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Smith Calls for Action on Worst Refugee Crisis in Europe since WWII

Helsinki Commission Chair Expresses Concern about Lack of Security Screening and Lone Wolf Terrorists Infiltrating Refugees and Becoming Wolf Packs
Tuesday, October 20, 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 scrutinized actions being taken to deal with Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II by the United States, European governments, regional bodies like the OSCE and the EU, and civil society. The Commission also reviewed recommendations on developing a long-term solution to the crisis.

“The European crisis requires a response that is European, national, and international. There must be effective coordination and communication directly between countries as well as through and with entities like the OSCE and European Union,” said Rep. Smith, who called today’s hearing.

“There is real human need and desperation. Refugees are entrusting themselves to smugglers and where there is human smuggling there is a higher risk of human trafficking,” he continued. “There is also the real threat that terrorist groups like ISIS will infiltrate these massive movements of people to kill civilians in Europe and beyond. I am deeply concerned that the screening at many European borders is inadequate and putting lives at risk. All of us must be responsive to the humanitarian needs without compromising one iota on security.”

Smith said that “given the disproportionate number of men fleeing to Europe and potentially soon to the United States – currently only 14 percent of the refugees and migrants arriving via the Mediterranean Sea are women, 20 percent are children, and the remaining 65 percent are men – robust vetting is essential. We must ensure that lone wolf terrorists don’t turn into wolf packs.”

Smith noted that during the conflict in Kosovo, he travelled to Stenkovec refugee camp in Macedonia and was at the McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to welcome some of the 4,400 people brought from there to the United States. A refugee – Agron Abdullahu – was apprehended and sent to jail in 2008 for supplying guns and ammunition to the “Fort Dix 5,” a group of terrorists who were also sent to prison for plotting to kill American soldiers at the Fort Dix military installation.

Given Secretary Kerry’s announcement in September that the United States intended to resettle at least 85,000 refugees in fiscal year 2016, including at least 10,000 Syrians, and at least 100,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017, “The United State and Europe must be on high alert to weed out terrorists from real refugees,” Smith said.

He added, “ISIS has committed genocide, mass atrocities, and war crimes, against Christians and other minorities. Religious and ethnic minorities often have additional risks and vulnerabilities even as refugees and should be prioritized for resettlement.”  

Witnesses testifying at the hearing focused on the root causes of the refugee crisis as well as the current measures being put into place to help mitigate the humanitarian impact and ensure that security and economic challenges are addressed. In addition, witnesses emphasized the importance of a shared and coordinated response by all actors involved to ensure a long-term solution to the crisis.

“It’s a very challenging situation,” said Anne Richard, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration. “The scale of this migration is much bigger than before.”

“The US government has a three-pronged approach: strong levels of humanitarian assistance; active diplomacy; and expanded refugee resettlement,” she continued. “Without our support, more people would be making the dangerous journey to the north.”

“Europe is facing its biggest refugee influx in decades. UNHCR is calling upon the European Union to provide an immediate and life-saving response to the thousands of refugees as they are crossing the Mediterranean and making their way through Europe,” said Shelly Pitterman, Regional Representative to the United States and Caribbean, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Europe can no longer afford to continue with this fragmented approach that undermines efforts to rebuild responsibility, solidarity and trust among states, and is creating chaos and desperation among thousands of refugee women, men and children. After the many gestures by governments and citizens across Europe to welcome refugees, the focus now needs to be on a robust, joint European response.”

“The ongoing refugee crisis is not a European crisis. It is a global crisis, fueled by conflicts, inequality and poverty, the consequences of which unfolded in Europe but the roots of which are far away from our continent,” noted EU Ambassador to the United States David O’Sullivan. “The EU and its Member States are firmly committed to the promotion and protection of the human rights of migrants. Despite the influx, we do not remove or return genuine refugees, we respect the fundamental rights of all persons arriving in the EU, and we invest major resources in saving lives at sea.”

Djerdj Matkovic, Ambassador of the Republic of Serbia to the United States, said, “The OSCE region is witnessing the largest refugee influx in decades. Apart from being a significant economic challenge, this is a process with potentially very serious security implications and the cause of concern in regards to the respect for human rights… As the presiding country [of the OSCE] Serbia recognizes the importance of this issue and is trying to provide more active and concrete approach of the OSCE in addressing it. In light of this bleak security situation and looming instability, it is paramount that all the mechanisms that were designed and adopted by the participating States to oversee the implementation of commitments are strong and functioning.”

Sean Callahan, chief operating officer of Catholic Relief Services, observed, “As global leaders in international humanitarian and refugee response, the US and Europe must find new and creative ways to help to alleviate this suffering and protect the vulnerable.  Pope Francis has led in this effort to do more by asking every Catholic parish in Europe to reach out and assist the refugees; he reminds us of our moral obligation to help the stranger... Despite efforts by [international NGOs] like CRS, local civil societies, governments, and non-traditional donors, the despair of so many refugees indicates that assistance must move beyond short-term band-aids to longer-term solutions.”

Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Senator John Boozman (AR), Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Representative Michael Burgess (TX-26), Representative Randy Hultgren (IL-14), and Representative Joe Pitts (PA-16).

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  • OSCE Debates Counterterrorism Approaches

    By Alex Tiersky, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor Several hundred officials, academics, journalists, NGO representatives and youth ambassadors gathered in Vienna on May 23-24, 2017 for the OSCE’s annual counterterrorism conference.  The event was convened around the subject of “Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalization that Lead to Terrorism.” The subject matter could hardly have been more pressing, with the conference taking place in the immediate wake of the tragic terrorist attack in Manchester, England.  That attack – and those suffered by so many OSCE participating States in recent months and years – served to heighten the sense of urgency towards finding ways to address all aspects of the problem, from effectively preventing radicalization that leads to violence, to ensuring societies are resilient in the face of future attacks. OSCE participating States were particularly concerned about the continued threat posed by so-called “foreign terrorist fighters” – citizens of their countries who traveled abroad to fight, in particular to Iraq and Syria, who could return with the intent to inflict attacks on their home countries.  Experts at the meeting voiced concern that many countries are unprepared for the challenge of mitigating any threat posed by these individuals – including children who may have been radicalized as a result of travel as part of families – upon their return. Youth are particularly vulnerable to radicalization and a key element of any sustainable and effective strategy to counter it, according to the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. He stated that recent OSCE youth workshops had called for greater inclusion of young people in anti-radicalization discussions and strategies; efforts to eliminate propaganda from social media; and broader dissemination of narratives describing the negative results of radicalization. Conference participants differed somewhat on whether best practices in countering extremism developed in one country were universally applicable, or whether local (or even family-level) actors, who may be best placed to identify early warning signs of radicalization and counter it, should be emphasized. Still, most participants underlined that counterterrorism approaches that failed to emphasize the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, and support to civil society, or that singled out religious or ethnic communities, would ultimately prove counterproductive.  The OSCE itself served as a useful platform on this issue, according to head of the U.S. Delegation Irfan Saeed (the Director of the Department of State’s Office of Countering Violent Extremism), who commended ongoing OSCE programs such as the capacity-building work of OSCE Field Missions and the #UnitedCVE social media campaign.  Among the many recommendations offered by various conference participants for heightened national or international efforts were the following: Supporting capacity building efforts by OSCE field missions in the Balkans and Central Asia. Strengthening border controls. Improving governmental interoperability of information systems and access to encrypted information, as well as the ability to process large amounts of data rapidly. Increasing the sharing of biometric data collection to improve effectiveness of policing and border controls. Greater sharing of financial information to detect terrorist networks and their financing. Ensuring cooperation between local communities and law enforcement. Fighting online radicalization and propaganda, in collaboration with the private sector. Addressing the particular vulnerabilities of women and girls and empowering their contributions to countering extremism. Strengthening legal systems to prevent impunity. Using data-driven approaches to assess the effectiveness of programs. Developing and promoting a positive, inclusive vision for Western societies to serve as an alternative to the hate-filled narrative of violent groups. Combatting the challenge of radicalization in prisons. Despite a number of areas of agreement, there were some differences of opinion among the conference participants, including how prominently values should feature in any counterterrorism approach; the characterization of specific groups as “terrorist;” or the use of censorship to address potentially extremist speech on line. One consistently outlying view was expressed by Russian delegates, including Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov, who claimed that (unnamed) partners often committed only rhetorically to countering terrorism rather than acting as part of a global anti-terrorist front, and chastised Western partners who, he said, put their own “geopolitical ambitions” above the need to counter terrorism.  Other Russian interventions included accusations that Western states tolerated or even supported terrorist groups and suggestions that excessive liberalism allowed for terrorists to go unchecked in Western societies.  The interventions served as a reminder of the obstacles that remain to fully maximizing the utility of international cooperation to address this common challenge. Alex Tiersky attended the conference as a member of the U.S. delegation, which was led by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism.

  • CANCELLED: Austrian Foreign Minister to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    CANCELLED WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “AUSTRIA’S CHAIRMANSHIP OF THE OSCE: PRIORITIES AND CHALLENGES” Tuesday, June 6, 2017 10:30AM Russell Senate Office Building Room 188 In 2017, Austria holds the Chairmanship-in-Office of the world’s largest regional security body: the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE is currently facing a series of challenges including Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine; ongoing “frozen” conflicts;  human rights violations and backsliding in implementation of OSCE commitments; increased violence throughout the region ranging from terrorist attacks to hate crimes; human trafficking; and several high-level institutional vacancies that impact the organization’s effectiveness. Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sebastian Kurz, will discuss Austria’s priorities and progress to date as it nears the midway point of its year holding the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office.

  • Chairman Wicker Meets with Valentin Inzko, High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina

    On May 16, Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, the international community’s High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2009, met with Senator Roger F. Wicker, Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission.  Dr. Inzko was visiting Washington for consultations with the U.S. Administration and Members of Congress, prior to reporting to the United Nations Security Council on his work later in the week. The High Representative updated the Senator on the ongoing challenges in implementation of the 1995 Dayton Agreement, which ended a horrific conflict that began in Bosnia in April 1992.   He indicated that nationalist sentiment continues to divide the country.   As a result, efforts to achieve the country’s disintegration take place simultaneous to efforts to achieve the country’s integration into Europe.  Inzko urged that the United States continue to actively engage in Bosnia and Herzegovina, noting U.S. credibility among local stakeholders and the European Union’s challenges in achieving any real progress on its own.  Senator Wicker recalled the major U.S. commitment to Bosnia in the immediate post-Dayton period and asked what policy options are available today.   Among the items discussed were the need to maintain active U.S. diplomatic representation in Bosnia, as well as the potential impact of sanctions or other actions against obstructionist political leaders.  In January, the United States applied sanctions on Milorad Dodik, President of the Republika Srpska entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for obstructing Dayton implementation, thereby threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. At a Commission hearing the next day on Russia's military threat to Europe, similar concerns were raised as expert witnesses indicated the Western Balkans were in “Russian crosshairs” to influence and destabilize. Russian influence is most visible in Serbia but also in Macedonia and Bosnia. It is particularly strong in the Republika Srpska entity, encouraging Dodik to pursue a secessionist agenda. Russian involvement in the attempted coup in Montenegro last October was also noted, just as the country was in the process of acceding to NATO. Through successive leaderships, the U.S. Helsinki Commission has been at the forefront of congressional efforts to support Bosnia and Herzegovina, not only in line with the terms of the 1995 Dayton Agreement but in compliance with the principles and provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and subsequent commitments of the OSCE.

  • A Call to OSCE Commitments in Aftermath of Turkish Referendum

    Mr. President, I rise today to express my concerns about the outcome of the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey, when more than 50 million Turkish citizens voted on constitutional amendments to convert Turkey’s parliamentary government into a presidential system.   Turkey is a longstanding friend of the United States and a NATO ally.  Our bilateral partnership dates back to the Cold War when Turkey served as an important bulwark against the creeping influence of the Soviet Union.  Time has not diminished Turkey’s geostrategic importance. Today, Ankara finds itself at the intersection of several critical challenges: the instability in Syria and Iraq, the threat of ISIS and other extremist groups, and the refugee crisis spawned by this regional upheaval.     The United States relies on Turkey and other regional partners to help coordinate and strengthen our collective response.  I was deeply troubled when renegade military units attempted to overthrow Turkey’s democratically elected government last July.  Turkey’s strength is rooted in the democratic legitimacy of its government – a pillar of stability targeted by the reckless and criminal coup attempt.         As Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or U.S. Helsinki Commission, I take very seriously the political commitments made by the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  These commitments – held by both the United States and Turkey – represent the foundation of security and cooperation in the OSCE region.  They include an indispensable focus on human rights, rule of law, and democratic institutions.    In the OSCE’s founding document, the Helsinki Final Act, participating States affirm “the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” and consider respect for these to be an “essential factor” for international peace and security. This vision is consistent with long-established U.S. foreign policy promoting human rights and democracy as cornerstones of a safer, more stable international order.      With these principles in mind, the United States must pay urgent attention to the current situation in Turkey and the danger it poses to Turkish and regional stability.  Eroding respect for fundamental freedoms, rule of law, and democratic institutions in Turkey has proceeded at an alarming pace.  The government’s planned “executive presidency” will further decrease government accountability. Since the attempted coup more than nine months ago, Turkey has operated under a state of emergency that gives the government sweeping authority to curtail rights and silence opponents.  Certain extraordinary measures may have been justified in the immediate aftermath to restore order, investigate events, and bring perpetrators to justice, but the government’s actions have stretched far beyond these legitimate aims.  The ongoing purge has touched every institution of government, sector of society, corner of the country, and shade of opposition – military or civilian, Turk or Kurd, religious or secular, nationalist or leftist, political or non-political.   An atmosphere of fear and uncertainty has settled over Turkish society as more than 100,000 people have been detained or arrested.  Tens of thousands have been fired from their jobs, had their professional licenses revoked, and had their names released on public lists without any recognizable due process.  The government removed and replaced thousands of judges and prosecutors within hours of the coup’s defeat, compromising the independence of the judiciary at a moment when an impartial justice system had become more important than ever. The government has also closed more than 150 media outlets.  Upwards of 80 journalists are behind bars.  The offices of the country’s oldest newspaper were raided, and the paper’s editor-in-chief and other staff were arrested.  The media environment was already under extraordinary pressure before the coup. Last spring, the government seized control of the country’s highest-circulation paper.  Self-censorship is now widely practiced to avoid provoking the government’s ire.   Additionally, state of emergency decrees have given regional governors the ability to curtail freedom of assembly rights, harming the ability of civil society organizations to organize rallies concerning the referendum.  Since July, the government has detained more than a dozen opposition parliamentarians. Many more continue to face criminal charges for political statements they made before the coup attempt.    It is difficult to overstate the chilling effect these measures have had on political debate in Turkey. And yet, these are the circumstances under which Turks voted on April 16.  These major constitutional changes passed with a slim majority of 51 percent.  The OSCE’s international observation mission stated in its preliminary conclusions that the vote “took place on an unlevel playing field” and that “fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed.”  Under the revised constitution, the once largely ceremonial position of president will convert into an “executive presidency” and the position of prime minister will be abolished.  The president will be elected along with the national assembly every five years and has the ability to dissolve the assembly and call new elections at will.  The president will also appoint a larger proportion — nearly half — of the country’s supreme judicial council.  In a report on these new constitutional provisions, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe concluded that the amendments are a “step backwards” and pose “dangers of degeneration … towards an authoritarian and personal regime.”    Turkey is undergoing a disturbing transformation, and I am concerned these changes could undermine the strength of our partnership.  President Erdogan’s government has dramatically repressed dissent, purged opponents from every sector of government and society, and is now poised to consolidate power further under his self-described “executive presidency.” In the short term, the Turkish government should act swiftly and transparently to investigate credible claims of voting irregularities in the referendum as well as the legality of a surprise electoral board decision to admit an unknown number of ballots that should be deemed invalid under existing rules.  Public trust in the outcome of such a consequential vote is of utmost importance.  Sadly, until now, the government has responded to these challenges with dismissiveness and suppression.  In the past week, dozens of activists have been detained for participating in protests against the election results. Furthermore, the government should lift the state of emergency, stop all forms of repression against the free press, release all imprisoned journalists and political activists, and urgently restore public confidence in the judiciary.  Only then can it credibly and independently adjudicate the tens of thousands of cases caught up in the government’s months-long dragnet operations. A country where disagreements are suppressed rather than debated is less secure. A country where institutions are subordinated to personalities is less stable.  A country where criticism is conflated with sedition is less democratic.  Unless President Erdogan moves urgently to reverse these trends, I fear our partnership will inevitably become more transactional and less strategic.  It will become more difficult to justify long-term investment in our relationship with Turkey if the future of the country becomes synonymous with the fortunes of one party or one individual. The United States and Turkey need a solid foundation for enduring cooperation to tackle regional instability, terrorism, migration, and other challenges. The future of this partnership is difficult to imagine in the midst of a prolonged state of emergency, wide-scale purges, and weakened democratic institutions.

  • Turkey Post-Referendum: Institutions and Human Rights

    Human rights abuses by the Turkish government have proliferated under the state-sanctioned emergency measures imposed in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup attempt.  Turkish authorities have fired as many as 130,000 public workers, including teachers, academics, police officers, and soldiers, and thousands have been arrested. Hundreds of journalists have had their credentials revoked and dozens of media outlets have been shut down. Human rights groups have documented widespread reports of intimidation, ill-treatment and torture of those in police custody. On April 16, 2017, Turkey held a referendum on a package of amendments that transforms the country’s institutions in major ways. The position of prime minister was eliminated and the executive powers of the president were expanded, enabling him to appoint ministers without parliamentary approval, exert more influence over the judiciary, and call early elections. Coming on top of the post-coup crackdown, how will Turkey’s changing institutions affect human rights in the country? Panelists at the briefing discussed how U.S. policymakers can most effectively encourage the protection of human rights to promote the interests of the Turkish people given the strategic importance of the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship.

  • Political Prisoners in Russia

    Principle VII of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act recognizes the right of individuals to know and act upon their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. The following individuals who were profiled in the Helsinki Commission's April 2017 hearing, "Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight," illustrate the many cases of political prisoners in Russia today. Dmitry Buchenkov – Buchenkov was charged under Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”) for his participation in the 2012 Bolotnaya Square protests against fraud in the 2011 presidential elections. He was arrested in December 2015 and is currently under house arrest.  He is recognized by Memorial as a political prisoner not only because the alleged offense did not take place, but also due to the lack of a fair trial and the disproportionate use of pretrial detention in light of the charge against him. His case illustrates the prosecution of individuals for engaging in nonviolent public protest against the government in general and the Bolotnaya Square cases in particular. Oleg Navalny – Navalny was charged under Article 159 (“swindling on a large scale”), article 159.4 (“swindling on a particularly large scale in the entrepreneurial sphere”), and article 174.1.a (laundering of funds on a large scale acquired by a person through a crime committed by him”).  He was sentenced to 3 ½ years in a closed proceeding, Memorial considers him a political prisoner because the alleged offense did not take place and he was not given a fair trial. In reality, Oleg Navalny was targeted because he is the brother of prominent political activist Alexei Navalny.  It appears the authorities are unwilling to make a martyr out of Alexei Navalny but seek to exert pressure on him by persecuting his brother. Oleg Navalny’s case illustrates the willingness of the government to target family members as a means of exerting pressure on political activists, which is specifically prohibited under the OSCE 1989 Vienna Concluding Document. Darya Polyudova – Polyudova was charged under article 280 of the Russian criminal code (“public appeals for extremist activity” and “public appeals for actions aimed at a violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation”) in connection with her participation in preparation for a march that did not take place.  In reality, she was indicted for criticizing Moscow online for its support of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's east.  She is recognized as a political prisoner because the offense did not take place, her right to a fair trial was violated, and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention given the nature of the charges.  She was sentenced to two years in prison, becoming the first person in Russia convicted under a 2014 law criminalizing calls for separatism on the Internet. Her case illustrates the government’s prosecution of Russian nationals who criticize Russia’s actions and policies in Ukraine. Sergei Udaltsov – Udaltsov was charged under Article 30 of the Russian criminal code (“preparation of actions aimed at organizing mass riots”) and Article 212 (“organization of mass riots”) after participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests. He has been arrested multiple times before for protesting against the government. Memorial recognizes him as a political prisoner on the grounds that he was charged with an offense that did not take place; his right to a fair trial was violated; and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He was sentenced to four years and six months in prison. Ivan Nepomniashchikh – Nepomniashchikh was charged with Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”). He is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that he is being prosecuted for exercising his right to freedom of assembly; he is being charged with an offense that did not take place; he was not allowed a fair trial;  and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He is another example of those being prosecuted for participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests against the 2011 fraud in the presidential election. Alexei Pichugin – Pichugin was charged under Article 162 of the Russian criminal code (“robbery”) and Article 105 (“murder”). At a closed trial, Pichugin, the former head of internal economic security for the Yukos Company then headed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sentenced to life imprisonment in a special-regime penal colony. He has been in prison since 2003 and is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that his prosecution was conducted without a fair trial.  The European Court on Human Rights also has held that Pichugin was denied a fair trial.   Oleg Sentsov – Senstov is a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in Russia since 2015, and was the focus of a separate Helsinki Commission briefing. Sentsov was arrested in the Russian-occupied Crimean territory of Ukraine and charged under Article 205.4 of the Russian criminal code (“organization of a terrorist group”), Article 205 (“terrorist act committed by an organized group”), Article 30 in connection with Article 205 (“preparation of a terrorist act”), Article 30 in connection with Article 222 (“attempted illegal acquisition of firearms and explosive devices”), and Article 222 (“illegal acquisition and storage of far arms and explosive devices”).  He was accused of planning an attack on a monument to Lenin, a charge he denies. He was sentenced in a Russian military court to 20 years in a strict regime penal colony for terrorism. Other Illustrative Cases Alexander Kolchenko – Kolchenko, a Crimean activist, was charged under article 205 of Russia’s criminal code (art. 205.4 part 2: "Participation in a terrorist organization," and art. 205, paragraph "a," part 2: "A terrorist act conducted by a terrorist group"). He refuted the accusations of terrorism. Mr. Kolchenko was detained in May 2014, in Simferopol, Crimea, shortly after Russia took control over the peninsula. On August 25, 2016, the North Caucasus District Military Court of Russia sentenced Mr. Kolchenko to 10 years of imprisonment in a strict-regime colony. He is serving his sentence in the Chelyabinsk Oblast, in the city of Kopeysk, a facility notorious for its poor treatment of convicts. Mr. Kolchenko is recognized as a political prisoner by Russia’s Memorial watchdog group. Mykola Semena (under a travel ban) – Semena, a Crimean journalist, has been charged under Article 280.1 of Russia’s criminal code, which penalizes "public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation." The law was added to the Russian criminal code in December 2013, and came into force in May 2014 - several weeks after Crimea was annexed by Russia. Semena was one of the only independent journalists to remain on the peninsula following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. He contributed reporting to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and its Crimea Desk. On April 19, 2016, after Russian police searched Semena’s home and confiscated computers and storage media, the de facto Crimean prosecutor-general ordered Semena to remain on the peninsula while he was investigated for alleged “calls to undermine Russia’s territorial integrity via the mass media.” Semena has been forced to stay in Crimea ever since, despite his requests to travel to Kyiv for urgently needed medical care. Roman Sushchenko (in pre-trial detention) – Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist, is charged under article 276 of Russia’s criminal code (espionage). He has worked as a Paris-based correspondent for Ukraine’s state news agency, Ukrinform, since 2010. He was detained at a Moscow airport on September 30, 2016, upon his arrival from Paris on private business. He was accused of collecting classified information on the activities of Russia’s armed forces and the National Guard. Mr. Sushchenko denies any involvement in espionage. His employer, Ukrinform, also considers the accusations false and called his detention a “planned provocation.” Mr. Sushchenko’s attorney is Mark Feygin, who previously represented Pussy Riot and Nadezhda Savchenko. Memorial, a Russian organization established to report on the crimes of Stalinism, documents cases of political prisoners as well as cases of those persecuted for their faith.This information was compiled by Helsinki Commission staff from Memorial, the U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices, and news sources. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also tracks cases of individuals imprisoned in connection with their faith.

  • How the State of Russian Media Becomes the State of International Media

    It was a bad week for reports on freedom of the media in Russia. On Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders released its 2017 world press freedom index. Russia came in at 148, after such bastions of independent media as South Sudan and Thailand. On Thursday, a Ukrainian human rights delegation briefed the Helsinki Commission on the case of Oleg Sentsov — a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in a Siberian penal colony for his opposition to the annexation of Crimea — and abuses of Ukrainian journalists and creative professionals more broadly. On Friday, Freedom House unveiled its Freedom of the Press 2017 report. That report gives Russia partial credit for the world’s 13-year low in press freedom. “Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia has been a trailblazer in globalizing state propaganda. It continues to leverage pro-Kremlin reporting around the world,” the report states. The three taken in tandem tell a story — one in which violence against journalists in Russia and the region is connected to violence against journalism around the world. Consider the case of Oleg Sentsov. In 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for planning terrorist attacks in Crimea. In his trial, he said he had been tortured. The international human rights community believes this to have been payback for the filmmaker’s outspoken stance against the annexation of Crimea (it is also worth noting that Russia treated Sentsov, a Ukrainian, as though he were a Russian citizen; after the annexation of Crimea, Russia considered all who did not explicitly apply for Ukrainian citizenship to be Russian, to which Sentsov objected in court by saying, “I am not a serf to be transferred with the land”). Russian-backed media reported it as a terrorism case. And so the case contains both the physical threat that looms over journalists and creative types who fail to parrot the party line and also the threat that Russian state-backed media can pose to understanding in the wider world. “Many people perceive [Russian state-backed media] not as propaganda, but as an alternative point of view,” Natalya Kaplan, Sentsov’s cousin, told Foreign Policy in an interview before heading to the Helsinki Commission briefing. “They tend to trust what Russian propaganda says.” In the case of Sentsov, that means some outside of Russia (to say nothing of those in it) thought he was neither filmmaker nor terrorist, but some combination of the two. Americans can no longer tell the difference between actual fake news and fake fake news, Ukrainian PEN member Halya Coynash told FP. “The thing is that you really think the media and information you get from Russian media, it is media. Which is wrong. We have state media, and state media are part of [the] strategy of [the state],” said Mustafa Nayyem, journalist turned Ukrainian member of parliament. Alternative facts are not facts, and false equivalences are not equivalent. But consumers of Russian state-backed media around the globe can be duped into treating them as such, Nayyem said. He argued Russia presents reality and a bold-faced lie as though they are but two different perspectives, the truth of which lies somewhere in the middle, for viewers to decide for themselves. “We know that [Sentsov] never was involved in some attacks, or in some revolution, in terroristic things. He’s a filmmaker, and his movies are recognized internationally. The lie is that this guy was a terrorist, and no one even tried to understand the basis of this [accusation] … There is guy: a filmmaker, and a terrorist. What is true? They think that maybe he’s some filmmaker-terrorist. It’s insane.” Nayyem ardently believes those who want to protect freedom of media and speech need to build up conventions regulating what are accepted as media outlets and news. But there’s a thin line between banning propaganda and furthering censorship and repression. Russia’s independent Dozhd (TV Rain), for example, was recently banned in Ukraine for reporting that Crimea is part of Russia. “Recent democratic gains have bolstered media freedom overall,” the Freedom House report states, “but restrictions on Russian outlets and attempts to foster ‘patriotic’ reporting raise questions about the government’s commitment to media autonomy.” And besides, even Ukrainians, more prepared for Russian media influence than their western counterparts, are not entirely immune. “The Russian media are much better funded” than their Ukrainian counterparts, Kaplan said, and it takes time and resources to counter reports put out by the Russian state-backed media machine. “Even my Ukrainian friends who live in Kiev, after watching two hours of Russian TV, start to question themselves. ‘Am I a fascist?’” Kaplan does not, at present, see much reason for optimism. While it was a bad week for reports on the state of Russian media, it was inevitably a much worse week for those trying to correct or improve it. “Journalism in Russia is dead. It happened quite a while ago,” Kaplan said. “There are small islands of freedom of speech in Russia,” she said, but they aren’t on TV, and they aren’t available to those who don’t know how to access certain sites. Besides, she said, the sophisticated propaganda machine will figure out how to move onto the internet, too. “Russian journalists face the biggest challenge. Their job is simply to survive.” Hanging in the air is the idea that, at present, surviving is actually journalism’s job, too.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Proclamation Recognizing Importance of Helsinki Final Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced a bipartisan Senate resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act –  the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – and its relevance to American national security.  The resolution was cosponsored by all other Senators currently serving on the Helsinki Commission: Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. John Boozman (AR), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. Tom Udall (NM), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI). “Peace and prosperity in the OSCE region rest on a respect for human rights and the preservation of fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and economic liberty. Unfortunately, the commitment to these ideals by some OSCE participating States is eroding,” Chairman Wicker said. “The shrinking space for civil society in many nations has become reminiscent of the Communist era – a time when many Helsinki Monitoring Groups were violently persecuted for their courageous support of basic human rights,” he continued. “With its actions in Ukraine and Georgia, the Russian Federation in particular has demonstrated how closely such internal repression can be tied to external aggression.  We were reminded of these abuses in this morning’s Helsinki Commission hearing. I urge the President to make it clear that Helsinki principles are vital not only to American national interests but also to the security of the OSCE region as a whole.” “What was remarkable about the Helsinki Final Act was the commitment that these standards we agreed to would not only be of internal interest to the member country, but that any country signatory to the Helsinki Final Act could challenge the actions of any other country,” said Ranking Commissioner Cardin, who is also Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We have not only the right but the responsibility to call out countries that fail to adhere to the basic principles that were agreed to in 1975.” Defining security in a uniquely comprehensive manner, the Helsinki Final Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, among them respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief (Principle VII). Other principles include respect for sovereign equality (Principle I), the territorial integrity of states (Principle IV), and states’ fulfilment in good faith of their obligations under international law (Principle X). S.Con.Res.13 encourages President Trump to reaffirm America’s commitment to the principles and implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. The resolution also calls on the President to urge other participating States to respect their OSCE commitments and to condemn the Russian Federation's clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of all 10 core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act.

  • Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight

    The U.S Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Wednesday on “Democracy and Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight.”  It was the first hearing in the 115th Congress focused on internal human rights repression in Russia. Vladimir Kara-Murza, vice-chairman of pro-reform movement Open Russia; Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President of Freedom House, testified about the crisis of Russian democracy and the country’s worsening human rights record under President Vladimir Putin. In his opening statement, Mr. Kara-Murza underscored the necessity for the OSCE participating States to give an honest assessment about what is happening in Russia, where the number of political prisoners now exceeds a hundred people (a number that has doubled in less than a year). Mr. Kara-Murza, a vocal critic of the Kremlin who has survived two poisoning attempts, estimated that more than 30 activists have been murdered by the Putin regime since Vladimir Putin assumed power in 2000. He also called for an end to impunity for human rights violations in Russia. “The U.S. does have a mechanism for such accountability in the Magnitsky Act that provides for targeted sanctions on human rights abusers. This law should continue to be implemented to its full extent,” Mr. Kara-Murza said. His concerns were echoed by Human Rights Watch’s Rachel Denber, who noted that today, “Russia is more repressive that it has ever been in the post-Soviet era.” At Chairman Wicker’s request, Ms. Denber provided detailed information about each of the Russian political prisoners who were featured on posters in the room, and also spoke at length about the repression of gay men in Chechnya. Dr. Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House highlighted the fact that Mr. Putin was the primary author of the modern authoritarian’s playbook, which has subsequently been replicated by many autocratic rulers in the region.  “His methods for suppressing civil society and political opposition have inspired other dictators, and his media manipulation has impacted most of Eurasia directly and extended to Europe and the United States,” Dr. Calingaert said. However, despite the grim situation, Mr. Kara-Murza voiced some optimism about the future. “Increasingly, the young generation in Russia – the very generation that grew up under Vladimir Putin – is demanding respect and accountability from those in power,” he said. Mr. Kara-Murza pointed to a wave of anti-corruption demonstrations that took place in dozens of cities across Russia in late March, with tens of thousands of people, mostly young protesters, taking out to the streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Dimitriy Medvedev. “This movement will continue. And these growing demands for accountability are the best guarantee that Russia will one day become a country where citizens can exercise the rights and freedoms to which they are entitled,” he added.  

  • Death of OSCE Monitor in Eastern Ukraine

    Mr. President, I was saddened to learn that an American member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine was killed this past weekend by a landmine. Joseph Stone was carrying out his dutiesin territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Two other members of the team—one from the Czech Republic and another from Germany—were injured. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe controls these monitoring teams. They are comprised of unarmed civilians. The mission has been in the region since 2014, when, unfortunately, Russian-backed troops invaded Crimea. Had Russia lived up to the Minsk agreements and ceased supporting, directing, funding, and fueling separatists in this region, there would have been no need for the mission to continue. Sadly, that is not the case. This particular special monitoring mission currently fields roughly 700 monitors, with 600 of them in Donetsk and Luhansk. Those who are part of this mission are unarmed civilians. They serve as the eyes and ears for the world in the conflict zone. They report on the near-constant violations of the cease-fire, as well as reporting on humanitarian needs of the population. They play an essential role in the understanding of the situation on the ground, often under extremely difficult circumstances and, certainly, as we have seen with Joseph Stone, dangerous circumstances. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, I often hear from our top military leaders about the importance of the OSCE and the work being done by the special monitoring missions. In late March, for example, during a hearing of the Armed Services Committee, General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, commander of the U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, called attention to the good work of OSCE in the region and the work of the monitoring missions. He confirmed in his testimony that ‘‘Russia is directing combined Russian-separatist forces to target civilian infrastructure and threaten and intimidate OSCE monitors in order to turn up the pressure on Ukraine.’’ He also said, ‘‘Russian-led separatist forces continue to commit the majority of ceasefire violations despite attempts by the OSCE to broker a lasting ceasefire along the Line of Contact.’’ The tragic death of American Joseph Stone underscores the need for the OSCE monitors to have unfettered access across the front lines and across the border regions controlled by the separatists. This unfortunate tragedy is a result of this access not being granted. I commend the Austrian Foreign Minister, who serves as OSCE chair-in-office, for calling attention to this tragedy and calling for an immediate investigation into these events. Those who are responsible for the death of Joseph Stone and the injury of the two other monitors should be held accountable. Joseph Stone died serving his country by serving as a part of this international effort, and I extend my condolences this evening to his family and friends. I once again call on the Russian leadership to put an end to the cycle of violence and to live up to its OSCE commitments. As chairman of the Helsinki Commission, the U.S. part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I think it is important for Members of the Senate and for Americans to understand the important role that Americans are playing in this effort.

  • Background: OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine

    By Alex Tiersky, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor On April 23, 2017, the OSCE announced that a U.S. paramedic serving in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine had been killed when his vehicle struck an explosive – likely a landmine – in separatist controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. Two other SMM personnel, from Germany and the Czech Republic, were also injured in the incident. What is the OSCE SMM? The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine was established in 2014, to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia and Ukraine.  Currently fielding roughly 700 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the SMM is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. The Mission has some notable achievements, including regular reporting on the near-constant ceasefire violations, as well as the humanitarian needs of the population struggling in the conflict zone.  It has also sought to bring the sides together on weapons withdrawals and demining, as well as working towards agreements to fix power and water lines in the conflict area. However, Mission personnel face regular and sometimes violent harassment by combined Russian-separatist forces, who seek to limit the SMM’s access to the areas they control.  The attacks have made the environment in which Mission personnel operate increasingly volatile and dangerous, a fact tragically underlined by the incident on April 23.  In addition to this harassment, the SMM has faced limits imposed by the Russian-backed separatists including denial of access to the Ukrainian-Russian border, as well as jamming or downing of the OSCE’s unmanned aerial vehicles, critical tools for maintaining a clear operational picture. What is the U.S. Position? The United States supports the SMM and its monitors by providing personnel (roughly 75 Americans, making it the largest national contributor) and resources to the mission. The U.S. also supports the SMM by pushing Russia to end the separatists’ obstructions.  Since the April 23 incident, the U.S. has reiterated its call for full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, particularly by the Russian-led separatist forces who are most responsible for the threats to the SMM.  The U.S. has pushed for the sides to move towards a real and durable ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, and disengagement from the line of contact, as well as safe, full, and unfettered access throughout the conflict zone for the SMM monitors. The U.S. Helsinki Commission has consistently upheld Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, including through support of the efforts of the SMM in Ukraine, and called for full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, in particular underlining Russia’s responsibility in ensuring that the separatists make verifiable and irreversible progress on the implementation of the Minsk agreements. The latest incident must not only be fully investigated; it is a reminder of the urgent need for progress on full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, including a cease-fire and withdrawal of weapons.  

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