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Co-Chairman Smith Expresses Support for Vladimir Kara-Murza

Monday, February 06, 2017

WASHINGTON—Responding to reports that Russian democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, currently in a coma in a Russian hospital, was diagnosed with “acute poisoning by an undetermined substance,” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) released the following statement:

“I am deeply concerned by reports that, just as in 2015, Vladimir Kara-Murza was poisoned in Russia. Kara-Murza has been a champion of free and fair elections in Russia, and has fought bravely to hold Russian officials accountable for human rights violations.  Vladimir and his family are in my thoughts and prayers. We all hope that he recovers quickly–and I call upon the Russian government to take all measures to investigate this incident, and to bring those responsible to justice.”

Kara-Murza testified before Smith at a Helsinki Commission hearing in October 2015, several months after a suspected poisoning earlier that year. Kara-Murza was also the target of death threats before the 2016 Russian parliamentary elections.
 

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    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the one-year anniversary of Alexei Navalny’s arrest on January 17, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “In the past year, while Alexei Navalny has remained unjustly imprisoned, the Kremlin has doubled down on its absurd persecution of his anti-corruption organizations as ‘extremist,’” said Chairman Cardin. “Nevertheless, Mr. Navalny’s colleagues, friends and allies, in the face of grave threats, continue to risk their own freedom to expose Putin’s thuggery across Russia.” “Putin would not have gone to the trouble to imprison Alexei Navalny unless he perceived a serious threat to his power,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Mr. Navalny and his team across Russia were instrumental in revealing the ill-gotten gains of Putin and his cronies. This tells you all you need to know about why they are a target.” “During his imprisonment, Alexei Navalny has used his own suffering to call attention to the plight of the hundreds of other political prisoners in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “We have not forgotten him or others who are persecuted for their beliefs, and we look forward to a Russia in which they finally are free.” “Despite the Kremlin’s attempts to push Alexei Navalny out of public view and prevent him from challenging Putin, we will not stop calling for his release,” said Rep. Wilson. “Russians who challenge Putin should not have to fear for their safety in their own country.” In August 2020, Alexei Navalny was the victim of an assassination attempt by the FSB that used a Russia-developed chemical weapon in the Novichok family. He spent months recovering after being flown to Berlin for treatment. Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17, 2021, and was arrested at the airport. In February, a Russian judge sentenced Navalny to three and a half years in a prison colony for violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 case that is widely considered to be politically motivated. Previous time served under house arrest reduced his prison time to two years and eight months. In June, the Moscow City Court ruled that Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional networks would henceforth be considered “extremist” organizations, essentially outlawing these groups and criminalizing their activity. In September, Russian authorities opened a new probe against Navalny and his closest associates for creating and directing an “extremist network.” This, combined with other ongoing criminal investigations, could lead to additional jail time for Navalny and threaten those associated with his organizations, many of whom have been forced to flee Russia.

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  • Helsinki Commission Cautions Russia Against Dissolving Russian Human Rights Organization Memorial

    WASHINGTON—As the latest court proceedings conclude for Russian human rights group Memorial International, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “The Kremlin continues to twist Russia’s so-called justice system to punish civil society, opposition politicians, and independent media who dare to speak out against the abuses of Putin’s regime. The United States should raise the stakes and impose concrete consequences on any officials who support such vindictive action against the Russian patriots who defend the human rights of their fellow citizens.” In a December 17, 2021 letter, Chairman Cardin, Co-Chairman Cohen, Sen. Wicker, Rep. Wilson, and Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) urged President Joe Biden to sanction 17 Russian officials and associates involved in the harassment and prosecution of Memorial and its leadership. “The United States has a moral duty to prevent this attack on universal rights and freedoms,” they said. “Publicly sanctioning the Russian officials involved in the attack on Memorial and their enablers would be an effective way to support pro-democracy forces in Russia and deter perpetrators.” In November 2021, Russia’s Supreme Court notified Memorial that the General Prosecutor’s office was suing to dismantle the organization for alleged violations of Russia’s “foreign agent” laws. In a November 17 statement, the Helsinki Commission expressed concern about the organization’s potential dissolution, noting, “We continue to see an alarming increase in attacks on civil society, opposition politicians, and independent media in Russia. Now the Kremlin actively seeks to dismantle Memorial, a respected network of organizations dedicated to revealing and preserving the history of Soviet repression and fighting for political prisoners in Russia today. Memorial’s efforts to defend truth and human rights are essential and must be protected for generations to come.” Memorial, established in the final years of the Soviet Union by dissidents including Andrei Sakharov, is one of the most respected and enduring human rights groups in the region. Its local chapters focus on preserving the truth about Soviet repressions, particularly under Stalin, and honoring the memories of those lost. Memorial also maintains a comprehensive database of current political prisoners in Russia and continues to advocate for the rights of the people of Russia, especially in the North Caucasus. The Helsinki Commission has convened numerous events featuring Memorial representatives.  

  • Defending Ukraine, Deterring Putin

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Marc Veasey (TX-33),  convened a virtual briefing to evaluate the Russian regime’s actions and capabilities near Ukraine and assess potential options for U.S. and Western countermeasures to deter aggression and preserve Ukrainian sovereignty.  Panelists included Dr. Andrew Bowen of the Congressional Research Service, Robert Lee of Kings College London, Dr. Mary Vorotnyuk of the Royal United Services Institute, and Katsiaryna Shmatsina of the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague. The discussion was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Michael Hikari Cecire. Cecire began the discussion by describing the apparent urgency of the situation on Ukraine’s border, noting that more than 100,000 Russian troops and heavy offensive equipment had amassed in a potential war footing, in addition to thousands more troops already in states of high readiness and propositioned in and around Ukrainian territory. 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Dr. Bowen noted that Congress has played a significant role in supporting activities to bolster Ukraine’s defenses, including through the provision of lethal aid, and has also supported efforts to reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank in response to Russia’s aggressive actions. Robert Lee focused on Russian military capabilities currently arrayed at Ukraine’s border. He noted that tens of thousands of troops had been mobilized from Russia’s other geographic combatant commands and deployed to Ukraine’s border, including significant heavy offensive weaponry and specialized assets. According to some assessments, total Russian deployments may represent as much as two-thirds of its total combat power to in and around the Ukraine theater, suggesting a nationwide military mobilization and all the preparations for a major invasion. 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Co-Chairman Cohen also asked if the buildup today was proportionally similar to past buildups in 2014-2015, which was the last time Russian forces semi-overtly invaded Ukraine in large numbers. Lee replied that the current buildup is much more significant, though it is also true that the Ukrainian military is more capable today than it was in the past. Co-Chairman Cohen then inquired about past Russian casualties, which Lee described as being in the “hundreds” at least, though exact figures were not made publicly available. Co-Chairman Cohen then reiterated the gravity of the situation, and the seriousness with which he and the U.S. government was taking the issue. Cecire then introduced Dr. Maryna Vorotnyuk, who also made the point that the Russian regime’s full intentions were obscure, and not entirely knowable. However, she noted that the array of capabilities that the Kremlin has assembled on Ukraine’s border is suggestive, as are the demands the Kremlin has made in combination with the military buildup. On the latter point, she noted that there was an internal logic to Moscow linking its threatening posture over Ukraine with its demands with the West, because Russia’s war on Ukraine could be regarded as a kind of proxy war against the West as a whole. In a more comprehensive way, Russian demands seek a revised security architecture that would effectively undermine the sovereignty of Ukraine as well as other non-NATO states like Georgia, giving Russia free rein over its periphery. While this may be a nonstarter for the West, Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that Russia likely would settle for an accommodation from the West that would reduce Western involvement in the region and leave Ukraine and other countries weak and vulnerable to Russian pressure. While some may find such a route appealing, she noted, such a response would not likely lead to a more constructive Russia, and could even invite more aggression as Moscow’s intent was never solely about or limited to Ukraine. As such, it is important for the West to remain resolute in defending and advocating for Ukraine’s sovereignty. Katsiaryna Shmatsina spoke about Belarus’ role in the broader calculus. She recalled how, after Belarusian protests were being crushed by the regime, EU diplomatic leaders asked how Belarus might be used as an appendage of Russian strategic power. 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Veasey noted that in a past visit to Ukraine, the assessment was that Russia was not necessarily interested in taking and holding territory and asked whether this view was still accurate. Dr. Vorotnyuk replied that this was very likely the case, but ultimately that the likely Russian aim was to permanently weaken Ukraine and be able to “veto” its alignments with the West. Particular territorial objectives could also be under consideration, such as a land corridor from the Donbas to Crimea—both of which Russia already holds—or a particular city, such as Odesa, and its port access to the Black Sea. Rep. Veasey then asked why Ukraine, but not Georgia, was being targeted in this way. Lee responded that Georgia no longer threatens to retake the Russia-held separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force, and that Ukraine is a much larger country with a more capable military and economic capacity, which holds a unique place in Russia’s historical narrative. Rep. Veasey then raised the issue of corruption, which continues to be seen as a major issue in Ukraine as compared to, for example, Georgia, and asked whether this is a serious problem. Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that it was a major issue, but that it is not a justification for Russian aggression, and that Western assistance with Ukraine is very much helping to address issues like corruption and democratic governance. Related Information Panelist Biographies

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes Passage of Trap Provision in 2022 National Defense Authorization Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today welcomed the passage of the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) provision as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022. “By co-opting and undermining the rule of law to harass and intimidate dissidents and political opponents, corrupt regimes threaten our national security,” said Chairman Cardin. “Our provision will make it U.S. policy to fight exploitation of INTERPOL, including by naming and shaming member states that abuse its mechanisms. This amendment will protect the United States, our allies, and all those fighting or fleeing authoritarian regimes from extraterritorial and extrajudicial abuse.” “We’ve seen time and again how corrupt dictators take advantage of INTERPOL to intimidate and harass those who expose their immoral deeds, even after they have fled their homes and their country in search of safety,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The TRAP provision will protect these dissidents and ensure that our own institutions are not used against us—or them.” “There is no reason for any democracy, especially the United States, to be forced to play a part in authoritarian regimes’ blatant abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices,” said Sen. Wicker. “I am pleased Congress has taken action to name publicly the abusers, such as Russia and China, and prevent American law enforcement from having to do the dirty work of these repressive autocrats.” “INTERPOL should enable us to crack down on criminals worldwide,” said Rep. Wilson. “Instead, the criminals have taken over the institution, using it to target those who oppose them. The TRAP provision will protect the United States from this abuse and ensure that we do everything we can to restore the rule of law to INTERPOL.” “Increasing transparency and accountability at INTERPOL underscores the bipartisan commitment of the United States Senate to push back against countries, large or small, seeking to distort legitimate law enforcement cooperation to instead pursue political opponents or personal vendettas,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This new provision will strengthen protections for human rights defenders, political dissidents, and journalists, and pave the way for the international community to join the United States in pressing for reforms and standing against the abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices by China and Russia, among others.” The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act was introduced in 2021 in the Senate by Sen. Wicker and Chairman Cardin and in the U.S. House of Representatives by Co-Chairman Cohen and Rep. Wilson. The legislation makes fighting abuse of INTERPOL a key goal of the United States at the organization, mandates that the United States name the worst abusers of INTERPOL and examine its own strategy to fight INTERPOL abuse, and protects the U.S. judicial system from authoritarian abuse.

  • Russian Military Buildup to be Scrutinized at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: DEFENDING UKRAINE, DETERRING PUTIN Thursday, December 16, 2021 10:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3DHAGWu The Kremlin has dramatically increased its military activities and capabilities in and around Ukraine, leading to predictions that the regime may be preparing for an aggressive military operation in the coming months. Russian military movements have sufficiently concerned U.S. and allied observers that CIA Director William Burns was personally dispatched to Moscow to telegraph U.S. concerns. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also has added to a chorus of alarm, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has described Russia’s movements as preparations for an invasion. On December 7, President Biden held a two-hour phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the apparent buildup. The Helsinki Commission will convene a briefing to evaluate the Russian regime’s actions and capabilities near Ukraine and assess potential options for U.S. and Western countermeasures to deter aggression and preserve Ukrainian sovereignty. The briefing will include U.S. and international experts on Russian military capabilities and Eurasian security. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Dr. Andrew Bowen, Analyst in Russian and European Affairs, Congressional Research Service Dr. Maryna Vorotnyuk, Expert on Black Sea security; Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute Katsiaryna Shmatsina, Belarusian analyst on Eurasian politics and security; Visiting Fellow, European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague Robert Lee, Expert on Russian military capabilities; PhD candidate, Kings College London

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest November 2021

  • Dictators, Inc.

    Many American and other western corporations invest heavily in authoritarian regimes, particularly Russia and China. Such companies often claim that, thanks to their involvement, democratic values like human rights and the rule of law will spill over into dictatorships and transform them from within. Instead, they provide autocrats with new opportunities to both repress rights at home and exert influence abroad. On November 22, 2021 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe hosted a briefing examining the interplay between western business and dictators, particularly as it concerns human rights abuse. Panelists discussed the recent Russian elections, where Google and Apple censored content at the behest of the Putin regime; corporate censorship and other abuse on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party; and options for policy responses. Vladimir Milov, a Russian opposition politician and economist, discussed how American companies like Google and Apple could be coerced into succumbing to the Russian government’s censorship demands. He noted that the situation isn’t all bad: Google and Apple had resisted past censorship requests by the Russian government. However, the removal of an app created by Alexei Navalny’s organization to help coordinate protest votes in the 2021 Duma elections was problematic; there was nothing illegal about the content, and tech companies like Apple and Google removed them without communicating a legal explanation for doing so, Milov said. Milov suggested that first, companies should not give in to these types of demands by governments so as not to embolden them, and second, should make such communication with governments public to provide transparency. Matt Schrader, Advisor for China at the International Republican Institute, described how the Chinese Communist Party tries to influence other countries’ political systems by leveraging economic access. He pointed toward the People’s Republic of China’s use of its embassies abroad to form mutually beneficial relationships with businesses and wealthy individuals to influence political discourse and curry support for China. In the United States, for instance, this support can come in the form of lobbying against laws such as the Uyghur Human Rights Act, Schrader said. Another example, Schrader continued, is the film industry. China is a large market, and film companies are denied access to the Chinese market if they produce any films critical of China. Finally, Schrader pointed out the importance of the megaphone of celebrity in combating human rights violations. For example, efforts by U.S. tennis player Serena Williams and other athletes to raise awareness about missing Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai has led to serious discussion about moving the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, while the ongoing genocide of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang has not. Karen Sutter, Specialist in Asian Trade and Finance at the Congressional Research Service, focused on the Chinese government’s increased economic pressure on countries, organizations and individuals to conform to China. According to her, the line between the government’s use of its authority and its commercial interest has been blurred. This includes rulings on anti-trust, business licensing, and other matters. “China’s use of economic coercion to push through policy goals is intensifying,” Sutter said, adding that this coercion is not limited to individuals or companies operating in China, creating gaps in public awareness in third countries, and taking away the ability to have public, informed debates on issues related to China. Sutter elaborated on several tools the United States could use to respond to China, including examining Chinese tactics, acknowledging that China benefits from the U.S. interest in its market, and understanding how China uses measures and countermeasures that put American companies in the middle of disputes between the two governments. Sutter continued by explaining that this system of measures and countermeasures as well as the asymmetric access to the economy poses the greatest challenge. Asked whether there is any indication that China’s influence over American enterprises could position China for a military advantage, Sutter pointed toward the issue of dual-use technologies and technological transfer to the Chinese government itself. She questioned whether other countries would backfill such arrangements if the United States imposed restrictions, and then further asked if there was a good way to impose restraints on or consequences for malign Chinese behavior. Schrader added that China sees embeddedness in globalization as a source of power and seeks to position itself to benefit the most it can from technological and scientific innovation. On the question of companies like Apple or Google “decoupling” from Russia and China, Milov responded that these companies would reach a point at which it would no longer be worth it to operate in country. He suggested, however, that companies could operate in Russia without a physical presence and thus limit their exposure to coercion. Sutter added that decoupling is not limited to U.S. companies looking to leave China. Rather, Chinese industrial policy shows attempts towards becoming self-sufficient in the areas of aircraft, semiconductors, medical equipment, and other key areas. In the meantime, Sutter said to end her testimony, the United States and Europe could use the threat of decoupling as leverage. Related Information Panelist Biographies China’s Recent Trade Measures and Countermeasures: Issues for Congress

  • Remembering Sergei Magnitsky

    Madam President, 12 years ago this Tuesday, Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in Moscow at the hands of prison guards who, instead of treating him for the acute illness that his torturous, year-long detention provoked, beat him for over an hour.  He was found dead in his cell shortly thereafter.  His “crime” was exposing the largest tax fraud in Russian history, perpetrated by government officials.  He was 37 years old and left a loving family and many friends. At the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, we had heard of Sergei’s plight months earlier and we were saddened and outraged that such a promising life had been cut short and that so few expected his murderers to be held to any account. Impunity for the murder of journalists, activists, opposition politicians, and now a simple, honest citizen was, and remains, a depressing cliché in Russia under Vladimir Putin’s rule while his regime often ruthlessly punishes people for minor infractions of the law.  For those on the wrong side of the Kremlin, the message is clear — and chilling.  Even the most damning evidence will not suffice to convict the guilty nor will the most exculpatory evidence spare the innocent. The need for justice, in Russia, in this specific case does not diminish with the passage of time.  Moreover, the “doubling down” on the cover-up of Sergei’s murder and the massive tax heist he exposed implicates a wider swath of Russian officials with the guilt of this heinous crime.  It does not need to be this way, however; nor is it ever too late for a reckoning in this case in the very courtrooms that hosted the show trials that ultimately led to Sergei’s death and the obscenity of his posthumous conviction. As somber as this occasion is, there is reason for hope.  Vladimir Putin will not rule Russia forever and every passing day brings us closer to that moment when someone new will occupy his post.  Who that person will be and whether this transition will usher in a government in Russia that respects the rights of its citizens and abides by its international commitments remains unclear.  I hope it does.  A Russian government that returns to the fold of responsible, constructive European powers would increase global security, enhance the prosperity of its own citizens and trading partners, and bring new vigor to tackling complex international challenges such as climate change. Sergei’s work lives on in his many colleagues and friends who are gathering in London this week to celebrate his life and to recognize others, like him, who seek justice and peace in their countries, often facing, and surmounting, seemingly impossible obstacles.  All too often, they pay a heavy price for their courageous integrity. Sergei’s heroic legacy is exemplified in the global movement for justice sparked by his death, and in the raft of Magnitsky laws that began in this chamber and have now spread to over a dozen countries, including allies like Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.  Even as these laws help protect our countries from the corrupting taint of blood money and deny abusers the privilege of traveling to our shores, they also remind those who suffer human right abuses at the hands of their own governments that we have not forgotten them. Sergei Magnitsky is a reminder to all of us that one person can make a difference.  In choosing the truth over lies, and sacrifice over comfort, Sergei made a difference and will never be forgotten. Fifty-five years ago, Senator Robert F. Kennedy addressed the National Union of South African Students and spoke about human liberty.  He spoke about freedom of speech and the right “to affirm one's membership and allegiance to the body politic – to society.”  He also spoke about the commensurate freedom to be heard, “to share in the decisions of government which shape men's lives.”  And he stated that government “must be limited in its power to act against its people so that there may be … no arbitrary imposition of pains or penalties on an ordinary citizen by officials high or low”.  Senator Kennedy went on to say, Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. Madam President, Sergei Magnitsky stood up for an ideal.  He acted to improve the lot of others.  He struck at injustice.  He was – and remains – a ripple of hope.  On this sad anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky’s murder, let us all recommit ourselves to helping those in Russia, and around the world, who seek their rightful share in the governance of their own countries and who deserve the confidence of doing so without fear of harm.  If we do this, Sergei will not have died in vain. I am confident that one day, there will be a monument in stone and bronze to Sergei in his native Russia.  Until that day, the laws that bear his name will serve as his memorial.

  • Confronting Kremlin & Communist Corruption

    The Kremlin and the Chinese Communist Party, as well as other U.S. adversaries, practice kleptocracy, an authoritarian governance model in which political leaders routinely engage in illicit self-enrichment, maintain power through corrupt patronage networks, exploit democracies to conceal and protect stolen assets, and use strategic corruption as a tool of foreign policy. Kleptocracy now poses the most serious challenge to democratic governance worldwide. President Biden has declared countering corruption a core national security interest and Congress has responded with a series of legislative proposals to fight kleptocracy both at home and abroad. On November 18, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe brought together experts on kleptocracy to examine how the United States can confront foreign corruption. In particular, witnesses discussed the ways that the United States can fortify its system against the taint of corruption and hold kleptocrats to account. The first panel featured testimony by Representatives Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) and María Elvira Salazar (FL-27), while the second panel included witnesses Leonid Volkov, Chief of Staff to Alexei Navalny; Elaine Dezenski, Senior Advisor at the Center on Economic and Financial Power; and Scott Greytak, Advocacy Director at Transparency International. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing, noting that corruption both sustains dictatorships and helps them conduct foreign policy. Corruption also erodes democratic structures from within and creates patronage-based systems in which autocrats pay their cronies to retain power. Chairman Cardin thanked Representatives Malinowski and Salazar for their work on the counter-kleptocracy caucus and highlighted several of the counter-kleptocracy bills currently in the House and the Senate. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) stressed the importance of going after the enablers of corruption, not just the kleptocrats, saying, “They work with these folks to poison the system, so they are in essence agents of corruption.” He added that the United States needs to clean up its act at home and reinforce its defenses against the national security threat of corruption. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) called corruption a “pernicious foreign policy tool” that undermines and co-opts democratic systems, and highlighted the corruption and abuse of INTERPOL, which he described as being hijacked by mafia states and weaponized to pursue political opponents. China and Russia are the most prolific abusers of the system, he said, pointing towards the TRAP Act as a legislative tool to counter such behavior. Sen. Wicker, who co-leads the Global Magnitsky Reauthorization Act alongside Chairman Cardin, stressed the bipartisan nature of this issue. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) echoed Sen. Wicker’s statement, adding, “It is not an exaggeration to say that corruption is the new communism.” Rep. Wilson mentioned the six Helsinki Commission counter-kleptocracy bills in the House National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), underlining the bipartisan nature of the fight against corruption. “To protect American families we must fight corruption,” he said. During the first panel, Rep. Malinowski described fighting corruption as the key to winning the contest between democracy and dictatorship. Corruption is not only a way for autocrats to stay in power, he argued; it also is their greatest weakness. “When we catch them stealing from their people and putting their money in our banks, that is what embarrasses them,” he said. Referencing the six counter-kleptocracy bills currently pending in Congress, Rep. Malinowski suggested the United States. has potent tools to go after corruption. Rep. Salazar testified that corruption is a threat to freedom and human rights. Using Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua as examples, Salazar explained how corrupt leaders use stolen funds to finance campaigns that portray them as the saviors of the countries that they actually loot. Salazar pointed towards her work as founding member of the bipartisan Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy (CAFCAK), as well as the importance of the Combating Global Corruption Act, introduced by Chairman Cardin in the Senate, and the bipartisan ENABLERS Act Leonid Volkov began his testimony by describing a natural pathway from corruption to authoritarianism, born out of the necessity to hide crimes by silencing the press and co-opting the courts. He outlined how the Navalny anti-corruption initiative, through hundreds of investigations, found billions of dollars stolen from Russian taxpayers. What stood out, he said, was how successful kleptocrats need to operate in two countries: their home country, where the absence of rule of law allows them to steal, and another country, where the rule of law ensure the safety of their money. Therefore, corruption is a global phenomenon, which also necessitates fighting corruption on both fronts. Volkov endorsed the series of Helsinki Commission anti-kleptocracy bills and asked to “fight this fight together.” Scott Greytak described corruption as the lifeblood of autocrats abroad and pointed toward the Pandora Papers, which revealed that the United States is a leading secrecy jurisdiction for stashing offshore funds. He emphasized the importance of Congress ensuring that the six counter-corruption bills in the House National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) make it into the final NDAA. Doing so would enhance the U.S. ability to deny kleptocrats access to the financial system and increase transparency. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is legislation that Congress passes each year to make changes to the policies and organization of United States defense agencies and provide guidance on how military funding can be spent. Greytak also mentioned the Corporate Transparency Act and expressed hope that Congress would ensure that the new Treasury FinCEN rules are in keeping with the spirit of the law. He added that passing the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (FEPA), which would criminalize foreign officials requesting bribes from American companies, is an important step many of our allies already have taken. Lastly, Greytak emphasized the need to target enablers of kleptocracy in the U.S. via the ENABLERS act, to prevent crimes such as the theft of over $4 billion from the public investment fund of Malaysia, aided and abetted by U.S. law firms. Elaine Dezenski’s testimony focused on China and corruption through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). She described the BRI as a geopolitical enterprise through which China seeks to redefine its engagement with more than 140 countries. Because the BRI is designed to undercut normal development, it gets rid of safeguards such as anti-corruption, environmental, and labor standards as well as open and transparent bidding, according to Dezenski. By doing so, it creates long-term dependencies fueled by corruption and debt traps. More than 40 countries are now indebted to China equal to or greater than 10 percent of their GDP, Dezenski said. A slim window exists during which the U.S. can offer clean alternatives to the BRI, alongside increased efforts to educate citizens and support civil society to counter this threat. One key step, said Dezenski, is pivoting critical supply chains out of China and towards allied countries. Another step is taking care not to give domestic infrastructure contracts to foreign kleptocrats’ companies. Finally, countering disinformation and misinformation campaigns is of the essence. Responding to a series of questions from Co-Chairman Cohen, Volkov explained that his organization had to move outside of Russia due to being designated an extremist organization but nonetheless is working to produce content highlighting Russian corruption. On the topic of censorship by Apple and Google during the Duma elections in 2021, Volkov stated that the threat by the Russian regime to imprison employees of U.S. companies should they not go through with the censorship is serious and should not be dismissed. Asked by Rep. Wilson what he saw as Russia’s future in five to 10 years, Volkov explained that Putin is unpopular among Russia’s youth and that many people want change. Putin’s strength lies in his TV propaganda machine, which is less effective at reaching younger, more internet-savvy people, he said. Volkov explained that under Putin, Russia has more political prisoners than the Soviet Union ever had after Stalin and expressed hope that this would lead to cracks in the system and, finally, regime change. On the question of how present-day corruption differs from that of 30 years ago, Scott Greytak explained that corruption is more sophisticated than ever, aided by complex financial vehicles created by Western enablers which make it easier to move money. Responding to a question from Helsinki Commission Member Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), Greytak explained that although Russian and Chinese corruption are similar, Russia perfected state-run corruption, while China adopted corruption to grow its geo-political influence. Dezenski answered a question on China’s long-term view by explaining that the United States needs to be more strategic about the short-term implications of individual actions and ensure long-term commitment to democratic norms. Because China takes a longer view than the United States, they have outmaneuvered us, Dezenski said. Asked if any projects concerned her most, she answered any projects related to digital infrastructure, due to the risk of authoritarian regimes monitoring and managing communications lines. In addition, Dezenski mentioned projects that would give Beijing military influence, such as strategic ports in the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea. Chairman Cardin thanked the witnesses for their expert testimonies and said he looked forward to consulting with them on several of the points brought up. To end the hearing, the chairman pointed out South Korea as an example of a country that turned around its corruption problem, stating, “We can make change and plant the seeds to enhance the welfare of all the people.” Related Information Witness Biographies Bipartisan Counter-Kleptocracy Legislative Initiatives  Counter-Kleptocracy Measures Included in the House Defense Bill 

  • Authoritarian Abuse of INTERPOL

    Mr. WICKER. On November 23, the International Criminal Police Organization, better known as INTERPOL, will begin its annual General Assembly in Istanbul. INTERPOL is a vital global law enforcement network that helps police from different countries cooperate with each other to control crime. Unfortunately, it has also become a tool in the hands of despots and crooks who seek to punish dissidents and political opponents in an effort to turn other countries’ law enforcement against the rule of law. Rooting out this sort of abuse should be the top priority going in to the INTERPOL General Assembly. These abuses make a mockery of Interpol and are threatening its continued existence. INTERPOL's constitution cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the basis for police cooperation. Importantly and significantly, Article 3 of that declaration forbids INTERPOL from engaging in any activities of a political, military, religious or racial character. All 194 member nations have committed to uphold Article 3 and the entire INTERPOL constitution, so it is troubling. As a matter of fact, it's even worse than troubling. It's egregious that INTERPOL chose to host this year's General Assembly in Turkey. A country that has become one of the worst abusers of INTERPOL’s Red Notice and Blue Notice systems. Turkey has repeatedly weaponized INTERPOL to persecute and arrest government critics on politically motivated charges. Journalist Can Dundar is a prime example. Mr. Dundar is one of Turkey's most prominent media personalities and has received international awards for defending freedom of the press. In 2018, Turkey demanded that INTERPOL issue a red notice for Mr. Dundar's arrest. What had he done? He simply criticized his government. He had reported on the Turkish government supplying arms to an Islamist group in Syria. He was charged by a Turkish court with espionage and aiding a terrorist group. The group was never named. And sentenced to 27.5 years in prison in absentia. Thankfully, Germany has refused to extradite Mr Dundar, but this is the sort of thing we see from this year's host of the conference in June of this year. Turkish media reported that INTERPOL had rejected nearly 800 red notices sent by the Turkish government. A Swedish human rights group reported in 2016 after the failed coup in Turkey, that the Turkish government filed tens of thousands of INTERPOL notifications targeting persons who were merely critics and political opponents of the government. Some of these people were stranded in international airports, detained and handed over to Turkey, where they ended up in prison. There are also alarming signs that Turkey is trying to leverage this year's General Assembly to further its own authoritarian goals. This past June, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Havel's Saleem Kiran openly asserted that the General Assembly in Istanbul “will be an important opportunity to explain in detail our rightful position regarding our fight against terrorist organizations and our rejected notices.” Translation: Turkey plans to use this high level event to mislead and lie to the international community. They will no doubt try to explain why President Erdogan should be able to hunt down his critics in foreign countries using foreign law enforcement through INTERPOL. This will be a travesty, one that indeed threatens the legitimacy and future viability of INTERPOL. And of course, Turkey is not the only offender we could talk about. Russia, China and Venezuela have routinely misused Interpol to oppress their critics. The case of Bill Browder, a free critic of the Putin regime and advocate for the Magnitsky Act, is probably the most well-known example of such abuse. Vladimir Putin has issued no fewer than eight INTERPOL diffusions seeking to have Bill Browder extradited, none of which thankfully have been obeyed. These abuses should not be allowed to go on. INTERPOL needs protection on behalf of countries that actually believe in human rights - they believe in open dissent and the rule of law. Providing that protection is why I have introduced the Transnational Repression, Accountability and Prevention Act or TRAP Act. This is a bipartisan effort, Mr. President, with four Republican co-sponsors and four Democratic co-sponsors. This bipartisan legislation would fortify U.S. systems against INTERPOL abuse and would require that we use our influence to push for due process and transparency reforms at INTERPOL, American law enforcement should never be doing the work of foreign crooks and dictators. I hope that I can count on my colleagues in this chamber to support this much needed legislation, and I invite my colleagues to be added to the co-sponsor list. Thank you, Mr. President.

  • Helsinki Commission Alarmed by Attempted Liquidation of Memorial

    WASHINGTON—Following last week’s request by Russian prosecutors to liquidate the human rights group Memorial International and the Memorial Human Rights Center, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We continue to see an alarming increase in attacks on civil society, opposition politicians, and independent media in Russia. Now the Kremlin actively seeks to dismantle Memorial, a respected network of organizations dedicated to revealing and preserving the history of Soviet repression and fighting for political prisoners in Russia today. Memorial’s efforts to defend truth and human rights are essential and must be protected for generations to come.” In 2015, the Memorial Human Rights Center was designated a “foreign agent.” This label has been applied in a derogatory way to numerous human rights groups, independent media organizations, and related individuals to stifle or completely stop their work in the country. In 2016, Memorial International, the parent organization of the Memorial Human Rights Center, also was designated a “foreign agent.” On November 11, Russia’s Supreme Court notified Memorial International that the General Prosecutor’s office was suing to dismantle the organization for alleged violations of Russia’s “foreign agent” laws. The Supreme Court hearing is scheduled to take place on November 25. Memorial Human Rights Center will come before the Moscow City Court on November 23 to face liquidation for alleged “justification” of extremism and terrorism in its materials. Memorial, established in the final years of the Soviet Union by dissidents including Andrei Sakharov, is one of the most respected and enduring human rights groups in the region. Its local chapters focus on preserving the truth about Soviet repressions, particularly under Stalin, and honoring the memories of those lost. Memorial also maintains a comprehensive database of current political prisoners in Russia and continues to advocate for the rights of the people of Russia, especially in the North Caucasus. The Helsinki Commission has convened numerous events featuring Memorial representatives.

  • REMEMBERING AND HONORING SERGEI MAGNITSKY

    Mr. COHEN. Madam Speaker, today we remember and honor Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian tax lawyer who in 2008 uncovered a massive fraud scheme of hundreds of millions of dollars perpetrated by law enforcement officers. In any normal situation, Mr. Magnitsky would have been praised for his efforts. But this was Putin's Russia, and he was arrested by the very people whose nefarious dealings he exposed. The conditions Mr. Magnitsky faced in prison for almost a year were inhumane, and on November 16, 2009, already weakened and seriously ill, he did not survive the beatings he received from prison guards. Twelve years later, Putin still controls Russia. Throughout the country, hundreds of prisoners of conscience languish behind bars because of their political opinions, their activism, and even their religious beliefs. Thanks to Sergei Magnitsky's determination to stand up for what is right in the face of overwhelming state power, the laws that bear his name ensure they will not be forgotten. His story is the story of many others--not only in Russia, but worldwide. Exposing human rights abuses and corruption carries many risks in many countries. Yet there are many brave people who continue to reveal the truth. The Magnitsky Act has become a living memorial to Sergei Magnitsky's bravery. We in Congress originally passed this legislation to sanction those involved in the death of Mr. Magnitsky. Since then, we have expanded it to cover the world's worst human rights abusers. What began here has spread internationally as the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Canada have all adopted their own Magnitsky sanctions. Many others, such as Japan, Australia, and Taiwan, are considering their own legislation. Magnitsky sanctions have completely changed the nature of the fight for human rights and against corruption. They not only protect our own system against abuse but also provide a measure of justice to those denied it abroad. We will keep encouraging our democratic allies to adopt similar sanctions so that one day there will be no safe haven left for kleptocrats and their blood money. Finding justice for Sergei Magnitsky in Putin's Russia seems more impossible with each passing year. However, we have not forgotten his tragic story and we will never stop calling for accountability for those who imprisoned him and ultimately killed him; those who enabled corruption and abetted murder. We are determined to not let his memory fade. Instead, he will serve as an indelible reminder of all those who suffer under corrupt regimes.

  • Helsinki Commission Recalls Legacy of Sergei Magnitsky

    WASHINGTON—On the 12-year anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: "Sergei Magnitsky’s heroic legacy is exemplified in the global movement for justice sparked by his death,” said Chairman Cardin. “Even as Magnitsky laws help protect the United States and other countries from the corrupting taint of blood money and deny abusers the privilege of traveling to our shores, they also remind those who suffer human right abuses at the hands of their own governments that they are not forgotten." “Finding justice for Sergei Magnitsky in Putin’s Russia seems more impossible with each passing year,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “However, we have not forgotten his tragic story and we will never stop calling for accountability for those who imprisoned him and ultimately killed him; those who enabled corruption and abetted murder. We are determined to not let his memory fade. Instead, he will serve as an indelible reminder of all those who suffer under corrupt regimes.” “It would have been much easier and much safer for Sergei Magnitsky if he had remained silent—but he was relentless in his desire to expose the truth,” said Sen. Wicker. “In a Russia ruled by Vladimir Putin, Mr. Magnitsky paid for it with his life. We look forward to the day when, in Russia and elsewhere, uncovering corruption is a public service rather than a death sentence.” “Sergei Magnitsky spent the last year of his life in prison because he refused to stop fighting for what was right,” said Rep. Wilson. “In honoring Sergei Magnitsky’s legacy today, we recall the many other political prisoners like him who have endured horrific conditions and even death simply for speaking truth to power. No one should have to experience what he did.” In 2008, Sergei Magnitsky, who advised Hermitage Capital Management in a dispute over alleged tax evasion in Russia, discovered a $230 million fraud being committed by Russian law enforcement officers assigned to the case. Magnitsky reported the fraud to the authorities and was arrested soon after by the same officers he had accused. For almost a year, Magnitsky was held in squalid prison conditions, denied visits from his family, and beaten by guards. Despite developing serious health conditions, he was denied medical attention. On November 16, 2009, Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death in his cell. He had been imprisoned for 358 days, just seven days short of the maximum legal pre-trial detention period in Russia. In 2010, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act, directing the U.S. Secretary of State to publish a list of individuals involved in Sergei’s detention and death, and enabling the government to deny these individuals entry to the United States and freeze their American assets. The bill was reintroduced in the next Congress as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. This version covered all individual who commit extrajudicial killings, torture or otherwise egregiously violate the human rights of activists or whistleblowers in Russia. On December 14, 2012, the Magnitsky Act was signed into law, establishing severe consequences for the worst human rights violators in Russia. In 2015, Chairman Cardin introduced the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to expand the authorities established by the original Magnitsky Act to include the worst human rights violators and those who commit significant acts of corruption around the world. It became law in December 2016.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Probe Ties Between Corporations and Dictators

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: DICTATORS, INC. Monday, November 22, 2021 10:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3qKc5NW Many American and other western corporations invest heavily in authoritarian regimes, particularly Russia and China. Such companies often claim that, thanks to their involvement, democratic values like human rights and the rule of law will spill over into dictatorships and transform them from within. Instead, they provide autocrats with new opportunities to both repress rights at home and exert influence abroad. This briefing will examine the interplay between western business and dictators, particularly as it concerns human rights abuse. Panelists will discuss the recent Russian elections, where Google and Apple censored content at the behest of the Putin regime; corporate censorship and other abuse on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party; and options for policy responses. The following panelists are scheduled to participate:  Vladimir Milov, Russian opposition politician and economist Matt Schrader, Advisor for China, Center for Global Impact, International Republican Institute Karen Sutter, Specialist in Asian Trade and Finance, Congressional Research Service

  • Threat of Foreign Corruption to Be Explored at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: CONFRONTING KREMLIN & COMMUNIST CORRUPTION Thursday, November 18, 2021 10:30 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room G-50 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The Kremlin and the Chinese Communist Party, as well as other U.S. adversaries, practice kleptocracy, an authoritarian governance model in which political leaders routinely engage in illicit self-enrichment, maintain power through corrupt patronage networks, exploit democracies to conceal and protect stolen assets, and use strategic corruption as a tool of foreign policy. Kleptocracy now poses the most serious challenge to democratic governance worldwide.  President Biden has declared countering corruption a core national security interest and Congress has responded with a series of legislative proposals to fight kleptocracy both at home and abroad. This hearing will bring together experts on kleptocracy to examine how the United States can confront foreign corruption. In particular, witnesses will discuss the ways that the United States can fortify its system against the taint of corruption and hold kleptocrats to account. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Representative Tom Malinowski (NJ-07), Member of Congress, Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy Representative María Elvira Salazar (FL-27), Member of Congress, Member of the Congressional Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy Leonid Volkov, Chief of Staff to Alexei Navalny Elaine Dezenski, Senior Advisor, Center on Economic and Financial Power, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Scott Greytak, Advocacy Director, Transparency International U.S. Office

  • Fighting Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists

    By Arwen Struthers, Max Kampelman Fellow​ In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly declared November 2 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists to commemorate the lives of Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont, two journalists who were kidnapped and killed in a targeted attack on that day. Since their deaths, their killers have walked free with complete impunity; there is no justice in sight. Unfortunately, cases where authorities respond to crimes against journalists with impunity for the perpetrators rather than justice for the victims are not outliers. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that “in over eight out of 10 cases where a journalist has been targeted for murder, their killers go free.” Impunity often extends beyond cases where journalists are murdered to failure to conduct a proper investigation into other crimes against journalists, such as threats and non-fatal attacks. Complete impunity is not uncommon and presents one of the greatest challenges for media freedom advocates and democratic states around the world today. Freedom of expression and free press are core democratic principles that protect individual liberties, promote discussion in public squares, and contribute to the spread of information. The harmful, cyclical nature of impunity endangers states and individuals as it impedes upon media freedom, violates human rights, and threatens democratic values. Natalya Estemirova Natalya Estemirova was a Russian investigative journalist and a leading defender of human rights in Chechnya for nearly two decades. Despite threats from local authorities, she dedicated her life to calling out injustice. She regularly reported on abuses and violations committed by authorities at the national and local level, and her work was published by sources like Novaya Gazeta and Kavkazsky Uzel. In 2006, she met with the Helsinki Commission to share her findings on human rights violations. On July 15, 2009, Natalya Estemirova was abducted and murdered. Over 12 years later, little has been done to bring her killers to justice. On August 31, 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Russian government failed to properly investigate her murder. There has been no conviction and those involved in the murder of Natalya Estemirova continue to walk free. The Dangers of Impunity Across the globe, impunity jeopardizes journalists and the media environments in which they operate. It is both a symptom of broader systemic problems in states, as well as an environmental contributing factor which encourages further crimes against journalists. In an October 2021 Helsinki Commission hearing on media freedom in the OSCE region, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro explained that examining individual cases of crimes against journalists and addressing each as it arises is not enough. To best tackle the problems created by violations of media freedom and attacks on journalists, human rights advocates must examine the broader picture. When discussing cases of crimes against journalists, Ribeiro said, “All combined, they all create a landscape, an atmosphere, that silence[s] all the critical voices.”  Crimes against journalists are often efforts to censor journalists who are bringing attention to injustice and corruption. By examining the broader picture rather each individual crime against the press, deeply rooted issues – such as government corruption and authoritarianism - will be exposed. To protect journalists in the future, these issues must be addressed first. At the same hearing, Robert Mahoney, the Deputy Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, explained that the failure to administer justice not only creates a landscape where there are fewer voices expressing themselves, but also encourages more crimes against journalists in the future. “Impunity will only send a message that journalists’ lives are cheap and that those – whether it’s criminal gangs or whether it’s governments – that want to silence them can, for a few thousand dollars, hire an assassin and get rid of the problem,” he said. Impunity demonstrates to other journalists they may be freely targeted by those they criticize without any protection from the law. It creates a painful choice: are they bullied into silence or do they risk their lives? Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow One of the most important tools that can be used to help end impunity is multilateral, multi-level pressure. When international organizations and their members, such as the OSCE and its participating States, put pressure on those countries where authorities fail to adequately respond to crimes against journalists, they begin to break the dangerous cycle. Failing to call out impunity as injustice further feeds the emboldening cycle of impunity, but consistent pressure from outside forces can help that cycle crack. Domestic pressure also can have an impact. In February 2018, investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were killed in a targeted attack in Slovakia. In response, the people of Slovakia took to the streets in protest of his death, resulting in the resignation of several top government officials. A Slovakian Supreme Court decision in June 2021 overturned the acquittal of two suspects, ruling that the lower court did not properly examine the evidence. The government’s response to the protests and pressure from the international community—its willingness to continue to prosecute those involved in the murders—demonstrates that external pressure works in putting a stop to impunity. In this case, there is hope that justice is on the horizon. When local communities, countries, and multilateral organizations all maintain pressure upon individual countries for their human rights and media freedom failures, governments who enable or are responsible for crimes against journalists begin to feel the heat. 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, dedicated his award to his slain colleagues, including Natalya Estemirova. In a 2009 Helsinki Commission briefing, Muratov said, “In any encounter with representatives of the Russian political establishment and government, please, bring up this meeting. Please ask these uncomfortable questions.” Joining forces with other defenders of media freedom and human rights and calling attention in public spaces to the failings of countries is one way to effectively combat impunity and protect journalists. On International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, supporters of media freedom should affirm their commitment to protecting the media and fighting against impunity crimes against journalists. To ensure that the work done by journalists around the world – the work done by Natalya Estemirova and others like her – will not be silenced, governments must lend their support and protection.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest October 2021

  • Experts raise alarm bells in Congress over ‘Europe’s most contested domain’

    With a handful of frozen conflicts, hybrid warfare, rising autocracy, and political instability, the Black Sea region may be Europe’s most volatile and most overlooked. This week, policy experts are testifying in Congress and calling for the United States to step up its involvement in the Black Sea region, a critical geopolitical crossroads where U.S. allies and adversaries coexist. “The region is Europe’s most contested domain,” said Ian Brzezinski, a former deputy assistant Defense secretary for Europe and NATO who testified to Congress on Wednesday. “It’s where you have the most intense confrontation and the most violent conflict in Europe in the last decade and a half. It’s high time we start addressing what needs to be done to bring greater peace and stability to that region,” Brzezinski told National Journal. Last week, Russian fighter jets intercepted two U.S. bombers over the Black Sea while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was visiting Romania, a member of the European Union and a NATO ally that hosts nearly 1,000 U.S. servicemembers. During his trip, Austin also visited two other Black Sea countries, Georgia and Ukraine, a move many saw as a sign that the U.S. was beginning to focus on the region ahead of a key NATO ministerial meeting. High on the agenda during Wednesday’s congressional hearing, however, was the U.S. relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally that under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had an increasingly fraught relationship with the West. Despite being part of the Western military alliance, Turkey has consistently opposed strengthening NATO’s presence in the Black Sea and courted Russia, opting to purchase a Russian missile-defense system that military experts say poses a risk to NATO equipment. “We have got to repair our relationship with Turkey. It’s not impossible. Erdoğan is a deal-maker,” said Jim Townsend, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former deputy assistant Defense secretary European and NATO policy, who also testified Wednesday. Over the weekend, Erdoğan ordered the country’s Foreign Ministry to declare 10 ambassadors, including the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, persona non grata after they called for the release of an imprisoned civil-society leader named Osman Kavala. Erdoğan later walked back the statement, but the incident highlighted the volatility of Turkey’s relationship with the West. “Because Turkey is pursuing its own Russia-friendly policy and is often antagonistic towards the U.S., that makes our Black Sea policy so much more difficult,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, who argues that NATO allies should be more active in the region. Sen. Ben Cardin, the chair of the Helsinki Commission, said the U.S. and Turkey share many interests in the Black Sea region but that shouldn’t stop Washington from speaking out on human rights. “Mr. Kavala, a Turkish philanthropist, has been in detention for four years despite being acquitted by a Turkish court," Cardin said in an email. "In their joint statement, the ambassadors simply asked that Turkey adhere to its international obligations and domestic law. “This kind of straight talk is important among NATO allies and did not warrant such a disproportionate response.” Despite the tensions with Turkey, Russia is the primary adversary in the region. Many lawmakers note that Moscow has trampled the rules-based international order by invading its neighbors and propping up separatists to prevent countries along the Black Sea from forming closer ties with the West. Russian forces currently occupy around 20 percent of Georgian territory and support separatists in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They also annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014—in large part to maintain access to the Black Sea—and support pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Europe, said she convened Wednesday’s hearing to learn how lawmakers can holistically approach the region to address patterns of Russian encroachment. “Over the last two decades, the Black Sea has become an increasingly important region for Russia, which has repeatedly disregarded international norms to expand control of the region, waging war and deploying illegal and belligerent tactics to secure these goals,” Shaheen told National Journal. “Russia has made it clear that it is willing to exert economic, military, and political power to thwart NATO expansion and expand its control in the Black Sea.” Experts are arriving in Congress with a laundry list of recommendations, including building up Bulgaria's and Romania’s navies, sending brigade combat teams to both countries, investing in initiatives to counter Russian disinformation, and providing Ukraine with more lethal weaponry. Some are advocating for the creation of a NATO readiness action plan for the Black Sea, and for moving forward with NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Both countries are angling to join the Western military alliance. Still, the alliance’s commitment to collective defense prevents countries already in a state of conflict from entering, a fact that Russia exploits. Because Georgia is not yet a NATO member, the U.S. recently renewed a six-year security pact with Tbilisi designed to bolster the defense capabilities of the country’s military. The U.S. is moving away from training battalions in Georgia and will focus instead on building sustainable institutional capabilities at the executive levels of the military. Still, experts warn that nearly all the countries in the region are dealing with political instability, Russian interference, or both. Georgia, heading for a second round of local elections on Saturday, has been accused of Democratic backsliding. Romania and Bulgaria, both EU members, are also in contentious election cycles and debates over government formation that will determine their future political trajectories. Ruslan Trad, an author researching Russian influence in Bulgaria, told National Journal there are several popular pro-Russian political movements in Bulgaria. Russian spies are active in the country and allegedly monitored European Union leaders during their visits. There’s also an urgent need to counter Russian disinformation and anti-NATO propaganda in the country, Trad said. What’s most important, said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general now at the Center for European Policy Analysis, is to have a robust strategy for the entire region. “Having a strategy for the region has to be the first priority because then you can develop the right policies for each of the countries in the region,” Hodges said. The Biden administration is now working on a global-force-posture review, which should shed light on U.S. policy towards the region, and the State Department is also developing a Black Sea strategy. Alina Polyakova, the president of CEPA and another witness in Wednesday’s hearing, said it would be important to pinpoint the specific areas in which each partner country in the region can contribute to broader security. “The Black Sea region is critical to broader transatlantic stability,” Polyakova told senators. “It is where Russia, Europe, the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus come together, and it’s also the locus of the Kremlin’s test of the alliance’s credibility and resolve.”

  • Russia Slams 'Maniacal' U.S. Attempt to Sanction Country's Elites

    U.S. lawmakers' proposal to sanction members of Russia's elite over alleged human rights violations has been called "maniacal" by Moscow's envoy to Washington, D.C. Anatoly Antonov's remark come as diplomatic maneuvering continues between the U.S. and Russia to resolve a stand-off over embassy staff at missions in both countries. The Magnitsky Act authorizes the U.S. government freeze assets, and ban those suspected of human rights offences—was invoked by Tom Malinowski, a Democrat Representative and John Curtis (R-UT) last month in an amendment to the defense budget bill. Their amendment calls on the Biden administration to determine within 180 days whether 35 Russian officials and prominent figures meet the criteria to be sanctioned under the act. On the proposed blacklist are Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the owner of Chelsea soccer club, Roman Abramovich, and prime minister Mikhail Mishustin. In response to a media question about the move, Antonov said the "maniacal persistence of local legislators trying to bring down Russian-American relations is bewildering," and that the "attempt to impose restrictions on 35 Russians under a completely contrived pretext is a clear example of this." He said that the motive was "to create among the voters the illusion of 'fighting the enemies of America'...instead of dealing with the urgent problems of its own country." "We call on members of Congress to abandon destructive approaches," he added in comments reported by state news agency Tass. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) have also introduced a measure on October 8 also requiring the Biden administration to evaluate the 35 figures for sanctions. Russian media outlets reported the proposed sanctions list in September although emphasized the process was in its early stages and that even if it is passed by Congress, it would still need to be backed by the administration of President Joe Biden. The list had been provided to the U.S. government and the EU in February by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, or FBK, linked to jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny, which has since been declared an extremist organisation by a Russian court. Navalny's poisoning by Novichok nerve agent was blamed on the Kremlin although it denied responsibility. In the aftermath of his poisoning and jailing, U.S sanctions were imposed but the opposition activist's group has alway called for tougher measures for those in the inner circle of President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov called for a truce of sorts over a spat over staffing at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Consular services at the American mission have been hindered after Russia banned it from employing local staff as part of tit-for-tat sanctions. "The Russian side stressed that hostile anti-Russian actions would not remain without retaliation, but Moscow did not seek further escalation," Ryabkov said in a statement reported by Tass. The issue was discussed during a meeting with U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland whose three-day visit to Moscow will also include talks with Putin's foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov, according to the Kremlin. Newsweek has contacted the State Department for comment.

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