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Co-Chairman Smith Responds to Turkish Government Move to Block Twitter

Friday, March 21, 2014

WASHINGTON - Responding to the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s action in blocking access to Twitter in Turkey, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, released the following statement:

“I urge the Prime Minister to answer his critics directly rather than try to silence them. This would show respect for the Turkish people and for his responsibilities as an elected official. In recent years the Turkish government has shown a troubling propensity to target journalists as well as Web sites and social media, as has been amply documented by the United States government and independent human rights monitors. Blocking Twitter violates Turkey’s commitments in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to free expression and freedom of the media.”

According to reports, Prime Minister Erdogan used court orders to block Twitter in Turkey on Thursday, March 21. The Prime Minister himself has a Twitter account, however, as does the President, who tweeted his hope that the ban would be short-lived. The U.S. Department of State reports comprehensively on human rights in Turkey in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Co-Chairman Smith is also the Chairman of the House panel that oversees human rights worldwide and the author of the Global Online Freedom Act, H.R. 491, human rights legislation that would promote Internet freedom around the world.

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Patrick Merloe, National Democratic Institute, Kathleen Newland, Migration Policy Institute, and Ethel Brooks, Rutgers University, served as Public Members of the delegation, addressing democratic elections, freedom of movement, and the situation of Romani people in the OSCE region respectively. Public Members have traditionally been included in U.S. delegations to OSCE human dimension meetings as a means of bringing special expertise to the U.S. delegations and to promote greater knowledge of the OSCE process in civil society. Highlights of This Year’s Meeting The severe crackdown in Belarus which followed elections last December was a focus of attention throughout the two-week meeting, both in formal sessions and special side events. During the final session, the United States delivered a statement focused on the use of the Moscow Mechanism regarding Belarus -- an OSCE tool used in exceptional circumstances to conduct fact-finding regarding extreme human rights concerns. The mechanism had been invoked in April by 14 participating States and a report was presented to the OSCE Permanent Council by the Mechanism Rapporteur, Professor Emmanuel Decaux, on May 28. NGOs also demonstrated throughout the meeting on behalf of Belarusian political prisoner Alex Bielatskiy. The United States also raised issues which remain unresolved following the 2003 invocation of the Moscow Mechanism regarding Turkmenistan. In particular, Ambassador Johnson drew attention to the continued disappearance of Ambassador Batyr Berdiev, the former representative of Turkmenistan to the OSCE. Although Turkmenistan officials did not to participate in the HDIM, human rights groups concerned with Turkmenistan were present and members of the opposition-in-exile made a statement expressing their willingness to return to Turkmenistan and participate in the February 2012 presidential elections. They also called for the OSCE to conduct a full election observation mission for those elections. In its opening statement, the United States observed that Kazakhstan had failed to fully implement the commitments on domestic reform it had made in 2007 in Madrid upon receiving the Chairmanship for 2010, that leading human rights activist Yevgeniy Zhovtis remained in prison as a result of a trial that lacked due process, that Kazakhstan had adopted measures in a one-party parliament giving the current president continued power and immunity from prosecution for life and had held a poorly-conducted snap presidential election following an attempt to push through a referendum to obviate future elections for the incumbent. Although Kazakhstan protested the U. S. characterization of 2010 as “a year of missed opportunities for reform,” Kazakhstan’s adoption of a new restrictive religion law during the course of the human dimension meeting illustrated the very point the United States was making. In fact, of the topics restricted to three-hour sessions, the subject of religious liberties was the most oversubscribed, with Kazakhstan’s new religion law generating particular criticism. As at previous meetings, the allocation of time during the meeting was highly problematic, with speaking time at some of the sessions limited to only one or two minutes to accommodate dozens desiring the floor, while other sessions ended early with time unused. Other real-time developments during the HDIM also found their way into discussions. Following the outbreak of fighting on September 27 at a Kosovo border crossing with Serbia, Serbian representatives at the meeting engaged in a sharply worded exchange with Albanian officials. (Serbia's engagement at the meeting was of particular note in light of Belgrade's bid to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2014.) The outbreak of anti-Roma rioting in every major Bulgarian town or city during the HDIM underscored the urgency of addressing the chronic human rights problems affecting Roma as well as the acute and escalating crises. Many participants also raised concern regarding continuing human rights abuses against ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan in the wake of widespread violence last year and in advance of Kyrgyzstani elections in October. During the formal sessions, NGOs demonstrated on behalf of Kyrgyzstani political prisoner Azhimzhon Askarov. The United States engaged fully in all aspects of the meeting, holding bilateral meetings with other OSCE participating States and extensive consultations with NGOs. The United States also organized two side events. The first focused on on the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Professor Louise Teitz from the Hague Permanent Bureau (an intergovernmental organization that administers this and other Hague Conventions), and Corrin Ferber from the Department of State, made presentations, with additional comments provided by Consul General Linda Hoover, U.S. Embassy Warsaw. The second event focused on fundamental freedoms in the digital age. DAS Thomas Melia moderated the discussion, which included comments by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic; Agata Waclik-Wejman, policy counsel for Google; and Nataliya Radzina, a Belarusian journalist who faces a lengthy prison sentence in Belarus. Conclusions The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting served as an important forum for the United States to raise issues of concern, both formally and informally, and to hold extensive consultations with governments, OSCE officials, and representatives of civil society. That said, this year's HDIM was somewhat diminished relative to past meetings. First, member states of the European Union appeared divided or preoccupied (or both). As a consequence, on a number of subjects – for example, the session that included migrant workers, refugees, and displaced persons -- there was neither a coordinated European Union statement nor statements by individual EU member states speaking in their national capacity. This voice was missed. Second, the level of participation on the part of governments as well as civil society was reduced. This may be in part due to economic factors. But it may also reflect other factors. Prior to the HDIM, for example, Belarus and Russia dragged out the adoption of an agenda until the last possible moment, making it especially hard for NGOs to plan their participation. In addition, OSCE has, in recent years, scheduled so many human dimension meetings throughout the year that it is difficult for government and non-governmental experts to cover them all. (In addition to the discussion of tolerance and non-discrimination at the HDIM, those issues have been or will be addressed at three different ad hoc meetings, as well as one of the Supplementary Human Dimension Implementation Meetings.) The Lithuanian Chairmanship also scheduled some meetings in Vienna during the HDIM, although the modalities call for all Vienna meetings to be suspended during the HDIM to facilitate participation by the representatives to the OSCE. Similarly, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly fall meeting overlapped with the final sessions of the HDIM. In fact, the modalities for the OSCE's human dimension activities were a dominant theme during the HDIM's closing session -- presaging the opening of discussions in Vienna on that issue held immediately after the HDIM at the insistence of Belarus. While many governments, including the U.S., believe the way in which the OSCE organizes its human dimension activities could be improved, the discussions themselves risk being held hostage by those countries inimical to the OSCE's human rights work.

  • Combating Anti-Semitism in the OSCE Region: Taking Stock of the Situation Today

    By most accounts, and thanks to the work of many courageous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) the despicable evil of anti-Semitism has decreased in most parts of the OSCE region in recent years – but it still remains at higher levels than in 2000. This is simply unacceptable, and it was the topic discussed in this hearing. Concerns raised included political transitions in the Arab world and how they might affect Muslim-Jewish relations, including in Europe; the importance of engagement with Muslim communities in Europe; and growing nationalist and extremist movements that target religious and ethnic minorities.  Additionally the roles of the OSCE, U.S. government, and Congress in addressing continuing issues of anti-Semitism at home and abroad were discussed.

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

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

  • Belarus: The Ongoing Crackdown and Forces for Change

    Nearly one year after the brutal post-December 19, 2010, election crackdown, the human rights picture in Belarus remains bleak. Brave and committed individuals who attempt to promote a democratic future for Belarus continue to be crushed by the dictatorial Lukashenka regime. Civil society continues to be under assault, with NGOs facing ever greater constraints, and freedoms of assembly and expression are severely curtailed. Yet the ongoing economic turmoil has produced growing disaffection, as manifested in Lukashenka’s plummeting popular support, and a changing domestic and international environment. The hearing will focus on the extent and impact of the crackdown on the lives of its victims and on the larger society, and what more can be done by the U.S. and our European partners to promote democratic change in Belarus.

  • From Arab Spring to Coptic Winter: Sectarian Violence and the Struggle for Democratic Transition in Egypt

    On Sunday, October 9, 2011, 25 people were killed and more than 300 injured when the Egyptian military attacked a peaceful group of Coptic Christians protesting the burning of a church in Aswan. In what has been deemed the “Massacre at Maspero,” referring to the location of the demonstration, witnesses say the army fired on the demonstrators with live ammunition and plowed into the crowd with armored vehicles. The military denied the use of live ammunition and claimed that their soldiers were attacked by an armed mob. The military has arrested at least 28 people, almost all Copts, including prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, and brought them before military prosecutors. The hearing focused on violence perpetrated against the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the implications of the events for that community and the current Egyptian leadership, and prospects for the consolidation of democracy in Egypt.

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