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Chairman Wicker Welcomes Accession of Montenegro to NATO

Thursday, March 30, 2017

WASHINGTON–Following U.S. Senate approval of the accession of Montenegro to the NATO Alliance, Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement:

“I am pleased by the Senate’s decision to welcome Montenegro into NATO. At a time of unease in Europe, this small nation and its people are making important contributions to security and stability. By joining the Alliance, Montenegro also confirms the continued validity of the Helsinki Final Act, which affirms the right of countries to determine their own security arrangements and alliances.  Allowing outside actors to call this principle into question would have severely undercut European security.”  

Last week, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that it is “absolutely critical” that Montenegro be brought into NATO.  Chairman Wicker serves as a senior member of the committee and took part in the hearing.

The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, has supported human rights and democratic development in Montenegro since observing the first multi-party elections in the country in 1990.  Further, the Commission has been deeply involved in policy debates over NATO, including conducting hearings on previous additions to the alliance.

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

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    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.

  • 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  

  • A Crisis in Guatemala, Abetted by the U.N.

    In the struggle to defeat transnational crime in Central America, the U.S. is financing a United Nations prosecutorial body in Guatemala. Yet these U.N. prosecutors are thumbing their noses at the rule of law and seem to be using their power to politicize the Guatemalan judiciary. This is dividing and destabilizing a pivotal democracy in the region. The fragile Guatemalan state is in the crosshairs of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro and Cuba’s Gen. Raúl Castro. If their allies seize control of Mexico’s southern neighbor via its institutions, as Daniel Ortega has done in Nicaragua, it will have implications for Mexican and American security. The U.N. body, known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG by its Spanish initials), has been in the country since 2007. It has busted some criminals. But its unchecked power has led to abuse, and this should concern U.S. backers. Some of CICIG’s most vociferous defenders hail from Guatemala’s extreme left, which eschews equality under the law and representative democracy. CICIG’s rogue justice has come to the attention of Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. He has scheduled a hearing April 27 to review CICIG’s role in the Guatemalan prosecution and extralegal conviction of a Russian family on the run from Vladimir Putin’s mafia. As I detailed in March 26 and April 19 Americas columns, Igor and Irina Bitkov, and their daughter Anastasia, fled persecution in Russia and became victims of a crime syndicate in Guatemala that was selling false identity documents. Yet Guatemala and CICIG tried the family alongside members of the crime ring that tricked them. They were convicted and given unusually harsh sentences. Guatemalan law and the U.N.’s Palermo Convention say that such migrants are victims, and a Guatemalan constitutional appeals court ruled that the Bitkovs committed no crime. CICIG and Guatemalan prosecutors ignored that ruling, went to a lower court and got a conviction. CICIG will not say why, or why it didn’t prosecute the law firm that solicited the fake documents given to the Bitkovs. Matías Ponce is “head of communications” for CICIG but there is no contact information for him or his office on the CICIG website. I managed to get his cellphone number from a third party and, after repeated tries, made contact with him. I requested his email and wrote to him so I could share with readers CICIG’s explanation of what appears to be abuse of power. He sent me a boilerplate response about CICIG’s work against criminal networks but no answers to my questions. It is unlikely CICIG will answer questions before the Helsinki Commission. Its co-chairman, Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), invited CICIG to appear at a similar hearing he proposed for April 24 in the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee monitoring human rights and U.N. entities. CICIG declined the invitation. That hearing was not scheduled, though the office of Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) told me it’s not dead. If CICIG refuses to cooperate with the Helsinki Commission, it will fuel the feeling among rule-of-law advocates that it has something to hide. CICIG says it is in Guatemala merely to “support” the attorney general in her work “identifying and dismantling” criminal networks and is not involved in politics. But an academic analysis of CICIG by Jonatán Lemus, a Francisco Marroquín University political science professor, suggests otherwise. Mr. Lemus observes that “CICIG has also been criticized for the very same reasons others have praised it: becoming a player in judicial appointments, proposing some controversial reforms to the Guatemalan constitution, and the use of televised conferences to shift the public in its favor. From this perspective, instead of strengthening Guatemalan institutions, the Commission is making national institutions dependent on its assistance.” This dependence drives CICIG deeper into politics. As Mr. Lemus notes, “once immersed in a polarized political system,” an international body designed like CICIG naturally “will face incentives to behave as any domestic bureaucracy trying to maximize its power and resources to ensure its survival.” Without an explanation for the bizarre Bitkov convictions, Guatemalans are left to speculate about CICIG’s motives. Incompetence is one possibility. But once the injustice was publicized and not corrected, that reasoning collapsed. A foreign businessman also makes an easy target for a politically correct prosecutor seeking approval from anticapitalist nongovernmental organizations. Kremlin “influence” cannot be ruled out. Nailing the Bitkovs was a priority for Russia because the family had refused to “donate” large sums to the Putin kitty in Kaliningrad. It would hardly be surprising to learn that Moscow leaned on prosecutors and judges to put the family behind bars. There’s no doubt that something fishy went on, and CICIG prosecutor Iván Velásquez’s unwillingness to address it is troubling. The truth matters for the family, for Guatemala and for the U.S.

  • Turkey Wants to Veto Civil Society Organizations at the OSCE

    A September meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is being held up by Turkey, which wants to be able to stop specific civil society groups from participating in the annual event. Each September, civil society organizations from OSCE member states meet with government representatives for Europe’s largest human rights conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting. For many civil society organizations, the event is the lone opportunity they have to address government representatives. But if Turkey gets its way, those civil society organizations won’t include groups affiliated with Fethullah Gulen, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s onetime ally and current foe. Erdogan blames Gulen for the 2016 failed coup attempt and claims that groups affiliated with his movement are part of terrorist organizations. The Turkish government’s demand for a veto over civil society organizations’ participation has some worried that Ankara will weaken a critical event in the human rights community — and set an example for other countries in the process. Last September, the Turkish delegation stormed out after an opening speech to oppose participation of the Gulen-affiliated Journalists and Writers Foundation. “This entity is so closely linked to the Fethullahist Terror Organization,” said Rauf Engin Soysal, the Turkish ambassador to the OSCE. Earlier that year, Turkey managed to rid the group of its consultative status at the U.N. Economic and Social Council over a technicality. Though the group lost its consultative status at the U.N., it still came to September’s OSCE meeting. A representative for the Journalists and Writers Foundation says the organization was not given a chance to reply to claims it is a terrorist organization. “Of course because this is an allegation without any proof and a groundless claim,” the representative says. In the fall of 2017, Turkey, which can block the dates and agenda of the Human Dimension Meeting, attempted to establish a veto over which civil society organizations could join the event. A working group that was set up last fall to deal with the issue is expected to meet Friday. In January, U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Ben Cardin wrote to Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell expressing concerns about countries calling for a “vetting” mechanism for civil society organizations, specifically citing Turkey. “Turkey’s attempt to limit civil society participation at the OSCE rejects its commitment to promote freedom as a NATO ally. The State Department is right to join the Commission in opposition to these actions,” Wicker wrote in a comment to Foreign Policy. There may not be an easy solution, however. “Everything is based on consensus decisions made by the participating states,” a spokesperson for the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights says. And Turkey appears to be standing firm in its position. Turkey recognizes the importance of the OSCE’s work and is not opposed to groups that are critical, Behic Hatipoglu, a counselor for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, wrote in response to questions. “However, participation of terror affiliated organizations to the OSCE activities is another issue and we believe that OSCE platforms should not be abused by terrorist or terrorist affiliated organizations,” he wrote. Beyond the September meeting, some NGOs and government officials alike are concerned that Turkey might inspire other countries — Kyrgyzstan or Azerbaijan, for example — to take similar measures to keep civil society organizations away from the table. But there are also concerns that this is part of a larger pattern of Turkish behavior on the international stage. Erdogan recently called for snap elections, which will take place under the state of emergency, and civil society groups have been a frequent government target. “They aren’t worried about attracting negative attention. If anything, they like it. It shows they’re proactive,” says David Phillips, the director of the program on peace-building and rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. “This is all part of an effort by Erdogan to show voters he’s not allowing foreigners to interfere in Turkey’s domestic affairs.” And though the current Turkish initiative is focused on Gulen-affiliated groups, Phillips believes it’s part of a broader effort, at home and abroad, to go after civil society. “I would suspect that their efforts are not restricted only to Gulen-related groups. Once you start restricting civil liberties, why stop with the Gulen groups?”

  • Could U.S. Law Help Punish Russians for Doping Scheme?

    WASHINGTON — In recent months, the United States has punished the following people for alleged human rights violations and corruption: A former Gambian president who led terror and assassination squads. A Chechen leader involved in torture, kidnapping and murder. A Pakistani man at the center of a human-organ trafficking network. And a former Russian sports minister who was implicated in a nation’s systematic doping scheme that tainted several Olympics and other international competitions? Well, not the last person — at least not yet. The United States Anti-Doping Agency is exploring the use of government sanctions to punish Russian officials involved in the state-supported doping program that turned the 2014 Sochi Games into a sham. On Tuesday, Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the agency, attended a workshop here sponsored by the U.S. Helsinki Commission to see if the Global Magnitsky Act, a 2016 law that allows the sanctions, could apply to the Russians. The law calls for individuals who have committed human rights violations or significant corruption to be barred from obtaining United States visas and blocked from using the American financial system, which effectively blacklists them from doing business with major world banks. Powerful, wealthy people don’t like to have their assets frozen. “What happened in Sochi was the worst case of corruption that we’ve ever seen in sport, so why shouldn’t the act apply to us?” Tygart said. “We have to look down every avenue if we’re working for clean athletes, particularly in light of the I.O.C.’s failure do anything.” Tygart said American athletes have been demanding that the antidoping agency find ways to better protect clean athletes in the future so the Russian doping debacle is never repeated. The International Olympic Committee punished Russia, sort of, for its widespread doping. It barred the Russian Olympic Committee, the Russian flag and the Russian national anthem from last month’s Pyeongchang Games, while letting some Russian athletes compete under a neutral flag. It also barred for life one top Russian official: Vitaly Mutko. (He was implicated in the doping program as the Russian sports minister. After the scheme was exposed, he was promoted to deputy prime minister.) Three days after the Pyeongchang Games ended, the I.O.C. reinstated Russia’s Olympic committee — even though two Russian athletes had failed drug tests during the competition. So the United States antidoping group is looking for additional ways to punish the Russians. The Global Magnitsky Act is in its infancy and the sports angle might be a long-shot, but why not try? Besides, the United States government often has to do the dirty work for sports leagues and federations that refuse to police themselves. To take down the principles and athletes involved in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative steroids scandal that ensnared athletes like Barry Bonds and Marion Jones, law enforcement made arrests and prosecutors took it from there. To address the widespread doping problem in Major League Baseball, Congress had to drag players and management in to testify. To uncover corruption in FIFA, United States prosecutors took the lead and indicted more than two dozen officials and businessmen from all over the world — much to the dismay of soccer’s global establishment. And now it could be the Global Magnitsky Act that delivers a staggering blow to the Russians for corrupting the results of major global sports competitions — including, but certainly not limited to, the Olympics. Among the people who could be targeted for sanctions are Mutko; Yuri D. Nagornykh, the former deputy sports minister; Irina Rodionova, the former deputy director of the Center for Sports Preparation; and others mentioned in an affidavit by Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, Russia’s former longtime antidoping laboratory chief who blew the whistle on the whole operation. Does such sports corruption rise to the level covered by the law? William F. Browder thinks so. He’s a prominent investor who worked with Congress on the original Magnitsky Act, which was passed in 2012 in response to the death of Browder’s Russian lawyer, Sergei L. Magnitsky. The lawyer had uncovered a $230 million tax-theft scheme before he was arrested and died in prison. “There’s one important issue and that’s the doping scandal at the Sochi Games led to what I believe were murders,” Browder said, referring to two officials from Russia’s antidoping agency who died within two weeks of each other in 2016. “There were a number of people involved who died very suspiciously who were most likely liquidated to cover up a crime.” He added: “There were people who effectively ruined institution of sport and have committed crimes to do so. That would reach the standard of Global Magnitsky, in my opinion. These people involved in sports doping, they’re shameless. So there needs to be really hard consequences. They need to pay a very dear price.” That price would be losing access to their money and the freedom to move about the world. And they would be on a list with some of the world’s worst criminals. “If the Olympic Games are unquestionably tainted, that has huge economic ramifications for not just U.S. athletes, but for U.S. industry, and the U.S. government has an interest in making sure that doesn’t happen,” said Robert G. Berschinski, senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First and a former deputy assistant secretary of state. I asked him if he thought the individuals involved in the Russian doping case could be sanctioned under the law. “Without getting into specifics,” he said, “it seems that you can make a case.” Tygart thinks so, too. He left the workshop on Tuesday thinking that sanctions were a last resort but “a viable option.” Is it truly a viable option, and will the antidoping agency act on it? A certain group of Russians might not be eager to learn the answers.

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