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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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He was sentenced to four and a half years in jail, but released on time served. Two other local staff from the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul, Metin Topuz and Mete Canturk, remain in custody or under house arrest on similar trumped-up charges. After 18 months in jail, Metin had his first court hearing last month. The court adjourned his trial until May 15. In November 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the detention of American citizens and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey. In the months prior to the hearing, Helsinki Commission leaders raised these cases in letters to President Erdogan and President Trump.

  • The U.S. must stand up to Erdogan and his politically motivated detentions

    Last fall, Americans rejoiced as the pastor Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina native, returned home after spending more than two years in Turkish prisons on baseless terrorism and espionage charges. A combination of congressional pressure and targeted sanctions on Turkish officials sent a clear message to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the United States would not tolerate his using Brunson as a pawn to extract political concessions. Faced with mounting political and economic costs, Erdogan caved. Sadly, the pastor’s release did not put an end to Erdogan’s hostage-taking. Today, the Turkish government continues to hold at least one American citizen and two Turkish employees of the U.S. government on false charges. Erdogan plans to inflict misery on these innocent people until he gets what he wants out of the United States — whether that is a green light to attack Kurdish strongholds in northern Syria, taking legal action against Fethullah Gulen and his followers in the United States, or U.S. acquiescence to Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defense system. Such attempts at extortion are all the more galling coming from Turkey, an important NATO ally that is not acting like one. American citizen and NASA physicist Serkan Golge is serving a five-year prison sentence for alleged involvement in terrorism, despite no credible evidence of wrongdoing. Turkish police have also used false terrorism charges to detain three longtime Turkish employees of U.S. consulates in the country: Hamza Ulucay, Metin Topuz, and Mete Canturk. Golge and Topuz are in solitary confinement, where they have spent up to two-and-a-half years with only an hour of fresh air per week. Ulucay was released earlier this year after being held for nearly two years. Canturk remains under house arrest, and his family is subject to travel bans and regular police check-ins. These men are all innocent. Not only have they lost irreplaceable time with their families, but the physical and psychological toll of their ordeal also means they may never be the same once they regain their liberty. The United States did not tolerate the politically motivated detention and mistreatment of a U.S. citizen in the case of Pastor Brunson. We should not tolerate those acts now with Golge or longtime U.S. government employees. As the United States increased pressure on Turkey over Brunson, it simultaneously tried to cut a deal with Erdogan for the freedom of the other detainees. By now, it is abundantly clear that no amount of coaxing will secure their freedom. Any negotiation over their fate would only reward Erdogan’s bad behavior. As with Brunson, only stiff political and economic pressure will work. This week, I introduced the bipartisan Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act of 2019, which would require the president to impose sanctions on all senior Turkish officials responsible for these wrongful detentions, including barring them from travel to the United States and freezing any assets they have here. The bill further calls on President Trump to urge Turkey to restore due-process guarantees and respect for the fundamental freedoms of all its people, thousands of whom are victims of the same sort of politically motivated prosecution and indefinite detention endured by our citizens and consulate personnel. The United States has a particular moral obligation to protect our own citizens. Golge’s wrongful imprisonment at the hands of the Turkish government cannot stand. We also have moral obligations to our local staff overseas. Thousands of citizens of other countries work at U.S. government facilities around the globe, lending their diverse expertise to critical U.S. missions, often at great risk to themselves and their families. The credibility of the United States is at stake in the eyes of these courageous individuals who place their trust and safety in our hands. The fate of their colleagues in Turkey weighs heavily on the minds of our consular staff, as it does on our national conscience. No effort should be spared until they are free.

  • U.S. senators introduce bill to sanction Turkish officials over detentions

    Two U.S. senators on Tuesday introduced a bipartisan bill requiring the imposition of sanctions on Turkish officials responsible for the detentions of U.S. citizens and local consulate staff in Turkey, a statement on the legislation said. The bill, introduced by Republican Senator Roger Wicker and Democrat Ben Cardin, also calls on President Donald Trump to urge Turkey to respect for the fundamental freedoms, saying thousands were victims of politically-motivated prosecution. “The Turkish government’s false imprisonment of Americans and Turkish citizens employed by the United States in Turkey is a gross violation of their human rights,” Senator Cardin said in the statement. “Our bill makes clear that the United States will not tolerate years of Turkish recalcitrance on these cases.” The detention of U.S. consulate workers and American citizens is one of many issues dividing NATO allies Ankara and Washington, also at loggerheads over Syria policy and Turkey’s planned purchase of Russian missile defenses. Their detentions prompted Washington in October 2017 to suspend all non-immigrant visa applications from the country, triggering a reciprocal move from Ankara that contributed to a deep crisis in bilateral ties. The bill introduced Tuesday would require the U.S. administration to impose sanctions on all senior Turkish officials responsible for the “wrongful” detentions of U.S. citizens and staff, including barring the officials from travel to the United States and freezing any U.S. assets. Turkey has detained tens of thousands of people following a failed coup in July 2016, saying they were linked with the network of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric blamed by Ankara for orchestrating the putsch. U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson was among those jailed in the aftermath of the coup. He was released last October. “While the Turkish government made a step in the right direction with the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson last October, more needs to be done for Turkey to show good faith and act like a NATO ally,” said Republican Senator Thom Tillis, one of six original sponsors of Tuesday’s bill. Serkan Golge, a dual Turkish-U.S. citizen, was found guilty of being a member of an armed terrorist organization earlier this year and sentenced to seven years, six months in prison. Three other Turkish citizens who were working at the U.S. consulates in Turkey have been under investigation or jailed over similar charges. A Turkish court last month ruled that one of the consular workers, Metin Topuz, a translator and fixer in Istanbul, should remain in jail until his trial resumes in June.

  • Helsinki Commission Marks Fifth Anniversary of Illegal Referendum In Crimea

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the illegal Russian-organized referendum in Crimea, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Five years ago, the Government of Russia tried to legitimize its illegal occupation of Crimea by organizing a fake referendum in Ukrainian territory.  By orchestrating this so-called vote, the Kremlin blatantly flouted international law. By definition, citizens living under armed occupation lack the freedom to determine their collective destiny.  “This tragic anniversary also reminds us of the suffering this occupation continues to inflict on innocent Ukrainian citizens who have been forced to flee Crimea, as well as on those who remain behind. Ethnic minorities such as Crimean Tatars and activists who object to the illegal Russian occupation, including Oleg Sentsov, are targets of persecution and violence by the Government of Russia. “We will not forget; Crimea is Ukraine.”  Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014. Since then, the Helsinki Commission has hosted numerous hearings and briefings on the war in Ukraine, including an April 2014 hearing with then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; December 2015 and November 2016 briefings on human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea; an April 2017 briefing on Oleg Sentsov and Russia's human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens; a May 2017 hearing on the growing Russian military threat in Europe; and briefings with Alexander Hug, then-Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, and Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.

  • Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s release by the State Department of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I welcome the release of this year’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. These reports, mandated by law and prepared by the Department of State, exemplify Congress’ intent to keep human rights front and center in U.S. foreign policy. As members of Congress consider foreign assistance and military aid, as we build alliances and take the measure of our foes,  these reports help ensure that democracy and fundamental freedoms are given full consideration.” The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements. The State Department must submit these reports to Congress on an annual basis, in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974, which require that U.S. foreign and trade policy take into account countries’ performance in the areas of human rights and workers’ rights.

  • U.S. Congressional Delegation Defends Human Rights, Regional Security at OSCE PA Winter Meeting in Vienna

    Led by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), 12 members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Winter Meeting in Vienna in late February to demonstrate the commitment of the United States to security, human rights, and the rule of law in the 57-nation OSCE region. Sen. Wicker, who also serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Austria by Sen. Bob Casey (PA), Sen. Martin Heinrich (NM), Sen. Tom Udall (NM), Sen. Mike Lee (UT), Sen. Chris Van Hollen (MD), Rep. Roger Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Lee Zeldin (NY-01). The bipartisan, bicameral delegation was one of the largest U.S. delegations to a Winter Meeting in OSCE PA history. During the meeting of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security, Sen. Wicker criticized the Russian Federation for its interference in U.S. elections, as well as in elections held by other OSCE countries. “It is indisputable that the Russian Government seeks to attack and even undermine the integrity of our elections and of our democratic processes,” he said. “We must all be more aware of—and proactive in countering—Russia’s efforts to undermine the democratic process throughout the OSCE region.” In the same session, Rep. Hudson lamented Russian non-compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, underlining that “an INF Treaty with which all parties comply contributes to global stability; an arms control treaty that one side violates is no longer effective at keeping the world safer.”  Rep. Hudson further stressed that “in light of our six-months’ notice of withdrawal, the Russian Government has one last chance to save the INF Treaty by returning to full and verifiable compliance. We hope and pray Russia will take that step.” In the meeting of the Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology, and Environment, Rep. Hudson also noted the danger that the Nord Stream II pipeline poses to Europe. “Simply put, we cannot allow Russia to dramatically increase its stranglehold on European energy,” he said. “We must look for alternatives and make sure our democratic institutions cannot be held hostage over energy supply as Nord Stream II would promote.” Later in the same session, Rep. Moore advocated for the adoption of beneficial ownership transparency to combat globalized corruption. “Anonymous shell companies are the means through which much modern money laundering occurs,” she said. “We in Congress are working hard to plug the loopholes in the U.S. financial system that have enabled anonymous shell companies to proliferate.” In a debate on restrictions on human rights during states of emergency during the meeting of the Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions, Rep. Jackson Lee argued, “A state of emergency is not a free pass to dismantle a free press,” nor to threaten academic freedom or freedom of religion. She called on Turkey to release local U.S. Consulate employees Metin Topuz and Mete Canturk, as well as American physicist Serkan Golge. At the closing session, participants reviewed reports submitted by Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. Rep. Moore encouraged other delegations to share with Sen. Cardin their efforts to implement their commitments to address violence and discrimination, while Rep. Zeldin called for legislative action and enforcement to make “every community in the OSCE region trafficking-free.” While in Vienna, Rep. Jackson Lee also attended a meeting of the OSCE PA Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, of which she is a member, while Rep. Hudson took part in a meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, where he serves as a vice chair. Prior to attending the Winter Meeting, most members of the delegation also attended the Munich Security Conference, the world’s leading forum for debating international security policy. On the margins of the conference, the group met with leaders including Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, INTERPOL Secretary General Jurgen Stock, and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. The delegation was briefed by NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Curtis Scapparotti and Commander, U.S. Army Europe Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli. Members also visited Cyprus, where they met with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to discuss opportunities to advance U.S.-Cyprus relations, resume reunification negotiations on the island, and counter the threat of money laundering to Cyprus’ banking sector. Major General Cheryl Pearce of Australia, Force Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, briefed the delegation on UNFICYP’s mission and the status of conflict resolution efforts. Following her briefing, the delegation toured the UN Buffer Zone to examine the work of the UN’s peacekeeping force and the physical separation that afflicts the island.

  • Chairman Hastings Marks One-Year Anniversary of Jan Kuciak’s Murder

    WASHINGTON—On the one-year anniversary of the murder of Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I support and applaud the people of Slovakia who have courageously demonstrated their unwavering support for democracy in the aftermath of this terrible double murder. They have been a stirring example to those citizens across the OSCE region who are fighting to protect a free and independent press. “Whenever journalists are murdered or attacked, there must be a credible investigation and meaningful accountability.  The ability of journalists to report the news is nothing less than the right of every person to know the facts and make informed decisions about the issues affecting their lives.” On February 21, 2018, 27-year-old Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, were shot to death in Kuciak’s apartment.  The murder shocked the country and sparked the largest public protests since the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The wave of demonstrations eventually led the Prime Minister, Minister of Interior, and other senior officials to resign.  Four people have been arrested in direct connection with the case and the investigation is ongoing.  In 2017 and 2018, several other journalists investigating public corruption in Europe and Eurasia were murdered for their work. In a May 2018 briefing, the Helsinki Commission examined the assassinations of investigative journalists throughout Europe and Eurasia—including Kuciak and Daphne Caruana Galizia of Malta—why they are targeted, and how future murders can be prevented. At the most recent OSCE Ministerial Council meeting, in December 2018, the participating States expressed particular concern about the climate of impunity that prevails when violent attacks committed against journalists remain unpunished.   

  • Wicker, Cardin Condemn Detention of Russian Activist Nastya Shevchenko

    WASHINGTON—Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) today issued the following statements on the detention of Anastasia (Nastya) Shevchenko, a human rights activist with the Open Russia organization, who was placed under house arrest on January 23: “No one should face jail time for peaceful advocacy,” said Sen. Wicker. “The callous and cruel treatment of Nastya Shevchenko by Russian authorities is a disturbing tactic to silence a citizen-activist.” “The Russian authorities must release Nastya Shevchenko,” said Sen. Cardin. “It should not be a crime to advocate for the best interests of one’s country and fellow citizens.” Shevchenko is the first Russian to face criminal charges under Russia’s 2015 “undesirable organizations” law, which is intended to prevent NGOs based outside of Russia from operating within the country. A single mother, she was prevented from visiting her critically-ill special needs daughter until shortly before her daughter’s death at the end of January. Open Russia is a Russian-led, Russia-based organization that advocates for greater government transparency and accountability. Amnesty International has declared Shevchenko a prisoner of conscience.

  • Lies, Bots, and Social Media

    From the latest revelations about Facebook to ongoing concerns over the integrity of online information, the U.S. public has never been more vulnerable or exposed to computational propaganda: the threat posed by sophisticated botnets able to post, comment on, and influence social media and other web outlets to generate a desired outcome or simply sow distrust and disorder.  What can be done to confront and defeat these malevolent actors before they dominate civil discourse on the Internet? One possibility is the use of algorithmic signal reading which displays for users the geographic origin of a given post. Another answer may lie in improving how websites like Facebook curate their content, so the user can make more informed choices.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts examined the implications of computational propaganda on national and international politics and explored options available to Congress and the private sector to confront and negate its pernicious influence.

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