Title

Title

In the News

Helsinki Commission leadership, members, and initiatives are frequently featured in both the U.S. and foreign press.

  • Related content
  • Related content
Filter Topics Open Close
  • Hearing points to Putin’s role in Russian doping scandal

    WASHINGTON (AP) — Supporters of a bill that would make international sports doping a crime argued Wednesday that the legislation would deter scandals like Russian state-sponsored drug use at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Yulia Stepanova, a Russian former track athlete who became a whistleblower about the drug program, said at a congressional hearing that ending doping in her country would have to “start from the top” — with Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. The bill was named for Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the Russian lab director who exposed the cheating in Sochi. Rodchenkov has said the doping stemmed from Putin’s command to his sports ministry to “win at any cost.” Several European countries have passed similar legislation. The bill being considered in the House is stronger because it would allow the United States to police doping that occurs outside its borders. U.S. and foreign athletes would be subject to the law if competing in an event that includes four or more U.S. athletes and athletes from three or more countries. The bill has bipartisan support but has yet to be introduced in the Senate, and its prospects for approval are unclear. The hearing occurred while, in the same Senate office building, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was questioned by lawmakers who accused President Donald Trump of being too soft on Putin. While the president has made conflicting claims about the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 election, the hearing on doping turned attention back to other ways in which Putin’s actions have brought scorn from the international community. In written testimony, Rodchenkov and Stepanova said that those who participated in the doping program were essentially following orders, fearing that to refuse or speak out would mean the end of their careers, or possibly even lead to their deaths. “You will lose your job, your career and even fear for the safety of you and your family,” Stepanova said. “You will be called a liar and a traitor if you stand up against the system that unfortunately still exists in Russia today.” Asked by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas how to end Russian doping, Stepanova said, “It should start from the top because if it started from the top, they ... would stop doping.” “If Mr. Putin had a different attitude and expressed that, it would stop?” Jackson Lee asked. “Yes, I think so,” Stepanova said. Rodchenkov did not attend the hearing, but his attorney, Jim Walden, said he and his client believe Putin needs to be held accountable. “There are some in our government who refuse to confront Russia for its abject criminality,” Walden said. “Doping fraud is one more example of the gangster state that Vladimir Putin has created in Russia.” The hearing also featured emotional testimony from Katie Uhlaender, who finished fourth in skeleton — by four hundredths of a second — in Sochi to Elena Nikitina of Russia. Nikitina’s bronze medal was later stripped for suspected doping before the Court of Arbitration for Sport restored it on the eve of the Pyeongchang Olympics. Uhlaender feels that she was unfairly denied a medal twice, although it’s still possible she could prevail on appeal. “My moment was stolen,” Uhlaender said through tears. “A line was crossed. It erased the meaning of sport and the Olympics as I knew it.” Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said he would continue trying to persuade Congress to address international doping and called on the corporations that sponsor the Olympics to join the effort. “If the governments of the world aren’t going to step up and do something about it, where are the corporations? They’re profiting off the backs of these athletes,” Tygart said. “I think it all it would take would be a couple phone calls from them to get this situation fixed and cleaned up. But where are they? They’re sitting there counting the money.”

  • Maine native honored that Russia wants to interrogate him

    A Maine native is on the list of U.S. officials that Russian President Vladimir Putin says he’d like his prosecutors to interrogate. Old Town native and former U.S. House committee staffer Kyle Parker helped draft sanctions against Russians suspected of human rights violations. Parker tweeted Tuesday he was “honored” to make Putin’s list. Congress passed 2012 sanctions following Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky’s death in prison after exposing a tax fraud scheme involving Russian officials. The White House Thursday said Trump “disagrees” with Putin’s offer to allow U.S. questioning of 12 Russians who have been indicted for election interference. Putin in exchange wanted Russian interviews with the former U.S. ambassador to Russia and other Americans the Kremlin accuses of unspecified crimes. Trump initially had described the idea as an “incredible offer.”

  • What’s really behind Putin’s obsession with the Magnitsky Act

    Standing by President Trump’s side in Helsinki for their first bilateral summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin made what Trump described as an “incredible” offer: He would help U.S. investigators gain access to Russian intelligence officers indicted for the 2016 election hacking, on one small condition. “We would expect that the Americans would reciprocate and they would question [U.S.] officials … who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia,” Putin said, producing the name to indicate what actions he had in mind: “Mr. Browder.” Bill Browder, an American-born financier, came to Russia in the 1990s. The grandson of a former general secretary of the Communist Party USA, Browder by his own admission wanted to become “the biggest capitalist in Russia.” He succeeded and was for a decade the country’s largest portfolio foreign investor. Whatever the sins of Russia’s freewheeling capitalism, Browder’s real crime in the eyes of the Kremlin came later, after he had been expelled from Russia in 2005. In 2008, his Moscow lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered a tax scam involving government officials that defrauded Russian taxpayers of $230 million. He did what any law-abiding citizen would, reporting the crime to the relevant authorities. In return, he was arrested and held in detention without trial for almost a year. He was beaten and died on Nov. 16, 2009, at Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison under mysterious circumstances. Officials involved in his case received awards and promotions. In a chilling act worthy of Kafka, the only trial held in the Magnitsky case was a posthumous sentencing of himself — the only trial against a dead man in the history of Russia. It was then that Browder turned from investment to full-time advocacy, traveling the world to persuade one Western parliament after another to pass a measure that was as groundbreaking as it would appear obvious: a law, commemoratively named the Magnitsky Act, that bars individuals (from Russia and elsewhere) who are complicit in human rights abuses and corruption from traveling to the West, owning assets in the West and using the financial system of the West. Boris Nemtsov, then Russia’s opposition leader (who played a key role in convincing Congress to pass the law in 2012), called the Magnitsky Act “the most pro-Russian law in the history of any foreign Parliament.” It was the smartest approach to sanctions. It avoided the mistake of targeting Russian citizens at large for the actions of a small corrupt clique in the Kremlin and placed responsibility directly where it is due. It was also the most effective approach. The people who are in charge of Russia today like to pose as patriots, but in reality, they care little about the country. They view it merely as a looting ground, where they can amass personal fortunes at the expense of Russian taxpayers and then transfer those fortunes to the West. In one of his anti-corruption reports, Nemtsov detailed the unexplained riches attained by Putin’s personal friends such as Gennady Timchenko, Yuri Kovalchuk and the Rotenberg brothers, noting that they are likely “no more that the nominal owners … and the real ultimate beneficiary is Putin himself.” Similar suspicions were voiced after the publication of the 2016 Panama Papers, which showed a $2 billion offshore trail leading to another close Putin friend, cellist Sergei Roldugin. Some of the funds in his accounts were linked with money from the tax fraud scheme uncovered by Magnitsky. Volumes of research, hours of expert testimony and countless policy recommendations have been dedicated to finding effective Western approaches to Putin’s regime. The clearest and the most convincing answer was provided, time and again, by the Putin regime itself. It was the Magnitsky Act that Putin tasked his foreign ministry with trying to stop; it was the Magnitsky Act that was openly tied to the ban on child adoptions; it was the Magnitsky Act that was the subject of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting attended by a Kremlin-linked lawyer; it is advocating for the Magnitsky Act that may soon land any Russian citizen in prison. It was the Magnitsky Act that Putin named as the biggest threat to his regime as he stood by Trump’s side in Helsinki. After the Trump-Putin meeting, the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office released the names of U.S. citizens it wants to question as supposed associates of Browder. The list leaves no doubt as to the nature of the “crime.” It includes Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia policy at the Obama White House and later U.S. Ambassador in Moscow who oversaw the “compiling of memos to the State Department … on the investigation in the Magnitsky case.” It includes David Kramer, former assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, who, as president of Freedom House between 2010 and 2014, was one of the most effective advocates for the Magnitsky Act. Perhaps most tellingly, it includes Kyle Parker, now chief of staff at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, who, as the lead Russia staffer at the commission, wrote the bill that subsequently became the Magnitsky Act. Vladimir Putin has left no doubt: The biggest threat to his regime is the Magnitsky Act, which stops its beneficiaries from doing what has long become their raison d’être — stealing in Russia and spending in the West. It is time for more Western nations to adopt this law — and for the six countries that already have it to implement it with vigor and resolve.

  • Hedge-Fund Manager Bill Browder Says Putin’s Call-Out Helps His Cause

    The comments made by Russia President Vladimir Putin targeting William Browder are boosting the hedge-fund manager’s efforts to get more countries to impose sanctions on Russia. Mr. Browder, who was born in the U.S. but is a U.K. citizen, has been a thorn in Russia’s side for nearly a decade; he has spent much of that time crisscrossing the globe exposing Russian corruption and punishing Russian officials who he blamed for the 2009 death of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. Starting with the U.S., Mr. Browder has successfully lobbied seven countries to pass laws invoking Mr. Magnitsky’s name that impose sanctions on Russian human-rights abusers. He said in an interview with Risk & Compliance Journal on Thursday that the comments made by Mr. Putin in Helsinki will “increase the probability” that the eight countries he is working with now — France, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, South Africa and Ukraine — will impose their own measures. The comments by Mr. Putin answer one of the key questions countries ask, which is whether these sanctions will work, he said. “It’s so important to him to not have [the sanctions] that he’s willing to bring it up in his summit with the most powerful man in the free world,” said Mr. Browder, referring to the summit between President Donald Trump and Mr. Putin. The U.S. Magnitsky Act, signed in 2012, targets human-rights abusers in Russia. The U.S. passed another law in 2016, the Global Magnitsky Act, that authorizes sanctions against human rights abusers across the world, as well as those accused of grand corruption. A U.S. Treasury Department spokesman said that Washington has put sanctions on 51 Russian and Russia-related targets under the two laws since their implementation. “Under this administration, Treasury has consistently confronted Russian activities that threaten our institutions, our interests or our allies,” the spokesman said. Lawmakers have approved of the U.S. handling of Russia sanctions targeting human-rights abuse. “The Magnitsky sanctions are clearly making an impact on Putin and his inner circle,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.). Mr. Browder praised the U.S. effort, saying the Magnitsky Act sanctions have been used “quite effectively” by both the Obama and Trump administrations. He said the Trump administration has added high-value targets to the Russia-only list, and that the global list is “a rogues gallery” of the corrupt and violent. “There will be huge pressure to add many more names to the list” in the wake of Mr. Putin’s remarks, he said. Mr. Putin mentioned Mr. Browder at a press conference Monday following a summit with Mr. Trump, suggesting that the U.S. could hand over Mr. Browder and other targets of Russian investigations in exchange for Moscow’s help with the U.S. special counsel’s probe. Mr. Trump initially seemed open to the idea, but the White House Thursday turned it down and the U.S. Senate unanimously rejected the Russian president’s gambit. A Russian court sentenced Mr. Browder in absentia last December to nine months in prison after convicting him of deliberate bankruptcy and tax evasion; Mr. Browder has called the trial a farce and maintains his innocence. Mr. Browder, however, is a U.K. citizen and runs Hermitage Capital Management from London. In the interview, Mr. Browder said the U.K. has rejected 12 Russian requests to interrogate or extradite him and that Interpol has rejected six Russian requests for his arrest, citing political motivation. “The world is now seeing firsthand what I’ve been experiencing for five years,” Mr. Browder said. “The level of danger is no greater or no lesser than it was over the last five years.”

  • U.S. Lawmakers Seek to Criminalize Doping in Global Competitions

    United States lawmakers took a step on Tuesday toward criminalizing doping in international sports, introducing a bill in the House that would attach prison time to the use, manufacturing or distribution of performance-enhancing drugs in global competitions. The legislation, inspired by the Russian doping scandal, would echo the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it illegal to bribe foreign officials to gain a business advantage. The statute would be the first of its kind with global reach, empowering American prosecutors to act on doping violations abroad, and to file fraud charges of a different variety than those the Justice Department brought against top international soccer officials in 2015. Although American leagues like Major League Baseball would not be affected by the legislation, which would apply only to competitions among countries, it could apply to a league’s athletes when they participate in global events like the Ryder Cup, the Davis Cup or the World Baseball Classic. The law would establish America’s jurisdiction over international sports events, even those outside of the United States, if they include at least three other nations, with at least four American athletes participating or two American companies acting as sponsors. It would also enhance the ability of cheated athletes and corporate sponsors to seek damages, expanding the window of time during which civil lawsuits could be filed. To justify the United States’ broader jurisdiction over global competitions, the House bill invokes the United States’ contribution to the World Anti-Doping Agency, the global regulator of drugs in sports. At $2.3 million, the United States’ annual contribution is the single largest of any nation. “Doping fraud in major international competitions also effectively defrauds the United States,” the bill states. The lawmakers behind the bill were instrumental in the creation of the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which gave the government the right to freeze financial assets and impose visa restrictions on Russian nationals accused of serious human rights violations and corruption. On Tuesday, the lawmakers framed their interest in sports fraud around international relations and broader networks of crime that can accompany cheating. “Doping fraud is a crime in which big money, state assets and transnational criminals gain advantage and honest athletes and companies are defrauded,” said Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, who introduced the legislation on Tuesday. “This practice, some of it state-sanctioned, has the ability to undermine international relations, and is often connected to more nefarious actions by state actors.” Along with Ms. Jackson Lee, the bill was sponsored by two other congressional representatives, Michael C. Burgess, Republican of Texas, and Gwen Moore, Democrat of Wisconsin. It was put forward just as Russia prepares to host soccer’s World Cup, which starts Thursday. That sporting event will be the nation’s biggest since the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where one of the most elaborate doping ploys in history took place. The bill, the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, takes its name from Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the chemist who ran Russia’s antidoping laboratory for 10 years before he spoke out about the state-sponsored cheating he had helped carry out — most notoriously in Sochi. At those Games, Dr. Rodchenkov said, he concealed widespread drug use among Russia’s top Olympians by tampering with more than 100 urine samples with the help of Russia’s Federal Security Service. Investigations commissioned by international sports regulators confirmed his account and concluded that Russia had cheated across competitions and years, tainting the performance of more than 1,000 athletes. In early 2017, American intelligence officials concluded that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 American election had been, in part, a form of retribution for the Olympic doping scandal, whose disclosures Russian officials blamed on the United States. Nations including Germany, France, Italy, Kenya and Spain have established criminal penalties for sports doping perpetrated within their borders. Russia, too, passed a law in 2017 that made it a crime to assist or coerce doping, though no known charges have been brought under that law to date. Under the proposed American law, criminal penalties for offenders would include a prison term of up to five years as well as fines that could stretch to $250,000 for individuals and $1 million for organizations. “We could have real change if people think they could actually go to jail for this,” said Jim Walden, a lawyer for Dr. Rodchenkov, who met with the lawmakers as they considered the issue in recent months. “I think it will have a meaningful impact on coaches and athletes if they realize they might not be able to travel outside of their country for fear of being arrested.” The legislation also authorizes civil actions for doping fraud, giving athletes who may have been cheated in competitions — as well as corporations acting as sponsors — the right to sue in federal court to recover damages from people who may have defrauded competitions. Ms. Jackson Lee cited the American runner Alysia Montaño, who placed fifth in the 800 meters at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Two Russian women who placed first and third in that race were later disqualified for doping, elevating Ms. Montaño years later. “She had rightfully finished third, which would have earned her a bronze medal,” Ms. Jackson Lee said, noting the financial benefits and sponsorships Ms. Montaño could have captured. The bill would establish a window of seven years for criminal actions and 10 years for civil lawsuits. It also seeks to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation, making it illegal to take “adverse action” against a person because he or she has disclosed information about doping fraud. Dr. Rodchenkov, who has lived in the United States since fall 2015, has been criminally charged in Russia after he publicly deconstructed the cheating he said he carried out on orders from a state minister. “While he was complicit in Russia’s past bad acts, Dr. Rodchenkov regrets his past role in Russia’s state-run doping program and seeks to atone for it by aiding the effort to clean up international sports and to curb the corruption rampant in Russia,” Ms. Jackson Lee said, calling Tuesday’s bill “an important step to stemming the tide of Russian corruption in sport and restoring confidence in international competition.”

  • Bill introduced to make doping in worldwide events a crime

    WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill on Tuesday that would make it a crime to use or distribute performance-enhancing drugs while competing in international sports events. The bill in the House is named after Grigory Rodchenkov, the Russian lab director who blew the whistle on Russian cheating at the Sochi Olympics. Penalties would include fines of up to $250,000 for individuals and prison sentences of up to 10 years for those who make, distribute or use banned substances at international events, such as the Olympics. U.S. and foreign athletes would be subject to the law if competing in an event that includes four or more U.S. athletes and other athletes from three or more countries, even if the event is held outside the United States. The bill cites the U.S. contribution to the World Anti-Doping Agency as justification for jurisdiction over events outside American borders. The bill also would expand the timeframe for athletes and corporate sponsors who were cheated to file lawsuits seeking damages. Other countries, including Germany, Italy and Kenya, have similar laws. U.S. authorities have long been hamstrung by limited legal options to prosecute doping cheats.

  • Azerbaijan’s centennial celebrations mask repressive reality

    On Monday, the Republic of Azerbaijan celebrated 100 years of independence from the Russian Empire that collapsed following the Russian Revolution of 1917. When Azerbaijan proclaimed its independence on May 28, 1918 its leaders established the first democratic republic in the Muslim world—a real, if short-lived experience in democracy. In March, President Ilham Aliyev—the country’s dictator since 2003—gave voice to national pride in the centennial yet curiously grounded it in ideals he does everything to crush. “For the first time in the Muslim world,” Aliyev said, “the Azerbaijani people demonstrated that they want to live in a free society, they want to live in a society where all the rights of all the people are protected.” The people of Azerbaijan do not live in such a free society today. Just last month, Aliyev extended his rule until 2025 thanks to a rigged presidential election that lacked a single credible challenger. Since succeeding his father, who ruled Azerbaijan for more than a decade, Aliyev has systematically coopted the country’s institutions. In recent years, he removed obstacles to remaining in power for life, extended the presidential term from five to seven years, and appointed his wife as his unelected successor. The Muslim world’s first parliamentary republic today has a rubber-stamp legislature. The government systematically uses harassment, surveillance, imprisonment, and even torture to suppress political opposition. The National Assembly lacks a single parliamentarian from a major opposition party. The story is the same in the judiciary. For years, the country’s criminal justice system has punished opposition leaders, youth activists, and independent journalists with trumped-up charges of drug use, tax evasion, and “hooliganism.” Aliyev directs retribution against his opponents from behind the scenes and subsequently basks in fawning media coverage of his occasional pardons of some political prisoners. Despite these periodic releases, Azerbaijani civil society activists report that more than 140 prisoners of conscience are behind bars today. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), nearly a dozen of those jailed are journalists.  Aliyev’s government has taken particular aim at the free press to evade accountability. Having already harassed, coopted, or shuttered independent print, radio and TV outlets, in 2017 the government went a step further and blocked virtually all remaining major sources of independent online news. In its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, RSF ranked Azerbaijan 163rd out of 180 countries—just one spot above Iran. In September 2017, I introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that urges the Trump administration to raise and prioritize these human rights and democracy concerns in our bilateral relationship with Azerbaijan. The resolution calls on the administration to impose travel bans and asset freezes on Azerbaijani officials responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. It also recommends visa bans against violators of religious freedom, as provided for in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The government of Azerbaijan wants us to overlook its human rights record because it offers itself as a security partner for the United States. It is willing to help counter transnational threats such as terrorism and supports the NATO mission in Afghanistan through troop contributions and logistical assistance. Its oil and gas pipelines that transport energy from Azerbaijan’s Caspian shores westward also further the U.S. goal of limiting Europe’s dependence on Russian energy.  Yet by failing to respect the basic rights and dignity of its people, Azerbaijan becomes a long-term security liability. Younger generations of Azerbaijanis have no living memory of the nation’s nearly 70 years as a Soviet socialist republic and have higher hopes and expectations for their lives. The same week that Azerbaijan held its ersatz presidential election, a youth-led, non-violent protest movement was emerging in neighboring Armenia to bring down a prime minister that embodied Armenia’s entrenched political elite. It is unlikely that Azerbaijan can hold back the tide that brought tens of thousands into the streets in Armenia in 2018 and to join Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003. As Azerbaijan marks 100 years of independence, the U.S. must urge the government to rediscover the state’s original democratic roots and reestablish it for a new century, rooted in respect for human rights and liberty. Whether or not the government seizes this opportunity, the United States ought to stand in solidarity with the people of Azerbaijan, whose desires for dignity and justice will not be indefinitely denied.   Smith represents New Jersey’s 4th District and is chairman of the Foreign Affairs' Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organization Subcommittee.

  • And then, they took her cellphone

    Yesterday I received word that Pavla Holcova, a brave and unflappable Czech journalist, had been summoned by Slovakian police, who are investigating the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciakearlier this year. She took a 4-hour train ride from Prague to Bratislava and voluntarily presented herself at their headquarters. She has cooperated with the investigation since its earliest stages, but on this occasion, she was interrogated for eight hours. She was eventually released, but not before her cellphone was confiscated. The prosecutor who signed the order to take her cellphone and access its data is not assigned to the murder case, and he declined to explain why the authorities needed her phone. Holcova is not under any sort of criminal investigation. Quite the opposite, in fact. But Slovak authorities, acting suspiciously like the thuggish security forces found in repressive states, appear to be trying to shut her down. During the interrogation, she was repeatedly told that her reporting was “always against the system.” Not only is Slovakia a member of the European Union, until last year it ranked — along with much of Europe — as having one of the world’s freest media landscapes. Not anymore. This was merely the latest attempt by Slovakian authorities to harass the colleagues, friends and family of a reporter who was killed for doing his job. I met Holcova last week. She and I were part of a panel discussion in Washington titled “A Deadly Calling,” organized by the Helsinki Commission and designed to raise awareness for and address the assassinations of two investigative journalists in the European Union: Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta last October, and Kuciak in Slovakia this February. The panel included Caruana Galizia’s son, Matthew — himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter — and Holcova, who worked closely with Kuciak to report on official corruption and the Slovakian government’s ties with organized crime. It was this reporting that, many believe, prompted the murders of Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova. Our panel — which also included Robert Mahoney of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a watchdog group that tracks attacks on press freedom — offered an unvarnished look at the rising threats to freedom of expression around the world. In Slovakia, the Kuciak case represents a fundamental test of a young democracy. There has been a major public backlash there, with tens of thousands of ordinary citizens joining street protests demanding justice for the killings. Several high-level resignations have resulted, with the most notable casualty being Prime Minister Robert Fico. Holcova believes there is reason to hope that justice will prevail, and that reform and the rooting out of corruption are possible. But she remains skeptical. “Even though the changes made in the government are rather cosmetic,” she told me. “The most influential government members were replaced by people from the very same political party.” Less visible to the public, though, are the lasting scars these attacks have on loved ones of the slain journalists and the ongoing attempts to deter them from seeking justice. Holcova says she is lucky in that she has a strong support network of friends and family, “but sometimes I feel I might be indeed ‘toxic’ and I am afraid someone might get hurt because of me. This potential guilt is painful and even sometimes paralyzing.” That’s a familiar feeling to many journalists operating in authoritarian societies or scrutinizing high-level corruption. But this isn’t a situation we should tolerate in silence. Impressively, Holcova says she remains undeterred. I asked whether she had ever thought about giving up the effort to find her friend’s killers. “Yes, sure. I will stop pursuing this case, when the people really involved (not just the proxies) will be brought to justice.” Incidentally, this interview was conducted entirely by email. Why? Because Slovakian authorities still have Holcova’s phone, and have offered no indication of when they plan to return it. The public shaming of governments — especially fragile ones — for their bad behavior is one of the best tools available in places where the rule of law has not been completely eviscerated. Slovakia is one of those countries hanging in the balance. We should do all we can to support their struggle to mature into a viable democracy with a strong future. Officials there, Holcova wrote, “did not care that much in past. But I believe they do now. At least a bit more. The reputation of Slovak government is very much damaged, the trust in state institutions such as police or prosecutors is very low.” There’s one very simple way the Slovakian authorities can begin to repair their image. They should return Pavla Holcova’s cellphone immediately.

  • A Crisis in Guatemala, Abetted by the U.N.

    In the struggle to defeat transnational crime in Central America, the U.S. is financing a United Nations prosecutorial body in Guatemala. Yet these U.N. prosecutors are thumbing their noses at the rule of law and seem to be using their power to politicize the Guatemalan judiciary. This is dividing and destabilizing a pivotal democracy in the region. The fragile Guatemalan state is in the crosshairs of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro and Cuba’s Gen. Raúl Castro. If their allies seize control of Mexico’s southern neighbor via its institutions, as Daniel Ortega has done in Nicaragua, it will have implications for Mexican and American security. The U.N. body, known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG by its Spanish initials), has been in the country since 2007. It has busted some criminals. But its unchecked power has led to abuse, and this should concern U.S. backers. Some of CICIG’s most vociferous defenders hail from Guatemala’s extreme left, which eschews equality under the law and representative democracy. CICIG’s rogue justice has come to the attention of Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. He has scheduled a hearing April 27 to review CICIG’s role in the Guatemalan prosecution and extralegal conviction of a Russian family on the run from Vladimir Putin’s mafia. As I detailed in March 26 and April 19 Americas columns, Igor and Irina Bitkov, and their daughter Anastasia, fled persecution in Russia and became victims of a crime syndicate in Guatemala that was selling false identity documents. Yet Guatemala and CICIG tried the family alongside members of the crime ring that tricked them. They were convicted and given unusually harsh sentences. Guatemalan law and the U.N.’s Palermo Convention say that such migrants are victims, and a Guatemalan constitutional appeals court ruled that the Bitkovs committed no crime. CICIG and Guatemalan prosecutors ignored that ruling, went to a lower court and got a conviction. CICIG will not say why, or why it didn’t prosecute the law firm that solicited the fake documents given to the Bitkovs. Matías Ponce is “head of communications” for CICIG but there is no contact information for him or his office on the CICIG website. I managed to get his cellphone number from a third party and, after repeated tries, made contact with him. I requested his email and wrote to him so I could share with readers CICIG’s explanation of what appears to be abuse of power. He sent me a boilerplate response about CICIG’s work against criminal networks but no answers to my questions. It is unlikely CICIG will answer questions before the Helsinki Commission. Its co-chairman, Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), invited CICIG to appear at a similar hearing he proposed for April 24 in the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee monitoring human rights and U.N. entities. CICIG declined the invitation. That hearing was not scheduled, though the office of Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) told me it’s not dead. If CICIG refuses to cooperate with the Helsinki Commission, it will fuel the feeling among rule-of-law advocates that it has something to hide. CICIG says it is in Guatemala merely to “support” the attorney general in her work “identifying and dismantling” criminal networks and is not involved in politics. But an academic analysis of CICIG by Jonatán Lemus, a Francisco Marroquín University political science professor, suggests otherwise. Mr. Lemus observes that “CICIG has also been criticized for the very same reasons others have praised it: becoming a player in judicial appointments, proposing some controversial reforms to the Guatemalan constitution, and the use of televised conferences to shift the public in its favor. From this perspective, instead of strengthening Guatemalan institutions, the Commission is making national institutions dependent on its assistance.” This dependence drives CICIG deeper into politics. As Mr. Lemus notes, “once immersed in a polarized political system,” an international body designed like CICIG naturally “will face incentives to behave as any domestic bureaucracy trying to maximize its power and resources to ensure its survival.” Without an explanation for the bizarre Bitkov convictions, Guatemalans are left to speculate about CICIG’s motives. Incompetence is one possibility. But once the injustice was publicized and not corrected, that reasoning collapsed. A foreign businessman also makes an easy target for a politically correct prosecutor seeking approval from anticapitalist nongovernmental organizations. Kremlin “influence” cannot be ruled out. Nailing the Bitkovs was a priority for Russia because the family had refused to “donate” large sums to the Putin kitty in Kaliningrad. It would hardly be surprising to learn that Moscow leaned on prosecutors and judges to put the family behind bars. There’s no doubt that something fishy went on, and CICIG prosecutor Iván Velásquez’s unwillingness to address it is troubling. The truth matters for the family, for Guatemala and for the U.S.

  • Turkey Wants to Veto Civil Society Organizations at the OSCE

    A September meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is being held up by Turkey, which wants to be able to stop specific civil society groups from participating in the annual event. Each September, civil society organizations from OSCE member states meet with government representatives for Europe’s largest human rights conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting. For many civil society organizations, the event is the lone opportunity they have to address government representatives. But if Turkey gets its way, those civil society organizations won’t include groups affiliated with Fethullah Gulen, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s onetime ally and current foe. Erdogan blames Gulen for the 2016 failed coup attempt and claims that groups affiliated with his movement are part of terrorist organizations. The Turkish government’s demand for a veto over civil society organizations’ participation has some worried that Ankara will weaken a critical event in the human rights community — and set an example for other countries in the process. Last September, the Turkish delegation stormed out after an opening speech to oppose participation of the Gulen-affiliated Journalists and Writers Foundation. “This entity is so closely linked to the Fethullahist Terror Organization,” said Rauf Engin Soysal, the Turkish ambassador to the OSCE. Earlier that year, Turkey managed to rid the group of its consultative status at the U.N. Economic and Social Council over a technicality. Though the group lost its consultative status at the U.N., it still came to September’s OSCE meeting. A representative for the Journalists and Writers Foundation says the organization was not given a chance to reply to claims it is a terrorist organization. “Of course because this is an allegation without any proof and a groundless claim,” the representative says. In the fall of 2017, Turkey, which can block the dates and agenda of the Human Dimension Meeting, attempted to establish a veto over which civil society organizations could join the event. A working group that was set up last fall to deal with the issue is expected to meet Friday. In January, U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Ben Cardin wrote to Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell expressing concerns about countries calling for a “vetting” mechanism for civil society organizations, specifically citing Turkey. “Turkey’s attempt to limit civil society participation at the OSCE rejects its commitment to promote freedom as a NATO ally. The State Department is right to join the Commission in opposition to these actions,” Wicker wrote in a comment to Foreign Policy. There may not be an easy solution, however. “Everything is based on consensus decisions made by the participating states,” a spokesperson for the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights says. And Turkey appears to be standing firm in its position. Turkey recognizes the importance of the OSCE’s work and is not opposed to groups that are critical, Behic Hatipoglu, a counselor for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, wrote in response to questions. “However, participation of terror affiliated organizations to the OSCE activities is another issue and we believe that OSCE platforms should not be abused by terrorist or terrorist affiliated organizations,” he wrote. Beyond the September meeting, some NGOs and government officials alike are concerned that Turkey might inspire other countries — Kyrgyzstan or Azerbaijan, for example — to take similar measures to keep civil society organizations away from the table. But there are also concerns that this is part of a larger pattern of Turkish behavior on the international stage. Erdogan recently called for snap elections, which will take place under the state of emergency, and civil society groups have been a frequent government target. “They aren’t worried about attracting negative attention. If anything, they like it. It shows they’re proactive,” says David Phillips, the director of the program on peace-building and rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. “This is all part of an effort by Erdogan to show voters he’s not allowing foreigners to interfere in Turkey’s domestic affairs.” And though the current Turkish initiative is focused on Gulen-affiliated groups, Phillips believes it’s part of a broader effort, at home and abroad, to go after civil society. “I would suspect that their efforts are not restricted only to Gulen-related groups. Once you start restricting civil liberties, why stop with the Gulen groups?”

  • Use Magnitsky Act to Fight Russian Thuggery

    In “Kremlin Revenge in Guatemala” (Americas, March 26) Mary Anastasia O’Grady rightly draws attention to the determination of Vladimir Putin’s cronies to hurt those who defy their corruption. The yearslong ordeal of the Bitkov family—their harassment, persecution and ultimate imprisonment in a Guatemalan jail after fleeing Russia—is astonishing because of its cruelty. However, the story also reveals a much larger truth about the global web of complicity that the Kremlin will weave to suppress the rule of law and human rights outside its own borders. As chairman and former chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which works to advance international human rights, we are encouraged by the release of the first-ever sanctions list under the Global Magnitsky Act late last year. We ask that the administration put those responsible for the harm done to the Bitkovs on this list. These individuals should be held accountable for the flagrant torture and oppression they have inflicted upon this family, once at the helm of a thriving paper-mill company and now unjustly sentenced to years in a Guatemalan jail. Russia’s message of intimidation to the Bitkovs is a familiar one. We’ve seen before what the kleptocracy will do to those who challenge its crimes. We know the stories of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Sergei Magnitsky. In 2012, we championed the Magnitsky Act for the wrongful punishment and death of Magnitsky, who uncovered massive fraud at the hands of Russian authorities. Under the law, those who were complicit in his death would have their U.S. assets frozen and any travel to the U.S. denied. The Global Magnitsky Act, passed four years later, broadens America’s response to human-rights offenders around the world. We have refused to respond to these stories with silence, and we cannot tolerate impunity now. Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.)

  • Could U.S. Law Help Punish Russians for Doping Scheme?

    WASHINGTON — In recent months, the United States has punished the following people for alleged human rights violations and corruption: A former Gambian president who led terror and assassination squads. A Chechen leader involved in torture, kidnapping and murder. A Pakistani man at the center of a human-organ trafficking network. And a former Russian sports minister who was implicated in a nation’s systematic doping scheme that tainted several Olympics and other international competitions? Well, not the last person — at least not yet. The United States Anti-Doping Agency is exploring the use of government sanctions to punish Russian officials involved in the state-supported doping program that turned the 2014 Sochi Games into a sham. On Tuesday, Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the agency, attended a workshop here sponsored by the U.S. Helsinki Commission to see if the Global Magnitsky Act, a 2016 law that allows the sanctions, could apply to the Russians. The law calls for individuals who have committed human rights violations or significant corruption to be barred from obtaining United States visas and blocked from using the American financial system, which effectively blacklists them from doing business with major world banks. Powerful, wealthy people don’t like to have their assets frozen. “What happened in Sochi was the worst case of corruption that we’ve ever seen in sport, so why shouldn’t the act apply to us?” Tygart said. “We have to look down every avenue if we’re working for clean athletes, particularly in light of the I.O.C.’s failure do anything.” Tygart said American athletes have been demanding that the antidoping agency find ways to better protect clean athletes in the future so the Russian doping debacle is never repeated. The International Olympic Committee punished Russia, sort of, for its widespread doping. It barred the Russian Olympic Committee, the Russian flag and the Russian national anthem from last month’s Pyeongchang Games, while letting some Russian athletes compete under a neutral flag. It also barred for life one top Russian official: Vitaly Mutko. (He was implicated in the doping program as the Russian sports minister. After the scheme was exposed, he was promoted to deputy prime minister.) Three days after the Pyeongchang Games ended, the I.O.C. reinstated Russia’s Olympic committee — even though two Russian athletes had failed drug tests during the competition. So the United States antidoping group is looking for additional ways to punish the Russians. The Global Magnitsky Act is in its infancy and the sports angle might be a long-shot, but why not try? Besides, the United States government often has to do the dirty work for sports leagues and federations that refuse to police themselves. To take down the principles and athletes involved in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative steroids scandal that ensnared athletes like Barry Bonds and Marion Jones, law enforcement made arrests and prosecutors took it from there. To address the widespread doping problem in Major League Baseball, Congress had to drag players and management in to testify. To uncover corruption in FIFA, United States prosecutors took the lead and indicted more than two dozen officials and businessmen from all over the world — much to the dismay of soccer’s global establishment. And now it could be the Global Magnitsky Act that delivers a staggering blow to the Russians for corrupting the results of major global sports competitions — including, but certainly not limited to, the Olympics. Among the people who could be targeted for sanctions are Mutko; Yuri D. Nagornykh, the former deputy sports minister; Irina Rodionova, the former deputy director of the Center for Sports Preparation; and others mentioned in an affidavit by Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, Russia’s former longtime antidoping laboratory chief who blew the whistle on the whole operation. Does such sports corruption rise to the level covered by the law? William F. Browder thinks so. He’s a prominent investor who worked with Congress on the original Magnitsky Act, which was passed in 2012 in response to the death of Browder’s Russian lawyer, Sergei L. Magnitsky. The lawyer had uncovered a $230 million tax-theft scheme before he was arrested and died in prison. “There’s one important issue and that’s the doping scandal at the Sochi Games led to what I believe were murders,” Browder said, referring to two officials from Russia’s antidoping agency who died within two weeks of each other in 2016. “There were a number of people involved who died very suspiciously who were most likely liquidated to cover up a crime.” He added: “There were people who effectively ruined institution of sport and have committed crimes to do so. That would reach the standard of Global Magnitsky, in my opinion. These people involved in sports doping, they’re shameless. So there needs to be really hard consequences. They need to pay a very dear price.” That price would be losing access to their money and the freedom to move about the world. And they would be on a list with some of the world’s worst criminals. “If the Olympic Games are unquestionably tainted, that has huge economic ramifications for not just U.S. athletes, but for U.S. industry, and the U.S. government has an interest in making sure that doesn’t happen,” said Robert G. Berschinski, senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First and a former deputy assistant secretary of state. I asked him if he thought the individuals involved in the Russian doping case could be sanctioned under the law. “Without getting into specifics,” he said, “it seems that you can make a case.” Tygart thinks so, too. He left the workshop on Tuesday thinking that sanctions were a last resort but “a viable option.” Is it truly a viable option, and will the antidoping agency act on it? A certain group of Russians might not be eager to learn the answers.

  • Attorney for Russian ‘Icarus’ Whistleblower Blasts Olympic Anti-Doping Effort

    WASHINGTON—The attorney for the Russian whistleblower featured in Bryan Fogel’s Oscar-nominated movie “Icarus” is blasting the International Olympic Committee for not taking harsher measures against Russia for the state-sanctioned use of performance enhancing drugs by its athletes. Jim Walden, the attorney for Grigory Rodchenkov, who is at the center of “Icarus,” spoke to the Helsinki Commission on Capitol Hill and said the IOC’s ban on Russian participation in the recent Winter Olympics was “hardly a slap on the wrist.” “In reality, it was a PR stunt—a sham,” he said last week. “After all, Russia has now fielded one of its largest teams at the ongoing Olympics in Pyeongchang. They are permitted to compete not as neutral athletes but in uniforms bearing Russia’s name.” Rodchenkov served as the director of the Moscow Anti-Doping Center, tasked with ensuring compliance with the World Anti-Doping Agency. In fact, he was “ordered by his Kremlin bosses” to assist in “an elaborate system to allow Russia’s athletes to cheat in international competitions, including the Olympics,” Walden said. In the movie, Rodchenkov works with Fogel on his effort to use performance enhancing drugs as a way to show how Lance Armstrong evaded detection for so long. But, as “Icarus” unfolds, Rodchenkov becomes the center of the anti-doping scandal. Rodchenkov is now in hiding in the United States, given the threats from Russia, which has denied the claims. “Russian officials have harassed his family, confiscated his property, and even declared that he should be ‘shot as Stalin would have done,'” Walden said in his testimony. “To discredit Dr. Rodchenkov, even Russian President Vladimir Putin has gotten in the game, accusing the FBI of ‘drugging’ Dr. Rodchenkov to elicit false testimony while, at the same time, calling Dr. Rodchenkov an ‘imbecile’ and ‘mentally unstable.'” Rodchenkov was sued for defamation last week in New York by a group of Russian athletes, in a lawsuit that is being backed by Mikhail D. Prokhorov, who owns the Brooklyn Nets, the New York Times reported. “The IOC has stood by and watched this abhorrent conduct against its main witness without taking any action at all,” Walden said in his appearance before the commission. “Did this embolden Russia? You tell me. Russia reacted by also retaliating directly against the IOC and WADA. They hacked the IOC’s and WADA’s computers, disclosed confidential documents, and even threatened to bring sanctions against IOC members and WADA executives.” He continued, “No one can seriously argue that this cowardly and ineffective response by the IOC is appropriate, will deter future cheating, or is fair to clean athletes, Olympic sponsors, or fans. No one can seriously argue that the IOC’s self-policing system works at all.” Walden called on Congress to pass legislation to add criminal penalties for doping. He said a statute could be similar to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which sanctions foreign government officials for actions that impact U.S. businesses. The commission is an independent agency that includes members of the House and the Senate, and it monitors human rights and international cooperation in Europe. A spokesman for the IOC did not return a request for comment.

  • Bill Browder, Putin Enemy No. 1

    The harrowing tale of Bill Browder—how an American-born businessman became an enemy of the Russian state, how he has to live in constant fear, never knowing if the long arm of the Kremlin will snatch him, or kill him—is its own kind of daily terror. But what Browder’s story tells us about the way Vladimir Putin operates, and what he might want from this country, should scare us all. William Browder took his family on vacation in July, though he won't say where because that is one of those extraneous bits of personal information that could, in a roundabout way, get him bundled off to a Siberian prison or, possibly, killed. For eight years, he's been jamming up the gears of Vladimir Putin's kleptocratic machine, a job that seems to often end in jail or death, both of which he'd very much like to avoid. He'll concede, at least, that his leisure travels took him from London, where he lives, through Chicago, where he changed planes. As he walked through a terminal at O'Hare, he got a call from a New York Times reporter named Jo Becker. "Do you know anything," she asked, "about a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya?" Browder stopped short. "Yes," he said. "I know a lot about her." One of the most important things he knew was that Veselnitskaya had spent many dollars and many hours trying to convince Washington that Browder is a criminal. More than a decade ago, Browder was the largest individual foreign investor in Russia, managing billions in his hedge fund. Then, in 2009, one of his attorneys was tortured to death in a Moscow jail after exposing a massive tax fraud committed by Russian gangsters. His name was Sergei Magnitsky, and Browder has spent the years since trying to hold accountable anyone connected to Sergei's death. The most significant way is through the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, a 2012 U.S. law that freezes the assets and cripples the travel of specific Russians, many of whom have allegedly laundered millions of dollars in the West. The Kremlin hates that law. Putin's hold on power requires the loyalty of dozens of wealthy oligarchs and thousands of complicit functionaries, and their loyalty, in turn, requires Putin to protect the cash they've stashed overseas. Putin hates the law so much that he retaliated by banning Americans from adopting Russian children—yes, by holding orphans hostage—and has said that overturning the Magnitsky Act is a top priority. That's where Veselnitskaya comes in. As a lawyer, she represented a Russian businessman trying to recover $14 million frozen by the Magnitsky Act. More important, she was involved in an extensive 2016 lobbying and public-relations campaign to weaken or eliminate the act, in large part by recasting Browder as a villain who conned Congress into passing it. That was not empty political spin for an American audience: The Russians really do want Browder in prison. In 2013, a Russian court convicted him in absentia (and Sergei in his grave) of the very crime Sergei uncovered and sentenced Browder to nine years in prison. Later, it got worse. In April 2016, Russian authorities accused Browder of murdering Sergei—that is, of killing the person on whose behalf Browder had been crusading, and who the Russians for seven years had insisted was not, in fact, murdered. The campaign was oafish yet persistent enough that Browder thought it wise to compile a 26-page presentation on the people behind it. Veselnitskaya appears on five of those pages. "I've been trying to get someone to write this goddamned story," Browder told Becker on July 8. "She's not just some private lawyer. She's a tool of the Russian government." But why, Browder wanted to know, was Becker suddenly interested? "I can't tell you," she said. "But I think you'll be interested in a few hours." Browder flew off to the place he won't name, switched on his phone, and scrolled to the Times website. He drew in a sharp breath. He exhaled. F***. Donald Trump Jr. told the Times that the June 9, 2016, meeting had been about adoptions, which demonstrated either how out of his depth he was or how stupid he thought reporters were. If Veselnitskaya had been talking about adoption, she of course had been talking about the Magnitsky Act. Which meant she'd also been talking about Bill Browder. He read the story again, closely. Browder wasn't sure what the implications were. But if he'd known about it in real time—that the staff of a major-party presidential candidate was listening intently to those who accuse him of murder and want him extradited and imprisoned—he would have been terrified. "Putin kills people," Browder said to me one afternoon this autumn. "That's a known fact. But Putin likes to pretend that he doesn't kill people. So he tends to kill people he can get away with killing." Browder did not say this as if it were a revelation. (And technically it's an allegation that Putin has people killed, albeit one so thoroughly supported by evidence and circumstance that no one credibly disputes it.) Rather, he told me that by way of explaining why he was telling me anything at all: The more often and publicly he tells the story of Sergei Magnitsky, the less likely he'll be to get poisoned or shot or tossed out a window, which has happened to a number of Putin's critics. If anything does happen to him, he reasons, the list of suspects would be short. He spoke softly, methodically, though with great efficiency; not scripted, but well practiced. We were in the conference room of his offices in London. Afternoon light washed through a wall of windows, threw bright highlights onto his scalp, sparked off the frame of his glasses. Browder is 53 years old, medium build, medium height, medium demeanor, and was wearing a medium-blue suit. He does not look like a threat to Russian national security, which the Kremlin declared him to be 12 years ago. Still, there is a hint of steel, something hard and sharp beneath all of the mediumness; if he confessed that he'd served in the Special Forces, it would be a little surprising but not shocking. It was late September, and Donald Trump had been president for 248 days. In the weeks after the election, Browder was "worried and confused." Trump has a creepy habit of praising Putin, but he'd also surrounded himself with Russia hard-liners like General James Mattis, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pompeo—secretary of defense, ambassador to the United Nations, and director of the CIA, respectively. Browder war-gamed the Magnitsky Act but didn't see any way that Trump could kill it—Congress would have to repeal the law—only a chance that he might refuse to add more names to the target list. (Five people were added to the list last January, bringing the total to 44.) He figured the same was true with the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which President Obama signed shortly before leaving office, expanding the targeted-sanctions tool to human-rights abusers worldwide. The Russians hate that law, too, because having "Magnitsky" in the title reminds the entire planet where the standard was set and by whom. The first months of the new administration unspooled, spring into summer. Trump's flirtation with Putin persisted, but with no practical effect. "The Russians got nothing," Browder said. Congress, in fact, imposed its own sanctions on Russia for meddling in the 2016 election, cutting Trump out of the loop entirely. "I watch this like a hawk," Browder said, "and so far they've gotten nothing. There's not a single piece of Russian policy that's gone Putin's way." But then, in July, the Times reported that Veselnitskaya had met with Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign manager at the time, in June 2016. That shifted the calculus. "America has been my staunchest ally," Browder said. "It wasn't an assumption but a question: Had they flipped my biggest ally?" That was still an open question when we met in London. Much more had been reported about Trump and Russia. Other contacts and communications were known, and details kept evolving, an endless, sloppy churn of information. There was more, too, about the meeting with Veselnitskaya, which happened two weeks after Trump secured the nomination: It was attended by eight people in all, including Rinat Akhmetshin, who is usually described as a former Russian military-intelligence officer, though that generously assumes that any Russian spook is ever fully retired from the spy game. Browder has another PowerPoint presentation on him. Additionally, Manafort's notes on the meeting reportedly mentioned Browder by name. This is all bad. "They were in a meeting to discuss Bill Browder, the Magnitsky Act, and how to get the Magnitsky Act repealed," he said. "Now, what [the Russians] were offering in return, we don't know. But if it had just been a courtesy meeting, only one of [the Trump team] would have showed up." Maybe no one will ever know what, if anything, the Russians offered. But there's no doubt what they wanted, and how badly. In a four-page memo prepared for the meeting by Veselnitskaya (and later obtained by Foreign Policy), the Magnitsky Act was inspired by "a fugitive criminal" who ripped off the Russian treasury and then went on a worldwide publicity tour to, apparently, cover it up. "Using the grief of the family of Magnitsky to his own advantage, Browder exposes them as a human shield to distract attention from the details of his own crime," she wrote. Passage of the Magnitsky Act, moreover, marked "the beginning of a new round of the Cold War." That is an assertion as grandiose as it is belligerent. And yet it is not wholly inaccurate. To understand why the Kremlin is so perturbed, it helps to understand Bill Browder. In many ways, he is the Rosetta Stone for decoding the curious relationship between the Trumps and the Russians. Browder's grandfather Earl was a communist. He started as a union organizer in Kansas and spent some time in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, where he married a Jewish intellectual and had the first of his three sons, Felix. The family moved to Yonkers in 1932, where Earl became secretary general of the Communist Party USA. He ran for president twice, in 1936 and 1940, and Time magazine put him on its cover in 1938 above the headline COMRADE EARL BROWDER. His fortunes fell in 1941, when he was convicted of passport fraud. His four-year sentence was commuted after 14 months, and he was released into relative obscurity until the 1950s, when he was harassed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Bill's grandmother steered her boys away from politics and toward academics, in which they wildly overachieved. Felix enrolled at M.I.T. at the age of 16, graduated in two years, and had a Princeton Ph.D. in math when he was 20. He met his wife, Eva, at M.I.T., a Jewish girl who'd fled Vienna ahead of the Nazis and spent her teenage years in a tenement with her impoverished mother. Felix and Eva had two boys. Their first, Thomas, took after his father: University of Chicago at 15, doctoral student in physics at 19. Their second, Bill, did not. He liked to ski and smoke and drink. He got kicked out of a second-tier boarding school and barely got into the University of Colorado, which was fine with him because it was a notorious party school. By his account, he spent his formative years rebelling against everything his leftist-intellectual family held sacred. "Rejecting school was a good start, but if I really wanted to upset my parents, then I would have to come up with something else," he wrote in his 2015 book, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice. "Then, toward the end of high school, it hit me. I would put on a suit and tie and become a capitalist. Nothing would piss off my family more than that." He started studying, transferred to the University of Chicago, got into a two-year pre-MBA program at Bain & Company, in Boston. He parlayed that and an essay about Comrade Earl Browder—from communist to capitalist in two generations!—into a seat at Stanford. Out of genealogical curiosity, he began thinking about Eastern Europe. "If that's where my grandfather had carved out his niche," he wrote, "then maybe I could, too." He got a job with a consulting firm and moved to London in August 1989. Three months later, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled. Eastern Europe was wide open for business. His first account was consulting for a Polish bus manufacturer that was bleeding cash. It was miserable work in a miserable little city, but while he was there his translator explained the financial tables in the local newspaper. With the fall of communism, nationalized companies were being privatized and their stocks were offered at fire-sale prices: A company with $160 million in profits the previous year had a stock valuation of only $80 million. Browder invested his entire savings, $2,000, in Polish stocks. He eventually walked away with $20,000. He'd found his niche. By 1993, he was in Moscow, investing in staggeringly undervalued stocks: He invested $25 million and turned a $100 million profit. With money that good and almost no Western competition, Browder, in 1996, raised enough cash to open his own fund, Hermitage Capital. Over the next decade, Hermitage did exceptionally well. The downside, though, was that the economy wasn't transitioning from communism to capitalism so much as it was devolving into gangsterism. Corruption was endemic. A handful of oligarchs looted and swindled at their leisure. Browder countered by positioning himself as an activist shareholder; he and his staff would piece together who was ripping off what, name names, try to impose a modicum of order on a lawless system. When Vladimir Putin rose to power, Browder believed he was a reformer eager to purge the kleptocracy. In 2003, for example, Putin arrested the country's richest man, oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, charged him with fraud, and displayed him in a cage in a courtroom until his inevitable conviction. In the context of the time, many critics saw the ordeal as a capricious show trial orchestrated by an authoritarian thug. Not Browder. "I would trust Putin any day of the week," he told The Washington Post in early 2004. "It's like being in a lawless schoolyard where there's bullies running around and beating up all us little people, and then one day a big bully comes along and all the little bullies fall into line. That's what the state is supposed to be—the big bully." But Putin, he discovered, wasn't pushing for good corporate governance. He was taking over the rackets. Putin put Khodorkovsky in a cage for the same reason Vito Corleone put a horse's head in Jack Woltz's bed: to send a message. Oligarchs could steal, but they had to pay tribute. Oligarchs no longer needed to be named and shamed; they needed to be kept in line and to keep earning. At that point, an activist shareholder like Browder became an expensive nuisance. Browder was kicked out of the country on November 13, 2005. For a while, he thought the Russian bureaucracy had made a mistake by canceling his visa, confusing him with someone else, perhaps, or misfiling some paperwork. He enlisted the help of British diplomats—Browder had been a British citizen since 1998—to no avail. There had been no mistake. Browder had been declared a threat to Russian national security. Hermitage Capital remained in business, though, its office run by Browder's staff while he oversaw operations from London. But in Moscow, the pressure only increased. In June 2007, security forces raided Hermitage and the office of the law firm it employed. They carted away computers and files and, interestingly, all the corporate seals and stamps. At first, none of that made sense. But then Sergei Magnitsky, a 36-year-old Muscovite who handled tax matters for Hermitage, started digging around. He eventually discovered three of Hermitage's holding companies had been used by Russian gangsters to swindle $230 million in tax rebates. It was a straight-up robbery of the Russian treasury. The scam wasn't unheard of, except the amount was perhaps the largest such tax fraud ever uncovered in Russia. Browder and his staff reported the theft to the authorities and the media in the summer of 2008. They even named suspects, including some of the security officials who'd earlier been involved in the office raids. Nothing happened. Then, a few months later, on November 24, 2008, Sergei was arrested at his home. He was held for nearly a year in various prisons, overrun with rats and damp with sewage. According to complaints Sergei wrote, he was fed porridge infested with insects and rotten fish boiled into mush. He contracted pancreatitis and gallstones but was refused treatment. Yet he was repeatedly told he would be released if he would recant his allegations and, instead, implicate Browder as the mastermind of the tax scam. He refused every time. Almost a year after he was arrested, desperately ill, Sergei was handcuffed to a bed rail in an isolation cell. Eight guards beat him with rubber truncheons. A little more than an hour later, he was dead. Before Sergei was killed, Browder had been lobbying anyone he could think of to pressure the Russians into releasing his accountant. One of the agencies he approached in the spring of 2009 was the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency in Washington that monitors human rights in 57 countries, including Russia. Kyle Parker, one of the Russia experts there, wasn't interested. He knew who Browder was—the money manager who'd championed Putin, the guy who'd made the rounds of Western capitals a few years earlier trying to get his visa restored. He assumed that's what Browder was still after. "Not gonna be able to make it," he e-mailed a colleague scheduling the meeting. "Unless much has changed, I see this meeting as info only and would not support any action on our part." He eventually met with Browder, though, and he listened to the story of Sergei. Parker understood, but it didn't seem especially uncommon. "I was thinking: Why is Bill trying to suck us into a pissing match between competing criminal groups?" Parker didn't even include Sergei in a 2009 letter to Obama highlighting the commission's most pressing concerns. After Sergei had been killed, Browder went back to the Helsinki Commission. Parker told him how sorry he was. He told him that he cried when he heard Sergei was dead, that he read about it through teary eyes on the Metro, riding the Red Line home to his wife and kids. He said he was going to help. "Here you have this Russian hero almost of a literary quality in Sergei Magnitsky," Parker told me. "He wasn't a guy who went to rallies with a bullhorn and protested human-rights abuses in Chechnya. He was a bookish, middle-class Muscovite. I see Sergei metaphorically as that Chinese guy standing in front of the tanks, but with a briefcase. He provided an example for all the other Russians that not everybody goes in for the deal, not everybody is corrupt, not everybody looks the other way when people are swindled." What Browder wanted was some form of justice for Sergei, though what form that would take was unclear. He'd researched his options for months. The Russians weren't going to prosecute anyone—officially, Sergei died of heart failure. There was no international mechanism to hold Russian nationals criminally accountable in another country. "Eventually," Browder said, "it became obvious that I was going to have to come up with justice on my own." He outlined a three-pronged approach. One was media, simply getting Sergei's name and his death and the reasons for it into the public consciousness. He talked to reporters, and he produced a series of YouTube videos, short documentaries on the people allegedly involved in Sergei's death. The second was tracing the money. "They killed him for $230 million," Browder said, "and I was going to find out where that money went." It was parceled out to dozens of people, tucked away in Swiss accounts and American real estate and Panamanian banks, some of it held by proxies; part of it allegedly ended up in the account of a Russian cellist who happened to be a childhood friend of Putin's. By mining bank transfers and financial records, Browder and his staff have accounted for much of it, including $14 million allegedly laundered by a Cypriot company into Manhattan property. (The Justice Department froze those funds in 2013 but settled with the company, Prevezon, last summer for $5.9 million. Prevezon's owner, a Russian named Denis Katsyv, is represented by Natalia Veselnitskaya. The case did not allege that he had any role in Magnitsky's death.) The final prong was political. Browder had heard about an obscure regulation that allows the State Department to put visa restrictions on corrupt foreign officials. But in the spring of 2010, the Obama administration was attempting to normalize relations with Russia—a "reset," as Obama famously put it. People die horrible deaths every day, and it's terrible and it shouldn't happen. But Russia is also a large country with a significant sphere of geopolitical influence and a lot of nuclear weapons. In that context, a dead middle-class tax lawyer wasn't relevant. But what if, Parker suggested, they went to Congress? What if the legislature, rather than the administration, took action? That was also a long shot. Getting any law passed is difficult, let alone one the administration opposes. But Browder told Sergei's story to congressional committees and individual senators and congressmen, and he kept telling it until the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law 11 days before Christmas 2012. The act originally named 18 Russians, including bureaucrats implicated in the original scam; investigators Sergei had accused of being involved and getting a cut of the $230 million; jailers who tormented him; and two alleged killers. As more of the stolen money was traced, more names were added to the list. Everyone on it is banned from entering the United States and, more damaging, cut off from the American banking system. That has a ripple effect: Legitimate financial institutions all over the world monitor the Treasury Department list of sanctioned individuals and are loath to do business with anyone on it. "That's what people hate about it the most," Browder said. "It makes you a financial leper." And that matters to Putin, Browder maintains, because the Russians on the list are not independently wealthy, like, say, Bill Gates or Richard Branson. "They're dependently wealthy," he said. "They're dependent on Putin." If the deal is that corrupt Russians can keep their cash in return for their loyalty, the Magnitsky Act is an enormous thorn in Putin's side. If he can't protect anyone's pilfered money, what's the point of loyalty? Putin surely understands that, because he was so transparently rattled: Taking orphans hostage is not the reasoned reaction of a man merely annoyed. Browder initially wanted to call the law the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act. But Parker never took to that. "Banning some corrupt officials from coming here isn't even close to justice," he said. "But it's a legislative monument to Sergei Magnitsky until one day Russia builds a stone monument to him. Because I have no doubt he'll be seen as the Russian patriot and hero that he was." Not quite three weeks after the Times broke the story of Veselnitskaya lobbying the Trump campaign to get rid of the Magnitsky Act, Browder testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about, primarily, how Russian operatives wield influence and frame their propaganda. Eight years after he'd started targeting a handful of Russian crooks, Browder was suddenly very relevant to a much larger political storm. He flew home to London after he testified but had to return to the United States in early August. He checked in at an airline counter in Heathrow but was told there was a problem with his visa. He'd been flagged by Interpol, which had issued a red notice on him. It's basically an international arrest warrant, and it was the fourth requested by the Russians for Browder. Technically, a member nation is supposed to extradite him to the country that asked for the notice. But the British, along with other sensible Western nations, stopped taking Russia's attempts regarding Browder seriously years ago. In the end, it was only an inconvenience. But what if he'd been in, say, Finland when that notice popped up? The Finns are fine people, but they also have a 500-mile border with Russia. Would letting Browder go be worth risking an international incident with a bigger, more aggressive neighbor? He can make a reasonable case that, no, he would not be worth it. "I'm very realistic about who's coming to my defense," he said. "I am my defense." So he's careful. He avoids countries that might be friendly to Putin. Much of the Third World is out. So is Hong Kong. He'd be fine in Japan, but only if he didn't fly over Russian airspace. What if the plane has trouble and makes an emergency landing in Novosibirsk? That's where Khodorkovsky was seized and hauled off to a cage. Even in London, he's cautious. He won't talk about his family or where he lives. He varies his schedule and his route to work every day. He doesn't eat in the same restaurant twice in succession, or in any restaurant with predictable frequency; Russian agents have reputedly twice poisoned dissidents in London. He told me the British government has rebuffed at least a dozen requests to extradite him, and American intelligence has warned him that Russian agents planned to grab him off the street. Years ago, a Russian living in London came to Browder's staff with information about certain wealthy, corrupt people in Moscow. He was cagey and shifty and, at first, it seemed like he might be a Russian agent trying to plant false clues. But his information checked out and Browder learned who he really was. His name was Alexander Perepilichnyy, and he was nervous because he believed he was on a Russian hit list. On November 10, 2012, Perepilichnyy dropped dead in front of his house in Surrey. There was no obvious cause of death—no heart attack or stroke or aneurysm—and an inquest wasn't opened until last June. Perepilichnyy wasn't a well-known dissident, so no one thought to take a hard look when he died. "They got away with it," Browder said, meaning the Russians. "That's a perfect example of why you don't want to be an anonymous guy who drops dead." So Browder is deliberately not anonymous. He does not live in cloistered fear. When a car service got confused trying to pick him up for a photo shoot—definitely a way to not be anonymous—we took the Tube a few stops, then walked through Kentish Town to the studio. There was no security, just two men wandering around London. He has hobbies that he asked I not name, but none of them are solitary or sedentary. "One thing I can tell you," he said, "with the threat of death hanging over you, you live life to the fullest." He laughed a little. In this new version of his life, Browder is still most often referred to as a financier, but that's only marginally true. He gave all his investors their money back, and manages only his own now. Justice for Sergei—and aggravating Putin—is his full-time job. His staff of 11 tracks money launderers, deciphering which flunky is fronting for which oligarch, sniffing out the rest of that $230 million. He lobbies other governments to pass their own versions of the Magnitsky Act. The United Kingdom has one, as does Estonia. Lithuania is close, and Canada passed one in October. "Unconstructive political games," Putin told a Canadian interviewer immediately after, orchestrated by "the criminal activities of an entire gang led by one particular man, I believe Browder is his name." And Putin wasn't finished. A week later, Russia slipped another red notice into Interpol's system. For the second time in three months, Browder was temporarily barred from entering the U.S. It's relentless, Putin clawing at him, thrashing. "Their main objective is to get me back to Russia," he said. "And they only have to get lucky once. I have to be lucky every time." "Everything Bill's done has cost him tremendously," Parker said. "It's cost him money, restricted his personal freedom. And he didn't have to. He was out of Russia. He could have done what many did and walked away. Bad things happen, right? But here's a guy who's proven whatever he needed to prove to himself. He made his money. Now here's a way to find meaning. It's also a debt of honor." No, it's more than that. "It's penance," Browder said. Sergei Magnitsky was an ordinary Muscovite who happened to work for an American who annoyed Vladimir Putin. "Sergei was killed because of me. He was killed instead of me." He let that hang there a moment. "So, yeah, it's all penance." Sean Flynn is a GQ correspondent. This story originally appeared in the December 2017 issue with the title "Putin Enemy No.1."

  • Corruption Currents

    A daily roundup of corruption news from across the Web. We also provide a daily roundup of important risk & compliance stories via our daily newsletter, The Morning Risk Report, which readers can sign up for here. Follow us on Twitter at @WSJRisk. Bribery: A bribery case in Russia involving the country’s elite is causing a stir in the Kremlin. (NY Times) The question of what constitutes bribery is trickier than it seems. (Washington Post, GAB) The NCAA bribery scandal claimed more scalps. (AP, ESPN, 24) Cybercrime: The Dark Web’s most notorious thief was doxed. (Daily Beast) The hack of Equifax is leading to calls to change the credit-reporting industry. (NPR) Fraud: A federal judge postponed a Texas lawmaker’s fraud trial. (mySA) Money Laundering: Canadian authorities laid charges against a money-transfer firm in a case of alleged drug-linked money laundering. The firm didn’t respond to a request for comment. (Vancouver Sun) A guilty plea to a structuring charge, in which he made transactions of a certain size to avoid regulators, killed a man’s business and his wife, and the IRS won’t return his money. (Washington Post) The son of Thailand’s former premier blasted authorities for releasing photos of him answering questions about money-laundering allegations. (Bangkok Post, Reuters, Bangkok Post) Indian authorities continue bringing money-laundering cases. (Express, Telegraph) Sanctions: The U.S. State Department revoked the visa of Bill Browder after Russia sought an Interpol notice for his arrest in the death of Sergei Magnitsky. Mr. Magnitsky, however, died in Russian police custody after reporting a tax fraud while working for Mr. Browder; his death led the U.S. to pass the Magnitsky Act. (Newsweek, NPR, euronews, NY Times, Channel4) Iran’s president is cutting back on the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ power amid sanctions. Did President Donald Trump preserve the status quo on the Iran deal? (NY Times, Platts) Turkey’s banking regulator dismissed reports that the country’s financial institutions face fines for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. (Reuters) Switzerland implemented a series of sanctions on North Korea. (Swissinfo) Terrorism Finance: Can bankers fight terrorism? (Foreign Affairs) Transparency: Panama Papers: Malta offered a $1.18 million reward for information on the person who killed a reporter investigating the leak. The EU ended its inquiry into the leak. (AP, WNYC, EuroNews) Whistleblowers: A U.K. judge sued to be included as a class of whistleblowers. (Guardian) General Anti-Corruption: The U.S. is seeking to seize assets it said were looted from disaster relief in the Philippines and placed in California. (OCWeekly) China’s anti-graft czar is about to leave the agency as Beijing puts new laws in place. The country banned its notorious interrogation technique as part of the reforms. (SCMP, SCMP, Reuters) Officials: Slovakia jailed government ministers for corruption for the first time. A fugitive former Mexican state official allegedly stole cows bought with government funds. (Bloomberg, BBC) A South African corruption investigation continues. U.K. banks were exposed, regulators say. (Guardian, Fin24, TimesLive, BBC) The Helsinki Commission fights kleptocracy. (KI) U.S. investigations into Russian meddling in the U.S. election continue, as Mr. Trump pledged to pay staffers’ legal bills. (NBC, NY Times, Washington Post) Taekwondo generated the most corruption complaints in Korean sports. (Korea Herald)  

  • Kyrgyzstan election: A historic vote, but is it fair?

    For the first time in the history of Kyrgyzstan, an elected president is due to peacefully hand over power after elections take place on Sunday. But critics say the political environment in Central Asia's "island of democracy" is deteriorating. Here's a look at the issues there - and who's likely to come out on top. Elections in Central Asia are usually easily predictable - the incumbent or the ruling party's candidate wins the vote with an overwhelming majority. But the vote in Kyrgyzstan offers a real competition and choice. Nearly 60 people applied to run in the race, 13 of whom were registered to stand. Two later dropped out. The incumbent, President Almazbek Atambayev, must leave office after six years. Under the Kyrgyz constitution, he may only serve one term. In neighbouring states, laws have often been changed to allow the incumbent to run again but this did not happen in Kyrgyzstan. President Atambayev also promised not to go for the prime minister's job in order to stay in power. Although one of the main candidates - Sooronbay Jeenbekov - is from the president's party, he is not guaranteed to win the vote. He faces a strong opponent - Omurbek Babanov, a prominent businessman and a former prime minister. Some candidates made the unusual move of endorsing their opponents after the campaign started. Experts say that they went through all the trouble of getting into the race in order to increase their political influence. They try to build a greater support base, which they use to negotiate a favourable deal with stronger candidates before pulling out of the race. Politicians can easily change sides, because it's not ideology or a political platform but their own personality that they use to appeal to the voters. Observers say that over the last couple of years the political climate in Kyrgyzstan has been deteriorating. The Helsinki Commission wrote that "the vote takes place amid mounting concerns of democratic backsliding, particularly regarding the government's treatment of political opposition, civil society and human rights defenders". President Atambayev has demonstrated increasing intolerance to criticism. The Sentyabr TV station which opposed him was closed last year for extremism, and activists say that there were blatant procedural violations during the trial. Several popular independent media outlets were sued and heavily fined for insulting the president. The government also tried to intimidate critics on social media. Security services identified Facebook users who criticised the president, and gave them warnings. Several political opponents of President Atambayev have also been sent to prison. Earlier this year, leaders of the opposition People's Parliament movement were jailed for allegedly plotting a coup. Omurbek Tekebayev, a former ally of President Atambayev who turned into a prominent critic, was sentenced to eight years in prison for corruption and fraud and subsequently barred from running for the presidency. Experts saw this case as politically motivated. The atmosphere got particularly tense following a major diplomatic spat between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It started last month after a meeting between the president of neighbouring Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Mr Babanov. In an unusually harsh speech, President Atambayev accused his Kazakh counterpart of interfering in Kyrgyzstan's affairs, and warned them of worse to come. "I will speak differently if our neighbours don't come to their senses," he said. Since the beginning of the campaign, there have been numerous reports of violations by various candidates. There have been reports of people going house-to-house with a list of names and addresses and offering money to citizens if they vote for Mr Jeenbekov. Mr Babanov was also accused of vote-buying, and the Central Elections Committee issued him three warnings for violation of campaign rules. The Babanov team complained that security services were putting pressure on their candidate by recording their meetings and conversations and arresting his supporters. An influential MP, Kanatbek Isakov, was detained and charged with an attempt to organise a coup. Security services denied any political motive for the arrest, but Mr Babanov said that Mr Isakov had been arrested because he endorsed him. Despite all this, many voters feel encouraged by the fact that there are several strong candidates. In their view, this will ensure that the outcome is not rigged. "Our politicians know that the people will rise if there are serious violations, so they won't go into that," said one voter in the second city, Osh. Kyrgyzstan has experienced two major uprisings that ousted presidents in the past. And in both cases, rigged elections fuelled the protest mood.    

  • The Daily 202

    ...How can the United States combat the war of information that Russia is waging against the West? Lawmakers and witnesses at a U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing yesterday sought to examine Moscow’s propaganda efforts — both domestically and abroad — and questioned whether our country is any more prepared to stop a similar attack in the future. How can the United States combat the war of information that Russia is waging against the West? Lawmakers and witnesses at a U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing yesterday sought to examine Moscow’s propaganda efforts — both domestically and abroad — and questioned whether our country is any more prepared to stop a similar attack in the future. “In their weakness, the Kremlin bets big. So far, the gamble has paid off — because for years they have been strolling across an open battlefield,” testified Molly McKew, an information warfare expert. “To secure our information space, we need an integrated understanding of the threat, and an integrated set of measures that can be taken to counter it[.]” Here's what the experts recommend to stop similar attacks: A whole-of-government response, which includes reevaluating the role of U.S. military and counterintelligence actors to secure cyber space. “Our most experienced assets should not be boxed-out of defending the American people,” McKew said. More information. This includes telling Americans about Russian information operations, and what they aim to achieve. Stopping the bots, which robotically amplify information and articles based on an algorithm, since “the U.S. does not protect the free speech of computer programs,” said Human Right’s First Melissa Hooper, who specializes in Russian policy and human rights law. Hooper also stressed the need for creating an appeals process where consumers can contest instances of content removal “and receive quick and efficient redress.” “We cannot use the same means of information control as the Kremlin to secure our information space,” McKew said. “Our mirror-world version of Russian information control: not to control the internal information environment, but ensure its integrity; not to harden views, but to develop positive cognitive resistance efforts to build resilience in our population; not to argue that there ‘is no truth,’ but to promote the values and idea that we know matter.”

  • At Forum, Experts Slam Russian 'Disinformation' Campaigns Aimed at West

    WASHINGTON — The German Marshall Fund says it has documented Russian interference in the elections or political affairs of at least 27 countries since 2004, ranging from disinformation campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and other social media to cyber attacks. The Helsinki Commission held a hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill focusing on what it called the "scourge" of Russian disinformation conducted both at home and abroad. “Through its active measures campaign that includes aggressive interference in Western elections, Russia aims to sell fear, discord, and paralysis that undermines democratic institutions and weakens critical Western alliances such as NATO and the EU,” charged Republican Senator Corey Gardner. “Russia’s ultimate goal is to replace the Western-led world order of laws and institutions with an authoritarian-led order that recognizes only masters and vassals.” US election meddling Other experts agreed during a session in which few if any defenders of Russia were represented, reflecting the increasingly adversarial relationship between the two countries. Molly McKew of the communications consulting firm Fianna Strategies spoke with VOA about reports that Russia targeted U.S. voters on social media during last year's presidential election campaign. “I think even the Kremlin is surprised at how easy it is to use social media as an amplification tool for the kind of narrative that they do,” she said. McKew said opinion polls show most Americans do not believe disinformation could work on them. But she says the Russian government uses marketing and basic psychology to influence people to vote for a certain person or to stay at home on election day. In an era when many get their own personalized news feeds on Facebook or Twitter, she said, people can be targeted individually with what she calls ads, smears or lies. RT, Sputnik broadcasts U.S. complaints of Russian disinformation have focused frequently on the broadcasts of the Moscow-backed RT television network and Sputnik news agency, which have denied they are spreading propaganda. When it was reported this week that the FBI recently questioned a former White House correspondent for Sputnik as part of an investigation into whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin, the news agency said in a statement: "We are more than happy to answer any questions the [Department of Justice] or the FBI might have. Sputnik is a news organization dedicated to accurate news reporting. Our journalists have won multiple media awards throughout the world. Any assertion that Sputnik is anything but a credible news outlet is false." However Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO John Lansing, who also spoke at the forum, agreed with others on the magnitude of the Russian threat and said the United States must counter Russian disinformation, but do so by with objective news and information. “The United States will not do propaganda,” said Lansing, whose agency oversees U.S.-funded broadcasting around the world. “And in fact we have a firewall protection, a legislative firewall that makes it impossible for the government to interfere with our independent editorial decision-making.” Lansing, who oversees the Voice of America and several other U.S. government-funded broadcasters, said he has seen a "global explosion of propaganda and lies," and that his agency is focused on getting accurate information to Russian speakers around the world. The forum was shown a promotional video for "Current Time," a Russian-language news network jointly operated by VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which Lansing said, "helps viewers tell fact from fiction." "The Russian strategy seeks to destroy the very idea of an objective, verifiable set of facts," Lansing said. "The BBG is adapting to meet this challenge head on by offering audiences and alternatives to Russian disinformation in the form of objective, independent and professional news and information." Germany, France elections Melissa Hopper of Human Rights First said Germany appears set to fend off attempts by Russia to interfere in its elections later this month. She said Berlin acted early, after the U.S. election last November, to establish a government-wide task force to counteract Russian manipulation of social media. Hopper also said France was successful in thwarting Russian interference during its elections in April and May, with the French media agreeing not to cover information that came from cyber attacks. But she warned that Russia has quite an “arsenal” at its disposal, including a worldwide media program with an annual budget of more than $300 million. She said Russian online media “weaponizes” false media narratives, especially about minority populations such as immigrants or LGBT communities, which can lead to physical threats in the real world.

  • Former Top U.S. Officials Call For New Sanctions, More Aggressive Action On Russia

    WASHINGTON -- The United States should impose new sanctions and move more aggressively to "shape Russian thinking" in response to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and elsewhere, former top State and Defense department officials said. Michael Carpenter, who was the Pentagon’s top Russia official until January, said the measures Washington should take should include deploying an armored brigade permanently to the Baltics and restricting some Russian surveillance flights over U.S. territory now authorized under the 2002 Open Skies treaty. "If we do not check Russian aggression with more forceful measures now, we will end up dealing with many more crises and conflicts, spending billions of dollars more in the defense of our European allies, and potentially see our vision of Europe whole and free undermined," Carpenter told a hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission on May 17. Carpenter, along with former State Department arms control director Stephen Rademaker, also suggested that the United States should consider returning intermediate-range cruise missiles to Europe, in response to Russia’s alleged violations of a key Cold War-era arms agreement. Rademaker told the commission that Russia will comply with important treaties like Open Skies, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, and Conventional Armed Forces in Europe but only when it is in Moscow’s interest. When it isn’t in Moscow’s interest, "it will seek to terminate them…or violate them while continuing to play lip service to them...or it will selectively implement them," he said. Russia, for its part, has repeatedly denied violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty and instead accuses the United States itself of violating the agreement. Carpenter called for more financial sanctions that leverage U.S. dominance in financial markets, for more pressure on top Russian officials, and he said that the so-called Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law that puts restrictions on alleged Russian human rights offenders, had been "vastly underutilized." Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said the list should be expanded to include relatives of Kremlin-connected oligarchs and other powerful government officials, for example, to keep their children from enrolling at U.S. colleges and universities or spouses from "going on London shopping trips." During last year's election campaign, U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly expressed a conciliatory approach toward Moscow, saying more cooperation was needed in the fight against terrorism. Since taking office, however, the administration has largely maintained the stiff-armed policy initiated by Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama. The Helsinki Commission is a U.S. government agency that monitors international adherence to the 1975 Helsinki Accords on human rights.

  • How the State of Russian Media Becomes the State of International Media

    It was a bad week for reports on freedom of the media in Russia. On Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders released its 2017 world press freedom index. Russia came in at 148, after such bastions of independent media as South Sudan and Thailand. On Thursday, a Ukrainian human rights delegation briefed the Helsinki Commission on the case of Oleg Sentsov — a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in a Siberian penal colony for his opposition to the annexation of Crimea — and abuses of Ukrainian journalists and creative professionals more broadly. On Friday, Freedom House unveiled its Freedom of the Press 2017 report. That report gives Russia partial credit for the world’s 13-year low in press freedom. “Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia has been a trailblazer in globalizing state propaganda. It continues to leverage pro-Kremlin reporting around the world,” the report states. The three taken in tandem tell a story — one in which violence against journalists in Russia and the region is connected to violence against journalism around the world. Consider the case of Oleg Sentsov. In 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for planning terrorist attacks in Crimea. In his trial, he said he had been tortured. The international human rights community believes this to have been payback for the filmmaker’s outspoken stance against the annexation of Crimea (it is also worth noting that Russia treated Sentsov, a Ukrainian, as though he were a Russian citizen; after the annexation of Crimea, Russia considered all who did not explicitly apply for Ukrainian citizenship to be Russian, to which Sentsov objected in court by saying, “I am not a serf to be transferred with the land”). Russian-backed media reported it as a terrorism case. And so the case contains both the physical threat that looms over journalists and creative types who fail to parrot the party line and also the threat that Russian state-backed media can pose to understanding in the wider world. “Many people perceive [Russian state-backed media] not as propaganda, but as an alternative point of view,” Natalya Kaplan, Sentsov’s cousin, told Foreign Policy in an interview before heading to the Helsinki Commission briefing. “They tend to trust what Russian propaganda says.” In the case of Sentsov, that means some outside of Russia (to say nothing of those in it) thought he was neither filmmaker nor terrorist, but some combination of the two. Americans can no longer tell the difference between actual fake news and fake fake news, Ukrainian PEN member Halya Coynash told FP. “The thing is that you really think the media and information you get from Russian media, it is media. Which is wrong. We have state media, and state media are part of [the] strategy of [the state],” said Mustafa Nayyem, journalist turned Ukrainian member of parliament. Alternative facts are not facts, and false equivalences are not equivalent. But consumers of Russian state-backed media around the globe can be duped into treating them as such, Nayyem said. He argued Russia presents reality and a bold-faced lie as though they are but two different perspectives, the truth of which lies somewhere in the middle, for viewers to decide for themselves. “We know that [Sentsov] never was involved in some attacks, or in some revolution, in terroristic things. He’s a filmmaker, and his movies are recognized internationally. The lie is that this guy was a terrorist, and no one even tried to understand the basis of this [accusation] … There is guy: a filmmaker, and a terrorist. What is true? They think that maybe he’s some filmmaker-terrorist. It’s insane.” Nayyem ardently believes those who want to protect freedom of media and speech need to build up conventions regulating what are accepted as media outlets and news. But there’s a thin line between banning propaganda and furthering censorship and repression. Russia’s independent Dozhd (TV Rain), for example, was recently banned in Ukraine for reporting that Crimea is part of Russia. “Recent democratic gains have bolstered media freedom overall,” the Freedom House report states, “but restrictions on Russian outlets and attempts to foster ‘patriotic’ reporting raise questions about the government’s commitment to media autonomy.” And besides, even Ukrainians, more prepared for Russian media influence than their western counterparts, are not entirely immune. “The Russian media are much better funded” than their Ukrainian counterparts, Kaplan said, and it takes time and resources to counter reports put out by the Russian state-backed media machine. “Even my Ukrainian friends who live in Kiev, after watching two hours of Russian TV, start to question themselves. ‘Am I a fascist?’” Kaplan does not, at present, see much reason for optimism. While it was a bad week for reports on the state of Russian media, it was inevitably a much worse week for those trying to correct or improve it. “Journalism in Russia is dead. It happened quite a while ago,” Kaplan said. “There are small islands of freedom of speech in Russia,” she said, but they aren’t on TV, and they aren’t available to those who don’t know how to access certain sites. Besides, she said, the sophisticated propaganda machine will figure out how to move onto the internet, too. “Russian journalists face the biggest challenge. Their job is simply to survive.” Hanging in the air is the idea that, at present, surviving is actually journalism’s job, too.

  • Wicker: Celebrate First Amendment Religious Freedoms

    The First Amendment to our Constitution is a powerful expression of our right to the “free exercise” of religion. Americans can practice their faith without fear of persecution – a freedom that is not found in all parts of the world. For Christians in the United States, the prevalence of religious persecution worldwide is especially heartbreaking as we approach Easter Sunday. We are reminded of the suicide bomber who targeted Christians on Easter Sunday last year in Pakistan, killing more than 70 and injuring hundreds. Sadly, this violence is not isolated. Pakistan ranks fourth on this year’s World Watch List created by the nonprofit group Open Doors USA. The list names 50 countries that have extreme, very high and high persecution of Christians. North Korea ranked first. I currently serve as chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an agency comprised of members of Congress and federal officials to promote security and human rights in 57 countries in North America, Europe and Eurasia. The persecution of Christians and religious minorities remains a significant concern for the commission. In Syria, the Islamic State has waged a genocide against Christians, forcing thousands from their homes and destroying religious sites. In Russia, the government’s recent attempt to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses from practicing their faith is yet another affront to religious freedom in a country known for trampling human rights. Russia’s actions refute the international agreement that the U.S. Helsinki Commission seeks to uphold. I have consistently supported legislative measures to protect Americans’ constitutional freedoms, including the exercise of religion. Political agendas should not encroach these rights. During the Obama administration, for example, I championed legislation that would allow military chaplains to refrain from performing marriage ceremonies if it would violate their conscience to do so. The religious expression of our military men and women is deserving of respect. The same respect should be afforded to all Americans by our government agencies. I am encouraged by recent reports that President Trump is considering an executive order that would require federal agencies to protect the freedom of religion in their actions and policies. Earlier this month, I sent a letter with 17 other senators to President Trump expressing our support for this executive action and the need for federal agencies to follow the rule of law. The letter reminds the President of attempts by the Obama administration to infringe on the rights of faith-based charities like the Little Sisters of the Poor. Obamacare forced the group either to pay a fine or offer services that they opposed for deeply held religious reasons. A Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed the religious liberty of the Little Sisters, just as it did for the owners of Hobby Lobby, who also raised religious objections to the health-care law. Our founding documents built a foundation for religious liberty that is admired around the world. It is up to us to ensure that this foundation does not crumble. Roger Wicker is a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. Contact him at 330 W. Jefferson St., Tupelo, MS 38803 or call (662) 844-5010.

  • Russian Supreme Court Considers Outlawing Jehovah's Witness Worship

    The Russian Supreme Court could declare the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist organization in a Wednesday hearing, a move that would lead to the seizure of the church's headquarters near St. Petersburg and the outlawing of the group’s organized worship. In advance of the hearing, international concern has grown. “If the Supreme Court rules in favour of the authorities, it will be the first such ruling by a court declaring a registered centralized religious organization to be ‘extremist,’” the UN human rights’ high commissioner's office said in a statement on Tuesday. The ruling would also cap off years of increased restrictions by the Russian Federation against minority religions. Last summer, Russia introduced an anti-terrorism law that also restricted evangelism, and a regional court ordered the deportation of six missionaries with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2015, a court banned the Church of Scientology’s Moscow branch. Under a Russian law passed in 1997, there is freedom of religion, but four faiths are designated to be traditional—Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism—and other religious organizations must register with the government. Some groups, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are registered, still face bureaucratic and legal hurdles. Jehovah's Witness leaders estimate that there are 175,000 Russian-based adherents to the faith, which was founded in the United States the 1870s. Unlike Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is the son of God but do not believe in the Trinity. “They would basically be prosecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses as criminals,” David Semonian, international spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, says of the pending court declaration. “Anyone who would actually would have our publications could be criminalized. It is of great concern.” Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed a counter claim asking the court to rule the Justice Ministry’s actions as political repression. A ruling in favor of the ministry would make it a crime for Jehovah’s Witnesses to worship in the Russian Federation and dissolve the faith’s legal means to own or rent Kingdom Halls, their places of worship. In 2015, the Russian Federation banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website JW.org, and customs officials stopped shipments of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bibles, citing the possibility they were extremist literature. Last year, Russia threatened to close the group’s national headquarters. Roman Lunkin, a human rights fellow at the Wilson Center and an expert on church-state relations in Russia, says that Russian authorities have been targeting minority religions as “extremists” in an effort to demonstrate support for the Russian Orthodox Church and to marginalize organizations with suspected pro-western sympathies. "The treatment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reflects the Russian government’s tendency to view all independent religious activity as a threat to its control and the country’s political stability," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement on Tuesday. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are no threat to either the Russian Orthodox Church or to the Russian Government,” Semonian says. “The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, and that is all we are asking, to have the same rights as other religious groups have so we can go about our ministry in a peaceful way.” Jehovah’s Witnesses are pacifists, and their religious beliefs require them to abstain from political activity. They declare allegiance only to God, not to a state or political entity. They do not vote, lobby, protest, or join military. This lack of participation can be seen as a threat if a state demands nationalist and patriotic activity. “The persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is very much tied to the resurgence of a new view of nationalism, where everything within the state is fine, but anything outside of the state has to be crushed,” Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, a U.S. commissioner for International Religious Freedom appointed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, says. “A pacifist group that tells its members that their allegiance is to something outside of the government is immediately a group that will be perceived as dangerous to the regime.” Other minority Christian groups in Russia, like evangelicals, have not yet faced the same level of scrutiny. Lunkin says it is impossible to accuse evangelicals of extremist activity because their literature and Bible translation matches that of the Russian Orthodox Church. Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation of the Bible, and they also have their own magazine and educational materials. Evangelicals also have closer relationships with government officials, he says. “It’s [about] a protection of traditional religions, and the Orthodox identity of Russian people,” Lunkin says. “But in fact it is about protecting personal power, because the main fear is changing of regimes in Russia.” Jehovah’s Witness church leadership has reached out to the U.S. State department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the U.S. Helsinki Commission for aid. “We will do everything within our legal means to have the judgment reversed,” Semonian says. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are known worldwide for our peaceful activities, and under no circumstances would we ever resort to violence or any other activity that could be misunderstood or considered extremist.” Jehovah’s Witness leaders have also asked their eight million members worldwide to write letters to Russia officials, including President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, to ask them to intervene. Instructions tell writers to “be candid but respectful,” and to mention how the faith has benefited their families. “Keep in mind that ‘a mild answer turns away rage,’ and ‘a gentle tongue can break a bone,’” the instructions say, quoting the Biblical book of Proverbs. The decision will come as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is finalizing its annual report identifying countries of concern, its first such report for the Trump administration. The Commission is a bipartisan government advisory group that makes policy recommendations to the President, Congress, and the Secretary of State. Since 2009, the group has designated Russia as a “Tier 2” nation, on the watch list one step below countries of particular concern. “The fate of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the fate of any religious group that does not pledge its allegiance to the Russian government,” Arriaga says. “April 5 will definitely mark a new chapter of religious persecution in post-Soviet Russia.”

  • 16th Winter Meeting Features Special Debate on Human Rights in Times of Crisis

    The March 1, 2017 issue of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's weekly "News from Copenhagen" features an overview of the OSCE PA Winter Meeting, held in Vienna on February 23 and 24. Helsinki Commission Chair Senator Roger Wicker chaired a meeting of the Assembly's General Committee on Political Affairs and Security (known as the First Committee) during the event.

  • MSNBC: Senator Wicker on Russia

    Ahead of the confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense nominee General James Mattis, Helsinki Commission Chair Senator Roger Wicker joined MSNBC's Brian Williams and Nicole Wallace to discuss U.S.-Russia relations. "Vladimir Putin is not our friend," he noted. "We would like to be friends with the Russian people. This has been an aspiration of mine as chair of the Helsinki Commission." "[Putin] is an adversary of ours," Chairman Wicker continued. "He's done mischief. Frankly, he is responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of innocent people over the past 12 months."

  • It’s Time for the United States to Act on Azerbaijan

    David J. Kramer is senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Richard Kauzlarich is an adjunct professor at George Mason University and former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Earlier this year, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan looked like he was softening his authoritarian grip on his country. In March, he released 14 political prisoners ahead of his visit to Washington for President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit. Even the harsh anti-American rhetoric from Azerbaijani officials and regime media seemed to subside. While in Washington, Aliyev had sit-downs with Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John F. Kerry. But since the April summit, Aliyev’s regime has intensified its crackdowns on freedoms. Azerbaijan’s rapid, dangerous deterioration demands more decisive action from the United States, yet the Obama administration has remained largely silent. The government in Baku has increased its arrests and detentions of another dozen opposition figures, peaceful religious believers and civil society activists. Nearly 100 political prisoners are languishing in the country’s jails. Azerbaijani writer Akram Aylisli was detained at the national airport and prevented from leaving the country. Faig Amirli, financial director of Azadliq newspaper and assistant to the chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, was arrested last month. Other opposition politicians arrested in August include Natiq Jafarli,  executive secretary of the REAL movement, and NIDA civic movement activist Elgiz Qahraman. The situation on the ground may get even worse. On Sept. 26, Aliyev’s regime plans to force a referendum which aims to enhance his powers. The result of the referendum is already known; we can be sure that the government will ensure its approval. That means that Aliyev can extend his term from five to seven years, create new positions of vice president (to which he might name a member of his family) and lower the age for members of parliament — opening the door for his son Heydar to be elected. It would not be a surprise if elections were called early under the new constitution to ratify these authoritarian steps. Quiet diplomacy, we are told, is the only way to protect American interests in Azerbaijan. Along with its strategic location on the Caspian Sea between Russia and Iran, the country of 8 million is rich in oil and gas resources, and plays a role as a national security ally to the United States. No American interests are served if Azerbaijan’s increasing authoritarianism explodes into a political and social crisis. Moreover, Azerbaijan is following in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin’s media tactics in Russia by increasingly  painting the United States as the enemy. An editorial in the state-approved media outlet, Haqqin, accused the United States of “losing” Azerbaijan, “driving it into a corner” and “neglecting a valuable partnership” with Baku. The editorial warned that Azerbaijan will be left with no option but to establish closer relations with its immediate neighbors, Iran and Russia. Aliyev’s supporters have pointed to the failed Turkey coup and have accused the United States of supporting opposition forces not only to spoil the upcoming referendum — but to plot a coup in Azerbaijan. Aside from legislation introduced by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) last December and the cries of activists and human rights groups, Azerbaijan has received a free pass from the Obama administration. Rarely do either the U.S. Embassy in Baku or the State Department in Washington speak out against human rights abuses. Even the 2014 raid on U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the arrest of one of its journalists, Khadija Ismayilova, triggered a mild response from Washington. Ismayilova was released from prison earlier this year but has been refused permission to travel outside the country. RFE/RL  is still barred from operating in Azerbaijan, as are most American nongovernmental organizations. In the past, we have called for sanctions — asset freezes and visa bans — against Azerbaijani officials involved in and responsible for gross human rights abuses, similar to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act for Russia. President Obama doesn’t need new legislation to take such measures; he can do so under existing presidential authorities. Beyond that, we should withhold U.S. support for International Monetary Fund and World Bank assistance should Azerbaijan request it amid its deteriorating economic situation and end Overseas Private Investment Corporation and Export-Import Bank lending to Azerbaijan. The United States should consider recalling our ambassador for extended consultations over human rights concerns as well as the rising anti-American rhetoric of Azerbaijan officials and government-sanctioned media. We also need to get the Europeans on board with similar measures. These steps should be taken unless and until all the political prisoners are released and the referendum enhancing Aliyev’s powers is voided. Letting Azerbaijan follow through on its threat to form closer ties with Moscow and Tehran without balance from the United States may be a necessary, albeit unpleasant, learning experience for the regime in Baku. The problem in Azerbaijan is not that Aliyev has too little power; it is that he exercises the power he has in the wrong ways against innocent people.  America’s silence as the situation on the ground worsens risks making us accomplices to a looming human rights disaster in Azerbaijan.

  • Fox Business: Sen. Wicker on Turkey

    Following the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Senator Roger Wicker joined Fox Business Network to provide his perspective on recent events in the OSCE participating State and NATO Ally. Calling President Erdogan's subsequent actions "very disturbing," Co-Chairman Wicker noted, "There has been an all-out assault not only on the military -- on admirals and generals -- but also on the judiciary, on universities, on religious leaders." In addition to serving as the co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Senator Wicker is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and chairs the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Committee on Political Affairs and Security.

  • I Was Locked Up and Tortured by Putin’s Spooks

    Yuriy Yatsenko is an activist of the Euromaidan who was illegally imprisoned in Russia on political grounds and recently released. This is a shortened version of his testimony before the US Helsinki Commission in Washington on December 11, 2015. I am a Ukrainian citizen who was illegally arrested and detained by the Russian Federation for over a year for political reasons. Nadiya Savchenko, Oleg Sentsov and others who are less known have suffered and continue to suffer the same fate. In May 2014, I was in Russia's Kursk region with a friend on a business trip. During a routine document check that Russian police officers often practice, I was detained. At the police department, an FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) agent showed me a photograph of myself taken during the Euromaidan protests, which I suspect he had found on social media. The agent demanded that my friend and I provide false testimony; he wanted us to admit that we had been recruited by Right Sector or by the head of the Security Service of Ukraine to commit acts of terrorism in Russia. At the time, I was an ordinary student from western Ukraine and could not believe that such absurd accusations were being made against me. My western Ukrainian origin became an additional reason for Russian law enforcement personnel to harass me. After we refused to incriminate ourselves, they began beating us at regular intervals. We were also offered an option of going on Russian TV and giving a predetermined speech about being sent to Russia from Ukraine to commit subversive acts, but instead we turned to the FSB for protection to save us from the Ukrainian authorities and their persecution. We refused, so the harassment continued and turned into physical and psychological abuse. One FSB official threatened to hand me over to the president of Chechnya. At first, the abuse and the beatings were constant. I was regularly placed in punishment cells and solitary confinement. I remember one particularly brutal instance. Some special forces soldiers, wearing masks and uniforms bearing no insignia other than the colors of the Russian flag, put a bag over my head, took me into the woods and tortured me. They hanged me by my handcuffs for hours and beat me in the head, groin and other parts of the body. They strangled me. They also simulated an execution, firing a gun next to my head. The next morning, which was two weeks after my arrest, I used a shaving blade to cut my abdomen and the veins on my arms to stop this abuse. Only then was I taken to the hospital; there, I finally managed to inform my family about my whereabouts. Despite a court decision ordering our deportation, my friend and I were illegally kept at a special detention center for illegal immigrants for three months. During this period, beatings and torture were constant. Three months later, my friend was released and taken to the Ukrainian border, while I was suddenly charged with possessing explosives. The court found me guilty in spite of the absurdity of these accusations and the absence of any evidence. At first, I was sentenced to two years in prison, but an appeals court reduced the sentence to nine months. By that time, I had already spent a year in detention, so I was released. The fact that I'm free now is a testament to the publicity campaigns, international pressure and coordinated work of human rights advocates and lawyers. When I was in detention, guards informed me from time to time that another article about my case appeared in the press, or that another press conference dedicated to my case was held. They seemed to be alarmed by this activism, and kept saying that it should be stopped, that everything should be "done quietly." That is why public events in support of prisoners are extremely important; they signal to the repressive regime that it is being watched closely and that none of the prisoners are forgotten. At least 13 Ukrainians are detained illegally somewhere in the Russian Federation, and at least eight prisoners are being held in occupied Crimea, both Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. The criminal cases against them are fabricated, most have been brutally tortured and some have been deprived of their right to meet with an attorney or a Ukrainian consul for over a year. These are people of various ages, professions and politics, but they share one thing—their lives have become an instrument of Russian state-sponsored propaganda that has created the image of Ukraine as a mortal enemy. Kremlin officials constantly look for ways to justify their hybrid war in Ukraine, which is why innocent Ukrainian citizens are proclaimed to be terrorists, spies and fascists. I appeal to you on behalf of the #LetMyPeopleGo campaign. There are no independent courts in Russia; this is why politically motivated cases have no chance of being decided fairly. Only international pressure can help achieve the release of those detained. We are waiting for the return of Savchenko, Olexandr Kolchenko, Sentsov, Gennadiy Afanasiev, Olexii Chirnii, Sergiy Lytvynov, Mykola Karpiuk, Stanislav Klyh, Olexandr Kostenko, Haiser Dzhemilev, Yurii Soloshenko, Valentyn Vyhyvskii and Viktor Shur. We also demand that Russia stop occupying Crimea and that Akhtem Chyihoz, Ali Asanov, Mustafa Dehermendzhy, Yuriy Ilchenko, Ruslan Zaytullaev, Nuri Primov, Rustam Vaytov and Ferat Sayfullaev be freed. It is likely that this list is incomplete. Nevertheless, we demand that Russia release all of its prisoners who have been subject to politically motivated persecution.

  • It's Time to Hold the Azerbaijan Regime Accountable

    Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's habit of brutally silencing dissent may be finally catching up with him. A new bill introduced in Congress last month would require the U.S. State Department to deny visas to senior members of Aliyev's government until the country can prove it has ceased harassment of independent media and NGOs and made significant progress toward freeing its political prisoners. Despite facing long odds, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 marks a major turning point. For years, the United States has struggled to muster any real condemnation of Azerbaijan's government, one of the most corrupt and repressive in the world. U.S. officials and lawmakers still routinely refer to their Azerbaijani counterparts as "friends" despite the fact that the former Soviet country's latest crackdown has been accompanied by a general turn away from the West. Or should we say partial turn. Azerbaijan wants to be at the table with Western nations when money is up for grabs, but it hasn't acquired the same taste for values about human rights and dignity. This juxtaposition was perhaps most apparent earlier this year when the country hosted the inaugural European Games, a 17-day competition featuring 6,000 athletes from 50 countries. The capital city of Baku spared no expense to project a modern, glamorous image during the event--even flying in Lady Gaga for a surprise performance. For many people, it was a first glimpse of Azerbaijan. But that glimpse was carefully choreographed. Foreign reporters who agreed to play by the government's rules were rewarded with access to the games; others,including Guardian sports correspondent Owen Gibson, were banned from attending after calling out human rights abuses in the country. What the cameras did not capture that night was the escape of Emin Huseynov, the founder of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, who fled Azerbaijan for Switzerland on the private plane of the Swiss foreign minister. Huseynov first sought refuge at the Swiss embassy ten months earlier after Azerbaijani authorities raided his office. Other human rights advocates and journalists have not been as fortunate. Within a 10-day period in August 2014, Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, and Leyla and Arif Yunus all were arrested. They were later subjected to speedy show trials resulting in lengthy prison sentences for crimes they did not commit. Leyla and Arif, both seriously ill, have recently been released to serve suspended sentences but still face charges of treason. Employees of Meydan TV, whose founder reported receiving a high-level threat during the European Games, have been barred from leaving Azerbaijan, repeatedly questioned at the prosecutor's office, and detained without cause. Their families have also faced pressure. Two brothers of editor Gunel Movlud are currently being held on bogus drug charges. Most tragically, in August, Rasim Aliyev, a journalist and chairman of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, died after he was severely beaten by attackers. Although the assault was reportedly connected to a criticism Aliyev made of a soccer player on Facebook, Aliyev had previously experienced threats against his life. The attack was one of hundreds against Azerbaijan's journalists in the past decade, including at least two other murders. Quiet diplomacy from the United States and the European Union has failed to reverse Azerbaijan's relentless pursuit of critics and civil society groups. The State Department called Leyla Yunus' release earlier this month a "welcome" development and a "positive step." Meanwhile, the deputy chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, was arrested the day before, and the treason trial of dissident journalist Rauf Mirqadirov is still underway. But perhaps President Aliyev's luck is running out. In November, in an unprecedented step, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, its Parliamentary Assembly, and the European Parliament all canceled monitoring missions to Azerbaijan to protest the irregularity of the country's parliamentary elections. Last month, Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, made a bold move of his own, announcing an inquiry into Azerbaijan's implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights. And on the same day, U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act and held a hearing on the case of Khadija Ismayilova, one of the few journalists in Azerbaijan who dared to report on corruption among the country's ruling elite. Ismayilova was arrested last year and is now serving a seven and a half-year prison sentence. Ismayilova has kept up the pressure on her country even from behind bars. On the eve of the European Games, with the help of Sport for Rights, a coalition of international press freedom groups that recently published a report on Azerbaijan's human rights record, she managed to get a letter out of jail to The New York Times. "The truth is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a human rights crisis. Things have never been worse," she wrote, urging the international community: "Do not let the government of Azerbaijan distract your attention from its record of corruption and abuse." Maybe now the world is ready to listen.

  • US House Marks Anniversary of Srebrenica 'Genocide'

    The US House of Representatives passed a resolution [authored by Helsinki Commission Chair Chris Smith] Wednesday marking the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica "genocide," Europe's worst atrocity since World War II. The chamber labeled the massacre a genocide 10 years ago and Wednesday's voice vote favored a new resolution that mentions the word genocide 14 times. The mass murder of 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995 marked one of the most horrific episodes of the 1992-1995 war, which ended with Bosnia divided into two semi-independent entities. The House resolution "affirms that the policies of aggression and ethnic cleansing as implemented by Serb forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995 meet the terms defining the crime of genocide in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide."

  • Putting the Bad Guys on Ice

    Have you ever found yourself walking down a street in New York, Miami, or London and seen someone in designer clothing and expensive jewelry, speaking with a Russian accent, and stepping into a $150,000 car? And have you ever wondered where all their money came from? It may surprise you that some are no more than midlevel Russian government officials whose salaries are less than $20,000 a year. It may also surprise you that some of these elegant-looking people made their money by falsely arresting, torturing, and even killing people. Since December 2012 the U.S. has attempted to make their lives less comfortable. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, passed by overwhelming majorities in Congress and signed into law by President Obama, imposes visa sanctions and asset freezes on Russian human-rights abusers... This raises an obvious question: Why shouldn’t the U.S. do the same thing with an Uzbek, Venezuelan, or Burmese human-rights violator? Last month a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led in the Senate by Maryland Democrat [and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member] Ben Cardin and Arizona Republican John McCain and in the House by Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern and New Jersey Republican [Helsinki Commission Chair] Chris Smith, introduced the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which would authorize the president to identify any foreign national “responsible for significant corruption, extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” Such people would be denied entry into the U.S. and barred from the U.S. financial system.

  • Activists Say Baku's Crackdown On Media, Rights Workers Continues

    Human rights and media activists say Azerbaijan’s crackdown on civil society has continued unabated, as they cited the imprisonment of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova. Ismayilova, who is also a RFE/RL contributor based in Baku, was sentenced in September to seven 1/2 years in prison on charges widely seen as trumped up.  Speaking at a December 16 hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Amnesty International advocate T. Kumar said authorities have used “any tactic under the sun” to target journalists like Ismayilova.

  • U.S. Bill Seeks Sanctions On Azerbaijani Officials For 'Appalling' Rights Record

    A U.S. lawmaker has introduced legislation that would deny U.S. visas to senior Azerbaijani officials due to what he calls Baku's "appalling human rights violations." U.S. Representative Chris Smith (Republican-New Jersey) introduced the bill, titled the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, in the House of Representatives on December 16. "The human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Azerbaijan, causing damage to its relations with the United States and other countries, and has damaged its own society by imprisoning or exiling some of its best and brightest citizens," Smith told a hearing of Congress's Helsinki Commission held in conjunction with the announcement of the legislation.

  • US Lawmakers Back Protection for Europe’s Jewish Communities

    A resolution calling on the United States to urge European governments to act to keep their Jewish communities safe won unanimous support from the US House of Representatives Tuesday. The resolution, which had 89 co-sponsors, calls on the US administration to encourage European governments, law enforcement agencies and intergovernmental organizations to formally recognize and partner with Jewish community groups to strengthen crisis prevention, preparedness, mitigation and responses related to anti-Semitic attacks. It was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who chairs the Helsinki Commission, the congressional body that monitors compliance with human rights overseas.

  • At Hearing, Stronger Global Response Urged for Europe's Refugee Crisis

    Lawmakers and witnesses in a congressional committee hearing room Oct. 20 were not shown pictures of the vast number of refugees crossing East European borders each day. But there is no shortage of images from daily news reports of the throngs of men, women and children walking along streets, open fields and train tracks escaping their homelands. The refugees, primarily from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have been crammed in boats and lined up behind barricades or barbed wire fences. Reports in recent days showed many refugees, including dozens in wheelchairs, stuck in mud-soaked fields in the rain trying to get to Slovenia. In the two-and-a-half-hour hearing convened by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, lawmakers and witnesses alike described the refugee situation as enormous, unparalleled and one that cries out for a stronger global response.

  • European Union Asks U.S. to Take in More Syrian Refugees

    Khaled fled Aleppo, Syria, with his wife and four you children — two of whom he carried in a backpack. Their harrowing trek, through the woods, nearly drowning in the ocean in a rubber boat, and over mountains to the border of Serbia, captivated the audience attending a hearing before the Helsinki Commission Tuesday. Khaled’s story punctuated an appeal from a European Union official at the hearing for the U.S. to make more room for refugees caught up in the flood of migrants that’s overwhelming Europe. “This is a global crisis. There are some 60 million people displaced globally — 11 million Syrians specifically,” European Union Ambassador to the U.S. David O’Sullivan told the committee. “It’s absolutely clear that Europe cannot offer asylum to all of those people.”

Pages