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U.S. Holds Historic Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom
Wednesday, August 22, 2018

By Nathaniel Hurd,
Senior Policy Advisor

From July 24-26, 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and former Helsinki Commission Chairman Sam Brownback coordinated the event, which brought together governments, religious leaders, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector to “to discuss challenges, identify concrete ways to combat religious persecution and discrimination, and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”

The United States invited 81 governmental delegations from “countries that have a demonstrated record for advancing religious freedom and are committed to promoting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or that recently have taken meaningful steps to begin to do so.” Participating countries included four from North America; seven from South America; nine from Africa; 36 from Europe; nine from the Middle East; 14 from Asia; one from Oceana; and Australia. Foreign ministers led 13 delegations. Forty of the countries represented are participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE, European Union, and United Nations also took part, along with more than 400 leaders from religious groups and non-governmental organizations.

Uzbekistan was the only governmental participant that had been designated by the United States as a Country of Particular Concern because of particularly severe religious freedom violations like torture, prolonged detention without charges, or clandestine detention. In remarks on the final day of the ministerial, Secretary Pompeo stated, “We applaud the steps that Uzbekistan is taking towards a more free society. We have great confidence that a degree of religious freedom greater than before will have a positive ripple effect on their country, their society, and the region as well.”

Ministerial Activities

During the event, survivors of religious persecution or their representatives—including Jacqueline Brunson Furnari, daughter of imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson—spoke to the full assembly. Furnari testified at a November 2017 Helsinki Commission hearing, “Prisoners of the Purge: The Victims of Turkey's Failing Rule of Law,” where she pleaded for her father’s release. When Ambassador Brownback reported that Turkish authorities had transferred Pastor Brunson—who had been jailed since October 2016 on false charges of terrorism, espionage, and attempting to overthrow the state—from prison to house arrest, attendees applauded.

Other speakers included representatives from Burma, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, and Sudan.   

Plenary sessions focused on religious persecution around the world and opportunities to work together to advance religious freedom. The ministerial also featured panel discussions on private sector engagement, religious freedom grant opportunities at the State Department, effective advocacy on behalf of religious minorities, preventing genocide and mass atrocities, the relationship between religious freedom and economic prosperity; religious freedom in the context of countering violent extremism; legal limitations on religious freedom; religious freedom and women’s rights; the needs of displaced minorities during humanitarian emergencies; and cultural heritage.

During the ministerial, the United States also presented “Statements of Concern” to the delegations regarding repression in Burma, China, and Iran; “Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious Freedom Repression;” and “Religious Freedom Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups.” Twenty-four participating governments joined the United States as signatories on at least one statement of concern. The governments of Armenia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Israel, Kosovo, Oman, Poland, Sri Lanka, and United Kingdom signed all three thematic statements of concern. The governments of Canada and Kosovo signed all three country-specific statements of concern.

Speaking at the event, former U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf, author of the landmark International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, said, “Religious freedom is deeply imbedded in our own legal tradition reaching all the way back to the Magna Carta, but is also understood as a necessity for human dignity by the international community ... I stand before you today with a grave and growing sense of urgency regarding the erosion of religious freedom around the globe. All over this world, people are denied the fundamental and inalienable human right to confess and express their beliefs according to the dictates of their conscience.”

Senior U.S. government officials who addressed non-governmental representatives over the ministerial included Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan; Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback; Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney; Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development Mark Green; Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce; Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs Michelle Giuda; Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State and Director of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff Brian Hook; Senior Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Pam Pryor; and Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia Knox Thames.

There were more than 15 side events during the ministerial, organized by members of Congress, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the Religious Freedom Roundtable and its members. Topics included Christians in the Middle East, parliamentarian engagement on religious freedom, Southeast Asia, India, politicization of religious freedom and human rights, Baha’is in Iran and Yemen, China, securing U.S. government grants, Russia, parental rights, technology, security and religious freedom, violent conflict, and fragile states.

Follow-Up Actions

During the ministerial, Secretary Pompeo unveiled the Boldline Religious Freedom plan, the State Department’s “partnership accelerator aimed to support and scale innovative public-private partnerships…to promote and defend religious freedom around the world.” In October 2018, the first Boldline workshop will convene civil society organizations, public institutions, corporations, innovation companies, entrepreneurship support organizations, and financial institutions.

On the final day of the ministerial, Vice President Mike Pence announced two new initiatives. The International Religious Freedom Fund is designed to help governments and entities that already promote freedom of religion and belief extend financial support to initiatives that address the barriers to freedom of religion or belief, or provide assistance to those facing discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. The Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program will facilitate partnerships with local faith and community leaders to rapidly deliver aid to persecuted communities, beginning with Iraq.

Following the ministerial, the United States also issued the Potomac Declaration, which reaffirmed the U.S commitment to freedom of religion or belief, and proposed the Potomac Plan of Action to defend the freedom of religion or belief, confront legal limitations, advocate for equal rights and protections for all (including members of religious minorities), respond to genocide and other mass atrocities, and preserve cultural heritage.

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

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Highlight Empowerment of Those with Intellectual Disabilities

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: A TRULY INCLUSIVE SOCIETY:  ENCOURAGING THE ABILITY IN DISABILITY Monday, September 24, 2018 3:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Fifty-seven million Americans are living with disabilities, 400,000 of them with Down Syndrome. Almost three decades ago President Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which provides individuals with disabilities access to the same employment opportunities and benefits available to people without disabilities; encourages employers to make reasonable accommodations; requires state and local governments to make all services and programs available to individuals with disabilities; prohibits places of public accommodation from discriminating against individuals with disabilities; and directs businesses to make reasonable modifications when serving individuals with disabilities. In so doing, the ADA has broken down many barriers blocking the full participation of individuals with disabilities in their communities and economies across the United States. While the United States has an exemplary system of integration, empowerment, and protection from discrimination, individuals with intellectual disabilities like Down Syndrome have recommended numerous further improvements to U.S. law. This briefing will explore best practices developed federally and locally in the United States to empower and integrate individuals with intellectual disabilities and discuss legal changes that will enable individuals with intellectual disabilities to reach their full potential. Panelists scheduled to participate include:   Sara Hart Weir, President and CEO, National Down Syndrome Society Kayla McKeon, Manager of Grassroots Advocacy, National Down Syndrome Society; first Capitol Hill lobbyist with Down Syndrome Dr. Sheryl Lazarus, Director, The TIES Center John Cronin, Entrepreneur with Down Syndrome; co-founder of John’s Crazy Socks Mark Cronin, Co-Founder and President, John’s Crazy Socks

  • Viewing Security Comprehensively

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

  • Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Act of 2018

    Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of H.R. 1911, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Act of 2018. This important legislation would elevate the position of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism to the rank of Ambassador, reporting directly to the Secretary of State; as the primary advisor and coordinator for U.S. government efforts to monitor and combat Anti-Semitism and Anti-Semitic incitement in foreign countries. Many notable groups support this initiative, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and The Jewish Federations of North America, and I am proud to stand with them to ensure that the United States continues to play a leading role in combatting Anti- Semitism across the globe. Those of us who have served on the U.S. Helsinki Commission have taken efforts to combat anti-Semitism at the international level. As Ranking Democratic Member of the United States Helsinki Commission, I have long worked with representatives of governments throughout Europe to highlight the resurgence of Anti-Semitism and elevate efforts to push back against this despicable resurgence through education, outreach, and improved security. Mr. Smith, Mr. Hoyer, Senator Cardin and I have all chaired the Helsinki Commission, and together, we have worked with several other Members of both the House and Senate, as well as with parliamentarians particularly from Germany and Canada, to have the Parliamentary Assembly of the 57-country OSCE condemn the escalation of anti-Semitic violence in Europe. We first did this at the Assembly's 2002 annual session in Berlin, Germany, and have kept it on the agenda there ever since, suggesting measures to counter anti-Semitic statements and acts of violence alike. I pushed it strongly while serving as President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly from 2004 to 2006, and then as chairman of the Commission from 2007 to 2008. We succeeded in getting OSCE institutions, officials and diplomatic representatives to incorporate efforts to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance into their ongoing work. I know Mr. Smith continues to raise the issue in the Assembly as the current co-chair of the Helsinki Commission, and Senator Cardin serves as the Assembly's Special Representative on Anti- Semitism, Racism and Intolerance. Ensuring that our country continues to lead in the fight against Anti-Semitism is a priority that we should all embrace. I fully support this measure and urge my colleagues to do the same.

  • Snapshot: Challenges to Press Freedom in the OSCE

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

  • Condolence Letter from OSCE PA President to Helsinki Commission Leaders Following Death of Sen. John McCain

    This week, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President George Tsereteli offered his condolences to Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) following the death of Sen. John McCain. The letter reads in part: “His departure will leave a large void in the hallways of the U.S. Capitol and in many capital cities, where so many of us appreciated his frequent visits and his staunch dedication to transatlantic co-operation … “More than anyone, he believed that a strong relationship between the U.S. and Europe is necessary to promote peace and stability across the OSCE area and throughout the world. This week, the OSCE lost a friend whose unwavering commitment to democratic principles made of him a critical voice in our transatlantic community. "Many of us remember fondly his participation in our 2012 Annual Session in Monaco, where he underlined U.S. efforts to sanction human rights offenders and when his words aligned our Assembly with a universal aspiration ‘for justice, for equal dignity under the law, and for the indominable spirit of human freedom.’” Sen. McCain was a longtime supporter of human rights and active in the OSCE region. In 2011, along with then-Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. McCain was an original co-sponsor of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act imposing sanctions on those responsible for the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and individuals who commit gross violations of human rights against rights defenders in Russia. The two also co-authored the Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act, which gives the United States the power to deny travel and banking privileges in the United States to those who commit gross violations of human rights or acts of significant corruption. At the 2012 OSCE PA annual session, Sen. McCain spoke passionately in support of a resolution on the rule of law in Russia, which highlighted Magnitsky’s case.   “I believe that supporting the rule of law is pro-Russia. I believe that defending the innocent and punishing the guilty is pro-Russia. And ultimately, I believe the virtues that Sergei Magnitsky embodied—integrity, fair-dealing, fidelity to truth and justice, and the deepest love of country, which does not turn a blind eye to the failings of one's government, but seeks to remedy them by insisting on the highest standards—this too is pro-Russia, and I would submit that it represents the future that most Russians want for themselves and their country,” he said. “The example that Sergei set during his brief life is now inspiring more and more Russian citizens. They are standing up and speaking up in favor of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. They, like us, do not want Russia to be weak and unstable. They want it to be a successful and just and lawful country, as we do. Most of these Russian human rights and rule of law advocates support our efforts to continue Sergei's struggle for what's right, just as they are now doing … let us align this Assembly with the highest aspirations of the Russian people—Sergei's aspirations—for justice, for equal dignity under the law, and for the indomitable spirit of human freedom.”

  • Remember Their Names: Eight Journalists Killed in the OSCE Region in 2018

    By Teresa Cardenas, Max Kampelman Communications Fellow Jan. Maksim. Zack. Gerald. John. Rob. Wendi. Rebecca. These are the names of journalists who have been killed in the OSCE region so far this year, according to reports from the Committee on Protecting Journalists (CPJ). This list includes journalists from Slovakia, Russia, and the United States, the latter reaching its record-high since CPJ began tracking journalist deaths in 1992. Beyond these eight, 49 individuals around the world—journalists, photographers, cameramen, editors, and other workers in media organizations—were killed in 2018. Ten were killed during a dangerous assignment or got caught in crossfire. Twenty-five people were murdered. In 14 cases, the motives behind the killings are still unknown. These numbers will likely grow between now and the end of 2018. CPJ’s report has yet to include the recent execution of three investigative reporters from Russia in the Central African Republic, or the brutal murder of Moscow reporter Denis Suvorov earlier in July. The Helsinki Final Act recognizes the freedom of the media—including the protection of journalists—as a fundamental human right. Media freedom is a primary focus of the September 2018 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of OSCE participating States. Jan Kuciak (Slovakia) Kuciak was an investigative journalist for Aktuality.sk, a Slovakian news website reporting on government tax fraud, until he and his fiancée were killed, execution-style, on February 21, 2018. He covered tax evasion at the highest levels of government and reported on the Italian mafia’s dominating influence in Slovakia. His final report—completed by colleagues—revealed a complex web of connections between government officials and a syndicate of the Italian mafia and accused the network of conspiring to steal funds from the European Union. This report is seen by many as the cause of his and his fiancée’s brutal murders. Kuciak was the first Slovak journalist to be killed because of his profession since the country’s independence in 1993. His murder led to widespread protests in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, followed by the resignations of the Slovak prime minister and other government officials. As of August 8, 2018, no one has been charged in connection to his murder. Kuciak’s death was one of the two journalists at the center of Helsinki Commission briefing, A Deadly Calling. Maksim Borodin (Russia) A 32-year-old Russian journalist based in Yekaterinburg, Borodin wrote about corruption before falling from a fifth-floor balcony on April 12, 2018. Shortly before his death, Borodin had reported on the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary group that has reportedly been active in Syria and Ukraine. Four months later, three Russian journalists were killed while investigating the alleged presence of the Wagner Group in the Central African Republic. Though the circumstances of his death remain murky, Borodin reported on clandestine and secretive military issues, thus leaving the circumstances around his death suspicious. CPJ reports his death fits a pattern similar to the deaths of other Russia journalists who covered particularly sensitive issues that had a potential of repercussions from authorities. No one has been charged in connection with his murder. Zachary “ZackTV” Stoner (United States) Zack Stoner, appearing on social media as “ZackTV,” was a Chicago-based YouTube persona who interviewed local up-and-coming rappers and hip-hop artists. He was well-recognized within his community, and his death shocked his audience and the subjects of his interviews. Assailants shot and killed Stoner as he was driving away from a concert on May 30, 2018. Stoner was known for investigating news ignored by more traditional media and covering issues that lacked visibility in Chicago. One of his most notable stories was the mysterious death of Kenneka Jenkins, a 19-year-old from Chicago whose body was found in a hotel freezer. Stoner was the first slain American journalist of 2018. No motive has emerged for his murder and no arrests have been made in the case. Gerald Fischman (United States) Fischman was one of five employees of the local Annapolis, Maryland newspaper, The Capital Gazette, who were murdered after a gunman opened fire in their newsroom on June 28, 2018. A columnist and editorial page editor with a shy demeanor and quick wit, Fischman worked for The Capital Gazette for more than 25 years and received numerous awards for his reporting. Prior to joining the paper, he studied journalism at the University of Maryland and worked at The Carroll County Times and The Montgomery Journal. Gunman Jarrod Ramos, targeted the Capital Gazette newsroom following a dispute over a 2011 article detailing his arrest and subsequent probation for harassing former high school classmates on social media. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and attempted murder. John McNamara (United States) Another of the five victims of The Capital Gazette shooting in Maryland, McNamara covered local sports for nearly 24 years, and was an editor and reporter for The Capital’s regional publication, The Bowie Blade-News. An avid sports fan, he wrote two books about the history of football and men’s basketball at his alma mater, the University of Maryland. According to the Baltimore Sun, was in the process of writing a book about professional basketball players who were raised in the DC metro area when he died. Rob Hiaasen (United States) Hiaasen, a journalist and editor for The Capital Gazette, had a long and illustrious career in North Carolina, Florida, and Maryland. Primarily a feature writer, he became a local columnist when he joined The Capital Gazette in 2010. He also taught at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill School of Journalism, where he mentored young and aspiring journalists. He wrote stories about anything and everything local: a homeless man who passed away, and how the community planned a proper burial; an inmate on death row who was the first person to be released from prison due to DNA evidence; a Florida dentist who passed HIV onto his patients, one of the first signs of clinical transmission of the disease; and more. Wendi Winters (United States) Winters, a fashion-professional-turned-journalist, worked in the Annapolis area for 20 years until her murder in 2018. Starting out as a freelancer journalist for The Capital Gazette, she immersed herself into her community and became locally known for being the go-to contact on covering stories on a short notice. According to the Baltimore Sun, she wrote more than 250 articles each year. One of her most notable stories was one she did not write, but lived. According to fellow reporters and sales assistants at The Capital Gazette, Winters charged the gunman in the middle of his rampage. Her actions might have saved the lives of the six survivors. Rebecca Smith (United States) Smith, a recently hired sales associate at The Capital Gazette, was the only non-journalist employee of a media organization killed in the OSCE region in 2018 to date. Her colleagues considered her an asset to their team after only working for the publication for seven months. She is remembered as being a kind, thoughtful, and generous friend, and fiercely dedicated to her family.

  • Chairman Wicker Welcomes Progress toward Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan

    WASHINGTON—Following his meeting with a high-level delegation from the Government of Uzbekistan participating in this week’s first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I commend Secretary Pompeo for highlighting the progress made by Uzbekistan at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom this week. If Uzbekistan fully follows through with essential reforms, it can be a model for other countries that have been the worst violators of religious freedom. My discussion with Foreign Minister Kamilov, Senator Safoyev, and MP Saidov highlighted how the United States can work with Uzbekistan to strengthen religious freedom, democracy, our militaries, agriculture, and ultimately security.” The Uzbek delegation to the ministerial included Abdulaziz Kamilov, Minister of Foreign Affairs; Sodyq Safoyev, First Deputy Chairman of the Senate; and Akmal Saidov, Member of Parliament and Head of the National Human Rights Center. The Secretary of State designated Uzbekistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” for particularly severe violations of religious freedom in 2006, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2016, and January 2018, as required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. On June 1, following the release of the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report, Chairman Wicker recognized the efforts made by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his government to bring Uzbekistan into compliance with its international commitments to respect religious freedom. Based on that progress, Chairman Wicker encouraged Secretary Pompeo to consider inviting Uzbekistan to participate in the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. On June 11, Chairman Wicker introduced a bipartisan resolution (S.Res.539) urging President Trump to take action against some of the worst violators of religious freedom in Europe and Central Asia. S.Res.539 emphasizes the positive steps that Uzbekistan has taken and calls for President Trump to develop a strategy to advance religious freedom in Eurasia that prioritizes supporting ongoing reforms in Uzbekistan. In July, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe passed as part of its “Berlin Declaration” an amendment by Chairman Wicker recognizing the Government of Uzbekistan’s ongoing reforms.  

  • Hearing points to Putin’s role in Russian doping scandal

    WASHINGTON (AP) — Supporters of a bill that would make international sports doping a crime argued Wednesday that the legislation would deter scandals like Russian state-sponsored drug use at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Yulia Stepanova, a Russian former track athlete who became a whistleblower about the drug program, said at a congressional hearing that ending doping in her country would have to “start from the top” — with Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. The bill was named for Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the Russian lab director who exposed the cheating in Sochi. Rodchenkov has said the doping stemmed from Putin’s command to his sports ministry to “win at any cost.” Several European countries have passed similar legislation. The bill being considered in the House is stronger because it would allow the United States to police doping that occurs outside its borders. U.S. and foreign athletes would be subject to the law if competing in an event that includes four or more U.S. athletes and athletes from three or more countries. The bill has bipartisan support but has yet to be introduced in the Senate, and its prospects for approval are unclear. The hearing occurred while, in the same Senate office building, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was questioned by lawmakers who accused President Donald Trump of being too soft on Putin. While the president has made conflicting claims about the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 election, the hearing on doping turned attention back to other ways in which Putin’s actions have brought scorn from the international community. In written testimony, Rodchenkov and Stepanova said that those who participated in the doping program were essentially following orders, fearing that to refuse or speak out would mean the end of their careers, or possibly even lead to their deaths. “You will lose your job, your career and even fear for the safety of you and your family,” Stepanova said. “You will be called a liar and a traitor if you stand up against the system that unfortunately still exists in Russia today.” Asked by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas how to end Russian doping, Stepanova said, “It should start from the top because if it started from the top, they ... would stop doping.” “If Mr. Putin had a different attitude and expressed that, it would stop?” Jackson Lee asked. “Yes, I think so,” Stepanova said. Rodchenkov did not attend the hearing, but his attorney, Jim Walden, said he and his client believe Putin needs to be held accountable. “There are some in our government who refuse to confront Russia for its abject criminality,” Walden said. “Doping fraud is one more example of the gangster state that Vladimir Putin has created in Russia.” The hearing also featured emotional testimony from Katie Uhlaender, who finished fourth in skeleton — by four hundredths of a second — in Sochi to Elena Nikitina of Russia. Nikitina’s bronze medal was later stripped for suspected doping before the Court of Arbitration for Sport restored it on the eve of the Pyeongchang Olympics. Uhlaender feels that she was unfairly denied a medal twice, although it’s still possible she could prevail on appeal. “My moment was stolen,” Uhlaender said through tears. “A line was crossed. It erased the meaning of sport and the Olympics as I knew it.” Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said he would continue trying to persuade Congress to address international doping and called on the corporations that sponsor the Olympics to join the effort. “If the governments of the world aren’t going to step up and do something about it, where are the corporations? They’re profiting off the backs of these athletes,” Tygart said. “I think it all it would take would be a couple phone calls from them to get this situation fixed and cleaned up. But where are they? They’re sitting there counting the money.”

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