Title

Title

And then, they took her cellphone
The Washington Post
Jason Rezaian
Thursday, May 17, 2018

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.

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Instructions tell writers to “be candid but respectful,” and to mention how the faith has benefited their families. “Keep in mind that ‘a mild answer turns away rage,’ and ‘a gentle tongue can break a bone,’” the instructions say, quoting the Biblical book of Proverbs. The decision will come as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is finalizing its annual report identifying countries of concern, its first such report for the Trump administration. The Commission is a bipartisan government advisory group that makes policy recommendations to the President, Congress, and the Secretary of State. Since 2009, the group has designated Russia as a “Tier 2” nation, on the watch list one step below countries of particular concern. “The fate of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the fate of any religious group that does not pledge its allegiance to the Russian government,” Arriaga says. “April 5 will definitely mark a new chapter of religious persecution in post-Soviet Russia.”

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  • Baltic War Game Scenario Plays Out at Helsinki Commission

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  • Helsinki Commissioners Meet with U.S. 6th Fleet Leadership

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  • The Helsinki Commission, Forty Years Ago and Today

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It was the Commission that made a strong effort for President Carter to make human rights a definite element in his foreign policy portfolio.” He recalled a private foreign policy strategy meeting in the fall of 1976 with then-candidate Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy team. Then-Helsinki Commission Chairman Dante B. Fascell, a U.S. Representative from Florida, made a pitch about why human rights should be on Carter’s agenda.  Senator Hubert Humphrey, a very close friend and advisor to Carter, slammed his hand on the table and said, “By golly, Dante’s right! Human rights ought to be one of the principal pillars of the Carter foreign policy!” After Carter took office, Chairman Fascell and his staff, including Mr. Oliver, met with the new President’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, to discuss a plan to make human rights a U.S. foreign policy priority. They recommended that: 1) the State Department position of “Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs” be elevated to a full Bureau for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs; 2) Patricia M. Derian, a civil rights activist from Mississippi, become the first Assistant Secretary of State to head that Bureau; 3) the Assistant Secretary also become the State Department’s representative on the Helsinki Commission; and 4) the Helsinki Commission be fully integrated into inter-agency CSCE planning and the U.S. Delegation to the upcoming CSCE Review Meeting in Belgrade. The Secretary agreed and implemented these recommendations, despite resistance within the State Department. “Without Dante Fascell and Patt Derian, human rights probably would not have had the place it eventually did in American foreign policy,” Oliver observed. Oliver mentioned with sadness the passing of Derian in May 2016. Mr. Oliver explained that the Helsinki Commission was also partly responsible for creating the practice of human rights implementation, review, and accountability. At the 1977 Belgrade Review Meeting, the Helsinki Commission participants in the U.S. Delegation articulated specific cases of human rights abuses and violations of the Helsinki Accords committed by the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviet delegation shot back with criticisms of U.S. human rights issues, such as racism and poverty, to which the United States responded by investigating and reporting factually on these concerns. By publishing a human rights compliance report, the United States set a precedent for accountability on the part of all Helsinki Final Act signatory states. “The Helsinki Accords,” Oliver explained, “were not just about how the countries treat one another, but also about how countries treat their own citizens.” Noting that, today, Russia’s human rights conditions are worse than they have been since the collapse of the USSR, Mr. Oliver recalled moments that looked more promising. Accompanying Fascell to Moscow in April 1986, he was among the first American officials to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev after his consolidation of power as leader of the Soviet Union. In a four-hour meeting at the Kremlin on a Saturday morning, Mr. Oliver expected Gorbachev to find recourse to concerns raised by displaying the same defensiveness and counter-criticism as previous Soviet leaders. Instead, Gorbachev was honest about the issues his country was facing, and expressed his intention to enact economic and political reforms to open the Soviet Union up to the rest of the world. Mr. Oliver left that meeting feeling encouraged about the direction of the USSR. This progressive streak in Russian leadership was short-lived, as illustrated by Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule and denial of basic freedoms. Mr. Oliver believes that Putin’s rise to power and current popularity result from the turmoil and economic devastation of the 1990s, compounded with his tight grip on the media. “There’s no country in the world where the dictator controls the media and he isn’t running at 80 percent in the polls,” he said. In terms of U.S. policy towards Russia, Mr. Oliver believes that strengthening and widening those economic sanctions already in place would put the most pressure on the Russian government to change its ways. “When the Russians invaded Crimea, they broke every one of the ten principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” he said.  “We should let the Russians know that we don’t intend to back off until they change their ways.” In the meantime, the Commission can continue to play an important role maintaining the gains made in promoting human rights through bilateral as well as multilateral diplomacy.

  • Senator Roger Wicker to Lead Helsinki Commission

    WASHINGTON—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell yesterday appointed Senator Roger Wicker (MS) to chair the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, during the 115th Congress. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) has been appointed by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to co-chair the Commission. "I am honored to be named Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission,” Wicker said. “The Commission has a storied history in promoting peace, security, and democratic development in Europe and the former Soviet states. I am confident that it will continue to fulfill its commitment to regional security, just as it has throughout key moments over the past four decades. Given the current threats and challenges facing Europe and Central Asia, the Commission’s role as a consistent and credible monitor of Helsinki Act commitments is critical to combating pressing regional threats, such as terrorism, human trafficking, and Russia’s territorial aggression.” “I am pleased to join Chairman Wicker and the other members of the Commission as we defend democracy and human rights throughout the OSCE region,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “In particular, we must continue to support the territorial integrity of Ukraine; to combat the horrific practice of human trafficking; to battle anti-Semitism; and to address the underlying causes of the refugee crisis in Europe and beyond.” The 115th Congress marks the first time Senator Wicker will chair the bipartisan, bicameral Helsinki Commission. Chairman Wicker has served on the Helsinki Commission since 2011 and co-chaired the Commission in the 114th Congress. Since November 2014, Senator Wicker has also chaired the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Committee on Political Affairs and Security, where his work has centered on sustaining constructive security dialogue among all participating States and ensuring compliance with international commitments. Co-Chairman Smith has been a member of the Helsinki Commission since 1983. He has previously chaired the Commission and serves as a member of the OSCE PA, where he is the Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mark International Human Rights Day

    WASHINGTON—To mark International Human Rights Day on December 10, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman of the Commission, issued the following statements: “2016 has been a challenging year for the OSCE region – some governments have backslid on human rights, and humanitarian crises on the OSCE’s periphery in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere have driven waves of refugees into the OSCE region,” Chairman Smith said. “And despite our best efforts, child sex tourism is soaring while protection lags. We each have an essential role to play in fighting for the human rights of those who are persecuted, whether they are political prisoners in Azerbaijan, refugees fleeing genocide in Syria, journalists in Turkey, or victims of human trafficking in our own country. We must all become human rights defenders.” “We live in a world with significant security challenges, from cyber threats to terrorism to acts of aggression by one of our own OSCE participating States,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “However, as we work to maintain regional stability, we remember that security cannot exist independently from securing fundamental human rights. Today, we recommit ourselves to democracy, the rule of the law, and the rights of all people to determine their future free from tyranny and oppression.” “The Helsinki Final Act is clear: human rights issues in one OSCE country are of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States,” Chairman Smith concluded. “I call on the 57 nations of the OSCE to defend the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable, and to provide humanitarian assistance to victims of genocide and war in the Middle East.”

  • Turkey: Human Rights in Retreat

    Five months after the failed coup attempt of July 15th, 2016, serious questions have emerged with regard to the future of democracy and the rule of law in Turkey.  The Turkish government maintains sweeping state of emergency decrees, which have shuttered educational institutions, civic associations, and media organizations. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested, suspended, or fired for colluding with coup plotters, a determination often made with little to no credible documentation. In the wake of this ongoing crackdown, the Helsinki Commission convened a briefing to examine Turkey’s deteriorating human rights conditions and the future of U.S.-Turkey relations. Helsinki Commission staff member Everett Price opened the briefing by recalling the Commission’s original mandate, its fundamental mission to shed light on human rights violations, and the importance of candor in fostering friendly international relations. Dr. Y. Alp Aslandogan, Executive Director of the Alliance for Shared Values, provided a detailed description of the government’s post-coup persecution of the Hizmet movement, minority groups such as the Kurds and Alevis, journalists, and teachers. Dr. Karin Karlekar, Director of the Free Expression Advocacy Team at PEN America, shed light on the Turkish government’s intensified suppression of press freedom and free expression in the wake of the failed coup attempt. Finally, Dr. Nicholas Danforth, Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, assessed the risks posed by the Turkish government’s disregard for the rule of law and their potential implications for U.S.-Turkey relations. In the subsequent exchange of views moderated by Everett Price, the panelists reflected on the international community’s role in promoting human rights, threats to academic freedom, and the potential for a renewed democratic trajectory in Turkey.

  • Smith Denounces Azerbaijan Law Criminalizing Online ‘Insults’ To President

    WASHINGTON—Following the amendment of Azerbaijan's criminal code last week, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) made the following statement: “Make no mistake, anyone imprisoned under the new provisions of Azerbaijan’s criminal code – which make online ‘insults’ of the president a punishable offense – will be a political prisoner.  These new provisions clearly violate international human rights standards and Azerbaijan’s OSCE commitments. I urge the government of Azerbaijan to repeal these provisions and to release political prisoners, including Ilgar Mammadov, Seymur Haziyev, and Abdul Abilov, who have been wrongly jailed for criticizing the government.” Chairman Smith is the sponsor of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.

  • Helsinki Commission to Probe Crisis of Human Rights in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “TURKEY: HUMAN RIGHTS IN RETREAT” Friday, December 9, 2016 2:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 Respect for human rights in Turkey has declined dramatically since the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Though the international community agrees that the Turkish government has the right to pursue justice against those who sought to overthrow it, Ankara’s reaction to the coup attempt has swept aside international human rights standards. Five months after the coup attempt, the Turkish government maintains sweeping state of emergency decrees, shuttering educational institutions, civic associations, and media organizations and arresting, suspending, or firing tens of thousands of people alleged to have conspired with the coup plotters, oftentimes with little to no credible documentation. These measures, along with dramatic changes to the country’s judicial system and further changes planned to the country’s constitution, are transforming Turkish society and raising serious questions about the future of Turkish democracy. Panelists will review the ongoing crackdown in Turkey; discuss the broad authority the government enjoys under the state of emergency; raise areas of concern regarding human rights and rule of law; and evaluate the implications of these developments for Turkish institutions and society. The discussion will also focus on policy options for the incoming U.S. Administration and U.S. Congress to consider when shaping relations with Turkey in coming years. The following experts are scheduled to participate: Dr. Y. Alp Aslandogan, Executive Director, Alliance for Shared Values Dr. Nicholas Danforth, Senior Policy Analyst, Bipartisan Policy Center Dr. Karin Karlekar, Director, Free Expression at Risk Program, PEN America Additional panelists may be added.

  • Ongoing Human Rights and Security Violations in Russian-Occupied Crimea

    In Russia’s ongoing illegal occupation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, occupying authorities persistently and egregiously violate the human rights of those perceived to oppose Russian annexation of this Ukrainian territory, especially Crimean Tatars.  At the same time, with Russia’s militarization of the peninsula, the security situation in the surrounding Black Sea region is becoming increasingly perilous. The situation in Crimea is bleak, and continues to deteriorate both from a democracy and human rights viewpoint, as well as a security standpoint.  The experts at this briefing examined the current state of affairs in the region in the face of Russian aggression, analyzed the response of the international community, and discussed how – 40 years after the Ukrainian Helsinki Monitoring Group was formed to monitor the Soviet Government’s compliance with the Helsinki Final Act – Ukrainians continue to defend Helsinki principles in the face of violations by Moscow. Helsinki Commission staff member Orest Deychakiwsky opened the briefing with a brief introduction on the current situation in Crimea. Mr. Deychakiwsky noted that this important briefing took place on the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Ukrainian Helsinki Monitoring Group in November of 1976. Ms. Shulyar and Mr. Berezovets both spoke on the illegality of the Russian occupation of Crimea and the flagrant human rights violations that have been perpetrated by Russian forces against the people of Crimea. Ambassador Herbst then spoke on the political and security challenges facing the West in regards to the situation in Crimea. Finally, Mr. Goble spoke on the challenges to the international system that Putin’s aggression in Crimea and Ukraine represents. All participants stressed the necessity for continued U.S. involvement in Ukraine to counter Russian aggression and to uphold the principles of the OSCE. 

  • Human Rights, Military Security in Crimea under the Microscope at Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: Ongoing Human Rights and Security Violations in Russian-Occupied Crimea Thursday, November 10, 2016 2:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room B-318 In Russia’s ongoing illegal occupation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, occupying authorities persistently and egregiously violate the human rights of those perceived to oppose Russian annexation of this Ukrainian territory, especially Crimean Tatars.  At the same time, with Russia’s militarization of the peninsula, the security situation in the surrounding Black Sea region is becoming increasingly perilous. The briefing will examine the current state of affairs in the region in the face of Russian aggression, analyze the response of the international community, and discuss how – 40 years after the Ukrainian Helsinki Monitoring Group was formed to  monitor the Soviet Government’s compliance with the Helsinki Final Act – Ukrainians continue to defend Helsinki principles in the face of violations by Moscow. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Oksana Shulyar, Embassy of Ukraine to the United States John E. Herbst, Director, Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council; former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine   Paul A. Goble, Editor, Windows on Eurasia; Professor, The Institute of World Politics Taras Berezovets, Founder, Free-Crimea Project, Kyiv, Ukraine

  • Helsinki Commission Honored for Work on Ukraine

    At yesterday’s 2016 Ukraine in Washington forum, the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation recognized the Helsinki Commission for four decades of support for Ukraine and Ukrainian dissidents. “Long before Ukraine’s independence and the formation of the House and Senate Ukraine Caucuses, we must remember there was the Congressional Helsinki Commission,” said Robert McConnell, co-founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. “It was doing everything possible to shine international klieg lights on Ukraine’s human rights issues, from its political prisoners to the illegality of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.”  The Helsinki Commission has a long history of supporting Ukrainians’ aspirations for human rights and democracy, even prior to independence when Ukraine – the largest non-Russian republic in the Soviet Union – was viewed as a particular threat to Moscow’s rule. Since 1991, the Commission has been a strong supporter of the development of an independent, secure, democratic Ukraine. The Commission was instrumental in introducing and ensuring passage of the original resolution calling for the U.S. to recognize Ukraine’s independence in the face of State Department opposition.  In the intervening 25 years, Helsinki Commission hearings, briefings, and other activities have highlighted issues including Chornobyl; the state of democracy and rule of law; the political situation in Ukraine; elections; and – more recently – Russia’s war against Ukraine and human rights violations in Crimea and the occupied territories of the Donbas.  “We know the Ukrainian people want freedom and democracy, whether it be in Crimea or other parts of the country,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Christopher Smith (NJ-04). “Yet we find again that this persistent aggression by the Russians—which is reminiscent of Soviet times—continues to make the freedom, democracy, and prosperity that the people so richly deserve that much harder to achieve.” (View video.) Commissioners have also played an active role in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on Ukraine, especially in condemning Russia’s aggression and violation of all core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. Commission leadership has led several Congressional delegations to Ukraine, including three since Russia’s invasion, and the Commission has observed virtually every national election in Ukraine since 1990. “The Helsinki Commission’s efforts then and now must never be forgotten as they were – though often like cries in the wilderness – critically important in keeping the truth of Ukraine alive and in providing a rallying point for so many efforts that eventually helped Ukraine shed the Kremlin’s shackles,” McConnell said. “The Helsinki Commission for decades was like a beacon of hope. It was an outside promise for the Ukrainian Helsinki Group and a critical source of support for Ukrainian-Americans and so many others as they persevered in their quest for freedom against what seemed like insurmountable odds.”

  • Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Referendum Creates Crisis of Legitimacy

    WASHINGTON—In a recent letter to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) expressed deep concern about the country’s September 26 constitutional referendum, which proposes changes that would undermine Azerbaijan’s international obligations to protect democracy. The bipartisan letter urging President Aliyev to reconsider holding the referendum and to live up to his government’s commitment to human rights was also signed by Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Adam Schiff (CA-28). “By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people,” the Members of Congress wrote. “We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability.” Proposed changes to Azerbaijan’s constitution include extending the presidential term from five to seven years; removing the age limits for holding elected office; providing immunity for vice presidents; allowing the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections; and reorganizing the presidential line of succession. The Government of Azerbaijan has already faced international criticism for its crackdown on journalists, activists, opposition politicians, and members of religious minorities.  The referendum would further restrict fundamental freedoms by placing limits on freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” “The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy,” the letter read. “Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable.” In December 2015, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, a bill that would deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government until such a time that Azerbaijan makes substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections. The full text of the letter is below. September 8, 2016 His Excellency Ilham Aliyev President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Presidential Palace Istiglaliyyat Street 19 Baku, AZ 1066 Dear President Aliyev, We write to you to express our deep concern regarding Azerbaijan’s upcoming constitutional referendum on September 26, 2016. We believe that the proposed changes to the constitution and the means for adopting them will undermine your government’s international obligations to protect democracy and human rights. By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people. We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability. Shortly following independence, the Government of Azerbaijan in 1992 joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) thereby expressing its commitment to the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms as one of the basic purposes of government. We regret that in the years hence Azerbaijan's human rights record fails to reflect this commitment. Time and again, the credibility of Azerbaijani elections has been marred by credible reports of ballot stuffing and irregularities with vote counting, as well as limitations on freedom of expression and freedom of association. These troubling precedents motivate our concern about the upcoming referendum. If successful, the vote would change the constitution to extend the presidential term from five to seven years, remove the age limits for holding elected office, provide immunity for vice presidents, allow the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections, as well as reorganize the presidential line of succession. Additionally, it would subject fundamental rights to vaguely worded restrictions, circumscribing freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” We are deeply concerned that Azerbaijani voters are being asked to consider such consequential changes to Azerbaijan’s constitutional framework in a climate that makes free debate all but impossible. In recent days, it has been reliably reported that a number of political activists campaigning against the referendum and several journalists have been detained on trumped-up charges and some have faced mistreatment and torture at the hands of authorities. Even before the latest round of arrests and intimidation, half a dozen journalists were already in jail, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has remained closed since December 2014, and other independent journalists and media outlets faced official harassment. The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy. Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable. We urge you to reconsider this constitutional referendum and to re-invigorate your government’s flagging commitment to promote the freedom and dignity of its people by ceasing all harassment and proceedings that target political activists and journalists who peacefully express their visions for Azerbaijan. We are inspired by the example of these brave voices and hope that your government will recognize that Azerbaijan’s strength and stability derives from the liberty of its people. Sincerely, Christopher H. Smith Member of Congress Joseph R. Pitts Member of Congress Adam B. Schiff Member of Congress           

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

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

  • Five Years of the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network

    2016 marks the fifth anniversary of the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN), an innovative project of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, in cooperation with the U.S. State Department, German Marshall Fund, and other stakeholders that prepares diverse, young leaders with a global outlook. TILN bridges the transatlantic divide between the U.S. and Europe by annually bringing together driven individuals from a range of political backgrounds for a week-long workshop focused on inclusive leadership. Workshops take place in European cities ranging from Copenhagen to Brussels to Turin – allowing participants to immerse themselves in international policy-making at national and regional levels.  Participants engage with public and private sector figures while shaping their personal missions and strengthening leadership skills to support careers in public service and transformative initiatives that will promote more equitable societies.  The TILN project already boasts an impressive list of alumni, including U.S. Congressman Ruben Gallego, Swedish Parliamentarian Said Abdu, UN Expert on Minority Issues Rita Iszak, and other Parliamentarians, Ministers, Mayors, City Councilpersons, regional and local leaders. During its five-year history, TILN annual workshops have highlighted issues of special interest to the US Helsinki Commission from the ongoing struggle to realize Roma and migrant rights to racism, anti-Semitism, and religious discrimination.  Additionally, many TILN alumni support innovative initiatives that promote equality and inclusion in their home countries through alumni Action Grants that allow former participants to maintain their connections, further the work of multinational inclusion, and maximize the impact of collective action. For example, former German and Dutch participants have launched national inclusive leadership programs inspired by TILN. The German “Network Inclusive Leaders” program (NILE), created by Gabriele Gün Tank and Daniel Gyamerah of the TILN class of 2013, is a week-long seminar that provides 20 diverse young adults with an opportunity to engage with German political leaders, academics, artists, and others on anti-racism and anti-discrimination efforts. Following the 2016 TILN event, Dutch alumni Mpanzu Bamenga and Kamran Ullah – along with GMF’s Marshall Memorial Fellows Ahmed Larouz and Mei Ling Liem – launched the “Inclusion Leaders Network” in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The event successfully brought together more than 40 community and political leaders from different parties and sectors to discuss tools and strategies to increase inclusion in political, economic, and education sectors. Both the NILE and the Inclusive Leadership Network have enjoyed the support of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, State Department, GMF, and other stakeholders. Hosted by Helsinki Commissioner Representative Alcee L. Hastings, TILN experts and alumni Simon Woolley, Assita Kanko, Gabriele Gün Tank, and David Mark also attended the 2014 three-day Quad Caucus meeting of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL), the National Asian Pacific Caucus of State Legislators (NAPACSL), the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators (NCNASAL), and the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL) in the United States.  In his opening remarks to the Quad Caucus, Commissioner Hastings highlighted the importance of inclusive and representative governance in all countries.  The TILN delegation followed with a panel discussion on the similarity between the U.S. and Europe on experiences of Roma, Muslim, Afro-descent, and other diverse communities, leading to support for joint U.S.-Europe partnerships and initiatives from members of the Quad Caucus. As a result of these meetings, the TILN alumni network was able to organize a speaking tour in Germany for Ajenai Clemmons of NBCSL – a 2015 TILN participant – to share the U.S. minority caucus model in Germany. The momentum of the Quad Caucus also advanced development of anti-discrimination legislation authored by TILN alumni Mpanzu Bamenga in the Netherlands, which was later adopted by Eindhoven City Council. The U.S. Helsinki Commission congratulates TILN on five successful years, and looks forward to witnessing further fruits of the Network as alumni continue to advance inclusive policymaking, thought, and leadership in our societies.

  • Fox Business: Sen. Wicker on Turkey

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

  • President Erdogan's Assault on the Human Rights of the Turkish People

    Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I rise to remind our government that the human rights abuses committed by Turkish President Erdogan are grave and ongoing, and to distinguish between the Turkish president and the Turkish people--and to stand with the people. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in recent years been aggressively violating the human rights of Turkish citizens and undermining the rule of law, in order to root out dissent and consolidate his personal power. The freedom of the press and the rights of common citizens to run schools, businesses, and volunteer associations have come under direct threat. Since assuming the presidency two years ago, President Erdogan has undermined the independence of the judiciary, jeopardizing access to a fair trial and undercutting government accountability. In 2014, he worked to stack the country's High Council of Judges and Prosecutors with party loyalists, enabling his government to ease arrest procedures and curtail opportunities for appeal. This facilitated the detention of thousands of activists, journalists, and businessmen under the country's overbroad terrorism statute. The President has exploited his growing leverage over the courts: his government's reshuffling last month of 3,700 judges and prosecutors rewarded pliant members of the judiciary while punishing others who ruled against the government or heard cases involving official corruption. A law passed earlier this month dismissed most of the judges on Turkey's highest courts, leaving it up to the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors to reappoint them or pick their successors. Mr. Speaker, in addition to undermining government institutions, President Erdogan's tightening grip on Turkey is also weakening the vitality of Turkish society. Under President Erdogan's direction, state authorities are undertaking a campaign of retribution against Erdogan's critics. Since Erdogan assumed the presidency in 2014, the government has opened nearly 2,000 cases against people suspected of “insulting the president” – a crime in Turkey. Professional journalists and major news outlets in particular have incurred the wrath of the President. For reporting that is unflattering to Erdogan, whether on national security issues, the conflict with the Kurds, or official corruption, press outlets have been charged with “supporting terrorism” or have had their entire operations taken over by government-appointed trustees. In one of the most egregious examples, Turkish authorities in March raided the offices of the nation's highest-circulation newspaper, Zaman, and overnight placed it under hand-picked, pro-government management. Mr. Speaker, President Erdogan has taken to politicizing the charge of “supporting terrorism”--undermining the serious business of fighting terrorism, one of the gravest threats faced by the Turkish people. One persistent critic of Erdogan's centralization agenda and authoritarian tendencies is Fethullah Gulen, the founder of Hizmet, a moderate, Islamic civic movement dedicated to promoting education, popular piety, and civic engagement. Because of this criticism, Hizmet and its followers have suffered wave after wave of unfounded terrorism charges and forcible government seizures of businesses, universities, and schools. In May, the Turkish Cabinet approved a decision to designate Hizmet a “terrorist organization,” guaranteeing that this campaign of political retribution will continue. Gulen's followers have been placed in the crosshairs of the very arbitrary policies they criticize. Yet neither our State Department, nor the European Union, nor any other respected body outside Turkey, has ever characterized Hizmet as a terrorist group or anything like it--the Cabinet's designation is absurd. Mr. Speaker, in recent months, the Turkish people have been struck by a wave of violent attacks perpetrated by Islamist and Kurdish terrorists--most recently, a triple-suicide attack at Istanbul's international airport by Islamist extremists killed 44 innocent civilians. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those maimed in these attacks, to all those who lost beloved family and friends. I am confident that the Turkish people--for centuries renowned for their bravery--will never be cowed by terrorists, and that they will equally resist President Erdogan's attempt to undermine their rights, laws, and freedoms. Our government should stand with the Turkish people on both fronts.

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