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Rep. Smith Chairs Helsinki Commission Hearing on ISIS Recruitment of Foreign Fighters in Central Asia

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

WASHINGTON—At a hearing convened today by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) and other lawmakers examined why Central Asia has become an increasingly fertile source of foreign fighters for radical militant groups like ISIS, and explored how the United States can continue supporting efforts in Central Asia aimed at countering violent extremism and preventing the flow of foreign fighters to radical organizations.

“A year ago today, the city of Mosul fell to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, during a wave of violence that swept brutally through Northern Iraq,” said Rep. Smith, who called today’s hearing. “Many of those who took part in the offensive were foreign fighters – in fact, the UN Security Council recently estimated that there are now at least 25,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 100 countries who have travelled internationally to join or fight for terrorist entities associated with ISIS and Al-Qaida.”

“According to the International Crisis Group, as many as 4,000 foreign fighters come from the five countries of central Asia. Just last week, we learned that the chief of Tajikistan’s counter-terrorism program – someone highly trained by our own government – abandoned his post to join ISIS,” he continued.

“What does this say about the current efforts to stop terror-minded men and women from volunteering and traveling to the Middle East?” Rep. Smith asked. “Clearly, our government – working with others and with organizations like the OSCE – must take stronger action to combat radicalization beyond our borders, as well as to ensure that returning foreign fighters do not bring jihad and murder back home.”

Witnesses testifying at the hearing focused on the risk factors for radicalization of Central Asian nationals, as well as efforts currently underway and additional recommendations on combating the recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters at the national and international levels.

“The nations of Central Asia, and the nations of the world, are waking up to the challenge of foreign terrorist fighters in Syria and Iraq,” said Daniel N. Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia. “The United States plans to continue to work with global institutions, regional groups, and national governments to confront the challenge of foreign fighters and reduce the threat to our partners, allies, and to our own country…the Department of State is eager to work closely with this Commission and others in Congress to address this generational challenge.”

Frank J. Cilluffo, director of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at the George Washington University, noted, “The ideology and narrative of violent Islamist extremist movements and groups continues to resonate with and successfully recruit individuals who are susceptible to such propaganda...Pushing back on this narrative in order to expose its inherent inconsistencies and falsehoods must therefore be a crucial plank in both national and transnational strategy.”

“We must maximize the intelligence that US officials and their counterparts in allied nations possess in order to best formulate and execute the measures that will keep foreign fighters’ plans left of boom,” Cilluffo continued. “The United States should work with the countries of Central Asia to assist them in building the capacities that are necessary for them to be their own best guardians. For instance, more could be done in the area of border security.”

Deputy Director of the International Crisis Group Jennifer Leonard said, “[Central Asian] governments must assess accurately the long-term danger jihadism poses to the region and take effective preventive action now…addressing multiple political and administrative failures, responding to an unmet demand for increased democratic space, revising discriminatory laws and policies, implementing outreach programs for men and women, creating jobs at home for disadvantaged youths, ensuring better coordination between security services, and police reform.”

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These mechanisms, which function effectively as extradition requests, can be based on trumped-up criminal charges and used to detain, harass, or otherwise persecute individuals for their activism or refusal to acquiesce to corrupt schemes. Following reports that U.S. immigration authorities have cited such politically-motivated INTERPOL requests to detain some individuals and consider removing them from the United States, the TRAP Act formally codifies strict limitations on how INTERPOL requests can be used by U.S. authorities. The TRAP Act further declares that it is the policy of the United States to pursue specific reforms within INTERPOL and use its diplomatic clout internationally to protect the rights of victims and denounce abusers. 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  • OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: STATE OF MEDIA FREEDOM IN THE OSCE REGION Thursday, July 25, 2019 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room HVC-210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Journalists working in the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) are facing increased risks to their lives and safety. According to a new report released the Office of the Representative for Freedom of the Media, in the first six months of 2019, two journalists have been killed and an additional 92 attacks and threats—including one bombing, three shootings, and seven arson attacks—have targeted members of the media. In his first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir will assess the fragile state of media freedom within the OSCE region. Mr. Desir also will address the number of imprisoned media professionals as well as the violence, threats, and intimidation directed toward female journalists. The hearing will explore the threat posed by disinformation and online content designed to provoke violence and hate.  Following the hearing, at 5:00 p.m. in Room HVC-200, the Helsinki Commission will host a viewing of the documentary, “A Dark Place,” which details the online harassment of female journalists working in the OSCE region.

  • The Helsinki Process: A Four Decade Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker on Release of 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom

    WASHINGTON—Following the release of the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, a former chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “This report shows that some of the worst government violators of religious freedom in the world continue to be in Eurasia, including Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. I am concerned that these OSCE participating States have not made any progress in implementing their commitments to ensure freedom of religion. “One exception where the situation has improved is Uzbekistan. I hope the final version of the country’s new religion law will demonstrate the commitment of President Mirziyoyev and his government to advancing religious freedom reforms. I would not want a situation in which the new law retains the most problematic elements of current law. That would put Uzbekistan at risk of remaining on the Special Watch List or even once again being designated as a Country of Particular Concern. “The Government of Uzbekistan must also keep its promise to formally work with international experts, including the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, to ensure its religion law complies with Uzbekistan’s international commitments.” In October 2018, Co-Chairman Wicker urged the Government of Uzbekistan to formally request that the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights conduct a legal review of Uzbekistan’s draft religion law. He repeated the call during a December 2018 Helsinki Commission hearing with Ambassador Brownback. Following last year’s International Religious Freedom Report, Secretary of State Pompeo designated OSCE participating States Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern. Turkmenistan has been designated as a CPC since 2014 and Tajikistan since 2016. Pompeo further designated Uzbekistan and Russia for the Special Watch List, for continuing religious freedom violations. For Uzbekistan, the designation upgrades the country’s ranking in recognition of progress made under the regime of President Mirzoyoyev. Uzbekistan was a CPC from 2006 to 2017. Russia was designated for the Special Watch List for the first time. As OSCE participating States, these countries repeatedly have committed themselves to respecting religious freedom. The annual State Department International Religious Freedom Report details religious freedom in every country. The report includes government policies violating religious belief and practices of individuals and religious groups, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. Following the release of the annual report, the Secretary of State has 90 days to submit updated designations for the Countries of Particular Concern and the Special Watch List.

  • Russia's Counterproductive Counterterrorism

    Russia’s counterterrorism approach, which is problematic in both conception and execution, makes Moscow an ill-suited partner with the United States in this field, experts told the U.S. Helsinki Commission at a hearing on June 12, 2019.  The hearing closely examined the development, history, and repercussions of the Kremlin’s approach to counterterrorism under Vladimir Putin, including Moscow’s attempts to present itself as a regional and global leader on this issue.  Witnesses included Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense; Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Center Asia Division, Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Professor of Strategy at the United States National War College of the National Defense University.  In his opening statement, Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chaired the hearing, noted concerns expressed by many, including the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, about Russia’s attempts to assume the mantle of leadership in the counterterrorism sphere, through efforts that include placing Russian nationals in senior counterterrorism positions in international organizations.  Rep. Hudson further expressed concern regarding overly broad use of “terrorism” and “extremism” labels by the Kremlin and authoritarian regimes across Central Asia, in contravention of their commitments to human rights Rep. Hudson was joined by other Helsinki Commissioners. Sen. Cory Gardner (CO) underscored the inherently destabilizing nature of Russia’s counterterrorism policies and practices and recalled legislation he has introduced that would require the Department of State to formally determine whether Russia should be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.  Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised questions regarding Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine and whether such an action amounts to state-sponsored terrorism, as well as the impact of Russia’s counterterrorism policies on its Muslim population.  Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) drew upon his experience in the Federal Bureau of Investigation to highlight the challenges of sharing investigative techniques and best practices for fighting terrorism with Russia, as opposed to other countries in the region.  Dr. Omelicheva discussed how the Kremlin has increasingly prioritized fighting terrorism, both as a policy and as a political theme. She described how punitive measures, rather than a focus on socioeconomic improvement to address root causes of radicalization, have long been a preferred method of Russia’s military and security services for addressing terrorism.  She also noted that some Central Asian states have copied the Kremlin’s heavy-handed methods.    Ms. Denber noted the broad criminal code Russian authorities inappropriately apply—under the guise of fighting terrorism—to persecute people “inconvenient” to the Kremlin.  She discussed in detail other domestic applications of Russia’s counterterrorism criminal laws, including monitoring and storing of Russian citizens’ internet metadata, as well as labeling groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist organizations.  Russia’s counterterrorism policies may well have alienated segments of Russia’s Muslim population and led individuals to join extremist organizations such as the Islamic State and Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ms. Denber stated.       Dr. Carpenter asserted that active U.S.-Russia counterterrorism cooperation runs counter to U.S. interests and values—highlighting Russia’s penchant for claiming to be fighting extremism while actually punishing dissidents, notably individuals in Crimea critical of the ongoing occupation of the peninsula.  “A single mother was recently imprisoned on extremism charges because she had posted comments critical of Russia’s annexation of Crimea on her social media feed,” he said.    Dr. Carpenter’s experience in government led him to conclude, “Russia approaches counterterrorism from the position of counterintelligence;” when Russia cooperates, it is with the aim of eliciting information rather than pursuing common solutions. Using Syria as an example, he emphasized how Russian leadership does not think in win-win terms when it comes to counterterrorism, even when the U.S. does.  “Moscow will be happy, of course, to host dozens of international conferences, and will periodically suggest that a solution is within reach.  But at the end of the day, its interests are best served when Iran, Hezbollah and Assad are in power to make mischief in the region, because that’s when Russia’s influence with the Europeans, with Israel, and the Gulf States is at its peak,” he said.  Dr. Omelicheva added to these comments with an overview of lessons the Russian government has learned in past failed counterterrorism operations, including the Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis of 2002 and Beslan school siege of 2004.     “The key lesson that the government learned was that they have to have sufficient force to secure the perimeter of the counterterrorism operation, that they need to be able to constrain the freedom of movement, the freedom of mass media, and other types of freedom.” 

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Russia’s Approach to Counterterrorism

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIA’S COUNTERPRODUCTIVE COUNTERTERRORISM Wednesday, June 12, 2019 10:30 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The Kremlin actively seeks to present Russia as a global leader in the practice of counterterrorism and countering extremism. However, Moscow’s policies and practices in this area may be problematic at best and counterproductive at worst. Witnesses will offer expert views on how the Kremlin’s counterterrorism approach has evolved over time; its effectiveness; the extent to which it complies with Russia’s commitments to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms; regional implications; and whether Kremlin actions dovetail—or not—with U.S. interests.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement; former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia; former National Security Council Director for Russia Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Professor of Strategy at the United States National War College, National Defense University; author, “Russia’s Regional and Global Counterterrorism Strategies” and “Russia’s Counterterrorism Policy: Variations on an Imperial Theme”

  • Asset Recovery in Eurasia

    Asset recovery—the process of repatriating funds previously stolen by corrupt officials—remains one of the most contentious points in the fight against transnational corruption. Though only a small percentage of stolen funds are ever recovered, major questions exist about the best ways to ensure that repatriated funds don’t simply reenter the same patronage cycle from which they came. This briefing explored approaches to repatriation in Armenia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Panelists discussed best practices and challenges in asset recovery as well as appropriate policy responses, both by the state in question and the international community, and compared the respective approaches of the three countries. Brian Earl, who worked the Pavlo Lazarenko case for years as a detective in the FBI, spoke of uncovering massive amounts of unexplained assets that were initially generated by fraudulent schemes in Ukraine but were scattered abroad. Earl underscored the importance of a multiparty investigation between authorities from the United States, Ukraine, and Switzerland in unearthing evidence of fraud against Lazarenko. Joint investigative liberty and resources were crucial to asset recovery efforts in the 1990s—resources he said were drastically reduced once attention was turned away from investigating capital flight from former Soviet states to antiterrorism efforts after the September 11 attacks. Professor Kristian Lasslet of Ulster University asked the question of what to do with restituted assets when the government to which the asset belongs may be part of the corruption scheme. Lasslet cited the example of Kazakhstan Two, in which seized assets flowed back into questionable hands by bungled efforts from the World Bank and the Swiss government. He contrasted the case with Kazakhstan One, in which asset recovery was handled well at arm’s length of parties that may be interested in funneling assets back into the cycle of fraud. Sona Ayvazyan of Transparency International Armenia offered optimism in the Armenian government’s renewed approach toward transparency and anticorruption efforts but warned of the serious lack of capacity on asset recovery infrastructure. Though the leadership may be serious about removing corruption, she spoke of a discredited judiciary that poses serious problems for Armenia’s future anticorruption policies. According to Karen Greenaway from the FBI (ret.), civil society and non-governmental societies must reassert their role in the conversation on asset recovery. She highlighted the severe lack in bureaucratic infrastructure for asset recovery in many nations afflicted with corruption—particularly Ukraine. The paradox, she asserted, was between the structure of corruption, which is designed to dissipate large quantities of money very rapidly, and the system to repatriate those assets, which is painfully slow and often lacking in resources.  

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Focus on Asset Recovery In Eurasia

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: ASSET RECOVERY IN EURASIA Repatriation or Repay the Patron? Wednesday, February 13, 2019 10:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Asset recovery—the process of repatriating funds previously stolen by corrupt officials—remains one of the most contentious points in the fight against transnational corruption. Though only a small percentage of stolen funds are ever recovered, major questions exist about the best ways to ensure that repatriated funds don’t simply reenter the same patronage cycle from which they came. Is it possible to ensure that recovered assets actually serve the people from whom they have been stolen? This briefing will explore approaches to repatriation in Armenia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Panelists will discuss best practices and challenges in asset recovery as well as appropriate policy responses, both by the state in question and the international community, and compare the respective approaches of the three countries. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Sona Ayvazyan, Executive Director, Transparency International Armenia Bryan Earl, Retired Supervisory Special Agent/Assistant General Counsel, Federal Bureau of Investigation Karen Greenaway, Retired Supervisory Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation Kristian Lasslett, Professor of Criminology and Head of School, Ulster University

  • Mosque and State in Central Asia

    From 2016 to early 2018, the U.S. government designated three of Central Asia’s five nations—Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—as countries of particular concern (CPC) for engaging in or tolerating “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” like torture, abduction, and clandestine or prolonged detention without charges. In these countries, people of all faiths, or no faith at all, have endured onerous government-mandated harassment, fines, and imprisonment for even minor breaches of state regulations of religious belief and practice. To ensure regime stability and counter violent extremism, the governments of some Central Asian Muslim-majority countries impose strict and invasive violations of religious liberty on adherents of the Islamic faith. Islamic religious institutions and leaders are fully incorporated into the state bureaucracy. Exploring the faith outside the bounds of “official Islam” is forbidden and illegal. The Helsinki Commission convened an expert panel of regional and Islamic scholars to explain the different approaches to state regulation of Islam in Central Asia and the consequences of these policies for religious freedom, radicalization, and long-term political stability and social development.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Relationship Between Mosque and State in Central Asia

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: MOSQUE AND STATE IN CENTRAL ASIA Can Religious Freedom Coexist with Government Regulation of Islam? Monday, December 17, 2018 3:00 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission From 2016 to early 2018, the U.S. government designated three of Central Asia’s five nations— Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—as countries of particular concern (CPC) for engaging in or tolerating “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” like torture, abduction, and clandestine or prolonged detention without charges. In these countries, people of all faiths, or no faith at all, have endured onerous government-mandated harassment, fines, and imprisonment for even minor breaches of state regulations of religious belief and practice. To ensure regime stability and counter violent extremism, the governments of some Central Asian Muslim-majority countries impose strict and invasive violations of religious liberty on adherents of the Islamic faith. Islamic religious institutions and leaders are fully incorporated into the state bureaucracy. Exploring the faith outside the bounds of “official Islam” is forbidden and illegal. The Helsinki Commission will convene an expert panel of regional and Islamic scholars to explain the different approaches to state regulation of Islam in Central Asia and the consequences of these policies for religious freedom, radicalization, and long-term political stability and social development. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Kathleen Collins, Associate Professor, Political Science, and Russian and Eurasian Studies, University of Minnesota Edward Lemon, DMGS-Kennan Institute Fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security Emil Nasrutdinov, Associate Professor of Anthropology, American University of Central Asia Peter Mandaville, Professor of International Affairs, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University On December 11, 2018, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo re-designated Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as CPCs. He upgraded Uzbekistan to the Special Watch List—it had been previously designated as a CPC—based on recent progress. In June 2018, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) urged Secretary of State Pompeo to consider inviting Uzbekistan to the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom because of significant steps taken by President Mirziyoyev to bring Uzbekistan into compliance with its international commitments to respect religious freedom. Later that month, he introduced the bipartisan Senate Resolution 539 calling on President Trump to combat religious freedom violations in Eurasia with a mix of CPC and Special Watch List designations, individual and broader sanctions, and development of a strategy specifically for the region. In early July, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe passed Chairman Wicker’s amendments recognizing the ongoing reforms of the government of Uzbekistan. A few weeks later Chairman Wicker met with Uzbekistan’s delegation to the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom—the only CPC invited—and highlighted the opportunity for Uzbekistan to be a model to other countries if the government follows through with essential reforms

  • Religious Freedom in Eurasia

      In his first Congressional hearing since his confirmation, Ambassador Brownback testified on religious freedom in participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation. OSCE commitments on human rights and freedoms are the strongest, most comprehensive of any security organization in the world. Yet some of its participating States chronically have been among the worst violators of religious freedom–often in the name of countering terrorism or extremism–and designated by the United States as Countries of Particular Concern. The Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, Public Law 114-281, requires the President to release Country of Particular Concern designations–required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998–no later than 90 days after releasing the annual International Religious Freedom Report. The State Department issued the latest report on the day of the hearing. The Helsinki Commission explored the designations, as well as religious freedom in Western Europe, including potentially restrictive amendments to the religion law in Bulgaria; restrictions on religious animal slaughter; restrictions on construction of houses of worship; and conscience rights. Questions for the Record Submitted to Ambassador Samuel D. Brownback by Chairman Roger Wicker  

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