Human Rights Concerns in Kazakhstan

Human Rights Concerns in Kazakhstan

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
107th Congress Congress
Second Session Session
Friday, June 21, 2002

Mr. Speaker, I rise to introduce a resolution that expresses deep concern about ongoing violations of human rights in Kazakhstan. President Nursultan Nazarbaev, the authoritarian leader of this energy-rich country, has been flagrantly flouting his OSCE commitments on democratization, human rights, and the rule of law, and thumbing his nose at Washington as well.

In the 106th Congress, there was a near unanimous vote in the House for a resolution I introduced voicing dismay about general trends in Central Asia. We sent a strong signal to leaders and opposition groups alike in the region about where we stand.

Since then, the overall situation has not gotten better--throughout the region, super presidents continue to dominate their political systems. But their drive to monopolize wealth and power while most people languish in poverty is finally producing a backlash. Today in Central Asia, things are stirring for the first time in a decade.

Even in quasi-Stalinist Turkmenistan, an opposition movement-in-exile led by former high ranking government officials has emerged which openly proclaims its intention of getting rid of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. In Kyrgyzstan, disturbances in March, when police killed six protesters calling for the release of a jailed parliamentarian, were followed by larger demonstrations that forced President Akaev in May to dismiss his government. The iron-fisted Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, under considerable pressure from Washington, has made some limited concessions to domestic and international public opinion, sentencing policemen to prison terms for torturing detainees and formally lifting censorship.

In Kazakhstan, however, President Nursultan Nazarbaev has reacted differently to domestic pressure and to Washington's calls for reforms to keep repression from breeding terrorism. Since last fall, Nazarbaev has cracked down hard, when his position became a little shakier. First we saw squabbles within the ruling--or should I say, "royal''?--family burst out into the open when Nazarbaev demoted his powerful son-in-law. Then a new opposition movement emerged, headed by former officials who called for urgent reforms. Two of the leaders of that movement are now in prison. Subsequently, Kazakhstan's prime minister had to acknowledge the existence of $1 billion stashed in a Swiss bank account under Nazarbaev's name. Some of the few opposition legislators allowed into parliament have demanded more information about the money and about any other possible hoards in foreign banks.

This would be a scandal in any country. But with a consistency worthy of a nobler goal, Nazarbaev's regime has for years stifled the opposition and independent media. And as detailed in a recent Washington Post story, which I ask to be inserted for the Record, Kazakh authorities have recently intensified their assault on those few remaining outlets, employing methods that can only be described as grotesque and revolting. In one case, the editor of an opposition newspaper found a decapitated dog hanging outside her office. Attached to a screwdriver stuck into its body was a message that read "there won't be a next time.'' On May 23, the State Department issued a statement expressing "deep concern'' that these assaults "suggest an effort to intimidate political opposition leaders in Kazakhstan and the independent media and raise serious questions about the safety of the independent media in Kazakhstan.'' That statement did not have the desired effect--last week, someone left a human skull on a staircase in the building where the editorial office of another newspaper is located.

Mr. Speaker, after September 11, the U.S. Government moved to consolidate relationships with Central Asian states, seeking cooperation in the battle with terrorism. But Washington also made plain that we expected to see some reform in these entrenched dictatorships, or we would all have to deal with consequences in the future. Nursultan Nazarbaev has ignored this call. Increasingly nervous about revelations of high-level corruption, he is obviously determined to do anything necessary to remain in power and to squelch efforts to inform Kazakhstan's public of his misdeeds. But even worse, he seems convinced that he can continue with impunity as his goons brutally threaten and assault the brave men and women who risk being journalists in a country so hostile to free speech.

Mr. Speaker, against this backdrop, I am introducing this resolution, which expresses concern about these trends, calls on Kazakhstan's leadership to observe its OSCE commitments and urges the U.S. Government to press Kazakhstan more seriously. I hope my colleagues will support this resolution and I look forward to their response.

[Washington Post Foreign Service, Mon., June 10, 2002] NEW REPRESSION IN KAZAKHSTAN

JOURNALISTS TARGETED AFTER PRESIDENT IMPLICATED IN SCANDAL (By Peter Baker) ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN.

"There won't be a next time.''

The dog's missing head was left along with a similar note at Petrushova's house. Three nights later, someone threw three molotov cocktails into her office and burned it to the ground.

The political climate in this oil-rich former Soviet republic has taken a decidedly ominous turn in recent weeks, ever since the revelation that the country's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, secretly stashed $1 billion of state money in a Swiss bank account 6 years ago. As the scandal blossomed, opposition leaders were suddenly arrested, newspapers and television stations shut down, and critical journalists beaten in what foes of the government consider a new wave of repression.

What inspectors and regulators have not accomplished, mysterious vandals have. One of the country's leading television stations was knocked off the air when its cable was sliced in the middle of the night. Shortly after it was repaired, the cable was rendered useless again when someone shot through it.

"Everything that's been achieved over the last 10 years, it's been wiped out,'' Petrushova lamented.

"This political system we have is still Soviet,'' said Yevgeny Zhovits, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law. "By its spirit, by its nature, by its attitude toward personal freedom, it's still Soviet.''

The tale of intrigue emerging in Kazakhstan, while familiar across the former Soviet Union, takes on special significance in Central Asia, a region that has become far more important to the United States as it fights a war in nearby Afghanistan. The case also sheds some light on the tangled world of oil, money and politics in a country with massive energy reserves.

The U.S. Embassy and the State Department have issued statements condemning the pattern of events and fretting about the state of democracy in a country still run by its last Communist boss. But many reformers in Kazakhstan worry that the West has effectively turned its eyes away from human rights abuses to maintain the international coalition against terrorism.

"All this is happening with the silent consent of the West,'' said Assylbeck Kozhakhmetov, a leading figure in Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan, an opposition party founded last year. Until Sept. 11, Nazarbayev's government worried about offending the West, he noted, but not anymore. "The ostrich party of Western democracies actually unties the hands of dictators.''

Nazarbayev, a burly, 61-year-old former steel mill blast-furnace operator, has run this giant, dusty country of 17 million people with an authoritarian style. Nazarbayev was a former member of the Soviet Politburo who took over as head of the republic in 1990, became president after independence in 1991, and continued to dominate Kazakhstan through uncompetitive elections and a referendum extending his term.

His relationship with oil companies has prompted investigations in Switzerland and the United States as prosecutors in both countries probe whether an American lobbyist helped steer millions of dollars in oil commissions to him and other Kazakh leaders.

The long-brewing questions about such transfers and rumors of foreign bank accounts erupted into a full-blown scandal in April when Nazarbayev's prime minister admitted to parliament that the president diverted $1 billion to a secret Swiss bank account in 1996. The money came from the sale that year of a 20 percent stake in the valuable Tengiz offshore oil fields to Chevron.

The prime minister, Imangali Tasmagambetov, said that Nazarbayev had sent the money abroad because he worried that such a large infusion of cash into Kazakhstan would throw the currency into a tailspin. Although he never disclosed the secret fund to parliament, Nazarbayev used it twice to help stabilize the country during subsequent financial crises, Tasmagambetov said.

In an inter-view last week, a top government official dismissed the significance of the revelation and the resulting furor.

"The so-called Kazakh-gate, the government officially explained this,'' said Ardak Doszham, the deputy minister of information. "There was a special reserve account set up by the government. It's a normal account that can be managed by officials appointed by the government. It's not managed by individuals. The money that goes into it is state money, and it's supposed to be used to meet the needs of the state.''

Asked who knew about it, Doszham could identify only three men, Nazarbayev, the prime minister and the chairman of the national bank. Asked why lawmakers were never informed, he said, "It was impossible to raise this issue before parliament because it would have elicited many questions.''

But opposition leaders and journalists said Nazarbayev finally revealed the account this spring only after they pushed Swiss prosecutors for information. The opposition and journalists said they believe the president announced the $1 billion fund only as a smoke screen to obscure other matters still under investigation by the Swiss and U.S. prosecutors.

"All around there is bribe-taking and stealing and mafia,'' said Serikbolsyn Abdildin, the head of the Communist Party and one of two parliament deputies whose information request to prosecutors preceded the announcement. "There's corruption in the top echelon of power.'' The disclosure of the $1 billion Swiss fund was designed to "fool public opinion,'' he said.

The disclosures have coincided with an escalating series of troublesome incidents for those who do not defer to the government.

Just days before Tasmagambetov's speech to parliament, Kazakh authorities arrested opposition politician Mukhtar Abilyazov, while his colleague, Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, avoided a similar fate only by fleeing into the French Embassy here in Almaty, the former capital, two days later.

After assurances from Kazakh authorities, he left the embassy, and promptly was also taken into custody. The government insisted it was pursuing embezzlement charges against the two, both founding members of Democratic Choice. The opposition called it blatant harassment.

Other opposition figures began to feel the heat as well. While independent media in Kazakhstan have often experienced difficulty in the decade since independence, a string of frightening episodes convinced many journalists that they were being targeted.

The government began enforcing a five-year-old law requiring television stations to ensure that 50 percent of their broadcasts were aired in the native Kazakh tongue, a language that in practice remains secondary to Russian here. Most television stations cannot afford to develop such programming and prefer to buy off-the-shelf material from Russia, including dubbed Western television shows and movies. As government agents swarmed in and began monitoring channels this spring, they began seizing licenses of those stations that did not comply.

Similarly, inspectors showed up at newspaper offices demanding to see registration papers and suspending those publications that did not have everything in order. Some that did not list their addresses properly were abruptly shut down. Printing houses began refusing to publish other papers, and one printing house was burned down in unclear circumstances.

Tamara Kaleyeva, president of the International Foundation for Protection of Speech here, said about 20 newspapers have been forced to stop publishing and about 20 television stations have been shut down or face closure.

"It appears the Swiss accounts are the reason for a terrible persecution against free speech,'' she said. Added Rozlana Taukina, president of the Central Asia Independent Mass Media Association, "The country is turning into an authoritarian regime.''

Doszham, the deputy minister, denied any political motivations behind the recent actions. Television stations had been flouting the language law, he said, and the government has suspended about seven or eight, and gone to court to recall the licenses of another six or seven. Similarly, he said, newspapers had been violating requirements. "The law is harsh,'' he said, "but the law is the law.''

Even more harsh, however, has been an unofficial but often violent crackdown. It is not known who is orchestrating it. Bakbytzhan Ketebayev, president of Tan Broadcasting Co., whose Tan TV station was among the best known in Kazakhstan, has been off the air for two months following repeated attacks on his cable. Even after it was repaired following the gunshots, it was damaged yet again when someone drove three nails in it. "Once it's an accident, twice it may be an accident,'' he said. "But three times is a trend.''

At the newspaper Soldat, which means soldier in Russian but is also a play on words in Kazakh meaning "that one demands to speak,'' the assault was more personal. One day in late May, four young men burst into the newspaper office and beat two workers there, bashing one woman's head so hard she remains in the hospital. They also took the computer equipment.

Ermuram Bali, the editor, said the attack came the day before the weekly was to run the second of two installments reprinting a Seymour Hersh piece from the New Yorker about oil and corruption in Kazakhstan. "This is the last warning against you,'' he said the assailants told his staff. Other journalists have been physically attacked as well.

And then there was Petrushova and the headless dog. Like Soldat, her newspaper, the Republic Business Review, had written about the scandal. Then the mutilated animal was found May 19, and finally the newspaper office was set aflame on May 22.

Petrushova suspects state security agencies were behind the incidents but cannot prove it. "The throne started to waver, and in order to hold it in place, all sorts of measures are being used,'' she said. Now she works out of borrowed offices at Tan TV headquarters, putting out the newspaper on her own typographical machine and stapling each issue. "It's just like it was in the time of the Soviet Union.''

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  • Helsinki Commission Supports Invocation of OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism in the Face of Sustained Human Rights Crisis in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—Following the invocation of the OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism to address the mounting human rights crisis in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “One year after the release of a comprehensive, unbiased, and damning report detailing human rights abuses by the Lukashenko regime, Lukashenko has not simply failed to act on the report’s recommendations—he has intensified his brutal crackdown on those in Belarus who continue to fight for their fundamental freedoms. “Among its other commitments as an OSCE participating State, Belarus is bound to respect human rights and hold free and fair elections. By invoking the Vienna Mechanism, the United States and 34 other countries demand that the authorities in Belarus finally address the violations raised in the 2020 report and inform the international community about the steps the Lukashenko regime is taking to investigate those serious allegations. Ensuring human rights violators are held to account is of importance to us all.” In September 2020, 17 OSCE participating States, including the United States, invoked the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism to investigate credible accounts of widespread human rights violations perpetrated in the aftermath of Belarus’ fraudulent August 2020 elections. The Moscow Mechanism allows a group of OSCE participating States to appoint independent experts to investigate a particularly serious threat to the fulfillment of human rights commitments in a participating State. On November 5, 2020, the Moscow Mechanism report substantiated numerous allegations of torture and repression and included recommendations and advice for the Government of Belarus, the OSCE, and the international community. Lukashenko’s government failed to cooperate with the investigation. On November 4, 2021, as a follow-up to the 2020 report, 35 OSCE participating States posed detailed questions to the Lukashenko regime via OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism, which obliges participating States to respond to formal requests for information from other States about serious human rights concerns. The commission convened a hearing on human rights in Belarus on September 21, 2021.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSIONERS JOIN OSCE PA MEETING ON AFGHANISTAN, DEBATE POLICY RESPONSES

    On November 4, 2021, more than 40 members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) met remotely to discuss the current security challenges posed by developments in Afghanistan and the future of OSCE engagement with Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule. Since 2003, Afghanistan has been an OSCE Partner for Cooperation and shares a border with several OSCE countries. The debate, which was attended by seven members of the Helsinki Commission, took place as part of the OSCE PA’s annual Autumn Meeting. Each year, the Autumn Meeting focuses on debating one or more currently relevant issues confronting the OSCE region.  This year’s Autumn Meeting was originally planned to be in Dublin, Ireland, but a resurging COVID-19 pandemic forced the OSCE PA to rely on emergency procedures that allow for statutory meetings to be conducted remotely. OSCE PA Leaders Outline Challenges Posed by Afghanistan OSCE PA President Margaret Cederfelt opened the debate with an overview of the challenges presented by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. While three OSCE countries—Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan—share a border with Afghanistan, developments there also have serious implications for the rest of the OSCE participating States. The worsening humanitarian crisis, the Taliban’s historical connections to terrorism, the negative economic fallout, the potential impact on neighboring countries, and deteriorating human rights, particularly for women and girls, were all of concern. “Those who will suffer most from this is, of course, the ordinary people,” President Cederfelt emphasized, while highlighting the impending economic turmoil Afghanistan faces. “It is essential that human security is protected by safeguarding the fundamental rights of all Afghans.” President Cederfelt also underscored the need for international cooperation while addressing this situation, given its global security implications. The three leaders of the PA General Committees highlighted aspects of the crisis related to their specific mandates. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson, who chairs the General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted, “Perhaps most alarming is the return of an international terrorist threat from Afghanistan. He also highlighted the production and trade of narcotics and illegal drugs backed by the Taliban as a serious challenge with global implications, thanks to major trafficking routes. “The security situation in Afghanistan is intrinsically linked with that of the OSCE region as a whole—but it will first and most immediately affect Afghanistan’s neighbors in Central Asia,” he said. “We must all be especially concerned about threats to the three OSCE participating States that have borders with Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This is perhaps the area in which our organization can have the greatest and most immediate impact." The other two general committee chairs shared their concerns as well. Pere Joan Pons of Spain, who chairs the General Committee on Economia Affairs, Science, Technology, and Environment, highlighted Afghanistan’s current economic and environmental challenges, especially given the country’s vulnerability in the face of climate change. Sereine Mauborgne of France, who chairs the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions, discussed the serious human rights violations faced by women, girls, and other vulnerable populations. In addition, many Afghans face urgent or extreme food and security issues; the Taliban lacks the capability to provide either for the Afghan people. Director of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center Tuula Yrjölä discussed Afghanistan’s relationship to the OSCE as a Partner for Cooperation and the potential role of the OSCE role in addressing the situation. She concluded that Afghanistan’s partnership status in the OSCE was based on shared values; its future may be in question under a Taliban government. Helsinki Commissioners Participate in the General Debate Following the introductory remarks, six members of the Helsinki Commission—including all four senior commission leaders—took the floor to voice their concerns and engage with other parliamentarians. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, who also serves as the Head of the U.S. Delegation and the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, expressed disappointment at how quickly the democratic government and institutions in Afghanistan deteriorated, despite years of investment and support. “One of the prime reasons was corruption,” explained Chairman Cardin. The rights of women and girls and ensuring humanitarian assistance reaches populations in need were two areas that he insisted be of focus as international efforts move forward. Media freedom was of particular concern for Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen. “Lower-level Taliban forces threaten and harass journalists,” he stated. “RFE/RL has reported that over the past weeks, its remaining journalists have been questioned by armed Taliban and door-to-door searched have been conducted looking for journalists affiliated with the United States.” Media freedom is among the fundamental freedoms the OSCE seeks to protect, and Co-Chairman Cohen insisted the Taliban must be held responsible for violating these rights. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker, who also serves as an OSCE PA Vice President, shared legislation he is sponsoring in Congress that seeks to strengthen the American response to Afghanistan and reiterated the dangers that religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan currently face. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson highlighted the dangers of terrorism and the oppressive rule of the Taliban. “It cannot be business as usual with the Taliban,” he stated.  “Together, we must use our leverage to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist haven devoid of human rights.” Chairman Cardin, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Wilson all expressed concern over Afghanistan’s status as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation. “Before we recognize any representative of Afghanistan in our assembly, we should make sure that they will adhere to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” Chairman Cardin stated. Rep. Wilson argued that Afghanistan’s partner status should be reconsidered, and Sen. Wicker also emphasized the importance of the values shared by OSCE participating States and Partners for Cooperation. “I would hope that it is our position going forward that the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan not be recognized as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation,” Sen. Wicker said. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore focused on the dangers for women and girls and the human rights violations they face. Despite advances made in women’s rights in Afghanistan during the past two decades, the return of Taliban rule has brought a resurgence of violence and restrictions, endangering the lives of women throughout the country. Many have fled Afghanistan, fearing for their safety, while others have remained to fight for their country. While Rep. Moore strongly advocated for supporting resettlement efforts, she also emphasized that resettlement was a last resort. “We must continue to press for the protection of these women in their own country,” she said. Ms. Moore also proposed that the OSCE PA create and maintain a project to monitor and support Afghanistan’s female parliamentarians. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Ruben Gallego stressed the importance of aiding Afghans still in Afghanistan. “We must find ways to support Afghans in-country who are bravely calling for progress, and we must stand up for the human rights of those who suffer at the hands of the Taliban,” he said. Rep. Gallego further argued that the international community must do more than simply aid in the evacuation of those fleeing the Taliban’s rule. “We must also ensure that those who have been evacuated have long-term support in the resettlement process. The United States must do its part in accepting the bulk of Afghan refugees, and I have personally pushed in Congress to provide Afghans with the long-term resources they need to settle into a new life,” he stated, and asked all the participating parliamentarians to urge their countries to do the same. OSCE Efforts Moving Forward Throughout the debate, which highlighted various vulnerable populations and severe security threats that must be addressed in the future, one recurring theme was the need for international cooperation. While President Cederfelt began the meeting by observing that it will be impossible to know the future, Rep. Gallego expressed one certainty. “The end of America’s military commitment in Afghanistan does not mean we will turn a blind eye to Afghanistan’s people or the security of the region,” he said.

  • Upholding OSCE Commitments in Hungary and Poland

    Political leaders in Hungary and Poland—U.S. allies and members of the European Union—have for the past decade pursued policies that undermine democracy and the rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has weakened the country’s democratic institutions, especially the free media and independent judiciary. Instead of strengthening the transatlantic bond, Viktor Orbán has sought closer ties with Russia and China. In Poland, the ruling coalition has taken steps to compromise judicial independence and limit free expression. Witnesses examined the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary and Poland and discussed the implications for U.S. foreign policy. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Commissioners Whitehouse and Tillis Introduce Foreign Extortion Prevention Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Sen. Thom Tillis (NC) today introduced the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act to criminalize bribery demands by foreign officials. It follows the introduction of the bill in the House of Representatives by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. John Curtis (UT-03).  “Kleptocrats and criminals will seize on any opportunity to extort American businesses, enrich themselves, and undermine our national security,” said Sen. Whitehouse.  “It’s illegal for an American business to pay a bribe abroad; this bipartisan legislation makes it illegal for a kleptocrat to demand one.  In order to win the new clash of civilizations, America must defend the rule of law and signal that violations will not be tolerated.” “American business needs a level playing field,” said Sen. Tillis. “The Chinese don’t play fair. The Russians don’t play fair. The Iranians certainly don’t play fair. These countries all rely on corruption and bribery to capture business opportunities. The Foreign Extortion Prevention Act attacks corruption at its source—those who demand bribes. It is a common-sense approach that brings the United States in line with best practices in fighting foreign bribery.” Under U.S. law, only the giving or offering of a bribe abroad is considered a criminal activity. However, foreign corrupt officials routinely demand bribes from companies hoping to do business with them, then spend those ill-gotten gains in developed democracies. Unscrupulous companies operating in a corrupt environment gain a competitive edge by fulfilling bribery demands, while companies beholden to the rule of law, such as American companies, are disadvantaged. The Foreign Extortion Prevention Act remedies this by criminalizing the demand side of bribery, enabling the United States to fight both sides of foreign bribery. The Foreign Extortion Prevention Act is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Transparency International’s U.S. Office, and Greenpeace USA. The bill also is supported by Accountability Lab, Africa Faith and Justice Network, Anti-Corruption Data Collective, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Coalition for Integrity, EG Justice, Freedom House, Global Financial Integrity, Integrity Initiatives International, International Coalition Against Illicit Economies (ICAIE), Oxfam America, Shadow World Investigations, The Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency (FACT) Coalition, The Free Russia Foundation, The ONE Campaign, The Sentry, UNISHKA Research Service, and Visual Teaching Technologies, LLC. See an FAQ on the bill. See Transparency International’s fact sheet.

  • Fighting Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists

    By Arwen Struthers, Max Kampelman Fellow​ In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly declared November 2 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists to commemorate the lives of Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont, two journalists who were kidnapped and killed in a targeted attack on that day. Since their deaths, their killers have walked free with complete impunity; there is no justice in sight. Unfortunately, cases where authorities respond to crimes against journalists with impunity for the perpetrators rather than justice for the victims are not outliers. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that “in over eight out of 10 cases where a journalist has been targeted for murder, their killers go free.” Impunity often extends beyond cases where journalists are murdered to failure to conduct a proper investigation into other crimes against journalists, such as threats and non-fatal attacks. Complete impunity is not uncommon and presents one of the greatest challenges for media freedom advocates and democratic states around the world today. Freedom of expression and free press are core democratic principles that protect individual liberties, promote discussion in public squares, and contribute to the spread of information. The harmful, cyclical nature of impunity endangers states and individuals as it impedes upon media freedom, violates human rights, and threatens democratic values. Natalya Estemirova Natalya Estemirova was a Russian investigative journalist and a leading defender of human rights in Chechnya for nearly two decades. Despite threats from local authorities, she dedicated her life to calling out injustice. She regularly reported on abuses and violations committed by authorities at the national and local level, and her work was published by sources like Novaya Gazeta and Kavkazsky Uzel. In 2006, she met with the Helsinki Commission to share her findings on human rights violations. On July 15, 2009, Natalya Estemirova was abducted and murdered. Over 12 years later, little has been done to bring her killers to justice. On August 31, 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Russian government failed to properly investigate her murder. There has been no conviction and those involved in the murder of Natalya Estemirova continue to walk free. The Dangers of Impunity Across the globe, impunity jeopardizes journalists and the media environments in which they operate. It is both a symptom of broader systemic problems in states, as well as an environmental contributing factor which encourages further crimes against journalists. In an October 2021 Helsinki Commission hearing on media freedom in the OSCE region, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro explained that examining individual cases of crimes against journalists and addressing each as it arises is not enough. To best tackle the problems created by violations of media freedom and attacks on journalists, human rights advocates must examine the broader picture. When discussing cases of crimes against journalists, Ribeiro said, “All combined, they all create a landscape, an atmosphere, that silence[s] all the critical voices.”  Crimes against journalists are often efforts to censor journalists who are bringing attention to injustice and corruption. By examining the broader picture rather each individual crime against the press, deeply rooted issues – such as government corruption and authoritarianism - will be exposed. To protect journalists in the future, these issues must be addressed first. At the same hearing, Robert Mahoney, the Deputy Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, explained that the failure to administer justice not only creates a landscape where there are fewer voices expressing themselves, but also encourages more crimes against journalists in the future. “Impunity will only send a message that journalists’ lives are cheap and that those – whether it’s criminal gangs or whether it’s governments – that want to silence them can, for a few thousand dollars, hire an assassin and get rid of the problem,” he said. Impunity demonstrates to other journalists they may be freely targeted by those they criticize without any protection from the law. It creates a painful choice: are they bullied into silence or do they risk their lives? Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow One of the most important tools that can be used to help end impunity is multilateral, multi-level pressure. When international organizations and their members, such as the OSCE and its participating States, put pressure on those countries where authorities fail to adequately respond to crimes against journalists, they begin to break the dangerous cycle. Failing to call out impunity as injustice further feeds the emboldening cycle of impunity, but consistent pressure from outside forces can help that cycle crack. Domestic pressure also can have an impact. In February 2018, investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were killed in a targeted attack in Slovakia. In response, the people of Slovakia took to the streets in protest of his death, resulting in the resignation of several top government officials. A Slovakian Supreme Court decision in June 2021 overturned the acquittal of two suspects, ruling that the lower court did not properly examine the evidence. The government’s response to the protests and pressure from the international community—its willingness to continue to prosecute those involved in the murders—demonstrates that external pressure works in putting a stop to impunity. In this case, there is hope that justice is on the horizon. When local communities, countries, and multilateral organizations all maintain pressure upon individual countries for their human rights and media freedom failures, governments who enable or are responsible for crimes against journalists begin to feel the heat. 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, dedicated his award to his slain colleagues, including Natalya Estemirova. In a 2009 Helsinki Commission briefing, Muratov said, “In any encounter with representatives of the Russian political establishment and government, please, bring up this meeting. Please ask these uncomfortable questions.” Joining forces with other defenders of media freedom and human rights and calling attention in public spaces to the failings of countries is one way to effectively combat impunity and protect journalists. On International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, supporters of media freedom should affirm their commitment to protecting the media and fighting against impunity crimes against journalists. To ensure that the work done by journalists around the world – the work done by Natalya Estemirova and others like her – will not be silenced, governments must lend their support and protection.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest October 2021

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Upholding OSCE Commitments in Hungary and Poland

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: UPHOLDING OSCE COMMITMENTS IN HUNGARY AND POLAND Wednesday, November 3, 2021 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Political leaders in Hungary and Poland—U.S. allies and members of the European Union—have for the past decade pursued policies that undermine democracy and the rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has weakened the country’s democratic institutions, especially the free media and independent judiciary. Instead of strengthening the transatlantic bond, Viktor Orbán has sought closer ties with Russia and China. In Poland, the ruling coalition has taken steps to compromise judicial independence and limit free expression. Witnesses will examine the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary and Poland and discuss the implications for U.S. foreign policy. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Heather A. Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, Center for Strategic and International Studies Zselyke Csaky, Research Director, Europe & Eurasia, Freedom House Dalibor Rohac, Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute  

  • In Pursuit of Truth

    A free press is the lifeblood of democracy; without independent media, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. In many of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), autocrats exploit financial and legal means, alongside physical violence, to intimidate and silence independent media. Journalists and their associates are attacked both online and offline; jailed on phony charges; and even killed for the secrets they expose. Leaders undermine public trust in the press to hide their misdeeds. Disinformation—particularly lies related to the COVID-19 pandemic—continues to pollute the information landscape. In her first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro assessed the state of media freedom across the OSCE region. Other expert witnesses discussed recent attacks on journalists and media outlets, the motivations that lead authorities to try and silence the press, global disinformation networks, and more. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by stating that media freedom is the bedrock of the democratic process, making it possible for citizens to make informed decisions on their political reality. He also addressed COVID-19 and disinformation, citing the need to safeguard fundamental freedom of expression while performing the vital task of reporting the truth. Chairman Cardin cited a Freedom House report showing a decline in democracy in some countries, often overlapping with a decline in media freedom, and expressed a concern over the silencing of media in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Turkey, and Russia to name a few. As a co-sponsor of the Global Press Freedom Act, Senator Cardin expressed his wish for the U.S. to become more involved in press freedom across the globe. The OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media (RFOM), Teresa Ribeiro, thanked the Helsinki Commission for the strong support for the RFOM as an institution and media freedom and expression. Ribeiro seconded Chairman Cardin’s statement that free and independent media is a core pillar of democracy, adding that media is more than just a provider of daily news. Ribeiro addressed the steady decline of media freedom all over the OSCE region and decline in trust in the media. “We live in a time where accusing media outlets and individual journalists of false news has become the norm,” she said. Key issues, according to Ribeiro, include rising violence against journalists, abuse of the legal system to silence their work, restrictions imposed by authoritarian governments on the media, declining trust in the media, as well as the power of social media companies and their ability to shape the media landscape. Ribeiro argued that governments have a positive obligation to protect both the freedom of expression and a free press that delivers truthful information to citizens. In her opinion, the best way to fight disinformation is not through restrictive laws, but rather by promoting independent journalists. Robert Mahoney, the deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), reported on his organizations efforts to track media freedom across the OSCE region. He stated that journalists and media have come under attack in almost all OSCE countries. Some of these attacks are by private citizens, but most attacks on press freedom are carried out by governments such as those in Hungry, Poland, Tajikistan, Serbia, Turkmenistan, Belarus, or Russia. Specifically, Mahoney mentioned the number of journalists behind bars in Turkey and the use of foreign agent laws in Russia to sideline media. He also expressed concern over the targeted murders of journalists in the OSCE in countries including Ukraine, Slovakia, and Malta. Mahoney recommended fully implementing the 2018 OSCE ministerial council agreement on the freedom of the media, supporting the RFOM mandate and urging the mandate holder to challenge those countries with the worst press freedom records, implement the policies outlined in the 2020 resource guide by the RFOM on the safety of female journalists online, and considering the use of targeted sanctions to gold governments within the OSCE region accountable for their violations of press freedoms. Jamie Fly, President of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, gave an update on his organizations efforts to provide news and media to 27 countries across Eurasia. Much of his testimony was focused on Russia and Belarus, where the gravest violations of press freedom occur. In Russia, foreign agent laws are increasingly being used to violate the freedom of the press and fines connected to these laws (such as $4.4 million owed by RFE/RL to Russia) are used to pressure news outlets financially. Fly believes the Kremlin is seeking absolute control over the information space in advance of the end of President Vladimir Putin’s current term in 2024. In Belarus, RFE/RL officers were raided, and equipment was confiscated. Meanwhile, many journalists threatened by the new government in Afghanistan are still hoping to evacuate and require outside support. Fly called for more advocacy for journalists in critical regions, funding for unbiased media to counter the large sums of money authoritarian governments spend on their biased media outlets, as well as pressure on those governments which jail journalists. Peter Pomerantsev, Director of the Arena Program and Senior Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, testified that the principles we use to defend journalists are being weaponized to attack journalists in other countries. He argued that the crushing of media voices happens not only through censorship, but also through the flood of disinformation. These mass inauthentic campaigns take away the fundamental right to receive information and know its origins, Pomerantsev said, and argued that the best way to counter such disinformation is through better transparency on the origins of content encountered online. Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) asked the witnesses about steps the United States could take to counter disinformation and misinformation, especially strategies that have been found to be successful in Europe. Ribeiro answered that media literacy and better training for journalists to become fact checkers are key. Additionally, building back trust between the media and the public is vital, and the local level is the best way to do so. Mahoney agreed, stating that local news is generally trusted more than the news at a national level, but the decline in local news outlets in the U.S. has pushed people towards getting news from social media. Acknowledging various levels of media freedom across the OSCE, Chairman Cardin asked what best practices are to protect the freedom of the media. Ribeiro replied that different tools need to be used in different countries. Some countries have strong rule of law, yet still have issues with media freedom. In her capacity as RFOM, her tools include voice, advocacy, and assisting participating states to improve media freedom. Chairman Cardin also asked what should be done to protect journalists against indiscriminate arrests, detentions, and physical violence. Mahoney answered that the number one focus must be on bringing those who murder journalists to justice. Too often the murderers go free, sending the signal to others that journalists can be silenced this way. Next, to pressure governments that imprison journalists, including calling them out at conferences on the international stage. Lastly, the OSCE and EU must lift their standards and prevent capture of the media by the state. Chairman Cardin thanked Mahoney for his comments and added that the Helsinki Commission and the U.S. Congress is happy to help, but needs specifics like names and stories, not numbers, to advocate for journalists across the world. Asked about where the United States needs to concentrate its priorities regarding RFE/RL in the OSCE region, Jamie Fly noted the importance of social media in reaching audiences, and therefore the power social media companies have over RFE/RL. Social media algorithms dictate which content users see, and often authoritarian regimes intervene and pressure social media companies to remove content critical of them because of supposed terms-of-service violations, as was the case with Navalny’s election app in Russia. Fly affirmed the need for pressure and targeted sanctions on regimes violating press freedom, as well as support for journalist who cannot work safely in their home countries. Pomerantsev expanded on the issues of social media algorithms, explaining that understanding why an algorithm promotes some content over another is key to slowing disinformation. He emphasized that transparency, not regulation of content, is the best way to do so. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) addressed the rising violence against journalists worldwide, including 29 killings in 2021, and increased imprisonment of journalists. Calling out Turkey, a NATO ally, for severe transgressions, Sen. Wicker asked if there is hope for improvement. Mahoney responded by saying the decline of press freedoms in Turkey has been happening for 20 years, but the coup attempt in 2016 worsened it. In his opinion, the OSCE and EU have been unsuccessful in attempting to bring change to media conditions in Turkey and must be more forceful in their critique of Erdogan and his regime. Chair Cardin closed the hearing by stating, “This commission stands ready to work with you to protect individual journalists as well as to put a spotlight on counties which are violating the freedom of the media.” Related Information Witness Biographies  

  • Has Interpol become the long arm of oppressive regimes?

    Flicking through the news one day in early 2015, Alexey Kharis, a California-based businessman and father of two, came across a startling announcement: Russia would request a global call for his arrest through the International Criminal Police Organization, known as Interpol. “Oh, wow,” Kharis thought, shocked. All the 46-year-old knew about Interpol and its pursuit of the world’s most-wanted criminals was from novels and films. He tried to reassure himself that things would be OK and it was just an intimidatory tactic of the Russian authorities. Surely, he reasoned, the world’s largest police organisation had no reason to launch a hunt for him. In the months that followed, Kharis kept checking Interpol’s gallery of thousands of international fugitives. He finally came across his mugshot, glaring back at him like a hardened criminal. “My God,” he exclaimed, now terrified. “This guy is a terrorist; that guy is a murderer; this guy abducted children – and there’s me,” he remembers thinking as he looked through the Interpol register. It was while running a large construction company in Russia that Kharis first found himself on the wrong side of the authorities. His firm, ZAO Rosdorsnabzhenie, had a government contract in 2010 to renovate shipyards near the far eastern city of Vladivostok. He says his business partner, Igor Borbot, told him about high-level officials embezzling money from the project. Kharis says he was targeted after he threatened to speak publicly about the ministerial corruption and refused to give false testimony against Borbot. Kharis says agents from Russia’s Federal Security Bureau told him during interrogation in 2013: “Your partner is going down – you can help us or you can go down with him.” He had hoped – naively, he says now – that investigations in Russia would clear his name. The Interpol notice confirmed he was wrong. It outlined major fraud charges carrying a 10-year prison sentence, alleging that Kharis was part of a “criminal group” that had stolen tens of millions of pounds from his own company. Ted Bromund, who testified in Kharis’s case in the US as an expert witness, spent days scrutinising the case files and came to believe that the charges were baseless. “They don’t seem to have any substance whatsoever,” he says. Bromund, an international affairs specialist with a rightwing US thinktank, the Heritage Foundation, concluded that this was the latest in a pattern of Russian attempts to weaponise Interpol with trumped-up requests to arrest its nationals. According to the US rights organisation Freedom House, Russia is responsible for 38% of all public red notices. Far from indicating that Kharis had committed a crime, Bromund wrote later in his testimony, the notice “proves only that the Russian Federation filled out the appropriate Interpol form”. Interpol declined to comment on Kharis’s case, beyond confirming the status of his red notice. US immigration authorities did not share this view of Interpol’s request, however. The Department of Homeland Security used it to argue that Kharis was a “flight risk” and he was detained in San Francisco in 2017. Kharis spent the next 15 months in California prisons. His wife, Anna, published a blog during this time. “Many tears and sleepless nights followed,” she wrote of his detention, telling the children their father was away on a business trip. She describes Kharis as “a caring father” who would “spend the night rocking the cradle and then head off for his business early in the morning”. He called every night to tell their two young children everything was OK. But with no release date, prison took its toll. First mooted in 1914, Interpol was established in 1923, in large part to stop people from committing crimes in one country and fleeing elsewhere with impunity. The organisation has been misused by oppressive regimes before – in 1938, the Nazis ousted Interpol’s president and later relocated the organisation to Berlin. Most countries withdrew and it ceased to exist as an international organisation until after the second world war. The 194 member states support searches for war criminals, drug kingpins and people who have evaded justice for decades. Its red notices are seen as a vital tool and the closest thing to an international arrest warrant, leading to the location of thousands of fugitives each year. Red-notice subjects have included Osama bin Laden and Saadi Gaddafi, the son of Libya’s former dictator. As criminals move around an increasingly interconnected world and terrorist incidents increased, the use of Interpol’s system has mushroomed. In the past two decades, red notices increased tenfold, from about 1,200 in 2000 to almost 12,000 last year. (There are also other forms of Interpol notices, such as yellow for missing children, black for unidentified dead bodies.) Alongside the growth of the most-wanted list, international legal experts say there has also been an alarming phenomenon of countries using Interpol for political gain or revenge – targeting nationals abroad such as political rivals, critics, activists and refugees. It is not known how many of roughly 66,000 active red notices could be based on politically motivated charges; Interpol does not release data on how many red notices it rejects. But a number of reports, including from the US Congress, the European parliament and academics have documented the misuse of Interpol in recent years. Bromund says: “I don’t think there’s any dispute that […] the number of abusive red notices is growing.” Seeking to manipulate Interpol is a feature of transnational repression, in which countries extend their reach overseas to silence or target adversaries. Tactics range from assassinations, poisonings and dismemberments to blackmail, spying on citizens’ phones abroad and threatening families left behind. The methods may differ, but they are intended to send a similarly menacing message in an era of global movement: you may leave your country but you can still be punished. Interpol’s move earlier this month to reinstate Syria’s access to the organisation’s databases and allow it to communicate with other member states was strongly criticised by opposition activists. Anas al-Abdah, head of the Syrian opposition’s negotiating body, said Interpol’s decision had given Bashar al-Assad’s regime the data-based means to wage another war against the Syrian people. Toby Cadman, a British barrister working on Syria-related war crimes prosecutions, said in response to the decision: “Interpol’s systems are opaque, with no real oversight or accountability, and routinely abused by states like Syria. “It’s quite straightforward to get a red notice issued – you don’t need to provide that much information, and Interpol is underfunded and understaffed,” he said, but added: “Getting a red notice removed, even in European countries such as the UK or the Netherlands, can be slow and difficult.” A red-notice subject’s fate can vary wildly. Some countries see red notices as an alert system while others treat them as arrest warrants, incarcerating people or co-operating with extradition proceedings against them. People may have their assets frozen, their passports confiscated and their movements restricted – as well as the reputational damage from being designated as an international criminal. Some first learn of their Interpol wanted status when they cross a border. For Hakeem al-Araibi, a Bahraini footballer living as a political refugee in Australia, it was on his honeymoon in Thailand in 2018. He was arrested with his wife after Bahrain issued an Interpol notice accusing him of vandalism. (Al-Araibi fled Bahrain after athletes who took part in pro-democracy protests were arrested, beaten and allegedly tortured while detained.) Interpol revoked the notice when Australia notified it of al-Araibi’s refugee status, but that did not prevent al-Araibi from spending 76 days in Thai prisons. Al-Araibi’s case is one of several to have sparked a public outcry in recent years. Another political activist pursued abroad through Interpol’s red notices was Petr Silaev, a Russian environmentalist and anti-fascist who was charged with “hooliganism” after demonstrating in 2010 against plans for a motorway to be built through the Khimki forest outside Moscow. He fled the country as the Russian authorities rounded up fellow protesters and was granted political asylum in Finland. In 2012, however, he was arrested in Spain after an Interpol alert and detained in a high-security prison. He spent months fighting extradition to Russia. The human rights organisation Fair Trials said Interpol’s decision had left Silaev under threat of arrest whenever he crossed a border and called on the organisation to justify its decision and “explain whether it is helping Russia to pursue anyone else across the globe on hooliganism charges”. In the UK, Benny Wenda, a separatist leader from West Papua who escaped from prison in Indonesia and was granted asylum as a political refugee, had a politically motivated red notice issued against him by Indonesia. It was later deleted. “We must not misuse international organisations like Interpol for such purposes,” said the then German chancellor Angela Merkel, after a Turkish-born German writer, Doğan Akhanlı, was arrested in 2017 on the back of a Turkish Interpol notice while on holiday in Spain. However, only three months ago, Moroccan authorities arrested Yidiresi Aishan, an Uyghur activist, after China sought his extradition; Interpol later cancelled Aishan’s red notice after a review but he still faces the threat of deportation to China. Last month Makary Malachowski, a Belarusian opposition activist who had fled to Poland, was detained in Warsaw after Alexander Lukashenko’s government issued a red notice. “People expect you’re not going to believe them because what has happened to them is so crazy,” says Michelle Estlund, a Florida lawyer representing wrongfully accused clients wanted through Interpol. Estlund began helping Interpol-targeted clients 12 years ago, when a Venezuelan woman facing a red notice accusing her of fraud sought the criminal lawyer’s help. Estlund initially refused but has since worked with red-notice subjects from Russia to Ecuador, and remains shocked by how the law can be misused. The rise of online platforms for dissidents to criticise governments is fuelling a desire to shut down opposition voices, she says. “It’s just so against what we expect to see in any justice system, even abusive ones. The things the client goes through before they get to me are mind-boggling.” Interpol’s constitution forbids the organisation’s use for political matters and it announced in 2015 that it would remove a red notice if that person had been recognised as a refugee. Its work must also fall within the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which demands fair trials and free speech, and prohibits arbitrary arrests. Interpol says it screens every wanted-person request. In an organisation with such seemingly clear safeguards, what is going on? Weeding out questionable requests for international arrests falls to a specialist squad at Interpol’s Lyon headquarters, created in 2016. Turkey says Interpol has rejected 773 requests to detain people over suspected links with the popular movement Hizmet, led by the US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Interpol confirmed the figure was more than 700). Turkey’s government regards members of the Gülen movement as a terrorist group responsible for plotting the failed 2016 coup and has criticised Interpol for hindering its prosecution efforts. There have been reports that Ankara attempted to upload as many as 60,000 names to Interpol, including via its stolen-passport database, but the organisation denied that figure. Interpol’s interventions against Turkey are among a number of publicly known examples of the organisation’s efforts to stop politically motivated notices in recent years. Yet some fear Interpol too often believes its members are working in good faith and providing it with accurate information. “Interpol is there to help the police do its work under the assumption that the police does its work honestly,” says Rutsel Martha, Interpol’s Dutch former legal chief and author of a study of the organisation. “That’s the system, so the first reaction is to do with the immediate situation, then legal controls kick in later in the process.” Among the easiest ways to craft misleading arrest requests is to accuse people of financial crimes such as money laundering, whereas a murder charge requires evidence of a dead body and political charges may break Interpol’s rules. “It’s very easy to either fabricate or manipulate information to create a charge of embezzlement or misappropriation or gaining unjust profit,” says Estlund. When she looks into red notices, she often finds charges to be unsubstantiated. What critics regard as a low level of proof required for a red notice can be seen in the case of a Turkmen human rights activist, Annadurdy Khadzhiev, who was detained in Bulgaria in 2002 over an Interpol notice accusing him of embezzling $40m (£30m) from Turkmenistan’s central bank. The alleged theft, however, took place four years after Khadzhiev had stopped working there. “It was objectively impossible for him to have committed the said crime,” according to the findings of a Bulgarian prosecutor cited in a 2014 European court of human rights judgment. A less-formal Interpol option for hunting fugitives, called “diffusions”, are often regarded as more vulnerable to misuse. Through these alerts, Interpol members can send arrest requests directly to each other. That is how Nikita Kulachenkov, a Russian-born Lithuanian refugee, spent several weeks imprisoned in Cyprus, after he was detained at the airport in 2016 en route to visit his mother. Kulachenkov faced a five-year prison term in Russia for allegedly stealing a street artist’s drawing. His Interpol alert was issued after he began working on investigations for the Anti-Corruption Foundation in Russia, founded by the opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with the nerve agent novichok last year and is now imprisoned in Russia. Kulachenkov claims he found the poster on a street and is adamant that the poster’s value was invented to create a politically motivated charge. He was investigated by Russia’s top prosecutors, who raided his Moscow flat. More than a year before his detention in Cyprus, Kulachenkov had pre-emptively written to Interpol asking it to reject calls for his arrest as he was being targeted for his anti-corruption work. Interpol acknowledged his concerns, and a spokeswoman said later that it checks all diffusions. Now living in Berlin, Kulachenkov still fears being stopped if he crosses certain borders – Interpol data on wanted individuals can remain on national police computer systems even after it has been revoked. Kulachenkov recalls incredulous Cypriot authorities laughing at the charges against him, saying: “Russia really wants you through Interpol for €60 of theft?” Interpol’s secretary general for the last seven years, Jürgen Stock, is unexpectedly open about the threat to Interpol’s credibility from problematic notices. He finds it frustrating that he sometimes finds out from newspapers, rather than his organisation, about wrongful arrest requests, such as those involving refugees. He says countries do not always notify Interpol about a person’s refugee status, which he regards as a “shared responsibility”. The 62-year-old has faced a “parallel pandemic” of Covid-related crimes including fake vaccines and other substandard medical products as well as fighting a wave of cyber-attacks and telecom scams. Stock describes Interpol’s “bread and butter job” as targeting “child abusers, murderers, fraudsters”. Stock does not give figures about Interpol’s tools being misused against political opponents and refugees but he insists that these notices are a “small number of cases” compared with the “overwhelming majority” of legitimate ones. However, even his rough estimate of no more than 5% of notices being improperly applied each year could mean hundreds of potentially wrongful arrest requests. Under Stock, Interpol has strengthened its oversight body – the commission for the control of Interpol’s files (CCF), which reviews appeals and can delete red notices – and publishes more information about decisions on complaints. He has also bolstered the specialist squad that reviews notices before they are published. Critics have welcomed the changes, but some say the system is still not robust enough. Stock acknowledges that there is more work to be done. “I don’t have the silver bullet at [this] stage for what else we can do,” he says, but stresses that he is committed to further strengthening safeguards, where possible, during his final three years in the post. A key challenge, lawyers say, is how long it can take to get non-compliant notices removed – and the damage that can happen in the meantime. This was the case for Selahaddin Gülen, a US permanent resident and nephew of Fethullah Gülen who was detained in Kenya last October, after an Interpol notice accused him of sex crimes involving a minor. (He denies the charges, which his lawyer called a “false dossier”.) Seven months later, after he reported to Kenyan police in May as part of his bail requirements, Gülen was detained again and deported to Turkey. “He had been completely illegally transferred without even a Kenyan court ruling,” says Nate Schenkkan, research director at Freedom House. “That’s a pretty obvious case of Interpol abuse.” Gülen’s lawyers asked Interpol to remove the red notice in December, arguing it violated rules on political motivated notices. An expert witness argued that after the 2016 attempted coup Turkey had reopened charges that had been dropped in 2008. In July, Interpol stated that Gülen’s red notice had been removed. But it was too late for Gülen: he was already in Turkish custody and now faces multiple charges including for terrorism offences, according to local media. Gülen’s wife has called her husband’s detention and deportation from Kenya a kidnapping. “I have not heard from him since that day,” she said in a video. The CCF is composed of eight specialists who usually meet every few months. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, it ruled that 48% of the 346 complaints it took forward had broken Interpol’s rules. Interpol’s penalties for members flouting its rules include blocking countries from accessing its databases and supervising use of its systems for up to three months. It says these are “corrective measures”, not punishments, and have been in place since at least 2011. Some countries are taking matters into their own hands to curtail abuse of Interpol’s processes. In the US, a bipartisan group in Congress based around the Helsinki Commission is seeking to pass the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (Trap) Act, which was proposed in 2019 to restrict arrests based on Interpol red notices and prevent foreign governments from persecuting citizens abroad. Interpol is ultimately governed by its members, which include countries that may seek to game the system. Next month, member states’ representatives will gather in Istanbul to elect the organisation’s next president. Among those vying for the position, and reportedly a frontrunner, is a controversial candidate: Ahmed Naser al-Raisi, a senior security official from the United Arab Emirates who is on Interpol’s executive committee. Human rights organisations and lawyers accuse Raisi of overseeing a “notoriously abusive” state security apparatus that has imprisoned dissidents and misused Interpol’s red notices. A report earlier this year for International Human Rights Advisors by David Calvert-Smith, a former British judge and director of public prosecutions, concluded: “Not only would an Emirati president of Interpol serve to validate and endorse the [UAE’s] record on human rights and criminal justice but, in addition, Maj Gen al-Raisi is unsuitable for the role. He sits at the very top of the Emirati criminal justice system [and] has overseen an increased crackdown on dissent, continued torture, and abuses in its criminal justice system.” Kharis left prison in late 2018, after a US federal judge invoked evidence of Russia abusing Interpol procedures and of “serious flaws” in its wanted-persons system. Supporters in court cheered and hugged Kharis’s wife, Anna, who was in tears. His release has not ended the judicial struggle, which one US congressman called a “harrowing tale of mistreatment”. Kharis was tracked with an electronic ankle monitor until this summer, an experience he called a constant walk of shame. His movements are restricted and monitored by GPS, while he awaits a decision on his asylum request, which was initially rejected. Now based in Palo Alto, California, Kharis is trying to rebuild his life. He has set up a virtual restaurant company and works as an accountant. This summer he took his family on holiday in California. His judicial process rolls on, marbled with wins and losses. Last summer, nine months after Kharis’s appeal to Interpol and four years after his red notice was issued, Interpol told him his wanted status had been revoked. “I still think that Interpol does good,” he says. “But it’s too easy to abuse the system. We’re talking about people’s lives.”

  • A Ukrainian Oligarch Bought a Midwestern Factory and Let it Rot. What Was Really Going On?

    In recent weeks, the world has learned incredible new details about corruption, illicit financing and money laundering by the super-rich, thanks to the Pandora Papers. The papers are a tranche of nearly 12 million documents, revealed by an international group of journalists, that describe how global elites — from the king of Jordan to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s inner circle to an alleged mistress of Vladimir Putin — use shell companies, trusts, real estate, artwork and other financial secrecy tools to squirrel away enormous amounts of money. And much of it is perfectly legal. Many of the stories in the Pandora Papers follow a playbook that is depressingly familiar at this point: Global heads of state and business elites hide their wealth in pursuits that are emblematic of the super-rich: coveted beachside properties in Malibu, as in the case of the Jordanian monarch, or the Czech prime minister’s $22 million chateau in the south of France, or dozens of pieces of high-value artwork, moved secretly through shell companies by one of Sri Lanka’s most powerful families. But this kind of transnational money laundering, which we’ve come to expect, is only part of the picture. Recently, wealthy elites have begun looking for other places to park their funds, places they think authorities won’t look. Places that offer all the financial secrecy these elites need, but that few would associate with lives of luxury. As a result, shadowy and sometimes ill-gotten wealth has started pouring not just into yachts and vacation homes, but also into blue-collar towns in the U.S. whose economic struggles make them eager to accept the cash. One of these small towns appears to have been Harvard, Ill., a depressed factory community that allegedly became part of a sprawling network used by Ukrainian banking tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky to launder hundreds of millions of dollars earned from a Ponzi scheme. Kolomoisky, who was recently hit with U.S. sanctions for “significant corruption” in Ukraine, is separately accused by the Justice Department and Ukrainian investigators of using a constellation of shell companies and offshore bank accounts to move millions in misappropriated funds out of Ukraine and into a series of real-estate investments in the American Midwest. (Kolomoisky denies wrongdoing, claiming he made the investments with his own money.) The story of Harvard suggests that lax U.S. laws around shell companies and real-estate purchases, in addition to a broader lack of regulatory oversight, may be putting America’s heartland in the crosshairs of elites like Kolomoisky. It’s a reality of global corruption that U.S. lawmakers are only just starting to grapple with: As money-launderers and illicit financiers hide their money in the American Midwest, they’ve become part of the story of the decline of small-town, blue-collar America. With a population of just under 10,000, Harvard, Ill., is a speck of a town equidistant between Chicago and Milwaukee. Like the other towns in the region, you’ve likely never heard of it — and like other towns in the region, Harvard’s best days are decades behind it. But in the late 1990s, the massive telecom company Motorola announced it would be putting a new manufacturing plant in Harvard. Construction began on what would become the largest building not just in Harvard but the entire region: a 1.5-million-square-foot facility, sprawling over 320 acres, part office and part plant, shaped like a giant wishbone. “It’s a huge, huge building,” one local, Ed Soliz, said at the time. “It looks like a small university.” With a $100 million price tag, Motorola said it would require a staggering five thousand employees to operate the facility — to help craft the next generation of Motorola phones and lead the global telecom market into the 21st century. But within a few years of finishing construction, the bottom had fallen out of Motorola’s business model. Suddenly, the building in Harvard had no purpose. Rather than a testament to Harvard’s future, it was a testament to corporate blinders. And for years it sat there, like a beached whale, waiting. Then, in 2008 — as the country began tipping fully into the Great Recession — an investor in his early 20s from Miami named Chaim Schochet showed up. Working on behalf of a firm called Optima International, Schochet offered $16.75 million for the empty building. A far cry from the Motorola investment, but more than locals could have hoped for. They happily accepted. Glimmers of potential sprang once more. “Hope burns eternal,” Roger Lehmann, a member of the Harvard Economic Development Corporation, said after the purchase. At the time, there was no reason to think Schochet and his colleagues were anything but savvy businesspeople, snapping up properties across the Midwest. Optima International was a parent company to a constellation of related firms (including one called “Optima Harvard Facility LLC”). Prosecutors would later dub this the “Optima Family,” with its American operations overseen by two Americans named Mordechai Korf (Schochet’s brother-in-law) and Uri Laber. As the Justice Department alleged in a series of civil forfeiture cases, this “Optima Family” plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into investments in state after state: commercial real estate in Cleveland and Dallas and Louisville, steel factories in West Virginia and Kentucky and Ohio, production plants in Michigan and New York and Indiana. Time and again, these investors swooped in, pledging jobs, revitalization and a lifeline for towns watching their economic lifebloods dry up. In just a few years, the “Optima Family” collected over a dozen mills, plants and other facilities across the American heartland. All of them had fallen victim to America’s yearslong manufacturing slump, part of the broader deindustrialization that began in the 1970s. All of them were eager for any injection of financing they could get, and for any promise of a brighter future. And, according to prosecutors, these purchases were all directly connected to a powerful steel and banking tycoon in Ukraine who was buying American properties to hide stolen money. Shortly after Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, investigators in the country alleged that Ihor Kolomoisky was secretly overseeing one of the greatest Ponzi schemes the world had ever seen, totaling at least $5.5 billion. Legal filings from American prosecutors last year detailed how Kolomoisky allegedly used his control of Ukraine’s largest retail bank, PrivatBank, to loot staggering sums from Ukrainian depositors, and then used a series of shell companies and offshore accounts to whisk the money out of the country and into the U.S. The idea seems to have been to purchase troubled assets that American sellers were eager to offload. Even if the buyers ultimately took a loss, the assets were still outside the grasp of Ukrainian investigators and could still act as vehicles through which to funnel money. Perhaps most importantly, the properties could be bought without much inquiry into the source of the monies: For two decades, American real-estate professionals have benefited from a “temporary” exemption to anti-money laundering laws, allowing them to avoid performing due diligence on the customer making the purchase. In subsequent efforts to seize the operation’s assets, American prosecutors laid out a theory that much of Kolomoisky’s operation was overseen by Laber and Korf, who “created a web of entities, usually under some variation of the name ‘Optima,’ to further launder the misappropriated funds and invest them” across multiple states. According to the DOJ, the funds lifted from PrivatBank bounced through a number of shell companies and offshore accounts, before being injected into the Optima network, and from there into assets around the American Midwest. And all of this took place while Kolomoisky — now sanctioned by the U.S. for what the State Department calls “significant corruption” and “ongoing efforts to undermine Ukraine’s democratic processes” — grew his power and wealth within Ukraine itself, creating a gargantuan private militia and reportedly manipulating elected officials along the way. The details gathered by U.S. and Ukrainian investigators and laid out in DOJ filings and court cases around the world, from Delaware to the UK to Israel, comprise what one analyst said might be “the biggest case of money laundering in history.” Kolomoisky says he bought the American properties with his own money, denying the Justice Department’s allegations about laundering ill-gotten funds. Neither he nor his American associates (who also deny wrongdoing) have been named in any criminal complaints. Reached for comment prior to publication of this article, an attorney for Korf and Laber responded, “Mr. Korf and Mr. Laber have never engaged in money laundering of any kind, and they have no knowledge of anyone else doing so. Any allegations against Mr. Korf and Mr. Laber arise from Ukrainian political disputes they have nothing to do with.” Kolomoisky and Schochet, the Miami investor, did not respond to a request for comment. Schochet has not been targeted by name in the government filings, and the government has not suggested he is personally a target of their investigations. But the DOJ complaint notes that the Harvard plant purchase was part of the sprawling Optima laundering scheme (including fraudulent loans used to purchase the plant in the first place). The investigators describe how, using investments in steel mills, skyscrapers and industrial plants across the Midwest and Rust Belt, Kolomoisky could take full advantage of America’s permissive climate for money laundering — all, apparently, to help clean the proceeds of his massive Ukrainian Ponzi scheme. After Schochet finalized the purchase in Harvard, locals say they saw little of him. “Chaim wasn’t around much,” Charlie Eldredge, head of the Harvard Economic Development corporation, told me. “I would see him once a year, once every other year…. Clearly it wasn’t the focus of their interest.” He added that it quickly became clear the Optima network “didn’t really have any real plans [about] what to do with the facility.” More than five years after the purchase, no jobs had returned and no further investments emerged. Unpaid property taxes kept accumulating, starving the strapped local government of hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2016, Optima sold the building at a $7 million loss to a Chinese Canadian businessperson. Years of neglect by various owners began to take a toll: Soon, the factory went dark entirely. With a half-million-dollar tab in unpaid electricity bills, the juice was cut off, forcing local officials to visit with flashlights. “It’s just heartbreaking to see that beautiful place sitting vacant,” the McHenry County treasurer said in 2018. Along the way, the massive building itself — its factory and fitness center, its child care rooms and 500-seat auditorium, even its pair of heliports — continued a slow march toward implosion. Mold began creeping along the walls and roof, into the pipes, into the recesses of the building. The factory’s entire fire suppressant system, including over 20,000 sprinkler heads, began falling apart. “The mechanical [equipment] all needs to be replaced,” Mayor Michael Kelly said. “The roof leaks. No one’s really taking care of it.” “The building won’t just be valueless — it will be a catastrophe for the town, because it will have to be demolished,” Eldredge told me in 2020. “And the net cost for that, after salvage, is probably three to five times the city’s annual budget. It will be a financial catastrophe.” He paused, pondering the implication: This hundred-million-dollar promise to a small outpost in northern Illinois ended up with a foreign oligarch apparently using it to hide his money from investigators. (The building was sold just last month to a group of developers from Las Vegas for an undisclosed amount.) Harvard is hardly the only American town that saw Optima swoop in, making big promises that ended in disappointment. In Warren, Ohio, a steel plant purchased by Kolomoisky’s network had so many safety issues that several explosions occurred onsite, with employees repeatedly ending up in hospitals. Other plants and factories have ended up gutted and shuttered, laying off hundreds of American workers. One 70-year-old plant in Kentucky, after shutting its furnaces and tossing its employees to the curb, reportedly even refashioned itself as a Bitcoin-mining operation — without bothering to bring any of the jobs back. Over and over, Kolomoisky’s team showed up, purchased the properties and seemingly lost interest — leaving broken dreams, busted plants and bleeding economies in their wake. As Harvard’s Eldredge told me, “I think there’s certainly a good many citizens who feel it’s better the building had never been built.” As it turns out, the decrepit Harvard plant had another chance to avoid falling into disrepair. But the story of how that opportunity collapsed suggests just how deeply kleptocratic networks have become embedded into the American economy. In 2016 — just as Ukrainian officials began investigating the depths of Kolomoisky’s alleged Ponzi scheme — the oligarch and his team somehow found a buyer willing to take on the former Motorola plant. The new buyer was another firm with links to overseas investors, this time headed by a Chinese Canadian businessperson named Xiao Hua Gong. Gong, who goes by Edward, openly claimed he wanted to transform the plant into a smartphone manufacturing base. According to Eldredge, Gong was initially “very charming and full of conversation of what wonderful things he was going to do.” Not too dissimilar from a certain Ukrainian network that parachuted into Harvard a few years prior, singing much the same tune. A year after the sale, though, still nothing had happened with the building. And then Canadian authorities dropped a bombshell: They accused Gong of running his own transnational money laundering scheme, charging him with fraud and money laundering. Follow-on allegations from New Zealand authorities detailed how Gong had led a “multi-national pyramid scheme,” eventually resulting in the country’s largest-ever settlement, worth over $50 million. If the various allegations are true, this means the Harvard Motorola plant has entered not one, but two separate dirty-money pipelines. Following the charges against Gong, the plant remained frozen until its acquisition a few weeks ago. Local authorities couldn’t touch it, as it was part of ongoing investigations attempting to unwind Gong’s network. And the residents of Harvard watched the factory, and its initial promise, sit vacant. “It’s almost as if these oligarchs, that they have so much money that the rules don’t apply to them, they can do whatever they want,” Kelly sighed. “I think the community sees that the Motorola plant has been a huge albatross for us.” He paused, and took a breath. “The building is f---ing cursed.” We only know about Harvard because American and Canadian authorities, aided by partners in Ukraine and New Zealand, targeted the specific money laundering networks allegedly linked to Kolomoisky and Gong. But given the miles-wide availability of other American money laundering services — from real estate to private equity, hedge funds to anonymous trusts, artwork to accountants — there’s no reason to think the Motorola plant is the only multimillion-dollar American asset that’s been bandied between parallel kleptocratic networks. “I’m not sure people do understand how damaging taking dirty money really is to the United States,” former FBI agent Karen Greenaway, who has deep experience investigating post-Soviet money laundering networks, testified in 2019. “Dirty money is like a rainstorm coming into a dry streambed. It comes very quickly, and a lot of it comes very fast, and the stream fills up, and then it gets dry again.” As Harvard, Warren, and other small towns allegedly targeted by Kolomoisky’s network learned, that flood of money will wash through — but the streambed will dry up just as quickly, with adverse consequences for the people in those towns who hoped to benefit economically from the investments. As Greenaway added, after 2008, Americans sought to unload huge numbers of unprofitable properties, with little idea of who was buying them or whether these purchases might be new nodes in a broader transnational scheme to hide foreign wealth. Which is exactly what seems to have been the case in each of the overlooked, forgotten towns Kolomoisky and his team touched. Places like the towns in America’s steel-production heartland, reliant on the aging steel plants for another generation of jobs that will now never come. Places like Cleveland, which watched Kolomoisky and his men roll in and dominate an entire downtown, leaving a “gaping hole” behind. Places like Harvard, whose residents are watching this economic lifeline turn into an economic millstone, rotting right in front of them. “I think it’s hurting small-town America,” Greenaway concluded. “I just don’t think that we’ve come to that realization yet.” And that realization is long overdue. For years, the U.S. has largely overlooked the billions of dollars — and potentially more — in dirty and suspect money flooding into the country every year, stolen from national treasuries or made via bribes, smuggling or trafficking of humans and drugs alike. Much of this money comes to the country to be washed clean, to be transformed into legitimate assets and to obscure any links to its previous criminal owners. The Biden administration has vowed to take on global corruption, recently elevating it to a core national security threat. But the intertwined stories of Kolomoisky and Harvard suggest there’s much left to do before we can even grasp the scale of the damage in America’s heartland — and figure out what to do about it. Fortunately, we’ve started seeing movement in the right direction. The U.S. under the last few administrations has finally begun to tackle problems like shell company secrecy and anonymous real estate purchases, and Congress has introduced bill after bill to patch up the U.S.’s anti-money laundering regime. The Pandora Papers themselves have already spurred legislation, dubbed the “ENABLERS Act,” that would specifically require a whole range of Americans helping these networks thrive — “U.S.-based middlemen” like Korf and Laber, if American prosecutors are right — to conduct due diligence on the sources of foreign funds they handle. As of now, the only prominent American industry required to check whether the funds it handles are dirty is the banking sector — leaving the rest of the U.S. economy wide open. Thanks to the wide number of industries that can freely work with illicit funds, we have no idea how many other oligarchs, warlords and kleptocrats may have sunk their teeth into steel towns, into farming communities, into manufacturing plants and oil hubs and port cities across America. We have no idea how much of a role they’ve played in enervating cities and towns across the Rust Belt and elsewhere. Nor do we have any idea how many towns like Harvard have suffocated along the way, their livelihoods lost, their budgets strangled, their economic fortunes imploded. All because of what we now know to be a notoriously lax legal regime that incentivizes oligarchs, heads of state and other global elites to look to the United States to shelter their money — and to grab the biggest piece of “American Kleptocracy” that they possibly can.

  • Media Freedom Across the OSCE Region to Be Assessed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: IN PURSUIT OF TRUTH Media Freedom in the OSCE Region Wednesday, October 20, 2021 2:30pm Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission A free press is the lifeblood of democracy; without independent media, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. In many of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), autocrats exploit financial and legal means, alongside physical violence, to intimidate and silence independent media. Journalists and their associates are attacked both online and offline; jailed on phony charges; and even killed for the secrets they expose. Leaders undermine public trust in the press to hide their misdeeds. Disinformation—particularly lies related to the COVID-19 pandemic—continues to pollute the information landscape. In her first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro will assess the state of media freedom across the OSCE region. Other expert witnesses will discuss recent attacks on journalists and media outlets, the motivations that lead authorities to try and silence the press, global disinformation networks, and more. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Teresa Ribeiro, Representative on Freedom of the Media, OSCE Jamie Fly, President & CEO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Robert Mahoney, Deputy Executive Director, Committee to Protect Journalists Peter Pomerantsev, Director of Arena Program and Senior Fellow, Johns Hopkins University; Author and Journalist

  • Russia Slams 'Maniacal' U.S. Attempt to Sanction Country's Elites

    U.S. lawmakers' proposal to sanction members of Russia's elite over alleged human rights violations has been called "maniacal" by Moscow's envoy to Washington, D.C. Anatoly Antonov's remark come as diplomatic maneuvering continues between the U.S. and Russia to resolve a stand-off over embassy staff at missions in both countries. The Magnitsky Act authorizes the U.S. government freeze assets, and ban those suspected of human rights offences—was invoked by Tom Malinowski, a Democrat Representative and John Curtis (R-UT) last month in an amendment to the defense budget bill. Their amendment calls on the Biden administration to determine within 180 days whether 35 Russian officials and prominent figures meet the criteria to be sanctioned under the act. On the proposed blacklist are Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the owner of Chelsea soccer club, Roman Abramovich, and prime minister Mikhail Mishustin. In response to a media question about the move, Antonov said the "maniacal persistence of local legislators trying to bring down Russian-American relations is bewildering," and that the "attempt to impose restrictions on 35 Russians under a completely contrived pretext is a clear example of this." He said that the motive was "to create among the voters the illusion of 'fighting the enemies of America'...instead of dealing with the urgent problems of its own country." "We call on members of Congress to abandon destructive approaches," he added in comments reported by state news agency Tass. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) have also introduced a measure on October 8 also requiring the Biden administration to evaluate the 35 figures for sanctions. Russian media outlets reported the proposed sanctions list in September although emphasized the process was in its early stages and that even if it is passed by Congress, it would still need to be backed by the administration of President Joe Biden. The list had been provided to the U.S. government and the EU in February by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, or FBK, linked to jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny, which has since been declared an extremist organisation by a Russian court. Navalny's poisoning by Novichok nerve agent was blamed on the Kremlin although it denied responsibility. In the aftermath of his poisoning and jailing, U.S sanctions were imposed but the opposition activist's group has alway called for tougher measures for those in the inner circle of President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov called for a truce of sorts over a spat over staffing at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Consular services at the American mission have been hindered after Russia banned it from employing local staff as part of tit-for-tat sanctions. "The Russian side stressed that hostile anti-Russian actions would not remain without retaliation, but Moscow did not seek further escalation," Ryabkov said in a statement reported by Tass. The issue was discussed during a meeting with U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland whose three-day visit to Moscow will also include talks with Putin's foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov, according to the Kremlin. Newsweek has contacted the State Department for comment.

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