Uzbekistan's Litany of Violations

Uzbekistan's Litany of Violations

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
106th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Thursday, July 22, 1999

Mr. Speaker, as Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I rise today to highlight the persecution of religious believers in Uzbekistan. The problem is worsening by the day, as the crackdown continues under the guise of “anti-terrorism.” While there is some justifiable threat of terrorism, the widespread violations of rule of law and human rights perpetrated by authorities are not defensible, especially in light of Uzbekistan's OSCE commitments.

Under President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan has been the second most repressive former Soviet republic, next to Turkmenistan. Karimov has used new constitutions and referendums extending his tenure to remain in office, where he seems determined to stay indefinitely. In mid-1992, he cracked down on all opposition parties, driving them underground or into exile, and all opposition or independent media were eliminated. In Uzbekistan today, human rights are systemically violated. Arbitrary arrests, abuse and torture of detainees are pervasive, and flagrantly politicized judicial proceedings are routine. According to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki Watch, there are well over 200 individuals who are prisoners of conscience either for their religious or political activities. Defendants have been convicted of criminal offenses based on forced confessions and planted evidence.

The regime has also refused to register independent human rights monitoring organizations (the Human Rights Society and the Independent Human Rights Society), while groups which cooperate closely with the government (Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Individual) have been registered without delay. On June 25, Uzbek police savagely beat Mikhail Ardzinov, one of the country's most prominent human rights activists.

A key component of Uzbekistan's assault on human rights has been a thorough campaign against religious believers. Since 1997, hundreds of independent Muslim activists and believers associated with them have been arrested. In February of this year, bombs exploded in the capital, Tashkent, which killed sixteen bystanders and damaged government buildings, narrowly missing President Karimov and government officials. Karimov accused Muslim activists of having carried out a terrorist attack intended to assassinate him. The harassment and detention of Muslim activists has greatly intensified since then and an ongoing series of show trials had discredit them as dangerous religious extremists. Last month, six people were sentenced to death and another 16 received prison terms ranging from eight to 20 years in a trial that by no means met Western standards for due process. Since then, two arrested Muslims have died in prison, and there is no sign of a let up.

President Karimov has argued that the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia's most populous and traditional state necessitates a hard line, especially because Islamic radicals from neighboring Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan are determined to subvert Uzbekistan's secular, developing democracy. But the state's repressive policies are radicalizing Muslims and turning them against the regime. Non-Muslims faiths, particularly Christians, have also been subjected to harassment, imprisonment and violations of their religious liberty, especially those who share their faith and are actively meeting. According to Compass Direct, Ibrahim Yusupov, the leader of a Pentecostal church in Tashkent, was tried and sentenced last month to one year in prison on charges of conducting missionary activity. Another court in June sentenced Christian pastor Na'il Asanov to five years in prison on charges of possession of drugs and spreading extremist ideas.

As with other cases mentioned below, witnesses attest that police planted a packet of drugs on Pastor Asanov and also severely beat him while he was in detention. Also in June, three members of the Full Gospel Church in Nukus were sentenced to long prison sentences. Pastor Rashid Turibayev received a 15-year sentence, while Parhad Yangibayev and Issed Tanishiev received 10-year sentences for “deceiving ordinary people” as well as possessing and using drugs. Their appeal was denied on July 13. Reports indicate that they have suffered severe beatings in prison, have been denied food and medical attention, and their personal possessions have been confiscated by the police, leaving their families destitute. Recently, the most senior Pentecostal leader in Uzbekistan, Bishop Leonty Lulkin, and two other church members were tried and sentenced on charges of illegally meeting. The sentence they received was a massive fine of 100 times the minimum monthly wage.

The leaders of Baptist churches, Korean churches, the Jehovah's Witnesses, as well as many others, have also been subjected to harsh legal penalties. Although they have filed for registration, local authorities refused to sign their documents.

Mr. Speaker, the State Department's report on Human Rights Practices for 1998 reported that the Uzbekistan law on religion “limits freedom of religion” with strict registration requirements which make it virtually impossible for smaller church organizations to gain legal status. The law passed in June 1998, “prohibits proselytizing, bans religious subjects in school curriculums, prohibits teaching of religious principles, forbids the wearing of religious clothing in public by anyone except clerics, and requires all religious groups and congregations to register or re-register.” Also approved last May was a second law establishing the penalties if one were convicted of violating any of the statutes on religious activities. The penalties can range anywhere from lengthy prison sentences, massive fines, and confiscation of property, to denial of official registration rights. On May 12 of this year, Uzbekistan tightened its Criminal Code, making participation in an unregistered religious group a criminal offense, punishable by a fine equivalent to fifty times the minimum monthly wage or imprisonment of up to three years.

Mr. Speaker, these actions indicate that the policies of the Government of Uzbekistan toward religious groups are not moving in the right direction. In fact, these initiatives are in direct violation to Uzbekistan's OSCE commitments, including Article 16.3 of the Vienna Concluding Document which states that “the State will grant upon their request to communities of believers, practicing or prepared to practice their faith within the constitutional framework of their States, recognition of the status provided for them in the respective countries.” In the Copenhagen Concluding Document of 1990 Article 9.1, Uzbekistan has committed to “reaffirm that everyone will have the right to freedom of expression including the right to communication. This right will include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”

Uzbekistan's current course of strangling all forms of religious discourse is a flagrant, deliberate, and unrelenting violation of these principles. Last year Congress overwhelmingly passed the Religious Freedom Act of 1998 which reaffirmed the United States' commitment to supporting religious freedom abroad through U.S. foreign policy. Considering the litany of violations affecting religious liberty and the ongoing persecution of believers, it is time for Congress to consider our aid programs to Uzbekistan, including our military cooperation programs which cost about 33 million dollars in this year alone. Congress should also reconsider our trade relationship with Uzbekistan and scrutinize other programs such as Cooperative Threat Reduction where we can leverage our influence to help protect religious liberty and human rights.

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We urge you to ensure the timely, transparent, and fair adjudication of the aforementioned cases, lift the state of emergency and immediately restore Turkey’s commitment to international standards of due process and judicial independence. As a member of the Council of Europe and participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), your country officially recognizes the rule of law as a cornerstone of democratic governance. Restoring respect for fair judicial treatment would remove a persistent distraction in our bilateral relationship and help to rebuild a principles-based partnership rooted in shared commitments to collective security, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Thank you for your attention to this important matter. Sincerely, 

  • Kyrgyzstan election: A historic vote, but is it fair?

    For the first time in the history of Kyrgyzstan, an elected president is due to peacefully hand over power after elections take place on Sunday. But critics say the political environment in Central Asia's "island of democracy" is deteriorating. Here's a look at the issues there - and who's likely to come out on top. Elections in Central Asia are usually easily predictable - the incumbent or the ruling party's candidate wins the vote with an overwhelming majority. But the vote in Kyrgyzstan offers a real competition and choice. Nearly 60 people applied to run in the race, 13 of whom were registered to stand. Two later dropped out. The incumbent, President Almazbek Atambayev, must leave office after six years. Under the Kyrgyz constitution, he may only serve one term. In neighbouring states, laws have often been changed to allow the incumbent to run again but this did not happen in Kyrgyzstan. President Atambayev also promised not to go for the prime minister's job in order to stay in power. Although one of the main candidates - Sooronbay Jeenbekov - is from the president's party, he is not guaranteed to win the vote. He faces a strong opponent - Omurbek Babanov, a prominent businessman and a former prime minister. Some candidates made the unusual move of endorsing their opponents after the campaign started. Experts say that they went through all the trouble of getting into the race in order to increase their political influence. They try to build a greater support base, which they use to negotiate a favourable deal with stronger candidates before pulling out of the race. Politicians can easily change sides, because it's not ideology or a political platform but their own personality that they use to appeal to the voters. Observers say that over the last couple of years the political climate in Kyrgyzstan has been deteriorating. The Helsinki Commission wrote that "the vote takes place amid mounting concerns of democratic backsliding, particularly regarding the government's treatment of political opposition, civil society and human rights defenders". President Atambayev has demonstrated increasing intolerance to criticism. The Sentyabr TV station which opposed him was closed last year for extremism, and activists say that there were blatant procedural violations during the trial. Several popular independent media outlets were sued and heavily fined for insulting the president. The government also tried to intimidate critics on social media. Security services identified Facebook users who criticised the president, and gave them warnings. Several political opponents of President Atambayev have also been sent to prison. Earlier this year, leaders of the opposition People's Parliament movement were jailed for allegedly plotting a coup. Omurbek Tekebayev, a former ally of President Atambayev who turned into a prominent critic, was sentenced to eight years in prison for corruption and fraud and subsequently barred from running for the presidency. Experts saw this case as politically motivated. The atmosphere got particularly tense following a major diplomatic spat between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It started last month after a meeting between the president of neighbouring Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Mr Babanov. In an unusually harsh speech, President Atambayev accused his Kazakh counterpart of interfering in Kyrgyzstan's affairs, and warned them of worse to come. "I will speak differently if our neighbours don't come to their senses," he said. Since the beginning of the campaign, there have been numerous reports of violations by various candidates. There have been reports of people going house-to-house with a list of names and addresses and offering money to citizens if they vote for Mr Jeenbekov. Mr Babanov was also accused of vote-buying, and the Central Elections Committee issued him three warnings for violation of campaign rules. The Babanov team complained that security services were putting pressure on their candidate by recording their meetings and conversations and arresting his supporters. An influential MP, Kanatbek Isakov, was detained and charged with an attempt to organise a coup. Security services denied any political motive for the arrest, but Mr Babanov said that Mr Isakov had been arrested because he endorsed him. Despite all this, many voters feel encouraged by the fact that there are several strong candidates. In their view, this will ensure that the outcome is not rigged. "Our politicians know that the people will rise if there are serious violations, so they won't go into that," said one voter in the second city, Osh. Kyrgyzstan has experienced two major uprisings that ousted presidents in the past. And in both cases, rigged elections fuelled the protest mood.    

  • 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.

  • Helsinki Commission Advisor Observes German Elections in Berlin

    By Scott Rauland, State Department Senior Advisor On September 24, 2017, over 50 parliamentarians and staff from 25 countries fanned out across Germany as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) team that was invited to observe German parliamentary elections.  This marked the first time that an OSCE PA Election Observation Mission (EOM) has deployed to Germany.  Although the OSCE PA does not have the resources to observe every election, the organization tries to be present in major elections that are politically important. I was pleased to represent the U.S. in that effort as the State Department’s Senior Advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Members of the OSCE PA team were briefed by German government officials, representatives of the major political parties, political analysts, and other experts in the two days leading up to the election.  On election day, members of the OSCE PA observation mission visited over 300 polling stations in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Cologne and Duesseldorf, just a fraction of the more than 90,000 polling stations located in Germany in 299 constituencies.  In a press conference held on September 25, George Tsereteli, the Special Coordinator for the EOM, noted, “Germany has once again demonstrated that its commitment to democracy is undiminished. Highly competitive and well-run, these elections were an opportunity for voters to express their choice in a process that benefits from and is based on broad trust among society.”  One sign of that trust was the almost complete absence of election observers from any of the participating political parties at the 14 polling stations my team visited in Berlin – all six major parties seemed to be relatively confident that the elections were being administered fairly. While the OSCE PA team was in Germany at the invitation of the German government, and although the public has the right to observe the voting process in Germany, my observation team was denied access to one of the polling stations we had hoped to observe.  That incident was thankfully the exception amongst the 300 polling stations visited by the OSCE PA EOM, but was a reminder that efforts to promote transparency in the conduct of elections must be ongoing, even in countries where the commitment to democratic elections is high. With more than 4,800 candidates running, and numerous strong political parties, Germany’s 61 million voters had a wide range of options to choose from. Women represented slightly less than 30 per cent of candidates, but played a prominent role in leadership positions in parties’ campaigns. “This was the first time we’ve deployed a full observer team to Germany, and the welcome of our mission by all German officials and political parties that we met is a positive signal that the country is ready to pay continued attention to democratic processes,” said EOM Head of Mission Isabel Santos. “Changing political cultures in many countries and new challenges such as cyber attacks mean that we must all dedicate time and effort to preserving democratic systems.”

  • 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

  • Kyrgyzstan: Prospects for Democratic Change and the Upcoming Presidential Election

    Two weeks before the upcoming presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan—potentially the first peaceful transfer of power under regular circumstances in the region—campaigning is in full swing. On October 15, Kyrgyz citizens will participate in democratic elections, though serious concerns remain.   This briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Everett Price. In his remarks, he positively noted the current president’s decision to respect his constitutionally-determined term limit and hold regularly-scheduled elections for his successor. He cautioned, however, that the country’s weak political institutions and the ruling party’s abuse of administrative resources could undermine the fairness of the vote. He also observed that the disqualification of certain opposition candidates and restrictions on journalists have adversely affected the election climate. Dr. Erica Marat from the National Defense University discussed the political situation on the ground in Kyrgyzstan and reviewed the political background of the two main candidates, Atambayev loyalist Sooronbay Jeenbekov and Kyrgyz billionaire, Ömürbek Babanov. Anthony Bowyer, Senior Program Manager for Europe and Eurasia at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), reviewed ongoing electoral monitoring efforts in Kyrgyzstan, underscoring the importance of these elections for the region and U.S. interests therein. Finally, Freedom House representative Marc Behrendt offered his insight on Kyrgyzstan’s enduring interethnic tensions and poor human rights record, offering a sobering reminder of the work that remains to be done in order for the Kyrgyz Republic to become a full-fledged democracy. During the briefing, questions pertaining to Russian influence over the country and its politics, as well as other regional, geo-political considerations were also highlighted as part of a general discussion of Kyrgyzstan’s democratic development and the trajectory of Central Asian politics.

  • Batyr Berdiev: Poems from Prison

    And when we leave our house, where all is so familiar – The flower vase and the worn out carpet – The shadow of our quiet hope will stay at home, Reflected in the eyes of those who remember us. And life will continue, as our life was once lived, And, of course, other songs will be sung, But human hearts, like soldiers of hope Will again and again both suffer and dream.                                                             —Batyr Berdiev On September 15, the NGO campaign “Prove They Are Alive!” published a book of poems written by Turkmenistan’s former Foreign Minister and former Ambassador to the OSCE Batyr Berdiev, one of more than a hundred people who have disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prisons. The poems appear to have been written between December 2002 and March 2003 and were smuggled out of prison, most likely in 2003. Most are dedicated to Berdiev’s wife and son; they speak of his love for them, of freedom, and of their life while he was serving as Ambassador to the OSCE in Vienna. The book was unveiled at a side event at the 2017 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, Poland, with the participation of Helsinki Commission staff. Berdiev was arrested in December 2002 in connection with an alleged coup attempt against then-President Niyazov in November 2002. His “confession” was broadcast on Turkmen television later that month, and he was convicted in January 2003 in a closed trial and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. There are credible reports that he was tortured following his arrest. His relatives have had no information about his fate or whereabouts since, although there have been several conflicting reports of his death in Turkmenistan’s notoriously inhumane high-security Ovadan Depe prison.  The Helsinki Commission has continued to raise his case – along with others who have disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prisons – over the fifteen years since Berdiev’s arrest, in meetings with Turkmen officials, letters, and public briefings. The “Prove They Are Alive” campaign has also published an updated list of persons who have disappeared in Turkmenistan’s prisons, which has now grown to 112. Some of the new additions include persons who were arrested only this year. Following the arrests of Berdiev and hundreds of others in the wake of the alleged 2002 coup attempt, the United States and nine other countries invoked the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, which triggered an international investigation and report on the situation and treatment of those accused of being involved. Every year at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the United States makes a special statement urging the government of Turkmenistan to provide information on and access to those who have disappeared in the country’s prison. Read the book of poems by Batyr Berdiev.

  • 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 Change in Kyrgyzstan Topic of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: KYRGYZSTAN: PROSPECTS FOR DEMOCRATIC CHANGE AND THE UPCOMING PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION Tuesday, September 26, 2017 10:30 AM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 202 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The Kyrgyz people will go to the polls in October in a pivotal election that will determine the country’s next president and the next chapter in its fragile democracy. In contrast to some other leaders in the region who have manipulated term limits to remain in power, current President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev is abiding by his constitutional term limit. However, the vote takes place amid mounting concerns of democratic backsliding, particularly regarding the government’s treatment of political opposition, civil society, and human rights defenders. Additionally, the election marks only the second peaceful transition of power through elections following two revolutions – in 2005 and in 2010. This turbulent history serves as a reminder of the importance of building the popular legitimacy of Kyrgyzstan’s political institutions. The briefing will examine the political dynamics surrounding the vote, the conduct of the election campaign thus far, and broader human rights issues in Kyrgyzstan. The following experts are scheduled to participate: Marc Behrendt, Director for Europe and Eurasia Programs, Freedom House Anthony Bowyer, Caucasus and Central Asia Senior Program Manager, International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) Dr. Erica Marat, Associate Professor, College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University

  • The Rule of Law: Justice for the Bytyqi Brothers

    By Robert Hand, Policy Advisor 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. OSCE commitments recognize that adherence to the rule of law is essential to democratic governance and to ensuring respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They also emphasize the importance of providing justice in cases of criminal acts which egregiously violate human rights and fundamental freedoms. Justice not only punishes the perpetrator of the crime; it also brings closure to the victim or surviving family and friends, and it allows the society in which it took place to move forward. The Murder of the Bytyqi Brothers Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were all United States citizens, born near Chicago, Illinois, to ethnic Albanian parents from Kosovo.  (Previously an autonomous province of Serbia within the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo has been an independent state since 2008.) The three brothers, all in their 20s, responded to the brutality of the 1999 Kosovo conflict by joining the so-called “Atlantic Brigade” of the Kosovo Liberation Army.  Hostilities ceased in June of that year, following a NATO air campaign designed to stop Serbian forces from repressing the local population and committing atrocities.  About two weeks later, the Bytyqi brothers agreed to escort an ethnic Romani family, who had been neighbors of the Bytyqi family in Kosovo, to a place of greater safety.  Dressed in plain clothes and unarmed, the brothers accidently strayed across an unmarked administrative border and were arrested by the Serbian police.  They were jailed for two weeks for illegally entering the country.  Rather than being released, Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were instead placed in the custody of a special operations unit of the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs and taken to a training facility where all three were murdered.  Two years later, their bodies were found with hands bound and gunshot wounds to the back of their heads, buried atop an earlier mass grave of approximately 70 murdered Kosovo civilians. Justice Denied While an investigation reportedly continues, no individual has been found guilty – or even charged – for the murder of the Bytyqi brothers.  Senior U.S. officials and Members of Congress, including several serving on the Helsinki Commission, repeatedly have urged that action be taken by Serbian authorities, including war crimes prosecutors in regard to this case; a resolution to that effect is pending in the U.S. House of Representatives.  While serving as Prime Minister from 2014 to 2017, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic promised quick action on several occasions, both in public gatherings and in private meetings with the Bytyqi family.  Recently, however, he has reportedly criticized those who remind him of his promises or who express concern about the close connections the leading suspect in the case, former Interior Ministry official Goran “Guri” Radosavljevic, has with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. The execution-style murder of Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi was clearly an extrajudicial act committed by government forces, a horrific crime like so many committed by the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic throughout the 1990s.  The surviving Bytyqi family, currently residing in New York state, has asked for nothing more than bringing those responsible to justice. U.S. Government officials have also called for justice in a case of the three murdered U.S. citizens, even as they otherwise express support for Serbia and its European aspirations. Human rights groups in Serbia have joined the call for justice, including as a way to distance their country from a period in its recent past marked by aggressive nationalism and egregious human rights violations on a massive scale. All that remains if for Serbian authorities to take the action promised by their political leaders.            

  • American Scientist Suffers Under Turkey’s Faltering Rule of Law

    By Everett Price, Policy Advisor 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. This feature article on Turkey coincides with the September 19 session of HDIM 2017, which focuses on whether OSCE participating States are implementing their commitments related to rule of law. On September 11, the first day of the meeting, the Turkish delegation walked out to protest that an NGO it alleged has ties with the Gulen movement was allowed to register for HDIM. A NASA scientist based in Houston, Texas has spent the last 14 months in a Turkish prison, caught in the same dragnet that has ensnared tens of thousands of Turkish nationals since the failed coup attempt that played out in Turkey during the night of July 15, 2016. The scale of the Turkish government’s crackdown since that chaotic night is difficult to comprehend, but this scientist’s story illustrates the kind of ordinary lives that the sweeping purges upended with only the slimmest of justifications. A 37-year old dual citizen of the United States and Turkey, Serkan Golge is married to Kubra, also a dual US-Turkish national. The couple has two young sons, aged eight and one.  They have lived in a two-story home in a quiet suburb of Houston since 2013, when Serkan landed a contract as a senior research scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, focusing on the effects of solar radiation on the astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Serkan’s mind, once immersed in scientific observation and the boundless expanse of outer space, is now mostly trapped in the contemplation of his small prison cell and the national political drama that landed him there. For the past 14 months, he has been detained in Iskenderun prison on the Mediterranean coast of southeastern Turkey, 25 miles from the Syrian border—he has spent the last 12 months in solitary confinement, allowed outside his cell just one hour every day. *** On the morning of July 23, eight days after the failed coup, Serkan and his family were wrapping up a month-long stay with his parents in Antakya, Turkey. The surreal night of the coup attempt, including pitched street battles between rebel military units and civilians in Istanbul and Ankara, had seemed a world away to the Golges on vacation in Turkey’s southern Hatay province. But as Serkan and his family were loading up a car to go to the airport to begin their return trip to Houston, the coup’s aftermath arrived at their doorstep. Plainclothes state security officials approached Serkan as he emerged from the house and detained him on suspicion of membership in the so-called “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” (FETO) that the Turkish government has accused of plotting the overthrow attempt. “FETO” is the pejorative term coined by the Turkish government for a major social and religious movement in Turkey led by the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. Once a political ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Gulen movement fell out with AKP officials in recent years as the movement asserted its independence in various state organs, particularly the courts. President Erdoğan perceived the Gulen movement as a threat and started to purge its allies in state ministries, followed by the private sector. It was no surprise to most observers when Erdoğan declared “FETO” responsible for the coup and moved to eviscerate every last remnant of the group in Turkish institutions, whether in the public sector, business, media, civil society, or education.  Serkan is currently on trial and faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted of belonging to “FETO.” Yet the evidence that ostensibly links him to the organization, establishing his complicity in the coup and justifying his prolonged detention, is astonishingly thin. A distant disgruntled relative appears to have denounced Serkan to authorities to settle an old score relating to an inheritance dispute. Based on the relative’s statements, authorities arrested Serkan and raided his parents’ home where they seized upon a single one-dollar bill as evidence. Turkish authorities claim that Fethullah Gulen gave blessed American dollar bills to his followers; thus, national security trials around the country have scrutinized countless dollar bills in their deliberations. His relative further testified to his suspicion that Serkan worked for the CIA. When questioned about this at trial, the relative acknowledged that his claim was based solely on the fact that Serkan lived in the United States. Authorities have also questioned Serkan about his college degree from a major Gulen-affiliated university that the government closed in 2016. He reminded authorities that he attended the university on a government-funded scholarship—a reminder of the ruling party’s formerly cozy relationship with the organization it now denounces as public enemy number one. A dollar bill, a U.S. passport, and a college degree: this is the evidence that has landed an American citizen in solitary confinement for a year in Turkey. *** Serkan’s experience reflects the plight of the tens of thousands of people arrested, imprisoned, or fired from their jobs for suspicion of involvement in the attempted coup. The state of emergency decrees that paved the way for these massive purges did not specify the criteria for detention and dismissal. As a result, baseless assertions about an individual’s suspected links to “FETO” have caused people to lose their jobs, be stripped of their professional licenses, or thrown in jail without even the most minimal due process. In all, the government has detained more than 110,000 people, of whom 50,000 are under arrest. These detentions have swelled Turkey’s prison population and prompted the government last year to release 38,000 inmates just to make room for the influx. Reliable information is not available for the number of ongoing trials or convictions but last month the government issued a decree extending the maximum pre-trial detention period from five to seven years, underscoring how prolonged detention without conviction can serve as punishment itself. Of the 140,000 people who lost their jobs, so far 30,000 have been allowed to return to work. Meanwhile, 80,000 people who lost jobs have appealed their cases to a temporary State of Emergency Procedures Investigation Commission established by Ankara in July 2017. The case load created by the purges would strain the judicial system under normal circumstances, but the situation faced by the Turkish judiciary today is anything but normal.  Prior to the coup attempt, President Erdogan had already embarked on a campaign to extend his influence over the judicial branch and promote party loyalists within its ranks. In the coup’s aftermath, this campaign kicked into high gear. Since July 2016, President Erdogan dismissed more than 4,200 judges and prosecutors—approximately a quarter of the total—on suspicion of subversive loyalties.  Of the 900 new judges recruited as replacements in April, opposition leaders claim 800 have ties to the ruling party.  The independence of the Turkish judiciary further eroded in April 2017 when a controversial nationwide referendum narrowly approved constitutional changes that increased the President’s influence over the Council of Judges and Prosecutors (CJP). The powerful CJP “oversees the appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplining, and dismissal” of judges. Under the newly enacted constitutional amendments, the President now appoints nearly half of the CJP and the Turkish parliament appoints the rest, easily giving the ruling party a majority on the council.  Straining under the weight of an overwhelming case load and immense political pressure, Turkey’s judiciary appears to lack the capacity and capability to deliver timely and credible justice for Serkan Golge and thousands like him. *** Back in Houston, the Golges’ house is now on the market. Kubra has opted to remain in Turkey, living with her in-laws in Antakya; she fears that even if the government let her and her sons out of the country it might not let them back in.  She covered the mortgage from abroad for the past year, but the mounting financial pressure was unsustainable. Her eldest son should have begun second grade this month at his local public school in Houston. He says he misses his old room, his books and toys. She is able to visit Serkan once a week where she and the children can speak to him by phone through a glass pane. Once every two months, they can meet in person and embrace, always under the watchful gaze of prison guards. Serkan’s next trial date is set for October 13th. For now, the Golge’s homecoming in Houston is postponed indefinitely: every new hearing brings with it the hope of acquittal and the dread of an unjustified conviction.  In May, the Helsinki Commission’s leadership, joined by the co-chairmen of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, sent a letter to President Trump urging him to raise Serkan’s case, among others, with President Erdogan during the latter’s official visit to Washington. The letter highlighted the cases of other American prisoners and a detained veteran Turkish employee of the U.S. Consulate in Adana accused of supporting a Kurdish terrorist organization. The letter further encouraged the President to seek consular access for U.S. diplomats to detained Americans in Turkey—a courtesy the government has so far denied them. The Commission will continue to highlight these and other cases in Turkey and urge Ankara to uphold its commitments as a participating State of the OSCE to human rights, democratic principles, and the rule of law.

  • At Forum, Experts Slam Russian 'Disinformation' Campaigns Aimed at West

    WASHINGTON — The German Marshall Fund says it has documented Russian interference in the elections or political affairs of at least 27 countries since 2004, ranging from disinformation campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and other social media to cyber attacks. The Helsinki Commission held a hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill focusing on what it called the "scourge" of Russian disinformation conducted both at home and abroad. “Through its active measures campaign that includes aggressive interference in Western elections, Russia aims to sell fear, discord, and paralysis that undermines democratic institutions and weakens critical Western alliances such as NATO and the EU,” charged Republican Senator Corey Gardner. “Russia’s ultimate goal is to replace the Western-led world order of laws and institutions with an authoritarian-led order that recognizes only masters and vassals.” US election meddling Other experts agreed during a session in which few if any defenders of Russia were represented, reflecting the increasingly adversarial relationship between the two countries. Molly McKew of the communications consulting firm Fianna Strategies spoke with VOA about reports that Russia targeted U.S. voters on social media during last year's presidential election campaign. “I think even the Kremlin is surprised at how easy it is to use social media as an amplification tool for the kind of narrative that they do,” she said. McKew said opinion polls show most Americans do not believe disinformation could work on them. But she says the Russian government uses marketing and basic psychology to influence people to vote for a certain person or to stay at home on election day. In an era when many get their own personalized news feeds on Facebook or Twitter, she said, people can be targeted individually with what she calls ads, smears or lies. RT, Sputnik broadcasts U.S. complaints of Russian disinformation have focused frequently on the broadcasts of the Moscow-backed RT television network and Sputnik news agency, which have denied they are spreading propaganda. When it was reported this week that the FBI recently questioned a former White House correspondent for Sputnik as part of an investigation into whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin, the news agency said in a statement: "We are more than happy to answer any questions the [Department of Justice] or the FBI might have. Sputnik is a news organization dedicated to accurate news reporting. Our journalists have won multiple media awards throughout the world. Any assertion that Sputnik is anything but a credible news outlet is false." However Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO John Lansing, who also spoke at the forum, agreed with others on the magnitude of the Russian threat and said the United States must counter Russian disinformation, but do so by with objective news and information. “The United States will not do propaganda,” said Lansing, whose agency oversees U.S.-funded broadcasting around the world. “And in fact we have a firewall protection, a legislative firewall that makes it impossible for the government to interfere with our independent editorial decision-making.” Lansing, who oversees the Voice of America and several other U.S. government-funded broadcasters, said he has seen a "global explosion of propaganda and lies," and that his agency is focused on getting accurate information to Russian speakers around the world. The forum was shown a promotional video for "Current Time," a Russian-language news network jointly operated by VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which Lansing said, "helps viewers tell fact from fiction." "The Russian strategy seeks to destroy the very idea of an objective, verifiable set of facts," Lansing said. "The BBG is adapting to meet this challenge head on by offering audiences and alternatives to Russian disinformation in the form of objective, independent and professional news and information." Germany, France elections Melissa Hopper of Human Rights First said Germany appears set to fend off attempts by Russia to interfere in its elections later this month. She said Berlin acted early, after the U.S. election last November, to establish a government-wide task force to counteract Russian manipulation of social media. Hopper also said France was successful in thwarting Russian interference during its elections in April and May, with the French media agreeing not to cover information that came from cyber attacks. But she warned that Russia has quite an “arsenal” at its disposal, including a worldwide media program with an annual budget of more than $300 million. She said Russian online media “weaponizes” false media narratives, especially about minority populations such as immigrants or LGBT communities, which can lead to physical threats in the real world.

  • The Daily 202

    ...How can the United States combat the war of information that Russia is waging against the West? Lawmakers and witnesses at a U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing yesterday sought to examine Moscow’s propaganda efforts — both domestically and abroad — and questioned whether our country is any more prepared to stop a similar attack in the future. How can the United States combat the war of information that Russia is waging against the West? Lawmakers and witnesses at a U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing yesterday sought to examine Moscow’s propaganda efforts — both domestically and abroad — and questioned whether our country is any more prepared to stop a similar attack in the future. “In their weakness, the Kremlin bets big. So far, the gamble has paid off — because for years they have been strolling across an open battlefield,” testified Molly McKew, an information warfare expert. “To secure our information space, we need an integrated understanding of the threat, and an integrated set of measures that can be taken to counter it[.]” Here's what the experts recommend to stop similar attacks: A whole-of-government response, which includes reevaluating the role of U.S. military and counterintelligence actors to secure cyber space. “Our most experienced assets should not be boxed-out of defending the American people,” McKew said. More information. This includes telling Americans about Russian information operations, and what they aim to achieve. Stopping the bots, which robotically amplify information and articles based on an algorithm, since “the U.S. does not protect the free speech of computer programs,” said Human Right’s First Melissa Hooper, who specializes in Russian policy and human rights law. Hooper also stressed the need for creating an appeals process where consumers can contest instances of content removal “and receive quick and efficient redress.” “We cannot use the same means of information control as the Kremlin to secure our information space,” McKew said. “Our mirror-world version of Russian information control: not to control the internal information environment, but ensure its integrity; not to harden views, but to develop positive cognitive resistance efforts to build resilience in our population; not to argue that there ‘is no truth,’ but to promote the values and idea that we know matter.”

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