Title

Democracy in Central & Eastern Europe Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing:

DEMOCRACY IN CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE:
RENEWING THE PROMISE OF DEMOCRATIC TRANSITIONS

Wednesday, July 26, 2017
2:00 PM to 4:00 PM
Capitol Visitors Center
Room SVC-215

Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission

In 1990, at a moment of historic transition, the countries of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe adopted a watershed agreement recognizing the relationship between political pluralism and market economies. To advance both, they committed to fundamental principles regarding democracy, free elections, and the rule of law. 

In recent years, however, concerns have emerged about the health of the democratic transition in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in the face of ongoing governance challenges and persistent corruption.

At this briefing, speakers will examine the current state of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe and analyze efforts to address the region’s challenges.  They will also discuss the declaration adopted on June 1 by civil society representatives, members of business communities, and others, which seeks to reinvigorate the region’s democratic trajectory, support democratic and economic reform, and strengthen the transatlantic partnership.

The following panelists are scheduled to speak:

  • Andrew Wilson, Managing Director, Center for International Private Enterprise
  • Peter Golias, Director, Institute for Economic and Social Reforms, Slovakia
  • Andras Loke, Chair, Transparency International, Hungary
  • Marek Tatala, Vice-President, Civil Development Forum, Poland

Additional comments will be provided by:

  • Jan Surotchak, Regional Director for Europe, International Republican Institute
  • Jonathan Katz, Senior Resident Fellow, German Marshall Fund
Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
Phone: 
202.225.1901
Relevant countries: 
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    On Wednesday, July 19, 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on illicit cigarette smuggling in the OSCE region. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) presided over the hearing. Witnesses included Dr. Louise Shelley, Director of the Terrorism, Crime, and Corruption Center and George Mason University; Professor David Sweanor, adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa; and Mr. Marc Firestone, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Phillip Morris International (PMI). In his opening statement, Chairman Wicker outlined the significant threat to global security and economic prosperity the illicit cigarette trade poses. “Ongoing illicit [cigarette] trade helps fund terrorist activities, it fosters corruption, and it undermines the rule of law,” Chairman Wicker said. He continued his remarks by discussing how the illicit cigarette trade affects both hard security and economic issues in the OSCE region: two of the Helsinki Final Act’s three principal dimensions. Dr. Shelley, the first of the witnesses to testify, reiterated the Chairman’s assertion that the illicit cigarette trade represented a serious national security threat, and highlighted the impunity of cigarette smugglers as a core concern. “There has been a problem of a culture of impunity ... It’s not just criminals, it’s not just terrorists, but it’s high-level officials that are not just in policing or in the borders, but at the heads of national governments that are involved in this,” she said. She also lamented the lack of an organized legal response to these crimes and argued that there must be more cooperation between private companies and national governments to curb this illicit trade. Professor Sweanor focused on the economic aspects of illicit cigarette smuggling. He argued that governments should venture to undercut the economic viability of the illicit cigarette trade, by targeting demand for cigarettes. “Give people alternatives to the sorts of illicit products that they’re buying now,” he said, “if you don’t give people alternatives to cigarettes as a product, the alternative they’re going to find is illicit cigarettes.” The third witness, Mr. Firestone, echoed Dr. Shelley’s recommendation for greater public-private collaboration and reaffirmed Phillip Morris International’s commitment to combat illicit cigarette smuggling. “PMI doesn’t make or enforce anti-smuggling laws. We don’t police borders. We can’t tell other companies what to do…There has to be an integrated, cooperative, comprehensive approach,” he said. Answering a question about the role of new media companies in the illicit cigarette trade, Dr. Shelley argued for greater cooperation between U.S. government agencies and these new media firms in order to curb the illicit trade of cigarettes. Chairman Wicker and the witnesses also discussed the process of buying illicit cigarettes and what strategies EU and OSCE national governments can follow to further stem this market.

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  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Illicit Cigarette Smuggling

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: A HAZY CRISIS: ILLICIT CIGARETTE SMUGGLING IN THE OSCE REGION Wednesday, July 19, 2017 9:30 AM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 106 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce071917 The global illicit tobacco trade costs governments around the globe approximately $40 billion to $50 billion annually. The U.S. Department of State classifies illicit cigarette smuggling as low-risk, high-reward behavior for traffickers; they are regularly able to avoid detection and punishment while bringing in millions of dollars. This money is frequently used to fund other criminal activities such as human trafficking, drug trafficking, and terrorism. One of the most problematic regions for cigarette smuggling globally is the OSCE region. For example, studies estimate that €10.2 billion ($11.64 billion) is lost every year to this criminal activity in the European Union alone, where counterfeit cigarettes are particularly prevalent and account for 30 percent of articles detained by EU customs. Hubs of illicit activity exist in regions such as Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, where large quantities of cigarettes are produced and then illicitly trafficked through transit countries. Western Europe’s high cigarette taxes create demand for illicit alternatives, and transnational organized criminal networks and terrorist groups have seized upon this opportunity. The hearing will examine the issue of illicit cigarette smuggling in the OSCE region with the goal of understanding the threats it poses and how best to respond. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Louise Shelley, Director, Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center, George Mason University David Sweanor, Adjunct Professor of Law, University of Ottawa Marc Firestone, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Phillip Morris International  

  • 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report – the OSCE Region

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  • The Romanian Anti-Corruption Process: Successes and Excesses

    Corruption is an issue of particular concern to the United States and the OSCE because of the threat it poses to security, economic development and human rights. Romania has a history of combating corruption since the fall of Communism, and to this day struggles to maintain transparency in its government institutions and businesses. The fight against corruption is the modern arena for the protection of democratic institutions and freedoms, which for Romania means the strengthening of its institutions and rule of law. The U.S. Helsinki Commission’s hearing on June 14, 2017, focused on Romania’s anti-corruption process, examining progress as well as recommendation for the United States to help support these goals.   “Romania’s anti-corruption efforts have garnered international attention and have been held up as an example for other countries, such as Ukraine,” observed Chairman Wicker. “We want those efforts to be successful. In holding this hearing today, we hope to support those working to fight against corruption in a way that is consistent with the rule of law and strengthens the democracy Romanians have worked so hard to build.” Witnesses at the hearing included Ambassador Marc Gitenstein, former U.S. Ambassador to Romania from 2009 to 2012 and a partner at leading global law firm, Mayer Brown; Ms. Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, and Director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies; Mr. David Clark, a British foreign policy commentator and consultant with Shifting Grounds; and Mr. Philip Stephenson, Chairman of the Freedom Group and former partner of the International Equity Partners.  Witnesses overwhelmingly stressed the need for continued anti-corruption work in Romania and made recommendations for strengthening and improving those efforts. In his opening statement, Ambassador Gitenstein conveyed his optimistic view of Romanian anticorruption efforts, and pointed to the recent mass demonstration in January of this year—the largest in Romania since 1989—as evidence of strong public support for continued progress. In this regard, he said Romania was a model for the region, and continues to meet benchmarks set by the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) of the EU - a special monitoring mechanism established by the EU as a condition for Romania’s accession. Ms. Conley characterized the fight against corruption as “a matter of national security.”  While echoing Ambassador Gitenstein’s optimism, she underlined that Romania is not done with its fight against corruption. She stated that the United States decreased the amount of assistance to Romania after the country’s accession to the EU and NATO, suggested that this was a mistake. “This is what leaving the policy playing field looks like,” Ms. Conley argued. She warned that allowing corruption to spread and create weaknesses within Romanian institutions would allow for future exploitation by Russia. Mr. David Clark expressed concern regarding several areas of Romania’s anti-corruption measures, which he said had been tainted by the politicization of justice, collusion between prosecutors and the executive branch, intelligence agency influence over the process, lack of judicial independence and other abuses of the process. He doubted the accuracy of the European Union’s CVM progress reports due to the Union’s “epic capacity for wishful thinking,” as evidenced by how slow the EU has been to respond to the serious deterioration of democratic standards in Hungary and Poland. He pointed to several troubling human rights violations in Romania and urged the Helsinki Commission to ask hard questions of the State Department and support better reporting on corruption issues in the annual State Department Country Reports on Human Rights. Mr. Phil Stephenson described his personal experience with the Romanian judicial system and his ongoing investigation by DICOTT, an antiterrorism organization in Romania, stating that “the fight against corruption itself has been corrupted.” He appreciated the attention that the Commission was bringing to the issue of corruption in Romania and argued that continued attention will protect against deficiencies in the anti-corruption process. Note: The unofficial transcript includes a Romanian translation.

  • Minority Faiths Under the Hungarian Religion Law

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law On April 25, 2017, the European Court on Human Rights announced a judgment in the case of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship v. Hungary.  This decision followed a 2014 finding by the Court that Hungary's 2011 law on religion violated the rights to freedom of association and freedom of religion.  In light of the failure of Hungary to end continuing violations, the April judgment awarded the Evangelical Fellowship €3 million in damages.  Religious Discrimination after the 2011 Law The case has its origins in changes made to Hungary’s religion law, which establishes a framework for the registration, or official recognition, of churches.  The law was rushed through parliament in June 2011 in a midnight parliamentary session as part of a massive three-year wave of 700 new laws, a new constitution, and five amendments to the Constitution passed between 2010 and 2013.  The “church law,” as it is known, came into force in 2012 and stripped legal recognition from over 300 previously recognized faiths; only 14 faiths retained their status under the new law.  The law gives the exclusive authority to the elected politicians in the Hungarian parliament to determine what constitutes a church, based on a parliamentary review of a religious community’s faith and rites; bylaws and internal rules; and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies. The parliament then makes its decision according to a two-thirds vote.  Churches recognized by the parliament are granted a range of financial benefits and other privileges, including the ability to minister to co-religionists in public institutions such as schools, prisons and the military; unregistered faiths are denied these benefits.   Religions that lose their state recognition may have their assets confiscated by the state.  Hungarian Ombudsman Mate Szabo criticized the law when it was adopted and the Constitutional Court has twice struck down parts of the new religion law.  Parliament changed the law to allow unrecognized groups to identify as “churches” (translation:  “you can call yourself whatever you want”), but refused to alter the discriminatory framework that excludes unregistered faiths from the benefit of official status (translation:  “you’ll still have second-class status”).  In other words, there was no meaningful legislative change to address the law’s shortcomings.   The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, joined by several smaller groups, including Mennonites, two small reformed Jewish congregations, and a Buddhist congregation, brought the case that was decided by the European Court in 2014.  The European Court held that the “church law” is “inconsistent with the State’s duty of neutrality in religious matters that religious groups had to apply to Parliament to obtain re-registration as churches and that they were treated differently from incorporated churches with regard to material benefits without any objective grounds.”  Damages were awarded to the other religious communities in 2016, but the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship continued to seek damages in light of continuing violations. In its April 2017 decision, the court awarded €3 million to the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.  The damages for discriminatory treatment included the loss of personal income tax donations and the corresponding supplementary State subsidy; the loss of State subsidies intended to support the applicant’s social and educational institutions; the loss of subsidies for religious teaching; and the loss of salary supplements paid to the staff employed by church institutions providing public-interest services. Unfortunately, the Court does not have the authority to compel Hungary to change its religion law and it is up to the Hungarian parliament to take the measures to comply with the ruling.  (The Court may award damages again – and again – in the case of continuing violations.) De-registered churches may be able to get a judgment for damages in Strasbourg, but only Budapest can provide a legal remedy.  The government may be trying to squeeze the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship out of existence by depriving them of the benefits extended to other faiths and forcing them to devote resources to constantly litigate and re-litigate the same violations.  Smaller churches de-registered after 2011 have already largely been shuttered.  About the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship broke from the Hungarian Methodist Church in the mid-1970s over the issue of collaboration with the communist regime. As a faith that would not bend to the communist regime, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was subsequently forced underground and persecuted for engaging in charitable work with the poor at a time when the communist regime was loath to admit that poverty was a serious problem.  After the fall of the communist regime, in 1991 the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was officially recognized until stripped of this status under the 2011 law.  The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is known for its charitable and humanitarian work, particularly with Romani communities, and runs schools, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. However, becausethe Hungarian tax authority has refused to issue a tax number to deregistered churches such as the Evangelical Fellowship, it is impossible for them to be designated them as recipients of a 1 percent charitable donation on tax forms.   Related Issues In 2017, the Hungarian Government has also proposed a Russian-style “foreign agents” law, which is currently scheduled for a vote by parliament, possibly on June 13. In recognition of criticism that, among the draft law’s many problems, it would stigmatize groups that receive foreign funding – including support from co-religionists in other countries – the current draft was altered to include a carve-out exception for religious organizations and sports.  If adopted, the law may spur the adoption of copycat laws in the region that might not have the same carve-outs for religious groups.  During a press conference in April, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff Janos Lazar suggested that Hungarian groups that receive foreign funding should be designated with a star.  He later apologized.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Romanian Anti-Corruption Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: THE ROMANIAN ANTI-CORRUPTION PROCESS: SUCCESSES AND EXCESSES Wednesday, June 14, 2017 9:30 AM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 212-210 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce061417 Since the fall of Communism, Romania’s greatest challenge has been the fight against corruption. This fight has largely succeeded, with powerful national-level prosecutors (the National Anticorruption Directorate) getting public support and scoring large numbers of convictions ranging from the level of local politicians to former Prime Ministers. However, two worrying trends have developed recently. First, in what was seen as an attempt to exempt government officials from prosecution, a move by the government to pardon government officials whose abuse of office caused damages of less than $47,000 led to the largest mass protests since 1989. Second, there are indications that some elements of the Romanian state, including possibly the security services, are using the necessary and popular fight against corruption as a pretext, in a few cases, to punish political opponents and expropriate business interests. The hearing will examine the current state of the Romanian anti-corruption process with goal of understanding its successes and excesses and how best to respond. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Ambassador Mark Gitenstein, Special Counsel, Mayer Brown Heather Conley, Senior Vice President, Center for Strategic and International Studies David Clark, Foreign Policy Commentator and Consultant Philip Stephenson, Chairman, Freedom Capital

  • Russia’s Weaponization of Corruption (and Western Complicity)

    By Paul Massaro, policy advisor and Amelie Rausing, intern Russia’s weaponization of corruption—its export of corrupt practices via the abuse of western legal and financial loopholes in order to further its geopolitical goals—has stimulated anti-American sentiment in Europe and galvanized extremist forces on both sides of the Atlantic. While Moscow pushes its anti-globalization narrative, it is simultaneously taking advantage of globalization to export its own version of crony capitalism to many countries in the OSCE region. The Russian brand of corruption thrives off of globalization and depends on access to the global financial system. Under this model, weak property rights and lack of rule of law support a corrupt system at home, where markets are distorted and courts are politicized. State funds are looted and assets are acquired through corporate raiding and asset stripping. Cronies then siphon off national funds to safe havens outside of former Soviet countries. Offshored money can be used to buy real estate, education, and health care in the United States and in Europe. It can also be used back home, to finance rigged elections, support local political figures, reward loyal cronies, and fund projects strategically important for geopolitical goals. Stolen money can also buy influence and keep foreign governments friendly. In the meantime, popular discontent brews domestically. Western politicians often argue that globalization undermines corruption and authoritarianism. In reality, that is not the whole story. The emergence of a parallel, opaque, financial system that allows dictators to anonymously and untraceably funnel money to the West is one of the direst consequences of an increasingly globalized world. European and American lawyers, bankers, lobbyists, and accountants provide services that facilitate and benefit from the laundering of stolen assets. Illicit wealth is then invested in real estate in cities like London, New York, and Miami. In many cases, victims are well aware of the West’s complicity in funneling off their hard-earned taxes and state budgets. Their sense of powerlessness is further fortified when the United States and European countries fail to trace and recover funds that have vanished in the global financial system. It strengthens the sense of a culture of impunity for grand corruption, a public setback that can then be exploited by extremist voices. In Russia, “Londongrad” is widely known as the capitol of Russia’s stolen wealth. Furthermore, in the digital era, stolen assets are flaunted on social media for everyone to see. Last year, reporters from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Novaya Gazeta established that a 280-plus foot super-yacht named St. Princess Olga belonged to Putin crony and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin after examining the social media accounts of his rumored girlfriend, Olga Rozhkova. While the exact price of the yacht is unknown, it is estimated to be around $190 million. At best, the United States and other Western countries are accused of facilitating the looting of corrupt countries. At worst, they drive and benefit from the transfer of financial assets from the East to the West. Disdain of the West becomes especially contagious when people like Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny start to express frustration with Western complicity in money laundering. It is bad news when freedom fighters and dissidents, traditional allies of the United States, start to question the West’s commitment to democratic development. The failure to return ill-gotten assets, especially when they have been invested in the U.S. economy, diminishes the United States’ democratic legitimacy and America’s claim to be a champion of freedom. The perception of a hypocritical West with sham values is then exploited by opportunist politicians and media, who egg on anti-American sentiment with this carefully constructed narrative about globalization. This narrative fuels extremism and terrorism and it is in the United States’ national interest to encounter it. The Helsinki Commission recently investigated one aspect of this phenomenon in a staff-level briefing titled, “Countering Corruption in the OSCE Region: Returning Ill-Gotten Assets and Closing Safe Havens.” This briefing demonstrated that strengthening mechanisms for repatriation and accountability in the financial sector needs to be a priority. When these illicit assets are safeguarded in places where democratic governments have some leverage then it is important to use it to ensure the responsible return of funds for the benefit of victims. To avoid looking hypocritical, financial organizations and law firms that enable the looting cannot profit from the repatriation process. There are many different methods required to combat corruption and responsible asset recovery might not seem like the most critical at first glance. However, it is an essential step for preventing future corruption. Recovered assets can be invested in the rule of law and aspects of civil society that serve as corruption watchdogs. Responsible and transparent repatriation has the potential to empower these watchdog organizations, strengthening the backbone of democratic development.

  • Countering Corruption in the OSCE Region: Returning Ill-Gotten Assets and Closing Safe Havens

    The World Bank estimates that twenty to forty billion dollars are stolen from developing countries every year. The majority of stolen funds are never found, and even if they are, recovering stolen assets and repatriating victims is a complicated process. The process often involves many different countries with different legal frameworks and financial structures. On June 1, 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a briefing on asset recovery in the OSCE region. Ill-gotten assets from the region frequently end up in money laundering safe havens in the West, where Western financial services enable the safeguarding of stolen funds. Briefers included Charles Davidson, executive director of the Kleptocracy Initiative at the Hudson Institute; Brian Campbell, legal advisor for the Cotton Campaign; and Ken Hurwitz, senior managing legal officer on anti-corruption with the Open Society Justice Initiative. The briefing was moderated by Paul Massaro, economic and environmental policy advisor with the Helsinki Commission.  Panelists at the briefing discussed methods to achieve responsible repatriation for grand corruption. After tracing and freezing assets, Western authorities are faced with the dilemma of how to return assets stolen by kleptocrats to the people of that country. A critical part of anti-corruption work, successful repatriation can empower civil society and democratic development in affected countries. In turn, civil society and the judiciary can play critical roles in fighting and exposing grand corruption. Panelists drew comparisons between the challenges associated with returning assets stolen by the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan and the successful case in Kazakhstan, where $115 million in disputed assets was returned to the people through the BOTA Foundation. While grand corruption takes on many different forms, most corrupt countries in the OSCE region are former members of the Soviet Union and have imported Moscow’s own brand of corruption. Panelists discussed how the lack of transparency and accountability in Western financial systems facilitate the looting of former Soviet countries. Additionally, they argued for the United States’ national interest in countering corruption and ensuring responsible repatriation.

  • Asset Recovery in OSCE Region to be Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON —The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following staff-led briefing: "Countering Corruption in the OSCE Region: Returning Ill-Gotten Assets and Closing Safe Havens" Thursday, June 1, 2017 10:30 AM – 11:30 AM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room G11 Combating corruption has been an essential element of the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for decades.  This has involved a multitude of activities, including the exchange of information to identify, trace, and suppress money laundering. But what happens with the corrupt assets recovered from such operations? This briefing will explore the historical context for asset recovery as an integral part of the global fight against corruption, with a special focus on the OSCE region. Briefers will discuss corruption prevention mechanisms in the OSCE and beyond, the U.S. national interest in countering corruption, and methods of ensuring responsible repatriation. The following experts are scheduled to participate: Charles Davidson, Executive Director of the Kleptocracy Initiative, Hudson Institute Brian Campbell, U.S.-based Attorney Ken Hurwitz, Senior Managing Legal Officer on Anticorruption, Open Society Justice Initiative Moderator: Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor, Helsinki Commission

  • A Call to OSCE Commitments in Aftermath of Turkish Referendum

    Mr. President, I rise today to express my concerns about the outcome of the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey, when more than 50 million Turkish citizens voted on constitutional amendments to convert Turkey’s parliamentary government into a presidential system.   Turkey is a longstanding friend of the United States and a NATO ally.  Our bilateral partnership dates back to the Cold War when Turkey served as an important bulwark against the creeping influence of the Soviet Union.  Time has not diminished Turkey’s geostrategic importance. Today, Ankara finds itself at the intersection of several critical challenges: the instability in Syria and Iraq, the threat of ISIS and other extremist groups, and the refugee crisis spawned by this regional upheaval.     The United States relies on Turkey and other regional partners to help coordinate and strengthen our collective response.  I was deeply troubled when renegade military units attempted to overthrow Turkey’s democratically elected government last July.  Turkey’s strength is rooted in the democratic legitimacy of its government – a pillar of stability targeted by the reckless and criminal coup attempt.         As Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or U.S. Helsinki Commission, I take very seriously the political commitments made by the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  These commitments – held by both the United States and Turkey – represent the foundation of security and cooperation in the OSCE region.  They include an indispensable focus on human rights, rule of law, and democratic institutions.    In the OSCE’s founding document, the Helsinki Final Act, participating States affirm “the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” and consider respect for these to be an “essential factor” for international peace and security. This vision is consistent with long-established U.S. foreign policy promoting human rights and democracy as cornerstones of a safer, more stable international order.      With these principles in mind, the United States must pay urgent attention to the current situation in Turkey and the danger it poses to Turkish and regional stability.  Eroding respect for fundamental freedoms, rule of law, and democratic institutions in Turkey has proceeded at an alarming pace.  The government’s planned “executive presidency” will further decrease government accountability. Since the attempted coup more than nine months ago, Turkey has operated under a state of emergency that gives the government sweeping authority to curtail rights and silence opponents.  Certain extraordinary measures may have been justified in the immediate aftermath to restore order, investigate events, and bring perpetrators to justice, but the government’s actions have stretched far beyond these legitimate aims.  The ongoing purge has touched every institution of government, sector of society, corner of the country, and shade of opposition – military or civilian, Turk or Kurd, religious or secular, nationalist or leftist, political or non-political.   An atmosphere of fear and uncertainty has settled over Turkish society as more than 100,000 people have been detained or arrested.  Tens of thousands have been fired from their jobs, had their professional licenses revoked, and had their names released on public lists without any recognizable due process.  The government removed and replaced thousands of judges and prosecutors within hours of the coup’s defeat, compromising the independence of the judiciary at a moment when an impartial justice system had become more important than ever. The government has also closed more than 150 media outlets.  Upwards of 80 journalists are behind bars.  The offices of the country’s oldest newspaper were raided, and the paper’s editor-in-chief and other staff were arrested.  The media environment was already under extraordinary pressure before the coup. Last spring, the government seized control of the country’s highest-circulation paper.  Self-censorship is now widely practiced to avoid provoking the government’s ire.   Additionally, state of emergency decrees have given regional governors the ability to curtail freedom of assembly rights, harming the ability of civil society organizations to organize rallies concerning the referendum.  Since July, the government has detained more than a dozen opposition parliamentarians. Many more continue to face criminal charges for political statements they made before the coup attempt.    It is difficult to overstate the chilling effect these measures have had on political debate in Turkey. And yet, these are the circumstances under which Turks voted on April 16.  These major constitutional changes passed with a slim majority of 51 percent.  The OSCE’s international observation mission stated in its preliminary conclusions that the vote “took place on an unlevel playing field” and that “fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed.”  Under the revised constitution, the once largely ceremonial position of president will convert into an “executive presidency” and the position of prime minister will be abolished.  The president will be elected along with the national assembly every five years and has the ability to dissolve the assembly and call new elections at will.  The president will also appoint a larger proportion — nearly half — of the country’s supreme judicial council.  In a report on these new constitutional provisions, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe concluded that the amendments are a “step backwards” and pose “dangers of degeneration … towards an authoritarian and personal regime.”    Turkey is undergoing a disturbing transformation, and I am concerned these changes could undermine the strength of our partnership.  President Erdogan’s government has dramatically repressed dissent, purged opponents from every sector of government and society, and is now poised to consolidate power further under his self-described “executive presidency.” In the short term, the Turkish government should act swiftly and transparently to investigate credible claims of voting irregularities in the referendum as well as the legality of a surprise electoral board decision to admit an unknown number of ballots that should be deemed invalid under existing rules.  Public trust in the outcome of such a consequential vote is of utmost importance.  Sadly, until now, the government has responded to these challenges with dismissiveness and suppression.  In the past week, dozens of activists have been detained for participating in protests against the election results. Furthermore, the government should lift the state of emergency, stop all forms of repression against the free press, release all imprisoned journalists and political activists, and urgently restore public confidence in the judiciary.  Only then can it credibly and independently adjudicate the tens of thousands of cases caught up in the government’s months-long dragnet operations. A country where disagreements are suppressed rather than debated is less secure. A country where institutions are subordinated to personalities is less stable.  A country where criticism is conflated with sedition is less democratic.  Unless President Erdogan moves urgently to reverse these trends, I fear our partnership will inevitably become more transactional and less strategic.  It will become more difficult to justify long-term investment in our relationship with Turkey if the future of the country becomes synonymous with the fortunes of one party or one individual. The United States and Turkey need a solid foundation for enduring cooperation to tackle regional instability, terrorism, migration, and other challenges. The future of this partnership is difficult to imagine in the midst of a prolonged state of emergency, wide-scale purges, and weakened democratic institutions.

  • Turkey Post-Referendum: Institutions and Human Rights

    Human rights abuses by the Turkish government have proliferated under the state-sanctioned emergency measures imposed in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup attempt.  Turkish authorities have fired as many as 130,000 public workers, including teachers, academics, police officers, and soldiers, and thousands have been arrested. Hundreds of journalists have had their credentials revoked and dozens of media outlets have been shut down. Human rights groups have documented widespread reports of intimidation, ill-treatment and torture of those in police custody. On April 16, 2017, Turkey held a referendum on a package of amendments that transforms the country’s institutions in major ways. The position of prime minister was eliminated and the executive powers of the president were expanded, enabling him to appoint ministers without parliamentary approval, exert more influence over the judiciary, and call early elections. Coming on top of the post-coup crackdown, how will Turkey’s changing institutions affect human rights in the country? Panelists at the briefing discussed how U.S. policymakers can most effectively encourage the protection of human rights to promote the interests of the Turkish people given the strategic importance of the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship.

  • Political Prisoners in Russia

    Principle VII of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act recognizes the right of individuals to know and act upon their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. The following individuals who were profiled in the Helsinki Commission's April 2017 hearing, "Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight," illustrate the many cases of political prisoners in Russia today. Dmitry Buchenkov – Buchenkov was charged under Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”) for his participation in the 2012 Bolotnaya Square protests against fraud in the 2011 presidential elections. He was arrested in December 2015 and is currently under house arrest.  He is recognized by Memorial as a political prisoner not only because the alleged offense did not take place, but also due to the lack of a fair trial and the disproportionate use of pretrial detention in light of the charge against him. His case illustrates the prosecution of individuals for engaging in nonviolent public protest against the government in general and the Bolotnaya Square cases in particular. Oleg Navalny – Navalny was charged under Article 159 (“swindling on a large scale”), article 159.4 (“swindling on a particularly large scale in the entrepreneurial sphere”), and article 174.1.a (laundering of funds on a large scale acquired by a person through a crime committed by him”).  He was sentenced to 3 ½ years in a closed proceeding, Memorial considers him a political prisoner because the alleged offense did not take place and he was not given a fair trial. In reality, Oleg Navalny was targeted because he is the brother of prominent political activist Alexei Navalny.  It appears the authorities are unwilling to make a martyr out of Alexei Navalny but seek to exert pressure on him by persecuting his brother. Oleg Navalny’s case illustrates the willingness of the government to target family members as a means of exerting pressure on political activists, which is specifically prohibited under the OSCE 1989 Vienna Concluding Document. Darya Polyudova – Polyudova was charged under article 280 of the Russian criminal code (“public appeals for extremist activity” and “public appeals for actions aimed at a violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation”) in connection with her participation in preparation for a march that did not take place.  In reality, she was indicted for criticizing Moscow online for its support of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's east.  She is recognized as a political prisoner because the offense did not take place, her right to a fair trial was violated, and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention given the nature of the charges.  She was sentenced to two years in prison, becoming the first person in Russia convicted under a 2014 law criminalizing calls for separatism on the Internet. Her case illustrates the government’s prosecution of Russian nationals who criticize Russia’s actions and policies in Ukraine. Sergei Udaltsov – Udaltsov was charged under Article 30 of the Russian criminal code (“preparation of actions aimed at organizing mass riots”) and Article 212 (“organization of mass riots”) after participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests. He has been arrested multiple times before for protesting against the government. Memorial recognizes him as a political prisoner on the grounds that he was charged with an offense that did not take place; his right to a fair trial was violated; and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He was sentenced to four years and six months in prison. Ivan Nepomniashchikh – Nepomniashchikh was charged with Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”). He is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that he is being prosecuted for exercising his right to freedom of assembly; he is being charged with an offense that did not take place; he was not allowed a fair trial;  and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He is another example of those being prosecuted for participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests against the 2011 fraud in the presidential election. Alexei Pichugin – Pichugin was charged under Article 162 of the Russian criminal code (“robbery”) and Article 105 (“murder”). At a closed trial, Pichugin, the former head of internal economic security for the Yukos Company then headed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sentenced to life imprisonment in a special-regime penal colony. He has been in prison since 2003 and is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that his prosecution was conducted without a fair trial.  The European Court on Human Rights also has held that Pichugin was denied a fair trial.   Oleg Sentsov – Senstov is a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in Russia since 2015, and was the focus of a separate Helsinki Commission briefing. Sentsov was arrested in the Russian-occupied Crimean territory of Ukraine and charged under Article 205.4 of the Russian criminal code (“organization of a terrorist group”), Article 205 (“terrorist act committed by an organized group”), Article 30 in connection with Article 205 (“preparation of a terrorist act”), Article 30 in connection with Article 222 (“attempted illegal acquisition of firearms and explosive devices”), and Article 222 (“illegal acquisition and storage of far arms and explosive devices”).  He was accused of planning an attack on a monument to Lenin, a charge he denies. He was sentenced in a Russian military court to 20 years in a strict regime penal colony for terrorism. Other Illustrative Cases Alexander Kolchenko – Kolchenko, a Crimean activist, was charged under article 205 of Russia’s criminal code (art. 205.4 part 2: "Participation in a terrorist organization," and art. 205, paragraph "a," part 2: "A terrorist act conducted by a terrorist group"). He refuted the accusations of terrorism. Mr. Kolchenko was detained in May 2014, in Simferopol, Crimea, shortly after Russia took control over the peninsula. On August 25, 2016, the North Caucasus District Military Court of Russia sentenced Mr. Kolchenko to 10 years of imprisonment in a strict-regime colony. He is serving his sentence in the Chelyabinsk Oblast, in the city of Kopeysk, a facility notorious for its poor treatment of convicts. Mr. Kolchenko is recognized as a political prisoner by Russia’s Memorial watchdog group. Mykola Semena (under a travel ban) – Semena, a Crimean journalist, has been charged under Article 280.1 of Russia’s criminal code, which penalizes "public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation." The law was added to the Russian criminal code in December 2013, and came into force in May 2014 - several weeks after Crimea was annexed by Russia. Semena was one of the only independent journalists to remain on the peninsula following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. He contributed reporting to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and its Crimea Desk. On April 19, 2016, after Russian police searched Semena’s home and confiscated computers and storage media, the de facto Crimean prosecutor-general ordered Semena to remain on the peninsula while he was investigated for alleged “calls to undermine Russia’s territorial integrity via the mass media.” Semena has been forced to stay in Crimea ever since, despite his requests to travel to Kyiv for urgently needed medical care. Roman Sushchenko (in pre-trial detention) – Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist, is charged under article 276 of Russia’s criminal code (espionage). He has worked as a Paris-based correspondent for Ukraine’s state news agency, Ukrinform, since 2010. He was detained at a Moscow airport on September 30, 2016, upon his arrival from Paris on private business. He was accused of collecting classified information on the activities of Russia’s armed forces and the National Guard. Mr. Sushchenko denies any involvement in espionage. His employer, Ukrinform, also considers the accusations false and called his detention a “planned provocation.” Mr. Sushchenko’s attorney is Mark Feygin, who previously represented Pussy Riot and Nadezhda Savchenko. Memorial, a Russian organization established to report on the crimes of Stalinism, documents cases of political prisoners as well as cases of those persecuted for their faith.This information was compiled by Helsinki Commission staff from Memorial, the U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices, and news sources. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also tracks cases of individuals imprisoned in connection with their faith.

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

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

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

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

  • The Helsinki Process: A Four Decade Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mark International Human Rights Day

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

  • Turkey: Human Rights in Retreat

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

  • Helsinki Commission to Probe Crisis of Human Rights in Turkey

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

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