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Freedom of Association and Assembly

The freedom of peaceful assembly and association is a cornerstone of democracy; a fundamental freedom. In the Helsinki Final Act and numerous other CSCE/OSCE agreements, all participating States have committed to protect peaceful assembly and to respect the right of individuals to associate with others, even if in so doing they voice opinions critical of the government or are generally unpopular. 

Throughout the decades, the Commission has repeatedly addressed violations of freedom of assembly and association in various participating States, in hearings and briefings, meetings with representatives of governments and parliaments of countries of concern, statements, letters and other venues.  The Commission has also contributed to official U.S. efforts to raise these violations, including statements at the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Review meetings.  Currently, prominent violators of these freedom include Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Belarus, and Russian-occupied Crimea and the Russian-separatist occupied territories of eastern Ukraine.

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  • Chairman Smith Condemns Brutal Murder of Former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov

    WASHINGTON—Following tonight’s reports of the shooting death of peaceful opposition leader and former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Helsinki Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statement:   “I condemn the brutal slaying of Boris Nemtsov in the strongest terms possible. The gangland-style murder of a leading Russian dissident on the streets of Moscow raises the question of whether bullets have replaced the ballot box in Russia, and whether any peaceful opposition voice is safe. We mourn Mr. Nemtsov’s death and send our deepest condolences to his family and friends.” According to Russian officials, Mr. Nemtsov was shot four times in the back on a street near the Kremlin. A leader of Russia’s political opposition, he was a co-founder of Solidarity and a key organizer of a scheduled March 1 protest in Moscow. Mr. Nemtsov served as First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia under President Boris Yeltsin. He spoke at a Helsinki Commission event in Washington in November 2010 at the world premiere of the film “Justice for Sergei.”

  • Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Serbia’s Leadership of the OSCE” Wednesday, February 25, 2015 2:30PM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Serbia’s 2015 Chairmanship-in-Office of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) comes at a pivotal point in European security. The OSCE, a regional security organization based known for its work in promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, operates on the front lines of Russia-Ukraine conflict and seeks to counter backsliding on human rights in other countries of the OSCE region.   Serbia’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, H.E. Ivica Dačić, will testify before the Helsinki Commission in his capacity as Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE. He takes the helm to conclude the implementation of a joint leadership plan developed with Switzerland, which chaired the OSCE in 2014. Minister Dačić is expected to discuss the Serbian Chairmanship-in-Office’s priorities, including resolution of the conflict in and around Ukraine; reconciliation and cooperation in the Western Balkans; reforming security sector governance; combating transnational threats, including foreign terrorist fighters, terrorism, and cyber-security; safeguarding journalists; fostering freedom of expression, assembly, and association; combating organized crime and its linkages to human trafficking; combating corruption; and improving water governance. He will also provide insights regarding the ongoing work of the OSCE.

  • Rep. Chris Smith, Sen. Roger Wicker to Lead Helsinki Commission

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) has been appointed by Speaker of the House John Boehner as chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, during the 114th Congress. Senator Roger Wicker (MS) has been appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to co-chair the Commission. “Today, the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act are under attack. The Russian government is blatantly violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” said Chairman Smith. “More than 20 million people are trafficked each year for sexual or other forms of exploitation. Journalists in the OSCE region are being imprisoned, tortured, and even murdered for exposing corruption or publishing controversial pieces. In Europe, violent anti-Semitism is again rearing its ugly head, and in some OSCE countries religious people face restrictions and even persecution merely for practicing their faith.” “The United States must advocate much more vigorously for those who are victims and are voiceless. As the chair of the bipartisan, bicameral Helsinki Commission, I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms and to safeguard the principles shared by the 57 participating States of the OSCE,” said Chairman Smith, who has been an active member of the Helsinki Commission since 1983. “I am pleased to join Chairman Smith and the other members of the Helsinki Commission in defending democratic values and the rule of law,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Peace and security are under threat in the wake of escalating Russian aggression – impacting our economic and strategic interests in the region. This situation calls for a unified response from the United States and our OSCE partner countries. We should work together to ensure a safe, free, and prosperous Europe for this generation and those that follow.” Chairman Smith has previously chaired the Commission and serves as a member of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), which facilitates inter-parliamentary dialogue among the 57 participating States; he is also the OSCE PA’s Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. Senator Wicker also serves as a member of the OSCE PA, where he chairs the Committee on Political Affairs and Security.

  • Chairman Smith and Rep. McGovern Introduce “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act”

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-02), today introduced the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” (H.R. 624). The bill prohibits foreign human rights offenders and corrupt officials operating anywhere in the world from entering into the United States and blocks their U.S. assets. It effectively globalizes and strengthens the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012,” which was directed at individuals and entities from Russia. “The ‘Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act’ is a game-changer, and demonstrates America’s commitment to protecting human rights worldwide,” said Chairman Smith. “We are sending a message to the world’s worst human rights violators:  we will shine a spotlight on your crimes. We will deny your visas. We will freeze your assets. No matter who you are or how much money you have, you won’t be enjoying the fruits of your misdeeds by visiting the United States or taking advantage of our financial institutions.” “We have made important progress in the last few years,” Rep. McGovern said.  “But since the introduction of the original Magnitsky Act, human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists worldwide have urged us to pass a law that covers similar violations in countries other than Russia.  Through the Global Magnitsky Act, we can better standardize our approach to human rights violators and provide clear guidance to the executive branch on how we expect these perpetrators to be held accountable.” “Conscripting child soldiers, kidnapping political opponents, and brutalizing people based on their religion are horrifying acts for which people must be held accountable – and this bill will do it,” said Chairman Smith. “The earlier Magnitsky Act enjoyed overwhelmingly bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. I expect the Global Magnitsky Act to move forward with the same level of commitment in both chambers, and on both sides of the aisle.” Earlier this week, Senators Ben Cardin (MD) and John McCain (AZ) introduced similar legislation in the Senate, which also applies worldwide and employs visa bans and property freezes. Unique aspects of the House bill include the requirement that the President impose sanctions if he or she determines that a foreign person has committed gross human rights offenses. The bill also permits the President to sanction perpetrators regardless of whether the victims were exercising or defending basic human rights; requires that the annual Global Magnitsky List be released each year on Human Rights Day; and directs the Comptroller General to assess and report on implementation. Both the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” and the earlier “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012” were inspired by Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and imprisoned by the Russian government following his investigation into fraud involving Russian officials. He was beaten to death by prison guards in 2009 after being held in torturous conditions for 11 months without trial. Summary: The “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” This act requires the President to publish and update a list of foreign persons or entities that the President determines are responsible, and who the President has sanctioned, for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights – including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, and prolonged, arbitrary detention – or significant corruption. Known as the Global Magnitsky List, the list will be due annually on December 10 (Human Rights Day). Although the bill directs the President to prioritize cases where the victims were seeking to exercise or defend internationally recognized human and rights and freedoms, like freedom of religious, assembly, and expression, or expose illegal government activity, the President can act regardless of the victim. Sanctions on these individuals and entities will include: Prohibiting or revoking U.S. visas or other entry documentation for foreign individuals. Freezing and prohibiting U.S. property transactions of a foreign individual or entity if such property and property interests are in the United States; come within the United States; or are in, or come within, the control of a U.S. person or entity. This act also requires the Comptroller General of the United States to assess the implementation of the law and report to Congress, so that Congress can ensure it is being executed fully.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Slams Verdicts in Navalny Trial

    WASHINGTON—Following Tuesday’s guilty verdicts and subsequent sentencing of Alexei and Oleg Navalny in Moscow, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “I am deeply troubled by the guilty verdicts handed down in the latest manipulation of Russia’s so-called justice system against brothers Alexei and Oleg Navalny. The decision further demonstrates how the Russian government has warped what should be an independent voice and check on executive power into a tool to retaliate against its political opponents, continuing its ongoing crackdown on civil society in general.   “By punishing those who dare to voice their dissent, the Russian government undermines only itself. The Russian people deserve better than leaders who attempt to strangle their freedoms under the guise of deterring criminal activity.  As I noted in my statement Tuesday regarding the addition of names to the U.S. government’s visa ban and asset freeze lists, accountability and transparency are sadly lacking in President Putin’s Russia. “I remind Russia, as an OSCE participating State, that the Helsinki Final Act establishes principles and commitments including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms within states which it has pledged to uphold. I urge the government of Russia to uphold its obligations and commitments to respect the freedoms of expression, assembly and of the media.  The Russian people must be allowed the right to voice their opinions openly, without fear of retaliation by their own government.” Alexei and Oleg Navalny were accused by the Russian authorities of fraud, charges which are viewed as politically motivated; Alexei Navalny is Russia’s leading anti-corruption crusader and a key member of the political opposition. In 2010, Alexei Navalny appeared at a Helsinki Commission briefing on fraud schemes in the Russian market.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Welcomes Additions to Magnitsky List

    WASHINGTON—Following Monday’s addition of four Russian individuals to the Magnitsky List by the Obama Administration, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “I welcome the announcement made by the Obama Administration that it has added four additional individuals to the visa ban and asset freeze lists mandated under the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act.  I applaud the work of the U.S. Departments of State and Treasury to continue to focus attention on Russian government officials implicated in the death of Sergei Magnitsky and to demonstrate America's willingness to penalize human right violators when their own country refuses to act. "These sanctions are not sanctions against Russia, but against individuals who have committed serious human rights violations against Russians. The American people will continue to support Russians like Sergei Magnitsky who speak out about injustice and seek redress. “While I am pleased that additional names have been added to the Magnitsky List, there remain a significant number of Russians – both government officials and private individuals – against whom evidence exists of their involvement in the conspiracy and cover-up of Magnitsky’s death in 2009, but who have yet to be added to the visa ban and asset freeze lists.  I strongly encourage the Administration to continue its examination of the information available with regard to these individuals and add them to the List. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act must continue to be used to demonstrate to the world that the voices of those who seek justice and who speak out about human rights violations are heard and valued by the United States of America.”

  • The Gang: 15 Years On and Still Silent

    Orest Deychakiwsky, Policy Advisor of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, presided the briefing on the screening of the documentary, "The Gang: 15 Years and Still Silent", with the participation of Freedom House and The German Marshall Fund. The documentary told the story of three opposition politicians and one journalist that disappeared under unknown circumstances. Mr.  Deychakiwsky was joined by Raisa Mikhailovskaya, a prominent Belarusian human rights defender and producer of the documentary, and Irina Krasovskaya, co-founder and president of "We Remember Foundation", which seeks justice for the politically oppressed in Belarus.  

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Notes Challenges, Need for Action on International Human Rights Day

    WASHINGTON—To mark International Human Rights Day, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: "It has been a difficult year for those of us who are active in human rights in the OSCE region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has flagrantly violated the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act, exacerbated regional security, and further revealed the weaknesses of Russia’s own democracy .  The space for civil society – the guardians of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms – is shrinking in more than a few of our participating States, including Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary, breeding abuse of power and corruption. We have been appalled by violent anti-Semitic attacks and a rising tide of intolerance across the OSCE region against minorities and other vulnerable populations.  Uzbekistan holds the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist, who languishes alongside of thousands of political prisoners. "Clearly, the challenges for the countries of the OSCE are as great as ever.  We look forward to supporting Serbia’s 2015 chairmanship of the OSCE, which offers an opportunity both for the country and for the organization. As the effective successor to the only country to be suspended from the Helsinki process, Serbia is a concrete example of how a country can turn things around and how the OSCE can contribute. "In particular, we urge Serbia to build on decisions adopted at last week's Basel Ministerial Council on combating anti-Semitism and corruption.  These are challenges faced by virtually every OSCE participating State. We hope that Serbia will move forward with conviction to support these initiatives and to defend and advocate for the Helsinki principles throughout the region." December 10, International Human Rights Day, celebrates the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Host Premiere Screening of "The Gang"

    WASHINGTON—The U.S. Helsinki Commission, with the participation of Freedom House and the German Marshall Fund of the United States, today announced the following event: The Gang: 15 Years On and Still Silent A Documentary about Enforced Disappearances in Belarus Wednesday, December 17 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm United States Capitol Visitor Center, Room HVC-201 First Street, SE, Washington, DC In 1999 and 2000, during the first presidential term of Alexander Lukashenka, four prominent leaders were abducted in Belarus: Viktar Hanchar, a member of the dissolved parliament; Anatoly Krasovsky, his close associate; Yuri Zakharenka, a former Minister of the Interior; and Dmitri Zavadski, a journalist known for his critical reporting.  Each of the cases has remained under separate investigation, plagued by minimal progress and multiple inconsistencies. Fifteen years later, as the statute of limitations is running out, a leading Belarusian human rights defender meticulously analyzes rare documentary evidence, including the testimonies of family members, lawyers, and former Belarusian investigators, to piece together a nuanced and unsettling picture that links the unsolved disappearances together. The Gang examines the complicity of senior Belarusian officials in the enforced disappearances, alongside the failure of the Belarusian authorities to properly investigate. The premiere screening of the film is open to the public, and will be followed by a discussion with Raisa Mikhailovskaya, producer and prominent Belarusian human rights defender, and Irina Krasovskaya, co-founder of the We Remember Foundation and the widow of the disappeared businessman Anatoly Krasovsky.

  • The Tyranny You Haven't Heard Of

    You could call it a stealth North Korea: a country in the same league of repression and isolation as the Hermit Kingdom, but with far less attention paid to its crimes. The country is Uzbekistan, one of the Central Asian nations that emerged out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991. It has brought some unique touches to the conduct of a dictatorship. When political prisoners have served their full terms, they often have their sentences extended for violations such as improperly peeling carrots in the prison kitchen or failing to sweep their cells correctly. At harvest time, millions of students, teachers and other workers are temporarily enslaved to pick cotton to the profit of the regime. It has been known to boil its prisoners alive. But in most ways, it is a classic, hard-core police state, among the worst in the world. Like Zimbabwe, it has a president who will not go away: Islam Karimov, who assumed power as Communist Party boss in 1989. After a quarter-century, Karimov, 76, appears as ensconced as ever, though Uzbekistan’s GDP per capita of $3,800 puts it 171st in the world. Like China, it had its Tiananmen Square massacre: the shooting of hundreds of unarmed protesters in the city of Andijan in 2005, after which the government ramped up its repression nationwide. And like North Korea, it confines in brutal conditions thousands of political prisoners. How many thousands? Probably not the 80,000 to 120,000 who populate North Korea’s gulag. Human rights groups have offered estimates of 10,000 or 12,000. But, as Human Rights Watch noted in a recent report, no one really knows, because, like North Korea, “Uzbekistan has become virtually closed to independent scrutiny.” Foreign correspondents and human rights monitors generally are not granted visas. No U.N. human rights expert has been allowed in since 2002. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is permitted almost everywhere because it never publicly embarrasses a country, had to pull out of Uzbekistan last year because of interference in its attempted prison visits. Drawing the curtains has helped Uzbekistan avoid scrutiny. But the nation has stayed below the radar for another reason, too: The United States and other Western nations have been reluctant to confront Karimov and his regime. They have needed to ship military supplies through Uzbekistan to reach Afghanistan. And as Russian President Vladi­mir Putin has become increasingly hostile, the West has competed with him for the favor of neighboring nations. Thus the tenor of this White House summary of a telephone call between President Obama and Karimov in 2011, unimaginable if Kim Jong Un had been on the other end of the line: “President Obama congratulated President Karimov on Uzbekistan’s 20 years of independence, and the two leaders pledged to continue working to build broad cooperation between our two countries. The President and President Karimov discussed their shared desire to develop a multi-dimensional relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan, including by strengthening the contacts between American and Uzbek civil societies and private sector.” Never mind that Karimov has virtually eradicated Uzbekistan’s “civil sector.” It’s hard to read of such a phone call without thinking of, say, Muhammad Bekjanov, 60, possibly the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist. Uzbek security agents kidnapped Bekjanov in 1999 in Ukraine, where he was living in exile. He has been beaten, shocked, subjected to temporary suffocation (the “bag of death”) and tortured in other ways. He has contracted tuberculosis, and beatings have cost him most of his teeth and much of his hearing. When his term was set to expire in 2012, he was sentenced to another five years for unspecified “violations of prison rules.” Bekjanov’s crime was to have served as editor of an opposition party newspaper. “There may be legitimate national security concerns that the U.S. needs to engage on,” Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told me. “That doesn’t mean you have to shove everything else under the rug.” There are some encouraging signs that Congress, at least, may be lifting a corner of that rug. In October the congressional Helsinki Commission, which is chaired by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and co-chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), held a briefing on political prisoners in Uzbekistan. Last week eight senators, including Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), sent Karimov a letter urging the release of five prisoners, including Bekjanov. These are small steps, but they shine some light on Uzbekistan’s crimes. Karimov cares about his reputation, his access to Western weaponry and his officials’ freedom to travel to Europe and the United States. If Obama also would take some small steps, it might make a big difference to the inmates of Uzbekistan’s invisible gulag.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Marks Five-Year Anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky’s Death

    WASHINGTON—Sunday, November 16 marked the five-year anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested by the Russian government following his investigation into fraud involving Russian tax officials. He died in prison after being held for 11 months without trial.   U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “It is with sadness and respect that we mark the 5th anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky at the hands of Russian government authorities. During the past five years, the crimes that Sergei first exposed have been further documented.  Despite credible evidence of criminal conduct resulting in Mr. Magnitsky’s death, Russian government officials have failed to bring those responsible to justice. “Perhaps worse, the facts of the case – including misappropriation of Russian tax resources and the ensuing cover-up by Russian government officials – have been distorted, to the extent that the Russian government has posthumously prosecuted the late Mr. Magnitsky for the financial crimes perpetrated by those answerable for his death. “After five years, my outrage at the continuing refusal of Russian leaders’ to confront their own transgressions in the death of Sergei Magnitsky has not abated. Instead, I continue to be amazed at how Russian authorities continue to concoct conspiracy theories attributing blame to others, with tragic consequences: they prohibit their young people from participating in U.S. high school exchange programs, strangle political activity and civic involvement of NGOs, and restrict the media.   “The Russian government has forsaken its obligation to ensure for citizens of the Russian Federation the freedoms of expression, assembly and the right to fair, impartial judicial processes. This rejection has consequences for Russia and its people; for its neighbors, especially Ukraine; and more broadly for us all.   “As we remember Sergei Magnitsky and his sacrifice for justice and transparency in Russia, we and our partners must reaffirm our unwavering support for the international commitments to basic freedoms. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, enacted in 2012, must continue to be used to demonstrate to the world that the voices of those who seek justice and who speak out about human rights violations are heard and valued by the United States of America.”

  • Annual OSCE Human Rights Meeting Dominated by Russia and Ukraine

    Representatives of governments and civil society from OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, from September 22 to October 3, 2014 for the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The meeting was organized by the OSCE office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) under the leadership of its newly-appointed Director Michael Link. This year’s annual OSCE human dimension implementation meeting drew 1,225 participants from 53 countries, including 700 NGOs.  There were an unprecedented 82 side events on specific countries or issues.  The session on tolerance and nondiscrimination was the most oversubscribed of the three-hour sessions with 85 people vying for the speaker’s list. Other specific topics for HDIM sessions included violence against women, rights of migrants and right of national minorities. In this issue: About the U.S. HDIM Delegation Russia Takes Propaganda Campaign to Warsaw OSCE Ambassadors Visit Auschwitz Civil Society Speaks Up

  • Imprisoned in Uzbekistan: Politically Motivated Cases

    David Killion, chief of staff at the Commission, addressed the limited freedom of expression in the former USSR and the imprisonment of those who speak out against their governments.  Uzbekistan was the focus of the briefing, as it has one of the highest numbers of persons imprisoned on politically motivated charges of any former Soviet country. Human rights activists, journalists, and members of certain religious groups fall victim to restrictive laws and policies that curb basic human rights. He was joined by Steve Swerdlow, Sanjar Umarov, Aygul Bekjan, and Cathy Cosman, who emphasized the consistent reports of widespread abuse and torture in Uzbekistan’s prisons, more than a decade after the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur on Torture concluded that torture was "systematic" in the country's prisons and detention camps. They referenced the Human Rights Watch report that detailed the cases of 34 of Uzbekistan’s most prominent individuals imprisoned on politically-motivated charges, from poor conduct of trials to mistreatment in prison.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Briefing on Politically and Religiously Motivated Imprisonment in Uzbekistan

    WASHINGTON–The United States Helsinki Commission today announced a briefing: “Imprisoned in Uzbekistan: Politically Motivated Cases” Tuesday, October 28, 2014 11:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Uzbekistan has one of the highest numbers of persons imprisoned on politically motivated charges of any former Soviet country. Human rights activists, journalists, and members of certain religious groups fall victim to restrictive laws and policies that curb basic human rights. In addition, there are consistent reports of widespread abuse and torture in Uzbekistan’s prisons, more than a decade after the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur on Torture concluded that torture was "systematic" in the country's prisons and detention camps. Human Rights Watch has issued a new report detailing the cases of 34 of Uzbekistan’s most prominent individuals imprisoned on politically-motivated charges, from poor conduct of trials to mistreatment in prison. While some governments claim that ensuring stability and fighting extremism are paramount, laws restricting political participation, independent journalism, civil society, and freedom of religion may have the opposite effect. This briefing will discuss the Human Rights Watch report and look at what impact such cases may have in Uzbekistan, as well as hear about the human cost directly from a former prisoner and a family member of a current prisoner. Briefers: Steve Swerdlow, Esq., Human Rights Watch Central Asia Researcher and Director, Bishkek Office Dr. Sanjar Umarov, Former political prisoner Aygul Bekjan, Daughter of imprisoned journalist Muhammad Bekjanov Cathy Cosman, Senior Policy Analyst, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission statement on the arrest of Leyla and Arif Yunus

    WASHINGTON-The Government of Azerbaijan has arrested Ms. Leyla Yunus, Director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy in Azerbaijan, and her husband, Arif Yunus, and charged them with high treason, tax evasion and other economic crimes.  In response, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, issued the following statement: “The charges filed against the Yunuses are outrageous. Both Leyla and Arif are long-time supporters of people-to-people contact with Armenia, and the charge of espionage against them is absurd. We urge the Government of Azerbaijan to drop the charges and to stop the coordinated campaign aimed at the opposition, civil society and journalists in Azerbaijan who are peacefully exercising their right to freedom of speech and freedom of association.”

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Hold Briefing on Human Rights in Turkmenistan

    WASHINGTON - The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) today announced the following briefing: Disappeared in Turkmenistan’s Prisons: Are They Still Alive?  Thursday, February 20, 2014 3:00 p.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 122 Ten years ago, the Organization for Cooperation in Europe’s Moscow Mechanism was invoked against Turkmenistan after hundreds were arrested in the wake of an alleged coup attempt. The resulting report detailed the lack of rule of law during the arrest process and subsequent trials, as well as the absence of information about the health and whereabouts of those imprisoned. And despite years of inquiries and a change in regime in Turkmenistan, the fate of many of those who have disappeared into Turkmenistan’s prisons over the past ten years remains unknown. Their families deserve answers, and this briefing will take a new look at these cases. Turkmenistan has been characterized as one of the world’s most repressive countries, with virtually no freedom of expression, association, or assembly. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom again recommended in 2013 that the Secretary of State designate Turkmenistan a “country of particular concern,” and the State Department placed Turkmenistan on its “Tier 2 Watch List” for trafficking in persons - the second lowest category. Imprisonment has been used as a tool for political retaliation against those who do speak out, and Turkmenistan’s prisons – closed to outside monitoring - are notorious for torture, poor conditions, and disease. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Catherine Fitzpatrick, Independent Expert on Eurasia Peter Zalmayev, Director, Eurasia Democracy Initiative Kate Watters, Executive Director, Crude Accountability Boris Shikmuradov, Editor, Gundogar.org

  • Kazakhstan: As Stable As Its Government Claims?

    This hearing was led by Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) and Benjamin L. Cardin following the shooting of protesters by security forces in Kazakhstan. The implication for this was less certainty concerning the stability of Kazakhstan’s repressive government. The hearing examined was whether Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record factored into the country’s instability.

  • U.S. Congressman Pledges to Push for ICC Indictment of Belarusian President Lukashenka

    The chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission has pledged to call on the Obama administration to push for the indictment of hard-line Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka by the International Criminal Court (ICC). While the chances of an indictment are unlikely, the pledge by Representative Chris Smith (Republican, New Jersey) was a clear sign that U.S. lawmakers have not forgotten the egregious human rights situation in the country ruled by the man some dub "Europe's last dictator." At a Helsinki Commission hearing that focused on Minsk's continuing crackdown on political opposition and civil society, Smith said he would send a letter to members of the Obama administration and the UN Security Council asking them to push for the indictment. In an interview with RFE/RL, he later said, "When you commit atrocities for 17 years, as [Lukashenka] has done, the time has come." "[Although] Belarus is not a signatory to the ICC, to the Rome Statute -- and nor are we, frankly -- we've done this before, and we did it with [President Omar al-] Bashir in Sudan. It will take a lot of work, but we need to begin that effort now to get the [UN] Security Council to make a special referral to begin that process," he said. "I'm sure China and Russia will object, but that's worth the fight, because this man commits atrocities on a daily basis against his own people," Smith added. The congressman made his pledge following the testimony of former Belarusian presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich, who is in Washington for the first time since his release from a detention center in Minsk on February 19. Mikhalevich was one of seven opposition candidates and more than 600 people arrested during the regime's violent crackdown on protesters following Lukashenka's disputed reelection in December 2010. The official reaction to demonstrations drew widespread international condemnation and a coordinated sanctions program by Brussels and Washington. The financial and travel restrictions were accompanied by a boost in funding for the country's beleaguered civil society, journalists, and activists. As the one-year anniversary of the election approaches, watchdogs say the jailing and harassment of human rights defenders and protesters continues, while the independent media and judiciary face intense, often institutionalized, pressure. Mikhalevich says he had to sign agreement on collaborating with the Belarusian state security forces, which are still called the KGB, in order to secure his release. He has since been granted political asylum in the Czech Republic. Ahead of meetings with State Department officials and Washington-based NGOs, he told U.S. lawmakers that supporting Belarusian civil society -- and not holding out hope that Lukashenka will reform -- is the only way to effect change. "I'm absolutely sure that Lukashenka is ready to defend his power by all possible means. Unfortunately, we can compare Lukashenka with [former Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi. So I urge the United States, the European Union, and the international community not to trust another game of liberalization badly played by the regime," he said. "Cooperate only with independent civil society in Belarus: nongovernmental organizations, both unregistered and registered, independent newspapers and media, and democratic activists." Analysts say Lukashenka has long employed the tactic of pledging to loosen to grip on the country in exchange for a reprieve from sanctions -- a tactic that has worked in the past. Observers say he has also sought to capitalize on rifts between the United States and the EU, as well as between neighboring Russia and the West, to inhibit united action against his regime. After testifying, Mikhalevich told RFE/RL that he hoped the United States would more fully take on the role of "bad cop" if the EU, which borders Belarus and relies on it as a transit country for gas from Russia, hesitates to do so. "I'm absolutely sure than in order to succeed, the international community should have both the good cop and bad cop. Someone should play the role of the bad cop, and unfortunately, the European Union would not play this role. So I hope that the United States will be ready to do it," Mikhalevich said. Mikhalevich also offered a harrowing account of what he called "constant mental and physical torture" during his two months in custody, including being "stripped naked and forced to assume various positions." "Our legs were pulled apart with ropes and we could feel our ligaments tear," Mikhalevich said in his prepared remarks. Smith appeared visibly moved by account. "Rather than calling them the KGB, it ought to be called the KGB 'P' for 'perverts.' Masked men who strip other men naked, and women, presumably, as well -- those are acts of perversion that should not go unnoticed by the international community," said the Congressman. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill sponsored by Smith that would strengthen existing sanctions against Minsk. It is awaiting consideration in the Senate. Smith told RFE/RL that Western attention on the situation in Belarus had been "obscured" to some extent by the events of the Arab Spring, and especially by the global economic downturn. He said that pushing for ICC action would be a sign that human rights are not "taking a back seat." "I've been very much involved for years in the special [UN-backed] court that [U.S. prosecutor] David Crane oversaw for Sierra Leone, and what I learned from that, and from the Rwandan court, and of course from the Yugoslav court, which held [Slobodan] Milosevic and [Ratko] Mladic and [Radovan] Karadzic to account, is that these thugs are frightened by the fact that they may be held to account. And Lukashenka will fear it, I believe, if we make a very serious effort to hold him to account at the International Criminal Court," said Smith. Mikhalevich told RFE/RL that he thinks the chances of ICC action against Lukashenka are slim, but that the prospect of such a move could help pressure the regime to release its political prisoners. "I think that definitely, it's very difficult to organize any [such] political process unless thousands of people are being killed, but still, it's necessary to do all attempts," he said. "And you never know how this regime will develop -- and how many victims we will have next year."

  • From Arab Spring to Coptic Winter: Sectarian Violence and the Struggle for Democratic Transition in Egypt

    On Sunday, October 9, 2011, 25 people were killed and more than 300 injured when the Egyptian military attacked a peaceful group of Coptic Christians protesting the burning of a church in Aswan. In what has been deemed the “Massacre at Maspero,” referring to the location of the demonstration, witnesses say the army fired on the demonstrators with live ammunition and plowed into the crowd with armored vehicles. The military denied the use of live ammunition and claimed that their soldiers were attacked by an armed mob. The military has arrested at least 28 people, almost all Copts, including prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, and brought them before military prosecutors. The hearing focused on violence perpetrated against the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the implications of the events for that community and the current Egyptian leadership, and prospects for the consolidation of democracy in Egypt.

  • Belarus: The Ongoing Crackdown and Forces for Change

    Nearly one year after the brutal post-December 19, 2010, election crackdown, the human rights picture in Belarus remains bleak. Brave and committed individuals who attempt to promote a democratic future for Belarus continue to be crushed by the dictatorial Lukashenka regime. Civil society continues to be under assault, with NGOs facing ever greater constraints, and freedoms of assembly and expression are severely curtailed. Yet the ongoing economic turmoil has produced growing disaffection, as manifested in Lukashenka’s plummeting popular support, and a changing domestic and international environment. The hearing will focus on the extent and impact of the crackdown on the lives of its victims and on the larger society, and what more can be done by the U.S. and our European partners to promote democratic change in Belarus.

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