Concern about Treatment of U.S. Citizen in Belarusian Detention

Concern about Treatment of U.S. Citizen in Belarusian Detention

Hon.
Alcee L. Hastings
United States
House of Representatives
110th Congress Congress
Second Session Session
Thursday, May 15, 2008

Madam Speaker, as Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I would like to draw attention and concern to the case of Mr. Emanuel Zeltser, a U.S. citizen who was detained March 12th upon his arrival in Minsk, Belarus, charged with "use of forged documents.'' In the entire time that Mr. Zeltser has been detained, he has only been allowed visitation by the U.S. Embassy twice, on March 21st and April 25th. Upon the latter visit it was noted by the U.S. consul that Mr. Zeltser had been beaten several times and appeared in greatly weakened health. Mr. Zeltser suffers from Type 2 diabetes and a severe form of arthritis. Though his condition causes him severe pain and has further deteriorated during his incarceration, the authorities in the detention facility where he is held have reportedly denied him necessary medications. Without proper medications, Mr. Zeltser may not be able to survive the harsh conditions of his detention. Furthermore, according to his lawyer, Belarusian authorities have recently extended the period of Mr. Zeltser's term of detention.

It is incumbent upon the Belarusian government to provide Mr. Zeltser full consular access, proper medical care, and ensure that he is not subjected to further physical abuse and degrading treatment--consistent with its international legal obligations and basic human rights standards.

Time is of the essence in Mr. Zeltser's case, as further delays could lead to further deterioration of his health to the point of endangering his life.

Madam Speaker, I call upon the Belarusian authorities to ensure that Mr. Zeltser immediately receives the medication his doctor has prescribed, and is protected from further ill-treatment, given access to U.S. consular representatives and any medical attention he may need. On April 25, the State Department requested the Government of Belarus to release Emanuel Zeltser on humanitarian grounds. I urge the Belarusian Government to favorably consider that request.

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"She's not just some private lawyer. She's a tool of the Russian government." But why, Browder wanted to know, was Becker suddenly interested? "I can't tell you," she said. "But I think you'll be interested in a few hours." Browder flew off to the place he won't name, switched on his phone, and scrolled to the Times website. He drew in a sharp breath. He exhaled. F***. Donald Trump Jr. told the Times that the June 9, 2016, meeting had been about adoptions, which demonstrated either how out of his depth he was or how stupid he thought reporters were. If Veselnitskaya had been talking about adoption, she of course had been talking about the Magnitsky Act. Which meant she'd also been talking about Bill Browder. He read the story again, closely. Browder wasn't sure what the implications were. But if he'd known about it in real time—that the staff of a major-party presidential candidate was listening intently to those who accuse him of murder and want him extradited and imprisoned—he would have been terrified. "Putin kills people," Browder said to me one afternoon this autumn. "That's a known fact. But Putin likes to pretend that he doesn't kill people. So he tends to kill people he can get away with killing." Browder did not say this as if it were a revelation. (And technically it's an allegation that Putin has people killed, albeit one so thoroughly supported by evidence and circumstance that no one credibly disputes it.) Rather, he told me that by way of explaining why he was telling me anything at all: The more often and publicly he tells the story of Sergei Magnitsky, the less likely he'll be to get poisoned or shot or tossed out a window, which has happened to a number of Putin's critics. If anything does happen to him, he reasons, the list of suspects would be short. He spoke softly, methodically, though with great efficiency; not scripted, but well practiced. We were in the conference room of his offices in London. Afternoon light washed through a wall of windows, threw bright highlights onto his scalp, sparked off the frame of his glasses. Browder is 53 years old, medium build, medium height, medium demeanor, and was wearing a medium-blue suit. He does not look like a threat to Russian national security, which the Kremlin declared him to be 12 years ago. Still, there is a hint of steel, something hard and sharp beneath all of the mediumness; if he confessed that he'd served in the Special Forces, it would be a little surprising but not shocking. It was late September, and Donald Trump had been president for 248 days. In the weeks after the election, Browder was "worried and confused." Trump has a creepy habit of praising Putin, but he'd also surrounded himself with Russia hard-liners like General James Mattis, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pompeo—secretary of defense, ambassador to the United Nations, and director of the CIA, respectively. Browder war-gamed the Magnitsky Act but didn't see any way that Trump could kill it—Congress would have to repeal the law—only a chance that he might refuse to add more names to the target list. (Five people were added to the list last January, bringing the total to 44.) He figured the same was true with the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which President Obama signed shortly before leaving office, expanding the targeted-sanctions tool to human-rights abusers worldwide. The Russians hate that law, too, because having "Magnitsky" in the title reminds the entire planet where the standard was set and by whom. The first months of the new administration unspooled, spring into summer. Trump's flirtation with Putin persisted, but with no practical effect. "The Russians got nothing," Browder said. Congress, in fact, imposed its own sanctions on Russia for meddling in the 2016 election, cutting Trump out of the loop entirely. "I watch this like a hawk," Browder said, "and so far they've gotten nothing. There's not a single piece of Russian policy that's gone Putin's way." But then, in July, the Times reported that Veselnitskaya had met with Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign manager at the time, in June 2016. That shifted the calculus. "America has been my staunchest ally," Browder said. "It wasn't an assumption but a question: Had they flipped my biggest ally?" That was still an open question when we met in London. Much more had been reported about Trump and Russia. Other contacts and communications were known, and details kept evolving, an endless, sloppy churn of information. There was more, too, about the meeting with Veselnitskaya, which happened two weeks after Trump secured the nomination: It was attended by eight people in all, including Rinat Akhmetshin, who is usually described as a former Russian military-intelligence officer, though that generously assumes that any Russian spook is ever fully retired from the spy game. Browder has another PowerPoint presentation on him. Additionally, Manafort's notes on the meeting reportedly mentioned Browder by name. This is all bad. "They were in a meeting to discuss Bill Browder, the Magnitsky Act, and how to get the Magnitsky Act repealed," he said. "Now, what [the Russians] were offering in return, we don't know. But if it had just been a courtesy meeting, only one of [the Trump team] would have showed up." Maybe no one will ever know what, if anything, the Russians offered. But there's no doubt what they wanted, and how badly. In a four-page memo prepared for the meeting by Veselnitskaya (and later obtained by Foreign Policy), the Magnitsky Act was inspired by "a fugitive criminal" who ripped off the Russian treasury and then went on a worldwide publicity tour to, apparently, cover it up. "Using the grief of the family of Magnitsky to his own advantage, Browder exposes them as a human shield to distract attention from the details of his own crime," she wrote. Passage of the Magnitsky Act, moreover, marked "the beginning of a new round of the Cold War." That is an assertion as grandiose as it is belligerent. And yet it is not wholly inaccurate. To understand why the Kremlin is so perturbed, it helps to understand Bill Browder. In many ways, he is the Rosetta Stone for decoding the curious relationship between the Trumps and the Russians. Browder's grandfather Earl was a communist. He started as a union organizer in Kansas and spent some time in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, where he married a Jewish intellectual and had the first of his three sons, Felix. The family moved to Yonkers in 1932, where Earl became secretary general of the Communist Party USA. He ran for president twice, in 1936 and 1940, and Time magazine put him on its cover in 1938 above the headline COMRADE EARL BROWDER. His fortunes fell in 1941, when he was convicted of passport fraud. His four-year sentence was commuted after 14 months, and he was released into relative obscurity until the 1950s, when he was harassed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Bill's grandmother steered her boys away from politics and toward academics, in which they wildly overachieved. Felix enrolled at M.I.T. at the age of 16, graduated in two years, and had a Princeton Ph.D. in math when he was 20. He met his wife, Eva, at M.I.T., a Jewish girl who'd fled Vienna ahead of the Nazis and spent her teenage years in a tenement with her impoverished mother. Felix and Eva had two boys. Their first, Thomas, took after his father: University of Chicago at 15, doctoral student in physics at 19. Their second, Bill, did not. He liked to ski and smoke and drink. He got kicked out of a second-tier boarding school and barely got into the University of Colorado, which was fine with him because it was a notorious party school. By his account, he spent his formative years rebelling against everything his leftist-intellectual family held sacred. "Rejecting school was a good start, but if I really wanted to upset my parents, then I would have to come up with something else," he wrote in his 2015 book, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice. "Then, toward the end of high school, it hit me. I would put on a suit and tie and become a capitalist. Nothing would piss off my family more than that." He started studying, transferred to the University of Chicago, got into a two-year pre-MBA program at Bain & Company, in Boston. He parlayed that and an essay about Comrade Earl Browder—from communist to capitalist in two generations!—into a seat at Stanford. Out of genealogical curiosity, he began thinking about Eastern Europe. "If that's where my grandfather had carved out his niche," he wrote, "then maybe I could, too." He got a job with a consulting firm and moved to London in August 1989. Three months later, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled. Eastern Europe was wide open for business. His first account was consulting for a Polish bus manufacturer that was bleeding cash. It was miserable work in a miserable little city, but while he was there his translator explained the financial tables in the local newspaper. With the fall of communism, nationalized companies were being privatized and their stocks were offered at fire-sale prices: A company with $160 million in profits the previous year had a stock valuation of only $80 million. Browder invested his entire savings, $2,000, in Polish stocks. He eventually walked away with $20,000. He'd found his niche. By 1993, he was in Moscow, investing in staggeringly undervalued stocks: He invested $25 million and turned a $100 million profit. With money that good and almost no Western competition, Browder, in 1996, raised enough cash to open his own fund, Hermitage Capital. Over the next decade, Hermitage did exceptionally well. The downside, though, was that the economy wasn't transitioning from communism to capitalism so much as it was devolving into gangsterism. Corruption was endemic. A handful of oligarchs looted and swindled at their leisure. Browder countered by positioning himself as an activist shareholder; he and his staff would piece together who was ripping off what, name names, try to impose a modicum of order on a lawless system. When Vladimir Putin rose to power, Browder believed he was a reformer eager to purge the kleptocracy. In 2003, for example, Putin arrested the country's richest man, oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, charged him with fraud, and displayed him in a cage in a courtroom until his inevitable conviction. In the context of the time, many critics saw the ordeal as a capricious show trial orchestrated by an authoritarian thug. Not Browder. "I would trust Putin any day of the week," he told The Washington Post in early 2004. "It's like being in a lawless schoolyard where there's bullies running around and beating up all us little people, and then one day a big bully comes along and all the little bullies fall into line. That's what the state is supposed to be—the big bully." But Putin, he discovered, wasn't pushing for good corporate governance. He was taking over the rackets. Putin put Khodorkovsky in a cage for the same reason Vito Corleone put a horse's head in Jack Woltz's bed: to send a message. Oligarchs could steal, but they had to pay tribute. Oligarchs no longer needed to be named and shamed; they needed to be kept in line and to keep earning. At that point, an activist shareholder like Browder became an expensive nuisance. Browder was kicked out of the country on November 13, 2005. For a while, he thought the Russian bureaucracy had made a mistake by canceling his visa, confusing him with someone else, perhaps, or misfiling some paperwork. He enlisted the help of British diplomats—Browder had been a British citizen since 1998—to no avail. There had been no mistake. Browder had been declared a threat to Russian national security. Hermitage Capital remained in business, though, its office run by Browder's staff while he oversaw operations from London. But in Moscow, the pressure only increased. In June 2007, security forces raided Hermitage and the office of the law firm it employed. They carted away computers and files and, interestingly, all the corporate seals and stamps. At first, none of that made sense. But then Sergei Magnitsky, a 36-year-old Muscovite who handled tax matters for Hermitage, started digging around. He eventually discovered three of Hermitage's holding companies had been used by Russian gangsters to swindle $230 million in tax rebates. It was a straight-up robbery of the Russian treasury. The scam wasn't unheard of, except the amount was perhaps the largest such tax fraud ever uncovered in Russia. Browder and his staff reported the theft to the authorities and the media in the summer of 2008. They even named suspects, including some of the security officials who'd earlier been involved in the office raids. Nothing happened. Then, a few months later, on November 24, 2008, Sergei was arrested at his home. He was held for nearly a year in various prisons, overrun with rats and damp with sewage. According to complaints Sergei wrote, he was fed porridge infested with insects and rotten fish boiled into mush. He contracted pancreatitis and gallstones but was refused treatment. Yet he was repeatedly told he would be released if he would recant his allegations and, instead, implicate Browder as the mastermind of the tax scam. He refused every time. Almost a year after he was arrested, desperately ill, Sergei was handcuffed to a bed rail in an isolation cell. Eight guards beat him with rubber truncheons. A little more than an hour later, he was dead. Before Sergei was killed, Browder had been lobbying anyone he could think of to pressure the Russians into releasing his accountant. One of the agencies he approached in the spring of 2009 was the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency in Washington that monitors human rights in 57 countries, including Russia. Kyle Parker, one of the Russia experts there, wasn't interested. He knew who Browder was—the money manager who'd championed Putin, the guy who'd made the rounds of Western capitals a few years earlier trying to get his visa restored. He assumed that's what Browder was still after. "Not gonna be able to make it," he e-mailed a colleague scheduling the meeting. "Unless much has changed, I see this meeting as info only and would not support any action on our part." He eventually met with Browder, though, and he listened to the story of Sergei. Parker understood, but it didn't seem especially uncommon. "I was thinking: Why is Bill trying to suck us into a pissing match between competing criminal groups?" Parker didn't even include Sergei in a 2009 letter to Obama highlighting the commission's most pressing concerns. After Sergei had been killed, Browder went back to the Helsinki Commission. Parker told him how sorry he was. He told him that he cried when he heard Sergei was dead, that he read about it through teary eyes on the Metro, riding the Red Line home to his wife and kids. He said he was going to help. "Here you have this Russian hero almost of a literary quality in Sergei Magnitsky," Parker told me. "He wasn't a guy who went to rallies with a bullhorn and protested human-rights abuses in Chechnya. He was a bookish, middle-class Muscovite. I see Sergei metaphorically as that Chinese guy standing in front of the tanks, but with a briefcase. He provided an example for all the other Russians that not everybody goes in for the deal, not everybody is corrupt, not everybody looks the other way when people are swindled." What Browder wanted was some form of justice for Sergei, though what form that would take was unclear. He'd researched his options for months. The Russians weren't going to prosecute anyone—officially, Sergei died of heart failure. There was no international mechanism to hold Russian nationals criminally accountable in another country. "Eventually," Browder said, "it became obvious that I was going to have to come up with justice on my own." He outlined a three-pronged approach. One was media, simply getting Sergei's name and his death and the reasons for it into the public consciousness. He talked to reporters, and he produced a series of YouTube videos, short documentaries on the people allegedly involved in Sergei's death. The second was tracing the money. "They killed him for $230 million," Browder said, "and I was going to find out where that money went." It was parceled out to dozens of people, tucked away in Swiss accounts and American real estate and Panamanian banks, some of it held by proxies; part of it allegedly ended up in the account of a Russian cellist who happened to be a childhood friend of Putin's. By mining bank transfers and financial records, Browder and his staff have accounted for much of it, including $14 million allegedly laundered by a Cypriot company into Manhattan property. (The Justice Department froze those funds in 2013 but settled with the company, Prevezon, last summer for $5.9 million. Prevezon's owner, a Russian named Denis Katsyv, is represented by Natalia Veselnitskaya. The case did not allege that he had any role in Magnitsky's death.) The final prong was political. Browder had heard about an obscure regulation that allows the State Department to put visa restrictions on corrupt foreign officials. But in the spring of 2010, the Obama administration was attempting to normalize relations with Russia—a "reset," as Obama famously put it. People die horrible deaths every day, and it's terrible and it shouldn't happen. But Russia is also a large country with a significant sphere of geopolitical influence and a lot of nuclear weapons. In that context, a dead middle-class tax lawyer wasn't relevant. But what if, Parker suggested, they went to Congress? What if the legislature, rather than the administration, took action? That was also a long shot. Getting any law passed is difficult, let alone one the administration opposes. But Browder told Sergei's story to congressional committees and individual senators and congressmen, and he kept telling it until the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law 11 days before Christmas 2012. The act originally named 18 Russians, including bureaucrats implicated in the original scam; investigators Sergei had accused of being involved and getting a cut of the $230 million; jailers who tormented him; and two alleged killers. As more of the stolen money was traced, more names were added to the list. Everyone on it is banned from entering the United States and, more damaging, cut off from the American banking system. That has a ripple effect: Legitimate financial institutions all over the world monitor the Treasury Department list of sanctioned individuals and are loath to do business with anyone on it. "That's what people hate about it the most," Browder said. "It makes you a financial leper." And that matters to Putin, Browder maintains, because the Russians on the list are not independently wealthy, like, say, Bill Gates or Richard Branson. "They're dependently wealthy," he said. "They're dependent on Putin." If the deal is that corrupt Russians can keep their cash in return for their loyalty, the Magnitsky Act is an enormous thorn in Putin's side. If he can't protect anyone's pilfered money, what's the point of loyalty? Putin surely understands that, because he was so transparently rattled: Taking orphans hostage is not the reasoned reaction of a man merely annoyed. Browder initially wanted to call the law the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act. But Parker never took to that. "Banning some corrupt officials from coming here isn't even close to justice," he said. "But it's a legislative monument to Sergei Magnitsky until one day Russia builds a stone monument to him. Because I have no doubt he'll be seen as the Russian patriot and hero that he was." Not quite three weeks after the Times broke the story of Veselnitskaya lobbying the Trump campaign to get rid of the Magnitsky Act, Browder testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about, primarily, how Russian operatives wield influence and frame their propaganda. Eight years after he'd started targeting a handful of Russian crooks, Browder was suddenly very relevant to a much larger political storm. He flew home to London after he testified but had to return to the United States in early August. He checked in at an airline counter in Heathrow but was told there was a problem with his visa. He'd been flagged by Interpol, which had issued a red notice on him. It's basically an international arrest warrant, and it was the fourth requested by the Russians for Browder. Technically, a member nation is supposed to extradite him to the country that asked for the notice. But the British, along with other sensible Western nations, stopped taking Russia's attempts regarding Browder seriously years ago. In the end, it was only an inconvenience. But what if he'd been in, say, Finland when that notice popped up? The Finns are fine people, but they also have a 500-mile border with Russia. Would letting Browder go be worth risking an international incident with a bigger, more aggressive neighbor? He can make a reasonable case that, no, he would not be worth it. "I'm very realistic about who's coming to my defense," he said. "I am my defense." So he's careful. He avoids countries that might be friendly to Putin. Much of the Third World is out. So is Hong Kong. He'd be fine in Japan, but only if he didn't fly over Russian airspace. What if the plane has trouble and makes an emergency landing in Novosibirsk? That's where Khodorkovsky was seized and hauled off to a cage. Even in London, he's cautious. He won't talk about his family or where he lives. He varies his schedule and his route to work every day. He doesn't eat in the same restaurant twice in succession, or in any restaurant with predictable frequency; Russian agents have reputedly twice poisoned dissidents in London. He told me the British government has rebuffed at least a dozen requests to extradite him, and American intelligence has warned him that Russian agents planned to grab him off the street. Years ago, a Russian living in London came to Browder's staff with information about certain wealthy, corrupt people in Moscow. He was cagey and shifty and, at first, it seemed like he might be a Russian agent trying to plant false clues. But his information checked out and Browder learned who he really was. His name was Alexander Perepilichnyy, and he was nervous because he believed he was on a Russian hit list. On November 10, 2012, Perepilichnyy dropped dead in front of his house in Surrey. There was no obvious cause of death—no heart attack or stroke or aneurysm—and an inquest wasn't opened until last June. Perepilichnyy wasn't a well-known dissident, so no one thought to take a hard look when he died. "They got away with it," Browder said, meaning the Russians. "That's a perfect example of why you don't want to be an anonymous guy who drops dead." So Browder is deliberately not anonymous. He does not live in cloistered fear. When a car service got confused trying to pick him up for a photo shoot—definitely a way to not be anonymous—we took the Tube a few stops, then walked through Kentish Town to the studio. There was no security, just two men wandering around London. He has hobbies that he asked I not name, but none of them are solitary or sedentary. "One thing I can tell you," he said, "with the threat of death hanging over you, you live life to the fullest." He laughed a little. In this new version of his life, Browder is still most often referred to as a financier, but that's only marginally true. He gave all his investors their money back, and manages only his own now. Justice for Sergei—and aggravating Putin—is his full-time job. His staff of 11 tracks money launderers, deciphering which flunky is fronting for which oligarch, sniffing out the rest of that $230 million. He lobbies other governments to pass their own versions of the Magnitsky Act. The United Kingdom has one, as does Estonia. Lithuania is close, and Canada passed one in October. "Unconstructive political games," Putin told a Canadian interviewer immediately after, orchestrated by "the criminal activities of an entire gang led by one particular man, I believe Browder is his name." And Putin wasn't finished. A week later, Russia slipped another red notice into Interpol's system. For the second time in three months, Browder was temporarily barred from entering the U.S. It's relentless, Putin clawing at him, thrashing. "Their main objective is to get me back to Russia," he said. "And they only have to get lucky once. I have to be lucky every time." "Everything Bill's done has cost him tremendously," Parker said. "It's cost him money, restricted his personal freedom. And he didn't have to. He was out of Russia. He could have done what many did and walked away. Bad things happen, right? But here's a guy who's proven whatever he needed to prove to himself. He made his money. Now here's a way to find meaning. It's also a debt of honor." No, it's more than that. "It's penance," Browder said. Sergei Magnitsky was an ordinary Muscovite who happened to work for an American who annoyed Vladimir Putin. "Sergei was killed because of me. He was killed instead of me." He let that hang there a moment. "So, yeah, it's all penance." Sean Flynn is a GQ correspondent. This story originally appeared in the December 2017 issue with the title "Putin Enemy No.1."

  • 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

  • Helsinki Commission Advisor Discusses ZAPAD 2017

    On September 27, 2017, Helsinki Commission Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor Alex Tiersky joined Ambassador Kurt Volker, Dr. Stephen Blank, and Ambassador Eitvydas Bajarunas at a public seminar to discuss the execution, outcomes and aftermath of Russia’s large-scale ZAPAD 2017 military exercise. Hosted by the Central and East European Coalition, Russia on NATO’s Doorstep: The West's Response to the Kremlin's Wargames was moderated by Dr. Mamuka Tsereteli. During the discussion, Tiersky shared his experience as one of only two American officials who was invited by the Belarusian government (who partnered with Russia for the joint military exercise) to be present for the conclusion of ZAPAD 2017. Tiersky commended the Belarusian government for offering the Distinguished Visitors program that he participated in along with representatives of the OSCE, the Red Cross and NATO, as well as defense attachés from various countries. The program included an extensive briefing on the aims, parameters, and intent behind the exercise, as well as an opportunity to witness an impressive live-fire demonstration at the Borisov training ground.  Belarusian briefers underlined that the aim of the program was to offer as much transparency as possible; the exercise was purely defensive in nature and neighboring countries had nothing to fear, Tiersky was told.  However, Tiersky added, the program offered by Belarusian authorities – while commendable – fell short of fulfilling the spirit of commitments to military transparency under the Vienna Document, which would have provided a greater opportunity for evaluating the exercise's scale and scope through broader participation by OSCE participating states and more intrusive inspection measures.  While impressive and worthwhile, the distinguished visitors program was thus not in itself sufficient to draw broad conclusions about ZAPAD, according to Tiersky. Tiersky concluded by describing how ZAPAD did little to assuage broader concerns related to Russian unwillingness to fulfill its commitments to military transparency, including under the Vienna Document (through for example its increasing use of snap exercises), as well as Russian violations of various arms control measures that have been essential contributors to peace and security in Europe for decades.

  • Systematic Attacks on Journalists in Russia and Other Post-Soviet States

    Representative Steve Chabot, Co-Chair of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus, opened the briefing with a statement highlighting the importance of a free and independent press in Russia and Eastern Europe, saying that it was more important now than ever to counter an increasingly bold Vladimir Putin and the spread of Kremlin-backed media. The Congressman affirmed support for the Broadcasting Board of Governors and how their work helps foster a greater independent press in the region. Jordan Warlick, U.S. Helsinki Commission staffer responsible for freedom of the media, introduced the panelists: Thomas Kent, President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL); Amanda Bennett, Director of Voice of America (VOA); Nina Ognianova, Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists; and Karina Orlova, Washington correspondent for Echo of Moscow. Thomas Kent summarized the work and reach of RFE/RL in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He outlined the pressures that RFE/RL journalists face in the region covering the issues that matter to local people. Kent described the plight of several RFE/RL journalists who have been either attacked or detained due to their work, including Mykola Semena in Russian-occupied Crimea and Mykhailo Tkach in Ukraine. He added that reporting on corruption is often the most likely cause for attacks on journalists and that social media has expanded the reach of journalists work in the region. Amanda Bennett discussed the work of Voice of America in the region and its efforts to expand freedom of speech in the region. She outlined the vast audience of VOA broadcasting and emphasized that the Russian government has directly attacked VOA reporters. Bennett stated that VOA’s mission in Russia and the former Soviet Union, as with other regions around the world, was not only to provide high quality content to the audience and journalists alike, but also help foster an independent media, free from harassment. Representative Adam Schiff, Co-Chair of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus, gave remarks about the importance of an independent media in the former Soviet Union. He noted that journalists are often the first to suffer a backlash from authorities, as they investigate and report on issues that regimes do not want to draw attention to. Representative Schiff told the panel that he, along with then-Congressman Mike Pence, reestablished the House Freedom of the Press Caucus not long before the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. He thanked the panelists for the work to not only highlight attacks and harassment against journalists in the region, but also their efforts to protect and assist them and to further press freedom. Nina Ognianova highlighted numerous cases that the Committee to Protect Journalists had worked on in recent months with specific discussion of the situations in Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan. Ognianova detailed the case of the harassment and temporary flight of Russian reporter Elena Milashina following her work on the torture and murder of gay men in Chechnya. Also listed were the cases of Belarus-born journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed in a car bombing in Kyiv in July 2016, the abduction and detention of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli for his investigation of President Ilham Aliyev’s assets in Georgia, and the concerning claims of slander against journalists by the Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev. Providing the audience with a firsthand perspective, Karina Orlova described her decision to flee Russia due to her work as a journalist. Karina spoke of how her Radio Echo of Moscow talk show garnered unfavorable attention from Chechens, following discussion of the Charlie Hebdo attacks on 7 January, 2015, and the magazine’s depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Ramzan Kadyrov directly threatened her station and her editor, Alexey Venediktov, right after the show. She detailed threatening phone calls from self-described Chechens her that labeled her as an enemy of the state. Karina raised other incidents of violence and intimidation against journalists, such as the attack on Oleg Kashin, which was directly ordered by the Governor of Pskov, and a lack of action to bring the perpetrators to justice. She also spoke of censorship by the Russian authorities, particularly towards any journalists that refer to the annexation of Crimea. Karina emphasized that sanctions against the Russian state and elite are working, despite claims to the contrary. Although some journalists are unfortunately forced to self-censor due to safety concerns, Karina refuses to do so herself.

  • Witness to ZAPAD

    For months, watchers of European security have focused unprecedented attention on one, singular scheduled event:  ZAPAD 2017, a Joint Strategic Military Exercise conducted by Russia and Belarus from September 14 to September 20, 2017. The author, the political-military affairs advisor for the U.S. Helsinki Commission staff, attended the final phase of the exercise as a Distinguished Visitor at the invitation of the Government of Belarus.    ZAPAD 2017, the most anticipated—and, in some quarters, feared—military exercise in recent memory concluded on September 20. The extensive maneuvers by Belarusian and Russian forces took place at a number of training ranges in Belarus and on nearby Russian territory and featured a broad range of military capabilities. The planned exercise was in some ways routine; it followed a well-known Russian schedule of readiness-enhancing exercises that rotates among Russia’s military districts on a quadrennial basis (“ZAPAD,” or “West,” takes place in the Western Military District). However, unlike previous exercises, ZAPAD 2017 took place in a strategic context now defined by Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia—incursions that were, according to western analysts, facilitated by Russian exercise activity.  The Russian leadership's track record of aggression, dismissiveness towards transparency, and geopolitical unpredictability understandably put its neighbors to the west on edge.  These countries have seen prior Russian exercises serve as cover for force build-ups that enabled, for instance, the illegal attempted annexation of Crimea. Leading officials ranging from Baltic defense ministers, to the Ukrainian President, to the Secretary General of NATO raised concerns about what ZAPAD 2017 might mean for the security of Belarus' neighbors, both before the exercise and during its execution. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor

  • Helsinki Commission, House Freedom of the Press Caucus to Hold Briefing on Attacks on Journalists in Russia, Post-Soviet States

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the House Freedom of the Press Caucus today announced the following joint briefing: “SYSTEMATIC ATTACKS ON JOURNALISTS IN RUSSIA AND OTHER POST-SOVIET STATES” Wednesday, October 4, 2017 3:00 PM Senate Visitors Center SVC-208 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission A free press is an essential pillar of democracy, keeping governments accountable and citizens informed. Autocratic regimes seek to intimidate and silence the press by systematically targeting journalists. A muzzled independent media is powerless to prevent the domination of the state-driven news narrative and public misinformation. Today, journalists in Russia and post-Soviet states risk intimidation, harassment, arrest, and even murder for their work. Those who criticize the government or investigate sensitive issues like corruption do so at their own peril. More often than not, cases remain unresolved and victims and families do not see justice. This briefing will address key questions regarding journalists in Russia and other post-Soviet states: their important role and impact; concerns over their rights, safety, and protection; and future support and promotion of media freedom in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) region. Opening remarks will be provided by the Co-Chairs of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) The following panelists are scheduled to speak: Thomas Kent, President and CEO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Amanda Bennett, Director, Voice of America Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists Karina Orlova, Washington DC Correspondent, Echo of Moscow

  • Democratic Elections in the OSCE Region

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. In the 1990 Copenhagen Document, the OSCE participating States adopted, by consensus, watershed commitments on free and fair elections. They stated that the participating States: “. . . solemnly declare that among those elements of justice which are essential to the full expression of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings are the following: [ . . . ] — free elections that will be held at reasonable intervals by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedure, under conditions which ensure in practice the free expression of the opinion of the electors in the choice of their representatives; [ . . . ] — a clear separation between the State and political parties; in particular, political parties will not be merged with the State;”  Accordingly, the participating States rejected the concept of a one-party state or “modified” democracy (e.g., communist- or socialist-democracy).  In a summit held later that year, the OSCE Heads of State or Government declared, “We undertake to build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations.” In spite of the OSCE commitment to hold free and fair elections, some OSCE participating States have demonstrated even more resistance—if not complete unwillingness—to hold free and fair elections. In a few, a transfer of power is more likely to be the result of death than an election.  In some cases, a generation has come of age under a single ruler or ruling family. Download the full report to learn more. Download highlights of conclusions and recommendations drawn from OSCE election reports (October 2016 to September 2017). Contributors: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor, Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor, Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor, Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law, and John Engelken, Intern

  • The 2017 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting: An Overview

    Each year,1 the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) organizes the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, Poland. As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress.  The 2017 HDIM will be held from September 11 to September 22. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2017 The HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma.  Each year, three special topics are selected for a full-day review.  2017 special topics will be 1) ensuring “equal enjoyment of rates and participation in political and public life,” 2) “tolerance and nondiscrimination,” and 3) “economic, social and cultural rights as an answer to rising inequalities.”  This year’s meeting will take place at the Warsaw National Stadium (PGE Narodowy), the site of the NATO summit earlier this year. The meeting will be webcast live. Background on the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting When the Helsinki Final Act was signed in Finland in 1975, it enshrined among its ten Principles Guiding Relations between Participating States (the Decalogue) a commitment to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion" (Principle VII). In addition, the Final Act included a section on cooperation regarding humanitarian concerns, including transnational human contacts, information, culture and education. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as trafficking in human beings and refugees), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (e.g., countering anti-Semitism and racism). One of the innovations of the Helsinki Final Act was agreement to review the implementation of agreed commitments while considering the negotiation of new ones. Between 1975 and 1992, implementation review took place in the context of periodic “Follow-up Meetings” as well as smaller specialized meetings focused on specific subjects. The OSCE participating States established permanent institutions in the early 1990s. In 1992, they agreed to hold periodic Human Dimension Implementation Meetings” to foster compliance with agreed-upon principles on democracy and human rights. Additional changes to the modalities for the HDIM were agreed in 1998, 2001, and 2002, which included shortening the meeting from three weeks to two weeks, and adding three “Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings” annually on subjects selected by the Chairmanship-in-Office on particularly timely or time-sensitive issues. One of the most notable features of the HDIM is the strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a strong advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE modalities allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. 1 In exceptional years when the OSCE participating States hold a summit of heads of state or government, the annual review of human dimension commitments is included as part of the Review Conference which precedes the summit, and also includes a review of the political-military and economic/environmental dimensions.

  • Journalists Persecuted 2017: Illustrative Cases

    By Jordan Warlick, Staff Associate Natasha Blaskovich, Intern Katya Kazmin, Intern With a section on the “improvement of working conditions for journalists”, the Helsinki Final Act explicitly recognizes the importance of journalists for democratic and open societies. Despite the signing of the agreement in 1975, the situation for journalists is still very grim in several countries in the region. The U.S. Helsinki Commission continues to monitor these conditions closely and remains concerned with: (a) murder, violence, and other egregious acts that harm the safety of journalists; (b) imprisonment of journalists for their work; (c) other restrictions that impede the work of journalists and a free press. The journalists featured below are representative of those persecuted so far this year. Afqan Muxtarli (Azerbaijan) – Muxtarli and his family fled to neighboring Georgia in 2015 after Muxtarli received threats related to corruption investigations into Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and other officials. Following Muxtarli’s disappearance on May 29, 2017, Muxtarli’s lawyer told Radio Free Europe that the journalist was abducted in Tbilisi and handed over to Azerbaijani officers at the border. Muxtarli believes that these officers planted €10,000 on him and then promptly arrested him, in order to incriminate him for illegally crossing the border with a large sum of money and no passport. Amnesty International and other international human rights organizations have criticized the Azerbaijani government for its oppression of journalists and suppression of free speech. Georgia’s Interior Minister has stated that Georgia has launched an investigation into this allegedly unlawful imprisonment. Mehman Huseynov (Azerbaijan) – Huseynov, a well-known journalist and blogger in Azerbaijan, was sentenced to two years in prison on March 3, 2017 on defamation charges. Huseynov had been under a travel ban since 2012, and was reportedly harassed and intimidated by the police for years. In early January 2017, Huseynov was arrested in Baku, taken to the Nasimi police station where he was held incommunicado, and repeatedly beaten and abused. Although he filed a formal complaint with the prosecutor’s office and made his abuse public, Huseynov’s allegations were declared groundless and not investigated. Huseynov was accused of defamation by the Nasimi police chief, and was found guilty in May 2017. Halina Abakunchyk (Belarus) – Abakunchyk is a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a U.S.-government-funded service. She was detained overnight on March 12, 2017, accused of “participating in an unsanctioned rally,” and then fined approximately $300 for covering large nationwide protests in March over a tax on the unemployed. Abakunchyk was one of 32 journalists arrested and/or fined for similar offenses while covering the protests.   Zhanbolat Mamay (Kazakhstan) – Mamay is the editor of the Tribuna newspaper, one of the few independent papers in Kazakhstan to have survived a recent trend of pressure and harassment from the government. Arrested on February 10, 2017, Mamay stands accused of being an accomplice to money-laundering, along with opposition leader and former head of BTA Bank, Mukhtar Ablyazov, in 2009. Before his arrest, Mamay told RFE/RL that he felt he was being followed. Since his arrest, Mamay has complained of being beaten and extorted while in prison. There are concerns for the safety of Mamay and his family as well as the provision of a fair trial. The Committee to Protect Journalists and other organizations have called for his release. Nikolai Andrushchenko (Russia) – Andrushchenko was a Russian journalist known for reporting on issues provocative to the Russian regime, including corruption. When Andrushchenko was attacked by assailants in St. Petersburg on March 9, 2017, he was in the midst of investigating reports of corruption and human rights abuses, allegations including the involvement of local police. He was found unconscious several hours later and taken to a hospital where brain surgery was performed, leaving him in a coma. He died on April 19, 2017. Prior to the March 9 attack, Andrushchenko had been attacked at least two times in the last decade. In November 2016, assailants attacked him on his doorstep. He was also attacked in November 2007, weeks before he was jailed for two months on false charges of defamation and obstruction of justice. The police have not informed the newspaper which Andrushchenko co-founded, Novy Peterburg (New Petersburg), of any progress in the investigation. Dmitry Popkov (Russia) – Popkov, the chief editor of local independent newspaper Ton-M in Siberia, was found shot dead in his backyard in Minusinsk on May 24, 2017. Popkov was known for investigating alleged abuses of power and corruption. Ton-M’s motto, “We write what other people stay silent about,” made the newspaper – and Popkov himself – long-time targets. Shortly before his murder, Popkov had published reports regarding a federal parliamentary audit that revealed corruption in the local administration. An investigation has been launched by the regional branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee and Popkov’s journalism is being treated as a potential motive for the murder. Nur Ener (Turkey) – Ener, a journalist for the daily Yeni Asya, was detained by police after they raided her apartment in the middle of the night on March 3, 2017. Accused of being affiliated with the Fethullah Gülen network, Ener’s formal charges are unknown to her lawyer and she is allowed only 45 minutes of family visits a week and one hour with her lawyer. A former roommate of Ener, who was arrested after the July 2016 coup attempt, is said to have given Ener’s name to the police in the aftermath of the coup. Some of Ener’s critical reporting, including an interview where the guest criticized certain government policies, may have also been a reason for her arrest. According to the Committee to Project Journalists, Ener is one of over 80 journalists imprisoned in Turkey – the largest jailer of journalists in the world. Oguz Guven (Turkey) ­­– Guven is the website editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet daily. He was detained on May 12, 2017 for spreading terrorist propaganda, a popular charge against journalists in Turkey. The arrest allegedly was prompted by the newspaper’s tweet about the death of Mustafa Alper, a senior Turkish prosecutor involved in prosecuting suspects in the July 2016 coup attempt. Cumhuriyet has come under extreme pressure from the Turkish government, with 17 journalists and board members standing trial on July 24. Guven and his colleagues could face prison sentences as long as 43 years. Stanyslav Aseyev (Ukraine) – Aseyev, a freelance journalist who contributed to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty under the name Stanyslav Vasin, has been missing from Donetsk since June 3, 2017.  On July 16, Yehor Firsov, a former Ukrainian lawmaker and close friend of Aseyev, said he received information through unofficial sources that the journalist was detained by pro-Russian separatists. Aseyev allegedly faces charges of espionage by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), who have threatened him with up to 14 years’ imprisonment. Other journalists highlighted in Political Prisoners in Russia: Mykola Semena (Ukraine) – Semena, a Crimean journalist, has been charged under Article 280.1 of Russia’s criminal code, which penalizes "public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation." The law was added to the Russian criminal code in December 2013, and came into force in May 2014 - several weeks after Crimea was annexed by Russia. Semena was one of the only independent journalists to remain on the peninsula following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. He contributed reporting to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and its Crimea Desk. On April 19, 2016, after Russian police searched Semena’s home and confiscated computers and storage media, the de facto Crimean prosecutor-general ordered Semena to remain on the peninsula while he was investigated for alleged “calls to undermine Russia’s territorial integrity via the mass media.” Semena has been forced to stay in Crimea ever since, despite his requests to travel to Kyiv for urgently needed medical care. Semena’s trial has been adjourned and delayed several times this year. If he is found guilty, he could face five years in prison. Roman Sushchenko (Ukraine) – Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist, is charged under article 276 of Russia’s criminal code (espionage). He has worked as a Paris-based correspondent for Ukraine’s state news agency, Ukrinform, since 2010. He was detained at a Moscow airport on September 30, 2016, upon his arrival from Paris on private business. He was accused of collecting classified information on the activities of Russia’s armed forces and the National Guard. Mr. Sushchenko denies any involvement in espionage. His employer, Ukrinform, also considers the accusations false and called his detention a “planned provocation.” Mr. Sushchenko’s attorney is Mark Feygin, who previously represented Pussy Riot and Nadezhda Savchenko. Sushchenko’s pre-trial detention has been extended several times by the Lefortovsky District Court of Moscow since his arrest, and is currently set until September 30, 2017. Photos Cited: Afqan Muxtarli: Facebook Mehman Huseynov: Facebook Halina Abakunchyk: RFE/RL Zhanbolat Mamay: RFE/RL Nikolai Andrushchenko: RFE/RL Dmitry Popkov: TON-M Nur Ener: Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) Oguz Guven: Twitter Stanyslav Aseyev: RFE/RL

  • Engaging Belarus on Human Rights & Democracy

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing titled, “Engaging Belarus on Human Rights and Democracy” on July 21, 2017, which built on renewed interest in Belarus after members of the Commission traveled to Minsk earlier in the month for the annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting. The panelists for the briefing included Stephen Nix, Regional Program Director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute in Washington, DC; Katie Fox, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Department at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC; and Sanaka Samarasinha, the United Nations Chief in Belarus. Brief remarks were also delivered by Belarusian Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky. Stephen Nix began the briefing by highlighting the importance of Belarus in U.S. foreign relations, including the relationship between Belarus and Russia, especially in light of the increased Western presence in the Baltics and the surrounding area. Mr. Nix “applaud[ed] Belarus’s expressed intent at engagement” and offered some examples demonstrating optimism for the democratic process in Belarus, such as the appointment of opposition party members to parliament with limited power. Katie Fox echoed this optimism when addressing “democratic openings,” such as the concessions the Belarusian government made in response to protests, increasingly democratic electoral processes, and “the growth and development of the democratic parties.” Sanaka Samarasinha discussed engagement in relations to the human rights issues Belarus presents today and the areas of particular concern to the UN. The UN in Belarus has focused primarily on “development activities,” but also issues such as human trafficking and the rising number of HIV/AIDs cases. Samarasinha also highlighted the need for a “safe space” for discussions of human rights issues and transparency to allow Belarusians and Belarusian civil society to be able to have a conversation. Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky highlighted ways that Belarus is working with its NATO neighbors through defense cooperation, including relinquishing nuclear weapons and inviting representatives of NATO to observe the Belarusian-Russian strategic joint exercise scheduled for September 2017. Shidlovsky also stated, “Belarus has always regarded normalization of relations with the United States as a priority of its foreign policy. Yes, we have had our ups and downs, but never has the leadership of Belarus underestimated the importance of full-fledged engagement with the U.S.” In the final Q&A session the panelists were cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the improvement of human rights practices in Belarus and improvements in the electoral code that could someday lead to elections that could be certified as free and fair by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  However, they also stressed that it is critical to continue to fight for changes that are sustainable, beginning with the removal of restrictions on peaceful assembly and freedom of speech.

  • One Year Later: Seeking Justice for Pavel Sheremet

    When investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet died in a car explosion in central Kyiv on July 20, 2016, his assassination garnered global media attention. Upon learning the tragic news, then-OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović condemned the murder, saying, “This killing and its circumstances must be swiftly and thoroughly investigated, and the perpetrators brought to justice.” However, one year later, virtually no progress has been made on his case. Furthermore, the escalating harassment and attacks against journalists in Ukraine, coupled with a culture of impunity for perpetrators, is worrisome for Ukraine’s democratic future. To ensure they meet the aspirations of the Ukrainian people, authorities in Kiev must reaffirm their commitment to freedom of the press by ensuring the perpetrators of Sheremet’s murder—and similar cases of killing, assault, and harassment—are brought to justice. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Jordan Warlick, Office Director, and Amelie Rausing, Intern

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