Title

Chairman Hastings Regrets U.S. Withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty

Friday, November 20, 2020

WASHINGTON—With the Trump administration slated to complete its withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies on Sunday, November 22, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement:

“While it appears the Open Skies Treaty will survive the Trump administration’s withdrawal, the absence of U.S. leadership from this crucial treaty regime is a stiff blow to transatlantic security. I look forward to the Biden administration’s renewed dedication to working closely with our allies to promote transparency and predictability in Europe. I call on the next administration to explore how to reengage in the Open Skies Treaty.”

The Open Skies Treaty was designed to increase transparency, build confidence, and encourage cooperation among the United States, Russia, and 32 other participating states (including much of Europe as well as partners like Ukraine and Georgia), by permitting unarmed observation aircraft to fly over their entire territory to observe military forces and activities. On May 22, 2020, the United States provided notice of its decision to withdraw from the Treaty.

In support of the treaty, Chairman Hastings successfully amended the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R.6395) to include the sense of Congress that the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the treaty did not comply with a legal requirement to notify Congress; did not assert that any other treaty signatory had breached the treaty; and was made over the objections of NATO allies and regional partners. The measure also expressed support for confidence and security building measures like the Open Skies Treaty, because they reduce the risk of conflict, increase trust among participating countries, and contribute to military transparency and remain vital to the strategic interests of America’s NATO allies and partners.

Chairman Hastings had previously condemned the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies. In November 2019, the Commission hosted a joint hearing with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the importance of the Open Skies Treaty, emphasizing its critical role in security and stability in Europe.

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
Phone: 
202.225.1901
Leadership: 
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  • The Russian Occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia

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    Roma are the largest ethnic minority in Europe and are present in most of the participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.  Concentrated in post-communist Central and Southern Europe, the Romani population is estimated at over 12 million in EU countries, with significant numbers in former Soviet republics, the Balkans, and Turkey. Roma have been part of every wave of European immigration to North American since the colonial period.  There may be as many as one million Americans with Romani ancestry. Roma have historically faced persecution in Europe and were the victims of genocide during World War II.  In post-communist countries, Roma suffered disproportionately in the transition from command- to market-economies, in part due to endemic racism and discrimination. Over the past three decades, Helsinki Commissioners have led the effort in Washington to condemn racially motivated violence against Roma, including pogroms, murders, other violent attacks, and police abuse. The Helsinki Commission has also advocated for recognition of the enslavement and genocide of Roma and redress for sterilization without informed consent.  The Commission has addressed race-based expulsion of Roma, the denial of citizenship to Roma after the break-up of federative states, and the consequences of ethnic conflict and war in the Balkans. The Helsinki Commission strongly supported the first international agreement to specially recognize the human rights problems faced by Roma, adopted by OSCE participating States in 1990. Download the full report to learn more. Contributor: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Assess Russia’s Decade-Long Occupation of Georgia

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIA’S OCCUPATION OF GEORGIA AND THE EROSION OF THE INTERNATIONAL ORDER Tuesday, July 17, 2018 11:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 124 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce071718 In 2008—just months after a NATO summit in Bucharest where Georgia and Ukraine failed to secure a concrete roadmap to membership despite U.S. support—Russia invaded Georgia and seized South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Today, Russia’s occupation of one-fifth of Georgia’s sovereign territory remains a critical threat to U.S. interests and international security. Moscow’s invasion of Georgia demonstrated the Kremlin’s willingness to use military force to unilaterally re-draw European borders and challenge the right of its neighbors to choose their own futures. The war in Georgia set the stage for Vladimir Putin’s subsequent war in Ukraine, including the illegal occupation of Crimea and the Donbas and the attempted annexation of Crimea. The human costs of the Russian occupation of Georgia have been tragic. Tens of thousands of Georgians remain internally displaced and face arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and even death if they attempt to visit their property and communities across the Russian-imposed internal administrative boundary. De facto authorities have also worked to eliminate Georgian language and culture from South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  Ten years after the invasion and the fateful 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit, the Helsinki Commission will convene expert witnesses to assess the present state of the conflict and its implications for U.S. interests and international security. The hearing will explore the continued costs of the occupation, as well as steps U.S. policymakers can take to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity and advance its full integration into the Euro-Atlantic community. Witnesses scheduled to testify include: His Excellency David Bakradze, Ambassador of Georgia to the United States Luke Coffey, Director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy, Heritage Foundation Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President, Atlantic Council  

  • Chairman Wicker Introduces Resolution Emphasizing Importance of NATO to Regional Security

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) introduced a bipartisan resolution (S.Res.557) emphasizing the importance of NATO to the collective security of the transatlantic region and urging its member states to work together to strengthen the alliance at the July 11-12 NATO summit in Brussels.  “NATO remains the cornerstone of transatlantic and global security. This resolution underlines the need for our allies to boost their contributions to our collective defense. It also encourages practical steps at the upcoming NATO summit to bolster the alliance’s effectiveness against current and emerging threats,” said Chairman Wicker. “We must always work to strengthen the alliance if we want it to serve our collective security as well as it has in its first seven decades.”  Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and ranking Senate commissioner, is the lead co-sponsor of the resolution. Other original co-sponsors of S.Res.557 include Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Thom Tillis (NC) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), who also co-chair the Senate NATO Observer Group. “NATO summits are important occasions to send messages of solidarity with our NATO allies and reaffirm our continued commitment to transatlantic principles, including democracy and the rule of law,” said Sen. Cardin. “This resolution underlines that NATO is rooted in a foundation of shared values, and that any backsliding on individual liberty, corruption, or human rights risks eroding that foundation.” S.Res.557 reaffirms the enduring commitment of the United States to NATO’s collective defense, enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, and urges all NATO member states to be prepared to meet their respective Article 5 obligations.  It also pledges support for measures to deter Russian aggression against the territory of any NATO ally. The resolution underlines the need for NATO’s “open door policy” to remain in effect and for the alliance to extend an invitation to any aspirant country that has met the conditions required to join NATO. Finally, it urges leaders at the Brussels summit to ensure the alliance makes key changes to meet urgent security threats and counter new challenges. “As I stated when we re-established the NATO Observer Group, our alliance must be prepared to face a broad range of threats, including hybrid and cyber threats from Russia and other adversaries,” said Sen. Tillis. “A strong and committed NATO alliance remains vital as our community of democracies continues to expand and thrive.” “This resolution underscores the need for the United States to work closely with our allies to modernize NATO to respond to the ever-evolving threats facing western democracies, particularly from the Kremlin,” said Sen. Shaheen. “Continued cooperation with NATO allies will be integral to our efforts to safeguard our country’s national security and protect the United States.”

  • Amendment on U.S. military involvement in Poland

    Mr. President, I rise today to express my support for the amendment the senior Senator from Arkansas has offered to the H.R. 5515, the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, NDAA. Senator BOOZMAN’s amendment is a thoughtful one. It proposes to solicit information from the Department of Defense to help us carefully think through our response to the changed strategic situation in Europe. Russia’s military aggression and Military incursions in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere have made it abundantly clear that we are no longer in the security environment that provided the context for the commitments we made in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. The United States and Poland have a long record of highly effective cooperation in military matters. Poland has made important contributions to operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and an American-led NATO battle group in Poland is playing an important role in reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank today. Still, a decision to permanently deploy U.S. forces to the territory of even such a stalwart ally should not be taken lightly. This amendment wisely requests that the Department of Defense provide its assessment of a number of factors that we will need to weigh when deciding whether to take such a step, including the reactions we should anticipate from other allies, possible responses by Russia, and more practical considerations including cost and timing. Poland needs no reminder about the external threats it faces. After all, it borders Ukraine. However, Poland faces an enemy within: democratic backsliding, which plays into Vladimir Putin’s hands as he aims to undermine democratic values across Europe. Since 2015, the Polish Government has challenged constitutionalism, eroded checks and balances, and indulged in historical revisionism. The breadth and depth of the government’s actions led the European Commission to conclude in December that Poland’s “executive and legislative branches have been systematically enabled to politically interfere in the composition, powers, administration and functioning of the judicial branch.” I discussed these concerns in a meeting with Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Marek Magierowski in February, including a controversial law, introduced on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which may actually impede research, scholarship, and journalism about the Holocaust. The Department of State rightly observed that this law might have repercussions for “Poland’s strategic interests and relationships—including with the United States and Israel. The resulting divisions that may arise among our allies benefit only our rivals.” Independence of the judiciary will take another hit on July 3, when a new law will go into effect forcing the early retirement of up to 40 percent of Poland’s 120-member supreme court, the reintroduction of the Soviet-era feature of ‘‘lay judges,’’ and make final judgments subject to ‘‘extraordinary appeals.’’ These developments—very concerning both for Poland and the region—should be part of the administration’s dialogue with Warsaw on comprehensive transatlantic security.

  • First Person: Arctic Security in Flux

    By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor As the Helsinki Commission’s global security and political-military affairs policy advisor, I regularly travel to observe and evaluate changing security conditions that have a direct impact on the interests of the United States.  In May, following an invitation to join a group of senior U.S. security experts in Norway to study the security challenges of NATO’s northern flank, I found myself in one of the northernmost towns in the world: Longyearbyen, on the archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. The delegation of government officials, independent experts, and journalists was organized by the Atlantic Council of the United States. We met with a variety of government officials and non-governmental experts over two days in Oslo, before flying more than 1,200 miles north to Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. In Svalbard we met with the Norwegian Coast Guard, the Svabard Satellite Station (SvalSat), the Norwegian Polar Institute, and the Svalbard Governor’s office. Among the many strands emerging from the week of off-the-record discussions, several stood out as key takeaways. Maintaining Close Relations with U.S. and NATO Norway’s security is inextricably linked to its defense relationship with the United States and with NATO more broadly, interlocutors told us. This distinguishes Norway from its neighbors Sweden and Finland, both of which have sought to provide for their defense primarily on a national basis.  As a result, Norway puts a premium on predictability in its relationship with the United States and with NATO, and would consider any threat to NATO cohesion as a national security concern. Maintaining unity is among the highest Norwegian priorities for the July NATO Summit in Brussels. Norway will continue to invest carefully in its defense capabilities and in its relationship with the United States, we were told. Norwegian officials hailed the long-standing defense relationship, exemplified by the pre-positioning of U.S. Marine Corps equipment in Norway since the 1980s, and more recently by the $35B Norwegian purchase of F-35s. Norway also is purchasing new conventional submarines, and replacing aging P-3 Orion and DA-20 Jet Falcon maritime patrol aircraft with the Boeing-built P-8A. The presence of more than 300 U.S. Marines performing cold-weather training in Norway, while still politically sensitive, is seen as a success by most political parties and was recently extended by Norway through 2018.  Independent analysts suggested that there was a strong likelihood the arrangement would likely be extended beyond 2018—and quite possibly lengthened in duration to a multi-year agreement—as well as increased  to include greater numbers of Marines (a move that was subsequently publicly announced). Concerns over Russian Activities Russia’s increased military activities in the north featured prominently in our discussions.  Norway’s Russia policy will continue to rely on a dual-track policy of deterrence and reassurance vis-a-vis its neighbor to the east, interlocutors suggested. However, they underlined that Norway must consider the rapidly advancing capabilities of the Russian armed forces, even if they are not directed at Norwegian territory. Norway closely monitored the major Russian military exercise ZAPAD 2017, which I witnessed in person.  While the exercise did not result in the direst scenarios feared in the Baltic region, its components in the north were significant and raised many concerns.  During the maneuvers, Russian armed forces demonstrated an ability to move land forces over strategic distances quickly and stealthily; cover them with an anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) bubble through measures including electronic warfare (which impacted civilian air traffic in the area), and deploy a follow-on deterrent in the dual-capable (nuclear/conventional) ISKANDER tactical ballistic missile. In addition to the increased tempo of Russian operations in the north, one particular concern is a new class of Russian submarines, the Yasen-class, which demonstrates a greater capacity for stealth and formidable armament, potentially holding much of Europe and the North Atlantic sea lanes at risk. The strategic Russian Kola Peninsula, only 140 miles from Norwegian border, represents the largest concentration of non-western military power in the world, interlocutors reminded us. This area also represents the heart of the Russian “bastion defense” concept.  Norway’s unique location and relatively tension-free relations with Russia allow Norway to play an important role in providing its allies with important intelligence and situational awareness on Russian activities in the North Atlantic region. In a larger context, interlocutors suggested that we should anticipate that Russia will continue to develop its arctic coastline, rich in natural resources and with increasingly accessible shipping to Asian markets.  This development, they argued, including the reinforcement of military infrastructure and ice breakers, makes sense in the context of protecting and enabling this economic potential and need not be seen as threatening. Svalbard is accessible to citizens and companies from all signatories to the 1920 treaty granting full sovereignty to Norway, an agreement that also forbids naval bases and fortifications on the archipelago (but not creating what some have misunderstood as a “demilitarized zone”).  Its “extreme northern location” offers a number of advantages, the delegation learned at the Svabard Satellite Station (SvalSat), the world’s largest commercial ground station for satellite control.  The station provides satellite coverage to owners and operators of polar orbiting satellites, linked by fiber-optic communication links between Svalbard and mainland Norway. Rising Temperatures in the Arctic Norwegian interlocutors emphasized that the Arctic should be recognized by all Allies as NATO territory in the north. As a result, the rapid warming of the Arctic, and the acceleration of the changing climate in the region that was witnessed in Svalbard, merited Alliance-wide attention, they argued.  A senior Norwegian Polar Institute scientist who has worked in Svalbard for 30 years told the delegation that the temperature change in the Artic was measurable, demonstrated, and greater than even the most pessimistic predictions of only a few decades ago, a dynamic he attributed directly to levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The delegation had the opportunity to board a Norwegian Coast Guard vessel for a briefing on the guard’s responsibilities, which include monitoring an area seven times larger than the Norwegian mainland.  The distances involved posed significant challenges for the relatively small number of vessels to meet the Guard’s the goal of remaining “always present,” and fulfilling its responsibilities in the areas such as monitoring fisheries and search and rescue.  These challenges are becoming more acute, as the warming climate makes the waters increasingly accessible to maritime traffic of all sorts.

  • Inaugural PADWEEK Addresses Racial Discrimination across Europe

    On May 19, 2018, African-American Meghan Markle wed Prince Harry at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, England. Black culture was celebrated throughout the event: Queen Elizabeth II’s first female black chaplain offered prayers, a black British choir sang African-American Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” and Chicago-based African-American Episcopalian bishop Michael Curry quoted civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. during his wedding address, preaching on “the power of love.” However, the public discussion leading up to the wedding was riddled with racial stereotyping and prejudice spurred by Markle’s biracial identity—her father is white and her mother is black. British news outlets were heavily criticized for racial insensitivity after commenting on Markle’s “unconventional family,” and using phrases like “unlikely pairing” to further differentiate between the prince and Markle. Unfortunately, racial bias is not confined to Markle—now Duchess of Sussex—but instead extends to many black people in Europe. According to four comprehensive reports from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Commission, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, and Open Society Foundations, a significant percentage of the estimated 15–20 million people of African descent living in Europe have experienced high rates of prejudice and discrimination. Just days before the wedding, racial equality advocates from across Europe gathered in Brussels to address this problem. At the inaugural People of African Descent Week (PADWEEK), organized by the European Parliament Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup, Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference, Each One Teach One, and the European Network Against Racism, more than 100 black European activists discussed current racial injustices in Europe and recommended ways for European leaders to respond to increasing hate and discrimination across the region. Attendees included black policymakers, business leaders, and human rights activists from across Europe. Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20) and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) were two of nine honorary hosts. “Whether in America or Europe, we must all do more to uphold the democratic values of our nations,” Commissioner Hastings said in a statement. “Skin color should not determine one’s access to rights, protections, and opportunities in a democracy.” Though the agenda was full with discussions ranging from BREXIT to migration to Africa-EU relations, PADWEEK addressed issues of racial discrimination head-on and introduced new ways to find solutions. It called for change to a well-ingrained European system that has left black people by the wayside for centuries. Race and legal issues were raised repeatedly in discussions. German legal expert and human rights activist Thomas Ndindah called for justice for Oury Jalloh, an asylum seeker who burned to death in a German police cell while handcuffed to a mattress in 2005. Participants also questioned a so-called “Marshall Plan” for Africa, the name of which alludes to the American-European economic plan that helped rebuild Western Europe following World War II. Participants voiced concerns that African countries were not being viewed as equal partners in the negotiations or consulted on the name. Instead, many attendees viewed the plan as Europeans paying African governments to keep unwanted African migrants from reaching Europe, while at the same time purposefully attracting Africa’s highly skilled professionals to Europe. This raised one question: how would Africa benefit from this “Marshall Plan” for Africa if Africa’s brightest and best were contributing to countries elsewhere? The week ended with a list of recommendations from participants and a passionate speech by Mirielle Fanon-Mendes-France, daughter of twentieth century philosopher Frantz Fanon. She called on European institutions to deliver on longstanding promises to address the ongoing impact of colonialism and slavery on the present-day well-being of black Europeans. Recommendations from PADWEEK included: Recognizing the history of past injustices by adopting a European Black History Month and a Remembrance Day for victims of colonialism and enslavement Supporting empowerment and anti-discrimination initiatives by funding black-led civil and human rights organizations Adopting legislation in the European Parliament on an EU Framework for National Strategies for Equality and the Inclusion of People of African Descent in Europe

  • 2018 World Cup: The Beautiful Game and an Ugly Regime

    The 2018 World Cup hosted by Russia has created an unprecedented opportunity for the country’s kleptocrats to enrich themselves. Just as he did with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin has hijacked a world sporting event in an attempt to burnish his own image and enrich the Kremlin elite, rather than to celebrate sport and sportsmanship in Russia. However, unlike the 2014 Winter Olympics, the World Cup has required multiple infrastructure projects in not just one, but eleven, host cities. Oligarchs, as well as regional and national officials, have worked together to embezzle assets from the tournament stadium construction and refurbishment to side projects of accommodation and transport. Mistreated and forced laborers have completed this work. Contractors have used and manipulated Rus-sian and migrant workers to erect the stadiums and other structures that are essential to hosting a World Cup. For example, Russia has continued its unscrupulous use of North Korean forced labor to build St. Petersburg Zenit Arena, opened by President Putin himself in March 2017. Russia presented the World Cup to the FIFA voters in 2010 as a wholesome tournament, bringing the world together for a festival of sport. Instead, President Putin will give the world a corrupt tournament, built on the backs of forced and mistreated labor, and expose fans to a real risk of soccer violence and hatred. Although troubling trends in each of these areas can be seen in countries throughout the OSCE region, the offenses of the Kremlin are particularly egregious. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Michael Newton, Intern and Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor

  • Ending the War in Ukraine

    The Russian-manufactured war in Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 people, injured at least 25,000, and created a humanitarian crisis endangering millions more. Amid daily ceasefire violations and threats to critical infrastructure, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the cost of the needless, four-year-old conflict. In July 2017, the U.S. Secretary of State appointed Ambassador Kurt Volker as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Volker has since repeatedly met with senior Russian counterparts to explore ways to end the conflict, including the possibility of an international peacekeeping mission. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Ambassador Volker explored the way ahead for U.S. and international policy on Ukraine in the wake of President Putin’s re-election. During his opening statement, Ambassador Volker noted that the conflict will only be resolved if Russia decides to remove its forces from the territory of Ukraine and to allow a genuine security presence to enter. He highlighted a proposal to institute a U.N.-mandated peacekeeping force that would help fulfill the Minsk Agreements by establishing security, controlling the border, and creating conditions to hold local elections. This peacekeeping force would be funded through voluntary contributions by nations and coordinated by a special representative of the secretary-general. In the Q&A, Ambassador Volker underlined that a U.N. mandate for such a mission would necessarily depend on Russian agreement. He noted that it is possible that after President Putin’s reelection, there may be greater political space for such a decision to take place, particularly as Russia continues to suffer significant economic and human costs from its occupation and will gain little by continuing the conflict. Regarding Crimea, Ambassador Volker noted that, although it is fortuitous there is no active military-style fighting, the centralized Russian rule has created a dire human rights situation on the illegally occupied territory. The Muslim Crimean Tartar population in particular has suffered greatly under Russian rule. As a result, many Crimean Tartars have fled for other parts of the country. He also stated that he has made it clear to his Russian counterparts that the United States does not accept Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea. Ambassador Volker highlighted some areas where the OSCE’s role could be enhanced. He said that a U.N. peacekeeping force would support the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in executing its mandate in full. Furthermore, the OSCE could help provide supervision and training to local police forces to fill any potential security vacuum after illegal armed groups are removed. The OSCE could also be instrumental in creating and monitoring local elections.  Ambassador Volker closed the briefing by emphasizing the utility of working toward implementation of the Minsk Agreements rather than seeking to negotiate a new format. Even though the agreement has to date seen little implementation, attempting to create an alternative would just start a new open-ended negotiating process. He reiterated his belief that a U.N. peacekeeping force has the potential to unlock significant progress towards implementation of Minsk. He asserted that the United States would continue to be an active contributor to creating a prosperous and successful democratic Ukraine which could help foster a positive security and political environment in Europe going forward.

  • Kurt Volker to Discuss War in Ukraine at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: ENDING THE WAR IN UKRAINE: KURT VOLKER, U.S. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR UKRAINE NEGOTIATIONS Tuesday, May 8, 2018 2:00 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 106 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The Russian-manufactured war in Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 people, injured at least 25,000, and created a humanitarian crisis endangering millions more. Amid daily ceasefire violations and threats to critical infrastructure, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the cost of the needless, four-year-old conflict. In July 2017, the U.S. Secretary of State appointed Ambassador Kurt Volker as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Volker has since repeatedly met with senior Russian counterparts to explore ways to end the conflict, including the possibility of an international peacekeeping mission. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Ambassador Volker will explore the way ahead for U.S. and international policy on Ukraine in the wake of President Putin’s re-election.  

  • Co-Chairman Smith Chairs Hearing on Plight of Russian Family, Possible UN Corruption in Guatemala

    WASHINGTON—Congress should investigate and hold accountable the United Nations’ International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) for its role in the prosecution of a Russian family in Guatemala fleeing Putin’s Russia, said Congressman Chris Smith (NJ-04), co-chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, at a Friday hearing titled “The Long Arm of Injustice.” The hearing examined CICIG’s role in the prosecution of the Bitkov family in Guatemala. “Congress has a special responsibility in this matter because the United States is one of the largest contributors to CICIG’s budget. There has been little congressional oversight of CICIG – it’s clearly time for that to change,” Rep. Smith stated at the hearing. The case of the Bitkovs was examined at the hearing, which featured testimony from the lawyers representing the family as well as from Bill Browder, a human rights advocate and founding director of the Global Magnitsky Campaign for Justice, who has investigated the case and CICIG’s role in it. The Bitkovs fled Russia in 2008 following a series of events that began in 2005 with Igor Bitkov refusing to let a senior official at one of Russia’s state banks, Sberbank, buy over half of his North-West Timber Company. His daughter Anastasia was kidnapped and repeatedly raped in 2006, and the family paid $200,000 to ransom her. In 2008, the banks demanded full repayment of their loan to Bitkov’s company despite the company’s good credit. The company was forced into bankruptcy, its assets sold at fire sale prices, and the Bitkovs fled Russia fearing for their lives after hearing of threats made against them. This case was a textbook scheme of Russian officials persecuting those who refuse to do business with them, Browder said. “First, in Russia people who run successful businesses are routinely victimized through a process called ‘Raiderstvo’. I was a victim of Raiderstvo and so were the Bitkovs. It is a standard practice in Russia where organized criminals work together with corrupt government officials to extract property and money from their victims,” stated Browder in his written testimony before the commission. Browder was expelled from Russia in 2005 after fighting corporate corruption there. After Russian authorities seized his companies, Browder’s lawyer Sergei Magnitsky investigated the matter; he was arrested and was tortured to death in Russia in 2009. Since then, Browder pushed for the passage and enactment of Magnitsky laws. After fleeing Russia, the Bitkovs entered Guatemala through a legal firm, Cutino Associates International, that offered them travel documents, and took on new identities there. However, they were eventually indicted and prosecuted for passport fraud, and although the country’s appeals court sided with them, a lower court ruled against them and sentenced them to long prison terms. CICIG was involved in the ultimate prosecution that resulted in their current sentences for passport fraud: 19 years in prison for Igor, and 14 years each for his wife Irina and their daughter Anastasia. The prosecution was “notoriously disproportionate and even more aggressive and shocking than high-impact crimes such as drug trafficking, murder or even terrorism,” stated Rolando Alvarado, a lawyer representing the Bitkovs, at the hearing. “They channelled their criminal prosecution before special courts that know of crimes of greater risk.” The very prosecution violated the law of the country, said another lawyer who represents the Bitkovs. “In Guatemala, the Palermo Convention is in force, as well as the Guatemalan Migration Law. Both laws establish that migrants cannot be criminalized for the possession or use of travel documents or ID documents. Even so, the State of Guatemala has decided to prosecute, illegally, these cases and has issued suspended sentences in other similar cases,” stated Victoria Sandoval, who also represents the Bitkov family. The role of CICIG was examined at the hearing, along with its relationship with Russian officials who were pursuing the prosecution of the Bitkov family in Guatemala. “The Russian government routinely abuses international institutions in order to persecute its enemies who are outside of Russia. In my opinion, the Russian government succeeded in compromising CICIG and the Guatemalan Prosecutor for their own purposes in the Bitkov case. CICIG and the prosecutor’s office have jointly taken up the Russian government’s vendetta against the Bitkovs with no good explanation,” Browder stated. “CICIG did not distance itself from this Russian persecution. They’ve touted it on their website and they’ve actively tried to overturn the Bitkovs’ vindication by the Appeals Court.” Rep. Smith further noted that “the facts of the case strongly indicate” that CICIG “became deeply involved in the Kremlin’s persecution of the Bitkov family. Indeed that CICIG acted as the Kremlin’s operational agent in brutalizing and tormenting the Bitkov family.” “And then there must be accountability for the grotesque wrong that has been done to them. There must be further inquiry, and we must get to the bottom of this,” Smith said. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) said in a statement for the record, "The case of the Bitkovs illustrates the Kremlin’s pattern of abuse involving the world’s courts and legal institutions. Russia should be called out for the mafia state it is and the illegitimate and politically influenced decisions that come out of Russian courts not given the time of day. We must find a way to protect our institutions from malign outsider influence and avoid becoming unwitting participants in Kremlin vendettas." Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Commissioner at the Helsinki Commission, said in a statement for the record, “This miscarriage of justice cannot be tolerated and today’s hearing is a strong first step in bringing this matter to light. It is important for both Kremlin and Guatemalan officials to understand that the world sees what is happening and will not accept Russian malign influence in the Western Hemisphere or the destruction of Guatemalan judiciary.” Sen. James Lankford (OK) said in a statement for the record, “We should be diligent in exercising oversight over any foreign entity which receives U.S. taxpayer funding to ensure our nation's own resources are used to advance national interests. I applaud the Commission for looking into the issue of the Bitkov family as well as exercising oversight over the U.S.-funded CICIG.” Sen. Mike Lee (UT) said in a statement for the record, "CICIG should be operating to root out real corruption, rather than building up or tearing down political winners and losers. It pains me to see sovereignty continually thrown by the wayside as has been the case in Guatemala. It is unfair to average citizens. It has been unfair to the Bitkovs. It is unfair to all who seek a free and prosperous Guatemala."

  • The Long Arm of Injustice

    In 2008, Igor and Irina Bitkov, along with their daughter Anastasia, fled Russia in fear for their lives. Having seen their successful company bankrupted in a textbook raider scheme, their daughter kidnapped and raped, and facing death threats, the Bitkovs took refuge and began a new life with new identities in Guatemala. The family now finds itself separated, imprisoned in squalid Guatemalan jail cells, and facing nearly twenty years in prison for alleged paperwork irregularities normally punishable by a simple fine. There are grave reasons to question the role of the government of Russia and the UN’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in their imprisonment. “I am deeply concerned about grave injustices suffered by the Bitkov family—brutalized in Russia, now apparently re-victimized in Guatemala, where they languish in jail,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who chaired the hearing. “Evidence indicating that the government of Russia may have enlisted the UN’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala to persecute this family is troubling and must be thoroughly scrutinized.” The hearing sought answers to key questions: Did the Kremlin enlist CICIG in its vendetta to destroy the Bitkovs? Is this another example of the frightening reach of Putin’s government and its ability to co-opt institutions designed to further the rule of law, as it has Interpol and Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties? Has the government of Russia corrupted a UN anti-corruption agency? What does this teach about the government of Russia, the UN, and the global fight against the scourge of corruption? The Helsinki Commission examined the specifics of the Bitkov case, including Russian influence on CICIG and Guatemala’s Attorney General’s office, and reviewed policy options to protect U.S. taxpayer-supported institutions from abuse and undue pressure from authoritarian governments. Selection of Additional Materials Submitted for the Record Response of William Browder to Questions for the Record Submitted by Rep. James McGovern Report: CICIG and the Rule of Law | Ligo ProPatria, Instituto de Servicios a La Nacion, Guatemala Immortal, ProReforma Sign-On Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Civil Society Representatives Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Ligo ProPatria, Instituto de Servicios a La Nacion, Guatemala Immortal, ProReforma Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Migration Groups Letter to President Maldonado of Guatemala | Bill Browder Letter to President Maldonado of Guatemala | Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker Invitation to Ivan Velasquez to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing Communication from Loreto Ferrer, CICIG Letter to the Helsinki Commission | VTB Bank Information from RENAP Cover Notes from Aron Lindblom,Diakonia Guatemala, Regarding: Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Indigenous Ancestral Authorities of Guatemala Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Christian Council of Guatemala Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Asociation de Mujeres Q'eqchi'es Nuevo Horizonte Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Comite de Unidad Campesina Guatemala Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Asociation Grupo Integral de Mujeres Sanjuaneras The Wall Street Journal: Kremlin Revenge in Guatemala (March 25, 2018) The Wall Street Journal: Russia’s Dubious Guatemala Story (April 15, 2018) The Wall Street Journal: A Crisis in Guatemala, Abetted by the U.N. (April 22, 2018) National Review: Microscopic Dots. Let's Look at Them. (April 25, 2018) National Review: Why Are They Doing This to the Bitkovs? (April 26, 2018) The Economist: A corruption spat in Russia endangers crime-fighters in Central America (April 28, 2018) Materials submitted by Victoria Sandoval, criminal and human rights attorney representing the Bitkov family Audio: CICIG supports VTB petitions Affidavit: Harold Augusto Flores confesses that he was threatened by CICIG Medical reports on Anastasia Bitkova issued by the National Forensic Science Institute BBC: Inside the 'world's most dangerous' hospital Ruling issued by the tribunal presided over by Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios  

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