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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    WASHINGTON – Following today’s announcement that the Azerbaijani government has freed investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova from prison, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman of the Commission, issued the following statement: “We welcome the release of Khadija Ismayilova from her unjust imprisonment. However, we call on the Government of Azerbaijan to drop all charges against her and reopen the RFE/RL Baku bureau. “Khadija’s case is not the only one in which Azerbaijan has used its judicial system to punish those who have voiced independent opinions. Others, like opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov, remain jailed for their efforts to promote human rights, the rule of law, and democracy. We salute their courage and once again urge the Government of Azerbaijan to live up to its OSCE commitments, ending its repression of the political opposition, journalists, and religious minorities.” Chairman Smith convened a December 2015 hearing on the plight of Ismayilova and her fellow prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan. He is also the author of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections. Chairman Smith has also spoken out on multiple occasions on behalf of Ismayilova and other political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

  • Combatting Corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina

    Twenty years ago, Bosnia and Herzegovina was beginning a process of recovery and reconciliation following the brutal conflict that marked its first four years of independent statehood and took outside intervention to bring to an end. The United States, which led that effort culminating in the Dayton Peace Accords, has since invested considerable financial and other resources to ensure the country’s unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as to enable a population devastated and traumatized by conflict to rebuild. Many European and other countries have as well. Today, beyond well-known ethnic divisions and weaknesses in political structure, Bosnia’s progress is stymied by official corruption to the detriment of its citizens’ quality of life and the prospects for the country’s integration into Europe. Amid recent press reports on scandals involving various government officials; public perceptions of corruption rank Bosnia and Herzegovina among the worst in the Western Balkans.    This hearing examined the current situation regarding corruption and its causes at all levels of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and looked at efforts by the United States and the international community, along with civil society, to combat it. It featured witnesses from OSCE, USAID, and from civil society. “Left unchecked, corruption will hinder Bosnia and Herzegovina’s integration into Europe and NATO,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Roger Wicker (MS), “Twenty years after Dayton there is no excuse for corruption and the risk it brings to prosperity for future generations.” Last year, Senator Wicker and Senator Shaheen (NH) were among a presidential delegation sent to Bosnia to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica. And in November of that year, they introduced the Bosnia and Herzegovina-American Enterprise Fund Act to grow small- to medium-sized businesses. The United States has a long-standing and deep commitment to maintaining the sovereignty, stability, and recovery of Bosnia, while fostering future prosperity within the country. Senator Wicker has seen a lot of progress since he first visited Bosnia in 1995, but he called for even more to be done by Bosnian officials and the international community. The first witness was Ambassador Jonathan Moore, head of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, he spoke on various topics and outlined the OSCE’s goals and plans for Bosnia. Beyond ending corruption, the OSCE seeks to revitalize the lagging education system and to combat violent extremism. He emphasized the importance of transparency, “It is clear that simply having laws and institutions is not enough.  Laws must be implemented and obeyed, and prosecutors and judges must do their jobs.  Furthermore, old patterns of political patronage must stop.” The next witness was the Honorable Thomas Melia, assistant administrator at USAID for Europe and Eurasia, who reinforced Amb. Moore’s testimony, focusing the economic ramifications of corruption. “Corruption leads to a weakening of democratic institutions, economic decay by discouraging investment, increased inequality, and deprives states of the resources they need to advance their own development.  In the wider European region, states weakened by corruption are also more susceptible to malign pressure and manipulation from Putin’s Russia, as any semblance of a rules-based order often seems to take a backseat to power, influence and greed.” The final two witnesses spoke of the bleak state of civil rights in Bosnia. Corruption has all but ended Bosnian citizens’ abilities to access justice, work out for a better life, and speak freely. Each of witnesses emphasized the need for further and tougher action; simply scolding officials is not enough. “Past experience shows that simply calling on leaders to undertake reforms and to take responsibility is not sufficient. Generating a genuine and articulated internal demand for reforms is key to achieving sustainable progress,” said Mr. Srdjan Blagovcanin, the third witness, is chairman of the board of the Bosnia Chapter of Transparency International. The final witness, Dr. Valery Perry, suggested that election reform was a necessary step to ending corruption in Bosnia. Co-Chairman Wicker was joined at the hearing by a panel of lawmakers including Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04), Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Representative Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Representative Scott Perry (PA-04).

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Examine Corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Combatting Corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina” Wednesday, May 25, 2016 2:00 PM Capitol Visitor Center Senate Room 212-10 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Twenty years ago, Bosnia and Herzegovina was beginning a process of recovery and reconciliation following the brutal conflict that marked its first four years of independent statehood and took outside intervention to bring to an end.  The United States, which led that effort culminating in the  Dayton Peace Accords, has since invested considerable financial and other resources to ensure the country’s unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as to enable a population devastated and traumatized by conflict to rebuild. Many European and other countries have as well. Today, beyond well-known ethnic divisions and weaknesses in political structure, Bosnia’s progress is stymied by official corruption to the detriment of its citizens’ quality of life and the prospects for the country’s integration into Europe.  Amid recent press reports on scandals involving various government officials, public perceptions of corruption rank Bosnia and Herzegovina among the worst in the Western Balkans.    The hearing will examine the current situation regarding corruption and its causes at all levels of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and look at efforts by the United States and the international community, along with civil society, to combat it.     The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Jonathan Moore, Head of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina Thomas Melia, Assistant Administrator for Europe and Eurasia, USAID Srdjan Blagovcanin, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Transparency International, Bosnia and Herzegovina Valery Perry, Sarajevo-based Independent Researcher and Consultant and Senior Associate at the Democratization Policy Council

  • On World Press Freedom Day, Helsinki Commission Chair Urges Azerbaijan: Free Khadija!

    WASHINGTON—On May 3, Chairman Rep. Chris Smith of the Helsinki Commission Issued the following statement:   “Today marks World Press Freedom Day. Freedom of the media is an essential foundation for democracy and human rights every day of the year. Journalists play a critical role in ensuring free and fair elections, combating corruption, and holding governments accountable.  In some OSCE countries, they do so at extraordinary personal risk.  Let’s not forget Anna Politkovskaya or the many other Russian journalists murdered in the past fifteen years – whose killers have still not been brought to justice. Press freedom remains unknown in Russia. But today we remember above all Khadija Ismayilova, a fearless investigative journalist harassed and currently imprisoned by the government of Azerbaijan.” Anna Politkovskaya testified on human rights abuses in the Chechnya war before a hearing Rep. Smith chaired in 2003 – and was murdered in Moscow in 2006. In 2007 Chairman Smith authored H. Con. Res. 151 on Politkovskaya and other independent journalists killed in Russia since 2000, which passed the House by a vote of 388-1. Beginning in 2010 Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist in Azerbaijan, published hard-hitting investigative reports on corruption at the highest levels of the Azerbaijani government. In response, the Azerbaijani state security services tried to intimidate her. When that failed, in 2014, the government arrested her on trumped-up charges.   “If the Government of Azerbaijan thought it could deflect attention from its abuses by locking up Khadija, they were sorely mistaken.  In fact, Khadija’s continued imprisonment only serves as a constant reminder of the corruption she sought to expose.  Her imprisonment is wrong and she should be released immediately." In December 2014 the Government of Azerbaijan arrested investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova on spurious charges and subsequently raided the offices of her employer, U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).  After a lengthy trial that was widely condemned by the international community for numerous irregularities, in September Ms. Ismayilova was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison. Her appeal was denied on November 25, 2015, and the RFE/RL Baku Bureau has remained shuttered by the Government of Azerbaijan.  The Helsinki Commission’s hearing on Azerbaijan’s Persecution of RFE/RL Reporter Khadijah Ismayilova can be found here. Her recent editorial in the Washington Post can be found here.  Chairman Smith is the sponsor of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced on December 16, 2015, to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.

  • Chairman Smith Holds Hearing on Terrorist Threats to European Jewish Communities

    WASHINGTON— The growing risks to European Jewish communities and the actions that countries should take to address the threats faced by their Jewish citizens was the focus of a hearing of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (aka, Helsinki Commission) chaired today by Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “The recent terrorist attacks in Brussels were reminders that Europeans of all religions and ethnicities are at risk from ISIS,” said Smith. “But there can be no European security without Jewish security. As we have seen so many times in so many places, violence against Jewish communities often foreshadows violence against other religious, ethnic, and national communities. ISIS especially hates the Jewish people and has instructed its followers to prioritize killing them. The group’s cronies targeted the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May 2014, the Paris kosher supermarket in January 2015, and the Great Synagogue in Copenhagen in February 2015, and murdered people in all of them.” Click here to read Chairman Smith’s opening statement. A number of other members of Congress spoke at the hearing, including Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), CSCE co-chairman, Rep. David Schweikert (AZ-06), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Alan Grayson (FL-09), and Rep. Randy Hultgren (IL-14). Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Jewish Affairs at the American Jewish Congress, and the OSCE’s Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson, thanked Smith for the “pioneering work” he has done in identifying and addressing the problem of anti-Semitism in Europe, and pressing the United States government and European States and in mobilizing the OSCE to confront the “age-old scourge” of anti-Semitism. “One of the problems we have faced and we continue to face is that governments are slow to recognize the very problem itself, let alone to marshal the necessary resolve and expertise to confront it,”  Baker testified. For the past two years, witnesses John J. Farmer, Jr., Rutgers University Professor of Law, has led an initiative at Rutgers designed to identify the best ways to protect vulnerable communities in light of the evolving threat.  "We have worked with U.S. communities to develop what FBI officials have called an 'off-ramp' to radicalization," said Farmer. "This is a time of particular peril for the Jewish future in Europe, and it is incumbent upon us to do what we can to assure that future." Jonathan Biermann, Brussels attorney and elected city councilman, and a former political adviser to the President of the Belgian Senate, the Development Minister, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, described the current atmosphere among Belgian Jews. “Community members are nowadays used to see Police, guards, military in front of Jewish buildings and schools,” Biermann said, recommending establishing Memorandums of Understanding as an important step. “Creating the tools to communicate amongst communities with the government will be considerably facilitated by the ‘See something Say something strategy,’”Beirmann said. “The collaboration with Law enforcement agencies has to be based on trust and confidence, in respect of international laws and rules protecting individual freedom, civil liberties and privacy.” Paul Goldenberg, a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, serve on the Countering Violent Extremism Sub-Committee, Co-Chair the Foreign Fighter Task Force and Vice-Chair of the Faith-Based Advisory & Communications Sub-Committee. He also works with the Faith-Based Communities Security Program at Rutgers University. He is Executive Director of the Crisis Cell for the Belgian Jewish community “I have made countless trips in recent months overseas, traveling to multiple European cities,” Goldenberg said. “What we have seen, heard and learned has confirmed our initial hypothesis: while the levels of cooperation and partnerships between Jewish and other minority religious communities with their respective policing services–in many parts of Europe–is as diverse as the communities themselves, more work needs to be accomplished to move closer to a medium and standard of safety and security. While this presents distinct challenges, there is also hope. For much of what we have learned, innovated, tested and improved upon here in the United States, as well as in other progressive nations, can be imparted to, and replicated by, many of our partners.” Smith also chairs the Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations subcommittee. Documents, video and other information about today’s CSCE hearing, will be posted here. In 2015, Smith held a hearing in, “After Paris and Copenhagen: Responding to the Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism,” on the crucial role of the U.S. and other participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in battling anti-Semitism and called for strong American leadership.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on the Prevention of Violent Anti-Semitic Attacks in Europe

    WASHINGTON – The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Anticipating and Preventing Deadly Attacks on European Jewish Communities” Tuesday, April 19 1:00 PM Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Violent anti-Semitic attacks doubled in some European countries between 2014 and 2015 – in some others they quadrupled. ISIS has instructed its followers to prioritize targeting European Jewish sites and killing European Jewish people. The terrorists who attacked the Jewish Museum of Belgium, Great Synagogue in Copenhagen, and kosher supermarket in Paris, all claimed ISIS allegiance. In the wake of the recent terrorist bombings in Brussels, the hearing will focus on violent threats to European Jewish communities from the full range of groups and individuals, and what needs to be done – particularly by law enforcement agencies – to anticipate and prevent future attacks. It will also feature lessons from the partnerships between Jewish communities and law enforcement agencies that can help counter terrorism and improve security in European countries more broadly.  Scheduled to testify: Rabbi Andrew Baker: Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office on Combating Anti-Semitism, and Director of International Jewish Affairs, American Jewish Committee Jonathan Biermann: Executive Director, crisis cell for the Belgian Jewish community John Farmer: Director, Faith-Based Communities Security Program, Rutgers University Paul Goldenberg: National Director, Secure Community Network

  • 'Don't let Azerbaijan use political prisoners as props'

    The Washington Post Don’t let Azerbaijan use political prisoners as props By Khadija Ismayilova Khadija Ismayilova is an investigative journalist and contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service. She has been imprisoned in Azerbaijan since December 2014. I am writing this letter from jail in Baku, Azerbaijan, where I’m serving a 7½ -year sentence for a crime I never committed. I am a journalist and my only “crime” was to investigate high-level corruption within the government and family of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev . Aliyev inherited power from his father in 2003 and changed the constitution in 2009 so he could stay in power indefinitely. He has been called an enemy of the press by international watchdogs, while abusing other fundamental freedoms and violating people’s right to truth and decency. Aliyev is in Washington this week to attend the Nuclear Security Summit that began Thursday. To get an invitation to this event from President Obama, he had to pardon several political prisoners. A lthough they have been released from jail, they remain confined within the country, barred from leaving, and justice has not been restored. This is a very costly invitation for Aliyev, who for years refused to accept international pressure or criticism on this issue. His response was, always, that Azerbaijan doesn’t have political prisoners. In December, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act to recognize Azerbaijan’s violations of human rights and freedoms and to hold individual officials accountable. It must pass. But why were some of the political prisoners suddenly set free? What has changed? Aliyev needed these prisoners so that in exchange for their release, he could shake hands with Obama or get a loan from the World Bank to finance his failing currency and crippled economy after the sudden fall of oil prices. Aliyev is shamelessly trying to use political prisoners as bargaining chips to advance his foreign policy agenda. And they are supposed to be happy that they were freed. I am happy — very happy — that some political prisoners have been released. But their fights, and mine, are not over. I am not a toy to be exchanged for diplomatic gain by Baku or Washington so that officials can continue to pretend that it is business as usual. We are hostages of the regime, whether we are inside or outside of prison. Freedom is my universal and constitutional right, and Aliyev failed to protect it as the head of state. I am not going to ask to be pardoned for a crime I never committed. I am free even now, in jail, and my freedom is not for sale. So President Obama, please ask President Aliyev to stop muzzling the independent media and civil society. Ask him to explain the billions of petrodollars wasted on white-elephant projects for the benefit of a few. Ask him when he is going to hold free and fair elections. Ask him when he is going to let all the political prisoners go free. Ask him when fundamental freedoms can become a right, in practice — not a gift that he can give or take away. I asked these questions, and I ended up in jail. These are important questions. They must not go unanswered. And we will fight until justice is fully served.

  • Smith Responds to the Release of Political Prisoners by Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the release of 14 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, made the following statement: “I am relieved to know that these wrongly-held prisoners will be home with their families soon, but I remain concerned about the plight of the many other prisoners in Azerbaijan who are being held on politically-motivated charges. Anar Mammadli, the founder of an independent election monitoring group, was released, but he should have never been in prison. There are many others who should be released as well, such as Khadija Ismayilova, Intigram Aliyev, Ilgar Mammadov. I respectfully request President Aliyev to not only release all political prisoners, but also repeal the many undemocratic laws and regulations that prohibit the exercise of universally-recognized human rights in Azerbaijan.” Human rights organizations estimate there are approximately 100 political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Despite the release of 14 prisoners today, there continue to be new arrests of journalists, bloggers and others who voice opinions the government deems critical. Chairman Smith is the sponsor of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced on December 16, 2015, to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Internet Freedom in the Age of Dictators and Terrorists

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “Internet Freedom in the Age of Dictators and Terrorists” March 3, 2016 10:00AM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 The original promise of the internet as a mechanism for free exchange of information and greater democratization seems a dream from a distant past. Authoritarian leaders in China, Russia and around the world seek to build walls around their country’s internet and censor incoming information and online discourse, while in free societies we are grappling with the right balance between security and privacy of online information in the face of terrorist threats. The briefing will focus on internet freedom broadly, including censorship and surveillance; and trends in how internet companies are evolving to handle increased government requests from law enforcement. In addition, panelists will discuss the role of export controls in ensuring that U.S. and European technologies do not contribute to human rights abuses. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Lisl Brunner, Director of Policy and Learning, Global Network Initiative Rebecca MacKinnon, Director, Ranking Digital Rights Tim Maurer, Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

  • Religious Freedom, Anti-Semitism, and Rule of Law in Europe and Eurasia

    In this hearing ODIHR Director Michael Link discussed the importance of the OSCE's work on human rights through ODIHR.  He focused on the fight against anti-Semitism and the human rights situation in Ukraine.  He spoke about ODIHR's newest project to combat anti-Semitism, called "Turning Words into Action," which will give leaders the knowledge and tools to address anti-Semitism in their communities.   Director Link also noted that in Ukraine he was particularly concerned about the human rights violations in Crimea and expressed his support for a cease-fire as a pre-condition of the implementation of the Minsk package.

  • Senator Wicker Urges Secretary Kerry to Address Corruption in Bosnia

    WASHINGTON – In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker urged the U.S. Administration to address the issue of worsening corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina involving regulatory institutions and high-level political officials. “This kind of corruption is inhibiting Bosnia and Herzegovina's economy, stealing a more prosperous future from its citizens, paralyzing its progress toward European integration, and putting foreign investment at risk, including investment from the United States,” wrote Co-Chairman Wicker. The letter encourages the Obama Administration to devote additional resources to uncovering and documenting corrupt conduct in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to take concrete steps – such as the potential denial of U.S. visas and seizure of U.S. assets – to hold Bosnian officials accountable for engaging in corrupt activities. In November 2015, Co-Chairman Wicker and Commissioner Senator Jeanne Shaheen introduced legislation in the Senate that would establish an enterprise fund modeled after U.S. programs that supported Central and Eastern European economies after the fall of the Berlin Wall with approximately $10 billion in public and private funding. Specifically, the legislation would promote the private sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina by authorizing the fund to use up to $30 million over 15 years to bring American investors into the Bosnian and Herzegovinian economy. The full text of the letter is below. -------------------- February 2, 2016   The Honorable John Kerry Secretary of State Department of State Washington, DC  20520 Dear Secretary Kerry, As co-chairman of the Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe, I write regarding the issue of corruption and the worsening investment climate in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have been a longtime supporter of assistance to Bosnia and Herzegovina during my tenure in Congress.  Last year, my colleague Senator Shaheen and I introduced legislation that would establish an enterprise fund for providing assistance to private sector development and foreign investment in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Twenty years after the Dayton Accords, I believe that Bosnia and Herzegovina's transition remains incomplete, and that the United States continues to have a strategic interest in ensuring a stable and prosperous Bosnia and Herzegovina. Unfortunately, I am concerned to learn of indications of worsening corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including corruption in vital regulatory institutions and among high-level political officials.  I am troubled that responsible political authorities in Sarajevo tolerate the subversion of the rule of law by entrenched local interests.  This kind of corruption is inhibiting Bosnia and Herzegovina's economy, stealing a more prosperous future from its citizens, paralyzing its progress toward European integration, and putting foreign investment at risk, including investment from the United States. I strongly urge you to take concrete steps that will show that U.S. patience with such behavior is at an end.  Bosnian officials should be held accountable if they engage in corrupt activities or tolerate corrupt conduct by those in their ranks.  In particular, I hope that you will consider devoting additional U.S. resources to uncovering and documenting corrupt conduct in Bosnia and Herzegovina so that Bosnian officials and leaders can be publicly exposed and held to account. The United States should also consider a wide range of policy responses to corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the potential denial of U.S. visas and potential seizure of assets in the United States.  Evidence of corruption should also be shared with our European partners, giving the European Union the chance to take similar actions as well.  Coordinated international efforts against corruption in Albania might serve as a useful example in this regard. Thank you for your consideration.  I look forward to continuing my work with you to enhance security, stability, and economic prosperity throughout Southeast Europe. Sincerely, Roger F. Wicker Co-Chairman Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

  • OSCE Foreign Ministers Meet in Belgrade

    Serbia’s year-long chairmanship of the OSCE culminated in Belgrade in the annual meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council on December 3 and 4, 2015.  Key issues addressed in the context of Ministerial discussions included: Ongoing efforts to de-escalate the Russia-Ukraine crisis and the need for Russia to fully implement the Minsk Agreements. Reaffirmation of the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent commitments and the comprehensive nature of security (i.e., respect for fundamental freedoms within a state has an impact on the security between states). The assault on human dignity and human rights, including through terrorist attacks, the continued rollback on rights and freedoms in the OSCE area, and the refugee and migration crisis. Secretary of State John Kerry led the U.S. delegation, which also included Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Robert Berschinski; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia Daniel N. Rosenblum; and Helsinki Commission Senior Senate Staff Representative Ambassador David T. Killion. The atmosphere was strained, as tensions between Ukraine and Russia, Russia and Turkey, and Armenia and Azerbaijan spilled over into the negotiations. As Russia blocked virtually all decisions on human rights, as well as on the migration crisis and on gender issues, only a handful of documents were adopted. Successful declarations addressed recent terrorist attacks in the OSCE region, combating violent extremism that leads to terrorism, and addressing the illicit drug trade.

  • Germany to Lead OSCE in 2016

    Germany will serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2016. Germany has indicated it will continue the work on youth exchanges initiated by the previous Serbian and Swiss chairmanships. In the human dimension, Germany will focus on: Freedom of the press and freedom of information, independence of the media, and the safety of journalists. Protection of minorities. Combating political extremism, intolerance and discrimination, including anti-Semitism and integration issues related to migrants. Strengthening the rights of women.

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