Politically Motivated Arrests in Belarus

Politically Motivated Arrests in Belarus

Hon
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
106th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Tuesday, March 09, 1999

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to decry the growing litany of repressive measures undertaken by the Government of Belarus against the opposition, especially against members of the opposition's Central Electoral Commission (CEC). Earlier this year, the legitimate Belarusian parliament, the 13th Supreme Soviet, disbanded by president Alexander Lukashenka after the illegal constitutional referendum which extended his term of office by two years to 2001, set a date for the next presidential elections for May 16 and set up a Central Election Commission to conduct these elections.

 

According to the 1994 constitution, which most of the international community recognizes as legitimate, Lukashenka's term expires in July. Lukashenka has rejected calls for a presidential election and is clearly attempting to neutralize democratic opposition to his authoritarian rule. The most egregious crackdown in recent weeks was the sentencing of CEC chairman Viktor Hanchar, to 10 days “administrative detention.” Hanchar suffered some injuries when he was detained and treated roughly by police. He was not given access to his lawyer, Hari Pahanyayla, and his wife was not permitted to see him. A few days earlier, on February 25, fifteen members of the CEC were arrested by police in a café where they were meeting and discussing reports from local election commissions. Special police did not have a warrant and prevented the videotaping of the arrest by Russian television. Five-day detentions or heavy fines were meted out to several CEC members, including Boris Gyunter, Anatoly Gurinovich, Sergei Obodovsky, Iosif Naumchik, Algimantas Dzyarginchus, Alexander Koktysh, Nikolay Pohabov, Valery Sidorenko and Leonid Zakurdayev. Additionally, warnings have been issued to several members of regional opposition elections committees, such as Iosif Naumchik in Vitebsk and Sergei Abadowski in Mogilev. According to Radio Liberty, in Zhodzina, Miensk region, local authorities have begun intimidating people who joined or elected opposition regional election commissions. In Gomel, several opposition activists have been summoned and questioned about their role in the organization of the May presidential elections scheduled by the opposition. Police had seized leaflets about these elections at the office of the Gomel branch of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

 

The repression of the opposition's elections committees is part of a longstanding pattern of Lukashenka's assault on democratic institutions and his campaign to stifle dissent in Belarus. On February 14, 20 students were arrested by police in Miensk for violating street demonstration laws. Among them, Yevgeny Skochko was sentenced to 10 days in jail, Victor Antonov to 5 days in jail, and Kazimir Kuchun and Ilya Banel were fined. Other opposition activists in Gomel and Borisov have been tried for unsanctioned demonstrations over the last few months. Two young workers in Gomel, for instance, were sentenced to 3 days administrative detention for holding an unsanctioned march. According to Reuters, the men were returning from a disco late in the evening and waving banners, which they were bringing home to wash. Earlier in the month, on February 5, members of the human rights movement Charter '97 were attacked and beaten in Miensk by members of the fascist Russian National Unity party. Andrei Sannikov, the Charter's international coordinator and former deputy foreign minister of Belarus was beaten unconscious. According to the International League for Human Rights a few days later, President Lukashenka trivialized the incident on Belarusian television, saying: “They say that some fascists have appeared in Miensk and have beaten somebody up. Do you know who they have beaten? Other fascists.” On February 27, several thousand marchers participated in a peaceful anti-fascist demonstration in Miensk. Organizers of the demonstration, Ales Bilyatsky who was sentenced to 10 days administrative detention and Oleg Volchek who was given a stiff fine, were cited for committing administrative offenses.

 

In late January, Lukashenka signed a decree ordering political parties, public organizations and trade unions to re-register during the period February 1 and July 1. The re-registration process includes a variety of onerous stipulations which would have the effect of weakening the NGOs and political parties. On February 17, the Lukashenka-controlled State Press Committee threatened six independent newspapers with closure if they continued to publish information about the opposition's presidential election plans in May, charging them with “calling for the seizure of power in Belarus.” On March 2, police searched the offices of one of the six independent newspapers, “Pahonya” in Hrodno, confiscating political cartoons and letters from readers.

 

Clearly, political tensions are increasing in Belarus, and the divide between the authoritarian president and the democratic opposition is widening. Mr. Lukashenka and his minions should cease and desist their campaign to harass journalists, to drain and demoralize individuals and organizations in the opposition through administrative fines and detentions, and to forcefully squelch the right to the freedoms of expression and of assembly. Continued harassment of the opposition will only aggravate the current constitutional crisis in Belarus and most certainly will not serve to promote reconciliation between the government and opposition. Mr. Speaker, it is imperative that the international community continue to speak out on behalf of those whose rights are violated, and that we continue to support the restoration of democracy and rule of law in Belarus.

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The OSCE’s broad membership and comprehensive definition of security make it an ideal platform to advocate for our interests in a vital region. Its institutions remain singularly placed to moderate regional conflicts, promote respect for human rights, and safeguard essential elements of democracy. We have not only the right, but also the duty, to hold countries responsible if they fail to adhere to the basic principles that we all agreed to in 1975. We also have the responsibility to hear and consider other participating states when they feel that the United States is not fully meeting our commitments. Leading by example means that we must be held accountable, too. At this critical juncture, when the rules-based order appears particularly fragile, any weakening or absence of the OSCE could irreversibly damage the chances for democracy and peace in the region. We must not allow that to happen – and the key is our own steadfastness, in words and deeds. Roger Wicker (@SenatorWicker) is chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and a vice president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A member of the Republican Party, he has represented Mississippi in the Senate since December 2007. He previously represented Mississippi for 13 years in the House of Representatives. Ben Cardin (@SenatorCardin) is ranking Senate member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. He serves as special representative on anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A member of the Democratic Party, he has represented Maryland in the Senate since January 2007 after 20 years in the House of Representatives.

  • Belarus Reality Check

    On October 22, 2018, over 50 international analysts, practitioners, diplomats and policymakers gathered in Vilnius, Lithuania, for the eighth Belarus Reality Check, a full-day review of the Belarusian economy, political and human rights developments, and changes in the regional security situation in and around Belarus. Former Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland joined representatives of the IMF, the World Bank, Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry, the EU Ambassador to Belarus, and dozens of analysts from Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, and other European nations for the event. Political Developments in Belarus During the first panel, presenters noted that sovereignty and stability remain top priorities for the Government of Belarus. Despite a great deal of work by the OSCE’s Office of Democracy Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in recent years, its recommendations to improve Belarusian elections have still not been implemented, and panelists were skeptical that any action would be taken before parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2020.  Although the Belarusian political opposition remains divided and marginalized, several panelists believed that support for the opposition is growing.  Unfortunately, there was consensus that Russian malign influence in Belarus is also growing, primarily via Russian exploitation of social media platforms in Belarus. The Belarusian Economy The second panel featured four presentations that examined challenges facing the Belarusian economy and analyzed the country’s agonizing choice between beginning long-overdue reforms or remaining dependent on Russian subsidies for oil and gas to shore up failing state-owned enterprises (SOEs).  Panelists pointed out that— due largely to those subsidies—the Belarusian economy has fared better than many of its neighbors for years, and that Belarusians enjoy a better standard of living than a number of their Eastern European counterparts.  Polling by the IPM Research Center has shown that a top priority for Belarusians, and thus for the Government of Belarus, is low inflation.  According to the same study, most Belarusians are satisfied with the current state of affairs. Should the subsidies end, Belarus could face a true crisis.  Belarusian Foreign Policy The final panel discussed Belarusian relations with its neighbors—strangely including China, but omitting the U.S.  Positive trend lines were noted for Belarusian relations with all major countries except Russia, and international organizations have demonstrated increased interest in Belarus. In particular, OSCE Secretary General Greminger visited Belarus for a third time in 2018.  Anaïs Marin of France, recently appointed as UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus, remarked that progress had been made by Belarus on its 2016 National Action Plan on Human Rights, but described continuing Belarusian support of the death penalty as something that required continued scrutiny by the international community.  One analyst took EU policy to task for “aiming at progress, not results.”  Russian policy in Belarus, he claimed, is intended to produce results—namely, to keep Belarus under control and on a short leash.  Another panelist described the conundrum of trying to contain Russian influence in Belarus: “We can’t get rid of Russian influence (money) in Latvia or London; how can we expect to get them out of Belarus?” In a concluding question and answer session, Rauland—who served as charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk from June 2014 through July 2016—asked the panel to comment on the diverging EU and U.S. strategies on Belarus, noting that the EU had decided to lift sanctions on Belarus completely in 2016, while the U.S. had merely suspended them while awaiting further improvements in human rights.  The panelist who responded to that question described EU policy as a mistake, noting that political prisoners had been released (the event which triggered sanctions relief by the EU), but that their civil rights had not been restored, something he felt should have been a condition for the EU completely lifting sanctions. Answers to a question earlier in the day, asking whether panelists were optimistic about the future for Belarus, may have captured the range of views of the participants best of all.  “Yes,” replied the first to answer.  “I’m ‘realistic’ about progress,” replied the next panelist.  “And I’m an optimistic realist,” concluded the third. The event was organized by the Eastern Europe Studies Centre with the support of USAID, Pact and Forum Syd, together with programmatic contributions from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

  • The Human Dimension is a Parliamentary Priority

    Each September, the OSCE focuses considerable attention on its body of commitments in the human dimension, ranging from human rights and fundamental freedoms, to democratic norms and the rule of law, to tolerance in society and other humanitarian concerns. For two weeks, the participating States and interested non-governmental organizations gather in Warsaw, Poland, to review implementation of OSCE commitments in each of these areas.  This Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) is organized under the auspices of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Other OSCE institutions, like the High Commissioner for National Minorities and the Representative on the Freedom of the Media, also participate in the exchange of views. Traditionally, the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) is also represented at the meeting, and its presence this year was particularly strong. About the OSCE PA The OSCE PA is one of the original institutions of the OSCE and consists of 323 parliamentarians who gather three times a year, including at an annual session each summer where resolutions are adopted. Today’s high-profile OSCE work on human trafficking, anti-Semitism, and media freedom began years ago with initiatives undertaken by the assembly and transferred at the urging of parliamentarians to national governments for concrete follow-up activity. Decision-making in the OSCE PA is usually based on a majority vote, which contrasts with the consensus needed among government representatives in OSCE diplomacy. This allows the Assembly to address issues, particularly in the human dimension, in a way that reflects the overwhelming opinion of the participating States but would be unlikely to succeed in other OSCE bodies, where representatives of offending countries can block action.  For example, in the past five annual sessions the OSCE PA has adopted resolutions condemning Russia’s clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of Helsinki principles in it aggression against Ukraine, including violations in the human dimension.  At the 2018 annual session in Berlin last July, Russian parliamentarians unsuccessfully opposed consideration and adoption of a text on human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea, and on the human rights situation in Russia itself. The OSCE PA also criticizes other countries’ record in the human dimension records—including actions of the United States—but the assembly’s criticism is generally commensurate with the severity of perceived violations. The OSCE PA defends ODIHR in its work facilitating implementation of commitments where needed, and civil society in its advocacy of human rights. At the 2018 annual session, parliamentarians condemned the ongoing efforts of Turkey and some other countries to restrict non-governmental voices at the HDIM and other human dimension events, or to dilute them with non-governmental organizations formed at the behest of some of the more repressive regimes in the OSCE region.  In Berlin, the OSCE PA called “on all OSCE participating States to welcome NGO participation in OSCE events, and to reject all efforts to restrict participation in OSCE human dimension events so long as these groups do not resort to or condone violence or terrorism, to ensure the broadest possible contribution from NGOs to the OSCE’s work and a full and unrestricted exchange of information and opinions.” OSCE PA Participation in HDIM 2018 OSCE PA President George Tsereteli addresses the 2018 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw. In 2018, five OSCE PA officers—all elected members of national parliaments—spoke at the HDIM.  OSCE PA President George Tsereteli of Georgia addressed the gathering’s opening session, observing that while the human dimension is also known as the “third dimension” of the OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security, it “should always be our first priority.” “When we put our OSCE hats on, our primary goal is to better the lives of the more than one billion people in the OSCE area,” said President Tsereteli. “Our duty is to respond to their desire to live in a free society, where democratic debate is encouraged and not stifled, where journalists are respected and not jailed or killed, where a simple citizen can trust that his or her voice counts and is not discarded.” Two of the OSCE’s nine Vice Presidents—Isabel Santos of Portugal and Kari Henriksen of Norway—also attended. Santos focused on the human rights of migrants, and Henriksen on promoting opportunities for women and children that will protect them from human trafficking. Two of the three officers of the OSCE PA’s General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions were also in Warsaw. Committee chair Margareta Kiener Nellen of Switzerland addressed hate crimes and hate speech, including ways to combat them, while committee rapporteur Kyriakos Hadjiyianni of Cyprus focused on challenges to freedom of the media, ranging from rhetorical attacks to violence and incarceration of journalists. OSCE PA human rights committee rapporteur Kyriakos Hadjiyianni delivers remarks at the freedom of the media session at the 2018 HDIM in Warsaw. Other Human Dimension Activities Throughout the year, the OSCE PA deploys short-term election observation missions and represents the OSCE as a whole in reporting the preliminary conclusions immediately after elections take place. The assembly also has an active Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, chaired by Belgian parliamentarian Nahima Lanjri, which encourages humane treatment of refugees and migrants alike, including respect for their rights, in accordance with international norms.  Various Special Representatives of the OSCE PA President also have human dimension portfolios, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (Human Trafficking Issues) and Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance).

  • Viewing Security Comprehensively

    By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs What does an annual human rights dialogue have to do with peace and security? To the uninitiated, the answer may not be obvious. The OSCE’s annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) focuses on the compliance by participating States with the Helsinki Final Act’s ten guiding principles for relations between states, including respect for human rights, and with its humanitarian commitments.  Like the OSCE’s annual reviews of the security and the economic/environmental dimensions, the HDIM is a deep dive into a specific group of issues embraced by the OSCE. Yet all three of these dimensions are inextricably intertwined. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act enshrined groundbreaking linkages between the rights of the individual and peaceful relations among states in the concept of comprehensive security. It explicitly recognized that democracy, fundamental freedoms, and the rights of persons belonging to minorities underpin regional peace and security. By signing the document, all OSCE participating States have agreed that lasting security cannot be achieved without respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions. The Potential of Comprehensive Security Soviet dissident groups were among the first to recognize the potential of the Helsinki Final Act’s then-revolutionary linkages. According to Yuri Orlov in Ludmilla Alexeyeva’s memoir “Thaw Generation,” the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group observed that the act represented “the first international document in which the issue of human rights is discussed as a component of international peace,” empowering dissident groups to hold their own authorities to account for human rights violations by way of other governments’ assessments. American presidents have repeatedly underlined the significance of the comprehensive concept of security enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. President Ronald Reagan, returning from discussions with his Soviet counterpart in October 1986, made clear that progress on lessening of tensions and possible arms control agreements would require trust between the two sides, and that this trust was in turn predicated on the Soviet government’s record on meeting human rights commitments: “… I also made it plain, once again, that an improvement of the human condition within the Soviet Union is indispensable for an improvement in bilateral relations with the United States. For a government that will break faith with its own people cannot be trusted to keep faith with foreign powers.” President George H.W. Bush in 1992 underlined that in the act, “participating States recognized respect for human rights as an ‘essential factor’ for the attainment of peace, justice and cooperation among nations.” President Barack Obama in 2015 hailed the act’s central conviction that “the security of states is inextricably linked to the security of their citizens’ rights.” The concept of comprehensive security also lay behind the establishment of institutions such as the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which is tasked by the participating States with helping governments to meet their commitments to human rights and democracy. ODIHR describes its mission as “a cornerstone of the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security.” Similarly, OSCE field missions helping OSCE participating States to strengthen their democracy and thereby their security through the implementation of the OSCE commitments in areas ranging from minority rights to media freedom. The relevance of human rights to building and upholding both internal and international peace has also been a reoccurring theme in the work of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. For example, in June 2017  the rapporteur of the OSCE PA Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions urged OSCE “governments to prioritize commitments to protect fundamental human rights and freedoms of every individual in addressing such pressing issues as countering violent extremism.” Comprehensive Security and the Helsinki Commission The comprehensive concept of security also inspired today’s U.S. Helsinki Commission. The commission has heard on numerous occasions from serving government officials just how crucial the relevance of human rights within states is to security among states. For instance, at a Helsinki Commission hearing while serving as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Philip Gordon emphasized, “The OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security offers a vehicle for engagement across the political, military, economic, and human rights dimensions. ... one of the most important features of the OSCE is that it recognizes that security is not just about what happens between states or beyond borders, but what happens within them.” At the same hearing, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner underlined, “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms within states is an essential element of security and prosperity among states. This principle lies at the core of the OSCE. Without a vigorous Human Dimension, the Helsinki Process becomes a hollow shell.” Helsinki Commissioners consistently emphasize the linkages between the various dimensions of security in all aspects of their work, including efforts to condemn torture; defend the rights of a free press; protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in the fight against terrorism; or underline the importance of individual liberty and the rule of law as the foundations of the NATO alliance. In 2017, all Senate members of the Helsinki Commission jointly introduced a introduced a bipartisan resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act and its relevance to American national security.  As Chairman Roger Wicker observed, “Peace and prosperity in the OSCE region rest on a respect for human rights and the preservation of fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and economic liberty.” 

  • Snapshot: Challenges to Press Freedom in the OSCE

    As the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) convenes the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) conference in Warsaw, Poland—the largest human rights gathering of any kind in Europe—journalists in several OSCE participating States continue to face intimidation, persecution, violence, and even imprisonment just for doing their jobs. Albania: On August 30 in Albania, the home of the father of News 24 TV crime reporter Klodiana Lala was sprayed with bullets, according to the investigative website BalkanInsight.   Fortunately, nobody was injured.  Lala has been reporting on organized crime in Albania for years. Other investigative journalists have been harassed in the past. Azerbaijan: Azerbaijan’s documented record of continued harassment of both foreign and domestic media, including intimidation through lawsuits and even imprisonment, has continued in 2018. Since early last year, the government has blocked the websites of Meydan TV, the Azadliq newspaper, Turan TV, and the U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Azeri service, among others, effectively stifling the country’s only remaining major sources of independent news. Among those journalists investigating official corruption, Mehman Huseynov is serving a two-year sentence for defamation and Afgan Mukhtarli is serving a six-year sentence for entering the country illegally despite credible reports that he was abducted from Georgia in 2017 and brought into Azerbaijan against his will. According to news reports, Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist formerly with RFE/RL who was imprisoned for 18 months in 2014-15, remains under a travel ban and met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her recent visit to Azerbaijan to discuss the continued harassment of the media. Bosnia and Herzegovina: On August 26, Vladimir Kovacevic, a reporter for the independent Bosnian Serb television station BNTV, was attacked and severely beaten outside of his home after reporting on an anti-government protest in Banja Luka, according to Voice of America (VOA). Belarus: On August 7-8 2018, Belarusian authorities raided several independent media outlets, confiscated hard drives and documents from offices and apartments, and detained 18 journalists, including the editor-in-chief of Tut.by, Marina Zolotova. According to press reports, the Belarusian Investigative Committee accused the targeted media outlets of illegally accessing the subscription-only news website BelTA, a crime punishable by fines and up to two years of either house arrest or prison time. While all detained journalists have been released, Belarusian authorities have prohibited them from leaving the country while the charges are being investigated, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists. These latest actions came on the heels of other recent incidents targeting the country’s independent media. As reported by RFE/RL, Belarusian lawmakers passed controversial amendments to the country's media laws in June 2018 which they claimed were necessary to combat so-called "fake news." In July, a Minsk court sentenced Belarusian journalist Dzmitry Halko to four years in a guarded dormitory and forced labor after convicting him of assaulting two police officers. Natallya Radzina, the Poland-based chief editor of independent news site Charter97, reported she received death threats. In addition, well-known Belarusian blogger Sergey Petrukhin has been harassed and detained in recent months, according to the CPJ. Independent media outlets like Belsat TV has received at least 48 fines since the start of 2018, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Croatia: In late June, the European Federation of Journalists reported that Croatian journalist and owner of Zadar News Hrvoje Bajlo was beaten up in Zadar, resulting in his hospitalization. He was also threatened with death if he continued his writings.   Montenegro: Olivera Lakić, an investigative journalist for the Montenegrin newspaper Vijesti, was wounded outside her home by a gunman on May 8, The Guardian reported.  She had been reporting on official corruption in the country.   A bomb exploded in front of the home of one of her associates earlier in the year. Russia: Russia remains a challenging place for independent media to survive, much less thrive.  Journalists remain the target of harassment, arrest, and intimidation. According to the CPJ, five journalists are currently serving prison sentences related to charges of defamation, ethnic or religious insult, or anti-state rhetoric. One of the most notable cases is that of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was arrested by Russian authorities in Crimea, and is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence on charges of terrorism. He has been on a hunger strike since May14, 2018, calling for “the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners that are currently present on the territory of the Russian Federation.”   Many governments, including the U.S., and non-governmental groups have raised concerns about his case directly with the Russian government and called for his release. Serbia: The Association of Journalists of Serbia (UNS) said it had registered 38 cases in which journalists and media workers had reported attacks and other types of harassment since the year began.  Turkey: Turkey continues to be the world’s leading jailer of journalists, according to CPJ. In 2017, CPJ documented 73 Turkish journalists in prison; Turkish civil society groups, such as the Journalists’ Union of Turkey and P24, estimate that the number is at least twice as high (149 and 183, respectively). Most imprisoned journalists are charged with terrorism, including links to the movement led by Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of masterminding an attempted coup in 2016. Over the past year, dozens have been sentenced to lengthy prison sentences, often on charges related to terrorism.  Fourteen Cumhuriyet journalists were sentenced in April, 2018, and six journalists from Zaman newspaper were sentenced in July. Even Turkish journalists living outside of Turkey are not exempt from persecution. According to the Department of State’s 2017 Human Rights Report, 123 Turkish journalists currently living in other countries are too afraid of reprisal, harassment, or arrest to return. The government has also used emergency powers to shutter nearly 200 media outlets, putting scores of journalists out of work. Meanwhile, a small group of large business conglomerates loyal to the government have consolidated their control over the vast majority of Turkey’s mainstream media. Ukraine: In a recent ruling that threatens the internationally recognized protection of a journalist’s sources, a court in Ukraine approved the prosecutor-general’s request for the cell phone data of an RFE/RL investigative reporter. The journalist is Natalia Sedletska, host of the award-winning anti-corruption TV show “Schemes: Corruption in Details,”  a joint production of RFE/RL and Ukrainian Public Television. The information requested includes phone numbers; the date, time, and location of calls, text messages, and other data, which the prosecutor-general’s office claims is needed as part of a criminal investigation. During the period covered by the request, however, the program Schemes has reported on several investigations of senior Ukrainian officials, including the prosecutor-general.  The brutal murders of Jan Kuciak and his fiancé in Slovakia and Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta are stark reminders of the tremendous risks investigative journalists take to expose crime and corruption within the government. While public outrage over Kuciak’s killing led to the resignation of multiple cabinet officials in Slovakia, so far there have been no indictments for the crime. In Malta, three people have been indicted in connection with Galizia’s murder, but those who ordered the assassination remain at large. In the United States, five journalists at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, MD, were brutally murdered in June by a gunman who allegedly was disgruntled by an article the Gazette had written regarding his arrest and subsequent probation for harassing former high school classmates on social media. This is merely a snapshot of the daily challenges and real danger that journalists, editors, and media professionals face in many OSCE participating States. Despite politically charged global rhetoric about the role and purpose of the media, freedom of speech remains a cornerstone of any functioning democracy, and a reliable, trustworthy, and professional media free to do its job without harassment or threat is essential.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Concerned about Recent Harassment of Independent Belarusian Media

    WASHINGTON—Following the recent raids on editorial offices of independent Belarusian media outlets and the detention of several journalists, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “The people of Belarus have a right to know what is really happening in their country. Journalists who risk their personal safety to challenge the state-run media narrative provide an important public service, and President Lukashenka’s deliberate targeting of independent news outlets is an affront to the rights of the whole population. The Belarusian authorities should release the journalists they have detained and cease harassing those who dedicate their lives to uncovering and sharing the truth.”  The commission has been outspoken in championing democracy and human rights in Belarus, having held the overwhelming majority of Congressional hearings, public briefings, and meetings that have taken place on Belarus. A congressional delegation (CODEL) to the 2017 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly summer meeting, hosted by Minsk, met with both President Lukashenka and the democratic opposition, and was the largest CODEL ever to visit Belarus.

  • What’s really behind Putin’s obsession with the Magnitsky Act

    Standing by President Trump’s side in Helsinki for their first bilateral summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin made what Trump described as an “incredible” offer: He would help U.S. investigators gain access to Russian intelligence officers indicted for the 2016 election hacking, on one small condition. “We would expect that the Americans would reciprocate and they would question [U.S.] officials … who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia,” Putin said, producing the name to indicate what actions he had in mind: “Mr. Browder.” Bill Browder, an American-born financier, came to Russia in the 1990s. The grandson of a former general secretary of the Communist Party USA, Browder by his own admission wanted to become “the biggest capitalist in Russia.” He succeeded and was for a decade the country’s largest portfolio foreign investor. Whatever the sins of Russia’s freewheeling capitalism, Browder’s real crime in the eyes of the Kremlin came later, after he had been expelled from Russia in 2005. In 2008, his Moscow lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered a tax scam involving government officials that defrauded Russian taxpayers of $230 million. He did what any law-abiding citizen would, reporting the crime to the relevant authorities. In return, he was arrested and held in detention without trial for almost a year. He was beaten and died on Nov. 16, 2009, at Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison under mysterious circumstances. Officials involved in his case received awards and promotions. In a chilling act worthy of Kafka, the only trial held in the Magnitsky case was a posthumous sentencing of himself — the only trial against a dead man in the history of Russia. It was then that Browder turned from investment to full-time advocacy, traveling the world to persuade one Western parliament after another to pass a measure that was as groundbreaking as it would appear obvious: a law, commemoratively named the Magnitsky Act, that bars individuals (from Russia and elsewhere) who are complicit in human rights abuses and corruption from traveling to the West, owning assets in the West and using the financial system of the West. Boris Nemtsov, then Russia’s opposition leader (who played a key role in convincing Congress to pass the law in 2012), called the Magnitsky Act “the most pro-Russian law in the history of any foreign Parliament.” It was the smartest approach to sanctions. It avoided the mistake of targeting Russian citizens at large for the actions of a small corrupt clique in the Kremlin and placed responsibility directly where it is due. It was also the most effective approach. The people who are in charge of Russia today like to pose as patriots, but in reality, they care little about the country. They view it merely as a looting ground, where they can amass personal fortunes at the expense of Russian taxpayers and then transfer those fortunes to the West. In one of his anti-corruption reports, Nemtsov detailed the unexplained riches attained by Putin’s personal friends such as Gennady Timchenko, Yuri Kovalchuk and the Rotenberg brothers, noting that they are likely “no more that the nominal owners … and the real ultimate beneficiary is Putin himself.” Similar suspicions were voiced after the publication of the 2016 Panama Papers, which showed a $2 billion offshore trail leading to another close Putin friend, cellist Sergei Roldugin. Some of the funds in his accounts were linked with money from the tax fraud scheme uncovered by Magnitsky. Volumes of research, hours of expert testimony and countless policy recommendations have been dedicated to finding effective Western approaches to Putin’s regime. The clearest and the most convincing answer was provided, time and again, by the Putin regime itself. It was the Magnitsky Act that Putin tasked his foreign ministry with trying to stop; it was the Magnitsky Act that was openly tied to the ban on child adoptions; it was the Magnitsky Act that was the subject of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting attended by a Kremlin-linked lawyer; it is advocating for the Magnitsky Act that may soon land any Russian citizen in prison. It was the Magnitsky Act that Putin named as the biggest threat to his regime as he stood by Trump’s side in Helsinki. After the Trump-Putin meeting, the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office released the names of U.S. citizens it wants to question as supposed associates of Browder. The list leaves no doubt as to the nature of the “crime.” It includes Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia policy at the Obama White House and later U.S. Ambassador in Moscow who oversaw the “compiling of memos to the State Department … on the investigation in the Magnitsky case.” It includes David Kramer, former assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, who, as president of Freedom House between 2010 and 2014, was one of the most effective advocates for the Magnitsky Act. Perhaps most tellingly, it includes Kyle Parker, now chief of staff at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, who, as the lead Russia staffer at the commission, wrote the bill that subsequently became the Magnitsky Act. Vladimir Putin has left no doubt: The biggest threat to his regime is the Magnitsky Act, which stops its beneficiaries from doing what has long become their raison d’être — stealing in Russia and spending in the West. It is time for more Western nations to adopt this law — and for the six countries that already have it to implement it with vigor and resolve.

  • Chairman Wicker, Ranking Senator Cardin Urge President Trump to Call on President Putin to Free Oleg Sentsov

    WASHINGTON—In a letter on Friday, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) urged President Trump to call on Russian President Vladimir Putin to free Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from his unjust imprisonment. On May 14, 2018, Sentsov began a hunger strike, which he plans to continue until all Ukrainian political prisoners jailed in Russia are released. The letter reads in part: “Oleg Sentsov has been a prisoner of conscience in Russia for more than four years. In May 2014, he was detained in his native Crimea, then illegally occupied by Russia, and brought to Moscow on unsubstantiated allegations of terrorism. Numerous governments and human rights organizations have dismissed these allegations as politically-charged, groundless fabrications orchestrated in retaliation for Sentsov’s outspoken criticism of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and his efforts to document human rights abuses there… “As Russia hosts the World Cup in the coming weeks, the eyes of the world will be on the country. In the spirit of this unifying global event, we urge you to raise with President Putin the international approbation which Oleg Sentsov’s immediate release would provide for him. Your advocacy on behalf of this brave Ukrainian patriot will be an important demonstration of U.S. human rights leadership around the world.” In April 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing focusing on Russia’s human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens, including Sentsov. The full text of the letter can be found below: The Honorable Donald J. Trump President of the United States The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington, DC 20500 Dear Mr. President, We hope you will call on Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately and unconditionally to release the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from his unjust imprisonment in Siberia. In light of Sentsov’s hunger strike, our request is urgent. Oleg Sentsov has been a prisoner of conscience in Russia for more than four years.  In May 2014, he was detained in his native Crimea, then illegally occupied by Russia, and brought to Moscow on unsubstantiated allegations of terrorism. Numerous governments and human rights organizations have dismissed these allegations as politically-charged, groundless fabrications orchestrated in retaliation for Sentsov’s outspoken criticism of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and his efforts to document human rights abuses there. On May 14, 2018, Mr. Sentsov declared he had begun an indefinite hunger strike, stating that “the one and only condition for its termination is the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners that are currently present on the territory of the Russian Federation.” With his health already weakened, it is uncertain how long he can survive. As Russia hosts the World Cup in the coming weeks, the eyes of the world will be on the country.  In the spirit of this unifying global event, we urge you to raise with President Putin the international approbation which Oleg Sentsov’s immediate release would provide for him.  Your advocacy on behalf of this brave Ukrainian patriot will be an important demonstration of U.S. human rights leadership around the world. Sincerely,

  • Sanctioning Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats under the Global Magnitsky Act

    The Global Magnitsky Act enables the United States to sanction the world’s worst human rights abusers and most corrupt oligarchs and foreign officials, freezing their U.S. assets and preventing them from traveling to the United States. Sanctioned individuals become financial pariahs and the international financial system wants nothing to do with them. Before proceeding, ask yourself: is Global Magnitsky right for my case? The language of the Global Magnitsky Act as passed by Congress was ex-panded by Executive Order 13818, which is now the implementing authority for Global Magnitsky sanctions. EO 13818 stipulates that sanctions may be considered for individuals who are engaging or have engaged in “serious human rights abuse” against any person, or are engaging or have en-gaged in “corruption.” Individuals who, by virtue of their rank, have ordered others to engage or have facilitated these acts also are liable to be sanctioned. Keep in mind that prior to the EO’s expansion of the language, human rights sanctions were limited to “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” as codified in 22 USC § 2304(d)(1). The original language also stipulates that any victim must be working “to expose illegal activity car-ried out by government officials” or to “obtain, exercise, defend, or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms.” As for sanctions for corruption, it identifies “acts of significant corruption” as sanctionable offenses. This is generally thought to be a stricter standard than the EO’s term “corruption.” It may be worthwhile to aim for this higher standard to make the tightest case possible for sanctions. As a rule, reach out to other NGOs and individuals working in the human rights and anti-corruption field, especially those who are advocating for their own Global Magnitsky sanctions. Doing so at the beginning of the process will enable you to build strong relationships, develop a robust network, and speak with a stronger voice. Download the full guide to learn more. Contributor: Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor

  • And then, they took her cellphone

    Yesterday I received word that Pavla Holcova, a brave and unflappable Czech journalist, had been summoned by Slovakian police, who are investigating the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciakearlier this year. She took a 4-hour train ride from Prague to Bratislava and voluntarily presented herself at their headquarters. She has cooperated with the investigation since its earliest stages, but on this occasion, she was interrogated for eight hours. She was eventually released, but not before her cellphone was confiscated. The prosecutor who signed the order to take her cellphone and access its data is not assigned to the murder case, and he declined to explain why the authorities needed her phone. Holcova is not under any sort of criminal investigation. Quite the opposite, in fact. But Slovak authorities, acting suspiciously like the thuggish security forces found in repressive states, appear to be trying to shut her down. During the interrogation, she was repeatedly told that her reporting was “always against the system.” Not only is Slovakia a member of the European Union, until last year it ranked — along with much of Europe — as having one of the world’s freest media landscapes. Not anymore. This was merely the latest attempt by Slovakian authorities to harass the colleagues, friends and family of a reporter who was killed for doing his job. I met Holcova last week. She and I were part of a panel discussion in Washington titled “A Deadly Calling,” organized by the Helsinki Commission and designed to raise awareness for and address the assassinations of two investigative journalists in the European Union: Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta last October, and Kuciak in Slovakia this February. The panel included Caruana Galizia’s son, Matthew — himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter — and Holcova, who worked closely with Kuciak to report on official corruption and the Slovakian government’s ties with organized crime. It was this reporting that, many believe, prompted the murders of Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova. Our panel — which also included Robert Mahoney of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a watchdog group that tracks attacks on press freedom — offered an unvarnished look at the rising threats to freedom of expression around the world. In Slovakia, the Kuciak case represents a fundamental test of a young democracy. There has been a major public backlash there, with tens of thousands of ordinary citizens joining street protests demanding justice for the killings. Several high-level resignations have resulted, with the most notable casualty being Prime Minister Robert Fico. Holcova believes there is reason to hope that justice will prevail, and that reform and the rooting out of corruption are possible. But she remains skeptical. “Even though the changes made in the government are rather cosmetic,” she told me. “The most influential government members were replaced by people from the very same political party.” Less visible to the public, though, are the lasting scars these attacks have on loved ones of the slain journalists and the ongoing attempts to deter them from seeking justice. Holcova says she is lucky in that she has a strong support network of friends and family, “but sometimes I feel I might be indeed ‘toxic’ and I am afraid someone might get hurt because of me. This potential guilt is painful and even sometimes paralyzing.” That’s a familiar feeling to many journalists operating in authoritarian societies or scrutinizing high-level corruption. But this isn’t a situation we should tolerate in silence. Impressively, Holcova says she remains undeterred. I asked whether she had ever thought about giving up the effort to find her friend’s killers. “Yes, sure. I will stop pursuing this case, when the people really involved (not just the proxies) will be brought to justice.” Incidentally, this interview was conducted entirely by email. Why? Because Slovakian authorities still have Holcova’s phone, and have offered no indication of when they plan to return it. The public shaming of governments — especially fragile ones — for their bad behavior is one of the best tools available in places where the rule of law has not been completely eviscerated. Slovakia is one of those countries hanging in the balance. We should do all we can to support their struggle to mature into a viable democracy with a strong future. Officials there, Holcova wrote, “did not care that much in past. But I believe they do now. At least a bit more. The reputation of Slovak government is very much damaged, the trust in state institutions such as police or prosecutors is very low.” There’s one very simple way the Slovakian authorities can begin to repair their image. They should return Pavla Holcova’s cellphone immediately.

  • Democracy Deferred

    After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission examined these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.  In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Review State of Fundamental Freedoms in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DEMOCRACY DEFERRED: THE STATE OF ELECTIONS AND FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS IN AZERBAIJAN Wednesday, May 9, 2018 10:30 a.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 215 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission will examine these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.   The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Audrey L. Altstadt, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts – Amherst Emin Milli, Director, Meydan TV Maran Turner, Executive Director, Freedom Now Additional panelists may be added. In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • How to Get Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats Sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act

    The workshop provided human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. Sanctions experts described, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also discussed the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists shared investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates.

  • Helsinki Commission Workshop to Explain Global Magnitsky Sanctions Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced a workshop to provide human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. HOW TO GET HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSERS AND KLEPTOCRATS SANCTIONED UNDER THE GLOBAL MAGNITSKY ACT Tuesday, March 13, 2018 3:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 212-10 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Sanctions experts will describe, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also will discuss the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists will share investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates. Panelists include: Rob Berschinski, Senior Vice President, Human Rights First; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brad Brooks-Rubin, Managing Director, The Sentry; formerly with the Departments of State and Treasury Bill Browder, Founder and Director, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Mark Dubowitz, CEO, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Adam Smith, Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; formerly with the National Security Council and Department of Treasury Josh White, Director of Policy and Analysis, The Sentry; formerly with the Department of Treasury The Global Magnitsky Act is a powerful new tool for deterring human rights violations and fighting corruption. Presence on this list freezes any U.S. assets an individual may hold, blocks future transactions within the U.S. financial system, and bans any travel to the United States. By sanctioning individuals who engage in the worst abuses of power, the United States hardens its own system to external abuse while extending moral support and solidarity to those whose fundamental freedoms are curtailed or denied.

  • Helsinki Commission Workshop to Explain Global Magnitsky Sanctions Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced a workshop to provide human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. HOW TO GET HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSERS AND KLEPTOCRATS SANCTIONED UNDER THE GLOBAL MAGNITSKY ACT Tuesday, March 13, 2018 3:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 212-10 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Sanctions experts will describe, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also will discuss the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists will share investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates. Panelists include: Rob Berschinski, Senior Vice President, Human Rights First; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brad Brooks-Rubin, Managing Director, The Sentry; formerly with the Departments of State and Treasury Bill Browder, Founder and Director, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Mark Dubowitz, CEO, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Adam Smith, Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; formerly with the National Security Council and Department of Treasury Josh White, Director of Policy and Analysis, The Sentry; formerly with the Department of Treasury The Global Magnitsky Act is a powerful new tool for deterring human rights violations and fighting corruption. Presence on this list freezes any U.S. assets an individual may hold, blocks future transactions within the U.S. financial system, and bans any travel to the United States. By sanctioning individuals who engage in the worst abuses of power, the United States hardens its own system to external abuse while extending moral support and solidarity to those whose fundamental freedoms are curtailed or denied.

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