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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: 
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Stacy Hope
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csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
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    David Killion, chief of staff at the Commission, addressed the limited freedom of expression in the former USSR and the imprisonment of those who speak out against their governments.  Uzbekistan was the focus of the briefing, as it has one of the highest numbers of persons imprisoned on politically motivated charges of any former Soviet country. Human rights activists, journalists, and members of certain religious groups fall victim to restrictive laws and policies that curb basic human rights. He was joined by Steve Swerdlow, Sanjar Umarov, Aygul Bekjan, and Cathy Cosman, who emphasized the consistent reports of widespread abuse and torture in Uzbekistan’s prisons, more than a decade after the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur on Torture concluded that torture was "systematic" in the country's prisons and detention camps. They referenced the Human Rights Watch report that detailed the cases of 34 of Uzbekistan’s most prominent individuals imprisoned on politically-motivated charges, from poor conduct of trials to mistreatment in prison.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Briefing on Politically and Religiously Motivated Imprisonment in Uzbekistan

    WASHINGTON–The United States Helsinki Commission today announced a briefing: “Imprisoned in Uzbekistan: Politically Motivated Cases” Tuesday, October 28, 2014 11:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Uzbekistan has one of the highest numbers of persons imprisoned on politically motivated charges of any former Soviet country. Human rights activists, journalists, and members of certain religious groups fall victim to restrictive laws and policies that curb basic human rights. In addition, there are consistent reports of widespread abuse and torture in Uzbekistan’s prisons, more than a decade after the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur on Torture concluded that torture was "systematic" in the country's prisons and detention camps. Human Rights Watch has issued a new report detailing the cases of 34 of Uzbekistan’s most prominent individuals imprisoned on politically-motivated charges, from poor conduct of trials to mistreatment in prison. While some governments claim that ensuring stability and fighting extremism are paramount, laws restricting political participation, independent journalism, civil society, and freedom of religion may have the opposite effect. This briefing will discuss the Human Rights Watch report and look at what impact such cases may have in Uzbekistan, as well as hear about the human cost directly from a former prisoner and a family member of a current prisoner. Briefers: Steve Swerdlow, Esq., Human Rights Watch Central Asia Researcher and Director, Bishkek Office Dr. Sanjar Umarov, Former political prisoner Aygul Bekjan, Daughter of imprisoned journalist Muhammad Bekjanov Cathy Cosman, Senior Policy Analyst, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

  • Statement by Commissioner Representative Mike McIntyre at the OSCE PA Fall Meeting

    OSCE PA Autumn Meeting Session 1: Political and Military Dimension Debate on the Crisis in Ukraine  This Parliamentary Assembly spoke clearly on this matter in the Declaration adopted at the annual session in Baku.  Starting with vicious propaganda and intimidation of journalists, Moscow created this conflict by stoking irrational fears and then reinforcing violence in Ukraine with men and materiel from the Russian Federation. Russia has flagrantly violated international norms and commitments, including all ten core principles of the Helsinki Final Act. This is an attempt to deny a neighboring country and fellow OSCE member of the ability to make its own decisions regarding its own future. Russia has worked actively to suppress Ukraine’s aspirations towards freedom, democracy, and human dignity.  The United States underscores the critical role of the OSCE throughout this tragic conflict which began with the attempted illegal annexation of Crimea. As the largest regional organization in the world, the OSCE has a prominent role in trying to end this war. We have been encouraged by all of the efforts of the OSCE in Ukraine to monitor and work to reduce tensions and foster peace, security, and stability. The OSCE can become a stabilizing presence as to what is, in-fact, happening.  We are increasingly concerned by continued reports of Russian and separatist violations of the ceasefire. We have seen little progress by the Russian Federation or the Russia-backed separatists since these agreements were adopted last month. Russia-backed separatist forces continue to attack Ukrainian positions, including several positions within the agreed exclusion zone area!  Our frank criticism is not, as some might assert, an effort to create a new Cold War environment, but an effort to prevent one. That has been, and will always be, the purpose of our candid debates in the OSCE. Let us fulfill our mission as the OSCE!  We again call on the Russian Federation to implement its part of the agreements fully by immediately withdrawing all Russian military forces and equipment from inside Ukraine and returning control of the international border to Kyiv. That is the bottom line! Russia must respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by ending both its unlawful activities in eastern Ukraine and its occupation of Crimea.  Why do we have an OSCE if nations will not respect one another’s sovereignty and dignity? The time is now. This is the test! May God grant us wisdom in this decision.

  • Helsinki Commission on Opening of Europe’s Largest Human Rights Meeting

    WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, released the following statement ahead of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) annual high-level meeting on human rights. From September 22-October 3, civil society and government representatives of OSCE participating States will gather in Warsaw, Poland, for the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting to discuss compliance with the full range of OSCE human dimension commitments, with special focus on migrant rights, minority issues, and combating violence against women and children. “The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting takes place while Russian aggression in Ukraine continues to threaten basic OSCE principles. I expect this will be a major focus of the meeting, as well as Russian actions at home that are cynically rolling back the ability of civil society to comment on or contribute to how that country functions," said Chairman Cardin. "I am pleased that Professor Brian Atwood will head the U.S. Delegation at this critical time. The promises OSCE states made to one another almost 25 years ago, that respect for human rights within any country is a matter of concern for all states, has guided us and must continue to do so. I also welcome the leadership of the U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE, Daniel Baer, who will be taking a high-level study group to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp." Co-Chairman Smith said, “The Russian government’s gross human rights violations in Ukraine must be a central topic of discussion at the Human Dimension meeting. HDIM is an indispensable tool for holding states accountable to OSCE commitments and most effective when both government and civil society representatives have equal opportunity to debate each state’s human rights record.  One issue that states and civil society must discuss this year in Warsaw, and at the OSCE “Berlin Plus 10” anti-Semitism conference in November, is the alarming rise of anti-Semitic incidents in the OSCE region.  The OSCE must also continue to combat trafficking in human beings, including through fulfilling commitments taken last year to train transportation workers to identify possible victims and to improve law enforcement information sharing internationally on potential sex tourists. Commitments are made to be kept.”

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