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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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    Reports of shadowy Russian mercenaries in unexpected locations have grown more frequent and alarming. Yet, western understanding of the Kremlin’s use of private contractors — useful to Moscow for their deniability and relatively low cost — remains limited. Policy responses can be complicated by the potential conflation of Russian organizations, like the Wagner Group, with the private military and security companies used by the United States and its allies. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, experts shone a spotlight on the Kremlin’s destabilizing use of mercenaries around the world, clarified the difference between Moscow’s approach and that of the United States and its allies, and reviewed efforts underway internationally, within the OSCE and elsewhere, to develop and promote norms that would govern the use of private security and military companies (PMSCs). During the briefing, the audience heard from the RAND Corporation’s Dara Massicot, University of Denver Professor Dr. Deborah Avant, and recently retired U.S. Government technical expert on armed contractors Col. Christopher Mayer, U.S. Army retired. The briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Alex Tiersky. Mr. Tiersky explained in his opening remarks that even though reports of Russian mercenaries have become more frequent and alarming, our understanding of the Kremlin’s use of private security contractors remains somewhat limited. He pointed to The New York Times’ headline from the day before, which confirmed suspicions of Russian mercenaries in Libya, as an example of the relevancy of the issue today. Ms. Massicot began the panel with a broad overview about Russian PMSCs. She explained that there are two types of contracting groups in Russia: private security companies, which are legal entities in Russia that are more selective in their recruitment and types of missions, and private military companies (PMCs), which are illegal yet have proliferated in recent years. The most well-known Russian private military company is the Wagner Group, best known for its involvement in eastern Ukraine, Syria and Africa. Massicot also noted that Russian PMCs support both Russian grand strategy and the commercial interests of their owners. Dr. Avant remarked on the double-edged sword of the flexibility of PMSCs. On the one hand, they provide services for unexpected or necessary demands. For example, if a government needed French-speaking troops but did not have many of them, they could hire a private security company who could provide those forces. On the other hand, they are managed outside of regular political and military channels, resulting in an increased risk of misbehavior by the contracting government and the PMSC personnel. Dr. Avant briefly delved into the work of the International Code of Conduct Association, which seeks to define appropriate behavior for PMSCs. Col. Mayer spoke about the international and national efforts the United States government participated in to regulate the conduct of PMSCs. He specifically spoke about the Montreux Document, which details international legal obligations and good practices for states involved in the PMSC process, United States national laws that regulate PMSC conduct, and the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers. Col. Mayer also remarked on the current decrease of State Department and Defense Department involvement in international activity regarding PMSCs. This is concerning as it coincided with increased activity among mercenary groups, thereby threatening the gains made in the past 15 years by international agreements. However, Col. Mayer noted that there is hope for future United States reengagement, citing one promising initiative as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s recent resolution on PMSC activity.

  • At What Cost?

    Sparked by the recent Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, increased tensions between the United States and Turkey have reignited the debate about the future of U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations. The Helsinki Commission convened this hearing to discuss how the United States should respond to the Turkish Government’s continuing abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Expert witnesses at the hearing reviewed prominent cases of politically-motivated prosecution, failures of due process, and prospects for judicial reform as they relate to Turkey’s commitments as a member of both the OSCE and NATO. The panel also evaluated President Erdogan’s plan to return millions of Syrian refugees to their war-torn country or push them to Europe, and the human consequences of his military incursion into Syria. Presiding over the hearing, Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson affirmed that as co-chair for the Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations & Turkish Americans he supports the people of Turkey and the U.S.-Turkish alliance. He cautioned, however, that President Erdogan’s actions threaten to undermine that alliance and damage the security of the region. Rep. Marc Veasey noted that Turkey is being “torn between two worlds”: one of democracy and one of autocracy. Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Steve Cohen were also present at the hearing. The Commission heard testimony from Gonul Tol, Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute; Merve Tahiroglu, the Turkey Program Coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED); Henri Barkey, the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor at Lehigh University; Eric Schwartz, the President of Refugees International; and Talip Kucukcan, professor of sociology at Marmara University. Dr. Tol testified that “most freedoms under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been dramatically curtailed” but counseled that Turkey “is not a fullblown dictatorship.” The Turkish government has targeted activists, journalists, and opposition politicians with “trumped-up terrorism charges and “largely criminalized Kurdish political expression.” She highlighted the opposition’s recent victories in mayoral elections as “a testament to the peoples of Turkey, the great majority of whom refuse to give up on the idea of democratic rule.” Dr. Tol further urged the United States to view “the Kurdish question…[as] a matter of democratization and human rights” for the Turkish state. Ms. Tahiroglu explained the deterioration of the rule of law under Erdogan’s government. According to her testimony, Erdogan’s administration has politicized the judiciary and rendered it “a main weapon against government critics and opponents” through repressive laws and false terrorism charges. She noted key judicial cases against civil society activists, journalists, opposition politicians, professors, U.S. citizens, and employees of U.S. consulates in the country. Ms. Tahiroglu testified that the breakdown of the rule of law in Turkey matters for U.S. interests because it has swept up U.S. citizens, “fuels anti-Americanism,” and “embolden[s] Turkey’s aggressive policies abroad by suppressing dissenting voices.” Dr. Barkey focused his testimony on the Turkish government’s suppression of the struggle for recognition of Kurdish social and political identity. Barkey explained the significance of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—Turkey’s second largest opposition party—in providing an opportunity for Turkey’s Kurdish population to participate in Turkish politics. “From that perspective, they have been very, very successful,” Barkey assessed. “It may have been far too successful for its own good.” Dr. Barkey detailed President Erdogan’s “relentless campaign to dismantle and delegitimize the HDP.” Mr. Schwartz spoke about the humanitarian implications of Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria. The reports of human rights abuses and civilian deaths are cause for deep concern, he said. He criticized the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria instead of implementing a strategic departure. Schwartz concluded with a recommendation for the United States to support locally based NGOs that provide humanitarian assistance to populations by the Turkish operation. Dr. Kucukcan reminded the audience that Turkey’s incursion occurred with President Donald Trump’s consent. The incursion, he noted, serves to protect Turkey’s national security and preserve the territorial integrity of Syria.  Dr. Kucukcan disputed that Turkey plans “ethnic cleansing” or “demographic engineering in places where [military] operations took place.”

  • Helsinki Commission to Host Briefing on Kremlin Mercenaries Abroad

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: PUTIN’S SHADOW WARRIORS Mercenaries, Security Contracting, and the Way Ahead Wednesday, November 6, 2019 10:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2359 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Reports of shadowy Russian mercenaries in unexpected locations have grown more frequent and alarming. Yet western understanding of the Kremlin’s use of private contractors—useful to Moscow for their deniability and relatively low cost—remains limited.  Policy responses can be complicated by the potential conflation of Russian organizations, like the Wagner Group, with the private military and security companies used by the United States and its allies. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, experts will shine a spotlight on the Kremlin’s destabilizing use of mercenaries around the world; clarify the difference between Moscow’s approach and that of the United States and its allies; and review efforts underway internationally, within the OSCE and elsewhere, to develop and promote norms that would govern the use of private security and military companies.  Panelists scheduled to participate include: Dr. Deborah Avant, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver; author of The Market for Force: the Consequences of Privatizing Security; director of the Private Security Monitor Dara Massicot, Policy Researcher, RAND Corporation; former senior analyst for Russian military capabilities at the U.S. Department of Defense Col. Christopher T. Mayer (U.S. Army, Ret.), former Director of Armed Contingency Contractor Policies and Programs for the U.S. Department of Defense, responsible for the department's utilization of private security companies

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Review Human Rights Developments in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: AT WHAT COST? The Human Toll of Turkey’s Policy at Home and Abroad Thursday, October 31, 2019 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Sparked by the recent Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, increased tensions between the United States and Turkey have reignited the debate about the future of U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations. At the hearing, expert witnesses will discuss how the United States should respond to the Turkish Government’s continuing abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Participants will review prominent cases of politically-motivated prosecution, failures of due process, and prospects for judicial reform as they relate to Turkey’s commitments as a member of both the OSCE and NATO. The panel also will evaluate President Erdogan’s plan to return millions of Syrian refugees to their war-torn country or push them to Europe, and the human consequences of his military incursion into Syria. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Henri Barkey, Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor, Lehigh University Talip Kucukcan, Professor of Sociology, Marmara University Eric Schwartz, President, Refugees International Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey Program Coordinator, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) Gonul Tol, Director, Center for Turkish Studies, Middle East Institute (MEI) Additional witnesses may be added.

  • Remembering Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and His Global Legacy in the Security Sector

    By Nida Ansari, Policy Advisor and State Department Detailee and Dr. Mischa Thompson, Director of Global Partnerships, Policy, and Innovation “These measures are critical in enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of the U.S. armed forces by addressing the under-representation of women and ethnic minorities and creating a diverse military that fully represents our nation’s citizens […] for the sake of our country, we can and must do better.”  – Congressman Elijah E. Cummings Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a stalwart voice in the U.S. Congress, passed away on October 17, 2019. Representing Baltimore, Maryland, his many legislative initiatives included groundbreaking work to advance diversity and inclusion in the security sector alongside Helsinki Commissioners and other global changemakers. In 2008, Rep. Cummings and other Members of Congress joined forces with then-Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin to establish the Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC). Rep. Cummings’ goal was to increase the number of people of color and women in flag officer rank by focusing on military recruitment, retention, and promotion.  The 2011 MLDC final report, “From Representation to Inclusion: Diversity Leadership for the 21st-Century Military,” proposed 20 recommendations to develop policy goals and metrics to manage and sustain diversity at the U.S. Department of Defense.  Following the release of the report, Rep. Cummings, Sen. Cardin, and other Members of Congress held a 2012 Congressional Military Diversity Forum with MLDC Chairman General Lester Lyles, where the general raised the urgency of implementing the report’s recommendations to maintain force levels in concert with increasing diversity in the United States. Helsinki Commission efforts—including legislation by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee Hastings and Sen. Cardin on the incorporation of women in combat divisions and on increasing diversity in the intelligence and national security workforces—have complemented and built upon Rep. Cummings’ work. Rep. Cumming’s efforts also were integral to the 2013 launch of the Mission Critical: Inclusive Leadership for the Security Sector program, led by the German Marshall Fund and supported by Helsinki Commission leadership.  Findings from the MLDC underpin the initiative, which brought together militaries, Members of Congress, staff of the Department of Defense, other government officials and experts from Europe and the United States to review and take stock of diversity and inclusion best practices in the security sector. “There must be an assigned and qualified individual on the command level to oversee military issues including discrimination, racial profiling, and hazing. In particular, the military needs to have a more effective response against hazing cases to better identify and respond to dangerous situations.  Women, minorities, and every single soldier should be able to achieve their goals when joining the military.”  – Congressman Elijah Cummings, Mission Critical 2013 As part of the inaugural Mission Critical event in 2013, Congressman Cummings highlighted lessons learned from the MLDC and the need to address discrimination and other problems, including hazing, in militaries to increase diversity and ensure the success of missions critical to national security.  Efforts to address these and other issues have continued at subsequent Mission Critical events, most recently in June 2019. Continuing to build upon the MLDC foundation, the event focused on diversity and inclusion issues related to personnel, the future of security, and technology in the security sector.  Speakers echoed the sentiments of Rep. Cummings years before. Then-German Federal Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen stressed the value of religious diversity in the armed forces, sharing how she was working to get the Bundeswehr’s military chaplaincy to include Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams instead of only the traditional Protestant and Roman Catholic chaplains.  Tjorven Bellmann of the German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs raised the importance of recruitment methods that appeal to young people from diverse backgrounds. He also noted that discrimination in the military remains a barrier for racial minorities, women, LGBT+, and other groups.  Nida Ansari, a State Department detailee to the Helsinki Commission, discussed U.S. Government inclusion efforts around faith communities. Ursula von der Leyen’s elevation to the Presidency of the European Commission offers hope for highly-placed advocacy of inclusive policies and concrete strategies beyond the security sector and broader dissemination of practices shared during Mission Critical. Congressman Cummings’ vision of a more inclusive security sector, and more inclusive societies generally, at home and abroad will not soon be forgotten.  Signs of progress include examples like General Lori Robinson, whose distinguished career included serving as the first woman to command a major Unified Combatant Command when she led United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) from May 2016 to May 2018.  The rarity of her example, however, only underlines the work that Mr. Cummings well knew was still required. With special thanks to Leah Perry, former Professional Staff Member, House Oversight Committee, for her assistance in providing background information for this article. 

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Statement on Developments in Northern Syria

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today issued the following statement on reports that Turkey has launched an attack on Kurdish troops in northern Syria: “Kurdish troops bravely fought alongside Americans and our other allies to defeat the ISIS caliphate. The small deployment of special operators we had in northern Syria supported the fight against extremism and protected our partners. We should continue to stand by our Kurdish friends and oppose Turkey’s invasion. Those who support the United States deserve nothing less. Otherwise, we undermine our country’s interests in the region and our credibility around the world.”

  • 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    From September 16 to September 27, OSCE participating States will meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress. During the 2019 meeting, three specifically selected topics will each be the focus of a full-day discussion: “safety of journalists,” “hate crimes,” and “Roma and Sinti.” These special topics are chosen to highlight key areas for improvement in the OSCE region and promote discussion of pressing issues. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2019 Since the HDIM was established in 1998, the OSCE participating States have a standing agreement to hold an annual two-week meeting to review the participating States’ compliance with the human dimension commitments they have previously adopted by consensus. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as refugee migration and human trafficking), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (such as countering anti-Semitism and racism). Each year, the HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma and Sinti. Unique about the HDIM is the inclusion and strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a stout advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE structures allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. Members of the U.S. delegation to the 2019 HDIM include: Ambassador James S. Gilmore, U.S. Permanent Representative to the OSCE and Head of Delegation Christopher Robinson, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Roger D. Carstens, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Elan S. Carr, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Alex T. Johnson, Chief of Staff, U.S. Helsinki Commission

  • Simulating a Baltic Security Crisis

    By Brittany Amador, Intern On August 29, 2019, U.S. Helsinki Commission personnel, joined by Congressional staff from several relevant offices, participated in a simulated security crisis in the Baltic region centered on the U.S. and NATO response to a hypothetical act of Russian aggression. The event followed the Helsinki Commission’s historic field hearing on Baltic Sea regional security, where members of Congress convened senior Allied and partner leaders from Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the United States European Command (EUCOM) and the U.S. Mission to NATO, to better understand current and evolving security threats in the region.  Participants in the simulation. Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern, a former Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs and Deputy Chief of Mission to the U.S. Mission to NATO, led the simulation. Ambassador Heffern, who currently serves as a Distinguished Fellow of Diplomacy and Entrepreneurship at Georgetown University, was assisted in the facilitation of the game by Andrew Carroll, an officer with the United States Air Force who recently completed his Max Kampelman Policy Fellowship at the Helsinki Commission. 2d Lt Andrew Carroll describing the parameters of the simulation. During the three-hour event, attendees played the roles of various regional actors, and debated possible actions in response to realistic scenario inputs. Participants were provided immediate feedback on their strategic decisions, knowing in real time the impact of their simulated actions. The scenario underlined the challenges and opportunities inherent in any response to a security crisis in the Baltic Sea region. Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern explaining tactical movements.

  • OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: STATE OF MEDIA FREEDOM IN THE OSCE REGION Thursday, July 25, 2019 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room HVC-210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Journalists working in the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) are facing increased risks to their lives and safety. According to a new report released the Office of the Representative for Freedom of the Media, in the first six months of 2019, two journalists have been killed and an additional 92 attacks and threats—including one bombing, three shootings, and seven arson attacks—have targeted members of the media. In his first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir will assess the fragile state of media freedom within the OSCE region. Mr. Desir also will address the number of imprisoned media professionals as well as the violence, threats, and intimidation directed toward female journalists. The hearing will explore the threat posed by disinformation and online content designed to provoke violence and hate.  Following the hearing, at 5:00 p.m. in Room HVC-200, the Helsinki Commission will host a viewing of the documentary, “A Dark Place,” which details the online harassment of female journalists working in the OSCE region.

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