Human Rights Problems in Kazakhstan

Human Rights Problems in Kazakhstan

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
Washington, DC
United States
House of Representatives
107th Congress
First Session
Congressional Record, Vol. 147
No. 68
Thursday, May 17, 2001

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to call attention to the lamentable human rights situation in Kazakhstan. On April 4, in a meeting with Kanat Saudabaev, Kazakhstan's new Ambassador to Washington, I welcomed his desire for cooperation and his willingness to improve his country's image, but I emphasized that Kazakhstan's reputation has indeed been badly tarnished and that concrete actions, not implausible pledges of democratization, were necessary.

Considering the recent political trends in that important Central Asian country, I would like to share with my colleagues a number of the concerns I raised with Ambassador Saudabaev. As a Washington Post editorial pointed out on May 1, President Nursultan Nazarbaev has recently been intensifying his longstanding campaign of repression against the political opposition, independent media, and civil society. Especially alarming is the escalation in the level of brutality. In the last few months, several opposition activists have been assaulted. Platon Pak of the "Azamat'' Party was stabbed on February 7. Fortunate to survive, he said his attackers told him to "deliver their message to the head of his political party.''

On March 1, Ms. Gulzhan Yergalieva, the Deputy Head of the opposition "People's Congress of Kazakhstan'' and a well-known journalist, was--along with her husband and son--attacked and robbed in her home. Prior to these incidents, both opposition parties strongly criticized the Kazakh Government's running of an electoral reform working group. In late February, Alexandr Shushannikov, the chairman of the East Kazakhstan branch of the "Lad'' Slavic Movement, was beaten by unknown assailants in the town of Ust-Kamenogorsk.

Less violent harassment of the opposition has continued unabated. Amirzhan Kosanov, the Acting Head of the Executive Committee of the opposition Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan (RNPK), found threatening graffiti in the stairwells of his apartment building, on the doors of his apartment, and on neighboring buildings on March 17. Later that night, hooligans threw rocks at the windows of the apartment of Almira Kusainova, the RNPK's Press Secretary. In one case, a large rock shattered one of the windows.

To add insult to injury, Mr. Kosanov has been barred from leaving Kazakhstan. He is the former Press Secretary of Akezhan Kazhegeldin, Kazakhstan's former Prime Minister and now the exiled head of the RNPK. Claiming Mr. Kosanov had access to "state secrets,'' the authorities have confiscated his passport--even though he had left Kazakhstan many times before. To round out the campaign against Mr. Kosanov, a series of articles and reports in pro-government media have accused him of adultery and pedophilia.

In addition, Pyotr Afanasenko and Satzhan lbrayev, two RNPK members who were Mr. Kazhegeldin's bodyguards, were sentenced in April 2000 to three years in prison for a weapons offense; an appeals court upheld the convictions. The OSCE Center in Almaty has stated that it considers the charges to be political in nature. Moreover, these two individuals, as former members of the security forces, should be in special prisons instead of being incarcerated among the general prison population, where they are in danger.

Along with the targeting of opposition activists, the ongoing crackdown on freedom of the press has continued. Most media outlets have long been under the direct or indirect control of Mr. Bapi, who was sentenced to one year in jail and ordered to pay $280 in court expenses, was immediately pardoned under a presidential amnesty. Still, his conviction remains on the books, which will prevent him from traveling abroad, among other restrictions. Mr. Bapi is appealing the verdict.

As for Mr. Gabdullin, the prosecutor's office issued a press release on April 6 stating that it had dropped the case against him due to "the absence of [a] crime,'' although his newspaper has not yet received formal confirmation. While both editors are currently at liberty, as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) points out, their newspapers cannot publish in Kazakhstan because local printers will not risk angering local officials. In an April 17 letter to President Nazarbaev, CPJ concluded that "we remain deeply concerned about your government's frequent use of politically-motivated criminal charges to harass opposition journalists'' and called on him "to create an atmosphere in which all journalists may work without fear of reprisal.''

Apart from intimidating individual journalists and publications, Kazakhstan's authorities have taken legal action to restrict freedom of speech. The country's Senate on April 17 approved a draft media law that limits the retransmission of foreign programs and will also subject Internet web pages to the same controls as print media. Moreover, media outlets can be held responsible for news not obtained from official sources. In other words, if the New York Times or CNN runs stories Kazakhstan's leadership finds distasteful, Kazakh media outlets risk legal sanction for re-running those reports.

Considering the ongoing investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice into high-level corruption in Kazakhstan, it is easy to draw inferences about what kinds of stories the authorities would eagerly spike. Indeed, although Mr. Gabdullin and Bapi were formally prosecuted for articles in their newspapers, both had also previously signed an open letter, published in the January 15 edition of Roll Call, expressing their support for the investigation.

Mr. Speaker, Kazakh authorities have also stepped up harassment of NGOs. The OSCE Center in Almaty, the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Internews-Kazakhstan had jointly organized public forums in 9 regions of Kazakhstan to educate local citizens, media, and interested parties about the proposed amendments to the media law. After the law's passage, local organizers of these Forums on Mass Media were called in to the Procuracy for "conversations.'' Other government agencies which took part in this intimidation were the Tax Police and the Financial Police.

According to OSCE sources, the authorities offered local NGOs "friendly'' advice about not working with the OSCE and NDI. In Atyrau, one NGO contacted by the Financial Police did not even participate in these forums but that did not stop the police from sending a written request.

Finally, Mr. Speaker, to round out a very depressing picture, Kazakhstan's parliament is reportedly working towards the adoption of amendments to the law on religion that will severely limit freedom of conscience. The draft provisions would require at least 50 members for a religious association to be registered (the law currently requires 10). In order to engage in "missionary activity,'' which would involve merely sharing religious beliefs with others, individuals--citizens or not--would have to be registered with the government, and religious activity would be permitted only at the site of a religious organization, which could bar meetings in rented facilities or even private homes. Violation of these provisions could lead to a sentence of one-year in prison or even two years of ``corrective labor,'' and to the closing of religious organizations.

These draft amendments to the religion law were introduced in Kazakhstan's parliament in early April. According to the U.S. Embassy in Almaty, no date has been scheduled for discussion of the legislation though it is expected the measure will be considered before the current session ends in June.

The U.S. Government, the OSCE, and other international agencies have expressed concern about the possible restriction of religious liberty, and there is reason to fear the worst. In recent months, the attitude underlying these draft amendments has already had a real impact on believers. American citizens who did humanitarian work in several cities in Kazakhstan have been harassed, intimidated and eventually deported. The formal cause of their expulsion was violation of administrative regulations but one official told an American the real reason was because they were Christians. In one particularly brutal, ugly case, Americans who had been told to leave the country were preparing to do so when the authorities brought them back from the airport so they could be videotaped for TV broadcasts portraying them as engaging in various sorts of subversive activities. An American family preparing to leave Ust-Kamenorgorsk was harassed by a Kazakh security official who threatened to spend the entire night in their tiny apartment to make sure they left. It took several hours before he could be persuaded to leave, despite the fact that his presence was frightening a pregnant American woman.

Jehovah's Witnesses have also reported stepped-up harassment and intimidation. Over the past few months, central and local media have been attacking Jehovah's Witnesses, who are depicted as religious extremists. In one bizarre case, according to the Witnesses, a television station broadcast video footage of Islamic terrorists, who were described as Jehovah's Witnesses, as well as footage of a police raid on a meeting held in a private home. Kazakhstan's new Administrative Violation Code, which went into effect in February, allows the suspension or prohibition of religious organizations for evading registration or for violating assembly rules. This has already been used to suspend the activity of a group of Jehovah's Witnesses in Kyzyl-Orda. A similar case is pending in Taraz.

Just today, May 16, Keston News Service reports that authorities have declared a Baptist church in the town of Kulsary (Atyrau region) illegal and ordered it to stop all meetings, claiming that it may not function until it is registered. In fact, Kazakh law does not ban activity by religious communities without registration, but the regional prosecutor upheld the ban. Church leaders intend to appeal the decision, but local lawyers are afraid to take such a case.

Keston further reports that on April 10, the authorities in Kyzylorda fined a Baptist church 7,750 tenge (about $53) and suspended its activities until it obtains registration. In February, police had raided a Kazakh-language service at that church, demanding that participants show their identity documents and write statements about the gathering. They confiscated religious writings in Kazakh and Russian, and took five people, including the leader of the service, Erlan Sarsenbaev, to the police station. According to the Baptists, the police told them "During the Soviet times, believers like you were shot. Now you are feeling at peace, but we will show you.''

When Sarsenbaev refused to write a statement, police officers "began to hit him on his neck, abdomen and head with a plastic bottle filled with water.'' Finally, they forged his signature, and wrote the statement on his behalf.

As President Bush recently said, "the newly independent republics of Central Asia impose troubling limits on religious expression and missionary work.'' This trend in Kazakhstan is especially disturbing because despite the consistent consolidation of presidential power and general crackdown on opposition and dissent, relative religious freedom had been one of the bright spots. It seems this bright spot is about to disappear.

Mr. Speaker, a few weeks ago, Erlan Idrisov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, visited Washington. In his public speaking engagements, he focused on Kazakhstan's emphasis on stability and its desire for good relations with its neighbors. These are understandable priorities which the United States has every reason to support. But Minister Idrisov simply discounted charges of human rights problems, arguing on May 2 at the Carnegie Endowment that the above-mentioned Washington Post editorial is "not the final word'' on the human rights situation in his country.

Minister Idrisov may disagree with any Washington Post editorial, if he likes. But when you consider many other sources, such as the State Department's report on human rights practices, the Committee to Protect Journalists (which last year named President Nazarbaev one of the world's ten worst enemies of the media), and the OSCE Center in Almaty, the overall impression is clear and indisputable. Despite official Kazakh claims about progress, the human rights situation is poor and threatens to get worse. If President Nazarbaev wants to change that impression and convince people that he is sincere about wanting to democratize his country, he must take concrete steps to do so. The time is long past when we could take his assurances at face value.
 

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    Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate. Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to explore Russia’s ongoing assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for human rights. As an occupying power, Russia bears the full weight of responsibility for the abuses being inflicted on the population of Crimea. Panelists discussed Russia’s repression of basic freedoms in Crimea and persecution of those who don’t recognize Russian authority. Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and commissioners Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Chairman Hastings’ opening remarks addressed Russia’s attempts to stymie Ukraine’s relationship with the European community and the brutal tactics used throughout Crimea’s occupation. Hastings shed a light on the harsh reality of Russia’s continued occupation, which is “aimed at forcing a proud people into submission, whether they be civil society activists, community or religious leaders, artists, journalists, or simply those whose religion and ethnicity are viewed with distrust and fear.”   This hearing featured testimony from Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He was released in September 2019. Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and Melinda Haring, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, also served as witnesses. Sentsov addressed Russia’s “fabricated legal cases” and “long-term imprisonment” against those who simply think differently. He also testified about the various forms of torture he endured in a Russian prison. Sentsov voiced his appreciation for the United States’ continued efforts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and asked that Congress maintain pressure on the Putin regime. Tasheva focused her testimony on Russia’s persecution and internal displacement of “disloyal” groups, specifically the Crimean Tatars. Tasheva also called for the creation of an “international platform for negotiations on the return of the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to sovereign Ukrainian jurisdiction.” Haring addressed the lack of free press in Crimea, asserting that “the media is controlled by the government.” She praised Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Crimea service, which tracks developments in Crimea and broadcasts them in three languages to the Crimean population. Haring also warned that the situation in Crimea is worsening, and that Russia has “effectively turned Crimea into a Russian military base.”  Throughout the hearing, commissioners expressed their concerns for freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and freedom of the press in Crimea. Commissioners also assured witnesses that support for President Zelensky and the fight for freedom in Ukraine is bipartisan and resolute.

  • Anti-Kleptocracy Initiatives Supported by the Helsinki Commission

    Corruption has become a key foreign policy tool of U.S. adversaries. Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran, and other authoritarian regimes deploy it to undermine democracy, human rights, and the rule of law around the world.  They use it to destabilize countries where the rule of law is weak and gain access to elite circles in countries where the rule of law is strong. Such regimes also create an uneven playing field favoring autocrat-owned concerns by sidelining companies and businesspeople that comply with the rule of law. Several Helsinki Commission-supported anti-kleptocracy initiatives confront this threat by resourcing and streamlining U.S. efforts to build the rule of law abroad (H.R. 3843/S. 3026), exposing the names and misdeeds of kleptocrats around the world (H.R. 3441), ending impunity for foreign corrupt officials (H.R. 4140), and shining a light on ill-gotten gains hidden in the United States (H.R. 4361). Taken together, the passage of these bills would represent a decisive first step toward a reordering of U.S. foreign policy that prioritizes the fight against global corruption and the promotion of the rule of law around the world. H.R. 3843/S. 3026, the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act, the most comprehensive of the four bills, outline and would mandate a U.S. foreign policy strategy that focuses on global corruption as a key national security threat. The key operative mechanism of the bill is the establishment of an Anti-Corruption Act Fund, which is financed through a surcharge on certain high-value FCPA cases. The bill also would establish an interagency working group on anti-corruption and anti-corruption points of contact at U.S. embassies to coordinate use of the Fund and U.S. efforts to promote the rule of law abroad more generally. H.R. 3441, the Kleptocrat Exposure Act, and H.R. 4140, the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act, would each provide the Executive Branch authorities to push kleptocrats out of the global economy. H.R. 3441 would enable the Secretary of State to reveal publicly the identity of any individual whose visa has been banned for reason of human rights abuse or corruption, thereby providing invaluable information to foreign states, the private sector, journalists, civil society, and any other interested party. H.R. 4140 would enable the Department of Justice to build cases against foreign corrupt officials who extort U.S. persons abroad, a long overdue tool to level the playing field in international business between U.S. companies, which are barred from exporting corruption, and autocratic ones, which are encouraged to do so. Finally, H.R. 4361, the Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act, would create a formal mechanism to demonstrate U.S. solidarity with the victims of kleptocracy. It mandates that the Department of Justice create a website listing by country the total funds recovered by U.S. law enforcement that were stolen and hidden in the United States. It expresses further U.S. intent to return those funds to the benefit of the people from whom they were stolen at such a time as the United States can be sure that the money will not be stolen again. This simple transparency mechanism would resonate with journalists, civil society, and citizens of kleptocracies around the world and help them to hold their leaders to account. Fact Sheet: Anti-Kleptocracy Initiatives Supported by the Helsinki Commission

  • Director of OSCE Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY Obstacles and Opportunities in the OSCE Region Wednesday, January 29, 2020 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir will discuss the organization’s flagship work in international election observation; countering anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance; and helping governments to combat human trafficking, protect human rights defenders, and better implement their commitments to fundamental freedoms including assembly and religion. The OSCE, the world’s largest regional security body, is based on a comprehensive concept of security that recognizes that respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions underpin regional peace and security. ODIHR provides support, assistance, and expertise to participating States and civil society to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights, and tolerance and non-discrimination. ODIHR observes elections at the invitation of participating States, reviews legislation, and advises governments on how to develop and sustain democratic institutions. The office also works closely with the OSCE’s field operations and organizes Europe’s largest annual human rights meeting, bringing together annually hundreds of government officials, international experts, civil society representatives and human rights activists.  

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Deteriorating Human Rights Situation in Crimea

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: LIFE UNDER OCCUPATION The State of Human Rights in Crimea Tuesday, January 28, 2020 10:00 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate.  Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The hearing will feature Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He and other witnesses will discuss the Russian Government’s continued assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for basic rights. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian writer and filmmaker held prisoner by Russia for five years Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea Melinda Haring, Deputy Director, Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute

  • Chairman Hastings Urges Ukraine to Grant Akhmetova Political Asylum

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of Tuesday’s trial to determine whether journalist and activist Zhanara Akhmetova will be granted political asylum in Ukraine or face extradition to her home country of Kazakhstan, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “By granting asylum to Zhanara Akhmetova, the Government of Ukraine can demonstrate its commitment to protecting the fundamental freedoms of those who peacefully express political dissent. Her request for asylum clearly is motivated by real and dangerous political persecution in her home country. Ukraine must stand firmly on the side of human rights and allow Ms. Akhmetova to remain safely in the country.” Akhmetova fled to Ukraine in 2017 after she was targeted by authorities in Kazakhstan for her reporting and for peacefully expressing her political opinions through the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) movement, an opposition party associated with the main political opponent of former President Nazarbayev. Later that year, Ukrainian authorities detained her following a request by the Government of Kazakhstan, which previously has misused Interpol mechanisms to target opposition figures. In the past, Ukrainian authorities sometimes have cooperated with requests by the authorities of Central Asian states to return persecuted individuals. Persons affiliated with the DCK have previously faced mistreatment and torture at the hands of Kazakh authorities, suggesting that Akhmetova’s extradition would seriously endanger her safety. Ukrainian migration authorities have twice denied Akhmetova’s request for asylum, although Ukraine’s Supreme Court has ordered that the case be reconsidered as political.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Introduces Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act in Senate

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) yesterday introduced the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (S. 3064) in the Senate. The legislation would combat Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) introduced a bipartisan companion bill in the House of Representatives last week. “The Kremlin’s illegal land grab is accompanied by a brutal crackdown on religious freedom in Crimea and the Donbas,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “This legislation would combat persecution of faith communities in Ukraine and ensure that Russian authorities are held responsible for their actions.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill would clarify that Russia should be held responsible for violations in territory it controls or occupies illegally, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom. It also requires the president to take 15 specific actions, or other commensurate action, in response. Last year, on behalf of President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries where violations are severe. Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to occupy it illegally. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities under its command. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States.

  • Helsinki Commissioners Introduce Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) yesterday introduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 5408) in the House of Representatives. The legislation combats Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate next week. “For more than five years, Russia has illegally occupied Crimea and controlled part of the Donbas with the armed groups it commands. Kremlin personnel and proxies abduct, imprison, and torture people in those regions for their faith,” said Rep. Wilson. “Russian officials are culpable, and this bill helps ensure they are held accountable.” “The Kremlin persecutes peaceful religious communities in occupied Crimea and crony-controlled eastern Donbas even more brutally and broadly than it does in Russia,” said Rep. Cleaver. “The Russian Government is violating international humanitarian law and its international commitments to respect and protect religious freedom. Creating consequences for the Kremlin for this lawlessness will mean justice for the people of Ukraine.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the President of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill clarifies that Russia should be held responsible for violations in territory it occupies illegally or controls, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom. It also requires the president to take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, in response. Last year, on behalf of President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries where violations are severe. Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy it. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Gwen S. Moore (WI-04), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Marc A. Veasey (TX-33), and Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09). Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18), Rep. Mark Meadows (NC-11), Rep. Mike Quigley (IL-05), Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (FL-12), Rep. Daniel W. Lipinski (IL-03), Rep. Andy Harris, M.D. (MD-01), and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09) are also original co-sponsors.

  • Senators Cardin and Wicker Introduce Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act (S. 3026). The CROOK Act would establish an anti-corruption action fund to provide extra funding during historic windows of opportunity for reform in foreign countries as well as streamline the U.S. Government’s work building the rule of law abroad. On July 18, 2019, Rep. Bill Keating (MA-10) and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) introduced a similar bill in the U.S House of Representatives. “Corruption has become the primary tool of authoritarian foreign policy,” said Sen. Cardin. “Reprehensible regimes steal the livelihoods of their own people and then use that dirty money to destabilize other countries. No leader deploys this strategy more blatantly and destructively than Vladimir Putin, who has devastated the Russian economy and the lives of ordinary Russians to advance his own interests.” “This bill would bolster the legal and financial defenses of U.S. allies against the influence of Russia, China, Venezuela, and other authoritarian regimes,” said Sen. Wicker. “By working together, we can close off opportunities for corrupt actors to undermine democracy around the world.” The anti-corruption action fund established in the legislation would assist countries where U.S. assistance could significantly increase the chances of successfully transitioning to democracy, combating corruption, and establishing the rule of law, such as Ukraine in 2014, Ethiopia after the election of a new Prime Minister who instituted important reforms in 2018, or Armenia after the December 2018 parliamentary election. This no-year fund would establish a mechanism to allocate aid and take advantage of ripened political will more quickly. The monies for this fund would derive from a $5 million surcharge to individual companies and entities that incur Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) criminal fines and penalties above $50 million. The legislation would also establish several complementary mechanisms to generate a whole-of-government approach to U.S. efforts to strengthen the rule of law abroad. These include an interagency taskforce; the designation of embassy anti-corruption points of contact to liaise with the task force; reporting requirements designed to combat corruption, kleptocracy, and illegal finance; and a consolidated online platform for easy access to anti-corruption reports and materials. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, endeavors to counter corruption and malign influence in all its forms. Helsinki Commissioners have sponsored and cosponsored other anti-corruption legislation such as the Kleptocrat Exposure Act (H.R. 3441), the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (H.R. 4140), the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act (H.R. 4330/S. 2483), and the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (H.R. 835/S. 259).

  • Public Diplomacy, Democracy, and Global Leadership

    For more than a century, the United States has advanced shared human rights, economic, and security policy goals in the transatlantic relationship by cultivating people-to-people ties through public diplomacy initiatives.  As democracies around the world face new challenges emanating from demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats, the need for public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance, grows more relevant. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to focus on U.S.-led public diplomacy international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region. Presiding over the hearing, Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) stated, “This year, under my leadership, the Helsinki Commission has held events on the importance of international election observation, good governance, and focused on democratic backsliding in particular countries as part of our continued commitment to the underlying principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  Common to all of these issues is the role good leaders can play in ensuring free and fair elections; laws that are equitable, transparent, and enforced; and laying the groundwork to ensure protections and rights for all in their constituencies […] for the long-term stability of our nation and the transatlantic partnership.”  In his opening remarks, Chairman Hastings also noted that he planned to introduce legislation to support of leadership exchanges and knowledge-building between diverse transatlantic policymakers, and to encourage representative democracies. He also announced a February program for young OSCE parliamentarians to strengthen their political inclusion and advance peace and security efforts. Chairman Hastings was joined by Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Veasey raised the importance of metrics in assessing the impact of leadership programs and soft diplomacy, while Rep. Cleaver stated, “For the first time since the end of World War II, the extreme right is actually winning seats in the German Parliament,” highlighting increased security risks related to public diplomacy programs operating in countries that have seen an increase in hate crimes and racial prejudice. Witnesses included Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director of the Socrates Program at the Aspen Institute; Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair of the American Council of Young Political Leaders; and Lora Berg, Counselor for Inclusive Leadership at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Carter reviewed the Aspen Institute’s public policy programming on transatlantic relations and discussed the importance of promoting democratic values, including efforts to strengthen the capacity of congressional staff and encourage dialogues around the United States on being an “inclusive republic.”  He concluded by asking Congress to create more opportunities for public discourse on issues that threaten the stability of democracies around the world. Fujii discussed the importance of international exchanges in supporting democracies and the work of American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL). ACYPL was founded in 1966 to strengthen transatlantic relationships by promoting mutual understanding among young political leaders in Western Europe and the former Soviet Union.  Critical aspects of the program include offering international leaders the opportunity to come to the U.S. to observe campaigning, polling stations, election returns, and the response of the American people to elections, complemented by follow-on educational conversations about democratic processes in their countries.  Berg highlighted the importance of public diplomacy initiatives in advancing inclusive leadership and observed that nations gain in richness and capacity when diversity is reflected in leadership. She also noted that inclusive leadership not only plays an important role in promoting social harmony, but it also helps to ensure economic growth, stating that “the places with the highest social cohesion are the most reliable for investment.” Berg explained that the GMF’s Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) grew out of work she engaged in while working for the Department of State. TILN is an innovative network of young, diverse leaders across the United States and Europe supported by the Helsinki Commission and State Department.    Berg argued for the expansion of U.S. Government-supported public diplomacy inclusive leadership initiatives targeting youth and diverse populations in western democracies, including through public-private partnerships, the creation of a public diplomacy officer position in Europe to foster Europe-wide next generation transatlantic leadership, and increased political participation measures domestically and abroad for diverse populations.   

  • It's All About the Money

    As the countries of the Western Balkans continue to seek the integration that promises stability and prosperity, the inability to genuinely confront and overcome official corruption through good governance measures has undoubtedly slowed their progress. Foreign investment—vital to improved economic performance—is discouraged by a business climate characterized by weak adherence to the rule of law.  As a result, the countries of the region are witnessing a “brain drain” as the most talented and well-educated leave.  They also remain vulnerable to malign foreign investors, including Russia, that pursue political influence rather than profits.    Current political leaders have little incentive to make further democratic changes that could lead to their removal from power; they instead rely on lingering nationalist sentiments to continue benefiting from the corrupt practices they tolerate. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, experts from Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina analyzed the gaps in governance that facilitate the inflow of “corrosive capital” and subsequent foreign meddling in the Western Balkans, and encourage an exodus of the best and brightest from the region. Panelists also suggested specific ways to strengthen economic resiliency, democratic transition, and the possibilities for integration.        

  • Helsinki Commission to Review Role of Professional Exchanges in Strengthening Democratic Institutions

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PUBLIC DIPLOMACY, DEMOCRACY, AND GLOBAL LEADERSHIP An Approach for the 21st Century Thursday, December 5, 2019 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For more than a century, the United States has advanced human rights, economic, and security policy goals in Europe by cultivating people-to-people ties across the Atlantic. More than 500 heads of state, 100 Members of Congress, and thousands of professionals have participated in U.S. Government-sponsored exchanges, including the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, while public and private organizations have hosted similar programs to bring leaders together.    Witnesses at the hearing will explore the origins and role of professional exchanges and other public diplomacy programs that strengthen relationships with U.S. allies in the face of shared challenges including eroding trust in democratic institutions, demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats. In particular, the hearing will focus on international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Lora Berg, Senior Fellow, Leadership Programs, German Marshall Fund of the United States Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director, Socrates Program, The Aspen Institute   Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair, American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL)   Photo credit: German Marshall Fund of the United States

  • Corruption in the Western Balkans Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY Corruption as a Brake on Balkan Recovery Tuesday, December 3, 2019 2:00 p.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission As the countries of the Western Balkans continue to seek the integration that promises stability and prosperity, the inability to genuinely confront and overcome official corruption through good governance measures has undoubtedly slowed their progress. Foreign investment—vital to improved economic performance—is discouraged by a business climate characterized by weak adherence to the rule of law.  As a result, the countries of the region are witnessing a “brain drain” as the most talented and well-educated leave.  They also remain vulnerable to malign foreign investors, including Russia, that pursue political influence rather than profits.    Current political leaders have little incentive to make further democratic changes that could lead to their removal from power; they instead rely on lingering nationalist sentiments to continue benefiting from the corrupt practices they tolerate. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, experts from Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina will analyze the gaps in governance that facilitate the inflow of “corrosive capital” and subsequent foreign meddling in the Western Balkans, and encourage an exodus of the best and brightest from the region. Panelists also will suggest specific ways to strengthen economic resiliency, democratic transition, and the possibilities for integration.          Panelists scheduled to participate include: Martina Hrvolova, Program Officer for Europe and Eurasia, Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) Igor Novakovic, Research Director, International and Security Affairs Centre (ISAC) in Serbia Misha Popovikj, Project Coordinator - Researcher, Institute for Democracy Societas Civilis Skopje (IDSCS) in North Macedonia   Igor Stojanovic, Researcher with the Center for Civic Initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina

  • Not-So-Good Neighbors

    As a new generation of political leaders in Belarus seeks to forge closer ties with the West, the Kremlin has stepped up influence and disinformation campaigns designed to erode Belarusian sovereignty and exploit the strong historical, cultural, and economic ties between the two nations. Expert witnesses examined how Russia most effectively penetrates Belarusian society, and the extent to which Russia’s disinformation and hybrid tactics are influencing the political landscape at a pivotal moment. Speakers also decoded Russia’s tactics in Belarus and explored how the United States can help promote the sovereignty of Belarus.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mark 10th Anniversary of Death of Sergei Magnitsky

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the ten-year anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky’s death on November 16, Helsinki Commission leaders issued the following statements: “Sergei Magnitsky was a fearless truth-teller who wanted to make his country a better place,” said Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20). “Unfortunately, his brave actions were rewarded not with accolades from the Russian Government, but with vicious abuse and death in a cold jail cell. Not much has changed in today’s Russia. We must honor his legacy by continuing to stand up for those who are voiceless and defend human rights at home and abroad.” “The recent ruling against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights is an important vindication for the Magnitsky family, but real justice remains elusive,” said Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). “Russian authorities still have made no effort to punish those involved in Sergei Magnitsky’s detention and abuse. America has not forgotten Sergei Magnitsky—his legacy continues to inspire people around the world to hold fast to the truth in the face of intimidation and violence by authoritarian regimes.” “Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a perilous place for those who dare to challenge the authorities. No one knew that truth more than Sergei Magnitsky,” said Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02).  “Ten years on, his death reminds us that defending human rights is vital to promoting democracy. I honor Sergei Magnitsky’s memory and hopefully await the dawning of a new age in Russia in which Sergei will be acknowledged as a hero instead of vilified and falsely accused.” “Sergei Magnitsky’s faithfulness to the truth cost him his life. His legacy spurred a quest for justice in Russia and around the world,” said Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD). “The Sergei Magnitsky and Global Magnitsky Acts make clear to all that the United States stands with those whose rights and basic freedoms are repressed. It should never be U.S. policy to normalize the behavior of human rights abusers and despots. Human rights cannot and should not be open to compromise; it must be a cornerstone of our foreign policy agenda. A decade after his death, we both mourn Sergei Magnitsky and remember his courage. Through his actions, he taught us that we are all capable of rising to the challenge and standing up for justice.” In 2008, Sergei Magnitsky, who advised Hermitage Capital Management in a dispute over alleged tax evasion in Russia, discovered a $230 million fraud being committed by Russian law enforcement officers assigned to the case. Magnitsky reported the fraud to the authorities and was arrested soon after by the same officers he had accused. For almost a year, Magnitsky was held in squalid prison conditions, denied visits from his family, and beaten by guards. Despite developing serious cases of gallstones, pancreatitis, and cholecystitis, he was denied medical attention. On November 16, 2009, Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death in his cell. He had been imprisoned for 358 days, just seven days short of the maximum legal pre-trial detention period in Russia.

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