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U.S. Helsinki Commission Criticizes Attack on Civil Society in Azerbaijan

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

WASHINGTON—In response to today’s sentencing of eight youth activists associated with NIDA in Azerbaijan, and the detention of leading journalists and human rights advocates, the leadership of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) today called on the Government of Azerbaijan to respect the rule of law and its human rights commitments.

Regarding the trial of the NIDA activists, Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, stated: “The entirety of the legal proceedings against these young men is troubling not only for the lack of coherence in the government’s case, but also because there are credible allegations that the arrests and the subsequent charges are politically motivated and aimed at silencing criticism of the government. I am extremely concerned at the imposition of these lengthy sentences and am anxious for the health and well-being of these young men who are on hunger strike. I call on the Government of Azerbaijan to review the cases for prosecutorial misconduct and ensure that the rule of law and justice is carried out in these cases.”

The Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), expressed his concern about the arrest of journalist Rauf Mirqadirov on charges of spying for Armenia, as well as the detention and investigation of Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif Yunus. “These detentions follow a string of guilty verdicts in similar cases against critics of the government. This is a troubling pattern. I urge the government of Azerbaijan, a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to review these proceedings with a view toward releasing the eight activists – and to recommit itself to the rule of law. The OSCE has many times demonstrated the validity of its founding idea – that respect for human rights fosters stability and security.”

The young men, Shahin Novruzlu, Mammad Azizov, Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Rashad Hasanov, Uzeyir Mammadli, Rashadat Akhundov, Zaur Gurbanlı and Ilkin Rustamzada were sentenced today to prison terms ranging from six to 8 years on charges related to weapons and drug possession, charges that are widely believed to be fabricated as a means to intimidate and silence them. All eight activists have been in pre-trial detention for over one year and started a hunger strike in protest of their detention and the charges brought against them.

Rauf Mirqadirov is a well-respected journalist who writes critically of many governments, including Azerbaijan. He was arrested after being deported from Turkey to Azerbaijan, and has since been charged by the Government of Azerbaijan with espionage. Leyla Yunus is the founder and director of the Peace and Democracy Institute and long-time human rights advocate who has been vocal about promoting people-to-people ties with Armenia.

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The Russian-Georgian Conflict With the outbreak of armed violence between Russia and Georgia occurring only two months earlier, the war in South Ossetia would have seemed a natural subject for discussion during the HDIM. As a human rights forum, the meeting was unlikely to serve as a venue to debate the origins of the conflict, but there were expectations that participants would engage in a meaningful discussion of the human dimension of the tragedy and efforts to stem ongoing rights violations. As it turned out, this view was not widely shared by many of the governments and NGOs participating in the meeting. The opening plenary session foreshadowed the approach to this subject followed through most of the meeting. Among the senior OSCE officials, only High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek squarely addressed the situation in the south Caucasus. Vollebaek condemned the19th century-style politicization of national minority issues in the region and the violation of international borders. At the time of the crisis, he had cautioned against the practice of “conferring citizenship en masse to residents of other States” (a reference to Russian actions in South Ossetia) and warned that “the presence of one's citizens or ‘ethnic kin’ abroad must not be used as a justification for undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other States.” Sadly, that sound advice went unobserved in Georgia, but it is still applicable elsewhere in the OSCE region.(5) The statement delivered by France on behalf of the countries of the European Union failed to address the conflict. During the plenary, only Norway and Switzerland joined the United States in raising humanitarian concerns stemming from the conflict. In reply, the head of the Russian delegation delivered a tough statement which sidestepped humanitarian concerns, declaring that discussion of Georgia’s territorial integrity was now “irrelevant.” He called on participating States to adopt a pragmatic approach and urged acknowledgment of the creation of the new sovereign states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, terming their independence “irreversible” and “irrevocable.” Perhaps more surprising than this Russian bluster was the failure of any major NGO, including those who had been active in the conflict zone collecting information and working on humanitarian relief, to take advantage of the opportunity to raise the issue of South Ossetia during the opening plenary. As the HDIM moved into its working sessions, which cover the principal OSCE human dimension commitments, coverage of the conflict fared better. The Representative on Freedom of the Media remarked, in opening the session on free speech and freedom of the media that, for the first time in some years, two OSCE participating States were at war. During that session, he and other speakers called on the Russian Federation to permit independent media access to occupied areas to investigate the charges and counter-charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The tolerance discussion included calls by several delegations for Russia to cooperate and respond favorably to the HCNM’s request for access to South Ossetia to investigate the human rights situation in that part of Georgia. Disappointingly, during the session devoted to humanitarian commitments, several statements, including those of the ODHIR moderator and EU spokesperson, focused narrowly on labor conditions and migration, and failed to raise concerns regarding refugees and displaced persons, normally a major focus of this agenda item and obviously relevant to the Georgia crisis. Nevertheless, the session developed into one of the more animated at the HDIM. The Georgian delegation, which had been silent up to that point, spoke out against Russian aggression and alleged numerous human rights abuses. It expressed gratitude to the European Union for sending monitors to the conflict zone and urged the EU to pressure Russia to fully implement the Six-Point Ceasefire agreement negotiated by French President Sarkozy. The United States joined several delegations and NGOs calling on all parties to the conflict to observe their international obligations to protect refugees and create conditions for their security and safe voluntary return. In a pattern observed throughout the meeting, the Russian delegation did not respond to Georgian charges. It left it to an NGO, “Ossetia Accuses,” to make Russia’s case that Georgia had committed genocide against the people of South Ossetia. A common theme among many interventions was a call for an independent investigation of the causes of the conflict and a better monitoring of the plight of refugees, but to date Russian and South Ossetian authorities have denied both peacekeeping monitors and international journalists access to the region from elsewhere in Georgia. A joint assessment mission of experts from ODIHR and the HCNM, undertaken in mid-October, were initially denied access to South Ossetia, with limited access to Abkhazia granted to some team members. Eventually, several experts did gain access to the conflict zone in South Ossetia, though to accomplish this they had to travel from the north via the Russian Federation. One can only speculate why Georgia received such limited treatment at this HDIM. The crisis in the south Caucasus had dominated OSCE discussions at the Permanent Council in Vienna for weeks preceding the HDIM. Some participants may have feared that addressing it in Warsaw might have crowded out the broader human rights agenda. Others may have felt that, in the absence of a clear picture of the circumstances surrounding the conflict and with so many unanswered questions, it was best not to be too critical or too accusatory of either party. The EU (and particularly the French) were, at the time of the HDIM, in the process of negotiating the deployment of European observers to the conflict zone, and may have feared that criticism of Russia at this forum would have only complicated the task. In fact, the EU’s only oblique reference to Georgia was made at HDIM’s penultimate working session (a discussion which focused on human dimension “project activity”) in connection with the work of High Commissioner for National Minorities. (One observer of this session remarked that there seemed to be a greater stomach for dinging the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for shortcomings in its work than for criticizing Russia for invading a neighboring OSCE participating State.) Finally, other participants, particularly NGOs, seemed more inclined to view human rights narrowly in terms of how governments treat their own citizens and not in terms of how the failure to respect key principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are invariably accompanied by gross violations of human rights and can produce humanitarian disasters. Amid simmering tensions between Russia and Georgia which could erupt into renewed fighting, and completion of a report requested by the Finnish Chairmanship in time for the OSCE’s Ministerial in Helsinki in early December, Ministers will have to grapple with the impact of the south Caucasus conflict and what role the OSCE will have. Beyond Warsaw The relative quiet of the HDIM notwithstanding, French President M. Nicolas Sarkozy put a spotlight on OSCE issues during the course of the meeting. Speaking at a conference in Evian, France, on October 8, he responded to a call by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, issued in June during meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for a new “European Security Treaty” to revise Europe’s security architecture – a move seen by many as an attempt to rein in existing regional security organizations, including NATO and the OSCE. President Sarkozy indicated a willingness to discuss Medvedev’s ideas, but argued they should be addressed in the context of a special OSCE summit, which Sarkozy suggested could be held in 2009. The escalating global economic crisis was also very much on the minds of participants at the HDIM as daily reports of faltering financial institutions, plummeting markets, and capital flight promoted concerns over implications for the human dimension. Several delegations voiced particular concern over the possible adverse impact on foreign workers and those depending on remittances to make ends meet. Looking Ahead The human rights and humanitarian concerns stemming from the war in South Ossetia will likely come into sharper focus in the lead up to the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki as talks on the conflict resume in Geneva, and OSCE and other experts attempt to document the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of fighting and current conditions. The coming weeks can also be expected to bring renewed calls for an overhaul of the human dimension and the ODIHR by those seeking to curb attention paid to human rights and subordinate election monitoring activities. It remains to be seen whether Kazakhstan will fulfill the commitments it made a year ago in Madrid to undertake meaningful reforms by the end of this year. 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    This hearing discussed the role of OSCE institutions in advancing human rights and democracy, highlighting the role of the United States. The United States was mentioned as a leading force of democracy promotion and protection of human rights. However, the witnesses mentioned certain issues like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition flights, and detention centers that suggest double-standards. The discussion centered on the importance of inclusive voice in government and the need to find a way to build pluralism into single-party developing democracies by establishing political parties that can be competitive, that can be critical of governments and that can bring new ideas and fresh faces into their government.

  • OSCE 101: Briefing for Civil Society

    Please join the U.S. Helsinki Commission for OSCE 101: BRIEFING FOR CIVIL SOCIETY Thursday, September 4, 2008  10:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.  Rayburn House Office Building  B318 For those in need of a refresher course and those interested in becoming involved. Learn about the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Role of Civil Society For those planning to travel to Warsaw, Poland, remember to register to participate in the OSCE’s Annual Human Rights Meeting: What: Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) When: September 29 – October 10, 2008 Where: Warsaw, Poland Why: Annual 2-week human rights conference What is the HDIM? The term "human dimension" describes the set of norms and activities related to human rights, the rule of law, and democracy that are regarded within the OSCE as one of the three pillars of its comprehensive security concept, along with the politico-military and the economic and environmental dimensions. Every year in Warsaw, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) organizes a two-week conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The HDIM is a forum where OSCE participating States discuss the implementation of human dimension commitments that were adopted by consensus at prior OSCE Summits or Ministerial Meetings. These commitments are not legally binding norms; instead, they are politically binding - a political promise to comply with the standards elaborated in OSCE documents. Follow-up meetings to review the implementation of the commitments are based on the principle that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the state concerned. A comprehensive, 2-volume compilation of the OSCE human dimension commitments (available in English and in Russian) can be ordered free of charge through the ODIHR website: Volume 1: Thematic Compilation and Volume 2: Chronological Compilation.

  • Guantanamo Detainees after Boumediene: Now What?

    The hearing reviewed the detainee-related policy issues – particularly for Guantanamo detainees -- that remain in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Boumediene. Witnesses also had the opportunity to discuss a related question: what does Europe do with its terror suspects, and are there any lessons for the United States from the European experience? The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in Boumediene v. Bush that foreign terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility have the right under the Constitution to challenge their detention in a U.S. civilian court.

  • Ingushetia: The New Hot Spot in Russia’s North Caucasus

    John Finerty, staff advisor at the Commission, led this briefing on the increased destabilization in the North Caucasus region of Russia, specifically in Ingushetia. After the conclusion of the second Chechen war, the North Caucasus region was once again experiencing an increase in violence.  Although the entire region was fraught with instability, Ingushetia attracted particular attention, having undergone a rise in terrorist and counter-terrorist operations, illegal detentions, kidnappings and extra judicial executions over the past year.  Panelists – Eliza Musaeva, Gregory Shvedov, and Magomed Mutsolgov -described Ingushetia’s history and the arbitrary lack of rule of law that had originated in Chechnya and crept into Ingushetia. They highlighted the prolific kidnappings in the regions that were specifically Chechnya related, which led to Ingushetia being talked about as a republic of its own.  Since then, the Russian government had conducted counterterrorism operations, leading the panelists to speculate about the potential for another war in the North Caucasus. 

  • Combating Sexual Exploitation of Children: Strengthening International Law Enforcement Cooperation

    The hearing examined current practices for sharing information among law enforcement authorities internationally and what concrete steps can be taken to strengthen that cooperation to more effectively investigate cases of sexual exploitation of children, including child pornography on the Internet. Despite current efforts, sexual exploitation of children is increasing globally. The use of the Internet has made it easier for pedophiles and sexual predators to have access to child pornography and potential victims. In May, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Combating Child Exploitation Act of 2008 (S.1738), which will allocate over one billion dollars over the next eight years to provide Federal, state, and local law enforcement with the resources and structure to find, arrest, and prosecute those who prey on our children.

  • Hate in the Information Age

    The briefing provided an overview of hate crimes and hate propaganda in the OSCE region, focusing on the new challenges posed by the internet and other technology. Mischa Thompson led the panelists in a discussion of the nature and frequency of hate crimes in the OSCE region, including the role of the internet and other technologies in the training, recruiting, and funding of hate groups. Panelists - Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Mark A. Potok, Christopher Wolf, Tad Stahnke – discussed how best to combat hate crimes and hate propaganda and highlighted internet governance issues in the United States and Europe and how the internet extensively contributes to hate propaganda. Issues such as free speech and content control were at the center of the discussion.

  • Uzbekistan: Three Years after Andijan

    This briefing examined the human rights situation and state of civil society in Uzbekistan three years after Andijan, when hundreds of demonstrators were killed by Uzbek security force, and in the subsequent crackdown, restrictions were imposed to further stifle dissent. While the human rights situation remains dire, the Government of Uzbekistan continues to pursue engagement with the EU and U.S., positioning itself as a key strategic ally in regional energy and security concerns.  Panelists testifying at the briefing explored prospects for democratization in Uzbekistan and the possibilities of improving U.S.-Uzbek relations.  Additionally, they discussed the need for reforms in cotton production, Uzbekistan's largest source of income. 

  • Clearing the Air, Feeding the Fuel Tank: Understanding the Link Between Energy and Environmental Security

    Congress has an obligation to work to ensure a healthy and safe environment for the benefit of current and future generations.  To reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and achieve a healthier environment, we need a multi-faceted approach that addresses the tangled web of issues involved.  We need to foster both energy independence and clean energy. Given rising sea levels, the increasing severity of storm surges, and higher temperatures the world over, the impact of global climate change is undeniable.  Unless we act now, we will see greater and greater threats to our way of life on this planet.

  • Crossing Boarders, Keeping Connected: Women, Migration and Development in the OSCE Region

    The hearing will focus on the impact of migration on family and society, the special concerns of migrant women of color, and the economic contributions of women migrants to their home country through remittances. According to the United Nations, women are increasingly migrating on their own as main economic providers and heads of households. While the number of women migrants is on the rise, little is known about the economic and social impact of this migration on their home country.

  • The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West

    This briefing featured Edward Lucas, Central and Eastern Europe correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief for The Economist. During this briefing, Lucas shared his thoughts on current political events in Russia including the upcoming Presidential elections and Moscow’s relations with the international community during President Putin’s era and beyond. Several developments in Russia were highlighted, including the increasing tensions between Russia and the West in light of Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia. The perspective provided by Lucas during this hearing emphasized the both positives and negatives of these developments, and of Russia’s relationship with other countries like the United States.

  • Human Rights, Civil Society, and Democratic Governance in Russia: Current Situation and Prospects for the Future

    This hearing, chaired by Helsinki Commission Chairman Hon. Sam Brownback and Ranking Member the Hon. Benjamin Cardin, focused on the tumoltuous developement of human right in Russia. For the past few years, a series of events in Russia has given cause for concern about the fate of human rights, civil society, and democratic governance in that country. Of particular concern is the recent promulgation of a law establishing greater governmental control over NGOs and an attempt by the Russian secret services to link prominent Russian NGOs with foreign intelligence services. Newsweek International wrote in its February 6, 2006 issue: “The Russian secret service is acting more and more like the old KGB.” At the same time, the Russian Federation accedes this year to the chairmanship of the Group of Eight Industrialized Nations (G-8), and will chair the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers beginning in May 2006.  

  • Freedom of the Media in the OSCE Region Part 2

    Freedom of media is one of the cornerstones of democracy, and recognized as such under international human rights law and in numerous OSCE commitments.  Moreover, a free and independent media is not only an essential tool for holding governments accountable; the media can serve as an agent of change when it shines a light into the darkest crevices of the world (examining environmental degradation, corporate or government corruption, trafficking in children, and healthcare crises in the world's most vulnerable countries, etc.) Freedom of the media is closely connected to the broader right to freedom of speech and expression and other issues including public access to information and the conditions necessary for free and fair elections.  The hearing will attempt to illustrate the degree in which freedom of the media is obstructed in the greater OSCE region.

  • The Future Belarus: Democracy or Dictatorship?

    This briefing, on the prospects for democratic change in Belarus, a country located in the heart of Europe, but which had the unfortunate distinction of having one of the worst human rights and democracy records in the European part of the OSCE region, was held by Hon. Alcee L. Hastings, Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He was join by a delgation of courageous leaders of Belarus' democratic opposition and leading human rights and democracy activists: Aliaksandr Milinkevich, Anatoliy Lebedko, Sergey Kalyakin, Anatoliy Levkovich, and Dmitriy Fedaruk. The witnesses were commended for their courage to testify at the briefing and applauded for their commitment to the struggle for democracy, freedom, and human rights, even under very trying circumstances.

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