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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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  • Helsinki Commission Delegation Visits Prague and Bratislava

    By Erika B. Schlager, Counsel for International Law Prior to participating in the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna, Austria, Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), the Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, led a Congressional delegation to Prague, the Czech Republic, from February 18-20. In Prague, he was joined by Chairman Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Commissioner Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-NY) and Congressman Michael McNulty (D-NY). Chairman Hastings also traveled to Bratislava, Slovakia, for additional meetings on February 21, where he was joined by Commissioner Hilda L. Solis (D-CA). In the Czech Republic, the delegation met with representatives of the Jewish community and toured the historic Jewish quarter in Prague, which dates back to the Middle Ages. The delegation discussed recent anti-Semitic manifestations, most notably a large demonstration organized last November on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, and other planned demonstrations by extremists. Although Czech civil society has strongly countered these demonstrations, local officials have struggled to find the appropriate balance between respect for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and their desire to combat anti-Semitism and manifestations of other forms of intolerance. The delegation also held a round-table discussion with leading civil society and Romani activists. Their discussions touched on past instances of sterilizing Romani women without informed consent, and discrimination against Roma in education, housing and employment. It was noted that victims of wrongful sterilization practices have been advised by government officials to seek redress from the courts, even though most cases will be barred by statutes of limitations. The delegation held official meetings with the President of Senate, Premysl Sobotka, and other members of the Czech Senate; Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Kohout; representatives of the Government Council for Human Rights; and Otakar Motejl, the Public Defender of Rights (also known as the Ombudsman). In these meetings, delegation members expressed concern about the unresolved property claims of Americans who were excluded by the legal framework for property restitution previously adopted by the Czech Republic. They urged Czech officials to protect freedom of speech and assembly, while demonstrating sensitivity for dates or sites of particular importance to the Jewish community. With respect to the situation of the Romani minority, the delegation expressed concern for the victims of past sterilization without informed consent. They urged the Czech Government to take concrete steps to improve the situation of Roma, including through the adoption of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation. Discussions with Czech officials also touched on bilateral or regional issues, including Kosovo’s declaration of independence and managing relations with Russia. While in Prague, the delegation also met with President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Jeffrey Gedman, toured the broadcasting facility, and held a press conference at the RFE/RL headquarters. In Slovakia, Chairman Hastings and Commissioner Solis met with leading political analysts to hear a broad discussion of political developments and trends, including concerns regarding proposed legislation on non-governmental organizations and on the media. During a round-table discussion with Romani activists, participants discussed the need to translate the government’s program into concrete action, and the particular challenge of translating national policies into change at the local level. The delegation also met with Foreign Minister Jan Kubis, Deputy Prime Minister Dusan Caplovic (who has responsibility for, i.a., human rights issues), and a group of parliamentarians, including representatives of opposition parties. In their meeting with Minister Caplovic, Chairman Hastings urged the Slovak Government to acknowledge the past sterilization without informed consent of Romani women. In other meetings, the delegation also expressed concern about the adoption by the parliament of resolution honoring Andreij Hlinka, who died in 1938 but whose nationalist leadership set the stage for Slovakia’s WWII alliance with Nazi Germany and the deportation of its Jewish citizens.

  • Human Rights, Civil Society, and Democratic Governance in Russia: Current Situation and Prospects for the Future

    This hearing, chaired by Helsinki Commission Chairman Hon. Sam Brownback and Ranking Member the Hon. Benjamin Cardin, focused on the tumoltuous developement of human right in Russia. For the past few years, a series of events in Russia has given cause for concern about the fate of human rights, civil society, and democratic governance in that country. Of particular concern is the recent promulgation of a law establishing greater governmental control over NGOs and an attempt by the Russian secret services to link prominent Russian NGOs with foreign intelligence services. Newsweek International wrote in its February 6, 2006 issue: “The Russian secret service is acting more and more like the old KGB.” At the same time, the Russian Federation accedes this year to the chairmanship of the Group of Eight Industrialized Nations (G-8), and will chair the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers beginning in May 2006.  

  • Uzbekistan: Two Years after Andijan

    This briefing focused on prospects for human rights observance and improving U.S.-Uzbek relations two years after hundreds of protesters were gunned down in Andijan. Attention was also paid to the role of the European Union, which was scheduled to decide in the next week whether to renew, end or limit sanctions imposed after Andijan. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Robert Templer, Director of the International Crisis Group’s Asia Program; Olga Oliker, Senior International Policy Analyst for the Rand Corporation; and Daniel Kimmage, Central Asia Analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – discussed the challenges facing the 28 million people of Uzbekistan, including the widespread use of child labor in that country’s lucrative cotton industry. Political, economic and human rights developments in the Central Asian nation were also addressed.

  • Belgium’s Chairmanship of the OSCE

    The Belgian Government assumed Chairmanship of the OSCE in January 2006.  The first half of 2006 saw a number of developments within, and adjacent to, the OSCE region that formed the focus of the hearing.  Among the issues addressed were developments in Central Asia and neighboring Afghanistan, the emergence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the political situation in the Caucasus, and human rights trends in the Russian Federation.  Commissioners also focused on OSCE democracy-promotion work, with a special emphasis on election monitoring, programs to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance, and initiatives aimed at promoting greater international cooperation to curtail human trafficking and child pornography.

  • Statement on Human Rights in Central Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

    First, let me thank the organizers of this conference for inviting me to speak.  I applaud the co-sponsors for putting together this timely and sober gathering to mark the one-year anniversary of the Andijon events. I won’t bother talking to this audience about the human rights situation in Central Asia.  The State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices routinely characterize the human rights observance in each country as “poor.”   Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) here today probably consider that too lenient, and I agree with them.   It’s not surprising that countries which emerged from 70 years of communism should have difficulties creating rule of law states.  But after 15 years of independence we should be seeing some separation of powers and a strong civil society.  Instead, we see “super-presidents,” who have overwhelmed legislatures and judicial systems.  Several have been in power for about 20 years, after rigged or canceled elections.  “Royal families” control the most lucrative sectors of the economy and the media. Of course, newspapers in Kazakhstan have more leeway than in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.  But even in Kazakhstan, reports on presidential misdeeds are taboo.    Only in Kyrgyzstan do we see a freer media and hope of more in the future.  And only in Kyrgyzstan is the president’s relationship with the other branches of power not yet set in a pattern of executive branch dominance.  Yet a Tulip Revolution was necessary last year to bring about change in Kyrgyzstan, which raises serious questions about prospects for evolutionary development toward democracy in Central Asia.   This brings us to Uzbekistan.  No Central Asian country worked harder during the last 15 years to develop good strategic relations with Washington and to counterbalance residual Russian influence. But the country’s terrible human rights record complicated the development of a closer relationship.  President Islam Karimov allows no opposition, torture is pervasive, for years human rights groups were unregistered, and Tashkent has waged war against Muslims who wanted to practice their faith outside state-approved channels.    Now, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir is virulently anti-Western and anti-Semitic.  But Karimov’s exclusive reliance on repression only exacerbates matters and has probably supplied cadres for radical and terrorist organizations.   After September 11, 2001, we needed Uzbekistan’s cooperation and Karimov was delighted to help.  Uzbekistan gave us a military base and the March 2002 agreement on strategic cooperation was signed in Washington.  We agreed to support Uzbekistan, and Uzbekistan pledged to move towards democracy. But Karimov only implemented the democratization commitments just enough for Tashkent and Washington to point to “progress.” Gradually, frustration grew on both sides.  It was just a matter of time before the arrangement collapsed.   People often date the breakdown of U.S.-Uzbek relations to the events that happened in Andijon on May 12 and 13, 2005. We did not condone the violent takeover of government buildings in that city.  But we condemned the indiscriminate shootings in the square that followed and when we called for an independent, international investigation, Karimov balked.    As we all know, he began to move against U.S. NGOs.  Few remain in Uzbekistan today.  Then we were unceremoniously booted out of the K-2 base.  But ties had actually soured long before, because Karimov saw the Stars and Stripes behind the Georgian, Ukrainian and Kyrgyz revolutions. Most alarming for Tashkent was the Tulip Revolution which proved that “people power” was possible in Central Asia.    Like President Putin, Central Asian leaders insist that a sinister hand, based in Washington but using American NGOs working in the region, plotted the downfall of Eduard Shevardnadze, Leonid Kuchma and Askar Akaev -- and is now gunning for them.  So a split has developed in Central Asia.  Kyrgyzstan, though plagued by criminality and sometimes seemingly chaotic, is better off than with the previous corrupt regime and well disposed towards the U.S.    Uzbekistan’s Karimov sees us as his greatest strategic danger; he has cracked down even harder and state-run media accuse us of trying to enslave Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are suspicious of our allegedly revolutionary goals but still want to maintain good ties – as long as they are not threatened by civil society.  And Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan surely assume that we want their oil and gas too much to stir the pot. What can we do about this?  How can we try to make things better, especially keeping in mind that U.S. influence is limited?   This week I will be re-introducing my Central Asia bill, to help ensure that the United States is doing everything possible to encourage these governments to respect human rights and democratization.  The act will also bring greater consistency to U.S. policy, creating a framework to guide our bilateral relations in Central Asia.   The Central Asia Democracy and Human Rights Promotion Act supports the President’s freedom agenda by providing $118 million in assistance for human rights and democracy training and $15 million for increased Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America broadcasting.    The new Act will also establish a certification mechanism for the distribution of assistance to each government. The Secretary of State will determine whether each has made “significant improvements in the protection of human rights.”  This system will have a national security waiver and is modeled on the current system in Foreign Ops appropriations for Kazakhstan and expanded for all five countries.   In addition, considering the forced return of Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the new Act will require the Secretary of State to report on whether any government is “forcibly returning Uzbeks or other refugees who have fled violence and political persecution.” This is modeled on language regarding Kyrgyzstan in Foreign Ops appropriations and expanded for all five countries.    Notably, my new legislation will create a sanctions section for Uzbekistan.  First, the bill concretizes into law the limitations already in place in Foreign Ops appropriations. The limitation prevents funding to the Uzbek Government unless the Secretary of State determines the government is “making substantial and continuing progress” towards respect for human rights and that the Uzbek Government begins a “credible international investigation” of Andijon.   In addition, the new Act mirrors European Union sanctions by establishing a visa ban and an export ban on munitions.  The sanctions section also establishes an asset freeze for Uzbek officials, their family members, and their associates implicated in the Andijon massacre or involved in other gross violations of human rights.   Ladies and gentlemen, it is hard to promote democratization in strategically important countries whose leaders want to keep all real power in their own hands. Our task is especially complicated by the fact that Russia – which has re-emerged as a major international player, thanks to sky-high oil prices – is working hard to undermine our efforts.  But I think the measures which I’ve outlined here in brief offer a good chance of achieving our goals.   Thank you for your attention.  I look forward to hearing the other participants’ views and your comments.   

  • Freedom Denied: Belarus on the Eve of the Election

    Presidential elections in Belarus are scheduled to be held March 19, against the backdrop of stepped up repression by the regime of Alexander Lukashenka. The Belarusian strongman's power grab, begun a decade ago, has included liquidation of the democratically elected parliament, a string of fundamentally flawed elections and manipulation of the country's constitution to maintain power. A climate of fear following the disappearance of leading opposition figures in 1999 has continued with the harassment and arrests of opposition activists and the forced closure of independent newspapers. Rights violations in Belarus have intensified in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine, as the regime seeks to squelch dissent. The repressive environment has made it difficult for opposition candidates to engage in normal campaign activities. Meanwhile, administration of the elections at all levels remains firmly in the hands of Lukashenka loyalists.

  • Missed Opportunity in Kazakhstan: Fraud and Intimidation Spoil Election Promised to be “Free and Fair”

    By H. Knox Thames, Counsel On December 4, the Republic of Kazakhstan held its third presidential election. The results released by the Central Election Commission showed President Nursultan Nazarbayev winning 91.15% of the vote, with his most serious competitor, Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, a former Speaker of Parliament and now leader of the opposition alliance For a Fair Kazakhstan, receiving just 6.61%.  Despite promises from President Nazarbayev that the election would be free and fair, the observation mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stated that the election “did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections.” Dynamic Culture – Stagnant Politics Over the past decade and a half, Kazakhstan’s political climate has stagnated, as President Nazarbayev has gradually consolidated power.  If he finishes his third term, he will have ruled Kazakhstan for almost a quarter of a century. President Nazarbayev oversees a vast country, the ninth largest in the world, stretching from the steppes of Siberia to the Altai Mountains to the Caspian Sea.  Kazakhstan is also where the Muslim and Slavic Christian worlds meet – its 15 million citizens are reportedly 47% Muslim and 44% Russian Orthodox.  The country is incredibly diverse; according to the 1999 census, 53% of the country is ethnic Kazakh and 30% ethnic Russians, with Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Germans, Tatars, Uygurs, and others composing the rest of the population. Mr. Nazarbayev was first elected chairman of the Kazakh Supreme Soviet (Supreme Kenges) in February 1990. In December 1991, just a few weeks after Kazakhstan declared its sovereignty from the Soviet Union, Nazarbayev ran unopposed in Kazakhstan’s first direct presidential elections, winning a reported 98% of the vote.  For the second presidential election in 1999, the OSCE declined to send a full observation mission to protest the exclusion of opposition candidates and pre-election conditions that “clearly and substantially” did not meet OSCE commitments.  Nazarbayev won a reported 80% of the vote in an election the OSCE assessment mission said “fell far short” of OSCE standards. Other elections have also received failing grades from international observers, including the most recent election in September 2004 for the lower house of parliament.  The OSCE observation mission concluded “the election process fell short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections in many respects.”  While opposition parties in previous Kazakh parliaments had held multiple seats, the September 2004 election resulted in only one seat going to a party not affiliated with the government (which the party refused to take in a show of protest). Also of note is the 1995 constitutional referendum arranged by President Nazarbayev, which drastically increased the powers of the president and continued Nazarbayev’s domination of the Kazakh political scene.  The referendum removed most checks and balances from the Kazakh system of government, as now only the president can appoint heads of regions and cities (as opposed to direct elections), initiate constitutional amendments, dismiss the government, and dissolve parliament. Pre-election Climate Considering the failure of past Kazakh elections to meet international standards, the December 4 vote presented President Nazarbayev and his government with a prime opportunity to show Kazakhstan could live up to its freely undertaken international commitments. With Kazakhstan publicly expressing interest in the 2009 Chairmanship of the OSCE and positive pre-election statements by President Nazarbayev, expectations were high that the election would be free and fair. There were some improvements from past elections, and the OSCE worked closely with the Government of Kazakhstan to improve the election law.  Election lists were published, multiple candidates were allowed to run for office, and all five candidates were given time on state television and space in newspapers.  Amendments to the election code were made in 2004 after consultations under the OSCE Round Table Process.  However, the OSCE continued to maintain that the election law required “further improvement to fully meet OSCE commitments for democratic elections.”  Additional amendments were passed in April 2005, but instead of bringing the law into harmony with OSCE standards, the amendments were described by the OSCE as having the “opposite effect.”  Most striking was Article 44.6 of the Election Code that prohibited protesting by voters and political parties from the conclusion of the election campaign until the official publication of the results. Other problems persisted in the election run up, with candidates and their party members being assaulted during campaign stops, campaign literature being seized and destroyed, opposition parties being repeatedly denied permission to hold campaign events in central locations, and the government refusing to allow the OSCE to review the programming codes for electronic voting.  NGOs reported on the politically motivated use of Article 318 of the Criminal Code, which penalizes a person who “insults the honor and dignity of the president.”  On May 5, 2005, the Ministry of Culture, Information and Sport closed the independent newspaper Respublika (“Republic”) under questionable circumstances, and later that month ordered the seizure of 1,000 copies of its successor newspaper, Set’Kz (“Kz Network”).  Soz (“Voice”) and Zhuma Tayms Data Nedeli (“Friday Times – Week’s Data”) have also faced government efforts to close them down. Violations on Election Day The author was one of 460 observers from 43 countries participating in the joint observation mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament.  The author observed polling stations in the rural Ilysky District north of Almaty, the largest city and former capital of Kazakhstan. Significant problems occurred on the day of the election, with the author witnessing violations in half of the polling stations visited. Contraventions included voter fraud with individuals permitted to cast multiple ballots; intimidation by uniformed police or persons believed to be connected with security agencies; irregularities in the opening of a polling station preventing monitors from ascertaining the number of blank ballots apportioned, as they were counted offsite the day before; invalid ballots issued to voters without required polling station member signatures; and unfair campaign materials of the incumbent inside some polling areas. These were not isolated events, as the OSCE found similar problems, including unauthorized persons interfering in polling stations; cases of multiple voting; ballot box stuffing; pressure on students to vote; tampering with result protocols.  The OSCE preliminary report stated, “While candidate registration was mostly inclusive and gave voters a choice, undue restrictions on campaigning, harassment of campaign staff and persistent and numerous cases of intimidation by the authorities, limited the possibility for a meaningful competition.”  The vote count was also marred, with the OSCE giving negative assessments in 27% of stations monitored. The head of the OSCE/ODIHR long-term observer mission, Ambassador Audrey Glover, expressed regret that the Kazakh authorities did not provide “a level playing field for a democratic election, whereby the candidates enjoyed equal treatment and opportunities to campaign so that voters could make an informed choice. This is despite assurances from the president that the election would be free and fair.” U.S. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) drew a similar conclusion: “President Nazarbayev has once again made it obvious that he is not concerned about meeting Kazakhstan’s obligations under the Helsinki Process.  It is quite clear that the promises of the Kazakh Government to hold free and fair elections that meet internationally recognized standards remain empty.” U.S. Policy in Response When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Astana in October, she spoke of the importance of the upcoming election: “Kazakhstan has an unprecedented opportunity to lead Central Asia toward a future of democracy and to elevate U.S.-Kazakhstani relations to a new level.”  Since 1995, Kazakhstan has experienced a steady deterioration of civil and political rights, in direct contrast to the significant economic reforms taken on by the government.  The limitations have come legislatively – the 1995 constitutional referendum, the 2005 election law amendments; the 2005 law on extremism; the 2005 amendments to the media law; the other 2005 “national security” amendments – and through government actions.  The election could have reversed this negative trend, but instead only continued it. The ramifications of the flawed election vote will be varied, but will certainly impact Kazakhstan’s bid for the OSCE chairmanship.  As U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sam Brownback (R-KS) concluded, “Kazakhstan’s desire to lead the OSCE in 2009 has been undermined by the conduct of these elections.”  Co-Chairman Smith added, “The massive fraud, intimidation and outright abuse of power are blatantly inconsistent with a government seeking to lead the premier human rights organization in Europe.”  The election also raises the question of whether Kazakhstan’s desire to host an OSCE meeting on tolerance in 2006 should be considered. At the bilateral level, the U.S./Kazakh relationship will not necessarily change, but there is nothing in which to justify the elevation Secretary Rice spoke of.  U.S. officials identified the three strategic interests in Kazakhstan – energy, security and expanding freedom through reform – with a clean election being key, if Kazakhstan wanted to pull closer to America.  Unfortunately, the government flouted this simple and straightforward indicator, signaling that Astana is not interested.  The United States should recognize this and hold firm, while continuing to push for democratization and human rights. The other U.S. strategic interests of energy access and security can also be met, even if the status quo holds and the bilateral relationship remains more terrestrial.  It is in Kazakhstan’s national interest to continue its expansion of access to hydrocarbons – oil and gas are the foundations for its Asian Tiger-like economic success.  In addition, roughly one-third of foreign investment in Kazakhstan reportedly comes from U.S. companies.  Considering Kazakhstan’s WTO ambitions, Kazakhstan must continue to positively engage the U.S. economically.  Lastly, concerning security, President Nazarbayev will continue to be a partner in the war on terror, at least in Central Asia, as in the past extremist cells have operated in the more lawless regions of his country and probably continue to do so. Conclusion The unquestioned popularity of Mr. Nazarbayev does not excuse the conduct of the election – in fact, it begs the question of why his government allowed these blatant and unnecessary violations.  President Nazarbayev has demonstrated the ability to implement difficult policies when he has the political will to do so.  Kazakhstan, for instance, has made tough reforms in the economic sphere, which are often more painful than democratic reforms, especially in former communist countries making the transition from command economies to capitalism. If the president were serious about wanting to elevate Kazakhstan’s relations with the United States, he could have ensured a proper vote. Kazakhstan was positioned to anchor a new “corridor of reform,” but the recent election unfortunately demonstrates that President Nazarbayev has no desire to grow democracy in his country.  The negative trend for respect of civil and political rights and the consolidation of state power will most likely continue.  As Secretary Rice said during her Astana trip, “History also teaches us that true stability and true security are only found in democratic regimes.  And no calculation of short-term interest should tempt us to undermine this basic conviction.”  Therefore, for the United States to maintain its credibility in the region, it must not ignore the conduct of the election and the events of the past year.  The United States should stand ready to expand its relationship, but only when Kazakhstan shows real interest in expanding domestic rights at home.

  • Remarks by Benjamin L. Cardin Urging the Russian Federation to Withdraw Legislation Restricting the Establishment of Nongovernmental Organizations

    Mr. Speaker, I rise in support and as a cosponsor of H. Con. Res. 312, to urge the Russian Government to alter or withdraw the proposed legislation affecting nongovernmental organizations, NGO's, operating in Russia. The Russian legislation would severely restrict foreign assistance to NGO's in Russia and would also force existing Russian NGO's to reregister with the government.   The draft Russian bill raises a number of serious concerns, and may violate Russia's commitments to the OSCE. Several hundred thousand nongovernmental organizations currently operate in Russia, representing all sections of society. By forcing all NGO's to reregister, the Russian Government will have the power to subjectively deny registration to some organizations and limit the activities of others. This legislation strikes at the heart of basic democratic freedoms: the right of individuals to freely associate and participate in society. Some of the provisions in this bill would also increase the oversight of financial auditing of NGO's, which the government could use to place restrictions on opposition groups.   Just months ago, the Russian President Vladimir Putin outlawed any foreign funding of political parties in Russia. This legislation goes further and affects human rights groups and other NGO's who are only seeking to improve the nature of Russia's civil society. Foreign organizations would be required to register as legal Russian entities, seriously hindering their attempts to promote democracy and accountability in Russia. Many organizations which have conducted prominent and important human rights work in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union would see their activities curtailed under the Russian bill, which may lead to the partial or complete closure of critical offices inside of Russia.   Last month, the State Duma in Russia approved the first reading of the bill by 370 to 18 votes, despite more than 1,000 NGO's appealing for the Duma to reject it. This Friday, December 16, the Duma has scheduled a second reading of the bill. As the ranking member of the Helsinki Commission, I have worked closely with Commission Cochairman Chris Smith in opposition to this bill. The Helsinki Commission sent a bipartisan, bicameral letter in November--which I cosigned--to the Chairman of the Russian State Duma urging the rejection of this legislation. In particular, the letter emphasized the importance that nongovernmental organizations play in civil society and in fulfilling Russia's obligations as a democratic state and member of the international community.   Russia has made great strides since the end of the Cold War. There were serious concerns that Russia would not have a smooth transition to a fully functioning democracy. I am gravely concerned about recent developments in Russia. President Putin himself has said that “modern Russia's greatest achievement is the democratic process (and) the achievements of civil society." I therefore call on President Putin and the State Duma to be true to their word and reject this bill, to reaffirm their commitment to the democratic process and civil society.

  • Remarks by Christopher H. Smith Urging Russian Federation to Withdraw Legislation Restricting Establishment of Nongovernmental Organizations

    Mr. Speaker, I rise in very strong support of H. Con. Res. 312, introduced by the very distinguished chairman of our full committee, Chairman Henry Hyde, urging the Government of the Russian Federation to withdraw or modify proposed legislation that would have a chilling effect on civil society in that country.   Amazingly, as Russia prepares to assume leadership of the G-8 and the Council of Europe next month, Russian lawmakers have been working feverishly to subordinate pockets of independent thought and action to state control. The focus of recent days has been on nongovernmental organizations, especially those working in the fields of human rights and democracy. In essence, the provisions would require all nongovernmental organizations to re-register with a government commission empowered with invasive powers to monitor NGO activities.   The Duma has passed amendments to the Law on Public Associations by a vote of 370-18, but the measure must go through further readings scheduled for next week and signed then by Vladimir Putin before it becomes law. In mid-November, members of the Helsinki Commission, which I am co-chair of, sent a letter which I will make a part of the RECORD to the Speaker of the Russian Duma, Boris Gryzlov, urging the Duma to reject the pending proposed amendments, purportedly crafted with input from Putin's advisers.   The move against NGOs, Mr. Speaker, is not occurring in a vacuum, but is calculated to move in a lead-up to the critical parliamentary elections that are scheduled for 2007 and a presidential contest the following year to replace Putin, who is prevented from seeking another term.   In response to expressions of concern from the United States and others, some modifications to the draft are apparently being considered, though it is still unclear the extent to which the amendments will be revamped. We will not have a full picture until next week. By then, it may be too late to change before landing on President Putin's desk. Thus, consideration of Chairman Hyde's measure comes at a critical time for the House to be on record opposing the burdensome compulsory registration requirements being proposed.   As originally drafted, the proposed amendments will require Russia's approximately 450,000 NGOs to re-register with a government commission under a complicated registration procedure and would expand the ability of the government to deny registration permission.   Financial auditing, a tactic currently used to harass opposition NGOs, would also become more intrusive under the bill's provisions. No doubt there would be negative impact on foreign-based organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and the Carnegie Foundation, while increasing controls over NGOs of Russian origin.   Mr. Speaker, whatever package of amendments to the legal framework for NGOs in Russia finally emerges, they must be evaluated in light of that country's commitments as a member of the Council of Europe and participating state in the Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe. Do the proposals under consideration in the Russian Duma fully respect the right of individuals to freedom of association, or do they undermine that fundamental freedom under the guise of fighting corruption and terrorism? That is the key question. This resolution gets us on record, and hopefully it will have some sway with the Duma and with President Putin.   Mr. Speaker, I include for the Record the letter I referred to earlier to the Chairman of the Russian State Duma, Boris Gryzlov.

  • Riding Roughshod Over Rights in Belarus

    Mr. Speaker, as co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission and the sponsor of the Belarus Democracy Act, I remain deeply concerned about the violations of human rights occurring every day in Lukashenka's Belarus.   During a recent news conference, the autocratic Belarusian leader expressed confidence in his victory in the presidential election scheduled for next year, rhetorically asking why should he be rigging this election. Given his intensified assault on civil society, his dismal human rights record, and penchant for rigged elections, Mr. Lukashenka's statements ring hollow. Yet, Lukashenka's actions against democratic forces, non-governmental organizations and the independent media belie his stated confidence regarding electoral victory.   Last week, the lower chamber of Lukashenka's pocket parliament passed a law endorsing tougher new penalties for activities “directed against people and public security,” a proposal submitted to the parliament only days before passage. These changes to the Criminal Code increase penalties for participation in organizations that were liquidated or warned to stop their pro-democratic activities, or for the training and other preparations for unauthorized demonstrations or other civic actions.   Mr. Speaker, to cite just one of the draconian provisions, the Code now gives authorities the leeway to jail an individual for up to 2 years for “providing a foreign country, a foreign or international organization with patently false information about the political, economic, social, military, and international situation of the Republic of Belarus.” Putting aside the matter of such a provision violating free speech norms, if the past is any guide, it is clear who would be the arbiter of what constitutes “false information.” There can be no doubt that the law aims to stifle the democratic opposition, and the head of the KGB (yes, in Belarus it is still called the KGB) himself recently admitted that the reasons for the law is to discourage street protests during the upcoming presidential race.   This law, while particularly blatant, is part and parcel of other actions designed to strengthen the regime's control and deny the Belarusian people any alternative voices as the presidential election campaign unfolds. Last month, a new law further controlling political parties came into force. A recent Council of Ministers decree clamps down on organizations that conduct public opinion polls. A Lukashenka decree further discriminates against independent trade unions, stipulating that only trade unions belonging to the pro-governmental federation are granted the right to premises at no cost. Yet another decree considerably limits students' opportunities to travel abroad.   Meanwhile, opposition activists are routinely beaten up or detained. Just last week, for instance, Ales Kalita was detained and at the hands of the police suffered a dislocated arm for merely distributing the independent newspaper “Narodna Volya.” Viktor Syritsya, a lecturer at Baranavichi College was fired for organizing a meeting of students with presidential opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich. Belarusian State Economic University in Minsk expelled fourth-year student Tatsyana Khoma because she took a brief trip to France, where she was elected to the executive committee of the Brussels-based National Unions of Students in Europe (ESIB), an umbrella organization of 44 national student unions from 34 countries. The police beat activist Mikita Sasim. They detained youth activists Yauhen Afnagel and others. Other repressive actions include frequent arrests of activists of democratic youth movements such as ZUBR, a ban on worship by some religious congregations and other repressive actions against selected religious minorities, and continued harassment of members of the Union of Poles in Belarus.   Moreover, there is an emerging pattern of the regime putting obstacles in the way of Mr. Milinkevich. Recently, a public meeting he held in Borbuisk was disrupted by the authorities, with participants being told by the authorities to go home and threatened with tax inspections. During a press conference, the electricity in the room was cut off, as well as a “hot-line” phone with town residents.   Especially egregious has been the regime's intensification of the war against the already repressed and struggling independent media. Newspaper closures, suspensions, threats, and exorbitant and absurd libel fines, pressures on advertisers and other forms of harassment have become routine. Outright police confiscations of independent newspapers are also not uncommon. A seemingly more subtle tactic, implemented just a few weeks ago, involved the decision by Belarus' monopoly state postal service to stop delivery to subscribers of a dozen private periodicals. Meanwhile, the suspicious murder in 2004 of journalist Veronika Charkasova has not been resolved. Authorities have refused to open a criminal investigation into journalist Vasil Hrodnikau's death. Lukashenka himself recently admitted to Russian journalists that his regime applies very serious pressure on the media, somewhat incongruously adding that ``this does not mean I am crushing them.''   Mr. Speaker, what I have cited is by no means an exhaustive list of abuses perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime, merely a sampling of the types of repressive actions employed on a daily basis by Europe's last dictator. As Helsinki Commission Co-Chair, I will continue to monitor closely and speak out forcefully regarding these and other violations of Belarus' freely undertaken OSCE commitments. I urge the Bush Administration to step up efforts to break the Lukashenka regime's near monopoly over the country's information space and provide timely assistance to pro-democracy forces in Belarus.   It is clear that Mr. Lukashenka and his minions are laying the groundwork for yet another un-free and unfair election--similar to the 2001 presidential elections and the 2000 and 2004 parliamentary elections--that will fall far short of OSCE standards. Lukashenka is once again showing that, despite his confident rhetoric, he fears his own people and profoundly fails to respect their dignity as citizens and as human beings.

  • Democracy Denied: The Outcome of the Azerbaijan Elections

    By Ronald J. McNamara International Policy Director In 1992, Azerbaijan joined the Helsinki Process, unconditionally accepting all OSCE provisions back to the Helsinki Final Act, including the commitment “to build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations.”  Consequently, the November 6, 2005 elections for the 125 single-member constituency seats in the parliament (Milli Majlis) – the first held under President Ilham Aliyev – provided an important opportunity for the Azerbaijani leadership to demonstrate its commitment to bringing the country’s election practices into closer conformity with OSCE standards.  Azerbaijani authorities, most prominently the President, had repeatedly proclaimed their intention to hold an election that would meet those norms. The November 2005 elections were the fifth to be observed by the OSCE, following parliamentary contests in 1995 and 2000, and presidential elections in 1998 and 2003.  According to OSCE monitors, all of these elections have fallen short of international standards. On election day, Ronald J. McNamara of the U.S. Helsinki Commission staff participated as one of 617 short-term observers deployed as part of the International Election Observation Mission (IEOM), a joint undertaking of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the European Parliament (EP) and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA).  The IEOM also included 30 long-term observers.  Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, President of the OSCE PA, was appointed by OSCE Chairman-in-Office as Special Coordinator to lead the short-term observers.  In all, Mission members observed the polling in over half of the country’s 5,053 polling stations and tabulation of results in 90 of 125 constituency election commissions. A Standard Still Not Met During the final days of the campaign in Baku, there was an air of guarded optimism among many international observers that the November 6th elections could meaningfully advance democratization, despite all the problems during the pre-election period.  Accordingly, a great deal hinged on what happened on election day itself, specifically the balloting and vote count. Unfortunately, despite a number of steps taken by authorities at the highest levels, including two presidential decrees, implementation fell short. On the positive side were the more inclusive registration of candidates, including controversial opposition leaders; free airtime on the state-funded media and televised debates; and exit polls.   Shortly before voting day, Baku also lifted its ban on the inking of voters’ fingers, and on domestic observers who received funding from foreign sources.  The Council of Europe and others had long been urging concessions on these fronts. At the same time, Azerbaijani authorities asserted tight control of all election commissions, including the Central Election Commission.  This was despite calls by the Council of Europe and the OSCE to make them more representative.  Other problems included undue restrictions on the ability of opposition parties to conduct rallies at desired venues, with disproportionate use of force by police against unsanctioned rallies; detentions and harassment of some opposition candidates; lack of uniformity in updating voter lists; and interference by local executive authorities in the election process with impunity. The IEOM Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions issued on November 7th noted, “While voting was generally calm, the election day process deteriorated progressively during the counting and, in particular, the tabulation of the votes.  The general atmosphere in the polling stations deteriorated sharply during the count.” In a telling statistic, 43% of counts assessed by OSCE observers were either “bad or very bad,” with a high lack of confidence in the announced results.  Among the more serious violations observed were tampering with tabulation protocols, protocols completed with pencil, intimidation of observers and unauthorized persons directing the process.  Official protocols reporting the results were not posted, as required by law, in over half of the counts observed.  Violations were also observed in the tabulation process at the constituency electoral commissions. Influenced by the serious violations observed, as well as problems during the pre-election period, the IEOM concluded, “The 6 November parliamentary elections did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and Council of Europe standards and commitments for democratic elections.”  Speaking at a crowded Baku press conference the day after the elections, OSCE Special Coordinator Rep. Hastings said, “It pains me to report that progress noted in the pre-election period was undermined by significant deficiencies in the count.” One Observer’s Perspective The experience of Ronald J. McNamara, International Policy Director of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, is indicative of much of what transpired in the Azeri elections: “My observations began on November 6 with the opening of a polling station at a university in downtown Baku, followed by other precincts in the capital and surrounding rural districts.  Throughout the day, at the dozen or so stations I visited, including two military bases, there were an impressive number of domestic observers, most affiliated with individual candidates or political parties.  In nearly every station I encountered voters whose names did not appear on the official voter list posted at each station, including one irate individual complaining that she had voted at the same school all her life but had been dropped from the roster.  Otherwise, the balloting generally proceeded smoothly. “However, as someone once said, ‘It’s not the people who vote that count -- it’s the people who count the votes,’ and unfortunately, most of the officials I encountered on November 6 were the very same individuals who had administered Azerbaijan’s earlier flawed elections. “The 7:00 p.m. poll closing was accompanied by a dramatic and tense turn of events at the polling station I observed when the precinct election commissioners began moving unused ballots and other materials to an office well beyond the sight of observers.  Amid shouting protests from the dozen or so domestic monitors, I reminded commissioners that all aspects of the closing and vote count were supposed to be conducted in full view of observers.  After a momentary pause, the ballots were retrieved and the count proceeded without further incident.  Aided by a low voter turnout – 30 percent at this particular polling station – the vote counting process moved along rapidly. “Ultimately, an independent candidate among the 21 people on the ballot won in the constituency.  Subsequently, however, the entire vote in the Binagadi constituency electoral district #9 was invalidated, as also happened in a handful of other districts.” The Aftermath  Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback expressed deep disappointment in the conduct of the elections, “We were hoping this election would mark a first step for democracy in Azerbaijan. Leading up to the election, the President of Azerbaijan made technical improvements designed to make the election as free and fair as possible. Unfortunately, the authorities who implemented the election did not pass the test.”  Similarly, Commission Co-Chairman, Rep. Chris Smith, said, “The high expectation that the elections would move democratization forward in Azerbaijan has, regretfully, not been realized.”  While Commission Ranking Member, Rep. Ben Cardin observed, “It is not at all clear where Azerbaijan goes from here, but I am not optimistic.” Considering the international community’s hopes and expectations for significant improvement, disappointment over the November 6 election was all the greater.  It is difficult to see in the conduct of the election any convincing evidence of meaningful progress – instead, the election and its aftermath resemble previous Azerbaijani elections, rather than signaling a significant opening toward greater democratization, including the holding of free and fair elections.  Since the election, the police have broken up, sometimes violently, opposition rallies.  While Azeri President Aliyev has been willing to engage with the West on the implementation of reforms so long as those reforms do not seriously threaten the status quo, it is clear that Azerbaijan’s leadership is determined to make sure that no “colored” revolution takes place such as those that took place in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine. A Final OSCE Report, presenting a comprehensive analysis of all observers’ findings and offering recommendations for further improvements is expected to be released shortly.

  • The Meaning of Egypt's Elections and Their Relevance to the Middle East

    The United States Helsinki Commission held a briefing on October 12, 2005 to examine Egypt’s September 7, 2005 presidential election and its ongoing parliamentary elections.   The presidential election was the first in Egyptian history to be open to opposition candidates, while the parliamentary elections are being held in three phases over a six- week period to be concluded in early December. In the Egyptian presidential election, as was widely expected, incumbent President Hosni Mubarak of the National Democratic Party won a fifth consecutive six-year term with  88% of the vote. Out of numerous opposition candidates, the two main challengers, Ayman Nour of the Al-Ghad party and Noaman Gomaa of Al-Wafd, received 7.3% and 2.8% of the vote, respectively Post-election Analysis While the elections were generally acknowledged to have fallen short of meeting international standards, it was broadly agreed that the vote represented a change in Egyptian politics.  The nature of that change was, however, disputed by the panelists. Consequently, much of the discussion at the briefing was critical of the government’s conduct of the elections, with claims that electoral reforms that had been undertaken in Egypt had not gone far enough. “While the Egyptian elections did not meet internationally recognized standards of fairness, the mere fact that the regime allowed the opposition a place on the ballot had opened a doorway,” said U.S. Helsinki Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) in prepared remarks. In a statement, Commission Co-Chair, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) said, “The Egyptian people have tasted electoral freedom for the first time and began to debate the future of their country in a way that once was unthinkable. This is the beginning of a long process of democratic reform which over time will reverberate throughout the Arab world.” Thomas Garrett of the International Republican Institute (IRI), who had observed the pre-election period and the elections as part of a 15-member observer delegation, remarked on the significant progress made by Egypt in allowing open elections.  “For the first time in history, Egyptian voters were given the opportunity to choose from among several candidates for the position of president,” he said. Garrett noted that one of the problems in the lead-up to the elections was that access to voter lists was not provided to opposition parties until two days before the election, making voter contact difficult for all but the incumbent.  He was also concerned that apparent “off-the-cuff remarks”  by members of the independent electoral commission regarding candidacies and party participation were given the force of law by virtue of the fact that such remarks could not be subjected to legal challenge.  These issues notwithstanding, Garrett commented that the election broke the historic taboo against citizens openly criticize their government in a way that had previously been unheard of in Egyptian politics.  Overall, Garrett concluded, the aspirations of the voters were not subverted in that it was the clear intent of those who did vote to re-elect President Mubarak. Khairi Abaza, visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and formerly of Egypt’s Wafd Party, the second major opposition party in the election, discussed the nature of the opposition.  Abaza pointed out that although Mubarak received 88% of the vote, estimates are that only 15-23% of the 32 million registered voters participated in the election, meaning that Mubarak had the support of 6.5 million in a country of 72 million. Abaza listed less-than-democratic aspects of the election, arguing that these had the impact of lowering voter turnout. These problems notwithstanding, Abaza noted that the public gains for the opposition were very important, allowing for the first time in 50 years a real civic debate about political reform and systemic change.  He added that the lead-up to the election saw the growth of the opposition which, as a result, began to speak much more openly against the government.  However, “there’s still a long way to go before we can see free and fair elections in Egypt,” he said.  “What happened in Egypt is probably a step toward a freer system, but it could only be considered a step if it’s promptly followed by many other steps.”  Abaza also remarked that it because of its comparatively more solid national, social, and linguistic identity as well as parliamentary history, Egypt was well positioned to serve as an example for the region. A Different Perspective Somewhat in contrast to the prevailing view, Dr. Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace did not view the presidential election as representing an historic step or breakthrough.  Hamzawy maintained that describing the election as historic was misleading, especially when taking into account the low voter turnout and the lack of serious competitors to Mubarak.  Rather, Hamzawy suggested, the election was simply the latest step forward in an ongoing reform of Egyptian politics that had gone on for the past 5 to10 years.  He predicted that the impact of the irregularities suffered in the election would be minimized by judges who would play a greater role in monitoring the elections than had historically been the case.  This, Hamzawy argued, would help restore the public’s belief in the neutrality of state institutions.  Hamzawy also added that he believed that opposition parties would win 15-20% of the seats in the People’s Assembly in the parliamentary elections. First Steps Counselor Wael Aboulmaged of the Embassy of Egypt noted that, as the vote was Egypt’s first experience with open presidential elections, it was perhaps inevitable that an assessment of their conduct would show them to have been deficient in various aspects. He added that Egyptians were only beginning to understand such facets of an election as campaigning nationally; how to raise funds; addressing people in different parts of the country who have different concerns; when to talk substance, when to talk style. Aboulmaged further contended that voter apathy and low voter turnout in the elections was due to many citizens lacking faith in the process.  However, he thought there was evidence of a new trend in which average people were becoming more involved politically and were beginning to feel that they have a real stake in electoral outcomes. The Counselor made note of the election’s irregularities, but reminded the audience of the significance of the recent events:  “For the first time, an incumbent president in Egypt had to campaign nationwide to present his political, economic and social agenda for public scrutiny:  to be held, in effect, accountable.  This is something that presidents in Egypt simply did not do in the past.  He had to ask for the trust of the voters.” Commission Ranking Member Rep. Ben Cardin (D-MD) in a statement observed, “Nobody would mistake this election as free and unfettered.  The opposition was fragmented, its main party excluded, and campaigning was tightly restricted.  However, the sight of any public debate in the very heart of the Arab world’s most important state is the first crack in the façade of the old regime.” Witnesses Mr. Thomas Garrett, Director of Middle East and North Africa Program, International Republican Institute Dr. Amr Hamzawy, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Mr. Khairi Abaza, Past Cultural Secretary, Wafd Party; Visiting Fellow, The Washington Institute Mr. Wael Aboulmagd, Counselor, Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt Moderator Mr. Chadwick R. Gore, Staff Advisor, U.S. Helsinki Commission

  • Human Rights in Iran: Prospects and the Western Response

    By Ronald J. McNamara, International Policy Director In response to ongoing developments in Iran, on June 9 the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also called the U.S. Helsinki Commission, held a hearing entitled, “The Iran Crisis: A Transatlantic Response,” to examine the continuing pattern of serious human rights violations in Iran and consider how to formulate an effective transatlantic response. The hearing is part of a series to explore emerging threats to countries in the OSCE region. Iran shares borders with several OSCE participant States: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan and also borders Afghanistan, an OSCE Partner for Cooperation. Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) focused squarely on the deteriorating human rights climate in Iran: “Across the border, Iran's human rights record is dismal and getting worse. The Iranian regime employs all of the levers of power to crush dissent, resorting in every form of persecution, even so far as execution. No effort is spared to silence opposition.” “Freedom denied” sums up the regime’s approach to fundamental human rights across the board, observed Chairman Brownback, “the tyrants in Tehran time and time again have shown a zeal for crushing outbreaks of free thought. Having come down hard on vestiges of independent media, the regime has pursued those who sought refuge on the Internet as a domain for democratic discussion.” Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) drew attention to the extensive economic ties between many European countries and Iran, suggesting that such interests influence policy toward Tehran. Smith also questioned the effectiveness of existing UN human rights structures and the need for major reform of the system. Dr. Jeff Gedmin, Director of the Aspen Institute Berlin, testifying before the Commission, noted the paradigm shift in U.S. foreign policy following the 9/11 terrorist attacks: “It’s changed our thinking about democracy, not only for the moral reasons, but because, as the president and others have said, the old realism, the old stability sort of policies didn't keep us safe, either. They weren’t fully moral, and they didn’t keep us safe.” Gedmin urged a more assertive approach toward Iran that would link the security approach and the human rights and democracy approach, and warned against concentrating on the former to the exclusion of the latter. Gedmin called for ensuring that promotion of democracy is part of any dialogue with the regime, while admitting that European commercial interests could complicate matters. In his testimony, Tom Melia, Deputy Executive Director of Freedom House, focused on the dynamics of democracy promotion more generally and efforts to foster related U.S. and European cooperation through the Trans-Atlantic Democracy Network initiative involving senior government officials and NGO activists from both sides of the Atlantic. He admitted that there are a variety of European perspectives on how best to encourage democratic change, contrasting “the more traditional Western European officials around Brussels and the newly arrived officials from Central and Eastern Europe….who are willing to be strong allies.” Citing the recently released report How Freedom is Won, Melia noted that broad civic engagement can speed democratic reform and that the absence of opposition violence in the struggle for change ultimately enhances the prospects for consolidation of democracy. Turning to Iran, he noted that the June 17th elections in that country “are not about filling the offices that matter in Iran.” Ms. Goli Ameri, Co-Founder of the Iran Democracy Project, addressed the complexities faced by Iranian-Americans who have thrived in the freedom and opportunity offered in the United States, and who hope that such liberties will be seen in Iran itself. She explained some of the differing approaches advocated within the community: “In my experience, there are three different views on U.S. policy towards Iran amongst Iranian-Americans. One group believes that the U.S. needs to take an active role and make regime change an official U.S. policy. The second group believes that freedom from decades of oppression can only come from the Iranian people themselves without any type of outside involvement.” Ameri continued, “In my travels, the majority of Iranian-Americans I met have a third, more considerate way in mind. They speak as concerned citizens of the United States and independent of political opposition groups or extremist political doctrines. They care about U.S. long-term interests as much as they care for their compatriots in Iran…Iranian-Americans support the promotion of a civil society and a civil movement in Iran. However, they want to ascertain that the format of support does not hurt the long-term security and interests of the United States, as well as not sully the mindset of the Iranian people towards the United States.” Ameri emphasized that Iranian-Americans, “differentiate between support for civic organizations and support for opposition groups, with the latter being of zero interest.” Dr. Karim Lahidji, an Iranian human rights activist since the late 1950s who fled Iran in 1979, pointed to contradictions that exist within the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the “farce” that the regime is somehow based on popular sovereignty. He noted that “power itself is dual in the sense that, on one hand, there is this [unelected] supreme guide, who is kind of a Superman, who supersedes over the other branches of government” and exercises “100 percent real executive power.” Under the current structures in place in Iran, Lahidji stressed, “the underlying and governing principle, it's not equality. It is discrimination that really rules” in which “the rights of the common citizen are different from the rights of Muslims, or the rights of non-Muslims are different from the rights of Muslims. Women don't have the same rights as men. But common people don't have the same rights as the clergy.” He concluded, “Under the present constitution, any reform of the power structure in the country that would lead to democracy or respect of human rights is impossible.” Manda Ervin, founder of the Alliance of Iranian Women, focused on the daily difficulties facing the average Iranian, including rising unemployment, unpaid workers, and other hardships that have spawned manifestations of civil disobedience that are in turn repressed by security and paramilitary forces. Hunger strikes and sit-ins by university students and journalists are common and are met with repression by the authorities. Citing arrests of activists, including members of the Alliance of Iranian Women, Ervin stated, “The regime of Iran practices gender apartheid and legal abuse of children. The constitution of this regime belongs to the 7th century and is unacceptable in the 21st century.” In an impassioned conclusion Ervin said, “the people of Iran need our support, our moral support, our standing in solidarity with them. They don't want words any more. They don't trust words. They want actions. They want United States and Europe to stand together against the regime of Iran.” The panelists repeatedly cited Iranian youth and the efforts of NGO activists as key elements in building a brighter future for Iran. The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

  • The Uzbekistan Crisis: Assessing the Impact and Next Steps

    This hearing focused on the protests in the Andijon that were met by a violent government response and the lack of meaningful democratization reform in Uzbekistan. The Commissioners touched on the lack of separation of powers in the government and the authoritarian governing institutions that cannot produce a reliable investigation into the violent government response to the protest. Human rights activists and journalists from Uzbekistan gave testimony on their experience of the oppressive leadership of the government and first-hand account of the horrific and bloody response by the government police to remove peaceful protestors. The hearing discussed what actions the United States can take, within the OSCE framework, to push for meaningful reform.

  • Unrest in Uzbekistan: Crisis and Prospects

    This briefing, held in the wake of protests in the town of Andijon in eastern Uzbekistan that were violently put down by Uzbek troops on May 13, examined the crisis in Uzbekistan and U.S. policy options toward the regime of President Islam Karimov. The Uzbek regime has long been listed as an abuser of human rights. Among those participating in the briefing were: H.E. Samuel Zbogar, Ambassador of Slovenia and representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office; Dr. Abdurahim Polat, Chairman of the Uzbek opposition Birlik Party; Mr. Michael Cromartie, Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Dr. Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Mr. Daniel Kimmage, Central Asia Analyst for Radio free Europe/Radio Liberty. The participants called for Uzbekistan to strive to resolve this situation peacefully, and continue to meet its commitments as a participating State in the OSCE.

  • Unregistered Religious Groups in Russia

    This hearing focused the disfranchisement of religious minorities Russia.  In several cases, authorities unfairly targeted religious groups with excessive force and threatened their right to worship. The hearing examined these cases and what the OSCE and U.S. have done in response. The witness John V. Hanford, III, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, gave testimony about specific measures the State Department has in place in Moscow for addressing this issue and what the administration of President Bush has done to respond directly to these violations.

  • The Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey: A Victim of Systematic Expropriation

    In this briefing, Co-Chairman Smith described the issue of the status of the Orthodox Church in Turkey and condemned Turkey’s practice of property seizures; continuous impediments to land ownership and church repairs; and the denial of legal status for the Ecumenical Patriarchate as direct contradictions to Ankara’s OSCE commitments. The progress that the Government of Turkey has made in its reform program as well as the actions that should be taken in the future to support its Orthodox citizens and to bring its laws and policies into conformity with OSCE commitments was also discussed. Witnesses providing testimony at the briefing addressed a range of topics, including the confiscation of church property and other religious liberty violations undertaken by the government. A combination of personal experience and historical evidence was used by the witnesses to illuminate these violations and present suggestions for improving religious liberty in the future.

  • Russian Support for the Syrian Regime

    Mr. President, the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, held a hearing last week that examined the close relationship between Russian Federation and Syria. The Commission heard testimony detailing their intricate financial and military dealings that began in the earliest days of the Cold War and continue to this day. This relationship allows Syria to continue to support numerous terrorist groups, groups that have terrorized Lebanon for the past three decades and fuel the insurgency in Iraq. In addition, we heard details about Syria's support of terrorist organizations who operate around the world. Finally, we heard from both Lebanese and Syrians committed to freedom and democracy who have become victims of the Assad regime and are now languishing in the prison cells of Damascus.  The Commission's concern regarding Russia's involvement with Syria--a country that has been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979 by the State Department--rises from the Helsinki commitments that Russia has freely accepted as a participating State of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe OSCE. The OSCE Charter on Preventing and Combating Terrorism was agreed to at the Porto Ministerial in 2002. Russia then committed to refrain from instigating or providing active or passive support or assistance to, or otherwise sponsoring terrorist acts in another state. Russia also committed to reducing the risk of terrorists gaining access to weapons and materials of mass destruction and their means of delivery.  Russia's support for the terrorist regime in Damascus flies in the face of these commitments. Russia is an active enabler of the Assad regime, whose Ba'ath Party was described by one of our witnesses as the richest terrorist organization in the region. The Syrian regime has received untold amounts of military hardware, much of which are currently being used by terrorists in Iraq against our American troops and our allies. Additionally, Syrian intelligence supports terrorist units in Iraq, composed not only of Syrians, but including Egyptians, Sudanese, Moroccans, and other Islamic mujahidin.  Even more alarming is Russia's plan to sell an unknown number of Igla SA-18 shoulder-held missiles to Syria. Such a sale to this terrorist state is more than criminal. This sale will put in the hands of terrorists some of the most sophisticated shoulder-held missiles in the Russian inventory, and increases the likelihood that they will get into the arsenals of other terrorist organizations around the world. Despite Russia's denials, indicators are that this sale will go forward soon, putting at risk every airline flight, every military flight, with the potential for massive loss of life and the shutting down of modern transportation around the world.  We must focus on the fact that, while there is no apparent direct Russian involvement in Iraq, this direct support of Syrian military and intelligence operations, coupled with Syria's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the long list of evil deeds coming out of Damascus, cast Russia as a suspicious party to these terrorist activities. We should not sit idly by and allow this to transpire without comment. We must call upon President Bush and Secretary Rice to reiterate U.S. demands that Russia disengage from its support of Syria, a state sponsor of terrorism. It is not enough to stop the sale of the missiles. Complete cessation of financial and military support to this rogue regime is necessary.  On the eve of the Helsinki Commission hearing, a courageous group of human rights activists and pro-democracy reformists held a demonstration in Damascus, a daring display of dissent quickly broken up by the security forces. One of the protesters held up at banner that read: “Freedom for Prisoners of Opinion and Conscience.” According to the Syrian Human Rights Committee, the Assad regime in Damascus has executed nearly 17,000 Syrian and Lebanese prisoners. Additionally, there are over 600 prisoners of conscience in Syrian jails, champions of human rights, accountability and transparency who are still languishing under horrible conditions.  I would like to highlight a few of these prisoners of conscience whose names were submitted to us by one of the witnesses and call for their immediate release: Riad Seif, member of parliament; Aref Dalilah, economist; Maamun al-Homsi, member of parliament; Abdul Aziz al-Khayer, physician; Habib Issa, lawyer; Walid al-Bounni, physician; Mohammad Bashir al-Arab, student leader and doctor; Muhanad al-Debs, student leader; Mahmoud Ammo, activist; Mahmoud Abou Sader, activist; Mazid Ali Al-Terkawi, businessman; and Fawaz Tello, engineer.  I was pleased to hear of Syria's promise to a U.N. envoy to withdraw its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon, but as the counter-demonstrations yesterday against Syria demanded, Damascus must follow through with actions as soon as possible. I am hoping that details of the withdrawal plan from U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen after his talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud will allow the people of Lebanon to hold their parliamentary elections in May without any interference from the Syrians and to do so in a manner that is free, timely, and transparent.  What would be unacceptable is the kind of warning issued by Prime Minister-designate Omar Karami that polls may have to be postponed if the country's political opposition fails to enter a dialogue with the government. Such an effort will surely ignite the kind of violence that the Lebanese people have been yearning for so many years to avoid.  It is time for the international community to lend support for the slogan that defines the people's revolution in Lebanon and in the region: “Kifaya,” which means "enough." Let's listen to what the people in Lebanon are saying for what they are saying is now being heard not only in Beirut but in Damascus, in Cairo, and in Riyadh: enough of autocrats, enough of the corruption, and enough of the repression. 

  • Belarus: Outpost of Tyranny

    Mr. President, over the course of the last few months, we have witnessed dramatic events in one of Europe's largest countries, Ukraine. The Orange Revolution has clearly shown that people power can bring about peaceful democratic change some thought was not possible in a former Soviet state. As a result, and with the support of the United States, Europe and international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe OSCE, Ukraine is on the path to freedom and democracy. Notwithstanding the formidable challenges that remain to overcome the legacy of the past, Ukraine now has a real chance at consolidating its democracy and further integrating into the Euro-Atlantic community.   Unfortunately, the news out of Belarus, Ukraine's neighboring fellow eastern Slavic country to the north stands in stark contrast to the encouraging news coming out of Ukraine. Secretary Rice, in her confirmation testimony, characterized Belarus, along with North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Burma, and Zimbabwe as an outpost of tyranny and asserted that America stands with oppressed people on every continent. Belarus, under Alexander Lukashenka's now 10-year repressive rule, has the worst human rights record of any country in Europe. Lukashenka's regime has increasingly violated human rights and freedoms and has made a mockery of commitments that Belarus freely undertook when it joined the OSCE in 1992.   Nothing has changed for the better since last October's fundamentally flawed parliamentary elections and rigged referendum allowing Lukashenka unlimited terms as president. In November, Lukashenka appointed Viktor Sheiman as head of the powerful Presidential Administration, despite credible evidence linking Sheiman to the disappearances of opposition leaders and a journalist in 1999 and 2000.   The harassment and persecution of civil society has intensified. A top opposition figure, Mikhail Marinich, was sentenced in late December on the charge of stealing, of all things, U.S. government property, in this case, computers, despite the fact that the U.S. Embassy in Minsk makes no claims against Marinich. Clearly, Lukashenka wants to eliminate Marinich as a potential candidate for the 2006 presidential elections.   Other opposition leaders, Valery Levaneuski and Alyaksandr Vasilyeu, continue to serve terms in a minimum security colony after having been found guilty of “public slander” of the Belarusian leader. Their crime? Distributing leaflets urging people to take part in an unauthorized rally. The leaflets contained a satirical poem about Lukashenka. Another example of Belarus' reluctance to promote human rights is the recent refusal to grant a visa to former OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Chairman and Romanian Foreign Minister Adrian Severin, who now serves as the UN Human Rights Commission's Special Rapporteur on Belarus. The Belarusian regime has also clamped down on independent NGOs and prodemocracy political parties with Kafkaesque legal requirements and has mounted a full-fledged assault on independent trade unions. Problems are being experienced by religious communities attempting to operate freely.   As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, charged with monitoring and encouraging compliance by all 55 participating States with OSCE agreements, I call upon the Belarusian authorities to live up to their freely-undertaken commitments with respect to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Last October, President Bush signed into law the Belarus Democracy Act, which had been introduced in the Senate by then Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Campbell and in the House by commission co-chair Christopher Smith, stating:   We welcome this legislation as a means to bolster friends of freedom and to nurture the growth of democratic values, habits, and institutions within Belarus. The fate of Belarus will rest not with a dictator, but with the students, trade unionists, civic and religious leaders, journalists, and all citizens of Belarus claiming freedom for their nation.   It is essential that we in the Congress, together with the administration and the OSCE, keep faith with the courageous people of Belarus struggling to ensure freedom and democratic values for their long-suffering country.

  • Democratization in Central Asia

    Mr. Speaker, as the 108th Congress comes to an end, I want to make some observations about democratization in Central Asia, an energy-rich and geo-strategically important region. All these states are ruled by secular leaders who cooperate with Washington against terrorists. There are U.S. bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, to help promote stabilization in Afghanistan. This collaboration benefits us, as well as Central Asian presidents, and should certainly continue. But unfortunately, these countries are some of the worst human rights violators in the OSCE space. Everywhere in the region, super-presidents dominate the political arena, with parliaments and judicial systems dependent on the executive branch. Media are under heavy government pressure; in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Soviet-era censorship continues in force. Equally characteristic of Central Asian states is corruption, which has not only enriched the ruling families and the favored few at the top but has impeded the development of free media and independent courts.   True, much of this characterization could be said about all the post-Soviet states to some degree, including Russia. But it is important to point out that there is a counter, or competing tendency in the region, exemplified by Georgia’s Rose Revolution of a year ago. While Georgia has a long way to go, there is no doubt about the legitimacy or popularity of its leader, President Mikheil Saakashvili. Also the peaceful protest movement he led to overturn the results of a rigged election has emboldened opposition activists throughout the former Soviet Union to believe that society may yet be able to have a voice in who governs and how.   Central Asian leaders were quick to claim that circumstances in Georgia were so different from their own that no parallels were possible. Still, the Georgian example sent shivers down their spines. That is one reason why the elections in Central Asia that have taken place this year have been, as they were in the past, carefully controlled, with predictable outcomes.   Uzbekistan, for example, is holding parliamentary elections in December. No opposition parties have been allowed to operate in Uzbekistan since 1992-1993. Despite pressure from Washington, Tashkent refused to register opposition parties this year, leaving only five pro-government parties to participate. Moreover, Uzbek authorities have contrived to keep opposition candidates from registering in single mandate races – even though officials told the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Review Meeting in Warsaw in October that opposition candidates would be able to run. The result is obvious in advance: another pro-government, pocket parliament, with no dissenting voices and no capacity to perform any oversight of the executive branch. It should be noted that there have been several outbursts of popular dissatisfaction in Uzbekistan in the last few months; President Islam Karimov’s tightly-run political system may be less stable than many suppose.   In neighboring, oil-rich Kazakhstan, opposition parties are registered and were able to compete in September’s parliamentary election. Kazakhstan had previously expressed its desire to become OSCE Chairman-in-Office in 2009, and many observers linked Kazakhstan’s chances to a good grade on the parliamentary election. But the assessment of OSCE and Council of Europe monitors – citing numerous infractions and an uneven playing field for pro-government parties and the opposition – was critical. Kazakhstan’s chances of winning the OSCE Chairmanship have clearly diminished. At the same time, President Nursultan Nazarbaev – who is under investigation for corruption by the U.S. Department of Justice – has announced his intention to run, yet again, for reelection in 2006. Some commentators speculate that he may hold snap elections next year, to keep his opposition off guard. Should he win and serve out another seven-year term, he will have been in office almost 25 years.   Obviously, Mr. Speaker, Central Asian leaders do not find the responsibilities of the presidency too burdensome: Tajikistan’s President Imomaly Rakhmonov last year orchestrated a referendum on constitutional changes that could allow him to remain in office until 2020. True, Tajikistan is the only country in Central Asia where Islamic political activism is tolerated. We await with interest the parliamentary elections, in which opposition and Islamic parties will participate, scheduled for next February.   As for Turkmenistan, one of the most repressive countries on earth, I’m pleased to note that freedom of religion advanced a bit. The government of President Saparmurat Niyazov took some steps to liberalize the process of registration for confessions – instead of 500 adult members per locality, now only five nationwide are needed to register a community. For years, only Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy were legal; now Ashgabat has registered Baptists, Adventists, Hare Krishna’s, and Baha’is. Moreover, the authorities released six Jehovah’s Witnesses, although two others remain jailed along with the former grand mufti. These steps – taken under Western and especially U.S. pressure, but which we welcome nonetheless – allowed Turkmenistan to escape designation by the U.S. Government as a Country of Particular Concern this past year. However, troubling reports continue to emerge about limitations on religious freedom and harassment of registered and unregistered religious communities. We must continue to monitor the situation closely and encourage Turkmenistan to continue moving forward with reforms, as even the improved situation is far from meeting OSCE standards on religious freedom.   In all other respects, however, democratization has made no progress. Turkmenistan remains the only one-party state in the former Soviet bloc and Niyazov’s cult of personality continues unabated. Recently, he tried to discuss holding presidential elections in 2008. But in a farcical scene, the assembled officials and dignitaries refused to hear of it. They “insisted” that Niyazov remain Turkmenistan’s leader in perpetuity; he, duly humbled by their adulation, took the issue off the table.   This brings us to Kyrgyzstan, in many ways the most intriguing of the Central Asian states. Of all the region’s leaders, only President Askar Akaev, who has held office for almost 15 years, has announced his intention not to run next year for reelection – though he has phrased the pledge carefully if he changes his mind. Kyrgyzstan is also the only Central Asian country where a large-scale protest movement has ever seemed poised to force a Head of State out of office: in summer 2002, thousands of people furious about the shootings of demonstrators in a southern district blocked the country’s main road, and threatened a mass march on the capital, Bishkek. Ultimately, the movement petered out but the precedent of public activism was set.   President Akaev’s stated intention not to run again, the upcoming parliamentary (February 2005) and presidential (October 2005) elections and Kyrgyzstan’s history of protest movements make for an interesting situation. In the next few months, Akaev must make fateful decisions: the most important is whether or not to run again. If he chooses to stay in office for another term, he risks sparking demonstrations. Though Kyrgyzstan is not Georgia, something akin to a Rose Revolution should not be excluded as a possible scenario. If Akaev opts to step down, however, we should not expect that he, his family and entourage would permit free and fair elections. More likely, he will try to select a successor – as Boris Yeltsin did with Vladimir Putin in Russia – and act to ensure his victory. But that course, too, could lead to protests.   Any decision Akaev makes – with intrusive, anxious neighbors looking over his shoulder – is risky and might have resonance beyond Kyrgyzstan’s borders. For that reason, the elections in Kyrgyzstan next year are of great interest not only to the voters of that country but to capitals near and far. Mr. Speaker, I hope to be able to report to this chamber next year that democratization has made strides in Central Asia.

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