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I Was Locked Up and Tortured by Putin’s Spooks
Newsweek
Yuriy Yatsenko
Sunday, January 10, 2016

Yuriy Yatsenko is an activist of the Euromaidan who was illegally imprisoned in Russia on political grounds and recently released. This is a shortened version of his testimony before the US Helsinki Commission in Washington on December 11, 2015.

I am a Ukrainian citizen who was illegally arrested and detained by the Russian Federation for over a year for political reasons. Nadiya Savchenko, Oleg Sentsov and others who are less known have suffered and continue to suffer the same fate.

In May 2014, I was in Russia's Kursk region with a friend on a business trip. During a routine document check that Russian police officers often practice, I was detained.

At the police department, an FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) agent showed me a photograph of myself taken during the Euromaidan protests, which I suspect he had found on social media.

The agent demanded that my friend and I provide false testimony; he wanted us to admit that we had been recruited by Right Sector or by the head of the Security Service of Ukraine to commit acts of terrorism in Russia.

At the time, I was an ordinary student from western Ukraine and could not believe that such absurd accusations were being made against me. My western Ukrainian origin became an additional reason for Russian law enforcement personnel to harass me.

After we refused to incriminate ourselves, they began beating us at regular intervals. We were also offered an option of going on Russian TV and giving a predetermined speech about being sent to Russia from Ukraine to commit subversive acts, but instead we turned to the FSB for protection to save us from the Ukrainian authorities and their persecution.

We refused, so the harassment continued and turned into physical and psychological abuse. One FSB official threatened to hand me over to the president of Chechnya.

At first, the abuse and the beatings were constant. I was regularly placed in punishment cells and solitary confinement.

I remember one particularly brutal instance. Some special forces soldiers, wearing masks and uniforms bearing no insignia other than the colors of the Russian flag, put a bag over my head, took me into the woods and tortured me.

They hanged me by my handcuffs for hours and beat me in the head, groin and other parts of the body. They strangled me. They also simulated an execution, firing a gun next to my head.

The next morning, which was two weeks after my arrest, I used a shaving blade to cut my abdomen and the veins on my arms to stop this abuse. Only then was I taken to the hospital; there, I finally managed to inform my family about my whereabouts.

Despite a court decision ordering our deportation, my friend and I were illegally kept at a special detention center for illegal immigrants for three months. During this period, beatings and torture were constant. Three months later, my friend was released and taken to the Ukrainian border, while I was suddenly charged with possessing explosives.

The court found me guilty in spite of the absurdity of these accusations and the absence of any evidence. At first, I was sentenced to two years in prison, but an appeals court reduced the sentence to nine months. By that time, I had already spent a year in detention, so I was released.

The fact that I'm free now is a testament to the publicity campaigns, international pressure and coordinated work of human rights advocates and lawyers.

When I was in detention, guards informed me from time to time that another article about my case appeared in the press, or that another press conference dedicated to my case was held. They seemed to be alarmed by this activism, and kept saying that it should be stopped, that everything should be "done quietly."

That is why public events in support of prisoners are extremely important; they signal to the repressive regime that it is being watched closely and that none of the prisoners are forgotten.

At least 13 Ukrainians are detained illegally somewhere in the Russian Federation, and at least eight prisoners are being held in occupied Crimea, both Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars.

The criminal cases against them are fabricated, most have been brutally tortured and some have been deprived of their right to meet with an attorney or a Ukrainian consul for over a year. These are people of various ages, professions and politics, but they share one thing—their lives have become an instrument of Russian state-sponsored propaganda that has created the image of Ukraine as a mortal enemy.

Kremlin officials constantly look for ways to justify their hybrid war in Ukraine, which is why innocent Ukrainian citizens are proclaimed to be terrorists, spies and fascists.

I appeal to you on behalf of the #LetMyPeopleGo campaign. There are no independent courts in Russia; this is why politically motivated cases have no chance of being decided fairly. Only international pressure can help achieve the release of those detained.

We are waiting for the return of Savchenko, Olexandr Kolchenko, Sentsov, Gennadiy Afanasiev, Olexii Chirnii, Sergiy Lytvynov, Mykola Karpiuk, Stanislav Klyh, Olexandr Kostenko, Haiser Dzhemilev, Yurii Soloshenko, Valentyn Vyhyvskii and Viktor Shur.

We also demand that Russia stop occupying Crimea and that Akhtem Chyihoz, Ali Asanov, Mustafa Dehermendzhy, Yuriy Ilchenko, Ruslan Zaytullaev, Nuri Primov, Rustam Vaytov and Ferat Sayfullaev be freed.

It is likely that this list is incomplete. Nevertheless, we demand that Russia release all of its prisoners who have been subject to politically motivated persecution.

Relevant countries: 
Leadership: 
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As we all rise to meet the challenge of conducting elections safely, we must maintain transparency regarding the entire electoral process, especially any changes to the timing of elections, methods of voting, or measures that impact campaigning.  The United States is already debating these issues in preparation for November. Even in a pandemic, international and domestic election observation remains vital.  We must find a solution to ensure that they are engaged and included even now. 

  • Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker Commemorate World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: "Given these uncertain and unprecedented times, it is more important than ever that journalists and media professionals are able to work freely and without retribution," said Chairman Hastings. "Unfortunately, journalists remain in jail throughout the OSCE region, while states like Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary criminalize providing essential information and transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media continues to be assaulted under the pretense of punishing allegedly 'false,' 'misleading,' or unofficial information. This is unacceptable." Read Chairman Hastings' full Congressional Record statement. “Journalists across the globe risk their safety, and some even their lives, to report the truth," said Co-Chairman Wicker. "On World Press Freedom Day, we honor a freedom that is a cornerstone of democracy and should always be protected in any healthy society. During this pandemic, good journalism and unflinching investigative reporting are essential as we work to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus and get our economies started again. Now more than ever, I urge all OSCE states to uphold this fundamental freedom." According to the latest reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide for their work, 64 journalists are missing, and 1,369 journalists have been killed since 1992. Additionally, Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index found that global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since 2013. Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir, along with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, issued a joint declaration on freedom of expression and elections in the digital age, particularly noting challenges to press freedom during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 17, Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker released a statement expressing concern with the latest attacks on press freedom in Russia amid the coronavirus pandemic, including death threats to Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Earlier in April, Chairman Hastings also denounced the unchecked power granted to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban following his request to rule by decree in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

    WASHINGTON—Three years after the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving with the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) recalled Stone’s tragic death in the Russia-driven conflict and lamented the suffering of civilians who remain the chief victims of Kremlin aggression.  Stone was killed on April 23, 2017, when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. “Another year has passed since Joseph Stone lost his life, and still Moscow’s war in eastern Ukraine rages on,” said Chairman Hastings. “Stone was killed as he helped document the senseless human suffering inflicted by the Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine. Even amidst a global pandemic, we must not forget the civilians with courage like Stone, who remain on the frontlines of conflict zones globally.” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) underlined the Russian Government’s responsibility for the war’s ongoing toll and affirmed that the Kremlin would continue to face consequences for its aggression. “The Kremlin continues to fuel this war while denying its direct involvement,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Joseph Stone’s death three years ago was a direct result of Russian aggression, which is only part of Vladimir Putin’s broader campaign against Ukraine. Our sanctions will remain in place until Moscow changes course and Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored.” Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) celebrated Stone’s contributions to regional security and condemned the threats OSCE monitors continue to face in the field. “Born in my district in Milwaukee, Joseph Stone was a courageous young man whose life tragically ended much too soon.  All OSCE states, including Russia, must do everything possible to support the OSCE monitors who, to this day, face unacceptable threats and restrictions as they shine a light on the daily cost of this needless war,” said Rep. Moore. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who also chairs the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Political Affairs and Security, called for the immediate lifting of new, baseless restrictions imposed by Russian-led forces under the pretext of COVID-19. “Even as OSCE monitors seek to report on the COVID-19 outbreak’s impact on vulnerable populations, Russian-controlled forces are using so-called quarantine restrictions to deny them access,” Rep. Hudson said.  “The increasing limitations by Moscow-led forces also stall crucial humanitarian shipments and services by international organizations. This obstruction and harassment must cease immediately.” The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears on the security and humanitarian situation in the conflict zone. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. It currently fields roughly 750 monitors, approximately 600 of whom are in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. The United States supports the SMM by providing 54 monitors (the largest contingent) and has contributed more than $140 million to the mission since its inception.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Appalled by Latest Attacks on Press Freedom in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following recent threats to the life of Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the forced removal of her Novaya Gazeta article on the coronavirus response in Chechnya by Russia’s media regulatory agency, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) released the following statements: “I am appalled—though not surprised—that the Government of Russia is using a global pandemic to restrict media freedom at a time when access to accurate information is vital,” Chairman Hastings said. “Yelena Milashina does not deserve death threats for simply doing her job. I condemn these attacks; Novaya Gazeta must be able to operate freely to provide truthful and timely information to the Russian people.” “Independent journalists need to be protected so they can continue to do the important work of keeping the public informed, especially in times of crisis,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Chechen strongman Kadyrov has a history of support for lawlessness and extrajudicial killings, and his threats should be taken seriously. A government that fails to protect journalists like Yelena Milashina will also contribute to a culture where other citizens are afraid to speak out.” After the passage of an April 1 law criminalizing “misinformation” regarding the coronavirus, the Government of Russia has begun to target news agencies and individuals who have criticized the government’s response to the pandemic. RFE/RL’s reporting on Russia’s handling of the coronavirus has been targeted for review in the State Duma, and the apartment of an activist in St. Petersburg was searched and her electronics seized for calling attention to insufficient local quarantine conditions on social media. Journalist Yelena Milashina has received previous death threats from Ramzan Kadyrov for her reporting on Chechnya. In February 2020 she was attacked by unknown assailants in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. She received an International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department in 2013 and appeared at Helsinki Commission events on Russia’s North Caucasus in 2009 and 2010.  

  • Reflecting on Chechnya

    By Mia Speier, Max Kampelman Fellow On December 11, 1994, Russian forces advanced into Chechnya, a republic in the North Caucasus near Georgia and Azerbaijan, to stop an attempt at secession. A Chechen separatist movement started to gain momentum following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russians refused to allow any chance at separation. This marked the start of the First Chechen War, a conflict that erupted after decades of hostilities between the former Soviet government and the Chechen forces. The war dragged on for nearly two years, destroying the capital city of Grozny and killing tens of thousands of people—mostly civilians. The conflict, which started as an internal national movement, was complicated by flows of foreign money and foreign fighters. Militant Islamists joined the fight against Russia during the latter half of the war as part of a declared global jihad. Officials in Russia feared a repetition of the violence that occurred during the Soviet war in Afghanistan nearly a decade prior. Though Russia withdrew from Chechnya for a short time after the first war, the Second Chechen War broke out in 1999. This second war began after Putin blamed Chechen secessionists for bombings that killed Russian civilians, although there was no evidence of Chechen involvement in the bombings. Russian forces were sent into the republic again, and the Russian government succeeded in putting Chechnya under its control. Since then, the region has been a republic of Russia and is governed by Putin-appointed president Ramzan Kadyrov. Amid the conflict, however, the international community took steps to confront Russian aggression and violence in the region. On March 13, 1997, the U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing called “The Future of Chechnya,” to discuss the efforts of Chechen citizens to free themselves from Russia’s painful yoke and fight back against Moscow’s defiance of international principles and the rule of law. The Helsinki Commission hearing focused on the 1994 Organization for Security and Cooperation Budapest Document that requires all participating States, including Russia, to ensure that their armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with international law. At the time of the hearing, an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 people had died in the territory, and tens of thousands of citizens had been displaced. The violence against and displacement of citizens in Chechnya was a clear violation of the Budapest Document. Then-Chairman Rep. Alfonse M. D’Amato chaired the hearing and noted that though many people were paying attention to the ongoing conflict in Bosnia at the time, it was important to also pay attention to the conflict in Chechnya and, more specifically, to think about the role of the OSCE in the region. “The world watched, horrified, as the Russian military used massive firepower against the Chechen guerrillas,” D’Amato said. “While the international community recognizes the principles of territorial integrity, there can be no doubt that in its effort to keep the Chechens in the Russian Federation, the Russian Government violated recognized international principles.” Since 1997, the Helsinki Commission has held several other public events related to human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, abductions, and disappearances and the plight of Chechen refugees. In 2003, the commission penned a letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell urging the U.S. delegation at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to express concern over reported rights violations in Chechnya. Though it has been nearly 30 years since the First Chechen War, the situation in Chechnya remains bleak. In 2017, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution condemning widespread anti-LGBT persecution and violence in Chechnya after it was revealed that state law enforcement officials beat, imprisoned, and murdered hundreds of men perceived to be gay or bisexual. In June 2018, then-Chairman (and current Co-Chairman) Sen. Roger Wicker and Sen. Benjamin Cardin penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the United State to invoke the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism in response to escalating human rights abuses in Chechnya. The Moscow Mechanism allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission to address a specific human rights concern in the OSCE region. In November 2018, the 16 of the 57 OSCE participating States invoked the Moscow Mechanism to investigate the alleged disappearances, killings, and torture taking place in Chechnya—all of which were concerns raised at a Helsinki Commission hearing just months prior.  Though Russia failed to cooperate with the fact-finding mission, the resulting report concluded that the evidence clearly confirmed the allegations of very serious human rights violations and abuses in the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation. Today, multiple reports of journalists and bloggers in Chechnya being beaten or murdered calls for even more concern for individual freedom and civil liberties in the region. In early February, Yelena Milashina, a prominent Russian journalist and lawyer who exposed the cruelty against gay Chechen men, was beaten in Grozny. Imran Aliev, an outspoken Chechen blogger who criticized President Ramzan Kadyrov, was found murdered in France earlier this year. Aliev’s death is one of many deaths and disappearances in recent years of Chechen dissidents throughout Europe, sparking heightened fears of Chechen death squads hunting down those seeking asylum outside of the republic.

  • Moldova

    Presidential elections in Moldova are quickly approaching. However, the country’s self-proclaimed “technocratic” government has yet to demonstrate a departure from the country’s post-Soviet history of grand kleptocracy and political strife. Moldovans have demanded greater access to the global economy through European integration, yet some political leaders are pivoting East with substantial security implications for the enduring frozen conflict in the breakaway territory of Transnistria. To this day, Moldovans demand accountability for the more than $1 billion siphoned from Moldova’s biggest banks between 2012 and 2014. However, key former political leaders implicated in this and other crimes are alleged to have escaped international sanctions, notably, ousted oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who is allegedly at large in the United States. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to explore the societal fissures, security implications, and governance challenges at stake in the Republic of Moldova. Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioner Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), a member of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Chairman Hastings’ opening remarks addressed the existing conditions in Moldova under pro-Russian president Igor Dodon and affirmed U.S. support for stability and democracy in Moldova. “We hope to see Moldova reach its potential as a European nation of prosperity and the rule of law, rather than just another post-Soviet country under the thumb of Moscow,” he stated. The hearing exposed Moldova’s existing struggles with corruption and Russian influence and highlighted opportunities for the United States to support Moldova’s democratic aspirations. Ambassador William H. Hill, Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies and former Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, emphasized continuing problems of corruption in Moldovan institutions, security issues regarding Russia and Transdniestria, and the role of the U.S. and the EU in supporting Moldova. Although he explained that Moldova has “strayed into a familiar pattern of cronyism, political reprisals, and geopolitical posturing,” Ambassador Hill expressed hope for progress. Tatyana Margolin, Regional Director of the Eurasia Program at Open Society Foundations,  highlighted the resilience of Moldova’s civil society and the lack of public trust in the government. She also called for free and fair elections, for criminal justice reform, and on the U.S. to find Plahotniuc and bring him to justice. Valeriu Pașa, Program Manager at WatchDog.MD,  testified to the problems of corruption and the absence of justice in Dodon’s administration. “Judges, prosecutors, as well as other officials are easily drawn into supporting illegalities,” leading the government to be highly incompetent, he explained. Pașa voiced his support existing U.S. sanctions under the Magnitsky Act and asked that the U.S. impose tougher sanctions on corrupt low-profile Moldovan officials.

  • Moldovan Governance and Accountability to be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: MOLDOVA Access and Accountability Tuesday, March 10, 2020 12:30 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Presidential elections in Moldova are quickly approaching. However, the country’s self-proclaimed “technocratic” government has yet to demonstrate a departure from the country’s post-Soviet history of grand kleptocracy and political strife. Moldovans have demanded greater access to the global economy through European integration, yet some political leaders are pivoting East with substantial security implications for the enduring frozen conflict in the breakaway territory of Transnistria. To this day, Moldovans demand accountability for the more than $1 billion siphoned from Moldova’s biggest banks between 2012 and 2014. However, key former political leaders implicated in this and other crimes are alleged to have escaped international sanctions. Witnesses at the hearing will explore the societal fissures, security implications, and  governance challenges at stake in the Republic of Moldova.  Can a country marred by deep corruption reverse its trajectory, and is there even any will to do so in this government?  What role will civil society play in Moldova’s reconstruction?  Will Socialist president Igor Dodon prioritize relations with Russia over the West, or manage to navigate between the two?  This hearing will explore these questions and more. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Ambassador William H. Hill, Global Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies & former Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova Tatyana Margolin, Regional Director – Eurasia Program, Open Society Foundations Valeriu Pașa, Program Manager, WatchDog.MD   

  • Restrictions on Civil Society in Hungary

    Since returning to power in 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government, which is now in its fourth (third consecutive) term. This has included introducing significant changes to the legal framework for parliamentary elections; stripping hundreds of faiths of their state recognition in 2011 and then channeling money to religious groups that do not challenge government positions (increasing dependence of those groups on the state); overseeing the consolidation of most Hungarian media, first into the hands of government-tied oligarchy and then into a single foundation exempt from anti-trust regulation; and eroding judicial independence by, for example, expanding and packing the constitutional court. In light of restrictions imposed on political opposition, faith organizations, the media and the judiciary, the role of Hungarian civil society in holding the government to account (by, for example, suing the government for non-compliance with the Hungarian constitution or Hungary’s international legal commitments) has taken on heightened importance. At the same time, civil society organizations have become the targets of escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions, including laws that significantly lower the bar for what it takes to jail people who seek to exercise their freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law and Daniela Ondraskova, Max Kampelman Fellow

  • Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Wicker Commemorate Fifth Anniversary of Nemtsov Murder

    WASHINGTON—On the five-year anniversary of the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: “We must never forget the ultimate price Boris Nemtsov paid for seeking true democracy and political justice for the Russian people,” said Chairman Hastings. “Five years ago today, Russia lost one of its most fervent advocates, targeted for his activism and speaking truth to power.  Justice still has not been served in his case. I regret that Russian authorities clearly have chosen politics over finding and prosecuting those responsible for orchestrating Nemtsov’s death. International voices must keep Boris Nemtsov’s memory alive until—and after—we receive answers.” “The anniversary of Boris Nemtsov’s assassination is a reminder of the repression in Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Nemtsov knew well the dangers he faced as a critic of Putin and as an advocate for real democracy and freedom for the people of Russia. He was gunned down in the middle of Moscow five years ago today, and still the Russian government has refused to conduct a thorough investigation into who ordered his murder. There is no doubt that Nemtsov’s death was a meticulously plotted political hit, and I hope that one day Nemtsov’s family, friends, and fellow Russian citizens will see justice delivered in his case. Until then, we honor his memory and salute those brave individuals who carry on his legacy.” On February 27, 2015, former Deputy Prime Minister and Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge directly in front of the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Although various people have been arrested in connection with Nemtsov’s death, Russian authorities have failed to truly investigate who ordered and organized the murder. A recent report authored by OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Rapporteur Margareta Cederfelt of Sweden is the most conclusive study of the case to this date; however, the Government of Russia did not cooperate with her requests for information. In 2018, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing to help to shed light on the circumstances of Nemtsov’s murder, the most high-profile political assassination in modern Russia.

  • Human Rights and Democracy

    For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. Although best known for international election observation, ODIHR has also been instrumental in countering various forms of intolerance, helping governments combat human trafficking, protecting human rights defenders, and implementing OSCE commitments to fundamental freedoms. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for ODIHR, to reinforce the U.S.’s support related OSCE initiatives, and to hear about the ongoing work of ODIHR.  Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Wilson’s opening remarks highlighted the historic achievements of ODIHR, which include assisting countries to “transition from communism to democracy,” supporting “civil society participation in OSCE events,” and facilitating “strong cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly.”  In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir addressed multiple challenges that have impeded the effectiveness of ODIHR activities. She then outlined ODIHR’s role in offering proactive solutions.  In particular, Ambassador Gísladóttir stressed the importance of dialogue and asserted that democracy is about “respect and trust, an acceptance of differing opinions, an exchange of views, and the willingness to share power and seek compromise.” She concluded on an optimistic note, emphasizing unity within the OSCE and its “commitment to democracy and to the wellbeing of its people.” Although conscious of ODIHR’s efforts, commissioners voiced concerns that some OSCE participating States are not complying with their commitments to uphold basic human rights standards. Commissioners specifically acknowledged restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, poor conditions for activists and journalists, and rising anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma people across the region. This hearing continued the Helsinki Commission practice of regularly engaging with senior OSCE officials.The Commission typically holds hearing with the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. The Commission has also held hearings with previous ODIHR directors as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

  • Life Under Occupation

    Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate. Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to explore Russia’s ongoing assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for human rights. As an occupying power, Russia bears the full weight of responsibility for the abuses being inflicted on the population of Crimea. Panelists discussed Russia’s repression of basic freedoms in Crimea and persecution of those who don’t recognize Russian authority. Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and commissioners Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Chairman Hastings’ opening remarks addressed Russia’s attempts to stymie Ukraine’s relationship with the European community and the brutal tactics used throughout Crimea’s occupation. Hastings shed a light on the harsh reality of Russia’s continued occupation, which is “aimed at forcing a proud people into submission, whether they be civil society activists, community or religious leaders, artists, journalists, or simply those whose religion and ethnicity are viewed with distrust and fear.”   This hearing featured testimony from Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He was released in September 2019. Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and Melinda Haring, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, also served as witnesses. Sentsov addressed Russia’s “fabricated legal cases” and “long-term imprisonment” against those who simply think differently. He also testified about the various forms of torture he endured in a Russian prison. Sentsov voiced his appreciation for the United States’ continued efforts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and asked that Congress maintain pressure on the Putin regime. Tasheva focused her testimony on Russia’s persecution and internal displacement of “disloyal” groups, specifically the Crimean Tatars. Tasheva also called for the creation of an “international platform for negotiations on the return of the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to sovereign Ukrainian jurisdiction.” Haring addressed the lack of free press in Crimea, asserting that “the media is controlled by the government.” She praised Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Crimea service, which tracks developments in Crimea and broadcasts them in three languages to the Crimean population. Haring also warned that the situation in Crimea is worsening, and that Russia has “effectively turned Crimea into a Russian military base.”  Throughout the hearing, commissioners expressed their concerns for freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and freedom of the press in Crimea. Commissioners also assured witnesses that support for President Zelensky and the fight for freedom in Ukraine is bipartisan and resolute.

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