Title

Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Serious Decline in Respect for Human Rights in Azerbaijan

Thursday, October 29, 2015

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

“The Rule of Law and Civil Society in Azerbaijan”

Thursday, November 5
2:00PM
Cannon House Office Building
Room 311

The last two years have witnessed a precipitous decline in the respect for rule of law and human rights in Azerbaijan. Many independent civil society organizations have been forced to close due to onerous regulations, threats of intimidation, or the arrest of the organization’s leaders. Independent media has been severely curtailed or closed down. Opposition parties are harassed and often shut out of the election process. High-profile politicians are serving lengthy prison sentences on charges that many observers believe were politically motivated.

This briefing will have a particular focus on the rule of law and how the government of Azerbaijan is using its judicial system to intimidate and imprison critics of the government. The briefing will also analyze the results of the November 1 parliamentary election and its implications for Azerbaijan’s future direction.

The following panelists are scheduled to participate:

  • Ambassador Richard Morningstar, US Ambassador to the Republic of Azerbaijan from July 2012 to August 2014 and Founding Director of the Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council
  • Natalia Bourjaily, Vice President – Eurasia, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law
  • Dinara Yunus, Daughter of imprisoned Azerbaijani human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus
Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Phone: 
202.225.1901
Relevant countries: 
Leadership: 
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  • Biden administration urged to ban UK lawyers who ‘enabled’ oligarchs

    A member of Congress has urged the Biden administration to place travel bans on senior British lawyers that acted for wealthy Russian clients against investigative journalists. Steve Cohen, a Democratic representative from Tennessee, has written to Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, urging him to sanction the lawyers for having “enabled malign activities of Russian oligarchs”. His letter comes as the Biden administration looks to increase its support for Ukraine in its war against Russia and tighten sanctions against those who have supported the Russian regime. Cohen wrote: “Oligarchs who hire lawyers to engage in abusive cases against journalists to silence them cannot exert malign influence in our system . . . the United States must establish deterrents for foreign enablers serving individuals who are undermining democracy.” The state department did not respond to a request for comment. Cohen singled out several lawyers he believed should be subject to bans on visas for travel to the US: Nigel Tait of Carter-Ruck; John Kelly of Harbottle & Lewis; barrister Hugh Tomlinson; Geraldine Proudler of CMS; Keith Schilling of Schillings; and Shlomo Rechtschaffen of SR law. Each of the lawyers is well known in London legal circles, with firms like Carter-Ruck and Schillings having established strong reputations in defamation law and reputation management. Tait, Kelly, Tomlinson and Proudler all worked on recent cases against the former Financial Times journalist Catherine Belton or her publisher HarperCollins, or both. Belton and HarperCollins were sued last year by several Russian oligarchs including Roman Abramovich over her book Putin’s People, which details the rise to power of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. The lawsuits were later settled or withdrawn. Cohen cited Schillings’ work for Malaysian businessman and fugitive Jho Low. British ministers have expressed concern over the way in which UK courts are used by wealthy foreigners to launch libel cases. Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, last month set out proposals to limit any so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Also in March Bob Seely, the MP for the Isle of Wight, used parliamentary privilege to claim “amoral” City lawyers were teaming up with “Putin’s henchmen” to offer “legalised intimidation”. A spokesperson for Tomlinson said: “Regulatory rules for lawyers are very strict and work to ensure equal entitlement to independent legal advice. Mr Tomlinson acted properly and in accordance with those rules throughout and has never acted as Mr Cohen suggests.” Tait’s firm Carter-Ruck said: “The claims made against Carter-Ruck are misconceived and are rejected entirely. In addition to other matters, we are not working for any Russian individuals, companies or entities seeking to challenge, overturn, frustrate or minimise sanctions.” It added: “We are not acting for, and will not be acting for, any individual, company or entity associated with the Putin regime in any matter or context, whether sanctions-related or otherwise, and will continue to conduct all ‘know your client’ checks in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations, as we have always done.” Cohen cited Rechtschaffen for his representation of Israeli-British businessman Walter Soriano, who he alleged was an “enabler” of certain oligarchs including Abramovich. Rechtschaffen said: “Walter Soriano is not an enabler of any oligarch . . . The English courts have said that the claim against Mr Stedman is not abusive.” Harbottle & Lewis said the firm had “acted at all time in accordance with its professional and legal obligations, and takes these matters very seriously”. Schillings said the firm did not act for any sanctioned entities and could not comment on client matters. It added that Cohen’s allegations were “wholly misplaced” and “misinformed”. It said the firm had upheld “the highest traditions of the legal profession”. Proudler’s firm CMS said it rejected Cohen’s allegations, adding that Proudler and the firm had been “compliant with all professional regulations”. “As we have said since the invasion of Ukraine, CMS is no longer accepting new instructions from Russian based entities or from any individuals with connections to the Russian government.”

  • Helsinki Commission Urges U.S. Administration to Consider Sanctioning Remaining Individuals Involved in Persecution of Sergei Magnitsky

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today released a letter sent April 15 to President Biden urging the U.S. administration to consider sanctioning the remaining individuals involved in the persecution of Sergei Magnitsky, the fraud he uncovered, and the coverup of his death in 2009. The letter read in part: “The passage and enforcement of the Magnitsky Act was among the rare times in the last decade that the United States rightly put universal values first in its relationship with Russia. Sergei Magnitsky courageously stood up to the Putin regime’s corruption and represents what Russia might be one day. He has served as an inspiration for Russian activists and civil society who dream of a Russia that respects human rights and complies with its own freely undertaken international commitments… “At this time of great upheaval, it could not be more important that the United States demonstrate its commitment to universal values. Sanctioning these individuals responsible for dismantling the rule of law in Russia and killing one of Russia’s bravest whistleblowers would have this effect.” Included with the letter was a list that includes the names and identifying information of 255 individuals who have not yet been sanctioned for their apparent role in Sergei Magnitsky’s death and the $230 million tax fraud he exposed. The list was compiled by Hermitage Capital Management LLC, the firm where Sergei Magnitsky worked at the time of his arrest and murder.   The full letter and list are available online. 

  • Outrage and Worry: Kremlin Critic's Arrest Heightens Concerns Of Putin's Crackdown

    Russian opposition politician and Washington Post contributor Vladimir Kara-Murza was detained by Russian authorities in Moscow on Monday, hours after calling the Kremlin “not just corrupt” or “authoritarian” but a “regime of murderers” in a CNN+ interview—a development that has only heightened concerns about the threat of speaking out against Vladimir Putin. “I think a lot of people are very worried about what's going to happen next,” CNN+ anchor Sara Sidner, who conducted the interview, told CNN’s John Berman on Tuesday. On Wednesday, CNN’s Brian Stelter asked Sidner whether she feels any guilt. “Sure. A little bit," she replied. "I think it’s more nervousness because I know that he was the one that disclosed where he was." In his interview with CNN+, Kara-Murza acknowledged the risk he was taking, and is personally familiar with Putin's brutal tactics. His close friend and associate Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister turned fierce Putin critic, was shot dead in 2015, and Kara-Murza himself has survived two poisonings, both of which left him in a coma, that he has blamed on the Kremlin. While many dissidents have fled Russia amid Putin’s latest crackdown on independent media, Kara-Murza is among few who have stayed. And he has continued to criticize Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine despite facing up to 15 years in prison for doing so under the Kremlin’s draconian new law. “This is where I have to be,” Kara-Murza told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi in an interview Sunday. “We all know the price.” Asked what kinds of considerations CNN made before airing Kara-Murza’s interview, a CNN spokesperson pointed Vanity Fair to Sidner's comments on Tuesday and Wednesday. MSNBC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On Tuesday, a day after he was reportedly arrested outside his home on charges of disobeying the police, the political activist and journalist was sentenced to 15 days in jail. The same day, the Post published an editorial commending Kara-Murza’s willingness to publicly speak out against the Kremlin in columns for the Post and elsewhere, and called for his release. “What is abundantly clear is that Mr. Putin has once again put a critic in his crosshairs, every day sinking Russia deeper into totalitarianism, intolerant of free thought or dissent,” the Editorial Board wrote. Post publisher Fred Ryan also demanded Kara-Murza’s immediate release in a statement that called his detention the latest in Putin’s ongoing effort to “hide the truth about the atrocities Putin is committing in the Russian people’s name.” Kara-Murza’s detention is also prompting outrage in Washington. Leaders of the Helsinki Commission, an agency that heard from Kara-Murza last month at its hearing about Putin’s “war on truth,” were “alarmed” by Kara-Murza’s detention, according to a joint statement issued by Sen. Ben Cardin, Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen, and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Joe Wilson. “Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people,” they wrote, demanding he “be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately.” Authorities have denied Kara-Murza access to legal counsel in violation of his constitutional rights, the Commission's press release said. The poisonings that Kara-Murza endured in 2015 and 2017, he said, were reprisals by the Kremlin for his advocacy of Western sanctions against the Russian government—accusations the Kremlin has denied, but that the Post notes are bolstered by “investigations by independent organizations [which] found that he had been followed by members of the same federal agency that allegedly poisoned jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and at least three other opposition figures.”

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Welcomes Conclusion of First Round of French Presidential Elections

    WASHINGTON—Following the first round of presidential elections in France on April 10, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “As co-chairman of the bipartisan U.S. Helsinki Commission, I congratulate the French people for making their voices heard on Sunday during the first round of their presidential elections. France is among the world’s most long-standing democracies, America’s oldest ally, and a vital voice in Europe and around the world for our common liberal values. “Those same values are under unprecedented and brutal assault by Russia in Ukraine. As we look ahead to the second round of elections later this month, I am confident that the French people will choose their leaders based on the strength of their principles, and reject apologia and disinformation on behalf of dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin. “Putin has no principles beyond conquest and banditry, as Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine and its uncivilized campaign of atrocity there attest. The Kremlin’s imperial war in Ukraine is inseparable from the totalitarian regime it has erected at home, along with the destruction of the last vestiges of civil society and press freedom, and its efforts to undermine trust in Western governments—including in great democracies like France. “I have faith in France’s powerful democracy, and offer my warmest wishes to the French people as we continue our rich friendship based on common values and in defiance of tyrants and demagogues.”

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for the Immediate Release of a Vocal Kremlin Critic Detained in Moscow

    Western officials are calling for Russian authorities to release a prominent opposition activist and critic of the invasion of Ukraine after reports of his arrest emerged Monday. The activist, Vladimir Kara-Murza, has since been sentenced to 15 days in jail on the charge of disobeying a police order. The police detained Kara-Murza on the street near his Moscow home, according to the Helsinki Commission, a U.S. government agency focused on security and human rights. His lawyer told the independent news outlet Sota that he had been detained, and activist Ilya Yashin also confirmed news of Kara-Murza's arrest on Twitter. Kara-Murza's lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, said his client was arrested on charges of disobeying police orders and faced up to 15 days in jail or a small fine, The Guardian reports. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted Monday that the U.S. is "troubled" by Kara-Murza's detention. "We are monitoring this situation closely and urge his immediate release," he added. His lawyer promises to appeal the sentence The Khamovniki district court in Moscow sentenced Kara-Murza to 15 days in jail at a hearing on Tuesday, according to Prokhorov. Prokhorov wrote on Facebook that police say Kara-Murza "behaved erratically after seeing police officers, changed the trajectory of his movement, quickened his pace and responded to the demand to stop by trying to flee," according to an English translation. He rejects this claim, saying instead that police were waiting for Kara-Murza at the entrance to his home and detained him as soon as he got out of his car. Prokhorov vowed to appeal the sentence. Both the Free Russia Foundation and Helsinki Commission allege that authorities denied Kara-Murza access to legal counsel — in violation of his rights — while he was being held in a Moscow police station ahead of his hearing. They are among those calling for his immediate release. "Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people. He must be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately," reads a joint statement by Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, co-chairman Rep. Steve Cohen and ranking members Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Joe Wilson. The longtime Kremlin critic has been speaking out against censorship and the war Kara-Murza is a vocal critic of the Kremlin who held leadership roles in Open Russia and the Free Russia Foundation, organizations that the Russian government has deemed "undesirable." Kara-Murza also hosted a weekly program on the since-shuttered Echo of Moscow radio station and writes columns for The Washington Post. Notably, he fell seriously ill in Moscow in 2015 and 2017 in incidents of suspected poisoning that he blames on the Russian authorities. "Given the sophisticated type of poison, I think it's people who have been or are connected with the Russian special services," he told NPR in 2017. Kara-Murza was also close friends with Boris Nemtsov — a former Russian deputy prime minister-turned-vocal Kremlin critic who was shot dead in Moscow in 2015 — and the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, at whose funeral he served as a pallbearer. Kara-Murza has spoken out against Russia's war in Ukraine in recent weeks. He testified at a March 29 Helsinki Commission hearing and, in his opening remarks, described what he called two parallel wars launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin the previous month. "One, which continues to this day, was his unprovoked and unlawful aggression against Ukraine," he said. "The other, which was concluded effectively and swiftly, was his blitzkrieg against what remained of independent media in Russia." As Kara-Murza noted, Russians who speak out against the war — and even use that term to describe it — can face up to 15 years in prison, under a restrictive new law that has prompted an exodus of independent journalists and foreign media from the country for fear of prosecution. Kara-Murza has continued doing interviews with Western outlets and spoke to CNN just hours before his arrest. In that conversation, he referred to the Russian government as "a regime of murderers" and explained why he was staying in Moscow despite the risks. "Look, I'm a Russian politician — I have to be in Russia, it's my home country," he said. "I think the biggest gift ... those of us who are in opposition to Putin's regime could give to the Kremlin would be just to give up and run. And that's all they want from us."

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Alarmed by Detention of Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON—Following Monday’s arrest of prominent pro-democracy Russian statesman and outspoken Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza, 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 joint statement: “We are alarmed to learn that Vladimir Kara-Murza has been detained in Moscow. Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people. He must be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately.” On April 11, Vladimir Kara-Murza was detained on the street near his Moscow home. He currently is being held in the Khamovniki police station in the Central Administrative District of Moscow, where authorities have denied him access to his legal counsel in violation of his constitutional rights. Reports indicate that he has been charged with an administrative offense. It remains unclear if he is undergoing interrogation while in custody. His trial is scheduled for April 12. Mr. Kara-Murza was poisoned twice by the Kremlin in 2015 and 2017. On March 29, he testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing examining Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on truth, where witnesses discussed the Kremlin’s use of propaganda and censorship. “Those who speak out against this war are now liable for criminal prosecution,” he said.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls on Russia to Release 'True Patriot' Kara-Murza

    A U.S. human rights monitor is calling for the release of journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent Russian opposition figure who has spoken out against what he has called his government's crackdown on dissent. The U.S. Helsinki Commission on Monday raised alarm over the detention of Kara-Murza in Moscow a month after he outlined the Kremlin's increased use of propaganda and censorship. His arrest is the latest report of authorities attempting to silence critics since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February. "We are alarmed to learn that Vladimir Kara-Murza has been detained in Moscow. Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people," the commission said in a statement. "He must be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately." The commission, a U.S. government agency comprised of members of Congress and representatives from federal agencies, heard testimony from Kara-Murza who described how the Russian government has used disinformation and the growing struggles of independent media outlets. The Russian government in March enacted new restrictions, criminalizing media from using the word "invasion" to describe the conflict in Ukraine. Those who violate them could face up to 15 years in prison. Speaking before the commission, Kara-Murza said that following the invasion, Putin moved swiftly against "what remained of independent media in Russia." Kara-Murza said that within days, authorities shuttered independent outlets, including Echo of Moscow, a radio station where he hosted a weekly program. He also pointed to how the Russian government has blocked access to social media networks. Other news outlets, such as highly respected Novaya Gazeta, ceased publication because of censorship, he said. Calling many Russians "brainwashed," he said many are not even aware of potential war crimes their government is alleged to have committed in Ukraine. "Today, most Russians are in an Orwellian parallel reality created by the Kremlin propaganda machine," Kara-Murza told the commission. "And I mean, Orwellian in the literal sense, what's being said on Russian state television might as well have come out of George Orwell's 1984: 'War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.'" Since Russia's new censorship laws have gone into effect, reports have emerged of students or parents turning in teachers who spoke disapprovingly of the war. Nobel Prize laureate and editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, was attacked on a train. Russian authorities have also threatened Wikipedia with a nearly $50,000 fine for refusing to delete "illegal information." Kara-Murza, an author and politician who was repeatedly poisoned, has continued speaking out despite his arrest, making an appearance on MSNBC on Sunday.

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