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Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Religion, or Belief

The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 recognizes religious freedom as a “human right and fundamental freedom.” Participating States of the OSCE “will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.”

To help ensure this commitment is fully honored, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has senior staff focused on religious freedom.

The Helsinki Commission promotes and defends the religious freedom of people in the OSCE region, particularly prioritizing the cases of individuals and communities whose religious freedom has been violated and laws and policies that conflict with the Helsinki Final Act.

Staff Contacts: Nathaniel Hurd, senior policy advisor; Mischa Thompson, senior policy advisor

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  • What is the OSCE Doing in Ukraine?

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

  • It's Time to Hold the Azerbaijan Regime Accountable

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

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

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

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

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

  • Bipartisan Congressional Delegation Represents US at OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; Also Visits Ukraine, Czech Republic

    Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act established the precursor to today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), five members of the Helsinki Commission and four other members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Helsinki to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere. Led by Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger F. Wicker (MS), the bicameral, bipartisan delegation organized by the Helsinki Commission included Commission Chairman Representative Chris Smith (NJ- 04); House Commissioners Robert B. Aderholt (AL-04), Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Alan Grayson (FL-09); and Representatives Gwen Moore (WI-04), Michael Fitzpatrick (PA-08), Richard Hudson (NC-08) and Ruben Gallego (AZ-07). Before attending the Annual Session from July 5 to 7, several members of the delegation also visited Ukraine and the Czech Republic. A central concern to the delegation throughout the trip was Russia’s restrictions on democracy at home and aggression in Ukraine, along with Russia’s threat to European security.

  • Chairman Smith Urges OSCE Leaders: Respond to Humanitarian Needs in Eastern Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—A renewed effort is underway in the Organization for Cooperation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to urge it to respond to humanitarian needs in eastern Ukraine, and to follow through on OSCE commitments to fight human trafficking and anti-Semitism. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) led the U.S. Delegation to the annual Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) last week in Vienna, where he spearheaded this push. Smith expressed particular concern about the potential for human trafficking of vulnerable groups stemming from the current conflict in Ukraine. In a question to Ivica Dačić, the OSCE’s Chairman-in-Office for 2015 and the Foreign Minister of Serbia, Smith drew attention to the needs of internally displaced persons and the potential for human trafficking in eastern Ukraine. He noted that, among the nearly one million internally displaced persons, woman and children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, and raised concerns that criminal gangs are taking advantage of the conflict:   “Is the OSCE equipping the special monitoring mission and other OSCE entities working in the Ukraine conflict zone, or with IDPs, to recognize and protect human trafficking victims, and is the OSCE taking trafficking prevention measures for this particular vulnerable population?” At a private meeting during the event, Chairman Smith met with Chairman-in-Office Dačić  to discuss the humanitarian, human rights, and security concerns arising from the Russian-backed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Smith encouraged Serbia to vigorously uphold the commitments made at the at the 10th  anniversary of the OSCE's Berlin Conference on anti-Semitism, and to review and reform the OSCE’s contracting regulations to ensure that OSCE activities do not contribute to trafficking in persons. He also urged Chairman-in-Office Dačić to promote an appropriate commemoration by the OSCE of the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Chairman Smith also met the Director of the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Michael Georg Link. In addition to human trafficking and anti-Semitism, the two discussed OSCE election observation missions, as well as the organization’s current efforts to protect freedom of religion. In a meeting with Ambassador Madina Jarbussynova, the OSCE Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, Chairman Smith spoke about the most effective ways to fight human trafficking and assist with the rehabilitation of trafficking victims – including by working with faith-based organizations, as well as by encouraging participating States to adopt legislation preventing child sex tourism, such as Chairman Smith’s legislation currently pending in the U.S. Senate. Chairman Smith has pioneered OSCE engagement in fighting human trafficking and anti-Semitism. Since 2004, he has served as the OSCE PA’s Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues – click here to read his most recent report. Starting in 2002, Smith led the movement to put anti-Semitism on the agenda of the OSCE, and he continues to work closely with Rabbi Andy Baker, the OSCE’s Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism, to ensure a more vigorous implementation of OSCE commitments in the area. In 2005 Smith authored H. Res. 199, a landmark congressional resolution recognizing the atrocity at Srebrenica in which an estimated 8,000 civilian men and boys were murdered by Serb forces as a genocide.

  • Chairman Smith Calls for Strong International Response to Slaughter of Egyptian Christians in Libya

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Congressional panel that oversees global human rights and the Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, issued the following statement following the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya by the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS): “My heart and prayers go out to the families and friends of these 21 Egyptian men savagely murdered in Libya. These men, earning money to support their families in Egypt, were killed in the most deliberately shocking fashion because of their Christian faith. ISIS has set no limits on its ferocity, and everywhere targets people of other faiths. In Iraq and Syria it has murdered thousands of Christians and members of other religious minorities and forced hundreds of thousands of them to flee their homes. “The muted response of so many leading governments of the world and the international press to this latest outrage is an ominous sign for the future of the Middle East. If we drift toward a tacit acceptance of genocide – and the Genocide Convention covers ‘intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group’ – we will only have more of it. “I welcome the strong response of Egyptian President  Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to these brutal murders. It is also heartening that he attended Mass at the Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo this past Christmas Eve, the first time an Egyptian president has joined Copts for this annual liturgy. “President Obama should lead other heads of state in a movement to support the Egyptian President and other Middle Eastern leaders willing to protect their religious minorities. This sometimes requires tact – but it urgently requires energy. The minorities that require protection include Christians from many churches and denominations, Jews, Yezidi – and Muslims as well, Shia in some areas and Sunni in others.” Chairman Smith has long been a leader on many international human rights issues. In recent years he has chaired a series of hearings that drew attention to the persecution, discrimination, and disadvantage that Coptic Christians have faced in Egypt over the decades – particularly violence against Coptic women and girls. Since 1995, Egypt has been one of the six Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The other Mediterranean Partners are Algeria, Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. OSCE participating States (representing 57 countries in Europe and Eurasia and Canada and the United States) and the Partners work together to improve human rights, security, and the rule of law.

  • 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 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • Commission to Hold Hearing with OSCE Human Rights Appointees

    WASHINGTON—Today the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) announced the following hearing: Anti-Semitism, Racism and Discrimination in the OSCE Region Tuesday, July 22, 2014 10:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Following an escalation of anti-Semitic hate crimes a decade ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) intensified efforts to combat prejudice and discrimination throughout Eurasia and North America. Since 2004, three Personal Representatives have been appointed annually by the OSCE Chair-in-Office (currently Switzerland) to address anti-Semitism; racism, xenophobia, and discrimination including against Christians and members of other religions; and intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. In an official joint visit to the United States, the Personal Representatives will address progress and ongoing challenges in the OSCE region a decade after the creation of their positions. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Rabbi Andrew Baker, Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism Professor Talip Küçukcan, Personal Representative on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims Alexey Avtonomov, Personal Representative on Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, also focusing on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of Other Religions

  • 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

  • The State-Sanctioned Marginalization of Christians in Western Europe

    This briefing presented a close examination of recent reports and studies showing an alarming rise in social and governmental hostility toward religion in general—and Christianity in particular—in Western Europe. Various topics of discussion underscored how the current state of affairs is in tension with Europe’s history as the intellectual birthplace of religious freedom, as well as with its commitment to democracy. Witnesses testifying at the hearing – including Professor Tom Farr, Director of the Religious Freedom Project Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University; Dr. Roger Trigg, Academic Director of the Kellogg Centre for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Oxford University; and Roger Kiska, Senior Counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom – noted with concern the growing European trend to pit human rights against religious freedom. Censorship of the cross and other religious symbols, growing restrictions on parental rights in the area of the education of their children, and limitation on free expression—including religious expression—through “hate speech” laws were also identified as obstacles for religious liberty in Western Europe.

  • Escalating Violence against Coptic Women and Girls: Will the New Egypt be more Dangerous than the Old?

    This hearing examined evidence that, as Egypt’s political and social crisis persists, violence against Coptic women and girls is escalating, including kidnappings, forced conversions, and other human rights abuses.  According to a new report released at the hearing by Michele Clark, at least 550 Coptic women and girls over the last five years have been kidnapped from their communities.  The few who have been found suffered human rights abuses including forced conversion, rape, forced marriage, beatings, and domestic servitude while being held by their captors, raising the question whether developments in the new Egypt are leaving Coptic women and their families more vulnerable than ever.  The hearing also included testimony and suggestions about possible initiatives the United States can take that may drastically curb the human rights issues in Egypt as they pertain to Coptic rights.

  • Irish Chairmanship of the OSCE

    Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Eamon Gilmore and others discussed what had transpired in regards to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) while Ireland was at the helm of the organization. This included priorities set by Gilmore involving Internet freedom. Congressman Smith also praised Gilmore for incorporating his experiences in Ireland into his leadership of the OSCE, such as drawing on Ireland’s experience in Northern Ireland’s peace process in reference to protracted conflicts elsewhere in the OSCE region. The hearing attendees went on to discuss the status of the agenda as it related to ODIHR and human dimension meetings.

  • 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.

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