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Armenia's Parliamentary Election and Constitutional Referendum
Wednesday, July 05, 1995

This report is based on a Helsinki Commission staff delegation trip to Armenia from June 29 to July 6, 1995. Commission staff spoke with Armenian government officials--including President Levon Ter-Petrossyan, Speaker of Parliament Babgen Araktsyan, Foreign Minister Vahan Papazyan, and Senior Advisor to the President, Jirair Libaridian--and interviewed representatives of Armenian political parties, journalists, and candidates, as well as spokespersons of American non-governmental organizations in Yerevan. The Helsinki Commission would like to thank Ambassador Harry Gilmore and the staff of U.S. Embassy Yerevan, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly observer delegation, led by Danish Parliamentarian Annette Just.

Armenia had, in the most difficult economic circumtances, impressively managed to combine stability, political pluralism and economic reform. But apprehensions grew about realizing the high hopes this success had engendered. Apart from providing humanitarian and technical assistance, the United States was in a good position, through continued close interest, involvement and suasion, to help consolidate the development of democracy in Armenia.

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  • Inside the Turkish Election

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The briefings we received from journalists, civil society organizations, and political parties largely focused on concerns that President Erdogan and the AKP enjoyed overwhelming and unfair advantages incompatible with a free and fair democratic process. Independent journalists noted that Turkey is the world’s largest jailer of reporters with approximately 150 behind bars. They further remarked on dramatic changes in Turkey’s media landscape in recent years that had seen nine out of 10 mainstream TV channels, and most of the print media, fall under the ownership of government aligned businessmen. As a result, the ruling party benefited from nearly wall-to-wall positive media coverage. Additionally, under recent legal changes the Supreme Election Board was stripped of its ability to impose penalties on broadcasters for violating regulations that mandate equal election coverage. All opposition parties complained about Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold—the highest in the world—that requires a party to garner 10 percent of the national vote to secure seats in parliament. During this election, they feared that the ruling party would manipulate the vote to deprive the pro-Kudish HDP of a ten percent share, allowing AKP as the likely runner-up in Kurdish-dominated areas to assume the seats forfeited by HDP. This would be the AKP’s quickest route to a commanding majority in the legislature.    Opposition party leaders warned that the government could use a combination of tactics to suppress the vote for HDP, particularly in the Kurdish southeast. The government had already announced that it had invoked its new authorities to relocate and merge nearly a thousand polling stations in the southeast for security reasons, affecting more than 150,000 voters. 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The government denied two OSCE PA parliamentarians entry to the country to participate in the election observation mission, citing political opinions they had expressed in the past. A government spokesperson decried the OSCE’s interim report on the election on June 15 as “political.” Additionally, just two days before the election, Turkey’s semi-official news agency published a story citing anonymous security sources that claimed OSCE observers planned to create “chaos” in the country. It was in this climate of heightened mutual suspicion between the ruling party and the opposition, and between the government and the OSCE observation mission, that we deployed to Istanbul to undertake our election day observation. We were assigned to observe the election at precincts in and around Sisli, a mixed-income neighborhood in central Istanbul that historically supports the secular opposition. Each precinct in Turkey contains numerous voting rooms, with a maximum of 400 voters assigned to each. In all we visited nine so-called ballot box committees (BBCs) in five precincts throughout the day. Sisli delivered its largest share of votes (48.7 percent) to Turkey’s leading secular opposition party CHP in the last parliamentary election in November 2015, and overwhelmingly opposed the transformational 2017 constitutional amendments (71.8 percent). Given the district’s political profile, it was unsurprising to find observers from CHP and other secular opposition parties deployed in full force at our first precinct where we observed the opening procedures for the polls. We arrived just before 7:00 a.m. as the ballot box committee (BBC) was assembling to open the sealed election materials and prepare for voting to begin. The seven-person BBC, chaired by a civil servant and composed of bureaucrats and political party representatives, began to count and record the number of ballot envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—a tally that is important for later confirming that no election materials are unaccounted for.  The mood was serious but amiable and cooperative. With a solitary exception, BBC members worked together constructively without so much as a hint of their diverging political loyalties. Soon, an NGO observer (who was accredited as a political party observer, since there is no legal framework for NGO observation) appeared with a tray of traditional Turkish tea for everyone, observers and BBC members alike. (Tea stands were ubiquitous at the entrance to polling stations, fueling weary poll workers throughout the day and contributing to a generally festive atmosphere around the otherwise dreary school buildings.)  Voters congregate outside a polling station in central Istanbul on election day. Over steaming cups of black tea, the poll workers set about the onerous task of applying the BBC’s identifying ink stamp to each of the more than 300 envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—nearly 1,000 stamps in all. Every BBC we visited that morning noted that they had labored well after the polls opened to complete this cumbersome but mandatory and important process. With two of their colleagues still engrossed in stamping and the eight o’clock opening just minutes away, the BBC’s other five members forged ahead with preparations, sealing the clear plastic ballot box with a wax stamp. More or less promptly at eight, the BBC chairwoman announced the opening of the polling station.  An elderly gentleman who had already shuffled through the open doorway before the announcement immediately presented his ID to receive his ballot papers. His punctual appearance quickly revealed the disorganization of this particular BBC, which had failed to organize the somewhat convoluted voting procedure into an orderly workflow.  Voters were to hand over their identification for confirmation against the printed voter rolls and then receive two oversized ballots for president and parliament, one undersized envelope, and a stamp to mark their choices. To cast their ballots, voters entered a curtained booth, marked one choice each for parliament and president, stuffed the large sheets into the small envelope, sealed it with a lick, and emerged to drop the envelope into the ballot box. Before departing, voters returned the stamp back to the BBC, signed the voter roll, and retrieved their identification and any bags or cellphones they left behind with the BBC. Keeping track of identification cards, remembering to provide all four necessary voting materials (two ballots, envelope, and stamp), and managing the coming and going of voters proved difficult for our first BBC. In just the first twenty minutes the chairwoman twice pulled open a voting booth’s privacy curtain to locate a misplaced ID and missing stamp—an act that should rarely—if ever—occur, since it can compromise the secrecy of the vote.  This procedural dysfunction may have slowed the vote and caused undue confusion for voters, but it had negligible if any implications for the outcome of the balloting. Indeed, the majority of other BBCs we visited were capably managed and all demonstrated admirable transparency. In each classroom we visited—and they were all classrooms—the BBC chair graciously welcomed us, answered our questions, and allowed us to review the voting materials. Political party and NGO observers were common and none complained of being restricted in their work on election day. By the end of the day we had grown particularly accustomed to the sight of observers from the HDP party. These observers were almost uniformly impressive, assertive, young, and female. It became clear that what is generally described simply as a “pro-Kurdish party” has developed political purchase far beyond the Kurdish-dominated southeast, attracting many young, progressive Turks concerned with the rights of women and minorities.  Presidential and parliamentary ballots and envelopes prepared for distribution to voters. In our experience, the transparency protected by professional BBCs and capable local observers was only undermined by skittish security services who seemed uneasy about the role of international observers. Under new election laws passed earlier this year, Turkish police were allowed to patrol closer to polling stations and—for the first time—enter voting rooms at the request of any citizen. One instance of police involvement we witnessed was legal and appropriate; in several other cases it appeared to overstep the prescribed bounds. At a polling station we visited in Gultepe, a more conservative neighborhood just outside Sisli, a heated argument erupted over a poll worker who allegedly exceeded his mandate in assisting a confused voter, sparking allegations of election interference. Consistent with their mandate, the police entered on at least three occasions during the prolonged shouting match to respond to the disturbance and to remove unauthorized people who had entered the voting room. These same police entered another time to exercise their prerogative to check our credentials but departed shortly after. As the day wore on, however, our interactions with the police grew more frequent and contentious. At another polling station in Sisli, police greeted us almost immediately upon our arrival and insisted on escorting us throughout the building. When we entered a voting room to conduct our observations, the police followed us in without any discernible invitation and sat down to watch us until we were through.  Arriving at our final polling station of the day, we were stopped at the entrance to have our credentials checked against a screenshot of approved individuals the policeman had received via the encrypted messaging application, WhatsApp. He informed us that several foreigners had been caught “posing as OSCE observers” so they were under orders to apply extra scrutiny. Although we were not on his screenshot, the officer relented after a few minutes’ delay and followed us inside while respecting the rules about entering the voting room. After a short break, we returned to the same polling station to witness the closing and counting procedure, but this time the police refused us entry. They said they had still not been able to find us on their list, despite our accreditation by the Supreme Electoral Board. With the five o’clock closing swiftly approaching, we insisted on the importance of entering before the polls closed. They offered that we could observe the voting room from the hallway, but we were obligated to decline since the OSCE’s methodology requires unfettered access to the polling area. At the last minute, they said we could observe from a designated area inside the room. Once inside the room, it turned out no such area existed and the police displayed no interest in enforcing one. In contravention of the rules, however, they remained standing directly behind us inside the room nearly the entire time. Consistent with OSCE observations across the country, vote counting at our BBC began promptly once the polls closed. In much the same sprit of cooperation we witnessed at the opening in another precinct, the members of this BBC worked smoothly together to perform the critical, final procedures: securing the voting materials and counting and recording the results.  The BBC’s genuine effort to conduct this process fairly and transparently was marred by some critical procedural errors and the persistent presence of the police, which risked undue oversight by the security services of a sensitive political process. Most procedural faults took place early on and introduced avoidable opportunities for mistakes or manipulation.  Rather than count the unused voting materials after the polls closed, for instance, the BBC departed from the prescribed procedure and counted them before the room was open to the public to observe the count. By depriving observers of the opportunity to verify this tally, the BBC undermined a safeguard that confirms the number of votes cast matches exactly the number of voters who participated.  Another significant oversight involved the BBC’s failure to enter crucial figures directly into the official register, known as a “protocol.” By having one member of the committee simply jot down the tallies of voting materials on a scrap piece of paper, the BBC failed to guard against subsequent mistakes in transcription or intentional alterations.  Oddly, the otherwise attentive and assertive political party observers in the room did not raise these issues with the BBC, possibly out of ignorance of the procedures or disinterest in the importance of these steps. They seemed most focused when it came to the centerpiece of the process: the all-important counting and adjudication of ballots.  In this, the BBC acquitted itself quite well—holding up each ballot in full view of all present, loudly announcing the vote, and recording it only once all were satisfied with the chairman’s judgment (i.e. valid, invalid, or blank).  U.S. Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland reviews voting materials with Ballot Box Committee members. Given the considerable pre-election controversy about the admission of unstamped ballots, it was surprising that no observer raised a question about whether the ballots or envelopes were appropriately imprinted with the BBC’s seal, which was often faint and on the reverse side of the papers. Late on the day of Turkey’s controversial 2017 constitutional referendum, the government unilaterally decided to count unstamped ballots despite the widespread understanding that the stamps protected against fraud. The number of admitted unstamped ballots last year allegedly accounted for the government’s slim margin of victory in that vote. As a result, opposition leaders protested earlier this year when the government used its absolute majority in the parliament to codify the validity of unstamped votes beginning with the 2018 presidential and parliamentary election. This decision created frustrating ambiguity about the need for the elaborate stamping process that tied up BBCs in the morning, sometimes for more than an hour.  The last steps of the vote count turned out to be the most cumbersome. The astonishingly analog voting process created numerous frustrations, significantly delaying delivery of the ballots to the District Electoral Board responsible for tabulating all the votes in Sisli before forwarding them to the Provincial Electoral Board that oversees a third of Istanbul. The chairperson was consumed for almost an hour manually copying detailed voting results onto nearly a dozen copies of the official protocol for distribution to political party representatives and observers. Another time-consuming process involved sealing all the ballots and sensitive voting materials in a cloth sack using twine and a wax seal. All present watched in quiet agony as the chairperson struggled to melt the nub of wax with a lighter, singing his fingers and nearly setting fire to the bag in the process. Out of the 250 votes counted in our BBC, leading opposition presidential candidate Muharram Ince prevailed with 65 percent of the vote and his party, CHP, took 50 percent of the parliamentary ballots. The simultaneous presidential and parliamentary election afforded voters the opportunity to split their votes between the two ballots. Specifically, many analysts speculated that opposition supporters would endorse Ince as the favored presidential candidate while casting a vote for HDP in the parliamentary election to help the party clear the ten percent threshold. The outcome in our BBC seemed to bear this theory out: Ince received 15 percent more support for president than his party did in the parliamentary vote, while HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas secured only 4 percent in the presidential but his party garnered 24 percent in the parliamentary. Once counting was complete in all the precincts’ voting rooms, members of the BBCs boarded a municipal vehicle with the sealed sacks and official protocols for delivery to the District Electoral Board. Per OSCE instructions, we jumped into a separate vehicle to tail the municipal van through the narrow streets of Istanbul to the DEB to confirm the official results were delivered directly without interference.  A long line of vans packed with other BBCs was in front of the District Electoral Board waiting their turn to offload. When it came our turn I—accompanied by a police escort—followed the voting materials past heavily-armed guards and crowd control fencing into the building. It was a cramped but sprawling high-rise divided into a warren of small, austere rooms. A crush of poll workers pressed into the building’s narrow corridors trying to reach their designated room. In each room were half a dozen election workers waiting to receive election materials from every corner of the district, double-check the calculations in the protocol, and forward the results for district-level tabulation.  After verifying the secure delivery of our BBC’s materials, I sought to follow the process a step further. Instead, I was offered a meeting with the judge who chairs Sisli’s electoral board.  Supporters of President Erdogan and AKP celebrate their election victory in Taksim Square. It was now well past 9:00 p.m., more than four hours since the polls closed. The judge sat in his office watching two sets of election returns roll in: semi-official results were being broadcast via cable news on a large television across the room while a map on his computer screen that read “Supreme Election Board” was being populated with the official numbers. Although it was impossible for me to tell what discrepancy might have existed between the figures at that moment, opposition leaders were simultaneously turning to social media to reassure their supporters that pro-government media were broadcasting premature results to discourage them. These hopeful claims appear to have been inspired more by optimism than reality—the official results released the next day differed little from what the media was reporting in the evening. At least in central Istanbul, the election results at that time of night were still in the early stages of being compiled at the district level. The judge explained how in the coming hours the district’s protocols would be digitized, loaded onto a public website, and used to generate a district-level protocol of official election results. As chairman, his role would be to adjudicate disputes and discrepancies in the tabulation and certify the final results. Satisfied that I had followed the process as far as I could, our observation ended.  Around 10:00 p.m., President Erdogan declared victory. With 52.6 percent of the vote, he had won outright in the presidential election, avoiding a runoff with the leading secular opposition candidate by a comfortable margin. In parliament, AKP fell just short of an absolute majority for only the second time in its 16 years in power. The AKP’s election coalition partner, the nationalist MHP party, surprised many with its strong performance, earning 49 seats in the 600-seat parliament and easily supplying the six seats AKP needs to reach 301 votes in the legislature. Importantly, HDP cleared the ten percent threshold and will be the third-largest party in parliament with 67 seats behind CHP’s 146. Altogether, an impressive 86.2 percent of the population had participated in the vote. Over a late night dinner in a gentrifying secular neighborhood of Istanbul, I could hear some nearby diners discussing the election results with resignation over glasses of wine. Further off in the distance, the blaring of car horns announced the beginning of celebrations by the President’s supporters. I followed lines of cars festooned with Turkish flags and AKP banners as they streamed toward centrally-located Taksim Square. There, a spontaneous victory party had broken out. A jubilant AKP loyalist was being carried aloft, leading the gathering crowd in chants of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Recep Tayyip Erdogan!”  The evening stroll between these two contrasting scenes was a journey across a wide social and political chasm in Turkey—a chasm the president may choose to widen or narrow in his new mandate. Recent studies have revealed acute polarization within Turkish society that reflects high levels of social distrust and political intolerance. These ills present critical challenges for governance. During the campaign, President Erdogan pledged to lift the nearly two-year-old state of emergency upon his reelection. AKP statements since the election suggest that Erdogan may decline to renew the state of emergency when it expires on July 18. This would be an appropriate first step toward rebuilding trust and one the U.S. Helsinki Commission called for in an October 2017 letter to President Erdogan. But lifting the state of emergency might only be a superficial gesture if it is not accompanied by significant prisoner releases and amnesties—particularly for human rights defenders and journalists—as well as meaningful judicial reform to restore the credibility and independence of Turkey’s politicized justice system. In accordance with its mandate, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will continue to monitor Turkey’s implementation of its commitments as an OSCE participating State to respect human rights and democratic principles. In this most recent election the Turkish people demonstrated formidable levels of political participation and civic engagement. Now and in the future, the government must succeed where it has recently failed to ensure that all its citizens have an opportunity to participate in Turkish society and institutions on the basis of fundamental equality.   The morning after the election, a woman crosses Taksim Square.

  • Annual Trafficking in Persons Report: Europe Falling Behind on Trafficking Victim Identification

    WASHINGTON—Last week, the U.S. Department of State released the 18th annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which tracks the progress of 189 countries toward meeting minimum standards of prosecution, protection, and prevention in the fight against human trafficking.  This year’s report showed a 45 percent increase in trafficking victim identification worldwide in 2017 to 100,409—an all-time high for both labor and sex trafficking. However, while more labor trafficking victims were identified in Europe than in 2016, overall victim identification in Europe dropped 4 percent. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who also serves as the Special Representative for Human Trafficking Issues to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, said, “With the current migrant crisis, it is more important than ever that OSCE participating States in Europe are informed and on the lookout for human trafficking victims, and have care available for them when they are found.  Unaccompanied minors, in particular, are vulnerable to trafficking and re-trafficking all along the migration routes.” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) welcomed the report and noted that despite the downturn in victim identification in Europe, several OSCE participating States have made substantial progress in fighting human trafficking. “Estonia, Cyprus, Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Uzbekistan are to be congratulated for their efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking,” he said.  Ireland and Armenia, however, moved down from Tier 1 to Tier 2.  Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia moved from Tier 2 to the Tier 2 Watch List.  The TIP Report classifies countries into several tiers based on their progress toward meeting minimum standards to combat human trafficking. Tier 1 countries fully meet the minimum standards. Tier 2 countries do not meet the minimum standards but are making a significant effort to do so. Tier 2 Watch List countries are in a grace period and are in real danger of becoming Tier 3 if they do not take concrete action to improve their efforts. Tier 3 countries do not meet the minimum standards and are not making significant effort to do so. Tier 3 countries may be subject to U.S. sanctions. Since the creation of the annual TIP Report by Co-Chairman Smith’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, more than 120 countries have enacted anti-trafficking laws and many countries have taken other steps to significantly raise their tier rankings—citing the TIP Report as a key factor in their new anti-trafficking efforts. 

  • Press Conference Following U.S. Congressional Delegation Meetings in Bosnia

    Thank you Madam Ambassador.  We appreciate it very, very much.  And this is indeed a bicameral and bipartisan delegation of members of the United States Congress and I am pleased to be here in Sarajevo for my fifth visit.  This is a nine-member congressional delegation. It represents – as the Ambassador said – the bicameral U.S. Helsinki Commission, of which I’m privileged to serve as chair.  The Helsinki Commission and its members from the United States Congress have always cared about Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Its first congressional visit here was in early 1991, before the conflict began.  Commissioners returned when they could during the conflict, and have come back on several occasions after the conflict to assess and encourage recovery and reconciliation.   This time, we come here first and foremost to let both the political leaders and the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina know the United States remains interested and engaged in the Balkans.  The progress we want to see throughout the region must include progress here in Bosnia.  We are committed to protecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in line with the 1995 Dayton Agreement, and we support Bosnia’s aspirations for European and Euro-Atlantic integration.  Efforts to undermine state institutions, along with calls for secession or establishment of a third entity, violate the spirit and letter of the Dayton Accords and endanger the stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the entire region, and they diminish the likelihood of progress for local families and job creators.   We encourage the Bosnian government to undertake the necessary reforms to make integration a reality.  The inability to make Bosnia’s government more functional, efficient, and accountable is holding this country back.  It is the consensus of the international community that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are ill-served by their government’s structure. Bosnia should correct one glaring shortcoming.  The discriminatory ethnic criteria that prevent some Roma, Jewish, Serbs in the Federation, Croats and Bosniaks in the Republika Srpska, and other citizens who do not self-identify with a group from seeking certain public offices is unacceptable and can easily be addressed.  Bosnia’s neighbors are making progress, and we do not want to see this country fall further behind.   In our meeting with Members of the Bosnian Presidency, we expressed our frustrations with the political impasse and often dangerous rhetoric.  We urged stronger leadership and a more cooperative spirit in moving this country forward, together.  This should include electoral reform now and a serious commitment to the additional reforms that are obviously needed in the near future.  We are tired of the way ethnic politics dominates debate and makes decision-making such a difficult progress.  We share this impatience with our allies and the people this country would like to move closer toward.  This does not enhance the future of young people who want to stay and raise families in Bosnia, and it places a drag on efforts toward Euro-Atlantic integration. We encouraged international mission heads and the diplomatic community based here in Bosnia to defend human rights, democracy, the rule of law and all principles of the Helsinki Final Act in their important work.  In these areas, there should be no compromises here in Bosnia that we would not accept elsewhere.  Working together, the United States and Europe must deal firmly with those who seek to undermine those principles in any way, and that should include – for the worst offenders – coordinated sanctions on their ability to travel and on their individual assets.  We also need to work with Bosnian officials to counter external forces that actively seek to make Bosnia even more vulnerable to internal instability than it already is right now.  We are proud of the work between the United States and Bosnian officials thus far on countering terrorism.  We hope Bosnia remains committed to prosecuting and rehabilitating foreign terrorist fighters through ensuring longer sentences for convicted terrorists. Second to sending a strong U.S. message, we come to hear the voices of the people.  The Helsinki Commission and members of Congress regularly meet with diplomats and senior officials from Bosnia who visit Washington.  Their views are important, and we have good discussions, and we had good discussions this time.  However, we often wonder what the people of Bosnia truly think about their situation.  To that end, we met here with citizens who continue to be denied their recognized right to seek certain public offices.  We also heard the many concerns of non-governmental representatives.  In Mostar, we met with a young leader whose organization is trying to find common ground among the people of that spectacular city, which is still divided in too many ways.  It is deplorable that the citizens of Mostar have been denied their right to vote in local elections since 2008; we call on Bosnia’s political leaders to set aside the differences and work toward a compromise that resolves the impasse. We encourage all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina to give priority not to protecting ethnic privileges that keep them segregated from one another, but to promoting policies that will give them jobs, greater opportunity, a 21st century education, and the prosperity they want for their children and grandchildren.  To succeed, Bosnian citizens must all move forward together.   However, ethnic divisions continue to thwart needed cooperation.  We sense that these divisions are not as deep as claimed by the political leaders who exploit them. They exploit them for power, in our judgment.  And if there is one thing which should unite all Bosnians, it should be the desire to end the rampant corruption that robs this country of its wealth and potential. We hope that the upcoming Bosnian elections are not only conducted smoothly and peacefully, but their results reflect the genuine will of the people.  Democracy is strengthened when voters cast their ballots based, not on fear, pressure or expectation, but based on their own, personal views regarding the issues and opinions of the candidates, their views and their character.  The outcome must accurately capture these individual sentiments.  We hope for progress on electoral reform, in line with accepted norms for free and fair elections, so that election results can be implemented and a government formed.  We are dismayed at the lack of political diversity within some of the main ethnic groups in this country, and take issue with those who argue they are entitled to a monopoly in representing those groups. A third and final reason this delegation has come to Bosnia and Herzegovina is to remember —as American citizens and elected officials — why the United States of America should continue to care about Bosnia and Herzegovina, even when so many other crises demand attention.  We are reminded, in that regard, of the upcoming anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica and the unimaginable pain and loss that lingers from that and other wartime atrocities.  Some of us visited the War Childhood museum, reminding us as well of the innocence and vulnerability of civilian victims.  We also remember past U.S. leadership in responding to the conflict.  The address of this building is “1 Robert C. Frasure Street,” after one of three American envoys who lost their lives on nearby Mount Igman while seeking to bring peace to this country.  Their work, and that of so many other American diplomats, soldiers and citizens who have continued their work to this day, cannot be left unfinished.   Finally, we also witnessed the incredible beauty of the countryside, the vibrancy of places like Sarajevo and Mostar, and the generous hospitality of the people.  Having been through so much, they deserve better than they have right now.            We therefore leave here more committed than ever to this country’s future, and as confident as ever in our ability to work together to build that future.  We support Ambassador Cormack here in Sarajevo and will continue to encourage our government in Washington to take further steps to encourage the good governance and prosperity that the citizens of this country deserve.

  • Roundtable on Illicit Trade

    Illicit trade—the transnational smuggling of illegal goods—has grown dramatically in the era of globalization thanks to modern technology, free trade zones, and the absence of the rule of law in many countries. Today, the shadow economy is booming and is estimated to account for up to 8 to 15 percent of world GDP. This roundtable brought U.S. government officials together with representatives of companies, associations, and organizations working to combat illicit trade. Participants discussed policy responses to the growing threat of illicit trade and how to build effective public-private partnerships. Officials from the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State discussed their agencies’ roles in the struggle to stem the tide of illicit trade. Click here to see the full list of participants.

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

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

  • Helsinki Commission to Host Roundtable On Illicit Trade

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: ROUNDTABLE ON ILLICIT TRADE Thursday, June 21, 2018 1:00 p.m. Russell Senate Office Building Room 485 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Illicit trade—the transnational smuggling of illegal goods—has grown dramatically in the era of globalization thanks to modern technology, free trade zones, and the absence of the rule of law in many countries. Today, the shadow economy is booming and is estimated to account for up to 8 to 15 percent of world GDP. This roundtable will bring U.S. government officials together with representatives of companies, associations, and organizations working to combat illicit trade. Participants will discuss policy responses to the growing threat of illicit trade and how to build effective public-private partnerships. Officials from the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State will discuss their agencies’ roles in the struggle to stem the tide of illicit trade. Discussion will follow each presentation. Participants include: Russ Travers, Acting Director, National Counterterrorism Center, Office of the Director of National Intelligence Convergence: How illicit trade networks fit in with other illicit networks Christa Brzozowski, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Trade and Transport, Department of Homeland Security Contraband: How to stop the flow of illicit goods Lisa Dyer, Director, Office of Intellectual Property Enforcement, Department of State Counterfeiting: How to combat the violation of IP protections Aaron Seres, Acting Section Chief, Financial Crimes Section, FBI Corruption and Organized Crime: How to counter those who facilitate illicit trade The event is open to the public.

  • 2018 World Cup: The Beautiful Game and an Ugly Regime

    The 2018 World Cup hosted by Russia has created an unprecedented opportunity for the country’s kleptocrats to enrich themselves. Just as he did with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin has hijacked a world sporting event in an attempt to burnish his own image and enrich the Kremlin elite, rather than to celebrate sport and sportsmanship in Russia. However, unlike the 2014 Winter Olympics, the World Cup has required multiple infrastructure projects in not just one, but eleven, host cities. Oligarchs, as well as regional and national officials, have worked together to embezzle assets from the tournament stadium construction and refurbishment to side projects of accommodation and transport. Mistreated and forced laborers have completed this work. Contractors have used and manipulated Rus-sian and migrant workers to erect the stadiums and other structures that are essential to hosting a World Cup. For example, Russia has continued its unscrupulous use of North Korean forced labor to build St. Petersburg Zenit Arena, opened by President Putin himself in March 2017. Russia presented the World Cup to the FIFA voters in 2010 as a wholesome tournament, bringing the world together for a festival of sport. Instead, President Putin will give the world a corrupt tournament, built on the backs of forced and mistreated labor, and expose fans to a real risk of soccer violence and hatred. Although troubling trends in each of these areas can be seen in countries throughout the OSCE region, the offenses of the Kremlin are particularly egregious. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Michael Newton, Intern and Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor

  • Azerbaijan’s 2018 Presidential Election

    On February 5, 2018, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan announced that the country’s presidential elections—originally scheduled for the fall—instead would be moved forward to April 11, 2018.  While some pro-government commentators offered more innocuous explanations for the move—such as aiming to avoid simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in 2025—many independent analysts saw it as a ploy to disadvantage the opposition. Since Azerbaijani law requires campaigning to cease 30 days prior to the vote, candidates had very little time to rally support. This constraint, among others, contributed to the mainstream opposition boycott of the election. The vote was the first since Azerbaijan passed constitutional amendments in a widely criticized popular referendum in September 2016 that extended the president’s term from five to seven years. Having done away with term limits in another set of constitutional amendments in 2009, President Aliyev used the snap election to secure his position until 2025. The official tally gave Aliyev 86 percent of the vote—he has never won with less than 84 percent. Since signing the founding document of the OSCE, the Helsinki Final Act, in 1992, no national vote in Azerbaijan has met the OSCE’s minimum requirements for a free and fair election. Nevertheless, consistent with its commitments as an OSCE participating State, Azerbaijan invited international observers to view the election.  The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) all scrambled to assemble a robust Election Observation Mission (EOM) in Azerbaijan under difficult time constraints.  Two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff members joined the OSCE PA EOM. The article below summarizes their experience in Azerbaijan. By Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor and Jordan Warlick, Office Director Briefings Reveal Shortcomings in the Field of Candidates and Lack of Media Access From the beginning, it was clear that the Government of Azerbaijan was paying lip service to established OSCE norms for holding elections without providing voters with the necessary conditions to make an informed choice free of coercion. For example, prior to the vote, we and other short-term members of the OSCE PA and PACE observation missions met with representatives of the eight candidates who had been approved by Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission to run in the April 11 contest. During the 20-minute sessions with the candidates or their representatives, we heard almost nothing in the way of criticism of the sitting president, nor anything resembling a platform for running the country should they win. During briefings the following day, members of opposition parties, as well as representatives of civil society and the media, pointed out the gulf of approximately 1.9 million Azerbaijanis entered on voter registration lists (5.3 million), and the number of Azerbaijanis known to be of voting age (7.2 million).  Since voter registration is automatic—and all citizens who are 18 years of age by election day have the right to vote—his dramatic shortfall appeared to reflect the disenfranchisement of an astonishingly large number of Azerbaijani voters. In a separate briefing earlier, the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan addressed this concern by claiming that the voter registration lists were published on the Internet, providing a maximum level of transparency. Civil society representatives were unanimous in their view that none of the “opposition” candidates running were real candidates. The best opposition leaders had either been imprisoned or were otherwise prevented from running, they explained. Several parties that civil society groups considered to be legitimate were boycotting the elections. Among the reasons they offered for the boycott was the fact that there were no real opposition parties in Parliament, no media freedom in Azerbaijan, and many political prisoners.  One opposition group, the Musavat Party, claimed that “clone” parties—such as the “Modern” Musavat Party, headed by Hafiz Hajiyev—had been set up to mimic true opposition parties. Hajiyev seemed to confirm those suspicions on election day by revealing that he himself had voted for President Aliyev.  He also reportedly expressed his hope that President Aliyev would return the favor by appointing him prime minister. Both civil society groups and political parties raised concerns about the potential for election fraud, due to the dramatic increase in use of de-registration voter cards (DVCs), which allow a voter to come off the voter roll in one polling station and to vote in another. We were told that while only 30,000 DVCs had been used in the previous election, 150,000 had been printed for the election on April 11. The discrepancy left many suspicious that DVCs could be abused by allowing voters to vote multiple times in different polling stations. Civil society representatives also were concerned about voter access to information, noting that restrictive laws and lack of funding made it nearly impossible to educate voters about their choices. They also found the lack of election commission reform frustrating, pointing out that both the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission provided explicit recommendations to the Azerbaijani government following previous elections. Finally, they stated that the government’s claim that 50,000 people had been registered as observers was misleading, since many of the registered observers were state employees and could not be fair and impartial observers.  A journalist briefing the observers also drew attention to the 10 Azerbaijani journalists currently in prison, saying that the regime had “made telling the truth in Azerbaijan illegal.” Voting on April 11—Mostly by the Book On election day, 350 international observers deployed across the country. Our team was assigned to the Khatai district in eastern Baku. We watched the opening of one polling station at 7:00 a.m., observed voting in 14 different polling stations throughout the day, and witnessed the counting process at another precinct once the polls closed at 7:00 p.m. The Precinct Electoral Commissions (PECs) at all 16 locations were cooperative, and we could move freely around the polling stations to observe the entirety of the voting process.  The chairwoman of the PEC where we observed the opening was willing to answer every question we had, often going into great detail. While we were unrestricted in our ability to access polling sites, the spots in the polling stations reserved for observers were often poorly situated, being either in a corner out of direct sight of the registration tables, or in one case on another floor entirely. One irregularity we consistently observed related to guaranteeing that each voter cast only one vote. Voters were supposed to have their left thumb coated in invisible ink once they were processed to vote, and all voters were to have their left thumbs checked before entering a polling station to ensure they had not voted elsewhere.  One of the many problems with this method became obvious at the first polling station we visited, where the person checking voters’ thumbs was scanning the wrong hand.  Fellow OSCE PA observers noted that some voters showed up at the wrong polling station, where they had their thumbs sprayed in invisible ink. Once they were directed to the correct voting station, they were allowed to vote regardless of the invisible ink on their hands. Citizen “Observers” in Name Only During a pre-election briefing, the chair of the Central Electoral Commission proudly claimed that 57,313 Azerbaijanis had been registered as citizen observers—a large number in a country of only 9.7 million. The statistic presumably was intended to demonstrate that the elections would be both transparent and credible.  We soon noticed that few, if any, of these citizen observers paid attention to the voting. At almost every polling station, we found one or more observers who could not tell us what party they were representing.  They often had to check their observer ID cards to before replying; when we then asked them which candidate from that party was running for president—information not available on their observer IDs—many were stumped. The Polls Close—Let the Counting … and the Shenanigans … Begin While the polls were open, election regulations appeared to be broadly respected. However, at the precinct where we observed the counting process, vote tallies were rushed and established procedures were not followed.  For example, voter registration lists were not checked to determine how many people voted in that location—a figure that should have been compared to the number of ballots in the ballot box. Unused ballots were counted and destroyed according to the established procedure, but none of this information was entered onto the protocol, the written record of votes that is supposed to be maintained throughout the vote-counting process. Instead, poll workers opened the ballot boxes almost immediately after the unused ballots were destroyed. The ballots then were dumped onto a table in the middle of the room and quickly sorted into several piles.  We were allowed to approach and circle the table, and had good views of the ballots on every part of the table. Most—easily 80 percent to 90 percent of the ballots—ended up in one of several piles for President Aliyev. Of the non-Aliyev piles, the largest was for ballots which appeared to be spoiled.  One member of the PEC explained to us that although some ballots had several names marked, they would not necessarily be considered spoiled; instead, they would be discussed later. Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, that discussion never took place. In just over an hour, the protocol was hastily composed and finalized. Under Azerbaijani law, copies should be made available to bona fide observers; however, election officials declined to provide us with a copy. We then asked if we could at least take a photo of the protocol, and were told that the precinct would have to obtain permission from higher authorities.  We were not the only international observers who noted problems with the counting process. About 50 percent of OSCE PA observers determined that the count was either “bad” or “very bad,” well above the OSCE norm of 17 percent. Election Aftermath In a press conference in Baku the day after the election, observers from the OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE PA, and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly announced that the presidential election in Azerbaijan took place “within a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections.” “Against this backdrop and in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine competition,” they said. The preliminary statement from the three groups noted that other candidates refrained from directly challenging or criticizing the incumbent, and that no distinction was made between his campaign and his official activities. Observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, a lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, including ballot box stuffing. More than half of the vote counts were assessed negatively, largely due to deliberate falsifications and an obvious disregard for procedures. At the same time, observers noted that the authorities were cooperative and international observers were able to operate freely in the pre-election period, and the election administration was well resourced and prepared the election efficiently. Announcing the conclusions, Portuguese parliamentarian Nilza de Sena said, “We have noted the positive attitude displayed by the national authorities of Azerbaijan towards international election observation, as well as the professional work of the Central Election Commission in the pre-election period. We stand ready to continue our co-operation and turn it into a joint effort to tackle the fundamental problems that a restrictive political and legal environment, which does not allow for genuine competition, poses for free elections.” The beginning of de Sena’s statement was interrupted by a pro-government journalist who surged threateningly towards the speakers, shouting angrily that the report had been prepared in advance and that its findings were all lies. It was clear that the pro-government journalist intended on disrupting the conference to distract from the content of the findings. The press conference was suspended until the atmosphere calmed and the representatives from ODIHR, OSCE PA, and PACE could deliver their statement. “A few weeks of campaigning during which candidates could present their views on television cannot make up for years during which restrictions on freedom of expression have stifled political debate,” said Margareta Kiener Nellen, Head of the Swiss delegation to the OSCE PA who led the 48-member OSCE PA delegation. “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will certainly continue to support all steps by the authorities that will bring the country forward on a path towards creating the open political environment necessary for truly free and fair elections.”

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

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

  • Helsinki Commission Observation of Russia’s Presidential Elections

    Presidential elections were held in the Russian Federation on March 18, 2018; incumbent Vladimir Putin took about 76 percent of the votes cast among eight candidates, with a voter turnout topping 67 percent. These lopsided results were unsurprising in a country where the current regime has steadily and systematically decimated the democratic norms that gained a foothold in the 1990s. Nevertheless, international observers traveled to Russia under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to provide an authoritative assessment of electoral conditions and to encourage Russia to adhere to its OSCE commitments. The Russian Federation, along with the 56 other OSCE participating States, has committed to hold free and fair elections, as well as to invite international observers. An OSCE presence also indicated an ongoing willingness to support democratic development by engaging not just the government but all players in Russian society. Despite a variety of official efforts to suppress critics and marginalize opposition, independent and democratic forces remain active in Russia. Based on an December 21, 2017, recommendation to deploy a comprehensive OSCE observation mission for the Russian election, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed a Moscow-based core team of 13 experts supplemented by 60 long-term observers deployed throughout the country. On election day, 481 observers from 44 countries visited more than 2,000 polling stations. The election day deployment included a 101-member delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), including two Helsinki Commission staffers who were the only U.S. government officials to observe the elections. They observed in Istra and other towns northwest of Moscow and in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor, and Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor

  • And then, they took her cellphone

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

  • Democracy Deferred

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

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

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

  • Revolution in Armenia?

    Under pressure from a surging popular protest movement, Armenia’s Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan resigned on April 23, less than one week after taking office. The mass demonstrations were sparked by Armenia’s transition this month to a parliamentary system from a semi-presidential one. Small-scale protests emerged in mid-April as it became clear that parliament would elect Sargsyan, who served as president since 2008, to the newly empowered post of prime minister, and culminated with tens of thousands of demonstrators in Armenia’s central square. Protestors met news of Sargsyan’s resignation with jubilation, but after securing its principal demand, the loosely organized, youth-led movement faces uncertain prospects going forward. During the briefing, panelists discussed the key elements of the protests, the response from the U.S. and Russian governments, and Armenia’s political options moving forward. The protestors were predominantly young people – including many high school and university students. Panelists noted that youth were motivated to protest primarily due to concerns over economic opportunities, which have not significantly improved under 10 years of rule by the Republican Party of Armenia. Independent Research Analyst Elen Agehkyan noted the charisma of protest leader Nikol Pashinyan as playing a major role in mobilizing protesters. Dressing simply and marching with protestors, Pashinyan was seen as a “people’s leader”.  Panelists also remarked that the protests were noteworthy for their nonviolent nature. Protestors did not even erupt into violence when Pashinyan was detained overnight. Panelists also discussed the response from the U.S. and Russian governments. The International Republican Institute’s Regional Director for Eurasia Stephen Nix commended U.S. Ambassador Richard Mills for playing a positive role, noting that Ambassador Mills met with both the government and opposition and called on protestors to remain peaceful. The Russian government held a hands-off approach to the protests, releasing statements that the protests were strictly a domestic affair. Mr. Nix further outlined the constitutional provisions governing Armenia’s transition of power. He discussed scenarios for the coming weeks that might require emergency elections, depending on the ability of a prime minister candidate to secure the parliament’s approval for his appointment and government program. Nix further addressed the importance of U.S. government support to develop Armenian public institutions, political parties, and civil society that will be essential to sustaining any momentum toward reform. 

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Briefing on the Protest Movement in Armenia

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: REVOLUTION IN ARMENIA? THE POWER AND PROSPECTS OF THE PROTEST MOVEMENT Thursday, April 26, 2018 4:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 200 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Under pressure from a surging popular protest movement, Armenia’s Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan resigned on Monday, less than one week after taking office. The mass demonstrations were sparked by Armenia’s transition this month to a parliamentary system from a semi-presidential one. Small-scale protests emerged in mid-April as it became clear that parliament would elect Sargsyan, who served as president since 2008, to the newly empowered post of prime minister, and culminated with tens of thousands of demonstrators in Armenia’s central square. Protestors met news of Sargsyan’s resignation with jubilation, but after securing its principal demand, the loosely organized, youth-led movement faces uncertain prospects going forward. What will be the outcome of early dialogue between the government and protest leaders? Can the movement achieve more lasting reform of the entrenched power structures in Armenia’s political system? Will this collective mobilization translate into sustained political engagement? What are the regional implications of this domestic upheaval?  The following expert panelists will address these questions and others: Elen Aghekyan, Independent Research Analyst Stephen Nix, Eurasia Regional Director, International Republican Institute Other panelists may be added.  

  • A Crisis in Guatemala, Abetted by the U.N.

    In the struggle to defeat transnational crime in Central America, the U.S. is financing a United Nations prosecutorial body in Guatemala. Yet these U.N. prosecutors are thumbing their noses at the rule of law and seem to be using their power to politicize the Guatemalan judiciary. This is dividing and destabilizing a pivotal democracy in the region. The fragile Guatemalan state is in the crosshairs of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro and Cuba’s Gen. Raúl Castro. If their allies seize control of Mexico’s southern neighbor via its institutions, as Daniel Ortega has done in Nicaragua, it will have implications for Mexican and American security. The U.N. body, known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG by its Spanish initials), has been in the country since 2007. It has busted some criminals. But its unchecked power has led to abuse, and this should concern U.S. backers. Some of CICIG’s most vociferous defenders hail from Guatemala’s extreme left, which eschews equality under the law and representative democracy. CICIG’s rogue justice has come to the attention of Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. He has scheduled a hearing April 27 to review CICIG’s role in the Guatemalan prosecution and extralegal conviction of a Russian family on the run from Vladimir Putin’s mafia. As I detailed in March 26 and April 19 Americas columns, Igor and Irina Bitkov, and their daughter Anastasia, fled persecution in Russia and became victims of a crime syndicate in Guatemala that was selling false identity documents. Yet Guatemala and CICIG tried the family alongside members of the crime ring that tricked them. They were convicted and given unusually harsh sentences. Guatemalan law and the U.N.’s Palermo Convention say that such migrants are victims, and a Guatemalan constitutional appeals court ruled that the Bitkovs committed no crime. CICIG and Guatemalan prosecutors ignored that ruling, went to a lower court and got a conviction. CICIG will not say why, or why it didn’t prosecute the law firm that solicited the fake documents given to the Bitkovs. Matías Ponce is “head of communications” for CICIG but there is no contact information for him or his office on the CICIG website. I managed to get his cellphone number from a third party and, after repeated tries, made contact with him. I requested his email and wrote to him so I could share with readers CICIG’s explanation of what appears to be abuse of power. He sent me a boilerplate response about CICIG’s work against criminal networks but no answers to my questions. It is unlikely CICIG will answer questions before the Helsinki Commission. Its co-chairman, Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), invited CICIG to appear at a similar hearing he proposed for April 24 in the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee monitoring human rights and U.N. entities. CICIG declined the invitation. That hearing was not scheduled, though the office of Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) told me it’s not dead. If CICIG refuses to cooperate with the Helsinki Commission, it will fuel the feeling among rule-of-law advocates that it has something to hide. CICIG says it is in Guatemala merely to “support” the attorney general in her work “identifying and dismantling” criminal networks and is not involved in politics. But an academic analysis of CICIG by Jonatán Lemus, a Francisco Marroquín University political science professor, suggests otherwise. Mr. Lemus observes that “CICIG has also been criticized for the very same reasons others have praised it: becoming a player in judicial appointments, proposing some controversial reforms to the Guatemalan constitution, and the use of televised conferences to shift the public in its favor. From this perspective, instead of strengthening Guatemalan institutions, the Commission is making national institutions dependent on its assistance.” This dependence drives CICIG deeper into politics. As Mr. Lemus notes, “once immersed in a polarized political system,” an international body designed like CICIG naturally “will face incentives to behave as any domestic bureaucracy trying to maximize its power and resources to ensure its survival.” Without an explanation for the bizarre Bitkov convictions, Guatemalans are left to speculate about CICIG’s motives. Incompetence is one possibility. But once the injustice was publicized and not corrected, that reasoning collapsed. A foreign businessman also makes an easy target for a politically correct prosecutor seeking approval from anticapitalist nongovernmental organizations. Kremlin “influence” cannot be ruled out. Nailing the Bitkovs was a priority for Russia because the family had refused to “donate” large sums to the Putin kitty in Kaliningrad. It would hardly be surprising to learn that Moscow leaned on prosecutors and judges to put the family behind bars. There’s no doubt that something fishy went on, and CICIG prosecutor Iván Velásquez’s unwillingness to address it is troubling. The truth matters for the family, for Guatemala and for the U.S.

  • Turkey Wants to Veto Civil Society Organizations at the OSCE

    A September meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is being held up by Turkey, which wants to be able to stop specific civil society groups from participating in the annual event. Each September, civil society organizations from OSCE member states meet with government representatives for Europe’s largest human rights conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting. For many civil society organizations, the event is the lone opportunity they have to address government representatives. But if Turkey gets its way, those civil society organizations won’t include groups affiliated with Fethullah Gulen, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s onetime ally and current foe. Erdogan blames Gulen for the 2016 failed coup attempt and claims that groups affiliated with his movement are part of terrorist organizations. The Turkish government’s demand for a veto over civil society organizations’ participation has some worried that Ankara will weaken a critical event in the human rights community — and set an example for other countries in the process. Last September, the Turkish delegation stormed out after an opening speech to oppose participation of the Gulen-affiliated Journalists and Writers Foundation. “This entity is so closely linked to the Fethullahist Terror Organization,” said Rauf Engin Soysal, the Turkish ambassador to the OSCE. Earlier that year, Turkey managed to rid the group of its consultative status at the U.N. Economic and Social Council over a technicality. Though the group lost its consultative status at the U.N., it still came to September’s OSCE meeting. A representative for the Journalists and Writers Foundation says the organization was not given a chance to reply to claims it is a terrorist organization. “Of course because this is an allegation without any proof and a groundless claim,” the representative says. In the fall of 2017, Turkey, which can block the dates and agenda of the Human Dimension Meeting, attempted to establish a veto over which civil society organizations could join the event. A working group that was set up last fall to deal with the issue is expected to meet Friday. In January, U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Ben Cardin wrote to Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell expressing concerns about countries calling for a “vetting” mechanism for civil society organizations, specifically citing Turkey. “Turkey’s attempt to limit civil society participation at the OSCE rejects its commitment to promote freedom as a NATO ally. The State Department is right to join the Commission in opposition to these actions,” Wicker wrote in a comment to Foreign Policy. There may not be an easy solution, however. “Everything is based on consensus decisions made by the participating states,” a spokesperson for the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights says. And Turkey appears to be standing firm in its position. Turkey recognizes the importance of the OSCE’s work and is not opposed to groups that are critical, Behic Hatipoglu, a counselor for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, wrote in response to questions. “However, participation of terror affiliated organizations to the OSCE activities is another issue and we believe that OSCE platforms should not be abused by terrorist or terrorist affiliated organizations,” he wrote. Beyond the September meeting, some NGOs and government officials alike are concerned that Turkey might inspire other countries — Kyrgyzstan or Azerbaijan, for example — to take similar measures to keep civil society organizations away from the table. But there are also concerns that this is part of a larger pattern of Turkish behavior on the international stage. Erdogan recently called for snap elections, which will take place under the state of emergency, and civil society groups have been a frequent government target. “They aren’t worried about attracting negative attention. If anything, they like it. It shows they’re proactive,” says David Phillips, the director of the program on peace-building and rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. “This is all part of an effort by Erdogan to show voters he’s not allowing foreigners to interfere in Turkey’s domestic affairs.” And though the current Turkish initiative is focused on Gulen-affiliated groups, Phillips believes it’s part of a broader effort, at home and abroad, to go after civil society. “I would suspect that their efforts are not restricted only to Gulen-related groups. Once you start restricting civil liberties, why stop with the Gulen groups?”

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