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Helsinki Commission Leaders Call on Belarusian Authorities to Release Journalists, Political Prisoners

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

WASHINGTON—In response to the ongoing crackdown on journalists and civil society in Belarus, including the detention of RFE/RL consultant Ihar Losik for almost 300 days on spurious charges, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement:

“Despite Aleksandr Lukashenko’s attempt to intimidate Belarusians, the resounding call for freedom and democracy in Belarus has been heard around the world. Ihar Losik, Katsiaryna Barysevich, Dzianis Ivashyn, Katsiaryna Andreyeva, and Darya Chultsova are just a few of the brave Belarusian journalists who have been imprisoned for simply doing their jobs.

“We stand in solidarity with the people of Belarus, and in admiration of the courageous journalists who provide critical information to their fellow citizens despite the serious risks they face.

“We call on Mr. Lukashenko to release all political prisoners without exception, and to end the attacks against journalists, civil society, and all Belarusians peacefully exercising their rights.”

Since the run-up to the fraudulent August 2020 election, and during the subsequent protests, Belarusian authorities have conducted a sweeping crackdown on journalists, civil society, and opposition politicians. Sen. Wicker immediately condemned the election results and violence against protestors in Belarus, and Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, then chairman of the Helsinki Commission, asked the U.S. administration to revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus following the government’s violent suppression of peaceful protests.

According to Belarusian human rights groups, there are now more than 350 political prisoners in the country. On March 31, the State Department announced that unless Belarus releases all political prisoners, the general license issued by the Treasury Department authorizing transactions with nine state-owned enterprises in Belarus will lapse in late April.

 

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  • A New European Parliament – How Will EU-U.S. Relations Change?

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  • Power and Politics

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  • Ukrainian Elections Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

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  • Hastings and Wicker Mark World Press Freedom Day

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  • First Person: #UkraineElections2019

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor and Kyle Parker, Senior Senate Staff Representative   Bright morning sunlight streamed through the windows of School No. 119 in Odesa as the first ballot was cast for the March 31 presidential election in Ukraine. We, along with our third team member, a Danish parliamentarian, had arrived an hour earlier to watch as a stern but amiable middle-aged woman—who seemed especially proud to speak Ukrainian to her Russian-speaking electoral commission colleagues—instructed them on proper procedure for the day. The ballot boxes must be sealed properly, privacy in the voting booths maintained, proper identification verified, and voter lists checked and double checked. Coffee, tea, and small talk were in good supply to combat the grogginess of a morning made even earlier by the switch to daylight savings time shortly after midnight on election day. This election, with 39 candidates vying for the presidency, required the longest ballot in Ukraine’s history at 80 centimeters (more than two and a half feet) long. Not only did this present a printing challenge, but we saw numerous voters seeming to wonder just how many folds would be needed to easily deposit their ballot through the narrow slot and preserve the secrecy of their selection. Ukraine’s election law is surprisingly strict in this regard and imposes criminal penalties on voters who deliberately reveal their selections, whether by showing someone personally, taking a picture of their ballot, or bringing someone else into the voting booth with them. Notably, we observed no incidence of anyone deliberately violating ballot secrecy. We were among over a thousand foreign observers of the election invited by the Government of Ukraine, consistent with its OSCE commitments. We joined approximately 100,000 domestic observers to inspect the nearly 30,000 electoral precincts across the country—excluding parts of the Donbas and Crimea, due to the ongoing war and Russia’s illegal occupation, respectively. All of the domestic observers that we encountered were observing on behalf of an individual candidate, usually for Yuriy Boyko, Petro Poroshenko, or Yulia Tymoshenko. We did not encounter any of the foreign and domestic NGOs also observing the election. Throughout the day, we traveled to numerous polling stations, spending almost an hour at each, to watch for irregularities or violations of election law. Most electoral commissioners went out of their way to proudly display what was an organized and transparent electoral system. All afforded us full access to every part of the voting process. A few commissioners even seemed flattered to host foreign observers from the OSCE, an acronym well known in Ukraine for the prominent role the OSCE has played in assessing previous elections, including those that led to the Orange Revolution in 2004 and that served to ratify the dramatic change of government in 2014. In any election observation, the most critical part of election day is the counting of ballots after the polls have closed and unused ballots have been checked against the total numbers of ballots issued and votes cast. With these procedures scrupulously followed, the chairwoman at the precinct where we were assigned gave the okay to open the ballot boxes and tally the votes. By that time, the sun had set and the flickering fluorescent lighting in the school hallway where the voting took place was so dim and distracting that everyone—commissioners, observers, and the school’s custodial staff—moved tables, chairs, and the sealed ballot boxes to a better lit atrium so a proper count could proceed. One by one, a grinning commissioner (we later discovered he was candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy ’s representative on the commission) cut the plastic seals on each box and, with pomp, dumped their contents onto a table surrounded by other commissioners eager to see who won and to finish the work they had begun before sunrise, some 18 hours earlier. First, the control sheet deposited in each box before the polls opened was located and set aside. Then, the chairwoman divided the candidates among commissioners so they could begin to stack ballots as they were unfolded and inspected. On a few occasions, a voter’s selection was unclear and so the ballot was presented to the entire commission for scrutiny, followed by a vote on how and whether to record the ambiguous ballot. Many of the 39 candidates on the ballot received no votes and there was often a wisecrack and laughter when any of these candidates received a vote, or even two! Despite the daunting fullness of the ballot boxes, due in part to the physical size of the ballot, the count proceeded apace with only a couple instances of needing to recount a candidate’s stack of votes to reconcile the final numbers needed for the formal protocol. This document would soon be posted outside the precinct for public inspection and sent up the chain to be included in the national tally. Security throughout the count was so strict that an ailing observer was nearly prohibited from leaving the precinct while the count was underway. After seeking the approval of the commission chairwoman, police finally unlocked the doors and allowed the observer to depart. These rules, as explained to us, were in place to prohibit any ballots from being brought into or out of the precinct. Based on the increasing grumblings of commissioners as night turned to early morning, this prohibition on leaving seemed to motivate commissioners to stay focused on their duties lest they risk witnessing another sunrise at their polling station. The OSCE’s post-election preliminary statement corresponded to our observation of a smooth, even festive in some cases, electoral process that complied with Ukraine’s domestic laws and fulfilled the country’s international commitments. Given the frequent opportunities Ukraine has had to exercise its democratic muscle in recent years, few on the international observation mission led by the OSCE expected anything but the free and fair process we witnessed. As the gold standard of international election observation, the OSCE’s recommendations over many electoral cycles have helped Ukrainian officials to improve the conduct of their elections. Further, praise from the OSCE following election day is powerful validation of the process in the eyes of Ukraine’s voters and gives other states a democratic model to emulate. No sooner had the election ended than the hundreds of thousands of electoral commissioners overseeing Ukraine’s nearly 30,000 local electoral precincts started to prepare for the presidential runoff election on April 21—this time with just two names on the ballot and a decisive outcome. These commissioners are the unsung heroes of a maturing democracy that is simultaneously at war in the East and on an irreversible path to the West. At least they will get a proper break before having to, once again, regroup and oversee Ukraine’s parliamentary elections expected to take place in the fall of this year.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Protect and Promote Rights of People of African Descent Worldwide

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.R.1877, the African Descent Affairs Act of 2019. The bill would establish a U.S. strategy to protect and promote the human rights of people of African descent worldwide. “The vestiges of colonialism and slavery continue to negatively affect people of African descent around the world, resulting in continuing racial bias and discrimination,” said Chairman Hastings. “We must reverse these disturbing trends and facilitate the full and equal participation of people of African descent in our societies, promote knowledge of and respect for the diverse heritage, culture, and contributions of people of African descent, and strengthen and implement legal frameworks that combat racial discrimination.” The African Descent Affairs Act would establish an Office of Global African Descent Affairs at the U.S. State Department to develop global foreign policy and assistance strategies beyond the African continent. The bill also would create a fund to support antidiscrimination and empowerment efforts by civil society organizations; require annual State Department human rights reports to include a section on discrimination faced by people of African descent; and create similar initiatives at the United States Agency for International Development.  Previous State Department initiatives such as the Office of Global Women's Issues, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, and special programs focusing on disability, LGBTQ+ and other communities helped aid other vulnerable populations around the world and inspired Chairman Hastings’ measure. “Across the globe we find racial disparities between those of African descent and other populations in education, employment, health, housing, justice, and other sectors. At the same time, hate crimes and racial profiling targeting black populations are increasing; this affects not only local populations, but also our diverse American military, diplomats, and students traveling abroad,” said Chairman Hastings. “A global strategy ensures we are monitoring whether countries around the world are providing equal protections and opportunity to all within their borders, and also strengthens black communities as they engage with their governments to address these issues.” In 2008, Chairman Hastings first drew attention to continuing issues of racism and discrimination in Europe and North America at a Helsinki Commission hearing on racism in the 21st century. Over the past decade, the Helsinki Commission has continued to highlight the challenges faced by diverse populations on both sides of the Atlantic, most recently through a September 2018 briefing on race, rights, and politics in the European Union.

  • Chairman Hastings Recognizes Black European Fight for Inclusion

    WASHINGTON—As the world commemorates the International Decade for People of African Descent, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.Res.256, recognizing the achievements and contributions of people of African descent and black Europeans in the face of persistent racism and discrimination. H.Res.256 encourages the celebration of the collective history and achievements of those of African descent in Europe. It supports efforts by the European Parliament, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the U.S. Congress to promote racial equality and combat racial discrimination. It also encourages European governments and members of civil society and the private sector to work with black European communities to implement national strategies to address inequality and racism, and urges the U.S. government to support such efforts. “While the presence of blacks in Europe can be traced to enslavement, colonization, military deployments, voluntary or forced migration, the movement of refugees and asylum seekers, or educational and other professional exchanges, the story of Europeans of African descent and black Europeans still remains largely untold, rendering many of their past and present contributions unseen or forgotten,” said Chairman Hastings. “This is unacceptable.”   The resolution endorses recommendations to overcome racial disparities in Europe made at the 2018 People of African Descent Week. Yesterday, the European Parliament passed a similar resolution recognizing that African descendants have long been a part of the fabric of Europe, and seeking to address findings on discrimination and harassment documented in the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency report, “Being Black in the EU.” The European Parliament resolution calls on EU Member State governments to acknowledge and address the impact of enslavement, forced labor, racial apartheid, massacre, and genocide in the context of European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, and for the EU to develop strategies to address structural racism and underrepresentation in EU institutions. In 2008, Chairman Hastings first drew attention to the racism and discrimination faced by black Europeans during a Helsinki Commission hearing. In 2009, Chairman Hastings co-hosted the Black European Summit in Brussels, bringing together black and minority political and intellectual leaders to discuss barriers to political participation and strategies for inclusion. Over the past decade, the Helsinki Commission has continued to highlight the challenges faced by black and minority populations in Europe, most recently through a September 2018 briefing on race, rights, and politics in the European Union.

  • Helsinki Commission Marks Fifth Anniversary of Illegal Referendum In Crimea

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

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