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Political Prisoners in Russia
Illustrative Cases
Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Principle VII of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act recognizes the right of individuals to know and act upon their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.

The following individuals who were profiled in the Helsinki Commission's April 2017 hearing, "Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight," illustrate the many cases of political prisoners in Russia today.

Dmitry Buchenkov – Buchenkov was charged under Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”) for his participation in the 2012 Bolotnaya Square protests against fraud in the 2011 presidential elections. He was arrested in December 2015 and is currently under house arrest.  He is recognized by Memorial as a political prisoner not only because the alleged offense did not take place, but also due to the lack of a fair trial and the disproportionate use of pretrial detention in light of the charge against him. His case illustrates the prosecution of individuals for engaging in nonviolent public protest against the government in general and the Bolotnaya Square cases in particular.

Oleg Navalny – Navalny was charged under Article 159 (“swindling on a large scale”), article 159.4 (“swindling on a particularly large scale in the entrepreneurial sphere”), and article 174.1.a (laundering of funds on a large scale acquired by a person through a crime committed by him”).  He was sentenced to 3 ½ years in a closed proceeding, Memorial considers him a political prisoner because the alleged offense did not take place and he was not given a fair trial. In reality, Oleg Navalny was targeted because he is the brother of prominent political activist Alexei Navalny.  It appears the authorities are unwilling to make a martyr out of Alexei Navalny but seek to exert pressure on him by persecuting his brother. Oleg Navalny’s case illustrates the willingness of the government to target family members as a means of exerting pressure on political activists, which is specifically prohibited under the OSCE 1989 Vienna Concluding Document.

Darya Polyudova – Polyudova was charged under article 280 of the Russian criminal code (“public appeals for extremist activity” and “public appeals for actions aimed at a violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation”) in connection with her participation in preparation for a march that did not take place.  In reality, she was indicted for criticizing Moscow online for its support of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's east.  She is recognized as a political prisoner because the offense did not take place, her right to a fair trial was violated, and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention given the nature of the charges.  She was sentenced to two years in prison, becoming the first person in Russia convicted under a 2014 law criminalizing calls for separatism on the Internet. Her case illustrates the government’s prosecution of Russian nationals who criticize Russia’s actions and policies in Ukraine.

Sergei Udaltsov – Udaltsov was charged under Article 30 of the Russian criminal code (“preparation of actions aimed at organizing mass riots”) and Article 212 (“organization of mass riots”) after participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests. He has been arrested multiple times before for protesting against the government. Memorial recognizes him as a political prisoner on the grounds that he was charged with an offense that did not take place; his right to a fair trial was violated; and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He was sentenced to four years and six months in prison.

Ivan Nepomniashchikh – Nepomniashchikh was charged with Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”). He is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that he is being prosecuted for exercising his right to freedom of assembly; he is being charged with an offense that did not take place; he was not allowed a fair trial;  and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He is another example of those being prosecuted for participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests against the 2011 fraud in the presidential election.

Alexei Pichugin – Pichugin was charged under Article 162 of the Russian criminal code (“robbery”) and Article 105 (“murder”). At a closed trial, Pichugin, the former head of internal economic security for the Yukos Company then headed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sentenced to life imprisonment in a special-regime penal colony. He has been in prison since 2003 and is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that his prosecution was conducted without a fair trial.  The European Court on Human Rights also has held that Pichugin was denied a fair trial.

 

Oleg Sentsov – Senstov is a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in Russia since 2015, and was the focus of a separate Helsinki Commission briefing.

Sentsov was arrested in the Russian-occupied Crimean territory of Ukraine and charged under Article 205.4 of the Russian criminal code (“organization of a terrorist group”), Article 205 (“terrorist act committed by an organized group”), Article 30 in connection with Article 205 (“preparation of a terrorist act”), Article 30 in connection with Article 222 (“attempted illegal acquisition of firearms and explosive devices”), and Article 222 (“illegal acquisition and storage of far arms and explosive devices”).  He was accused of planning an attack on a monument to Lenin, a charge he denies. He was sentenced in a Russian military court to 20 years in a strict regime penal colony for terrorism.

Other Illustrative Cases

Alexander KolchenkoAlexander Kolchenko – Kolchenko, a Crimean activist, was charged under article 205 of Russia’s criminal code (art. 205.4 part 2: "Participation in a terrorist organization," and art. 205, paragraph "a," part 2: "A terrorist act conducted by a terrorist group"). He refuted the accusations of terrorism.

Mr. Kolchenko was detained in May 2014, in Simferopol, Crimea, shortly after Russia took control over the peninsula. On August 25, 2016, the North Caucasus District Military Court of Russia sentenced Mr. Kolchenko to 10 years of imprisonment in a strict-regime colony.

He is serving his sentence in the Chelyabinsk Oblast, in the city of Kopeysk, a facility notorious for its poor treatment of convicts. Mr. Kolchenko is recognized as a political prisoner by Russia’s Memorial watchdog group.

Mykola SemenaMykola Semena (under a travel ban) – Semena, a Crimean journalist, has been charged under Article 280.1 of Russia’s criminal code, which penalizes "public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation." The law was added to the Russian criminal code in December 2013, and came into force in May 2014 - several weeks after Crimea was annexed by Russia. Semena was one of the only independent journalists to remain on the peninsula following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. He contributed reporting to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and its Crimea Desk. On April 19, 2016, after Russian police searched Semena’s home and confiscated computers and storage media, the de facto Crimean prosecutor-general ordered Semena to remain on the peninsula while he was investigated for alleged “calls to undermine Russia’s territorial integrity via the mass media.” Semena has been forced to stay in Crimea ever since, despite his requests to travel to Kyiv for urgently needed medical care.

Roman SuschenkoRoman Sushchenko (in pre-trial detention) – Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist, is charged under article 276 of Russia’s criminal code (espionage). He has worked as a Paris-based correspondent for Ukraine’s state news agency, Ukrinform, since 2010.

He was detained at a Moscow airport on September 30, 2016, upon his arrival from Paris on private business. He was accused of collecting classified information on the activities of Russia’s armed forces and the National Guard. Mr. Sushchenko denies any involvement in espionage. His employer, Ukrinform, also considers the accusations false and called his detention a “planned provocation.”

Mr. Sushchenko’s attorney is Mark Feygin, who previously represented Pussy Riot and Nadezhda Savchenko.

Memorial, a Russian organization established to report on the crimes of Stalinism, documents cases of political prisoners as well as cases of those persecuted for their faith.This information was compiled by Helsinki Commission staff from Memorial, the U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices, and news sources. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also tracks cases of individuals imprisoned in connection with their faith.

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    WASHINGTON—Ahead of Monday’s meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Thirty years after Central European nations threw off the mantle of communism and oppression, I recall the unwavering support of the United States for the democratic aspirations of their citizens, and the warm welcome Hungary received when it joined the ranks of self-governing, free nations. I echo Secretary’s Pompeo’s message, delivered in Central Europe in February: Upholding democracy in each and every country is vital to human freedom. “President Trump must urge Prime Minister Orban to end Hungary’s anti-Ukraine policy at NATO, resolve concerns about the relocation of the Russian International Investment Bank to Budapest, ensure that Hungary’s ‘golden visas’ are not used to evade U.S. sanctions, and address document security problems to ensure the integrity of the visa waiver program. In addition, the president must prioritize meaningful democratic change in Hungary and encourage the Hungarian Government to repeal the 2017 and 2018 laws curtailing freedom of speech, assembly, and association.” U.S. authorities have identified at least 85 criminals who fraudulently obtained Hungarian passports to enter or attempt to enter the United States. At an April 2019 Helsinki Commission briefing, Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute noted that the chairman of the International Investment Bank has long-standing ties to Russian intelligence agencies, raising concerns that the relocation of the bank from Moscow to Budapest could provide a platform for intelligence-gathering operations against U.S. allies. In April, U.S. Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker visited Budapest and urged Hungary to end its anti-Ukraine policy in NATO. In February, during a visit to Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Every nation that raises its voice for liberty and democracy matters, whether that’s a country that’s as big as the United States and with as large an economy as we have in America, or a smaller country. They’re each valuable. Each time one falls, each time a country – no matter how small – each time it moves away from democracy and moves towards a different system of governance, the capacity for the world to continue to deliver freedom for human beings is diminished. And so I would urge every country, no matter its size . . . to stay focused, maintain its commitment.”

  • Power and Politics

    At this Helsinki Commission briefing, panelists explored the state of institutional resilience and political context for the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s next president on April 21, 2019. This briefing also explored implications for transatlantic engagement and opportunities for reforms on issues related to the rule of law, media freedom, and corruption.

  • Ukrainian Elections Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: POWER AND POLITICS Implications of Ukraine’s Presidential Elections Thursday, May 9, 2019 2:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission At this Helsinki Commission briefing, panelists will explore the state of institutional resilience and political context for the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s next president on April 21, 2019.  This briefing will explore implications for transatlantic engagement and opportunities for reforms on issues related to the rule of law, media freedom, and corruption. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement Natalie Sedletska, Journalist and Host, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Ukrainian Service Additional panelists may be added.

  • Hastings and Wicker Mark World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—On World Press Freedom Day, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “On World Press Freedom Day, we reflect on the importance of the free media to the strength of our own democracy and to the cause of freedom worldwide. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right we cannot take for granted. If we do, we weaken our ability to fight corruption, speak truth to power, and defend the disadvantaged and oppressed. “Throughout the OSCE region, journalists working in conflict zones or under authoritarian regimes regularly risk their freedom and their lives to show the world the truth. They persist in the face of intimidation, arrest, and even the threat of physical violence. We honor their work and pledge to protect journalists around the globe, to support independent journalism, and to foster transparency on the part of our government and governments worldwide.”

  • Hastings, Wicker, and Moore Mark the Anniversary of Joseph Stone’s Death In Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—On the two-year anniversary of the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving with the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) recalled Stone’s tragic death in the Russia-driven conflict and underlined that agreements to end the use of mines in the conflict must be respected.  Stone was killed on April 23, 2017, when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. “We honor the ultimate price paid by Joseph Stone, an American who served the innocent civilians suffering from the senseless conflict Moscow has perpetuated in Ukraine,” said Chairman Hastings. “Men, women, and children near the contact line remain steps from oblivion wrought by the indiscriminate cruelty of landmines. This human cost of the Kremlin’s ambition is unacceptable.” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) called on the Russian Government to end the cycle of violence that resulted in Stone’s death.   “Instead of continuing to fuel this war, Vladimir Putin and his proxies should live up to their promises under the Minsk Agreements and the Helsinki Accords and get out of Ukraine—including Crimea,” said Sen. Wicker. “The second anniversary of Joseph Stone’s death is a tragic reminder that Russia has not met its commitments on clearing areas of explosive remnants of war and preventing new mines from being laid in eastern Ukraine.” Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) praised Stone’s courage and criticized the pressure put on international monitors. “Joseph Stone, who was born in my district in Milwaukee, gave his life to help the world know the truth about the war in eastern Ukraine. OSCE monitors voluntarily put themselves at risk to document the day-to-day tragedies of a conflict that has killed thousands and affected millions more,” said Rep. Moore. “They do this important work despite facing severe threats of violence; these threats, including the laying of landmines such as the one that killed Joseph and continue to kill and maim innocents—must end.”  Eastern Ukraine is among the most heavily-mined regions in the world. According to Alexander Hug, former Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, mines and unexploded ordnance are the No. 2 cause of casualties in the war in Ukraine. Anti-vehicle mines are responsible for more deaths in the Donbas than anywhere else in the world.​ In the last year alone, at least 70 people—including 18 children—have been killed or injured by mines or unexploded ordinance in eastern Ukraine. The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. It is the only independent monitoring mission in the war zone. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. It currently fields roughly 800 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The United States supports the SMM by providing 57 monitors (the largest contingent) and has contributed over $100 million to the mission since its inception.

  • First Person: #UkraineElections2019

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor and Kyle Parker, Senior Senate Staff Representative   Bright morning sunlight streamed through the windows of School No. 119 in Odesa as the first ballot was cast for the March 31 presidential election in Ukraine. We, along with our third team member, a Danish parliamentarian, had arrived an hour earlier to watch as a stern but amiable middle-aged woman—who seemed especially proud to speak Ukrainian to her Russian-speaking electoral commission colleagues—instructed them on proper procedure for the day. The ballot boxes must be sealed properly, privacy in the voting booths maintained, proper identification verified, and voter lists checked and double checked. Coffee, tea, and small talk were in good supply to combat the grogginess of a morning made even earlier by the switch to daylight savings time shortly after midnight on election day. This election, with 39 candidates vying for the presidency, required the longest ballot in Ukraine’s history at 80 centimeters (more than two and a half feet) long. Not only did this present a printing challenge, but we saw numerous voters seeming to wonder just how many folds would be needed to easily deposit their ballot through the narrow slot and preserve the secrecy of their selection. Ukraine’s election law is surprisingly strict in this regard and imposes criminal penalties on voters who deliberately reveal their selections, whether by showing someone personally, taking a picture of their ballot, or bringing someone else into the voting booth with them. Notably, we observed no incidence of anyone deliberately violating ballot secrecy. We were among over a thousand foreign observers of the election invited by the Government of Ukraine, consistent with its OSCE commitments. We joined approximately 100,000 domestic observers to inspect the nearly 30,000 electoral precincts across the country—excluding parts of the Donbas and Crimea, due to the ongoing war and Russia’s illegal occupation, respectively. All of the domestic observers that we encountered were observing on behalf of an individual candidate, usually for Yuriy Boyko, Petro Poroshenko, or Yulia Tymoshenko. We did not encounter any of the foreign and domestic NGOs also observing the election. Throughout the day, we traveled to numerous polling stations, spending almost an hour at each, to watch for irregularities or violations of election law. Most electoral commissioners went out of their way to proudly display what was an organized and transparent electoral system. All afforded us full access to every part of the voting process. A few commissioners even seemed flattered to host foreign observers from the OSCE, an acronym well known in Ukraine for the prominent role the OSCE has played in assessing previous elections, including those that led to the Orange Revolution in 2004 and that served to ratify the dramatic change of government in 2014. In any election observation, the most critical part of election day is the counting of ballots after the polls have closed and unused ballots have been checked against the total numbers of ballots issued and votes cast. With these procedures scrupulously followed, the chairwoman at the precinct where we were assigned gave the okay to open the ballot boxes and tally the votes. By that time, the sun had set and the flickering fluorescent lighting in the school hallway where the voting took place was so dim and distracting that everyone—commissioners, observers, and the school’s custodial staff—moved tables, chairs, and the sealed ballot boxes to a better lit atrium so a proper count could proceed. One by one, a grinning commissioner (we later discovered he was candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy ’s representative on the commission) cut the plastic seals on each box and, with pomp, dumped their contents onto a table surrounded by other commissioners eager to see who won and to finish the work they had begun before sunrise, some 18 hours earlier. First, the control sheet deposited in each box before the polls opened was located and set aside. Then, the chairwoman divided the candidates among commissioners so they could begin to stack ballots as they were unfolded and inspected. On a few occasions, a voter’s selection was unclear and so the ballot was presented to the entire commission for scrutiny, followed by a vote on how and whether to record the ambiguous ballot. Many of the 39 candidates on the ballot received no votes and there was often a wisecrack and laughter when any of these candidates received a vote, or even two! Despite the daunting fullness of the ballot boxes, due in part to the physical size of the ballot, the count proceeded apace with only a couple instances of needing to recount a candidate’s stack of votes to reconcile the final numbers needed for the formal protocol. This document would soon be posted outside the precinct for public inspection and sent up the chain to be included in the national tally. Security throughout the count was so strict that an ailing observer was nearly prohibited from leaving the precinct while the count was underway. After seeking the approval of the commission chairwoman, police finally unlocked the doors and allowed the observer to depart. These rules, as explained to us, were in place to prohibit any ballots from being brought into or out of the precinct. Based on the increasing grumblings of commissioners as night turned to early morning, this prohibition on leaving seemed to motivate commissioners to stay focused on their duties lest they risk witnessing another sunrise at their polling station. The OSCE’s post-election preliminary statement corresponded to our observation of a smooth, even festive in some cases, electoral process that complied with Ukraine’s domestic laws and fulfilled the country’s international commitments. Given the frequent opportunities Ukraine has had to exercise its democratic muscle in recent years, few on the international observation mission led by the OSCE expected anything but the free and fair process we witnessed. As the gold standard of international election observation, the OSCE’s recommendations over many electoral cycles have helped Ukrainian officials to improve the conduct of their elections. Further, praise from the OSCE following election day is powerful validation of the process in the eyes of Ukraine’s voters and gives other states a democratic model to emulate. No sooner had the election ended than the hundreds of thousands of electoral commissioners overseeing Ukraine’s nearly 30,000 local electoral precincts started to prepare for the presidential runoff election on April 21—this time with just two names on the ballot and a decisive outcome. These commissioners are the unsung heroes of a maturing democracy that is simultaneously at war in the East and on an irreversible path to the West. At least they will get a proper break before having to, once again, regroup and oversee Ukraine’s parliamentary elections expected to take place in the fall of this year.

  • Wicker and Cardin Introduce Legislation to Defend U.S. Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecution in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) today introduced the Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act of 2019 (S. 1075) to address the ongoing wrongful detentions of U.S. citizens and diplomatic staff by the Government of Turkey. U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (IL), who has actively supported efforts to secure the release of political prisoners around the world, is an original co-sponsor of the legislation, along with Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (MD). “More than two and a half years have passed since Serkan Gölge, an American citizen, was detained in Turkey. Since then, we have witnessed the sham convictions of two Americans, including Pastor Andrew Brunson, and one local employee of the U.S. government on baseless terrorism charges. At least two other local staff of our consulate in Istanbul continue to face similar politically-motivated convictions without credible evidence of wrongdoing,” said Sen. Wicker. “Turkish authorities should immediately cease this harassment of our citizens and personnel. The bipartisan measure we are introducing today puts Turkey on notice that it can either quickly resolve these cases and free our citizens and local staff or face real consequences. Turkey is a valuable NATO ally—I expect it to start acting like one.” “The Turkish government’s false imprisonment of Americans and Turkish citizens employed by the United States in Turkey is a gross violation of their human rights,” said Sen. Cardin. “Our bill makes clear that the United States will not tolerate years of Turkish recalcitrance on these cases. Officials in the Erdogan regime responsible for these crimes must be held accountable under Global Magnitsky standards for their ongoing injustices. I am eager to begin restoring constructive cooperation between our countries, but we simply cannot do so while these innocent men languish in wrongful and prolonged detention.” “These arbitrary arrests are yet another example of Turkey’s deteriorating democracy and respect for human rights under autocrat President Erdogan,” said Sen. Durbin.  “That Erdogan continues to jail a U.S. citizen and Turkish staff that work for our consulates, not to mention prop up Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, warrant greater action by the Trump Administration.” “Erdogan’s government continues to undermine the rule of law in Turkey, including by targeting American citizens and locally-employed U.S. diplomatic staff.  I’m proud to join this bipartisan effort to hold senior Turkish officials who are knowingly responsible for the wrongful detention of or politically-motivated false charges against American citizens and U.S. local employees at our diplomatic posts accountable,” Sen. Rubio said. “The Turkish government must live up to its commitment and act like a NATO ally if they wish to continue to be treated like one.” “While the Turkish government made a step in the right direction with the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson last October, more needs to be done for Turkey to show good faith and act like a NATO ally,” said Sen. Tillis, co-chair of the Senate Human Rights Caucus. “This bipartisan legislation will impose sanctions on those responsible for the wrongful imprisonments of American citizens and diplomatic staff, and I hope progress will be ultimately made through the release of Serkan Gölge and other U.S. citizens currently imprisoned in Turkey.” “Turkey’s blatant disregard for the rights of American citizens and diplomatic staff within their country is unacceptable. This legislation makes clear to Turkey that we will not accept the status quo. I urge the Senate to take up this bill immediately, so we can levy swift sanctions on senior Turkish officials and apply some serious pressure to get Turkey to release these wrongfully detained Americans and diplomatic staff,” said Sen. Van Hollen, co-chair of the Senate Foreign Service Caucus. The bill would require the U.S. administration to impose sanctions on all senior Turkish officials responsible for the wrongful detentions of U.S. citizens and staff, including barring the officials from travel to the United States and freezing any U.S. assets. It further calls on President Trump to urge Turkey to restore due process guarantees and respect for the fundamental freedoms of all its people, thousands of whom are victims of the same politically-motivated prosecution and indefinite detention. U.S. citizen and NASA scientist Serkan Gölge is one of several American citizens, including Pastor Andrew Brunson, who were caught up in the sweeping government-led purge that followed the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Brunson was convicted on fabricated terrorism charges and released in October 2018 but Gölge remains in jail serving a five-year sentence because of a similar conviction. He has been in jail since July 2016. Since early 2017, Turkish authorities have targeted three veteran Turkish employees of U.S. consulates in Turkey on trumped-up national security charges that appear to stem in part from routine contacts they maintained as part of their professional responsibilities. All three men have worked as locally employed staff of the United States Government in Turkey for more than three decades. A Turkish court in January 2019 convicted Hamza Ulucay, who was imprisoned since February 2017, on terrorism charges without any credible evidence of wrongdoing. He was sentenced to four and a half years in jail, but released on time served. Two other local staff from the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul, Metin Topuz and Mete Canturk, remain in custody or under house arrest on similar trumped-up charges. After 18 months in jail, Metin had his first court hearing last month. The court adjourned his trial until May 15. In November 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the detention of American citizens and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey. In the months prior to the hearing, Helsinki Commission leaders raised these cases in letters to President Erdogan and President Trump.

  • The U.S. must stand up to Erdogan and his politically motivated detentions

    Last fall, Americans rejoiced as the pastor Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina native, returned home after spending more than two years in Turkish prisons on baseless terrorism and espionage charges. A combination of congressional pressure and targeted sanctions on Turkish officials sent a clear message to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the United States would not tolerate his using Brunson as a pawn to extract political concessions. Faced with mounting political and economic costs, Erdogan caved. Sadly, the pastor’s release did not put an end to Erdogan’s hostage-taking. Today, the Turkish government continues to hold at least one American citizen and two Turkish employees of the U.S. government on false charges. Erdogan plans to inflict misery on these innocent people until he gets what he wants out of the United States — whether that is a green light to attack Kurdish strongholds in northern Syria, taking legal action against Fethullah Gulen and his followers in the United States, or U.S. acquiescence to Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defense system. Such attempts at extortion are all the more galling coming from Turkey, an important NATO ally that is not acting like one. American citizen and NASA physicist Serkan Golge is serving a five-year prison sentence for alleged involvement in terrorism, despite no credible evidence of wrongdoing. Turkish police have also used false terrorism charges to detain three longtime Turkish employees of U.S. consulates in the country: Hamza Ulucay, Metin Topuz, and Mete Canturk. Golge and Topuz are in solitary confinement, where they have spent up to two-and-a-half years with only an hour of fresh air per week. Ulucay was released earlier this year after being held for nearly two years. Canturk remains under house arrest, and his family is subject to travel bans and regular police check-ins. These men are all innocent. Not only have they lost irreplaceable time with their families, but the physical and psychological toll of their ordeal also means they may never be the same once they regain their liberty. The United States did not tolerate the politically motivated detention and mistreatment of a U.S. citizen in the case of Pastor Brunson. We should not tolerate those acts now with Golge or longtime U.S. government employees. As the United States increased pressure on Turkey over Brunson, it simultaneously tried to cut a deal with Erdogan for the freedom of the other detainees. By now, it is abundantly clear that no amount of coaxing will secure their freedom. Any negotiation over their fate would only reward Erdogan’s bad behavior. As with Brunson, only stiff political and economic pressure will work. This week, I introduced the bipartisan Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act of 2019, which would require the president to impose sanctions on all senior Turkish officials responsible for these wrongful detentions, including barring them from travel to the United States and freezing any assets they have here. The bill further calls on President Trump to urge Turkey to restore due-process guarantees and respect for the fundamental freedoms of all its people, thousands of whom are victims of the same sort of politically motivated prosecution and indefinite detention endured by our citizens and consulate personnel. The United States has a particular moral obligation to protect our own citizens. Golge’s wrongful imprisonment at the hands of the Turkish government cannot stand. We also have moral obligations to our local staff overseas. Thousands of citizens of other countries work at U.S. government facilities around the globe, lending their diverse expertise to critical U.S. missions, often at great risk to themselves and their families. The credibility of the United States is at stake in the eyes of these courageous individuals who place their trust and safety in our hands. The fate of their colleagues in Turkey weighs heavily on the minds of our consular staff, as it does on our national conscience. No effort should be spared until they are free.

  • U.S. senators introduce bill to sanction Turkish officials over detentions

    Two U.S. senators on Tuesday introduced a bipartisan bill requiring the imposition of sanctions on Turkish officials responsible for the detentions of U.S. citizens and local consulate staff in Turkey, a statement on the legislation said. The bill, introduced by Republican Senator Roger Wicker and Democrat Ben Cardin, also calls on President Donald Trump to urge Turkey to respect for the fundamental freedoms, saying thousands were victims of politically-motivated prosecution. “The Turkish government’s false imprisonment of Americans and Turkish citizens employed by the United States in Turkey is a gross violation of their human rights,” Senator Cardin said in the statement. “Our bill makes clear that the United States will not tolerate years of Turkish recalcitrance on these cases.” The detention of U.S. consulate workers and American citizens is one of many issues dividing NATO allies Ankara and Washington, also at loggerheads over Syria policy and Turkey’s planned purchase of Russian missile defenses. Their detentions prompted Washington in October 2017 to suspend all non-immigrant visa applications from the country, triggering a reciprocal move from Ankara that contributed to a deep crisis in bilateral ties. The bill introduced Tuesday would require the U.S. administration to impose sanctions on all senior Turkish officials responsible for the “wrongful” detentions of U.S. citizens and staff, including barring the officials from travel to the United States and freezing any U.S. assets. Turkey has detained tens of thousands of people following a failed coup in July 2016, saying they were linked with the network of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric blamed by Ankara for orchestrating the putsch. U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson was among those jailed in the aftermath of the coup. He was released last October. “While the Turkish government made a step in the right direction with the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson last October, more needs to be done for Turkey to show good faith and act like a NATO ally,” said Republican Senator Thom Tillis, one of six original sponsors of Tuesday’s bill. Serkan Golge, a dual Turkish-U.S. citizen, was found guilty of being a member of an armed terrorist organization earlier this year and sentenced to seven years, six months in prison. Three other Turkish citizens who were working at the U.S. consulates in Turkey have been under investigation or jailed over similar charges. A Turkish court last month ruled that one of the consular workers, Metin Topuz, a translator and fixer in Istanbul, should remain in jail until his trial resumes in June.

  • Developments in Hungary

    At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Susan Corke, Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group at the German Marshall Fund; Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society at Human Rights First; and Dalibor Rohac, Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute explored recent developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption. “Every nation that raises its voice for liberty and democracy matters, whether that’s a country that’s as big as the United States and with as large an economy as we have in America, or a smaller country. They’re each valuable. Each time one falls, each time a country – no matter how small – each time it moves away from democracy and moves towards a different system of governance, the capacity for the world to continue to deliver freedom for human beings is diminished. And so I would urge every country, no matter its size . . . to stay focused, maintain its commitment.” – Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, February 12, 2019 Mr. Rohac discussed Hungary’s measurable decline on various indicators of good governance and the rule of law; patterns of politically organized corruption; and the implications of developments in Hungary for the United States. He observed that Hungary has experienced a steady erosion of freedom, the rule of law, and quality of governance according to virtually any indicator, including the assessments of the World Bank, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute. He noted that the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom places the protection of property rights in Hungary in the mostly unfree territory. This stems in part from the seizure of pension fund assets as well as the concentration of ownership in the hands of Fidesz-connected oligarchs. The same index notes a marked decline in government integrity measures, placing Hungary into the oppressed territory on those sub- indices, with a score dramatically worse than in 2009. While Mr. Rohac observed that corruption is a problem across central Europe and across post-communist countries, Hungary’s case is notable for the extent to which corruption has been embedded into the political system, centralized, connected to the ruling party, and has served as a mechanism of political patronage and political mobilization. “[T]here is something special about the nexus of legal patronage and graft and authoritarianism. The two cannot be separated.” Panelists also described something of a paradox. On the one hand, the Orban government has exploited EU funds to build its corrupt oligarchy. Tax and procurement-related irregularities have been cited by the EU anti-corruption agency OLAF as the source of millions in suspect deals involving Orban’s family and friends, many of which also involve Russian state actors. On the other hand, the EU – precisely because it is not a federal government but depends on the consent of the EU member states – has limited ability to rein in this corruption and hybrid forms of governance. Mr. Rohac asserted that this embrace of crony authoritarianism by Hungary is a direct threat to U.S. interests in the region as well as to the West’s interests more broadly. He rejected the notion that competing for positive influence in the region means we should not hold our allies to high standards. He suggested that such a view is enormously detrimental because it’s precisely the authoritarianism, the graft, and the cronyism that opens the way for foreign revisionist powers to enter Hungary and influence the country, pulling it away from the West.  “The U.S. stood by Central European nations as they liberated themselves from communism in the 1990s, in the 90s when they joined the ranks of self-governing free nations of the West,” he observed. “The idea that the U.S. should now either be silent or cheerleader for policies that are now driving Hungary away from the West strikes me as a particularly misguided one.” Ms. Corke described the concerns about trends in Hungary and other countries in the Euro-Atlantic region which led to the formation of a bipartisan group, the Transatlantic Democracy Group, focused on democratic erosion and the need for U.S. leadership.  She joined with 70 signers for NATO’s 70th anniversary on a declaration to reaffirm commitment to democracy.  Ms. Corke is sometimes asked, “why is your group so concerned about Hungary? It’s a small country. Why are you so concerned about Central European University?” She observed that Central European University is a joint American-Hungarian institution and Victor Orban’s campaign against it is a highly symbolic move against a vital institution founded to promote the transatlantic values of democracy, openness, and equality of opportunity and was therefore a direct challenge to the United States. She concluded that Moscow is using Hungary and other NATO members as backdoors of influence, and that Hungary’s centralized, top-down state has enabled an increasingly centralized, top-down system of corruption. Ms. Corke also suggested that a lesson learned from recent developments in the region is that transparency is a necessary, but alone insufficient, condition to fight corruption.  She asserted that the concept of a linear progression of democracy is outdated and new approaches to supporting civil society are needed. In addition, Ms. Hooper stated that while the Obama-era policy of limited high-level engagement precluded some of the Hungarian government’s controversial actions, it did not appear to motivate fundamental change. The Trump-era policy of transactional engagement devoid of values has fared no better, she said, and the U.S. should therefore re-examine its policy toward Hungary.  First, the United States should reinvest in democracy promotion.  Second, the United States should announce publicly that it is reintroducing support for civil society in the region, and specifically in Hungary, due to a decline in the government’s ability to or interest in protecting democratic institutions.  Third, Congress should be more vocal and pointed in expressing its concern and even alarm in Hungary’s antidemocratic movement and should support for individuals such as journalists or other members of watchdog organizations that are targeted by government campaigns or blacklists.  Finally, the United States should not shy away from applying targeted sanctions, such as the Global Magnitsky law, when clear lines are crossed. When visa bans were used against some officials in 2014, they had an impact in Hungary. Background materials available for the briefing included panelist biographies; Department of State materials including statements by Secretary Michael Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein; recent Helsinki commission statements and publications; and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum FAQs on the Holocaust in Hungary.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Explore Recent Developments in Hungary

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DEVELOPMENTS IN HUNGARY Tuesday, April 9, 2019 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1539 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission At this Helsinki Commission briefing, panelists will explore recent developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Susan Corke, Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Democracy Working Group, German Marshall Fund Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society, Human Rights First Dalibor Rohac, Research Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

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