Title

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Bipartisan U.S. Delegation Defends Ukraine, Raises Concerns about Russia at OSCE Parliamentary Session
Visits Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova
Wednesday, December 03, 2014
Volume: 
45
Number: 
5

From June 27 to July 3, 2014, a bicameral, bipartisan delegation of eight Members of Congress represented the United States at the annual session of the OSCE’s 57-nation Parliamentary Assembly in Baku, Azerbaijan. The delegation, which was organized by the U.S. Helsinki Commission, also made side visits to Georgia and Moldova.

The congressional delegation was led by the Commission Chairman, Senator Ben Cardin (MD), while the Co-Chairman, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04) was head of delegation at the Assembly session. The Commission’s Ranking Senator, Roger Wicker (MS) and House Commissioners Robert Aderholt (AL-04) and Phil Gingrey (GA-11) also participated, along with Senator Tom Harkin (IA) and Representatives David Schweikert (AZ-06) and Adam Schiff (CA-28).

A central concern at the Assembly meeting, as well as during bilateral interaction with the authorities and people of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova, was Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea and its incursions into eastern Ukraine. The congressional delegation was highly critical of Moscow’s attempt to reassert its domination over the affairs of its neighbors more than two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and it reassured friends and allies of the deep and continuing commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in Europe and throughout the OSCE region.

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  • Azerbaijan’s 2018 Presidential Election

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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.

  • 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.

  • Ending the War in Ukraine

    The Russian-manufactured war in Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 people, injured at least 25,000, and created a humanitarian crisis endangering millions more. Amid daily ceasefire violations and threats to critical infrastructure, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the cost of the needless, four-year-old conflict. In July 2017, the U.S. Secretary of State appointed Ambassador Kurt Volker as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Volker has since repeatedly met with senior Russian counterparts to explore ways to end the conflict, including the possibility of an international peacekeeping mission. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Ambassador Volker explored the way ahead for U.S. and international policy on Ukraine in the wake of President Putin’s re-election. During his opening statement, Ambassador Volker noted that the conflict will only be resolved if Russia decides to remove its forces from the territory of Ukraine and to allow a genuine security presence to enter. He highlighted a proposal to institute a U.N.-mandated peacekeeping force that would help fulfill the Minsk Agreements by establishing security, controlling the border, and creating conditions to hold local elections. This peacekeeping force would be funded through voluntary contributions by nations and coordinated by a special representative of the secretary-general. In the Q&A, Ambassador Volker underlined that a U.N. mandate for such a mission would necessarily depend on Russian agreement. He noted that it is possible that after President Putin’s reelection, there may be greater political space for such a decision to take place, particularly as Russia continues to suffer significant economic and human costs from its occupation and will gain little by continuing the conflict. Regarding Crimea, Ambassador Volker noted that, although it is fortuitous there is no active military-style fighting, the centralized Russian rule has created a dire human rights situation on the illegally occupied territory. The Muslim Crimean Tartar population in particular has suffered greatly under Russian rule. As a result, many Crimean Tartars have fled for other parts of the country. He also stated that he has made it clear to his Russian counterparts that the United States does not accept Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea. Ambassador Volker highlighted some areas where the OSCE’s role could be enhanced. He said that a U.N. peacekeeping force would support the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in executing its mandate in full. Furthermore, the OSCE could help provide supervision and training to local police forces to fill any potential security vacuum after illegal armed groups are removed. The OSCE could also be instrumental in creating and monitoring local elections.  Ambassador Volker closed the briefing by emphasizing the utility of working toward implementation of the Minsk Agreements rather than seeking to negotiate a new format. Even though the agreement has to date seen little implementation, attempting to create an alternative would just start a new open-ended negotiating process. He reiterated his belief that a U.N. peacekeeping force has the potential to unlock significant progress towards implementation of Minsk. He asserted that the United States would continue to be an active contributor to creating a prosperous and successful democratic Ukraine which could help foster a positive security and political environment in Europe going forward.

  • 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.

  • Kurt Volker to Discuss War in Ukraine at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: ENDING THE WAR IN UKRAINE: KURT VOLKER, U.S. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR UKRAINE NEGOTIATIONS Tuesday, May 8, 2018 2:00 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 106 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The Russian-manufactured war in Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 people, injured at least 25,000, and created a humanitarian crisis endangering millions more. Amid daily ceasefire violations and threats to critical infrastructure, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the cost of the needless, four-year-old conflict. In July 2017, the U.S. Secretary of State appointed Ambassador Kurt Volker as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Volker has since repeatedly met with senior Russian counterparts to explore ways to end the conflict, including the possibility of an international peacekeeping mission. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Ambassador Volker will explore the way ahead for U.S. and international policy on Ukraine in the wake of President Putin’s re-election.  

  • Co-Chairman Smith Chairs Hearing on Plight of Russian Family, Possible UN Corruption in Guatemala

    WASHINGTON—Congress should investigate and hold accountable the United Nations’ International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) for its role in the prosecution of a Russian family in Guatemala fleeing Putin’s Russia, said Congressman Chris Smith (NJ-04), co-chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, at a Friday hearing titled “The Long Arm of Injustice.” The hearing examined CICIG’s role in the prosecution of the Bitkov family in Guatemala. “Congress has a special responsibility in this matter because the United States is one of the largest contributors to CICIG’s budget. There has been little congressional oversight of CICIG – it’s clearly time for that to change,” Rep. Smith stated at the hearing. The case of the Bitkovs was examined at the hearing, which featured testimony from the lawyers representing the family as well as from Bill Browder, a human rights advocate and founding director of the Global Magnitsky Campaign for Justice, who has investigated the case and CICIG’s role in it. The Bitkovs fled Russia in 2008 following a series of events that began in 2005 with Igor Bitkov refusing to let a senior official at one of Russia’s state banks, Sberbank, buy over half of his North-West Timber Company. His daughter Anastasia was kidnapped and repeatedly raped in 2006, and the family paid $200,000 to ransom her. In 2008, the banks demanded full repayment of their loan to Bitkov’s company despite the company’s good credit. The company was forced into bankruptcy, its assets sold at fire sale prices, and the Bitkovs fled Russia fearing for their lives after hearing of threats made against them. This case was a textbook scheme of Russian officials persecuting those who refuse to do business with them, Browder said. “First, in Russia people who run successful businesses are routinely victimized through a process called ‘Raiderstvo’. I was a victim of Raiderstvo and so were the Bitkovs. It is a standard practice in Russia where organized criminals work together with corrupt government officials to extract property and money from their victims,” stated Browder in his written testimony before the commission. Browder was expelled from Russia in 2005 after fighting corporate corruption there. After Russian authorities seized his companies, Browder’s lawyer Sergei Magnitsky investigated the matter; he was arrested and was tortured to death in Russia in 2009. Since then, Browder pushed for the passage and enactment of Magnitsky laws. After fleeing Russia, the Bitkovs entered Guatemala through a legal firm, Cutino Associates International, that offered them travel documents, and took on new identities there. However, they were eventually indicted and prosecuted for passport fraud, and although the country’s appeals court sided with them, a lower court ruled against them and sentenced them to long prison terms. CICIG was involved in the ultimate prosecution that resulted in their current sentences for passport fraud: 19 years in prison for Igor, and 14 years each for his wife Irina and their daughter Anastasia. The prosecution was “notoriously disproportionate and even more aggressive and shocking than high-impact crimes such as drug trafficking, murder or even terrorism,” stated Rolando Alvarado, a lawyer representing the Bitkovs, at the hearing. “They channelled their criminal prosecution before special courts that know of crimes of greater risk.” The very prosecution violated the law of the country, said another lawyer who represents the Bitkovs. “In Guatemala, the Palermo Convention is in force, as well as the Guatemalan Migration Law. Both laws establish that migrants cannot be criminalized for the possession or use of travel documents or ID documents. Even so, the State of Guatemala has decided to prosecute, illegally, these cases and has issued suspended sentences in other similar cases,” stated Victoria Sandoval, who also represents the Bitkov family. The role of CICIG was examined at the hearing, along with its relationship with Russian officials who were pursuing the prosecution of the Bitkov family in Guatemala. “The Russian government routinely abuses international institutions in order to persecute its enemies who are outside of Russia. In my opinion, the Russian government succeeded in compromising CICIG and the Guatemalan Prosecutor for their own purposes in the Bitkov case. CICIG and the prosecutor’s office have jointly taken up the Russian government’s vendetta against the Bitkovs with no good explanation,” Browder stated. “CICIG did not distance itself from this Russian persecution. They’ve touted it on their website and they’ve actively tried to overturn the Bitkovs’ vindication by the Appeals Court.” Rep. Smith further noted that “the facts of the case strongly indicate” that CICIG “became deeply involved in the Kremlin’s persecution of the Bitkov family. Indeed that CICIG acted as the Kremlin’s operational agent in brutalizing and tormenting the Bitkov family.” “And then there must be accountability for the grotesque wrong that has been done to them. There must be further inquiry, and we must get to the bottom of this,” Smith said. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) said in a statement for the record, "The case of the Bitkovs illustrates the Kremlin’s pattern of abuse involving the world’s courts and legal institutions. Russia should be called out for the mafia state it is and the illegitimate and politically influenced decisions that come out of Russian courts not given the time of day. We must find a way to protect our institutions from malign outsider influence and avoid becoming unwitting participants in Kremlin vendettas." Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Commissioner at the Helsinki Commission, said in a statement for the record, “This miscarriage of justice cannot be tolerated and today’s hearing is a strong first step in bringing this matter to light. It is important for both Kremlin and Guatemalan officials to understand that the world sees what is happening and will not accept Russian malign influence in the Western Hemisphere or the destruction of Guatemalan judiciary.” Sen. James Lankford (OK) said in a statement for the record, “We should be diligent in exercising oversight over any foreign entity which receives U.S. taxpayer funding to ensure our nation's own resources are used to advance national interests. I applaud the Commission for looking into the issue of the Bitkov family as well as exercising oversight over the U.S.-funded CICIG.” Sen. Mike Lee (UT) said in a statement for the record, "CICIG should be operating to root out real corruption, rather than building up or tearing down political winners and losers. It pains me to see sovereignty continually thrown by the wayside as has been the case in Guatemala. It is unfair to average citizens. It has been unfair to the Bitkovs. It is unfair to all who seek a free and prosperous Guatemala."

  • The Long Arm of Injustice

    In 2008, Igor and Irina Bitkov, along with their daughter Anastasia, fled Russia in fear for their lives. Having seen their successful company bankrupted in a textbook raider scheme, their daughter kidnapped and raped, and facing death threats, the Bitkovs took refuge and began a new life with new identities in Guatemala. The family now finds itself separated, imprisoned in squalid Guatemalan jail cells, and facing nearly twenty years in prison for alleged paperwork irregularities normally punishable by a simple fine. There are grave reasons to question the role of the government of Russia and the UN’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in their imprisonment. “I am deeply concerned about grave injustices suffered by the Bitkov family—brutalized in Russia, now apparently re-victimized in Guatemala, where they languish in jail,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who chaired the hearing. “Evidence indicating that the government of Russia may have enlisted the UN’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala to persecute this family is troubling and must be thoroughly scrutinized.” The hearing sought answers to key questions: Did the Kremlin enlist CICIG in its vendetta to destroy the Bitkovs? Is this another example of the frightening reach of Putin’s government and its ability to co-opt institutions designed to further the rule of law, as it has Interpol and Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties? Has the government of Russia corrupted a UN anti-corruption agency? What does this teach about the government of Russia, the UN, and the global fight against the scourge of corruption? The Helsinki Commission examined the specifics of the Bitkov case, including Russian influence on CICIG and Guatemala’s Attorney General’s office, and reviewed policy options to protect U.S. taxpayer-supported institutions from abuse and undue pressure from authoritarian governments. Selection of Additional Materials Submitted for the Record Response of William Browder to Questions for the Record Submitted by Rep. James McGovern Report: CICIG and the Rule of Law | Ligo ProPatria, Instituto de Servicios a La Nacion, Guatemala Immortal, ProReforma Sign-On Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Civil Society Representatives Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Ligo ProPatria, Instituto de Servicios a La Nacion, Guatemala Immortal, ProReforma Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Migration Groups Letter to President Maldonado of Guatemala | Bill Browder Letter to President Maldonado of Guatemala | Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker Invitation to Ivan Velasquez to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing Communication from Loreto Ferrer, CICIG Letter to the Helsinki Commission | VTB Bank Information from RENAP Cover Notes from Aron Lindblom,Diakonia Guatemala, Regarding: Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Indigenous Ancestral Authorities of Guatemala Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Christian Council of Guatemala Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Asociation de Mujeres Q'eqchi'es Nuevo Horizonte Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Comite de Unidad Campesina Guatemala Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Asociation Grupo Integral de Mujeres Sanjuaneras The Wall Street Journal: Kremlin Revenge in Guatemala (March 25, 2018) The Wall Street Journal: Russia’s Dubious Guatemala Story (April 15, 2018) The Wall Street Journal: A Crisis in Guatemala, Abetted by the U.N. (April 22, 2018) National Review: Microscopic Dots. Let's Look at Them. (April 25, 2018) National Review: Why Are They Doing This to the Bitkovs? (April 26, 2018) The Economist: A corruption spat in Russia endangers crime-fighters in Central America (April 28, 2018) Materials submitted by Victoria Sandoval, criminal and human rights attorney representing the Bitkov family Audio: CICIG supports VTB petitions Affidavit: Harold Augusto Flores confesses that he was threatened by CICIG Medical reports on Anastasia Bitkova issued by the National Forensic Science Institute BBC: Inside the 'world's most dangerous' hospital Ruling issued by the tribunal presided over by Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios  

  • Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Cardin on Anniversary of Death of Joseph Stone in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—On the one-year anniversary of the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) recalled Stone’s tragic death, criticized the pressure put on international monitors, and called for the Russian government to end the cycle of violence that resulted in Stone’s death.  Stone’s life was cruelly cut short when his vehicle struck a landmine in separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. “Civilian OSCE monitors like Mr. Stone risk their lives to tell the world what is happening, even as they face violent harassment and physical obstruction. Monitors should be able to travel throughout the country without restriction or intimidation, as their mandate requires,” Sen. Wicker said. “Russia’s continued fueling of this war must end. Putin and those he supports should live up to their commitments under the Minsk agreements and get out of Ukraine.” Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Ranking Senate Commissioner, praised the work of the monitors and condemned Russia’s leaders for their role in the conflict. “Joseph Stone gave his life in service to a mission that shines a light on a war that has killed thousands and affected millions more.  Every day, these brave, unarmed monitors report the ground truth from a conflict manufactured by Putin and his cronies to advance his vision of a weak and destabilized Ukraine,” Sen. Cardin stated. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is one of the most serious breaches of OSCE principles since the signing of Helsinki Final Act in 1975. The Russian regime must put an end to the cycle of violence it perpetuates in Ukraine and live up to its OSCE commitments.” The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. It is the only independent monitoring mission in the war zone. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine.  It currently fields roughly 700 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The United States supports the SMM by providing more than 60 monitors and other resources to the mission.

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