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Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman Pratasevich

Monday, May 24, 2021

WASHINGTON—Following Alexander Lukashenko’s order to divert and forcibly land a commercial plane in Minsk in order to arrest Belarusian activist and journalist Raman Pratasevich and civil society activist Sofia Sapega, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Commissioner Richard Hudson (NC-08) issued the following statements:

“Dictators like Alexander Lukashenko increasingly seek to use extraterritorial surveillance, intimidation, harassment and even assassination against their political opponents,” said Chairman Cardin. “The kidnappings of Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega from a commercial aircraft illegally forced by military aircraft to land in Minsk creates a precedent of terror that, if unchecked, could limit dissidents’ ability to travel freely. An international crime of this magnitude, engineered by the self-styled leader of Belarus, requires a strong international response, starting with Magnitsky sanctions on those involved.”

“Lukashenko has already rigged elections, restricted freedoms, and repressed thousands of Belarusians. He has stooped to a new and alarming low by using military aircraft to force down a civilian airliner,” said Sen. Wicker. “He will only continue escalating his attempts to retain power unless he faces real consequences for his actions. We should develop a full-spectrum strategy against transnational repression to deter such brazen actions by dictators.”

“The shocking abduction of Raman Pratasevich demonstrates that Alexander Lukashenko will do almost anything to silence perceived opposition,” said Rep. Wilson. “We demand that Lukashenko release all political prisoners without exception, and end his attacks against journalists, civil society, and all Belarusians peacefully exercising their rights.”

“Holding civilian passengers hostage by creating a false threat and forcing a plane to land is an act of state terrorism,” said Rep. Hudson. “Unfortunately, we now have proof that Lukashenko’s dictatorship is a grave threat not only to Belarusians, but to the rest of the world. His regime should be treated as the rogue state that it is.”

On May 23, a Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius carrying over 120 passengers was notified of a bomb threat, met by a Belarusian military jet, and forced to land in Minsk. The bomb threat was false, and upon landing, Belarusian authorities detained journalist Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen studying in law at the European Humanities University, which was forced out of Belarus in 2004 and has relocated to Vilnius. Each could face up to 15 years in prison.

Pratasevich, who had been living abroad for his safety since 2019, is a co-founder of the NEXTA Live Telegram channel, which has extensively covered this past year’s protests in Belarus and serves as a coordination hub for opposition activity. Belarusian authorities declared NEXTA an “extremist” outlet in October 2020.

On May 24, video footage of Pratasevich appeared on Telegram, in which he states that his health is fine, the authorities have treated him lawfully, and that he is cooperating with them in their investigation. The Belarusian KGB is known for producing such videos of forced confessions.

Lukashenko has crushed independent media and jailed journalists, activists, and political opponents in unprecedented numbers since Belarus’ falsified presidential elections in August 2020.

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
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202.225.1901
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The government’s response to the protests and pressure from the international community—its willingness to continue to prosecute those involved in the murders—demonstrates that external pressure works in putting a stop to impunity. In this case, there is hope that justice is on the horizon. When local communities, countries, and multilateral organizations all maintain pressure upon individual countries for their human rights and media freedom failures, governments who enable or are responsible for crimes against journalists begin to feel the heat. 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, dedicated his award to his slain colleagues, including Natalya Estemirova. In a 2009 Helsinki Commission briefing, Muratov said, “In any encounter with representatives of the Russian political establishment and government, please, bring up this meeting. Please ask these uncomfortable questions.” Joining forces with other defenders of media freedom and human rights and calling attention in public spaces to the failings of countries is one way to effectively combat impunity and protect journalists. On International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, supporters of media freedom should affirm their commitment to protecting the media and fighting against impunity crimes against journalists. To ensure that the work done by journalists around the world – the work done by Natalya Estemirova and others like her – will not be silenced, governments must lend their support and protection.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest October 2021

  • Experts raise alarm bells in Congress over ‘Europe’s most contested domain’

    With a handful of frozen conflicts, hybrid warfare, rising autocracy, and political instability, the Black Sea region may be Europe’s most volatile and most overlooked. This week, policy experts are testifying in Congress and calling for the United States to step up its involvement in the Black Sea region, a critical geopolitical crossroads where U.S. allies and adversaries coexist. “The region is Europe’s most contested domain,” said Ian Brzezinski, a former deputy assistant Defense secretary for Europe and NATO who testified to Congress on Wednesday. “It’s where you have the most intense confrontation and the most violent conflict in Europe in the last decade and a half. It’s high time we start addressing what needs to be done to bring greater peace and stability to that region,” Brzezinski told National Journal. Last week, Russian fighter jets intercepted two U.S. bombers over the Black Sea while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was visiting Romania, a member of the European Union and a NATO ally that hosts nearly 1,000 U.S. servicemembers. During his trip, Austin also visited two other Black Sea countries, Georgia and Ukraine, a move many saw as a sign that the U.S. was beginning to focus on the region ahead of a key NATO ministerial meeting. High on the agenda during Wednesday’s congressional hearing, however, was the U.S. relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally that under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had an increasingly fraught relationship with the West. Despite being part of the Western military alliance, Turkey has consistently opposed strengthening NATO’s presence in the Black Sea and courted Russia, opting to purchase a Russian missile-defense system that military experts say poses a risk to NATO equipment. “We have got to repair our relationship with Turkey. It’s not impossible. Erdoğan is a deal-maker,” said Jim Townsend, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former deputy assistant Defense secretary European and NATO policy, who also testified Wednesday. Over the weekend, Erdoğan ordered the country’s Foreign Ministry to declare 10 ambassadors, including the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, persona non grata after they called for the release of an imprisoned civil-society leader named Osman Kavala. Erdoğan later walked back the statement, but the incident highlighted the volatility of Turkey’s relationship with the West. “Because Turkey is pursuing its own Russia-friendly policy and is often antagonistic towards the U.S., that makes our Black Sea policy so much more difficult,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, who argues that NATO allies should be more active in the region. Sen. Ben Cardin, the chair of the Helsinki Commission, said the U.S. and Turkey share many interests in the Black Sea region but that shouldn’t stop Washington from speaking out on human rights. “Mr. Kavala, a Turkish philanthropist, has been in detention for four years despite being acquitted by a Turkish court," Cardin said in an email. "In their joint statement, the ambassadors simply asked that Turkey adhere to its international obligations and domestic law. “This kind of straight talk is important among NATO allies and did not warrant such a disproportionate response.” Despite the tensions with Turkey, Russia is the primary adversary in the region. Many lawmakers note that Moscow has trampled the rules-based international order by invading its neighbors and propping up separatists to prevent countries along the Black Sea from forming closer ties with the West. Russian forces currently occupy around 20 percent of Georgian territory and support separatists in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They also annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014—in large part to maintain access to the Black Sea—and support pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Europe, said she convened Wednesday’s hearing to learn how lawmakers can holistically approach the region to address patterns of Russian encroachment. “Over the last two decades, the Black Sea has become an increasingly important region for Russia, which has repeatedly disregarded international norms to expand control of the region, waging war and deploying illegal and belligerent tactics to secure these goals,” Shaheen told National Journal. “Russia has made it clear that it is willing to exert economic, military, and political power to thwart NATO expansion and expand its control in the Black Sea.” Experts are arriving in Congress with a laundry list of recommendations, including building up Bulgaria's and Romania’s navies, sending brigade combat teams to both countries, investing in initiatives to counter Russian disinformation, and providing Ukraine with more lethal weaponry. Some are advocating for the creation of a NATO readiness action plan for the Black Sea, and for moving forward with NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Both countries are angling to join the Western military alliance. Still, the alliance’s commitment to collective defense prevents countries already in a state of conflict from entering, a fact that Russia exploits. Because Georgia is not yet a NATO member, the U.S. recently renewed a six-year security pact with Tbilisi designed to bolster the defense capabilities of the country’s military. The U.S. is moving away from training battalions in Georgia and will focus instead on building sustainable institutional capabilities at the executive levels of the military. Still, experts warn that nearly all the countries in the region are dealing with political instability, Russian interference, or both. Georgia, heading for a second round of local elections on Saturday, has been accused of Democratic backsliding. Romania and Bulgaria, both EU members, are also in contentious election cycles and debates over government formation that will determine their future political trajectories. Ruslan Trad, an author researching Russian influence in Bulgaria, told National Journal there are several popular pro-Russian political movements in Bulgaria. Russian spies are active in the country and allegedly monitored European Union leaders during their visits. There’s also an urgent need to counter Russian disinformation and anti-NATO propaganda in the country, Trad said. What’s most important, said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general now at the Center for European Policy Analysis, is to have a robust strategy for the entire region. “Having a strategy for the region has to be the first priority because then you can develop the right policies for each of the countries in the region,” Hodges said. The Biden administration is now working on a global-force-posture review, which should shed light on U.S. policy towards the region, and the State Department is also developing a Black Sea strategy. Alina Polyakova, the president of CEPA and another witness in Wednesday’s hearing, said it would be important to pinpoint the specific areas in which each partner country in the region can contribute to broader security. “The Black Sea region is critical to broader transatlantic stability,” Polyakova told senators. “It is where Russia, Europe, the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus come together, and it’s also the locus of the Kremlin’s test of the alliance’s credibility and resolve.”

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Upholding OSCE Commitments in Hungary and Poland

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: UPHOLDING OSCE COMMITMENTS IN HUNGARY AND POLAND Wednesday, November 3, 2021 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Political leaders in Hungary and Poland—U.S. allies and members of the European Union—have for the past decade pursued policies that undermine democracy and the rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has weakened the country’s democratic institutions, especially the free media and independent judiciary. Instead of strengthening the transatlantic bond, Viktor Orbán has sought closer ties with Russia and China. In Poland, the ruling coalition has taken steps to compromise judicial independence and limit free expression. Witnesses will examine the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary and Poland and discuss the implications for U.S. foreign policy. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Heather A. Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, Center for Strategic and International Studies Zselyke Csaky, Research Director, Europe & Eurasia, Freedom House Dalibor Rohac, Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute  

  • 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 assessed the state of media freedom across the OSCE region. Other expert witnesses discussed recent attacks on journalists and media outlets, the motivations that lead authorities to try and silence the press, global disinformation networks, and more. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by stating that media freedom is the bedrock of the democratic process, making it possible for citizens to make informed decisions on their political reality. He also addressed COVID-19 and disinformation, citing the need to safeguard fundamental freedom of expression while performing the vital task of reporting the truth. Chairman Cardin cited a Freedom House report showing a decline in democracy in some countries, often overlapping with a decline in media freedom, and expressed a concern over the silencing of media in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Turkey, and Russia to name a few. As a co-sponsor of the Global Press Freedom Act, Senator Cardin expressed his wish for the U.S. to become more involved in press freedom across the globe. The OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media (RFOM), Teresa Ribeiro, thanked the Helsinki Commission for the strong support for the RFOM as an institution and media freedom and expression. Ribeiro seconded Chairman Cardin’s statement that free and independent media is a core pillar of democracy, adding that media is more than just a provider of daily news. Ribeiro addressed the steady decline of media freedom all over the OSCE region and decline in trust in the media. “We live in a time where accusing media outlets and individual journalists of false news has become the norm,” she said. Key issues, according to Ribeiro, include rising violence against journalists, abuse of the legal system to silence their work, restrictions imposed by authoritarian governments on the media, declining trust in the media, as well as the power of social media companies and their ability to shape the media landscape. Ribeiro argued that governments have a positive obligation to protect both the freedom of expression and a free press that delivers truthful information to citizens. In her opinion, the best way to fight disinformation is not through restrictive laws, but rather by promoting independent journalists. Robert Mahoney, the deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), reported on his organizations efforts to track media freedom across the OSCE region. He stated that journalists and media have come under attack in almost all OSCE countries. Some of these attacks are by private citizens, but most attacks on press freedom are carried out by governments such as those in Hungry, Poland, Tajikistan, Serbia, Turkmenistan, Belarus, or Russia. Specifically, Mahoney mentioned the number of journalists behind bars in Turkey and the use of foreign agent laws in Russia to sideline media. He also expressed concern over the targeted murders of journalists in the OSCE in countries including Ukraine, Slovakia, and Malta. Mahoney recommended fully implementing the 2018 OSCE ministerial council agreement on the freedom of the media, supporting the RFOM mandate and urging the mandate holder to challenge those countries with the worst press freedom records, implement the policies outlined in the 2020 resource guide by the RFOM on the safety of female journalists online, and considering the use of targeted sanctions to gold governments within the OSCE region accountable for their violations of press freedoms. Jamie Fly, President of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, gave an update on his organizations efforts to provide news and media to 27 countries across Eurasia. Much of his testimony was focused on Russia and Belarus, where the gravest violations of press freedom occur. In Russia, foreign agent laws are increasingly being used to violate the freedom of the press and fines connected to these laws (such as $4.4 million owed by RFE/RL to Russia) are used to pressure news outlets financially. Fly believes the Kremlin is seeking absolute control over the information space in advance of the end of President Vladimir Putin’s current term in 2024. In Belarus, RFE/RL officers were raided, and equipment was confiscated. Meanwhile, many journalists threatened by the new government in Afghanistan are still hoping to evacuate and require outside support. Fly called for more advocacy for journalists in critical regions, funding for unbiased media to counter the large sums of money authoritarian governments spend on their biased media outlets, as well as pressure on those governments which jail journalists. Peter Pomerantsev, Director of the Arena Program and Senior Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, testified that the principles we use to defend journalists are being weaponized to attack journalists in other countries. He argued that the crushing of media voices happens not only through censorship, but also through the flood of disinformation. These mass inauthentic campaigns take away the fundamental right to receive information and know its origins, Pomerantsev said, and argued that the best way to counter such disinformation is through better transparency on the origins of content encountered online. Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) asked the witnesses about steps the United States could take to counter disinformation and misinformation, especially strategies that have been found to be successful in Europe. Ribeiro answered that media literacy and better training for journalists to become fact checkers are key. Additionally, building back trust between the media and the public is vital, and the local level is the best way to do so. Mahoney agreed, stating that local news is generally trusted more than the news at a national level, but the decline in local news outlets in the U.S. has pushed people towards getting news from social media. Acknowledging various levels of media freedom across the OSCE, Chairman Cardin asked what best practices are to protect the freedom of the media. Ribeiro replied that different tools need to be used in different countries. Some countries have strong rule of law, yet still have issues with media freedom. In her capacity as RFOM, her tools include voice, advocacy, and assisting participating states to improve media freedom. Chairman Cardin also asked what should be done to protect journalists against indiscriminate arrests, detentions, and physical violence. Mahoney answered that the number one focus must be on bringing those who murder journalists to justice. Too often the murderers go free, sending the signal to others that journalists can be silenced this way. Next, to pressure governments that imprison journalists, including calling them out at conferences on the international stage. Lastly, the OSCE and EU must lift their standards and prevent capture of the media by the state. Chairman Cardin thanked Mahoney for his comments and added that the Helsinki Commission and the U.S. Congress is happy to help, but needs specifics like names and stories, not numbers, to advocate for journalists across the world. Asked about where the United States needs to concentrate its priorities regarding RFE/RL in the OSCE region, Jamie Fly noted the importance of social media in reaching audiences, and therefore the power social media companies have over RFE/RL. Social media algorithms dictate which content users see, and often authoritarian regimes intervene and pressure social media companies to remove content critical of them because of supposed terms-of-service violations, as was the case with Navalny’s election app in Russia. Fly affirmed the need for pressure and targeted sanctions on regimes violating press freedom, as well as support for journalist who cannot work safely in their home countries. Pomerantsev expanded on the issues of social media algorithms, explaining that understanding why an algorithm promotes some content over another is key to slowing disinformation. He emphasized that transparency, not regulation of content, is the best way to do so. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) addressed the rising violence against journalists worldwide, including 29 killings in 2021, and increased imprisonment of journalists. Calling out Turkey, a NATO ally, for severe transgressions, Sen. Wicker asked if there is hope for improvement. Mahoney responded by saying the decline of press freedoms in Turkey has been happening for 20 years, but the coup attempt in 2016 worsened it. In his opinion, the OSCE and EU have been unsuccessful in attempting to bring change to media conditions in Turkey and must be more forceful in their critique of Erdogan and his regime. Chair Cardin closed the hearing by stating, “This commission stands ready to work with you to protect individual journalists as well as to put a spotlight on counties which are violating the freedom of the media.” Related Information Witness Biographies  

  • 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

  • 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 Digital Digest September 2021

  • Seeking Justice and Freedom in Belarus

    In 2020, mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. Since then, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime have clung to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. On September 21, 2021, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the events in Belarus leading up to and following the 2020 presidential elections. The hearing included expert witness testimony by four witnesses on the state of the media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by remarking that the election in 2020 was not free or fair, contrary to official reports from Belarus, and commended the extreme courage of peaceful protestors to show up en masse despite a history of mass arrests and torture and the “brazen hijacking of a civilian aircraft and kidnapping of a critic of Mr. Lukashenko.” In opening remarks, Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) announced that, alongside Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), he soon would sponsor a resolution denouncing the acts of the Belarusian regime and supporting freedom and human rights in Belarus. Serge Kharytonau delivered a testimony on behalf of the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) based on monitoring and documentation of activity in Belarus. He noted that since 2020, the informational sovereignty of Belarus has been given up to Russia in exchange for Putin’s support of Lukashenko. The state propaganda machines in Belarus and Russia are now synchronized to promote the Kremlin’s goals. Kharytonau noted that the state media also is being used to conduct psychological operations, depicting videos of political hostages and victims of torture. Technology platforms such as YouTube are being used to promote misinformation, hate speech, and the threat of violence towards civilians. Tatsiana Khomich, the Coordination Council’s Representative for political prisoners, testified about the situation of political prisoners in Belarus. Only 673 political prisoners are officially recognized by the government in Belarus, but more than 4,600 cases have been opened relating to 2020 election. Several activists have been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, where they lack medical care, suffer from chronic diseases, are subject to torture, and often attempt suicide. She noted that most of these prisoners are just regular people, such as taxi drivers, and some are as young as 15 years old. “The situation in Belarus will most likely result in the complete annihilation of the civil rights of Belarusians and the chance of political transformation in Belarus will disappear,” she said. Khomich argued that time plays into Lukashenko’s hands as his government adapts to sanctions and the negotiating position of the West declines. Furthermore, as time passes the focus on Belarus is likely to decrease; action is needed now. David Kramer, a senior fellow at Florida International University and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, testified on the violation of human rights and “weaponization” of migrants by Belarus, noting that the spillover effects in neighboring NATO countries poses a threat to the United States. Kramer also classified Belarus as a test case for the West and its struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. He offered several recommendations to deal with the situation in Belarus: targeting the individuals surrounding Lukashenko who are keeping him afloat financially with sanctions; requiring U.S. allies in the Middle East to make a choice between supporting the United States or supporting Lukashenko; cutting off  IMF funding to Belarus; and continuing not to recognize Lukashenko as the leader of Belarus. Kramer emphasized that an effort should be made to press for the release of all political prisoners and have accountability for the gross violation of human rights by the Lukashenko regime. The West needs to prepare for when Lukashenko is gone, he argued, but in the meantime Belarusian civil society must be supported. Siarhej Zikratski, a representative on legal affairs in the office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, personally attested to the political persecution of prisoners. Prisoners are cramped in tiny cells, tortured, beaten, and subjected to sexual violence. Despite appeals, no criminal cases exist regarding these acts. He also highlighted the disbarment of 13 lawyers who defended journalists and politicians who stood up to the regime. Zikratski recommended that the international community refuse to recognize Lukashenko as Belarus’ leader; use international human rights laws and international human rights protection mechanisms such as Article 30 of the Convention Against Torture and Article 41 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to address human rights violations; and record evidence of human rights violations, document crimes, and investigate criminal proceedings under the principle of universal jurisdictions. During the question-and-answer session with witnesses, members asked questions ranging from the use and abuse of U.S. technology platforms by repressive regimes, to the proposed union between Belarus and Russia and the recent joint Zapad military exercise, to specific cases of human rights abuses in Belarus. Witnesses also discussed the effectiveness of the OSCE’s 2020 Moscow Mechanism investigation and the continuing importance of U.S-funded news outlets such as Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe. Related Information Witness Biographies Special Statement from Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Press Release: Chairman Cardin Joins Bipartisan Resolution Highlighting First Anniversary of Fraudulent Election In Belarus Press Release: Cardin and Cohen Condemn Persecution of Independent Journalists in Belarus Press Release: Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman Pratasevich

  • Repression in Belarus Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: SEEKING JUSTICE AND FREEDOM IN BELARUS Tuesday, September 21, 2021 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission More than a year has passed since mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. In the meantime, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime cling to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. As Lukashenko lashes out at the West—even engineering the forced landing of an EU flight to abduct a journalist and sending overwhelming numbers of migrants into the EU via Belarus—the exiled leader of democratic Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has been engaging the world on her country’s behalf, calling for new elections, the release of political prisoners, and accountability for the repressive regime. Expert witnesses will provide updates on the current situation in Belarus, including the state of media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Serge Kharytonau, Media Expert, International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) Tatsiana Khomich, Coordination Council Representative for political prisoners, Viktar Babaryka Team Coordinator, and sister of political prisoner Maria Kalesnikava David J. Kramer, Senior Fellow, Florida International University Siarhej Zikratski, Representative on Legal Affairs, Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

  • Chairman Cardin Joins Bipartisan Resolution Highlighting First Anniversary Of Fraudulent Election in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) today joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers to introduce a resolution on the one-year anniversary of the fraudulent presidential election in Belarus through which Alexander Lukashenko seized power for a sixth term.  The resolution, led by Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), calls for free and fair elections, reaffirms bipartisan support in the Senate for the pro-democracy movement, free media, and the Belarusian people, and condemns Lukashenko’s recent acts of transnational repression. “A year after the people of Belarus were deprived of their democratic aspirations and desire for change, the United States is taking significant action to target those officials and companies propping up and supporting the Lukashenko regime,” said Chairman Cardin. “Over 600 political prisoners are unjustly detained.  Independent media outlets have been raided and shuttered, and Belarusian authorities are attempting to silence NGOs and vital members of civil society, and even Belarusians abroad face intimidation and the threat of kidnapping.  I support the Biden administration’s sanctions today, and I am proud to join my colleagues in the introduction of this significant, bipartisan resolution.” “This resolution reflects the important bipartisan work underway in Congress in support of the pro-democracy movement in Belarus and in fierce repudiation of Lukashenko’s continued aggression. Our message is clear: we are watching and there will be consequences for actions that violate the rights of Belarusians, wherever they occur,” said Sen. Shaheen. “Our bipartisan message from the Senate comes on the one-year anniversary of Belarus’ stolen election and as the Biden administration has rightly announced additional sanctions, in coordination with our UK and EU allies, for human rights abuses and increasing acts of transnational repression. The U.S. will not be silent as Lukashenko’s tyrannical regime escalates crackdowns against the Belarusian people and obstructs the pro-democracy movement and freedoms that the Belarusian citizenry are fighting so hard to secure.” “As the first official act of the Free Belarus Caucus, this resolution is a strong first step to show the world the U.S. Senate stands with the Belarusian people in their fight for freedom and new elections that are free and fair,” Sen. Wicker said. “I urge my colleagues to support this resolution as we work to promote democracy and oppose the ongoing abuses of the Lukashenko regime.” Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Thom Tillis (NC) and Sen. Marco Rubio also joined the resolution, alongside Sen. Ron Johnson (WI), Sen. Dick Durbin (IL), Sen. Rob Portman (OH), Sen. Chris Murphy (CT), Sen. Tim Kaine (VA), Sen. Chris Van Hollen (MD), Sen. Ed Markey (MA), and Sen. Bill Hagerty (TN). On Friday, Sen. Shaheen and Sen. Wicker announced the formation of the Free Belarus Caucus in the Senate, which includes a bipartisan group of seven other senators with the purpose of advocating for democracy and free and fair elections in Belarus.

  • 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. 

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