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Co-Chairman Wicker Urges Swiss Government to Restore Confidence in Integrity of Magnitsky Investigation

Thursday, July 02, 2020

WASHINGTON—In a letter to Swiss Ambassador Jacques Pitteloud released today, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) urged the Government of Switzerland to take the necessary steps to restore confidence in the integrity of the Magnitsky investigation and ensure its timely resolution.

The letter reads in part:

“Sergei Magnitsky’s story has become emblematic of the struggle of many Russians to fight the corruption of their own government at great risk to themselves. While I have been dispirited by the brutality shown the Russian journalists and civil society activists who carry on Magnitsky’s legacy of bravely telling the truth, I am also heartened by the tenacity of these individuals. They depend on countries like ours to hold their oppressors to account.

“Given all that is at stake, I was surprised to learn that a Swiss Federal Police officer, Vincenz Schnell, went on a bear-hunting trip with Russian prosecutors paid for by Russian oligarchs. Though he has now been found guilty of accepting this and other gifts from Russia, the Magnitsky case has lingered for years and will be nearing its end when the statute of limitations expires in 2023.”

Schnell’s former boss and top Swiss law enforcement official, Federal Prosecutor Michael Lauber, currently is facing impeachment proceedings following allegations of mishandling high-profile corruption and money laundering cases. For example, Lauber was forced to recuse himself from a U.S.-led investigation of corruption within FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, after it was discovered he was meeting with FIFA’s president. Russian officials were among the targets of this investigation for bribes paid to secure the World Cup.

The full text of the letter can be found below:

Dear Ambassador Pitteloud,

I was troubled to learn that the most senior Russia specialist in Swiss law enforcement with responsibility for investigating the Magnitsky case was caught accepting gifts from Russian officials. The reports indicate that these gifts were meant to stymie the swift administration of justice in this case.

As a member of the Helsinki Commission, I have followed this case from its inception. Sergei Magnitsky’s story has become emblematic of the struggle of many Russians to fight the corruption of their own government at great risk to themselves. While I have been dispirited by the brutality shown the Russian journalists and civil society activists who carry on Magnitsky’s legacy of bravely telling the truth, I am also heartened by the tenacity of these individuals. They depend on countries like ours to hold their oppressors to account.

Given all that is at stake, I was surprised to learn that a Swiss Federal Police officer, Vincenz Schnell, went on a bear-hunting trip with Russian prosecutors paid for by Russian oligarchs. Though he has now been found guilty of accepting this and other gifts from Russia, the Magnitsky case has lingered for years and will be nearing its end when the statute of limitations expires in 2023.

The last Swiss actions that I am aware of in the Magnitsky case were the 2011 freezing of $11 million against Olga and Vladlen Stepanov and the 2012 freezing of $8 million against Prevezon. In the United States, we have added the Stepanovs to the Magnitsky sanctions list, where their assets are frozen and visas cancelled for their role in the Magnitsky case. U.S. law enforcement also prosecuted Prevezon for using proceeds from the Magnitsky case to purchase New York real estate and Prevezon has now paid a $6 million settlement to our government.

My Senate colleagues and I are committed to seeing justice done in the Magnitsky case and preventing Russian kleptocrats from reaping the proceeds of corruption. I hope to hear from you as to what steps your government has taken and will take in the future to restore confidence in the integrity of this investigation and ensure its timely resolution.

Sincerely,

Roger F. Wicker
Co-Chairman

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
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    On May 21, 2020 the Trump administration reportedly decided to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty to be effective at the end of this year. To express strong opposition, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) recently authored an amendment to H.R.6395, the William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, expressing the sense of Congress that the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies did not comply with a legal requirement to notify Congress; did not assert that any other Treaty signatory had breached the Treaty; and was made over the objections of NATO allies and regional partners.  “I am proud to have worked with Rep. Jimmy Panetta to successfully amend the House FY21 NDAA to express Congressional support for Open Skies and reiterate our commitment to the confidence and security building measures that are so vital to our NATO allies and partners,” said Chairman Hastings. “As Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I strongly disagree with the President’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, an important arms control agreement that significantly reduces the risk of armed conflict.” The measure expresses support for confidence and security building measures like the Open Skies Treaty, because they reduce the risk of conflict, increase trust among participating countries, and contribute to military transparency and remain vital to the strategic interests of our NATO allies and partners. The amendment also underlines the need to address Russian violations of treaty protocols through international engagement and robust diplomatic action. The full amendment is available below or as amendment numbered 167 printed in House Report 116-457. Chairman Hastings had previously condemned the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, which is designed to increase transparency, build confidence, and encourage cooperation among the United States, Russia, and 32 other participating states (including much of Europe as well as partners like Ukraine and Georgia), by permitting unarmed observation aircraft to fly over their entire territory to observe military forces and activities. In November 2019, the Commission hosted a joint hearing with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the importance of the Open Skies Treaty, emphasizing its critical role in security and stability around the world, which still stands today. The United States has conducted nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States under the treaty. The United States has also used the treaty to support partners by conducting flights over hot spots such as the Ukraine-Russian border.  Amendment At the end of subtitle D of title XII, add the following: SEC. 12__. SENSE OF CONGRESS ON THE OPEN SKIES TREATY. It is the sense of Congress that-- (1) the decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, done at Helsinki March 24, 1992, and entered into force January 1, 2002-- (A) did not comply with the requirement in section 1234(a) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (133 Stat. 1648; 22 U.S.C. 2593a note) to notify Congress not fewer than 120 days prior to any such announcement; (B) was made without asserting material breach of the Treaty by any other Treaty signatory; and (C) was made over the objections of NATO allies and regional partners; (2) confidence and security building measures that are designed to reduce the risk of conflict, increase trust among participating countries, and contribute to military transparency remain vital to the strategic interests of our NATO allies and partners and should continue to play a central role as the United States engages in the region to promote transatlantic security; and (3) while the United States must always consider the national security benefits of remaining in any treaty, responding to Russian violations of treaty protocols should be prioritized through international engagement and robust diplomatic action.

  • Wicker and Cardin Commend United Kingdom Magnitsky Sanctions on Russian and Saudi Officials

    WASHINGTON—Following the recent designations under the United Kingdom’s Magnitsky sanctions framework of Russian and Saudi officials responsible for the deaths of Sergei Magnitsky and Jamal Khashoggi, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) released the following statement: “We are encouraged to see the United Kingdom applying its first-ever independent Magnitsky sanctions. These sanctions demonstrate that following Brexit, the UK remains committed to fighting human rights abuse and kleptocracy. “We hope the UK will continue to apply Magnitsky sanctions as needed and develop additional anti-corruption policies to stem the flow of illicit wealth into the country. We also encourage the European Union to move forward on plans to develop its own Magnitsky sanctions. Consequences for bad acts are most effective when imposed in concert.” The UK passed its Magnitsky sanctions law in 2018. That same year, Russia attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent who spied for the UK, in Salisbury, England. UK Magnitsky sanctions freeze the assets of designees and prevent them from entering the country, and are expected to be a powerful deterrent for kleptocrats, given the propensity of corrupt officials to steal and launder money into London as well as send their children to British boarding schools. In December 2019, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell announced that the EU would start preparatory work for the equivalent of a Magnitsky sanctions mechanism. However, no further progress has been reported. In May 2020, Co-Chairman Wicker and Sen. Cardin urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ask High Representative Borrell to expedite the adoption of EU sanctions on human rights abusers and include provisions for sanctioning corruption.

  • Hastings and Wicker Denounce Fraudulent Vote in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following this week’s manipulated vote to amend Russia’s constitution to further weaken the separation of powers, strengthen the presidency, and allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “As we have seen time and again in Putin’s Russia, the outcome of this vote was decided long before the ballots were tallied. “Thanks to a fraudulent plebiscite ‘legitimizing’ the rubber stamp of Russia’s parliament, the Russian people—along with those living under Russian occupation—will remain under the thumb of an increasingly powerful Putin who could rule until he is in his eighties. “State-sponsored fraud, coercion, and obfuscation make it impossible to know the true will of the Russian people, who deserve a responsive, democratic government in line with Russia’s OSCE commitments.” From June 25 to July 1, 2020, citizens of Russia and residents of illegally-occupied Crimea and Russia-backed separatist regions of the Donbas could vote either for or against a package of more than 200 amendments to Russia’s constitution. Because the vote was not technically classified as a referendum, regulations and procedures that would usually apply—including a required minimum voter turnout level—were disregarded. Russia’s Central Election Commission released preliminary results showing overwhelming support for the amendments hours before the last polls closed, which under normal circumstances would be illegal. The potential for voter fraud was increased by the Russian Government’s decision to spread the voting over the span of a week and introduce electronic voting in some areas, ostensibly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Independent journalists have received credible reports of people being paid to create multiple false profiles to vote online, employees being coerced into voting by their superiors, and the use of online tools to track voter participation. Individuals documented ballot-stuffing and other irregularities at polling places.  The package of amendments was approved overwhelmingly and with little discussion by President Putin and both chambers of the Russian parliament on March 11, 2020, then rapidly cleared by the regional parliaments and the Constitutional Court. It required a nationwide vote to come into force. Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia either as president or prime minister for 20 years. He can now pursue two more six-year terms after his current term expires in 2024.

  • Chairman Hastings Demands Release of Paul Whelan

    WASHINGTON—Following the sentencing of U.S. citizen Paul Whelan to 16 years in a maximum-security prison by a Russian court, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “In clear violation of Russia’s OSCE commitments, Paul Whelan was denied his right to due process. His long and harsh pre-trial detention, and the secretive nature of Paul’s trial and the spurious ‘evidence’ against him, show that Russia’s authorities are not concerned about justice. This is nothing more than a politically-motivated stunt that has inflicted serious damage on an American citizen. Paul Whelan must be released.” Paul Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December 2018, where he planned to attend a wedding. FSB agents broke into his hotel room and found a flash drive that Whelan’s Russian friend had told him contained photos from a recent trip.  Authorities claimed that the flash drive contained classified information. Whelan has been detained in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, unable to contact his family and friends, alleging abuse from guards, and suffering from health problems.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Reported U.S. Withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty, Calls For New START Extension

    WASHINGTON—Following reports that the Trump administration has notified other governments of its intent to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The Open Skies Treaty has underpinned transatlantic security for decades, and has always enjoyed bipartisan support precisely because of its contributions to our security and that of our allies and partners,” said Chairman Hastings. “The Trump administration’s ideological opposition to arms control agreements has undercut transparency and predictability in Europe at a time when U.S. leadership is needed most.  “The timing of this ill-advised decision so close to our elections is distasteful. The United States withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty can only benefit Putin’s continuing campaign of aggression against Russia’s neighbors. I urge the administration to reconsider and instead work with Congress to double down on supporting our allies and partners in Europe, and particularly working to secure the prompt extension of the New START Treaty.” The Open Skies Treaty is designed to increase transparency, build confidence, and encourage cooperation among the United States, Russia, and 32 other participating states (including much of Europe as well as partners like Ukraine and Georgia), by permitting unarmed observation aircraft to fly over their entire territory to observe military forces and activities. The United States has conducted nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States under the Treaty. The United States has also used the Treaty to support partners by conducting flights over hotspots such as the Ukraine-Russian border. The New START Treaty between the United States and Russia limits each side’s intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, nuclear-capable heavy bombers, and deployed nuclear warheads, and includes a substantial verification regime to ensure the sides comply with the Treaty’s terms. New START is due to expire in February 2021, unless both parties agree to extend it for no more than five years. 

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Commends Decision by Belarus to Refuse Extradition of Jehovah’s Witness to Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the April decision by the Prosecutor General of Belarus to reject the Government of Russia’s request to extradite a Russian national to face criminal charges for being a Jehovah’s Witness, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I commend the government of President Alexander Lukashenko for releasing Nikolai Makhalichev and rejecting the Kremlin’s request to extradite him. If forced to return to Russia, Mr. Makhalichev would face detention, a criminal trial, certain conviction, and imprisonment—merely for practicing his sincerely-held religious beliefs. “In keeping with Belarus’ OSCE commitments and other international obligations, Belarusian authorities should continue to resist the extradition of Mr. Makhalichev to Russia, allow him to move freely, and respect his human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of whether the Government of Belarus grants him refugee status or another country gives him legal protection.” Background Amendments in 2006 to Russia’s Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity criminalized a wide range of religious activities as “extremist,” without precisely defining extremism or requiring that such activities have a violent element. The Russian Government invoked the law as it began relentlessly targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses, a peaceful faith community, with investigations, raids, arrests, detention, trials, the closure of local congregations, website and literature bans, and more. In July 2017, the Supreme Court of Russia upheld an earlier ruling in favor of the Ministry of Justice that Jehovah’s Witnesses are an “extremist” group, criminalizing and effectively banning their activities, and ordering their property to be seized and liquidated. Since then, Russian authorities have conducted criminal investigations into at least 333 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including Makhalichev; courts have convicted at least 32 of them. The authorities have engaged in raids, detentions, house arrests, travel restrictions, property confiscations, and even torture. In February 2020, Belarusian police detained Makhalichev, citing the criminal charges against him in Russia. He then applied for refugee status in Belarus. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office formally requested extradition in March. The Belarusian Ministry of Interior is currently adjudicating Makhalichev's refugee application. In September 2019, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing highlighting how the Kremlin and other autocratic governments engage in transnational repression against people they perceive as hostile to them: using tools such as INTERPOL to request arrest and extradition, and sometimes even surveilling, abducting, and assassinating targeted persons on foreign soil. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L Hastings (FL-20), Co-Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act to combat such threats. Like all participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia and Belarus have repeatedly committed themselves to recognizing, respecting, and protecting freedom of religion or belief. In December 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo redesignated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries that have committed severe violations of religious freedom, per the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. Since 2017, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended designating Russia as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Belarusian law authorizes the government to grant refugee status to a foreigner if he or she has a “well-founded fears of being persecuted in the country of his/her citizenship for the reason… of…religion,” and prohibits the government from expelling the applicant to that country, even if the government denies, revokes, or otherwise removes their refugee status. The law also requires the government to give foreigners requesting refugee status or related legal protection access to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

  • Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic

    The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments around the world to take extraordinary measures in the interest of public health and safety. As of early April, nearly two-thirds of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared “states of emergency” or invoked similar legal measures in response to the crisis. Often such measures have enabled governments to enact large-scale social distancing policies and suspend economic activity to save lives and preserve the capacity of national public health infrastructure to respond to the spread of infections. At the same time, human rights organizations and civil society activists have expressed concern regarding the breadth of some emergency measures and recalled the long history of government abuse of emergency powers to trample civil liberties. Exactly three decades ago, OSCE participating States unanimously endorsed a set of basic principles governing the imposition of states of emergency, including the protection of fundamental freedoms in such times of crisis. In 1990 in Copenhagen, OSCE countries affirmed that states of emergency must be enacted by public law and that any curtailment of human rights and civil liberties must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the Copenhagen Document, emergency measures furthermore should never discriminate based on certain group characteristics or be used to justify torture. Building on these commitments a year later in Moscow, participating States underscored that states of emergency should not “subvert the democratic constitutional order, nor aim at the destruction of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Document stresses the role of legislatures in imposing and lifting such declarations, the preservation of the rule of law, and the value of guaranteeing “freedom of expression and freedom of information…with a view to enabling public discussion on the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the lifting of the state of public emergency.” In some corners of the OSCE region, however, national authorities are violating these and other OSCE commitments in the name of combatting coronavirus. While many extraordinary responses are justified in the face of this crisis, government overreach threatens the well-being of democracy and the resilience of society at a critical time. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker Commemorate World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: "Given these uncertain and unprecedented times, it is more important than ever that journalists and media professionals are able to work freely and without retribution," said Chairman Hastings. "Unfortunately, journalists remain in jail throughout the OSCE region, while states like Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary criminalize providing essential information and transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media continues to be assaulted under the pretense of punishing allegedly 'false,' 'misleading,' or unofficial information. This is unacceptable." Read Chairman Hastings' full Congressional Record statement. “Journalists across the globe risk their safety, and some even their lives, to report the truth," said Co-Chairman Wicker. "On World Press Freedom Day, we honor a freedom that is a cornerstone of democracy and should always be protected in any healthy society. During this pandemic, good journalism and unflinching investigative reporting are essential as we work to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus and get our economies started again. Now more than ever, I urge all OSCE states to uphold this fundamental freedom." According to the latest reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide for their work, 64 journalists are missing, and 1,369 journalists have been killed since 1992. Additionally, Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index found that global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since 2013. Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir, along with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, issued a joint declaration on freedom of expression and elections in the digital age, particularly noting challenges to press freedom during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 17, Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker released a statement expressing concern with the latest attacks on press freedom in Russia amid the coronavirus pandemic, including death threats to Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Earlier in April, Chairman Hastings also denounced the unchecked power granted to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban following his request to rule by decree in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Hastings, Wicker, Moore, and Hudson Mark the Third Anniversary of Joseph Stone’s Death in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Three years after the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving with the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) recalled Stone’s tragic death in the Russia-driven conflict and lamented the suffering of civilians who remain the chief victims of Kremlin aggression.  Stone was killed on April 23, 2017, when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. “Another year has passed since Joseph Stone lost his life, and still Moscow’s war in eastern Ukraine rages on,” said Chairman Hastings. “Stone was killed as he helped document the senseless human suffering inflicted by the Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine. Even amidst a global pandemic, we must not forget the civilians with courage like Stone, who remain on the frontlines of conflict zones globally.” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) underlined the Russian Government’s responsibility for the war’s ongoing toll and affirmed that the Kremlin would continue to face consequences for its aggression. “The Kremlin continues to fuel this war while denying its direct involvement,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Joseph Stone’s death three years ago was a direct result of Russian aggression, which is only part of Vladimir Putin’s broader campaign against Ukraine. Our sanctions will remain in place until Moscow changes course and Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored.” Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) celebrated Stone’s contributions to regional security and condemned the threats OSCE monitors continue to face in the field. “Born in my district in Milwaukee, Joseph Stone was a courageous young man whose life tragically ended much too soon.  All OSCE states, including Russia, must do everything possible to support the OSCE monitors who, to this day, face unacceptable threats and restrictions as they shine a light on the daily cost of this needless war,” said Rep. Moore. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who also chairs the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Political Affairs and Security, called for the immediate lifting of new, baseless restrictions imposed by Russian-led forces under the pretext of COVID-19. “Even as OSCE monitors seek to report on the COVID-19 outbreak’s impact on vulnerable populations, Russian-controlled forces are using so-called quarantine restrictions to deny them access,” Rep. Hudson said.  “The increasing limitations by Moscow-led forces also stall crucial humanitarian shipments and services by international organizations. This obstruction and harassment must cease immediately.” The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears on the security and humanitarian situation in the conflict zone. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. It currently fields roughly 750 monitors, approximately 600 of whom are in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. The United States supports the SMM by providing 54 monitors (the largest contingent) and has contributed more than $140 million to the mission since its inception.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Appalled by Latest Attacks on Press Freedom in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following recent threats to the life of Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the forced removal of her Novaya Gazeta article on the coronavirus response in Chechnya by Russia’s media regulatory agency, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) released the following statements: “I am appalled—though not surprised—that the Government of Russia is using a global pandemic to restrict media freedom at a time when access to accurate information is vital,” Chairman Hastings said. “Yelena Milashina does not deserve death threats for simply doing her job. I condemn these attacks; Novaya Gazeta must be able to operate freely to provide truthful and timely information to the Russian people.” “Independent journalists need to be protected so they can continue to do the important work of keeping the public informed, especially in times of crisis,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Chechen strongman Kadyrov has a history of support for lawlessness and extrajudicial killings, and his threats should be taken seriously. A government that fails to protect journalists like Yelena Milashina will also contribute to a culture where other citizens are afraid to speak out.” After the passage of an April 1 law criminalizing “misinformation” regarding the coronavirus, the Government of Russia has begun to target news agencies and individuals who have criticized the government’s response to the pandemic. RFE/RL’s reporting on Russia’s handling of the coronavirus has been targeted for review in the State Duma, and the apartment of an activist in St. Petersburg was searched and her electronics seized for calling attention to insufficient local quarantine conditions on social media. Journalist Yelena Milashina has received previous death threats from Ramzan Kadyrov for her reporting on Chechnya. In February 2020 she was attacked by unknown assailants in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. She received an International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department in 2013 and appeared at Helsinki Commission events on Russia’s North Caucasus in 2009 and 2010.  

  • Reflecting on Chechnya

    By Mia Speier, Max Kampelman Fellow On December 11, 1994, Russian forces advanced into Chechnya, a republic in the North Caucasus near Georgia and Azerbaijan, to stop an attempt at secession. A Chechen separatist movement started to gain momentum following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russians refused to allow any chance at separation. This marked the start of the First Chechen War, a conflict that erupted after decades of hostilities between the former Soviet government and the Chechen forces. The war dragged on for nearly two years, destroying the capital city of Grozny and killing tens of thousands of people—mostly civilians. The conflict, which started as an internal national movement, was complicated by flows of foreign money and foreign fighters. Militant Islamists joined the fight against Russia during the latter half of the war as part of a declared global jihad. Officials in Russia feared a repetition of the violence that occurred during the Soviet war in Afghanistan nearly a decade prior. Though Russia withdrew from Chechnya for a short time after the first war, the Second Chechen War broke out in 1999. This second war began after Putin blamed Chechen secessionists for bombings that killed Russian civilians, although there was no evidence of Chechen involvement in the bombings. Russian forces were sent into the republic again, and the Russian government succeeded in putting Chechnya under its control. Since then, the region has been a republic of Russia and is governed by Putin-appointed president Ramzan Kadyrov. Amid the conflict, however, the international community took steps to confront Russian aggression and violence in the region. On March 13, 1997, the U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing called “The Future of Chechnya,” to discuss the efforts of Chechen citizens to free themselves from Russia’s painful yoke and fight back against Moscow’s defiance of international principles and the rule of law. The Helsinki Commission hearing focused on the 1994 Organization for Security and Cooperation Budapest Document that requires all participating States, including Russia, to ensure that their armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with international law. At the time of the hearing, an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 people had died in the territory, and tens of thousands of citizens had been displaced. The violence against and displacement of citizens in Chechnya was a clear violation of the Budapest Document. Then-Chairman Rep. Alfonse M. D’Amato chaired the hearing and noted that though many people were paying attention to the ongoing conflict in Bosnia at the time, it was important to also pay attention to the conflict in Chechnya and, more specifically, to think about the role of the OSCE in the region. “The world watched, horrified, as the Russian military used massive firepower against the Chechen guerrillas,” D’Amato said. “While the international community recognizes the principles of territorial integrity, there can be no doubt that in its effort to keep the Chechens in the Russian Federation, the Russian Government violated recognized international principles.” Since 1997, the Helsinki Commission has held several other public events related to human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, abductions, and disappearances and the plight of Chechen refugees. In 2003, the commission penned a letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell urging the U.S. delegation at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to express concern over reported rights violations in Chechnya. Though it has been nearly 30 years since the First Chechen War, the situation in Chechnya remains bleak. In 2017, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution condemning widespread anti-LGBT persecution and violence in Chechnya after it was revealed that state law enforcement officials beat, imprisoned, and murdered hundreds of men perceived to be gay or bisexual. In June 2018, then-Chairman (and current Co-Chairman) Sen. Roger Wicker and Sen. Benjamin Cardin penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the United State to invoke the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism in response to escalating human rights abuses in Chechnya. The Moscow Mechanism allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission to address a specific human rights concern in the OSCE region. In November 2018, the 16 of the 57 OSCE participating States invoked the Moscow Mechanism to investigate the alleged disappearances, killings, and torture taking place in Chechnya—all of which were concerns raised at a Helsinki Commission hearing just months prior.  Though Russia failed to cooperate with the fact-finding mission, the resulting report concluded that the evidence clearly confirmed the allegations of very serious human rights violations and abuses in the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation. Today, multiple reports of journalists and bloggers in Chechnya being beaten or murdered calls for even more concern for individual freedom and civil liberties in the region. In early February, Yelena Milashina, a prominent Russian journalist and lawyer who exposed the cruelty against gay Chechen men, was beaten in Grozny. Imran Aliev, an outspoken Chechen blogger who criticized President Ramzan Kadyrov, was found murdered in France earlier this year. Aliev’s death is one of many deaths and disappearances in recent years of Chechen dissidents throughout Europe, sparking heightened fears of Chechen death squads hunting down those seeking asylum outside of the republic.

  • Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Wicker Commemorate Fifth Anniversary of Nemtsov Murder

    WASHINGTON—On the five-year anniversary of the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: “We must never forget the ultimate price Boris Nemtsov paid for seeking true democracy and political justice for the Russian people,” said Chairman Hastings. “Five years ago today, Russia lost one of its most fervent advocates, targeted for his activism and speaking truth to power.  Justice still has not been served in his case. I regret that Russian authorities clearly have chosen politics over finding and prosecuting those responsible for orchestrating Nemtsov’s death. International voices must keep Boris Nemtsov’s memory alive until—and after—we receive answers.” “The anniversary of Boris Nemtsov’s assassination is a reminder of the repression in Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Nemtsov knew well the dangers he faced as a critic of Putin and as an advocate for real democracy and freedom for the people of Russia. He was gunned down in the middle of Moscow five years ago today, and still the Russian government has refused to conduct a thorough investigation into who ordered his murder. There is no doubt that Nemtsov’s death was a meticulously plotted political hit, and I hope that one day Nemtsov’s family, friends, and fellow Russian citizens will see justice delivered in his case. Until then, we honor his memory and salute those brave individuals who carry on his legacy.” On February 27, 2015, former Deputy Prime Minister and Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge directly in front of the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Although various people have been arrested in connection with Nemtsov’s death, Russian authorities have failed to truly investigate who ordered and organized the murder. A recent report authored by OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Rapporteur Margareta Cederfelt of Sweden is the most conclusive study of the case to this date; however, the Government of Russia did not cooperate with her requests for information. In 2018, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing to help to shed light on the circumstances of Nemtsov’s murder, the most high-profile political assassination in modern Russia.

  • Life Under Occupation

    Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate. Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to explore Russia’s ongoing assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for human rights. As an occupying power, Russia bears the full weight of responsibility for the abuses being inflicted on the population of Crimea. Panelists discussed Russia’s repression of basic freedoms in Crimea and persecution of those who don’t recognize Russian authority. Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and commissioners Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Chairman Hastings’ opening remarks addressed Russia’s attempts to stymie Ukraine’s relationship with the European community and the brutal tactics used throughout Crimea’s occupation. Hastings shed a light on the harsh reality of Russia’s continued occupation, which is “aimed at forcing a proud people into submission, whether they be civil society activists, community or religious leaders, artists, journalists, or simply those whose religion and ethnicity are viewed with distrust and fear.”   This hearing featured testimony from Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He was released in September 2019. Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and Melinda Haring, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, also served as witnesses. Sentsov addressed Russia’s “fabricated legal cases” and “long-term imprisonment” against those who simply think differently. He also testified about the various forms of torture he endured in a Russian prison. Sentsov voiced his appreciation for the United States’ continued efforts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and asked that Congress maintain pressure on the Putin regime. Tasheva focused her testimony on Russia’s persecution and internal displacement of “disloyal” groups, specifically the Crimean Tatars. Tasheva also called for the creation of an “international platform for negotiations on the return of the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to sovereign Ukrainian jurisdiction.” Haring addressed the lack of free press in Crimea, asserting that “the media is controlled by the government.” She praised Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Crimea service, which tracks developments in Crimea and broadcasts them in three languages to the Crimean population. Haring also warned that the situation in Crimea is worsening, and that Russia has “effectively turned Crimea into a Russian military base.”  Throughout the hearing, commissioners expressed their concerns for freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and freedom of the press in Crimea. Commissioners also assured witnesses that support for President Zelensky and the fight for freedom in Ukraine is bipartisan and resolute.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Deteriorating Human Rights Situation in Crimea

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: LIFE UNDER OCCUPATION The State of Human Rights in Crimea Tuesday, January 28, 2020 10:00 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate.  Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The hearing will feature Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He and other witnesses will discuss the Russian Government’s continued assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for basic rights. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian writer and filmmaker held prisoner by Russia for five years Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea Melinda Haring, Deputy Director, Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute

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