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Activists Say Baku's Crackdown On Media, Rights Workers Continues
RFE/RL
Thursday, December 17, 2015

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.

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  • Inside the Turkish Election

    By: Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor With Contributions from Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor On June 24, Turkey held its first presidential and parliamentary elections since the passage of controversial constitutional amendments last year that began Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The victors in this election are to preside over the transition to this new form of government and begin to shape the operation of its revamped institutions. In accordance with its commitments as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey formally invited the OSCE to observe the vote. This invitation paved the way for the OSCE’s first-ever full-scale deployment of election observers to Turkey. Although the OSCE observed previous elections in Turkey—including last year’s constitutional referendum—it had never done so with a full complement of hundreds of short-term observers that deploy all over the country to record their observations on election day. In the absence of short-term observers, OSCE observation missions rely primarily on a smaller cohort of long-term observers who spend as much as a month in the country monitoring every dimension of the campaign period and balloting. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) Altogether, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed 22 long-term observers and more than 300 short-term observers to observe the election across the country. Most STOs are drawn from cadres of experienced volunteers offered by individual OSCE participating States. In addition, the parliamentary assemblies of the OSCE (OSCE PA) and Council of Europe (PACE) contributed 72 and 32 members of parliament and parliamentary staff, respectively, to serve as STOs. The U.S. Helsinki Commission regularly participates in OSCE PA election observation missions. What follows is a first-person account from two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff who served as short-term observers during the Turkish elections. These observations are not an authoritative account of the conduct of the Turkish election, however. Readers interested in such an account should review the OSCE’s official statement of preliminary findings and conclusions. In the days before the election, experts from the OSCE’s ODIHR and the OSCE PA organize a series of in-depth briefings in Ankara to acquaint short-term observers with the context and process for the coming vote. In opening these briefings, Mr. Ignacio Sanchez Amor, a Spanish parliamentarian tasked as the special coordinator and leader of the OSCE short-term observer mission, noted numerous ways in which this election was exceptional. Turks would be voting under a nearly two-year-old state of emergency imposed by the government following a failed coup attempt in July 2016. The state of emergency gave Turkish President Erdogan sweeping powers to rule by decree and authorized provincial governors to curtail basic freedoms, such as the freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. Presidential decrees purged tens of thousands of civil servants from their work, shuttered over a hundred news outlets, blocked thousands of websites, and contributed to the arrest of scores of independent journalists, often on dubious national security charges. Sanchez Amor further commented that the transition to a presidential system and the country’s newly-approved election laws made this election especially complex. Most of the constitutional amendments approved in last year’s referendum would take effect after the election. The victorious presidential candidate, for instance, would be the first to assume unprecedented executive powers that international monitors and the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), criticized as undermining the separation of powers. Likewise, successful parliamentary candidates would take up seats in a somewhat neutered institution that is given no say in ministerial appointments and can be unilaterally dissolved by the president. One of the constitutional amendments abolished a previous prohibition on new electoral laws taking effect less than 12 months before an election. This meant that the June election would be governed by election regulations passed in November and March that President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had muscled through parliament without any opposition support. Opposition leaders sharply criticized provisions in the laws that allowed the government to relocate voting locations on security grounds, loosened rules governing the police presence around polling stations, and weakened protections against election fraud by admitting ballots that are missing a required polling station stamp. Sanchez Amor also expressed concern that one of the country’s major presidential candidates had been in pre-trial detention since November 2016 and was being forced to campaign from his jail cell. This treatment of Selahattin Demirtas, the presidential candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was one of many restrictions severely disadvantaging the HDP. Campaign banners of two opposition parties stretched across a primary avenue in downtown Ankara. The briefings we received from journalists, civil society organizations, and political parties largely focused on concerns that President Erdogan and the AKP enjoyed overwhelming and unfair advantages incompatible with a free and fair democratic process. Independent journalists noted that Turkey is the world’s largest jailer of reporters with approximately 150 behind bars. They further remarked on dramatic changes in Turkey’s media landscape in recent years that had seen nine out of 10 mainstream TV channels, and most of the print media, fall under the ownership of government aligned businessmen. As a result, the ruling party benefited from nearly wall-to-wall positive media coverage. Additionally, under recent legal changes the Supreme Election Board was stripped of its ability to impose penalties on broadcasters for violating regulations that mandate equal election coverage. All opposition parties complained about Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold—the highest in the world—that requires a party to garner 10 percent of the national vote to secure seats in parliament. During this election, they feared that the ruling party would manipulate the vote to deprive the pro-Kudish HDP of a ten percent share, allowing AKP as the likely runner-up in Kurdish-dominated areas to assume the seats forfeited by HDP. This would be the AKP’s quickest route to a commanding majority in the legislature.    Opposition party leaders warned that the government could use a combination of tactics to suppress the vote for HDP, particularly in the Kurdish southeast. The government had already announced that it had invoked its new authorities to relocate and merge nearly a thousand polling stations in the southeast for security reasons, affecting more than 150,000 voters. Election authorities could also use the admission of unstamped ballots to artificially diminish HDP’s share of the vote. In addition, several briefers noted that deadly violence could be used to intimidate voters. Indeed, less than two weeks before the election a campaign-related altercation in the south left three HDP supporters dead, along with the brother of an AKP candidate for parliament. Many briefers noted that the pro-government media had cast the AKP as the victim of the melee, where in reality the fight had been instigated and escalated by the ruling party’s side. The opposition’s indictment of the fairness of the election was met by an AKP-led campaign to smear those who might tarnish perceptions of the credibility of the outcome. The OSCE observation mission was one of the targets of this campaign. The government denied two OSCE PA parliamentarians entry to the country to participate in the election observation mission, citing political opinions they had expressed in the past. A government spokesperson decried the OSCE’s interim report on the election on June 15 as “political.” Additionally, just two days before the election, Turkey’s semi-official news agency published a story citing anonymous security sources that claimed OSCE observers planned to create “chaos” in the country. It was in this climate of heightened mutual suspicion between the ruling party and the opposition, and between the government and the OSCE observation mission, that we deployed to Istanbul to undertake our election day observation. We were assigned to observe the election at precincts in and around Sisli, a mixed-income neighborhood in central Istanbul that historically supports the secular opposition. Each precinct in Turkey contains numerous voting rooms, with a maximum of 400 voters assigned to each. In all we visited nine so-called ballot box committees (BBCs) in five precincts throughout the day. Sisli delivered its largest share of votes (48.7 percent) to Turkey’s leading secular opposition party CHP in the last parliamentary election in November 2015, and overwhelmingly opposed the transformational 2017 constitutional amendments (71.8 percent). Given the district’s political profile, it was unsurprising to find observers from CHP and other secular opposition parties deployed in full force at our first precinct where we observed the opening procedures for the polls. We arrived just before 7:00 a.m. as the ballot box committee (BBC) was assembling to open the sealed election materials and prepare for voting to begin. The seven-person BBC, chaired by a civil servant and composed of bureaucrats and political party representatives, began to count and record the number of ballot envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—a tally that is important for later confirming that no election materials are unaccounted for.  The mood was serious but amiable and cooperative. With a solitary exception, BBC members worked together constructively without so much as a hint of their diverging political loyalties. Soon, an NGO observer (who was accredited as a political party observer, since there is no legal framework for NGO observation) appeared with a tray of traditional Turkish tea for everyone, observers and BBC members alike. (Tea stands were ubiquitous at the entrance to polling stations, fueling weary poll workers throughout the day and contributing to a generally festive atmosphere around the otherwise dreary school buildings.)  Voters congregate outside a polling station in central Istanbul on election day. Over steaming cups of black tea, the poll workers set about the onerous task of applying the BBC’s identifying ink stamp to each of the more than 300 envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—nearly 1,000 stamps in all. Every BBC we visited that morning noted that they had labored well after the polls opened to complete this cumbersome but mandatory and important process. With two of their colleagues still engrossed in stamping and the eight o’clock opening just minutes away, the BBC’s other five members forged ahead with preparations, sealing the clear plastic ballot box with a wax stamp. More or less promptly at eight, the BBC chairwoman announced the opening of the polling station.  An elderly gentleman who had already shuffled through the open doorway before the announcement immediately presented his ID to receive his ballot papers. His punctual appearance quickly revealed the disorganization of this particular BBC, which had failed to organize the somewhat convoluted voting procedure into an orderly workflow.  Voters were to hand over their identification for confirmation against the printed voter rolls and then receive two oversized ballots for president and parliament, one undersized envelope, and a stamp to mark their choices. To cast their ballots, voters entered a curtained booth, marked one choice each for parliament and president, stuffed the large sheets into the small envelope, sealed it with a lick, and emerged to drop the envelope into the ballot box. Before departing, voters returned the stamp back to the BBC, signed the voter roll, and retrieved their identification and any bags or cellphones they left behind with the BBC. Keeping track of identification cards, remembering to provide all four necessary voting materials (two ballots, envelope, and stamp), and managing the coming and going of voters proved difficult for our first BBC. In just the first twenty minutes the chairwoman twice pulled open a voting booth’s privacy curtain to locate a misplaced ID and missing stamp—an act that should rarely—if ever—occur, since it can compromise the secrecy of the vote.  This procedural dysfunction may have slowed the vote and caused undue confusion for voters, but it had negligible if any implications for the outcome of the balloting. Indeed, the majority of other BBCs we visited were capably managed and all demonstrated admirable transparency. In each classroom we visited—and they were all classrooms—the BBC chair graciously welcomed us, answered our questions, and allowed us to review the voting materials. Political party and NGO observers were common and none complained of being restricted in their work on election day. By the end of the day we had grown particularly accustomed to the sight of observers from the HDP party. These observers were almost uniformly impressive, assertive, young, and female. It became clear that what is generally described simply as a “pro-Kurdish party” has developed political purchase far beyond the Kurdish-dominated southeast, attracting many young, progressive Turks concerned with the rights of women and minorities.  Presidential and parliamentary ballots and envelopes prepared for distribution to voters. In our experience, the transparency protected by professional BBCs and capable local observers was only undermined by skittish security services who seemed uneasy about the role of international observers. Under new election laws passed earlier this year, Turkish police were allowed to patrol closer to polling stations and—for the first time—enter voting rooms at the request of any citizen. One instance of police involvement we witnessed was legal and appropriate; in several other cases it appeared to overstep the prescribed bounds. At a polling station we visited in Gultepe, a more conservative neighborhood just outside Sisli, a heated argument erupted over a poll worker who allegedly exceeded his mandate in assisting a confused voter, sparking allegations of election interference. Consistent with their mandate, the police entered on at least three occasions during the prolonged shouting match to respond to the disturbance and to remove unauthorized people who had entered the voting room. These same police entered another time to exercise their prerogative to check our credentials but departed shortly after. As the day wore on, however, our interactions with the police grew more frequent and contentious. At another polling station in Sisli, police greeted us almost immediately upon our arrival and insisted on escorting us throughout the building. When we entered a voting room to conduct our observations, the police followed us in without any discernible invitation and sat down to watch us until we were through.  Arriving at our final polling station of the day, we were stopped at the entrance to have our credentials checked against a screenshot of approved individuals the policeman had received via the encrypted messaging application, WhatsApp. He informed us that several foreigners had been caught “posing as OSCE observers” so they were under orders to apply extra scrutiny. Although we were not on his screenshot, the officer relented after a few minutes’ delay and followed us inside while respecting the rules about entering the voting room. After a short break, we returned to the same polling station to witness the closing and counting procedure, but this time the police refused us entry. They said they had still not been able to find us on their list, despite our accreditation by the Supreme Electoral Board. With the five o’clock closing swiftly approaching, we insisted on the importance of entering before the polls closed. They offered that we could observe the voting room from the hallway, but we were obligated to decline since the OSCE’s methodology requires unfettered access to the polling area. At the last minute, they said we could observe from a designated area inside the room. Once inside the room, it turned out no such area existed and the police displayed no interest in enforcing one. In contravention of the rules, however, they remained standing directly behind us inside the room nearly the entire time. Consistent with OSCE observations across the country, vote counting at our BBC began promptly once the polls closed. In much the same sprit of cooperation we witnessed at the opening in another precinct, the members of this BBC worked smoothly together to perform the critical, final procedures: securing the voting materials and counting and recording the results.  The BBC’s genuine effort to conduct this process fairly and transparently was marred by some critical procedural errors and the persistent presence of the police, which risked undue oversight by the security services of a sensitive political process. Most procedural faults took place early on and introduced avoidable opportunities for mistakes or manipulation.  Rather than count the unused voting materials after the polls closed, for instance, the BBC departed from the prescribed procedure and counted them before the room was open to the public to observe the count. By depriving observers of the opportunity to verify this tally, the BBC undermined a safeguard that confirms the number of votes cast matches exactly the number of voters who participated.  Another significant oversight involved the BBC’s failure to enter crucial figures directly into the official register, known as a “protocol.” By having one member of the committee simply jot down the tallies of voting materials on a scrap piece of paper, the BBC failed to guard against subsequent mistakes in transcription or intentional alterations.  Oddly, the otherwise attentive and assertive political party observers in the room did not raise these issues with the BBC, possibly out of ignorance of the procedures or disinterest in the importance of these steps. They seemed most focused when it came to the centerpiece of the process: the all-important counting and adjudication of ballots.  In this, the BBC acquitted itself quite well—holding up each ballot in full view of all present, loudly announcing the vote, and recording it only once all were satisfied with the chairman’s judgment (i.e. valid, invalid, or blank).  U.S. Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland reviews voting materials with Ballot Box Committee members. Given the considerable pre-election controversy about the admission of unstamped ballots, it was surprising that no observer raised a question about whether the ballots or envelopes were appropriately imprinted with the BBC’s seal, which was often faint and on the reverse side of the papers. Late on the day of Turkey’s controversial 2017 constitutional referendum, the government unilaterally decided to count unstamped ballots despite the widespread understanding that the stamps protected against fraud. The number of admitted unstamped ballots last year allegedly accounted for the government’s slim margin of victory in that vote. As a result, opposition leaders protested earlier this year when the government used its absolute majority in the parliament to codify the validity of unstamped votes beginning with the 2018 presidential and parliamentary election. This decision created frustrating ambiguity about the need for the elaborate stamping process that tied up BBCs in the morning, sometimes for more than an hour.  The last steps of the vote count turned out to be the most cumbersome. The astonishingly analog voting process created numerous frustrations, significantly delaying delivery of the ballots to the District Electoral Board responsible for tabulating all the votes in Sisli before forwarding them to the Provincial Electoral Board that oversees a third of Istanbul. The chairperson was consumed for almost an hour manually copying detailed voting results onto nearly a dozen copies of the official protocol for distribution to political party representatives and observers. Another time-consuming process involved sealing all the ballots and sensitive voting materials in a cloth sack using twine and a wax seal. All present watched in quiet agony as the chairperson struggled to melt the nub of wax with a lighter, singing his fingers and nearly setting fire to the bag in the process. Out of the 250 votes counted in our BBC, leading opposition presidential candidate Muharram Ince prevailed with 65 percent of the vote and his party, CHP, took 50 percent of the parliamentary ballots. The simultaneous presidential and parliamentary election afforded voters the opportunity to split their votes between the two ballots. Specifically, many analysts speculated that opposition supporters would endorse Ince as the favored presidential candidate while casting a vote for HDP in the parliamentary election to help the party clear the ten percent threshold. The outcome in our BBC seemed to bear this theory out: Ince received 15 percent more support for president than his party did in the parliamentary vote, while HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas secured only 4 percent in the presidential but his party garnered 24 percent in the parliamentary. Once counting was complete in all the precincts’ voting rooms, members of the BBCs boarded a municipal vehicle with the sealed sacks and official protocols for delivery to the District Electoral Board. Per OSCE instructions, we jumped into a separate vehicle to tail the municipal van through the narrow streets of Istanbul to the DEB to confirm the official results were delivered directly without interference.  A long line of vans packed with other BBCs was in front of the District Electoral Board waiting their turn to offload. When it came our turn I—accompanied by a police escort—followed the voting materials past heavily-armed guards and crowd control fencing into the building. It was a cramped but sprawling high-rise divided into a warren of small, austere rooms. A crush of poll workers pressed into the building’s narrow corridors trying to reach their designated room. In each room were half a dozen election workers waiting to receive election materials from every corner of the district, double-check the calculations in the protocol, and forward the results for district-level tabulation.  After verifying the secure delivery of our BBC’s materials, I sought to follow the process a step further. Instead, I was offered a meeting with the judge who chairs Sisli’s electoral board.  Supporters of President Erdogan and AKP celebrate their election victory in Taksim Square. It was now well past 9:00 p.m., more than four hours since the polls closed. The judge sat in his office watching two sets of election returns roll in: semi-official results were being broadcast via cable news on a large television across the room while a map on his computer screen that read “Supreme Election Board” was being populated with the official numbers. Although it was impossible for me to tell what discrepancy might have existed between the figures at that moment, opposition leaders were simultaneously turning to social media to reassure their supporters that pro-government media were broadcasting premature results to discourage them. These hopeful claims appear to have been inspired more by optimism than reality—the official results released the next day differed little from what the media was reporting in the evening. At least in central Istanbul, the election results at that time of night were still in the early stages of being compiled at the district level. The judge explained how in the coming hours the district’s protocols would be digitized, loaded onto a public website, and used to generate a district-level protocol of official election results. As chairman, his role would be to adjudicate disputes and discrepancies in the tabulation and certify the final results. Satisfied that I had followed the process as far as I could, our observation ended.  Around 10:00 p.m., President Erdogan declared victory. With 52.6 percent of the vote, he had won outright in the presidential election, avoiding a runoff with the leading secular opposition candidate by a comfortable margin. In parliament, AKP fell just short of an absolute majority for only the second time in its 16 years in power. The AKP’s election coalition partner, the nationalist MHP party, surprised many with its strong performance, earning 49 seats in the 600-seat parliament and easily supplying the six seats AKP needs to reach 301 votes in the legislature. Importantly, HDP cleared the ten percent threshold and will be the third-largest party in parliament with 67 seats behind CHP’s 146. Altogether, an impressive 86.2 percent of the population had participated in the vote. Over a late night dinner in a gentrifying secular neighborhood of Istanbul, I could hear some nearby diners discussing the election results with resignation over glasses of wine. Further off in the distance, the blaring of car horns announced the beginning of celebrations by the President’s supporters. I followed lines of cars festooned with Turkish flags and AKP banners as they streamed toward centrally-located Taksim Square. There, a spontaneous victory party had broken out. A jubilant AKP loyalist was being carried aloft, leading the gathering crowd in chants of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Recep Tayyip Erdogan!”  The evening stroll between these two contrasting scenes was a journey across a wide social and political chasm in Turkey—a chasm the president may choose to widen or narrow in his new mandate. Recent studies have revealed acute polarization within Turkish society that reflects high levels of social distrust and political intolerance. These ills present critical challenges for governance. During the campaign, President Erdogan pledged to lift the nearly two-year-old state of emergency upon his reelection. AKP statements since the election suggest that Erdogan may decline to renew the state of emergency when it expires on July 18. This would be an appropriate first step toward rebuilding trust and one the U.S. Helsinki Commission called for in an October 2017 letter to President Erdogan. But lifting the state of emergency might only be a superficial gesture if it is not accompanied by significant prisoner releases and amnesties—particularly for human rights defenders and journalists—as well as meaningful judicial reform to restore the credibility and independence of Turkey’s politicized justice system. In accordance with its mandate, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will continue to monitor Turkey’s implementation of its commitments as an OSCE participating State to respect human rights and democratic principles. In this most recent election the Turkish people demonstrated formidable levels of political participation and civic engagement. Now and in the future, the government must succeed where it has recently failed to ensure that all its citizens have an opportunity to participate in Turkish society and institutions on the basis of fundamental equality.   The morning after the election, a woman crosses Taksim Square.

  • Chairman Wicker, Ranking Senator Cardin Urge President Trump to Call on President Putin to Free Oleg Sentsov

    WASHINGTON—In a letter on Friday, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) urged President Trump to call on Russian President Vladimir Putin to free Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from his unjust imprisonment. On May 14, 2018, Sentsov began a hunger strike, which he plans to continue until all Ukrainian political prisoners jailed in Russia are released. The letter reads in part: “Oleg Sentsov has been a prisoner of conscience in Russia for more than four years. In May 2014, he was detained in his native Crimea, then illegally occupied by Russia, and brought to Moscow on unsubstantiated allegations of terrorism. Numerous governments and human rights organizations have dismissed these allegations as politically-charged, groundless fabrications orchestrated in retaliation for Sentsov’s outspoken criticism of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and his efforts to document human rights abuses there… “As Russia hosts the World Cup in the coming weeks, the eyes of the world will be on the country. In the spirit of this unifying global event, we urge you to raise with President Putin the international approbation which Oleg Sentsov’s immediate release would provide for him. Your advocacy on behalf of this brave Ukrainian patriot will be an important demonstration of U.S. human rights leadership around the world.” In April 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing focusing on Russia’s human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens, including Sentsov. The full text of the letter can be found below: The Honorable Donald J. Trump President of the United States The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington, DC 20500 Dear Mr. President, We hope you will call on Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately and unconditionally to release the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from his unjust imprisonment in Siberia. In light of Sentsov’s hunger strike, our request is urgent. Oleg Sentsov has been a prisoner of conscience in Russia for more than four years.  In May 2014, he was detained in his native Crimea, then illegally occupied by Russia, and brought to Moscow on unsubstantiated allegations of terrorism. Numerous governments and human rights organizations have dismissed these allegations as politically-charged, groundless fabrications orchestrated in retaliation for Sentsov’s outspoken criticism of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and his efforts to document human rights abuses there. On May 14, 2018, Mr. Sentsov declared he had begun an indefinite hunger strike, stating that “the one and only condition for its termination is the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners that are currently present on the territory of the Russian Federation.” With his health already weakened, it is uncertain how long he can survive. As Russia hosts the World Cup in the coming weeks, the eyes of the world will be on the country.  In the spirit of this unifying global event, we urge you to raise with President Putin the international approbation which Oleg Sentsov’s immediate release would provide for him.  Your advocacy on behalf of this brave Ukrainian patriot will be an important demonstration of U.S. human rights leadership around the world. Sincerely,

  • Chairman Wicker Acts to Protect Religious Freedom in Europe and Central Asia

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced a bipartisan resolution (S.Res.539) urging President Trump to take action against some of the worst violators of religious freedom in Europe and Central Asia. Key targets of the legislation include the governments of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Russia, as well as Russian-led separatist forces in Ukraine. “Our founding fathers made religious freedom a cornerstone of our country, and President Trump carries that legacy forward by making religious freedom a cornerstone of his presidency. This resolution is a blueprint for action in a region where governments have often attacked religious freedom instead of protecting it. When governments take steps toward improvement, as Uzbekistan has done, we should support and bolster their efforts,” said Chairman Wicker. Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) is the lead co-sponsor of the resolution. Other original co-sponsors of S.Res.539 include Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. John Boozman (AR), and Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), along with Sen. James Lankford (OK). S.Res.539 targets governments of participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that have not complied with specific OSCE commitments to respect fundamental human rights and freedoms, including religious freedom. The resolution urges President Trump to: Re-designate Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as “Countries of Particular Concern”—nations that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom such as torture, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention—and take actions required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 Designate Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey as “Special Watch List Countries” for severe violations of religious freedom, and designate Kazakhstan if it continues to tighten restrictions on religious freedom Block entry to the United States and impose financial sanctions on individual violators in these countries, including but not limited to: Turkish officials responsible for the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who has been unjustly jailed since October 2016 Kremlin officials responsible for Russia’s forcible, illegal occupation of Crimea Russian-led separatist forces in Ukraine Instruct the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, former Helsinki Commission Chairman Sam Brownback, to develop a U.S. government strategy that promotes religious freedoms in these countries, especially prioritizing support for ongoing reforms in Uzbekistan S.Res.539 is supported by prominent international religious freedom advocates, including: Dr. Thomas Farr, President of the Religious Freedom Institute, and founding Director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom Dr. Kent Hill, Executive Director of the Religious Freedom Institute, and Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (2001-2008) The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention Frank Wolf, former U.S. Representative (VA-10), and Distinguished Senior Fellow, 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative Nina Shea, Director, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom Dr. Daniel Mark, Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (2014-2018; Chairman 2017-2018), and Assistant Professor of Political Science, Villanova University Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom (2013-2016), and Program Director for Cardus Law Dr. Aykan Erdemir, Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Member of Parliament, Grand National Assembly of Turkey (2011-2015) Dr. Elijah Brown, General Secretary, Baptist World Alliance Dr. Byron Johnson, Director, Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University Dr. Daniel Philpott, Professor of Political Science, Notre Dame University Dr. Kathleen Collins, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota

  • Azerbaijan’s 2018 Presidential Election

    On February 5, 2018, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan announced that the country’s presidential elections—originally scheduled for the fall—instead would be moved forward to April 11, 2018.  While some pro-government commentators offered more innocuous explanations for the move—such as aiming to avoid simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in 2025—many independent analysts saw it as a ploy to disadvantage the opposition. Since Azerbaijani law requires campaigning to cease 30 days prior to the vote, candidates had very little time to rally support. This constraint, among others, contributed to the mainstream opposition boycott of the election. The vote was the first since Azerbaijan passed constitutional amendments in a widely criticized popular referendum in September 2016 that extended the president’s term from five to seven years. Having done away with term limits in another set of constitutional amendments in 2009, President Aliyev used the snap election to secure his position until 2025. The official tally gave Aliyev 86 percent of the vote—he has never won with less than 84 percent. Since signing the founding document of the OSCE, the Helsinki Final Act, in 1992, no national vote in Azerbaijan has met the OSCE’s minimum requirements for a free and fair election. Nevertheless, consistent with its commitments as an OSCE participating State, Azerbaijan invited international observers to view the election.  The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) all scrambled to assemble a robust Election Observation Mission (EOM) in Azerbaijan under difficult time constraints.  Two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff members joined the OSCE PA EOM. The article below summarizes their experience in Azerbaijan. By Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor and Jordan Warlick, Office Director Briefings Reveal Shortcomings in the Field of Candidates and Lack of Media Access From the beginning, it was clear that the Government of Azerbaijan was paying lip service to established OSCE norms for holding elections without providing voters with the necessary conditions to make an informed choice free of coercion. For example, prior to the vote, we and other short-term members of the OSCE PA and PACE observation missions met with representatives of the eight candidates who had been approved by Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission to run in the April 11 contest. During the 20-minute sessions with the candidates or their representatives, we heard almost nothing in the way of criticism of the sitting president, nor anything resembling a platform for running the country should they win. During briefings the following day, members of opposition parties, as well as representatives of civil society and the media, pointed out the gulf of approximately 1.9 million Azerbaijanis entered on voter registration lists (5.3 million), and the number of Azerbaijanis known to be of voting age (7.2 million).  Since voter registration is automatic—and all citizens who are 18 years of age by election day have the right to vote—his dramatic shortfall appeared to reflect the disenfranchisement of an astonishingly large number of Azerbaijani voters. In a separate briefing earlier, the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan addressed this concern by claiming that the voter registration lists were published on the Internet, providing a maximum level of transparency. Civil society representatives were unanimous in their view that none of the “opposition” candidates running were real candidates. The best opposition leaders had either been imprisoned or were otherwise prevented from running, they explained. Several parties that civil society groups considered to be legitimate were boycotting the elections. Among the reasons they offered for the boycott was the fact that there were no real opposition parties in Parliament, no media freedom in Azerbaijan, and many political prisoners.  One opposition group, the Musavat Party, claimed that “clone” parties—such as the “Modern” Musavat Party, headed by Hafiz Hajiyev—had been set up to mimic true opposition parties. Hajiyev seemed to confirm those suspicions on election day by revealing that he himself had voted for President Aliyev.  He also reportedly expressed his hope that President Aliyev would return the favor by appointing him prime minister. Both civil society groups and political parties raised concerns about the potential for election fraud, due to the dramatic increase in use of de-registration voter cards (DVCs), which allow a voter to come off the voter roll in one polling station and to vote in another. We were told that while only 30,000 DVCs had been used in the previous election, 150,000 had been printed for the election on April 11. The discrepancy left many suspicious that DVCs could be abused by allowing voters to vote multiple times in different polling stations. Civil society representatives also were concerned about voter access to information, noting that restrictive laws and lack of funding made it nearly impossible to educate voters about their choices. They also found the lack of election commission reform frustrating, pointing out that both the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission provided explicit recommendations to the Azerbaijani government following previous elections. Finally, they stated that the government’s claim that 50,000 people had been registered as observers was misleading, since many of the registered observers were state employees and could not be fair and impartial observers.  A journalist briefing the observers also drew attention to the 10 Azerbaijani journalists currently in prison, saying that the regime had “made telling the truth in Azerbaijan illegal.” Voting on April 11—Mostly by the Book On election day, 350 international observers deployed across the country. Our team was assigned to the Khatai district in eastern Baku. We watched the opening of one polling station at 7:00 a.m., observed voting in 14 different polling stations throughout the day, and witnessed the counting process at another precinct once the polls closed at 7:00 p.m. The Precinct Electoral Commissions (PECs) at all 16 locations were cooperative, and we could move freely around the polling stations to observe the entirety of the voting process.  The chairwoman of the PEC where we observed the opening was willing to answer every question we had, often going into great detail. While we were unrestricted in our ability to access polling sites, the spots in the polling stations reserved for observers were often poorly situated, being either in a corner out of direct sight of the registration tables, or in one case on another floor entirely. One irregularity we consistently observed related to guaranteeing that each voter cast only one vote. Voters were supposed to have their left thumb coated in invisible ink once they were processed to vote, and all voters were to have their left thumbs checked before entering a polling station to ensure they had not voted elsewhere.  One of the many problems with this method became obvious at the first polling station we visited, where the person checking voters’ thumbs was scanning the wrong hand.  Fellow OSCE PA observers noted that some voters showed up at the wrong polling station, where they had their thumbs sprayed in invisible ink. Once they were directed to the correct voting station, they were allowed to vote regardless of the invisible ink on their hands. Citizen “Observers” in Name Only During a pre-election briefing, the chair of the Central Electoral Commission proudly claimed that 57,313 Azerbaijanis had been registered as citizen observers—a large number in a country of only 9.7 million. The statistic presumably was intended to demonstrate that the elections would be both transparent and credible.  We soon noticed that few, if any, of these citizen observers paid attention to the voting. At almost every polling station, we found one or more observers who could not tell us what party they were representing.  They often had to check their observer ID cards to before replying; when we then asked them which candidate from that party was running for president—information not available on their observer IDs—many were stumped. The Polls Close—Let the Counting … and the Shenanigans … Begin While the polls were open, election regulations appeared to be broadly respected. However, at the precinct where we observed the counting process, vote tallies were rushed and established procedures were not followed.  For example, voter registration lists were not checked to determine how many people voted in that location—a figure that should have been compared to the number of ballots in the ballot box. Unused ballots were counted and destroyed according to the established procedure, but none of this information was entered onto the protocol, the written record of votes that is supposed to be maintained throughout the vote-counting process. Instead, poll workers opened the ballot boxes almost immediately after the unused ballots were destroyed. The ballots then were dumped onto a table in the middle of the room and quickly sorted into several piles.  We were allowed to approach and circle the table, and had good views of the ballots on every part of the table. Most—easily 80 percent to 90 percent of the ballots—ended up in one of several piles for President Aliyev. Of the non-Aliyev piles, the largest was for ballots which appeared to be spoiled.  One member of the PEC explained to us that although some ballots had several names marked, they would not necessarily be considered spoiled; instead, they would be discussed later. Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, that discussion never took place. In just over an hour, the protocol was hastily composed and finalized. Under Azerbaijani law, copies should be made available to bona fide observers; however, election officials declined to provide us with a copy. We then asked if we could at least take a photo of the protocol, and were told that the precinct would have to obtain permission from higher authorities.  We were not the only international observers who noted problems with the counting process. About 50 percent of OSCE PA observers determined that the count was either “bad” or “very bad,” well above the OSCE norm of 17 percent. Election Aftermath In a press conference in Baku the day after the election, observers from the OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE PA, and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly announced that the presidential election in Azerbaijan took place “within a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections.” “Against this backdrop and in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine competition,” they said. The preliminary statement from the three groups noted that other candidates refrained from directly challenging or criticizing the incumbent, and that no distinction was made between his campaign and his official activities. Observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, a lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, including ballot box stuffing. More than half of the vote counts were assessed negatively, largely due to deliberate falsifications and an obvious disregard for procedures. At the same time, observers noted that the authorities were cooperative and international observers were able to operate freely in the pre-election period, and the election administration was well resourced and prepared the election efficiently. Announcing the conclusions, Portuguese parliamentarian Nilza de Sena said, “We have noted the positive attitude displayed by the national authorities of Azerbaijan towards international election observation, as well as the professional work of the Central Election Commission in the pre-election period. We stand ready to continue our co-operation and turn it into a joint effort to tackle the fundamental problems that a restrictive political and legal environment, which does not allow for genuine competition, poses for free elections.” The beginning of de Sena’s statement was interrupted by a pro-government journalist who surged threateningly towards the speakers, shouting angrily that the report had been prepared in advance and that its findings were all lies. It was clear that the pro-government journalist intended on disrupting the conference to distract from the content of the findings. The press conference was suspended until the atmosphere calmed and the representatives from ODIHR, OSCE PA, and PACE could deliver their statement. “A few weeks of campaigning during which candidates could present their views on television cannot make up for years during which restrictions on freedom of expression have stifled political debate,” said Margareta Kiener Nellen, Head of the Swiss delegation to the OSCE PA who led the 48-member OSCE PA delegation. “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will certainly continue to support all steps by the authorities that will bring the country forward on a path towards creating the open political environment necessary for truly free and fair elections.”

  • Sanctioning Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats under the Global Magnitsky Act

    The Global Magnitsky Act enables the United States to sanction the world’s worst human rights abusers and most corrupt oligarchs and foreign officials, freezing their U.S. assets and preventing them from traveling to the United States. Sanctioned individuals become financial pariahs and the international financial system wants nothing to do with them. Before proceeding, ask yourself: is Global Magnitsky right for my case? The language of the Global Magnitsky Act as passed by Congress was ex-panded by Executive Order 13818, which is now the implementing authority for Global Magnitsky sanctions. EO 13818 stipulates that sanctions may be considered for individuals who are engaging or have engaged in “serious human rights abuse” against any person, or are engaging or have en-gaged in “corruption.” Individuals who, by virtue of their rank, have ordered others to engage or have facilitated these acts also are liable to be sanctioned. Keep in mind that prior to the EO’s expansion of the language, human rights sanctions were limited to “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” as codified in 22 USC § 2304(d)(1). The original language also stipulates that any victim must be working “to expose illegal activity car-ried out by government officials” or to “obtain, exercise, defend, or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms.” As for sanctions for corruption, it identifies “acts of significant corruption” as sanctionable offenses. This is generally thought to be a stricter standard than the EO’s term “corruption.” It may be worthwhile to aim for this higher standard to make the tightest case possible for sanctions. As a rule, reach out to other NGOs and individuals working in the human rights and anti-corruption field, especially those who are advocating for their own Global Magnitsky sanctions. Doing so at the beginning of the process will enable you to build strong relationships, develop a robust network, and speak with a stronger voice. Download the full guide to learn more. Contributor: Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Concerned about Interrogation of Pavla Holcova by Slovak Authorities

    WASHINGTON—Following the eight-hour interrogation of Czech journalist Pavla Holcova by Slovak police earlier this week, which culminated with the seizure of her cell phone, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “At last week’s Helsinki Commission briefing, Pavla Holcova eloquently defended press freedom in Central Europe. I was very concerned to hear about her subsequent interrogation by Slovak authorities. This behavior raises questions about the Slovakian government’s commitment to solving the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak. I hope the authorities will now turn their attention back on pursuing his killers.” On May 9, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing titled “A Deadly Calling: The Murder of Investigative Journalists” that examined Kuciak’s murder, as well as the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia of Malta; the aftermaths of their deaths; and the need for greater protections of press freedom around the world. Holcova, who was collaborating with Kuciak at the time of his death, said at the briefing, “We are, in Central Europe as a whole region, facing state capture at a level we could never imagine before. For journalists, the winter already came. We have a fear. We are facing the fear and the fear is paralyzing…It’s really difficult for us to tell where is the line between politicians, powerful political parties, and organized crime.” She later noted, “[Journalists] are called enemies. We are called foreign agents. We are called mercenaries.”

  • 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.

  • Democracy Deferred

    After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission examined these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.  In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • A Deadly Calling

    Over the last year, several journalists investigating public corruption have been murdered for their work in Europe and Eurasia. Two of these victims—Jan Kuciak of Slovakia and Daphne Caruana Galizia of Malta—came from states within the European Union. While protests erupted in Slovakia after Kuciak’s murder, ultimately leading to the resignation of the Prime Minister and other senior government officials, Caruana Galizia’s murder did not trigger a similar outcome. Those who hired her murderers continue to enjoy anonymity and impunity. The briefing examined the assassinations of journalists throughout Europe and Eurasia, why they are targeted, and how future murders can be prevented. It also investigated the shrinking space for investigative journalism in Europe and Eurasia, where there is less investment in investigative journalism and fewer outlets for investigations to be published.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Review State of Fundamental Freedoms in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DEMOCRACY DEFERRED: THE STATE OF ELECTIONS AND FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS IN AZERBAIJAN Wednesday, May 9, 2018 10:30 a.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 215 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission will examine these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.   The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Audrey L. Altstadt, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts – Amherst Emin Milli, Director, Meydan TV Maran Turner, Executive Director, Freedom Now Additional panelists may be added. In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • How to Get Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats Sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act

    The workshop provided human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. Sanctions experts described, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also discussed the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists shared investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates.

  • Helsinki Commission Workshop to Explain Global Magnitsky Sanctions Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced a workshop to provide human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. HOW TO GET HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSERS AND KLEPTOCRATS SANCTIONED UNDER THE GLOBAL MAGNITSKY ACT Tuesday, March 13, 2018 3:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 212-10 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Sanctions experts will describe, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also will discuss the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists will share investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates. Panelists include: Rob Berschinski, Senior Vice President, Human Rights First; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brad Brooks-Rubin, Managing Director, The Sentry; formerly with the Departments of State and Treasury Bill Browder, Founder and Director, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Mark Dubowitz, CEO, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Adam Smith, Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; formerly with the National Security Council and Department of Treasury Josh White, Director of Policy and Analysis, The Sentry; formerly with the Department of Treasury The Global Magnitsky Act is a powerful new tool for deterring human rights violations and fighting corruption. Presence on this list freezes any U.S. assets an individual may hold, blocks future transactions within the U.S. financial system, and bans any travel to the United States. By sanctioning individuals who engage in the worst abuses of power, the United States hardens its own system to external abuse while extending moral support and solidarity to those whose fundamental freedoms are curtailed or denied.

  • Turkey: The World’s Largest Jailer of Journalists

    By Jordan Warlick, Policy Advisor and John Engelken, Intern The number of journalists imprisoned worldwide reached a record high in 2017, with 262 journalists behind bars. For the second consecutive year, the worst offender was Turkey, with 73 journalists imprisoned for their work.[1] These statistics come from the Committee to Protect Journalists, which released its annual “prison census” on December 13, 2017, based on numbers as of December 1, 2017. Media freedom in Turkey has long been restricted, but press freedoms in the country have declined precipitously since July 2016, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan imposed a state of emergency following the failed coup attempt against his government. The state of emergency gives the government sweeping authority to apprehend perceived enemies of the state and close and seize the assets of any institution deemed a national security threat. Using these powers, President Erdoğan has intensified his attacks against forces he deems threatening—journalists among them—to silence critics and monopolize the country’s political narrative. Though confronted with legitimate security concerns and challenges to his rule, Erdoğan has manipulated this political climate to his advantage. Under the pretext of national security, the Turkish government systematically targets journalists and independent voices by with terrorism-related charges, often drawing circumstantial connections between these individuals and terrorist organizations or the Gülen network – an organization the government claims was responsible for the 2016 coup attempt. At a November 2017 Helsinki Commission hearing, State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Jonathan Cohen testified that the state of emergency “appears to have been used expansively to target many Turks with no connection to the coup attempt.” At the same hearing, Nate Schenkkan, Director of Freedom House’s Nations in Transit Project, testified to how the crackdown has targeted independent media. Since the state of emergency came into effect, Schenkkan said, “162 media outlets have been closed, including six news agencies, 48 newspapers, 20 magazines, 31 radio stations, 28 TV stations, and 29 publishing houses.” A recent spate of trials against journalists illustrates the poor media climate that plagues the country. According to a Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report, during the week of December 4 to December 11, 2017, a total of 68 journalists were due to appear in court in four different trials, a third of whom were already detained. Cumhürrıyet, Turkey’s oldest newspaper, has come under particular attack with journalists like Ahmet Şık, Emre İper, Murat Sabuncu, and Oğuz Güven detained or sentenced under baseless terrorism charges. RSF Turkey representative Erol Önderoğlu has been charged with “terrorist propaganda” along with two co-defendants, and his next court date is set for December 26. Though Turkey is a NATO ally and critical partner for the U.S. in numerous security and economic fields, its government’s ongoing attacks against free media are of grave concern, and the Helsinki Commission recently has sought to bring further attention to the worrying state of affairs in Turkey. In October 2017, 10 members of the Commission, including the Commission’s four senior leaders, sent a letter to President Erdogan calling on him to lift the state of emergency in the country. The Commission’s November 2017 hearing highlighted victims of the sweeping arrests since the coup, and in a staff-level briefing on internet freedom that same month, McCain Institute expert Berivan Orucoglu described the sharp decline of freedom on the net in Turkey.  In their October letter to the Turkish President, the Commissioners warned that “[t]he prolonged state of emergency is gravely undermining Turkey’s democratic institutions and the durability of our countries’ longstanding strategic partnership.” As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Turkey commits to preserving the rule of law, democratic institutions, and fundamental freedoms. Senator Thom Tillis, a member of the Commission, affirmed at the Commission’s November hearing that “our partnerships are strongest when they are rooted in shared principles.” In this spirit, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will continue to support U.S. and Turkish efforts aimed at restoring respect for free press, human rights, and democratic institutions in Turkey. [1] Statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists are conservative compared to some other organizations, based on differing methodologies. Platform 24, for example, cites 152 imprisoned in Turkey.

  • Chairman Wicker Welcomes First-Ever Global Magnitsky Sanctions List

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s announcement of the first 52 individuals and entities sanctioned under the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I welcome the Administration’s announcement of the first-ever sanctions list under the ‘Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.’  This groundbreaking tool for combating human rights abuses and corruption around the world is especially relevant in parts of the OSCE region, where in many countries, corruption is met only with impunity. The United States can now hold individuals like Artem Chayka, Albert Deboutte, and Gulnara Karimova accountable for their roles in sustaining kleptocratic regimes. I am hopeful that the Administration will continue to review and build upon this new list to make it as tough and meaningful as possible.” The “Global Magnitsky Act,” which was passed in 2016, extends the authorities established by the original Magnitsky Act to include the worst human rights violators and those who commit significant acts of corruption around the globe. Both pieces of legislation have served as a model to hold individual perpetrators accountable for human rights violations and combat kleptocracy and corruption worldwide.

  • The Magnitsky Act at Five

    In 2009, Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was brutally murdered in prison after uncovering the theft of $230 million by corrupt Russian officials. On December 14, 2012, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act was signed into law in the United States, establishing punitive sanctions – including financial freezes and visa restrictions – for those complicit in Magnitsky’s murder and other human rights abuses in the Russian Federation.  For the past five years, the Magnitsky Act has served as a basis for fighting corruption in Russia and the Putin regime’s systematic violations of the human rights of Russian citizens. On the fifth anniversary of the Magnitsky Act, the Helsinki Commission examined the implementation of the legislation, the resistance of the Russian government to it, and the impact of sanctions on senior members of Putin’s inner circle. The Commissioners heard testimony from William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, Garry Kasparov, Chair of the Human Rights Foundation, and the Hon. Irwin Cotler, PC, OC, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, began by recognizing the retirement of Amb. David Killion, Chief of Staff of the Commission since 2014, and thanking Amb. Killion for his service. Before introducing the witnesses, Sen. Wicker condemned the corruption plaguing the Russian government, and quoted the murdered Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who called the Magnitsky Act “the most pro-Russian law passed in the United States.” Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, criticized the Russian government’s response to the Magnitsky Act. He described the harm done to vulnerable Russian orphans by their government’s decision to ban American parents from adopting children from Russia. Mr. Smith also noted that he and many other Americans involved in the passage of the Magnitsky Act have since been denied visas to enter Russia. This response, he said, shows that the Magnitsky Act “struck right to the heart of the Kremlin’s elite.” Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), the Helsinki Commission’s ranking senator, praised the witnesses for their commitment to promoting human rights in Russia, and thanked the members of the Helsinki Commission and other members of Congress who played a role in the passage of the Magnitsky Act. Mr. Cardin also recognized the passage of Magnitsky legislation in Canada, Estonia, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom, and recalled the power of American leadership on human rights, noting that, “when we lead, we find that other countries follow.” William Browder, the first witness to testify, recalled the historic nature of the Magnitsky Act. “On the day it passed, I could never have predicted how far the Magnitsky Act would spread around the world,” he said. “Without exaggeration, it has become the most important piece of human rights legislation passed in this century.” He also called attention to the future of the Magnitsky movement, noting that the parliaments of Ukraine, South Africa, and Gibraltar are considering introducing similar legislation. In closing, Mr. Browder presented several suggestions to the Commission, including adding additional names to the list of sanctioned individuals, and encouraging other G7 countries to adopt Magnitsky legislation. Garry Kasparov reiterated that the targeted sanctions imposed by the Magnitsky Act only apply to corrupt officials, and not the Russian people. “Russian national interest and Putin’s interests are diametrically opposed in nearly every way,” he said. “This is why legislation that targets Putin and his mafia is pro-Russian, not anti-Russia.” Mr. Kasparov observed that the Kremlin’s reaction proved the worth of the Magnitsky Act, and that, “it is essential to increase the pressure, to continue with what works now that the right path has been confirmed.”  At the conclusion of his testimony, Kasparov observed that “Putin and his gang . . . aren’t jihadists or ideologues, they are billionaires. . . .  Follow the money, the real estate, the stock and reveal it, freeze it, so that one day it can be returned to the Russian people from whom it was looted.”  More succinctly in a follow-up question, he quipped, “Banks, not tanks.” Irwin Cotler gave an overview of the passage of the Canadian Magnitsky Act, and described the goals of the global Magnitsky movement. The aim of Magnitsky legislation is “to combat the persistent and pervasive culture of corruption, criminality, and impunity and the externalized aggression abroad, of which Putin’s Russia is a case study” and “to deter thereby other prospective violators,” he said. Passing such legislation also “tells human rights defenders, the Magnitskys of today, that they are not alone, that we stand in solidarity with them, that we will not relent in our pursuit of justice for them, and that we will undertake our international responsibilities in the pursuit of justice.”

  • The Legacy of Sergei Magnitsky

    By Woody Atwood, Intern In 2008, a Russian tax lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky representing Hermitage Capital Management in a dispute over alleged tax evasion discovered a $230 million fraud being committed by Russian law enforcement officers assigned to the case. Magnitsky reported the fraud to the authorities and was arrested soon after by the same officers he had accused. For almost a year, Magnitsky was held in squalid prison conditions, denied visits from his family, and beaten by guards. Despite developing serious cases of gallstones, pancreatitis, and cholecystitis, he was denied medical attention. On November 16, 2009, Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death in his cell. He had been imprisoned for 358 days, just seven days short of the maximum legal pre-trial detention period in Russia. A year later, Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), then Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act, directing the U.S. Secretary of State to publish a list of individuals involved in Sergei’s detention and death, and enabling the government to deny these individuals entry to the United States and freeze their American assets. The bill was reintroduced in the next Congress as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. This version covered all individual who commit extrajudicial killings, torture or otherwise egregiously violate the human rights of activists or whistleblowers in Russia. Both houses of Congress passed the new bill in late 2012 as part of the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. On December 14, 2012, President Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law, establishing severe consequences for the worst human rights violators in Russia. Just weeks after the passage of the Magnitsky Act, the Russian parliament and government responded by passing a law banning American families from adopting children from Russia. The law immediately terminated adoptions that were being processed, and many children, including children with serious disabilities, who were due to leave Russia were never able to join their American families. In 2013, the Russian government also issued a list of 18 American officials banned from entering Russia. In 2015, Sen. Cardin and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who was then chairing the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to expand the authorities established by the original Magnitsky Act to include the worst human rights violators and those who commit significant acts of corruption around the world. The legislation required the President to annually issue a list of individuals sanctioned under it on Human Rights Day (December 10) or the soonest day thereafter when the full Congress is in session. The global version was passed in December 2016 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017. The story of Sergei Magnitsky and the actions of the U.S. Congress have sparked a global movement to hold individual perpetrators accountable for their human rights violations and corruption. In the last year, Estonia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Lithuania have all passed their own Magnitsky laws. In honor of Human Rights Day and the fifth anniversary of the Magnitsky Act, and to correspond to the deadline for the annual Global Magnitsky List, the U.S. Helsinki Commission is holding two events related to the legacy of Sergei Magnitsky. On Wednesday, December 13, at 3:00PM Commission staff will lead a public briefing on “Combating Kleptocracy with the Global Magnitsky Act,” and on Thursday, December 14, Commissioners will hear testimony on “The Magnitsky Act at Five: Assessing Accomplishments and Challenges.”

  • Helsinki Commission to Assess Magnitsky Act at Five

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: THE MAGNITSKY ACT AT FIVE: ASSESSING ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND CHALLENGES Thursday, December 14, 2017 9:30 AM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce121417 In 2009, Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was brutally murdered in prison after uncovering the theft of $230 million by corrupt Russian officials. On December 14, 2012, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act was signed into law in the United States, establishing punitive sanctions – including financial freezes and visa restrictions – for those complicit in Magnitsky’s murder and other human rights abuses in the Russian Federation.  For the past five years, the Magnitsky Act has served as a basis for fighting corruption in Russia and the Putin regime’s systematic violations of the human rights of Russian citizens. On the fifth anniversary of the Magnitsky Act, the Helsinki Commission will examine the implementation of the legislation, the resistance of the Russian government to it, and the impact of sanctions on senior members of Putin’s inner circle. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management and author of Red Notice. Browder has led the fight to seek justice for Sergei Magnitsky and his family in both the U.S. and abroad. He will outline Russian opposition to his anti-corruption efforts and his work to help pass similar legislation around the world. The Hon. Irwin Cotler, PC, OC, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights; Former Canadian Member of Parliament, Attorney General of Canada, and Minster of Justice. Cotler will provide details about Canada’s recent passage of its Magnitsky Act, its importance to Canada, and Russian resistance to the legislation. Garry Kasparov, Chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and author of Winter Is Coming: Why Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped. Kasparov will explain the threat Putin’s regime poses toward the United States and analyze the Magnitsky Act’s efficacy.

  • Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting: The Role of Free Media in the Comprehensive Approach to Security

    By Jordan Warlick, Policy Advisor From November 2 to November 3, 2017, Helsinki Commission staff participated in the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on the Role of Free Media in the Comprehensive Approach to Security. Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings are convened a few times per year on specific subjects that are determined to deserve distinct focus by the Chairmanship-in-Office. Like the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings bring participating States and civil society actors together, facilitating dialogue on challenges to human rights issues in the OSCE region. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, identified this topic – the role of free media in the comprehensive approach to security – as one of his four priorities at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in September 2017: “My second priority will be to protect media freedom in the new security context….I fully support the efforts of governments to combat terrorism and create safer societies, but let me repeat this simple fact: there are ways to achieve these goals without compromising on our hard-fought fundamental freedoms.” Unfortunately, some governments in the OSCE region consider a free press to be a threat to national security, and worse, persecute or silence journalists in the name of the security. Certain governments and nationalists justify the censorship of journalists by labelling them unpatriotic, even enemies of the state.  Since the failed coup attempt Turkey, for example, hundreds of journalists have been arrested and media outlets shuttered on the basis of national security. The mere suspicion that citizens are part of the Gulenist movement – the group that the Turkish government blames for the coup attempt – can result in many years in prison, or even life sentences.  Journalists, as well as civil society as a whole, have been particularly targeted by terrorism-related charges. However, despite that freedom of expression and national security are often pitted against each other, the two are not mutually exclusive – in fact, they are complementary. An independent, free, and pluralistic media can play a role in peacebuilding and conflict prevention, countering prejudices or misperceptions, and preventing extremism and radicalization. Still, in a world where terrorists spread radical ideas, prejudiced organizations perpetuate intolerance, and government-sponsored bots disseminate misinformation, the tension between freedom of expression and national security seems greater than ever.   The conference featured three sessions: the first, on free media as a basis for European security; the second, on the role of the media in peacebuilding and conflict prevention; and the third, on the role of media in counteracting disinformation, “hate speech” and radicalization. Panelists and participants present discussed the tension between freedom of expression and security interests, the pressures independent media faces from this tension, and best practices for governments to uphold free media and expression commitments in this context. The OSCE takes a comprehensive approach to security, subscribing to the idea that political-military security, human rights, and economic governance are mutually reinforcing ideals. It is important to encourage dialogue on best practices to ensure that participating States remain true to the ideals that the OSCE was founded upon, despite sometimes challenging circumstances.

  • Prisoners of the Purge

    In July 2016, the Turkish people helped defeat a coup attempt that sought to overthrow their country’s constitutional order. In pursuing those responsible for the putsch, however, Turkish authorities created a dragnet that ensnared tens of thousands of people. The state of emergency declared by President Erdogan in the immediate aftermath of the coup attempt remains in effect today and gives the government vast powers to detain or dismiss from employment almost anyone, with only minimal evidence. Caught up in the sweeping purge are several American citizens, including Pastor Andrew Brunson, NASA scientist Serkan Gölge. Brunson worked and raised his family in Turkey for more than 23 years. Despite the efforts of the President of the United States, among many others, he has spent more than a year in jail without trial on national security charges. In addition, Gölge and two Turkish employees of U.S. consulates stand charged with terrorism offenses despite no involvement with violent activity—a situation faced by thousands of other Turks.    The U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing examined the factors contributing to the detention of American citizens, particularly Mr. Brunson, and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey, as well as the judicial processes to which they have been subject. Sen. Thom Tillis presided over the hearing, voicing his concerns about the treatment of American detainees in Turkey and the country’s deteriorating democratic institutions, particularly the judiciary. During the hearing, the Commission heard testimony from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Jonathan Cohen, Executive Senior Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) CeCe Heil, Pastor Brunson’s daughter Jacqueline Furnari, and Director of Freedom House’s Nations in Transit Project Nate Schenkkan.   All witnesses spoke to their concerns about the worsening political climate in Turkey and the safety of its political prisoners, including Mr. Brunson and Mr. Gölge. They also discussed the impact of these arrests on U.S.-Turkey relations and policy recommendations that could help secure their release and promote Turkey’s respect for its rule of law and other commitments as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Mr. Cohen called on the Turkish government to end the protracted state of emergency, cease sweeping roundups, and expedite due process for all the detained. He encouraged Congress to continue engagement through in-person and written correspondence with Turkish officials to communicate concerns about specific detention cases and the broader rule of law. Mr. Schenkkan detailed the scale of Turkey’s wide-scale purges, which he described as targeting independent voices and ordinary citizens from nearly every sector and as far exceeding any reasonable scope corresponding to the failed coup attempt. He recommended that the United States explore the application of individual sanctions against Turkish officials responsible for the prolonged and unjust detention of American citizens and U.S. consulate employees. Mrs. Heil and Mrs. Furnari testified about the physical, psychological, and personal toll of Pastor Brunson’s prolonged detention. They noted that Pastor Brunson has lost 50 pounds while in detention and suffered psychologically and emotionally from his isolation and separation from his family.

  • Internet Freedom in the OSCE Region: Trends and Challenges

    On Tuesday, November 14, 2017 the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing on internet freedom in the OSCE region. The panelists – Sanja Kelly, Director of Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net; Dariya Orlova, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director for Research at the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv, Ukraine; Berivan Orucoglu, Human Rights Defenders Program Coordinator at the McCain Institute; and Jason Pielemeier, Policy Director at the Global Network Initiative – discussed concerning developments in participating States. First, Sanja Kelly provided an overview of Freedom House’s work on internet freedom issues and described the recent edition of the Freedom on the Net report, which was released that very day. The report found that internet freedom declined for the seventh consecutive year around the world, but that the situation among OSCE participating States is more diverse. The region includes some of the report’s best performers, such as Estonia, Iceland, Germany and the United States, as well as some of its worst performers, with Russia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. She also noted the concerning finding that Russia is using the internet to interfere in domestic processes in other OSCE participating States. She pointed out that the “same manipulation techniques, including paid pro-government commentators, bots and fake news, that the Russian authorities have been using in their disinformation campaigns abroad, have long been used … against Russian independent journalists, political opponents and other critical voices.” After that, Dariya Orlova gave an account of the deteriorating internet freedom situation in Ukraine. To blame for this decline, she said, is the introduction of bans on several Russian internet services, including social media networks, email services and search engines. According to Dariya, there has been a lack of outspoken critique against these measures among domestic audiences. She also drew attention to the increasingly dangerous environment that online activists and journalists find themselves in. Then, she briefly explained some of the Kremlin’s tactics when it comes to weaponizing social media platforms. Berivan Orucoglu focused her remarks on the sharp decline in internet freedom that Turkey has experienced in the past few years. In her eyes, this reflects a crackdown on press freedom and freedom of expression more generally. In an effort to control the narrative, the Turkish government has jailed journalists, curbed dissent on social media, as well as in the mainstream media and otherwise intimidated critics. More often than not, national security reasons are cited as justification for these measures. In closing, Jason Pielemeier introduced his organization, the Global Network Initiative, to the audience and proceeded to place some of the aforementioned internet freedom trends into historical context. By doing so, he tried to understand the motivations of repressive regimes to clamp down on online activity. He also touched on more technical aspects of the discussion, such as data localization and the effects such measures have on intelligence operations.

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