Central Asia: The “Black Hole” of Human Rights

Central Asia: The “Black Hole” of Human Rights

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
106th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Thursday, October 21, 1999

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to introduce a resolution on the disturbing state of democratization and human rights in Central Asia. As is evident from many sources, including the State Department's annual reports on human rights, non-governmental organizations, both in the region and the West, and the work of the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, Central Asia has become the “black hole” of human rights in the OSCE space.

True, not all Central Asia countries are equal offenders. Kyrgyzstan has not joined its neighbors in eliminating all opposition, tightly censoring the media and concentrating all power in the hands of the president, though there are tendencies in that direction, and upcoming elections in 2000 may bring out the worst in President Akaev. But elsewhere, the promise of the early 1990's, when the five Central Asian countries along with all former Soviet republics were admitted to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, has not been realized.

Throughout the region, super-presidents pay lip service to OSCE commitments and to their own constitutional provisions on separation of powers, while dominating the legislative and judicial branches, crushing or thwarting any opposition challenges to their factual monopoly of power, and along with their families and favored few, enjoying the benefits of their countries' wealth. Indeed, though some see the main problem of Central Asia through the prism of real or alleged Islamic fundamentalism, the Soviet legacy, or poverty, I am convinced that the essence of the problem is more simple and depressing: presidents determined to remain in office for life must necessarily develop repressive political systems.

To justify their campaign to control society, Central Asian leaders constantly point to their own national traditions and argue that democracy must be built slowly. Some Western analysts, I am sorry to say, have bought this idea, in some cases, quite literally, by acting as highly paid consultants to oil companies and other business concerns. But, Mr. Speaker, building democracy is an act of political will above all. You have to want to do it. If you don't, all the excuses in the world and all the state institutions formed in Central Asia ostensibly to promote human rights will remain simply window dressing.

Moreover, the much-vaunted stability offered by such systems is shaky. The refusal of leaders to allow turnover at the top or newcomers to enter the game means that outsiders have no stake in the political process and can imagine coming to power or merely sharing in the wealth only be extra-constitutional methods. For some of those facing the prospect of permanent exclusion, especially as living standards continue to fall, the temptation to resort to any means possible to change the rules of the game, may be overwhelming. Most people, however, will simply opt out of the political system in disillusionment and despair.

Against this general context, without doubt, the most repressive countries are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan's President Niyazov, in particular, has created a virtual North Korea in post-Soviet space, complete with his own bizarre cult of personality. Turkmenistan is the only country in the former Soviet bloc that remains a one-party state. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, has five parties but all of them are government-created and controlled. Under President Islam Karimov, no opposition parties or movements have been allowed to function since 1992. In both countries, communist-era controls on the media remain in place. The state, like its Soviet predecessor, prevents society from influencing policy or expressing its views and keeps the population intimidated through omnipresent secret police forces. Neither country observes the most fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion, or permits any electoral challenges to its all-powerful president.

Kazakstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev has played a more clever game. Pressed by the OSCE and Western capitals, he has formally permitted opposition parties to function, and they did take part in the October 10 parliamentary election. But once again, a major opposition figure was not able to participate, and OSCE/ODIHR monitors, citing many shortcomings, have criticized the election as flawed. In general, the ability of opposition and society to influence policymaking is marginal at best. At the same time, independent and opposition media have been bought, coopted or intimidated out of existence or into cooperation with the authorities, and those few that remain are under severe pressure.

Tajikistan suffered a devastating civil war in the early 1990's. In 1997, war-weariness and a military stalemate led the disputants to a peace accord and a power-sharing agreement. But though the arrangement had promise, it now seems to be falling apart, as opposition contenders for the presidency have been excluded from the race and the major opposition organization has decided to suspend participation in the work of the National Reconciliation Commission.

Mr. Speaker, along with large-scale ethnic conflicts like Kosovo or Bosnia, and unresolved low-level conflicts like Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia, I believe the systemic flouting of OSCE commitments on democratization and human rights in Central Asia is the single greatest problem facing the OSCE. For that reason, I am introducing this resolution expressing concern about the general trends in the region, to show Central Asian presidents that we are not taken in by their facade, and to encourage the disheartened people of Central Asia that the United States stands for democracy. The resolution calls on Central Asian countries to come into compliance with OSCE commitments on democracy and human rights , and encourages the Administration to raise with other OSCE states the implications for OSCE participation of countries that engage in gross and uncorrected violation of freely accepted commitments on human rights . Mr. Speaker, I hope my colleagues will join me, Mr. Hoyer, and Mr. Forbes in this effort and we welcome their support.

Leadership: 
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Meanwhile, UBS, the world’s largest private wealth manager, has disclosed it has $22bn of assets of “Russian persons not entitled to residency in the European Economic Area or Switzerland”, leaving open the question of how much it holds overall. Some 16,500 Russians are permanently resident in Switzerland, and more Russians are accepted for Swiss citizenship than any other nationality, according to the State Secretariat for Migration. Julius Baer has made no direct disclosure of the size or wealth of its Russian client base, though it has said, somewhat elliptically, that the value of assets held by its Moscow-based subsidiary is some SFr400mn. Information from the dozens of other smaller Swiss private banks is even scantier. Even leading industry figures wonder what is being left unsaid. One executive, who for the past two decades has been a senior figure in the private banking world in Switzerland, says he has almost no doubt that the significance of many banks’ close working relationships with sanctioned individuals is being underplayed. “You don’t have dozens and dozens of people employed on your Russia desks if you are not making money in Russia,” he says. Moreover, he adds, many Russian clients have done their business through Swiss banks’ subsidiaries abroad, such as those in Monaco, London or Asia. It is not clear to him whether all these assets have been caught by the Swiss rules. Swiss banks have a legal obligation to record the ultimate beneficial owners of all assets they handle worldwide, but doing so accurately can be tricky in jurisdictions where it is easy for third parties to mask who the owners are. 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Marco Rubio (FL), Dick Durbin (IL), Jim Risch (ID), Bob Menendez (NJ), Roger Wicker (MS), Ron Johnson (WI), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Dan Sullivan (AK) and Chuck Grassley (IA) also are original cosponsors. “Vladimir Kara-Murza is a genuine hero, speaking truth to power in Russia, and mobilizing the world to support the Russian people,” said Chairman Cardin, who also is a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Without his leadership, several countries in Europe would not have enacted their versions of the U.S. Global Magnitsky laws that have broadened the impact of our own sanctions program.  We call for his immediate release form unjust imprisonment in Russia.” Last week, Chairman Cardin led a bipartisan letter calling on the Biden administration to sanction publicly “every Russian official and associate involved with the false arrest, detention, and political persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza.” The full text of the resolution follows. It is scheduled to be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. Calling for the immediate release of Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was unjustly detained on April 11, 2022. Whereas Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza (referred to in this preamble as “Mr. Kara-Murza”) has tirelessly worked for decades to advance the cause of freedom, democracy, and human rights for the people of the Russian Federation; Whereas, in retaliation for his advocacy, two attempts have been made on Mr. Kara-Murza’s life, as— (1) on May 26, 2015, Mr. Kara-Murza fell ill with symptoms indicative of poisoning and was hospitalized; and (2) on February 2, 2017, he fell ill with similar symptoms and was placed in a medically induced coma; Whereas independent investigations conducted by Bellingcat, the Insider, and Der Spiegel found that the same unit of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation responsible for poisoning Mr. Kara-Murza was responsible for poisoning Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and activists Timur Kuashev, Ruslan Magomedragimov, and Nikita Isayev; Whereas, on February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin launched another unprovoked, unjustified, and illegal invasion into Ukraine in contravention of the obligations freely undertaken by the Russian Federation to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the Minsk protocols of 2014 and 2015, and international law; Whereas, on March 5, 2022, Vladimir Putin signed a law criminalizing the distribution of truthful statements about the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation and mandating up to 15 years in prison for such offenses; Whereas, since February 24, 2022, Mr. Kara-Murza has used his voice and platform to join more than 15,000 citizens of the Russian Federation in peacefully protesting the war against Ukraine and millions more who silently oppose the war; Whereas, on April 11, 2022, five police officers arrested Mr. Kara-Murza in front of his home and denied his right to an attorney, and the next day Mr. Kara-Murza was sentenced to 15 days in prison for disobeying a police order; Whereas, on April 22, 2022, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation charged Mr. Kara-Murza with violations under the law signed on March 5, 2022, for his fact-based statements condemning the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation; Whereas Mr. Kara-Murza was then placed into pretrial detention and ordered to be held until at least June 12, 2022; and Whereas, if convicted of those charges, Mr. Kara-Murza faces detention in a penitentiary system that human rights nongovernmental organizations have criticized for widespread torture, ill-treatment, and suspicious deaths of prisoners: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate— (1) condemns the unjust detention and indicting of Russian opposition leader Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, who has courageously stood up to oppression in the Russian Federation; (2) expresses solidarity with Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, his family, and all individuals in the Russian Federation imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly, and belief; (3) urges the United States Government and other allied governments to work to secure the immediate release of Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, Alexei Navalny, and other citizens of the Russian Federation imprisoned for opposing the regime of Vladimir Putin and the war against Ukraine; and (4) calls on the President to increase support provided by the United States Government for those advocating for democracy and independent media in the Russian Federation, which Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza has worked to advance.

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    WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and Chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission), along with Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Senator Roger Wicker (MS) and Commissioners Senators Jeanne Shaheen (NH) and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) are urging President Joe Biden to publicly sanction “every Russian official and associate involved with the false arrest, detention, and political persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza.” The lawmakers made the plea last week in a letter that also was signed by U.S. Representatives Steve Cohen (TN-09), Co-Chair of the Helsinki Commission; Joe Wilson (SC-02), Ranking Member of the Helsinki Commission; Gerald Connolly (VA-11); John Curtis (UT-03); Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Ruben Gallego (AZ-07); Richard Hudson NC-08); Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX-18); Marcy Kaptur (OH-09); Bill Keating (MA-09); Adam Kinzinger (IL-16); Tom Malinowski (NJ-07); Peter Meijer (MI-03); Mike Levin (CA-49); Gwen Moore (WI-044); Burgess Owens (UT-04); Katie Porter (CA-45); Maria Elvira Salazar (FL-27); Abigail Spanberger (VA-07); and Marc Veasey (TX-33). “Kara-Murza is a Russian opposition politician who has long stood up against Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. He embodies what Russia might be one day when it is democratic and free,” the lawmakers wrote. “As Russia loses its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, we must consider what might come next in that country. Kara-Murza offers a vision of a Russia free from imperialist kleptocracy. He has bravely answered the call of many Ukrainians for Russians to take a stand and oppose this bloody and senseless war. He must be immediately freed and allowed to continue his work.” The full letter is below and can be downloaded at this link. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington, DC 20500 Dear President Biden, We urge you to name and sanction every Russian official and associate involved with the false arrest, detention, and political persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza. Kara-Murza is a Russian opposition politician who has long stood up against Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. He embodies what Russia might be one day when it is democratic and free. We also urge you to examine whether to sanction those involved in the persecution and imprisonment of other Russian political prisoners. Kara-Murza is a Russian patriot who has fought for decades for democracy in Russia and a prosperous future for his country. For this, the regime in Russia has poisoned him twice. On April 11, while in Russia, Kara-Murza called this regime “a regime of murderers.” He was then arrested, and now faces trumped up charges that may result in years of unjust imprisonment. Kara-Murza was the key Russian activist behind the passage of the Magnitsky Act and its adoption by our allies. The late Senator John McCain called him “one of the most passionate and effective advocates for the passage of the Magnitsky Act.” Kara-Murza himself, like his mentor Boris Nemtsov before him, has called the Magnitsky Act the most “pro-Russian law passed in the United States in the history of our countries.” Nemtsov was murdered in front of the Kremlin. The Magnitsky Act is the appropriate tool to sanction those involved in the persecution of Kara-Murza. We ask that you coordinate with our allies to sanction these individuals at the same time. The European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia now all have Magnitsky sanctions laws of their own. As Russia loses its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, we must consider what might come next in that country. Kara-Murza offers a vision of a Russia free from imperialist kleptocracy. He has bravely answered the call of many Ukrainians for Russians to take a stand and oppose this bloody and senseless war. He must be immediately freed and allowed to continue his work. Sincerely,

  • Arrest and Detention of Vladimir Kara-Murza

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Vladimir has a special relationship with the Helsinki Commission and a keen interest in using parliamentary diplomacy to rally other nations against the Putin regime’s undemocratic and violent policies, particularly the war in Ukraine. Vladimir was instrumental in the development and passage of the Magnitsky Act. In fact, a number of colleagues and I recently sent a letter to President Biden urging that the administration impose Magnitsky Act sanctions on every Russian official and associate involved in Vladimir’s false arrest and unjust detention. That Vladimir continues to return to Russia after multiple poisonings, arrests, and other tribulations is a testament to his profound courage and dedication to his fellow citizens. He feels that he cannot, in good conscience, call on Russians to risk their freedom and lives to resist the evils and complacency of Putin’s Russia if he is comfortably out of harm’s way himself.  Two weeks before his arrest, Vladimir testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing on propaganda and censorship in Russia, where he warned that speaking out against the war in Ukraine is now grounds for prosecution in Russia, yet he refused to be silent. Though now deprived of his physical freedom and in grave danger, Vladimir’s spirit is unbroken; he is unafraid; and he continues to believe that Russia will one day become a democratic, European state. He sees the Ukraine war as the last desperate gasp of Putinism, the beginning of the end. In our many meetings over the years, Vladimir has always reminded us of the need to remember prisoners of conscience and speak their names. As Vladimir now ranks among these hundreds in Russia, and even more throughout the rest of the world, we will remember him. I call upon my colleagues to do the same; there is hope and power in not being forgotten. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the letter to President Biden that I referred to a moment ago be printed in the RECORD. There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows: MAY 5, 2022. President JOSEPH R. BIDEN, JR., The White House, Washington, DC. DEAR PRESIDENT BIDEN: We urge you to name and sanction every Russian official and associate involved with the false arrest, detention, and political persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza. Kara-Murza is a Russian opposition politician who has long stood up against Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. He embodies what Russia might be one day when it is democratic and free. We also urge you to examine whether to sanction those involved in the persecution and imprisonment of other Russian political prisoners. Kara-Murza is a Russian patriot who has fought for decades for democracy in Russia and a prosperous future for his country. For this, the regime in Russia has poisoned him twice. On April 11, while in Russia, KaraMurza called this regime ‘‘a regime of murderers.’’ He was then arrested, and now faces trumped up charges that may result in years of unjust imprisonment. Kara-Murza was the key Russian activist behind the passage of the Magnitsky Act and its adoption by our allies. The late Senator John McCain called him ‘‘one of the most passionate and effective advocates for the passage of the Magnitsky Act.’’ Kara-Murza himself, like his mentor Boris Nemtsov before him, has called the Magnitsky Act the most ‘‘pro-Russian law passed in the United States in the history of our countries.’’ Nemtsov was murdered in front of the Kremlin. The Magnitsky Act is the appropriate tool to sanction those involved in the persecution of Kara-Murza. We ask that you coordinate with our allies to sanction these individuals at the same time. The European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia now all have Magnitsky sanctions laws of their own. As Russia loses its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, we must consider what might come next in that country. KaraMurza offers a vision of a Russia free from imperialist kleptocracy. He has bravely answered the call of many Ukrainians for Russians to take a stand and oppose this bloody and senseless war. He must be immediately freed and allowed to continue his work. Sincerely, Ben Cardin, Jeanne Shaheen, Roger Wicker, Sheldon Whitehouse, U.S. Senators. Steve Cohen, Gerald Connolly, Brian Fitzpatrick, Richard Hudson, Marcy Kaptur, Adam Kinzinger, Peter Meijer, Gwen Moore, Katie Porter, Abigail Spanberger, Joe Wilson, John Curtis, Ruben Gallego, Sheila Jackson Lee, Bill Keating, Tom Malinowski, Mike Levin, Burgess Owens, Marı´a Elvira Salazar, Marc Veasey, Members of Congress. 

  • Swiss Release Some Frozen Russian Assets

    The Swiss government on Thursday reported 6.3 billion Swiss francs ($6.33 billion) worth of Russian assets frozen under sanctions to punish Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, a drop from early April as around 3.4 billion francs in provisionally blocked assets were released. The figure marked a decrease from roughly 7.5 billion Swiss francs in funds the government reported frozen on April 7. Government official Erwin Bollinger pointed to fewer funds -- 2.2 billion francs -- newly frozen than those that had been released. read more "We can't freeze funds if we do not have sufficient grounds," Bollinger, a senior official at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) agency overseeing sanctions, told journalists. Pressure has increased on Switzerland -- a popular destination for Moscow's elite and a holding place for Russian wealth -- to more quickly identify and freeze assets of hundreds of sanctioned Russians. read more The U.S. Helsinki Commission, a government-funded independent commission which looks at security, cooperation and human rights issues in Europe, in early May called Switzerland "a leading enabler of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies", who the commission said used "Swiss secrecy laws to hide and protect the proceeds of their crimes". The Swiss government rejected the accusations "in the strongest possible terms", while Swiss President Ignazio Cassis had requested the U.S. government "correct this misleading impression immediately" during a telephone call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Swiss banks hold up to $213 billion of Russian wealth, Switzerland's bank lobby estimates, with its two largest lenders UBS (UBSG.S) and Credit Suisse (CSGN.S) each holding tens of billions of francs for wealthy Russian clients. read more Credit Suisse alone froze some 10.4 billion Swiss francs of that money through March under sanctions imposed in connection with the invasion. read more Credit Suisse's reporting did not make clear how much of that money was frozen in Switzerland. While banks and asset managers can provisionally freeze funds, SECO officials on Thursday said funds needed to be released if they could not establish the assets were directly owned or controlled by a sanctioned individual. "The amount of assets frozen is not a measure of how effectively sanctions are being implemented," Bollinger said, adding asset freezes were "by far" not the most important measure in a wide-ranging packet of sanctions. ($1 = 0.9948 Swiss francs)

  • Russia's Swiss Enablers

    Long known as a destination for war criminals and kleptocrats to stash their plunder, Switzerland is a leading enabler of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies. After looting Russia, Putin and his oligarchs use Swiss secrecy laws to hide and protect the proceeds of their crimes. Close relations between Swiss and Russian authorities have had a corrupting influence on law enforcement personnel in Switzerland and have led to the resignation of numerous officials, including the head prosecutor of Switzerland. A recent Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project investigation found that Credit Suisse catered to dozens of criminals, dictators, intelligence officials, sanctioned parties, and political actors, and identified problematic accounts holding more than $8 billion in assets. According to the Financial Times, Credit Suisse also asked investors to destroy documents linked to yacht loans made to oligarchs and tycoons. This briefing examined the relationship between Switzerland and Russia in light of Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Panelists discussed how a compromised Switzerland affects U.S. national security and whether the United States should rethink its strategic bilateral relationship with Switzerland. Related Information Panelist Biographies How the Swiss Law Enforcement Capitulated to the Russians in the Magnitsky Case - Bill Browder

  • Swiss Attacked for Going Easy on Seizing Russian Billions

    The $7.6 billion in Russian assets seized to date by Swiss authorities is “insulting,” outspoken Kremlin critic Bill Browder said at briefing on Russian money in Switzerland.  It’s “a lot of money in absolute terms but Switzerland is one of the main destinations for dirty Russian money,” said Browder. Given the Swiss Bankers Association has said there’s as much as 150 to 200 billion Swiss francs ($202 billion) in Russian assets in the country’s banks “I would almost say it’s slightly insulting,” he said.  Browder, who has also highlighted what he perceives to be Swiss prosecutors’ soft approach to investigating Russian financial crime, called on the U.S. to review its cooperation framework with its Swiss counterparts, during the hearing organized by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday. “Based on my experience, it would lead me to believe the Swiss are knowingly turning their head the other way when it comes to some of the other oligarchs,” said Browder. The Swiss government said a month ago it had blocked 7.5 billion Swiss francs ($8 billion) in Russian assets in the country to date, as it issues sanctions that mirror those imposed by the European Union on those seen as close to Vladimir Putin.  That figure represented a jump of 30% from their previous tally two weeks earlier and Swiss officials say the number will continue to rise as more assets hidden behind shell companies or in the names of associated are painstakingly uncovered.  Switzerland surprised the world in early March by departing from its tradition of neutrality and saying it would fully embrace the European Union measures against Russia.  But critics including Browder contend that the country needs to go much further. Read more: Swiss Hunt for Russian Wealth Criticized Despite $6 Billion Haul Erwin Bolliger, the chief of the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs which is enforcing the sanctions, has tried to explain the gap by pointing out that are plenty of legitimately-held Russian investments in Switzerland. “There is merit in Bill’s suggestion to review the law enforcement relations between the U.S. and Switzerland,” said Mark Pieth, a law professor at the University of Basel and corruption expert, said at the hearing. Up until now, Switzerland’s approach to clamping down on dirty Russian money in the country has shown a “lack of courage,” Pieth said.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Swiss Enabling of Russian Oligarchs

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: RUSSIA’S SWISS ENABLERS Thursday, May 5, 2022 10:00 a.m. Register: https://ushr.webex.com/ushr/j.php?RGID=r72f85e0c40a09b609b328a9481f54063 Long known as a destination for war criminals and kleptocrats to stash their plunder, Switzerland is a leading enabler of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies. After looting Russia, Putin and his oligarchs use Swiss secrecy laws to hide and protect the proceeds of their crimes. Close relations between Swiss and Russian authorities have had a corrupting influence on law enforcement personnel in Switzerland and have led to the resignation of numerous officials, including the head prosecutor of Switzerland. A recent Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project investigation found that Credit Suisse catered to dozens of criminals, dictators, intelligence officials, sanctioned parties, and political actors, and identified problematic accounts holding more than $8 billion in assets. According to the Financial Times, Credit Suisse also asked investors to destroy documents linked to yacht loans made to oligarchs and tycoons. This briefing will examine the relationship between Switzerland and Russia in light of Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Panelists will discuss how a compromised Switzerland affects U.S. national security and whether the United States should rethink its strategic bilateral relationship with Switzerland. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Bill Browder, Head, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Miranda Patrucic, Deputy Editor in Chief, Regional and Central Asia, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project Mark Pieth, President of the Board, Basel Institute on Governance  

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest April 2022

  • Diverse Voices Reporting From Ukraine

    Journalists in Ukraine risk their lives daily to report the reality of war. Credible, on-the-ground reporting has documented war crimes committed by Russian forces and the continued bombardment of Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure and displacing millions. So far, at least seven journalists have been killed, and others injured, while covering Russia's genocidal war against the people of Ukraine. During a briefing, held April 20, 2022, attendees heard from three journalists currently reporting from Ukraine: Oz Katerji, a freelance conflict journalist; Asami Terajima, a journalist with the Kyiv Independent; and Olga Tokariuk, an independent journalist based in Ukraine and a non-resident fellow with CEPA. All of the panelists are journalists currently in Ukraine, whose diverse backgrounds bring important perspectives on the war. The discussion centered on their personal experiences, the contributions their diverse backgrounds bring to their coverage, and the experiences of individual Ukrainians they have encountered during the war. The briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Bakhti Nishanov. Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) opened the hearing by expressing his gratitude and appreciation to the panelists and stressed the importance of listening to voices on the ground in Ukraine. In opening remarks, Nishanov highlighted the rampant deceit surrounding narratives on the war in Ukraine and emphasized the purpose of the briefing: to spotlight diverse voices reporting in Ukraine, to listen to their stories, and to respond with action. Oz Katerji gave an account of the horrifying tactics utilized by the Russian military in Syria, which are now being repeated in Ukraine. He stated that Putin has been given impunity for decades in response to Russian aggression in Syria, Georgia, Chechnya, and now in Ukraine. “Syria was the opening shot and Ukraine is the continuation of Putin’s war of expansion into Europe,” he said, “Putin won’t stop unless he is stopped.” Asami Terajima shared a moving account of the Ukrainian people’s spirit and resilience, and denounced claims of Nazism in Ukraine as absurd. She described Ukrainians as brave, freedom-loving people and said that even in such difficulty, they are already rebuilding their lives as best they can. Olga Tokariuk reiterated the danger faced by all those in Ukraine, whether in the eastern or western regions. Russia has attacked Lviv and injured dozens in the region, in addition to the massive human rights violations it already has committed in every region of Ukraine. Tokariuk warned that unless Russia is stopped, it will continue to perpetrate genocide on a massive scale in Ukraine. She said, “Russia will not stop in Donbas…No one in Ukraine is safe or can be safe unless Russia is defeated and Ukraine wins this war.” Attendees raised a number of questions to the panelists, ranging from the logistics of transporting military equipment to the value of counteracting propaganda within Russia. Related Information Panelist Biographies Oz Katerji: "In the Liberated Kyiv Suburbs, Two Tales of War Emerge" Olga Tokariuk: "Syrian Doctors Are Teaching Ukrainians How to Prepare for Chemical Attacks"

  • Journalists paint troubling picture of Russian war in Ukraine: 'It's light versus darkness'

    An independent U.S. commission heard vivid descriptions on Wednesday about what it's like to be on the ground in Ukraine for journalists who are responsible for keeping the world updated on Russia's bloody war. In testimony before the independent Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, multiple Ukraine-based journalists communicated how Moscow is indiscriminately attacking troops and civilians there and destroying cities. Ukraine is one of the most dangerous assignments in the world for reporters and several have already been killed there since Russia invaded the former Soviet republic on Feb. 24. The CSCE, also known as the Helsinki Commission, heard about the journalists' personal experiences and stories they have encountered in the battle-scarred country for the past eight weeks. Independent Ukrainian journalist Olga Tokariuk said she fled to western Ukraine just days after the fighting began and that she fears what Russia's war could mean for the future of the country, which declared its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. "If Russia is not stopped -- if Russia is allowed to take more Ukrainian territory, this will happen everywhere," she told the commission. "Russia will perpetuate genocide on a massive scale. "No one in Ukraine can be safe unless Russia is defeated." Tokariuk added that most of the journalists she knows in Ukraine may have underestimated the danger initially. "Ukrainians had freedom of speech, freedom of press," she said. "We had the feeling that we were part of the free world." Tokariuk described grisly human rights violations in parts of Ukraine, particularly in the east -- including kidnappings, disappearances and forced deportations to Russia. The CSCE -- an independent government agency formed in 1975 to monitor security conditions in Europe -- says that at least seven journalists have been killed so far in Ukraine since the war began. The commission is comprised of several lawmakers from the House and Senate and normally includes three executive members from the departments of Defense, Commerce and State. Those seats are presently vacant. Asami Terajima, a Kyiv Independent journalist, told the lawmakers that she moved to Ukraine when she was 10. "Every single day as the war continues, more Ukrainian civilians are dying and more cities are being destroyed," she said, emphasizing that Russia is not targeting only Ukrainian troops. Freelance conflict reporter Oz Katerji told the commission that although Ukrainian fighters have been successful repelling Russian advances, they need weapons and equipment that will "strike fear in the hearts" of Russian troops. "This is democracy versus totalitarianism," he said. "It's light versus darkness." Evgeny Sakun, a Ukrainian cameraman working for Kyiv Live TV, was the first journalist to be killed after the invasion when Russian missiles struck the television tower in Kyiv on March 1. Award-winning video journalist and documentary filmmaker Brent Renaud was killed in Irpin on March 13 and an attack on a Fox News camera crew near Kyiv killed Irish reporter Pierre Zakrzewski, a cameraman and Ukrainian reporter-producer Oleksandra Kuvshynova a day later. Late last month, journalist Oksana Baulina was killed in Kyiv by a "kamikaze drone" while working for Latvia-based Russian online investigative media outlet The Insider. Jeanne Cavelier, head of Reporters Without Borders' Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said a few weeks ago that a quarter of all journalists who have died worldwide in 2022 were killed in Ukraine within the first month of fighting. "As their reporting is essential in order to understand the war in Ukraine and attacking journalists is a war crime under international law, we call on the Russian and Ukrainian authorities to guarantee their safety on the ground," Cavelier said in a statement. Ukraine is ranked 97th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Russia is ranked 150th. "Journalists in Ukraine risk their lives daily to report the reality of war," the CSCE said in a statement before Wednesday's hearing. "Credible, on-the-ground reporting has documented war crimes committed by Russian forces and the continued bombardment of Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure and displacing millions."

  • Biden administration urged to ban UK lawyers who ‘enabled’ oligarchs

    A member of Congress has urged the Biden administration to place travel bans on senior British lawyers that acted for wealthy Russian clients against investigative journalists. Steve Cohen, a Democratic representative from Tennessee, has written to Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, urging him to sanction the lawyers for having “enabled malign activities of Russian oligarchs”. His letter comes as the Biden administration looks to increase its support for Ukraine in its war against Russia and tighten sanctions against those who have supported the Russian regime. Cohen wrote: “Oligarchs who hire lawyers to engage in abusive cases against journalists to silence them cannot exert malign influence in our system . . . the United States must establish deterrents for foreign enablers serving individuals who are undermining democracy.” The state department did not respond to a request for comment. Cohen singled out several lawyers he believed should be subject to bans on visas for travel to the US: Nigel Tait of Carter-Ruck; John Kelly of Harbottle & Lewis; barrister Hugh Tomlinson; Geraldine Proudler of CMS; Keith Schilling of Schillings; and Shlomo Rechtschaffen of SR law. Each of the lawyers is well known in London legal circles, with firms like Carter-Ruck and Schillings having established strong reputations in defamation law and reputation management. Tait, Kelly, Tomlinson and Proudler all worked on recent cases against the former Financial Times journalist Catherine Belton or her publisher HarperCollins, or both. Belton and HarperCollins were sued last year by several Russian oligarchs including Roman Abramovich over her book Putin’s People, which details the rise to power of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. The lawsuits were later settled or withdrawn. Cohen cited Schillings’ work for Malaysian businessman and fugitive Jho Low. British ministers have expressed concern over the way in which UK courts are used by wealthy foreigners to launch libel cases. Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, last month set out proposals to limit any so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Also in March Bob Seely, the MP for the Isle of Wight, used parliamentary privilege to claim “amoral” City lawyers were teaming up with “Putin’s henchmen” to offer “legalised intimidation”. A spokesperson for Tomlinson said: “Regulatory rules for lawyers are very strict and work to ensure equal entitlement to independent legal advice. Mr Tomlinson acted properly and in accordance with those rules throughout and has never acted as Mr Cohen suggests.” Tait’s firm Carter-Ruck said: “The claims made against Carter-Ruck are misconceived and are rejected entirely. In addition to other matters, we are not working for any Russian individuals, companies or entities seeking to challenge, overturn, frustrate or minimise sanctions.” It added: “We are not acting for, and will not be acting for, any individual, company or entity associated with the Putin regime in any matter or context, whether sanctions-related or otherwise, and will continue to conduct all ‘know your client’ checks in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations, as we have always done.” Cohen cited Rechtschaffen for his representation of Israeli-British businessman Walter Soriano, who he alleged was an “enabler” of certain oligarchs including Abramovich. Rechtschaffen said: “Walter Soriano is not an enabler of any oligarch . . . The English courts have said that the claim against Mr Stedman is not abusive.” Harbottle & Lewis said the firm had “acted at all time in accordance with its professional and legal obligations, and takes these matters very seriously”. Schillings said the firm did not act for any sanctioned entities and could not comment on client matters. It added that Cohen’s allegations were “wholly misplaced” and “misinformed”. It said the firm had upheld “the highest traditions of the legal profession”. Proudler’s firm CMS said it rejected Cohen’s allegations, adding that Proudler and the firm had been “compliant with all professional regulations”. “As we have said since the invasion of Ukraine, CMS is no longer accepting new instructions from Russian based entities or from any individuals with connections to the Russian government.”

  • Helsinki Commission Urges U.S. Administration to Consider Sanctioning Remaining Individuals Involved in Persecution of Sergei Magnitsky

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today released a letter sent April 15 to President Biden urging the U.S. administration to consider sanctioning the remaining individuals involved in the persecution of Sergei Magnitsky, the fraud he uncovered, and the coverup of his death in 2009. The letter read in part: “The passage and enforcement of the Magnitsky Act was among the rare times in the last decade that the United States rightly put universal values first in its relationship with Russia. Sergei Magnitsky courageously stood up to the Putin regime’s corruption and represents what Russia might be one day. He has served as an inspiration for Russian activists and civil society who dream of a Russia that respects human rights and complies with its own freely undertaken international commitments… “At this time of great upheaval, it could not be more important that the United States demonstrate its commitment to universal values. Sanctioning these individuals responsible for dismantling the rule of law in Russia and killing one of Russia’s bravest whistleblowers would have this effect.” Included with the letter was a list that includes the names and identifying information of 255 individuals who have not yet been sanctioned for their apparent role in Sergei Magnitsky’s death and the $230 million tax fraud he exposed. The list was compiled by Hermitage Capital Management LLC, the firm where Sergei Magnitsky worked at the time of his arrest and murder.   The full letter and list are available online. 

  • Journalists Reporting from Ukraine to Speak at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online staff briefing: DIVERSE VOICES REPORTING FROM UKRAINE Wednesday, April 20, 2022 10:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3E89IZX Journalists in Ukraine risk their lives daily to report the reality of war. Credible, on-the-ground reporting has documented war crimes committed by Russian forces and the continued bombardment of Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure and displacing millions. So far, at least seven journalists have been killed, and others injured, while covering Russia's genocidal war against the people of Ukraine. This briefing will convene journalists currently in Ukraine, whose diverse backgrounds bring important perspectives on the war. The discussion will center on their personal experiences and those of individual Ukrainians they have encountered during the war. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Oz Katerji, Freelance conflict journalist Asami Terajima, Journalist, Kyiv Independent Olga Tokariuk, Independent journalist based in Ukraine; Non-Resident Fellow, CEPA  

  • Outrage and Worry: Kremlin Critic's Arrest Heightens Concerns Of Putin's Crackdown

    Russian opposition politician and Washington Post contributor Vladimir Kara-Murza was detained by Russian authorities in Moscow on Monday, hours after calling the Kremlin “not just corrupt” or “authoritarian” but a “regime of murderers” in a CNN+ interview—a development that has only heightened concerns about the threat of speaking out against Vladimir Putin. “I think a lot of people are very worried about what's going to happen next,” CNN+ anchor Sara Sidner, who conducted the interview, told CNN’s John Berman on Tuesday. On Wednesday, CNN’s Brian Stelter asked Sidner whether she feels any guilt. “Sure. A little bit," she replied. "I think it’s more nervousness because I know that he was the one that disclosed where he was." In his interview with CNN+, Kara-Murza acknowledged the risk he was taking, and is personally familiar with Putin's brutal tactics. His close friend and associate Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister turned fierce Putin critic, was shot dead in 2015, and Kara-Murza himself has survived two poisonings, both of which left him in a coma, that he has blamed on the Kremlin. While many dissidents have fled Russia amid Putin’s latest crackdown on independent media, Kara-Murza is among few who have stayed. And he has continued to criticize Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine despite facing up to 15 years in prison for doing so under the Kremlin’s draconian new law. “This is where I have to be,” Kara-Murza told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi in an interview Sunday. “We all know the price.” Asked what kinds of considerations CNN made before airing Kara-Murza’s interview, a CNN spokesperson pointed Vanity Fair to Sidner's comments on Tuesday and Wednesday. MSNBC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On Tuesday, a day after he was reportedly arrested outside his home on charges of disobeying the police, the political activist and journalist was sentenced to 15 days in jail. The same day, the Post published an editorial commending Kara-Murza’s willingness to publicly speak out against the Kremlin in columns for the Post and elsewhere, and called for his release. “What is abundantly clear is that Mr. Putin has once again put a critic in his crosshairs, every day sinking Russia deeper into totalitarianism, intolerant of free thought or dissent,” the Editorial Board wrote. Post publisher Fred Ryan also demanded Kara-Murza’s immediate release in a statement that called his detention the latest in Putin’s ongoing effort to “hide the truth about the atrocities Putin is committing in the Russian people’s name.” Kara-Murza’s detention is also prompting outrage in Washington. Leaders of the Helsinki Commission, an agency that heard from Kara-Murza last month at its hearing about Putin’s “war on truth,” were “alarmed” by Kara-Murza’s detention, according to a joint statement issued by Sen. Ben Cardin, Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen, and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Joe Wilson. “Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people,” they wrote, demanding he “be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately.” Authorities have denied Kara-Murza access to legal counsel in violation of his constitutional rights, the Commission's press release said. The poisonings that Kara-Murza endured in 2015 and 2017, he said, were reprisals by the Kremlin for his advocacy of Western sanctions against the Russian government—accusations the Kremlin has denied, but that the Post notes are bolstered by “investigations by independent organizations [which] found that he had been followed by members of the same federal agency that allegedly poisoned jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and at least three other opposition figures.”

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