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

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

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

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

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

  • Wicker: Celebrate First Amendment Religious Freedoms

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

  • Russian Supreme Court Considers Outlawing Jehovah's Witness Worship

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

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

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

  • MSNBC: Senator Wicker on Russia

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

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

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

  • Fox Business: Sen. Wicker on Turkey

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

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

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

  • It's Time to Hold the Azerbaijan Regime Accountable

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

  • Putting the Bad Guys on Ice

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

  • US House Marks Anniversary of Srebrenica 'Genocide'

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

  • Bill Proposes applying sanctions to corruption

    U.S. senators proposed legislation recently that would authorize sanctions on human rights abusers and corrupt officials across the globe. The Commission will come to order, and good afternoon to everybody. I want to welcome everyone joining us this afternoon, especially to His Excellency, First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacˇic´, who is also the Chairman-in-Office for the OSCE. Your chairmanship this year of the Organization for Security andCooperation in Europe (OSCE) comes at a moment of tragedy, of tremendous human suffering in the region. One OSCE member, the Russian Government, is tearing the heart out of a neighboring member, as we all know, Ukraine. Today there are more than 5,600 dead and almost 1.5 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine, with no end in sight. Russian weapons, special forces and all sorts of shady Russian-led mercenaries, proxies and criminal gangs are creating vast ill-defined and constantly shifting zones of outright war, lower-level conflict and chaos. These zones are home to millions of men, women and children who live there, or at least try to. Only a few days ago, Bishop Shevchuk, patriarch of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, called it the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in Eastern Europe since the end of World War II. Your Excellency, we will look forward to hearing from you today about what the OSCE, under your chairmanship, proposes to do to respond to the humanitarian needs—of course, some of this you’re already doing—and to the Russian aggression. We’ll be especially interested to hear about the special monetary mission and the Minsk agreements. Although the latest Minsk agreements were signed only two weeks ago, there are already serious violations. For example, last week the people of the rail town Debaltseve were subject to shelling and their city was captured, in violation of the Minsk agreements. Russia and its proxies must adhere to the Minsk agreements and immediately stop all cease-fire violations, allow OSCE monitors access to where they need to be, and withdraw heavy weapons from the front lines. Understanding that the OSCE is a consensus organization, meaning that the Russian Government has an effective veto over many significant actions, we believe the OSCE is still able and responsible to speak the truth about the conflict to find ways to mitigate it and to help the people of Ukraine. Our government will support you in this, I can assure you. They already are. And certainly the Co-Chairman, Roger Wicker, Ranking Senator Ben Cardin, who is here and was in Ukraine several months ago—all of us together will do everything we can to support you, Mr. Chairman. I look forward to also hearing about fighting human trafficking and anti-Semitism, issues that we discussed when we met last week at the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. In my capacity as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative for Human Trafficking Issues, I hope to be able to work with you and to update internal OSCE regulations so that, ‘‘No activities of the OSCE executive structures, including contracts for goods and services, contribute to any form of trafficking in persons.’’ That was agreed on, as you know, at the Kyiv ministerial decision in 2013. I look forward to the support of the Serbian chairmanship to ensure institutional commitment from the OSCE that matches the magnitude of the challenge we face in combating modern-day slavery. To speak for a moment about domestic issues in Serbia, I know that we spoke about this the other day. But it is important that we all take a lead—whether it be in the United States or in Serbia or anywhere else—to combat human trafficking. Again, I recommend that you and your staff look very carefully at the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report put out by the U.S. Department of State. It is a very fine statement of what is actually going on, on the prevention side, the prosecution side of traffickers, and the protection for the victims. We also look forward to working with you on implementing the recommendations of the Berlin +10 Conference, to make sure that the escalating anti-Semitism that is happening throughout Europe, and really throughout the world, is combated as robustly as humanly possible. I’d like to now yield to Mr. Hastings.

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

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

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

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

  • US Lawmakers Back Protection for Europe’s Jewish Communities

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

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

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

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

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

  • Congress Asking Right Questions on Central Asia

    Congress, or at least parts of it, is getting restless with the White House approach to human rights abuses in Central Asia. A recent hearing  by the House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on the region’s terrible human rights record, and the implications for U.S. policy, is the latest example. Led by Co-Chairman Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts, members asked tough questions that revealed an interest in strengthening the U.S. government’s approach to this increasingly authoritarian area of the world... The White House and Congress should revise the current strategy to re-assert conditions on providing military aid in the Foreign Appropriations Act (which the Obama administration has waived every year since 2012), enact sanctions under the International Religious Freedom Act (also waived), and craft a visa ban and asset freeze for officials responsible for serious abuses. McGovern emphasized this last point saying that the US government needs to tell people entrenched in governments with horrendous human rights records that, “[I]f you are not going to get justice within your own country, understand there is a consequence outside of your country.” Indeed, McGovern along with Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) introduced the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (H.R. 624) in January, named after a Russian lawyer who died in jail after exposing financial fraud by officials. It would direct the president to place targeted visa and financial sanctions on individuals deemed responsible for “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” or officials responsible for “significant corruption.”  A similar version was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).

  • U.S. Senator: Strong Hand Needed To Deal With Putin, Islamic State

    U.S. Senator Roger Wicker says "freedom-loving" countries have to be united and firm in responding to both an aggressive Russia and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Wicker (Republican-Mississippi) said in an interview with RFE/RL's Arbana Vidishiqi in Prague on July 4 that the world's response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine must include "resolve and a show of strength." Wicker, the co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, said that Moscow's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its support of separatist forces in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine violate "almost every principle" from the Helsinki Accords, as well as the UN Charter.

  • European Games Open In Azerbaijan Amid Rights Concerns

    The inaugural European Games have opened in Azerbaijan in a lavish ceremony amid criticism of the country's poor record on human rights... "The colorful festivities in Baku must not blind anyone to the Azerbaijani government’s terrible and worsening human rights record," said Chris Smith, chairman of the Helsinki Commission and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Noting that "the eyes of Europe will be on Baku" for the next 17 days, he said, "It is sad that the European Olympic Committees do not require that a potential host government take human rights seriously." Smith added that "last month’s closure of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty bureau in Baku was the culmination of a monthslong campaign to silence one of the last free media sources in the country."

  • Central Asia Becomes New Target for ISIS Recruiters

    Thousands of fighters have fled their home countries to join the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, including the chief of the counter-terrorism program in a Central Asian country. Col. Gulmurod Khalimov, who was highly trained by the U.S., left his post in Tajikistan, posting a video online last week as proof. While perhaps the most notable example, Khalimov is only one of an estimated 4,000 people who have left nations in central Asia to join ISIS, according to the International Crisis Group. “What does this say about the current effort to stop terror-minded men and women from volunteering and traveling to the Middle East?” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., asked at a hearing about the recruitment of foreign fighters from Central Asia. The hearing took place on the anniversary of ISIS’ capture of Mosul, Iraq. “Clearly, our government – working with others …  must take stronger action to combat radicalization beyond our borders.” In a step toward this goal, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Smith is a co-chairman, held a hearing to discuss recruitment of foreign fighters from Central Asia countries. The commission, also known as the Helsinki Commission, focused on the five countries in the region: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

  • Putin Opponent Near Death in Suspected Poisoning

    An outspoken opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin was near death Friday from an apparent poisoning just three months after his close political ally was gunned down near the Kremlin, and supporters want him evacuated to Europe or Israel to determine what sickened him. Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr., who has long been based in Washington, was in a hotel in Moscow when he suddenly lost consciousness May 26 and was hospitalized with what his wife called "symptoms of poisoning." The 33-year-old is a coordinator for Open Russia, a nongovernmental organization which on the previous day released a documentary film accusing close Putin crony and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov of human rights abuses including torture and murder. "I am deeply concerned about the mysterious illness of Vladimir Kara-Murza, especially given the recent murder of Boris Nemtsov and the number of Putin's opponents who have been poisoned," [Helsinki Commission Chair] Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said in a statement.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman blasts Turkey for Denial of 1915 Events

    The chairman of the Helsinki Commission has slammed Turkey for rejecting to brand the World War I-era killing of Armenians as genocide, accusing the Turkish government of underwriting the massive campaign of what he called “genocide denial.”     At a hearing on Friday before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, Chairman Chris Smith said the “the Armenian genocide is the only genocide of the 20th century that is subject to the massive campaign of denial by the Turkish government.”     “This campaign of genocide denial is a slap in the face to the Armenian people, preventing reconciliation and healing,” Smith said, who is also the representative from New Jersey.

  • Smith: U.S. Must End Its Denial of Armenian Genocide

    Genocide is the most terrible crime a people can undergo, or another people can commit. It must never be forgotten. To forget it would be to dull our consciences and diminish our own humanity. It must never be denied, but fully acknowledged. Otherwise, any meaningful attempt at reconciliation will be thwarted. Brookdale College, the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education (Chhange), and everyone who contributed to making exhibits the center unveiled April 12 a reality, has performed a great service to our community, not only to Armenian-Americans, but to everyone, including those who deny the genocide. They are opening paths to the truth, and therefore to a better future. In September 2000, I had put together and chaired a hearing on the Armenian genocide and legislation to finally put the United States on record officially acknowledging it. It was a four-hour hearing, the first hearing the House of Representatives ever held on it. The testimony I heard that day, and accounts of the atrocities I have read in the articles and books over the years, have shocked me deeply. A related resolution on the genocide, H. Res. 398 — vigorously opposed by the Clinton administration — never got a vote. But just as shocking then is what we still see today: a completely political and callous campaign to deny the Armenian genocide. In 1915, there were about 2 million Armenians living in what was then the Ottoman Empire. They were living in a region that they inhabited for 2,500 years. By 1923, well over 90 percent of these Armenians had disappeared. Most of them, as many as 1.5 million were dead. The remainder had been forced into exile. There is no lack of historical record. In fact, we only have to listen to the words of the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey at the time, Henry Morgenthau, who called it a "campaign of race extermination." We only have to listen to the British, French, and Russian governments who said the Young Turks committed a "crime against humanity," the first time in history that charge was ever made by one state against another. And we only have to listen to the government of Turkey itself, which tried and convicted a number of high-ranking Young Turk officials for their role in what the Turkish government's indictment called, "the massacre and destruction of the Armenians." When the term genocide was invented in 1944 to describe the systematic destruction of an entire people, its author Raphael Lemkin explained the term by saying it was "the sort of thing Hitler did to the Jews and the Turks did to the Armenians." The campaign to deny this genocide, often driven by the Turkish government, is repulsive. It is a slap in the face to Armenians everywhere. It is this denial that keeps the Armenian genocide a burning issue and prevents much needed healing of old wounds. Armenians are unfortunately not alone in suffering the hurt and pain that stems from the denial of truth. The international community failed the victims of the Holocaust, China, the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Bosnia, DRC, Darfur and Syria, to name a few. That means that we here in the United States, and that means not only the Congress but also the president, have the responsibility to speak truthfully and to speak boldly about the past in order to secure our future. We must write and speak the truth so that generations to come will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Only 20 nations around the world have recognized the Armenian genocide. That includes Canada as well as eleven EU countries including France, Germany Italy, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Greece and Cypress. Conspicuously absent from the list of nations that have officially recognized it is the United States. For my part, I am preparing to chair a congressional hearing on April 23 — the day before Armenian Remembrance Day (April 24) — which this year marks the 100th anniversary of the genocide. When political leaders fail to lead or denounce violence, the void is not only demoralizing to the victims but silence actually enables the wrongdoing. Silence by elected officials in particular conveys approval — or at least acquiescence —and can contribute to a climate of fear and a sense of vulnerability. History has taught us that silence is not an option. We must do more. Chris Smith is a Republican congressman representing New Jersey's 4th District, which includes portions of Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean counties.

  • US Lawmakers Told of ‘Dishonourable Silence’ over Acts of Collusion in Troubles

    There has been “dishonourable silence” from the British government on evidence of deep collusion between the Northern Ireland security forces and Loyalist paramilitaries during the Troubles revealed in an investigative book, its author has told a US congressional panel. Anne Cadwallader, a former journalist and researcher with human rights group, the Pat Finucane Centre, testified before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on Capitol Hill, discussing the findings in her 2013 book, Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland... Ms Cadwallader testified before the committee, also known as the Helsinki Commission, about a bomb attack on the Step Inn bar in Keady, Co Armagh in August 1976 that killed two Catholics, mother of three Elizabeth McDonald (38) and Gerard McGleenan (22)...

  • OSCE Official Concerned By Russia's Suspension Of CFE Treaty

    The chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Political Affairs and Security for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has raised concerns about Russian military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine and its "complete suspension" of work under the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). The chairman, U.S. Senator Roger Wicker [who also serves as co-chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission], said in a statement on March 13 that he was "disappointed in Russia’s decision to turn its back on its international obligations" under the CFE treaty. Wicker rejected Russia’s argument that its withdrawal from the treaty was forced by NATO actions.

  • Bill Proposes Applying Sanctions to Corruption

    U.S. senators proposed legislation recently that would authorize sanctions on human rights abusers and corrupt officials across the globe. The legislation, called the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, authorizes visa bans and a block on the U.S. assets of government officials anywhere in the world found violating human rights, committing — or assisting in — “significant” corruption, making graft by a foreign official punishable by U.S. sanctions... [Helsinki Commission Chair] Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), who proposed the House of Representatives counterpart legislation, said the bill targets “acts of corruption of the worst or largest scope,” such as rigging an election or crippling a hospital with fraud. “All corruption hurts communities, but this bill takes aim at crimes that undermine whole countries or economies,” said Mr. Smith, who pointed to the spirit of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars Americans or companies that issue U.S. shares from bribing foreign officials to get business, as a foundation for the legislation. “Many corrupt foreign officials want to vacation in our country and spend their loot through our companies. Their tainted money is not welcome,” Mr. Smith said.

  • The Tyranny You Haven't Heard Of

    You could call it a stealth North Korea: a country in the same league of repression and isolation as the Hermit Kingdom, but with far less attention paid to its crimes. The country is Uzbekistan, one of the Central Asian nations that emerged out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991. It has brought some unique touches to the conduct of a dictatorship. When political prisoners have served their full terms, they often have their sentences extended for violations such as improperly peeling carrots in the prison kitchen or failing to sweep their cells correctly. At harvest time, millions of students, teachers and other workers are temporarily enslaved to pick cotton to the profit of the regime. It has been known to boil its prisoners alive. But in most ways, it is a classic, hard-core police state, among the worst in the world. Like Zimbabwe, it has a president who will not go away: Islam Karimov, who assumed power as Communist Party boss in 1989. After a quarter-century, Karimov, 76, appears as ensconced as ever, though Uzbekistan’s GDP per capita of $3,800 puts it 171st in the world. Like China, it had its Tiananmen Square massacre: the shooting of hundreds of unarmed protesters in the city of Andijan in 2005, after which the government ramped up its repression nationwide. And like North Korea, it confines in brutal conditions thousands of political prisoners. How many thousands? Probably not the 80,000 to 120,000 who populate North Korea’s gulag. Human rights groups have offered estimates of 10,000 or 12,000. But, as Human Rights Watch noted in a recent report, no one really knows, because, like North Korea, “Uzbekistan has become virtually closed to independent scrutiny.” Foreign correspondents and human rights monitors generally are not granted visas. No U.N. human rights expert has been allowed in since 2002. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is permitted almost everywhere because it never publicly embarrasses a country, had to pull out of Uzbekistan last year because of interference in its attempted prison visits. Drawing the curtains has helped Uzbekistan avoid scrutiny. But the nation has stayed below the radar for another reason, too: The United States and other Western nations have been reluctant to confront Karimov and his regime. They have needed to ship military supplies through Uzbekistan to reach Afghanistan. And as Russian President Vladi­mir Putin has become increasingly hostile, the West has competed with him for the favor of neighboring nations. Thus the tenor of this White House summary of a telephone call between President Obama and Karimov in 2011, unimaginable if Kim Jong Un had been on the other end of the line: “President Obama congratulated President Karimov on Uzbekistan’s 20 years of independence, and the two leaders pledged to continue working to build broad cooperation between our two countries. The President and President Karimov discussed their shared desire to develop a multi-dimensional relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan, including by strengthening the contacts between American and Uzbek civil societies and private sector.” Never mind that Karimov has virtually eradicated Uzbekistan’s “civil sector.” It’s hard to read of such a phone call without thinking of, say, Muhammad Bekjanov, 60, possibly the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist. Uzbek security agents kidnapped Bekjanov in 1999 in Ukraine, where he was living in exile. He has been beaten, shocked, subjected to temporary suffocation (the “bag of death”) and tortured in other ways. He has contracted tuberculosis, and beatings have cost him most of his teeth and much of his hearing. When his term was set to expire in 2012, he was sentenced to another five years for unspecified “violations of prison rules.” Bekjanov’s crime was to have served as editor of an opposition party newspaper. “There may be legitimate national security concerns that the U.S. needs to engage on,” Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told me. “That doesn’t mean you have to shove everything else under the rug.” There are some encouraging signs that Congress, at least, may be lifting a corner of that rug. In October the congressional Helsinki Commission, which is chaired by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and co-chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), held a briefing on political prisoners in Uzbekistan. Last week eight senators, including Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), sent Karimov a letter urging the release of five prisoners, including Bekjanov. These are small steps, but they shine some light on Uzbekistan’s crimes. Karimov cares about his reputation, his access to Western weaponry and his officials’ freedom to travel to Europe and the United States. If Obama also would take some small steps, it might make a big difference to the inmates of Uzbekistan’s invisible gulag.

  • Sens. Ben Cardin & Rob Portman: Ukraine Violence Continues

    In a joint op-ed,  Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) explain why the U.S. should provide Ukraine with the kind of defensive military assistance it needs to secure its borders, defend its sovereignty, deter Russian aggression, and maintain the rule of law.

  • U.S. Congressman Pledges to Push for ICC Indictment of Belarusian President Lukashenka

    The chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission has pledged to call on the Obama administration to push for the indictment of hard-line Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka by the International Criminal Court (ICC). While the chances of an indictment are unlikely, the pledge by Representative Chris Smith (Republican, New Jersey) was a clear sign that U.S. lawmakers have not forgotten the egregious human rights situation in the country ruled by the man some dub "Europe's last dictator." At a Helsinki Commission hearing that focused on Minsk's continuing crackdown on political opposition and civil society, Smith said he would send a letter to members of the Obama administration and the UN Security Council asking them to push for the indictment. In an interview with RFE/RL, he later said, "When you commit atrocities for 17 years, as [Lukashenka] has done, the time has come." "[Although] Belarus is not a signatory to the ICC, to the Rome Statute -- and nor are we, frankly -- we've done this before, and we did it with [President Omar al-] Bashir in Sudan. It will take a lot of work, but we need to begin that effort now to get the [UN] Security Council to make a special referral to begin that process," he said. "I'm sure China and Russia will object, but that's worth the fight, because this man commits atrocities on a daily basis against his own people," Smith added. The congressman made his pledge following the testimony of former Belarusian presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich, who is in Washington for the first time since his release from a detention center in Minsk on February 19. Mikhalevich was one of seven opposition candidates and more than 600 people arrested during the regime's violent crackdown on protesters following Lukashenka's disputed reelection in December 2010. The official reaction to demonstrations drew widespread international condemnation and a coordinated sanctions program by Brussels and Washington. The financial and travel restrictions were accompanied by a boost in funding for the country's beleaguered civil society, journalists, and activists. As the one-year anniversary of the election approaches, watchdogs say the jailing and harassment of human rights defenders and protesters continues, while the independent media and judiciary face intense, often institutionalized, pressure. Mikhalevich says he had to sign agreement on collaborating with the Belarusian state security forces, which are still called the KGB, in order to secure his release. He has since been granted political asylum in the Czech Republic. Ahead of meetings with State Department officials and Washington-based NGOs, he told U.S. lawmakers that supporting Belarusian civil society -- and not holding out hope that Lukashenka will reform -- is the only way to effect change. "I'm absolutely sure that Lukashenka is ready to defend his power by all possible means. Unfortunately, we can compare Lukashenka with [former Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi. So I urge the United States, the European Union, and the international community not to trust another game of liberalization badly played by the regime," he said. "Cooperate only with independent civil society in Belarus: nongovernmental organizations, both unregistered and registered, independent newspapers and media, and democratic activists." Analysts say Lukashenka has long employed the tactic of pledging to loosen to grip on the country in exchange for a reprieve from sanctions -- a tactic that has worked in the past. Observers say he has also sought to capitalize on rifts between the United States and the EU, as well as between neighboring Russia and the West, to inhibit united action against his regime. After testifying, Mikhalevich told RFE/RL that he hoped the United States would more fully take on the role of "bad cop" if the EU, which borders Belarus and relies on it as a transit country for gas from Russia, hesitates to do so. "I'm absolutely sure than in order to succeed, the international community should have both the good cop and bad cop. Someone should play the role of the bad cop, and unfortunately, the European Union would not play this role. So I hope that the United States will be ready to do it," Mikhalevich said. Mikhalevich also offered a harrowing account of what he called "constant mental and physical torture" during his two months in custody, including being "stripped naked and forced to assume various positions." "Our legs were pulled apart with ropes and we could feel our ligaments tear," Mikhalevich said in his prepared remarks. Smith appeared visibly moved by account. "Rather than calling them the KGB, it ought to be called the KGB 'P' for 'perverts.' Masked men who strip other men naked, and women, presumably, as well -- those are acts of perversion that should not go unnoticed by the international community," said the Congressman. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill sponsored by Smith that would strengthen existing sanctions against Minsk. It is awaiting consideration in the Senate. Smith told RFE/RL that Western attention on the situation in Belarus had been "obscured" to some extent by the events of the Arab Spring, and especially by the global economic downturn. He said that pushing for ICC action would be a sign that human rights are not "taking a back seat." "I've been very much involved for years in the special [UN-backed] court that [U.S. prosecutor] David Crane oversaw for Sierra Leone, and what I learned from that, and from the Rwandan court, and of course from the Yugoslav court, which held [Slobodan] Milosevic and [Ratko] Mladic and [Radovan] Karadzic to account, is that these thugs are frightened by the fact that they may be held to account. And Lukashenka will fear it, I believe, if we make a very serious effort to hold him to account at the International Criminal Court," said Smith. Mikhalevich told RFE/RL that he thinks the chances of ICC action against Lukashenka are slim, but that the prospect of such a move could help pressure the regime to release its political prisoners. "I think that definitely, it's very difficult to organize any [such] political process unless thousands of people are being killed, but still, it's necessary to do all attempts," he said. "And you never know how this regime will develop -- and how many victims we will have next year."

  • Russia: U.S. Congressmen Propose Sanctions in Lawyer’s Death

    Members of the United States Congress introduced legislation on Wednesday that would impose financial sanctions and visa bans on Russian officials implicated in the case of Sergei L. Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison in Moscow in November after being ensnared in tax inquiry. The measure’s sponsors — including Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, and Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat — said it was intended to spur the Russian government to properly investigate Mr. Magnitsky’s death. His defenders contend that he was jailed in an effort to force him to falsify testimony against Hermitage Capital Management, a major foreign investment fund that once had large holdings in Russia. His death caused widespread outrage and focused renewed attention on police tactics and corruption in Russia.

  • Opening a Second Front

    The death in prison of Sergei Magnitsky, a young Russian lawyer, remains one of the darkest scandals in the blotchy history of Russia's criminal justice system, exemplifying a culture of impunity in which power and wealth are fungible, and those who get in the way get squashed. Mr Magnitsky died of untreated pancreatis in pre-trial detention. He hadaccused Russian officials of stealing millions of tax dollars paid by his client, Hermitage Capital Management. Energetic lobbying by the head of Hermitage, the American-born financier Bill Browder, now seems to be getting somewhere. Two senior American lawmakers, Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (a Democrat from Maryland), who is Chairman of the congressional Helsinki Commission and James P. McGovern (a Democratic congressman from Massachussetts), who chairs the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, have introduced laws that would prohibit some 60-odd Russian officials linked to his death from visiting the United States, and freeze any assets they hold under American jurisdiction. (The Russian officials concerned have either made no public comment, or deny all wrongdoing). Mr Cardin said: “Nearly a year after Sergei’s death, the leading figures in this scheme remain in power in Russia. It has become clear that if we expect any measure of justice in this case, we must act in the United States...At the least we can and should block these corrupt individuals from traveling and investing their ill-gotten money in our country.” Mr McGovern said: “I have introduced the ‘Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act of 2010’ in the House of Representatives as a direct consequence of the compelling testimony at a hearing on human rights in the Russian Federation in the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. The death of this courageous whistleblower in a Russian prison is the consequence of an abysmal prison system and corruption aimed at defrauding the Russian Treasury of billions. We know about Sergei Magnitsky, and we know about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, but how many more Magnitskys and Khodorkovskys are currently suffering in Russian prisons? My bill addresses the root causes of these severe human rights violations -- the Russian prison system and official corruption. We should not rest until justice is achieved in Sergei’s case, and the money is returned to its rightful owners -- the people of the Russian Federation."

  • U.S. Lawmakers Push Visa Sanctions in Russian Case

    More than 60 Russians linked to the death of an anti-corruption lawyer would be barred from the United States and its financial markets under a bill introduced in the Congress on Wednesday. The measure says that sanctions would be lifted only after Russia brings to justice those responsible for the 2009 death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for what was once Russia's top equity fund, Hermitage. But the bill, introduced by Senator Benjamin Cardin and Representative James McGovern, both Democrats, faces a steep climb to get passed before Congress completes its work for the year. Human rights activists charge that Russian authorities subjected Magnitsky to conditions amounting to torture in a failed bid to force him to testify in their favor in a battle with Hermitage over a $234 million tax fraud scheme. Magnitsky died after being repeatedly denied medical treatment in pre-trial detention. He had accused Russian officials of stealing the millions of tax dollars paid by his client. A Democratic aide said the bill has drawn bipartisan interest and lawmakers might get to it when they return to Washington after the November 2 congressional election for what is expected to be a final few weeks of work. "Nearly a year after Sergei's death, the leading figures in this scheme remain in power in Russia," said Cardin, who also chairs the human rights monitoring U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency. "If we expect any measure of justice in this case, we must act in the United States," said Cardin. "At the least, we can and should block these corrupt individuals from traveling and investing their ill-gotten money in our country."

  • Lawmakers Dive into Sensitive China, Russia Issues

    Lawmakers in the House pushed forward last week on legislation to pressure China to raise the value of its currency, while this week legislators will highlight the case of a Russian oil tycoon believed by many to be in prison solely for his vocal opposition to the Kremlin. Both are sensitive foreign policy areas that the White House may well wish Congress would avoid. House Democrats last week advanced a bill meant to impose tariffs against Chinese goods due to the undervaluation of the yuan. Legislation put forward by Reps. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) was pushed through Ways and Means on voice vote Friday, with tweaks made to not violate international trade rules. Fearing rankled relations with China, the Obama administration had urged lawmakers to lay off while urging Beijing to enact currency reforms. But the administration in recent weeks has shown signs it is growing impatient with China, with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner vowing to bring up the issue at the Nov. 11-12 G-20 summit in South Korea. "For years, the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration, and Members of Congress have tried to persuade the Chinese government to allow its currency to respond to market forces. No significant progress has been made," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Wednesday. "It is time for Congress to pass legislation that will give the Administration leverage in its bilateral and multilateral negotiations with the Chinese government – so that U.S. businesses and workers have a more level playing field in world trade." In Thursday's White House press briefing, presidential assistant and Asian affairs director Jeff Bader said that whereas currency discussions usually comprise a quarter of the meeting time between President Obama and Chinese leaders, the issue dominated "most of the meeting" at the United Nations on Thursday between Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. "The president made no commitment to Premier Wen about this legislation," Bader told reporters, adding that the administration would not take a position on the bill. "I don’t recall that this specific bill was brought up, although there was discussion about the attitude of the Congress. And Premier Wen clearly is well aware of that." The House will vote on the China bill next week, though it is unclear whether the Senate will act next week or in a lame-duck session. One factor may be whether China allows its currency to appreciate between now and the lame-duck session. And this week, lawmakers will shine a light on a case that Russia doesn't want to be cast as a case of political persecution. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, upon learning that lawyers of an imprisoned Russian entrepreneur would be in Washington, scheduled a briefing for Wednesday to discuss the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky became the richest man in Russia as he led the oil giant Yukos after the fall of the Soviet Union. A vocal critic of then-President Vladimir Putin, he was imprisoned in 2005 on fraud charges. When he was eligible for parole, Russian prosecutors levied fresh embezzlement and money laundering charges against him that could net an additional 22 years behind bars. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chairman of the Helsinki Commission, told The Hill that the briefing is intended to bring attention to the "unacceptable type of treatment he has received" -- and put other nations on notice against "using the criminal justice system for political ends." "If it goes unchallenged, it becomes the norm," Cardin said. Cardin co-sponsored a sense of the Senate resolution, now stuck in the Foreign Relations Committee, with Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) in June 2009 that brands the Khodorkovsky case "a politically-motivated case of selective arrest and prosecution that serves as a test of the rule of law and independence of the judicial system of Russia." A sister resolution introduced by Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) similarly sits in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, co-sponsored by Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.). On June 21, Cardin and Wicker, both members of the Foreign Relations panel, engaged in a colloquy on the Senate floor to draw attention to the Khodorkovsky case. "I cannot speak for the leadership of the Senate as to why it hasn't been brought up," Wicker said of their 2009 resolution. The senator, who told The Hill that he's long been interested in Russia issues, said he is "very disappointed in recent years with the Putin regime and it seems clear to me that the international community recognizes this also." "They're inching back toward the dictatorship that they had under communism," he said. "Khodorkovsky's offense for which he is being imprisoned is having the temerity to speak out against the Russian regime and their serious backsliding on areas such as democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law." The Kremlin certainly disagrees, and the congressional attention won't make Russia happy with relations between the federation and the U.S. at a sensitive point. Russia denies any political motivation in the case while making clear it doesn't want foreign interference in the matter. Putin vowed this month not to interfere with the latest trial while simultaneously accusing Khodorkovsky of having "blood on his hands." Cardin said Putin could step in to stop what the Helsinki Commission calls "legal hooliganism." "They can do something about it," he said. "We are asking Putin and others to take action in this case." From behind bars, Khodorkovsky continues to write about what he sees as the crumbling of democracy and the rule of law in Russia and has urged world leaders to re-examine relations with the country. Writing in the Observer last weekend, Khodorkovsky, who pointedly referred to himself as a "political prisoner," urged British Prime Minister David Cameron to put human rights first in efforts to restore relations with the Kremlin -- which have been sullied the past few years after the London murder of spy-turned-Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko -- and help Russians "who are searching for a way out of the darkness of totalitarianism into the light of freedom." Back in 2005, then-Sen. Obama, along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), co-sponsored a sense of the Senate introduced by then-Sen. Biden that said Khodorkovsky did not received a fair trial, that the charges were politically motivated and that "the judiciary of Russia is an instrument of the Kremlin." After becoming president and declaring the reset button with Russia hit, Obama has spoken carefully on the Khodorkovsky case. "It does seem odd to me that these new charges, which appear to be a repackaging of the old charges, should be surfacing now," he said on a visit to Moscow in July 2009. Obama said it would be improper to interfere in Russia's legal process and praised President Dmitry Medvedev's "courageous initiative" to strengthen the rule of law. Wicker said he knows that the case remains among the State Department's many concerns. "The administration is well aware of the disturbing trend we've seen in Russia's cavalier attitude toward the rule of law," he said. Cardin said he's not sure what priority the case takes on the administration's agenda. There are definite foreign policy priorities on the table for Obama. He wants passage of the START arms reduction treaty, which made it out of Senate Foreign Relations this month. And cooperation is sought when it comes to reining in Iran. The administration praised Moscow on Thursday for complying with international sanctions and freezing a plan to sell Iran a series of long-range surface-to-air missiles. “This continues to demonstrate how Russia and the United States are cooperating closely on behalf of our mutual interests, and global security,” the White House said in a statement. However, the Kremlin quickly stressed that this doesn't end their military cooperation with the Islamic Republic. And many on Capitol Hill are intent on telling Russia it needs to cooperate more on democracy and human rights concerns. "I don't think that one commission briefing is going to completely reverse the injustice to Mr. Khodorkovsky, but the greater attention that can be put on this, the greater the pressure on Russia and others who need to reform their judicial systems," Helsinki Commission spokesman Neil Simon told The Hill.

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