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Helsinki Commissioners Introduce Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act

Friday, December 13, 2019

WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) yesterday introduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 5408) in the House of Representatives. The legislation combats Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate next week.

“For more than five years, Russia has illegally occupied Crimea and controlled part of the Donbas with the armed groups it commands. Kremlin personnel and proxies abduct, imprison, and torture people in those regions for their faith,” said Rep. Wilson. “Russian officials are culpable, and this bill helps ensure they are held accountable.”

“The Kremlin persecutes peaceful religious communities in occupied Crimea and crony-controlled eastern Donbas even more brutally and broadly than it does in Russia,” said Rep. Cleaver. “The Russian Government is violating international humanitarian law and its international commitments to respect and protect religious freedom. Creating consequences for the Kremlin for this lawlessness will mean justice for the people of Ukraine.”

The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the President of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill clarifies that Russia should be held responsible for violations in territory it occupies illegally or controls, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders.

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom. It also requires the president to take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, in response. Last year, on behalf of President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries where violations are severe.

Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy it. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas.

As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States.

Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Gwen S. Moore (WI-04), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Marc A. Veasey (TX-33), and Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09). Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18), Rep. Mark Meadows (NC-11), Rep. Mike Quigley (IL-05), Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (FL-12), Rep. Daniel W. Lipinski (IL-03), Rep. Andy Harris, M.D. (MD-01), and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09) are also original co-sponsors.

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
Phone: 
202.225.1901
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  • Hastings and Wicker Condemn Apparent Poisoning of Alexei Navalny

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s apparent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “Sadly, Alexei Navalny is the latest in a long line of Russians to be targeted for supporting freedom and democracy in their country. These attacks are intended to silence dissent, but instead they highlight the cruelty, intolerance, and lawlessness of the Putin regime. We hope there will be consequences for those who carried out this crime and for those who approved it. We join many from around the world in praying for Alexei as he now fights for his life.” Navalny fell suddenly and seriously ill on a flight from Tomsk, Russia, to Moscow on the morning of August 20, 2020. The flight made an emergency landing and paramedics rushed Navalny to the hospital. He remains unconscious and on a ventilator, in stable but serious condition. Navalny has been the subject of numerous attacks and arrests connected to his anti-corruption work. In July 2019, Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker expressed concern about Navalny’s hospitalization for an unknown “allergic reaction” following his arrest by Russian authorities ahead of pro-democracy protests. Navalny is the latest in a series of political activists who have been poisoned after opposing the Putin regime.  Former Russian military intelligence officer and British double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were almost killed in Salisbury, England by exposure to the nerve agent Novichok in 2018. Russian democracy advocate Vladimir Kara-Murza was poisoned in 2015 and 2017. Former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko died from radiation poisoning in London in 2006. In 2004, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was sickened on a flight; she survived only to be shot two years later.  These and similar instances are widely considered to be organized and sanctioned by the highest levels of the Russian Government.

  • The OSCE: A Bulwark Against Authoritarianism

    As we mark the 45th anniversary of the 1975 signing of the Helsinki Final Act, the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the ideals of democracy that had been advanced by that pact—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and civil liberties—are under threat. In 1975, Soviet totalitarianism was the great threat to human rights and fundamental freedoms; today, authoritarianism poses a growing threat to human dignity and rights in the region. Authoritarianism is a fact of life in much of Eurasia, a reflection of the actual worldwide tension between countries defending universal human rights obligations and countries attempting to undermine trust in democratic institutions and promote an authoritarian model. This is true not only in repressive nations like Russia; even among some U.S. partner countries, there are warning signs. Some nations have also taken it upon themselves to block vital leadership roles in international institutions during a global pandemic unlike anything we have seen in a century. The ultimate outcome of this conflict is up to us. Liberty and human rights will prevail, but only if freedom-loving people everywhere join together to defend and preserve human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. Many international institutions dedicated to freedom and human rights were founded with U.S. support in the wake of World War II, in which more than a million U.S. citizens were either killed or wounded and trillions of dollars spent on the effort to defeat fascism. Democratic ideals are ingrained in the founding charters that established those organizations. For nearly 75 years, such institutions have consistently served as a bulwark against totalitarianism, communism, terrorism, and other forms of tyranny; limited conflict among nations; helped raise millions out of poverty; and spread democratic values throughout the world. The OSCE grew out of the Helsinki Final Act, a 1975 political agreement among the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, and other European nations. Signed by both democratic and communist regimes, the Final Act acknowledged openly that respect for human rights within states is crucial to security among states, and that human rights concerns could legitimately be raised among signatories. Today, the OSCE is the world’s largest regional security organization, encompassing 57 countries in Europe, as well as the United States and Canada.  It includes Russia, Ukraine, and many other successors of the former Soviet Union, reaching as far east as Central Asia and Mongolia, and north beyond the Arctic Circle. The phrase “Vancouver to Vladivostok” accurately describes the organization’s reach. With its “comprehensive concept of security,” the OSCE addresses military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and takes steps to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among its members. The OSCE also supports the democratic development of nations that gained or regained independence in the post-Cold War period and are still finding their footing, often torn between corruption and the promise of a democratic future. Thirteen OSCE field missions operate in member countries seeking assistance in developing their democratic institutions. The OSCE recognizes and supports the important role played by civil society and the media in holding governments to account for blatant human rights violations and abuses of power. Unprecedented Gap in OSCE Leadership OSCE institutions—including its assembly of national legislators—foster an essential defense against the spread of authoritarianism. However, despite its comprehensive vision, we are now faced with an unprecedented gap in leadership at the OSCE due to the block on the extension of mandates for four senior leaders, including the Secretary General. Each week, the OSCE Permanent Council—comprising ambassadors to the OSCE from each participating State—meets in Vienna, Austria. In this forum, the United States seeks to shine a light on contraventions of States’ OSCE tenets and violations of international law. The OSCE independent institutions, like the field missions, carry those messages forward.  In addition to the organization’s other work defending human rights and fundamental freedoms, its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) manages the OSCE’s election observation missions, internationally recognized as the “gold standard” for their methodology. Other independent offices lead the OSCE’s work on Freedom of the Media and rights of national minorities. Unfortunately, in July, these vital institutions were deprived of strong and consistent leadership by countries—including Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—that seem intent on attempting to weaken the OSCE’s ability to hold countries accountable for their actions and undermining the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. The executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government are partners in bringing American leadership to support the OSCE’s work. Several times each year,  members of Congress—including lawmakers serving on the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which monitors implementation of the Helsinki Accords  —gather at meetings of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, where they secure political commitments and build mutually beneficial relationships among legislators from the OSCE’s participating States to help push back against anti-democratic actions by national governments. Unfortunately, several OSCE participating States—countries that have repeatedly committed to upholding the principles and values enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act— are exhibiting a troubling slide toward authoritarianism. The United States and our democratic allies have criticized efforts to restrict and persecute journalists, human rights defenders, civil society, members of the political opposition, and members of ethnic and religious minorities. We also have jointly criticized efforts to stifle media freedom and limit political pluralism in Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, as well as raised concerns about media consolidation in Hungary, and limitations on freedom of speech and freedom of the press elsewhere. Russia’s Destabilizing Actions No OSCE participating State bears more responsibility for fomenting mistrust, insecurity, corruption, and human rights violations and abuses in this region than the Russian Federation. Russia’s destabilizing actions contravene all 10 Helsinki Final Act principles, ranging from respect for human rights to the prohibition of military incursions into neighboring countries. Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine, including its purported annexation of Crimea. The proxy forces Russia arms, trains, leads, and fights alongside in eastern Ukraine make it dangerous for the unarmed OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine to fulfill its Permanent Council-approved mandate to monitor the conflict. Russia uses its resources—economic, political, informational, and military—to defeat freedom and democracy. Russia does not rely on military force alone to threaten democratic governance; it also uses hybrid tactics daily, ranging from cyber intrusions to influence campaigns — aimed at undermining democratic elections. We hope that someday, authoritarian countries like Russia will start behaving again according to the rules of international law. Unfortunately, these countries currently reject the values of democracy, liberty, and human rights. The authoritarian regimes view democracy as an existential threat—hence the actions some of them have taken to restrict the OSCE’s ability to do its work.  The struggle today is between those who believe authoritarianism is the right way forward and those of us who still believe that Thomas Jefferson was right in his declaration that the desire for freedom exists within the heart of every human being. In a hyper-connected modern world in which disinformation becomes an ever more powerful weapon and the divisions within free societies are exploited by malign actors, U.S. membership in organizations like the OSCE emphasizes clearly, openly, and emphatically that America will not cede the field to the authoritarian regimes. We will not allow them to be the ones to dictate what is truth and what is fiction. Human Rights and Ideals Just as Valid in 2020 Through the OSCE, the United States directly confronts the deceit of Russia and other authoritarian powers. By raising our voices, through our participation and leadership, we reassure our friends that the United States stands with them and supports our shared values against the growing tide of autocracy. By raising our voices, we remind allies and adversaries alike that the United States remains engaged and committed to what is fair, what is right, and what is true. Together, our U.S. Mission to the OSCE and the U.S. Helsinki Commission remind allies and adversaries alike that America will not ignore regimes that are actively hostile to our values and see our liberty as an existential threat. We will always prioritize respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defend the principles of liberty, and encourage tolerance within societies, because such efforts are vital to the promotion of democracy and to U.S. national security. We reject the authoritarian notion that our fundamental freedoms are a weakness. They are our greatest strength. The United States and other like-minded countries use the power of the OSCE to show that human rights and ideals are just as valid in 2020 as they were in 1975, when the Helsinki Accords were signed. These rights not only ensure the physical, economic, and mental wellbeing of all our populations, they make the countries’ governments stronger by building legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens. America’s unwavering support of these values through multilateral organizations like the OSCE remains vital. As noted in the Trump administration’s U.S. National Security Strategy, “Authoritarian actors have long recognized the power of multilateral bodies and have used them to advance their interests and limit the freedom of their own citizens.  If the United States cedes leadership of these bodies to adversaries, opportunities to shape developments that are positive for the United States will be lost.” The OSCE deserves to be recognized by the people of both the United States and our allies and partners as a valuable tool in the fight against autocracy. We must not abandon it by leaving its most important institutions without leadership beyond its 45th anniversary. Instead, through our efforts, and those of our allies and partners in the OSCE, we must continue to defend liberty and human rights in our region and provide a beacon of hope for citizens everywhere who aspire to a free and democratic future.

  • RUSSIAN CYBER ATTACKS ON COVID RESEARCH CENTERS

    Madam Speaker, I rise today to strongly condemn the recently reported Russian cyber attacks on United States, United Kingdom and Canadian COVID-19 research centers. As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, Vladimir Putin's regime has once again lived up to its reputation for lawlessness and cynicism by targeting vaccine research and development organizations with ``the intention of stealing information and intellectual property relating to the development and testing of COVID-19 vaccines,'' as assessed by U.S., British and Canadian intelligence agencies. Sadly, neither this appalling cyber attack, nor the pitiful Kremlin denials which followed, are too surprising to those of us who watch Russia closely. As a Member of the U.S. Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe--the OSCE PA--and Chairman of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security, I regularly participate in difficult discussions with Russian political leaders about Moscow's geopolitical misconduct. The Kremlin's campaign across the OSCE space and beyond is aimed at destabilizing and undermining the international order by any means necessary, to include the invasion and occupation of OSCE participating States, the assassination of political opponents abroad, disinformation and more. On July 7, 2020, I communicated directly to the OSCE PA which included the presence of the Russian head of delegation how seriously the United States is taking reports of Russian monetary bounties to Taliban-linked insurgents for the killing of American and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. The fact of Kremlin support to the Taliban had already surfaced in a hearing of the United States Helsinki Commission which I chaired on June 12, 2019, in open testimony by former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia Michael Carpenter. Madam Speaker, I will continue to work with colleagues here at home and across the Atlantic to ensure the Kremlin's bald faced denials of its malign actions are countered, and that Vladimir Putin's regime faces the appropriate consequences for its actions. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has proven time and again its value as a forum to counter disinformation and foster cooperation to counter common threats. A result of these most recent reports, I intend to advocate for that body to prioritize results-oriented discussions on state-sponsored cyber attacks in our region in its upcoming work session. Madam Speaker, please join me in condemning the Kremlin's latest despicable actions.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Amends NDAA to Reflect Support for Open Skies Treaty

    On May 21, 2020 the Trump administration reportedly decided to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty to be effective at the end of this year. To express strong opposition, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) recently authored an amendment to H.R.6395, the William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, expressing the sense of Congress that the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies did not comply with a legal requirement to notify Congress; did not assert that any other Treaty signatory had breached the Treaty; and was made over the objections of NATO allies and regional partners.  “I am proud to have worked with Rep. Jimmy Panetta to successfully amend the House FY21 NDAA to express Congressional support for Open Skies and reiterate our commitment to the confidence and security building measures that are so vital to our NATO allies and partners,” said Chairman Hastings. “As Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I strongly disagree with the President’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, an important arms control agreement that significantly reduces the risk of armed conflict.” The measure expresses support for confidence and security building measures like the Open Skies Treaty, because they reduce the risk of conflict, increase trust among participating countries, and contribute to military transparency and remain vital to the strategic interests of our NATO allies and partners. The amendment also underlines the need to address Russian violations of treaty protocols through international engagement and robust diplomatic action. The full amendment is available below or as amendment numbered 167 printed in House Report 116-457. Chairman Hastings had previously condemned the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, which is designed to increase transparency, build confidence, and encourage cooperation among the United States, Russia, and 32 other participating states (including much of Europe as well as partners like Ukraine and Georgia), by permitting unarmed observation aircraft to fly over their entire territory to observe military forces and activities. In November 2019, the Commission hosted a joint hearing with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the importance of the Open Skies Treaty, emphasizing its critical role in security and stability around the world, which still stands today. The United States has conducted nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States under the treaty. The United States has also used the treaty to support partners by conducting flights over hot spots such as the Ukraine-Russian border.  Amendment At the end of subtitle D of title XII, add the following: SEC. 12__. SENSE OF CONGRESS ON THE OPEN SKIES TREATY. It is the sense of Congress that-- (1) the decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, done at Helsinki March 24, 1992, and entered into force January 1, 2002-- (A) did not comply with the requirement in section 1234(a) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (133 Stat. 1648; 22 U.S.C. 2593a note) to notify Congress not fewer than 120 days prior to any such announcement; (B) was made without asserting material breach of the Treaty by any other Treaty signatory; and (C) was made over the objections of NATO allies and regional partners; (2) confidence and security building measures that are designed to reduce the risk of conflict, increase trust among participating countries, and contribute to military transparency remain vital to the strategic interests of our NATO allies and partners and should continue to play a central role as the United States engages in the region to promote transatlantic security; and (3) while the United States must always consider the national security benefits of remaining in any treaty, responding to Russian violations of treaty protocols should be prioritized through international engagement and robust diplomatic action.

  • Hastings: Petty Parochialism Denies OSCE Vital Leadership During Global Crisis

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s failure of OSCE representatives to renew the mandates of four leadership positions—the OSCE Secretary General, the High Commissioner on National Minorities, the Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “We are in trouble when petty parochialism denies us vital leadership in the midst of a global crisis. Now more than ever, reliable multilateral institutions are needed to forge solutions during and after the current pandemic.  “Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and other OSCE participating States who have blocked consensus on extending dedicated public servants should be ashamed of themselves. History will show the folly of abandoning essential leadership for cooperation.” Negotiations to renew each mandate collapsed in part in response to the written objections of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey, and the subsequent withholding of consensus by other participating States. Even efforts to devise interim extensions failed, leaving vital OSCE leadership positions vacant during an unprecedented global crisis. The failure highlights the unwillingness of some OSCE participating States to live up to their stated commitments to democratic institutions, the rule of law, media pluralism, and free and fair elections. Leaving key leadership roles unfilled drastically weakens the OSCE’s ability to hold countries accountable for their actions and undermines the principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization. It spans 57 participating States reaching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. The OSCE sets standards in fields including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and humanitarian concerns. In addition, the OSCE undertakes a variety of initiatives designed to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among the participating States.

  • Wicker and Cardin Commend United Kingdom Magnitsky Sanctions on Russian and Saudi Officials

    WASHINGTON—Following the recent designations under the United Kingdom’s Magnitsky sanctions framework of Russian and Saudi officials responsible for the deaths of Sergei Magnitsky and Jamal Khashoggi, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) released the following statement: “We are encouraged to see the United Kingdom applying its first-ever independent Magnitsky sanctions. These sanctions demonstrate that following Brexit, the UK remains committed to fighting human rights abuse and kleptocracy. “We hope the UK will continue to apply Magnitsky sanctions as needed and develop additional anti-corruption policies to stem the flow of illicit wealth into the country. We also encourage the European Union to move forward on plans to develop its own Magnitsky sanctions. Consequences for bad acts are most effective when imposed in concert.” The UK passed its Magnitsky sanctions law in 2018. That same year, Russia attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent who spied for the UK, in Salisbury, England. UK Magnitsky sanctions freeze the assets of designees and prevent them from entering the country, and are expected to be a powerful deterrent for kleptocrats, given the propensity of corrupt officials to steal and launder money into London as well as send their children to British boarding schools. In December 2019, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell announced that the EU would start preparatory work for the equivalent of a Magnitsky sanctions mechanism. However, no further progress has been reported. In May 2020, Co-Chairman Wicker and Sen. Cardin urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ask High Representative Borrell to expedite the adoption of EU sanctions on human rights abusers and include provisions for sanctioning corruption.

  • Hastings and Wicker Denounce Fraudulent Vote in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following this week’s manipulated vote to amend Russia’s constitution to further weaken the separation of powers, strengthen the presidency, and allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “As we have seen time and again in Putin’s Russia, the outcome of this vote was decided long before the ballots were tallied. “Thanks to a fraudulent plebiscite ‘legitimizing’ the rubber stamp of Russia’s parliament, the Russian people—along with those living under Russian occupation—will remain under the thumb of an increasingly powerful Putin who could rule until he is in his eighties. “State-sponsored fraud, coercion, and obfuscation make it impossible to know the true will of the Russian people, who deserve a responsive, democratic government in line with Russia’s OSCE commitments.” From June 25 to July 1, 2020, citizens of Russia and residents of illegally-occupied Crimea and Russia-backed separatist regions of the Donbas could vote either for or against a package of more than 200 amendments to Russia’s constitution. Because the vote was not technically classified as a referendum, regulations and procedures that would usually apply—including a required minimum voter turnout level—were disregarded. Russia’s Central Election Commission released preliminary results showing overwhelming support for the amendments hours before the last polls closed, which under normal circumstances would be illegal. The potential for voter fraud was increased by the Russian Government’s decision to spread the voting over the span of a week and introduce electronic voting in some areas, ostensibly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Independent journalists have received credible reports of people being paid to create multiple false profiles to vote online, employees being coerced into voting by their superiors, and the use of online tools to track voter participation. Individuals documented ballot-stuffing and other irregularities at polling places.  The package of amendments was approved overwhelmingly and with little discussion by President Putin and both chambers of the Russian parliament on March 11, 2020, then rapidly cleared by the regional parliaments and the Constitutional Court. It required a nationwide vote to come into force. Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia either as president or prime minister for 20 years. He can now pursue two more six-year terms after his current term expires in 2024.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Urges Swiss Government to Restore Confidence in Integrity of Magnitsky Investigation

    WASHINGTON—In a letter to Swiss Ambassador Jacques Pitteloud released today, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) urged the Government of Switzerland to take the necessary steps to restore confidence in the integrity of the Magnitsky investigation and ensure its timely resolution. The letter reads in part: “Sergei Magnitsky’s story has become emblematic of the struggle of many Russians to fight the corruption of their own government at great risk to themselves. While I have been dispirited by the brutality shown the Russian journalists and civil society activists who carry on Magnitsky’s legacy of bravely telling the truth, I am also heartened by the tenacity of these individuals. They depend on countries like ours to hold their oppressors to account. “Given all that is at stake, I was surprised to learn that a Swiss Federal Police officer, Vincenz Schnell, went on a bear-hunting trip with Russian prosecutors paid for by Russian oligarchs. Though he has now been found guilty of accepting this and other gifts from Russia, the Magnitsky case has lingered for years and will be nearing its end when the statute of limitations expires in 2023.” Schnell’s former boss and top Swiss law enforcement official, Federal Prosecutor Michael Lauber, currently is facing impeachment proceedings following allegations of mishandling high-profile corruption and money laundering cases. For example, Lauber was forced to recuse himself from a U.S.-led investigation of corruption within FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, after it was discovered he was meeting with FIFA’s president. Russian officials were among the targets of this investigation for bribes paid to secure the World Cup. The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Ambassador Pitteloud, I was troubled to learn that the most senior Russia specialist in Swiss law enforcement with responsibility for investigating the Magnitsky case was caught accepting gifts from Russian officials. The reports indicate that these gifts were meant to stymie the swift administration of justice in this case. As a member of the Helsinki Commission, I have followed this case from its inception. Sergei Magnitsky’s story has become emblematic of the struggle of many Russians to fight the corruption of their own government at great risk to themselves. While I have been dispirited by the brutality shown the Russian journalists and civil society activists who carry on Magnitsky’s legacy of bravely telling the truth, I am also heartened by the tenacity of these individuals. They depend on countries like ours to hold their oppressors to account. Given all that is at stake, I was surprised to learn that a Swiss Federal Police officer, Vincenz Schnell, went on a bear-hunting trip with Russian prosecutors paid for by Russian oligarchs. Though he has now been found guilty of accepting this and other gifts from Russia, the Magnitsky case has lingered for years and will be nearing its end when the statute of limitations expires in 2023. The last Swiss actions that I am aware of in the Magnitsky case were the 2011 freezing of $11 million against Olga and Vladlen Stepanov and the 2012 freezing of $8 million against Prevezon. In the United States, we have added the Stepanovs to the Magnitsky sanctions list, where their assets are frozen and visas cancelled for their role in the Magnitsky case. U.S. law enforcement also prosecuted Prevezon for using proceeds from the Magnitsky case to purchase New York real estate and Prevezon has now paid a $6 million settlement to our government. My Senate colleagues and I are committed to seeing justice done in the Magnitsky case and preventing Russian kleptocrats from reaping the proceeds of corruption. I hope to hear from you as to what steps your government has taken and will take in the future to restore confidence in the integrity of this investigation and ensure its timely resolution. Sincerely, Roger F. Wicker Co-Chairman

  • Chairman Hastings Demands Release of Paul Whelan

    WASHINGTON—Following the sentencing of U.S. citizen Paul Whelan to 16 years in a maximum-security prison by a Russian court, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “In clear violation of Russia’s OSCE commitments, Paul Whelan was denied his right to due process. His long and harsh pre-trial detention, and the secretive nature of Paul’s trial and the spurious ‘evidence’ against him, show that Russia’s authorities are not concerned about justice. This is nothing more than a politically-motivated stunt that has inflicted serious damage on an American citizen. Paul Whelan must be released.” Paul Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December 2018, where he planned to attend a wedding. FSB agents broke into his hotel room and found a flash drive that Whelan’s Russian friend had told him contained photos from a recent trip.  Authorities claimed that the flash drive contained classified information. Whelan has been detained in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, unable to contact his family and friends, alleging abuse from guards, and suffering from health problems.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Reported U.S. Withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty, Calls For New START Extension

    WASHINGTON—Following reports that the Trump administration has notified other governments of its intent to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The Open Skies Treaty has underpinned transatlantic security for decades, and has always enjoyed bipartisan support precisely because of its contributions to our security and that of our allies and partners,” said Chairman Hastings. “The Trump administration’s ideological opposition to arms control agreements has undercut transparency and predictability in Europe at a time when U.S. leadership is needed most.  “The timing of this ill-advised decision so close to our elections is distasteful. The United States withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty can only benefit Putin’s continuing campaign of aggression against Russia’s neighbors. I urge the administration to reconsider and instead work with Congress to double down on supporting our allies and partners in Europe, and particularly working to secure the prompt extension of the New START Treaty.” The Open Skies Treaty is designed to increase transparency, build confidence, and encourage cooperation among the United States, Russia, and 32 other participating states (including much of Europe as well as partners like Ukraine and Georgia), by permitting unarmed observation aircraft to fly over their entire territory to observe military forces and activities. The United States has conducted nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States under the Treaty. The United States has also used the Treaty to support partners by conducting flights over hotspots such as the Ukraine-Russian border. The New START Treaty between the United States and Russia limits each side’s intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, nuclear-capable heavy bombers, and deployed nuclear warheads, and includes a substantial verification regime to ensure the sides comply with the Treaty’s terms. New START is due to expire in February 2021, unless both parties agree to extend it for no more than five years. 

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Commends Decision by Belarus to Refuse Extradition of Jehovah’s Witness to Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the April decision by the Prosecutor General of Belarus to reject the Government of Russia’s request to extradite a Russian national to face criminal charges for being a Jehovah’s Witness, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I commend the government of President Alexander Lukashenko for releasing Nikolai Makhalichev and rejecting the Kremlin’s request to extradite him. If forced to return to Russia, Mr. Makhalichev would face detention, a criminal trial, certain conviction, and imprisonment—merely for practicing his sincerely-held religious beliefs. “In keeping with Belarus’ OSCE commitments and other international obligations, Belarusian authorities should continue to resist the extradition of Mr. Makhalichev to Russia, allow him to move freely, and respect his human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of whether the Government of Belarus grants him refugee status or another country gives him legal protection.” Background Amendments in 2006 to Russia’s Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity criminalized a wide range of religious activities as “extremist,” without precisely defining extremism or requiring that such activities have a violent element. The Russian Government invoked the law as it began relentlessly targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses, a peaceful faith community, with investigations, raids, arrests, detention, trials, the closure of local congregations, website and literature bans, and more. In July 2017, the Supreme Court of Russia upheld an earlier ruling in favor of the Ministry of Justice that Jehovah’s Witnesses are an “extremist” group, criminalizing and effectively banning their activities, and ordering their property to be seized and liquidated. Since then, Russian authorities have conducted criminal investigations into at least 333 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including Makhalichev; courts have convicted at least 32 of them. The authorities have engaged in raids, detentions, house arrests, travel restrictions, property confiscations, and even torture. In February 2020, Belarusian police detained Makhalichev, citing the criminal charges against him in Russia. He then applied for refugee status in Belarus. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office formally requested extradition in March. The Belarusian Ministry of Interior is currently adjudicating Makhalichev's refugee application. In September 2019, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing highlighting how the Kremlin and other autocratic governments engage in transnational repression against people they perceive as hostile to them: using tools such as INTERPOL to request arrest and extradition, and sometimes even surveilling, abducting, and assassinating targeted persons on foreign soil. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L Hastings (FL-20), Co-Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act to combat such threats. Like all participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia and Belarus have repeatedly committed themselves to recognizing, respecting, and protecting freedom of religion or belief. In December 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo redesignated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries that have committed severe violations of religious freedom, per the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. Since 2017, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended designating Russia as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Belarusian law authorizes the government to grant refugee status to a foreigner if he or she has a “well-founded fears of being persecuted in the country of his/her citizenship for the reason… of…religion,” and prohibits the government from expelling the applicant to that country, even if the government denies, revokes, or otherwise removes their refugee status. The law also requires the government to give foreigners requesting refugee status or related legal protection access to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

  • Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic

    The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments around the world to take extraordinary measures in the interest of public health and safety. As of early April, nearly two-thirds of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared “states of emergency” or invoked similar legal measures in response to the crisis. Often such measures have enabled governments to enact large-scale social distancing policies and suspend economic activity to save lives and preserve the capacity of national public health infrastructure to respond to the spread of infections. At the same time, human rights organizations and civil society activists have expressed concern regarding the breadth of some emergency measures and recalled the long history of government abuse of emergency powers to trample civil liberties. Exactly three decades ago, OSCE participating States unanimously endorsed a set of basic principles governing the imposition of states of emergency, including the protection of fundamental freedoms in such times of crisis. In 1990 in Copenhagen, OSCE countries affirmed that states of emergency must be enacted by public law and that any curtailment of human rights and civil liberties must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the Copenhagen Document, emergency measures furthermore should never discriminate based on certain group characteristics or be used to justify torture. Building on these commitments a year later in Moscow, participating States underscored that states of emergency should not “subvert the democratic constitutional order, nor aim at the destruction of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Document stresses the role of legislatures in imposing and lifting such declarations, the preservation of the rule of law, and the value of guaranteeing “freedom of expression and freedom of information…with a view to enabling public discussion on the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the lifting of the state of public emergency.” In some corners of the OSCE region, however, national authorities are violating these and other OSCE commitments in the name of combatting coronavirus. While many extraordinary responses are justified in the face of this crisis, government overreach threatens the well-being of democracy and the resilience of society at a critical time. Download the full report to learn more.

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