recovered often experience a range of serious short- and long-term emotional and psychological problems, including anxiety, eating disorders, nightmares, mood swings, sleep disturbances, aggressive behavior, resentment, guilt, and fearfulness.   

In 1988, the United States became a party to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which seeks to deter parents from putting their children through the trauma of an international abduction by—absent a grave threat to a child’s well-being—returning abducted children back to their home country and home courts to determine the best interests of the child. 

The Convention affirms that if a custody decision has already been made, it should not be re-litigated thousands of miles away in a foreign court. If a custody decision needs to be made, the courts in the home country are the courts with the best access to school records, police reports, neighbors, teachers, friends, and many other resources to help determine the child’s best interest.  The Convention also protects an abducted child’s relationship with the left-behind parent, requiring that a child should have access to the parent for the duration of court proceedings for return, and should have access to the parent even if the return is denied. Seven of eleven Partners for Cooperation, including Japan, are party to the Hague Convention, as are fifty-one of fifty-seven participating States, including Slovakia.  

However, as the Cook and Frisancho families know all too well, securing implementation of the Convention can be a financially and emotionally draining nightmare.

Japan

James Cook learned just weeks ago that Japan has again failed to return his four children to him.  He has been kept from contact with them for more than three years in a family vacation-turned-abduction case. 

More than two years ago, Japan’s high court ordered Cook’s ex-wife to return the children to their father in the U.S., per the Hague Convention. However, despite the court ruling, Japanese authorities failed to enforce the return decision for a year.  As a result, Mr. Cook spent thousands of dollars on legal fees and travel to Japan to fight for his children.  When the financial burden forced Mr. Cook to move to an apartment, Japanese courts revoked the return because they did not consider an apartment a “stable home”—a conclusion that would surprise the millions of families in Japan and the U.S. who live happily in apartments.  

That conclusion also would surprise the writers of the Convention, who provided as an exception to return “grave threats that would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation”—situations that would include war, famine, a disease epidemic, or very serious abuse or neglect of the child from which the home country could not protect the child.   

“Japan’s own Hague courts twice ordered return of my children, but Japan ignored the orders until they could find a way to revoke them,” said Mr. Cook. “I followed the rules, respected the process, and trusted in the Convention—but Japan remains the ‘black hole’ of child abduction.”

Slovakia

Dr. Augusto Frisancho knows all too well the heartache of winning in court, only to have enforcement of a judgment delayed until it is eventually reversed.  Dr. Frisancho, a medical doctor at the Johns Hopkins University, has not seen or even been allowed to speak to his three sons after their mother abducted them to Slovakia seven years ago.  

Like Mr. Cook, Dr. Frisancho opted to use the Hague Convention rather than seek the criminal prosecution of his estranged spouse in the United States or Slovakia for kidnapping.  The Slovak courts ordered that his children be returned to the United States to resolve any custody questions.  Although the court order returning custody to Dr. Frisancho was—according to standard procedural rules governing such legal actions—final, a year later the decision was reversed in a closed-door proceeding from which Dr. Frisancho was excluded.

Dr. Frisancho took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, which found unanimously that his rights had been violated by Slovakia.  Slovakia paid the court-imposed damage award and changed its laws on closed proceedings and appeals in abduction cases.  

However, seven years after the abduction, Dr. Frisancho still has no access to his children, much less custody.  He has not even been given a photo of his children and relies on age-enhanced images from the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children to see a glimpse of what his children may look like today.

When Slovakia ordered Dr. Frisancho’s estranged wife to bring the children to court to verify their well-being with a psychologist, she refused.  When Slovakia ordered her not to remove the children from Slovakia, she moved the children across the border into Hungary.

Although the children regularly visit their grandparents in Slovakia and Dr. Frisancho’s estranged wife works in Slovakia, Slovakia has not enforced the court orders or ruled on Dr. Frisancho’s petition to finish the case. 

Were Slovakia to finish the case, Dr. Frisancho could enforce the ruling in Hungary using the Brussels II Regulation.  As it is, Dr. Frisancho is facing the fact that he may have to translate thousands of pages of Slovakian court proceedings into Hungarian and restart his case in Hungary—losing more precious time with his children.

“I want to see my children.  I want my children to know they have a father who loves them dearly and who prays every night that somehow this wrong to them will be righted,” said Dr. Frisancho.  “Despite every opportunity over 7 years, Slovakia has inexplicably failed to meet the two main goals of the Hague Convention—return and access.”

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Criminal Defamation Laws All individuals, including public officials, have a legitimate right to protect their reputations if untruthful statements have been made about them. Untrue statements which damage a person’s reputation constitute defamation. Oral defamation is known as slander; defamation in writing or other permanent forms such as film is libel. In some instances, criminal codes make defamation of public officials, the nation, or government organs a discreet offense, as distinct from defamation of a person. Truthful statements – as well as unverifiable statements of opinion – are not legally actionable as defamation. Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights has held that public officials must tolerate a greater degree of criticism than private individuals: “The limits of acceptable criticism are accordingly wider as regards a politician as such than as regards a private individual. Unlike the latter, the former inevitably and knowingly lays himself open to close scrutiny of his every word and deed by both journalists and the public at large, and he must consequently display a greater degree of tolerance.” (Lingens v. Austria, Eur. Ct. H.R., 1986.) Criminal defamation laws are those which establish criminal sanctions for defamation. Those sanctions may include imprisonment, fines, and prohibitions on writing. Individuals convicted of defamation in a criminal proceeding and sentenced to suspended prison terms may be subjected to the threat of immediate imprisonment if, for example, they violate an order not to publish. The existence of a criminal record may also have other social and legal consequences. In a criminal defamation case, state law enforcement agents (police and prosecutors) act, using taxpayer money, to investigate the alleged defamation and to act on behalf of the alleged victim. It is sometimes argued that criminal defamation laws are necessary to achieve the legitimate goal of providing the victims of defamation with redress. But general laws against libel and slander, embodied in civil codes, provide private persons as well as public officials the opportunity to seek redress, including damages, for alleged defamation. In such cases, the plaintiff and defendant stand in court as equals. Accordingly, specific criminal laws prohibiting defamation are unnecessary. “Insult” Laws "Insult" laws make offending the "honor and dignity" of public officials (e.g., the President), government offices (e.g., the Constitutional Court), national institutions, and/or the “state” itself punishable. Unlike defamation laws, truth is not a defense to a charge of insult. Accordingly, insult laws are often used to punish the utterance of truthful statements, as well as opinions, satire, invective, and even humor. Although insult laws and criminal defamation laws both punish speech, significant differences exist between them. Defamation laws are intended to provide a remedy against false assertions of fact. Truthful statements, as well as opinion, are not actionable. The use of civil laws to punish defamation is permissible under international free speech norms. The use of criminal sanctions to punish defamation, however, chills free speech, is subject to abuse (through the use of state law enforcement agents), and is inconsistent with international norms. In contrast, recourse to any insult law, whether embodied in a civil or a criminal code, is inconsistent with international norms. Their Use Today At one time, almost all OSCE countries had criminal defamation and insult laws. Over time, these laws have been repealed, invalidated by courts, or fallen into disuse in many OSCE participating States. Unfortunately, many criminal codes contained multiple articles punishing defamation and insult. Thus, even when parliaments and courts have acted, they have sometimes failed to remove all legal prohibitions against insult or all criminal sanctions for defamation. In communist countries and other anti-democratic regimes, such laws are often used to target political opponents of the government. Today, when insult and criminal defamation laws are used, they are most often used to punish mere criticism of government policies or public officials, to stifle political discussion, and to squelch news and discussion that governments would rather avoid. It is relatively rare for a private individual (someone who is not a public official, elected representative, or person of means and influence) to persuade law enforcement representatives to use the tax dollars of the public to protect their reputations. In some OSCE countries, such laws are still used to systematically punish political opponents of the regime. Even in countries where these laws have fallen into a long period of disuse, it is not unheard of for an overzealous prosecutor to revive them for seemingly political purposes. The International Context Numerous non-governmental organizations have taken strong positions against criminal defamation and insult laws. These include Amnesty International; Article 19; the Committee to Protect Journalists; national Helsinki Committees such as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Croatian Helsinki Committee, Greek Helsinki Committee; Romanian Helsinki Committee; and Slovak Helsinki Committee; the International Helsinki Federation; The World Press Freedom Committee; Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression; national chapters of PEN; and Reporters Sans Frontières. Moreover, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression issued a joint statement in February 2000 which included the following conclusions, based on relevant international norms: “Expression should not be criminalized unless it poses a clear risk of serious harm. [. . . ] Examples of this are laws prohibiting the publication of false news and sedition laws. . . . These laws should be repealed.” “Criminal defamation laws should be abolished.” “Civil defamation laws should respect the following principles: public bodies should not be able to bring defamation actions; truth should always be available as a defense; politicians and public officials should have to tolerate a greater degree of criticism. . . .” Finally, the United States Department of State regularly reports on cases where criminal defamation or insult laws have been used in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and, at OSCE meetings, has frequently called for the repeal of such laws in recent years. Illustrative Slovak Cases Since the establishment of an independent Slovak state on January 1, 1993, there have been a steady trickle of people who have been charged with “insulting” or defaming public officials. At present, for example, journalist Ales Kratky is facing charges of criminal defamation in connection with his May 2001 criticism of a speech delivered by President Rudolf Schuster. If found guilty, Kratky faces a possible two-year prison term. In March 2000, journalist Vladimir Mohorita was sentenced to four months in prison for criticizing the government’s decision to allow NATO aircraft to use Slovak airspace during the Kosovo crisis. In a substantially larger number of instances, individuals (most often journalists and politicians) have been threatened with charges of defamation or insult. Indeed, it is a time-honored tradition in Slovakia to accuse one’s political enemies of defamation. In addition to free speech concerns presented by recourse to criminal defamation and insult laws, developments in Slovakia have raised other free speech concerns. For example, the charge of defamation of race, creed or nationality has become increasingly popular in recent years. Deputy Jan Slota, widely known for his inflammatory anti-Hungarian and anti-Roma rhetoric, survived an effort to strip him of his parliamentary immunity in 1999 as a prelude to charging him with defamation of race, creed or nationality. More recently, Romani activist Alexander Patkolo has been threatened with the charge of spreading alarming information and human rights lawyer Columbus Igboanusi has been threatened with charges of spreading alarming information and defaming the Republic of Slovakia. Sources include: Amnesty International (AI); Article XIX; the Committee to Protect Journalists; East European Constitutional Review; “Freedom in the World” reports (published by Freedom House); Index on Censorship; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; U.S. State Department annual Country Reports on Human Rights; the World Press Freedom Committee. Relevant Slovak Laws News reports about persons charged with criminal defamation or “insulting” public officials, government offices or national institutions often do not cite the specific legal basis for the charges. In Slovakia, the laws which appear to give rise to such charges include the following: Article 49 (1) (a) of the Simple Offenses Act provides that anyone who offends another person by insulting him or exposing him to ridicule may be punished by a fine. Article 102 of the Penal Code prohibits defamation of the Republic, National Council of the Slovak Republic, Government or the Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic, punishable by up to two years in prison. Article 103 of the Penal Code prohibits defamation of the President of the Republic for the execution of his powers or for his activities in the political life, punishable by up to two years in prison. Article 154(2) of the Penal Code prohibits gross insults or defamation of an organ of state administration in the exercise of its function or in connection with its function, punishable by up to one year in prison. Article 206 of the Penal Code prohibits the dissemination of false and discrediting information about another person, punishable by up to two years in prison. If the defamation occurs in the broadcast or print media, the punishment may increase to five years. In addition, someone convicted under this article may be banned from working as a journalist.

  • Roadblock to Religious Liberty: Religious Registration

    The United States Helsinki Commission conducted a public briefing to explore the issue of religious registration, one of many roadblocks to religious liberties around the world, focusing on religious registration among the 55 nations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The troubling trend followed by several OSCE participating states toward restricting the right to freedom of religion by using registration schemes, making it virtually impossible for citizens to practice their faith was addressed. Panelists at the event – including Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, Co-Chair of the OSCE/ODIHR Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief; Dr. Gerhard Robbers, Member of the OSCE/ODIHR Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief; Vassilios Tsirbas, Senior Counsel for the European Centre for Law and Justice; and Col. Kenneth Baillie, Commanding Officer of the Salvation Army-Moscow – discussed the various ways governments are chipping away at religious liberty. New legislation concerning religious registration policies that could potentially stymie religious freedom within the OSCE region was also addressed.

  • Torture and Police Abuse in the OSCE Region

    Mr. Speaker, over the July Fourth recess, I had the privilege of participating in the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's annual meeting held in Paris, where I introduced a resolution on the need for the OSCE participating States--all of our States--to intensify our efforts to combat torture , police abuse, and racial profiling. This resolution, adopted and included the Assembly's final Declaration, also calls for greater protection for non-governmental organizations, medical personnel, and others who treat the victims of torture and report on their human rights violations. The resolution also condemns the insidious practice of racial profiling, which has the effect of leaving minorities more vulnerable to police abuse. Finally, my resolution calls for the OSCE participating States to adopt, in law and in practice, a complete ban on incommunicado detention. Tragically, recent news reports only underscore how urgent the problem of police abuse is. I would like to survey a few of the reports received by the Helsinki Commission in recent weeks. First, on July 7 in Slovakia, the body of Karol Sendrei, a 51-year-old Romani father, was returned to his family. The convoluted account of his death has included mutual recriminations among police officers and, so far, has led to the resignation of the mayor of Magnezitovce and indictments against three police officers. While much remains to be sorted out, this much is clear: On July 5, Mr. Sendrei was taken into police custody. The next day, he died of injuries, including shock caused by a torn liver, cranial and pericardial bleeding, and broken jaw, sternum, and ribs. According to reports, Mr. Sendrei had been chained to a radiator and beaten over for the last twelve hours of his life. The deaths in police custody of Lubomir Sarissky in 1999 and now Mr. Sendrei, persistent reports of police abuse in villages like Hermanovce, and the reluctance of the police and judicial system to respond seriously to racially motivated crimes have all eroded trust in law enforcement in Slovakia. As Americans know from first-hand experience, when the public loses that trust, society as a whole pays dearly. I welcome the concern for the Sendrei case reflected in the statements of Prime Minister Dzurinda, whom I had the chance to meet at the end of May, and others in his cabinet. But statements alone will not restore confidence in the police among Slovakia's Romani community. Those who are responsible for this death must be held fully accountable before the law. Although it has received far less press attention, in Hungary, a Romani man was also shot and killed on June 30 by an off-duty police officer in Budapest; one other person was injured in that shooting. While the police officer in that case has been arrested, too often reports of police misconduct in Hungary are ignored or have been countered with a slap on the wrist. I remain particularly alarmed by the persistent reports of police brutality in Hajduhadhaz and police reprisals against those who have reported their abuse to the Helsinki Commission. In one case, a teenager in Hajduhadhaz who had reported being abused by the police was detained by the police again--after his case had been brought to the attention of the Helsinki Commission, and after Helsinki Commission staff had raised it with the Hungarian Ambassador. In an apparent attempt to intimidate this boy, the police claimed to have a “John Doe'' criminal indictment for “unknown persons'' for damaging the reputation of Hungary abroad. These are outrageous tactics from the communist-era that should be ended. I urge Hungarian Government officials to look more closely at this problem and take greater efforts to combat police abuse. I understand an investigation has begun into possible torture by a riverbank patrol in Tiszabura, following reports that police in that unit had forced a 14-year-old Romani boy into the ice-cold waters of the Tisza River. There are now reports that this unit may have victimized other people as well. I am hopeful this investigation will be transparent and credible and that those who have committed abuses will be held fully accountable. In the Czech Republic, lack of confidence in law enforcement agents has recently led some Roma to seek to form their own self-defense units. Frankly, this is not surprising. Roma in the Czech Republic continue to be the target of violent, racially motived crime: On April 25, a group of Roma was attacked by German and Czech skinheads in Novy Bor. On June 30, 4 skinheads attacked a group of Roma in Ostrava; one of the victims of that attack was repeatedly stabbed, leaving his life in jeopardy. On July 16, three men shouting Nazi slogans attacked a Romani family in their home in western Bohemia. On July 21, a Romani man was murdered in Svitavy by a man who had previously committed attacks against Roma, only to face a slap on the wrist in the courts. These cases follow a decade in which racially motivated attacks against Roma in the Czech Republic have largely been tolerated by the police. Indeed, in the case of the murder of Milan Lacko, a police officer was involved. More to the point, he ran over Milan Lacko's body with his police car, after skinheads beat him and left him in the road. I am not, however, without hope for the Czech Republic. Jan Jarab, the Czech Government's Human Rights Commissioner, has spoken openly and courageously of the human rights problems in his country. For example, the Czech News Agency recently reported that Jarob had said that “the Czech legal system deals `benevolently' with attacks committed by right-wing extremists, `[f]rom police investigators, who do not want to investigate such cases as racial crimes, to state attorneys and judges, who pass the lowest possible sentences.'”  I hope Czech political leaders--from every party and every walk of life--will support Jan Jarab's efforts to address the problems he so rightly identified. Clearly, problems of police abuse rarely if ever go away on their own. On the contrary, I believe that, unattended, those who engage in abusive practices only become more brazen and shameless. When two police officers in Romania were accused of beating to death a suspect in Cugir in early July, was it really a shock?  In that case, the two officers had a history of using violent methods to interrogate detainees--but there appears to have been no real effort to hold them accountable for their atrocities. I am especially concerned by reports from Amnesty International that children are among the possible victims of police abuse and torture in Romania. On March 14, 14-year-old Vasile Danut was detained by police in Vladesti and beaten severely by police. On April 5, 15-year-old loana Silaghi was reportedly attacked by a police officer in Oradea. Witnesses in the case have reportedly also been intimidated by the police. In both cases, the injuries of the children were documented by medical authorities. I urge the Romanian authorities to conduct impartial investigations into each of these cases and to hold fully accountable those who may be found guilty of violating the law. Mr. Speaker, as is well-known to many Members, torture and police abuse is a particularly widespread problem in the Republic of Turkey. I have been encouraged by the willingness of some public leaders, such as parliamentarian Emre Kocaoglu, to acknowledge the breadth and depth of the problem. Acknowledging the existence of torture must surely be part of any effort to eradicate this abuse in Turkey. I was therefore deeply disappointed by reports that 18 women, who at a conference last year publicly described the rape and other forms of torture meted out by police, are now facing charges Finally, Mr. Speaker, I would like to draw attention to the case of Abner Louima in New York, whose case has come to light again in recent weeks. In 1997, Abner Louima was brutally and horrifically tortured by police officials; he will suffer permanent injuries for the rest of his life because of the damage inflicted in a single evening. Eventually, New York City police officer Justin Volpe pleaded guilty of the crimes. Another officer was also found guilty of participating in the assault and four other officers were convicted of lying to authorities about what happened. On July 12, Abner Louima settled the civil suit he had brought against New York City and its police union. There has been no shortage of ink to describe the $7.125 million that New York City will pay to Mr. Louima and the unprecedented settlement by the police union, which agreed to pay an additional $1.625 million. What is perhaps most remarkable in this case is that Mr. Louima had reached agreement on the financial terms of this settlement months ago. He spent the last 8 months of his settlement negotiations seeking changes in the procedures followed when allegations of police abuse are made. As the Louima case illustrated, there is no OSCE participating State, even one with long democratic traditions and many safeguards in place, that is completely free from police abuse. Of course, I certainly don't want to leave the impression that the problems of all OSCE countries are more or less alike--they are not. The magnitude of the use of torture in Turkey and the use of torture as a means of political repression in Uzbekistan unfortunately distinguish those countries from others. But every OSCE participating State has an obligation to prevent and punish torture and other forms of police abuse and I believe every OSCE country should do more.

  • International Roma Day Revisited

    Mr. Speaker, on International Roma Day last year, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities released a detailed report on the situation of Roma in the OSCE region. Unfortunately, in the intervening months, relatively little progress has been made by government authorities in addressing the problems he described. The Helsinki Commission, which I co-chair, receives so many reports on an almost daily basis which demonstrate the magnitude of the problems Roma face. We receive reports of Roma who are denied access to public places, like the three Roma who were turned away from a Warsaw restaurant last September 29, just before the OSCE convened its annual human rights meeting in that city. We receive reports of discrimination in housing, like the January 27 Hungarian television report that local authorities in Rabakoez, Hungary, have called for prohibiting the sale of real estate to Roma. We receive reports of police abuse, such as the repeated cases of unlawful police raids in Hermanovce, Slovakia. We receive reports of violent attacks, such as the assault on a Romani church in Leskovac, Serbia, at the beginning of this year. Too often, courts are part of the problem, not the solution. Rather than providing a remedy for victims, they compound the abuse. Take a recent case from the Czech Republic. The Czech Supreme Court issued a ruling that a violent attack on a Romani man in 1999 was premeditated and organized, and then remanded the case back to the district court in Jesenik for sentencing in accordance with that finding. But the district court simply ignored the Supreme Court's finding and ordered four of the defendants released. I am hopeful that Slovak courts, which are currently weighing the fate of three of the defendants charged in last year’s brutal murder of Anastazia Balazova, will do a better job of bringing her murderers to justice. In a few places, there are some glimmers of hope. In Viden, Bulgaria, for example, the Romani organization Drom has led a successful effort to bring 400 Romani children, who previously attended segregated schools, into the mainstream school system. In that instance, the cooperation of local and national authorities, governmental and non-governmental bodies, is paying off. Unfortunately, too few government leaders demonstrate the courage necessary to address these issues. Some pass the buck, looking to the European Union or the Council of Europe to fix problems that must be tackled, first and foremost, through political leadership at home. Moreover, a number of EU countries have little to teach the applicant countries about tolerance towards Roma. Many OSCE countries, not just the former Communist states, are in need of comprehensive anti-discrimination laws, a priority recognized in the 1999 OSCE summit agreement and by the European Commission in the adoption of its “race directive” in June of last year. Regrettably, nearly two years after Bulgaria received praise from many quarters for agreeing to adopt such legislation; the government is not one step closer to fulfilling its commitment. The Slovak Government's human rights office, in contrast, has undertaken a serious study of legislative options and may soon have a draft ready for a vote. In addition, it is imperative that political and civic leaders condemn anti-Roma manifestations in clear and unequivocal terms. Mr. Speaker, when the Mayor of Csor, Hungary, a publicly elected official, said “the Roma of Zamoly have no place among human beings; just as in the animal world, parasites must be expelled,” I believe it is the responsibility of Hungary's political leadership to condemn these outrageous slurs. If more leadership was demonstrated, perhaps confidence would have been strengthened and maybe 5,772 Hungarian Roma would not have applied for asylum in Canada over the past three years. When the Mayor of Usti nad Labem built a wall to segregate Roma from non-Roma, all members of the Czech parliament, not just a paper slim majority of 101 out of 200 MPs, should have voted to condemn it. And when Mayor Sechelariu of Bacau, Romania, announced plans to build a statue of Marshall Antonescu, the World War II dictator who deported 25,000 Roma to Transniestra, where some 19,000 of them perished, Romanian officials, who have pledged to the OSCE community to fight intolerance, should begin at home by ridding their country of every Antonescu statue built on public land.

  • U.S. Statements at the 1999 OSCE Review Conference

    In February 1999, officials from 90 governments, including representatives from many OSCE participating States, visited Washington for the First Global Forum on Fighting Corruption among justice and security officials. Participants concluded that their governments must cooperate more closely if they were to succeed in promoting public integrity and controlling corruption among their officials. OSCE efforts served as an example to others when the international community gathered in the Netherlands in 2001 for the Second Global Forum on Fighting Corruption.

  • Torture in the OSCE Region

    In advance of the 2000 commemoration of the United Nations Day in Support of the Victims of Torture, the Helsinki Commission held a briefing to focus on the continuing problem of torture in the OSCE region. In spite of these efforts and the efforts of our Commission, including introducing and working for passage of two bills, the Torture Victims Relief Act and the Reauthorization of the Torture Victims Relief Act, torture continues to be a persistent problem in every OSCE country including the United States. This briefing considered two specific problem areas, Chechnya and Turkey, as well as efforts to prevent torture and to treat torture survivors. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Dr. Inge Genefke, International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims; Maureen Greenwood, Advocacy Director for  Europe and the Middle East, Amnesty International; and Douglas Johnson, Executive Director of the Center for the Victims of Torture – highlighted statistics about the number of torture victims in Turkey and Chechnya and related violations of individual rights.

  • Expressing United States Policy toward the Slovak Republic

    Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, as chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I watched for several years as the human rights situation in Slovakia deteriorated under the leadership of former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. I saw how the fledgling democratic institutions of that new country were undermined, how parliamentary and constitutional processes were threatened, and how the rule of law was slowly but surely choked. I, joined by colleagues from the Commission, raised these issues time and again with Slovak officials, as did other officials of the U.S. Government. Unfortunately, Mr. Meciar was not very receptive to our arguments.   As it happened, however, the fate of the democratic process in Slovakia was not left to the tender mercies of Vladimir Meciar. A year ago, the people of Slovakia took matters into their own hands. In an election carefully monitored by the OSCE, voters returned to office a coalition government that ended Meciar's increasingly authoritarian rule.   Initially, this broadly based, some might even say weak, coalition seemed to stand only for one thing: it was against Meciar. But in the year that has passed, we cannot say that this government is not simply united in its opposition against the former regime, it is united in its commitment for democracy, for the rule of law, for a free market economy, for a transparent privatization process that is accountable to the people, and for a community of democracies dedicated to the protection of their common security.   Mr. Speaker, the process of transition that Slovakia struggles with today is not an easy one. In fact, many of the commemorations held this month to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism have focused on just how difficult this transition has been, including for Slovakia's closest neighbors. In spite of this, the Slovak Government has proceeded to make some very tough decisions this year. I am particularly impressed by the willingness of Prime Minister Dzurinda to make decisions that, while necessary for the long term, economic well-being of his country, may be very politically unpopular in the short term. That takes courage.   I know, of course, that Slovakia still has a lot of work ahead. As in most other European countries, there is much that should be done in Slovakia to improve respect for the human rights of the Romani minority. But there is much that Slovakia has accomplished in the past year and, especially as someone who has been critical of Slovakia in the past, I want to acknowledge and commend those achievements. Mr. Speaker, I hope others will join me in sending this message and will support H. Con. Res. 165.

  • Democratic Processes in Slovakia

    Mr. Speaker, this week a distinguished delegation from the Slovak parliament visited Washington to meet with congressional leaders and other officials. I regret that, because of a hearing on urgent developments in Kosovo, I was unable to meet with them. Nevertheless, the occasion of their visit prompts me to reflect on some of the developments in Slovakia since the elections there on September 25 and 26, 1998. Since a new government was installed on October 30, there has been a sea change in Slovak political life. The very fact that a peaceful transition of power occurred is something we could not have taken for granted, given the increasingly authoritarian rule of Vladimir Meciar manifested by, for example, the refusal of the parliament he controlled to seat two duly elected members. Today, the situation is very different. The formation of a new government has included key changes that were much needed and will foster greater confidence in Slovakia's renewed process of democratization. In particular, the appointment of a new head of the intelligence service, the resolution of competing claims to the position of chief of the armed forces, and the selection of a new general prosecutor help address many of the concerns that arose during Meciar's tenure. The new government's efforts to hold previous officials accountable for their violations of the rule of law and manipulation of parliamentary and constitutional democracy is also a positive sign. During local elections in the fall, non-governmental monitors were permitted to observe the counting of the vote, further fostering public and international confidence in Slovakia's democratic structures. Direct presidential elections are scheduled to be held in May, which will fill a constitutional lacuna. The decision to permit, once again, the issuance of bi-lingual report cards restores common sense to the discussion of issues of concern to the Hungarian minority. The government's stated intent to address the concerns of the Romani minority, concerns which have led many Slovak Roma to seek asylum in other countries, is a welcome step in the right direction. In short, Mr. Speaker, the new government is Slovakia has already undertaken important steps towards fulfilling the promises made when communism collapsed. Slovakia is now at a critical juncture, having succeeded by a slim electoral margin in peacefully removing Vladimir Meciar after 4 years of increasing authoritarian rule. The new government must struggle to restore Slovakia's good name, repair the economy, and get Slovakia back on track for NATO and EU membership. If Slovakia is to succeed in this effort, it is critical that the current coalition hold together long enough to implement real reforms. As it seeks to do so, the new government will be aided by a wellspring of credibility with the internationally community and certainly in Washington, where as the Meciar government, in the end, had none. That wellspring of credibility, however, is not bottomless and time is truly of the essence in Slovakia's reform process. I hope all of the parties participating in the ruling coalition will quickly address some of the issues that have been of special concern to the international community, including the adoption in the first half of this year of a minority language law. Such a step would be a concrete demonstration of the differences between this government and the last. Mr. Speaker, I wish this new coalition government of Slovakia every success in their resolve to make lasting reforms.

  • The Ombudsman in the OSCE: An American Perspective

    This briefing assessed the role of ombudsmen institutions in the countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from an American perspective. The ombudsman institution was described as a flexible institution; adaptable to national and local government structures in a wide variety of countries, and a brief evaluation of the evolution of this institution was presented. Dean M. Gottehrer, a consultant on ombudsmen in human rights institutions for the United Nations Development Program, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE, and the United States Information Agency, presented a personal analysis of the role of ombudsmen institutions in protecting human rights in OSCE participating states.

  • Concerning Properties Wrongfully Expropriated by Formerly Totalitarian Governments

    Mr. Speaker, I thank the gentleman from New York (Mr. Gilman), the chairman of the Committee on International Relations, and the ranking member of my subcommittee, the gentleman from California (Mr. Lantos), for working with me and with my friend and colleague, the gentleman from Indiana (Mr. Hamilton) to help bring this resolution to the floor. Mr. Speaker, House Resolution 562 addresses the difficult subject of claims arising from uncompensated property confiscation by totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. House Resolution 562 stemmed from a Helsinki Commission hearing that I held in 1996 that examined the efforts underway to restore plundered properties in Central and Eastern Europe. One of the witnesses at that hearing explained that under the international law and practice, the U.S. government is only able to seek compensation from foreign governments on behalf of property claimants who were American citizens at the time that their property was taken. In contrast, claimants who were not American citizens when their property was taken have at their disposal only the domestic law of their former country, even if they later became naturalized American citizens. Mr. Speaker, this resolution urges countries to pass laws that will commit their governments to return plundered properties to their rightful owners, or, when actual return of property is not possible, to provide prompt, just, and effective compensation. This compensation language derives from the Bonn agreement on the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in which the participating states, including those in Central and Eastern Europe, recognized the `right to prompt compensation in the event private property is taken for public use.' This resolution also urges countries that have adopted restitution and compensation laws to implement those laws effectively and expeditiously. By adopting this resolution, Mr. Speaker, the Congress will lend its voice and persuasive power to that of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, which have both passed strongly-worded and similarly-worded resolutions calling on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to adopt legislation for the restitution of plundered properties. I hope this will have the full support of the body. Mr. Speaker, I thank the Chairman of the International Relations Committee, Mr. Gilman, and the Ranking Member of my Subcommittee, Representative Tom Lantos, for working with me to bring this resolution to the floor. Similar legislation was introduced in the 104th Congress, reintroduced in this Congress, and offered as an amendment to the foreign relations authorization bill which has not been passed by the Congress. H. Res. 562 is co-sponsored by my colleagues Mr. Gilman, Mr. Lantos, Mr. Hyde, Mr. Rohrabacher, and Mr. Fox, and by my fellow members of the Helsinki Commission: Mr. Christensen, Mr. Hoyer, Mr. Salmon, and Mr. Markey. Mr. Speaker, H. Res. 562 addresses the difficult subject of claims arising from uncompensated property confiscations by totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. Throughout much of this century, individuals and religious communities in Central and Eastern Europe saw their private property plundered by totalitarian regimes. In particular, Communist regimes expropriated real property, personal property, financial property, business property, and religious property in fulfillment of a main tenet of communism: the abolition of private property. Moreover, Communist-era expropriations often compounded Fascist-era wrongs. The restitution of property in Central and Eastern Europe today has a multitude of possible effects: restitution will demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law, will advance these countries in the establishment of free market economies, will encourage foreign investment, will help the newly-democratic regimes distance themselves from their totalitarian predecessors, and will provide a measure of justice to the victims of fascism and communism. H. Res. 562 stemmed from a 1996 Helsinki Commission hearing that examined the efforts underway to restore plundered properties in Central and Eastern Europe. Our witnesses at that hearing, Stuart Eizenstat, then the Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade and the U.S. Special Envoy for Property Claims in Central and Eastern Europe, and Delissa Ridgway, the then-Chairwoman of the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, explained that under international law and practice, the United States Government is only able to seek compensation from foreign governments on behalf of property claimants who were American citizens at the time their property was taken. Under one common scenario, the United States obtains payment of such claims by having the Secretary of State, on behalf of the President, negotiate a government-to-government settlement agreement that settles a block of claims by American citizens against the foreign government in exchange for a lump-sum payment from the foreign government to the United States. Before or after such a settlement is reached, the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission (FCSC), an independent, quasi-judicial Federal agency within the Department of Justice, determines the validity and valuation of property claims of U.S. nationals against that foreign government. The FCSC informs the Secretary of the Treasury of the results of the FCSC's adjudications and the Secretary of the Treasury then distributes funds from the lump-sum settlement on a pro rata basis to the U.S. nationals that obtained awards from the FCSC. In contrast, claimants who were not American citizens when their property was taken have at their disposal only the domestic law of their former country, even if they later became naturalized American citizens. Considering these realities, Congress has a role in helping enable these dispossessed property owners to file claims in their former homelands with a real possibility of achieving a just resolution. Since that 1996 hearing, the Helsinki Commission has actively encouraged the governments in Central and Eastern Europe to adopt nondiscriminatory property restitution laws and has sought to intervene on behalf of several claimants whose rights under existing restitution and compensation laws are not being respected. While some progress has been made, the Helsinki Commission nonetheless continues to receive hundreds of letters from American and foreign citizens with unresolved property claims in Central and Eastern Europe. The writers plead for help from the Helsinki Commission and from Congress. Many have been struggling for seven or eight years to regain possession of their family properties. Many are elderly and are losing hope that they will ever recover their property. The issues addressed by this resolution are timely and, Mr. Speaker, they demand our attention. Some countries in the region have not yet adopted restitution or compensation laws. In those that have, certain requirements imposed on claimants involve so many conditions and qualifications that something just short of a miracle seems necessary for the return of any property. In Communist countries, expropriated properties were often given to Communist party officials or collaborators. In many cases, these former officials still live in the properties. Regrettably, a number of the democratic governments now in place are stalling and delaying the return of those properties to their rightful owners. Worse yet, some governments are offering meager compensation to the rightful owners and then allegedly reselling the properties for a profit that the State then pockets. The resolution urges countries to pass laws that will commit their governments to return plundered properties to their rightful owners or, when actual return of property is not possible, to provide `prompt, just and effective compensation.' This compensation language derives from the Bonn Document of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe) in which the participating States, including those in Central and Eastern Europe, recognized the `right to prompt compensation in the event private property is taken for public use.' The resolution also urges countries that have adopted restitution or compensation laws to implement those laws effectively. Several examples help illustrate the state of affairs in Central and Eastern Europe with respect to property restitution. The Helsinki Commission staff met recently with a group known as the Committee for Private Property that has collected information from more than fifteen hundred people with outstanding restitution claims in Romania. Most of these claimants are American citizens, hundreds of whom filed legal claims in Romania and followed the proper judicial process to obtain decrees reinstating their property titles. After obtaining what they believed to be final and irrevocable decrees, the property owners began paying taxes on their properties or, in at least one case, thousands of dollars due on an old mortgage, only to have the Romanian Special Prosecutor appeal the cases to the Supreme Court and win reversals of the judicial decisions. On the other hand, some positive advancements have been made in regard to communal property restitution in Romania. In April 1997, the Romanian Government adopted a resolution restoring Jewish community ownership rights over six buildings, including the National Jewish Theater, and issued a May 1997 decree that established a committee with joint government and community participation to review communal property claims. This past June, the Romanian Government pledged to return an additional seventeen buildings to several minority ethnic communities. These efforts are positive steps forward in the restitution of more than three thousand communal properties, such as orphanages, cultural centers, apartment buildings, ethnic community centers, and houses of worship, lost by religious and minority communities under communism. Regrettably, however, legislation to return properties to the Greek Catholic Church was blocked in Romania's parliament last year and has yet to be enacted. Another group, American Owners of Property in Slovenia, has also contacted the Commission about property claims. This group estimates that at least 500 emigres from the former Yugoslavia are now American citizens with property claims in Slovenia. Despite clear mandates in Slovenia's restitution and compensation law requiring action on filed claims within one year, government officials have not implemented the law; the vast majority of claims remain pending without resolution seven years after the law was passed and five years after the filing deadline. Of the approximately 40,000 applications filed by the 1993 deadline, only 35 percent of the individual claims filed had been resolved by the end of 1997; sixty-five percent of the claims had received no action or only dilatory action. The Slovenian Government has not shown the political will to return property and has failed to take the administrative measures needed to implement the legislation. Moreover, it is of particular concern that this past September, the Slovenian parliament adopted amendments to its restitution law that contain numerous provisions that may further restrict the ability of victims of the Communist regime to regain ownership and access to their properties. Similarly, in Lithuania, despite enactment of a restitution and compensation law, Lithuanian Government officials also appear disinclined to return properties. Property claimants there encounter a variety of roadblocks to restitution, including citizenship requirements, unreasonable bureaucratic delays, and the sudden, suspicious inclusion of claimed properties on an official `Register of Immovable Cultural Properties' as the basis for non-restitution. In one case, Mr. Vytautas Sliupas, an American with dual Lithuanian citizenship, has struggled for seven years to regain ownership and possession of inherited property in Palanga, Lithuania. One building is controlled by the Ministry of Culture and Education and is reportedly used by the National Museum of Lithuania primarily as a vacation site for Museum personnel. The second property is controlled by the City of Palanga and is rented to a commercial entity. These properties belong to Mr. Sliupas' family and were nationalized, without compensation, by the Communist regime. In 1993, the Minister of Culture and Education issued an official letter stating that the Ministry agreed to return the first property to Mr. Sliupas. In 1997, the City of Palanga passed a resolution to return the second property to Mr. Sliupas. Nonetheless, the groups occupying the properties have failed to comply with the orders to vacate. Mr. Sliupas has sought unsuccessfully to obtain the assistance of various government entities, including the courts, in enforcing his right to regain possession of these properties. The Lithuanian Government recently informed the Helsinki Commission that the property has been placed on the Register of Immovable Cultural Properties and, therefore, cannot be restituted to Mr. Sliupas. In Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and other countries, the existing restitution and compensation laws only allow people who are currently residents or citizens of the country to apply for restitution. The Czech Republic's citizenship requirement discriminates almost exclusively against individuals who lost their Czech citizenship because they chose the United States as their refuge from communism; as many as 8,000-10,000 Czech-Americans are precluded from even applying for restitution or compensation because of this requirement. Citizenship and residency requirements have been found to violate the nondiscrimination clause of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international agreement that these countries have voluntarily signed onto, and yet the countries mentioned have been unwilling to eliminate the restrictions. The resolution calls on these countries to remove citizenship or residency requirements from their restitution and compensation laws. Mr. Speaker, the examples given only begin to show the obstacles faced by property claimants in formerly totalitarian countries. This past August, Stuart Eizenstat, now the Under Secretary of State or Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs and the U.S. Special Envoy for Property Claims in Central and Eastern Europe, testified before the International Relations Committee about the need for Congress to pass a resolution that encourages Central and East European countries to return wrongfully expropriated property. While that hearing focused on Holocaust-era assets, in reality many Holocaust victims who suffered the loss of their property at the hands of the Nazis were victimized again by Communist regimes. I comment Under Secretary Eizenstat for his tireless efforts on behalf of Holocaust victims and I hope that the United States Government will make property restitution and compensation a priority in Central and Eastern Europe, as it has done in Cuba, Nicaragua and other countries.

  • Deterioration of Religious Liberty in Europe

    This briefing addressed the persisting question of problems of religious liberty and the patterns of discrimination against religious minorities and other belief groups that had developed in a number of countries in the OSCE region in the aftermath of the Cold War. Efforts of improving religious liberty in former communist countries were discussed, as well as the need for spending time and attention on countries farther west, like France, Belgium, and Austria, in which concern for religious minorities was also expressed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Willy Fautre, Director of Human Rights without Frontiers and James McCabe, Assistant General Counsel of Watchtower Bible and Tract Society – examined the multi-tiered system that European countries employ regarding religion, and the different statuses and treatment of citizens based on where their religion falls within this system. The issues faced by minority religious associations, like being targeted by fiscal services, were also topics of discussion.

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