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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    On September 27, 2017, Helsinki Commission Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor Alex Tiersky joined Ambassador Kurt Volker, Dr. Stephen Blank, and Ambassador Eitvydas Bajarunas at a public seminar to discuss the execution, outcomes and aftermath of Russia’s large-scale ZAPAD 2017 military exercise. Hosted by the Central and East European Coalition, Russia on NATO’s Doorstep: The West's Response to the Kremlin's Wargames was moderated by Dr. Mamuka Tsereteli. During the discussion, Tiersky shared his experience as one of only two American officials who was invited by the Belarusian government (who partnered with Russia for the joint military exercise) to be present for the conclusion of ZAPAD 2017. Tiersky commended the Belarusian government for offering the Distinguished Visitors program that he participated in along with representatives of the OSCE, the Red Cross and NATO, as well as defense attachés from various countries. The program included an extensive briefing on the aims, parameters, and intent behind the exercise, as well as an opportunity to witness an impressive live-fire demonstration at the Borisov training ground.  Belarusian briefers underlined that the aim of the program was to offer as much transparency as possible; the exercise was purely defensive in nature and neighboring countries had nothing to fear, Tiersky was told.  However, Tiersky added, the program offered by Belarusian authorities – while commendable – fell short of fulfilling the spirit of commitments to military transparency under the Vienna Document, which would have provided a greater opportunity for evaluating the exercise's scale and scope through broader participation by OSCE participating states and more intrusive inspection measures.  While impressive and worthwhile, the distinguished visitors program was thus not in itself sufficient to draw broad conclusions about ZAPAD, according to Tiersky. Tiersky concluded by describing how ZAPAD did little to assuage broader concerns related to Russian unwillingness to fulfill its commitments to military transparency, including under the Vienna Document (through for example its increasing use of snap exercises), as well as Russian violations of various arms control measures that have been essential contributors to peace and security in Europe for decades.

  • Systematic Attacks on Journalists in Russia and Other Post-Soviet States

    Representative Steve Chabot, Co-Chair of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus, opened the briefing with a statement highlighting the importance of a free and independent press in Russia and Eastern Europe, saying that it was more important now than ever to counter an increasingly bold Vladimir Putin and the spread of Kremlin-backed media. The Congressman affirmed support for the Broadcasting Board of Governors and how their work helps foster a greater independent press in the region. Jordan Warlick, U.S. Helsinki Commission staffer responsible for freedom of the media, introduced the panelists: Thomas Kent, President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL); Amanda Bennett, Director of Voice of America (VOA); Nina Ognianova, Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists; and Karina Orlova, Washington correspondent for Echo of Moscow. Thomas Kent summarized the work and reach of RFE/RL in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He outlined the pressures that RFE/RL journalists face in the region covering the issues that matter to local people. Kent described the plight of several RFE/RL journalists who have been either attacked or detained due to their work, including Mykola Semena in Russian-occupied Crimea and Mykhailo Tkach in Ukraine. He added that reporting on corruption is often the most likely cause for attacks on journalists and that social media has expanded the reach of journalists work in the region. Amanda Bennett discussed the work of Voice of America in the region and its efforts to expand freedom of speech in the region. She outlined the vast audience of VOA broadcasting and emphasized that the Russian government has directly attacked VOA reporters. Bennett stated that VOA’s mission in Russia and the former Soviet Union, as with other regions around the world, was not only to provide high quality content to the audience and journalists alike, but also help foster an independent media, free from harassment. Representative Adam Schiff, Co-Chair of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus, gave remarks about the importance of an independent media in the former Soviet Union. He noted that journalists are often the first to suffer a backlash from authorities, as they investigate and report on issues that regimes do not want to draw attention to. Representative Schiff told the panel that he, along with then-Congressman Mike Pence, reestablished the House Freedom of the Press Caucus not long before the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. He thanked the panelists for the work to not only highlight attacks and harassment against journalists in the region, but also their efforts to protect and assist them and to further press freedom. Nina Ognianova highlighted numerous cases that the Committee to Protect Journalists had worked on in recent months with specific discussion of the situations in Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan. Ognianova detailed the case of the harassment and temporary flight of Russian reporter Elena Milashina following her work on the torture and murder of gay men in Chechnya. Also listed were the cases of Belarus-born journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed in a car bombing in Kyiv in July 2016, the abduction and detention of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli for his investigation of President Ilham Aliyev’s assets in Georgia, and the concerning claims of slander against journalists by the Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev. Providing the audience with a firsthand perspective, Karina Orlova described her decision to flee Russia due to her work as a journalist. Karina spoke of how her Radio Echo of Moscow talk show garnered unfavorable attention from Chechens, following discussion of the Charlie Hebdo attacks on 7 January, 2015, and the magazine’s depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Ramzan Kadyrov directly threatened her station and her editor, Alexey Venediktov, right after the show. She detailed threatening phone calls from self-described Chechens her that labeled her as an enemy of the state. Karina raised other incidents of violence and intimidation against journalists, such as the attack on Oleg Kashin, which was directly ordered by the Governor of Pskov, and a lack of action to bring the perpetrators to justice. She also spoke of censorship by the Russian authorities, particularly towards any journalists that refer to the annexation of Crimea. Karina emphasized that sanctions against the Russian state and elite are working, despite claims to the contrary. Although some journalists are unfortunately forced to self-censor due to safety concerns, Karina refuses to do so herself.

  • Witness to ZAPAD

    For months, watchers of European security have focused unprecedented attention on one, singular scheduled event:  ZAPAD 2017, a Joint Strategic Military Exercise conducted by Russia and Belarus from September 14 to September 20, 2017. The author, the political-military affairs advisor for the U.S. Helsinki Commission staff, attended the final phase of the exercise as a Distinguished Visitor at the invitation of the Government of Belarus.    ZAPAD 2017, the most anticipated—and, in some quarters, feared—military exercise in recent memory concluded on September 20. The extensive maneuvers by Belarusian and Russian forces took place at a number of training ranges in Belarus and on nearby Russian territory and featured a broad range of military capabilities. The planned exercise was in some ways routine; it followed a well-known Russian schedule of readiness-enhancing exercises that rotates among Russia’s military districts on a quadrennial basis (“ZAPAD,” or “West,” takes place in the Western Military District). However, unlike previous exercises, ZAPAD 2017 took place in a strategic context now defined by Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia—incursions that were, according to western analysts, facilitated by Russian exercise activity.  The Russian leadership's track record of aggression, dismissiveness towards transparency, and geopolitical unpredictability understandably put its neighbors to the west on edge.  These countries have seen prior Russian exercises serve as cover for force build-ups that enabled, for instance, the illegal attempted annexation of Crimea. Leading officials ranging from Baltic defense ministers, to the Ukrainian President, to the Secretary General of NATO raised concerns about what ZAPAD 2017 might mean for the security of Belarus' neighbors, both before the exercise and during its execution. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor

  • Helsinki Commission, House Freedom of the Press Caucus to Hold Briefing on Attacks on Journalists in Russia, Post-Soviet States

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the House Freedom of the Press Caucus today announced the following joint briefing: “SYSTEMATIC ATTACKS ON JOURNALISTS IN RUSSIA AND OTHER POST-SOVIET STATES” Wednesday, October 4, 2017 3:00 PM Senate Visitors Center SVC-208 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission A free press is an essential pillar of democracy, keeping governments accountable and citizens informed. Autocratic regimes seek to intimidate and silence the press by systematically targeting journalists. A muzzled independent media is powerless to prevent the domination of the state-driven news narrative and public misinformation. Today, journalists in Russia and post-Soviet states risk intimidation, harassment, arrest, and even murder for their work. Those who criticize the government or investigate sensitive issues like corruption do so at their own peril. More often than not, cases remain unresolved and victims and families do not see justice. This briefing will address key questions regarding journalists in Russia and other post-Soviet states: their important role and impact; concerns over their rights, safety, and protection; and future support and promotion of media freedom in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) region. Opening remarks will be provided by the Co-Chairs of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) The following panelists are scheduled to speak: Thomas Kent, President and CEO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Amanda Bennett, Director, Voice of America Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists Karina Orlova, Washington DC Correspondent, Echo of Moscow

  • Human Rights and Democracy in Russia

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. The Russian Federation has adopted, by consensus, OSCE commitments relating to human rights and fundamental freedoms, free and fair elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary. However, in many areas the Russian government is failing to live up to its commitments. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law, Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor, and Michael Newton, Intern

  • Democratic Elections in the OSCE Region

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. In the 1990 Copenhagen Document, the OSCE participating States adopted, by consensus, watershed commitments on free and fair elections. They stated that the participating States: “. . . solemnly declare that among those elements of justice which are essential to the full expression of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings are the following: [ . . . ] — free elections that will be held at reasonable intervals by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedure, under conditions which ensure in practice the free expression of the opinion of the electors in the choice of their representatives; [ . . . ] — a clear separation between the State and political parties; in particular, political parties will not be merged with the State;”  Accordingly, the participating States rejected the concept of a one-party state or “modified” democracy (e.g., communist- or socialist-democracy).  In a summit held later that year, the OSCE Heads of State or Government declared, “We undertake to build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations.” In spite of the OSCE commitment to hold free and fair elections, some OSCE participating States have demonstrated even more resistance—if not complete unwillingness—to hold free and fair elections. In a few, a transfer of power is more likely to be the result of death than an election.  In some cases, a generation has come of age under a single ruler or ruling family. Download the full report to learn more. Download highlights of conclusions and recommendations drawn from OSCE election reports (October 2016 to September 2017). Contributors: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor, Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor, Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor, Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law, and John Engelken, Intern

  • Criminal Defamation and "Insult" Laws in the OSCE Region

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. Numerous international documents, including those adopted by the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), establish freedom of expression as a fundamental right. However, the right to free speech is not absolute. Consistent with international law, certain kinds of speech, such as obscenity, may be prohibited or regulated. When governments do restrict speech, those restrictions must be consistent with their international obligations and commitments; for example, the restrictions must be necessary in a democratic country and proscribed by law. Criminal defamation and "insult" laws are often defended as necessary to prevent alleged abuses of freedom of expression, but they are not consistent with OSCE norms and their use constitutes an infringement on the fundamental right to free speech. Despite this, criminal defamation and insult laws continue to be abused for political purposes in several OSCE participating States. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law, and Jordan Warlick, Office Director

  • The 2017 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting: An Overview

    Each year,1 the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) organizes the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, Poland. As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress.  The 2017 HDIM will be held from September 11 to September 22. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2017 The HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma.  Each year, three special topics are selected for a full-day review.  2017 special topics will be 1) ensuring “equal enjoyment of rates and participation in political and public life,” 2) “tolerance and nondiscrimination,” and 3) “economic, social and cultural rights as an answer to rising inequalities.”  This year’s meeting will take place at the Warsaw National Stadium (PGE Narodowy), the site of the NATO summit earlier this year. The meeting will be webcast live. Background on the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting When the Helsinki Final Act was signed in Finland in 1975, it enshrined among its ten Principles Guiding Relations between Participating States (the Decalogue) a commitment to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion" (Principle VII). In addition, the Final Act included a section on cooperation regarding humanitarian concerns, including transnational human contacts, information, culture and education. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as trafficking in human beings and refugees), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (e.g., countering anti-Semitism and racism). One of the innovations of the Helsinki Final Act was agreement to review the implementation of agreed commitments while considering the negotiation of new ones. Between 1975 and 1992, implementation review took place in the context of periodic “Follow-up Meetings” as well as smaller specialized meetings focused on specific subjects. The OSCE participating States established permanent institutions in the early 1990s. In 1992, they agreed to hold periodic Human Dimension Implementation Meetings” to foster compliance with agreed-upon principles on democracy and human rights. Additional changes to the modalities for the HDIM were agreed in 1998, 2001, and 2002, which included shortening the meeting from three weeks to two weeks, and adding three “Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings” annually on subjects selected by the Chairmanship-in-Office on particularly timely or time-sensitive issues. One of the most notable features of the HDIM is the strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a strong advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE modalities allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. 1 In exceptional years when the OSCE participating States hold a summit of heads of state or government, the annual review of human dimension commitments is included as part of the Review Conference which precedes the summit, and also includes a review of the political-military and economic/environmental dimensions.

  • Journalists Persecuted 2017: Illustrative Cases

    By Jordan Warlick, Staff Associate Natasha Blaskovich, Intern Katya Kazmin, Intern With a section on the “improvement of working conditions for journalists”, the Helsinki Final Act explicitly recognizes the importance of journalists for democratic and open societies. Despite the signing of the agreement in 1975, the situation for journalists is still very grim in several countries in the region. The U.S. Helsinki Commission continues to monitor these conditions closely and remains concerned with: (a) murder, violence, and other egregious acts that harm the safety of journalists; (b) imprisonment of journalists for their work; (c) other restrictions that impede the work of journalists and a free press. The journalists featured below are representative of those persecuted so far this year. Afqan Muxtarli (Azerbaijan) – Muxtarli and his family fled to neighboring Georgia in 2015 after Muxtarli received threats related to corruption investigations into Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and other officials. Following Muxtarli’s disappearance on May 29, 2017, Muxtarli’s lawyer told Radio Free Europe that the journalist was abducted in Tbilisi and handed over to Azerbaijani officers at the border. Muxtarli believes that these officers planted €10,000 on him and then promptly arrested him, in order to incriminate him for illegally crossing the border with a large sum of money and no passport. Amnesty International and other international human rights organizations have criticized the Azerbaijani government for its oppression of journalists and suppression of free speech. Georgia’s Interior Minister has stated that Georgia has launched an investigation into this allegedly unlawful imprisonment. Mehman Huseynov (Azerbaijan) – Huseynov, a well-known journalist and blogger in Azerbaijan, was sentenced to two years in prison on March 3, 2017 on defamation charges. Huseynov had been under a travel ban since 2012, and was reportedly harassed and intimidated by the police for years. In early January 2017, Huseynov was arrested in Baku, taken to the Nasimi police station where he was held incommunicado, and repeatedly beaten and abused. Although he filed a formal complaint with the prosecutor’s office and made his abuse public, Huseynov’s allegations were declared groundless and not investigated. Huseynov was accused of defamation by the Nasimi police chief, and was found guilty in May 2017. Halina Abakunchyk (Belarus) – Abakunchyk is a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a U.S.-government-funded service. She was detained overnight on March 12, 2017, accused of “participating in an unsanctioned rally,” and then fined approximately $300 for covering large nationwide protests in March over a tax on the unemployed. Abakunchyk was one of 32 journalists arrested and/or fined for similar offenses while covering the protests.   Zhanbolat Mamay (Kazakhstan) – Mamay is the editor of the Tribuna newspaper, one of the few independent papers in Kazakhstan to have survived a recent trend of pressure and harassment from the government. Arrested on February 10, 2017, Mamay stands accused of being an accomplice to money-laundering, along with opposition leader and former head of BTA Bank, Mukhtar Ablyazov, in 2009. Before his arrest, Mamay told RFE/RL that he felt he was being followed. Since his arrest, Mamay has complained of being beaten and extorted while in prison. There are concerns for the safety of Mamay and his family as well as the provision of a fair trial. The Committee to Protect Journalists and other organizations have called for his release. Nikolai Andrushchenko (Russia) – Andrushchenko was a Russian journalist known for reporting on issues provocative to the Russian regime, including corruption. When Andrushchenko was attacked by assailants in St. Petersburg on March 9, 2017, he was in the midst of investigating reports of corruption and human rights abuses, allegations including the involvement of local police. He was found unconscious several hours later and taken to a hospital where brain surgery was performed, leaving him in a coma. He died on April 19, 2017. Prior to the March 9 attack, Andrushchenko had been attacked at least two times in the last decade. In November 2016, assailants attacked him on his doorstep. He was also attacked in November 2007, weeks before he was jailed for two months on false charges of defamation and obstruction of justice. The police have not informed the newspaper which Andrushchenko co-founded, Novy Peterburg (New Petersburg), of any progress in the investigation. Dmitry Popkov (Russia) – Popkov, the chief editor of local independent newspaper Ton-M in Siberia, was found shot dead in his backyard in Minusinsk on May 24, 2017. Popkov was known for investigating alleged abuses of power and corruption. Ton-M’s motto, “We write what other people stay silent about,” made the newspaper – and Popkov himself – long-time targets. Shortly before his murder, Popkov had published reports regarding a federal parliamentary audit that revealed corruption in the local administration. An investigation has been launched by the regional branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee and Popkov’s journalism is being treated as a potential motive for the murder. Nur Ener (Turkey) – Ener, a journalist for the daily Yeni Asya, was detained by police after they raided her apartment in the middle of the night on March 3, 2017. Accused of being affiliated with the Fethullah Gülen network, Ener’s formal charges are unknown to her lawyer and she is allowed only 45 minutes of family visits a week and one hour with her lawyer. A former roommate of Ener, who was arrested after the July 2016 coup attempt, is said to have given Ener’s name to the police in the aftermath of the coup. Some of Ener’s critical reporting, including an interview where the guest criticized certain government policies, may have also been a reason for her arrest. According to the Committee to Project Journalists, Ener is one of over 80 journalists imprisoned in Turkey – the largest jailer of journalists in the world. Oguz Guven (Turkey) ­­– Guven is the website editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet daily. He was detained on May 12, 2017 for spreading terrorist propaganda, a popular charge against journalists in Turkey. The arrest allegedly was prompted by the newspaper’s tweet about the death of Mustafa Alper, a senior Turkish prosecutor involved in prosecuting suspects in the July 2016 coup attempt. Cumhuriyet has come under extreme pressure from the Turkish government, with 17 journalists and board members standing trial on July 24. Guven and his colleagues could face prison sentences as long as 43 years. Stanyslav Aseyev (Ukraine) – Aseyev, a freelance journalist who contributed to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty under the name Stanyslav Vasin, has been missing from Donetsk since June 3, 2017.  On July 16, Yehor Firsov, a former Ukrainian lawmaker and close friend of Aseyev, said he received information through unofficial sources that the journalist was detained by pro-Russian separatists. Aseyev allegedly faces charges of espionage by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), who have threatened him with up to 14 years’ imprisonment. Other journalists highlighted in Political Prisoners in Russia: Mykola Semena (Ukraine) – Semena, a Crimean journalist, has been charged under Article 280.1 of Russia’s criminal code, which penalizes "public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation." The law was added to the Russian criminal code in December 2013, and came into force in May 2014 - several weeks after Crimea was annexed by Russia. Semena was one of the only independent journalists to remain on the peninsula following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. He contributed reporting to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and its Crimea Desk. On April 19, 2016, after Russian police searched Semena’s home and confiscated computers and storage media, the de facto Crimean prosecutor-general ordered Semena to remain on the peninsula while he was investigated for alleged “calls to undermine Russia’s territorial integrity via the mass media.” Semena has been forced to stay in Crimea ever since, despite his requests to travel to Kyiv for urgently needed medical care. Semena’s trial has been adjourned and delayed several times this year. If he is found guilty, he could face five years in prison. Roman Sushchenko (Ukraine) – Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist, is charged under article 276 of Russia’s criminal code (espionage). He has worked as a Paris-based correspondent for Ukraine’s state news agency, Ukrinform, since 2010. He was detained at a Moscow airport on September 30, 2016, upon his arrival from Paris on private business. He was accused of collecting classified information on the activities of Russia’s armed forces and the National Guard. Mr. Sushchenko denies any involvement in espionage. His employer, Ukrinform, also considers the accusations false and called his detention a “planned provocation.” Mr. Sushchenko’s attorney is Mark Feygin, who previously represented Pussy Riot and Nadezhda Savchenko. Sushchenko’s pre-trial detention has been extended several times by the Lefortovsky District Court of Moscow since his arrest, and is currently set until September 30, 2017. Photos Cited: Afqan Muxtarli: Facebook Mehman Huseynov: Facebook Halina Abakunchyk: RFE/RL Zhanbolat Mamay: RFE/RL Nikolai Andrushchenko: RFE/RL Dmitry Popkov: TON-M Nur Ener: Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) Oguz Guven: Twitter Stanyslav Aseyev: RFE/RL

  • Engaging Belarus on Human Rights & Democracy

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing titled, “Engaging Belarus on Human Rights and Democracy” on July 21, 2017, which built on renewed interest in Belarus after members of the Commission traveled to Minsk earlier in the month for the annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting. The panelists for the briefing included Stephen Nix, Regional Program Director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute in Washington, DC; Katie Fox, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Department at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC; and Sanaka Samarasinha, the United Nations Chief in Belarus. Brief remarks were also delivered by Belarusian Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky. Stephen Nix began the briefing by highlighting the importance of Belarus in U.S. foreign relations, including the relationship between Belarus and Russia, especially in light of the increased Western presence in the Baltics and the surrounding area. Mr. Nix “applaud[ed] Belarus’s expressed intent at engagement” and offered some examples demonstrating optimism for the democratic process in Belarus, such as the appointment of opposition party members to parliament with limited power. Katie Fox echoed this optimism when addressing “democratic openings,” such as the concessions the Belarusian government made in response to protests, increasingly democratic electoral processes, and “the growth and development of the democratic parties.” Sanaka Samarasinha discussed engagement in relations to the human rights issues Belarus presents today and the areas of particular concern to the UN. The UN in Belarus has focused primarily on “development activities,” but also issues such as human trafficking and the rising number of HIV/AIDs cases. Samarasinha also highlighted the need for a “safe space” for discussions of human rights issues and transparency to allow Belarusians and Belarusian civil society to be able to have a conversation. Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky highlighted ways that Belarus is working with its NATO neighbors through defense cooperation, including relinquishing nuclear weapons and inviting representatives of NATO to observe the Belarusian-Russian strategic joint exercise scheduled for September 2017. Shidlovsky also stated, “Belarus has always regarded normalization of relations with the United States as a priority of its foreign policy. Yes, we have had our ups and downs, but never has the leadership of Belarus underestimated the importance of full-fledged engagement with the U.S.” In the final Q&A session the panelists were cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the improvement of human rights practices in Belarus and improvements in the electoral code that could someday lead to elections that could be certified as free and fair by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  However, they also stressed that it is critical to continue to fight for changes that are sustainable, beginning with the removal of restrictions on peaceful assembly and freedom of speech.

  • One Year Later: Seeking Justice for Pavel Sheremet

    When investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet died in a car explosion in central Kyiv on July 20, 2016, his assassination garnered global media attention. Upon learning the tragic news, then-OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović condemned the murder, saying, “This killing and its circumstances must be swiftly and thoroughly investigated, and the perpetrators brought to justice.” However, one year later, virtually no progress has been made on his case. Furthermore, the escalating harassment and attacks against journalists in Ukraine, coupled with a culture of impunity for perpetrators, is worrisome for Ukraine’s democratic future. To ensure they meet the aspirations of the Ukrainian people, authorities in Kiev must reaffirm their commitment to freedom of the press by ensuring the perpetrators of Sheremet’s murder—and similar cases of killing, assault, and harassment—are brought to justice. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Jordan Warlick, Office Director, and Amelie Rausing, Intern

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