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Podcast: Disappeared in Turkmenistan

In Turkmenistan, detainees serving long-term prison sentences often literally “disappear” into the notorious Ovadan Depe prison outside of Ashgabat. Disappeared prisoners have no access to medical care or legal assistance; no information is provided to their families about their well-being.

Current estimates indicate that more than 120 individuals are currently disappeared in Ovadan Depe, including Turkmenistan’s former foreign minister and former ambassador to the OSCE Batyr Berdiev, who disappeared into the Turkmen prison system in 2003.

Kate Watters of the Prove They Are Alive! Campaign joins Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Janice Helwig to discuss the tragedy of those who have been disappeared, as well as the current situation in Turkmenistan and the steps that are being taken to encourage the Government of Turkmenistan to halt the practice and live up to its international commitments to human rights.


"Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America.

Transcript | Episode 7 | Disappeared in Turkmenistan

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  • The 2017 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting: An Overview

    Each year,1 the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) organizes the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, Poland. As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress.  The 2017 HDIM will be held from September 11 to September 22. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2017 The HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma.  Each year, three special topics are selected for a full-day review.  2017 special topics will be 1) ensuring “equal enjoyment of rates and participation in political and public life,” 2) “tolerance and nondiscrimination,” and 3) “economic, social and cultural rights as an answer to rising inequalities.”  This year’s meeting will take place at the Warsaw National Stadium (PGE Narodowy), the site of the NATO summit earlier this year. The meeting will be webcast live. Background on the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting When the Helsinki Final Act was signed in Finland in 1975, it enshrined among its ten Principles Guiding Relations between Participating States (the Decalogue) a commitment to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion" (Principle VII). In addition, the Final Act included a section on cooperation regarding humanitarian concerns, including transnational human contacts, information, culture and education. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as trafficking in human beings and refugees), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (e.g., countering anti-Semitism and racism). One of the innovations of the Helsinki Final Act was agreement to review the implementation of agreed commitments while considering the negotiation of new ones. Between 1975 and 1992, implementation review took place in the context of periodic “Follow-up Meetings” as well as smaller specialized meetings focused on specific subjects. The OSCE participating States established permanent institutions in the early 1990s. In 1992, they agreed to hold periodic Human Dimension Implementation Meetings” to foster compliance with agreed-upon principles on democracy and human rights. Additional changes to the modalities for the HDIM were agreed in 1998, 2001, and 2002, which included shortening the meeting from three weeks to two weeks, and adding three “Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings” annually on subjects selected by the Chairmanship-in-Office on particularly timely or time-sensitive issues. One of the most notable features of the HDIM is the strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a strong advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE modalities allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. 1 In exceptional years when the OSCE participating States hold a summit of heads of state or government, the annual review of human dimension commitments is included as part of the Review Conference which precedes the summit, and also includes a review of the political-military and economic/environmental dimensions.

  • Muslims & Minorities in the Military

    A demographic shift spanning both sides of the Atlantic has brought the issues of diversity and inclusion to the forefront of the agendas in the public and private sector, including the security sector across the OSCE region.  The OSCE has had a focus on diverse populations, from Roma and Jewish populations to national minorities and migrants in Europe and the United States, since its inception.  This focus has increased in recent years with the demographic shifts being experienced in the US and throughout Europe.  The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that racial and ethnic groups will comprise close to 60 percent of the U.S. population by 2060, and that by the next decade the majority of the U.S. workforce will be people of color – e.g., Asian, Latino, and migrant populations – which will also account for much of the U.S. population growth in years to come.  In Europe, demographers predict that aging and waning birthrates will lead to a decline in workers. Historically, racial, ethnic, religious, and gender minority groups have been under represented in the security sector, yet they hold untapped potential to address the new and complex challenges of the 21st century. Panelists suggested making the military more attractive to all individuals, including from these groups, and addressing barriers of prejudice and bias.  Additionally, panelists recommended leadership in governments and the security sector embrace change efforts through words, actions and policies.  The expertise and experiences of the panelists were broad and included representation from various countries in Western Europe.‎  Rozemina Abbasi from the U.K. Ministry of Defense detailed research and outreach programs being carried out to achieve diversity targets set by military leadership as well as the Prime Minister in the United Kingdom. Dr. Elyamine Settoul, an academic at the French Ministry of Defense, spoke about the historical and present day contributions of muslims in the military, including assisting in the liberation of France during World War II.  Dominik Wullers a procurement spokesman for the Federal Ministry of Defense, explained the struggle to change perceptions and stereotypes of German soldiers, and how he launched the Deutscher.Soldat (German Soldier) initiative to address these issues. Samira Rafaela, the Organizational Strategy Advisor for the Dutch National Police, detailed community policing and other initiatives in the Netherlands to advance diversity in the forces. Helsinki Commissioner Representative Gwen Moore joined the panel and discussed the history of desegregation in the United States and patriotism in response to questions about the President's tweet stating transgender individuals would no longer be able to serve in the military. European panelists also responded to the question detailing diversity policies in their countries. The briefing took place against the backdrop of Helsinki Commissioners Senator Ben Cardin, Ranking Member and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, and Representative Alcee Hastings speaking at the German Marshall Fund's conference, "Mission Critical: Inclusive Security: Inclusive Leadership for the Security Sector". Addressing European and American security sector leaders and practitioners on the importance of diversity, Commissioner Cardin told of his work with Republican Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker to include diversity provisions for the national security workforce in the State Department Authorization Bill before the Committee that day. Commissioner Hastings spoke of his efforts on the Rules committee to include diversity provisions in the Intelligence Bill being voted on the next day. Both Commissioners spoke at the first Mission Critical conference that took place in 2013. http://bit.ly/mcreport2017

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Briefing on Muslims & Minorities in the Military in the OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: MUSLIMS AND MINORITIES IN THE MILITARY Changing Demographics in the OSCE Region and Implications for Europe’s Security Sector Wednesday, July 26, 2017 11:00AM to 12:00PM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Demographers predict that aging, shifting birth rates, and immigration will change the face of European and North American populations over the next few decades. For example, researchers predict that persons of Muslim origin will make up a quarter of the French and third of the German populations by 2050. At the briefing, European security practitioners will discuss how demographic change is impacting the security workforce, and the subsequent implications for the OSCE region.  Panelists will also highlight the ways in which recruitment, personnel, and other security workforce policies and practices are changing in light of Europe’s increasing ethnic and religious diversity. Speakers include: Dominik Wullers (Germany), Economist, Spokesman of the Federal Office for Federal Ministry of Defense Equipment, and Vice President of Deutscher.Soldat Samira Rafaela (Netherlands), Organizational Strategy Advisor, Dutch National Police  Rozemina Abbasi (United Kingdom), Assistant Head, Armed Forces Targets, Ministry of Defense Dr. Elyamine Settoul (France), Professor, Institute for Strategic Research at the Military College, French Ministry of Defense

  • Engaging Belarus on Human Rights & Democracy

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing titled, “Engaging Belarus on Human Rights and Democracy” on July 21, 2017, which built on renewed interest in Belarus after members of the Commission traveled to Minsk earlier in the month for the annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting. The panelists for the briefing included Stephen Nix, Regional Program Director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute in Washington, DC; Katie Fox, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Department at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC; and Sanaka Samarasinha, the United Nations Chief in Belarus. Brief remarks were also delivered by Belarusian Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky. Stephen Nix began the briefing by highlighting the importance of Belarus in U.S. foreign relations, including the relationship between Belarus and Russia, especially in light of the increased Western presence in the Baltics and the surrounding area. Mr. Nix “applaud[ed] Belarus’s expressed intent at engagement” and offered some examples demonstrating optimism for the democratic process in Belarus, such as the appointment of opposition party members to parliament with limited power. Katie Fox echoed this optimism when addressing “democratic openings,” such as the concessions the Belarusian government made in response to protests, increasingly democratic electoral processes, and “the growth and development of the democratic parties.” Sanaka Samarasinha discussed engagement in relations to the human rights issues Belarus presents today and the areas of particular concern to the UN. The UN in Belarus has focused primarily on “development activities,” but also issues such as human trafficking and the rising number of HIV/AIDs cases. Samarasinha also highlighted the need for a “safe space” for discussions of human rights issues and transparency to allow Belarusians and Belarusian civil society to be able to have a conversation. Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky highlighted ways that Belarus is working with its NATO neighbors through defense cooperation, including relinquishing nuclear weapons and inviting representatives of NATO to observe the Belarusian-Russian strategic joint exercise scheduled for September 2017. Shidlovsky also stated, “Belarus has always regarded normalization of relations with the United States as a priority of its foreign policy. Yes, we have had our ups and downs, but never has the leadership of Belarus underestimated the importance of full-fledged engagement with the U.S.” In the final Q&A session the panelists were cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the improvement of human rights practices in Belarus and improvements in the electoral code that could someday lead to elections that could be certified as free and fair by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  However, they also stressed that it is critical to continue to fight for changes that are sustainable, beginning with the removal of restrictions on peaceful assembly and freedom of speech.

  • One Year After Coup Attempt, Helsinki Commission Calls on Turkish Government to Respect OSCE Commitments, End Crackdown

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the one-year anniversary of the attempted coup in Turkey, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statements: “Last July, thousands of Turks took to the streets to stand against a military coup attempt. Turkish democracy still hangs in the balance one year later,” said Chairman Wicker. “I urge the Turkish government to restore stability and trust in its institutions by ending the state of emergency, releasing all prisoners of conscience, and guaranteeing full due process to all those who face credible charges.” “The Turkish government’s campaign against parliamentarians, academics, journalists, and thousands of others is marked by grave human rights violations,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “The Turkish courts’ support for this campaign is a sad sign of the challenges ahead – we recently saw this in a court’s confirmation of the expropriation of a Syriac Orthodox monastery. I call on the Turkish government and courts not to continue down the path to dictatorship.” Ahead of the May 2017 meeting between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Helsinki Commission leaders urged President Trump to seek guarantees that several U.S. citizens currently jailed in Turkey will have their cases promptly and fairly adjudicated and receive full consular assistance. They called for the prompt release of imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson; for consular access and fair trials for American dual citizens like Serkan Golge; and for timely and transparent due process for long-standing U.S. consulate employee Hamza Uluçay. Chairman Wicker also submitted a statement to the Congressional Record expressing his concern about the outcome of the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey, which approved Turkey’s conversion from a parliamentary government into an “executive presidency,” further weakening crucial checks and balances.

  • 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report – the OSCE Region

    Human trafficking remains a pressing human rights violation around the world with the International Labor Organization estimating that nearly 21 million people are enslaved at any given time, most of them women and children. As part of U.S. efforts to combat human trafficking, the U.S. Department of State today released the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), reflecting the efforts of 187 countries and territories to prosecute traffickers, prevent trafficking, and to identify and assist victims, as described by the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. Trafficking Victim Identification and Care: Regional Perspectives According to the new TIP Report, in the 2016 reporting year, countries in the OSCE region identified 304 more trafficking victims than in the previous year, for a total of 11,416 victims.  This increase is particularly notable when compared to the East Asia and Pacific, Near East, South and Central Asia, and Western Hemisphere regions, where victim identification declined, but still maintained a generally upward trend over 2014.  Trafficking victim identification and care is critical for proper management of refugee and migrant flows.  In order to help law enforcement and border guards identify trafficking victims among the nearly 400,000 migrants and refugees entering the region last year, the OSCE Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Human Beings launched a new project to conduct multiple trainings, including simulation exercises, through 2018.  The first training in November 2016 included participants from 30 OSCE participating States. Victim identification and care are also critical for successful prosecutions.  Nearly every region of the world saw a drop in prosecutions of human traffickers, but an increase in convictions in the 2016 reporting year.  This trend may reflect a growing knowledge among prosecutors of how to successfully investigate and prosecute a trafficking case.  It also may reflect an overall increase in trafficking victims who have been identified, permitted to remain in-country, and cared for such that the victims—now survivors—are ready, willing, and able to testify against their traffickers.  Despite the dramatic decline in prosecutions (46 percent) in the OSCE region, convictions held steady at nearly the same numbers as the previous year. Individual Country Narratives Along with regional statistics, the TIP Report also provides individual country narratives, recommendations for the most urgent changes needed to eliminate human trafficking, and an assessment of whether the country is making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 1 countries meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 2 countries do not yet meet the standards, but are making significant efforts to do so.  Tier 2 Watch List countries do not meet the minimum standards and are making significant efforts to do so, but have a very large or increasing number of trafficking victims, have failed to demonstrate increasing efforts over the previous year, or lack a solid plan to take additional steps in the coming year. Tier 3 countries do not meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. Twenty-five OSCE participating States qualified for Tier 1 in the TIP Report.  Nineteen participating States qualified for Tier 2, including Ukraine, which was upgraded this year after four years on the Tier 2 Watch List.  Five participating States were designated for the Tier 2 Watch List, including Hungary, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, and Bulgaria.* Four participating States were on Tier 3, including Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  States on Tier 3 may be subject to sanctions. Legislation authored by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith—who also serves as the Special Representative for Human Trafficking Issues to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly – requires the TIP Report to be produced every year.  In recent years the report has also included an assessment of the United States.   Since the inception of the report, more than 100 countries have written or amended their trafficking laws, with some nations openly crediting the report for inspiring progress in their countries’ fight against human trafficking. * OSCE participating States Andorra, Monaco, Lichtenstein, and San Marino are not included in the TIP Report.

  • A Call to OSCE Commitments in Aftermath of Turkish Referendum

    Mr. President, I rise today to express my concerns about the outcome of the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey, when more than 50 million Turkish citizens voted on constitutional amendments to convert Turkey’s parliamentary government into a presidential system.   Turkey is a longstanding friend of the United States and a NATO ally.  Our bilateral partnership dates back to the Cold War when Turkey served as an important bulwark against the creeping influence of the Soviet Union.  Time has not diminished Turkey’s geostrategic importance. Today, Ankara finds itself at the intersection of several critical challenges: the instability in Syria and Iraq, the threat of ISIS and other extremist groups, and the refugee crisis spawned by this regional upheaval.     The United States relies on Turkey and other regional partners to help coordinate and strengthen our collective response.  I was deeply troubled when renegade military units attempted to overthrow Turkey’s democratically elected government last July.  Turkey’s strength is rooted in the democratic legitimacy of its government – a pillar of stability targeted by the reckless and criminal coup attempt.         As Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or U.S. Helsinki Commission, I take very seriously the political commitments made by the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  These commitments – held by both the United States and Turkey – represent the foundation of security and cooperation in the OSCE region.  They include an indispensable focus on human rights, rule of law, and democratic institutions.    In the OSCE’s founding document, the Helsinki Final Act, participating States affirm “the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” and consider respect for these to be an “essential factor” for international peace and security. This vision is consistent with long-established U.S. foreign policy promoting human rights and democracy as cornerstones of a safer, more stable international order.      With these principles in mind, the United States must pay urgent attention to the current situation in Turkey and the danger it poses to Turkish and regional stability.  Eroding respect for fundamental freedoms, rule of law, and democratic institutions in Turkey has proceeded at an alarming pace.  The government’s planned “executive presidency” will further decrease government accountability. Since the attempted coup more than nine months ago, Turkey has operated under a state of emergency that gives the government sweeping authority to curtail rights and silence opponents.  Certain extraordinary measures may have been justified in the immediate aftermath to restore order, investigate events, and bring perpetrators to justice, but the government’s actions have stretched far beyond these legitimate aims.  The ongoing purge has touched every institution of government, sector of society, corner of the country, and shade of opposition – military or civilian, Turk or Kurd, religious or secular, nationalist or leftist, political or non-political.   An atmosphere of fear and uncertainty has settled over Turkish society as more than 100,000 people have been detained or arrested.  Tens of thousands have been fired from their jobs, had their professional licenses revoked, and had their names released on public lists without any recognizable due process.  The government removed and replaced thousands of judges and prosecutors within hours of the coup’s defeat, compromising the independence of the judiciary at a moment when an impartial justice system had become more important than ever. The government has also closed more than 150 media outlets.  Upwards of 80 journalists are behind bars.  The offices of the country’s oldest newspaper were raided, and the paper’s editor-in-chief and other staff were arrested.  The media environment was already under extraordinary pressure before the coup. Last spring, the government seized control of the country’s highest-circulation paper.  Self-censorship is now widely practiced to avoid provoking the government’s ire.   Additionally, state of emergency decrees have given regional governors the ability to curtail freedom of assembly rights, harming the ability of civil society organizations to organize rallies concerning the referendum.  Since July, the government has detained more than a dozen opposition parliamentarians. Many more continue to face criminal charges for political statements they made before the coup attempt.    It is difficult to overstate the chilling effect these measures have had on political debate in Turkey. And yet, these are the circumstances under which Turks voted on April 16.  These major constitutional changes passed with a slim majority of 51 percent.  The OSCE’s international observation mission stated in its preliminary conclusions that the vote “took place on an unlevel playing field” and that “fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed.”  Under the revised constitution, the once largely ceremonial position of president will convert into an “executive presidency” and the position of prime minister will be abolished.  The president will be elected along with the national assembly every five years and has the ability to dissolve the assembly and call new elections at will.  The president will also appoint a larger proportion — nearly half — of the country’s supreme judicial council.  In a report on these new constitutional provisions, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe concluded that the amendments are a “step backwards” and pose “dangers of degeneration … towards an authoritarian and personal regime.”    Turkey is undergoing a disturbing transformation, and I am concerned these changes could undermine the strength of our partnership.  President Erdogan’s government has dramatically repressed dissent, purged opponents from every sector of government and society, and is now poised to consolidate power further under his self-described “executive presidency.” In the short term, the Turkish government should act swiftly and transparently to investigate credible claims of voting irregularities in the referendum as well as the legality of a surprise electoral board decision to admit an unknown number of ballots that should be deemed invalid under existing rules.  Public trust in the outcome of such a consequential vote is of utmost importance.  Sadly, until now, the government has responded to these challenges with dismissiveness and suppression.  In the past week, dozens of activists have been detained for participating in protests against the election results. Furthermore, the government should lift the state of emergency, stop all forms of repression against the free press, release all imprisoned journalists and political activists, and urgently restore public confidence in the judiciary.  Only then can it credibly and independently adjudicate the tens of thousands of cases caught up in the government’s months-long dragnet operations. A country where disagreements are suppressed rather than debated is less secure. A country where institutions are subordinated to personalities is less stable.  A country where criticism is conflated with sedition is less democratic.  Unless President Erdogan moves urgently to reverse these trends, I fear our partnership will inevitably become more transactional and less strategic.  It will become more difficult to justify long-term investment in our relationship with Turkey if the future of the country becomes synonymous with the fortunes of one party or one individual. The United States and Turkey need a solid foundation for enduring cooperation to tackle regional instability, terrorism, migration, and other challenges. The future of this partnership is difficult to imagine in the midst of a prolonged state of emergency, wide-scale purges, and weakened democratic institutions.

  • Turkey Post-Referendum: Institutions and Human Rights

    Human rights abuses by the Turkish government have proliferated under the state-sanctioned emergency measures imposed in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup attempt.  Turkish authorities have fired as many as 130,000 public workers, including teachers, academics, police officers, and soldiers, and thousands have been arrested. Hundreds of journalists have had their credentials revoked and dozens of media outlets have been shut down. Human rights groups have documented widespread reports of intimidation, ill-treatment and torture of those in police custody. On April 16, 2017, Turkey held a referendum on a package of amendments that transforms the country’s institutions in major ways. The position of prime minister was eliminated and the executive powers of the president were expanded, enabling him to appoint ministers without parliamentary approval, exert more influence over the judiciary, and call early elections. Coming on top of the post-coup crackdown, how will Turkey’s changing institutions affect human rights in the country? Panelists at the briefing discussed how U.S. policymakers can most effectively encourage the protection of human rights to promote the interests of the Turkish people given the strategic importance of the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship.

  • Political Prisoners in Russia

    Principle VII of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act recognizes the right of individuals to know and act upon their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. The following individuals who were profiled in the Helsinki Commission's April 2017 hearing, "Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight," illustrate the many cases of political prisoners in Russia today. Dmitry Buchenkov – Buchenkov was charged under Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”) for his participation in the 2012 Bolotnaya Square protests against fraud in the 2011 presidential elections. He was arrested in December 2015 and is currently under house arrest.  He is recognized by Memorial as a political prisoner not only because the alleged offense did not take place, but also due to the lack of a fair trial and the disproportionate use of pretrial detention in light of the charge against him. His case illustrates the prosecution of individuals for engaging in nonviolent public protest against the government in general and the Bolotnaya Square cases in particular. Oleg Navalny – Navalny was charged under Article 159 (“swindling on a large scale”), article 159.4 (“swindling on a particularly large scale in the entrepreneurial sphere”), and article 174.1.a (laundering of funds on a large scale acquired by a person through a crime committed by him”).  He was sentenced to 3 ½ years in a closed proceeding, Memorial considers him a political prisoner because the alleged offense did not take place and he was not given a fair trial. In reality, Oleg Navalny was targeted because he is the brother of prominent political activist Alexei Navalny.  It appears the authorities are unwilling to make a martyr out of Alexei Navalny but seek to exert pressure on him by persecuting his brother. Oleg Navalny’s case illustrates the willingness of the government to target family members as a means of exerting pressure on political activists, which is specifically prohibited under the OSCE 1989 Vienna Concluding Document. Darya Polyudova – Polyudova was charged under article 280 of the Russian criminal code (“public appeals for extremist activity” and “public appeals for actions aimed at a violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation”) in connection with her participation in preparation for a march that did not take place.  In reality, she was indicted for criticizing Moscow online for its support of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's east.  She is recognized as a political prisoner because the offense did not take place, her right to a fair trial was violated, and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention given the nature of the charges.  She was sentenced to two years in prison, becoming the first person in Russia convicted under a 2014 law criminalizing calls for separatism on the Internet. Her case illustrates the government’s prosecution of Russian nationals who criticize Russia’s actions and policies in Ukraine. Sergei Udaltsov – Udaltsov was charged under Article 30 of the Russian criminal code (“preparation of actions aimed at organizing mass riots”) and Article 212 (“organization of mass riots”) after participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests. He has been arrested multiple times before for protesting against the government. Memorial recognizes him as a political prisoner on the grounds that he was charged with an offense that did not take place; his right to a fair trial was violated; and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He was sentenced to four years and six months in prison. Ivan Nepomniashchikh – Nepomniashchikh was charged with Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”). He is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that he is being prosecuted for exercising his right to freedom of assembly; he is being charged with an offense that did not take place; he was not allowed a fair trial;  and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He is another example of those being prosecuted for participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests against the 2011 fraud in the presidential election. Alexei Pichugin – Pichugin was charged under Article 162 of the Russian criminal code (“robbery”) and Article 105 (“murder”). At a closed trial, Pichugin, the former head of internal economic security for the Yukos Company then headed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sentenced to life imprisonment in a special-regime penal colony. He has been in prison since 2003 and is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that his prosecution was conducted without a fair trial.  The European Court on Human Rights also has held that Pichugin was denied a fair trial.   Oleg Sentsov – Senstov is a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in Russia since 2015, and was the focus of a separate Helsinki Commission briefing. Sentsov was arrested in the Russian-occupied Crimean territory of Ukraine and charged under Article 205.4 of the Russian criminal code (“organization of a terrorist group”), Article 205 (“terrorist act committed by an organized group”), Article 30 in connection with Article 205 (“preparation of a terrorist act”), Article 30 in connection with Article 222 (“attempted illegal acquisition of firearms and explosive devices”), and Article 222 (“illegal acquisition and storage of far arms and explosive devices”).  He was accused of planning an attack on a monument to Lenin, a charge he denies. He was sentenced in a Russian military court to 20 years in a strict regime penal colony for terrorism. Other Illustrative Cases Alexander Kolchenko – Kolchenko, a Crimean activist, was charged under article 205 of Russia’s criminal code (art. 205.4 part 2: "Participation in a terrorist organization," and art. 205, paragraph "a," part 2: "A terrorist act conducted by a terrorist group"). He refuted the accusations of terrorism. Mr. Kolchenko was detained in May 2014, in Simferopol, Crimea, shortly after Russia took control over the peninsula. On August 25, 2016, the North Caucasus District Military Court of Russia sentenced Mr. Kolchenko to 10 years of imprisonment in a strict-regime colony. He is serving his sentence in the Chelyabinsk Oblast, in the city of Kopeysk, a facility notorious for its poor treatment of convicts. Mr. Kolchenko is recognized as a political prisoner by Russia’s Memorial watchdog group. Mykola Semena (under a travel ban) – Semena, a Crimean journalist, has been charged under Article 280.1 of Russia’s criminal code, which penalizes "public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation." The law was added to the Russian criminal code in December 2013, and came into force in May 2014 - several weeks after Crimea was annexed by Russia. Semena was one of the only independent journalists to remain on the peninsula following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. He contributed reporting to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and its Crimea Desk. On April 19, 2016, after Russian police searched Semena’s home and confiscated computers and storage media, the de facto Crimean prosecutor-general ordered Semena to remain on the peninsula while he was investigated for alleged “calls to undermine Russia’s territorial integrity via the mass media.” Semena has been forced to stay in Crimea ever since, despite his requests to travel to Kyiv for urgently needed medical care. Roman Sushchenko (in pre-trial detention) – Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist, is charged under article 276 of Russia’s criminal code (espionage). He has worked as a Paris-based correspondent for Ukraine’s state news agency, Ukrinform, since 2010. He was detained at a Moscow airport on September 30, 2016, upon his arrival from Paris on private business. He was accused of collecting classified information on the activities of Russia’s armed forces and the National Guard. Mr. Sushchenko denies any involvement in espionage. His employer, Ukrinform, also considers the accusations false and called his detention a “planned provocation.” Mr. Sushchenko’s attorney is Mark Feygin, who previously represented Pussy Riot and Nadezhda Savchenko. Memorial, a Russian organization established to report on the crimes of Stalinism, documents cases of political prisoners as well as cases of those persecuted for their faith.This information was compiled by Helsinki Commission staff from Memorial, the U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices, and news sources. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also tracks cases of individuals imprisoned in connection with their faith.

  • How the State of Russian Media Becomes the State of International Media

    It was a bad week for reports on freedom of the media in Russia. On Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders released its 2017 world press freedom index. Russia came in at 148, after such bastions of independent media as South Sudan and Thailand. On Thursday, a Ukrainian human rights delegation briefed the Helsinki Commission on the case of Oleg Sentsov — a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in a Siberian penal colony for his opposition to the annexation of Crimea — and abuses of Ukrainian journalists and creative professionals more broadly. On Friday, Freedom House unveiled its Freedom of the Press 2017 report. That report gives Russia partial credit for the world’s 13-year low in press freedom. “Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia has been a trailblazer in globalizing state propaganda. It continues to leverage pro-Kremlin reporting around the world,” the report states. The three taken in tandem tell a story — one in which violence against journalists in Russia and the region is connected to violence against journalism around the world. Consider the case of Oleg Sentsov. In 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for planning terrorist attacks in Crimea. In his trial, he said he had been tortured. The international human rights community believes this to have been payback for the filmmaker’s outspoken stance against the annexation of Crimea (it is also worth noting that Russia treated Sentsov, a Ukrainian, as though he were a Russian citizen; after the annexation of Crimea, Russia considered all who did not explicitly apply for Ukrainian citizenship to be Russian, to which Sentsov objected in court by saying, “I am not a serf to be transferred with the land”). Russian-backed media reported it as a terrorism case. And so the case contains both the physical threat that looms over journalists and creative types who fail to parrot the party line and also the threat that Russian state-backed media can pose to understanding in the wider world. “Many people perceive [Russian state-backed media] not as propaganda, but as an alternative point of view,” Natalya Kaplan, Sentsov’s cousin, told Foreign Policy in an interview before heading to the Helsinki Commission briefing. “They tend to trust what Russian propaganda says.” In the case of Sentsov, that means some outside of Russia (to say nothing of those in it) thought he was neither filmmaker nor terrorist, but some combination of the two. Americans can no longer tell the difference between actual fake news and fake fake news, Ukrainian PEN member Halya Coynash told FP. “The thing is that you really think the media and information you get from Russian media, it is media. Which is wrong. We have state media, and state media are part of [the] strategy of [the state],” said Mustafa Nayyem, journalist turned Ukrainian member of parliament. Alternative facts are not facts, and false equivalences are not equivalent. But consumers of Russian state-backed media around the globe can be duped into treating them as such, Nayyem said. He argued Russia presents reality and a bold-faced lie as though they are but two different perspectives, the truth of which lies somewhere in the middle, for viewers to decide for themselves. “We know that [Sentsov] never was involved in some attacks, or in some revolution, in terroristic things. He’s a filmmaker, and his movies are recognized internationally. The lie is that this guy was a terrorist, and no one even tried to understand the basis of this [accusation] … There is guy: a filmmaker, and a terrorist. What is true? They think that maybe he’s some filmmaker-terrorist. It’s insane.” Nayyem ardently believes those who want to protect freedom of media and speech need to build up conventions regulating what are accepted as media outlets and news. But there’s a thin line between banning propaganda and furthering censorship and repression. Russia’s independent Dozhd (TV Rain), for example, was recently banned in Ukraine for reporting that Crimea is part of Russia. “Recent democratic gains have bolstered media freedom overall,” the Freedom House report states, “but restrictions on Russian outlets and attempts to foster ‘patriotic’ reporting raise questions about the government’s commitment to media autonomy.” And besides, even Ukrainians, more prepared for Russian media influence than their western counterparts, are not entirely immune. “The Russian media are much better funded” than their Ukrainian counterparts, Kaplan said, and it takes time and resources to counter reports put out by the Russian state-backed media machine. “Even my Ukrainian friends who live in Kiev, after watching two hours of Russian TV, start to question themselves. ‘Am I a fascist?’” Kaplan does not, at present, see much reason for optimism. While it was a bad week for reports on the state of Russian media, it was inevitably a much worse week for those trying to correct or improve it. “Journalism in Russia is dead. It happened quite a while ago,” Kaplan said. “There are small islands of freedom of speech in Russia,” she said, but they aren’t on TV, and they aren’t available to those who don’t know how to access certain sites. Besides, she said, the sophisticated propaganda machine will figure out how to move onto the internet, too. “Russian journalists face the biggest challenge. Their job is simply to survive.” Hanging in the air is the idea that, at present, surviving is actually journalism’s job, too.

  • Oleg Sentsov and Russia's Human Rights Violations against Ukrainian Citizens

    On April 27, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing focusing on human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens. In particular, this hearing was used as a platform to raise awareness for Oleg Sentsov, a political prisoner being held in Siberia. Sentsov was honored by PEN America this year with their 2017 Freedom to Write award for his work exposing Russian human rights violations. Panelist included Natalya Kaplan, cousin of Oleg Sentsov and campaigner for his freedom, and journalist in Kiev; Mustafa Nayyem, Member of Ukrainian Parliament and former journalist and early organizer of the 2013 Euromaidan protests; and Halya Coynash, spokesperson for Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. The panelists provided much context and background detailing Sentsov and others’ cases. Natalya Kaplan spoke to the audience about the terrible conditions her cousin faces in Siberia, including torture, while Mustafa Nayyem spoke about the need to pressure Russia publically to end these human rights abuses. Halya Coynash reminded the audience of the severity of this case by highlighting that Sentsov was the first Ukrainian to be so brazenly imprisoned after the Russian occupation of Crimea; in her eyes, this was the first time the full force of Russian government had been used to fabricate charges and host a show trial against a Ukrainian. The panelists agreed that the media freedom situation in Russian-occupied territory is dire and only growing worse. Of greatest concern was the length to which Russia is willing to go in their efforts to arrest and prosecute journalists. Russia also sets a dangerous precedent with its recent attempts to foist Russian citizenship onto Ukrainians in Crimea, in efforts to undermine international court rulings and give legitimacy to its actions. When it comes to monitoring the human rights situation in Ukraine, the panelists expressed concerns with the lack of access to political prisoners and the inability to target individual Russians involved in creating the sham trials. The panelists believed that the ability to target individuals involved in these trials would be extremely helpful in de-escalating the situation, and they made many references to the Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Overwhelmingly, the response to these issues was a desire to work with Congress to strengthen and update the Magnistky Act, as well as broaden civil society and NGO engagment. Mustafa Nayyem expressed hope that NGOs, such as PEN America, would play a more pivotal role in helping prevent future repression. News articles following the briefing expressed hope that there would be work within Congress to better address issues involving Ukrainian political prisoners.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Proclamation Recognizing Importance of Helsinki Final Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced a bipartisan Senate resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act –  the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – and its relevance to American national security.  The resolution was cosponsored by all other Senators currently serving on the Helsinki Commission: Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. John Boozman (AR), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. Tom Udall (NM), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI). “Peace and prosperity in the OSCE region rest on a respect for human rights and the preservation of fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and economic liberty. Unfortunately, the commitment to these ideals by some OSCE participating States is eroding,” Chairman Wicker said. “The shrinking space for civil society in many nations has become reminiscent of the Communist era – a time when many Helsinki Monitoring Groups were violently persecuted for their courageous support of basic human rights,” he continued. “With its actions in Ukraine and Georgia, the Russian Federation in particular has demonstrated how closely such internal repression can be tied to external aggression.  We were reminded of these abuses in this morning’s Helsinki Commission hearing. I urge the President to make it clear that Helsinki principles are vital not only to American national interests but also to the security of the OSCE region as a whole.” “What was remarkable about the Helsinki Final Act was the commitment that these standards we agreed to would not only be of internal interest to the member country, but that any country signatory to the Helsinki Final Act could challenge the actions of any other country,” said Ranking Commissioner Cardin, who is also Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We have not only the right but the responsibility to call out countries that fail to adhere to the basic principles that were agreed to in 1975.” Defining security in a uniquely comprehensive manner, the Helsinki Final Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, among them respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief (Principle VII). Other principles include respect for sovereign equality (Principle I), the territorial integrity of states (Principle IV), and states’ fulfilment in good faith of their obligations under international law (Principle X). S.Con.Res.13 encourages President Trump to reaffirm America’s commitment to the principles and implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. The resolution also calls on the President to urge other participating States to respect their OSCE commitments and to condemn the Russian Federation's clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of all 10 core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act.

  • Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight

    The U.S Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Wednesday on “Democracy and Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight.”  It was the first hearing in the 115th Congress focused on internal human rights repression in Russia. Vladimir Kara-Murza, vice-chairman of pro-reform movement Open Russia; Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President of Freedom House, testified about the crisis of Russian democracy and the country’s worsening human rights record under President Vladimir Putin. In his opening statement, Mr. Kara-Murza underscored the necessity for the OSCE participating States to give an honest assessment about what is happening in Russia, where the number of political prisoners now exceeds a hundred people (a number that has doubled in less than a year). Mr. Kara-Murza, a vocal critic of the Kremlin who has survived two poisoning attempts, estimated that more than 30 activists have been murdered by the Putin regime since Vladimir Putin assumed power in 2000. He also called for an end to impunity for human rights violations in Russia. “The U.S. does have a mechanism for such accountability in the Magnitsky Act that provides for targeted sanctions on human rights abusers. This law should continue to be implemented to its full extent,” Mr. Kara-Murza said. His concerns were echoed by Human Rights Watch’s Rachel Denber, who noted that today, “Russia is more repressive that it has ever been in the post-Soviet era.” At Chairman Wicker’s request, Ms. Denber provided detailed information about each of the Russian political prisoners who were featured on posters in the room, and also spoke at length about the repression of gay men in Chechnya. Dr. Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House highlighted the fact that Mr. Putin was the primary author of the modern authoritarian’s playbook, which has subsequently been replicated by many autocratic rulers in the region.  “His methods for suppressing civil society and political opposition have inspired other dictators, and his media manipulation has impacted most of Eurasia directly and extended to Europe and the United States,” Dr. Calingaert said. However, despite the grim situation, Mr. Kara-Murza voiced some optimism about the future. “Increasingly, the young generation in Russia – the very generation that grew up under Vladimir Putin – is demanding respect and accountability from those in power,” he said. Mr. Kara-Murza pointed to a wave of anti-corruption demonstrations that took place in dozens of cities across Russia in late March, with tens of thousands of people, mostly young protesters, taking out to the streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Dimitriy Medvedev. “This movement will continue. And these growing demands for accountability are the best guarantee that Russia will one day become a country where citizens can exercise the rights and freedoms to which they are entitled,” he added.  

  • Helsinki Commission To Hold Briefing on Russia’s Human Rights Violations against Ukrainian Citizens

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: OLEG SENTSOV AND RUSSIA’S HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AGAINST UKRAINIAN CITIZENS Thursday, April 27, 2017 3:00 PM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 210 In May 2014, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov – an outspoken opponent of Russia’s takeover of his native Crimea – disappeared from his hometown of Simferopol only to resurface in Russian custody in Moscow. Convicted on charges of terrorism that the human rights community has condemned as fabricated, Sentsov is now serving a 20-year sentence in a Siberian penal colony. His case not only stands as a marker for Russia’s reach in silencing dissent abroad, but also illuminates broader issues of Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens. The Helsinki Commission briefing will present three perspectives on this disturbing situation and its broader context: from Sentsov’s cousin and chief champion; from a human rights defender investigating cases in the region; and from a member of the Ukrainian parliament. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Natalya Kaplan, cousin of Oleg Sentsov and journalist in Kiev Mustafa Nayyem, Member of Ukrainian Parliament; former journalist and early organizer of the 2013 Euromaidan protests Halya Coynash, Spokesperson, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

  • Human Rights Abuses in Russia Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced a hearing to examine the grim state of human rights and democracy in the Russian Federation. DEMOCRACY & HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES IN RUSSIA: NO END IN SIGHT Wednesday, April 26, 2017 9:30 AM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 124 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce042617 Russia’s overt external aggression against countries such as Ukraine, its support for the Assad regime in Syria, and its efforts to disrupt western democracies are made possible by the internal repression of its own people.  For example, Russia has not had a free and fair election since March 2000. Opposition activists are routinely assaulted or even murdered, giving rise to a new term: “Sudden Kremlin Death Syndrome.” Political prisoner numbers now match those of the late Soviet era, and on March 26, tens of thousands of people in cities across 11 time zones protested widespread government corruption, with more than 1,000 arrested. More nationwide protests are expected on June 12, the national holiday of the Russian Federation. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Vladimir Kara-Murza, Vice Chairman, Open Russia Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President, Freedom House

  • Wicker: Celebrate First Amendment Religious Freedoms

    The First Amendment to our Constitution is a powerful expression of our right to the “free exercise” of religion. Americans can practice their faith without fear of persecution – a freedom that is not found in all parts of the world. For Christians in the United States, the prevalence of religious persecution worldwide is especially heartbreaking as we approach Easter Sunday. We are reminded of the suicide bomber who targeted Christians on Easter Sunday last year in Pakistan, killing more than 70 and injuring hundreds. Sadly, this violence is not isolated. Pakistan ranks fourth on this year’s World Watch List created by the nonprofit group Open Doors USA. The list names 50 countries that have extreme, very high and high persecution of Christians. North Korea ranked first. I currently serve as chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an agency comprised of members of Congress and federal officials to promote security and human rights in 57 countries in North America, Europe and Eurasia. The persecution of Christians and religious minorities remains a significant concern for the commission. In Syria, the Islamic State has waged a genocide against Christians, forcing thousands from their homes and destroying religious sites. In Russia, the government’s recent attempt to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses from practicing their faith is yet another affront to religious freedom in a country known for trampling human rights. Russia’s actions refute the international agreement that the U.S. Helsinki Commission seeks to uphold. I have consistently supported legislative measures to protect Americans’ constitutional freedoms, including the exercise of religion. Political agendas should not encroach these rights. During the Obama administration, for example, I championed legislation that would allow military chaplains to refrain from performing marriage ceremonies if it would violate their conscience to do so. The religious expression of our military men and women is deserving of respect. The same respect should be afforded to all Americans by our government agencies. I am encouraged by recent reports that President Trump is considering an executive order that would require federal agencies to protect the freedom of religion in their actions and policies. Earlier this month, I sent a letter with 17 other senators to President Trump expressing our support for this executive action and the need for federal agencies to follow the rule of law. The letter reminds the President of attempts by the Obama administration to infringe on the rights of faith-based charities like the Little Sisters of the Poor. Obamacare forced the group either to pay a fine or offer services that they opposed for deeply held religious reasons. A Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed the religious liberty of the Little Sisters, just as it did for the owners of Hobby Lobby, who also raised religious objections to the health-care law. Our founding documents built a foundation for religious liberty that is admired around the world. It is up to us to ensure that this foundation does not crumble. Roger Wicker is a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. Contact him at 330 W. Jefferson St., Tupelo, MS 38803 or call (662) 844-5010.

  • Russian Supreme Court Considers Outlawing Jehovah's Witness Worship

    The Russian Supreme Court could declare the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist organization in a Wednesday hearing, a move that would lead to the seizure of the church's headquarters near St. Petersburg and the outlawing of the group’s organized worship. In advance of the hearing, international concern has grown. “If the Supreme Court rules in favour of the authorities, it will be the first such ruling by a court declaring a registered centralized religious organization to be ‘extremist,’” the UN human rights’ high commissioner's office said in a statement on Tuesday. The ruling would also cap off years of increased restrictions by the Russian Federation against minority religions. Last summer, Russia introduced an anti-terrorism law that also restricted evangelism, and a regional court ordered the deportation of six missionaries with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2015, a court banned the Church of Scientology’s Moscow branch. Under a Russian law passed in 1997, there is freedom of religion, but four faiths are designated to be traditional—Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism—and other religious organizations must register with the government. Some groups, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are registered, still face bureaucratic and legal hurdles. Jehovah's Witness leaders estimate that there are 175,000 Russian-based adherents to the faith, which was founded in the United States the 1870s. Unlike Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is the son of God but do not believe in the Trinity. “They would basically be prosecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses as criminals,” David Semonian, international spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, says of the pending court declaration. “Anyone who would actually would have our publications could be criminalized. It is of great concern.” Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed a counter claim asking the court to rule the Justice Ministry’s actions as political repression. A ruling in favor of the ministry would make it a crime for Jehovah’s Witnesses to worship in the Russian Federation and dissolve the faith’s legal means to own or rent Kingdom Halls, their places of worship. In 2015, the Russian Federation banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website JW.org, and customs officials stopped shipments of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bibles, citing the possibility they were extremist literature. Last year, Russia threatened to close the group’s national headquarters. Roman Lunkin, a human rights fellow at the Wilson Center and an expert on church-state relations in Russia, says that Russian authorities have been targeting minority religions as “extremists” in an effort to demonstrate support for the Russian Orthodox Church and to marginalize organizations with suspected pro-western sympathies. "The treatment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reflects the Russian government’s tendency to view all independent religious activity as a threat to its control and the country’s political stability," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement on Tuesday. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are no threat to either the Russian Orthodox Church or to the Russian Government,” Semonian says. “The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, and that is all we are asking, to have the same rights as other religious groups have so we can go about our ministry in a peaceful way.” Jehovah’s Witnesses are pacifists, and their religious beliefs require them to abstain from political activity. They declare allegiance only to God, not to a state or political entity. They do not vote, lobby, protest, or join military. This lack of participation can be seen as a threat if a state demands nationalist and patriotic activity. “The persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is very much tied to the resurgence of a new view of nationalism, where everything within the state is fine, but anything outside of the state has to be crushed,” Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, a U.S. commissioner for International Religious Freedom appointed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, says. “A pacifist group that tells its members that their allegiance is to something outside of the government is immediately a group that will be perceived as dangerous to the regime.” Other minority Christian groups in Russia, like evangelicals, have not yet faced the same level of scrutiny. Lunkin says it is impossible to accuse evangelicals of extremist activity because their literature and Bible translation matches that of the Russian Orthodox Church. Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation of the Bible, and they also have their own magazine and educational materials. Evangelicals also have closer relationships with government officials, he says. “It’s [about] a protection of traditional religions, and the Orthodox identity of Russian people,” Lunkin says. “But in fact it is about protecting personal power, because the main fear is changing of regimes in Russia.” Jehovah’s Witness church leadership has reached out to the U.S. State department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the U.S. Helsinki Commission for aid. “We will do everything within our legal means to have the judgment reversed,” Semonian says. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are known worldwide for our peaceful activities, and under no circumstances would we ever resort to violence or any other activity that could be misunderstood or considered extremist.” Jehovah’s Witness leaders have also asked their eight million members worldwide to write letters to Russia officials, including President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, to ask them to intervene. Instructions tell writers to “be candid but respectful,” and to mention how the faith has benefited their families. “Keep in mind that ‘a mild answer turns away rage,’ and ‘a gentle tongue can break a bone,’” the instructions say, quoting the Biblical book of Proverbs. The decision will come as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is finalizing its annual report identifying countries of concern, its first such report for the Trump administration. The Commission is a bipartisan government advisory group that makes policy recommendations to the President, Congress, and the Secretary of State. Since 2009, the group has designated Russia as a “Tier 2” nation, on the watch list one step below countries of particular concern. “The fate of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the fate of any religious group that does not pledge its allegiance to the Russian government,” Arriaga says. “April 5 will definitely mark a new chapter of religious persecution in post-Soviet Russia.”

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Pending Legal Action against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the Russian government’s request for its Supreme Court to effectively ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia from worshipping, claiming that they are members of an “extremist organization,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), and Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), issued the following statements: “It is wrong to apply flawed counterterrorism laws to those who seek to practice their faith,” said Chairman Wicker. “The Russian government is exploiting genuine threats of violent extremism to undermine what little religious freedom remains in that country. This distracts from real efforts to fight terrorism. I urge the Russian government to drop the case immediately.” “At stake in the upcoming court case is the legality and perhaps the survival of the Jehovah’s Witnesses—and in fact basic religious freedom—throughout the Russian Federation,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “If the Supreme Court of Russia declares this faith group an extremist organization, it is an ominous sign for all believers and it marks a dark, sad day for all Russians.” “As a staunch supporter of religious liberty, I am appalled by the Russian government treating an entire religious group as a threat to national security,” said Commissioner Hudson. “Religious affiliation should never be a justification for persecution.”  On March 15, the Russian Ministry of Justice filed a formal court claim to label the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia an extremist group and liquidate their national headquarters and 395 local chapters, known as “local religious organizations.” Should the Russian Supreme Court decide against the Administrative Center, 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia could face criminal prosecution for practicing their faith.  According to the Helsinki Final Act signed by all 57 participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe –  including Russia – “participating States 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.”

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders to Azerbaijan: Release All Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON—On the traditional holiday of Nowruz, Helsinki Commission leaders called on the Azerbaijani government to immediately release all remaining political prisoners and honor its OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. “It is disappointing that President Aliyev released only a small number of political prisoners among several hundred pardons he issued prior to Nowruz,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). “OSCE participating States commit to respecting freedom of expression, including the freedom to exchange information and views without interference from public authorities. The Government of Azerbaijan should uphold this commitment by releasing opposition figures, civil rights activists, journalists, and religious leaders who are currently in jail for peacefully exercising their rights. This is particularly true in the case of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, who recently entered his fifth year in prison on politically-motivated charges.”  “President Aliyev’s pardons left dozens of human rights activists, journalists, and political dissidents languishing in prison and subject to mistreatment,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “I call on President Aliyev to respect human rights and democracy in his country and immediately release all prisoners of conscience.” In 2016, the Government of Azerbaijan pardoned 148 inmates in the days leading up to Nowruz, including more than a dozen people identified as political prisoners by leading human rights organizations. This year, the Government issued pardons to more than 400 prisoners, but only four political prisoners were freed.

  • Smith and Eshoo Reintroduce Emergency Bill to Help Genocide Survivors

    WASHINGTON—Following his December 2016 mission to Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq to meet with Christian survivors of ISIS genocide, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), along with his Democratic colleague Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA-18), today reintroduced their bipartisan legislation to provide emergency relief to survivors of genocide and ensure accountability for perpetrators. The Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act (H.R. 390) is an enhanced version of the Smith-Eshoo bill (H.R. 5961) they introduced in 114th Congress. “The reintroduction of this bill is timely because just last month I saw in Iraq the lack of humanitarian aid for Christian genocide survivors. These genocide survivors told me the United States and global community had abandoned them. They are at-risk from freezing winter temperatures and require emergency help,” said Smith. “Tens of thousands of Christian genocide survivors in Iraq and Syria need our help now and it is essential that emergency humanitarian aid for the survivors be provided,” said Rep. Eshoo. “I thank Chairman Smith for his passionate leadership on this issue and I look forward to working with him and all my colleagues in Congress to quickly move this aid package and bring relief to those who continue to suffer.” The Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Mosul, Nicodemus Sharaf, who had to seek refuge in Erbil from ISIS, told Smith, “We are the last people to speak the Aramaic language. Without help, we are finished.” The Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil invited Smith to Erbil and has been supporting more than 70,000 Christians who escaped ISIS – almost 1/3 of the 250,000 Christians remaining in Iraq – with food, shelter, and medical care. It also serves Yezidis and Muslims displaced by ISIS. The Archdiocese has had to rely entirely on donations from organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need. “Because the U.S. Government and United Nations have so far failed to support this life-saving work of the Archdiocese of Erbil, these Christian genocide survivors continue to hang on the edge between life and death,” added Smith.  Among its key provisions, H.R. 390 directs the U.S. Administration to: Support entities that are effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based entities; Support entities that are conducting criminal investigations into perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Iraq and Syria; Create a “Priority Two” (“P-2”) designation that Christians and other genocide survivors from religious and ethnic minority communities are of “special humanitarian concern to the United States” and therefore able to access an overseas application interview for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program without needing a referral from the UN; Vet P-2 refugee applicants like any other Iraqi or Syrian refugee applicant and not admit them to the U.S. unless they have cleared this vetting; Assess and address the humanitarian vulnerabilities, needs, and triggers that might force survivors to flee their homes; Identify warning signs of deadly violence and other forms of persecution against genocide survivors from vulnerable religious and ethnic minority communities, or against other members of these communities, in Iraq or Syria; Identify gaps in U.S. law so that the American justice system can prosecute foreign perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes present in the U.S., as well as any Americans who commit such crimes; Encourage foreign countries to add identifying information about suspected perpetrators of such crimes to their security databases and security screening. The other original 15 cosponsors are Rep. Mark Meadows (R), Rep. Juan Vargas (D), Rep. Pete Sessions (R), Rep. Dan Lipinski (D), Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), Rep. Louise Slaughter (D), Rep. Trent Franks (R), Rep. Robert Pittenger (R), Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R), Rep. Randy Hultgren (R), Rep. Randy Weber (R), Rep. David Trott (R), Rep. Sean Duffy (R), Rep. Jody Hice (R), and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R).   Background The Smith-Eshoo bill is supported by many groups, including the Knights of Columbus, Family Research Council, In Defense of Christians, 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, Commission for International Justice and Accountability, HIAS, Aid the Church in Need USA, Open Doors, A Demand for Action, Yezidi Human Rights Organization International, Religious Freedom Institute, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and Syrian Accountability Project, and Civitas Maxima. It is also supported by all the former US Ambassadors-at Large for War Crimes, David Scheffer (1997-2001), Pierre Prosper (2001-2005), Clint Williamson (2006-2009), and Stephen Rapp (2009-2015), as well as the Founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, David Crane; Director of the Center for Religious Freedom Nina Shea; and the author of Defying ISIS, Rev. Johnnie Moore. Since 2013, Rep. Smith has chaired nine congressional hearings on atrocities in Iraq and Syria, including one titled The ISIS Genocide Declaration: What Next? and another titled Atrocities in Iraq and Syria: Relief for Survivors and Accountability for Perpetrators. He authored the bipartisan H. Con. Res 121, which the House passed overwhelmingly and calls for the formation of an ad hoc tribunal for perpetrators of crimes against humanity and war crimes in the Syrian conflict. Smith also authored with Eshoo the bipartisan, historic Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 1150), which the President signed into law. Smith and Eshoo also introduced H.R. 5961, the forerunner to H.R. 390. Just before Christmas, Smith traveled to the Erbil area of Kurdistan region of Iraq to meet with Christian genocide survivors and visit a camp for 6,000 displaced Christians, managed and supported by the Archdiocese of Erbil. He also met with Christian leaders; non-governmental organizations; and officials from the U.S., countries like Hungary and Poland that are proactively supporting assistance to Christian genocide survivors, and the United Nations. Christians have lived in Iraq since the 1st century and there were as many as 1.4 million in 2002. Sectarian violence and targeting of Christians reduced their presence to 500,000 by 2013, the year before ISIS started its genocide against them. At the end of 2015, less than 250,000 Christians remained in Iraq.

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