Warsaw Human Dimension Conference Plenary Session 5: Rule of Law I

Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza is escorted to a hearing in a court in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)

Warsaw Human Dimension Conference Working Session 5: Rule of Law I

Democratic Law-making, Independence of the Judiciary, Right to a Fair Trial

As prepared for delivery by Ambassador Michael G. Kozak, Head of Delegation
Warsaw, October 9, 2023

We condemn the brutal, unprovoked, and illegal attacks by Hamas on Israel.

Russia has brought lawlessness and cruelty to the areas of Ukraine it occupies.  Members of Russia’s forces have committed execution-style killings of men, women, and children; torture of civilians in detention through beatings, electrocution, and mock executions; rape; and, alongside other Russian officials, have deported hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian civilians to Russia, including children who have been forcibly separated from their families and legal guardians.  These acts are not random or spontaneous; they are part of the Kremlin’s widespread and systematic attack against Ukraine’s civilian population.

According to witness and survivor accounts, as well as international investigations by mechanisms such as the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, Russia’s forces have committed a wide range of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in various regions of Ukraine, many of which amount to war crimes.  The U.S. Secretary of State has also determined that Russia’s forces and officials have committed crimes against humanity.

Ukrainian civilian detainees and prisoners of war have been convicted by sham courts run by Russia’s occupation authorities.  In March, three Ukrainians, along with journalist and human rights advocate Maksym Butkevych, were accused of alleged “war crimes” in kangaroo court proceedings in Russia-occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk simply because of their writings.  In June, Russia’s occupation authorities in Donetsk opened criminal proceedings based on trumped up charges against 22 captured members of Ukraine’s Azov Brigade, many of whom had defended Mariupol.

Within Russia, opponents of Putin’s regime are subject to drawn-out sham trials and face lengthy prison sentences.  Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced in April to 25 years in prison for publicly speaking out against the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine.  Longtime Putin critic and politician Aleksey Navalny was recently sentenced to an additional 19 years on charges of “extremism.”  Many other Russian citizens have been imprisoned for speaking out against the war and for peaceful opposition political activities and protests.  In August, one-time Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin and other Wagner Group leaders died in a plane crash just two months after Prigozhin led an armed mutiny, leading to widespread speculation that the incident was a form of extrajudicial retribution orchestrated by the Kremlin.

In Belarus, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, independent journalists and anyone else not in favor with the regime have no chance of a fair trial in the country.  Since 2020, over 120 lawyers have had their licenses suspended on political grounds and can no longer represent clients.  In December 2022, Belarus began conducting sham trials in absentia against Belarusians abroad, including sentencing the leader of Democratic Belarus Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to 15 years in prison.  There are currently more than 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus, with some held incommunicado for months, like Syarhey Tsikhanouski, Maria Kalesnikava, Ales Bialiatski, and many others.

In Kazakhstan, Zhanbolat Mamai, who had been trying to register a new political party, was given a six-year suspended sentence for organizing a peaceful protest on charges of insulting a government representative.  Academic Konstantin Syroezhkin, a renowned expert on China, was convicted of treason in 2019 based on his contacts with Chinese academics.  Charges against both men appear to be politically motivated.  We call on Kazakhstan to lift all charges and restrictions and release Syroezhkin.

The United States continues to be concerned about the lack of an independent judiciary or fair trials in Tajikistan, as well as reports of torture and mistreatment in detention, including of defense lawyers such as Buzurgmehr Yorov.  Under these serious circumstances, it is crucially important that participating States considering asylum applications from Tajik activists and members of groups targeted by Tajik authorities, such as the Islamic Renewal Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), take into account the danger of arrest and torture or mistreatment upon deportation.

We once again raise the issue of prisoners in Turkmenistan who have not been allowed to communicate with the outside world, including former Permanent Representative and colleague at the OSCE Batyr Berkdiev, and those who have not been allowed to receive medical care like human rights defender Mansur Mingelov, sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment in retaliation for documenting torture in police detention.  NGOs have documented numerous cases of detained individuals whose fate is still unknown after the expiration of their sentences, and whose situation may amount to enforced disappearance.

We are deeply troubled by recent actions of the leadership of the Republika Srpska entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Most recently, Republika Srpska has moved to withdraw ethnic Serb judges from the Constitutional Court and declare Constitutional Court decisions illegitimate in a move to enable the entity to seize and sell federal property.  These steps are an assault on the stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  In response, the United States has imposed sanctions on Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik and other complicit officials and urges the EU and other like-minded partners to take similar measures.  On September 28, Republika Srpska’s National Assembly approved a draft “Law on the Special Register and Transparency of Work of Non-Profit Organization” that, if signed into law, would be destructive to civil society.

In Turkiye, the United States remains concerned about the continued detention of political and civic leaders who have not received fair trials for the lack of an independent judiciary. We particularly note the continued detention of former member of parliament Selahattin Demirtaş and civic organizer Osman Kavala in contravention of rulings by the European Court on Human Rights.

In Azerbaijan, we are troubled that rule of law remains weak.  Specific concerns include: continued reports that the government holds political prisoners and detainees, and the lack of an independent judiciary.  We call on the authorities to release expeditiously all those widely considered to be political prisoners or detainees, including Dr. Gubad Ibadoghlu, whose deteriorating medical condition is serious, and Bakhtiyar Hajiyev.

The United States continues to be concerned about weakening of the rule of law and independent judiciary in Hungary. We urge Hungary to implement substantial reforms, including strengthening the National Judicial Council.

We encourage Poland to continue to work constructively to address concerns about the rule of law.  We reaffirm the importance of the principles of separation of powers and judicial independence, and we urge that reforms to judicial bodies be undertaken with input from all legitimate stakeholders

We stress the importance of rule of law, vs rule by law.  We were deeply troubled by Georgia’s pursuit of legislation restricting civil society through a revised version of the repressive Russia-inspired draft “foreign agents” law and are concerned that the risk of such legislation remains

In the Kyrgyz Republic, the attempt to introduce a “foreign representatives” law comes amid a widening crackdown on civil society, including targeting political opposition and independent media.

We applaud the progress the Republic of Moldova is making on its rule of law reforms, including vetting the justice and prosecutorial sectors, and increasing the transparency and independence of anti-corruption institutions. We congratulate the government of Moldova in promoting accountability for fugitive criminals, including Ilan Shor who was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment by a Moldovan court for his involvement in the $1 billion bank fraud scandal.

We similarly, applaud the progress of Ukraine on anti-corruption reforms, despite Russia’s ongoing full-scale invasion.  We commend the government of Ukraine for broadening transparency and encourage continued rule of law and judiciary reforms.  Ukraine’s meeting this commitment to rule of law is just as critical to ensuring its future as is the defense of its territory against Russia’s aggression.