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Helsinki Commission Leaders to Azerbaijan: Release All Political Prisoners

Monday, March 20, 2017

WASHINGTON—On the traditional holiday of Nowruz, Helsinki Commission leaders called on the Azerbaijani government to immediately release all remaining political prisoners and honor its OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

“It is disappointing that President Aliyev released only a small number of political prisoners among several hundred pardons he issued prior to Nowruz,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). “OSCE participating States commit to respecting freedom of expression, including the freedom to exchange information and views without interference from public authorities. The Government of Azerbaijan should uphold this commitment by releasing opposition figures, civil rights activists, journalists, and religious leaders who are currently in jail for peacefully exercising their rights. This is particularly true in the case of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, who recently entered his fifth year in prison on politically-motivated charges.” 

“President Aliyev’s pardons left dozens of human rights activists, journalists, and political dissidents languishing in prison and subject to mistreatment,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “I call on President Aliyev to respect human rights and democracy in his country and immediately release all prisoners of conscience.”

In 2016, the Government of Azerbaijan pardoned 148 inmates in the days leading up to Nowruz, including more than a dozen people identified as political prisoners by leading human rights organizations. This year, the Government issued pardons to more than 400 prisoners, but only four political prisoners were freed.

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
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  • Viewing Security Comprehensively

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It explicitly recognized that democracy, fundamental freedoms, and the rights of persons belonging to minorities underpin regional peace and security. By signing the document, all OSCE participating States have agreed that lasting security cannot be achieved without respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions. The Potential of Comprehensive Security Soviet dissident groups were among the first to recognize the potential of the Helsinki Final Act’s then-revolutionary linkages. According to Yuri Orlov in Ludmilla Alexeyeva’s memoir “Thaw Generation,” the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group observed that the act represented “the first international document in which the issue of human rights is discussed as a component of international peace,” empowering dissident groups to hold their own authorities to account for human rights violations by way of other governments’ assessments. American presidents have repeatedly underlined the significance of the comprehensive concept of security enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. President Ronald Reagan, returning from discussions with his Soviet counterpart in October 1986, made clear that progress on lessening of tensions and possible arms control agreements would require trust between the two sides, and that this trust was in turn predicated on the Soviet government’s record on meeting human rights commitments: “… I also made it plain, once again, that an improvement of the human condition within the Soviet Union is indispensable for an improvement in bilateral relations with the United States. For a government that will break faith with its own people cannot be trusted to keep faith with foreign powers.” President George H.W. Bush in 1992 underlined that in the act, “participating States recognized respect for human rights as an ‘essential factor’ for the attainment of peace, justice and cooperation among nations.” President Barack Obama in 2015 hailed the act’s central conviction that “the security of states is inextricably linked to the security of their citizens’ rights.” The concept of comprehensive security also lay behind the establishment of institutions such as the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which is tasked by the participating States with helping governments to meet their commitments to human rights and democracy. ODIHR describes its mission as “a cornerstone of the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security.” Similarly, OSCE field missions helping OSCE participating States to strengthen their democracy and thereby their security through the implementation of the OSCE commitments in areas ranging from minority rights to media freedom. 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  • Snapshot: Challenges to Press Freedom in the OSCE

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Since early last year, the government has blocked the websites of Meydan TV, the Azadliq newspaper, Turan TV, and the U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Azeri service, among others, effectively stifling the country’s only remaining major sources of independent news. Among those journalists investigating official corruption, Mehman Huseynov is serving a two-year sentence for defamation and Afgan Mukhtarli is serving a six-year sentence for entering the country illegally despite credible reports that he was abducted from Georgia in 2017 and brought into Azerbaijan against his will. According to news reports, Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist formerly with RFE/RL who was imprisoned for 18 months in 2014-15, remains under a travel ban and met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her recent visit to Azerbaijan to discuss the continued harassment of the media. Bosnia and Herzegovina: On August 26, Vladimir Kovacevic, a reporter for the independent Bosnian Serb television station BNTV, was attacked and severely beaten outside of his home after reporting on an anti-government protest in Banja Luka, according to Voice of America (VOA). Belarus: On August 7-8 2018, Belarusian authorities raided several independent media outlets, confiscated hard drives and documents from offices and apartments, and detained 18 journalists, including the editor-in-chief of Tut.by, Marina Zolotova. According to press reports, the Belarusian Investigative Committee accused the targeted media outlets of illegally accessing the subscription-only news website BelTA, a crime punishable by fines and up to two years of either house arrest or prison time. While all detained journalists have been released, Belarusian authorities have prohibited them from leaving the country while the charges are being investigated, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists. These latest actions came on the heels of other recent incidents targeting the country’s independent media. As reported by RFE/RL, Belarusian lawmakers passed controversial amendments to the country's media laws in June 2018 which they claimed were necessary to combat so-called "fake news." In July, a Minsk court sentenced Belarusian journalist Dzmitry Halko to four years in a guarded dormitory and forced labor after convicting him of assaulting two police officers. Natallya Radzina, the Poland-based chief editor of independent news site Charter97, reported she received death threats. In addition, well-known Belarusian blogger Sergey Petrukhin has been harassed and detained in recent months, according to the CPJ. Independent media outlets like Belsat TV has received at least 48 fines since the start of 2018, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Croatia: In late June, the European Federation of Journalists reported that Croatian journalist and owner of Zadar News Hrvoje Bajlo was beaten up in Zadar, resulting in his hospitalization. He was also threatened with death if he continued his writings.   Montenegro: Olivera Lakić, an investigative journalist for the Montenegrin newspaper Vijesti, was wounded outside her home by a gunman on May 8, The Guardian reported.  She had been reporting on official corruption in the country.   A bomb exploded in front of the home of one of her associates earlier in the year. Russia: Russia remains a challenging place for independent media to survive, much less thrive.  Journalists remain the target of harassment, arrest, and intimidation. According to the CPJ, five journalists are currently serving prison sentences related to charges of defamation, ethnic or religious insult, or anti-state rhetoric. One of the most notable cases is that of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was arrested by Russian authorities in Crimea, and is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence on charges of terrorism. He has been on a hunger strike since May14, 2018, calling for “the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners that are currently present on the territory of the Russian Federation.”   Many governments, including the U.S., and non-governmental groups have raised concerns about his case directly with the Russian government and called for his release. Serbia: The Association of Journalists of Serbia (UNS) said it had registered 38 cases in which journalists and media workers had reported attacks and other types of harassment since the year began.  Turkey: Turkey continues to be the world’s leading jailer of journalists, according to CPJ. In 2017, CPJ documented 73 Turkish journalists in prison; Turkish civil society groups, such as the Journalists’ Union of Turkey and P24, estimate that the number is at least twice as high (149 and 183, respectively). Most imprisoned journalists are charged with terrorism, including links to the movement led by Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of masterminding an attempted coup in 2016. Over the past year, dozens have been sentenced to lengthy prison sentences, often on charges related to terrorism.  Fourteen Cumhuriyet journalists were sentenced in April, 2018, and six journalists from Zaman newspaper were sentenced in July. Even Turkish journalists living outside of Turkey are not exempt from persecution. According to the Department of State’s 2017 Human Rights Report, 123 Turkish journalists currently living in other countries are too afraid of reprisal, harassment, or arrest to return. The government has also used emergency powers to shutter nearly 200 media outlets, putting scores of journalists out of work. Meanwhile, a small group of large business conglomerates loyal to the government have consolidated their control over the vast majority of Turkey’s mainstream media. Ukraine: In a recent ruling that threatens the internationally recognized protection of a journalist’s sources, a court in Ukraine approved the prosecutor-general’s request for the cell phone data of an RFE/RL investigative reporter. The journalist is Natalia Sedletska, host of the award-winning anti-corruption TV show “Schemes: Corruption in Details,”  a joint production of RFE/RL and Ukrainian Public Television. The information requested includes phone numbers; the date, time, and location of calls, text messages, and other data, which the prosecutor-general’s office claims is needed as part of a criminal investigation. During the period covered by the request, however, the program Schemes has reported on several investigations of senior Ukrainian officials, including the prosecutor-general.  The brutal murders of Jan Kuciak and his fiancé in Slovakia and Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta are stark reminders of the tremendous risks investigative journalists take to expose crime and corruption within the government. While public outrage over Kuciak’s killing led to the resignation of multiple cabinet officials in Slovakia, so far there have been no indictments for the crime. In Malta, three people have been indicted in connection with Galizia’s murder, but those who ordered the assassination remain at large. In the United States, five journalists at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, MD, were brutally murdered in June by a gunman who allegedly was disgruntled by an article the Gazette had written regarding his arrest and subsequent probation for harassing former high school classmates on social media. This is merely a snapshot of the daily challenges and real danger that journalists, editors, and media professionals face in many OSCE participating States. Despite politically charged global rhetoric about the role and purpose of the media, freedom of speech remains a cornerstone of any functioning democracy, and a reliable, trustworthy, and professional media free to do its job without harassment or threat is essential.

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U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and former Helsinki Commission Chairman Sam Brownback coordinated the event, which brought together governments, religious leaders, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector to “to discuss challenges, identify concrete ways to combat religious persecution and discrimination, and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.” The United States invited 81 governmental delegations from “countries that have a demonstrated record for advancing religious freedom and are committed to promoting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or that recently have taken meaningful steps to begin to do so.” Participating countries included four from North America; seven from South America; nine from Africa; 36 from Europe; nine from the Middle East; 14 from Asia; one from Oceana; and Australia. Foreign ministers led 13 delegations. Forty of the countries represented are participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE, European Union, and United Nations also took part, along with more than 400 leaders from religious groups and non-governmental organizations. Uzbekistan was the only governmental participant that had been designated by the United States as a Country of Particular Concern because of particularly severe religious freedom violations like torture, prolonged detention without charges, or clandestine detention. In remarks on the final day of the ministerial, Secretary Pompeo stated, “We applaud the steps that Uzbekistan is taking towards a more free society. We have great confidence that a degree of religious freedom greater than before will have a positive ripple effect on their country, their society, and the region as well.” Ministerial Activities During the event, survivors of religious persecution or their representatives—including Jacqueline Brunson Furnari, daughter of imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson—spoke to the full assembly. Furnari testified at a November 2017 Helsinki Commission hearing, “Prisoners of the Purge: The Victims of Turkey's Failing Rule of Law,” where she pleaded for her father’s release. When Ambassador Brownback reported that Turkish authorities had transferred Pastor Brunson—who had been jailed since October 2016 on false charges of terrorism, espionage, and attempting to overthrow the state—from prison to house arrest, attendees applauded. Other speakers included representatives from Burma, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, and Sudan.    Plenary sessions focused on religious persecution around the world and opportunities to work together to advance religious freedom. The ministerial also featured panel discussions on private sector engagement, religious freedom grant opportunities at the State Department, effective advocacy on behalf of religious minorities, preventing genocide and mass atrocities, the relationship between religious freedom and economic prosperity; religious freedom in the context of countering violent extremism; legal limitations on religious freedom; religious freedom and women’s rights; the needs of displaced minorities during humanitarian emergencies; and cultural heritage. During the ministerial, the United States also presented “Statements of Concern” to the delegations regarding repression in Burma, China, and Iran; “Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious Freedom Repression;” and “Religious Freedom Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups.” Twenty-four participating governments joined the United States as signatories on at least one statement of concern. The governments of Armenia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Israel, Kosovo, Oman, Poland, Sri Lanka, and United Kingdom signed all three thematic statements of concern. The governments of Canada and Kosovo signed all three country-specific statements of concern. Speaking at the event, former U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf, author of the landmark International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, said, “Religious freedom is deeply imbedded in our own legal tradition reaching all the way back to the Magna Carta, but is also understood as a necessity for human dignity by the international community ... I stand before you today with a grave and growing sense of urgency regarding the erosion of religious freedom around the globe. All over this world, people are denied the fundamental and inalienable human right to confess and express their beliefs according to the dictates of their conscience.” Senior U.S. government officials who addressed non-governmental representatives over the ministerial included Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan; Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback; Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney; Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development Mark Green; Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce; Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs Michelle Giuda; Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State and Director of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff Brian Hook; Senior Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Pam Pryor; and Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia Knox Thames. There were more than 15 side events during the ministerial, organized by members of Congress, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the Religious Freedom Roundtable and its members. Topics included Christians in the Middle East, parliamentarian engagement on religious freedom, Southeast Asia, India, politicization of religious freedom and human rights, Baha’is in Iran and Yemen, China, securing U.S. government grants, Russia, parental rights, technology, security and religious freedom, violent conflict, and fragile states. Follow-Up Actions During the ministerial, Secretary Pompeo unveiled the Boldline Religious Freedom plan, the State Department’s “partnership accelerator aimed to support and scale innovative public-private partnerships…to promote and defend religious freedom around the world.” In October 2018, the first Boldline workshop will convene civil society organizations, public institutions, corporations, innovation companies, entrepreneurship support organizations, and financial institutions. On the final day of the ministerial, Vice President Mike Pence announced two new initiatives. The International Religious Freedom Fund is designed to help governments and entities that already promote freedom of religion and belief extend financial support to initiatives that address the barriers to freedom of religion or belief, or provide assistance to those facing discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. The Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program will facilitate partnerships with local faith and community leaders to rapidly deliver aid to persecuted communities, beginning with Iraq. Following the ministerial, the United States also issued the Potomac Declaration, which reaffirmed the U.S commitment to freedom of religion or belief, and proposed the Potomac Plan of Action to defend the freedom of religion or belief, confront legal limitations, advocate for equal rights and protections for all (including members of religious minorities), respond to genocide and other mass atrocities, and preserve cultural heritage.

  • Remember Their Names: Eight Journalists Killed in the OSCE Region in 2018

    By Teresa Cardenas, Max Kampelman Communications Fellow Jan. Maksim. Zack. Gerald. John. Rob. Wendi. Rebecca. These are the names of journalists who have been killed in the OSCE region so far this year, according to reports from the Committee on Protecting Journalists (CPJ). This list includes journalists from Slovakia, Russia, and the United States, the latter reaching its record-high since CPJ began tracking journalist deaths in 1992. Beyond these eight, 49 individuals around the world—journalists, photographers, cameramen, editors, and other workers in media organizations—were killed in 2018. Ten were killed during a dangerous assignment or got caught in crossfire. Twenty-five people were murdered. In 14 cases, the motives behind the killings are still unknown. These numbers will likely grow between now and the end of 2018. CPJ’s report has yet to include the recent execution of three investigative reporters from Russia in the Central African Republic, or the brutal murder of Moscow reporter Denis Suvorov earlier in July. The Helsinki Final Act recognizes the freedom of the media—including the protection of journalists—as a fundamental human right. Media freedom is a primary focus of the September 2018 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of OSCE participating States. Jan Kuciak (Slovakia) Kuciak was an investigative journalist for Aktuality.sk, a Slovakian news website reporting on government tax fraud, until he and his fiancée were killed, execution-style, on February 21, 2018. He covered tax evasion at the highest levels of government and reported on the Italian mafia’s dominating influence in Slovakia. His final report—completed by colleagues—revealed a complex web of connections between government officials and a syndicate of the Italian mafia and accused the network of conspiring to steal funds from the European Union. This report is seen by many as the cause of his and his fiancée’s brutal murders. Kuciak was the first Slovak journalist to be killed because of his profession since the country’s independence in 1993. His murder led to widespread protests in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, followed by the resignations of the Slovak prime minister and other government officials. As of August 8, 2018, no one has been charged in connection to his murder. Kuciak’s death was one of the two journalists at the center of Helsinki Commission briefing, A Deadly Calling. Maksim Borodin (Russia) A 32-year-old Russian journalist based in Yekaterinburg, Borodin wrote about corruption before falling from a fifth-floor balcony on April 12, 2018. Shortly before his death, Borodin had reported on the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary group that has reportedly been active in Syria and Ukraine. Four months later, three Russian journalists were killed while investigating the alleged presence of the Wagner Group in the Central African Republic. Though the circumstances of his death remain murky, Borodin reported on clandestine and secretive military issues, thus leaving the circumstances around his death suspicious. CPJ reports his death fits a pattern similar to the deaths of other Russia journalists who covered particularly sensitive issues that had a potential of repercussions from authorities. No one has been charged in connection with his murder. Zachary “ZackTV” Stoner (United States) Zack Stoner, appearing on social media as “ZackTV,” was a Chicago-based YouTube persona who interviewed local up-and-coming rappers and hip-hop artists. He was well-recognized within his community, and his death shocked his audience and the subjects of his interviews. Assailants shot and killed Stoner as he was driving away from a concert on May 30, 2018. Stoner was known for investigating news ignored by more traditional media and covering issues that lacked visibility in Chicago. One of his most notable stories was the mysterious death of Kenneka Jenkins, a 19-year-old from Chicago whose body was found in a hotel freezer. Stoner was the first slain American journalist of 2018. No motive has emerged for his murder and no arrests have been made in the case. Gerald Fischman (United States) Fischman was one of five employees of the local Annapolis, Maryland newspaper, The Capital Gazette, who were murdered after a gunman opened fire in their newsroom on June 28, 2018. A columnist and editorial page editor with a shy demeanor and quick wit, Fischman worked for The Capital Gazette for more than 25 years and received numerous awards for his reporting. Prior to joining the paper, he studied journalism at the University of Maryland and worked at The Carroll County Times and The Montgomery Journal. Gunman Jarrod Ramos, targeted the Capital Gazette newsroom following a dispute over a 2011 article detailing his arrest and subsequent probation for harassing former high school classmates on social media. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and attempted murder. John McNamara (United States) Another of the five victims of The Capital Gazette shooting in Maryland, McNamara covered local sports for nearly 24 years, and was an editor and reporter for The Capital’s regional publication, The Bowie Blade-News. An avid sports fan, he wrote two books about the history of football and men’s basketball at his alma mater, the University of Maryland. According to the Baltimore Sun, was in the process of writing a book about professional basketball players who were raised in the DC metro area when he died. Rob Hiaasen (United States) Hiaasen, a journalist and editor for The Capital Gazette, had a long and illustrious career in North Carolina, Florida, and Maryland. Primarily a feature writer, he became a local columnist when he joined The Capital Gazette in 2010. He also taught at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill School of Journalism, where he mentored young and aspiring journalists. He wrote stories about anything and everything local: a homeless man who passed away, and how the community planned a proper burial; an inmate on death row who was the first person to be released from prison due to DNA evidence; a Florida dentist who passed HIV onto his patients, one of the first signs of clinical transmission of the disease; and more. Wendi Winters (United States) Winters, a fashion-professional-turned-journalist, worked in the Annapolis area for 20 years until her murder in 2018. Starting out as a freelancer journalist for The Capital Gazette, she immersed herself into her community and became locally known for being the go-to contact on covering stories on a short notice. According to the Baltimore Sun, she wrote more than 250 articles each year. One of her most notable stories was one she did not write, but lived. According to fellow reporters and sales assistants at The Capital Gazette, Winters charged the gunman in the middle of his rampage. Her actions might have saved the lives of the six survivors. Rebecca Smith (United States) Smith, a recently hired sales associate at The Capital Gazette, was the only non-journalist employee of a media organization killed in the OSCE region in 2018 to date. Her colleagues considered her an asset to their team after only working for the publication for seven months. She is remembered as being a kind, thoughtful, and generous friend, and fiercely dedicated to her family.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Concerned about Recent Harassment of Independent Belarusian Media

    WASHINGTON—Following the recent raids on editorial offices of independent Belarusian media outlets and the detention of several journalists, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “The people of Belarus have a right to know what is really happening in their country. Journalists who risk their personal safety to challenge the state-run media narrative provide an important public service, and President Lukashenka’s deliberate targeting of independent news outlets is an affront to the rights of the whole population. The Belarusian authorities should release the journalists they have detained and cease harassing those who dedicate their lives to uncovering and sharing the truth.”  The commission has been outspoken in championing democracy and human rights in Belarus, having held the overwhelming majority of Congressional hearings, public briefings, and meetings that have taken place on Belarus. A congressional delegation (CODEL) to the 2017 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly summer meeting, hosted by Minsk, met with both President Lukashenka and the democratic opposition, and was the largest CODEL ever to visit Belarus.

  • Chairman Wicker Welcomes Progress toward Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan

    WASHINGTON—Following his meeting with a high-level delegation from the Government of Uzbekistan participating in this week’s first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I commend Secretary Pompeo for highlighting the progress made by Uzbekistan at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom this week. If Uzbekistan fully follows through with essential reforms, it can be a model for other countries that have been the worst violators of religious freedom. My discussion with Foreign Minister Kamilov, Senator Safoyev, and MP Saidov highlighted how the United States can work with Uzbekistan to strengthen religious freedom, democracy, our militaries, agriculture, and ultimately security.” The Uzbek delegation to the ministerial included Abdulaziz Kamilov, Minister of Foreign Affairs; Sodyq Safoyev, First Deputy Chairman of the Senate; and Akmal Saidov, Member of Parliament and Head of the National Human Rights Center. The Secretary of State designated Uzbekistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” for particularly severe violations of religious freedom in 2006, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2016, and January 2018, as required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. On June 1, following the release of the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report, Chairman Wicker recognized the efforts made by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his government to bring Uzbekistan into compliance with its international commitments to respect religious freedom. Based on that progress, Chairman Wicker encouraged Secretary Pompeo to consider inviting Uzbekistan to participate in the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. On June 11, Chairman Wicker introduced a bipartisan resolution (S.Res.539) urging President Trump to take action against some of the worst violators of religious freedom in Europe and Central Asia. S.Res.539 emphasizes the positive steps that Uzbekistan has taken and calls for President Trump to develop a strategy to advance religious freedom in Eurasia that prioritizes supporting ongoing reforms in Uzbekistan. In July, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe passed as part of its “Berlin Declaration” an amendment by Chairman Wicker recognizing the Government of Uzbekistan’s ongoing reforms.  

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Welcomes Release of Pastor Brunson from Prison

    WASHINGTON—Following Pastor Andrew Brunson’s release from prison to house arrest by Turkish authorities today, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I welcome the long overdue decision by a Turkish court today to transfer Pastor Brunson to house arrest. This first step is a humane gesture for a falsely accused man who has endured more than 650 days in a maximum security prison. I will continue to seek full justice for Pastor Brunson, which includes his acquittal and freedom to leave Turkey.” Pastor Brunson is one of several American citizens, including NASA scientist Serkan Gölge, who have been caught up in the sweeping purge that followed the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Pastor Brunson spent more than year and a half in jail on national security charges. Gölge and two Turkish employees of U.S. consulates stand charged with similar terrorism offenses despite no involvement with violent activity—a situation faced by thousands of other Turks. A third consulate employee remains under house arrest on dubious charges.  Last week, the four senior members of the Helsinki Commission expressed concern about Pastor Brunson’s ongoing imprisonment. In November 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the detention of American citizens and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey. A month earlier, Helsinki Commission leaders called on President Erdogan to lift the state of emergency imposed in July 2016 after the failed military coup against his government. Turkey ended its two-year-long state of emergency last week, but the Grand National Assembly earlier today approved legislation that effectively enshrines many of President Erdogan’s controversial emergency decrees. Ahead of the May 2017 meeting between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Helsinki Commission leaders also urged President Trump to seek guarantees that U.S. citizens jailed in Turkey will have their cases promptly and fairly adjudicated and receive full consular assistance.

  • What’s really behind Putin’s obsession with the Magnitsky Act

    Standing by President Trump’s side in Helsinki for their first bilateral summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin made what Trump described as an “incredible” offer: He would help U.S. investigators gain access to Russian intelligence officers indicted for the 2016 election hacking, on one small condition. “We would expect that the Americans would reciprocate and they would question [U.S.] officials … who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia,” Putin said, producing the name to indicate what actions he had in mind: “Mr. Browder.” Bill Browder, an American-born financier, came to Russia in the 1990s. The grandson of a former general secretary of the Communist Party USA, Browder by his own admission wanted to become “the biggest capitalist in Russia.” He succeeded and was for a decade the country’s largest portfolio foreign investor. Whatever the sins of Russia’s freewheeling capitalism, Browder’s real crime in the eyes of the Kremlin came later, after he had been expelled from Russia in 2005. In 2008, his Moscow lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered a tax scam involving government officials that defrauded Russian taxpayers of $230 million. He did what any law-abiding citizen would, reporting the crime to the relevant authorities. In return, he was arrested and held in detention without trial for almost a year. He was beaten and died on Nov. 16, 2009, at Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison under mysterious circumstances. Officials involved in his case received awards and promotions. In a chilling act worthy of Kafka, the only trial held in the Magnitsky case was a posthumous sentencing of himself — the only trial against a dead man in the history of Russia. It was then that Browder turned from investment to full-time advocacy, traveling the world to persuade one Western parliament after another to pass a measure that was as groundbreaking as it would appear obvious: a law, commemoratively named the Magnitsky Act, that bars individuals (from Russia and elsewhere) who are complicit in human rights abuses and corruption from traveling to the West, owning assets in the West and using the financial system of the West. Boris Nemtsov, then Russia’s opposition leader (who played a key role in convincing Congress to pass the law in 2012), called the Magnitsky Act “the most pro-Russian law in the history of any foreign Parliament.” It was the smartest approach to sanctions. It avoided the mistake of targeting Russian citizens at large for the actions of a small corrupt clique in the Kremlin and placed responsibility directly where it is due. It was also the most effective approach. The people who are in charge of Russia today like to pose as patriots, but in reality, they care little about the country. They view it merely as a looting ground, where they can amass personal fortunes at the expense of Russian taxpayers and then transfer those fortunes to the West. In one of his anti-corruption reports, Nemtsov detailed the unexplained riches attained by Putin’s personal friends such as Gennady Timchenko, Yuri Kovalchuk and the Rotenberg brothers, noting that they are likely “no more that the nominal owners … and the real ultimate beneficiary is Putin himself.” Similar suspicions were voiced after the publication of the 2016 Panama Papers, which showed a $2 billion offshore trail leading to another close Putin friend, cellist Sergei Roldugin. Some of the funds in his accounts were linked with money from the tax fraud scheme uncovered by Magnitsky. Volumes of research, hours of expert testimony and countless policy recommendations have been dedicated to finding effective Western approaches to Putin’s regime. The clearest and the most convincing answer was provided, time and again, by the Putin regime itself. It was the Magnitsky Act that Putin tasked his foreign ministry with trying to stop; it was the Magnitsky Act that was openly tied to the ban on child adoptions; it was the Magnitsky Act that was the subject of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting attended by a Kremlin-linked lawyer; it is advocating for the Magnitsky Act that may soon land any Russian citizen in prison. It was the Magnitsky Act that Putin named as the biggest threat to his regime as he stood by Trump’s side in Helsinki. After the Trump-Putin meeting, the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office released the names of U.S. citizens it wants to question as supposed associates of Browder. The list leaves no doubt as to the nature of the “crime.” It includes Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia policy at the Obama White House and later U.S. Ambassador in Moscow who oversaw the “compiling of memos to the State Department … on the investigation in the Magnitsky case.” It includes David Kramer, former assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, who, as president of Freedom House between 2010 and 2014, was one of the most effective advocates for the Magnitsky Act. Perhaps most tellingly, it includes Kyle Parker, now chief of staff at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, who, as the lead Russia staffer at the commission, wrote the bill that subsequently became the Magnitsky Act. Vladimir Putin has left no doubt: The biggest threat to his regime is the Magnitsky Act, which stops its beneficiaries from doing what has long become their raison d’être — stealing in Russia and spending in the West. It is time for more Western nations to adopt this law — and for the six countries that already have it to implement it with vigor and resolve.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Troubled by Continued Imprisonment of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s ruling by a Turkish court that U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson will remain jailed pending his next trial date in October, the four senior members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission—Helsinki Chairman Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), and Ranking Commissioner Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20)—released the following statements: “The cruelty of today’s decision is astonishing,” said Chairman Wicker. “By extending Pastor Brunson’s indefinite detention and setting his next trial date for mid-October, the Turkish government has declared its intention to keep this innocent man in jail past the two-year anniversary of his arrest without conviction or any credible evidence against him. There is no room in NATO for hostage-taking. Pastor Brunson should be freed immediately.” “Over the past 18 months, it has become clear that President Erdogan has the ability to end this injustice, but he refuses to do so,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “President Erdogan has put Pastor Brunson and his family through 649 days of enormous suffering. Pastor Brunson must be released immediately, otherwise this cruel abuse of a U.S. citizen should have serious consequences for our country’s relationship with the Turkish government.”   “I remain deeply concerned that Mr. Brunson remains in prison in Turkey,” said Sen. Cardin. “Today’s action represents yet another miscarriage of justice in this case. The Turkish government must drop its spurious charges and release Mr. Brunson immediately.” “Turkey’s persecution of Pastor Brunson has been characterized by conspiratorial charges, anonymous witnesses, and political agendas, and bears no resemblance to a credible judicial process,” said Rep. Hastings. “Even as the Turkish government prepares to lift its nearly two-year state of emergency, we should not be fooled into thinking that the rule of law is returning to Turkey. Pastor Brunson’s wrongful imprisonment proves that nothing is likely to change.” Pastor Brunson is one of several American citizens, including NASA scientist Serkan Gölge, who have been caught up in the sweeping purge that followed the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Despite the efforts of the President of the United States, among many others, he has spent more than a year in jail on national security charges. Gölge and two Turkish employees of U.S. consulates stand charged with similar terrorism offenses despite no involvement with violent activity—a situation faced by thousands of other Turks. A third consulate employee remains under house arrest on dubious charges.   In November 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the detention of American citizens and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey. A month earlier, Helsinki Commission leaders called on President Erdogan to lift the state of emergency imposed in July 2016 after the failed military coup against his government. The Turkish government has announced it will not seek to extend emergency rule when it expires tomorrow, but draft legislation introduced by Erdogan’s government would enshrine many of his controversial emergency decrees. Ahead of the May 2017 meeting between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Helsinki Commission leaders also urged President Trump to seek guarantees that U.S. citizens jailed in Turkey will have their cases promptly and fairly adjudicated and receive full consular assistance.

  • Inside the Turkish Election

    By: Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor With Contributions from Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor On June 24, Turkey held its first presidential and parliamentary elections since the passage of controversial constitutional amendments last year that began Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The victors in this election are to preside over the transition to this new form of government and begin to shape the operation of its revamped institutions. In accordance with its commitments as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey formally invited the OSCE to observe the vote. This invitation paved the way for the OSCE’s first-ever full-scale deployment of election observers to Turkey. Although the OSCE observed previous elections in Turkey—including last year’s constitutional referendum—it had never done so with a full complement of hundreds of short-term observers that deploy all over the country to record their observations on election day. In the absence of short-term observers, OSCE observation missions rely primarily on a smaller cohort of long-term observers who spend as much as a month in the country monitoring every dimension of the campaign period and balloting. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) Altogether, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed 22 long-term observers and more than 300 short-term observers to observe the election across the country. Most STOs are drawn from cadres of experienced volunteers offered by individual OSCE participating States. In addition, the parliamentary assemblies of the OSCE (OSCE PA) and Council of Europe (PACE) contributed 72 and 32 members of parliament and parliamentary staff, respectively, to serve as STOs. The U.S. Helsinki Commission regularly participates in OSCE PA election observation missions. What follows is a first-person account from two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff who served as short-term observers during the Turkish elections. These observations are not an authoritative account of the conduct of the Turkish election, however. Readers interested in such an account should review the OSCE’s official statement of preliminary findings and conclusions. In the days before the election, experts from the OSCE’s ODIHR and the OSCE PA organize a series of in-depth briefings in Ankara to acquaint short-term observers with the context and process for the coming vote. In opening these briefings, Mr. Ignacio Sanchez Amor, a Spanish parliamentarian tasked as the special coordinator and leader of the OSCE short-term observer mission, noted numerous ways in which this election was exceptional. Turks would be voting under a nearly two-year-old state of emergency imposed by the government following a failed coup attempt in July 2016. The state of emergency gave Turkish President Erdogan sweeping powers to rule by decree and authorized provincial governors to curtail basic freedoms, such as the freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. Presidential decrees purged tens of thousands of civil servants from their work, shuttered over a hundred news outlets, blocked thousands of websites, and contributed to the arrest of scores of independent journalists, often on dubious national security charges. Sanchez Amor further commented that the transition to a presidential system and the country’s newly-approved election laws made this election especially complex. Most of the constitutional amendments approved in last year’s referendum would take effect after the election. The victorious presidential candidate, for instance, would be the first to assume unprecedented executive powers that international monitors and the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), criticized as undermining the separation of powers. Likewise, successful parliamentary candidates would take up seats in a somewhat neutered institution that is given no say in ministerial appointments and can be unilaterally dissolved by the president. One of the constitutional amendments abolished a previous prohibition on new electoral laws taking effect less than 12 months before an election. This meant that the June election would be governed by election regulations passed in November and March that President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had muscled through parliament without any opposition support. Opposition leaders sharply criticized provisions in the laws that allowed the government to relocate voting locations on security grounds, loosened rules governing the police presence around polling stations, and weakened protections against election fraud by admitting ballots that are missing a required polling station stamp. Sanchez Amor also expressed concern that one of the country’s major presidential candidates had been in pre-trial detention since November 2016 and was being forced to campaign from his jail cell. This treatment of Selahattin Demirtas, the presidential candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was one of many restrictions severely disadvantaging the HDP. Campaign banners of two opposition parties stretched across a primary avenue in downtown Ankara. The briefings we received from journalists, civil society organizations, and political parties largely focused on concerns that President Erdogan and the AKP enjoyed overwhelming and unfair advantages incompatible with a free and fair democratic process. Independent journalists noted that Turkey is the world’s largest jailer of reporters with approximately 150 behind bars. They further remarked on dramatic changes in Turkey’s media landscape in recent years that had seen nine out of 10 mainstream TV channels, and most of the print media, fall under the ownership of government aligned businessmen. As a result, the ruling party benefited from nearly wall-to-wall positive media coverage. Additionally, under recent legal changes the Supreme Election Board was stripped of its ability to impose penalties on broadcasters for violating regulations that mandate equal election coverage. All opposition parties complained about Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold—the highest in the world—that requires a party to garner 10 percent of the national vote to secure seats in parliament. During this election, they feared that the ruling party would manipulate the vote to deprive the pro-Kudish HDP of a ten percent share, allowing AKP as the likely runner-up in Kurdish-dominated areas to assume the seats forfeited by HDP. This would be the AKP’s quickest route to a commanding majority in the legislature.    Opposition party leaders warned that the government could use a combination of tactics to suppress the vote for HDP, particularly in the Kurdish southeast. The government had already announced that it had invoked its new authorities to relocate and merge nearly a thousand polling stations in the southeast for security reasons, affecting more than 150,000 voters. Election authorities could also use the admission of unstamped ballots to artificially diminish HDP’s share of the vote. In addition, several briefers noted that deadly violence could be used to intimidate voters. Indeed, less than two weeks before the election a campaign-related altercation in the south left three HDP supporters dead, along with the brother of an AKP candidate for parliament. Many briefers noted that the pro-government media had cast the AKP as the victim of the melee, where in reality the fight had been instigated and escalated by the ruling party’s side. The opposition’s indictment of the fairness of the election was met by an AKP-led campaign to smear those who might tarnish perceptions of the credibility of the outcome. The OSCE observation mission was one of the targets of this campaign. The government denied two OSCE PA parliamentarians entry to the country to participate in the election observation mission, citing political opinions they had expressed in the past. A government spokesperson decried the OSCE’s interim report on the election on June 15 as “political.” Additionally, just two days before the election, Turkey’s semi-official news agency published a story citing anonymous security sources that claimed OSCE observers planned to create “chaos” in the country. It was in this climate of heightened mutual suspicion between the ruling party and the opposition, and between the government and the OSCE observation mission, that we deployed to Istanbul to undertake our election day observation. We were assigned to observe the election at precincts in and around Sisli, a mixed-income neighborhood in central Istanbul that historically supports the secular opposition. Each precinct in Turkey contains numerous voting rooms, with a maximum of 400 voters assigned to each. In all we visited nine so-called ballot box committees (BBCs) in five precincts throughout the day. Sisli delivered its largest share of votes (48.7 percent) to Turkey’s leading secular opposition party CHP in the last parliamentary election in November 2015, and overwhelmingly opposed the transformational 2017 constitutional amendments (71.8 percent). Given the district’s political profile, it was unsurprising to find observers from CHP and other secular opposition parties deployed in full force at our first precinct where we observed the opening procedures for the polls. We arrived just before 7:00 a.m. as the ballot box committee (BBC) was assembling to open the sealed election materials and prepare for voting to begin. The seven-person BBC, chaired by a civil servant and composed of bureaucrats and political party representatives, began to count and record the number of ballot envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—a tally that is important for later confirming that no election materials are unaccounted for.  The mood was serious but amiable and cooperative. With a solitary exception, BBC members worked together constructively without so much as a hint of their diverging political loyalties. Soon, an NGO observer (who was accredited as a political party observer, since there is no legal framework for NGO observation) appeared with a tray of traditional Turkish tea for everyone, observers and BBC members alike. (Tea stands were ubiquitous at the entrance to polling stations, fueling weary poll workers throughout the day and contributing to a generally festive atmosphere around the otherwise dreary school buildings.)  Voters congregate outside a polling station in central Istanbul on election day. Over steaming cups of black tea, the poll workers set about the onerous task of applying the BBC’s identifying ink stamp to each of the more than 300 envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—nearly 1,000 stamps in all. Every BBC we visited that morning noted that they had labored well after the polls opened to complete this cumbersome but mandatory and important process. With two of their colleagues still engrossed in stamping and the eight o’clock opening just minutes away, the BBC’s other five members forged ahead with preparations, sealing the clear plastic ballot box with a wax stamp. More or less promptly at eight, the BBC chairwoman announced the opening of the polling station.  An elderly gentleman who had already shuffled through the open doorway before the announcement immediately presented his ID to receive his ballot papers. His punctual appearance quickly revealed the disorganization of this particular BBC, which had failed to organize the somewhat convoluted voting procedure into an orderly workflow.  Voters were to hand over their identification for confirmation against the printed voter rolls and then receive two oversized ballots for president and parliament, one undersized envelope, and a stamp to mark their choices. To cast their ballots, voters entered a curtained booth, marked one choice each for parliament and president, stuffed the large sheets into the small envelope, sealed it with a lick, and emerged to drop the envelope into the ballot box. Before departing, voters returned the stamp back to the BBC, signed the voter roll, and retrieved their identification and any bags or cellphones they left behind with the BBC. Keeping track of identification cards, remembering to provide all four necessary voting materials (two ballots, envelope, and stamp), and managing the coming and going of voters proved difficult for our first BBC. In just the first twenty minutes the chairwoman twice pulled open a voting booth’s privacy curtain to locate a misplaced ID and missing stamp—an act that should rarely—if ever—occur, since it can compromise the secrecy of the vote.  This procedural dysfunction may have slowed the vote and caused undue confusion for voters, but it had negligible if any implications for the outcome of the balloting. Indeed, the majority of other BBCs we visited were capably managed and all demonstrated admirable transparency. In each classroom we visited—and they were all classrooms—the BBC chair graciously welcomed us, answered our questions, and allowed us to review the voting materials. Political party and NGO observers were common and none complained of being restricted in their work on election day. By the end of the day we had grown particularly accustomed to the sight of observers from the HDP party. These observers were almost uniformly impressive, assertive, young, and female. It became clear that what is generally described simply as a “pro-Kurdish party” has developed political purchase far beyond the Kurdish-dominated southeast, attracting many young, progressive Turks concerned with the rights of women and minorities.  Presidential and parliamentary ballots and envelopes prepared for distribution to voters. In our experience, the transparency protected by professional BBCs and capable local observers was only undermined by skittish security services who seemed uneasy about the role of international observers. Under new election laws passed earlier this year, Turkish police were allowed to patrol closer to polling stations and—for the first time—enter voting rooms at the request of any citizen. One instance of police involvement we witnessed was legal and appropriate; in several other cases it appeared to overstep the prescribed bounds. At a polling station we visited in Gultepe, a more conservative neighborhood just outside Sisli, a heated argument erupted over a poll worker who allegedly exceeded his mandate in assisting a confused voter, sparking allegations of election interference. Consistent with their mandate, the police entered on at least three occasions during the prolonged shouting match to respond to the disturbance and to remove unauthorized people who had entered the voting room. These same police entered another time to exercise their prerogative to check our credentials but departed shortly after. As the day wore on, however, our interactions with the police grew more frequent and contentious. At another polling station in Sisli, police greeted us almost immediately upon our arrival and insisted on escorting us throughout the building. When we entered a voting room to conduct our observations, the police followed us in without any discernible invitation and sat down to watch us until we were through.  Arriving at our final polling station of the day, we were stopped at the entrance to have our credentials checked against a screenshot of approved individuals the policeman had received via the encrypted messaging application, WhatsApp. He informed us that several foreigners had been caught “posing as OSCE observers” so they were under orders to apply extra scrutiny. Although we were not on his screenshot, the officer relented after a few minutes’ delay and followed us inside while respecting the rules about entering the voting room. After a short break, we returned to the same polling station to witness the closing and counting procedure, but this time the police refused us entry. They said they had still not been able to find us on their list, despite our accreditation by the Supreme Electoral Board. With the five o’clock closing swiftly approaching, we insisted on the importance of entering before the polls closed. They offered that we could observe the voting room from the hallway, but we were obligated to decline since the OSCE’s methodology requires unfettered access to the polling area. At the last minute, they said we could observe from a designated area inside the room. Once inside the room, it turned out no such area existed and the police displayed no interest in enforcing one. In contravention of the rules, however, they remained standing directly behind us inside the room nearly the entire time. Consistent with OSCE observations across the country, vote counting at our BBC began promptly once the polls closed. In much the same sprit of cooperation we witnessed at the opening in another precinct, the members of this BBC worked smoothly together to perform the critical, final procedures: securing the voting materials and counting and recording the results.  The BBC’s genuine effort to conduct this process fairly and transparently was marred by some critical procedural errors and the persistent presence of the police, which risked undue oversight by the security services of a sensitive political process. Most procedural faults took place early on and introduced avoidable opportunities for mistakes or manipulation.  Rather than count the unused voting materials after the polls closed, for instance, the BBC departed from the prescribed procedure and counted them before the room was open to the public to observe the count. By depriving observers of the opportunity to verify this tally, the BBC undermined a safeguard that confirms the number of votes cast matches exactly the number of voters who participated.  Another significant oversight involved the BBC’s failure to enter crucial figures directly into the official register, known as a “protocol.” By having one member of the committee simply jot down the tallies of voting materials on a scrap piece of paper, the BBC failed to guard against subsequent mistakes in transcription or intentional alterations.  Oddly, the otherwise attentive and assertive political party observers in the room did not raise these issues with the BBC, possibly out of ignorance of the procedures or disinterest in the importance of these steps. They seemed most focused when it came to the centerpiece of the process: the all-important counting and adjudication of ballots.  In this, the BBC acquitted itself quite well—holding up each ballot in full view of all present, loudly announcing the vote, and recording it only once all were satisfied with the chairman’s judgment (i.e. valid, invalid, or blank).  U.S. Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland reviews voting materials with Ballot Box Committee members. Given the considerable pre-election controversy about the admission of unstamped ballots, it was surprising that no observer raised a question about whether the ballots or envelopes were appropriately imprinted with the BBC’s seal, which was often faint and on the reverse side of the papers. Late on the day of Turkey’s controversial 2017 constitutional referendum, the government unilaterally decided to count unstamped ballots despite the widespread understanding that the stamps protected against fraud. The number of admitted unstamped ballots last year allegedly accounted for the government’s slim margin of victory in that vote. As a result, opposition leaders protested earlier this year when the government used its absolute majority in the parliament to codify the validity of unstamped votes beginning with the 2018 presidential and parliamentary election. This decision created frustrating ambiguity about the need for the elaborate stamping process that tied up BBCs in the morning, sometimes for more than an hour.  The last steps of the vote count turned out to be the most cumbersome. The astonishingly analog voting process created numerous frustrations, significantly delaying delivery of the ballots to the District Electoral Board responsible for tabulating all the votes in Sisli before forwarding them to the Provincial Electoral Board that oversees a third of Istanbul. The chairperson was consumed for almost an hour manually copying detailed voting results onto nearly a dozen copies of the official protocol for distribution to political party representatives and observers. Another time-consuming process involved sealing all the ballots and sensitive voting materials in a cloth sack using twine and a wax seal. All present watched in quiet agony as the chairperson struggled to melt the nub of wax with a lighter, singing his fingers and nearly setting fire to the bag in the process. Out of the 250 votes counted in our BBC, leading opposition presidential candidate Muharram Ince prevailed with 65 percent of the vote and his party, CHP, took 50 percent of the parliamentary ballots. The simultaneous presidential and parliamentary election afforded voters the opportunity to split their votes between the two ballots. Specifically, many analysts speculated that opposition supporters would endorse Ince as the favored presidential candidate while casting a vote for HDP in the parliamentary election to help the party clear the ten percent threshold. The outcome in our BBC seemed to bear this theory out: Ince received 15 percent more support for president than his party did in the parliamentary vote, while HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas secured only 4 percent in the presidential but his party garnered 24 percent in the parliamentary. Once counting was complete in all the precincts’ voting rooms, members of the BBCs boarded a municipal vehicle with the sealed sacks and official protocols for delivery to the District Electoral Board. Per OSCE instructions, we jumped into a separate vehicle to tail the municipal van through the narrow streets of Istanbul to the DEB to confirm the official results were delivered directly without interference.  A long line of vans packed with other BBCs was in front of the District Electoral Board waiting their turn to offload. When it came our turn I—accompanied by a police escort—followed the voting materials past heavily-armed guards and crowd control fencing into the building. It was a cramped but sprawling high-rise divided into a warren of small, austere rooms. A crush of poll workers pressed into the building’s narrow corridors trying to reach their designated room. In each room were half a dozen election workers waiting to receive election materials from every corner of the district, double-check the calculations in the protocol, and forward the results for district-level tabulation.  After verifying the secure delivery of our BBC’s materials, I sought to follow the process a step further. Instead, I was offered a meeting with the judge who chairs Sisli’s electoral board.  Supporters of President Erdogan and AKP celebrate their election victory in Taksim Square. It was now well past 9:00 p.m., more than four hours since the polls closed. The judge sat in his office watching two sets of election returns roll in: semi-official results were being broadcast via cable news on a large television across the room while a map on his computer screen that read “Supreme Election Board” was being populated with the official numbers. Although it was impossible for me to tell what discrepancy might have existed between the figures at that moment, opposition leaders were simultaneously turning to social media to reassure their supporters that pro-government media were broadcasting premature results to discourage them. These hopeful claims appear to have been inspired more by optimism than reality—the official results released the next day differed little from what the media was reporting in the evening. At least in central Istanbul, the election results at that time of night were still in the early stages of being compiled at the district level. The judge explained how in the coming hours the district’s protocols would be digitized, loaded onto a public website, and used to generate a district-level protocol of official election results. As chairman, his role would be to adjudicate disputes and discrepancies in the tabulation and certify the final results. Satisfied that I had followed the process as far as I could, our observation ended.  Around 10:00 p.m., President Erdogan declared victory. With 52.6 percent of the vote, he had won outright in the presidential election, avoiding a runoff with the leading secular opposition candidate by a comfortable margin. In parliament, AKP fell just short of an absolute majority for only the second time in its 16 years in power. The AKP’s election coalition partner, the nationalist MHP party, surprised many with its strong performance, earning 49 seats in the 600-seat parliament and easily supplying the six seats AKP needs to reach 301 votes in the legislature. Importantly, HDP cleared the ten percent threshold and will be the third-largest party in parliament with 67 seats behind CHP’s 146. Altogether, an impressive 86.2 percent of the population had participated in the vote. Over a late night dinner in a gentrifying secular neighborhood of Istanbul, I could hear some nearby diners discussing the election results with resignation over glasses of wine. Further off in the distance, the blaring of car horns announced the beginning of celebrations by the President’s supporters. I followed lines of cars festooned with Turkish flags and AKP banners as they streamed toward centrally-located Taksim Square. There, a spontaneous victory party had broken out. A jubilant AKP loyalist was being carried aloft, leading the gathering crowd in chants of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Recep Tayyip Erdogan!”  The evening stroll between these two contrasting scenes was a journey across a wide social and political chasm in Turkey—a chasm the president may choose to widen or narrow in his new mandate. Recent studies have revealed acute polarization within Turkish society that reflects high levels of social distrust and political intolerance. These ills present critical challenges for governance. During the campaign, President Erdogan pledged to lift the nearly two-year-old state of emergency upon his reelection. AKP statements since the election suggest that Erdogan may decline to renew the state of emergency when it expires on July 18. This would be an appropriate first step toward rebuilding trust and one the U.S. Helsinki Commission called for in an October 2017 letter to President Erdogan. But lifting the state of emergency might only be a superficial gesture if it is not accompanied by significant prisoner releases and amnesties—particularly for human rights defenders and journalists—as well as meaningful judicial reform to restore the credibility and independence of Turkey’s politicized justice system. In accordance with its mandate, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will continue to monitor Turkey’s implementation of its commitments as an OSCE participating State to respect human rights and democratic principles. In this most recent election the Turkish people demonstrated formidable levels of political participation and civic engagement. Now and in the future, the government must succeed where it has recently failed to ensure that all its citizens have an opportunity to participate in Turkish society and institutions on the basis of fundamental equality.   The morning after the election, a woman crosses Taksim Square.

  • Chairman Wicker, Ranking Senator Cardin Urge President Trump to Call on President Putin to Free Oleg Sentsov

    WASHINGTON—In a letter on Friday, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) urged President Trump to call on Russian President Vladimir Putin to free Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from his unjust imprisonment. On May 14, 2018, Sentsov began a hunger strike, which he plans to continue until all Ukrainian political prisoners jailed in Russia are released. The letter reads in part: “Oleg Sentsov has been a prisoner of conscience in Russia for more than four years. In May 2014, he was detained in his native Crimea, then illegally occupied by Russia, and brought to Moscow on unsubstantiated allegations of terrorism. Numerous governments and human rights organizations have dismissed these allegations as politically-charged, groundless fabrications orchestrated in retaliation for Sentsov’s outspoken criticism of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and his efforts to document human rights abuses there… “As Russia hosts the World Cup in the coming weeks, the eyes of the world will be on the country. In the spirit of this unifying global event, we urge you to raise with President Putin the international approbation which Oleg Sentsov’s immediate release would provide for him. Your advocacy on behalf of this brave Ukrainian patriot will be an important demonstration of U.S. human rights leadership around the world.” In April 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing focusing on Russia’s human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens, including Sentsov. The full text of the letter can be found below: The Honorable Donald J. Trump President of the United States The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington, DC 20500 Dear Mr. President, We hope you will call on Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately and unconditionally to release the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from his unjust imprisonment in Siberia. In light of Sentsov’s hunger strike, our request is urgent. Oleg Sentsov has been a prisoner of conscience in Russia for more than four years.  In May 2014, he was detained in his native Crimea, then illegally occupied by Russia, and brought to Moscow on unsubstantiated allegations of terrorism. Numerous governments and human rights organizations have dismissed these allegations as politically-charged, groundless fabrications orchestrated in retaliation for Sentsov’s outspoken criticism of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and his efforts to document human rights abuses there. On May 14, 2018, Mr. Sentsov declared he had begun an indefinite hunger strike, stating that “the one and only condition for its termination is the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners that are currently present on the territory of the Russian Federation.” With his health already weakened, it is uncertain how long he can survive. As Russia hosts the World Cup in the coming weeks, the eyes of the world will be on the country.  In the spirit of this unifying global event, we urge you to raise with President Putin the international approbation which Oleg Sentsov’s immediate release would provide for him.  Your advocacy on behalf of this brave Ukrainian patriot will be an important demonstration of U.S. human rights leadership around the world. Sincerely,

  • Chairman Wicker Acts to Protect Religious Freedom in Europe and Central Asia

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced a bipartisan resolution (S.Res.539) urging President Trump to take action against some of the worst violators of religious freedom in Europe and Central Asia. Key targets of the legislation include the governments of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Russia, as well as Russian-led separatist forces in Ukraine. “Our founding fathers made religious freedom a cornerstone of our country, and President Trump carries that legacy forward by making religious freedom a cornerstone of his presidency. This resolution is a blueprint for action in a region where governments have often attacked religious freedom instead of protecting it. When governments take steps toward improvement, as Uzbekistan has done, we should support and bolster their efforts,” said Chairman Wicker. Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) is the lead co-sponsor of the resolution. Other original co-sponsors of S.Res.539 include Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. John Boozman (AR), and Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), along with Sen. James Lankford (OK). S.Res.539 targets governments of participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that have not complied with specific OSCE commitments to respect fundamental human rights and freedoms, including religious freedom. The resolution urges President Trump to: Re-designate Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as “Countries of Particular Concern”—nations that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom such as torture, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention—and take actions required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 Designate Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey as “Special Watch List Countries” for severe violations of religious freedom, and designate Kazakhstan if it continues to tighten restrictions on religious freedom Block entry to the United States and impose financial sanctions on individual violators in these countries, including but not limited to: Turkish officials responsible for the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who has been unjustly jailed since October 2016 Kremlin officials responsible for Russia’s forcible, illegal occupation of Crimea Russian-led separatist forces in Ukraine Instruct the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, former Helsinki Commission Chairman Sam Brownback, to develop a U.S. government strategy that promotes religious freedoms in these countries, especially prioritizing support for ongoing reforms in Uzbekistan S.Res.539 is supported by prominent international religious freedom advocates, including: Dr. Thomas Farr, President of the Religious Freedom Institute, and founding Director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom Dr. Kent Hill, Executive Director of the Religious Freedom Institute, and Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (2001-2008) The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention Frank Wolf, former U.S. Representative (VA-10), and Distinguished Senior Fellow, 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative Nina Shea, Director, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom Dr. Daniel Mark, Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (2014-2018; Chairman 2017-2018), and Assistant Professor of Political Science, Villanova University Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom (2013-2016), and Program Director for Cardus Law Dr. Aykan Erdemir, Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Member of Parliament, Grand National Assembly of Turkey (2011-2015) Dr. Elijah Brown, General Secretary, Baptist World Alliance Dr. Byron Johnson, Director, Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University Dr. Daniel Philpott, Professor of Political Science, Notre Dame University Dr. Kathleen Collins, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota

  • Azerbaijan’s 2018 Presidential Election

    On February 5, 2018, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan announced that the country’s presidential elections—originally scheduled for the fall—instead would be moved forward to April 11, 2018.  While some pro-government commentators offered more innocuous explanations for the move—such as aiming to avoid simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in 2025—many independent analysts saw it as a ploy to disadvantage the opposition. Since Azerbaijani law requires campaigning to cease 30 days prior to the vote, candidates had very little time to rally support. This constraint, among others, contributed to the mainstream opposition boycott of the election. The vote was the first since Azerbaijan passed constitutional amendments in a widely criticized popular referendum in September 2016 that extended the president’s term from five to seven years. Having done away with term limits in another set of constitutional amendments in 2009, President Aliyev used the snap election to secure his position until 2025. The official tally gave Aliyev 86 percent of the vote—he has never won with less than 84 percent. Since signing the founding document of the OSCE, the Helsinki Final Act, in 1992, no national vote in Azerbaijan has met the OSCE’s minimum requirements for a free and fair election. Nevertheless, consistent with its commitments as an OSCE participating State, Azerbaijan invited international observers to view the election.  The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) all scrambled to assemble a robust Election Observation Mission (EOM) in Azerbaijan under difficult time constraints.  Two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff members joined the OSCE PA EOM. The article below summarizes their experience in Azerbaijan. By Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor and Jordan Warlick, Office Director Briefings Reveal Shortcomings in the Field of Candidates and Lack of Media Access From the beginning, it was clear that the Government of Azerbaijan was paying lip service to established OSCE norms for holding elections without providing voters with the necessary conditions to make an informed choice free of coercion. For example, prior to the vote, we and other short-term members of the OSCE PA and PACE observation missions met with representatives of the eight candidates who had been approved by Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission to run in the April 11 contest. During the 20-minute sessions with the candidates or their representatives, we heard almost nothing in the way of criticism of the sitting president, nor anything resembling a platform for running the country should they win. During briefings the following day, members of opposition parties, as well as representatives of civil society and the media, pointed out the gulf of approximately 1.9 million Azerbaijanis entered on voter registration lists (5.3 million), and the number of Azerbaijanis known to be of voting age (7.2 million).  Since voter registration is automatic—and all citizens who are 18 years of age by election day have the right to vote—his dramatic shortfall appeared to reflect the disenfranchisement of an astonishingly large number of Azerbaijani voters. In a separate briefing earlier, the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan addressed this concern by claiming that the voter registration lists were published on the Internet, providing a maximum level of transparency. Civil society representatives were unanimous in their view that none of the “opposition” candidates running were real candidates. The best opposition leaders had either been imprisoned or were otherwise prevented from running, they explained. Several parties that civil society groups considered to be legitimate were boycotting the elections. Among the reasons they offered for the boycott was the fact that there were no real opposition parties in Parliament, no media freedom in Azerbaijan, and many political prisoners.  One opposition group, the Musavat Party, claimed that “clone” parties—such as the “Modern” Musavat Party, headed by Hafiz Hajiyev—had been set up to mimic true opposition parties. Hajiyev seemed to confirm those suspicions on election day by revealing that he himself had voted for President Aliyev.  He also reportedly expressed his hope that President Aliyev would return the favor by appointing him prime minister. Both civil society groups and political parties raised concerns about the potential for election fraud, due to the dramatic increase in use of de-registration voter cards (DVCs), which allow a voter to come off the voter roll in one polling station and to vote in another. We were told that while only 30,000 DVCs had been used in the previous election, 150,000 had been printed for the election on April 11. The discrepancy left many suspicious that DVCs could be abused by allowing voters to vote multiple times in different polling stations. Civil society representatives also were concerned about voter access to information, noting that restrictive laws and lack of funding made it nearly impossible to educate voters about their choices. They also found the lack of election commission reform frustrating, pointing out that both the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission provided explicit recommendations to the Azerbaijani government following previous elections. Finally, they stated that the government’s claim that 50,000 people had been registered as observers was misleading, since many of the registered observers were state employees and could not be fair and impartial observers.  A journalist briefing the observers also drew attention to the 10 Azerbaijani journalists currently in prison, saying that the regime had “made telling the truth in Azerbaijan illegal.” Voting on April 11—Mostly by the Book On election day, 350 international observers deployed across the country. Our team was assigned to the Khatai district in eastern Baku. We watched the opening of one polling station at 7:00 a.m., observed voting in 14 different polling stations throughout the day, and witnessed the counting process at another precinct once the polls closed at 7:00 p.m. The Precinct Electoral Commissions (PECs) at all 16 locations were cooperative, and we could move freely around the polling stations to observe the entirety of the voting process.  The chairwoman of the PEC where we observed the opening was willing to answer every question we had, often going into great detail. While we were unrestricted in our ability to access polling sites, the spots in the polling stations reserved for observers were often poorly situated, being either in a corner out of direct sight of the registration tables, or in one case on another floor entirely. One irregularity we consistently observed related to guaranteeing that each voter cast only one vote. Voters were supposed to have their left thumb coated in invisible ink once they were processed to vote, and all voters were to have their left thumbs checked before entering a polling station to ensure they had not voted elsewhere.  One of the many problems with this method became obvious at the first polling station we visited, where the person checking voters’ thumbs was scanning the wrong hand.  Fellow OSCE PA observers noted that some voters showed up at the wrong polling station, where they had their thumbs sprayed in invisible ink. Once they were directed to the correct voting station, they were allowed to vote regardless of the invisible ink on their hands. Citizen “Observers” in Name Only During a pre-election briefing, the chair of the Central Electoral Commission proudly claimed that 57,313 Azerbaijanis had been registered as citizen observers—a large number in a country of only 9.7 million. The statistic presumably was intended to demonstrate that the elections would be both transparent and credible.  We soon noticed that few, if any, of these citizen observers paid attention to the voting. At almost every polling station, we found one or more observers who could not tell us what party they were representing.  They often had to check their observer ID cards to before replying; when we then asked them which candidate from that party was running for president—information not available on their observer IDs—many were stumped. The Polls Close—Let the Counting … and the Shenanigans … Begin While the polls were open, election regulations appeared to be broadly respected. However, at the precinct where we observed the counting process, vote tallies were rushed and established procedures were not followed.  For example, voter registration lists were not checked to determine how many people voted in that location—a figure that should have been compared to the number of ballots in the ballot box. Unused ballots were counted and destroyed according to the established procedure, but none of this information was entered onto the protocol, the written record of votes that is supposed to be maintained throughout the vote-counting process. Instead, poll workers opened the ballot boxes almost immediately after the unused ballots were destroyed. The ballots then were dumped onto a table in the middle of the room and quickly sorted into several piles.  We were allowed to approach and circle the table, and had good views of the ballots on every part of the table. Most—easily 80 percent to 90 percent of the ballots—ended up in one of several piles for President Aliyev. Of the non-Aliyev piles, the largest was for ballots which appeared to be spoiled.  One member of the PEC explained to us that although some ballots had several names marked, they would not necessarily be considered spoiled; instead, they would be discussed later. Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, that discussion never took place. In just over an hour, the protocol was hastily composed and finalized. Under Azerbaijani law, copies should be made available to bona fide observers; however, election officials declined to provide us with a copy. We then asked if we could at least take a photo of the protocol, and were told that the precinct would have to obtain permission from higher authorities.  We were not the only international observers who noted problems with the counting process. About 50 percent of OSCE PA observers determined that the count was either “bad” or “very bad,” well above the OSCE norm of 17 percent. Election Aftermath In a press conference in Baku the day after the election, observers from the OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE PA, and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly announced that the presidential election in Azerbaijan took place “within a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections.” “Against this backdrop and in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine competition,” they said. The preliminary statement from the three groups noted that other candidates refrained from directly challenging or criticizing the incumbent, and that no distinction was made between his campaign and his official activities. Observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, a lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, including ballot box stuffing. More than half of the vote counts were assessed negatively, largely due to deliberate falsifications and an obvious disregard for procedures. At the same time, observers noted that the authorities were cooperative and international observers were able to operate freely in the pre-election period, and the election administration was well resourced and prepared the election efficiently. Announcing the conclusions, Portuguese parliamentarian Nilza de Sena said, “We have noted the positive attitude displayed by the national authorities of Azerbaijan towards international election observation, as well as the professional work of the Central Election Commission in the pre-election period. We stand ready to continue our co-operation and turn it into a joint effort to tackle the fundamental problems that a restrictive political and legal environment, which does not allow for genuine competition, poses for free elections.” The beginning of de Sena’s statement was interrupted by a pro-government journalist who surged threateningly towards the speakers, shouting angrily that the report had been prepared in advance and that its findings were all lies. It was clear that the pro-government journalist intended on disrupting the conference to distract from the content of the findings. The press conference was suspended until the atmosphere calmed and the representatives from ODIHR, OSCE PA, and PACE could deliver their statement. “A few weeks of campaigning during which candidates could present their views on television cannot make up for years during which restrictions on freedom of expression have stifled political debate,” said Margareta Kiener Nellen, Head of the Swiss delegation to the OSCE PA who led the 48-member OSCE PA delegation. “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will certainly continue to support all steps by the authorities that will bring the country forward on a path towards creating the open political environment necessary for truly free and fair elections.”

  • Azerbaijan’s centennial celebrations mask repressive reality

    On Monday, the Republic of Azerbaijan celebrated 100 years of independence from the Russian Empire that collapsed following the Russian Revolution of 1917. When Azerbaijan proclaimed its independence on May 28, 1918 its leaders established the first democratic republic in the Muslim world—a real, if short-lived experience in democracy. In March, President Ilham Aliyev—the country’s dictator since 2003—gave voice to national pride in the centennial yet curiously grounded it in ideals he does everything to crush. “For the first time in the Muslim world,” Aliyev said, “the Azerbaijani people demonstrated that they want to live in a free society, they want to live in a society where all the rights of all the people are protected.” The people of Azerbaijan do not live in such a free society today. Just last month, Aliyev extended his rule until 2025 thanks to a rigged presidential election that lacked a single credible challenger. Since succeeding his father, who ruled Azerbaijan for more than a decade, Aliyev has systematically coopted the country’s institutions. In recent years, he removed obstacles to remaining in power for life, extended the presidential term from five to seven years, and appointed his wife as his unelected successor. The Muslim world’s first parliamentary republic today has a rubber-stamp legislature. The government systematically uses harassment, surveillance, imprisonment, and even torture to suppress political opposition. The National Assembly lacks a single parliamentarian from a major opposition party. The story is the same in the judiciary. For years, the country’s criminal justice system has punished opposition leaders, youth activists, and independent journalists with trumped-up charges of drug use, tax evasion, and “hooliganism.” Aliyev directs retribution against his opponents from behind the scenes and subsequently basks in fawning media coverage of his occasional pardons of some political prisoners. Despite these periodic releases, Azerbaijani civil society activists report that more than 140 prisoners of conscience are behind bars today. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), nearly a dozen of those jailed are journalists.  Aliyev’s government has taken particular aim at the free press to evade accountability. Having already harassed, coopted, or shuttered independent print, radio and TV outlets, in 2017 the government went a step further and blocked virtually all remaining major sources of independent online news. In its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, RSF ranked Azerbaijan 163rd out of 180 countries—just one spot above Iran. In September 2017, I introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that urges the Trump administration to raise and prioritize these human rights and democracy concerns in our bilateral relationship with Azerbaijan. The resolution calls on the administration to impose travel bans and asset freezes on Azerbaijani officials responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. It also recommends visa bans against violators of religious freedom, as provided for in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The government of Azerbaijan wants us to overlook its human rights record because it offers itself as a security partner for the United States. It is willing to help counter transnational threats such as terrorism and supports the NATO mission in Afghanistan through troop contributions and logistical assistance. Its oil and gas pipelines that transport energy from Azerbaijan’s Caspian shores westward also further the U.S. goal of limiting Europe’s dependence on Russian energy.  Yet by failing to respect the basic rights and dignity of its people, Azerbaijan becomes a long-term security liability. Younger generations of Azerbaijanis have no living memory of the nation’s nearly 70 years as a Soviet socialist republic and have higher hopes and expectations for their lives. The same week that Azerbaijan held its ersatz presidential election, a youth-led, non-violent protest movement was emerging in neighboring Armenia to bring down a prime minister that embodied Armenia’s entrenched political elite. It is unlikely that Azerbaijan can hold back the tide that brought tens of thousands into the streets in Armenia in 2018 and to join Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003. As Azerbaijan marks 100 years of independence, the U.S. must urge the government to rediscover the state’s original democratic roots and reestablish it for a new century, rooted in respect for human rights and liberty. Whether or not the government seizes this opportunity, the United States ought to stand in solidarity with the people of Azerbaijan, whose desires for dignity and justice will not be indefinitely denied.   Smith represents New Jersey’s 4th District and is chairman of the Foreign Affairs' Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organization Subcommittee.

  • Sanctioning Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats under the Global Magnitsky Act

    The Global Magnitsky Act enables the United States to sanction the world’s worst human rights abusers and most corrupt oligarchs and foreign officials, freezing their U.S. assets and preventing them from traveling to the United States. Sanctioned individuals become financial pariahs and the international financial system wants nothing to do with them. Before proceeding, ask yourself: is Global Magnitsky right for my case? The language of the Global Magnitsky Act as passed by Congress was ex-panded by Executive Order 13818, which is now the implementing authority for Global Magnitsky sanctions. EO 13818 stipulates that sanctions may be considered for individuals who are engaging or have engaged in “serious human rights abuse” against any person, or are engaging or have en-gaged in “corruption.” Individuals who, by virtue of their rank, have ordered others to engage or have facilitated these acts also are liable to be sanctioned. Keep in mind that prior to the EO’s expansion of the language, human rights sanctions were limited to “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” as codified in 22 USC § 2304(d)(1). The original language also stipulates that any victim must be working “to expose illegal activity car-ried out by government officials” or to “obtain, exercise, defend, or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms.” As for sanctions for corruption, it identifies “acts of significant corruption” as sanctionable offenses. This is generally thought to be a stricter standard than the EO’s term “corruption.” It may be worthwhile to aim for this higher standard to make the tightest case possible for sanctions. As a rule, reach out to other NGOs and individuals working in the human rights and anti-corruption field, especially those who are advocating for their own Global Magnitsky sanctions. Doing so at the beginning of the process will enable you to build strong relationships, develop a robust network, and speak with a stronger voice. Download the full guide to learn more. Contributor: Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Concerned about Interrogation of Pavla Holcova by Slovak Authorities

    WASHINGTON—Following the eight-hour interrogation of Czech journalist Pavla Holcova by Slovak police earlier this week, which culminated with the seizure of her cell phone, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “At last week’s Helsinki Commission briefing, Pavla Holcova eloquently defended press freedom in Central Europe. I was very concerned to hear about her subsequent interrogation by Slovak authorities. This behavior raises questions about the Slovakian government’s commitment to solving the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak. I hope the authorities will now turn their attention back on pursuing his killers.” On May 9, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing titled “A Deadly Calling: The Murder of Investigative Journalists” that examined Kuciak’s murder, as well as the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia of Malta; the aftermaths of their deaths; and the need for greater protections of press freedom around the world. Holcova, who was collaborating with Kuciak at the time of his death, said at the briefing, “We are, in Central Europe as a whole region, facing state capture at a level we could never imagine before. For journalists, the winter already came. We have a fear. We are facing the fear and the fear is paralyzing…It’s really difficult for us to tell where is the line between politicians, powerful political parties, and organized crime.” She later noted, “[Journalists] are called enemies. We are called foreign agents. We are called mercenaries.”

  • And then, they took her cellphone

    Yesterday I received word that Pavla Holcova, a brave and unflappable Czech journalist, had been summoned by Slovakian police, who are investigating the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciakearlier this year. She took a 4-hour train ride from Prague to Bratislava and voluntarily presented herself at their headquarters. She has cooperated with the investigation since its earliest stages, but on this occasion, she was interrogated for eight hours. She was eventually released, but not before her cellphone was confiscated. The prosecutor who signed the order to take her cellphone and access its data is not assigned to the murder case, and he declined to explain why the authorities needed her phone. Holcova is not under any sort of criminal investigation. Quite the opposite, in fact. But Slovak authorities, acting suspiciously like the thuggish security forces found in repressive states, appear to be trying to shut her down. During the interrogation, she was repeatedly told that her reporting was “always against the system.” Not only is Slovakia a member of the European Union, until last year it ranked — along with much of Europe — as having one of the world’s freest media landscapes. Not anymore. This was merely the latest attempt by Slovakian authorities to harass the colleagues, friends and family of a reporter who was killed for doing his job. I met Holcova last week. She and I were part of a panel discussion in Washington titled “A Deadly Calling,” organized by the Helsinki Commission and designed to raise awareness for and address the assassinations of two investigative journalists in the European Union: Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta last October, and Kuciak in Slovakia this February. The panel included Caruana Galizia’s son, Matthew — himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter — and Holcova, who worked closely with Kuciak to report on official corruption and the Slovakian government’s ties with organized crime. It was this reporting that, many believe, prompted the murders of Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova. Our panel — which also included Robert Mahoney of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a watchdog group that tracks attacks on press freedom — offered an unvarnished look at the rising threats to freedom of expression around the world. In Slovakia, the Kuciak case represents a fundamental test of a young democracy. There has been a major public backlash there, with tens of thousands of ordinary citizens joining street protests demanding justice for the killings. Several high-level resignations have resulted, with the most notable casualty being Prime Minister Robert Fico. Holcova believes there is reason to hope that justice will prevail, and that reform and the rooting out of corruption are possible. But she remains skeptical. “Even though the changes made in the government are rather cosmetic,” she told me. “The most influential government members were replaced by people from the very same political party.” Less visible to the public, though, are the lasting scars these attacks have on loved ones of the slain journalists and the ongoing attempts to deter them from seeking justice. Holcova says she is lucky in that she has a strong support network of friends and family, “but sometimes I feel I might be indeed ‘toxic’ and I am afraid someone might get hurt because of me. This potential guilt is painful and even sometimes paralyzing.” That’s a familiar feeling to many journalists operating in authoritarian societies or scrutinizing high-level corruption. But this isn’t a situation we should tolerate in silence. Impressively, Holcova says she remains undeterred. I asked whether she had ever thought about giving up the effort to find her friend’s killers. “Yes, sure. I will stop pursuing this case, when the people really involved (not just the proxies) will be brought to justice.” Incidentally, this interview was conducted entirely by email. Why? Because Slovakian authorities still have Holcova’s phone, and have offered no indication of when they plan to return it. The public shaming of governments — especially fragile ones — for their bad behavior is one of the best tools available in places where the rule of law has not been completely eviscerated. Slovakia is one of those countries hanging in the balance. We should do all we can to support their struggle to mature into a viable democracy with a strong future. Officials there, Holcova wrote, “did not care that much in past. But I believe they do now. At least a bit more. The reputation of Slovak government is very much damaged, the trust in state institutions such as police or prosecutors is very low.” There’s one very simple way the Slovakian authorities can begin to repair their image. They should return Pavla Holcova’s cellphone immediately.

  • Democracy Deferred

    After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission examined these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.  In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • A Deadly Calling

    Over the last year, several journalists investigating public corruption have been murdered for their work in Europe and Eurasia. Two of these victims—Jan Kuciak of Slovakia and Daphne Caruana Galizia of Malta—came from states within the European Union. While protests erupted in Slovakia after Kuciak’s murder, ultimately leading to the resignation of the Prime Minister and other senior government officials, Caruana Galizia’s murder did not trigger a similar outcome. Those who hired her murderers continue to enjoy anonymity and impunity. The briefing examined the assassinations of journalists throughout Europe and Eurasia, why they are targeted, and how future murders can be prevented. It also investigated the shrinking space for investigative journalism in Europe and Eurasia, where there is less investment in investigative journalism and fewer outlets for investigations to be published.

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