WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), along with Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), Ranking Minority Members Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) sent a letter to President Barack Obama today urging him to make the discussion of violations of human rights, including religious and press freedoms, high priorities for his upcoming summit in Moscow.
The leaders of the U.S. Helsinki Commission cited Russia’s violations of religious and press freedoms – including the country’s attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses and its failure to prosecute those who have murdered journalists.
“Human rights, freedom of the press and freedom of religion are critical issues that need to be raised with Russia at the highest levels possible,” said Chairman Cardin. “Silence allows others to wrongly interpret our actions as tacit support. I strongly encourage the Administration to include human rights in a very visible and frank manner.”
The joint letter voices concerns which were highlighted today in a Commission hearing titled “The Medvedev Thaw: Is it Real? Will it Last?” Commissioners heard from the leader of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia about how members of that religion face official harassment because of their faith; a prominent businessman whose company was stolen by a network of corrupt government officials; and the widow of murdered Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov, who was assassinated five years ago July after reporting on political corruption. Nobody has been held to account for Klebnikov’s murder.
“I hope President Obama will make discussions of freedom a central part of his visit with President Medvedev and show human rights advocates the world over that America’s commitment to reset the Russian relationship should come with a corresponding reset of Russia’s human rights record,” Co-Chairman Hastings said.
The Russian crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses, including the banning of religious literature is an outrageous display of discrimination.
“As an OSCE participating State, Russia should be encouraged to fully respect the rights of all Russians, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, to freely profess and practice their faith without fear or intimidation,” Commissioners wrote in the letter to President Obama.
The full text of the joint letter is below.
June 23, 2009
The Honorable Barack Obama
The White House
Dear Mr. President:
We hope that your upcoming summit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev results in improvements in bilateral relations and decisions that prove mutually beneficial to citizens in both countries. In this regard, we urge you to raise three specific concerns with President Medvedev during your meetings in Moscow.
Mr. President, the Congress is on record expressing concern over attempts to limit the free flow of information in Russia and the fate of journalists, including American Paul Klebnikov, killed as a result of their professional pursuits. Notwithstanding pronouncements by senior Russian government officials regarding the need to ensure protection of journalists and the importance of objective investigation of the murders, inquiries into such cases typically falter. According to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, scores of journalists have been murdered in Russia alone since the early 1990s. As your visit coincides with the fifth anniversary of Paul Klebnikov’s murder, we urge you to impress upon the Russian authorities the importance the United States attaches to bringing to justice all of those responsible in any way for his murder.
The Helsinki Commission has a long history of engagement on the Schneerson Collection, a library of sacred Jewish texts written by rebbes of the Lubavitcher Chasidic community prior to the Bolshevik Revolution. Seized by the Soviet government in the 1920s, it is currently held in the Russian State Library and the Russian State Military Archive. We are particularly concerned over recent reports that handwritten pages from the Schneerson Collection have appeared on the black market. The prospect that the integrity of this religious library has been compromised has caused profound sadness throughout the Chabad community and great concern to those of us who have followed developments relating to the Collection over the years. Recalling that you were among the 100 senators to write to then-President Vladimir Putin in early 2005 on the Schneerson Collection, we ask that you raise this longstanding issue with President Medvedev with the aim of securing the return of these sacred religious texts, archives, and manuscripts to Agudas Chasidei Chabad without further delay.
Finally, we urge you to voice concern regarding the country-wide crackdown against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, a community that has been present there for over a century. Earlier this year, the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation reportedly contacted local prosecutors suggesting that investigations be launched targeting the communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in their area. At least eight cases have been filed under Russia’s Law on Counteracting Extremism, with the aim of banning religious literature produced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A wide array of government agencies have been employed as part of this nationwide sweep which is having a chilling effect on this minority community. As an OSCE participating State, Russia should be encouraged to fully respect the rights of all Russians, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, to freely profess and practice their faith without fear or intimidation.
Benjamin L. Cardin, U.S.S., Chairman
Alcee L. Hastings, M.C., Co-Chairman
Sam Brownback, U.S.S., Ranking Minority Member
Christopher H. Smith, M.C., Ranking Minority Member