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Year in Review: 2010 Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings
Friday, January 28, 2011

By Janice Helwig and Mischa Thompson, Policy Advisors

Since 1999, the OSCE participating States have convened three “supplementary human dimension meetings” (SHDMs) each year – that is, meetings intended to augment the annual review of the implementation of all OSCE human dimension commitments. The SHDMs focus on specific issues and the topics are chosen by the Chair-in-Office. Although they are generally held in Vienna – with a view to increasing the participation from the permanent missions to the OSCE – they can be held in other locations to facilitate participation from civil society.

The three 2010 SHDMs focused on gender issues, national minorities and education, and religious liberties. But 2010 had an exceptionally full calendar – some would say too full. In addition to the regularly scheduled meetings, ad hoc meetings included:

A February 9-10 expert workshop in Mongolia on trafficking;

A March 19 hate crimes and the Internet meeting in Warsaw;

A June 10-11th meeting in Copenhagen to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Copenhagen Document;

A (now annual) trafficking meeting on June 17-18; and

A high-level conference on tolerance June 29-30 in Astana.

The extraordinary number of meetings also included an Informal Ministerial in July, a Review Conference (held in Warsaw, Vienna and Astana over the course of September, October, and November) and the OSCE Summit on December 1-2 (both in Astana).

Promotion of Gender Balance and Participation of Women in Political and Public Life

The first SHDM of 2010 was held on May 6-7 in Vienna, Austria, focused on the “Promotion of Gender Balance and Participation of Women in Political and Public Life.” It was opened by speeches from Kazakhstan's Minister of Labour and Social Protection, Gulshara Abdykalikova, and Portuguese Secretary of State for Equality, Elza Pais.

The discussions focused mainly on “best practices” to increase women’s participation at the national level, especially in parliaments, political parties, and government jobs. Most participants agreed that laws protecting equality of opportunity are sufficient in most OSCE countries, but implementation is still lacking. Therefore, political will at the highest level is crucial to fostering real change. Several speakers recommended establishing quotas, particularly for candidates on political party lists. A number of other forms of affirmative action remedies were also discussed. Others stressed the importance of access to education for women to ensure that they can compete for positions. Several participants said that stereotypes of women in the media and in education systems need to be countered. Others seemed to voice stereotypes themselves, arguing that women aren’t comfortable in the competitive world of politics.

Turning to the OSCE, some participants proposed that the organization update its (2004) Gender Action Plan. (The Gender Action Plan is focused on the work of the OSCE. In particular, it is designed to foster gender equality projects within priority areas; to incorporate a gender perspective into all OSCE activities, and to ensure responsibility for achieving gender balance in the representation among OSCE staff and a professional working environment where women and men are treated equally.)

A few participants raised more specific concerns. For example, an NGO representative from Turkey spoke about the ban on headscarves imposed by several countries, particularly in government buildings and schools. She said that banning headscarves actually isolates Muslim women and makes it even harder for them to participate in politics and public life. NGOs from Tajikistan voiced their strong support for the network of Women’s Resource Centers, which has been organized under OSCE auspices. The centers provide services such as legal assistance, education, literacy classes, and protection from domestic violence. Unfortunately, however, they are short of funding.

NGO representatives also described many obstacles that women face in Tajikistan’s traditionally male-oriented society. For example, few women voted in the February 2010 parliamentary elections because their husbands or fathers voted for them. Women were included on party candidate lists, but only at the bottom of the list. They urged that civil servants, teachers, health workers, and police be trained on legislation relating to equality of opportunity for women as means of improving implementation of existing laws. An NGO representative from Kyrgyzstan spoke about increasing problems related to polygamy and bride kidnappings. Only a first wife has any legal standing, leaving additional wives – and their children - without social or legal protection, including in the case of divorce.

The meeting was well-attended by NGOs and by government representatives from capitals. However, with the exception of the United States, there were few participants from participating States’ delegations in Vienna. This is an unfortunate trend at recent SHDMs. Delegation participation is important to ensure follow-up through the Vienna decision-making process, and the SHDMs were located in Vienna as a way to strengthen this connection.

Education of Persons belonging to National Minorities: Integration and Equality

The OSCE held its second SHDM of 2010 on July 22-23 in Vienna, Austria, focused on the "Education of Persons belonging to National Minorities: Integration and Equality." Charles P. Rose, General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Education, participated as an expert member of the U.S. delegation.

The meeting was opened by speeches from the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek and Dr. Alan Phillips, former President of the Council of Europe Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Three sessions discussed facilitating integrated education in schools, access to higher education, and adult education. Most participants stressed the importance of minority access to strong primary and secondary education as the best means to improve access to higher education.

The lightly attended meeting focused largely on Roma education. OSCE Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues Andrzej Mirga stressed the importance of early education in order to lower the dropout rate and raise the number of Roma children continuing on to higher education. Unfortunately, Roma children in several OSCE States are still segregated into separate classes or schools - often those meant instead for special needs children - and so are denied a quality education. Governments need to prioritize early education as a strong foundation. Too often, programs are donor-funded and NGO run, rather than being a systematic part of government policy. While states may think such programs are expensive in the short term, in the long run they save money and provide for greater economic opportunities for Roma.

The meeting heard presentations from several participating States of what they consider their "best practices" concerning minority education. Among others, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Greece, and Armenia gave glowing reports of their minority language education programs. Most participating States who spoke strongly supported the work of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities on minority education, and called for more regional seminars on the subject.

Unfortunately, some of the presentations illustrated misunderstandings and prejudices rather than best practices. For example, Italy referred to its "Roma problem" and sweepingly declared that Roma "must be convinced to enroll in school." Moreover, the government was working on guidelines to deal with "this type of foreign student," implying that all Roma are not Italian citizens. Several Roma NGO representatives complained bitterly after the session about the Italian statement.

Romani NGOs also discussed the need to remove systemic obstacles in the school systems which impede Romani access to education and to incorporate more Romani language programs. The Council of Europe representative raised concern over the high rate of illiteracy among Romani women, and advocated a study to determine adult education needs.

Other NGOs talked about problems with minority education in several participating States. For example, Russia was criticized for doing little to provide Romani children or immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus support in schools; what little has been provided has been funded by foreign donors.

Charles Rose discussed the U.S. Administration's work to increase the number of minority college graduates. Outreach programs, restructured student loans, and enforcement of civil rights law have been raising the number of graduates.

As was the case of the first SHDM, with the exception of the United States, there were few participants from participating States’ permanent OSCE missions in Vienna. This is an unfortunate trend at recent SHDMs. Delegation participation is important to ensure follow-up through the Vienna decision-making process, and the SHDMs were located in Vienna as a way to strengthen this connection.

OSCE Maintains Religious Freedom Focus

Building on the July 9-10, 2009, SHDM on Freedom of Religion or Belief, on December 9-10, 2010, the OSCE held a SHDM on Freedom of Religion or Belief at the OSCE Headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Despite concerns about participation following the December 1-2 OSCE Summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, the meeting was well attended. Representatives of more than forty-two participating States and Mediterranean Partners and one hundred civil society members participated.

The 2010 meeting was divided into three sessions focused on 1) Emerging Issues and Challenges, 2) Religious Education, and 3) Religious Symbols and Expressions. Speakers included ODIHR Director Janez Lenarcic, Ambassador-at-large from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Madina Jarbussynova, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, and Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Silvano Tomasi of the Holy See.

Issues raised throughout the meeting echoed concerns raised during at the OSCE Review Conference in September-October 2010 regarding the participating States’ failure to implement OSCE religious freedom commitments. Topics included the: treatment of “nontraditional religions,” introduction of laws restricting the practice of Islam, protection of religious instruction in schools, failure to balance religious freedom protections with other human rights, and attempts to substitute a focus on “tolerance” for the protection of religious freedoms.

Notable responses to some of these issues included remarks from Archbishop Silvano Tomasi that parents had the right to choose an education for their children in line with their beliefs. His remarks addressed specific concerns raised by the Church of Scientology, Raelian Movement, Jehovah Witnesses, Catholic organizations, and others, that participating States were preventing religious education and in some cases, even attempting to remove children from parents attempting to raise their children according to a specific belief system. Additionally, some speakers argued that religious groups should be consulted in the development of any teaching materials about specific religions in public school systems.

In response to concerns raised by participants that free speech protections and other human rights often seemed to outweigh the right to religious freedom especially amidst criticisms of specific religions, UN Special Rapporteur Bielefeldt warned against playing equality, free speech, religious freedom, and other human rights against one another given that all rights were integral to and could not exist without the other.

Addressing ongoing discussion within the OSCE as to whether religious freedom should best be addressed as a human rights or tolerance issue, OSCE Director Lenarcic stated that, “though promoting tolerance is a worthwhile undertaking, it cannot substitute for ensuring freedom of religion of belief. An environment in which religious or belief communities are encouraged to respect each other but in which, for example, all religions are prevented from engaging in teaching, or establishing places of worship, would amount to a violation of freedom of religion or belief.”

Statements by the United States made during the meeting also addressed many of these issues, including the use of religion laws in some participating States to restrict religious practice through onerous registrations requirements, censorship of religious literature, placing limitations on places of worship, and designating peaceful religious groups as ‘terrorist’ organizations. Additionally, the United States spoke out against the introduction of laws and other attempts to dictate Muslim women’s dress and other policies targeting the practice of Islam in the OSCE region. Notably, the United States was one of few participating States to call for increased action against anti-Semitic acts such as recent attacks on Synagogues and Jewish gravesites in the OSCE region. (The U.S. statements from the 2010 Review Conference and High-Level Conference can be found on the website of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE.)

In addition to the formal meeting, four side events and a pre-SHDM Seminar for civil society were held. The side events were: “Pluralism, Relativism and the Rule of Law,” “Broken Promises – Freedom of religion or belief in Kazakhstan,” “First Release and Presentation of a Five-Year Report on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe” and “The Spanish school subject ‘Education for Citizenship:’ an assault on freedom of education, conscience and religion.” The side event on Kazakhstan convened by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee featured speakers from Forum 18 and Kazakhstan, including a representative from the CiO. Kazakh speakers acknowledged that more needed to be done to fulfill OSCE religious freedom commitments and that it had been a missed opportunity for Kazakhstan not to do more during its OSCE Chairmanship. In particular, speakers noted that religious freedom rights went beyond simply ‘tolerance,’ and raised ongoing concerns with registration, censorship, and visa requirements for ‘nontraditional’ religious groups. (The full report can be found on the website of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.)

A Seminar on Freedom of Religion and Belief for civil society members also took place on December 7-8 prior to the SHDM. The purpose of the Seminar was to assist in developing the capacity of civil society to recognize and address violations of the right to freedom of religion and belief and included an overview of international norms and standards on freedom of religion or belief and non-discrimination.

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Today, it has come to include the OSCE’s watershed commitments on democracy, the rule of law, and free and fair elections. In any given year, the OSCE participating States address human dimension issues in multiple fora.  The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting – HDIM – attracts the largest number of participants, covers the greatest range of issues, and is open to participation by civil society. That work includes formal sessions on the full range of human rights  issues as well as rule of law, free elections, and democracy-building issues. National minorities, Roma, and tolerance and nondiscrimination are also on the agenda.  U.S. Delegation Led by David Kramer The 2015 HDIM was held September 21 to October 2 and drew 1,386 participants.  The U.S. delegation was led by David J. Kramer, Senior Director for Human Rights and Human Freedoms at the McCain Institute and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.  It also included U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Robert Berschinksi; Department of State Special Advisor for International Rights Judith Heumann; and Helsinki Commission Senior Senate Staff Representative Ambassador David T. Killion.  Helsinki Commission staff participated in all aspects of the delegation’s work. In addition to active engagement in the formal sessions, the United States participated in side events focused on specific countries or issues organized by civil society, OSCE participating States, or international organizations, and held numerous bilateral meetings with other delegations to raise and discuss human rights.  Special Advisor Heumann led a panel highlighting the importance of disability rights for OSCE countries as part of a U.S. side event cosponsored with Finland. Russia: External Aggression and Internal Repression During the HDIM, Russia’s aggression in and against Ukraine was raised in connection with almost every agenda item for the meeting.  The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) also issued a joint report prepared with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities detailing widespread human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea.  Increasing levels of repression within Russia also were raised throughout the HDIM and served to highlight the relationship between external aggression and internal repression. In early 2015, Boris Nemtsov, an advocate for the rule of law and accountability in Russia and an outspoken Russian critic of the Russian government’s war against Ukraine, was gunned down just outside the Kremlin.  Russia’s increasingly repressive government has eroded the democratic institutions that ensure a government’s accountability to its people. A free and independent media is virtually nonexistent and the remaining state-controlled media is used to propagandize disinformation, fear, bigotry, and aggression. Azerbaijan’s Record Draws Sharp Criticism In 2015 Azerbaijan unilaterally shuttered the OSCE Mission in Baku, effectively blocked the OSCE’s independent election observation in October, and sentenced journalist-heroine Khadija Ismayilova to 7 ½ years in prison for reporting on government corruption.  The government of Azerbaijan has also escalated pressure against the family members of its critics, in a further effort to stifle dissent.  As a consequence, throughout the HDIM, Azerbaijan was the subject of singular attention and criticism. In one particularly sharp exchange with the moderator during the discussion of fundamental freedoms in the digital age, Azerbaijan challenged its critics to name at least 25 of an estimated 100 political prisoners.  A partial list – 25 names – is below. Abilov, Abdul Aliyev, Intigam Aliyev, Nijat Akhundov, Rashadat Guliyev, Araz Hasanov, Nasimi Hashimli, Parviz Hazi, Seymur Ismayilova, Khadija Jabrayilova, Valida Jafarov, Rasul Karimov, Fara Mammadli, Anar Mammadov, Hilal Mammadov, Igar Mammadov, Omar Mirkadirov, Rauf Ramazanov, Rashad Rustamov, Aliabbas Rustamzada, Ilkin Seyidov, Elnur Yagublu, Tofig Yunusov, Arif** Yunus, Leyla** Zakharchenko, Irina **Leyla and Arif Yunus have been released from prison since the HDIM but remain under house arrest.

  • Serbia Concludes Year-Long OSCE Chairmanship

    Four decades after the signature of the Helsinki Final Act, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic presided over a Serbian chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that kicked off with high expectations.  As a successor to the only participating State ever suspended from OSCE decision-making for egregious violation of Helsinki standards (1992 to 2000), the ability of Serbia to chair the organization was a credit not only to the country, but also to the OSCE which provided significant guidance and engagement through the transition.  Throughout Serbia’s chairmanship, the situation in Ukraine dominated the work of the OSCE participating States, including at the annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting.  This overshadowed efforts to commemorate the Helsinki Final Act’s 40th anniversary, as the OSCE’s future was considered to hinge on the Minsk agreements and its response to the crisis in and around Ukraine. Ukraine Russia’s egregious violations of the Minsk agreement led to its collapse in January 2015.  Minsk II, adopted in February 2015, represents a further attempt to de-escalate the war in the Donbas. After six months of non-implementation, a September 1 cease-fire has largely held, with considerably fewer casualties than earlier, although there has been an uptick in recent weeks.  Heavy weapons are slowly being withdrawn from the line of contact.  Nevertheless, the agreement remains extremely tentative as Russia and its separatist proxies continue to disregard the majority of its provisions:  Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) access remains blocked in large portions of the Russian-led separatist-controlled territory; Russian forces and equipment remain on Ukrainian territory; Ukrainian control over its borders with Russia has not been restored.  Furthermore, restrictions continue on humanitarian aid and Ukrainian hostages remain in Russian custody.  Terrorism 2015 was also scarred by numerous terrorist attacks in the OSCE region, including incidents targeting Jewish institutions and free speech in Paris and Copenhagen in January and February; the bombing of a Russian civilian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula in October; an attack in Turkey just three weeks before November 1 snap elections; and multiple, simultaneous attacks again in Paris in November.  On November 17, the Permanent Council adopted a declaration on the need to combat by all means, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and international law–including applicable international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law–threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts. Refugee Crisis Issues relating to the refugee crisis became more acute over the course of the year.  In early June, the Serbian Chairmanship held a special human dimension event on refugees and internally displaced persons.  On October 6, following significant increases of migrant flows into Europe, the Serbian Chairmanship convened an unprecedented joint meeting of the Permanent Council’s three committees (on military-security, economic and environmental cooperation, and the human dimension) to focus on the refugee-migrant crisis. Finally, many hoped that Serbia’s positive experience hosting a field mission would serve as an example to other participating States cooperating with OSCE field activity.  Unfortunately, turned out not to be the case, as illustrated by the abrupt closure of the mission in Baku. In addition, Serbia – missed an opportunity in 2015 to more strongly exemplify OSCE norms by providing justice for the 1999 execution-style murders of the three Kosovar-American Bytyqi brothers, a key issue in U.S.-Serbian relations.

  • What is the OSCE Doing in Ukraine?

    In Ukraine, the OSCE monitors the cease-fire, weapons withdrawal, and overall security situation in eastern Ukraine. In addition, the OSCE has observed local elections and reports on widespread human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea. Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) Mandate adopted by consensus on March 21, 2014 and extended until March 31, 2016 634 international monitors as of November 18, 2015 Posts daily updates at OSCE.org Has encountered episodes of hostage-taking and been fired upon OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk Mandate adopted by consensus on July 24, 2014 Gathers information and reports on the security situation at the two checkpoints Minsk Agreement Adopted September 5, 2014, by Russia, Ukraine, and Russian-backed separatists under OSCE auspices OSCE tasked with monitoring its implementation, including the cease-fire and weapons withdrawal Minsk II Adopted February 11, 2015 Continues work of Minsk agreement OSCE Election Observation Observed local elections in 2015 Joint report by ODIHR & HCNM on Russian-occupied Crimea ODIHR and HCNM report released September 17, 2015, identifies widespread human rights violations

  • I Was Locked Up and Tortured by Putin’s Spooks

    Yuriy Yatsenko is an activist of the Euromaidan who was illegally imprisoned in Russia on political grounds and recently released. This is a shortened version of his testimony before the US Helsinki Commission in Washington on December 11, 2015. I am a Ukrainian citizen who was illegally arrested and detained by the Russian Federation for over a year for political reasons. Nadiya Savchenko, Oleg Sentsov and others who are less known have suffered and continue to suffer the same fate. In May 2014, I was in Russia's Kursk region with a friend on a business trip. During a routine document check that Russian police officers often practice, I was detained. At the police department, an FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) agent showed me a photograph of myself taken during the Euromaidan protests, which I suspect he had found on social media. The agent demanded that my friend and I provide false testimony; he wanted us to admit that we had been recruited by Right Sector or by the head of the Security Service of Ukraine to commit acts of terrorism in Russia. At the time, I was an ordinary student from western Ukraine and could not believe that such absurd accusations were being made against me. My western Ukrainian origin became an additional reason for Russian law enforcement personnel to harass me. After we refused to incriminate ourselves, they began beating us at regular intervals. We were also offered an option of going on Russian TV and giving a predetermined speech about being sent to Russia from Ukraine to commit subversive acts, but instead we turned to the FSB for protection to save us from the Ukrainian authorities and their persecution. We refused, so the harassment continued and turned into physical and psychological abuse. One FSB official threatened to hand me over to the president of Chechnya. At first, the abuse and the beatings were constant. I was regularly placed in punishment cells and solitary confinement. I remember one particularly brutal instance. Some special forces soldiers, wearing masks and uniforms bearing no insignia other than the colors of the Russian flag, put a bag over my head, took me into the woods and tortured me. They hanged me by my handcuffs for hours and beat me in the head, groin and other parts of the body. They strangled me. They also simulated an execution, firing a gun next to my head. The next morning, which was two weeks after my arrest, I used a shaving blade to cut my abdomen and the veins on my arms to stop this abuse. Only then was I taken to the hospital; there, I finally managed to inform my family about my whereabouts. Despite a court decision ordering our deportation, my friend and I were illegally kept at a special detention center for illegal immigrants for three months. During this period, beatings and torture were constant. Three months later, my friend was released and taken to the Ukrainian border, while I was suddenly charged with possessing explosives. The court found me guilty in spite of the absurdity of these accusations and the absence of any evidence. At first, I was sentenced to two years in prison, but an appeals court reduced the sentence to nine months. By that time, I had already spent a year in detention, so I was released. The fact that I'm free now is a testament to the publicity campaigns, international pressure and coordinated work of human rights advocates and lawyers. When I was in detention, guards informed me from time to time that another article about my case appeared in the press, or that another press conference dedicated to my case was held. They seemed to be alarmed by this activism, and kept saying that it should be stopped, that everything should be "done quietly." That is why public events in support of prisoners are extremely important; they signal to the repressive regime that it is being watched closely and that none of the prisoners are forgotten. At least 13 Ukrainians are detained illegally somewhere in the Russian Federation, and at least eight prisoners are being held in occupied Crimea, both Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. The criminal cases against them are fabricated, most have been brutally tortured and some have been deprived of their right to meet with an attorney or a Ukrainian consul for over a year. These are people of various ages, professions and politics, but they share one thing—their lives have become an instrument of Russian state-sponsored propaganda that has created the image of Ukraine as a mortal enemy. Kremlin officials constantly look for ways to justify their hybrid war in Ukraine, which is why innocent Ukrainian citizens are proclaimed to be terrorists, spies and fascists. I appeal to you on behalf of the #LetMyPeopleGo campaign. There are no independent courts in Russia; this is why politically motivated cases have no chance of being decided fairly. Only international pressure can help achieve the release of those detained. We are waiting for the return of Savchenko, Olexandr Kolchenko, Sentsov, Gennadiy Afanasiev, Olexii Chirnii, Sergiy Lytvynov, Mykola Karpiuk, Stanislav Klyh, Olexandr Kostenko, Haiser Dzhemilev, Yurii Soloshenko, Valentyn Vyhyvskii and Viktor Shur. We also demand that Russia stop occupying Crimea and that Akhtem Chyihoz, Ali Asanov, Mustafa Dehermendzhy, Yuriy Ilchenko, Ruslan Zaytullaev, Nuri Primov, Rustam Vaytov and Ferat Sayfullaev be freed. It is likely that this list is incomplete. Nevertheless, we demand that Russia release all of its prisoners who have been subject to politically motivated persecution.

  • It's Time to Hold the Azerbaijan Regime Accountable

    Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's habit of brutally silencing dissent may be finally catching up with him. A new bill introduced in Congress last month would require the U.S. State Department to deny visas to senior members of Aliyev's government until the country can prove it has ceased harassment of independent media and NGOs and made significant progress toward freeing its political prisoners. Despite facing long odds, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 marks a major turning point. For years, the United States has struggled to muster any real condemnation of Azerbaijan's government, one of the most corrupt and repressive in the world. U.S. officials and lawmakers still routinely refer to their Azerbaijani counterparts as "friends" despite the fact that the former Soviet country's latest crackdown has been accompanied by a general turn away from the West. Or should we say partial turn. Azerbaijan wants to be at the table with Western nations when money is up for grabs, but it hasn't acquired the same taste for values about human rights and dignity. This juxtaposition was perhaps most apparent earlier this year when the country hosted the inaugural European Games, a 17-day competition featuring 6,000 athletes from 50 countries. The capital city of Baku spared no expense to project a modern, glamorous image during the event--even flying in Lady Gaga for a surprise performance. For many people, it was a first glimpse of Azerbaijan. But that glimpse was carefully choreographed. Foreign reporters who agreed to play by the government's rules were rewarded with access to the games; others,including Guardian sports correspondent Owen Gibson, were banned from attending after calling out human rights abuses in the country. What the cameras did not capture that night was the escape of Emin Huseynov, the founder of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, who fled Azerbaijan for Switzerland on the private plane of the Swiss foreign minister. Huseynov first sought refuge at the Swiss embassy ten months earlier after Azerbaijani authorities raided his office. Other human rights advocates and journalists have not been as fortunate. Within a 10-day period in August 2014, Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, and Leyla and Arif Yunus all were arrested. They were later subjected to speedy show trials resulting in lengthy prison sentences for crimes they did not commit. Leyla and Arif, both seriously ill, have recently been released to serve suspended sentences but still face charges of treason. Employees of Meydan TV, whose founder reported receiving a high-level threat during the European Games, have been barred from leaving Azerbaijan, repeatedly questioned at the prosecutor's office, and detained without cause. Their families have also faced pressure. Two brothers of editor Gunel Movlud are currently being held on bogus drug charges. Most tragically, in August, Rasim Aliyev, a journalist and chairman of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, died after he was severely beaten by attackers. Although the assault was reportedly connected to a criticism Aliyev made of a soccer player on Facebook, Aliyev had previously experienced threats against his life. The attack was one of hundreds against Azerbaijan's journalists in the past decade, including at least two other murders. Quiet diplomacy from the United States and the European Union has failed to reverse Azerbaijan's relentless pursuit of critics and civil society groups. The State Department called Leyla Yunus' release earlier this month a "welcome" development and a "positive step." Meanwhile, the deputy chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, was arrested the day before, and the treason trial of dissident journalist Rauf Mirqadirov is still underway. But perhaps President Aliyev's luck is running out. In November, in an unprecedented step, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, its Parliamentary Assembly, and the European Parliament all canceled monitoring missions to Azerbaijan to protest the irregularity of the country's parliamentary elections. Last month, Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, made a bold move of his own, announcing an inquiry into Azerbaijan's implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights. And on the same day, U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act and held a hearing on the case of Khadija Ismayilova, one of the few journalists in Azerbaijan who dared to report on corruption among the country's ruling elite. Ismayilova was arrested last year and is now serving a seven and a half-year prison sentence. Ismayilova has kept up the pressure on her country even from behind bars. On the eve of the European Games, with the help of Sport for Rights, a coalition of international press freedom groups that recently published a report on Azerbaijan's human rights record, she managed to get a letter out of jail to The New York Times. "The truth is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a human rights crisis. Things have never been worse," she wrote, urging the international community: "Do not let the government of Azerbaijan distract your attention from its record of corruption and abuse." Maybe now the world is ready to listen.

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Acts to End Human Rights Violations in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—Following years of systematic efforts by the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) today introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, a landmark bill that will deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government. “We recognize that there are important national security and economic ties that exist between our two countries, but the United States can no longer remain blind to the appalling human rights violations that are taking place in Azerbaijan,” said Rep. Smith. “Journalists and activists are routinely arrested and imprisoned; opposition politicians are in jail and elections are not free and fair; human rights lawyers have been harassed and disbarred; and religious freedom is under attack.  The Azerbaijan Democracy Act demonstrates that the United States takes human rights and fundamental freedoms seriously, and that we will not compromise when faced by a government that represses the political opposition, the media, and religious minorities.” In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections. “It is unacceptable that senior members of the Azerbaijani government are free to visit the United States while courageous women and men like investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, attorney Intigam Aliyev, opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov, and activist Anar Mammadli are locked away in prisons with inadequate access to legal or even medical assistance,” Rep. Smith said. “If they can pay the price for standing up for human rights, the least we can do is to stand with them.” Rep. Smith is a long-standing advocate for human rights in Azerbaijan. Following the introduction of today’s legislation he will chair a 2PM hearing to examine Azerbaijan’s persecution of Ms. Ismayilova, who was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in early September.

  • Attacks on Press Freedom in Azerbaijan Investigated at Congressional Hearing

    WASHINGTON—At a hearing convened today by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) and other lawmakers examined the plight of political prisoners in Azerbaijan and in particular the imprisonment of journalist of Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist known for her reports into the wealth of the senior leadership of the Government of Azerbaijan. “Much of Khadija’s reporting was done as a journalist for U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. This means that the U.S. government has a special obligation to do everything it can to secure Khadija’s release,” said Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “Our government must take every opportunity, must leave no stone unturned, in the effort to secure her release. The State Department must make Khadija’s release a true diplomatic priority.” Following several months of harassment by Azerbaijani authorities, Ms. Ismayilova was arrested on spurious charges in December 2014. RFE/RL was subsequently raided and closed by the Government of Azerbaijan. After a lengthy trial that was widely condemned by the international community for numerous irregularities, in September Ms. Ismayilova was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison. Her appeal was denied on November 25. “Human rights organizations have documented Azerbaijan’s crackdown on civil society over the last three years,” Rep. Smith continued. “The human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Azerbaijan, causing damage to its relations with the United States and other countries, and has damaged its own society by imprisoning or exiling some of its best and brightest citizens. The time has come to send a clear message.” Nenad Pejic, Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of Programming at RFE/RL, testified at the hearing. He said, “The arrest and imprisonment of Khadija Ismayilova and the closure of RFE/RL’s Baku bureau represent a targeted and coordinated effort by the country’s most senior leadership to punish journalists who report on the government’s corruption, silence independent journalism, and end RFE/RL’s operations in Azerbaijan.” “[We urge] the Commission, the Obama Administration, and Members of Congress to raise the issue of restrictions on freedom of the press in meetings with senior Azerbaijani officials, to demand the immediate release of all Azerbaijani journalists, to put an end to these trumped-up prosecutions, to abandon the practice of collective punishment and to investigate the murders of journalists,” said Delphine Halgand, the U.S. director of Reporters Without Borders. “President Obama should meet with Khadija Ismayil’s mother, and members of Congress visiting Azerbaijan should visit Khadija Ismayil in prison,” said T. Kumar, International Advocacy Director for Amnesty International USA. The Helsinki Commission has long pressed the Government of Azerbaijan to end its repression of the political opposition, journalists, and religious minorities. Earlier today, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, landmark legislation to deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government following years of systematic efforts by the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In 2015 alone, the Commission has issued numerous statements on the rapid decline of human rights in the country and held a November briefing examining how the government of Azerbaijan uses its judicial system to intimidate and imprison critics of the government.

  • U.S. Bill Seeks Sanctions On Azerbaijani Officials For 'Appalling' Rights Record

    A U.S. lawmaker has introduced legislation that would deny U.S. visas to senior Azerbaijani officials due to what he calls Baku's "appalling human rights violations." U.S. Representative Chris Smith (Republican-New Jersey) introduced the bill, titled the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, in the House of Representatives on December 16. "The human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Azerbaijan, causing damage to its relations with the United States and other countries, and has damaged its own society by imprisoning or exiling some of its best and brightest citizens," Smith told a hearing of Congress's Helsinki Commission held in conjunction with the announcement of the legislation.

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