The Nightmare in Turkmenistan

The Nightmare in Turkmenistan

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
108th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Friday, November 21, 2003

Mr. Speaker, November 25 will mark the one-year anniversary of events in Turkmenistan that turned that already bizarre autocracy into an even more nightmarish kingdom. According to the official version, opposition groups led by former high-ranking officials tried to assassinate Saparmurat Niyazov, the country's President-for-Life. The attempt failed, the plotters were found, tried and imprisoned, and in the eyes of Niyazov's regime, justice has been done.

 

What actually happened that day is unclear. There may well have been a coup attempt against Niyazov, who has turned himself into virtually a living god. Or, as some opposition activists in exile maintain, the whole affair may have been staged by Niyazov to crack down even harder. Since no outsider has had access to those arrested in connection with the events, the truth may never be known.

 

Whatever happened, it is easy to understand the desperate frustration among Turkmen. Niyazov has made Turkmenistan the only one-party state in the former Soviet space, where one man decides everything, no opposition is permitted, all media are totally censored and the populace is forced to study the "rukhnama"--a dictator's rantings that purport to be a one-stop religion, national history and morality lesson.

 

What is clear is that Niyazov's response to November 25 has trampled on civilized norms, even if his allegations are true. In the wake of the arrests, all opposition--real or imagined--has been crushed. Quick show trials of the accused were broadcast on television, after which they received long prison sentences with no access to relatives or international organizations. Some of the opposition leaders have already died in prison. One individual who was arrested, an American citizen named Leonid Komarovsky of Massachusetts was eventually released, as a result of pressure from Washington. Upon gaining his freedom, he told the world of the horrible tortures people suffered at the hands of Turkmen security forces. The stories rival any we used to hear from the Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In addition, relatives of those deemed "enemies of the people" have been targeted for persecution. The luckier ones merely are fired and thrown out of their apartments onto the streets; others have been arrested and tortured in prison or forced to watch their loved ones being tortured.

 

In response to this crisis, the OSCE invoked the Moscow Mechanism, a rarely-used tool to investigate particularly appalling human rights violations. But Niyazov refused to cooperate with the OSCE, whose officially designated rapporteur was denied a visa. Nevertheless, he was able to compile a comprehensive dossier of horror, which documents as well as possible without access to prisons, the mistreatment and abuse of those arrested and the persecution of their relatives. The rapporteur also forwarded to the Government of Turkmenistan recommendations to move towards reform. Niyazov has dismissed them as "offensive" and "interference in internal affairs."

 

Niyazov has also refused U.S. officials entry to his jails. Recently, Ambassador Stephen Minikes, head of the U.S. Delegation to OSCE visited Ashgabat, but despite his explicit request, was not allowed to check on the health of one of those arrested: former Turkmen Foreign Minister and OSCE Ambassador Batyr Berdiev. There are persistent rumors he has died in prison.

 

One year after the events of November 25, Saparmurat Niyazov remains in power. He continues his crackdown, and the country's downward spiral accelerates. Niyazov has reintroduced exit visas, a legacy of the Soviet past we thought had been definitively overcome. Just last week, he instituted new laws harshly restricting freedom of religion, which is trampled upon daily in Turkmenistan; groups brave enough to meet risk home raids, imprisonment, deportation, internal exile, house eviction and even torture. The new provisions further empower regime agents to squash religious practice. Now, individuals caught more than once in a year acting on the behalf of an unregistered community can be fined between ten and thirty months of wages, or be sent to hard labor for up to one year. Of course, registration is in effect impossible to obtain, leaving religious communities and their members in a highly vulnerable position.

 

A recent Niyazov decree on NGO activity makes it punishable for most Turkmen to interact with foreigners. Representatives of non-Turkmen ethnic groups, such as Uzbeks or Russians, face discrimination in education and employment. Niyazov has not only reestablished and strengthened the environment of fear, he has deliberately isolated his country from outside influences. Under his rule, Turkmenistan has no chance of developing normally.

 

As November 25 approaches, we recall that when a political system centralizes all power in the hands one man, offering no possibilities for participation to anyone else, people may be tempted to change that system by any means. And we have occasion to consider the eternal validity of Lord Acton's dictum: "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely."

 

Unfortunately, the U.S. response to Turkmenistan's blatant disregard for human rights has been shamefully weak. In August, although Turkmenistan violates freedom of emigration by requiring exit visas, the Administration made the astonishing decision to exempt Turkmenistan from Jackson-Vanik requirements on the free movement of citizens.

 

Our leverage on this particular dictator may be weak but we have opportunities to express our outrage about these ongoing abuses and to align ourselves with the forces of freedom and democracy. In addition to ending the Jackson-Vanik waiver, the State Department should designate Turkmenistan a "Country of Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The regime's well-documented record of "particularly severe violations of religious freedom" unquestionably meets the statutory threshold envisioned when we passed the Act of "systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom."

 

The United States and the international community must condemn the actions of Niyazov's regime and continue working to bring Turkmenistan back towards civilized and democratic norms. Any other approach betrays our own principles.

Relevant countries: 
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    WASHINGTON—In response to the precarious health of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in prison, threats to the future operation of his organization, and recent detentions of protestors calling for his release, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “The world is watching in horror as Alexei Navalny wastes away in a Russian prison cell, while being inspired by the bravery of Russians who came out to the streets to support him,” said Chairman Cardin. “The Biden administration should  continue to raise the cost on Vladimir Putin and his remaining allies for this most recent attempt to intimidate those who would take up Navalny’s call to action by challenging the Kremlin’s corruption and standing up for their own freedom.” “Alexei Navalny was lucky to survive one assassination attempt, but he returned to his homeland in a powerful example of civic courage,” said Sen. Wicker. “Now as he suffers once again in a Russian prison, we should consider Mr. Navalny’s suggestion of sanctioning those closest to Vladimir Putin—including notorious oligarchs like Roman Abramovich, Alisher Usmanov, Igor Shuvalov, and Nikolay Tokarev. We will be monitoring his condition carefully.” “By jailing Alexei Navalny, branding his anti-corruption organization as ‘extremist,’ and targeting supporters of a free Russia, the Kremlin reveals its contempt for the fundamental rights of the Russian people,” said Rep. Wilson. “This is simply the latest attempt by Vladimir Putin to cling to power and it will ultimately fail.” In August 2020, Alexei Navalny was the victim of an assassination attempt by FSB that used a Russia-developed chemical weapon in the Novichok family. He spent months recovering after being flown to Berlin for treatment. Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17, 2021, and immediately was arrested. Navalny is serving two years and eight months at one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies, about three hours east of Moscow. He is accused of violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 case that is widely considered to be politically motivated. He has severe back pain and numbness in his extremities. Prison authorities have prohibited him from seeing his own doctors, but recently allowed him to be examined outside the prison by independent physicians. Navalny spent three weeks on a hunger strike to protest his lack of access to an outside doctor and remains in critical condition. On April 16, the Moscow prosecutor’s office asked the Moscow City Court to label Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional headquarters, as well as his Citizens’ Rights Protection Foundation, as “extremist” organizations. If approved as expected, it will essentially outlaw these groups and criminalize their activity. On April 21, thousands of protestors came out across Russia in support of Navalny. More than 1,000 people were detained, including members of the press.

  • Wicker, Shaheen Reintroduce Bill to Hold Russia Accountable for Its Religious Freedom Violations in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) today reintroduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (S.1310). It is a companion bill to H.R. 496, introduced by Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), which unanimously passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday. “The Kremlin’s current repression in Ukraine mirrors an ugly chapter from Soviet times when believers were persecuted for their religious faith,” said Sen. Wicker. “Vladimir Putin and his proxies should face real consequences for their brutal attempts to curtail the religious freedom of Ukrainians who suffer under this ruthless Russian occupation.” “There is a bipartisan urgency in Congress to demonstrate support for Ukraine in opposition to Putin’s cruelty, including his barbaric assault against peaceful religious communities. I’m proud to work with this group of lawmakers to reaffirm that sentiment and to stand up for democratic values around the world,” said Sen. Shaheen. “This legislation is an important step forward to hold Putin to account for his unlawful aggression against the Ukrainian people and the fundamental freedoms they hold dear.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would authorize and require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and the Donbas—not just violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders—when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). The bill reaffirms that “it is the policy of the United States to never recognize the illegal, attempted annexation of Crimea by the Government of the Russia or the separation of any portion of Ukrainian territory through the use of military force.” Russian forces invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy and attempt to annex it. The Kremlin has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine since April 2014 with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it created and commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the occupied Donbas. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” including killings, torture, abduction, and detention. It also requires the president to then take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, unless exercising waiver authority, and to ban the foreign officials responsible from entering the United States. The Secretary of State has placed Russia on the Special Watch List for countries with severe violations every year since 2018. All participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Russia, have repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents detailing religious freedom commitments that OSCE participating States have made.

  • Cardin and Wicker on April 15 Sanctions Against Russia

    WASHINGTON—In response to President Biden’s Executive Order on harmful foreign activities of the Russian government and subsequent Treasury sanctions designations, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: “The Biden administration is holding Russia to account for its malign activities in a direct and transparent manner,” said Chairman Cardin. “I applaud the president for taking bold action in response to Russia’s cyberattacks, election interference, its occupation of Crimea, the war it started in eastern Ukraine, and overall human rights abuses and weaponization of corruption. The president should continue to be frank with Russia about the consequences for their actions. We will need to stay the course and continue to use the Magnitsky Act and executive authority to further contain this dangerous regime.” “I welcome all efforts to hold Vladimir Putin accountable for his violence at home and abroad, but this package leaves much to be desired,” said Sen. Wicker. “Instead of the bold action needed to change the Kremlin’s behavior, yesterday’s sanctions represent the latest in a series of incremental steps that exact minimal costs and will have minimal effect. The longer we wait to impose real consequences for Moscow’s bad acts, the longer the Russian people will continue to suffer under Putin’s brutal authoritarian regime.” On April 15, Treasury sanctioned 16 individuals and entities that attempted to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential elections on behalf of the Government of Russia. Along with the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, Treasury also designated five people and three entities in connection with Russia’s occupation of Crimea and human rights abuses there. Under the authority of a new Executive Order issued by President Biden, Treasury implemented new restrictions on the purchase of Russian sovereign debt as well as targeted sanctions on technology companies engaged in malicious cyber activities against the United States.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Call on Belarusian Authorities to Release Journalists, Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON—In response to the ongoing crackdown on journalists and civil society in Belarus, including the detention of RFE/RL consultant Ihar Losik for almost 300 days on spurious charges, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Despite Aleksandr Lukashenko’s attempt to intimidate Belarusians, the resounding call for freedom and democracy in Belarus has been heard around the world. Ihar Losik, Katsiaryna Barysevich, Dzianis Ivashyn, Katsiaryna Andreyeva, and Darya Chultsova are just a few of the brave Belarusian journalists who have been imprisoned for simply doing their jobs. “We stand in solidarity with the people of Belarus, and in admiration of the courageous journalists who provide critical information to their fellow citizens despite the serious risks they face. “We call on Mr. Lukashenko to release all political prisoners without exception, and to end the attacks against journalists, civil society, and all Belarusians peacefully exercising their rights.” Since the run-up to the fraudulent August 2020 election, and during the subsequent protests, Belarusian authorities have conducted a sweeping crackdown on journalists, civil society, and opposition politicians. Sen. Wicker immediately condemned the election results and violence against protestors in Belarus, and Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, then chairman of the Helsinki Commission, asked the U.S. administration to revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus following the government’s violent suppression of peaceful protests. According to Belarusian human rights groups, there are now more than 350 political prisoners in the country. On March 31, the State Department announced that unless Belarus releases all political prisoners, the general license issued by the Treasury Department authorizing transactions with nine state-owned enterprises in Belarus will lapse in late April.  

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Commemorate International Roma Day with Senate and House Resolutions

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of International Roma Day on April 8, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), commission leaders the late Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-04) introduced resolutions in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives celebrating Romani American heritage. Chairman Cardin, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Meeks issued the following joint statement: “Romani people have been part of every wave of European migration to the United States from the colonial period to today.  They enrich the fabric of our nation and strengthen the transatlantic bond.  “Through this resolution, we celebrate Romani culture and pay tribute to our shared history. We applaud the efforts to promote transnational cooperation among Roma launched at the historic First World Romani Congress on April 8, 1971.” In addition to recognizing and celebrating Romani American heritage, these resolutions support International Roma Day, recognized around the world on April 8, and the robust engagement of U.S. diplomats in International Roma Day activities throughout Europe.  The resolutions also commemorate the destruction of the Romani camp at Auschwitz when, on August 2-3, 1944, Nazis murdered between 4,200 and 4,300 Romani men, women, and children in gas chambers in a single night, and commend the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its critically important role in promoting remembrance of the Holocaust and educating audiences about the genocide of Roma. Chairman Cardin serves on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, the governing board of trustees for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Former Helsinki Commission Chairman Hastings, who died on April 6, was a longtime champion of Roma rights. In addition to regularly meeting with Roma from across Europe, he supported efforts in Romania to address the legacy of Roma enslavement; criticized the mass expulsions of Roma from France, fingerprinting of Roma in Italy, and destruction of the historic Romani neighborhood Sulukule in Istanbul; and condemned proposals to restrict births of Roma in Bulgaria and racist violence against Roma wherever it occurred. Rep. Hastings supported the work of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in its scholarship and education about the genocide of Roma and the museum’s acquisition of the unique Lety concentration camp archives.  The Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe works with national and local governments, civil society and international organizations to promote equal opportunities for and the protection of the human rights of Roma. 

  • Ten-Member Congressional Delegation Demonstrates Ongoing U.S. Engagement With the OSCE

    By Bob Hand, Senior Policy Advisor Approximately 270 parliamentarians from across the OSCE region gathered virtually from February 24 – 26 for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Winter Meeting, the first statutory meeting of the Assembly held since the COVID-19 pandemic limited inter-parliamentary diplomacy to online gatherings.  The ongoing impact of COVID-19 on security, the economy, the environment and the human rights and democratic development of the 57 OSCE States remained the focus of the annual gathering.  Supported by the U.S. Helsinki Commission, the U.S. Delegation remained actively engaged, fielding a bicameral, bipartisan delegation of 10 Members of Congress who participated remotely in the debates.  Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) served as Head of the U.S. Delegation.   The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) is an independent institution of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) created in 1991 for parliamentarians to complement the inter-governmental work of the 57 participating States. Unlike other OSCE bodies, countries are represented based on population rather than each having a single seat at the table (the United States has the largest representation with 17 seats), and decision-making is based on a majority vote rather than consensus. The Annual Session each summer is the principal gathering, with a Winter Meeting in February and an Autumn Meeting in October to initiate and conclude the year’s work. Despite a busy congressional schedule, the members of the U.S. Delegation successfully raised critical country, issue, and institutional concerns, including the attempted poisoning and incarceration of Alexei Navalny, Russian aggression in Ukraine, the brutal crackdown in Belarus and corruption and authoritarian tendencies elsewhere in the OSCE region. Active U.S. engagement demonstrates the depth of U.S. commitment to European security, and reflects the importance of the OSCE PA as a vehicle for advancing U.S. interests and building support on issues like human trafficking, attacks on the media, manifestations of anti-Semitism, racism and intolerance, as well as country-specific concerns.  Such a large delegation of Members of Congress reflected the diversity of opinion in the United States, setting an example of openness and honesty for others to follow, deflecting accusations of double standards on U.S. performance, and strengthening the message on human rights concerns in other countries where the Members of Congress can and do express a united view. Improvising Engagement Amid Pandemic Since 2002, Winter Meetings have been held in Vienna, Austria to facilitate direct interaction among parliamentarians, OSCE officials, and diplomatic representatives of the OSCE participating States.  The Winter Meeting also allows the Assembly’s general committees to discuss work for the coming year.  The outbreak of the COVID pandemic in early 2020 forced the cancellation of the Annual Session scheduled for July in Vancouver and the Autumn Meeting scheduled for October in San Marino.  Without rules dealing with such situations, the OSCE PA Secretariat maintained inter-parliamentary engagement by organizing a dozen or more inter-parliamentary web dialogues from April into November to substitute for the traditional gatherings. While no replacement for traditional meetings, these unofficial events provided needed continuity and contact among delegates.  First the first time in the history of the OSCE PA, no annual declaration was adopted, but the then-Assembly President George Tsereteli provided summaries of the web debates on relevant issues, a record of dialogue even in the midst of pandemic. The OSCE PA resumed election observation where possible and responded to political impasse within the OSCE itself by issuing a “Call for Action” urging a reaffirmation of the organization’s once common purpose.    For 2021, the OSCE PA has been seeking to resume its regular meeting schedule, although conditions still required the Winter Meeting to be held remotely.  Five sessions were scheduled during hours that best accommodated participants across some 16 time zones, from Vancouver to Ulaanbaatar.     At the meeting of the Heads of Delegation, known as the Standing Committee, it was announced that the 2021 Annual Session would be unable to be held in person as planned in Bucharest, Romania, in early July.  As a result, the Standing Committee amended the Assembly’s rules of procedure to allow statutory meetings to go forward online, including permitting elections for OSCE PA officers and other decisions to be handled remotely. Maintaining Focus on Substantive Issues and Concerns Beyond scheduling and procedures, the Standing Committee also looked at substance. Following reports from current OSCE PA President Peter Lord Bowness (United Kingdom), Secretary General Roberto Montella (Italy), and OSCE PA Special Representatives appointed to address particular concerns, there were heated exchanges between Azerbaijan and Armenia regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as on Russian aggression against Ukraine and the brutal crackdown on protesting opposition in Belarus—issues that would be raised repeatedly throughout the meeting.  Sen. Cardin, attending not only as Head of Delegation but also as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, delivered a report on his activities, as did Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who serves as the Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues.   “The coronavirus pandemic has created an unprecedented health crisis in the OSCE region, exacerbated by pre-existing inequities and disproportionately impacting people of color. Heightened anti-Asian discrimination, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and violent attacks targeting diverse populations have followed… My report details a response to these developments, as well as the global racial justice movement spurred by the tragic death of George Floyd.” ​ Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Head of U.S. Delegation, U.S. Helsinki Commission Rep. Smith noted, “Traffickers did not shut down during the pandemic—they simply adapted their methods. Meanwhile, vulnerable people were made even more vulnerable by both the virus and its deleterious impact on the global economy… As we worked to address these challenges, it was crucial to have information and recommendations based on real, concrete data.” The Joint Session of the General Committees effectively served as the opening plenary. President Bowness opened the session with a defense of principled-based dialogue, and guest speakers included Ann Linde, Sweden’s foreign minister and this year’s OSCE Chair-in-Office, as well as Helga Schmid (Germany), the OSCE’s new Secretary General.  The chairperson outlined plans for 2021, asserting that the she will “prioritize the comprehensive concept of security across all three dimensions,” namely the Security, Economic and Human Dimension, which she argued “contributes to making the OSCE truly unique.”  The Secretary General expressed her hopes to provide needed support for the organization and its mission, and she credited the OSCE PA for bringing emerging security issues into the OSCE debate.      Sen. Cardin thanked the Assembly and its parliamentarians for their expressions of concern and support for the United States in light of efforts to delegitimize the November 2020 presidential elections and the related violent mob attack on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021.  He also expressed support for the comments of Lord Bowness and the priorities announced by the Swedish Chair-in-Office, including to have the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in 2021. “We must challenge those who are seeking to weaken the OSCE or aren’t living up to their commitments. That’s our priority as parliamentarians … and we must as parliamentarians support the mission of the OSCE and help strengthen it through our actions and our capitals,” he said.  Finally, speaking on behalf of Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20), who was unable to attend, Sen. Cardin asked the Swedish chair about how the OSCE can engage Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to address outstanding issues and encourage a return to the Minsk Group settlement process to achieve a sustainable resolution of the conflict. Taking a Closer Look at the Security, Economic and Human Dimensions of OSCE Following the Joint Session, each of the three General Committees heard from OSCE officials in their respective fields, or dimensions, of OSCE work.  Presenters included the ambassadors serving as chairs of the counterpart committees of the OSCE’s Permanent Council and the head of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. The three committees also heard from their respective rapporteurs on plans for drafting substantive reports that will be the basis of further activity at the Annual Session. Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chairs the General (First) Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted the myriad of security and political issues confronting the OSCE during the past year, including the war in Ukraine, conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and political turmoil in countries of concern like Russia, Belarus, and most recently Georgia.  “Our engagement with critical issues in the OSCE space has been consistent and impactful,” he concluded. Speaking during the session, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Phil Reeker called the erosion of the European security environment the “biggest challenge we face today in the organization” and highlighted U.S. plans for the Forum for Security Cooperation (FSC) during its four-month chairmanship.  The Acting Permanent Representative of the United States to the OSCE and FSC chair, senior diplomat Courtney Austrian, was present for the discussion. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) took the floor during subsequent debate to condemn Russian violations of Helsinki Principles in its aggression in Ukraine.  He said that “Moscow must withdraw proxies in eastern Ukraine” and “respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” asserting that relevant sanctions will remain in place until that happens.  Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) also responded to an intervention on youth and drugs by a delegate from Belarus, arguing that citizens need to be given greater freedom if young people are to feel a commitment to the country. Three other Members of Congress participated in the session of the General (Second) Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and the Environment, which covered issues ranging from corruption to climate change.  Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) focused on addressing corruption. “It should come as no surprise to anyone … that legislatures have one of the most important roles to play in combating corruption—that of establishing a transparent and accountable legal and financial framework that empowers law enforcement officials and is maximally resistant to fraud,” he said.  Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) said that the United States “is back” in efforts to combat climate change and noted recent U.S. legislation designed to address shell companies that support a global dark economy by sheltering “assets of thieves.”  Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) spoke about the devastating impact of the pandemic on women in the healthcare industry as well as on small business, and she expressed concern about risks to supply chains and business ties to both China and Russia.   Three Members of Congress also participated in of the General (Third) Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions.   Rep. Cohen asserted that human rights has reclaimed its place in U.S. foreign policy, and emphasized human rights in concerns in Russia, Belarus, and Hungary. He expressed particular concern about the poisoning and recent arrest of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and called for Belarus to release political prisoners and to hold elections with OSCE observers. Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) took the floor in a later debate, responding to a report on the OSCE’s observation of the U.S. general elections in November 2020.  He stressed the need for U.S. states that currently prohibit or restrict international observation to consider a more open approach and   concluded that “our election officials and state legislators should read this report,” along with “any American who cares about his or her country.  It is a broad snapshot of our entire electoral complex system that we have here.”  Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised concerns about discriminatory restrictions on religious assembly during the pandemic, as well as on the diminishing free media environment in many participating States. “Press freedom in the OSCE region has continued to decline as some governments are using economic, legal, and extra-legal tools to silence independent media and also to bolster loyal outlets and dozens of journalists are imprisoned in the OSCE region,” he said. “We’ve seen that in Russia, we’ve seen that in Belarus, we’ve seen that in Turkey, detaining scores of journalists in recent national protests.” There was one side event held in conjunction with the Winter Meeting, organized by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in cooperation with the Lithuanian Mission to OSCE. Seven panelists in two sessions highlighted how international instruments—such as the Moscow Mechanism, Magnitsky-like legislation, the International Criminal Court, the European Court of Human Rights, and the promotion of a universal criminal jurisdiction—could increase accountability of state actors, support Belarus’ democracy movement, and deny financial safe havens to Russian kleptocrats.  Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom chairman Vladimir Kara-Murza were among the event panelists. Assessing the Effort The virtual three-day, five-session Winter Meeting could not replace an in-person gathering in Vienna, a point frequently made by the parliamentarians themselves.  However, it did allow for a resumption of constructive debate in the general committees and interaction among parliamentarians and other OSCE institutions, paving the way for a return to more traditional work as the year progresses. The need to cancel the Annual Session planned for July in Bucharest was a major disappointment, but the adoption of rules governing such emergency situations now permit some continuity of effort.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Foster Shared Values, Restore Faith in Democratic Institutions on Both Sides of the Atlantic

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) on Thursday reintroduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act to strengthen ties with U.S. allies, protect democratic institutions, and support visionary leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. The legislation was originally introduced in March 2020. “Dramatic disparities in wealth, health, employment, education, and justice are leading some to question whether democracy can deliver on its promise of freedom and opportunity for all,” said Chairman Hastings. “By helping leaders ensure that laws are equitable, transparent, and enforced; elections are free and fair; and the same protections, rights, and laws are extended to all in their constituencies, we can restore faith in democratic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic.” LITE would further codify transatlantic leadership exchanges and knowledge-building activities to equip Western policymakers with legislative, communications, conflict resolution, and other leadership tools to strengthen democratic institutions in their societies as well as the transatlantic relationship. It complements President Joe Biden’s initiatives to address racial equity and discrimination, as well as to reengage with America’s European allies. Recognizing the rapid and ongoing demographic change on both sides of the Atlantic, LITE also focuses on inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges and would empower individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, skills, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies. In addition, LITE would assist in community reunification by helping leaders develop strategies to build resilience against the exploitation of community grievances that can lead to dangerous divisions in society. During the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission, under the leadership of Chairman Hastings, organized multiple initiatives to promote inclusive democracies, including a September 2019 hearing on the state of diversity and inclusion in Europe. In December 2019, the commission convened a hearing on public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance. In February 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted more than 30 young legislators from OSCE participating States and partner countries to discuss the role of young people in peace and security efforts and forge a transatlantic network for political action to address emerging human rights and security challenges. For more than a decade, the Helsinki Commission has convened U.S. and European policymakers with the State Department and other partners under the banner of the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network to support increased political representation in Western democracies. In November 2019, the State Department, in cooperation with the Helsinki Commission, launched a new transatlantic democracy program for youth, “On the Road to Inclusion.” The program empowers young people to collaborate across diverse social, cultural, religious, and generational differences to promote positive change through democratic practices. Representatives Gregory Meeks, Gwen Moore, Steve Cohen, and Sheila Jackson Lee are original cosponsors of the bill.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Condemn Jailing of Navalny, Attacks on Peaceful Protesters across Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following Alexei Navalny’s recent arrest, violent attacks on peaceful protesters across Russia, and police raids on the offices and homes of Navalny and his colleagues, Helsinki Commission leaders Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statements: “Protesters who support Mr. Navalny’s release and seek a more just Russia should not be beaten in the streets and treated like criminals,” said Rep. Hastings. “The true criminals are those who continue to enable Putin and his cronies to steal from the people of Russia.” “What has happened to Alexei Navalny is a travesty. After being poisoned at the Kremlin’s orders, he returned home to Russia only to be jailed for the ‘crime’ of pulling back the curtain on the corruption and violence entrenched in Putin’s system,” said Sen. Wicker. “Those who expose the truth should be rewarded, not condemned.” “If Vladimir Putin did not fear Navalny and his anti-corruption movement, he would not go to such great lengths to silence them,” said Rep. Wilson. “He understands that his power is threatened when the truth is exposed.” “Mr. Navalny must be allowed to return to his family and his work without further harassment by the Kremlin,” said Sen. Cardin. “The Russian people have the right to protest peacefully and advocate for the future of their country without fear of violent retribution from Putin.” In August 2020, Navalny was the victim of a coordinated assassination attempt by the Russian FSB that used a chemical weapon in the Novichok family. After holding him for two days in Russia, Russian authorities allowed Navalny to travel to Berlin, where he spent months recovering, for treatment. Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17 and immediately was arrested. Shortly thereafter, in a makeshift trial in a Moscow police station, Navalny was sentenced to 30 days of pre-trial detention. He will receive his final sentence on February 2. Following Navalny’s detention and his release of an exposé documenting Vladimir Putin’s palace on the Black Sea, thousands of Russians in over 100 cities and towns took to the streets on January 23 to protest. Police responded with widespread violence and over 3,700 people, including more than 50 journalists, were detained. Additional protests are planned for January 31.

  • Helsinki Commissioners Reintroduce Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) yesterday reintroduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 496) in the House of Representatives. The House unanimously passed the original legislation, which targets Russia’s religious freedom violations in Ukraine, on November 18, 2020. “The Kremlin and its proxies continue to imprison and torture people on Ukrainian territory for their faith. Russian government perpetrators must be punished for these crimes,” said Rep. Wilson. “This legislation would ensure that the president of the United States has the authority and mandate to impose costs on Russian officials who are responsible for such assaults on religious freedom.” “The yoke of Putin’s occupation and oppression weighs heavily on Ukrainians. The desire to seek and follow the truth, to explore ultimate meaning, is written on every human heart,” said Rep. Cleaver. “We must stand up to the Russian government’s attempts to suppress the freedom of Ukrainians to follow their religious conscience.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill authorizes the president to hold Russia responsible for violations in Ukrainian territory it illegally occupies or controls, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom, including killings, torture, abduction, and detention. It also requires the president to then take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, and ban the foreign officials responsible from entering the United States. The Secretary of State has placed Russia on the Special Watch List for countries with severe violations every year since 2018. The legislation also states, “It is the policy of the United States to never recognize the illegal, attempted annexation of Crimea by the Government of the Russia or the separation of any portion of Ukrainian territory through the use of military force.” Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy it. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. Participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Russia, have repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Gwen S. Moore (WI-04). Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (FL-12), Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18), and Rep. Andy Harris, M.D. (MD-01) are also original cosponsors.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: January 2021

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