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Chairman Hastings Urges Ukraine to Grant Akhmetova Political Asylum

Monday, January 13, 2020

WASHINGTON—Ahead of Tuesday’s trial to determine whether journalist and activist Zhanara Akhmetova will be granted political asylum in Ukraine or face extradition to her home country of Kazakhstan, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement:

“By granting asylum to Zhanara Akhmetova, the Government of Ukraine can demonstrate its commitment to protecting the fundamental freedoms of those who peacefully express political dissent. Her request for asylum clearly is motivated by real and dangerous political persecution in her home country. Ukraine must stand firmly on the side of human rights and allow Ms. Akhmetova to remain safely in the country.”

Akhmetova fled to Ukraine in 2017 after she was targeted by authorities in Kazakhstan for her reporting and for peacefully expressing her political opinions through the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) movement, an opposition party associated with the main political opponent of former President Nazarbayev. Later that year, Ukrainian authorities detained her following a request by the Government of Kazakhstan, which previously has misused Interpol mechanisms to target opposition figures. In the past, Ukrainian authorities sometimes have cooperated with requests by the authorities of Central Asian states to return persecuted individuals.

Persons affiliated with the DCK have previously faced mistreatment and torture at the hands of Kazakh authorities, suggesting that Akhmetova’s extradition would seriously endanger her safety. Ukrainian migration authorities have twice denied Akhmetova’s request for asylum, although Ukraine’s Supreme Court has ordered that the case be reconsidered as political.

Media contact: 
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Stacy Hope
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  • 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.

  • Oleg Sentsov and Russia's Human Rights Violations against Ukrainian Citizens

    On April 27, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing focusing on human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens. In particular, this hearing was used as a platform to raise awareness for Oleg Sentsov, a political prisoner being held in Siberia. Sentsov was honored by PEN America this year with their 2017 Freedom to Write award for his work exposing Russian human rights violations. Panelist included Natalya Kaplan, cousin of Oleg Sentsov and campaigner for his freedom, and journalist in Kiev; Mustafa Nayyem, Member of Ukrainian Parliament and former journalist and early organizer of the 2013 Euromaidan protests; and Halya Coynash, spokesperson for Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. The panelists provided much context and background detailing Sentsov and others’ cases. Natalya Kaplan spoke to the audience about the terrible conditions her cousin faces in Siberia, including torture, while Mustafa Nayyem spoke about the need to pressure Russia publically to end these human rights abuses. Halya Coynash reminded the audience of the severity of this case by highlighting that Sentsov was the first Ukrainian to be so brazenly imprisoned after the Russian occupation of Crimea; in her eyes, this was the first time the full force of Russian government had been used to fabricate charges and host a show trial against a Ukrainian. The panelists agreed that the media freedom situation in Russian-occupied territory is dire and only growing worse. Of greatest concern was the length to which Russia is willing to go in their efforts to arrest and prosecute journalists. Russia also sets a dangerous precedent with its recent attempts to foist Russian citizenship onto Ukrainians in Crimea, in efforts to undermine international court rulings and give legitimacy to its actions. When it comes to monitoring the human rights situation in Ukraine, the panelists expressed concerns with the lack of access to political prisoners and the inability to target individual Russians involved in creating the sham trials. The panelists believed that the ability to target individuals involved in these trials would be extremely helpful in de-escalating the situation, and they made many references to the Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Overwhelmingly, the response to these issues was a desire to work with Congress to strengthen and update the Magnistky Act, as well as broaden civil society and NGO engagment. Mustafa Nayyem expressed hope that NGOs, such as PEN America, would play a more pivotal role in helping prevent future repression. News articles following the briefing expressed hope that there would be work within Congress to better address issues involving Ukrainian political prisoners.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Proclamation Recognizing Importance of Helsinki Final Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced a bipartisan Senate resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act –  the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – and its relevance to American national security.  The resolution was cosponsored by all other Senators currently serving on the Helsinki Commission: Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. John Boozman (AR), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. Tom Udall (NM), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI). “Peace and prosperity in the OSCE region rest on a respect for human rights and the preservation of fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and economic liberty. Unfortunately, the commitment to these ideals by some OSCE participating States is eroding,” Chairman Wicker said. “The shrinking space for civil society in many nations has become reminiscent of the Communist era – a time when many Helsinki Monitoring Groups were violently persecuted for their courageous support of basic human rights,” he continued. “With its actions in Ukraine and Georgia, the Russian Federation in particular has demonstrated how closely such internal repression can be tied to external aggression.  We were reminded of these abuses in this morning’s Helsinki Commission hearing. I urge the President to make it clear that Helsinki principles are vital not only to American national interests but also to the security of the OSCE region as a whole.” “What was remarkable about the Helsinki Final Act was the commitment that these standards we agreed to would not only be of internal interest to the member country, but that any country signatory to the Helsinki Final Act could challenge the actions of any other country,” said Ranking Commissioner Cardin, who is also Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We have not only the right but the responsibility to call out countries that fail to adhere to the basic principles that were agreed to in 1975.” Defining security in a uniquely comprehensive manner, the Helsinki Final Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, among them respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief (Principle VII). Other principles include respect for sovereign equality (Principle I), the territorial integrity of states (Principle IV), and states’ fulfilment in good faith of their obligations under international law (Principle X). S.Con.Res.13 encourages President Trump to reaffirm America’s commitment to the principles and implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. The resolution also calls on the President to urge other participating States to respect their OSCE commitments and to condemn the Russian Federation's clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of all 10 core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act.

  • Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight

    The U.S Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Wednesday on “Democracy and Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight.”  It was the first hearing in the 115th Congress focused on internal human rights repression in Russia. Vladimir Kara-Murza, vice-chairman of pro-reform movement Open Russia; Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President of Freedom House, testified about the crisis of Russian democracy and the country’s worsening human rights record under President Vladimir Putin. In his opening statement, Mr. Kara-Murza underscored the necessity for the OSCE participating States to give an honest assessment about what is happening in Russia, where the number of political prisoners now exceeds a hundred people (a number that has doubled in less than a year). Mr. Kara-Murza, a vocal critic of the Kremlin who has survived two poisoning attempts, estimated that more than 30 activists have been murdered by the Putin regime since Vladimir Putin assumed power in 2000. He also called for an end to impunity for human rights violations in Russia. “The U.S. does have a mechanism for such accountability in the Magnitsky Act that provides for targeted sanctions on human rights abusers. This law should continue to be implemented to its full extent,” Mr. Kara-Murza said. His concerns were echoed by Human Rights Watch’s Rachel Denber, who noted that today, “Russia is more repressive that it has ever been in the post-Soviet era.” At Chairman Wicker’s request, Ms. Denber provided detailed information about each of the Russian political prisoners who were featured on posters in the room, and also spoke at length about the repression of gay men in Chechnya. Dr. Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House highlighted the fact that Mr. Putin was the primary author of the modern authoritarian’s playbook, which has subsequently been replicated by many autocratic rulers in the region.  “His methods for suppressing civil society and political opposition have inspired other dictators, and his media manipulation has impacted most of Eurasia directly and extended to Europe and the United States,” Dr. Calingaert said. However, despite the grim situation, Mr. Kara-Murza voiced some optimism about the future. “Increasingly, the young generation in Russia – the very generation that grew up under Vladimir Putin – is demanding respect and accountability from those in power,” he said. Mr. Kara-Murza pointed to a wave of anti-corruption demonstrations that took place in dozens of cities across Russia in late March, with tens of thousands of people, mostly young protesters, taking out to the streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Dimitriy Medvedev. “This movement will continue. And these growing demands for accountability are the best guarantee that Russia will one day become a country where citizens can exercise the rights and freedoms to which they are entitled,” he added.  

  • Death of OSCE Monitor in Eastern Ukraine

    Mr. President, I was saddened to learn that an American member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine was killed this past weekend by a landmine. Joseph Stone was carrying out his dutiesin territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Two other members of the team—one from the Czech Republic and another from Germany—were injured. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe controls these monitoring teams. They are comprised of unarmed civilians. The mission has been in the region since 2014, when, unfortunately, Russian-backed troops invaded Crimea. Had Russia lived up to the Minsk agreements and ceased supporting, directing, funding, and fueling separatists in this region, there would have been no need for the mission to continue. Sadly, that is not the case. This particular special monitoring mission currently fields roughly 700 monitors, with 600 of them in Donetsk and Luhansk. Those who are part of this mission are unarmed civilians. They serve as the eyes and ears for the world in the conflict zone. They report on the near-constant violations of the cease-fire, as well as reporting on humanitarian needs of the population. They play an essential role in the understanding of the situation on the ground, often under extremely difficult circumstances and, certainly, as we have seen with Joseph Stone, dangerous circumstances. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, I often hear from our top military leaders about the importance of the OSCE and the work being done by the special monitoring missions. In late March, for example, during a hearing of the Armed Services Committee, General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, commander of the U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, called attention to the good work of OSCE in the region and the work of the monitoring missions. He confirmed in his testimony that ‘‘Russia is directing combined Russian-separatist forces to target civilian infrastructure and threaten and intimidate OSCE monitors in order to turn up the pressure on Ukraine.’’ He also said, ‘‘Russian-led separatist forces continue to commit the majority of ceasefire violations despite attempts by the OSCE to broker a lasting ceasefire along the Line of Contact.’’ The tragic death of American Joseph Stone underscores the need for the OSCE monitors to have unfettered access across the front lines and across the border regions controlled by the separatists. This unfortunate tragedy is a result of this access not being granted. I commend the Austrian Foreign Minister, who serves as OSCE chair-in-office, for calling attention to this tragedy and calling for an immediate investigation into these events. Those who are responsible for the death of Joseph Stone and the injury of the two other monitors should be held accountable. Joseph Stone died serving his country by serving as a part of this international effort, and I extend my condolences this evening to his family and friends. I once again call on the Russian leadership to put an end to the cycle of violence and to live up to its OSCE commitments. As chairman of the Helsinki Commission, the U.S. part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I think it is important for Members of the Senate and for Americans to understand the important role that Americans are playing in this effort.

  • Background: OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine

    By Alex Tiersky, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor On April 23, 2017, the OSCE announced that a U.S. paramedic serving in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine had been killed when his vehicle struck an explosive – likely a landmine – in separatist controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. Two other SMM personnel, from Germany and the Czech Republic, were also injured in the incident. What is the OSCE SMM? The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine was established in 2014, to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia and Ukraine.  Currently fielding roughly 700 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the SMM is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. The Mission has some notable achievements, including regular reporting on the near-constant ceasefire violations, as well as the humanitarian needs of the population struggling in the conflict zone.  It has also sought to bring the sides together on weapons withdrawals and demining, as well as working towards agreements to fix power and water lines in the conflict area. However, Mission personnel face regular and sometimes violent harassment by combined Russian-separatist forces, who seek to limit the SMM’s access to the areas they control.  The attacks have made the environment in which Mission personnel operate increasingly volatile and dangerous, a fact tragically underlined by the incident on April 23.  In addition to this harassment, the SMM has faced limits imposed by the Russian-backed separatists including denial of access to the Ukrainian-Russian border, as well as jamming or downing of the OSCE’s unmanned aerial vehicles, critical tools for maintaining a clear operational picture. What is the U.S. Position? The United States supports the SMM and its monitors by providing personnel (roughly 75 Americans, making it the largest national contributor) and resources to the mission. The U.S. also supports the SMM by pushing Russia to end the separatists’ obstructions.  Since the April 23 incident, the U.S. has reiterated its call for full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, particularly by the Russian-led separatist forces who are most responsible for the threats to the SMM.  The U.S. has pushed for the sides to move towards a real and durable ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, and disengagement from the line of contact, as well as safe, full, and unfettered access throughout the conflict zone for the SMM monitors. The U.S. Helsinki Commission has consistently upheld Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, including through support of the efforts of the SMM in Ukraine, and called for full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, in particular underlining Russia’s responsibility in ensuring that the separatists make verifiable and irreversible progress on the implementation of the Minsk agreements. The latest incident must not only be fully investigated; it is a reminder of the urgent need for progress on full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, including a cease-fire and withdrawal of weapons.  

  • Chairman Wicker on Death of OSCE Monitor in Eastern Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Following the death yesterday of a U.S. paramedic serving in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine when his vehicle struck an explosive – likely a landmine –  in separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker spoke on the Senate floor this evening to condemn the incident; express his condolences to the family of the victim, Joseph Stone;  and call for the Russian government to end the cycle of violence that resulted in yesterday’s tragedy. “Had Russia lived up to the Minsk agreements, and ceased supporting, directing, funding, and fueling separatists in this region, there would have been no need for the [monitoring] mission to continue,” Senator Wicker said. “[The monitors] play an essential role in the understanding of the situation on the ground, often under extremely difficult circumstances…the tragic death of American Joseph Stone underscores the need for the OSCE monitors to have unfettered access across the front lines and across the border regions controlled by the separatists,” he continued. “I commend the Austrian foreign minister, who serves as OSCE Chair-in-Office, for calling attention to this tragedy and calling for an immediate investigation into these events. Those who are responsible … should be held accountable. Joseph Stone died serving his country by serving as a part of this international effort, and I extend my condolences this evening to his family and friends. I once again call on Russian leadership to put an end to the cycle of violence and to live up to its OSCE commitments,” Senator Wicker concluded. The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. Currently fielding roughly 700 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the SMM is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. It is the only independent monitoring mission in the war zone. The United States supports the SMM and its monitors by providing roughly 75 personnel and other resources to the mission.

  • Helsinki Commission To Hold Briefing on Russia’s Human Rights Violations against Ukrainian Citizens

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: OLEG SENTSOV AND RUSSIA’S HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AGAINST UKRAINIAN CITIZENS Thursday, April 27, 2017 3:00 PM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 210 In May 2014, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov – an outspoken opponent of Russia’s takeover of his native Crimea – disappeared from his hometown of Simferopol only to resurface in Russian custody in Moscow. Convicted on charges of terrorism that the human rights community has condemned as fabricated, Sentsov is now serving a 20-year sentence in a Siberian penal colony. His case not only stands as a marker for Russia’s reach in silencing dissent abroad, but also illuminates broader issues of Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens. The Helsinki Commission briefing will present three perspectives on this disturbing situation and its broader context: from Sentsov’s cousin and chief champion; from a human rights defender investigating cases in the region; and from a member of the Ukrainian parliament. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Natalya Kaplan, cousin of Oleg Sentsov and journalist in Kiev Mustafa Nayyem, Member of Ukrainian Parliament; former journalist and early organizer of the 2013 Euromaidan protests Halya Coynash, Spokesperson, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

  • Human Rights Abuses in Russia Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced a hearing to examine the grim state of human rights and democracy in the Russian Federation. DEMOCRACY & HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES IN RUSSIA: NO END IN SIGHT Wednesday, April 26, 2017 9:30 AM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 124 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce042617 Russia’s overt external aggression against countries such as Ukraine, its support for the Assad regime in Syria, and its efforts to disrupt western democracies are made possible by the internal repression of its own people.  For example, Russia has not had a free and fair election since March 2000. Opposition activists are routinely assaulted or even murdered, giving rise to a new term: “Sudden Kremlin Death Syndrome.” Political prisoner numbers now match those of the late Soviet era, and on March 26, tens of thousands of people in cities across 11 time zones protested widespread government corruption, with more than 1,000 arrested. More nationwide protests are expected on June 12, the national holiday of the Russian Federation. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Vladimir Kara-Murza, Vice Chairman, Open Russia Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President, Freedom House

  • Chairman Wicker Highlights Importance of OSCE Mission in Stabilizing Europe

    At a March 21 U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing on “U.S. Policy and Strategy in Europe,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker underlined his commitment to Ukraine’s future and highlighted the importance of the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). “The more Ukraine succeeds, the better off it is for us in the United States and the West, and I think it is one of the most profoundly important issues that we face in the next year or two,” stated Senator Wicker, who also serves as a senior member of SASC. Praising the OSCE’s monitoring mission in Ukraine as providing the “international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone,” Chairman Wicker underlined the challenges facing the consensus-based OSCE in addressing the increased aggression in Europe by Russia, one of its participating States. Citing the fundamental “Helsinki principles” on which the OSCE is based, Senator Wicker pressed a panel of experts for their views on the continued value of the OSCE. Ambassador William J. Burns, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State who also served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, stated that despite the OSCE’s limitations, the organization has continuing value. “It embodies some of the core values that we share with our European allies and partners in terms of sovereignty of states and the inviolability of borders—so that the big states don’t just get to grab parts of smaller states, just because they can,” he said. Burns further called for continued U.S. investment in the OSCE. Former NATO SACEUR General Philip M. Breedlove, USAF (Ret.), suggested that the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine was a particularly valuable expression of the OSCE’s work, underlining that “…with some of the fake news that was created in the Donbass and other places as Russia invaded, even though OSCE was challenged … often, [the monitoring mission] was the source of the real news of what was actually going on on the ground.” Ambassador Alexander R. Vershbow, former Deputy Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who also served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, stated that the OSCE remains valuable, despite the challenges inherent in Russian actions, “…because of the norms and values that it upholds – even though the Russians are violating a lot of those right now – it gives us a basis on which to challenge their misbehavior.”  Praising the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine as “very courageous,” Vershbow underlined that while the OSCE faces serious limitations, “I don’t see any alternative right now in trying to manage a conflict like in Eastern Ukraine.”

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders to Azerbaijan: Release All Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON—On the traditional holiday of Nowruz, Helsinki Commission leaders called on the Azerbaijani government to immediately release all remaining political prisoners and honor its OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. “It is disappointing that President Aliyev released only a small number of political prisoners among several hundred pardons he issued prior to Nowruz,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). “OSCE participating States commit to respecting freedom of expression, including the freedom to exchange information and views without interference from public authorities. The Government of Azerbaijan should uphold this commitment by releasing opposition figures, civil rights activists, journalists, and religious leaders who are currently in jail for peacefully exercising their rights. This is particularly true in the case of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, who recently entered his fifth year in prison on politically-motivated charges.”  “President Aliyev’s pardons left dozens of human rights activists, journalists, and political dissidents languishing in prison and subject to mistreatment,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “I call on President Aliyev to respect human rights and democracy in his country and immediately release all prisoners of conscience.” In 2016, the Government of Azerbaijan pardoned 148 inmates in the days leading up to Nowruz, including more than a dozen people identified as political prisoners by leading human rights organizations. This year, the Government issued pardons to more than 400 prisoners, but only four political prisoners were freed.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Wicker Comments on Poisoning of Pro-Democracy Russian Activist, Fighting in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON–Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today issued the following statement regarding the recent acts of aggression perpetrated by the Russian government: “In today’s Russia, there is a disturbing trend of violence that targets members of the political opposition. I am particularly concerned about Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is fighting for his life in a Moscow hospital after being poisoned.  Mr. Kara-Murza has appeared at multiple Helsinki Commission events and is a tireless advocate for restoring democratic freedoms to the Russian people. The United States should have no illusions about the nature of the Russian regime. “Meanwhile, fighting in eastern Ukraine continues to spread.  Last week, the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine reported the heaviest fighting since combined Russian-separatist forces captured Debaltseve in January 2015.  The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has repeatedly condemned Russia’s ‘clear, gross, and uncorrected’ violations of OSCE principles with respect to Ukraine. “I stand with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in condemning the escalation of violence.  Russia should respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Vladimir Kara-Murza has a longstanding relationship with the Helsinki Commission. He first appeared at a Helsinki Commission briefing in 2011. He testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing on Russia in 2015 and briefed Commission staff before the 2016 Russian parliamentary elections.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mark International Human Rights Day

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

  • Turkey: Human Rights in Retreat

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

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

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

  • Helsinki Commission to Probe Crisis of Human Rights in Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

  • Helsinki Commission Honored for Work on Ukraine

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

  • Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Referendum Creates Crisis of Legitimacy

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

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