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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Several problems that manifested themselves during the actual voting were that the material used to seal the ballot boxes was easily manipulable and could be removed and put back on (clay dough and a string). In a number of precincts, the early voting ballot boxes were not in plain view, as required by law. Early voting was significant in several precincts, up to 39 percent in one case. Before voting day, there appeared to be a certain willingness on the part of some in the West to give the benefit of the doubt to the authorities, in part due to the minor improvements that had taken place in the election campaign, such as slightly increased access of opposition representatives to district election commissions, and the decision to repeat the airing of the candidates’ five-minute campaign spots on state TV and radio stations. This, together with the release of political prisoners Aleksandr Kozulin, Syarhei Parsyukevich and Andrei Kim (which led to the temporary lifting of U.S. sanctions on two subsidiaries of Belarus’s giant petrochemical conglomerate Belnaftakhim), and Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenka’s unenthusiastic response to Russia’s occupation of Georgia and refusal to date to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia created an atmosphere of optimism that Lukashenka would be willing to take steps towards democratic reform and engage in a dialogue with Europe and the United States. The stark lack of transparency in the vote count was also surprising to many because it flew in the face of Belarusian authorities’ pledges prior to the vote, and it was probably unnecessary. Given the overall election campaign climate, which did not allow for genuine political competition and where the opposition had extremely minimal representation on precinct election commissions, the vast majority of pro-governmental candidates would have won in any event. This is within the context of the wider extremely inhospitable environment for the democratic opposition, in which for almost 15 years the Lukashenka regime has tightly controlled the media; vilified the opposition; repressed the independent media; disappeared, detained, imprisoned, and beaten opposition members and democracy activists; harassed and suppressed non-governmental organizations and, in short, done its best to stifle independent thought. Notwithstanding the EU’s temporary lifting of some visa sanctions against senior Belarusian officials, Mr. Lukashenka may have yet again missed an opportunity to move Belarus towards democratic Europe, which would enhance Belarus’ independence, at a time when it especially needs to be strengthened, given intensifying Russian pressure on Belarus. Notwithstanding the flawed elections, both the United States and Europe have displayed a willingness to continue to engage in dialogue with Minsk and to encourage Belarus to move forward along the path of compliance with freely undertaken OSCE human rights and democracy commitments. The poor quality of the September 28 elections did not facilitate this process, as had been hoped by the West. 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    By Ronald McNamara, International Policy Director Nearly a hundred human rights advocates representing dozens of NGOs and national human rights institutions gathered in Vienna, July 12-13, 2007, for the Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Protection and Promotion of Human Rights convened by the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Discussions were organized around three main topics: the role of national courts in promoting and protecting human rights; the role of civil society in addressing human rights violations; and, the role of national human rights institutions in promoting and protecting human rights. Rooted in the fundamental right of individuals to know and act upon their rights, much of the discussion focused on the legal framework, access to effective remedies when violations occur, and the role of civil society and non-governmental organizations in fostering the protection and promotion of human rights. A recurring critical question throughout the meeting was whether courts, the judiciary, and national human rights institutions are truly independent. Keynote remarks by Professor Vojin Dimitrijevic, Director of the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, revolved around institutional concerns, including the limited development of structures to address human rights violations, significant backlogs in the processing of human rights cases, and inadequate training of jurists and others. He suggested that universities could do much to address the current shortcomings of existing mechanisms. The Director of the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Ambassador Christian Strohal, referred to a related resolution adopted by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly at its Annual Session held the prior week in Kyiv. A long-time rights advocate, he stressed the importance of prevention of violations, while underscoring the need for effective remedies when rights are violated. Professor Emmanuel Decaux opened the session of national courts by underscoring the fundamental importance of effective remedies and transparency in judicial proceedings. He pointed to the critical need for independent judges as well as protection and preservation of rights amid a heightened focus on counterterrorism. Legal advocates from Georgia and Azerbaijan addressed practical concerns such as transparency in judicial appointments, disciplinary actions against judges, public confidence in the courts, limits on televised coverage of courtroom proceedings, financial independence of the judiciary and combating corruption. Karinna Moskalenko, a leading human rights lawyer from the Russian Federation subjected to intense pressure because of her advocacy, including cases relating to Chechnya, noted the large number of cases from Russia being taken up in Strasbourg at the European Court of Human Rights. Nearly 30,000 complaints from individuals in Russia were submitted to the court between 1998 and 2006. Concern was also raised over the situation in Uzbekistan, where authorities frequently resort to use of Article 165 of the criminal code on extortion to imprison human rights defenders, including 10 members of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. An activist from Kazakhstan said that it simply made no sense to speak of judicial independence in his country. Similarly, an NGO representative from Belarus asserted that whatever independence the judiciary had previously has evaporated under the regime. Others from Ukraine and Georgia bemoaned the slow pace of judicial reforms in their countries. Several speakers noted the failure of governments to change their laws or procedures following repeated judgments against them by the European Court of Human Rights. According to one, the budget of the Russian Federation now includes a line item specifically to cover fines stemming from rulings of the court, while the underlying deficiencies go unchanged. Liubov Vinogradova of the Russian Research Center for Human Rights opened the session devoted to human rights defenders, underscoring the difficult and often dangerous environment for activists in the post-Soviet space. She also pointed to attempts by government to manipulate NGOs, create GONGOs (government non-governmental organizations), and erect potemkin umbrella organizations or councils. Vinogradova cited the urgent need for meaningful judicial reform in her country. She decried efforts by some in Moscow to impede access by plaintiffs from Russia to the court in Strasbourg. She read off a lengthy list of areas where Russia’s 2,000 registered human rights NGOs are making a difference. Among the challenges are limited resources, harassment by the authorities and an often hostile media with close ties to the government. Vinogradova was skeptical about the intent of President Putin’s decree offering funds to NGOs in Russia, suggesting that it could represent an attempt at “managed NGOs.” Several subsequent speakers noted the particular difficulty encountered by those active in the defense of political rights, especially the tendency of the authorities to construe such work as party politics. A number referred to various forms of harassment by the authorities. Activists from Belarus talked about the deteriorating situation they face in a country where human rights defenders are viewed with deep suspicion by the authorities and most are forced to work underground due to a refusal by officials to issue formal registration. Some observed that obstructive methods employed in one country of the Commonwealth of Independent States often are adopted elsewhere, in what one speaker termed the “Putinization” of the former Soviet space. The case of Russian advocate Mikhail Trepashkin was cited as an illustration of what can happen when a lawyer gets involved in a case viewed as sensitive to the authorities. Trepashkin was arrested in 2003, days before a trial was to open relating to an apartment bombing in Moscow in 1999 that then became the basis for the Kremlin’s renewed military campaign in Chechnya. The lawyer was initially detained and charged with illegal possession of weapons, then convicted by a closed military court to four years imprisonment for disclosing state secrets. Other speakers urged the participating States to strengthen OSCE commitments on human rights defenders. The Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation echoed this call, noting the precarious position of activities in many OSCE countries. The IHF recommended focusing on the safety of human rights defenders in the face of harassment and threats and called for the November Madrid OSCE Ministerial Council to approve related language. Irish Human Rights Commission President Dr. Maurice Manning introduced the final session devoted to national human rights institutions. He provided an overview, stressing the importance of the independence of such bodies and adherence to the “Paris Principles.” Manning urged that these institutions be focused and avoid interference from government and non-governmental organizations alike. He suggested that they could play a number of useful purposes such as reviewing pending laws and regulations, assess compliance with standards in individual cases, and help identify systemic areas of concern. He concluded by suggesting that national institutions were ideally situated to serve as a bridge between civil society and the state. The UN Economic and Social Council, beginning in 1960, encouraged the establishment of institutions as a means of encouraging and assisting states with implementation of international human rights commitments. In 1978, the UN issued a series of guidelines on the function and structure of institutions, falling into two main categories: human rights commissions and ombudsman offices. In the early 1990s work was completed on the Paris Principles, addressing the competence and responsibilities of national institutions as well as composition and guarantees of independence and pluralism, and methods of operation. The International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights oversees accreditation of such bodies based on compliance with the Paris Principles. As of March 2007, 17 national institutions in the OSCE region were deemed fully compliant, five were not fully compliant, and two were non-compliant. Accredited institutions are found in Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Several representatives of ombudsman offices described their activities, including establishment of national hotlines to receive human rights complaints, as well as working relations with courts and prosecutors. The discussions became more animated with exchanges between NGO participants and regime surrogates, notably regarding human rights in Belarus and Kazakhstan. The International Helsinki Federation expressed concern over a number of troubling trends faced by institutions, particularly targeted harassment stemming from their advocacy as well as legal and fiscal barriers to their work. The IHF representative made several concrete recommendations for OSCE, including strengthening relevant commitments, considering establishment of a special representative of the OSCE Chairman in Office on human rights defenders, and enhancing networks between civil society, national institutions and OSCE. The delegation of the Russian Federation used the closing session of the SHDM to renew its objections to allowing the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society to register for the meeting, notwithstanding the fact that the group did not actually attend. While the SHDM was informative and perhaps useful in terms of networking among those attending, the meeting underscored the clear divide between civil society representatives who advocate for human rights and the governments which perceive such work as a threat and thus try to thwart it. Though several heads of delegation from the Permanent Council made cameo appearances at the opening of the meeting, attendance by government delegates was sparse, particularly from countries which limit NGO activities. On the other hand, the theme of the meeting was particularly relevant in light of moves by several participating States, especially Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and other CIS countries to control civil society. Not surprisingly, these delegations are working actively behind the scenes to limit OSCE focus on human rights, particularly questions relating to freedom of association and assembly, bedrock commitments for civil society. A disturbing trend is the increasing tendency of several of these participating States to assert “interference in internal affairs” -- a standard ploy during Soviet times – when their rights violations are raised. While in Vienna, it became apparent that efforts are underway to limit NGO participation in OSCE meetings and to find an alternative to the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the singularly most important opportunity for civil society to engage the participating States and the OSCE. The failure of the Ljubljana and Brussels OSCE Ministerials to adopt proposed texts acknowledging the contribution of civil society and human rights defenders to the Helsinki process – drawn from existing OSCE commitments – clearly illustrates the backsliding of those States that refused to join consensus. Ironically, some participants in the SHDM proposed strengthening commitments on human rights defenders, when the reality is that a number of countries – Russia, Turkmenistan and Belarus among them – would be hard-pressed to agree today to provisions of the Copenhagen Document dating back to 1990! It is incumbent upon those OSCE countries that value the human dimension to resist the push to water down existing commitments or move the discussion of their implementation behind closed doors.

  • Guantánamo Focus of Helsinki Commission Hearing

    By Erika Schlager On June 21, 2007, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on "Guantánamo: Implications for U.S. Human Rights Leadership." Chairman Alcee L. Hastings presided over the hearing, joined by Co-Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, and Commissioner Rep. Mike McIntyre. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a former Helsinki Commission Chairman, also participated. Prepared statements were also submitted by Commissioners Senator Christopher J. Dodd and Congresswoman Hilda L. Solis. Testimony was received from John B. Bellinger III, Legal Advisor to the Department of State; Senator Anne-Marie Lizin, President of the Belgian Senate and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Special Representative on Guantánamo; Tom Malinowski, Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch; and Gabor Rona, International Legal Director, Human Rights First. In addition, written testimony was received from the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. (A transcript of the hearing, along with testimonies submitted for the record, is available on the Helsinki Commission's website. The Department of Defense was invited to send a witness, but declined. Background: Guantanamo Raised at OSCE PA Meetings Although the Helsinki Commission largely focuses its attention on issues relating to the other 55 OSCE participating States, the Commission has periodically examined domestic compliance issues. In recent years, no other issue has been raised as vocally with the United States at OSCE PA meetings as the status and treatment of detainees captured or arrested as part of U.S. counter-terrorism operations. The issue came into particular focus at the OSCE PA’s 2003 Annual Session, held in Rotterdam, where a resolution [link] expressing concern over detainees at Guantánamo was debated and adopted. (The first detainees were transported to the detention facility in January 2002.) The vigorous debate in Rotterdam prompted then-Helsinki Commission Chairman Christopher H. Smith and then-Ranking Member Benjamin L. Cardin to lead a Congressional Delegation to the detention facility in late July 2003. At the 2004 Annual Session, held in Edinburgh, convened shortly after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, the Assembly adopted a resolution [link], introduced by then-Chairman Smith, condemning torture and urging respect for provisions of the Geneva Conventions. An amendment to that resolution was also adopted, expressing particular concern regarding indefinite detention without trial at Guantánamo. In February 2005, Senator Anne-Marie Lizin, President of the Belgian Senate, was appointed by then-OSCE PA President Alcee L. Hastings as Special Representative on Guantánamo, with a mandate to report to the Assembly on the situation of detainees from OSCE participating States in the detention facility in Guantánamo. (Sen. Lizin continues to serve in that capacity at the request of the current OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President, Göran Lennmarker.) At the 2005 Annual Session, held in Washington, the Assembly adopted a resolution [link] on “terrorism and human rights,” reiterating concern regarding the Guantánamo detainees. Separately, Senator Lizin issued her first report on Guantánamo during the Washington meeting, calling for the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay to be closed. (Her report also touched on the positions of other OSCE participating States regarding the question of the detention of terror suspects.) During the Washington meeting, Department of Defense and Department of State officials also held a briefing for interested parliamentarians on Guantanamo and related issues. In March 2006, Senator Lizin was able, under U.S. Department of Defense auspices, to make her first visit to the detention facility. She returned to the facility a second time on June 20, 2007, just prior to testifying at the Helsinki Commission's hearing. In addition, Senator Lizin presented additional reports on Guantánamo at the Assembly’s Annual Sessions in Brussels (2006) and in Kyiv (2007). She has continued to call for the closure of the detention facility. Her reports are available on the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly website [link]. Testimony In opening the hearing, Chairman Hastings drew attention to the concerns that have been repeatedly raised about Guantánamo in the context of the Parliamentary Assembly. He also observed that "for all the 56 OSCE participating States, and not just the United States, the issue of how to safeguard human rights while effectively countering terrorism may be one of the most critical issues these countries will face for the foreseeable future." The first witness to speak was Legal Adviser Bellinger. Since taking up that position in 2005, Mr. Bellinger has been actively engaged in discussions with U.S. allies and at international fora (particularly the United Nations in Geneva, where he presented U.S. reports under the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) regarding the status and treatment of detainees held by the United States as part of its counterterrorism operations. This was the first time, however, that he had testified before Congress on these matters. Legal Adviser Bellinger briefly discussed the legal basis, under the law of armed conflict, for detaining combatants, and noted that the 9/11 Commission had recommended that the United States should work with other countries to develop an appropriate framework for the detention and treatment of terror suspects. He also described the considerable efforts he has made to engage allies in discussions on these matters. Bellinger acknowledged that President Bush has said he would like to close Guantánamo, but Bellinger argued that "closing Guantánamo is easier said than done." In particular, he suggested more needs to be done to address the question, where will the detainees go? In her remarks to the Commission, Senator Lizin observed that, since her 2006 visit to Guantánamo, the number of detainees there has significantly decreased. Nevertheless, "Guantánamo remains one of the bases for [an] anti-American fixation in the world and contributes to the [negative] image of the United States abroad, including [among] friendly countries.” She reiterated her recommendation that Guantánamo be closed and noted that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has also called for the camp to be closed. Senator Lizin noted that 80 detainees are no longer considered enemy combatants and that OSCE participating States could do more to facilitate the transfer of these individuals to third countries. Both Tom Malinowski and Gabor Rona stressed that many Guantánamo detainees were not captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan, but were individuals turned over to the United States by bounty hunters responding to U.S. offers to pay large sums of money for turning in foreigners. Mr. Rona noted that, “[t]his government's own statistics say that 55% of the detainees were not found to have committed hostile acts. Only 8% were characterized as Al Qaida fighters, and 60% are detained merely because of alleged association with terrorists or terrorist groups." Mr. Malinowski discussed the dangerous example that U.S. interrogation and detention practices have set for other countries around the globe. (Similar views were echoed in the written testimony submitted by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.) He also suggested that if the United States made a serious commitment to close Guantánamo, it would open the door for greater cooperation with other countries regarding the transfer of detainees. Moreover, Malinowski observed that, since 9/11, “the Justice Department has successfully prosecuted dozens of international terror suspects in the civilian courts . . . since then, the system at Guantánamo has succeeded in prosecuting one Australian kangaroo trapper to a sentence of nine months, which is serving back home in Australia." In his written and oral testimony, Mr. Rona took exception to the applicable legal framework advocated by the administration: "one need not choose between, on the one hand, affording terrorists the protections of prisoner-of-war status, to which only privileged belligerents are entitled, or, on the other hand, holding them in a law-free black hole. They can be targeted while directly participating in hostilities. And if captured, they can be interrogated, they can be detained, but in accordance with international and domestic law." Members React During the hearing, Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Cardin, and Majority Leader Hoyer all argued for closing the detention facility. Chairman Hastings said he could not believe "that the American federal prison system cannot try 380 people." He argued that the United States "should take every prisoner out of Guantánamo, no matter his or her status, and move them to a federal prison in the United States of America [and then] either release persons who are not charged, or charge them, try them and confine them in an appropriate federal prison." Regarding the notion that detainees were sent to Guantánamo because they were enemy combatants, Mr. Cardin remarked that there are “a lot of people who are combatants who are not at Guantánamo Bay," and that people were selected for transfer because of their perceived intelligence value. But in light of the many years that individuals have been held there, some for more than five years now, he argued that "the 380 people that are at Guantánamo Bay have no useful information that warrants a special facility for interrogation, which is what Guantánamo Bay was originally set up as . . . If Guantánamo Bay is needed today, it's needed as a penal facility. And as the Chairman pointed out, we have penal facilities. To keep a penal facility at such expense makes very little sense to the taxpayers of this country." Finally, Majority Leader Hoyer, who had pressed for the convening of such a hearing in recent years, argued for the restoration of habeas corpus rights that had been terminated by be Military Commission Act of 2006. He argued, "when Saddam Hussein was taken out of a hole and captured, we afforded him his legal rights to hear the evidence against him, to contest that evidence and to be represented by counsel. When Slobodan Milosevic was brought to justice after murdering tens of thousands and sanctioning the ethnic cleansing of more than 2 million people, he was afforded his legal rights. And even the Butchers of Berlin who committed genocide, murdering millions of innocents, were afforded their legal rights at Nürnberg. This was not coddling those who committed atrocities. It was recognizing that if civilization is to be what we want to be, it will be because it follows the rule of law and not the rule of the jungle."

  • Guantanamo: Implications for U.S. Human Rights Leadership

    The hearing is entitled “Guantanamo: Implications for U.S. Human Rights Leadership” will focus on the international perspective of Guantanamo, particularly in the 56 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and implications for U.S. leadership on human rights issues.  The detention facility at the U.S. Naval Bases at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was opened in January 2002 and, it currently holds around 385 detainees. The facility has come under fire from human rights organizations and others for the alleged mistreatment of detainees and the legal framework according to which they have been held.

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