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Podcast: Seeking Justice in Serbia

Twenty years after U.S. citizens Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir documents his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Ilir is joined by family lawyer Praveen Madhiraju and Helsinki Commission senior policy advisor Robert Hand.


"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 2: Seeking Justice in Serbia | Helsinki on the Hill

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  • Helsinki Commission Staff Meet with Special Envoys on Holocaust Issues

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law Thomas Yazdgerdi, Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues at the State Department, and The Rt Hon Sir Eric Pickles, the UK's Special Envoy for post-Holocaust Issues and Anti-Corruption Champion, met with staff of the U.S. Helsinki Commission on July 14, 2017, to discuss Holocaust-related issues. Sir Eric Pickles was appointed Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust issues in September 2015. He works closely with Holocaust survivors, scholars, educational and other civil society organizations in the UK.  The State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues develops and implements U.S. policy with respect to the return of Holocaust-era assets to their rightful owners, compensation for wrongs committed during the Holocaust, and Holocaust remembrance. The meeting touched on issues related to the needs of elderly Holocaust survivors.  The Special Envoys praised the adoption of a bill in Serbia last year that provides compensation to Serbian Holocaust survivors both in Serbia and abroad. The compensation is derived from property rendered heirless as a result of the Holocaust. Although, generally speaking, states claim property that is without heirs, the specific circumstance of genocide makes that general rule unsupportable. The 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, adopted at the conclusion of a 46-nation meeting, noted that “in some states heirless property could serve as a basis for addressing the material necessities of needy Holocaust (Shoah) survivors and to ensure ongoing education about the Holocaust (Shoah), its causes and consequences.” They also addressed issues regarding Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, and elsewhere. Poland remains the only country in central Europe that has not adopted a general private property compensation or restitution law. Special Envoys Yazdgerdi and Pickles discussed their work within the 31-nation International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, including the breakthrough adoption in April of last year of a working definition of anti-Semitism, and the OSCE’s engagement in this area.  Germany, in its 2016 capacity as OSCE Chair-in-Office, committed funds for a multiyear project called “Turning Words Into Action” which seeks to improve implementation of the OSCE’s significant body of existing commitments regarding combating anti-Semitism and discrimination. Finally, participants in the meeting exchanged views on prospects for removing the pig farm from the Lety concentration camp site in the Czech Republic. The pig farm has been the target of criticism and is seen by some as a desecration of a sensitive site of remembrance. At the 2016 OSCE Human Dimension implementation Meeting, Czech government officials discussed efforts to remove the pig farm. The Helsinki Commission played an instrumental role in securing the agreement of the Czech government to share a complete microfilm copy of the Lety concentration camp archives with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Although there were other World War II concentration camps established specifically for Roma, the only known complete surviving archives are from Lety. More Information Roundtable on Fighting Anti-Semitism Looks at Turning Words into Action

  • 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.

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Meet with OSCE Election Experts

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law On July 11, Helsinki Commission staff met with Dame Audrey Glover, head of the OSCE election observation mission during the 2016 U.S. elections. Other members of the OSCE team included Mr. Jan Haukass (Vienna Representative of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR), Dr. Richard Lappin (ODIHR-Warsaw), and Mr. Radivoje Grujic (ODIHR-Warsaw).  The meeting was part of OSCE’s standard consultations following the deployment of an election observation mission.  The election team also held meetings in Washington with Members of Congress and the Department of State. OSCE election observation is based on the 1990 Copenhagen Document in which the participating States agreed that “the will of the people, freely and fairly expressed through periodic and genuine elections, is the basis of the authority and legitimacy of all government.” The commitment fosters universal suffrage, equality, fairness, freedom, transparency, accountability, and secrecy of the ballot. The original proposal for a commitment to hold free and fair elections came from the Helsinki Commission in 1989 but, at that time, was unacceptable to communist countries. In 1990, as communist regimes began to fall, agreement on the new commitment was adopted and signaled the rejection of the one-party systems that had previously dominated Eastern Europe. However, implementation of this commitment continues to be restricted in some countries where civil society is limited or faces repression. OSCE election observation in the region represents the “gold standard” in international election observation. In some instances, when even the fundamental conditions for free and fair elections are lacking, the OSCE may decline to observe elections rather than give them a degree of legitimacy that is unwarranted. In 2015, restrictions imposed by the government of Azerbaijan compelled the OSCE to cancel a planned election observation mission. Some countries, such as Russia, have sought to undermine OSCE election observation by promoting observation through the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a post-Soviet grouping that includes Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.  CIS election observers consistently praise elections that are considered to be significantly flawed by independent observers, particularly the OSCE.  Helsinki Commissioners and staff have participated in well over 100 election observation missions since 1990 – the vast majority of them as members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly contingent that is part of the larger OSCE-led international observation missions. The Commission continues to support OSCE observation efforts, focusing on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest.  The Commission has also actively supported the right of domestic election observers to monitor the elections in their own countries. Learn more about OSCE election observation.

  • Social Media Day 2017

    First celebrated in 2010, Social Media Day recognizes the enormous impact social media has had on global communication. Many OSCE institutions, field missions, and related entities maintain a robust presence on social media, allowing them to share news, facilitate dialogue, and promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights throughout the 57 participating States of the OSCE. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission)  Twitter Facebook YouTube Flickr LinkedIn U.S. Mission to the OSCE Twitter Facebook YouTube OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Twitter Facebook YouTube Flickr Instagram OSCE Secretariat  Twitter Facebook YouTube Instagram LinkedIn SoundCloud OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities  Twitter OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Twitter Facebook LinkedIn OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Twitter Facebook YouTube Flickr OSCE Presence in Albania  Twitter Facebook OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina Twitter Facebook YouTube Google+ SoundCloud OSCE Mission in Kosovo Twitter Facebook YouTube OSCE Mission to Serbia Twitter Facebook OSCE Mission to Skopje Twitter Facebook OSCE Mission to Moldova Facebook OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine Facebook OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine Twitter Facebook OSCE Office in Tajikistan Facebook

  • Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Report

    The Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) advances leaders who are global in outlook, representative, culturally competent, and inclusive. TILN is the premier venue for young, diverse U.S. and European elected and civil society leaders to meet, enhance their inclusive leadership portfolio, and engage senior policymakers. Now entering its sixth year housed within the German Marshall Fund in cooperation with the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), TILN has been honored to be supported through partnerships with the U.S. Department of State, Balkan Trust for Democracy, Open Society Foundations, Meridiam, IMPACT, ONCE Foundation, Operation Black Vote, Unitas Communications, New American Leaders Project and the World Jewish Congress. At the center of the initiative is an annual leadership workshop for young diverse leaders from Europe and the United States. TILN workshops have created an empowered and highly upwardly mobile network that bridges the Atlantic and strengthens transatlantic relations for the future. TILN alumni utilize their experiences to reach new heights from mounting campaigns for the European and national Parliaments to becoming Members of the U.S. Congress, Ministers, and regionally and locally elected officials. Alumni include U.S. Congressman Ruben Gallego, Swedish Parliamentarian Said Abdu, UN Expert on Minority Issues Rita Iszak, and other Parliamentarians, Ministers, Mayors, City Councilpersons, regional and local leaders. Download the full report to learn more about the 2017 Annual Workshop.

  • 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.

  • Countering Corruption in the OSCE Region: Returning Ill-Gotten Assets and Closing Safe Havens

    The World Bank estimates that twenty to forty billion dollars are stolen from developing countries every year. The majority of stolen funds are never found, and even if they are, recovering stolen assets and repatriating victims is a complicated process. The process often involves many different countries with different legal frameworks and financial structures. On June 1, 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a briefing on asset recovery in the OSCE region. Ill-gotten assets from the region frequently end up in money laundering safe havens in the West, where Western financial services enable the safeguarding of stolen funds. Briefers included Charles Davidson, executive director of the Kleptocracy Initiative at the Hudson Institute; Brian Campbell, legal advisor for the Cotton Campaign; and Ken Hurwitz, senior managing legal officer on anti-corruption with the Open Society Justice Initiative. The briefing was moderated by Paul Massaro, economic and environmental policy advisor with the Helsinki Commission.  Panelists at the briefing discussed methods to achieve responsible repatriation for grand corruption. After tracing and freezing assets, Western authorities are faced with the dilemma of how to return assets stolen by kleptocrats to the people of that country. A critical part of anti-corruption work, successful repatriation can empower civil society and democratic development in affected countries. In turn, civil society and the judiciary can play critical roles in fighting and exposing grand corruption. Panelists drew comparisons between the challenges associated with returning assets stolen by the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan and the successful case in Kazakhstan, where $115 million in disputed assets was returned to the people through the BOTA Foundation. While grand corruption takes on many different forms, most corrupt countries in the OSCE region are former members of the Soviet Union and have imported Moscow’s own brand of corruption. Panelists discussed how the lack of transparency and accountability in Western financial systems facilitate the looting of former Soviet countries. Additionally, they argued for the United States’ national interest in countering corruption and ensuring responsible repatriation.

  • Helsinki-Related Legislation in the 115th Congress

    Between January 1 and May 15, 2017, U.S. Helsinki Commissioners introduced more than a dozen bills and resolutions on issues relating to the Commission’s mandate to monitor and encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and other commitments undertaken by the 57 participating countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Senator Roger Wicker (MS), the Commission’s Chairman, and Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Senate Commissioner, have been particularly active.  Representative Chris Smith (NJ), the Commission’s Co-Chairman, and Representative Alcee Hastings (FL), Ranking House Commissioner, have also introduced several pieces of legislation. Other Commissioners, both House and Senate, have contributed to the effort.   The bills and resolutions cover a wide range of issues, from ensuring the Helsinki Principles are defended and promoted in U.S. foreign policy to encouraging improved U.S. implementation of Helsinki commitments at home. Several have been introduced in response to Russia’s threat to its neighbors and European security, while others address broader concerns about developments in Europe and the OSCE Partner countries of the Mediterranean region.    Download the full report to learn more.  Contributors: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor, Anne Balance, Intern, and Jackson Lines, Intern

  • Helsinki Commissioners Urge President to Prioritize Democracy, Human Rights in Foreign Policy

    On May 3, Helsinki Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Helsinki Commissioners Senator Cory Gardner (CO), Senator Marco Rubio (FL), and Senator Thom Tillis (NC) signed a letter encouraging President Trump to prioritize democracy and respect for human rights in the Administration’s foreign policy agenda. The letter reads in part: “America has long been a leader in supporting individual rights. It was more than 240 years ago that the Founding Fathers declared  that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These principles have successfully formed the backbone of the American experiment in self- government. The rights the Founders recognized are not by any means solely ‘American,’ but rather are universal. Being fortunate to enjoy these freedoms ourselves, we have the moral imperative to promote democracy and human rights across the globe.” The bipartisan letter was also signed by Senator Todd Young (IN), Senator Edward Markey (MA), Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), Senator Susan Collins (ME), Senator Dick Durbin (IL), Senator Patrick Leahy (VT), Senator Christopher Coons (DE), Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK), Senator Cory Booker (NJ), and Senator Jeff Merkley (OR). The full text of the letter can be found below. Dear Mr. President: As you carry out the responsibilities of the Office of the President, we in the Congress stand ready to work with you to ensure that America remains a leader in advocating for democracy and human rights. We urge your administration to make these issues a priority. As you know, America has long been a leader in supporting individual rights.  It was more than 240 years ago that the Founding Fathers declared  that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  These principles have successfully formed the backbone of the American experiment in self- government. The rights the Founders recognized are not by any means solely “American,” but rather are universal. Being fortunate to enjoy these freedoms ourselves, we have the moral imperative to promote democracy and human rights across the globe.  At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee hearing earlier this year titled “Democracy and Human Rights: The Case for U.S. Leadership” human rights activists shared their stories of living under oppressive regimes. They made clear that they believe that the United States has a critical role to play in safeguarding the fundamental rights of all people. A world that is more democratic, respects human rights, and abides by the rule of law strengthens the security, stability, and prosperity of America. History has demonstrated time-and-again that free societies are more likely to be at peace with one another. Constitutional democracies are also less likely to fail and become breeding grounds for instability, terrorism, and migration.  Democratic nations that respect good governance and the rights of their own citizens are also more likely to be economically successful, and to be stable and reliable trade and investment partners for the United States.  Our economic partnerships with Japan, Germany, Taiwan, the Republic of Korea, and numerous other nations’ today stand as testament to the wisdom of far-sighted U.S. policy that seeks to develop good governance and strong democratic institutions as necessary enablers for strong economic partnerships as well. As we have seen over the past decade, there is a creeping authoritarian resurgence across the globe, against which we are the bulwark for individual rights and freedoms.  America, since its founding, has led this fight, not just for the rights of Americans found in the Constitution, but for the rights of all.  By elevating democracy and human rights to a prominent place on your foreign policy agenda you can make a measurable difference and make America safer, more prosperous, and more secure.  There is longstanding and deep bipartisan Congressional commitment to advancing freedom around the world, just as Republican and Democratic administrations for decades have supported democracy and human rights, and we look forward to working with you on this important cause.  We ask that, as you continue to formulate your foreign and defense policies, you put the promotion of democracy and human rights front-and-center as a primary pillar of America’s approach abroad.  As we move forward with the process of holding confirmation hearings for your nominees to key foreign policy positions we will be assessing their commitment to uphold these important American values as they carry out our nation’s foreign policy.

  • The OSCE as a Model: Asian Insights

    From April 14 to 22, 2017, Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Ambassador David Killion and Policy Advisor Paul Massaro traveled to Tokyo, Japan and Seoul, South Korea for consultations with these OSCE Asian Partners for Co-operation. Major topics of discussion included the call for a Helsinki Final Act-inspired arrangement for northeast Asia and the heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The future of the OSCE Asian Partners dialogue and further cooperation with the OSCE and other European institutions were also discussed. The OSCE Asian Partners for Cooperation is a grouping of countries in Asia with which the OSCE engages in a perm-anent, active dialogue, recognizing the linkages between European and Asian security. Currently, the OSCE Asian Partners include Japan, which joined in 1992; the Republic of Korea; which joined in 1994; Thailand, which joined in 2000; Afghanistan, which joined in 2003; and Australia, which joined in 2009. Mongolia was previously an Asian partner, having joined the grouping in 2004, but became a full OSCE participating State in 2012. The trip offered Helsinki Commission staff the opportunity to get a firsthand account of the situation in northeast Asia at a critical time, and ahead of the annual OSCE Asian Partners Conference taking place in Berlin later this year. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Ambassador David Killion, Chief of Staff, and Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor

  • 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.

  • 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 Staff Attend OSCE Permanent Council

    By A. Paul Massaro III, policy advisor, Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to USOSCE, Orest Deychakiwsky, policy advisor, Alex Tiersky, policy advisor, and Jackson Lines, intern On March 30, 2017, Ambassador David Killion, Chief of Staff of the Helsinki Commission, and Helsinki Commission Policy Advisors Paul Massaro and Everett Price attended the Permanent Council (PC) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna. Helsinki Commission staff members occasionally have the opportunity to attend OSCE events, including PC meetings, which help inform the work of Congress with regard to the OSCE region. What is the Permanent Council? In contrast to OSCE Summit or Ministerial Meetings, which are held annually and provide political direction and standard setting for the OSCE, the Permanent Council is the regular body for political consultations and decisions concerning the day-to-day operational work of the OSCE, and also provides a forum to address current issues. PC Meetings are held once a week at the Ambassadorial level in Vienna, Austria, and usually consist of a report by the head of an OSCE field mission or an invited speaker, and discussion of current issues. Any decisions are taken by consensus.   The PC is generally closed to the public and press, although press may be allowed in for statements by high-level visitors, and academic and other visiting groups are occasionally allowed to observe the proceedings. The Helsinki Commission, joined by the State Department, has long recommended opening the Permanent Council and webcasting it as a way to improve transparency. The United States Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE) regularly posts statements it makes in the PC on its website and shares them on social media. March 30 Meeting The March 30 meeting included a report by Ambassador Michael Scanlan, Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, which focused largely on discussions of the future status of Transnistria within Moldova; a discussion of Russian intervention in Eastern Ukraine; and remarks on media freedom in Belarus and religious freedom in Russia. Ambassador Scanlan noted that, due to a lack of elections this year, 2017 is an important opportunity to address the Transnistrian autonomy issue in a meaningful way. Many participants expressed hope that a mid-May conference meant to open dialogue on the issue would make tangible steps towards Transnistrian autonomy. If a framework can be agreed upon, the PC volunteered the OSCE to mediate talks finalizing the deal. The United States, through its Chargé d’Affaires, Kate Byrnes, intervened on each issue. On Moldova, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to working with the 5+2 partners to find a comprehensive conflict settlement that respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova and affords a special status for the Transnistrian region. On Ukraine, the United States summarized the appalling continuation of Russia’s ongoing aggression and detailed violations of the ceasefire. The U.S., Ms. Byrnes stated, “affirms its staunch support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally-recognized borders.” While no participant was willing to take responsibility for the escalation of tensions in Ukraine, all delegations remained concerned with the situation and agreed that both sides in the conflict need to abide by the Minsk Agreements if progress towards peace is to continue. The United States also condemned crackdowns on protestors in Russia and Belarus. The United States, EU, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director (ODIHR) Michael Link joined together to issue statements reminding Belarus of the need to uphold its obligations to human rights and fundamental freedoms as part of the OSCE. The U.S. and EU delegations also condemned the arrests of protestors in Russia. Both called for the release of those arrested, with a particular focus on Alexei Navalny. Finally, the United States expressed concern about a Russian court case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses that could lead to the disenfranchisement of the group in Russia, violating OSCE commitments to uphold freedom of religion.

  • First Person: Election Observation in Armenia

    By Everett Price, Policy Advisor As the Helsinki Commission’s policy advisor for Armenia, I participated in the election observation mission (EOM) to Armenia organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from March 31 to April 3, 2017. On April 2, the Republic of Armenia held its first parliamentary election since approving constitutional amendments in a popular referendum in 2015 that transition the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. The election was also significant as the first nation-wide vote held under sweeping 2016 revisions to the country’s electoral code that implemented a new process for allocating legislative seats, improved transparency, mandated advanced voter authentication measures, and increased female and minority representation quotas. I was one of a 63-member delegation of parliamentarians and staff deployed by the OSCE PA to serve as short-term observers to the Armenian election. This parliamentary delegation complemented the work of a team of 14 experts, 28 long-term observers, and over 300 short-term observers sent throughout the capital and across the country by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Representatives from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament (EP) also participated. The OSCE PA and ODIHR regularly lead EOMs in the OSCE region at the invitation of the host country. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) In the days before the vote, our OSCE PA observation team received extensive briefings on the election process and current political dynamics from ODIHR experts and from Armenian government officials, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. These briefings focused on allegations of electoral violations, the complexity of the electoral code, the role of international and local observers, and the tenor of the campaign. We heard a “unified message of concern” from civil society representatives.  Citizen activists, journalists, and opposition members told us that the ruling party would abuse its access to administrative resources to get out the vote and that it, and other parties, would engage in voter intimidation and vote buying.  They warned that while new electoral procedures might mitigate concerns about the casting and counting ballots, the ruling party and powerful oligarchs would wield improper influence outside the voting booth, diminishing the fairness of the vote. One political commentator assessed that the difficult economic situation experienced by many voters during this election season would make them especially susceptible to selling their vote. Briefers also discussed the complexity of Armenia’s new electoral code and the extent to which it would address past electoral violations. Significantly, this was Armenia’s first time employing electronic voter identification, multiple ballots, and a partial open list voting system that allows voters to express their preference for specific candidates. The code incorporated many recommendations from Armenian civil society, ODIHR, and other international experts and was generally assessed as a positive step forward. Concerns remained, however, about the complexity of voting procedures, voter registration policy, relatively weak campaign finance transparency provisions, and restrictions on citizen observer participation, among other issues.       Civil society activists specifically raised concerns about the overall number of citizen observers and the rules governing their access to polling stations. Armenia registered over 28,000 citizen observers in a country of less than 3 million people, prompting concerns about overcrowding at polling stations and questions about the origins of the organizations and individuals behind these observation missions. One civil society representative said that only 600 of the citizen observers were from known NGOs and that many of the rest are likely from NGOs established by political parties. Some worried that the large number of citizen observers was meant to suppress the participation of legitimate groups since the electoral code stipulates that a maximum of 15 citizen observers are allowed in a polling station at one time. Ruling party officials, meanwhile, noted that hundreds of citizen observers were foreigners registered under local NGOs. They intimated that these observers could be a vehicle for unwelcome foreign influence. One media representative characterized the content of the campaign as “the most primitive” in recent memory, while another political commentator lamented the “poverty of ideas” and “competition of personalities” on display. Several members of the media and some political party officials regretted that lack of any televised debate among candidates—only three of the nine parties and political coalitions on the ballot were willing to hold such a debate. What’s more, several journalists noted that many parties actively avoided the press and restricted most of their candidates from interacting with the media.    Before dawn on election day, two other observers and I deployed to our first assigned polling station to watch the opening procedures. At a school in downtown Yerevan, I watched as the precinct chairwoman capably organized the precinct committee that worked together to prepare the space and voting materials for the arrival of the day’s first voters. The importance of orderliness at this particular polling station became evident within the hour when presidential security arrived to prepare for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to cast his vote there. Despite this exceptional circumstance, in other ways the experience at this polling station typified the voting I observed elsewhere throughout the day. I saw non-credentialed citizens hovering watchfully—and in violation of the electoral code—outside the polling station and engaging voters—likely local party officials keeping tabs on voter participation. Inside the polling place there was some overcrowding, a malfunctioning electronic voter authentication device, and modest voter confusion about the voting procedure, which involved selecting among nine separate ballots and optionally marking a candidate preference on the reverse side. I visited a total of seven polling places that day, stretching from downtown Yerevan to the shores of Lake Sevan and the surrounding hinterland 60km northeast of the capital. In larger precincts I witnessed large contingents of party proxies and citizen observers monitoring the vote. In several instances, citizen observers credentialed under the name of a local NGO turned out to be from foreign countries and were unable to explain to me the mission of their organization, highlighting the opaque origins of some citizen observation efforts. In most precincts I saw a mix of credentialed and non-credentialed individuals from political parties and local NGOs mingling inside and outside the polling station, engaging voters, and generally making their presence felt. Our day ended in Yerevan where we observed the closure procedure at a polling place where about 700 votes had been cast. The precinct chairwoman carefully walked the precinct committee through the process step by step, openly acknowledging to us the difficulty of carrying out the complex procedure for the first time. The tallying took place transparently in front of us and in full view of several local observers and party proxies that stayed late into the night to oversee the count. We had the opportunity, along with our fellow observers, to ask questions of the precinct chairwoman about how she and her team were adjudicating individual ballots and counting votes. Although my observations here are anecdotal, they are consistent with the preliminary findings and conclusions of the international election observation mission that the elections “were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected” although the vote was “tainted by credible information about vote-buying and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.” The end result was a vote that suffered from “an overall lack of public confidence and trust.” (Read the full Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions.)        While Armenia’s democracy took some important strides in the procedural conduct of this election, much work remains to be done. With the vote tallying complete, Armenia now embarks on a critical period of transition to a parliamentary system that will be fully realized at the end of the President’s final term in April 2018. All political actors, but particularly the new governing coalition, must shoulder their responsibilities to ensure that this new system of governance earns the trust of the public it serves. To build this trust, Armenia would benefit from a process of political evolution that accompanies its institutional transition and procedural reforms. Specifically, Armenia’s political parties and new parliament would do well to ensure a competition of ideas replaces the all too common clashes of personalities and patronage networks on display during this election.

  • 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.”

  • Baltic War Game Scenario Plays Out at Helsinki Commission

    On March 3, 2017, U.S. Helsinki Commission staff, joined by Congressional staff from various offices, took part in an interactive, informal simulation led by the RAND Corporation, which demonstrated RAND’s research on the shape and probable outcome of a near-term hypothetical Russian invasion of the Baltic states. The meeting followed the Commission’s December 2016 briefing, Baltic Security After the Warsaw NATO Summit, where RAND expert Michael Johnson presented the research and war-game approach exploring how a hypothetical Russian invasion of the Baltics would actually play out tactically. During the event, Johnson and his team not only described their research but also demonstrated the advantages of the flexible platform of physical simulation in such a context. Attendees were able to “play out” military deployments on both sides of the board, representing both Russian and NATO forces. Using a physical model – as opposed to a digital platform – allowed attendees to pose hypothetical scenario-based questions to one another and to the RAND team, and to explore the defense outcomes on a representative military theater. The RAND simulation demonstrated that, under current NATO postures, Russian forces would be likely to be able to take the capitals of all three Baltic States in 60 hours or less. More information on the war-gaming research by Michael W. Johnson and David A. Shlapak can be found in their report, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics (2016).

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