Title

Smith Denounces Azerbaijan Law Criminalizing Online ‘Insults’ To President

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

WASHINGTON—Following the amendment of Azerbaijan's criminal code last week, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) made the following statement:

“Make no mistake, anyone imprisoned under the new provisions of Azerbaijan’s criminal code – which make online ‘insults’ of the president a punishable offense – will be a political prisoner.  These new provisions clearly violate international human rights standards and Azerbaijan’s OSCE commitments. I urge the government of Azerbaijan to repeal these provisions and to release political prisoners, including Ilgar Mammadov, Seymur Haziyev, and Abdul Abilov, who have been wrongly jailed for criticizing the government.”

Chairman Smith is the sponsor of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups.

In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
Phone: 
202.225.1901
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  • Azerbaijan’s 2018 Presidential Election

    On February 5, 2018, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan announced that the country’s presidential elections—originally scheduled for the fall—instead would be moved forward to April 11, 2018.  While some pro-government commentators offered more innocuous explanations for the move—such as aiming to avoid simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in 2025—many independent analysts saw it as a ploy to disadvantage the opposition. Since Azerbaijani law requires campaigning to cease 30 days prior to the vote, candidates had very little time to rally support. This constraint, among others, contributed to the mainstream opposition boycott of the election. The vote was the first since Azerbaijan passed constitutional amendments in a widely criticized popular referendum in September 2016 that extended the president’s term from five to seven years. Having done away with term limits in another set of constitutional amendments in 2009, President Aliyev used the snap election to secure his position until 2025. The official tally gave Aliyev 86 percent of the vote—he has never won with less than 84 percent. Since signing the founding document of the OSCE, the Helsinki Final Act, in 1992, no national vote in Azerbaijan has met the OSCE’s minimum requirements for a free and fair election. Nevertheless, consistent with its commitments as an OSCE participating State, Azerbaijan invited international observers to view the election.  The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) all scrambled to assemble a robust Election Observation Mission (EOM) in Azerbaijan under difficult time constraints.  Two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff members joined the OSCE PA EOM. The article below summarizes their experience in Azerbaijan. By Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor and Jordan Warlick, Office Director Briefings Reveal Shortcomings in the Field of Candidates and Lack of Media Access From the beginning, it was clear that the Government of Azerbaijan was paying lip service to established OSCE norms for holding elections without providing voters with the necessary conditions to make an informed choice free of coercion. For example, prior to the vote, we and other short-term members of the OSCE PA and PACE observation missions met with representatives of the eight candidates who had been approved by Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission to run in the April 11 contest. During the 20-minute sessions with the candidates or their representatives, we heard almost nothing in the way of criticism of the sitting president, nor anything resembling a platform for running the country should they win. During briefings the following day, members of opposition parties, as well as representatives of civil society and the media, pointed out the gulf of approximately 1.9 million Azerbaijanis entered on voter registration lists (5.3 million), and the number of Azerbaijanis known to be of voting age (7.2 million).  Since voter registration is automatic—and all citizens who are 18 years of age by election day have the right to vote—his dramatic shortfall appeared to reflect the disenfranchisement of an astonishingly large number of Azerbaijani voters. In a separate briefing earlier, the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan addressed this concern by claiming that the voter registration lists were published on the Internet, providing a maximum level of transparency. Civil society representatives were unanimous in their view that none of the “opposition” candidates running were real candidates. The best opposition leaders had either been imprisoned or were otherwise prevented from running, they explained. Several parties that civil society groups considered to be legitimate were boycotting the elections. Among the reasons they offered for the boycott was the fact that there were no real opposition parties in Parliament, no media freedom in Azerbaijan, and many political prisoners.  One opposition group, the Musavat Party, claimed that “clone” parties—such as the “Modern” Musavat Party, headed by Hafiz Hajiyev—had been set up to mimic true opposition parties. Hajiyev seemed to confirm those suspicions on election day by revealing that he himself had voted for President Aliyev.  He also reportedly expressed his hope that President Aliyev would return the favor by appointing him prime minister. 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They also found the lack of election commission reform frustrating, pointing out that both the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission provided explicit recommendations to the Azerbaijani government following previous elections. Finally, they stated that the government’s claim that 50,000 people had been registered as observers was misleading, since many of the registered observers were state employees and could not be fair and impartial observers.  A journalist briefing the observers also drew attention to the 10 Azerbaijani journalists currently in prison, saying that the regime had “made telling the truth in Azerbaijan illegal.” Voting on April 11—Mostly by the Book On election day, 350 international observers deployed across the country. Our team was assigned to the Khatai district in eastern Baku. We watched the opening of one polling station at 7:00 a.m., observed voting in 14 different polling stations throughout the day, and witnessed the counting process at another precinct once the polls closed at 7:00 p.m. The Precinct Electoral Commissions (PECs) at all 16 locations were cooperative, and we could move freely around the polling stations to observe the entirety of the voting process.  The chairwoman of the PEC where we observed the opening was willing to answer every question we had, often going into great detail. While we were unrestricted in our ability to access polling sites, the spots in the polling stations reserved for observers were often poorly situated, being either in a corner out of direct sight of the registration tables, or in one case on another floor entirely. One irregularity we consistently observed related to guaranteeing that each voter cast only one vote. Voters were supposed to have their left thumb coated in invisible ink once they were processed to vote, and all voters were to have their left thumbs checked before entering a polling station to ensure they had not voted elsewhere.  One of the many problems with this method became obvious at the first polling station we visited, where the person checking voters’ thumbs was scanning the wrong hand.  Fellow OSCE PA observers noted that some voters showed up at the wrong polling station, where they had their thumbs sprayed in invisible ink. Once they were directed to the correct voting station, they were allowed to vote regardless of the invisible ink on their hands. Citizen “Observers” in Name Only During a pre-election briefing, the chair of the Central Electoral Commission proudly claimed that 57,313 Azerbaijanis had been registered as citizen observers—a large number in a country of only 9.7 million. The statistic presumably was intended to demonstrate that the elections would be both transparent and credible.  We soon noticed that few, if any, of these citizen observers paid attention to the voting. At almost every polling station, we found one or more observers who could not tell us what party they were representing.  They often had to check their observer ID cards to before replying; when we then asked them which candidate from that party was running for president—information not available on their observer IDs—many were stumped. The Polls Close—Let the Counting … and the Shenanigans … Begin While the polls were open, election regulations appeared to be broadly respected. However, at the precinct where we observed the counting process, vote tallies were rushed and established procedures were not followed.  For example, voter registration lists were not checked to determine how many people voted in that location—a figure that should have been compared to the number of ballots in the ballot box. Unused ballots were counted and destroyed according to the established procedure, but none of this information was entered onto the protocol, the written record of votes that is supposed to be maintained throughout the vote-counting process. Instead, poll workers opened the ballot boxes almost immediately after the unused ballots were destroyed. The ballots then were dumped onto a table in the middle of the room and quickly sorted into several piles.  We were allowed to approach and circle the table, and had good views of the ballots on every part of the table. Most—easily 80 percent to 90 percent of the ballots—ended up in one of several piles for President Aliyev. Of the non-Aliyev piles, the largest was for ballots which appeared to be spoiled.  One member of the PEC explained to us that although some ballots had several names marked, they would not necessarily be considered spoiled; instead, they would be discussed later. Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, that discussion never took place. In just over an hour, the protocol was hastily composed and finalized. Under Azerbaijani law, copies should be made available to bona fide observers; however, election officials declined to provide us with a copy. We then asked if we could at least take a photo of the protocol, and were told that the precinct would have to obtain permission from higher authorities.  We were not the only international observers who noted problems with the counting process. About 50 percent of OSCE PA observers determined that the count was either “bad” or “very bad,” well above the OSCE norm of 17 percent. Election Aftermath In a press conference in Baku the day after the election, observers from the OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE PA, and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly announced that the presidential election in Azerbaijan took place “within a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections.” “Against this backdrop and in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine competition,” they said. The preliminary statement from the three groups noted that other candidates refrained from directly challenging or criticizing the incumbent, and that no distinction was made between his campaign and his official activities. Observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, a lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, including ballot box stuffing. More than half of the vote counts were assessed negatively, largely due to deliberate falsifications and an obvious disregard for procedures. At the same time, observers noted that the authorities were cooperative and international observers were able to operate freely in the pre-election period, and the election administration was well resourced and prepared the election efficiently. Announcing the conclusions, Portuguese parliamentarian Nilza de Sena said, “We have noted the positive attitude displayed by the national authorities of Azerbaijan towards international election observation, as well as the professional work of the Central Election Commission in the pre-election period. We stand ready to continue our co-operation and turn it into a joint effort to tackle the fundamental problems that a restrictive political and legal environment, which does not allow for genuine competition, poses for free elections.” The beginning of de Sena’s statement was interrupted by a pro-government journalist who surged threateningly towards the speakers, shouting angrily that the report had been prepared in advance and that its findings were all lies. It was clear that the pro-government journalist intended on disrupting the conference to distract from the content of the findings. The press conference was suspended until the atmosphere calmed and the representatives from ODIHR, OSCE PA, and PACE could deliver their statement. “A few weeks of campaigning during which candidates could present their views on television cannot make up for years during which restrictions on freedom of expression have stifled political debate,” said Margareta Kiener Nellen, Head of the Swiss delegation to the OSCE PA who led the 48-member OSCE PA delegation. “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will certainly continue to support all steps by the authorities that will bring the country forward on a path towards creating the open political environment necessary for truly free and fair elections.”

  • Azerbaijan’s centennial celebrations mask repressive reality

    On Monday, the Republic of Azerbaijan celebrated 100 years of independence from the Russian Empire that collapsed following the Russian Revolution of 1917. When Azerbaijan proclaimed its independence on May 28, 1918 its leaders established the first democratic republic in the Muslim world—a real, if short-lived experience in democracy. In March, President Ilham Aliyev—the country’s dictator since 2003—gave voice to national pride in the centennial yet curiously grounded it in ideals he does everything to crush. “For the first time in the Muslim world,” Aliyev said, “the Azerbaijani people demonstrated that they want to live in a free society, they want to live in a society where all the rights of all the people are protected.” The people of Azerbaijan do not live in such a free society today. Just last month, Aliyev extended his rule until 2025 thanks to a rigged presidential election that lacked a single credible challenger. Since succeeding his father, who ruled Azerbaijan for more than a decade, Aliyev has systematically coopted the country’s institutions. In recent years, he removed obstacles to remaining in power for life, extended the presidential term from five to seven years, and appointed his wife as his unelected successor. The Muslim world’s first parliamentary republic today has a rubber-stamp legislature. The government systematically uses harassment, surveillance, imprisonment, and even torture to suppress political opposition. The National Assembly lacks a single parliamentarian from a major opposition party. The story is the same in the judiciary. For years, the country’s criminal justice system has punished opposition leaders, youth activists, and independent journalists with trumped-up charges of drug use, tax evasion, and “hooliganism.” Aliyev directs retribution against his opponents from behind the scenes and subsequently basks in fawning media coverage of his occasional pardons of some political prisoners. Despite these periodic releases, Azerbaijani civil society activists report that more than 140 prisoners of conscience are behind bars today. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), nearly a dozen of those jailed are journalists.  Aliyev’s government has taken particular aim at the free press to evade accountability. Having already harassed, coopted, or shuttered independent print, radio and TV outlets, in 2017 the government went a step further and blocked virtually all remaining major sources of independent online news. In its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, RSF ranked Azerbaijan 163rd out of 180 countries—just one spot above Iran. In September 2017, I introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that urges the Trump administration to raise and prioritize these human rights and democracy concerns in our bilateral relationship with Azerbaijan. The resolution calls on the administration to impose travel bans and asset freezes on Azerbaijani officials responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. It also recommends visa bans against violators of religious freedom, as provided for in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The government of Azerbaijan wants us to overlook its human rights record because it offers itself as a security partner for the United States. It is willing to help counter transnational threats such as terrorism and supports the NATO mission in Afghanistan through troop contributions and logistical assistance. Its oil and gas pipelines that transport energy from Azerbaijan’s Caspian shores westward also further the U.S. goal of limiting Europe’s dependence on Russian energy.  Yet by failing to respect the basic rights and dignity of its people, Azerbaijan becomes a long-term security liability. Younger generations of Azerbaijanis have no living memory of the nation’s nearly 70 years as a Soviet socialist republic and have higher hopes and expectations for their lives. The same week that Azerbaijan held its ersatz presidential election, a youth-led, non-violent protest movement was emerging in neighboring Armenia to bring down a prime minister that embodied Armenia’s entrenched political elite. It is unlikely that Azerbaijan can hold back the tide that brought tens of thousands into the streets in Armenia in 2018 and to join Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003. As Azerbaijan marks 100 years of independence, the U.S. must urge the government to rediscover the state’s original democratic roots and reestablish it for a new century, rooted in respect for human rights and liberty. Whether or not the government seizes this opportunity, the United States ought to stand in solidarity with the people of Azerbaijan, whose desires for dignity and justice will not be indefinitely denied.   Smith represents New Jersey’s 4th District and is chairman of the Foreign Affairs' Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organization Subcommittee.

  • Sanctioning Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats under the Global Magnitsky Act

    The Global Magnitsky Act enables the United States to sanction the world’s worst human rights abusers and most corrupt oligarchs and foreign officials, freezing their U.S. assets and preventing them from traveling to the United States. Sanctioned individuals become financial pariahs and the international financial system wants nothing to do with them. Before proceeding, ask yourself: is Global Magnitsky right for my case? The language of the Global Magnitsky Act as passed by Congress was ex-panded by Executive Order 13818, which is now the implementing authority for Global Magnitsky sanctions. EO 13818 stipulates that sanctions may be considered for individuals who are engaging or have engaged in “serious human rights abuse” against any person, or are engaging or have en-gaged in “corruption.” Individuals who, by virtue of their rank, have ordered others to engage or have facilitated these acts also are liable to be sanctioned. Keep in mind that prior to the EO’s expansion of the language, human rights sanctions were limited to “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” as codified in 22 USC § 2304(d)(1). The original language also stipulates that any victim must be working “to expose illegal activity car-ried out by government officials” or to “obtain, exercise, defend, or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms.” As for sanctions for corruption, it identifies “acts of significant corruption” as sanctionable offenses. This is generally thought to be a stricter standard than the EO’s term “corruption.” It may be worthwhile to aim for this higher standard to make the tightest case possible for sanctions. As a rule, reach out to other NGOs and individuals working in the human rights and anti-corruption field, especially those who are advocating for their own Global Magnitsky sanctions. Doing so at the beginning of the process will enable you to build strong relationships, develop a robust network, and speak with a stronger voice. Download the full guide to learn more. Contributor: Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor

  • And then, they took her cellphone

    Yesterday I received word that Pavla Holcova, a brave and unflappable Czech journalist, had been summoned by Slovakian police, who are investigating the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciakearlier this year. She took a 4-hour train ride from Prague to Bratislava and voluntarily presented herself at their headquarters. She has cooperated with the investigation since its earliest stages, but on this occasion, she was interrogated for eight hours. She was eventually released, but not before her cellphone was confiscated. The prosecutor who signed the order to take her cellphone and access its data is not assigned to the murder case, and he declined to explain why the authorities needed her phone. Holcova is not under any sort of criminal investigation. Quite the opposite, in fact. But Slovak authorities, acting suspiciously like the thuggish security forces found in repressive states, appear to be trying to shut her down. During the interrogation, she was repeatedly told that her reporting was “always against the system.” Not only is Slovakia a member of the European Union, until last year it ranked — along with much of Europe — as having one of the world’s freest media landscapes. Not anymore. This was merely the latest attempt by Slovakian authorities to harass the colleagues, friends and family of a reporter who was killed for doing his job. I met Holcova last week. She and I were part of a panel discussion in Washington titled “A Deadly Calling,” organized by the Helsinki Commission and designed to raise awareness for and address the assassinations of two investigative journalists in the European Union: Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta last October, and Kuciak in Slovakia this February. The panel included Caruana Galizia’s son, Matthew — himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter — and Holcova, who worked closely with Kuciak to report on official corruption and the Slovakian government’s ties with organized crime. It was this reporting that, many believe, prompted the murders of Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova. Our panel — which also included Robert Mahoney of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a watchdog group that tracks attacks on press freedom — offered an unvarnished look at the rising threats to freedom of expression around the world. In Slovakia, the Kuciak case represents a fundamental test of a young democracy. There has been a major public backlash there, with tens of thousands of ordinary citizens joining street protests demanding justice for the killings. Several high-level resignations have resulted, with the most notable casualty being Prime Minister Robert Fico. Holcova believes there is reason to hope that justice will prevail, and that reform and the rooting out of corruption are possible. But she remains skeptical. “Even though the changes made in the government are rather cosmetic,” she told me. “The most influential government members were replaced by people from the very same political party.” Less visible to the public, though, are the lasting scars these attacks have on loved ones of the slain journalists and the ongoing attempts to deter them from seeking justice. Holcova says she is lucky in that she has a strong support network of friends and family, “but sometimes I feel I might be indeed ‘toxic’ and I am afraid someone might get hurt because of me. This potential guilt is painful and even sometimes paralyzing.” That’s a familiar feeling to many journalists operating in authoritarian societies or scrutinizing high-level corruption. But this isn’t a situation we should tolerate in silence. Impressively, Holcova says she remains undeterred. I asked whether she had ever thought about giving up the effort to find her friend’s killers. “Yes, sure. I will stop pursuing this case, when the people really involved (not just the proxies) will be brought to justice.” Incidentally, this interview was conducted entirely by email. Why? Because Slovakian authorities still have Holcova’s phone, and have offered no indication of when they plan to return it. The public shaming of governments — especially fragile ones — for their bad behavior is one of the best tools available in places where the rule of law has not been completely eviscerated. Slovakia is one of those countries hanging in the balance. We should do all we can to support their struggle to mature into a viable democracy with a strong future. Officials there, Holcova wrote, “did not care that much in past. But I believe they do now. At least a bit more. The reputation of Slovak government is very much damaged, the trust in state institutions such as police or prosecutors is very low.” There’s one very simple way the Slovakian authorities can begin to repair their image. They should return Pavla Holcova’s cellphone immediately.

  • Democracy Deferred

    After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission examined these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.  In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Review State of Fundamental Freedoms in Azerbaijan

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  • How to Get Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats Sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act

    The workshop provided human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. Sanctions experts described, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also discussed the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists shared investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates.

  • Helsinki Commission Workshop to Explain Global Magnitsky Sanctions Process

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  • Chairman Wicker Welcomes First-Ever Global Magnitsky Sanctions List

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s announcement of the first 52 individuals and entities sanctioned under the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I welcome the Administration’s announcement of the first-ever sanctions list under the ‘Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.’  This groundbreaking tool for combating human rights abuses and corruption around the world is especially relevant in parts of the OSCE region, where in many countries, corruption is met only with impunity. The United States can now hold individuals like Artem Chayka, Albert Deboutte, and Gulnara Karimova accountable for their roles in sustaining kleptocratic regimes. I am hopeful that the Administration will continue to review and build upon this new list to make it as tough and meaningful as possible.” The “Global Magnitsky Act,” which was passed in 2016, extends the authorities established by the original Magnitsky Act to include the worst human rights violators and those who commit significant acts of corruption around the globe. Both pieces of legislation have served as a model to hold individual perpetrators accountable for human rights violations and combat kleptocracy and corruption worldwide.

  • The Magnitsky Act at Five

    In 2009, Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was brutally murdered in prison after uncovering the theft of $230 million by corrupt Russian officials. On December 14, 2012, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act was signed into law in the United States, establishing punitive sanctions – including financial freezes and visa restrictions – for those complicit in Magnitsky’s murder and other human rights abuses in the Russian Federation.  For the past five years, the Magnitsky Act has served as a basis for fighting corruption in Russia and the Putin regime’s systematic violations of the human rights of Russian citizens. On the fifth anniversary of the Magnitsky Act, the Helsinki Commission examined the implementation of the legislation, the resistance of the Russian government to it, and the impact of sanctions on senior members of Putin’s inner circle. The Commissioners heard testimony from William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, Garry Kasparov, Chair of the Human Rights Foundation, and the Hon. Irwin Cotler, PC, OC, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, began by recognizing the retirement of Amb. David Killion, Chief of Staff of the Commission since 2014, and thanking Amb. Killion for his service. Before introducing the witnesses, Sen. Wicker condemned the corruption plaguing the Russian government, and quoted the murdered Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who called the Magnitsky Act “the most pro-Russian law passed in the United States.” Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, criticized the Russian government’s response to the Magnitsky Act. He described the harm done to vulnerable Russian orphans by their government’s decision to ban American parents from adopting children from Russia. Mr. Smith also noted that he and many other Americans involved in the passage of the Magnitsky Act have since been denied visas to enter Russia. This response, he said, shows that the Magnitsky Act “struck right to the heart of the Kremlin’s elite.” Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), the Helsinki Commission’s ranking senator, praised the witnesses for their commitment to promoting human rights in Russia, and thanked the members of the Helsinki Commission and other members of Congress who played a role in the passage of the Magnitsky Act. Mr. Cardin also recognized the passage of Magnitsky legislation in Canada, Estonia, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom, and recalled the power of American leadership on human rights, noting that, “when we lead, we find that other countries follow.” William Browder, the first witness to testify, recalled the historic nature of the Magnitsky Act. “On the day it passed, I could never have predicted how far the Magnitsky Act would spread around the world,” he said. “Without exaggeration, it has become the most important piece of human rights legislation passed in this century.” He also called attention to the future of the Magnitsky movement, noting that the parliaments of Ukraine, South Africa, and Gibraltar are considering introducing similar legislation. In closing, Mr. Browder presented several suggestions to the Commission, including adding additional names to the list of sanctioned individuals, and encouraging other G7 countries to adopt Magnitsky legislation. Garry Kasparov reiterated that the targeted sanctions imposed by the Magnitsky Act only apply to corrupt officials, and not the Russian people. “Russian national interest and Putin’s interests are diametrically opposed in nearly every way,” he said. “This is why legislation that targets Putin and his mafia is pro-Russian, not anti-Russia.” Mr. Kasparov observed that the Kremlin’s reaction proved the worth of the Magnitsky Act, and that, “it is essential to increase the pressure, to continue with what works now that the right path has been confirmed.”  At the conclusion of his testimony, Kasparov observed that “Putin and his gang . . . aren’t jihadists or ideologues, they are billionaires. . . .  Follow the money, the real estate, the stock and reveal it, freeze it, so that one day it can be returned to the Russian people from whom it was looted.”  More succinctly in a follow-up question, he quipped, “Banks, not tanks.” Irwin Cotler gave an overview of the passage of the Canadian Magnitsky Act, and described the goals of the global Magnitsky movement. The aim of Magnitsky legislation is “to combat the persistent and pervasive culture of corruption, criminality, and impunity and the externalized aggression abroad, of which Putin’s Russia is a case study” and “to deter thereby other prospective violators,” he said. Passing such legislation also “tells human rights defenders, the Magnitskys of today, that they are not alone, that we stand in solidarity with them, that we will not relent in our pursuit of justice for them, and that we will undertake our international responsibilities in the pursuit of justice.”

  • The Legacy of Sergei Magnitsky

    By Woody Atwood, Intern In 2008, a Russian tax lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky representing Hermitage Capital Management in a dispute over alleged tax evasion discovered a $230 million fraud being committed by Russian law enforcement officers assigned to the case. Magnitsky reported the fraud to the authorities and was arrested soon after by the same officers he had accused. For almost a year, Magnitsky was held in squalid prison conditions, denied visits from his family, and beaten by guards. Despite developing serious cases of gallstones, pancreatitis, and cholecystitis, he was denied medical attention. On November 16, 2009, Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death in his cell. He had been imprisoned for 358 days, just seven days short of the maximum legal pre-trial detention period in Russia. A year later, Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), then Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act, directing the U.S. Secretary of State to publish a list of individuals involved in Sergei’s detention and death, and enabling the government to deny these individuals entry to the United States and freeze their American assets. The bill was reintroduced in the next Congress as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. This version covered all individual who commit extrajudicial killings, torture or otherwise egregiously violate the human rights of activists or whistleblowers in Russia. Both houses of Congress passed the new bill in late 2012 as part of the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. On December 14, 2012, President Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law, establishing severe consequences for the worst human rights violators in Russia. Just weeks after the passage of the Magnitsky Act, the Russian parliament and government responded by passing a law banning American families from adopting children from Russia. The law immediately terminated adoptions that were being processed, and many children, including children with serious disabilities, who were due to leave Russia were never able to join their American families. In 2013, the Russian government also issued a list of 18 American officials banned from entering Russia. In 2015, Sen. Cardin and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who was then chairing the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to expand the authorities established by the original Magnitsky Act to include the worst human rights violators and those who commit significant acts of corruption around the world. The legislation required the President to annually issue a list of individuals sanctioned under it on Human Rights Day (December 10) or the soonest day thereafter when the full Congress is in session. The global version was passed in December 2016 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017. The story of Sergei Magnitsky and the actions of the U.S. Congress have sparked a global movement to hold individual perpetrators accountable for their human rights violations and corruption. In the last year, Estonia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Lithuania have all passed their own Magnitsky laws. In honor of Human Rights Day and the fifth anniversary of the Magnitsky Act, and to correspond to the deadline for the annual Global Magnitsky List, the U.S. Helsinki Commission is holding two events related to the legacy of Sergei Magnitsky. On Wednesday, December 13, at 3:00PM Commission staff will lead a public briefing on “Combating Kleptocracy with the Global Magnitsky Act,” and on Thursday, December 14, Commissioners will hear testimony on “The Magnitsky Act at Five: Assessing Accomplishments and Challenges.”

  • Helsinki Commission to Assess Magnitsky Act at Five

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: THE MAGNITSKY ACT AT FIVE: ASSESSING ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND CHALLENGES Thursday, December 14, 2017 9:30 AM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce121417 In 2009, Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was brutally murdered in prison after uncovering the theft of $230 million by corrupt Russian officials. On December 14, 2012, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act was signed into law in the United States, establishing punitive sanctions – including financial freezes and visa restrictions – for those complicit in Magnitsky’s murder and other human rights abuses in the Russian Federation.  For the past five years, the Magnitsky Act has served as a basis for fighting corruption in Russia and the Putin regime’s systematic violations of the human rights of Russian citizens. On the fifth anniversary of the Magnitsky Act, the Helsinki Commission will examine the implementation of the legislation, the resistance of the Russian government to it, and the impact of sanctions on senior members of Putin’s inner circle. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management and author of Red Notice. Browder has led the fight to seek justice for Sergei Magnitsky and his family in both the U.S. and abroad. He will outline Russian opposition to his anti-corruption efforts and his work to help pass similar legislation around the world. The Hon. Irwin Cotler, PC, OC, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights; Former Canadian Member of Parliament, Attorney General of Canada, and Minster of Justice. Cotler will provide details about Canada’s recent passage of its Magnitsky Act, its importance to Canada, and Russian resistance to the legislation. Garry Kasparov, Chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and author of Winter Is Coming: Why Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped. Kasparov will explain the threat Putin’s regime poses toward the United States and analyze the Magnitsky Act’s efficacy.

  • Prisoners of the Purge

    In July 2016, the Turkish people helped defeat a coup attempt that sought to overthrow their country’s constitutional order. In pursuing those responsible for the putsch, however, Turkish authorities created a dragnet that ensnared tens of thousands of people. The state of emergency declared by President Erdogan in the immediate aftermath of the coup attempt remains in effect today and gives the government vast powers to detain or dismiss from employment almost anyone, with only minimal evidence. Caught up in the sweeping purge are several American citizens, including Pastor Andrew Brunson, NASA scientist Serkan Gölge. Brunson worked and raised his family in Turkey for more than 23 years. Despite the efforts of the President of the United States, among many others, he has spent more than a year in jail without trial on national security charges. In addition, Gölge and two Turkish employees of U.S. consulates stand charged with terrorism offenses despite no involvement with violent activity—a situation faced by thousands of other Turks.    The U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing examined the factors contributing to the detention of American citizens, particularly Mr. Brunson, and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey, as well as the judicial processes to which they have been subject. Sen. Thom Tillis presided over the hearing, voicing his concerns about the treatment of American detainees in Turkey and the country’s deteriorating democratic institutions, particularly the judiciary. During the hearing, the Commission heard testimony from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Jonathan Cohen, Executive Senior Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) CeCe Heil, Pastor Brunson’s daughter Jacqueline Furnari, and Director of Freedom House’s Nations in Transit Project Nate Schenkkan.   All witnesses spoke to their concerns about the worsening political climate in Turkey and the safety of its political prisoners, including Mr. Brunson and Mr. Gölge. They also discussed the impact of these arrests on U.S.-Turkey relations and policy recommendations that could help secure their release and promote Turkey’s respect for its rule of law and other commitments as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Mr. Cohen called on the Turkish government to end the protracted state of emergency, cease sweeping roundups, and expedite due process for all the detained. He encouraged Congress to continue engagement through in-person and written correspondence with Turkish officials to communicate concerns about specific detention cases and the broader rule of law. Mr. Schenkkan detailed the scale of Turkey’s wide-scale purges, which he described as targeting independent voices and ordinary citizens from nearly every sector and as far exceeding any reasonable scope corresponding to the failed coup attempt. He recommended that the United States explore the application of individual sanctions against Turkish officials responsible for the prolonged and unjust detention of American citizens and U.S. consulate employees. Mrs. Heil and Mrs. Furnari testified about the physical, psychological, and personal toll of Pastor Brunson’s prolonged detention. They noted that Pastor Brunson has lost 50 pounds while in detention and suffered psychologically and emotionally from his isolation and separation from his family.

  • Internet Freedom in the OSCE Region: Trends and Challenges

    On Tuesday, November 14, 2017 the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing on internet freedom in the OSCE region. The panelists – Sanja Kelly, Director of Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net; Dariya Orlova, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director for Research at the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv, Ukraine; Berivan Orucoglu, Human Rights Defenders Program Coordinator at the McCain Institute; and Jason Pielemeier, Policy Director at the Global Network Initiative – discussed concerning developments in participating States. First, Sanja Kelly provided an overview of Freedom House’s work on internet freedom issues and described the recent edition of the Freedom on the Net report, which was released that very day. The report found that internet freedom declined for the seventh consecutive year around the world, but that the situation among OSCE participating States is more diverse. The region includes some of the report’s best performers, such as Estonia, Iceland, Germany and the United States, as well as some of its worst performers, with Russia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. She also noted the concerning finding that Russia is using the internet to interfere in domestic processes in other OSCE participating States. She pointed out that the “same manipulation techniques, including paid pro-government commentators, bots and fake news, that the Russian authorities have been using in their disinformation campaigns abroad, have long been used … against Russian independent journalists, political opponents and other critical voices.” After that, Dariya Orlova gave an account of the deteriorating internet freedom situation in Ukraine. To blame for this decline, she said, is the introduction of bans on several Russian internet services, including social media networks, email services and search engines. According to Dariya, there has been a lack of outspoken critique against these measures among domestic audiences. She also drew attention to the increasingly dangerous environment that online activists and journalists find themselves in. Then, she briefly explained some of the Kremlin’s tactics when it comes to weaponizing social media platforms. Berivan Orucoglu focused her remarks on the sharp decline in internet freedom that Turkey has experienced in the past few years. In her eyes, this reflects a crackdown on press freedom and freedom of expression more generally. In an effort to control the narrative, the Turkish government has jailed journalists, curbed dissent on social media, as well as in the mainstream media and otherwise intimidated critics. More often than not, national security reasons are cited as justification for these measures. In closing, Jason Pielemeier introduced his organization, the Global Network Initiative, to the audience and proceeded to place some of the aforementioned internet freedom trends into historical context. By doing so, he tried to understand the motivations of repressive regimes to clamp down on online activity. He also touched on more technical aspects of the discussion, such as data localization and the effects such measures have on intelligence operations.

  • Turkey’s Detention of U.S. Citizens to Be Scrutinized at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PRISONERS OF THE PURGE: THE VICTIMS OF TURKEY’S FAILING RULE OF LAW November 15, 2017 9:30AM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 124 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce111517 In July 2016, the Turkish people helped defeat a coup attempt that sought to overthrow their country’s constitutional order. In pursuing those responsible for the putsch, however, Turkish authorities created a dragnet that ensnared tens of thousands of people. The state of emergency declared by President Erdogan in the immediate aftermath of the coup attempt remains in effect today and gives the government vast powers to detain or dismiss from employment almost anyone, with only minimal evidence. Caught up in the sweeping purge are several American citizens, including pastor Andrew Brunson, who worked and raised his family in Turkey for more than 23 years. Despite the efforts of the President of the United States, among many others, he has spent more than a year in jail without trial on national security charges. Additionally, a Turkish-American NASA scientist and two Turkish employees of U.S. consulates stand charged with terrorism offenses despite no involvement with violent activity—a situation faced by thousands of other Turks.     The U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing will examine the factors contributing to the detention of American citizens, particularly Mr. Brunson, and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey, as well as the judicial processes to which they have been subject. One of Mr. Brunson’s family members and his U.S. attorney will testify about his ongoing detention. Witnesses will also discuss the impact of these arrests on U.S.-Turkey relations and policy recommendations that could help secure their release and promote Turkey’s respect for its rule of law and other commitments as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Panel One: Jonathan R. Cohen, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State Panel Two: CeCe Heil, Executive Counsel, American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) Jacqueline Furnari, Daughter of Andrew Brunson Nate Schenkkan, Director of the Nations in Transit Project, Freedom House

  • Religious Freedom Violations in OSCE Region Topic of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM VIOLATIONS IN THE OSCE REGION: VICTIMS AND PERPETRATORS Wednesday, November 15, 2017 2:00PM Russell Senate Office Building  Room 385 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission All 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have committed to recognize and respect religious freedom as a fundamental freedom. However, some OSCE countries are among the worst perpetrators of religious freedom violations in the world. Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are currently designated by the U.S. State Department as “Countries of Particular Concern,” a designation required by U.S. law for governments that have “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended that Russia also be designated as a CPC and includes Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey in its list of “Tier 2” countries that “require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by governments.” This briefing will happen just two days after CPC designations are due on November 13 (U.S. law requires the State Department to issue new CPC designations no later than 90 days after releasing its annual International Religious Freedom report). Panelists – including a representative from a frequently targeted religious group – will discuss religious freedom victims, violators, and violations in the OSCE region. The conversation will include recommendations for what governments and the OSCE institutionally should do to prevent and respond to violations. The intersection between security, a chronic justification for violations, and religious freedom will be featured. The following panelists will offer brief remarks, followed by questions: Ambassador Michael Kozak, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State Dr. Daniel Mark, Chairman, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Dr. Kathleen Collins, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota, and Scholar, Under Caesar’s Sword (a global three-year research project investigating how Christian communities respond when their religious freedom is severely violated) Philip Brumley, General Counsel, Jehovah’s Witnesses  

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine State of Internet Freedom in OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: INTERNET FREEDOM IN THE OSCE REGION: TRENDS AND CHALLENGES Tuesday, November 14, 2017 1:00PM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 215 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission For seven straight years, internet freedom in Eurasia has been on the decline, with countries like Russia and Turkey among the worst offenders. Independent websites are frequently censored and bloggers and netizens are being jailed for promoting human rights or documenting abuse. Meanwhile, governments are employing manipulation and disinformation campaigns to control the online information landscape and silence opposing voices, weaponizing social media to preserve power. On November 14, Freedom House will release the newest edition of its Freedom on the Net report, an annual assessment of internet access, censorship, and user rights in 65 countries, encompassing 87 percent of all internet users. Featuring the report’s main findings, this briefing will examine declining internet freedom globally and in the OSCE region, and its impact on broader democracy and human rights; growing cyberattacks against human rights defenders in Russia and the former Soviet sphere; and government use of social media to manipulate discussions and attack critics. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Sanja Kelly, Director, Freedom on the Net, Freedom House Dariya Orlova, Senior Lecturer, Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv, Ukraine Berivan Orucoglu, Human Rights Defenders Program Coordinator, The McCain Institute Jason Pielemeier, Policy Director, Global Network Initiative

  • Belarus: 25 Years after Signing the Helsinki Final Act

    In July 2017, Belarus hosted the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Annual Session.  However, two decades ago, the OSCE PA refused to even recognize the legitimacy of Belarus’ putative elected representatives.  What has changed? Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law, Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor, and Michael Newton, Intern

  • Organization Profile: Forum 18

    The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 recognizes religious freedom as a “human right and fundamental freedom.” Participating States of the OSCE “will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.” The Helsinki Commission promotes and defends the religious freedom of people in the OSCE region, particularly prioritizing the cases of individuals and communities whose religious freedom has been violated and laws and policies that conflict with the Helsinki Final Act. Forum 18 is a news organization dedicated to reporting on violations of religious freedom in several OSCE participating States, including in Central Asia and the South Caucasus; Russia; Belarus; and Turkey. Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Nathaniel Hurd interviewed the editors of Forum 18 by email to learn more about their work and views about religious freedom in the countries they cover. According to the editors, “The mission of Forum 18 is to provide original, reliable and detailed monitoring and analyses of threats and actions against the freedom of religion and belief of all people, whatever their religion or belief (including atheism and agnosticism), in an objective, truthful and timely manner.” Violations of Religious Freedom in the Former Soviet Union Forum 18 focuses its work on the states of the former Soviet Union, which the organization considers the worst violators of freedom of religion in the region. “The worst violators of freedom of religion and belief in the territories Forum 18 monitors – governments – target anyone and any religious community they see as actually or potentially outside their control,” the editors noted. “Azerbaijan, for example, claims to be ‘an example of tolerance’ yet has repeatedly closed Sunni Muslim mosques. A 2014 police list of banned books [in Azerbaijan] includes Islamic texts by theologian Said Nursi, Jehovah's Witness texts, and the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible used by Christians and Jews. Police have long confiscated these texts and others during raids on Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, and Baptist private homes and meetings of people exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. There are many prisoners of conscience, especially human rights defenders and journalists. On July 3, 2017 Shia Imam Sardar Babayev was jailed for three years for leading mosque prayers because he was educated abroad.” “The reality of freedom of religion and belief violations by governments in these territories and the necessity of documenting them is why we were founded,” noting that they work to protect the freedom of everyone whatever their religion or belief (including atheism and agnosticism). “Our founders and staff were and are totally convinced as a matter of Christian conviction that everyone with no exceptions – including people who would completely disagree with the Christian faith – must…be able to freely exercise the freedom of religion and belief, and related rights such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly…Our personal experience in the territories we monitor and other states (such as the former East Germany), as well as our own convictions, make us committed to Forum 18’s work of monitoring and analyzing governments’ violations of their international human rights law obligations.” In addition to its work on Azerbaijan, Forum 18 is also focusing on Uzbekistan’s raids, fines, jailing, and torture of Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as the increasing number of prisoners of conscience being jailed in Kazakhstan for exercising freedom of religion and belief, including alleged adherents of Muslim missionary movement Tabligh Jamaat, Jehovah’s Witness Teymur Akhmedov, and Seventh-day Adventist Yklas Kabduakasov. Kazakhstan has also banned all mosques outside state control; expressions of non-Sunni Hanafi Islam; and discussion of faith by people without state permission, or not using state-approved texts, or outside state-approved locations. Kazakhstan’s persecution of atheist writer Aleksandr Kharlamov is also of concern. In Russia, Forum 18 actively monitors the government’s “anti-extremist” nationwide ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as “anti-extremist” prosecutions, fines and jailing of Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses, including cases like that of Muslim Yevgeny Kim, who in in June 2017 was sentenced to three years in prison. Forum 18 is also concerned about nationwide religious literature bans, with the possessors of such texts being liable to criminal prosecution. Accuracy and Objectivity Are Key “Our overriding editorial objective is to as accurately as possible present the truth of a situation, both implicitly and explicitly,” note the editors of Forum 18. “It is vitally important that we cross-check information with local people, including religious communities and other human rights defender organizations where these exist. It is equally vital that in our published articles we carry the views of local people and human rights organizations – this enables local people to make their views on human rights violations known.” “Similarly, we always seek the comments of relevant officials, such as public prosecutors, police and secret police officials, within the country being written about,” they continued. “Every article we publish includes information on all the sources used, even if some have to be described as remaining anonymous for fear of state reprisals.” According to Forum 18, the organization’s efforts have resulted in “significant respect and usage among victims of human rights violations, human rights defenders (including journalists), diplomats, intergovernmental organizations, academics and others.” “Accuracy is in itself an effective advocacy for human rights by countering with accurate information the false information presented by repressive regimes, who often seek to conceal their human rights violations,” the editors said. The Worst of the Worst? When asked which of the countries Forum 18 monitors should be considered the “worst of the worst,” the editors noted that developing such a ranking is difficult. “Territories where serious…violations take place are places where people have a strong incentive to not discuss the state’s violations, for fear of state reprisals, making any reliable ranking of territories difficult,” they observed. “Because in all the territories Forum 18 monitors governments violate individuals’, informal groups’, and communities’ freedom of religion and belief apparently as part of a declared or undeclared policies of increasing state control of society – even in states such as Georgia in the south Caucasus – we think it is best for readers to judge for themselves which countries are the worst violators of freedom of religion or belief at any one time,” the editors added. Similarly, Forum 18 finds it difficult to rank the individual cases monitored by the organization. “In our view, each one of these cases where a government has violated an individual’s or group’s freedom of religion and belief can fairly be described as compelling. We think this view is reinforced by the individual cases being part of a much broader pattern of intentional, systemic government violations of the human rights of everyone they rule.” One case Forum 18 has followed close is that of Protestant Pastor Bakhrom Kholmatov in Tajikistan, who was jailed for three years for allegedly “singing extremist songs in church and so inciting ‘religious hatred.’” The regime has threatened family members, friends, and church members with reprisals if they reveal any details of the case, trial, or jailing. Cooperation is Key Cooperation is vital to the Forum 18 approach. “Cooperation in defense of human rights for all is both right in principle and more effective than competition,” the Forum 18 editors argue. “It is important to cooperate with others – including in our case providing accurate information – to help responses to violations of freedom of religion and belief and interlinked other fundamental freedoms to be as effective as possible. Our work with victims of freedom of religion and belief violations and other human rights defenders convinces us that this approach is the right one to follow.” Twitter: @Forum_18 Facebook: @Forum18NewsService

  • Averting All-Out War in Nagorno-Karabakh

    Last year, the worst outbreak of violence over Nagorno-Karabakh in more than two decades erupted as the so-called Four Day War in April 2016 claimed approximately 200 lives and demonstrated that the conflict is anything but “frozen.” The Line of Contact separating the parties sees numerous ceasefire violations annually and each one risks igniting a larger-scale conflict that could draw in major regional players, such as Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Since 1997, the United States, France, and Russia have co-chaired the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the principal international mechanism aimed at reaching a negotiated solution to the conflict. The U.S. Helsinki Commission hosted two former United States Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group process as well as a renowned, independent expert on the conflict to assess the current state of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Minsk Group format, and the prospects for achieving a lasting peace. Magdalena Grono, an expert from the International Crisis Group, underlined the serious potential for further flare-ups in the fighting, which could have severe humanitarian impacts and draw in regional powers. She contextualized the recent clashes and assessed that the conflict was among the most deadly, intractable and risky in Europe. According to her assessment, the conflict is beset by two worrisome trends: deteriorating confidence between the parties and in the settlement process itself as well as increasingly dangerous clashes due in part to the deployment of heavier weaponry. Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh discussed the role of the Minsk Group in the settlement process while voicing his concern that positions have hardened on all sides. Growing tensions have created risks not only of intentional but also accidental conflict, he said. The Ambassador outlined the limits of the Minsk Group’s mandate, underscoring that it is charged with helping the sides find a solution rather than imposing one from the outside. He lamented that the recent meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents apparently failed to achieve agreement on certain confidence and security building measures (CSBMs). In order to stem further escalation, he noted the importance of implementing CSBMs and establishing a direct communication channel between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. He concluded by calling on the leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan to demonstrate the political will to work toward a resolution, for instance by preparing their populations for the compromises that will inevitably be required to achieve peace. Ambassador James Warlick asserted that while this was a time of significant danger, peace remains within reach. He urged the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to engage together on principles that they know can lead to peace, saying that meetings without progress undermine confidence in negotiation efforts. Citing past negotiations, Ambassador Warlick laid out six elements that will have to be part of any settlement if it is to endure.  The Ambassador concluded by underlining that it is up to the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan to take the first step toward peace by considering measures, even unilateral ones, that will demonstrate their stated commitment to making progress, reducing tensions, and improving the atmosphere for negotiations. 

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