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Parliamentary Elections in Kyrgyzstan Set the Stage for a New Political System; Ethnic Tensions Remain a Key Obstacle to Stability
Monday, December 20, 2010

By Janice Helwig and Shelly Han

The OSCE concluded that although the October 10, 2010 elections in Kyrgyzstan were conducted peacefully – no small feat following the April 2010 revolution – and demonstrated a significant increase in pluralism as compared to previous elections, there remains an “urgent need for profound electoral legal reform.” Two Helsinki Commission staff members traveled to Kyrgyzstan to observe the election as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation and were deployed in the Osh and Kara-suu region. Although the staff experience was not inconsistent with the overall OSCE conclusion, Osh and the surrounding region appear to have had more problems during the election than other areas of the country.

In June, the constitution had been changed through a referendum to give the parliament a stronger role than the President. The improvement in the conduct of the election may have been partly a result of that change in that, because of the new parliamentary system and the relatively large number of parties competing, no one party or group could manipulate the election nationwide (which appeared to have been the case in the 2009 presidential elections). In fact, the close result which divided parliamentary seats among several main parties was a good indicator of an open competition. Nevertheless, there were some problems at the local level, where there may have been attempts to influence the outcome. In the Osh and Kara-suu region, there appeared to be problems particularly with the voters list, the inking process, and the counting process.

For example, in almost all the polling visited by Commission staff, about a third of those who had voted had added themselves to the additional list with just their ID. Other international observers reported similar findings. This would indicate that either the main voters list was extremely inaccurate, or something more problematic may have been going on. In one polling station, a man tried to add himself to the additional list but was turned down while the staff was present; he clearly was not satisfied and went back in to try again as they left. Another international observer in the neighboring Uzgen area reported the same pattern, but, suspiciously, only in polling stations easily accessible from the main road. According to the election law, the registration of any voter on the additional list should have been counterchecked and signed by an adviser or observer in the polling station, but that did not happen during the day. At the closing in one polling station, the Chairwoman had a colleague counter sign all 225 additions to the list.

The inking procedure also appeared to be a problem. In theory, anyone adding themselves to the additional list should not have been able to vote anywhere else because of the use of invisible ink sprayed on each voter’s thumb. However, spraying and checking for ink in the polling stations appeared to be haphazardly conducted. Domestic observers had to stay in their chairs across the room and could not see whether the ink checker was effective. Moreover, when Commission staff asked people who had been inked earlier it the day to put their thumb under the light, little or no ink was visible. The ink seemed not to work all of the time, or perhaps to have washed off easily.

There also were significant problems in processing protocols during the counting process in the Kara-suu district. At the district counting station, the halls and stairways were lined with polling station chairpersons busily erasing and refilling in their protocols. Protocols and stamps were strewn around everywhere. It may have been that the chairpersons were simply trying to get their numbers to add up properly so they would be accepted by Shailoo, the computerized vote-counting system. On the other hand, the numbers also could have been in the process of being changed to influence the outcome. Regardless of intent, last minute changes to protocols made unilaterally by chairpersons should not have been allowed as no observers were present and there were no controls in place to prevent fraud.

Official turnout figures said that Osh had the highest voter turnout in the country, at about sixty-six percent. However, Commission staff did not see polling stations with a turnout higher than forty-five percent, nor did other international observers in the area. Interestingly, the turnout in ethnic Uzbek areas appeared to be about the same as in ethnic Kyrgyz areas. Many ethnic Uzbeks said they were “voting for peace,” although it was not clear whether that meant that moving forward with any new parliament would be positive, or if it meant that voting for a certain party would benefit ethnic Uzbeks. Some ethnic Uzbek community leaders had said prior to election day that most political parties had offered their communities money and/or infrastructure improvements in exchange for their votes.

Ethnic tensions remain a concern

Prior to election day, Commission staff were able to visit several of the Osh neighborhoods destroyed in the June violence, as well as one tent camp. The scale and scope of the destruction in ethnic Uzbek areas was enormous. And in mixed neighborhoods – for example near Shark – the house-by-house, business-by-business singling out of Uzbek-owned structures for destruction was clear. All of the victims staff spoke with appeared to be still afraid and did not see any future in Kyrgyzstan. All wanted to leave but did not have the means to do so. None wanted to go to Uzbekistan; rather they wanted to go to Russia or anywhere else where they might find economic opportunities. While rebuilding of homes was clearly progressing, the question of earning a living in the long term was an overwhelming concern.

The divide between ethnic Uzbeks and ethnic Kyrgyz is wide and seems to be growing. Many ethnic Kyrgyz seem to genuinely believe that ethnic Uzbeks were responsible for the violence, and even burned down their own houses in an effort to get international attention. Kyrgyz media and the government seem to be reinforcing this message. If the region is to move forward and avoid future violence, there needs to be some mechanism for accountability and reconciliation. However, so far only ethnic Uzbeks have been arrested and put on trial, and the trials appear to have been unfairly conducted. Ethnic Uzbek defendants have been routinely attacked by ethnic Kyrgyz mobs during the trials, as have media representatives trying to report on the proceedings. In general, journalists and human rights defenders fear retaliation if they report on abuses against ethnic Uzbeks; as a result, there have been few voices speaking out. Standing in the ruins of his home, a man shows Commission staff the photo of his sister, who was killed during the violence in June.

This ethnic divide is likely to fester unless something is done to build confidence between the main ethnic groups and provide economic opportunities for all. Moreover, disenfranchised youth could be vulnerable to recruitment by extremist organizations. The new government will face many challenges, not least addressing continuing ethnic tension in the south. 

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The ramifications of the flawed election vote will be varied, but will certainly impact Kazakhstan’s bid for the OSCE chairmanship.  As U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sam Brownback (R-KS) concluded, “Kazakhstan’s desire to lead the OSCE in 2009 has been undermined by the conduct of these elections.”  Co-Chairman Smith added, “The massive fraud, intimidation and outright abuse of power are blatantly inconsistent with a government seeking to lead the premier human rights organization in Europe.”  The election also raises the question of whether Kazakhstan’s desire to host an OSCE meeting on tolerance in 2006 should be considered. At the bilateral level, the U.S./Kazakh relationship will not necessarily change, but there is nothing in which to justify the elevation Secretary Rice spoke of.  U.S. officials identified the three strategic interests in Kazakhstan – energy, security and expanding freedom through reform – with a clean election being key, if Kazakhstan wanted to pull closer to America.  Unfortunately, the government flouted this simple and straightforward indicator, signaling that Astana is not interested.  The United States should recognize this and hold firm, while continuing to push for democratization and human rights. The other U.S. strategic interests of energy access and security can also be met, even if the status quo holds and the bilateral relationship remains more terrestrial.  It is in Kazakhstan’s national interest to continue its expansion of access to hydrocarbons – oil and gas are the foundations for its Asian Tiger-like economic success.  In addition, roughly one-third of foreign investment in Kazakhstan reportedly comes from U.S. companies.  Considering Kazakhstan’s WTO ambitions, Kazakhstan must continue to positively engage the U.S. economically.  Lastly, concerning security, President Nazarbayev will continue to be a partner in the war on terror, at least in Central Asia, as in the past extremist cells have operated in the more lawless regions of his country and probably continue to do so. Conclusion The unquestioned popularity of Mr. Nazarbayev does not excuse the conduct of the election – in fact, it begs the question of why his government allowed these blatant and unnecessary violations.  President Nazarbayev has demonstrated the ability to implement difficult policies when he has the political will to do so.  Kazakhstan, for instance, has made tough reforms in the economic sphere, which are often more painful than democratic reforms, especially in former communist countries making the transition from command economies to capitalism. If the president were serious about wanting to elevate Kazakhstan’s relations with the United States, he could have ensured a proper vote. Kazakhstan was positioned to anchor a new “corridor of reform,” but the recent election unfortunately demonstrates that President Nazarbayev has no desire to grow democracy in his country.  The negative trend for respect of civil and political rights and the consolidation of state power will most likely continue.  As Secretary Rice said during her Astana trip, “History also teaches us that true stability and true security are only found in democratic regimes.  And no calculation of short-term interest should tempt us to undermine this basic conviction.”  Therefore, for the United States to maintain its credibility in the region, it must not ignore the conduct of the election and the events of the past year.  The United States should stand ready to expand its relationship, but only when Kazakhstan shows real interest in expanding domestic rights at home.

  • Riding Roughshod Over Rights in Belarus

    Mr. Speaker, as co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission and the sponsor of the Belarus Democracy Act, I remain deeply concerned about the violations of human rights occurring every day in Lukashenka's Belarus.   During a recent news conference, the autocratic Belarusian leader expressed confidence in his victory in the presidential election scheduled for next year, rhetorically asking why should he be rigging this election. Given his intensified assault on civil society, his dismal human rights record, and penchant for rigged elections, Mr. Lukashenka's statements ring hollow. Yet, Lukashenka's actions against democratic forces, non-governmental organizations and the independent media belie his stated confidence regarding electoral victory.   Last week, the lower chamber of Lukashenka's pocket parliament passed a law endorsing tougher new penalties for activities “directed against people and public security,” a proposal submitted to the parliament only days before passage. These changes to the Criminal Code increase penalties for participation in organizations that were liquidated or warned to stop their pro-democratic activities, or for the training and other preparations for unauthorized demonstrations or other civic actions.   Mr. Speaker, to cite just one of the draconian provisions, the Code now gives authorities the leeway to jail an individual for up to 2 years for “providing a foreign country, a foreign or international organization with patently false information about the political, economic, social, military, and international situation of the Republic of Belarus.” Putting aside the matter of such a provision violating free speech norms, if the past is any guide, it is clear who would be the arbiter of what constitutes “false information.” There can be no doubt that the law aims to stifle the democratic opposition, and the head of the KGB (yes, in Belarus it is still called the KGB) himself recently admitted that the reasons for the law is to discourage street protests during the upcoming presidential race.   This law, while particularly blatant, is part and parcel of other actions designed to strengthen the regime's control and deny the Belarusian people any alternative voices as the presidential election campaign unfolds. Last month, a new law further controlling political parties came into force. A recent Council of Ministers decree clamps down on organizations that conduct public opinion polls. A Lukashenka decree further discriminates against independent trade unions, stipulating that only trade unions belonging to the pro-governmental federation are granted the right to premises at no cost. Yet another decree considerably limits students' opportunities to travel abroad.   Meanwhile, opposition activists are routinely beaten up or detained. Just last week, for instance, Ales Kalita was detained and at the hands of the police suffered a dislocated arm for merely distributing the independent newspaper “Narodna Volya.” Viktor Syritsya, a lecturer at Baranavichi College was fired for organizing a meeting of students with presidential opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich. Belarusian State Economic University in Minsk expelled fourth-year student Tatsyana Khoma because she took a brief trip to France, where she was elected to the executive committee of the Brussels-based National Unions of Students in Europe (ESIB), an umbrella organization of 44 national student unions from 34 countries. The police beat activist Mikita Sasim. They detained youth activists Yauhen Afnagel and others. Other repressive actions include frequent arrests of activists of democratic youth movements such as ZUBR, a ban on worship by some religious congregations and other repressive actions against selected religious minorities, and continued harassment of members of the Union of Poles in Belarus.   Moreover, there is an emerging pattern of the regime putting obstacles in the way of Mr. Milinkevich. Recently, a public meeting he held in Borbuisk was disrupted by the authorities, with participants being told by the authorities to go home and threatened with tax inspections. During a press conference, the electricity in the room was cut off, as well as a “hot-line” phone with town residents.   Especially egregious has been the regime's intensification of the war against the already repressed and struggling independent media. Newspaper closures, suspensions, threats, and exorbitant and absurd libel fines, pressures on advertisers and other forms of harassment have become routine. Outright police confiscations of independent newspapers are also not uncommon. A seemingly more subtle tactic, implemented just a few weeks ago, involved the decision by Belarus' monopoly state postal service to stop delivery to subscribers of a dozen private periodicals. Meanwhile, the suspicious murder in 2004 of journalist Veronika Charkasova has not been resolved. Authorities have refused to open a criminal investigation into journalist Vasil Hrodnikau's death. Lukashenka himself recently admitted to Russian journalists that his regime applies very serious pressure on the media, somewhat incongruously adding that ``this does not mean I am crushing them.''   Mr. Speaker, what I have cited is by no means an exhaustive list of abuses perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime, merely a sampling of the types of repressive actions employed on a daily basis by Europe's last dictator. As Helsinki Commission Co-Chair, I will continue to monitor closely and speak out forcefully regarding these and other violations of Belarus' freely undertaken OSCE commitments. I urge the Bush Administration to step up efforts to break the Lukashenka regime's near monopoly over the country's information space and provide timely assistance to pro-democracy forces in Belarus.   It is clear that Mr. Lukashenka and his minions are laying the groundwork for yet another un-free and unfair election--similar to the 2001 presidential elections and the 2000 and 2004 parliamentary elections--that will fall far short of OSCE standards. Lukashenka is once again showing that, despite his confident rhetoric, he fears his own people and profoundly fails to respect their dignity as citizens and as human beings.

  • Democracy Denied: The Outcome of the Azerbaijan Elections

    By Ronald J. McNamara International Policy Director In 1992, Azerbaijan joined the Helsinki Process, unconditionally accepting all OSCE provisions back to the Helsinki Final Act, including the commitment “to build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations.”  Consequently, the November 6, 2005 elections for the 125 single-member constituency seats in the parliament (Milli Majlis) – the first held under President Ilham Aliyev – provided an important opportunity for the Azerbaijani leadership to demonstrate its commitment to bringing the country’s election practices into closer conformity with OSCE standards.  Azerbaijani authorities, most prominently the President, had repeatedly proclaimed their intention to hold an election that would meet those norms. The November 2005 elections were the fifth to be observed by the OSCE, following parliamentary contests in 1995 and 2000, and presidential elections in 1998 and 2003.  According to OSCE monitors, all of these elections have fallen short of international standards. On election day, Ronald J. McNamara of the U.S. Helsinki Commission staff participated as one of 617 short-term observers deployed as part of the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM), a joint undertaking of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the European Parliament (EP) and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA).  The IEOM also included 30 long-term observers.  Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, President of the OSCE PA, was appointed by OSCE Chairman-in-Office as Special Coordinator to lead the short-term observers.  In all, Mission members observed the polling in over half of the country’s 5,053 polling stations and tabulation of results in 90 of 125 constituency election commissions. A Standard Still Not Met During the final days of the campaign in Baku, there was an air of guarded optimism among many international observers that the November 6th elections could meaningfully advance democratization, despite all the problems during the pre-election period.  Accordingly, a great deal hinged on what happened on election day itself, specifically the balloting and vote count. Unfortunately, despite a number of steps taken by authorities at the highest levels, including two presidential decrees, implementation fell short. On the positive side were the more inclusive registration of candidates, including controversial opposition leaders; free airtime on the state-funded media and televised debates; and exit polls.   Shortly before voting day, Baku also lifted its ban on the inking of voters’ fingers, and on domestic observers who received funding from foreign sources.  The Council of Europe and others had long been urging concessions on these fronts. At the same time, Azerbaijani authorities asserted tight control of all election commissions, including the Central Election Commission.  This was despite calls by the Council of Europe and the OSCE to make them more representative.  Other problems included undue restrictions on the ability of opposition parties to conduct rallies at desired venues, with disproportionate use of force by police against unsanctioned rallies; detentions and harassment of some opposition candidates; lack of uniformity in updating voter lists; and interference by local executive authorities in the election process with impunity. The IEOM Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions issued on November 7th noted, “While voting was generally calm, the election day process deteriorated progressively during the counting and, in particular, the tabulation of the votes.  The general atmosphere in the polling stations deteriorated sharply during the count.” In a telling statistic, 43% of counts assessed by OSCE observers were either “bad or very bad,” with a high lack of confidence in the announced results.  Among the more serious violations observed were tampering with tabulation protocols, protocols completed with pencil, intimidation of observers and unauthorized persons directing the process.  Official protocols reporting the results were not posted, as required by law, in over half of the counts observed.  Violations were also observed in the tabulation process at the constituency electoral commissions. Influenced by the serious violations observed, as well as problems during the pre-election period, the IEOM concluded, “The 6 November parliamentary elections did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and Council of Europe standards and commitments for democratic elections.”  Speaking at a crowded Baku press conference the day after the elections, OSCE Special Coordinator Rep. Hastings said, “It pains me to report that progress noted in the pre-election period was undermined by significant deficiencies in the count.” One Observer’s Perspective The experience of Ronald J. McNamara, International Policy Director of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, is indicative of much of what transpired in the Azeri elections: “My observations began on November 6 with the opening of a polling station at a university in downtown Baku, followed by other precincts in the capital and surrounding rural districts.  Throughout the day, at the dozen or so stations I visited, including two military bases, there were an impressive number of domestic observers, most affiliated with individual candidates or political parties.  In nearly every station I encountered voters whose names did not appear on the official voter list posted at each station, including one irate individual complaining that she had voted at the same school all her life but had been dropped from the roster.  Otherwise, the balloting generally proceeded smoothly. “However, as someone once said, ‘It’s not the people who vote that count -- it’s the people who count the votes,’ and unfortunately, most of the officials I encountered on November 6 were the very same individuals who had administered Azerbaijan’s earlier flawed elections. “The 7:00 p.m. poll closing was accompanied by a dramatic and tense turn of events at the polling station I observed when the precinct election commissioners began moving unused ballots and other materials to an office well beyond the sight of observers.  Amid shouting protests from the dozen or so domestic monitors, I reminded commissioners that all aspects of the closing and vote count were supposed to be conducted in full view of observers.  After a momentary pause, the ballots were retrieved and the count proceeded without further incident.  Aided by a low voter turnout – 30 percent at this particular polling station – the vote counting process moved along rapidly. “Ultimately, an independent candidate among the 21 people on the ballot won in the constituency.  Subsequently, however, the entire vote in the Binagadi constituency electoral district #9 was invalidated, as also happened in a handful of other districts.” The Aftermath  Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback expressed deep disappointment in the conduct of the elections, “We were hoping this election would mark a first step for democracy in Azerbaijan. Leading up to the election, the President of Azerbaijan made technical improvements designed to make the election as free and fair as possible. Unfortunately, the authorities who implemented the election did not pass the test.”  Similarly, Commission Co-Chairman, Rep. Chris Smith, said, “The high expectation that the elections would move democratization forward in Azerbaijan has, regretfully, not been realized.”  While Commission Ranking Member, Rep. Ben Cardin observed, “It is not at all clear where Azerbaijan goes from here, but I am not optimistic.” Considering the international community’s hopes and expectations for significant improvement, disappointment over the November 6 election was all the greater.  It is difficult to see in the conduct of the election any convincing evidence of meaningful progress – instead, the election and its aftermath resemble previous Azerbaijani elections, rather than signaling a significant opening toward greater democratization, including the holding of free and fair elections.  Since the election, the police have broken up, sometimes violently, opposition rallies.  While Azeri President Aliyev has been willing to engage with the West on the implementation of reforms so long as those reforms do not seriously threaten the status quo, it is clear that Azerbaijan’s leadership is determined to make sure that no “colored” revolution takes place such as those that took place in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine. A Final OSCE Report, presenting a comprehensive analysis of all observers’ findings and offering recommendations for further improvements is expected to be released shortly.

  • The Meaning of Egypt's Elections and Their Relevance to the Middle East

    The United States Helsinki Commission held a briefing on October 12, 2005 to examine Egypt’s September 7, 2005 presidential election and its ongoing parliamentary elections.   The presidential election was the first in Egyptian history to be open to opposition candidates, while the parliamentary elections are being held in three phases over a six- week period to be concluded in early December. In the Egyptian presidential election, as was widely expected, incumbent President Hosni Mubarak of the National Democratic Party won a fifth consecutive six-year term with  88% of the vote. Out of numerous opposition candidates, the two main challengers, Ayman Nour of the Al-Ghad party and Noaman Gomaa of Al-Wafd, received 7.3% and 2.8% of the vote, respectively Post-election Analysis While the elections were generally acknowledged to have fallen short of meeting international standards, it was broadly agreed that the vote represented a change in Egyptian politics.  The nature of that change was, however, disputed by the panelists. Consequently, much of the discussion at the briefing was critical of the government’s conduct of the elections, with claims that electoral reforms that had been undertaken in Egypt had not gone far enough. “While the Egyptian elections did not meet internationally recognized standards of fairness, the mere fact that the regime allowed the opposition a place on the ballot had opened a doorway,” said U.S. Helsinki Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) in prepared remarks. In a statement, Commission Co-Chair, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) said, “The Egyptian people have tasted electoral freedom for the first time and began to debate the future of their country in a way that once was unthinkable. This is the beginning of a long process of democratic reform which over time will reverberate throughout the Arab world.” Thomas Garrett of the International Republican Institute (IRI), who had observed the pre-election period and the elections as part of a 15-member observer delegation, remarked on the significant progress made by Egypt in allowing open elections.  “For the first time in history, Egyptian voters were given the opportunity to choose from among several candidates for the position of president,” he said. Garrett noted that one of the problems in the lead-up to the elections was that access to voter lists was not provided to opposition parties until two days before the election, making voter contact difficult for all but the incumbent.  He was also concerned that apparent “off-the-cuff remarks”  by members of the independent electoral commission regarding candidacies and party participation were given the force of law by virtue of the fact that such remarks could not be subjected to legal challenge.  These issues notwithstanding, Garrett commented that the election broke the historic taboo against citizens openly criticize their government in a way that had previously been unheard of in Egyptian politics.  Overall, Garrett concluded, the aspirations of the voters were not subverted in that it was the clear intent of those who did vote to re-elect President Mubarak. Khairi Abaza, visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and formerly of Egypt’s Wafd Party, the second major opposition party in the election, discussed the nature of the opposition.  Abaza pointed out that although Mubarak received 88% of the vote, estimates are that only 15-23% of the 32 million registered voters participated in the election, meaning that Mubarak had the support of 6.5 million in a country of 72 million. Abaza listed less-than-democratic aspects of the election, arguing that these had the impact of lowering voter turnout. These problems notwithstanding, Abaza noted that the public gains for the opposition were very important, allowing for the first time in 50 years a real civic debate about political reform and systemic change.  He added that the lead-up to the election saw the growth of the opposition which, as a result, began to speak much more openly against the government.  However, “there’s still a long way to go before we can see free and fair elections in Egypt,” he said.  “What happened in Egypt is probably a step toward a freer system, but it could only be considered a step if it’s promptly followed by many other steps.”  Abaza also remarked that it because of its comparatively more solid national, social, and linguistic identity as well as parliamentary history, Egypt was well positioned to serve as an example for the region. A Different Perspective Somewhat in contrast to the prevailing view, Dr. Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace did not view the presidential election as representing an historic step or breakthrough.  Hamzawy maintained that describing the election as historic was misleading, especially when taking into account the low voter turnout and the lack of serious competitors to Mubarak.  Rather, Hamzawy suggested, the election was simply the latest step forward in an ongoing reform of Egyptian politics that had gone on for the past 5 to10 years.  He predicted that the impact of the irregularities suffered in the election would be minimized by judges who would play a greater role in monitoring the elections than had historically been the case.  This, Hamzawy argued, would help restore the public’s belief in the neutrality of state institutions.  Hamzawy also added that he believed that opposition parties would win 15-20% of the seats in the People’s Assembly in the parliamentary elections. First Steps Counselor Wael Aboulmaged of the Embassy of Egypt noted that, as the vote was Egypt’s first experience with open presidential elections, it was perhaps inevitable that an assessment of their conduct would show them to have been deficient in various aspects. He added that Egyptians were only beginning to understand such facets of an election as campaigning nationally; how to raise funds; addressing people in different parts of the country who have different concerns; when to talk substance, when to talk style. Aboulmaged further contended that voter apathy and low voter turnout in the elections was due to many citizens lacking faith in the process.  However, he thought there was evidence of a new trend in which average people were becoming more involved politically and were beginning to feel that they have a real stake in electoral outcomes. The Counselor made note of the election’s irregularities, but reminded the audience of the significance of the recent events:  “For the first time, an incumbent president in Egypt had to campaign nationwide to present his political, economic and social agenda for public scrutiny:  to be held, in effect, accountable.  This is something that presidents in Egypt simply did not do in the past.  He had to ask for the trust of the voters.” Commission Ranking Member Rep. Ben Cardin (D-MD) in a statement observed, “Nobody would mistake this election as free and unfettered.  The opposition was fragmented, its main party excluded, and campaigning was tightly restricted.  However, the sight of any public debate in the very heart of the Arab world’s most important state is the first crack in the façade of the old regime.” Witnesses Mr. Thomas Garrett, Director of Middle East and North Africa Program, International Republican Institute Dr. Amr Hamzawy, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Mr. Khairi Abaza, Past Cultural Secretary, Wafd Party; Visiting Fellow, The Washington Institute Mr. Wael Aboulmagd, Counselor, Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt Moderator Mr. Chadwick R. Gore, Staff Advisor, U.S. Helsinki Commission

  • Democracy Denied

    By Ronald J. McNamara, International Policy Director In 1992, Azerbaijan joined the Helsinki Process, unconditionally accepting all OSCE provisions back to the Helsinki Final Act, including the commitment “to build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations.”  Consequently, the November 6, 2005 elections for the 125 single-member constituency seats in the parliament (Milli Majlis) – the first held under President Ilham Aliyev – provided an important opportunity for the Azerbaijani leadership to demonstrate its commitment to bringing the country’s election practices into closer conformity with OSCE standards.  Azerbaijani authorities, most prominently the President, had repeatedly proclaimed their intention to hold an election that would meet those norms.  The November 2005 elections were the fifth to be observed by the OSCE, following parliamentary contests in 1995 and 2000, and presidential elections in 1998 and 2003.  According to OSCE monitors, all of these elections have fallen short of international standards.  On election day, Ronald J. McNamara of the U.S. Helsinki Commission staff participated as one of 617 short-term observers deployed as part of the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM), a joint undertaking of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the European Parliament (EP) and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA).  The IEOM also included 30 long-term observers.  Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, President of the OSCE PA, was appointed by OSCE Chairman-in-Office as Special Coordinator to lead the short-term observers.  In all, Mission members observed the polling in over half of the country’s 5,053 polling stations and tabulation of results in 90 of 125 constituency election commissions. A Standard Still Not Met During the final days of the campaign in Baku, there was an air of guarded optimism among many international observers that the November 6th elections could meaningfully advance democratization, despite all the problems during the pre-election period.  Accordingly, a great deal hinged on what happened on election day itself, specifically the balloting and vote count. Unfortunately, despite a number of steps taken by authorities at the highest levels, including two presidential decrees, implementation fell short. On the positive side were the more inclusive registration of candidates, including controversial opposition leaders; free airtime on the state-funded media and televised debates; and exit polls.   Shortly before voting day, Baku also lifted its ban on the inking of voters’ fingers, and on domestic observers who received funding from foreign sources.  The Council of Europe and others had long been urging concessions on these fronts. At the same time, Azerbaijani authorities asserted tight control of all election commissions, including the Central Election Commission.  This was despite calls by the Council of Europe and the OSCE to make them more representative.  Other problems included undue restrictions on the ability of opposition parties to conduct rallies at desired venues, with disproportionate use of force by police against unsanctioned rallies; detentions and harassment of some opposition candidates; lack of uniformity in updating voter lists; and interference by local executive authorities in the election process with impunity.  The IEOM Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions issued on November 7th noted, “While voting was generally calm, the election day process deteriorated progressively during the counting and, in particular, the tabulation of the votes.  The general atmosphere in the polling stations deteriorated sharply during the count.”  In a telling statistic, 43% of counts assessed by OSCE observers were either “bad or very bad,” with a high lack of confidence in the announced results.  Among the more serious violations observed were tampering with tabulation protocols, protocols completed with pencil, intimidation of observers and unauthorized persons directing the process.  Official protocols reporting the results were not posted, as required by law, in over half of the counts observed.  Violations were also observed in the tabulation process at the constituency electoral commissions.  Influenced by the serious violations observed, as well as problems during the pre-election period, the IEOM concluded, “The 6 November parliamentary elections did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and Council of Europe standards and commitments for democratic elections.”  Speaking at a crowded Baku press conference the day after the elections, OSCE Special Coordinator Rep. Hastings said, “It pains me to report that progress noted in the pre-election period was undermined by significant deficiencies in the count.” One Observer’s Perspective The experience of Ronald J. McNamara, International Policy Director of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, is indicative of much of what transpired in the Azeri elections: “My observations began on November 6 with the opening of a polling station at a university in downtown Baku, followed by other precincts in the capital and surrounding rural districts.  Throughout the day, at the dozen or so stations I visited, including two military bases, there were an impressive number of domestic observers, most affiliated with individual candidates or political parties.  In nearly every station I encountered voters whose names did not appear on the official voter list posted at each station, including one irate individual complaining that she had voted at the same school all her life but had been dropped from the roster.  Otherwise, the balloting generally proceeded smoothly.  “However, as someone once said, ‘It’s not the people who vote that count -- it’s the people who count the votes,’ and unfortunately, most of the officials I encountered on November 6 were the very same individuals who had administered Azerbaijan’s earlier flawed elections.  “The 7:00 p.m. poll closing was accompanied by a dramatic and tense turn of events at the polling station I observed when the precinct election commissioners began moving unused ballots and other materials to an office well beyond the sight of observers.  Amid shouting protests from the dozen or so domestic monitors, I reminded commissioners that all aspects of the closing and vote count were supposed to be conducted in full view of observers.  After a momentary pause, the ballots were retrieved and the count proceeded without further incident.  Aided by a low voter turnout – 30 percent at this particular polling station – the vote counting process moved along rapidly. “Ultimately, an independent candidate among the 21 people on the ballot won in the constituency.  Subsequently, however, the entire vote in the Binagadi constituency electoral district #9 was invalidated, as also happened in a handful of other districts.” The Aftermath Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback expressed deep disappointment in the conduct of the elections, “We were hoping this election would mark a first step for democracy in Azerbaijan. Leading up to the election, the President of Azerbaijan made technical improvements designed to make the election as free and fair as possible. Unfortunately, the authorities who implemented the election did not pass the test.”  Similarly, Commission Co-Chairman, Rep. Chris Smith, said, “The high expectation that the elections would move democratization forward in Azerbaijan has, regretfully, not been realized.” Commission Ranking Member, Rep. Ben Cardin observed, “It is not at all clear where Azerbaijan goes from here, but I am not optimistic.” Considering the international community’s hopes and expectations for significant improvement, disappointment over the November 6 election was all the greater.  It is difficult to see in the conduct of the election any convincing evidence of meaningful progress – instead, the election and its aftermath resemble previous Azerbaijani elections, rather than signaling a significant opening toward greater democratization, including the holding of free and fair elections.   Since the election, the police have broken up, sometimes violently, opposition rallies.  While Azeri President Aliyev has been willing to engage with the West on the implementation of reforms so long as those reforms do not seriously threaten the status quo, it is clear that Azerbaijan’s leadership is determined to make sure that no “colored” revolution takes place such as those that took place in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine. A Final OSCE Report, presenting a comprehensive analysis of all observers’ findings and offering recommendations for further improvements is expected to be released shortly.

  • The Meaning of Egypt’s Elections and Their Relevance to the Middle East

    This briefing addressed the prospects for increased liberalization in Egypt and the Middle East in light of the recent Egyptian presidential election and in spite of its flaws. The Egyptian elections were provided as an example for one of the many steps on the long road to creating a true democracy, and the likelihood of the regime continuing down that path was a topic of discussion. Witnesses testifying at the briefing discussed the impact of the recent Egyptian presidential and forthcoming parliamentary elections on Egypt and the wider Middle East region. The importance of gains made by the opposition, despite some reports of irregularities and a low turnout, was particularly emphasized.

  • Excerpts of Remarks by Rep. Chris Smith

    Polish Solidarity Trade Union - 25th Anniversary Today we continue celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Solidarity and in particular, the bravery, tenacity and innate goodness of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Lech Walesa. It is especially timely to host the former President owing to yesterday’s stunning election results that have ushered Solidarity’s ideological soulmates back into power.  Projections suggest that the Law and Justice Party got almost 28% of the vote and the Civil Platform gained 24%. Some time ago, I read Lech Walesa’s powerful and riveting autobiography, “A Way of Hope.”  Filled with insight and brutally honest, the book walks the reader through a series of volatile events—personal and public—that have literally transformed the world. In the book, we get a glimpse into Lech Walesa’s deep faith—and the role his beloved mother, and her Catholic beliefs had on him; “Neighbors came to our house to say the rosary.” he tells us in the book.  The book is filled with remembrances of family—and his love for his wife. On leadership he tells us: I’ve never wished or prepared for a leadership role: paradoxically, it’s because I never really wanted it, absorbed as I was by quite different concerns, different problems which needed solving, that I found myself out in front, leading the others—“leading the flock,” I call it with a smile. He tells us of the strike of 1970 “All we wanted was to free our fellow workers, we wanted no violence.” And that his worst fears were realized: “Poles had fired against Poles.” In the chapter “The Strike and the August Agreement” he tells us how the movement had matured: Until then I had been talking, bluffing, playing “on credit.” Although we pretended to be holding all the high cards, our opponents knew our game inside out, they’d been playing against us for years! But what they didn’t know was the nature of our very last card: the determination that had been maturing for ten years now, since the death of three of our colleagues right in front of the second entrance to the shipyard.  When His Holiness Pope John Paul II made his historic trip to his homeland in 1979, he counseled his flock and his country men and women, “Be Not Afraid.”  But Lech Walesa gave us additional insight into how Solidarity and Pope John Paul II were “inextricably bound together” and how it almost ended in 1981.   It was in Japan that we heard of the dramatic attempt on the Pope’s life. The news broke in the middle of the night May 13-14, 1981. We were in my hotel room in Nagasaki, discussing the events of the day, and our visit the next day to the museum set up in memory of the victims of the atomic bomb. The first news flash was terrifying: the Pope was dead! The next news flash retracted it: no, the Pope was still alive, he was fighting for his life. I was overcome by a feeling of immense loneliness; the whole world seemed to have turned upside down; with our lodestar gone, some of us were wandering in a wilderness with out hope. The tragedy of the Polish Pope was also the tragedy of Poland and of Solidarity: they were inextricably bound together; this was just the beginning.  Then the news changed, became less alarming; there was still hope. In his chapter “Martial Law,” Lech Walesa tells us how they decided that if the militia invaded the shipyard during the night, they decided on passive resistance: “Our greatest strength is precisely our weakness—our living bodies and empty hands confronting tanks and nightsticks.” His wife Danuta writes in the book how she was discouraged when he was locked up during marital law but “he seemed rather pleasant, …we had to be dignified about it all, because even in a place like this, we still had the upper hand; we, not they, were making history.” By 1989, Solidarity leaders sat across the table from Wojtech Jaruzelski, the same General who had imposed martial law in 1981.  And they negotiated what had seemed to most of the world impossible:  the peaceful transition from communism to free and fair elections.  In August of 1989, less than a decade after the Gdansk shipyard strikes that gave birth to Solidarity, Poland would elect its first non-communist Prime Minister since the communist takeover. Finally, Lech Walesa tells us in the book that in his school years “history was my weak point.”  But, I am here to say to you, Mr. Walesa, studying history does not matter when you are the one who makes history by bringing freedom, respect for human rights, and enduring democracy not only to your own country, but the entire region as well.

  • American Agenda Moves Forward at the 14th Annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly

    The 14th Annual Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly convened in Washington, DC, July 1-5, 2005. Speaker of the House, J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), the host for this year’s Assembly, welcomed more than 260 parliamentarians from 51 OSCE participating States as they gathered to discuss various political, economic, and humanitarian issues under the theme, “30 Years since Helsinki: Challenges Ahead.”  Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) served as head of the U.S. Delegation, Co-Chairman Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) was delegation vice-chairman.  Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice gave the inaugural address at the assembly’s opening session, thanking the members of the OSCE PA for their work toward “human rights, the rule of law, free and fair elections, and the development of transparent, accountable institutions of government across the OSCE community and around the globe. “As the Chairman-in-Office and Parliamentary Assembly take a fresh look at the OSCE agenda and consider these and other items, preserving the integrity of Helsinki principles and ensuring that the OSCE continues to be an agent of peaceful, democratic transformation should be paramount objectives,” Secretary Rice said. Chairman Brownback in plenary remarks underscored the rich history of the Helsinki Process, unwavering U.S. commitment to human rights and the dignity of the individual, and the dramatic advances made in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.  At the same time, he pointed to the remaining work to be done in the OSCE region and beyond to meet the promises made with the signing of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.      Offering guidance to the body, OSCE PA President and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) reiterated the gathering’s theme:  “In this new Europe, and in this new world, the OSCE and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly must stand ready to respond to new threats and challenges, and this means evolving and adapting to new realities.” Agenda and Issues Among the issues considered by the Assembly were recommendations for changes in the OSCE Code of Conduct for Mission Members, efforts to combat human trafficking, and calls for greater transparency and accountability in election procedures in keeping with OSCE commitments made by each of the 55 participating States. The First Committee on Political Affairs and Security met to discuss matters of terrorism and conflict resolution, including resolutions on the following topics: terrorism by suicide bombers the situation in Abkhazia, Georgia terrorism and human rights Moldova and the status of Transdniestria Under the chairmanship of Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), the Second Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and Environment moved on a number of issues, including resolutions and amendments on: small arms and light weapons maritime security and piracy the OSCE Mediterranean dimension money laundering the fight against corruption The Third Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions tackled a number of resolutions, as well as two supplementary items brought by members of the U.S. Delegation.  Other topics addressed by the Committee included:         the need to strengthen the Code of Conduct for OSCE Mission Members combating trafficking in human beings improving the effectiveness of OSCE election observation activities The Assembly plenary met in consideration of the resolutions passed by the general committees as well as the following supplementary items: improving gender equality in the OSCE combating anti-Semitism Special side events were held in conjunction with the 5-day meeting, including a briefing on the status of detainees at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, held by senior U.S. officials from the Departments of Defense and State.  Members of the U.S. Delegation also participated in the following organized events: Parliamentary responses to anti-Semitism Working breakfast on gender issues Mediterranean side meeting Panel discussion on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict Human rights in Uzbekistan Meeting of the parliamentary team on Moldova In addition, while participating in the Assembly, members of the U.S. Delegation held bilateral meetings with fellow parliamentarians from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.  They also had formal discussions with the newly appointed OSCE Secretary General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut. Key U.S. Initiatives The successful adoption of a number of supplementary items and amendments to the Assembly’s Washington Declaration illustrated the extent of the activity of the members of the U.S. Delegation in the three Assembly committees.  The delegation met success in advancing its initiatives in human trafficking, election observation activities, and religious freedom. As a result, the Washington Declaration reflects significant input based on U.S. initiatives. In the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions, Senator Voinovich (R-OH) sponsored, and successfully passed, a supplementary item on funding for the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to allow it to continue its missions and responsibilities. Speaking on the passage of his resolution on combating trafficking at the hands of international peacekeepers, Co-Chairman Smith said, “In the past, the lack of appropriate codes of conduct for international personnel, including military service members, contractors, and international organization’s employees, limited the ability to counter sexual exploitation and trafficking.  That is finally changing.” The U.S. Delegation also overwhelmingly defeated text offered by the Russian Delegation that would have weakened the ability of ODIHR to effectively perform election observations.  Co-Chairman Smith, principal sponsor of the amendments that served to frustrate the Russian resolution, praised the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly saying, “The Parliamentary Assembly has reaffirmed the central and historic leadership role of the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in monitoring elections….Parliamentarians from the participating States have soundly rejected the ploy to weaken OSCE election standards, holding participating States accountable when they fail to fulfill their OSCE election commitments.” On the issue of religious freedom, the U.S. Delegation carried through two amendments to the final Assembly declaration. “I am very pleased that these amendments passed,” said Co-Chairman Smith, who offered the amendments to the draft resolution.  “However, the fact that the first amendment passed by only 10 votes underscores the continuing challenge in the fight for religious liberties in the OSCE region.  The fact that parliamentarians are willing to discriminate against minority religious communities is sobering.” In addition, an amendment brought by Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-DC) that calls on the U.S. Congress to grant voting rights for residents of the District of Columbia secured passage. Leadership Positions Commissioner Hastings was re-elected unanimously to another one-year term as the President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.  Joining the U.S. leadership on the Parliamentary Assembly, Commissioner Benjamin L. Cardin was also re-elected Chairman of the General on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and Environment by unanimous decision.  Commission Co-Chairman Christopher H. Smith continues in his role as Special Representative on Human Trafficking to the OSCE PA.  Additionally, Rep. Hoyer chaired the Ad Hoc Committee on Transparency and Accountability, which works to foster greater response from the governments of participating States to Assembly initiatives. The close of the Assembly was marked with the adoption of the Washington Declaration and concluding remarks by OSCE PA President Hastings. The Parliamentary Assembly will meet again next year, July 3-7, in Brussels, Belgium. U.S. Delegation to 14th Annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly: Commission Chairman Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD) Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-NY) Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC) Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC)

  • Urging Albanian Authorities to Hold Free and Fair Elections

    Mr. Speaker, today, I am introducing a concurrent resolution which calls for the July 3rd parliamentary election in Albania to be free and fair. Joining me in the introduction of this resolution is Mr. Engel, and I want to thank my colleague from New York for his efforts over the years to help Albanians throughout Southeastern Europe be able to exercise human rights and fundamental freedoms that for so long had been denied them.  This resolution notes that Albania is a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the OSCE. It further notes that all OSCE participating States have accepted standards which define free and fair elections but that Albania has repeatedly fallen short of those standards. Some elections have been seriously flawed, while others demonstrated a clear and sometimes significant improvement.  As Albania approaches its next parliamentary elections on July 3rd, however, the resolution argues that meeting OSCE election standards is not only possible but a virtual necessity.  Meeting these standards is possible, fortunately, because Albanian authorities and political parties have adopted electoral reforms recommended by the OSCE. While Albanian stakeholders made the right and sometimes difficult decisions regarding reform, credit also needs to go to the OSCE Presence, or field mission, in Albania which facilitated the dialogue and encouraged cooperation, as well as the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights which provided technical expertise to the reform effort. The OSCE was patient yet firm in pressing for change, while other international groups gave needed expertise.  Meeting these standards is necessary not only because Albania is committed to those standards, but also because a failure to do so will cost the country dearly in terms of integration into NATO and the European Union. While there are strong ties between the United States and Albania, which this resolution recognizes, it would be a mistake to excuse Albania from its OSCE commitments.  Our desire to see Albania succeed, in fact, is why our expectations regarding the elections need to be made so clear. Successful elections will certainly strengthen Albania's ties with the United States and Europe. More importantly, successful elections are something the people of Albania deserve. After centuries of foreign rule, decades of severe communist repression and isolation, and now more than a decade of transition hindered by official corruption, organized crime and civil strife, the people of Albania must finally be allowed to determine their own future by making their leaders accountable to them. Free, fair elections can make this possible.  Mr. Speaker, I hope that my colleagues agree and will therefore support this resolution. As Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I have focused on the situation in Albania for many years, and I am confident that sending the message contained in this resolution will make a difference.

  • Kyrgyzstan’s Revolution: Causes and Consequences

    Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and others discussed the recent Kyrgyz revolution and  the fall of the regime of President Askar Akaev.  Protest movements in Georgia and Ukraine led up Akaev’s fall. This hearing discussed the possible implications of such civil unrest were and  the prospects for consolidating Kyrgyz democracy and other places to which revolutions may spread.

  • Albania’s 2005 Parliamentary Elections: How Free and Fair Will They Be?

    Robert Hand reviewed Albania’s preparatory efforts and the prospects for free and fair parliamentary elections scheduled for the summer of 2005, raising the question of possible corruption during the election process. Hand examined Albania’s growth, with support from the international community, and its growing integration into European and broader Western institutions. Witnesses from various backgrounds - the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems – drew on their extensive experiences with Albania and Eastern Europe’s transition from communism to democracy to discuss the likelihood for free and fair elections in 2005.  One of the major issues discussed was the novelty of democratic elections in Albania, which was evident in the lack of trust between key political players and in the general confusion of constituent mapping and vote counting.

  • Russian Support for the Syrian Regime

    Mr. President, the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, held a hearing last week that examined the close relationship between Russian Federation and Syria. The Commission heard testimony detailing their intricate financial and military dealings that began in the earliest days of the Cold War and continue to this day. This relationship allows Syria to continue to support numerous terrorist groups, groups that have terrorized Lebanon for the past three decades and fuel the insurgency in Iraq. In addition, we heard details about Syria's support of terrorist organizations who operate around the world. Finally, we heard from both Lebanese and Syrians committed to freedom and democracy who have become victims of the Assad regime and are now languishing in the prison cells of Damascus.  The Commission's concern regarding Russia's involvement with Syria--a country that has been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979 by the State Department--rises from the Helsinki commitments that Russia has freely accepted as a participating State of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe OSCE. The OSCE Charter on Preventing and Combating Terrorism was agreed to at the Porto Ministerial in 2002. Russia then committed to refrain from instigating or providing active or passive support or assistance to, or otherwise sponsoring terrorist acts in another state. Russia also committed to reducing the risk of terrorists gaining access to weapons and materials of mass destruction and their means of delivery.  Russia's support for the terrorist regime in Damascus flies in the face of these commitments. Russia is an active enabler of the Assad regime, whose Ba'ath Party was described by one of our witnesses as the richest terrorist organization in the region. The Syrian regime has received untold amounts of military hardware, much of which are currently being used by terrorists in Iraq against our American troops and our allies. Additionally, Syrian intelligence supports terrorist units in Iraq, composed not only of Syrians, but including Egyptians, Sudanese, Moroccans, and other Islamic mujahidin.  Even more alarming is Russia's plan to sell an unknown number of Igla SA-18 shoulder-held missiles to Syria. Such a sale to this terrorist state is more than criminal. This sale will put in the hands of terrorists some of the most sophisticated shoulder-held missiles in the Russian inventory, and increases the likelihood that they will get into the arsenals of other terrorist organizations around the world. Despite Russia's denials, indicators are that this sale will go forward soon, putting at risk every airline flight, every military flight, with the potential for massive loss of life and the shutting down of modern transportation around the world.  We must focus on the fact that, while there is no apparent direct Russian involvement in Iraq, this direct support of Syrian military and intelligence operations, coupled with Syria's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the long list of evil deeds coming out of Damascus, cast Russia as a suspicious party to these terrorist activities. We should not sit idly by and allow this to transpire without comment. We must call upon President Bush and Secretary Rice to reiterate U.S. demands that Russia disengage from its support of Syria, a state sponsor of terrorism. It is not enough to stop the sale of the missiles. Complete cessation of financial and military support to this rogue regime is necessary.  On the eve of the Helsinki Commission hearing, a courageous group of human rights activists and pro-democracy reformists held a demonstration in Damascus, a daring display of dissent quickly broken up by the security forces. One of the protesters held up at banner that read: “Freedom for Prisoners of Opinion and Conscience.” According to the Syrian Human Rights Committee, the Assad regime in Damascus has executed nearly 17,000 Syrian and Lebanese prisoners. Additionally, there are over 600 prisoners of conscience in Syrian jails, champions of human rights, accountability and transparency who are still languishing under horrible conditions.  I would like to highlight a few of these prisoners of conscience whose names were submitted to us by one of the witnesses and call for their immediate release: Riad Seif, member of parliament; Aref Dalilah, economist; Maamun al-Homsi, member of parliament; Abdul Aziz al-Khayer, physician; Habib Issa, lawyer; Walid al-Bounni, physician; Mohammad Bashir al-Arab, student leader and doctor; Muhanad al-Debs, student leader; Mahmoud Ammo, activist; Mahmoud Abou Sader, activist; Mazid Ali Al-Terkawi, businessman; and Fawaz Tello, engineer.  I was pleased to hear of Syria's promise to a U.N. envoy to withdraw its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon, but as the counter-demonstrations yesterday against Syria demanded, Damascus must follow through with actions as soon as possible. I am hoping that details of the withdrawal plan from U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen after his talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud will allow the people of Lebanon to hold their parliamentary elections in May without any interference from the Syrians and to do so in a manner that is free, timely, and transparent.  What would be unacceptable is the kind of warning issued by Prime Minister-designate Omar Karami that polls may have to be postponed if the country's political opposition fails to enter a dialogue with the government. Such an effort will surely ignite the kind of violence that the Lebanese people have been yearning for so many years to avoid.  It is time for the international community to lend support for the slogan that defines the people's revolution in Lebanon and in the region: “Kifaya,” which means "enough." Let's listen to what the people in Lebanon are saying for what they are saying is now being heard not only in Beirut but in Damascus, in Cairo, and in Riyadh: enough of autocrats, enough of the corruption, and enough of the repression. 

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