Title

Helsinki Commission and Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment to Hold Joint Hearing on Open Skies Treaty

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment have announced the following hearing:

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE OPEN SKIES TREATY
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
10:00 a.m.
Rayburn House Office Building
Room 2172

Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission

The Trump administration reportedly is considering withdrawing the United States from the Open Skies Treaty, a key arms control agreement that has enjoyed bipartisan support for decades. The treaty underpins security and stability in Europe by providing for unarmed aerial observation flights over its 34 signatories. The treaty allows even small countries greater awareness of military activities around them—more crucial than ever given the Kremlin’s demonstrated willingness to violate established borders.

The principles of military transparency embodied by the treaty flow from the same fundamental commitments that led to the creation of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Open Skies Consultative Commission, which oversees implementation of the treaty, meets monthly at OSCE headquarters in Vienna, Austria.

Witnesses at the hearing, organized jointly with the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment, will explore the continued contributions of the Open Skies Treaty to the security of the United States, as well as its benefits to U.S. allies and partners. Witnesses also will assess Russia’s partial non-compliance with elements of the treaty and strategies to address this challenge, and evaluate the implications of a possible U.S. withdrawal on security and stability in Europe and Eurasia.

Witnesses scheduled to participate include:

  • Jon Wolfsthal, Director, Nuclear Crisis Group; Senior Advisor, Global Zero; Former Special Assistant to the President for National Security; Former Senior Director for Nonproliferation and Arms Control at the National Security Council
  • Damian Leader, Ph.D., Professor, New York University; former Chief Arms Control Delegate for the United States Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
  • Amy Woolf, Specialist in Nuclear Weapons Policy, Congressional Research Services

Witnesses may be added. 

All members of the media wishing to attend the hearing must be accredited through the House Radio-Television Correspondents’ Gallery. For more information on accreditation, please contact the gallery at 202-225-5214.

 

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
Phone: 
202.225.1901
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  • In Pursuit of Truth

    A free press is the lifeblood of democracy; without independent media, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. In many of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), autocrats exploit financial and legal means, alongside physical violence, to intimidate and silence independent media. Journalists and their associates are attacked both online and offline; jailed on phony charges; and even killed for the secrets they expose. Leaders undermine public trust in the press to hide their misdeeds. Disinformation—particularly lies related to the COVID-19 pandemic—continues to pollute the information landscape. In her first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro will assess the state of media freedom across the OSCE region. Other expert witnesses will discuss recent attacks on journalists and media outlets, the motivations that lead authorities to try and silence the press, global disinformation networks, and more.

  • Has Interpol become the long arm of oppressive regimes?

    Flicking through the news one day in early 2015, Alexey Kharis, a California-based businessman and father of two, came across a startling announcement: Russia would request a global call for his arrest through the International Criminal Police Organization, known as Interpol. “Oh, wow,” Kharis thought, shocked. All the 46-year-old knew about Interpol and its pursuit of the world’s most-wanted criminals was from novels and films. He tried to reassure himself that things would be OK and it was just an intimidatory tactic of the Russian authorities. Surely, he reasoned, the world’s largest police organisation had no reason to launch a hunt for him. In the months that followed, Kharis kept checking Interpol’s gallery of thousands of international fugitives. He finally came across his mugshot, glaring back at him like a hardened criminal. “My God,” he exclaimed, now terrified. “This guy is a terrorist; that guy is a murderer; this guy abducted children – and there’s me,” he remembers thinking as he looked through the Interpol register. It was while running a large construction company in Russia that Kharis first found himself on the wrong side of the authorities. His firm, ZAO Rosdorsnabzhenie, had a government contract in 2010 to renovate shipyards near the far eastern city of Vladivostok. He says his business partner, Igor Borbot, told him about high-level officials embezzling money from the project. Kharis says he was targeted after he threatened to speak publicly about the ministerial corruption and refused to give false testimony against Borbot. Kharis says agents from Russia’s Federal Security Bureau told him during interrogation in 2013: “Your partner is going down – you can help us or you can go down with him.” He had hoped – naively, he says now – that investigations in Russia would clear his name. The Interpol notice confirmed he was wrong. It outlined major fraud charges carrying a 10-year prison sentence, alleging that Kharis was part of a “criminal group” that had stolen tens of millions of pounds from his own company. Ted Bromund, who testified in Kharis’s case in the US as an expert witness, spent days scrutinising the case files and came to believe that the charges were baseless. “They don’t seem to have any substance whatsoever,” he says. Bromund, an international affairs specialist with a rightwing US thinktank, the Heritage Foundation, concluded that this was the latest in a pattern of Russian attempts to weaponise Interpol with trumped-up requests to arrest its nationals. According to the US rights organisation Freedom House, Russia is responsible for 38% of all public red notices. Far from indicating that Kharis had committed a crime, Bromund wrote later in his testimony, the notice “proves only that the Russian Federation filled out the appropriate Interpol form”. Interpol declined to comment on Kharis’s case, beyond confirming the status of his red notice. US immigration authorities did not share this view of Interpol’s request, however. The Department of Homeland Security used it to argue that Kharis was a “flight risk” and he was detained in San Francisco in 2017. Kharis spent the next 15 months in California prisons. His wife, Anna, published a blog during this time. “Many tears and sleepless nights followed,” she wrote of his detention, telling the children their father was away on a business trip. She describes Kharis as “a caring father” who would “spend the night rocking the cradle and then head off for his business early in the morning”. He called every night to tell their two young children everything was OK. But with no release date, prison took its toll. First mooted in 1914, Interpol was established in 1923, in large part to stop people from committing crimes in one country and fleeing elsewhere with impunity. The organisation has been misused by oppressive regimes before – in 1938, the Nazis ousted Interpol’s president and later relocated the organisation to Berlin. Most countries withdrew and it ceased to exist as an international organisation until after the second world war. The 194 member states support searches for war criminals, drug kingpins and people who have evaded justice for decades. Its red notices are seen as a vital tool and the closest thing to an international arrest warrant, leading to the location of thousands of fugitives each year. Red-notice subjects have included Osama bin Laden and Saadi Gaddafi, the son of Libya’s former dictator. As criminals move around an increasingly interconnected world and terrorist incidents increased, the use of Interpol’s system has mushroomed. In the past two decades, red notices increased tenfold, from about 1,200 in 2000 to almost 12,000 last year. (There are also other forms of Interpol notices, such as yellow for missing children, black for unidentified dead bodies.) Alongside the growth of the most-wanted list, international legal experts say there has also been an alarming phenomenon of countries using Interpol for political gain or revenge – targeting nationals abroad such as political rivals, critics, activists and refugees. It is not known how many of roughly 66,000 active red notices could be based on politically motivated charges; Interpol does not release data on how many red notices it rejects. But a number of reports, including from the US Congress, the European parliament and academics have documented the misuse of Interpol in recent years. Bromund says: “I don’t think there’s any dispute that […] the number of abusive red notices is growing.” Seeking to manipulate Interpol is a feature of transnational repression, in which countries extend their reach overseas to silence or target adversaries. Tactics range from assassinations, poisonings and dismemberments to blackmail, spying on citizens’ phones abroad and threatening families left behind. The methods may differ, but they are intended to send a similarly menacing message in an era of global movement: you may leave your country but you can still be punished. Interpol’s move earlier this month to reinstate Syria’s access to the organisation’s databases and allow it to communicate with other member states was strongly criticised by opposition activists. Anas al-Abdah, head of the Syrian opposition’s negotiating body, said Interpol’s decision had given Bashar al-Assad’s regime the data-based means to wage another war against the Syrian people. Toby Cadman, a British barrister working on Syria-related war crimes prosecutions, said in response to the decision: “Interpol’s systems are opaque, with no real oversight or accountability, and routinely abused by states like Syria. “It’s quite straightforward to get a red notice issued – you don’t need to provide that much information, and Interpol is underfunded and understaffed,” he said, but added: “Getting a red notice removed, even in European countries such as the UK or the Netherlands, can be slow and difficult.” A red-notice subject’s fate can vary wildly. Some countries see red notices as an alert system while others treat them as arrest warrants, incarcerating people or co-operating with extradition proceedings against them. People may have their assets frozen, their passports confiscated and their movements restricted – as well as the reputational damage from being designated as an international criminal. Some first learn of their Interpol wanted status when they cross a border. For Hakeem al-Araibi, a Bahraini footballer living as a political refugee in Australia, it was on his honeymoon in Thailand in 2018. He was arrested with his wife after Bahrain issued an Interpol notice accusing him of vandalism. (Al-Araibi fled Bahrain after athletes who took part in pro-democracy protests were arrested, beaten and allegedly tortured while detained.) Interpol revoked the notice when Australia notified it of al-Araibi’s refugee status, but that did not prevent al-Araibi from spending 76 days in Thai prisons. Al-Araibi’s case is one of several to have sparked a public outcry in recent years. Another political activist pursued abroad through Interpol’s red notices was Petr Silaev, a Russian environmentalist and anti-fascist who was charged with “hooliganism” after demonstrating in 2010 against plans for a motorway to be built through the Khimki forest outside Moscow. He fled the country as the Russian authorities rounded up fellow protesters and was granted political asylum in Finland. In 2012, however, he was arrested in Spain after an Interpol alert and detained in a high-security prison. He spent months fighting extradition to Russia. The human rights organisation Fair Trials said Interpol’s decision had left Silaev under threat of arrest whenever he crossed a border and called on the organisation to justify its decision and “explain whether it is helping Russia to pursue anyone else across the globe on hooliganism charges”. In the UK, Benny Wenda, a separatist leader from West Papua who escaped from prison in Indonesia and was granted asylum as a political refugee, had a politically motivated red notice issued against him by Indonesia. It was later deleted. “We must not misuse international organisations like Interpol for such purposes,” said the then German chancellor Angela Merkel, after a Turkish-born German writer, Doğan Akhanlı, was arrested in 2017 on the back of a Turkish Interpol notice while on holiday in Spain. However, only three months ago, Moroccan authorities arrested Yidiresi Aishan, an Uyghur activist, after China sought his extradition; Interpol later cancelled Aishan’s red notice after a review but he still faces the threat of deportation to China. Last month Makary Malachowski, a Belarusian opposition activist who had fled to Poland, was detained in Warsaw after Alexander Lukashenko’s government issued a red notice. “People expect you’re not going to believe them because what has happened to them is so crazy,” says Michelle Estlund, a Florida lawyer representing wrongfully accused clients wanted through Interpol. Estlund began helping Interpol-targeted clients 12 years ago, when a Venezuelan woman facing a red notice accusing her of fraud sought the criminal lawyer’s help. Estlund initially refused but has since worked with red-notice subjects from Russia to Ecuador, and remains shocked by how the law can be misused. The rise of online platforms for dissidents to criticise governments is fuelling a desire to shut down opposition voices, she says. “It’s just so against what we expect to see in any justice system, even abusive ones. The things the client goes through before they get to me are mind-boggling.” Interpol’s constitution forbids the organisation’s use for political matters and it announced in 2015 that it would remove a red notice if that person had been recognised as a refugee. Its work must also fall within the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which demands fair trials and free speech, and prohibits arbitrary arrests. Interpol says it screens every wanted-person request. In an organisation with such seemingly clear safeguards, what is going on? Weeding out questionable requests for international arrests falls to a specialist squad at Interpol’s Lyon headquarters, created in 2016. Turkey says Interpol has rejected 773 requests to detain people over suspected links with the popular movement Hizmet, led by the US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Interpol confirmed the figure was more than 700). Turkey’s government regards members of the Gülen movement as a terrorist group responsible for plotting the failed 2016 coup and has criticised Interpol for hindering its prosecution efforts. There have been reports that Ankara attempted to upload as many as 60,000 names to Interpol, including via its stolen-passport database, but the organisation denied that figure. Interpol’s interventions against Turkey are among a number of publicly known examples of the organisation’s efforts to stop politically motivated notices in recent years. Yet some fear Interpol too often believes its members are working in good faith and providing it with accurate information. “Interpol is there to help the police do its work under the assumption that the police does its work honestly,” says Rutsel Martha, Interpol’s Dutch former legal chief and author of a study of the organisation. “That’s the system, so the first reaction is to do with the immediate situation, then legal controls kick in later in the process.” Among the easiest ways to craft misleading arrest requests is to accuse people of financial crimes such as money laundering, whereas a murder charge requires evidence of a dead body and political charges may break Interpol’s rules. “It’s very easy to either fabricate or manipulate information to create a charge of embezzlement or misappropriation or gaining unjust profit,” says Estlund. When she looks into red notices, she often finds charges to be unsubstantiated. What critics regard as a low level of proof required for a red notice can be seen in the case of a Turkmen human rights activist, Annadurdy Khadzhiev, who was detained in Bulgaria in 2002 over an Interpol notice accusing him of embezzling $40m (£30m) from Turkmenistan’s central bank. The alleged theft, however, took place four years after Khadzhiev had stopped working there. “It was objectively impossible for him to have committed the said crime,” according to the findings of a Bulgarian prosecutor cited in a 2014 European court of human rights judgment. A less-formal Interpol option for hunting fugitives, called “diffusions”, are often regarded as more vulnerable to misuse. Through these alerts, Interpol members can send arrest requests directly to each other. That is how Nikita Kulachenkov, a Russian-born Lithuanian refugee, spent several weeks imprisoned in Cyprus, after he was detained at the airport in 2016 en route to visit his mother. Kulachenkov faced a five-year prison term in Russia for allegedly stealing a street artist’s drawing. His Interpol alert was issued after he began working on investigations for the Anti-Corruption Foundation in Russia, founded by the opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with the nerve agent novichok last year and is now imprisoned in Russia. Kulachenkov claims he found the poster on a street and is adamant that the poster’s value was invented to create a politically motivated charge. He was investigated by Russia’s top prosecutors, who raided his Moscow flat. More than a year before his detention in Cyprus, Kulachenkov had pre-emptively written to Interpol asking it to reject calls for his arrest as he was being targeted for his anti-corruption work. Interpol acknowledged his concerns, and a spokeswoman said later that it checks all diffusions. Now living in Berlin, Kulachenkov still fears being stopped if he crosses certain borders – Interpol data on wanted individuals can remain on national police computer systems even after it has been revoked. Kulachenkov recalls incredulous Cypriot authorities laughing at the charges against him, saying: “Russia really wants you through Interpol for €60 of theft?” Interpol’s secretary general for the last seven years, Jürgen Stock, is unexpectedly open about the threat to Interpol’s credibility from problematic notices. He finds it frustrating that he sometimes finds out from newspapers, rather than his organisation, about wrongful arrest requests, such as those involving refugees. He says countries do not always notify Interpol about a person’s refugee status, which he regards as a “shared responsibility”. The 62-year-old has faced a “parallel pandemic” of Covid-related crimes including fake vaccines and other substandard medical products as well as fighting a wave of cyber-attacks and telecom scams. Stock describes Interpol’s “bread and butter job” as targeting “child abusers, murderers, fraudsters”. Stock does not give figures about Interpol’s tools being misused against political opponents and refugees but he insists that these notices are a “small number of cases” compared with the “overwhelming majority” of legitimate ones. However, even his rough estimate of no more than 5% of notices being improperly applied each year could mean hundreds of potentially wrongful arrest requests. Under Stock, Interpol has strengthened its oversight body – the commission for the control of Interpol’s files (CCF), which reviews appeals and can delete red notices – and publishes more information about decisions on complaints. He has also bolstered the specialist squad that reviews notices before they are published. Critics have welcomed the changes, but some say the system is still not robust enough. Stock acknowledges that there is more work to be done. “I don’t have the silver bullet at [this] stage for what else we can do,” he says, but stresses that he is committed to further strengthening safeguards, where possible, during his final three years in the post. A key challenge, lawyers say, is how long it can take to get non-compliant notices removed – and the damage that can happen in the meantime. This was the case for Selahaddin Gülen, a US permanent resident and nephew of Fethullah Gülen who was detained in Kenya last October, after an Interpol notice accused him of sex crimes involving a minor. (He denies the charges, which his lawyer called a “false dossier”.) Seven months later, after he reported to Kenyan police in May as part of his bail requirements, Gülen was detained again and deported to Turkey. “He had been completely illegally transferred without even a Kenyan court ruling,” says Nate Schenkkan, research director at Freedom House. “That’s a pretty obvious case of Interpol abuse.” Gülen’s lawyers asked Interpol to remove the red notice in December, arguing it violated rules on political motivated notices. An expert witness argued that after the 2016 attempted coup Turkey had reopened charges that had been dropped in 2008. In July, Interpol stated that Gülen’s red notice had been removed. But it was too late for Gülen: he was already in Turkish custody and now faces multiple charges including for terrorism offences, according to local media. Gülen’s wife has called her husband’s detention and deportation from Kenya a kidnapping. “I have not heard from him since that day,” she said in a video. The CCF is composed of eight specialists who usually meet every few months. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, it ruled that 48% of the 346 complaints it took forward had broken Interpol’s rules. Interpol’s penalties for members flouting its rules include blocking countries from accessing its databases and supervising use of its systems for up to three months. It says these are “corrective measures”, not punishments, and have been in place since at least 2011. Some countries are taking matters into their own hands to curtail abuse of Interpol’s processes. In the US, a bipartisan group in Congress based around the Helsinki Commission is seeking to pass the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (Trap) Act, which was proposed in 2019 to restrict arrests based on Interpol red notices and prevent foreign governments from persecuting citizens abroad. Interpol is ultimately governed by its members, which include countries that may seek to game the system. Next month, member states’ representatives will gather in Istanbul to elect the organisation’s next president. Among those vying for the position, and reportedly a frontrunner, is a controversial candidate: Ahmed Naser al-Raisi, a senior security official from the United Arab Emirates who is on Interpol’s executive committee. Human rights organisations and lawyers accuse Raisi of overseeing a “notoriously abusive” state security apparatus that has imprisoned dissidents and misused Interpol’s red notices. A report earlier this year for International Human Rights Advisors by David Calvert-Smith, a former British judge and director of public prosecutions, concluded: “Not only would an Emirati president of Interpol serve to validate and endorse the [UAE’s] record on human rights and criminal justice but, in addition, Maj Gen al-Raisi is unsuitable for the role. He sits at the very top of the Emirati criminal justice system [and] has overseen an increased crackdown on dissent, continued torture, and abuses in its criminal justice system.” Kharis left prison in late 2018, after a US federal judge invoked evidence of Russia abusing Interpol procedures and of “serious flaws” in its wanted-persons system. Supporters in court cheered and hugged Kharis’s wife, Anna, who was in tears. His release has not ended the judicial struggle, which one US congressman called a “harrowing tale of mistreatment”. Kharis was tracked with an electronic ankle monitor until this summer, an experience he called a constant walk of shame. His movements are restricted and monitored by GPS, while he awaits a decision on his asylum request, which was initially rejected. Now based in Palo Alto, California, Kharis is trying to rebuild his life. He has set up a virtual restaurant company and works as an accountant. This summer he took his family on holiday in California. His judicial process rolls on, marbled with wins and losses. Last summer, nine months after Kharis’s appeal to Interpol and four years after his red notice was issued, Interpol told him his wanted status had been revoked. “I still think that Interpol does good,” he says. “But it’s too easy to abuse the system. We’re talking about people’s lives.”

  • A Ukrainian Oligarch Bought a Midwestern Factory and Let it Rot. What Was Really Going On?

    In recent weeks, the world has learned incredible new details about corruption, illicit financing and money laundering by the super-rich, thanks to the Pandora Papers. The papers are a tranche of nearly 12 million documents, revealed by an international group of journalists, that describe how global elites — from the king of Jordan to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s inner circle to an alleged mistress of Vladimir Putin — use shell companies, trusts, real estate, artwork and other financial secrecy tools to squirrel away enormous amounts of money. And much of it is perfectly legal. Many of the stories in the Pandora Papers follow a playbook that is depressingly familiar at this point: Global heads of state and business elites hide their wealth in pursuits that are emblematic of the super-rich: coveted beachside properties in Malibu, as in the case of the Jordanian monarch, or the Czech prime minister’s $22 million chateau in the south of France, or dozens of pieces of high-value artwork, moved secretly through shell companies by one of Sri Lanka’s most powerful families. But this kind of transnational money laundering, which we’ve come to expect, is only part of the picture. Recently, wealthy elites have begun looking for other places to park their funds, places they think authorities won’t look. Places that offer all the financial secrecy these elites need, but that few would associate with lives of luxury. As a result, shadowy and sometimes ill-gotten wealth has started pouring not just into yachts and vacation homes, but also into blue-collar towns in the U.S. whose economic struggles make them eager to accept the cash. One of these small towns appears to have been Harvard, Ill., a depressed factory community that allegedly became part of a sprawling network used by Ukrainian banking tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky to launder hundreds of millions of dollars earned from a Ponzi scheme. Kolomoisky, who was recently hit with U.S. sanctions for “significant corruption” in Ukraine, is separately accused by the Justice Department and Ukrainian investigators of using a constellation of shell companies and offshore bank accounts to move millions in misappropriated funds out of Ukraine and into a series of real-estate investments in the American Midwest. (Kolomoisky denies wrongdoing, claiming he made the investments with his own money.) The story of Harvard suggests that lax U.S. laws around shell companies and real-estate purchases, in addition to a broader lack of regulatory oversight, may be putting America’s heartland in the crosshairs of elites like Kolomoisky. It’s a reality of global corruption that U.S. lawmakers are only just starting to grapple with: As money-launderers and illicit financiers hide their money in the American Midwest, they’ve become part of the story of the decline of small-town, blue-collar America. With a population of just under 10,000, Harvard, Ill., is a speck of a town equidistant between Chicago and Milwaukee. Like the other towns in the region, you’ve likely never heard of it — and like other towns in the region, Harvard’s best days are decades behind it. But in the late 1990s, the massive telecom company Motorola announced it would be putting a new manufacturing plant in Harvard. Construction began on what would become the largest building not just in Harvard but the entire region: a 1.5-million-square-foot facility, sprawling over 320 acres, part office and part plant, shaped like a giant wishbone. “It’s a huge, huge building,” one local, Ed Soliz, said at the time. “It looks like a small university.” With a $100 million price tag, Motorola said it would require a staggering five thousand employees to operate the facility — to help craft the next generation of Motorola phones and lead the global telecom market into the 21st century. But within a few years of finishing construction, the bottom had fallen out of Motorola’s business model. Suddenly, the building in Harvard had no purpose. Rather than a testament to Harvard’s future, it was a testament to corporate blinders. And for years it sat there, like a beached whale, waiting. Then, in 2008 — as the country began tipping fully into the Great Recession — an investor in his early 20s from Miami named Chaim Schochet showed up. Working on behalf of a firm called Optima International, Schochet offered $16.75 million for the empty building. A far cry from the Motorola investment, but more than locals could have hoped for. They happily accepted. Glimmers of potential sprang once more. “Hope burns eternal,” Roger Lehmann, a member of the Harvard Economic Development Corporation, said after the purchase. At the time, there was no reason to think Schochet and his colleagues were anything but savvy businesspeople, snapping up properties across the Midwest. Optima International was a parent company to a constellation of related firms (including one called “Optima Harvard Facility LLC”). Prosecutors would later dub this the “Optima Family,” with its American operations overseen by two Americans named Mordechai Korf (Schochet’s brother-in-law) and Uri Laber. As the Justice Department alleged in a series of civil forfeiture cases, this “Optima Family” plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into investments in state after state: commercial real estate in Cleveland and Dallas and Louisville, steel factories in West Virginia and Kentucky and Ohio, production plants in Michigan and New York and Indiana. Time and again, these investors swooped in, pledging jobs, revitalization and a lifeline for towns watching their economic lifebloods dry up. In just a few years, the “Optima Family” collected over a dozen mills, plants and other facilities across the American heartland. All of them had fallen victim to America’s yearslong manufacturing slump, part of the broader deindustrialization that began in the 1970s. All of them were eager for any injection of financing they could get, and for any promise of a brighter future. And, according to prosecutors, these purchases were all directly connected to a powerful steel and banking tycoon in Ukraine who was buying American properties to hide stolen money. Shortly after Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, investigators in the country alleged that Ihor Kolomoisky was secretly overseeing one of the greatest Ponzi schemes the world had ever seen, totaling at least $5.5 billion. Legal filings from American prosecutors last year detailed how Kolomoisky allegedly used his control of Ukraine’s largest retail bank, PrivatBank, to loot staggering sums from Ukrainian depositors, and then used a series of shell companies and offshore accounts to whisk the money out of the country and into the U.S. The idea seems to have been to purchase troubled assets that American sellers were eager to offload. Even if the buyers ultimately took a loss, the assets were still outside the grasp of Ukrainian investigators and could still act as vehicles through which to funnel money. Perhaps most importantly, the properties could be bought without much inquiry into the source of the monies: For two decades, American real-estate professionals have benefited from a “temporary” exemption to anti-money laundering laws, allowing them to avoid performing due diligence on the customer making the purchase. In subsequent efforts to seize the operation’s assets, American prosecutors laid out a theory that much of Kolomoisky’s operation was overseen by Laber and Korf, who “created a web of entities, usually under some variation of the name ‘Optima,’ to further launder the misappropriated funds and invest them” across multiple states. According to the DOJ, the funds lifted from PrivatBank bounced through a number of shell companies and offshore accounts, before being injected into the Optima network, and from there into assets around the American Midwest. And all of this took place while Kolomoisky — now sanctioned by the U.S. for what the State Department calls “significant corruption” and “ongoing efforts to undermine Ukraine’s democratic processes” — grew his power and wealth within Ukraine itself, creating a gargantuan private militia and reportedly manipulating elected officials along the way. The details gathered by U.S. and Ukrainian investigators and laid out in DOJ filings and court cases around the world, from Delaware to the UK to Israel, comprise what one analyst said might be “the biggest case of money laundering in history.” Kolomoisky says he bought the American properties with his own money, denying the Justice Department’s allegations about laundering ill-gotten funds. Neither he nor his American associates (who also deny wrongdoing) have been named in any criminal complaints. Reached for comment prior to publication of this article, an attorney for Korf and Laber responded, “Mr. Korf and Mr. Laber have never engaged in money laundering of any kind, and they have no knowledge of anyone else doing so. Any allegations against Mr. Korf and Mr. Laber arise from Ukrainian political disputes they have nothing to do with.” Kolomoisky and Schochet, the Miami investor, did not respond to a request for comment. Schochet has not been targeted by name in the government filings, and the government has not suggested he is personally a target of their investigations. But the DOJ complaint notes that the Harvard plant purchase was part of the sprawling Optima laundering scheme (including fraudulent loans used to purchase the plant in the first place). The investigators describe how, using investments in steel mills, skyscrapers and industrial plants across the Midwest and Rust Belt, Kolomoisky could take full advantage of America’s permissive climate for money laundering — all, apparently, to help clean the proceeds of his massive Ukrainian Ponzi scheme. After Schochet finalized the purchase in Harvard, locals say they saw little of him. “Chaim wasn’t around much,” Charlie Eldredge, head of the Harvard Economic Development corporation, told me. “I would see him once a year, once every other year…. Clearly it wasn’t the focus of their interest.” He added that it quickly became clear the Optima network “didn’t really have any real plans [about] what to do with the facility.” More than five years after the purchase, no jobs had returned and no further investments emerged. Unpaid property taxes kept accumulating, starving the strapped local government of hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2016, Optima sold the building at a $7 million loss to a Chinese Canadian businessperson. Years of neglect by various owners began to take a toll: Soon, the factory went dark entirely. With a half-million-dollar tab in unpaid electricity bills, the juice was cut off, forcing local officials to visit with flashlights. “It’s just heartbreaking to see that beautiful place sitting vacant,” the McHenry County treasurer said in 2018. Along the way, the massive building itself — its factory and fitness center, its child care rooms and 500-seat auditorium, even its pair of heliports — continued a slow march toward implosion. Mold began creeping along the walls and roof, into the pipes, into the recesses of the building. The factory’s entire fire suppressant system, including over 20,000 sprinkler heads, began falling apart. “The mechanical [equipment] all needs to be replaced,” Mayor Michael Kelly said. “The roof leaks. No one’s really taking care of it.” “The building won’t just be valueless — it will be a catastrophe for the town, because it will have to be demolished,” Eldredge told me in 2020. “And the net cost for that, after salvage, is probably three to five times the city’s annual budget. It will be a financial catastrophe.” He paused, pondering the implication: This hundred-million-dollar promise to a small outpost in northern Illinois ended up with a foreign oligarch apparently using it to hide his money from investigators. (The building was sold just last month to a group of developers from Las Vegas for an undisclosed amount.) Harvard is hardly the only American town that saw Optima swoop in, making big promises that ended in disappointment. In Warren, Ohio, a steel plant purchased by Kolomoisky’s network had so many safety issues that several explosions occurred onsite, with employees repeatedly ending up in hospitals. Other plants and factories have ended up gutted and shuttered, laying off hundreds of American workers. One 70-year-old plant in Kentucky, after shutting its furnaces and tossing its employees to the curb, reportedly even refashioned itself as a Bitcoin-mining operation — without bothering to bring any of the jobs back. Over and over, Kolomoisky’s team showed up, purchased the properties and seemingly lost interest — leaving broken dreams, busted plants and bleeding economies in their wake. As Harvard’s Eldredge told me, “I think there’s certainly a good many citizens who feel it’s better the building had never been built.” As it turns out, the decrepit Harvard plant had another chance to avoid falling into disrepair. But the story of how that opportunity collapsed suggests just how deeply kleptocratic networks have become embedded into the American economy. In 2016 — just as Ukrainian officials began investigating the depths of Kolomoisky’s alleged Ponzi scheme — the oligarch and his team somehow found a buyer willing to take on the former Motorola plant. The new buyer was another firm with links to overseas investors, this time headed by a Chinese Canadian businessperson named Xiao Hua Gong. Gong, who goes by Edward, openly claimed he wanted to transform the plant into a smartphone manufacturing base. According to Eldredge, Gong was initially “very charming and full of conversation of what wonderful things he was going to do.” Not too dissimilar from a certain Ukrainian network that parachuted into Harvard a few years prior, singing much the same tune. A year after the sale, though, still nothing had happened with the building. And then Canadian authorities dropped a bombshell: They accused Gong of running his own transnational money laundering scheme, charging him with fraud and money laundering. Follow-on allegations from New Zealand authorities detailed how Gong had led a “multi-national pyramid scheme,” eventually resulting in the country’s largest-ever settlement, worth over $50 million. If the various allegations are true, this means the Harvard Motorola plant has entered not one, but two separate dirty-money pipelines. Following the charges against Gong, the plant remained frozen until its acquisition a few weeks ago. Local authorities couldn’t touch it, as it was part of ongoing investigations attempting to unwind Gong’s network. And the residents of Harvard watched the factory, and its initial promise, sit vacant. “It’s almost as if these oligarchs, that they have so much money that the rules don’t apply to them, they can do whatever they want,” Kelly sighed. “I think the community sees that the Motorola plant has been a huge albatross for us.” He paused, and took a breath. “The building is f---ing cursed.” We only know about Harvard because American and Canadian authorities, aided by partners in Ukraine and New Zealand, targeted the specific money laundering networks allegedly linked to Kolomoisky and Gong. But given the miles-wide availability of other American money laundering services — from real estate to private equity, hedge funds to anonymous trusts, artwork to accountants — there’s no reason to think the Motorola plant is the only multimillion-dollar American asset that’s been bandied between parallel kleptocratic networks. “I’m not sure people do understand how damaging taking dirty money really is to the United States,” former FBI agent Karen Greenaway, who has deep experience investigating post-Soviet money laundering networks, testified in 2019. “Dirty money is like a rainstorm coming into a dry streambed. It comes very quickly, and a lot of it comes very fast, and the stream fills up, and then it gets dry again.” As Harvard, Warren, and other small towns allegedly targeted by Kolomoisky’s network learned, that flood of money will wash through — but the streambed will dry up just as quickly, with adverse consequences for the people in those towns who hoped to benefit economically from the investments. As Greenaway added, after 2008, Americans sought to unload huge numbers of unprofitable properties, with little idea of who was buying them or whether these purchases might be new nodes in a broader transnational scheme to hide foreign wealth. Which is exactly what seems to have been the case in each of the overlooked, forgotten towns Kolomoisky and his team touched. Places like the towns in America’s steel-production heartland, reliant on the aging steel plants for another generation of jobs that will now never come. Places like Cleveland, which watched Kolomoisky and his men roll in and dominate an entire downtown, leaving a “gaping hole” behind. Places like Harvard, whose residents are watching this economic lifeline turn into an economic millstone, rotting right in front of them. “I think it’s hurting small-town America,” Greenaway concluded. “I just don’t think that we’ve come to that realization yet.” And that realization is long overdue. For years, the U.S. has largely overlooked the billions of dollars — and potentially more — in dirty and suspect money flooding into the country every year, stolen from national treasuries or made via bribes, smuggling or trafficking of humans and drugs alike. Much of this money comes to the country to be washed clean, to be transformed into legitimate assets and to obscure any links to its previous criminal owners. The Biden administration has vowed to take on global corruption, recently elevating it to a core national security threat. But the intertwined stories of Kolomoisky and Harvard suggest there’s much left to do before we can even grasp the scale of the damage in America’s heartland — and figure out what to do about it. Fortunately, we’ve started seeing movement in the right direction. The U.S. under the last few administrations has finally begun to tackle problems like shell company secrecy and anonymous real estate purchases, and Congress has introduced bill after bill to patch up the U.S.’s anti-money laundering regime. The Pandora Papers themselves have already spurred legislation, dubbed the “ENABLERS Act,” that would specifically require a whole range of Americans helping these networks thrive — “U.S.-based middlemen” like Korf and Laber, if American prosecutors are right — to conduct due diligence on the sources of foreign funds they handle. As of now, the only prominent American industry required to check whether the funds it handles are dirty is the banking sector — leaving the rest of the U.S. economy wide open. Thanks to the wide number of industries that can freely work with illicit funds, we have no idea how many other oligarchs, warlords and kleptocrats may have sunk their teeth into steel towns, into farming communities, into manufacturing plants and oil hubs and port cities across America. We have no idea how much of a role they’ve played in enervating cities and towns across the Rust Belt and elsewhere. Nor do we have any idea how many towns like Harvard have suffocated along the way, their livelihoods lost, their budgets strangled, their economic fortunes imploded. All because of what we now know to be a notoriously lax legal regime that incentivizes oligarchs, heads of state and other global elites to look to the United States to shelter their money — and to grab the biggest piece of “American Kleptocracy” that they possibly can.

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

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

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

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

  • Media Freedom Across the OSCE Region to Be Assessed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: IN PURSUIT OF TRUTH Media Freedom in the OSCE Region Wednesday, October 20, 2021 2:30pm Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission A free press is the lifeblood of democracy; without independent media, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. In many of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), autocrats exploit financial and legal means, alongside physical violence, to intimidate and silence independent media. Journalists and their associates are attacked both online and offline; jailed on phony charges; and even killed for the secrets they expose. Leaders undermine public trust in the press to hide their misdeeds. Disinformation—particularly lies related to the COVID-19 pandemic—continues to pollute the information landscape. In her first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro will assess the state of media freedom across the OSCE region. Other expert witnesses will discuss recent attacks on journalists and media outlets, the motivations that lead authorities to try and silence the press, global disinformation networks, and more. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Teresa Ribeiro, Representative on Freedom of the Media, OSCE Jamie Fly, President & CEO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Robert Mahoney, Deputy Executive Director, Committee to Protect Journalists Peter Pomerantsev, Director of Arena Program and Senior Fellow, Johns Hopkins University; Author and Journalist

  • Chairman Cardin and Ranking Member Wicker Introduce Bill to Sanction Navalny 35

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker yesterday introduced a measure that would require the administration to evaluate the Navalny 35 for Global Magnitsky sanctions. The Navalny 35 are a group of 35 Russian kleptocrats and human rights abusers who Alexey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation has identified as those primarily responsible for looting the Russian state and repressing human rights in Russia. “Corruption is an urgent national security threat. As revealed by the Pandora Papers, global kleptocrats are pushing dirty money into our system and those of our allies with the help of unscrupulous American enablers. No kleptocrats more obviously use corruption as a foreign policy tool than those named by Alexey Navalny. This measure will ensure that we are protecting our system against the taint of corruption and standing with the victims of kleptocracy in Russia,” said Chairman Cardin. “Alexey Navalny languishes today in a Russian jail cell, unjustly imprisoned by Putin. The United States must ensure it does not overlook Russia’s malign oppression abroad as well as its historic repression at home. The least we can do is make sure that known kleptocrats and human rights abusers are denied access to our shores and financial system,” said Sen. Wicker. Chairman Cardin and Sen. Wicker had previously encouraged President Biden to sanction the Navalny 35. The measure already has been passed by the House of Representatives as part of the House defense bill, where it was led by Representatives Tom Malinowski and John Curtis, co-chairs of the Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy. Multiple individuals on the Navalny 35 list were also named in the Pandora Papers investigation, including Konstantin Ernst and Gennady Timchenko. In remarks introducing the legislation, Chairman Cardin said, “Foreign dictators, their associates, and other foreign officials have stolen untold sums—billions of dollars—and moved that dirty money into our democracies, into real estate, bank accounts, trusts, and other financial instruments.…Although kleptocrats may steal abroad, to taint our political system with that money requires the assistance of enablers--American lawyers, accountants, trust, and company service providers, real estate professionals, and the like—who put aside any moral qualms they may have about working for the enemies of democracy to obtain a small slice of the ill-gotten gains. “It is the tragedy of the post-Cold War world that corruption has come west along with dirty money rather than democracy going east. There are names in the [Pandora Papers] that also come as no surprise—Putin cronies Konstantin Ernst and Gennady Timchenko are both named. Both are included on Alexey Navalny's list of 35 human rights abusers and kleptocrats. Timchenko is already under U.S. sanctions, though Ernst is not. Now would be a good time to consider sanctions on him.” Chairman Cardin is the author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act, which gives the United States the power to deny travel and banking privileges to individuals who commit gross violations of human rights against rights defenders and dissidents, and leaders who commit acts of significant corruption.

  • Cardin and Cohen Laud 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Award to Investigative Reporters

    WASHINGTON—Following the award of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following joint statement: “We congratulate the winners of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, and applaud the Nobel Committee for recognizing the courage of these journalists and their contributions to democracy and peace. Maria, Dmitry, and their colleagues are beacons of truth—without a free press, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. “That this award comes just after the 15-year anniversary of the murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya and three years after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi solemnly reminds us of the dangers journalists face, particularly in authoritarian states.” Later this month, the Helsinki Commission will hold a hearing to call attention to the growing attacks on free media and underscore the importance of investigative journalism. Muratov is the longtime editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper widely respected for its hard-hitting investigative journalism. Novaya Gazeta journalists routinely have been targeted by the authorities for their work and even murdered with impunity. Muratov dedicated his Nobel Prize award to his slain Novaya Gazeta colleagues Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasiya Baburova, and Natalya Estemirova.  In a November 2009 Helsinki Commission briefing on violence against journalists and impunity in Russia, Muratov, who provided testimony, said, “I would like to ask you a huge favor. In every meeting, in any encounter with representatives of the Russian political establishment and government, please, bring up this meeting. Please ask these uncomfortable questions. Please try not to be too polite.” Ressa is a Filipino-American journalist and co-founder and CEO of Rappler, a Philippine news website. Ressa was included in Time Magazine's 2018 Person of the Year as one of a collection of journalists from around the world, collectively branded “Guardians of Truth.” In 2019, she was awarded the Sergei Magnitsky Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalist, presented by international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. In 2020, she was convicted of trumped-up “cyberlibel” charges by the Philippine government.

  • Helsinki Commission Regrets Closure of OSCE Observer Mission at Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk

    WASHINGTON—In light of yesterday’s termination of the activities of the OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “By forcing the closure of the OSCE Observer Mission on Ukraine’s border, despite clear and continued support from other OSCE States for the mission, the Kremlin is once again trying to blind the international community to the reality of its aggression against Ukraine.  The mission regularly observed and reported suspicious movements at the border. “Rather than blocking OSCE instruments, Russia needs to cease its war against Ukraine, including reversing its illegal occupation of Crimea.”    The OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk was intended to build confidence through increased transparency by observing and reporting on the situation at the international border between Ukraine and Russia. Russia had previously imposed severe restrictions on the observer mission, including limiting movement and prohibiting the use of binoculars or cameras.  Despite these limitations, the mission reported on the movements of more than 24 million people since beginning operations in 2014. It observed more than 100 Russian convoys, along with individuals in military apparel and thousands of other vehicles, crossing the uncontrolled border.

  • Helsinki Commission Leadership Condemns Russian Obstruction of OSCE Human Rights Work

    WASHINGTON—In response to Russian intransigence blocking the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are extremely disappointed that the HDIM failed to start this week as planned, due solely to Russian intransigence blocking the meeting. The Kremlin has reached a new low in its efforts to undermine the OSCE’s work to promote human rights and democracy. “Russia clearly fears criticism of its worsening human rights record and fraudulent elections from the OSCE, other OSCE participating States, and civil society. The HDIM, through its thorough review of states’ human rights records and its inclusion of civil society, is a crown jewel of the OSCE’s human rights work. “We urge Russia to change its position and we expect the HDIM to be held in accordance with the agreement adopted in Helsinki in 1992 by the heads of state of all OSCE participating States—including Russia—that established the HDIM. For our part, we will continue to speak out when we see human rights violations, including in the Russian Federation.” The OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is the region’s largest annual human rights conference, and typically brings togethers hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to engage in a comprehensive review of the participating States’ compliance with their human rights and democracy-related commitments. The meeting is held in Warsaw, Poland, where the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is headquartered.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest September 2021

  • The Russian election was supposed to shore up Putin’s legitimacy. It achieved the opposite.

    Electoral precinct 40, located in a charming historic area a few minutes’ walking distance from the Kremlin, is among the few in Moscow that can be trusted to count votes honestly. Ever since I first voted here at the age of 18, the official tallies have always reflected the actual votes cast. In Moscow’s 2013 mayoral election, the candidate who won the precinct was anticorruption campaigner and opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Local Muscovite pride may be one factor in this honesty; the presence of independent electoral commission members in the precinct may be another. So when I came to vote here on Sunday, and then stayed overnight to observe the count, I was certain that I would get a glimpse of the real sentiments of Russian voters. To be clear: It wasn’t an honest election. Opponents of the Kremlin, including all Navalny supporters, had been preemptively disqualified from the ballot through various bans imposed by the regime. But I did expect to see an honest count of the votes that were cast. I was proven right. The official vote tally from Precinct #40 showed the three top spots on the party list ballot divided among the Communists, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and the liberal Yabloko party, the only genuine opposition group allowed to take part in this election. (Their shares were 27, 20 and 19 percent, respectively.) The Communist vote, usually low in Moscow, was boosted this time by support from the Navalny team, which urged voters to pick any candidates on the ballot who don’t represent United Russia — a tactic, known as “Smart Voting,” that aims to demonstrate how minimal support for the ruling party really is. On the single-member ballot (where voters choose among individual candidates rather than parties), Yabloko’s Sergei Mitrokhin won handily with 35 percent; the pro-regime candidate eked out just 14 percent. The overall official results announced next morning — both for Moscow and for Russia as a whole — might as well have come from a different country. The authorities solemnly announced that United Russia had retained its two-thirds supermajority in parliament — even though most polls (including those from government pollsters) showed support for the party in the high 20s. The rest of the seats will be filled by officially approved “opposition” parties that always end up supporting Putin’s most important initiatives. Predictably, not a single genuine opposition candidate — among the few allowed on the ballot in the first place — was actually allowed to win. This time around — in addition to traditional rigging methods such as organized voting by state employees and military conscripts, “carousel” multiple voting, and plain ballot-stuffing — the regime deployed a rather specific brand of electronic voting. When used in genuine democracies, electronic voting usually produces an outcome almost immediately. But in this election, tabulating the results took hours longer than counting traditional paper ballots — and the final result flipped at least eight Moscow districts from the opposition to United Russia. “The story with electronic voting fraud … reminds me of the switched urine samples at the 2014 Sochi Olympics,” noted political analyst Maria Snegovaya. “It was done clumsily and crudely — and by the same people, the FSB [Federal Security Service]. It seems this is the only way they can work.” In contrast to 2011, when a patently fraudulent parliamentary election brought tens of thousands of people into the streets, this time no major protests followed. Indeed, none were expected. Navalny’s arrest, and an unprecedented crackdown on opposition supporters earlier this year — with 11,000 detentions and more than 100 criminal cases against participants of pro-democracy rallies — has left Russian civil society subdued and demoralized. But this silence is deceptive. The respite for the regime will almost certainly prove to be only temporary. Recent protests and public opinion trends point to an unmistakable rise in general fatigue with one-man rule that is now stretching into its third decade. Major political change in Russia is notoriously difficult to predict — suffice it to mention the (unpredicted) political upheavals of 1905, 1917 or 1991 — but it seems likely that brewing anti-regime sentiment will burst out into the open in the spring of 2024 if Putin attempts to remain in power, in violation of the constitutional term limit he unlawfully overturned last year. It is an incontrovertible logic of history that in countries where governments cannot be changed at the ballot box, they are often changed on the streets. Russia has seen this herself, as have other countries in our post-Soviet neighborhood. It is no news to anyone that there are no real elections in Putin’s Russia. Yet international reaction to last weekend’s sham vote has been strong on both sides of the Atlantic. Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress and in the European Parliament have stated that it “severely weakens the legitimacy” of Putin’s rule. Whatever remains of that legitimacy will be finally shed in the event of Putin’s illegal prolongation of his mandate beyond 2024. European Union lawmakers have already hinted at a formal nonrecognition of any such action in the new strategy toward Russia adopted earlier this month. The year 2024 will be an important test — both for Russian society’s tolerance to autocratic rule, and for the West’s adherence to the rule of law not just in words but in practice. It’s now time to start preparing for that moment.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Blast So-Called Election Results in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the sham State Duma elections in Russia, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “From barring opposition candidates to stuffing ballot boxes and manipulating vote totals, there is ample evidence that these parliamentary elections may be the most blatantly fraudulent of them all. The Kremlin once again has demonstrated its utter disregard for the norms and values it purports to respect,” said Chairman Cardin. “Contrary to their international obligations, Russian authorities inexcusably restricted the number of international observers to the point that the OSCE was unable to monitor this election according to its long-established methods. Compounded with the fact that no election is free or fair if the principal opposition figures are kept off the ballot, as in this case, these elections will provide not a shred of legitimacy to those who take their seats in the Duma.” “Citizens cannot freely choose who represents them when opposition candidates are banned from running, poll workers stuff ballot boxes, and last-minute electronic ‘vote counting’ pushes Kremlin-preferred candidates over the top,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “With each election, fewer and fewer opportunities remain for dissent in Russia, demonstrating Putin’s growing insecurity about his ability to stay in power unassisted.” “Moscow’s intimidation of local workers and businesses has left U.S. companies tainted for doing business in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “The moral cost of doing business in Russia increases with every day that Putin and his cronies bully their opponents into submission to maintain political power.” “Despite the lack of international observers, independent observers in-country bravely documented violations exposing the Kremlin’s machinations and the illegitimacy of this weekend’s election,” said Rep. Wilson. “The people of Russia deserve a vote that counts and a government that doesn’t stack the deck in its own favor.” The State Duma elections took place from September 17 – 19, 2021. Ahead of the election, many critics of the Kremlin were barred from running; in June 2021, a Moscow court ruling banned Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and associated organizations as “extremist” groups. As voting took place, photos and videos from live-stream camera feeds captured violations including officials stuffing ballot boxes and people being given multiple ballots. At the end of the vote count in Moscow, non-United Russia candidates who had been consistently leading lost at the last minute after thousands of “delayed” electronic ballots changed the results. On September 17, under threat of criminal prosecution of its staff in Russia, Google removed the Smart Vote app, a tool created by Navalny’s team to help voters identify candidates with the best chance to defeat a United Russia party candidate. Google also blocked access to two documents on Google Docs that included lists of Smart Vote endorsements on the grounds that the documents were “illegal” in Russia. Apple removed the Smart Vote app in Russia as well, claiming it had to follow Russian laws about “illegal” content. On September 18, at the Russian government’s request, YouTube blocked a video that included names of recommended candidates for Navalny’s Smart Vote initiative. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly chose not to observe the Russian elections due to severe restrictions Moscow placed on the number of international observers that would have left the OSCE unable to conduct a complete observation consistent with its usual methodology and standards.

  • Cardin, Shaheen, Johnson, and Portman Issue Joint Statement on 30th Anniversary of Ukraine Independence

    WASHINGTON–Ahead of today's 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence, Helsinki Commission Chair Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) yesterday issued the following joint statement with fellow Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations (SFRC) Europe and Regional Security Cooperation Subcommittee and a member of the Helsinki Commission; Sen. Ron Johnson (WI); and Sen. Rob Portman (OH): “This is an important milestone for Ukraine, marking three decades since an independent Ukraine rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Over the years, Ukraine has faced immense challenges in its effort to build a more prosperous future for its people, from rooting out corruption to defending its territorial integrity against an increasingly aggressive Russia. Despite these struggles, the progress made in Ukraine on urgent governance reforms are undeniable, and we, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. Senate, congratulate our partners for staying the course. “The U.S. stands in solidarity with Ukraine as it continues to build a democratic, accountable government that is responsive to the needs of its people. We join the rest of free world in rejecting Russia's territorial claim on Crimea and condemning their ongoing assault on Ukraine's territorial integrity in the Donbas region.  We are encouraged by President Zelenskyy’s commitment to continue pro-democratic measures that will empower Ukraine and facilitate its entry to NATO and the EU, which is in the best interests of Ukraine, our transatlantic community and U.S. national security. As Ukraine celebrates 30 years of independence, the U.S. reaffirms its support for our partners’ determination to ensure a free, democratic future for all its citizens.”

  • The Passing of Sergei Kovalev

    Mr. COHEN. Madam Speaker, I rise today as the Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission) to remember the great Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalev and to include in the Record an opinion column by Vladimir Kara-Murza from Wednesday's Washington Post. MOSCOW--"Our opposition was not political; it was moral incompatibility with the regime,'' Sergei Kovalev, a leading figure in the Soviet dissident movement, explained in an interview for a documentary I made in the early 2000s. "At some point you realize that it is shameful to remain silent.'' Last week, Kovalev died in his sleep at the age of 91. His funeral on Friday was attended by thousands of Muscovites who filed past his casket at the Sakharov Center, an institution named for his friend and mentor, Andrei Sakharov, and designated by Vladimir Putin's government as a ``foreign agent.'' Several Western countries sent their diplomats to pay respects. No Russian government official attended. Perhaps it was better this way. I doubt Kovalev would have appreciated hypocritical gestures of condolence from a regime led by a KGB officer who has brought back many of the authoritarian practices Kovalev spent his life fighting. Like many in the Soviet dissident movement, Kovalev joined the human rights struggle from the academic world. A successful biophysicist and head of a laboratory section at Moscow State University, he had a PhD and more than 60 research papers to his name. But he could not remain silent in the face of a resurgent totalitarianism of the Brezhnev era that saw both domestic repression and aggressive posturing abroad. For Kovalev, the defining moments were the show trial of writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, both in the second half of the 1960s. His activism brought his scientific career to an end, of course. From then on, Kovalev dedicated his life to documenting, publicizing and confronting abuses committed by his government against his fellow citizens. A founding member of the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR--the first human rights group in the country--and the Moscow chapter of Amnesty International, Kovalev served as the editor of the Chronicle of Current Events, the samizdat news bulletin that reported on human rights violations throughout the Soviet Union. During Kovalev's subsequent trial on charges of "anti-Soviet agitation,'' the KGB tried to prove the slanderous nature of the Chronicle's reporting--but ended up confirming its accuracy. Not that it changed the outcome: Kovalev was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment followed by three years in internal exile. His trial was held behind closed doors with a preselected "audience.'' Sakharov tried, unsuccessfully, to enter the courtroom and ended up standing outside the door throughout the trial. At the very same time, in Oslo, Sakharov's wife, Elena Bonner, was accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, which he dedicated to "all prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union and in other Eastern European countries''--including Kovalev, whom he mentioned by name. The collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe saw many former dissidents go into politics to help steer their countries toward democracy. Poland's Lech Walesa and Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel were only the best-known examples. In Russia, to its chagrin, this was more the exception than the norm--but Sergei Kovalev was among those exceptions. Four times he was elected to the Russian parliament. He was also Russia's first human rights ombudsman, co-wrote the human rights clauses in the constitution and served as Russia's representative on the U.N. Human Rights Commission and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Throughout it all, he stayed true to the principles that had defined his dissident period. He sought to make politics moral and never compromised his conscience. With the start of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya, he tried to use his position to prevent bloodshed--including by personally leading negotiations that saved the lives of more than 1,500 hostages during a terrorist siege in the summer of 1995. But while President Boris Yeltsin had genuine respect for Kovalev, he chose advice from elsewhere. When it became clear that the war would not stop, Kovalev resigned his official positions and sent Yeltsin a sharply worded open letter. The president responded personally, thanking Kovalev for his service and expressing sympathy for his motivation. This was a different Russia. Kovalev spent the last part of his life as he did the first: in opposition to a regime increasingly intolerant of domestic dissent and increasingly aggressive toward others. While Russia still had a real parliament, Kovalev remained a member--voting against Putin's confirmation as prime minister in 1999 and warning of a coming "authoritarian police state led by . . . the well-preserved Soviet security services'' in early 2000. That was a time when many in Russia and in the West were still harboring illusions about Putin. When legal opposition politics became all but impossible, Kovalev returned to being what he knew best, a dissident. His last public appearance, earlier this year, was at a virtual event commemorating Sakharov's centennial. Kovalev described himself as an idealist--an indispensable quality in a seemingly hopeless struggle against a ruthless authoritarian system. The main lesson from Kovalev and his fellow dissidents was that one can choose not to remain silent even in the most difficult circumstances. And that, in the end, the struggle might not be as hopeless as it seems.

  • Cohen, Wilson, Whitehouse, and Wicker Introduce GOLD Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), along with Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), this week introduced the Guaranteeing Oversight and Litigation on Doping (GOLD) Act in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The bills would enable doping fraud—a violation of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act—to also activate charges under the U.S. criminal anti-money laundering and racketeering statutes. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Michael Burgess (TX-26), sponsors of the Rodchenkov Act, also are among the original co-sponsors of the GOLD Act in the House of Representatives. The introductions follow comments from athletes expressing concern that this year’s Olympic Games—like many in the past—already have been marred by doping.   “Some of our athletes at the Olympic Games in Tokyo suspect that there has been performance-enhancing doping going on. One nation with a history of doping was disqualified from participating under its own flag because of past violations. We need better enforcement of anti-doping rules to make sure the Olympics are clean and that athletes are winning based on their own capabilities and training,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “It is outrageous that clean athletes must continue to face doped athletes in international competition, but it isn’t surprising. No serious deterrent currently exists to stop the networks that engage in doping fraud, so doping continues unabated and remains a powerful asymmetric tool for authoritarian states like Russia to undermine the rule of law. Enforcement of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act would put an end to this,” said Rep. Wilson. “The Olympics inspire us with remarkable feats of athleticism and a shared commitment to fair play. But doping schemes undermine the spirit of the games, and help kleptocrats like Putin burnish their image on the world stage.  That's why we need to extend the reach of the Rodchenkov Act, which I helped pass into law to tackle international doping. The GOLD Act will help law enforcement use our new anti-doping law to protect the integrity of international sport,”  said Sen. Whitehouse. “The United States needs to be ready to address doping fraud. Athletes have already expressed concern about possible doping at the Tokyo Olympics, and next year’s Beijing Olympics are not likely to be better given the corrupt nature of the Chinese Communist Party,” Sen. Wicker said. “The GOLD Act would pick up where the Rodchenkov Act left off, expanding the reach of the law by acknowledging that doping never happens in a vacuum. The corrupt officials and human rights abusers who engage in doping fraud also engage in money laundering, drug trafficking, computer hacking, racketeering, and more.” “The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act will finally hold Russia and other authoritarian actors to account for their state-run fraud. We should also closely examine the administrators and officials of the International Olympic Committee, World Anti-Doping Agency, and the various international sport federations, some of whom have allegedly enabled or engaged in doping fraud. The GOLD Act will make the Rodchenkov Act even broader and more powerful, and I look forward to the first indictment,” said Rep. Jackson Lee. “This week, Americans and the world are watching as Olympic athletes, who spent countless hours preparing, compete on the biggest world stage. It is critical that we do all we can to ensure they know that their effort is not tainted by someone working to rig the system. Being the largest sovereign contributor to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the United States must make certain that WADA is enforcing the rules and regulations in international competitions. The GOLD Act will strengthen the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, and provide assurance to American competitors that their competition is clean and fair and that defrauded athletes may receive justice,” said Rep. Burgess. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) and Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) also are original cosponsors of the GOLD Act. In December 2020, the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act became law. This groundbreaking extraterritorial criminal authority redefined doping as fraud and enables U.S. law enforcement to pursue corrupt administrators, officials, doctors, coaches, and other structural perpetrators of doping anywhere in the world. On July 21, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on enforcement of the Rodchenkov Act at the Tokyo Olympics.

  • Helsinki Commission Summer 2021 Digital Digest

  • Co-Chairman Cohen, Ranking Member Wilson Introduce TRAP Act In House

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) yesterday introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation makes fighting abuse of INTERPOL a key goal of the United States at the organization, mandates that the United States examine its own strategy to fight INTERPOL abuse, and protects the U.S. judicial system from authoritarian abuse. The legislation was introduced by Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) in the Senate in May 2021. “Using the legal system and INTERPOL to harass political opponents is becoming far too common,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey frequently issue meritless INTERPOL requests that violate key provisions of INTERPOL’s constitution, subjecting international travelers to unnecessary inconvenience. The TRAP Act cracks down on the misuse of these tools to prevent autocrats from harassing their own citizens overseas.” “Dictators are increasingly pursuing political opponents and dissidents across borders. Through surveillance, harassment, and even assassination, these autocrats are attempting to build a world safe for authoritarianism—where speaking out against brutal regimes might destroy your life,” said Rep. Wilson. “It is imperative that we fight back. INTERPOL abuse is one of the worst forms of this transnational repression and I am pleased to introduce the TRAP Act with other Helsinki Commission leaders to curb it.” The Helsinki Commission regularly receives credible reports from political dissidents, human rights defenders, and members of the business community who are the subject of politically-motivated INTERPOL Notices and Diffusions requested by autocratic regimes. These mechanisms, which function effectively as extradition requests, can be based on trumped-up criminal charges and are used to detain, harass, or otherwise persecute individuals for their activism or refusal to acquiesce to corrupt schemes. Russia is among the world’s most prolific abusers of INTERPOL’s Notice and Diffusion mechanisms. Other participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—principally Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—and other authoritarian states, such as China, also reportedly target political opponents with INTERPOL requests that violate key provisions of INTERPOL’s Constitution, which obligate the organization to uphold international human rights standards and strictly avoid involvement in politically-motivated charges. One notable example of autocratic leaders using this power to harass their political enemies occurred in Rwanda. Paul Rusesabagina, a staunch critic of the Rwandan government, was arrested while traveling through Dubai after Rwanda asked INTERPOL to issue a Red Notice. Rusesabagina was then returned to Rwanda on false terrorism charges. Turkey’s government also has abused INTERPOL to target Enes Kanter, an NBA basketball player, who lives in the United States. Kanter is an outspoken member of a religious group that largely opposes the Turkish President. Original co-sponsors of the bipartisan bill include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07), and Rep. Peter Meijer (MI-03) also are original co-sponsors. 

  • OSCE SHDM on Digital Technology and Human Rights

    OSCE Conference on Risks and Opportunities Posed by Digital Technologies On July 12 and 13, 2021, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) held the third Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDM) of the year, titled "Digital Technologies and Human Rights - Opportunities and Challenges." The virtual conference included representatives from 45 OSCE participating States; a dozen OSCE missions and institutions, including the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; more than 140 academic, national, and non-governmental human rights institutions; and international organizations like the Council of Europe, European Union, and the United Nations. Digital technologies affect human rights, gender equality, and the rule of law, and in her opening remarks, Swedish Foreign Ministry Director-General for Political Affairs Elinor Hammarskjöld stressed the nexus between digital technologies and Swedish OSCE Chairpersonship-in-Office (CiO) priorities. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored how the digital divide disproportionately affects women and girls, she explained, and stressed the threat that widespread use of digital technologies can pose to fundamental freedoms if used indiscriminately by authorities. Panelists highlighted opportunities for digital technologies to benefit societies and human rights defenders, as well as dangers they can pose to human rights. Maia Rusakova, associate professor of sociology at St. Petersburg State University, warned that data collection technologies have facilitated online recruitment by human traffickers. However, facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and tracking blockchain financial transactions and social media activity could play a role in combatting the digital threats of human trafficking.  Susie Alegre, an associate at the human rights NGO Doughty Street Chambers, highlighted how cutting-edge data collection can raise awareness of threats to human rights, support investigations, facilitate positive social change, and support human rights defenders. Examples include Data 4 Black Lives, eyeWitness to Atrocities, Forensic Architecture, and Bellingcat. Elif Kuskonmaz, a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, cautioned that misuse of facial recognition technology could pose threats to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech, and that it could be exploited to wrongfully detain citizens. To prevent such abuse, she recommended that participating States adopt adequate legal frameworks concerning the collection, use, storage, and sharing of personal data. She urged all participating States to review the Council of Europe's Convention 108+, which addresses personal data collection in a national security context. Other panelists explored the capacity of artificial intelligence systems to reinforce existing structural inequalities through algorithms and the subsequent human rights implications. Civil Society Concerns about Government Use—or Abuse—of Digital Technology Civil society participants shared human rights concerns related to governmental use of digital technologies. Many urged the OSCE to call out repressive behavior and help participating States establish adequate legal protections against misuse. Several urged the United States and the European Union to target sanctions against the worst offenders. Many participants also took the opportunity to raise human rights concerns directly with government officials, and alleged misuse of data collected by government agencies to persecute human rights defenders, social activists, and their families.  For example, civil society activists from Kazakhstan accused the government of conducting digital surveillance and censorship on NGOs and activists, and they complained that mandatory “security certificates” allow the government to monitor and block use of non-government-controlled social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Other NGOs raised concerns about Spain's treatment of protesters in Catalonia, Greece's treatment of Turks in Western Thrace, and Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, including Crimea. A German NGO called for the abolition of facial recognition technology due to its use by law enforcement to profile specific ethnic groups and minorities, including Roma and Sinti.  Civil society participants also expressed concerns over participating States’ use of digital technology to target dissent by deploying spyware against individuals, spreading misleading government-sponsored content, and silencing protest groups and democratic movements. Several NGOs argued that their governments exploited conditions imposed by the pandemic to use surveillance camera footage, geolocation data, and contact tracing as part of a domestic surveillance campaign to discourage public political dissent. Participants highlighted how technology has been used to spread racist messaging, including the racist abuse of English football players following the recent Union of European Football Associations Euro 2020 matches. Many voiced their dismay that social media companies do not hold accountable individuals who spread racist content. Participants recommended that social media companies implement more robust algorithms to detect racist remarks.  Participating States Respond Several participating States addressed the use of technology. The European Union recognized the importance of addressing human rights abuses that arise from the misuse of digital technologies. Turkey responded by touting its 2016 law on data protection and emphasizing its multiculturalism. The Holy See responded that it is necessary to improve education in proper use and effects of technology. The Holy See also called for international regulations to guarantee the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to private personal electronic communication.

  • Cardin and Wicker Discuss July 2021 Congressional Delegation in Colloquy

    Mr. CARDIN. Madam President, I take this time to talk about the work of the U.S. Helsinki Commission in a recent opportunity we had to participate in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. I am joined on the floor by Senator Wicker, who is the Republican chair of the Helsinki Commission. The two of us have worked together in a nonpartisan, bipartisan manner in regards to the work of the Helsinki Commission. I just want to spend a few minutes, and then I am going to yield the floor and allow Senator WICKER to give his comments. The OSCE, as the chair is fully aware as a member of the Commission, represents the U.S. participation in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—57 states, which includes all of Europe, all of the former Republics of the Soviet Union, and Canada and the United States. The Commission works on the principle of three buckets: one for political affairs and security, another for economic and environmental progress, and the third on democracy and human rights. But it recognizes—and I think this has been the hallmark of the Helsinki Commission—that you can’t have advancements on political affairs or security or economic or environmental progress unless you make progress on democracy and human rights, that they are interwoven. In the Helsinki Commission, the OSCE is best known for its advancements for basic human rights. So I think of the initiatives that we have had in the Helsinki Commission for dealing with trafficking in humans and the legislation that came out of that and how we led the global response to dealing with trafficking. I think about the efforts we made in regards to tolerance, dealing with anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance and how we have made progress throughout the entire OSCE region. I think about the issues we did in regards to sanctions against human rights violators so they cannot use our banking system or visit our country, the Magnitsky-type sanctions. All of that came out of the work of the Helsinki Commission. So one of the major arms of our work is the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which is the group of parliamentarians who meet every year and have meetings throughout the year to exchange views and to carry out the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. For the last year and a half, we have been compromised because we haven’t had an opportunity to meet in person, and it required us to meet by internet, and we have, but we had a unique opportunity during the last recess period to actually travel and meet with the parliamentarians. We had an OSCE Parliamentary Assembly annual meeting in Vienna. And we had a chance to do this in a hybrid manner. So we were able to travel 12-strong from the U.S. Congress to be at that meeting, and we were joined by five others here in the United States, including our Presiding Officer, to participate in the Parliamentary Assembly, and we were able to advance a lot of very important issues. But I must tell you, we were noticed at this meeting. The U.S. presence was critically important in dealing with some very timely issues. I know that Senator Wickerwill talk about this. He is one of the great leaders of the Parliamentary Assembly. He is Vice-President of the Parliamentary Assembly. We are very proud of the leadership position that he holds. By the way, his election was in Vienna to be the Vice President of the Parliamentary Assembly. We had multiple candidates and several elected to Vice-Presidents, but Senator Wicker led the ballot with the largest number of votes, which I think speaks to his well-thought-of respect among the OSCE parliamentarians. We wanted to make sure that this was a substantive meeting. Quite frankly, the leadership of the Parliamentary Assembly said: Let’s just get in there and get it over with and not bring up anything controversial. But that is not the way we operate. We have to take up current issues. So we took up the issue of tolerance. I was happy to sponsor a resolution that ultimately passed by unanimous vote that speaks to anti-Semitism, racism, intolerance, and the growth of hate in the OSCE region. But we also made sure that we considered the recent elections in Belarus and how unfair those elections were and how Mr. Lukashenko has been acting in a way that is so contrary to the human rights of the people who live there, and the election results there do not reflect the will of the people. We also had a chance to make sure we took up the issues concerning Ukraine. Once again, there was a lot of controversy on why you should bring that up during this meeting. We did. We supported that to make it clear that Russia’s aggression and its occupation of Crimea and its interference in eastern Ukraine will never be recognized as legitimate by the United States or, by that matter, the Parliamentary Assembly, because we responded in all of those areas. I am pleased to tell you that we supported Margareta Cederfelt, who is going to be the President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Sweden, and we look forward to her visit here in the United States. Richard Hudson, Representative Hudson, will be the chair of the first committee. So we are going to have active participation in the Parliamentary Assembly. We had the chance to visit some other countries. But if I might, I think I am going to yield the floor and give my good friend and the leader of our congressional delegation trip an opportunity to expand on some of the things we were able to do in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. With that, I yield the floor. Mr. WICKER. Madam President, I thank my colleague from Maryland, who has been such a leader in the area of human rights and international recognition of the challenges that our world faces today. I do appreciate his leadership and his partnership. We have worked shoulder to shoulder on so many issues. Yes, I proudly rise with him this afternoon to talk about a very valuable series of meetings that our 12-member delegation had in 4 countries in Europe in recent days. This was Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate, a truly bipartisan and bicameral delegation—a very large delegation—which I think my colleague will agree made a strong statement on behalf of the United States of America and on behalf of the U.S. House and Senate about the way we view European engagement and our partnership and friendship with the 50-plus member countries of the OSCE and their Parliamentary Assembly. We visited Vienna, Austria, for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. As Senator Cardin mentioned, we met with great success. Yes, I was reelected to the position of vice president, and I appreciate the support of Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate in helping me get those votes to receive another three-year term there. Richard Hudson, our colleague from the House of Representatives, has been very active as chairman of Committee No. 1 in the Parliamentary Assembly. He is highly regarded. He was reelected without opposition. So there are two bits of success there. And then the great piece of work, actually, was with regard to Senator Cardin's initiative on the rising hate and intolerance that we are seeing all around the world, particularly among member countries of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Senator Cardin actually took the lead in challenging the leadership of the Parliamentary Assembly in saying that issues should be discussed. Even though they weren’t in an immediate, like, three-week crisis mode, they deserved to be brought forward. And Senator Cardin was able to get his resolution considered and passed overwhelmingly, and we made a strong statement on behalf of countering the rising hate and intolerance and countering the use of these things to buttress authoritarianism and to stoke conflict around the world. We also passed a very important resolution about the tragedy, the outrage that has gone on in Belarus. I can tell you, the opposition party leader from Belarus was in this Capitol building just yesterday talking about the importance of support from places like the United States Congress. I can tell you, Madam President, that Senator Shaheen and I are about to send a letter to our colleagues asking any and all of us to join a Freedom Caucus for the Belarusian people, the Belarus Freedom Caucus. We asked the opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to tell us whether that would be helpful. She said the formation of this caucus to support the freedom movement in Belarus would be a strong signal. It would be well received and effective on behalf of the opposition leadership there in Belarus. Then, again, we reiterated our opposition to what Russia has done in Ukraine and particularly to the recent Russian military buildup and ongoing aggression in Ukraine. We did a lot there with the Parliamentary Assembly. We went on to Estonia, met with leadership there—a former President, the current Prime Minister, other leaders. And, also, we had a chance to travel to the very easternmost part of Estonia and actually travel on the Narva River and look right across to Russia and the security guards there, understanding what our Estonian allies are up against with Putin’s Russia staring right across the river at their freedom and democracy. From there, we joined the Three Seas conference in Sofia, Bulgaria. I can tell you, this is a group of Eastern European former Soviet Bloc countries that are striving to be in charge of their own infrastructure and rely less on the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. I think the fact that 12 Americans showed up, participated, met with Heads of state at that conference made a very strong statement of American support for freedom and for looking westwardly in trying to get their problems solved and their infrastructure needs met. We also had a very meaningful visit to Norway, where we saw some American-Norwegian defense initiatives. I am very proud of the partnership that this Helsinki Commission—our organ of the American OSCE PA—and the way that we joined together to express our support for freedom, for democracy, for the rule of law, for opposing corruption, both at the petty local level and also at the larger State-sponsored level. One other thing before I yield back and let my friend close. Particularly in Bulgaria, but also all during our trip, we were met with hearty thanks for the United States leadership in the global Magnitsky Act. This began as an initiative with Senator Cardin, Senator Lieberman, Senator McCain, and me several years ago directed—during the Obama administration—directed toward individual Russians who had violated human rights and individual liberty in a very outrageous and gross way, allowing us to sanction individuals rather than causing harm to the people of Russia in that case. That has been expanded now to the global level and other countries are adopting this. But I can tell you, when we arrived in Bulgaria, we were met with great thanks from people who are trying to combat lawlessness and corruption at the top level of government. I just have to say, of course, Ben Cardin has been the premier leader in this worldwide effort. It was gratifying to know and to learn firsthand on the ground there in Sofia, Bulgaria, that an initiative that began right here in this U.S. Senate years ago, and continues to this day, is having a beneficial effect on the people all across Europe and particularly in some of the countries that we visited. I yield back to the Senator from Maryland. The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Maryland. Mr. CARDIN. Madam President, let me again thank Senator Wicker. Thank you for your leadership on so many issues. But on this congressional delegation, for those who are not familiar, it is not easy to put together the type of opportunities to advance American values. And Senator Wicker took the responsibility as the leader of our delegation to make sure that we had the opportunities to advance American values. I thank him for all the effort he put into it. It was certainly extremely successful. I just want to emphasize a few things before closing. One, in Vienna, we did have an opportunity to meet with Rafael Grossi, who is the Director General of the IAEA. That is the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has the responsibility of monitoring the nuclear programs throughout the world. Obviously, it has played a bigger role in regard to the program in Iran, and it was monitoring exactly what was happening in Iran under the JCPOA. They now don’t have the same access, and we had a chance to talk with the Director General as to the challenges with the Iranian program. And I think it was helpful for all of us to understand exactly the role that the IAEA can play in regard to getting us information about what is happening on the ground in Iran. Senator Wicker talked about our visit to Estonia, a strong ally partner, NATO partner. We showed our support by going to Narva, which is on the Russian border. It is a town that has a majority of Russian-speaking Estonians. It is an interesting community. But we could see across the river, very clearly, the Russian patrol boats. We know and heard firsthand of the concern of the Estonians. They saw what happened in Ukraine and they worry that same thing could happen in Estonia with Russian aggression. I must tell you, our presence to reinforce the NATO commitment, I think, was an extremely important message that we gave to the Estonian people. Mr. WICKER. Would the gentleman yield on that point? Mr. CARDIN. I would be glad to yield. The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Mississippi. Mr. WICKER. If I might add, people in Narva, Estonia, and people in the city across the river have access to each other across a bridge there. And it is clear to the people on the Russian side that their cousins and friends in Narva, Estonia, live a better life and have a better standard of living in this free country, this NATO ally called Estonia, than the Russian cousins and friends have on the other side. I just thought I would add that to the discourse before Senator Cardin moves on to discussing Norway and Bulgaria. Thank you. The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Maryland. Mr. CARDIN. Madam President, let me move onto Bulgaria very briefly. Senator Wicker did cover Bulgaria. The Three Seas Initiative, I wasn’t that familiar with it before traveling to Bulgaria. It is an initiative by twelve states that are basically part of the Eastern European Coalition, states that are developing democratic institutions and democratic economies after the fall of the Soviet Union. They need to build up their resilience as a collective entity in energy, transportation, and digital infrastructure. The Three Seas Initiative is to attract investment to connect the twelve countries together on infrastructure needs. It is for many reasons. It is for its own economic strength and growth, but also for resiliency against the efforts of China on its Belt and Road Initiative, which is trying to infiltrate these countries and convert their way of economy to more of the Chinese system. The Three Seas Initiative is an effort to have their own independent way of attracting capital. The United States is participating in the Three Seas. We are not a member, but we are participating and providing resources for the fund that is being developed that would be leveraged for these type of investments. While we were in Bulgaria, we had a chance to have bilateral meetings. There were twelve heads of state there. We had bilateral meetings with the President of Poland, Bulgaria, Latvia, and Romania. We had very constructive discussions about what is happening in their country. We raised Helsinki issues with all these countries. Senator Wicker already talked about how we were welcomed by the Bulgarian leadership in regards to the imposition of the Magnitsky sanctions. We are heroes. They feel like they have a second chance to try to develop the type of anti-corruption mechanisms that they desperately need. Our visit to Varna, which is on the Black Sea, was very educational to see how Russia is trying to dominate the Black Sea area and one of the reasons why they are so aggressive in Ukraine and the Crimea. I think that was extremely helpful for us to understand the security risks and how we have to work with our NATO partners to protect the Black Sea area, particularly from the potential aggression—not potential—from the aggression of Russia. Also in Bulgaria, we had a chance to visit a Roma village. It is not my first visit to a Roma village. I have visited over the years. It is a real tragic situation. The Roma population have been in Europe for centuries. They lived in communities for hundreds of years, yet they do not have property rights. They have lived in their homes, and yet they do not have the opportunity to have their homes registered. And at any time, the government can come in and take away their property without compensation. They rarely have reliable utilities. The village we visited did not have water systems, so they had to use outhouses, et cetera. They had limited availability of fresh water. Their utility service is not reliable. And they go to segregated schools. They don’t have the same employment opportunities. So we, once again, will raise the rights of the Roma population as part of our commitment under the Helsinki Commission, and we are following up with the local officials to try to help in that regard. Then, lastly, on our way back, we visited Norway. I learned a lot because I did not know about the pre-positioning program. I know my friend Senator Wicker already knew about this from his Armed Services service, but it is where we pre-position equipment so that we can respond rapidly to a circumstance anywhere in the world. The Norway pre-positioning is actually used to help us in regard to the Middle East and our needs in the Middle East. So it was an extremely, extremely, I think, productive visit to these countries. I think we did carry out our commitment under the Helsinki Commission, and we advanced American values. I think we represented our country well, and we were very well noticed. With that, I yield the floor. The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Mississippi. Mr. WICKER. Madam President, one other thing that our colleagues might not understand about the OSCE is their role in election observation. As we were leaving Sofia on the morning of July 11, we crossed paths with some other representatives from the OSCE from European countries who were there to observe the parliamentary elections being held in Bulgaria that very day. Also, on the same day, Moldova, another member of the OSCE, was having parliamentary elections.  We have every hope that the results of these elections will be a further resolve in those two nation members to counter the corruption at the highest level, and we want to congratulate both of those member states of the OSCE for free and fair elections in Europe. With that, I thank my colleague. I yield the floor.

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