Title

House Majority Leader, Helsinki Commissioners Decry Efforts to Shutter Community Center in Hungary

Monday, August 19, 2019

WASHINGTON—Following renewed efforts by authorities in Hungary to shutter the Aurora Community Center in Budapest, House Majority Leader Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (MD-05), Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) issued the following statements:

“During my visit to Budapest earlier this summer, I saw firsthand the important resources Aurora provides to the community,” said Majority Leader Hoyer. “The latest attempt by Hungarian authorities to shut down Aurora speaks volumes about the country’s shrinking space for civil society. On the thinnest of pretexts, the rule of law in Hungary is being hijacked to serve one party's political interests.”

“Aurora nurtures a vibrant community of civil society groups and has become a symbol of independent organizations in Hungary,” said Sen. Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. “Unfortunately, such activism is viewed as a threat by those in power, who—through constant legal harassment—are attempting to permanently close Aurora’s doors. Aurora and organizations like it should be protected, not targeted.”

“In a time when those who spew hate and divisiveness seem to be ascendant, initiatives like Aurora that build inclusive societies and strengthen democracy are needed more than ever,” said Rep. Moore. “I was honored to visit the center and meet with its president, Adam Schonberger, with my colleagues earlier this year.”

Majority Leader Hoyer, Sen. Cardin, and Rep. Moore visited the Aurora Community Center in Budapest in July, en route to the 2019 OSCE PA Annual Session in Luxembourg.

Marom, a Hungarian Jewish association, established and runs Aurora Community Center, an umbrella organization that provides office space to other small civil society groups in Budapest, including the Roma Press Center, migrant aid, and Pride Parade organizers. Over the past two years, Hungarian authorities repeatedly have accused Marom of administrative violations ranging from mismatched dates on official documents to, most recently, lacking an appropriate agreement with the center’s landlord.

Under the Orbán government, the conditions for independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Hungary have deteriorated. In 2014, armed police carried out raids on 13 civil society organizations, seizing computers and documents for alleged financial misconduct. No charges were ever brought against the NGOs. 

In 2017, Hungary adopted a Russian-style "foreign agent" law which, according to the U.S. Department of State, “unfairly burdens a targeted group of Hungarian civil society organizations, many of which focus on fighting corruption and protecting human rights and civil liberties.”

In 2018, Hungary passed a law establishing a 25 percent tax on organizations which engage in “propaganda activity that portrays immigration in a positive light.” It is a tax on government-disfavored speech.  Hungary also adopted amendments to its "law on aiding illegal migration" that makes handing out know-your-rights leaflets punishable by up to one year in prison. 

Hungary will hold municipal elections on October 13.

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
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Of all the region’s leaders, only President Askar Akaev, who has held office for almost 15 years, has announced his intention not to run next year for reelection – though he has phrased the pledge carefully if he changes his mind. Kyrgyzstan is also the only Central Asian country where a large-scale protest movement has ever seemed poised to force a Head of State out of office: in summer 2002, thousands of people furious about the shootings of demonstrators in a southern district blocked the country’s main road, and threatened a mass march on the capital, Bishkek. Ultimately, the movement petered out but the precedent of public activism was set.   President Akaev’s stated intention not to run again, the upcoming parliamentary (February 2005) and presidential (October 2005) elections and Kyrgyzstan’s history of protest movements make for an interesting situation. In the next few months, Akaev must make fateful decisions: the most important is whether or not to run again. If he chooses to stay in office for another term, he risks sparking demonstrations. Though Kyrgyzstan is not Georgia, something akin to a Rose Revolution should not be excluded as a possible scenario. If Akaev opts to step down, however, we should not expect that he, his family and entourage would permit free and fair elections. More likely, he will try to select a successor – as Boris Yeltsin did with Vladimir Putin in Russia – and act to ensure his victory. But that course, too, could lead to protests.   Any decision Akaev makes – with intrusive, anxious neighbors looking over his shoulder – is risky and might have resonance beyond Kyrgyzstan’s borders. For that reason, the elections in Kyrgyzstan next year are of great interest not only to the voters of that country but to capitals near and far. Mr. Speaker, I hope to be able to report to this chamber next year that democratization has made strides in Central Asia.

  • The Case of Mikhail Trepashkin

    Mr. Speaker, there is reason to fear for the fate of rule of law in Russia. I want to present one relevant example.   Mikhail Trepashkin, an attorney and former Federal Security Service, FSB, officer was arrested on October 24, 2003, a week before he was scheduled to represent in legal proceedings the relatives of one of the victims of a terrorist attack in Moscow. Mr. Trepashkin's American client is Tatyana Morozova of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In September 1999, Ms. Morozova's mother was killed and her sister barely survived the bombing of an apartment house in Moscow. Officially, the crime was blamed on Chechen separatists, but Mr. Trepashkin was expected to present the findings of his investigation which suggested involvement of elements of the FSB in the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow as well as an aborted attempted bombing in the city of Ryazan.   Mr. Trepashkin had been a consultant to the public commission set up by prominent human rights activist and former Duma Deputy Sergei Kovalev to investigate the 1999 bombings. The Kovalev commission asked many unpleasant questions but got precious few answers from the authorities. Meanwhile, in the course of his investigation Trepashkin discovered evidence that didn't track with the official version of the bombing incidents. This included events in Ryazan, where a bomb in an apartment basement was discovered by local police and safely detonated hours before it was due to explode. The two suspects in that case were released after presenting FSB identification documents. The whole incident was later declared a "readiness exercise" by Russian authorities.   Several months later, the co-chairman of the Kovalev Commission, Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, was assassinated in front of his home. Four persons were convicted of the murder. Another member of the Commission died of food poisoning in a hospital, another was severely beaten by thugs, and two members lost their seats in the Duma. The activities of the decimated commission came to an abrupt halt.   A week before the October 24, 2003 trial opened, the police just happened to pull Trepashkin over on the highway, and just happened to find a revolver in his car. Trepashkin claims the gun was planted. Three weeks later, he was put on trial and sentenced to 4 years labor camp by a closed court for allegedly divulging state secrets to a foreign journalist.   Mr. Speaker, I don't know all the details of this case, but it looks very much like Mr. Trepashkin was prosecuted in order to prevent him from releasing potentially damaging information regarding the activities of the FSB. The U.S. State Department has commented diplomatically: "The arrest and trial of Mikhail Trepashkin raised concerns about the undue influence of the FSB and arbitrary use of the judicial system."   Today Mr. Trepashkin is held in a Volokolamsk city jail in a 130-square foot, lice-infested cell, which he shares with six other prisoners. He suffers from asthma but reportedly has been denied health care or even medicine. These arduous conditions may be retaliation for Mr. Trepashkin's filing a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.   It is difficult to believe that President Putin, given his KGB and FSB background, is unaware of the controversy surrounding the bombing investigations and the possibility that elements of the security services were involved. He must realize that corruption and personal vendettas within the FSB are dangerous commodities not only for the people of Russia, but for an entire civilized world that relies on the combined efforts of the intelligence community in the war against terrorism.   I urge President Putin to order a thorough and honest investigation of Mikhail Trepashkin's jailing and full cooperation with the Kovalev Commission. While the jury is still out on the 1999 bombings, persecution of those who want to find out the truth does not add to Mr. Putin's credibility among those in the West who so far have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  

  • Bring Paul Klebnikov’s Killers to Justice

    Mr. Speaker, I want to call the attention of my colleagues to the death of journalist Paul Klebnikov, who was murdered on July 9 of this year outside his Moscow office. An American citizen of Russian lineage, Mr. Klebnikov was editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, he was the 11th journalist killed in Russia in a contract-style murder in the past four and a half years.   Mr. Klebnikov had achieved prominence as a result of his investigative journalism which often focused on the connections between business, politics and crime in Russia. Mr. Klebnikov's investigations resulted in his writing two books, both devoted to exposing corruption within Russia's business and political sectors. Clearly, he made powerful enemies. There has been speculation that his murder was connected to a Forbes article that focused on Moscow's 100 wealthiest people. Someone, goes the theory, did not care for the publicity. Another suggestion is that Mr. Klebnikov's book Conversation with a Barbarian: Interview with a Chechen Field Commander on Banditry and Islam may have sparked a motive for the murder.   It was Mr. Klebnikov's love of Russia and his belief that reforms were advancing the nation toward a greater transparency in business and politics that motivated him to launch the Russian edition of Forbes magazine in April 2004. Mr. Klebnikov was committed to exposing and confronting corruption in the hope that such work would contribute to a brighter future for the people of Russia. He believed that accountability was an essential element to achieve lasting reforms.   Unfortunately, this hope for a better future in Russia has been dealt a serious blow by the murder of Paul Klebnikov. As I and ten other Members of the Helsinki Commission wrote to President Putin on October 5th of this year, much more is at stake than determining who killed Paul Klebnikov. The fear and self-censorship arising from the murders of journalists in Russia only serves to add to the corruption of government officials and businessmen. A cowed press cannot be the effective instrument for building the free and prosperous society that Mr. Putin purports to seek.   Mr. Speaker, according to the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, on the occasion of "Militia Day," November 10, President Vladimir Putin told police officials that protecting the economy from crime and fighting corruption is a priority task in Russia. I would urge Mr. Putin to back up these words with action. Russian authorities should investigate to the fullest extent possible the murder of Mr. Klebnikov, no matter where the trail leads.   Only through rule of law and accountability can Russia achieve the safe, free and comfortable future that Mr. Klebnikov believed was possible.

  • Europe's Largest Annual Human Dimension Meeting Closes With Appeal from NGOs

    By Erika Schlager CSCE Counsel on International Law From October 4-15, 2004, the participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe met in Warsaw, Poland, for a Human Dimension Implementation Meeting.  Each year, the OSCE convenes a forum to discuss the participating States’ compliance with the full range of their OSCE human dimension commitments agreed on the basis of consensus. The United States Delegation was headed by Larry C. Napper, former Ambassador to Kazakhstan and Latvia.  He was joined by Ambassador Stephan M. Minikes, Head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE; Ambassador Michael G. Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; Ambassador Edward O'Donnell, Department of State Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues; J. Kelly Ryan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration; and Matthew Waxman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs.  Members of the staff of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe also participated in the delegation. In the tradition of engaging accomplished individuals from the private sector with human rights expertise, the U.S. Delegation included several public members:  Gavin Helf and Catherine Fitzpatrick, both experts on the countries of the former Soviet Union; Frederick M. Lawrence, Anti-Defamation League; and Mark B. Levin, Executive Director, NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. Broad Range of Issues Reviewed During the first week of the meeting, formal sessions were devoted to a review of the implementation by participating States of the full range of their human rights and fundamental freedom commitments.  During the second week, three days were devoted to topics chosen by the Chair-in-Office, in consultation with the participating States.  This year, the special topics were: the promotion of tolerance and non-discrimination (following up on extra-ordinary conferences held earlier this year on anti-Semitism and on racism, xenophobia and discrimination); freedom of assembly and association; and “complementarity and co-operation between international organizations in promoting human rights.” At the meeting’s mid-way plenary session, the United States expressed particular concern about the deteriorating situation in Turkmenistan.  In 2003, ten OSCE participating States took the unusual step of invoking the "Moscow Mechanism" for the first time in a decade.  They were prompted to do so after Turkmenistan authorities reacted to an attack on President Saparmurat Niyazov's motorcade on November 25, 2002, with a widespread human rights crackdown marked by torture, disappearances, and an escalation of Stalin-era practices.  Turkmenistan refused to cooperate with the mission established under the mechanism and, in 2004, refused to renew the accreditation of the Head of the OSCE Office in Ashgabat, Parachiva Badescu.  Although Turkmenistan again declined to send representatives to participate in the HDIM, the United States argued to the participating States that sustained OSCE engagement on these matters is necessary to counter Turkmenistan’s increasing self-isolation. "Why is it that only the United States helps democracy in Belarus?  Where is Europe?" --Human rights activist from Belarus The need to protect human rights while countering terrorism was a strong theme throughout this year’s meeting.  In addition, the deteriorating situation for human rights defenders in much of the former Soviet region, concern about the elections in Belarus and Ukraine, the failure to implement meaningful reforms in Uzbekistan, and the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons, including Roma from Kosovo, were other issues raised.  In the second week session devoted to tolerance, the United States argued that the Chair-in-Office should appoint two personal representatives to address the problems of anti-Semitism as well as racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. As at past human dimension meetings and meetings of the OSCE Permanent Council, the United States was criticized for retaining the death penalty, contrary to the abolitionist trend among other OSCE participating States. At present, the only other OSCE countries that still officially apply the death penalty are Belarus and Uzbekistan. A U.S.-based nongovernmental organization repeatedly criticized the United States for failing to provide citizens of the District of Columbia the right to voting representation in the Congress.  Belarus issued even more sweeping criticism of U.S. electoral practices. Coming just days before Belarusian elections that the OSCE Election Observation Mission subsequently concluded “fell significantly short of OSCE commitments,” the rebuke by Belarus appeared to be a cynical move to preempt or deflect criticism of its own shortcomings. The abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was condemned by both governmental and non-governmental speakers.  In addition, some participants criticized the United States for the use of military commissions to try alleged terrorists and for a 2002 Department of Justice memorandum that outlined legal defenses and loopholes that might be used to evade statutory and international legal prohibition against torture. Side Events Add Substance One of the striking features of this year’s meeting was the significant increase in the quality and quantity of side events held in conjunction with the formal sessions.  Side events may be organized at the site of the meeting by non-governmental organizations, OSCE institutions or offices, other international organizations, or participating States.  They augment the implementation review by providing an opportunity to examine specific subjects or countries in greater depth.  Like the “corridor” discussions and informal meetings that are part and parcel of any OSCE meeting, side events are also a vehicle for discussing and promoting OSCE action or decisions.  In some instances, side events have presaged the deeper engagement of the OSCE participating States with a particular subject – for example, side events organized by non-governmental organizations on the problem of hate propaganda on the Internet prompted a more in-depth focus on this issue at an OSCE meeting hosted by France earlier this year.   Side events can also help fill gaps in the implementation review process. This year, in the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy, most governments were reluctant to raise the problem of human rights violations in Chechnya.  Nongovernmental groups, however, organized a side event to provide a forum to focus on these issues.  They argued that, while the problems in Chechnya may seem intractable, human rights abuses do diminish when they are raised with the Russian Government. In an effort to respond to concerns about detainee abuse, the United States organized a side event on the subject of detainee issues.  Department of Defense Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Waxman, head of a newly-created DOD office for detainee affairs, discussed steps taken by the United States to address the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere and to prevent such incidents from reoccurring.  The event was open to all participants in the HDIM and, following the presentation of his remarks, Waxman opened the floor for questions. Azerbaijani officials prevented one human rights defender and religious freedom activist from attending the Warsaw meeting.  On October 6, authorities at the Baku airport blocked Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu from boarding his Warsaw-bound flight.   Ibrahimoglu was set to attend the HDIM session on religious freedom and speak out against the forcible seizure of his congregation’s mosque earlier this year.  (Similarly, two Kazakhstani human rights activists, Amirzahan Kosanov and Ermurai Bapi, were prohibited from leaving their country last year in an apparent attempt to prevent them from participating in the HDIM.)  On a more positive note, the meeting may have contributed to a favorable decision by the Armenian Government to approve a long-standing application by Jehovah’s Witnesses to be officially registered as a religious organization.  During the meeting, the U.S. House of Representatives and the United States Senate passed the Belarus Democracy Act (on October 4 and 7 respectively). NGOs Rebut “Astana Declaration” At the closing session of the HDIM, 106 human rights advocates from 16 countries presented a declaration countering criticism by several former Soviet states of the OSCE’s human rights work.  (On July 3, 2004, nine OSCE countries – Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan – issued a statement criticizing the human dimension activities of the OSCE.  A subsequent document signed in Astana, Kazakhstan by eight of the above signatories claimed that there are double standards in fulfillment of OSCE commitments concerning democracy and human rights.)  An NGO spokesperson also urged the OSCE participating States to continue to focus on the issue of freedom of assembly. "The most important principle of international affairs ingrained in international legal documents--'respect for human rights is not an internal affair of a state'--must remain unshakable and must be defended." -- Statement signed by human rights advocates and presented at the closing session of the 2004 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting In a press release issued on October 14, 2004, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) welcomed the NGO declaration.  “While many of the men and women who signed this document engage in human rights advocacy at considerable personal sacrifice and risk, they have clearly stated – in their words – their ‘categorical disagreement with the negative evaluation of OSCE activity.’” This year’s HDIM drew record attendance by 220 nongovernmental organizations from across the region.  This is the only multinational human rights meeting in Europe where non-governmental organization representatives and government representatives may speak with equal status. As at past meetings, the United States held extensive bilateral meetings with government representatives.  In many instances, the focus and scope of those meetings reflected the presence of experts from capital cities.  Additional meetings were held with OSCE officials and representatives of nongovernmental organizations.  In the second week of the HDIM, Human Rights Directors from the OSCE countries also held a working meeting to discuss issues of mutual concern. Looking Ahead With a view to the 2005 calendar of human dimension activities, the United States suggested that there are several subjects that deserve focused attention next year.  These include: migration and integration; protection of religious freedom in the fight against terrorism; the challenges of new election technologies, such as electronic voting; and the role of defense lawyers.  The United States also welcomed the Spanish offer to host a follow-up event on tolerance next year in Cordoba and recommended that next year’s HDIM should include another special topic day on the fight against anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and discrimination.  The United States proposed that at least one of the Supplementary Human Dimension Implementation Meetings next year be held outside of Vienna, in order to make the meeting more dynamic and allow participants to take part who might not normally be able to travel to Vienna.  (Since 1999, three Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings have been held each year.  Existing modalities allow for them to be convened in various locations but, so far, all have been held in Vienna.) During the closing session, the Dutch Delegation, on behalf of the 25 European Union member states and four candidate countries, noted that there had been insufficient time to address the agenda items during the first week of the HDIM and, during the second week, more time than some subjects warranted.  For example, there was insufficient time to accommodate all those who wished to take the floor during the discussion of national minorities and Roma; the session on freedom of speech and expression was held to standing-room capacity.  By contrast, the session mandated to discuss the OSCE’s “project work” closed early – as it has every year since the subject first appeared on the meeting agenda – when the speakers’ list was exhausted before the end of the allotted time.  Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Christian Strohal agreed that "we should adapt our time management." Changes might also, conceivably, be made to the process of compiling a summary of the “recommendations” made at the meeting, a process that grew out of a desire to have a more substantive record of the meeting (in addition to the little-known but publicly available Journals of the Day).  In fact, these summaries have generally turned out to be an unsatisfactory product, notwithstanding the considerable effort of those tasked with producing them.  By definition, summaries must leave a great deal out, and both governments and nongovernmental organizations have complained when their particular recommendations are among those omitted.  Moreover, the summary of recommendations is usually scrubbed of any country-specific recommendations, leaving only anodyne boilerplate language.  In its opening statement at this year’s HDIM, the Netherlands, on behalf of the European Union and four candidate countries, argued that the process of compiling ever longer recommendations had become “non-productive and counter-productive.” At this year’s meeting, the ODIHR launched a highly effective new documents distribution system.  Through a bank of computers on site, participants were able to print copies of any document submitted for circulation.  (This replaced a paper system of distributing all copies of all statements to all participants.)  Moreover, this system allowed participants to email any document, making targeted distribution much more efficient and environmentally friendly.  With the full texts of interventions and additional written material so easily available, the rationale for creating a written summary of recommendations for the benefit of those who were not able to attend the meeting is less compelling. The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords.  The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

  • Supporting Democracy in Belarus

    Mr. President, I welcome the unanimous passage of the Belarus Democracy Act, BDA, by the United States Senate last night following similar action by the House of Representatives earlier this week. As co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I am particularly pleased at timely adoption of this important legislation. I thank Chairman Lugar and Senator Biden for their assistance in facilitating consideration of this bill by the full Senate.   Repression and stagnation have been the hallmarks of the regime of Aleksandr Lukashenka, the leader of Belarus who increasingly tightened the noose around those who express independent views. A series of fundamentally flawed elections have left Belarus without legitimate executive and parliamentary leadership. Against this backdrop, preparations are underway for parliamentary elections and a referendum later this month. The elections take place in an environment in which the regime has intensified its repression of the remaining independent media and vilification of the opposition and their supporters. Lukashenka is also seeking to manipulate the situation to extend his rule by eliminating constitutional term limits for president, possibly paving the way for him to become a ``president-for-life.''   As co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I have maintained a strong interest in Belarus and have tried to inform my Senate colleagues about the increasingly troubling developments in that strategically located country, whose 10 million people have suffered cruelty at the hands of czars, Nazis, Communists and now, Aleksandr Lukashenka. During my service on the Commission, I have met and come to know many of the courageous individuals, who often at personal risk have spoken out in support of democracy in the face of Europe's last dictatorship, including the spouses of opposition leaders and a journalist who disappeared in 1999 and 2000 because they dared speak to the truth.   Belarus, under Lukashenka, has the worst human rights record in Europe. His regime has increasingly violated basic human rights and freedoms. The goal of the Belarus Democracy Act is to help put an end to repression and human rights violations in Belarus and to promote Belarus' entry into a democratic Euro-Atlantic community of nations following years of self-imposed isolation.   The Belarus Democracy Act authorizes additional assistance for democracy-building activities such as support for NGOs, independent media, including radio broadcasting to Belarus, and international exchanges. It also encourages free and fair parliamentary elections, which have been notably absent in Belarus and which look to be highly problematic when they are held on October 17, judging by the pre-election environment and the regime's tight control over the electoral process.   The BDA includes sense of the Congress language that would prohibit U.S. Government financing, except for humanitarian reasons and U.S. executive directors of the international financial institutions would be encouraged to vote against financial assistance to the Government of Belarus except for loans and assistance for humanitarian needs. The bill also requires a report from the President concerning the sale of delivery of weapons or weapons-related technologies from Belarus to rogue states and on the personal wealth and assets of Lukashenka.   Nearly 2 years after the introduction of the Belarus Democracy Act the situation in that country has spiraled downward. Adoption and implementation of the Belarus Democracy Act will offer hope that the current period of political, economic and social stagnation will indeed end. It shows our concrete support for the courageous individuals, non-governmental organizations, independent media and independent trade unions struggling mightily against the machine of repression. And it shows our support for the people of Belarus, who deserve a chance for a brighter future.

  • Advancing U.S. Interests through the OSCE

    The OSCE has been a pioneer in defining an integrated approach to security, one in which human rights and economic well-being are as key to a nation’s stability as are traditional military forces.  It remains not only the largest trans-Atlantic organization, but the one with the broadest definition of security.  The OSCE has also created the most innovative habits of dialogue and collective action of any multilateral organization in the world.  The focus of the hearing will be how the OSCE can be used most effectively to highlight and advance the interests of the United States.  Among the subjects to be covered will be objectives for the December (2004) meeting of Foreign Ministers in Sofia; recent high-impact security initiatives; expectations for the upcoming Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw; and refining and strengthening the OSCE.

  • Mass Murder of Roma at Auschwitz Sixty Years Ago

    Madam President, during World War II, some 23,000 Roma were sent to Auschwitz, mostly from Germany, Austria, and the occupied Czech lands. Sixty Years ago, on the night of August 2 and 3, the order was given to liquidate the “Gypsy Camp” at Auschwitz. Over the course of that night, 2,898 men, women, and children were put to death in the gas chambers. In all, an estimated 18,000 Roma died at Auschwitz-Birkenau.   During the intervening years, Aug. 2 and 3 have become days to remember the Porrajmos, the Romani word that means "the Devouring," and to mourn the Romani losses of the Holocaust.   As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has suggested, Roma are ``understudied victims'' of the Nazis. What we don't know about the Romani experiences during the war is far greater than what is known.   But we do know that the fate of the Roma varied from country to county, and depended on many factors. We know that, in addition to the atrocities in Auschwitz, thousands of Roma were gassed at Chelmno. We know that an estimated 90 percent of Croatia's Romani population--tens of thousands of people--was murdered. We know that approximately 25,000 Roma were deported by the Romanian regime to Transnistria in 1942, where some 19,000 of them perished there in unspeakable conditions. We know that in many places, such as Hungary, Roma were simply executed at the village edge and dumped into mass graves. We know that in Slovakia, Roma were put into forced labor camps, and that in France, Roma were kept in internment camps for fully a year after the war ended.   Still, far more research remains to be done in this field, especially with newly available archives like those from the Lety concentration camp in the Czech Republic. I commend the Holocaust Museum for the efforts it has made to shed light on this still dark corner of the past, and I welcome the work of nongovernmental organizations, such as the Budapest-based Roma Press Center, for collecting the memories of survivors.   I do not think I can overstate the consequences of the Porrajmos. Some scholars estimate that as many as half of Europe's Romani minority perished. For individuals, for families, and for surviving communities, those losses were devastating. Tragically, the post-war treatment of Roma compounded one set of injustices with others. Those who were most directly involved in developing the Nationalist-Socialist framework for the racial persecution of Roma--Robert Ritter and Eva Justin--were never brought to justice for their crimes and were allowed to continue their medical careers after the war. The investigative files on Ritter--including evidence regarding his role in the forced sterilization of Roma--were destroyed. German courts refused to recognize, until 1963, that the persecution of Roma based on their ethnic identity began at least as early as 1938. By the time of the 1963 ruling, many Romani survivors had already died.   During my years of service on the leadership of the Helsinki Commission, I have been struck by the tragic plight of Roma throughout the OSCE region. It is not surprising that, given the long history of their persecution, Roma continue to fight racism and discrimination today. I commend Slovakia for adopting comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation in May. As the OSCE participating states prepare for a major conference on racism, discrimination, and xenophobia, to be held in September, I hope they will be prepared to address the persistent manifestations of racism against Roma--manifestations that often carry echoes of the Holocaust.

  • Advancing Democracy in Albania

    Albania is expected to hold new parliamentary elections, and further reform is viewed as key to their success.  The country has faced tremendous challenges in its democratic development since emerging from harsh communist rule and self-imposed isolation in the early 1990s. Despite highly polarized politics and splits within the Socialist camp in particular, there has been renewed progress.  Albania, nevertheless, continues to face the difficult task, common to the region, of tackling organized crime and official corruption. The Albanian Government is making efforts, for example, to combat trafficking in persons, though it remains a source and a transit country for women and children who are sexually exploited or used as forced labor elsewhere in Europe.  Meanwhile, Albania has maintained strong bilateral ties with the United States and cooperated with the international response to past regional conflicts. The country is a strong supporter of the war on terrorism and works within the framework of the Adriatic Charter, a U.S. initiative that includes Macedonia and Croatia, in laying the groundwork for further European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

  • Commission Hearing Surveys Human Rights in Putin's Russia

    By John Finerty Staff Advisor The United States Helsinki Commission held a hearing on May 20, 2004 to review governance practices and human rights in the Russian Federation under President Vladimir Putin.  Witnesses focused on media independence, religious freedom, judicial procedures, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and the war in Chechnya. Opening the hearing, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) expressed apprehension that President Putin was leading Russia in an authoritarian direction, increasingly reliant on Russia’s security apparatus and intelligence agencies to govern the country.  Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) also voiced his concerns, focusing on corruption in the Russian Government and abuses in the war in Chechnya. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Steven Pifer stated that Russians enjoy freedom of travel and emigration, and an independent print media that engages in robust political debates; religious association and expression is generally free, and Russians have incorporated voting into their political practices. However, Pifer voiced concern with the Putin administration’s undue influence on judicial proceedings, state control or sway over the broadcast media, the pressuring of non-governmental organizations, anti-Semitism, abuses in the war in Chechnya, and the lack of a level electoral playing field for the political opposition. Ambassador Pifer cited the U.S. record of advocating democratization and human rights to the Russian leadership, while pursuing cooperation on mutual security interests such as the war on terrorism, arms control, counter-proliferation, and the resolution of regional conflicts. Gary Kasparov, former world chess champion and chairman of Committee 2008: Free Choice, presented a critical view of the Putin administration, lamenting the slide of the Russian Government into authoritarianism.  He described a variety of policies undertaken by the Putin administration that he viewed as backtracking from the democratic progress of the 1990s, including the curtailment of civil liberties and the flagrant abuse of human rights. Specifically, Kasparov described government influence over the broadcast media and manipulation of elections. The war in Chechnya had been sidelined as a topic of news discussion, he asserted, thus facilitating the concealment of wartime human rights abuses.  He also faulted the media for disregarding the ineptness of government responses to terrorist attacks. On elections, Kasparov characterized the December 2003 parliamentary polls as unfair, and predicted that President Putin would use parliamentary maneuvers to change the constitution and extend his term, perhaps indefinitely. Mr. Kasparov condemned Russian activities in the Chechen war and described how “hundreds of Chechens, if not thousands, are being interrogated, tortured and killed” by Russian soldiers. He called for the deployment of independent observers to monitor Russian behavior and promote observance of human rights.  As a final critique, Kasparov charged that Putin had stripped the judicial system of its independence and was using it to silence political opponents and critics, such as Mikhail Khordorkovsky and Igor Sutyagin. As for solutions, Kasparov highlighted his efforts to expose the corruption of the December 2003 elections through a lawsuit and public advocacy. He also urged the United States to use diplomatic means to leverage the Russian Government into democratic and civil liberties concessions. Edward Lozansky, president of Russia House and the American University in Moscow, offered a contrasting opinion, pointing to the successes of the Putin administration in taming the “oligarchs” and encouraging economic growth. He viewed state control of the broadcast media as less of a crisis, contending that free alternatives, such as print, electronic, and foreign media, provide the people with a variety of viewpoints. Ultimately, Dr. Lozansky argued, “President Putin enjoys overwhelming support of the Russian people” and that the Russian people “can freely express their opinions.” In closing, Lozansky suggested the United States should not undermine its relationship with Russia through unnecessary criticism, since bilateral cooperation between the nations remains essential in the war on terrorism, space exploration, energy, and the environment.  Engagement and dialogue, rather than condemnation, is paramount, he suggested. Reverend Igor Nikitin, president of the Association of Christian Churches in Russia, offered a mixed assessment of the status of religious liberty in Russia.  In northwest Russia and St. Petersburg particularly, religious tolerance is the norm.  In other regions, however, Protestant churches and other non-Orthodox denominations have experienced discrimination and bureaucratic malfeasance.  For instance, an unconstitutional requirement for churches to register their members – as opposed to merely the institution – is frequently enforced by local authorities, and a Moscow court has ordered the “liquidation” of the city’s community of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Nikitin urged measures to educate Russian officials on the importance of religious freedom as a civil liberty. Nickolai Butkevich, Research and Advocacy Director of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, discussed the situation regarding xenophobia and the treatment of minorities in Russia. Mr. Butkevich noted that President Putin has made efforts at the national level to combat xenophobia, but that implementation of relevant directives is uneven at the local level. Some regions and cities have combated xenophobia and anti-Semitism, while other authorities have actively encouraged it. Mr. Butkevich described cases in Vladivostok, Voronezh, and other cities where individuals had been subject to abuse and local authorities reacted uncaringly or in collusion with perpetrators. In answer to a question posed by Chairman Smith on the disparity between the Russian Government’s public and international pronouncements that it will combat anti-Semitism and its failed implementation of such policies domestically, Butkevich blamed the disparity on a lack of prioritization by the central government.  Mr. Kasparov contended though that President Putin has done nothing to address anti-Semitism or quell xenophobia. Answering other questions on the attitudes of the United States and the West toward the Chechen situation, governmental corruption, and the judiciary, Dr. Lozansky replied that Russia is stabilizing under the pragmatic policies of President Putin and that the international community must engage the country on matters of mutual interest. The witnesses responded with divergent views as to whether Russia was moving toward autocracy.  While Kasparov made his case strongly that Russia was, Lozansky again insisted that it was not.  Mr. Butkevich suggested that Russia was “backsliding toward authoritarianism,” but that President Putin certainly retains popular support. Reverend Nikitin stressed that the next few years will determine whether Russia evolves toward civil and religious liberty or tsarist, oppressive governance reemerges. The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives, and one official from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce. United States Helsinki Commission Intern Colby Daughtry contributed to this article.

  • Georgia's "Rose Revolution"

    First, a “revolution” was possible in Georgia because during Eduard Shevardnadze’s tenure, opposition leaders, parties and society had developed leeway for action which did not exist elsewhere in the Caucasus, not to speak of Central Asia. Since the late 1980s, many parties and NGOs had emerged, as had relatively free media. Their freedom of maneuver and action, which translated into effective political influence, reflected Shevardnadze’s own relatively liberal attitudes, the weakness of the Georgian state— i.e., its inability to control and co-opt competing center of power and authority—and Georgians’ unruly national character. Moreover, international NGOs were deeply involved in Georgian events. Much press and analytical attention has been focused on the Open Society Institute of the Soros Foundation, which funded critically important groups like Georgia’s Liberty Institute, its leading human rights organization. Some Liberty Institute associates traveled to Serbia to study how Slobodan Milosevic had been ousted. Closely allied with 5 the Liberty Institute was the student movement Kmara [“Enough”], which mobilized opposition to vote fraud countrywide. These groups, urged on by opposition politicians, were determined not to let Shevardnadze and Georgia’s entrenched political groups steal the election. Second, the Georgian state, crippled by corruption, was extremely weak. The worst consequence of this weakness was that criminals and crooked officials did not worry about the possible penalties of breaking the law. But this weakness ultimately made possible November’s Rose Revolution by dissipating the state’s ability to resist better organized players. True, international organizations and foreign capitals were urging a peaceful resolution of the showdown and warning Shevardnadze—whom everyone expected to remain in office until 2005—that resorting to violence would end in disaster. But by November 2003, Shevardnadze could no longer command the state’s coercive apparatus; in the end, nobody was willing to act against crowds peacefully calling, first, for new elections and then for his resignation. Third, Georgia’s key opposition leaders were united. Unlike counterparts in Armenia and Azerbaijan, “Misha” Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze were able to overcome their longstanding differences and competing ambitions to act together. While the latter two may have—as reported—trailed the former in his conviction that Shevardnadze had to go, they overcame their doubts and hung together until the final triumph. Saakashvili, for his part, has continued to collaborate with them after his inauguration and often restates his determination to keep doing so. Fourth, Georgia had Rustavi-2 TV, which powerfully shaped public opinion. In fact, the events in Georgia last November have demonstrated convincingly the power of independent—i.e., not state-controlled—television in former Soviet republics. It was a failed attempt by the state to pressure Rustavi-2 in November 2001 that produced the biggest public protest in Georgia before November 2003. At that time, thousands of demonstrators not only forced Shevardnadze to back down, he was compelled to dismiss his entire government. Not for nothing has the ruling elite in other former Soviet states contrived so consistently to keep TV in its own hands. If there is any downside to the influence Rustavi-2 wielded in Georgia, it is the strengthened conviction of repressive rulers elsewhere to prevent at all costs the emergence of analogous TV stations. Fifth, economic conditions in Georgia had been deteriorating for years, with no respite in sight. Over the last few years, residents of Baku and Yerevan have told Helsinki Commission staff that things were getting better, even if slightly, but in Tbilisi conditions had fallen steadily. A seemingly endless stream of winters without heat or electricity and little or no prospect of improvement sapped support for Shevardnadze. Desperate Georgians had concluded by November 2003 that almost anything was better than what they had, despite the uncertainties. Within Georgia, the Rose Revolution greatly accelerated the country’s scheduled political processes, resolving several fundamental problems and opening the door to new opportunities. In one stroke, a longanticipated political succession that was expected to feature a long winnowing process, tough negotiations and possibly violence among contending groups was eclipsed by a sustained manifestation of popular will. The Rose Revolution has had a major impact on the other countries of the former Soviet Union. First of all, it was an inspiring victory for democracy and even peaceful conflict resolution. While ruling elites have stolen elections throughout the former Soviet space, in Georgia a group of opposition leaders managed to unite and unify behind themselves large enough numbers of voters to thwart an attempted theft of the vote. No less important, they did so peacefully, settling the dispute between state and society without bloodshed. The Georgian events have created an important precedent and elsewhere have inspired frustrated opposition activists who followed Georgian events closely.

  • Activists Brief Commission on the War in Chechnya, Civil Society and Military Reform in Russia

    By John Finerty CSCE Staff Advisor The United States Helsinki Commission held a briefing entitled “The War in Chechnya and Russian Civil Society” on June 17, 2004 with representatives of one of the largest and most active nongovernmental organizations in Russia, the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia. Valentina Melnikova, National Director of CSM, and Natalia Zhukova, Chairwoman of the Nizhny Novgorod Committee of CSM, briefed the Commission on their efforts to publicize and protest human rights abuses in the Russian military and the current state of civil society in Russia. Helsinki Commission Senior Advisor Elizabeth B. Pryor opened the briefing, noting concerns that President Vladimir Putin’s verbal attacks on human rights organizations and their funding sources – delivered on May 26 during his annual State of the Federation address – may indicate future trouble for Russian NGOs perceived as politically hostile to the Kremlin. Ms. Zhukova described the work of her committee and addressed the impact of Putin’s recent comments on the committee’s activities.  The Nizhny Novgorod Committee is one of 300 such bodies under the umbrella of CSM, comprising approximately 30 volunteer workers and handling nearly 2,000 requests for assistance from parents and soldiers annually.  “The problem is that most [people] have simply no idea of what’s going on in their military…because television is censored,” she said. According to Zhukova, the Nizhny Novgorod Committee also provides assistance to approximately 700 deserters annually, precipitated by “beatings, harsh hazing on the part of officers and other soldiers, a criminal environment in the unit, lack of medical assistance, cases of extortion of money, [and] use of soldiers for slave labor.”   In cooperation with the Foundation for Civil Liberties, CSM provides mediation services with authorities and legal assistance to the military deserters and their families. The Committee also works to ensure social protection for veterans of the Chechen wars with disabilities, lobbying and leading demonstrations in support of adequate allowances for wounded soldiers, and the families of those killed in action. Regarding the recent condemnation of Russian NGOs by top military and administration officials, Ms. Zhukova noted, “I can’t say that we experience direct persecution.… But after the onslaught announced by the Minister of Defense and after the State of the Nation address by President Putin, we believe that we have to expect financial pressure.” President Putin’s May 26 address, in which he accused some NGOs of serving “dubious group and commercial interests” rather than those of the Russian people, has been “viewed by the local authorities as an order,” according to Ms. Zhukova.  Since Putin’s speech, she noted, the local governor has revoked the Committee’s discount on their office rent, resulting in a tenfold cost increase.  Moreover, local funding has been depleted because “local businessmen have been so intimidated by the onslaught against us by the Ministry of Defense and by President Putin that we cannot expect anything from them,” she said. Neither does CSM receive substantial financing from abroad, Zhukova maintains, “We serve the interests of millions of Russian soldiers and their parents, defending them from arbitrary rule and lawlessness of the authorities.” Ms. Melnikova addressed the effects of the Putin administration on Russian civil society.  The Russian people, she asserted, have been deprived of both political opposition and independent media since Putin came to power.  She listed “the closed nature of the Chechen war, lack of information, [and] direct deceit of the population by the authorities,” as the negative effects of his administration’s actions.  As a result of Putin’s policies, she said, “The war in Chechnya has ceased to exist as far as the Russian public is concerned.”  Through media controls and a vigorous propaganda campaign, she said, the Russian Government has led the people to believe “that what’s going on in Chechnya is a counterterrorist operation, that we are fighting Arab mercenaries and Al Qaeda units.”  “In reality, the Chechen problem has nothing to do with international terrorism or Islamic fundamentalism…. There is no trace of stabilization in Chechnya, and there are no attempts by the Russian authorities to strive for a peaceful resolution of the problem,” Melnikova stated. Portraying the Russian military as a “decrepit, poorly managed, federally-corrupted structure,” she described the same grim situation as Ms. Zhukova.  In Chechnya, she charged, Russian officers force young men to become military criminals.  If they return from service alive, they are often psychologically or physically disabled, and abandoned by the government that sent them to Chechnya. In answer to a question by Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) regarding the recently enacted Russian legislation on alternative military service, Melnikova called the alternative civil service law “inadequate.” She noted that it requires that soldiers serve terms double the length of ordinary military service, perform tasks that do not serve civil society, and often work hundreds of miles away from home.  The panelists requested that Chairman Smith raise such issues as the fate of a bill regarding civilian control of the armed forces, which has been introduced in the State Duma, and the possibility for a second amnesty for military deserters when he meets with the Speaker of the State Duma at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in early July. Chairman Smith indicated that U.S. officials have, in past meetings with Russian leaders, raised concerns about violent hazing of military conscripts.  In response, Melnikova provided Smith with recent copies of “The News of the Committee of the Soldiers’ Mothers,” featuring vivid photographs of soldiers that had suffered serious injuries as a result of such hazing.  “Russian officers do not treat their soldiers as human beings,” she said, “therefore, everything goes on as before.” Regarding the international community’s response to the Chechen conflict, Melnikova claimed: “There is not enough pressure exerted on Mr. Putin. … Ten years of war have infuriated both the Russian military and the Chechens to such an extent that we don’t see any possibility of peaceful resolution....  But I think Russia’s partners simply have to exert pressure on Putin to make him make at least some tentative steps toward peace, maybe offer some intermediate negotiations, maybe seek some mediation efforts on the part of governments or nongovernmental organizations.  At least something has to be done.” Ms. Melnikova further criticized “the active connivance of the leaders of Western countries, including the United States” as one of the key reasons for the continued restriction of human rights in Russia.  She voiced concern that Washington leaders now believe “that the Russian people don’t need democracy…. That the West supports the anti-democratic policies of the Russian authorities is simply absurd,” she said. She concluded by stating that the CSM “advocates and conducts a social campaign for military reform, for abolition of conscription and for the [establishment] of a professional armed force,” as well as for peace in Chechnya and the expansion of civilian control over the military.  The CSM provides direct aid to more than 50,000 soldiers and their families annually. Finally, Melnikova argued that the “legal slavery, chaos, and corruption at all levels of the Russian military compromises not only Russian civil society but also the strategic objectives of Russia’s allies, including nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  Absent democracy,” she said, “there can be no safe Russia.” Asked about recent attacks on nongovernmental organizations by Putin administration officials, Melnikova mentioned that Putin’s criticisms were preceded by comments by the Minister of Defense and Deputy Minister of Justice to the effect that NGOs were pursuing subversive or illegal activities.  Although she hopes that NGOs will not be targeted by the national authorities, she said that the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky has tempered her optimism. Responding to questions about funding from Russian oligarchs, Melnikova stated, “Oligarchs dread to touch us [because] there is always a chance that the authorities can charge any businessman with any crime and throw him in prison, and they know it.” The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords.  The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce. United States Helsinki Commission Intern Christen Broecker contributed to this article.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing Sheds Light on Russia's Human Rights Situation

    By John Finerty CSCE Staff Advisor On June 7, 2004, the United States Helsinki Commission held a briefing with four prominent Russian human rights activists to examine the state of human rights and civil liberties in the Russian Federation.  Entitled “Russia: Are Rights in Retreat?,” the briefing covered such topics as elections, Chechnya, religious liberty, media freedom and the overall functioning of the legislative and judicial branches. The briefing was a follow up to the Commission’s May 20th hearing on “Human Rights in Putin’s Russia.” The briefing panel included Ludmilla Alexeeva, Chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group and President of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.  Other participants were Arseni Roginsky, Chairman of the International Memorial Society; Alexei Simonov, Head of the Glasnost Defense Fund; and Mara Polyakova, Director of the Independent Council for Legal Expertise. Commission Deputy Chief of Staff Ronald J. McNamara began the briefing with a moment of silence to honor the passing of President Ronald Reagan, a “stalwart supporter of freedom and human rights.” McNamara noted the timeliness of the briefing given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s U.S. visit to Sea Island, Georgia, for the G-8 Summit.  He stated that despite Putin’s claim that “nothing will stop Russia” in its quest for economic and democratic freedom, some of Putin’s comments in his State of the Federation address had raised concerns over the Kremlin’s commitment to promote civil society in Russia.  Putin’s accusations of NGOs seeking outside funding and not addressing serious issues were particularly troubling insofar as they may signal the beginning of a crackdown against NGOs in Russia.  Mr. McNamara also referenced the growing problem of “spy mania,” with potentially chilling implications for Russia’s academics and scientific community. Arseni Roginsky began his remarks by stating that the trend in Russia over the past few years has been marked by “the efforts of the powers-that-be to destroy the isolated islands of independence and democracy that still continue to exist in Russia.”  Specifically, Roginsky pointed to the new Russian law limiting public demonstrations and a new law on referenda.  In sentiments echoed by other panelists, he decried the emergence of “made-to-order” elections controlled almost exclusively by the Putin administration and moneyed interests. Ms. Alexeeva later reiterated the concern about the changes on referenda, noting that even if the requisite two million signatures can be garnered, under the new law she believes mid-level Russian bureaucrats will be able to stop indefinitely the progress of a referendum. While the Putin administration has been quick to point to the Russian Constitution and its promise of free speech, Roginsky and panelist Alexei Simonov both claimed that this de jure right does not exist in reality.  According to Simonov, while Russians may be legally entitled to say or print controversial statements, these sentiments are ignored by the powers-that-be. He contended that “[freedom of speech] means not only to shout out but to be heard.”  According to Simonov, there are only four independent-minded Russian magazines with a combined circulation of around 500,000. Smaller such newspapers exist as well, but the costs of protecting against defamation suits, which number more than 50 per month according to Simonov, make it increasingly hard for them to stay in business.  He also stated that most editorials in newspapers are written by what amount to essentially local bureaucrats; most newspapers rely on government or private funding, making them hardly free and independent.  Simonov estimates that only 10 to 15 percent of newspapers are self-sustaining. “Most of them take money from somewhere, and each has this special somewhere, but nobody wants to speak of these ‘somewheres,’” he concluded. Related to this issue is more direct government control over radio and television broadcasts which are the main source of information for most Russians. Ms. Alexeeva and other panelists asserted that “government-controlled media reported those campaigns [in 2003/2004] in an utterly biased way,” denying access to opposition candidates and giving the United Russia Party extensive coverage. Another common theme throughout the briefing was the lack of judicial independence or reform. Mr. Roginsky prefaced the topic by noting that “…the court system is under great influence of the nationalistic, patriotic ideology that is flourishing in Russia at this time.” He specifically spoke of a recent case involving four Russian soldiers who admitted to killing six Chechen civilians by mistake and then attempting to cover it up.  In Mr. Roginsky’s words, “The jury and the courts did state that indeed the murder had taken place; the people were killed. The people who were being tried were those who perpetrated the killing; however, they were not [found] guilty.” Mara Polyakova spoke extensively about judicial reform.  She admitted that new democratic laws are being passed which reflect democratic principles, but the mechanisms needed to implement these principles are often lacking or are thwarted.  She also stated that prisoners in Russia are tortured and that court records are still falsified.  “The judges are still dependent in spite of the fact that their independence was loudly proclaimed in the constitution and other laws, because the real power remains in the hands of the chairmen of the courts who are part of or prone to influence by the executive,” Polyakova said. Speaking specifically on the war in Chechnya, Roginsky described the large number of Chechen civilians abducted or kidnapped monthly, and the one-sided propaganda about the conflict emanating from the state-controlled media. However, Mr. Roginsky denied that the term “genocide” applies to the current Chechen situation (as opposed to the 1944 deportations), calling it instead state-sponsored terror.  In response to a question regarding cutbacks in U.S. assistance for democracy programs in Russia, Simonov said, “Americans do not quite correctly understand what is happening in Russia.  They seem to like the democratic record of the current Russian Government, and they seem to be taking this rhetoric as the truth.”  On a similar note, he later recommended that U.S. officials and international organizations should “never take at face value anything said by officials in Russia.” Mr. McNamara raised the religious freedom issue, specifically the labeling of non-Russian Orthodox groups as “non-traditional religions” and the court-ordered “liquidation” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in Moscow, despite federal recognition.  Ms. Alexeeva responded by saying that it would appear the Russian Orthodox Church is striving to become a state religion as it once was.  The panelists were pessimistic about the chances of a successful appeal of the recent Moscow court decision against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, although Simonov suggested that any pressure from President Bush during the G-8 Summit might have an impact. Despite the comments of the panelists painting a fairly bleak picture of the state of civil and human rights in Russia, Ms. Alexeeva did caution that “if you look from the outside in, everything seems to be more frightening than when you are on the inside of that state. I don’t think the fascist system is being created in our country, and even less that it has already been created.” In closing the briefing, Mr. McNamara sought to put events in perspective by recalling that in November 1986 there were 700 known Soviet political prisoners and prisoners of conscience as well as tens of thousands of divided families in the U.S.S.R.  He noted that all of those prisoners had been released and many of those emigration cases resolved by January 19, 1989, President Reagan’s final day in office. The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce. United States Helsinki Commission Intern Nicholas Adams contributed to this article.

  • Unsolved Murder of Ukrainian Journalist Heorhiy Gongadze

    Mr. President, for nearly 4 years the case of murdered Ukrainian investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze has gone unsolved, despite repeated calls by the Helsinki Commission, the State Department, and the international community for a fair and impartial investigation into this case. As cochairman of the Helsinki Commission, I have met with Gongadze's widow and their young twin daughters. Besides the human tragedy of the case, the Gongadze murder is a case study of the Ukrainian authorities' utter contempt for the rule of law.   Gongadze, who was editor of the Ukrainian Internet news publication Ukrainska Pravda, which was critical of high-level corruption in Ukraine, disappeared in September 2000. His headless body was found in November of that year. That same month, audio recordings by a former member of the presidential security services surfaced that included excerpts of earlier conversations between Ukrainian President Kuchma and other senior officials discussing the desirability of Gongadze's elimination.   Earlier this week, Ukraine's Prosecutor General's office announced that Ihor Honcharov, a high-ranking police officer who claimed to have information on how Ministry of Internal Affairs officials carried out orders to abduct Gongadze, died of “spinal trauma” while in police custody last year. This came on the heels of an article in the British newspaper, The Independent, which obtained leaked confidential documents from Ukraine indicating repeated obstruction into the Gongadze case at the highest levels. Furthermore, just yesterday, Ukraine's Prosecutor General announced that investigators are questioning a suspect who has allegedly admitted to killing Gongadze.   Many close observers of the Ukrainian authorities' mishandling, obfuscation and evasiveness surrounding this case from the outset are suspicious with respect to this announcement. Just one of numerous examples of the Ukrainian authorities' obstruction of the case was the blocking of FBI experts from examining evidence gathered during the initial investigation in April 2002, after the Bureau had been invited by these authorities to advise and assist in the case and earlier had helped in identifying Gongadze's remains.   The Ukrainian parliament's committee investigating the murder has recommended criminal proceedings against President Kuchma. This committee's work has been thwarted at every turn over the course of the last several years by the top-ranking Ukrainian authorities.   A serious and credible investigation of this case is long overdue--one which brings to justice not only the perpetrators of this crime, but all those complicit in Gongadze's disappearance and murder, including President Kuchma.   Ukraine faces critically important presidential elections this October. Last month, I introduced a bipartisan resolution urging the Ukrainian Government to ensure a democratic, transparent and fair election process. Unfortunately, there have been serious problems in Ukraine's pre-election environment.   Ukraine can do much to demonstrate its commitment to democracy and the rule of law by conducting free and fair elections and fully and honestly investigating those who were behind the murder of Heorhiy Gongadze. The Ukrainian people deserve no less.  

  • Uzbekistan: Stifled Democracy, Human Rights in Decline

    The hearing will examine democratization and human rights in Uzbekistan in light of the impending decision by the Department of State whether to certify Uzbekistan to continue receiving U.S. assistance. Uzbekistan, an OSCE participating State since 1992, has been closely cooperating with the United States in the campaign against international terrorism.  There is a U.S. military base in Uzbekistan and Washington has stepped up assistance significantly since 2001.  The agreement on Strategic Partnership and Cooperation was signed by President Bush and President Karimov in March 2002. However, Uzbekistan’s human rights record has remained poor, impeding the further development of U.S.-Uzbek relations.  Late last year, the State Department decertified Uzbekistan for aid under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program because it had not made progress toward ending police torture and other abuses.

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