INTRODUCTION OF THE TRANSNATIONAL REPRESSION ACCOUNTABILITY AND PREVENTION ACT OF 2019 (TRAP ACT)

INTRODUCTION OF THE TRANSNATIONAL REPRESSION ACCOUNTABILITY AND PREVENTION ACT OF 2019 (TRAP ACT)

Representative
Alcee Hastings
Washington, DC
United States
House of Representatives
116th Congress
First Session
Congressional Record, Vol. 165
No. 148
Monday, September 16, 2019

Mr. HASTINGS. Madam Speaker, as Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission—a congressional watchdog for human rights and democracy in Europe and Eurasia—I am frequently reminded of the new opportunities that technology and globalization present for human rights defenders around the globe. For those struggling to defend their liberty and human dignity, our interconnected world brings with it the possibility of sharing information, coordinating action, and demonstrating solidarity across thousands of miles in fractions of a second. It means that truth is more capable of piercing the veil of enforced ignorance erected by the world’s most repressive states Technology also further empowers dissidents in exile to connect with, and influence the foot soldiers of freedom who march on in their homelands.

But with these new openings for liberty come novel approaches to repression. Authoritarian and autocratic regimes are appropriating agile, 21st century technology to prop up sclerotic systems of brutality and corruption. Technological developments have provoked greater feelings of insecurity in these brittle regimes and propelled them to extend their repression far beyond their borders, sometimes reaching into the refuge of democratic societies where political opponents, independent journalists, and civil society activists operate in safety. Madam Speaker, I recently introduced bipartisan legislation to tackle these emerging challenges with my friend and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member, Representative JOE WILSON of South Carolina We are confident that this legislation, supported by the bicameral leadership of the Helsinki Commission and other leaders on human rights, will place the United States on course to lead the free world in holding the line against these modern manifestations of political persecution, or what some have called ‘‘transnational repression.’’ The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act—or TRAP Act—is designed to counter one key instrument in the autocrat’s 21st century toolkit politically-motivated abuse of the International Criminal Police Organization, more commonly known as INTERPOL.

INTERPOL is a legitimate and potent tool for international law enforcement cooperation—one that the United States relies on heavily to bring criminals to justice and thwart threats to security around the globe. Sadly, autocrats have recognized the potential for repression in INTERPOL’s worldwide communications system that ties into the law enforcement agencies of its 194 member countries.

The Helsinki Commission regularly receives credible reports from human rights defenders, journalists, political activists, and businesspeople who have fallen victim to the efforts of corrupt regimes to ensnare them using INTERPOL’s system of international requests for arrest and extradition, known as Red Notices and Diffusions. These are the modern-day ‘‘traps’’ addressed by the TRAP Act. Because of these notices, innocent individuals live in fear of traveling mternationally and have been detained, had their bank accounts closed, and, sometimes, been returned into the hands of the very regimes from which they escaped.

Madam Speaker, our legislation opens three new fronts agamst the threat of INTERPOL abuse. First, it clearly states that it is the policy of the United States to use our influence in INTERPOL to advance specific reforms that increase transparency and accountability for those that abuse the system while helping the organization to live up to its stated obligations to uphold international human rights standards and resist politicization It further establishes that the United States will use its diplomatic clout to confront countries that abuse INTERPOL and work to ensure the freedom of movement and ability to engage in lawful commerce of victims of this abuse the world over.

Second, the TRAP Act exerts oversight over the United States’ internal mechanisms to identify, challenge, and respond to instances of INTERPOL abuse. The bill requires the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State—in coordination with other relevant agencies—to submit to Congress an assessment of the scope and seriousness of autocratic abuse of INTERPOL, an evaluation of the adequacy of the processes in place domestically and at INTERPOL to resist this abuse, and a plan for improving interagency coordination to confront this phenomenon.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the TRAP Act places strict limitations on how the United States Government can use INTERPOL notices in legal or administrative proceedings that could interfere with the freedom or immigration status of individuals in our country. We have been deeply concerned by reports that some authorities in this country have improperly cited INTERPOL notices from autocratic countries to detain individuals and place them in danger of being returned to the very countries from which they fled. The TRAP Act will make crystal clear that autocratic regimes cannot use INTERPOL notices to weaponize the U.S. judicial system against their political targets.

Madam Speaker, these measures are critical to restricting the freedom that some autocratic regimes have enjoyed to harass, persecute, and detain their political opponents around the world. Authoritarian and autocratic states like China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Venezuela must be called out by name and held to account for their repeated manipulation of legitimate law enforcement tools for petty political ends.

Madam Speaker, I would also like to place the TRAP Act in the context of the other work that the U.S. Helsinki Commission has done to address the grave threat of transnational repression and malign influence by authoritarian regimes. The Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy—or ‘‘CROOK’’ Act, the Kleptocrat Exposure Act, and the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act have all been the result of a focus by Commissioners and Commission staff on developing a bipartisan congressional response to the existential threat of global authoritarianism.

We can no longer sit idly by, content that those who wish to do us harm are on the other side of the world. In this new age of autocracy, the threat is here—now—and it comes in the form of abusive Red Notices, dirty money, and bought-and-paid-for lawfare tactics The purpose of these tactics is to silence journalists and activists, hollow out the rule of law, and ensure that no one ever dare pursue this new class of transnational kleptocrats whose sole goal is the wholesale looting of the countries they claim to serve and the seamless transfer of those ill-gotten gains to our shores and those of our allies. 

Leadership: 
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  • Has Interpol become the long arm of oppressive regimes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Chairman Cardin and Ranking Member Wicker Introduce Bill to Sanction Navalny 35

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker yesterday introduced a measure that would require the administration to evaluate the Navalny 35 for Global Magnitsky sanctions. The Navalny 35 are a group of 35 Russian kleptocrats and human rights abusers who Alexey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation has identified as those primarily responsible for looting the Russian state and repressing human rights in Russia. “Corruption is an urgent national security threat. As revealed by the Pandora Papers, global kleptocrats are pushing dirty money into our system and those of our allies with the help of unscrupulous American enablers. No kleptocrats more obviously use corruption as a foreign policy tool than those named by Alexey Navalny. This measure will ensure that we are protecting our system against the taint of corruption and standing with the victims of kleptocracy in Russia,” said Chairman Cardin. “Alexey Navalny languishes today in a Russian jail cell, unjustly imprisoned by Putin. The United States must ensure it does not overlook Russia’s malign oppression abroad as well as its historic repression at home. The least we can do is make sure that known kleptocrats and human rights abusers are denied access to our shores and financial system,” said Sen. Wicker. Chairman Cardin and Sen. Wicker had previously encouraged President Biden to sanction the Navalny 35. The measure already has been passed by the House of Representatives as part of the House defense bill, where it was led by Representatives Tom Malinowski and John Curtis, co-chairs of the Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy. Multiple individuals on the Navalny 35 list were also named in the Pandora Papers investigation, including Konstantin Ernst and Gennady Timchenko. In remarks introducing the legislation, Chairman Cardin said, “Foreign dictators, their associates, and other foreign officials have stolen untold sums—billions of dollars—and moved that dirty money into our democracies, into real estate, bank accounts, trusts, and other financial instruments.…Although kleptocrats may steal abroad, to taint our political system with that money requires the assistance of enablers--American lawyers, accountants, trust, and company service providers, real estate professionals, and the like—who put aside any moral qualms they may have about working for the enemies of democracy to obtain a small slice of the ill-gotten gains. “It is the tragedy of the post-Cold War world that corruption has come west along with dirty money rather than democracy going east. There are names in the [Pandora Papers] that also come as no surprise—Putin cronies Konstantin Ernst and Gennady Timchenko are both named. Both are included on Alexey Navalny's list of 35 human rights abusers and kleptocrats. Timchenko is already under U.S. sanctions, though Ernst is not. Now would be a good time to consider sanctions on him.” Chairman Cardin is the author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act, which gives the United States the power to deny travel and banking privileges to individuals who commit gross violations of human rights against rights defenders and dissidents, and leaders who commit acts of significant corruption.

  • Cardin and Cohen Laud 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Award to Investigative Reporters

    WASHINGTON—Following the award of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following joint statement: “We congratulate the winners of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, and applaud the Nobel Committee for recognizing the courage of these journalists and their contributions to democracy and peace. Maria, Dmitry, and their colleagues are beacons of truth—without a free press, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. “That this award comes just after the 15-year anniversary of the murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya and three years after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi solemnly reminds us of the dangers journalists face, particularly in authoritarian states.” Later this month, the Helsinki Commission will hold a hearing to call attention to the growing attacks on free media and underscore the importance of investigative journalism. Muratov is the longtime editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper widely respected for its hard-hitting investigative journalism. Novaya Gazeta journalists routinely have been targeted by the authorities for their work and even murdered with impunity. Muratov dedicated his Nobel Prize award to his slain Novaya Gazeta colleagues Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasiya Baburova, and Natalya Estemirova.  In a November 2009 Helsinki Commission briefing on violence against journalists and impunity in Russia, Muratov, who provided testimony, said, “I would like to ask you a huge favor. In every meeting, in any encounter with representatives of the Russian political establishment and government, please, bring up this meeting. Please ask these uncomfortable questions. Please try not to be too polite.” Ressa is a Filipino-American journalist and co-founder and CEO of Rappler, a Philippine news website. Ressa was included in Time Magazine's 2018 Person of the Year as one of a collection of journalists from around the world, collectively branded “Guardians of Truth.” In 2019, she was awarded the Sergei Magnitsky Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalist, presented by international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. In 2020, she was convicted of trumped-up “cyberlibel” charges by the Philippine government.

  • Lawmakers call for crackdown on financial ‘enablers’ after Pandora Papers revelations

    A bipartisan group of lawmakers plans to introduce legislation this week that for the first time would require trust companies, lawyers, art dealers and others to investigate foreign clients seeking to move money and assets into the American financial system. The bill’s sponsors cited the findings of the Pandora Papers investigation, the result of a sweeping international collaboration published this week that exposed how the global elite conceal their wealth in tax havens that increasingly include the United States. Stories by The Washington Post and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) showed that little-known trust companies in Sioux Falls, S.D., established nearly 30 trusts holding assets connected to people or companies accused of corruption, human rights abuses or other wrongdoing in some of the world’s poorest communities. The investigation also found that King Abdullah II of Jordan secretly used offshore companies to purchase three properties in Malibu and revealed the use of two offshore trusts by an art dealer, now deceased, who was accused by U.S. prosecutors of trafficking in looted Cambodian artifacts. The proposed law, known as the Enablers Act, would amend the 51-year-old Bank Secrecy Act, by requiring the Treasury Department to create basic due-diligence rules for American gatekeepers who facilitate the flow of foreign assets into the United States. Banks are already required to investigate their clients and sources of wealth, but trust companies, lawyers, investment advisers, accountants, art dealers, public relations firms and other professionals have been excluded from due-diligence rules — a loophole regularly criticized by financial crime experts and international watchdogs. The proposed legislation, experts say, represents the most significant change of anti-money-laundering rules since 9/11. “If we make banks report dirty money but allow law, real estate, and accounting firms to look the other way, that creates a loophole that crooks and kleptocrats can sail a yacht through,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), co-sponsor of the proposed bill and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy, said on Wednesday. “Our bill closes that loophole and encourages the administration to move in the same direction.” Malinowski called on the White House to support the legislation, co-sponsored by Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), co-chair of the bipartisan Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe; Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), ranking member of the commission; and Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.), a member of the caucus. “All around the world, countries are being looted and the most vulnerable people victimized by their elites,” Cohen said. “These kleptocrats then launder that money to the West, where they enjoy the high life — spending the money on luxury cars, penthouses, jets and opulent parties. Some also spend it on intervening in our democracy … working to undermine the rule of law. In order to fight corruption, we must curb the enablers.” If passed, the law would give the Treasury Department until December 2023 to create anti-money-laundering rules for the gatekeeper industries. A new national security task force would oversee the effort. After 9/11, banks — criticized for serving and shielding terrorists, drug traffickers and dictators — shored up their due-diligence practices. Financial crime experts say that such measures encouraged wrongdoers to find other financial gatekeepers, including the U.S. trust industry. “Global criminals, kleptocrats, dictators, they’re going to look for new ways to launder their money and we’re going to try to close them down, but the gap right now is just massive — we basically left our financial defenses wide open,” said Paul Massaro, a congressional anti-corruption adviser who helped work on the proposed legislation. In South Dakota, now considered a top destination for global wealth, trust companies oversee more than $360 billion in assets, state data shows. The Post and the ICIJ investigation identified a series of international clients who moved their assets into trusts in South Dakota in recent years, including a Colombian textile mogul implicated in an international scheme to launder drug proceeds and a Brazilian orange juice executive accused of colluding to underpay local farmers. “Regulating professional enablers is how the United States could stop being the world’s top offshore financial haven, begin treating dirty money as a leading national threat and start demonstrating how democracies can deliver against corrupt adversaries and powerful special interests,” said Josh Rudolph, a member of the National Security Council staff in the Obama and Trump administrations who recently published an analysis on the role of financial gatekeepers. The proposed legislation comes as new information surfaces about Abdullah’s steps to contain the impact of the Pandora revelations before the articles about him were published. Newly filed U.S. federal disclosure forms show that Abdullah hired a law firm and a crisis management public relations company after learning that his use of shell companies to purchase luxury properties costing more than $106 million was about to become public. The moves reflect apparent concern about the potential fallout both in Washington and in Jordan, where there has been scant coverage of the Pandora stories and at least one news outlet said it was contacted by the Jordanian intelligence service and told to take down an article about the Abdullah revelations. The forms were filed by DLA Piper, a law firm hired by Abdullah, to comply with laws requiring U.S. firms to disclose when they have been hired to represent a foreign government. A letter attached to the filing shows that the DLA Piper was hired at an hourly rate of $1,335 to represent Abdullah “related to potential defamation and other legal remedies associated with inquiries and/or articles concerning His Majesty.” A lawyer for DLA Piper did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The firm was quoted in The Post as well as news stories saying that Abdullah had not misused aid money and that his use of offshore companies was driven by security concerns. A second federal filing shows that Abdullah and DLA Piper also hired Stripe Theory, an Atlanta-based consulting and public relations firm that describes itself online as a provider of strategic marketing advice “when your brand is on the line.” Craig Kronenberger, listed on the letter as an executive at Stripe Theory, did not respond to an email sent to his company address requesting comment.​​ On Sunday, The Post and the ICIJ broke the story about Abdullah’s property purchases in the United States. All told, 150 media partners contributed to the Pandora Papers, which revealed the financial secrets of 35 current and former world leaders and more than 330 politicians and public officials with assets around the world, including in the United States. “If we are serious about fighting dictatorship, we need U.S. professionals to do the most basic due diligence — no American should be accepting money from Chinese Communist Party operatives, Iranian mullahs, Russian oligarchs or others,” Wilson said. “The Enablers Act is a critical national security measure.”

  • Chairman Cardin on Impact of Pandora Papers

    “This unprecedented investigation should further drive the need for transparency and delving deeper into such international transactions.” WASHINGTON—Following the release of the Pandora Papers, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), author of the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, issued the following statement: “The Pandora Papers are a wake-up call for anyone who cares about the future of democracy. The sheer scale of questionable financial flows entering the United States from abroad is astonishing and warrants further review. Kleptocrats from dictatorships and struggling democracies have stolen untold sums and potentially have laundered them through our country and those of our allies. “Such activity poses a direct threat to U.S. national security by hollowing out the rule of law abroad and threatening to do the same at home. It is more important than ever that we increase transparency of such transactions, purge dirty money from our system, and ensure that the United States of America denies kleptocrats safe haven. Our nation must continue to stand with the victims of kleptocracy. This means tackling the problem of the enablers of kleptocracy.” The Pandora Papers represent the largest investigation ever into the true workings of the offshore economy. They reveal how “the United States, in particular, has become an increasingly attractive destination for hidden wealth.” These investigations on the hidden wealth of foreign dictators, their associates, and other corrupt officials include documents from 206 U.S. trusts in 15 states and Washington, D.C., and 22 U.S. trustee companies. South Dakota, in particular, was singled out for criticism. Lawyers also have been central to creating the offshore system, which is behind the ability to transfer illicit wealth anonymously and easily. Three hundred politicians and public officials from more than 90 countries and territories are identified in the Pandora Papers. Two members of Putin’s inner circle and individuals listed on the Navalny 35 list of human rights abusers and kleptocrats, Konstantin Ernst and Gennady Timchenko, used offshore companies and enablers to engage in a $230 million sweetheart real estate deal, and received hundreds of millions of dollars in suspicious “loans,” respectively. Azerbaijan’s kleptocratic ruling family, the Aliyevs, used offshore companies and enablers to obtain $700 million worth of real estate in London. Chinese Communist Party politician Feng Qiya used an offshore company and enablers to trade U.S. stocks with $2 million worth of illicit funds. The Helsinki Commission recently held a public briefing on the enablers of kleptocracy, examining how they put U.S. national security at risk and how they could effectively be regulated.

  • Helsinki Commission Regrets Closure of OSCE Observer Mission at Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk

    WASHINGTON—In light of yesterday’s termination of the activities of the OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “By forcing the closure of the OSCE Observer Mission on Ukraine’s border, despite clear and continued support from other OSCE States for the mission, the Kremlin is once again trying to blind the international community to the reality of its aggression against Ukraine.  The mission regularly observed and reported suspicious movements at the border. “Rather than blocking OSCE instruments, Russia needs to cease its war against Ukraine, including reversing its illegal occupation of Crimea.”    The OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk was intended to build confidence through increased transparency by observing and reporting on the situation at the international border between Ukraine and Russia. Russia had previously imposed severe restrictions on the observer mission, including limiting movement and prohibiting the use of binoculars or cameras.  Despite these limitations, the mission reported on the movements of more than 24 million people since beginning operations in 2014. It observed more than 100 Russian convoys, along with individuals in military apparel and thousands of other vehicles, crossing the uncontrolled border.

  • Helsinki Commission Leadership Condemns Russian Obstruction of OSCE Human Rights Work

    WASHINGTON—In response to Russian intransigence blocking the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are extremely disappointed that the HDIM failed to start this week as planned, due solely to Russian intransigence blocking the meeting. The Kremlin has reached a new low in its efforts to undermine the OSCE’s work to promote human rights and democracy. “Russia clearly fears criticism of its worsening human rights record and fraudulent elections from the OSCE, other OSCE participating States, and civil society. The HDIM, through its thorough review of states’ human rights records and its inclusion of civil society, is a crown jewel of the OSCE’s human rights work. “We urge Russia to change its position and we expect the HDIM to be held in accordance with the agreement adopted in Helsinki in 1992 by the heads of state of all OSCE participating States—including Russia—that established the HDIM. For our part, we will continue to speak out when we see human rights violations, including in the Russian Federation.” The OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is the region’s largest annual human rights conference, and typically brings togethers hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to engage in a comprehensive review of the participating States’ compliance with their human rights and democracy-related commitments. The meeting is held in Warsaw, Poland, where the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is headquartered.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest September 2021

  • Enabling Kleptocracy

    Modern dictatorship relies on access to the West. Lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, real estate professionals, consultants, and others help kleptocrats launder their money and reputations—and exert undue influence in democracies—in exchange for dirty money. Without the energetic assistance of these gatekeepers, kleptocrats could not move their money to western democracies and would be forced to live under the repressive systems they have created. This public briefing brought together four experts on the enabling industry to discuss the various types of enablers, how they compromise democracy, and how they can best be regulated, with an emphasis on potential legislative responses. Modern dictatorship relies on access to the West. Lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, real estate professionals, consultants, and others help kleptocrats launder their money and reputations—and exert undue influence in democracies—in exchange for dirty money. Without the energetic assistance of these gatekeepers, kleptocrats could not move their money to western democracies and would be forced to live under the repressive systems they have created. At this briefing, four experts on the enabling industry came together to discuss the various types of enablers, how they compromise democracy, and how they can best be regulated, with an emphasis on potential legislative responses. Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Paul Massaro opened the briefing by explaining that currently only banks are required to do due diligence on the source of funds; no other industries are similarly regulated, which allows them to accept and launder dirty money with impunity. Massaro explained that actions in the 116th Congress abolished anonymous shell companies and made it harder to launder money; now, it is necessary that we curb the enablers. Lakshmi Kumar, policy director at Global Financial Integrity, focused on the real estate market. According to a recent GFI report, more than $2 billion of laundered money flows through the real estate market each year, with 80 percent from foreign sources spread across more than 26 countries. The majority comes from high net worth and politically connected individuals who rely on an “arsenal” of enablers to help guide them through the process of laundering money. These enablers include lawyers, real estate agents, real estate developers, and investment advisors who generally are either directly complicit or willfully blind. “The absence of rules and regulations around these enablers is what creates this environment,” Kumar said. Journalist Casey Michel highlighted the case study of Teodorin Obiang, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s authoritarian leader, who came to the United States to launder millions of dollars in illicit funds. An American lawyer, Michael Berger, helped him circumvent U.S. anti-money laundering efforts. Josh Rudolph, malign finance fellow at the German Marshall Fund, presented several policy options for tackling money laundering in the United States and highlighted three sectors of focus for the U.S. Treasury Department’s efforts: investment fund advisors, real estate professionals, and the art industry. He offered a blueprint for the Biden administration to counter such enablers by requiring legal professionals, company formation agents, accountants, and covert PR and marketing firms to comply with anti-money laundering rules, as well as by repealing exemptions for real estate professionals, sellers of yachts and planes, as well as crypto and other currency businesses. Transparency International’s Co-Founder Frank Vogl discussed the transactional nature of U.S. and Western foreign policy. Vogl explained that major banks found to launder money in the U.S. most often receive small fines, settle out of court, and go without the punishment of any executives in the matter. Money laundering fines have simply become the cost of doing business. Vogl also expressed the need to investigate legal finance, specifically the bond market, which allows millions to flow to authoritarian regimes. He also argued that more money should flow towards enforcing existing laws, rather than just passing new laws. Asked how money laundering and kleptocracy hurt Americans in a tangible way, Kumar responded that the rental and lease market in the U.S. is impacted negatively by kleptocrat real estate purchases. Michel added that oligarchs’ investments into the Rust Belt and other economically depressed areas in the U.S. were purely to hide money from international investigators and have led to the implosion of the broader economic base in the region. On the question of how to keep anti-money laundering efforts bipartisan, Vogl and Rudolph agreed that the problem is bipartisan at heart and should be viewed as the national security threat that it is. Finally, asked if the world bank, IMF, and other international financial institutions enable kleptocracy, Frank Vogl answered in the affirmative and called for higher transparency among international financial institutions to effectively tackle money laundering and kleptocracy.

  • The Russian election was supposed to shore up Putin’s legitimacy. It achieved the opposite.

    Electoral precinct 40, located in a charming historic area a few minutes’ walking distance from the Kremlin, is among the few in Moscow that can be trusted to count votes honestly. Ever since I first voted here at the age of 18, the official tallies have always reflected the actual votes cast. In Moscow’s 2013 mayoral election, the candidate who won the precinct was anticorruption campaigner and opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Local Muscovite pride may be one factor in this honesty; the presence of independent electoral commission members in the precinct may be another. So when I came to vote here on Sunday, and then stayed overnight to observe the count, I was certain that I would get a glimpse of the real sentiments of Russian voters. To be clear: It wasn’t an honest election. Opponents of the Kremlin, including all Navalny supporters, had been preemptively disqualified from the ballot through various bans imposed by the regime. But I did expect to see an honest count of the votes that were cast. I was proven right. The official vote tally from Precinct #40 showed the three top spots on the party list ballot divided among the Communists, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and the liberal Yabloko party, the only genuine opposition group allowed to take part in this election. (Their shares were 27, 20 and 19 percent, respectively.) The Communist vote, usually low in Moscow, was boosted this time by support from the Navalny team, which urged voters to pick any candidates on the ballot who don’t represent United Russia — a tactic, known as “Smart Voting,” that aims to demonstrate how minimal support for the ruling party really is. On the single-member ballot (where voters choose among individual candidates rather than parties), Yabloko’s Sergei Mitrokhin won handily with 35 percent; the pro-regime candidate eked out just 14 percent. The overall official results announced next morning — both for Moscow and for Russia as a whole — might as well have come from a different country. The authorities solemnly announced that United Russia had retained its two-thirds supermajority in parliament — even though most polls (including those from government pollsters) showed support for the party in the high 20s. The rest of the seats will be filled by officially approved “opposition” parties that always end up supporting Putin’s most important initiatives. Predictably, not a single genuine opposition candidate — among the few allowed on the ballot in the first place — was actually allowed to win. This time around — in addition to traditional rigging methods such as organized voting by state employees and military conscripts, “carousel” multiple voting, and plain ballot-stuffing — the regime deployed a rather specific brand of electronic voting. When used in genuine democracies, electronic voting usually produces an outcome almost immediately. But in this election, tabulating the results took hours longer than counting traditional paper ballots — and the final result flipped at least eight Moscow districts from the opposition to United Russia. “The story with electronic voting fraud … reminds me of the switched urine samples at the 2014 Sochi Olympics,” noted political analyst Maria Snegovaya. “It was done clumsily and crudely — and by the same people, the FSB [Federal Security Service]. It seems this is the only way they can work.” In contrast to 2011, when a patently fraudulent parliamentary election brought tens of thousands of people into the streets, this time no major protests followed. Indeed, none were expected. Navalny’s arrest, and an unprecedented crackdown on opposition supporters earlier this year — with 11,000 detentions and more than 100 criminal cases against participants of pro-democracy rallies — has left Russian civil society subdued and demoralized. But this silence is deceptive. The respite for the regime will almost certainly prove to be only temporary. Recent protests and public opinion trends point to an unmistakable rise in general fatigue with one-man rule that is now stretching into its third decade. Major political change in Russia is notoriously difficult to predict — suffice it to mention the (unpredicted) political upheavals of 1905, 1917 or 1991 — but it seems likely that brewing anti-regime sentiment will burst out into the open in the spring of 2024 if Putin attempts to remain in power, in violation of the constitutional term limit he unlawfully overturned last year. It is an incontrovertible logic of history that in countries where governments cannot be changed at the ballot box, they are often changed on the streets. Russia has seen this herself, as have other countries in our post-Soviet neighborhood. It is no news to anyone that there are no real elections in Putin’s Russia. Yet international reaction to last weekend’s sham vote has been strong on both sides of the Atlantic. Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress and in the European Parliament have stated that it “severely weakens the legitimacy” of Putin’s rule. Whatever remains of that legitimacy will be finally shed in the event of Putin’s illegal prolongation of his mandate beyond 2024. European Union lawmakers have already hinted at a formal nonrecognition of any such action in the new strategy toward Russia adopted earlier this month. The year 2024 will be an important test — both for Russian society’s tolerance to autocratic rule, and for the West’s adherence to the rule of law not just in words but in practice. It’s now time to start preparing for that moment.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine How Western Enablers Support Kleptocrats

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: ENABLING KLEPTOCRACY Wednesday, September 29, 2021 1:00 p.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3kwlHbz Modern dictatorship relies on access to the West. Lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, real estate professionals, consultants, and others help kleptocrats launder their money and reputations—and exert undue influence in democracies—in exchange for dirty money. Without the energetic assistance of these gatekeepers, kleptocrats could not move their money to western democracies and would be forced to live under the repressive systems they have created. This public briefing will bring together four experts on the enabling industry. They will discuss the various types of enablers, how they compromise democracy, and how they can best be regulated, with an emphasis on potential legislative responses. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Lakshmi Kumar, Policy Director, Global Financial Integrity; Author, Acres of Money Laundering: Why U.S. Real Estate is a Kleptocrat’s Dream Casey Michel, Journalist; Author, American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the World's Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History Josh Rudolph, German Marshall Fund, Malign Finance Fellow; Author, Regulating the Enablers: How the U.S. Treasury Should Prioritize Imposing Rules on Professionals Who Endanger National Security by Handling Dirty Money Frank Vogl, Co-Founder, Transparency International, Partnership for Transparency Fund; Author, The Enablers – How the West Supports Kleptocrats and Corruption - Endangering Our Democracy  

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Blast So-Called Election Results in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the sham State Duma elections in Russia, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “From barring opposition candidates to stuffing ballot boxes and manipulating vote totals, there is ample evidence that these parliamentary elections may be the most blatantly fraudulent of them all. The Kremlin once again has demonstrated its utter disregard for the norms and values it purports to respect,” said Chairman Cardin. “Contrary to their international obligations, Russian authorities inexcusably restricted the number of international observers to the point that the OSCE was unable to monitor this election according to its long-established methods. Compounded with the fact that no election is free or fair if the principal opposition figures are kept off the ballot, as in this case, these elections will provide not a shred of legitimacy to those who take their seats in the Duma.” “Citizens cannot freely choose who represents them when opposition candidates are banned from running, poll workers stuff ballot boxes, and last-minute electronic ‘vote counting’ pushes Kremlin-preferred candidates over the top,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “With each election, fewer and fewer opportunities remain for dissent in Russia, demonstrating Putin’s growing insecurity about his ability to stay in power unassisted.” “Moscow’s intimidation of local workers and businesses has left U.S. companies tainted for doing business in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “The moral cost of doing business in Russia increases with every day that Putin and his cronies bully their opponents into submission to maintain political power.” “Despite the lack of international observers, independent observers in-country bravely documented violations exposing the Kremlin’s machinations and the illegitimacy of this weekend’s election,” said Rep. Wilson. “The people of Russia deserve a vote that counts and a government that doesn’t stack the deck in its own favor.” The State Duma elections took place from September 17 – 19, 2021. Ahead of the election, many critics of the Kremlin were barred from running; in June 2021, a Moscow court ruling banned Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and associated organizations as “extremist” groups. As voting took place, photos and videos from live-stream camera feeds captured violations including officials stuffing ballot boxes and people being given multiple ballots. At the end of the vote count in Moscow, non-United Russia candidates who had been consistently leading lost at the last minute after thousands of “delayed” electronic ballots changed the results. On September 17, under threat of criminal prosecution of its staff in Russia, Google removed the Smart Vote app, a tool created by Navalny’s team to help voters identify candidates with the best chance to defeat a United Russia party candidate. Google also blocked access to two documents on Google Docs that included lists of Smart Vote endorsements on the grounds that the documents were “illegal” in Russia. Apple removed the Smart Vote app in Russia as well, claiming it had to follow Russian laws about “illegal” content. On September 18, at the Russian government’s request, YouTube blocked a video that included names of recommended candidates for Navalny’s Smart Vote initiative. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly chose not to observe the Russian elections due to severe restrictions Moscow placed on the number of international observers that would have left the OSCE unable to conduct a complete observation consistent with its usual methodology and standards.

  • Seeking Justice and Freedom in Belarus

    In 2020, mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. Since then, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime have clung to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. On September 21, 2021, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the events in Belarus leading up to and following the 2020 presidential elections. The hearing included expert witness testimony by four witnesses on the state of the media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by remarking that the election in 2020 was not free or fair, contrary to official reports from Belarus, and commended the extreme courage of peaceful protestors to show up en masse despite a history of mass arrests and torture and the “brazen hijacking of a civilian aircraft and kidnapping of a critic of Mr. Lukashenko.” In opening remarks, Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) announced that, alongside Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), he soon would sponsor a resolution denouncing the acts of the Belarusian regime and supporting freedom and human rights in Belarus. Serge Kharytonau delivered a testimony on behalf of the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) based on monitoring and documentation of activity in Belarus. He noted that since 2020, the informational sovereignty of Belarus has been given up to Russia in exchange for Putin’s support of Lukashenko. The state propaganda machines in Belarus and Russia are now synchronized to promote the Kremlin’s goals. Kharytonau noted that the state media also is being used to conduct psychological operations, depicting videos of political hostages and victims of torture. Technology platforms such as YouTube are being used to promote misinformation, hate speech, and the threat of violence towards civilians. Tatsiana Khomich, the Coordination Council’s Representative for political prisoners, testified about the situation of political prisoners in Belarus. Only 673 political prisoners are officially recognized by the government in Belarus, but more than 4,600 cases have been opened relating to 2020 election. Several activists have been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, where they lack medical care, suffer from chronic diseases, are subject to torture, and often attempt suicide. She noted that most of these prisoners are just regular people, such as taxi drivers, and some are as young as 15 years old. “The situation in Belarus will most likely result in the complete annihilation of the civil rights of Belarusians and the chance of political transformation in Belarus will disappear,” she said. Khomich argued that time plays into Lukashenko’s hands as his government adapts to sanctions and the negotiating position of the West declines. Furthermore, as time passes the focus on Belarus is likely to decrease; action is needed now. David Kramer, a senior fellow at Florida International University and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, testified on the violation of human rights and “weaponization” of migrants by Belarus, noting that the spillover effects in neighboring NATO countries poses a threat to the United States. Kramer also classified Belarus as a test case for the West and its struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. He offered several recommendations to deal with the situation in Belarus: targeting the individuals surrounding Lukashenko who are keeping him afloat financially with sanctions; requiring U.S. allies in the Middle East to make a choice between supporting the United States or supporting Lukashenko; cutting off  IMF funding to Belarus; and continuing not to recognize Lukashenko as the leader of Belarus. Kramer emphasized that an effort should be made to press for the release of all political prisoners and have accountability for the gross violation of human rights by the Lukashenko regime. The West needs to prepare for when Lukashenko is gone, he argued, but in the meantime Belarusian civil society must be supported. Siarhej Zikratski, a representative on legal affairs in the office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, personally attested to the political persecution of prisoners. Prisoners are cramped in tiny cells, tortured, beaten, and subjected to sexual violence. Despite appeals, no criminal cases exist regarding these acts. He also highlighted the disbarment of 13 lawyers who defended journalists and politicians who stood up to the regime. Zikratski recommended that the international community refuse to recognize Lukashenko as Belarus’ leader; use international human rights laws and international human rights protection mechanisms such as Article 30 of the Convention Against Torture and Article 41 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to address human rights violations; and record evidence of human rights violations, document crimes, and investigate criminal proceedings under the principle of universal jurisdictions. During the question-and-answer session with witnesses, members asked questions ranging from the use and abuse of U.S. technology platforms by repressive regimes, to the proposed union between Belarus and Russia and the recent joint Zapad military exercise, to specific cases of human rights abuses in Belarus. Witnesses also discussed the effectiveness of the OSCE’s 2020 Moscow Mechanism investigation and the continuing importance of U.S-funded news outlets such as Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe. Related Information Witness Biographies Special Statement from Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Press Release: Chairman Cardin Joins Bipartisan Resolution Highlighting First Anniversary of Fraudulent Election In Belarus Press Release: Cardin and Cohen Condemn Persecution of Independent Journalists in Belarus Press Release: Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman Pratasevich

  • Repression in Belarus Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: SEEKING JUSTICE AND FREEDOM IN BELARUS Tuesday, September 21, 2021 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission More than a year has passed since mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. In the meantime, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime cling to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. As Lukashenko lashes out at the West—even engineering the forced landing of an EU flight to abduct a journalist and sending overwhelming numbers of migrants into the EU via Belarus—the exiled leader of democratic Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has been engaging the world on her country’s behalf, calling for new elections, the release of political prisoners, and accountability for the repressive regime. Expert witnesses will provide updates on the current situation in Belarus, including the state of media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Serge Kharytonau, Media Expert, International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) Tatsiana Khomich, Coordination Council Representative for political prisoners, Viktar Babaryka Team Coordinator, and sister of political prisoner Maria Kalesnikava David J. Kramer, Senior Fellow, Florida International University Siarhej Zikratski, Representative on Legal Affairs, Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

  • Congress takes aim at kleptocracy

    A bipartisan group of lawmakers is gearing up to make 2021 the year Congress has the bipartisan support necessary to pass sweeping legislation to fight kleptocracy. On Sept. 10, Reps. Steve Cohen, the U.S. Helsinki Commission cochair, and the committee’s ranking member, Joe Wilson, introduced the Counter-Kleptocracy Act. The legislation consolidates seven bipartisan bills that aim to tackle corruption and illicit financial flows, all of which lawmakers introduced in the past year. The Counter-Kleptocracy Act now has 17 bipartisan cosponsors. It includes legislation enabling the administration to name and shame kleptocrats banned from the U.S. and creates a public website documenting the amount of money stolen by corrupt officials in each country, among other initiatives. The game plan is to leverage the bipartisan support for the bills in the House and Senate, and to include the bills in the National Defense Authorization Act this year or next. Several of the measures have already been added to the most recent version of the House bill. Three decades after the end of the Cold War, many lawmakers in Washington recognize that, rather than adopting democratic norms and practices, corrupt officials and kleptocrats from abroad have influenced the U.S. political system and undermined national security by funneling money stolen from their own citizens into the U.S. With this in mind, fighting kleptocracy is becoming one of the standout issues that Republican and Democratic lawmakers agree about tackling. “We’ve never had more momentum on this than we have now,” said Paul Massaro, a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Helsinki Commission, who has been advocating for anti-corruption efforts in Congress for a decade. “If you told national security experts in 2014 or 2015 that corruption is a national security threat, you would get blank looks. Now Congress and the president are calling it a national security threat.” The Biden administration released a memorandum establishing the fight against corruption as a core national security interest in June. Members of Congress say they wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. “From my experience as a former CIA case officer and from my work on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, it is very clear that corruption at home and abroad is a national security threat,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, one of the bill’s cosponsors. Rep. Katie Porter, another cosponsor, added that anti-corruption efforts at home can help advance U.S. interests abroad. “Americans know that corruption makes government less representative, less transparent, and less responsive to people’s needs. That’s true everywhere there is government corruption, including in many countries where it poses a threat to our foreign policy and national security goals,” Porter said. Experts say former President Trump’s administration played a crucial role in highlighting the dangers of kleptocracy and raising awareness about corruption. “I think one of the reasons that we’ve seen enormous momentum in Washington is that the U.S. had a very unique experience over the past several years with a president who was so saturated in and benefited significantly from these types of pro-kleptocracy or kleptocratic services,” said Casey Michel, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute's Kleptocracy Initiative and author of the book American Kleptocracy. “Trump was one of the first global leaders to emerge from one of these pro-kleptocracy industries. That is, the American luxury-real-estate industry and its marriage with anonymous shell companies,” Michel added. What’s more, it’s becoming apparent that global kleptocracy affects the lives of the people that Congress members represent. When Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky laundered millions of dollars through real estate in Cleveland, for example, it stymied economic growth in the area, Michel says. “They used all of this looted wealth and bought up commercial real estate, factories, and manufacturing plants that were really the life blood of these small communities, and they left these buildings to rot,” Michel said. “So instead of being a revitalization campaign and bringing jobs back, they are just dead weight.” Meanwhile, the rise of illiberalism and anti-democratic regimes from Hungary to Venezuela has also played a role in calling attention to illicit financial flows, lawmakers argue. “With authoritarianism on a troubling rise around the globe, the United States must do everything humanly possible to root out foreign corruption and kleptocracy—which is the preferred fuel of a tyrant’s rise to, and hold on, power,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. “The Counter-Kleptocracy Act is critical to America’s national security and the defense of democracy-loving nations across the world,” Cleaver added. Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also introduced bills included in the Counter-Kleptocracy Act because of concern for rising authoritarianism. “As corrupt regimes worldwide seek to undermine the rule of law, the Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act of 2021 represents a step in the right direction in order to hold kleptocrats accountable,” Rubio said, referring to a bill that would create a public Justice Department website documenting the amount of money stolen by corrupt officials in each country and recovered by the U.S. In general, U.S. counter kleptocracy initiatives fall into three categories. Some work to push dirty money out of the U.S. financial system by enforcing beneficial ownership transparency or requiring lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, real estate agents, and other gatekeepers to verify the source of their clients’ income. Advocates say more efforts are needed on this front, including legislation imposing gatekeeper requirements. Other efforts aim to bolster the rule of law and tackle corruption abroad by abolishing tax havens and making it more difficult for corrupt individuals to use anonymous shell companies based in foreign jurisdictions. Another category of anti-corruption efforts, led in large part by the Justice Department and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, include dismantling kleptocratic networks by issuing sanctions, visa bans, or indictments. The legislation in the Counter-Kleptocracy Act focuses largely on these latter efforts. For example, the Foreign Corruption Accountability Act authorizes visa bans on foreign nationals who use state power to engage in acts of corruption and the Revealing and Explaining Visa Exclusions for Accountability and Legitimacy Act enables the executive branch to reveal the names of human-rights abusers and kleptocrats banned from the U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who introduced two of the initiatives in the Counter-Kleptocracy Act, noted that the bills have support in the Senate. “I am proud that two of my initiatives, the Combating Global Corruption Act and the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act, have been included in the Counter-Kleptocracy Act. A third, the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act, is also moving in the House. All three bills have momentum in the Senate as well,” Cardin said. “By passing these pieces of legislation, we create the tools and authorities necessary to confront modern dictatorship.” Cohen, who introduced the package, also said he’s counting on his colleagues to back the initiative. “All seven of these bills are bipartisan and they are good bills,” Cohen said. “I don’t know of a single member of Congress who publicly supports corruption or kleptocracy. Does that mean there won’t be pushback? Maybe not. I have been surprised before. But I hope that my colleagues in Congress will recognize how important this bill is and lend their support.”

  • Co-Chairman Cohen, Ranking Member Wilson Introduce Counter-Kleptocracy Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today introduced the Counter-Kleptocracy Act. The legislation consolidates seven bipartisan counter-kleptocracy bills led by members of the Helsinki Commission and the Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy during the 117th Congress. “Kleptocracy threatens national security and human rights. It underpins every global challenge we face today. From climate change and COVID to organized crime and human trafficking, corruption either causes or exacerbates the problem. The United States should do all it can in facing down kleptocratic regimes.  I am happy to support President Biden’s proclamation that countering corruption is a ‘core U.S. national security interest’ by sponsoring the Counter-Kleptocracy Act,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Corruption is the lifeblood of dictators and the authoritarian system they seek to export. Foreign corruption is seeping into democratic systems, undermining them from within, and it is high time we treat corruption like the pressing national security threat that it is. The Counter-Kleptocracy Act—which includes seven bipartisan bills and represents the efforts of a large group of bipartisan and bicameral members—will finally provide the authorities and transparency we need to counter this threat,” said Rep. Wilson. The Counter-Kleptocracy Act includes the following counter-kleptocracy bills: Revealing and Explaining Visa Exclusions for Accountability and Legitimacy (REVEAL) Act (H.R. 4557, S. 2392), introduced by Co-Chairman Cohen & Rep. Steve Chabot (OH-01), and Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Commissioner Sen. Marco Rubio (FL)—Enables the executive branch to reveal the names of human rights abusers and kleptocrats banned under Immigration and Nationality Act section 212(a)(3)(c) for “potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences,” a major provision for banning bad actors. Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act (H.R. 4806, S. 2010), introduced by Co-Chairman Cohen and Rep. Wilson, and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Chairman Cardin—Establishes priorities of U.S. engagement at INTERPOL, identifies areas for improvement in the U.S. government’s response to INTERPOL abuse, and protects the U.S. judicial system from abusive INTERPOL notices. Combating Global Corruption Act (H.R. 4322, S. 14), introduced by Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) and Rep. María Elvira Salazar (FL-27), and Chairman Cardin and Sen. Todd Young (IN)—Creates a country-by-country tiered reporting requirement based on compliance with anti-corruption norms and commitments. Leaders of those countries in the lowest tier will be considered for Global Magnitsky sanctions. Foreign Corruption Accountability Act (H.R. 3887), introduced by Rep. John Curtis (UT-03) and Rep. Malinowski—Authorizes visa bans on foreign persons who use state power to engage in acts of corruption against any private persons and publicly names them. Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (H.R. 4737), introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Curtis—Criminalizes bribery demands by foreign officials. Golden Visa Accountability Act (H.R. 4142), introduced by Rep. Adam Kinzinger (IL-16) and Rep. Malinowski—Creates a U.S.-led database to prevent the abuse of investor visas allowing foreign corrupt officials to move around the world freely and covertly and enjoy ill-gotten gains. Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act (H.R. 3781, S. 2010), introduced by Rep. Malinowski and Rep. Curtis, and Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT) and Sen. Rubio—Creates a public Department of Justice website documenting the amount of money “stolen from the people” by corrupt officials in each country and “recovered by the United States.” Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) are original cosponsors of the legislation, along with Rep. Malinowski, Rep. Curtis, Rep. Jackson Lee, Rep. Salazar, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09), Rep. French Hill (AR-02), Rep. Katie Porter (CA-45), Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (OH-16), Rep. Abigail Spanberger (VA-07), and Rep. Dean Phillips (MN-03). The Counter-Kleptocracy Act has been endorsed by the following organizations: Academics Stand Against Poverty, Accountability Lab, Africa Faith and Justice Network, Anti-Corruption Data Collective, the Anti-Corruption Foundation (founded by Alexey Navalny), Centre for the Study of Corruption – University of Sussex, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Crude Accountability, EG Justice, Estonian American National Council, Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency (FACT) Coalition, Free Russia Foundation, Freedom House, Global Financial Integrity, Human, Rights First, Integrity Initiatives International, International Coalition Against Illicit Economies (ICAIE), Joint Baltic American National Committee, Jubilee USA Network, Never Again Coalition, Open Contracting Partnership, Oxfam America, Public Citizen, Repatriation Group International, The ONE Campaign, The Sentry, Transparency International USA, Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, and UNISHKA Research Service.

  • Cardin, Shaheen, Johnson, and Portman Issue Joint Statement on 30th Anniversary of Ukraine Independence

    WASHINGTON–Ahead of today's 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence, Helsinki Commission Chair Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) yesterday issued the following joint statement with fellow Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations (SFRC) Europe and Regional Security Cooperation Subcommittee and a member of the Helsinki Commission; Sen. Ron Johnson (WI); and Sen. Rob Portman (OH): “This is an important milestone for Ukraine, marking three decades since an independent Ukraine rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Over the years, Ukraine has faced immense challenges in its effort to build a more prosperous future for its people, from rooting out corruption to defending its territorial integrity against an increasingly aggressive Russia. Despite these struggles, the progress made in Ukraine on urgent governance reforms are undeniable, and we, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. Senate, congratulate our partners for staying the course. “The U.S. stands in solidarity with Ukraine as it continues to build a democratic, accountable government that is responsive to the needs of its people. We join the rest of free world in rejecting Russia's territorial claim on Crimea and condemning their ongoing assault on Ukraine's territorial integrity in the Donbas region.  We are encouraged by President Zelenskyy’s commitment to continue pro-democratic measures that will empower Ukraine and facilitate its entry to NATO and the EU, which is in the best interests of Ukraine, our transatlantic community and U.S. national security. As Ukraine celebrates 30 years of independence, the U.S. reaffirms its support for our partners’ determination to ensure a free, democratic future for all its citizens.”

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