On July 24, in Rome, the Open Dialogue Foundation (ODF) and the Italian Federation for Human Rights (FIDU) organised an event under the title “Human Rights protection and sanctions: towards a Global Magnitsky Act”. The event took place at the conference room of the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian Parliament and was hosted by Deputy Lia Quartapelle (Democratic Party). The event featured a list of accomplished experts, NGO representatives and victims of human rights abuses fighting impunity in non-democratic countries and followed the example of a similar conference organised in March 2019 upon the initiative of Italian Senator Roberto Rampi, FIDU, ODF, the Nonviolent Radical Party, Transnational and Transparty and the EU-Russian Expert Group on Combating Transborder Corruption.
The first panel offered insights and testimonies from Bota Jardemalie, Kazakhstani lawyer, sister of political prisoner Iskander Yerimbetov and political refugee in Belgium; Gunnar Ekelove-Slydal of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC); Francesco Miraglia, Italian lawyer and member of the National Forensic Council and its Human Rights Committee and Lorent Saleh, Venezuelan human rights activist and 2017 Sakharov laureate for freedom of expression. A video message from Bill Browder, initiator of the Magnitsky campaign, was also streamed.
The second panel hosted another series of interventions from Olexandra Matviychuk, President of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL) and leader of the #LetMyPeopleGo advocacy campaign; Mehman Huseynov, Azerbaijani blogger, former political prisoner and Director of the Institute for the Freedom and Safety of Reporters (IFSR); Deputy Lia Quartapelle and Eleonora Mongelli, vice President of FIDU. Both sessions were moderated by Antonio Stango, President of FIDU and one of the founder of the Italian Helsinki Committee. Senator Roberto Rampi and Deputy Mauro Del Barba were also present among the participants and gave a speech.The speakers all agreed on the need to adopt the Global Magnitsky Act (GMA) in Italy and worldwide. The first part of the seminar was dedicated to the overall understanding of the design of the legislation and its implementation at the level of international institutions and national parliaments. In the second panel, activists and direct witnesses of human rights abuses from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Venezuela were given the floor to bring their testimonies.
After a short introductory speech by Antonio Stango, Bota Jardemalie described the scope of the Magnitsky Act and provided examples of the actual application of this legislative tool. Then, she presented the situation of impunity in her home country, Kazakhstan: “Public authorities in Kazakhstan benefit from full impunity, and have access to money and properties across Europe. My brother is a political hostage and his torturers will go unpunished. The application of personal sanctions under the Magnitsky Law is crucial for Kazakhstan, it would be an instrument to give some justice to those who have been wronged and work as a deterrent for future violations”.
Next, it was the turn of Italian lawyer Francesco Miraglia who represented the National Forensic Council (Consiglio Nazionale Forense). His speech focused on the role of lawyers in the context of the Magnitsky law and what it means to them: “A legislative instrument such as the Magnitsky Act, when put in the hands of lawyers, is a very powerful tool: lawyers have the role of interacting with authorities trying to make respected the rights of individuals. Institutions are justified only if they make the life of individuals easier, there shouldn’t be abuses, but a mutual respect of the contract that binds individuals to the institutions.” He also noted the impact that the Italian Magnitsky law would have: “I think the story of Magnitsky itself represents a perfect example to show why lawyers need this kind of legislative instrument. When reporting an abuse, it’s always the individual alone with his lawyer and having such an instrument would truly incarnate the civism and the defense of civil rights of people, no matter where they live.”
Gunnar Ekelove-Slydal of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee took the floor to enumerate the reasons why Italy should adopt the Global Magnitsky legislation as soon as possible. “Lots of criminal oligarchs come to Italy every summer and spend their bloody money on yachts and summer residencies. This alone is a good reason why Italy should become a member of this Magnitsky movement, which aims at making sure that officials abusing their power and human rights are not allowed to enter their borders. Adopting such instruments would avoid all forms of complicity by inaction: there is no place for neutrality, as it only enables crimes. It will also be a positive democratic sign if italy starts applying human rights sanctions.”
The video message from Bill Browder gave an extra insight on the motivations behind the creation of the Magnitsky legislation. “The GMA is very simple, it hits where it needs to hit: the human rights abusers tend to act for money, they get very rich from their crimes and put their money in Western countries. While we might not be able to persecute criminals from Russia or other regions, we can still be prepared to stop them from reaching the West.”
He also talked about Italy potentially adopting the Global Magnitsky Act: “When I learned about the discussions on the Magnitsky Act being tabled at the Italian institutions, I was very excited. If Italy were to pass a Magnitsky act, that would have a dramatic impact on human rights violators. I’d like to also point out that this is a non political pièce of legislation: it was approved by all political colors in the U.S., in the U.K. and Canada. There’s no argument that anybody could make against it. Should Italy, Spain, should the Czech Republic allow criminals to enter in their country and exploit the system for their benefit? I don’t believe any government should allow this”.
Before getting to the rest of the testimonies, senator Rampi, initiator of the discussion on the Magnitsky Law in Italy had a few words to say: “I think the image of Italy that comes out from today’s discussion glues very well with the image we want to deliver as an institution and adding the Magnitsky Act as an instrument to also be a leader in terms of human rights is definitely an objective we should pursue”.
Lorent Saleh, former political prisoner from Venezuela, held an extremely emotional speech, recalling his own story and the current situation in his country. “Three months ago I was here in Rome, asking senators and parliamentarians to take action on the case of a man with Italian citizenship who has been abducted with his wife from the counterintelligence services in Venezuela. Both of them are still in prison and are innocent. This is my second time being here for this and in a few months I might be here to talk about the assassination of these people”.
“I was wrongly imprisoned for more than 4 years and I’m still waiting for a verdict I will never get because where there is no respect for human rights, there’s no space for justice”. he added. “Tyrannies only exist because the international community allows them to exist”.
Lorent expressed his concerns about the state of crime in Venezuela. “What kind of message are democratic governments giving to new generations? We are telling them that if they want to commit a crime, they only need to be careful that the crime is sufficiently gruesome and cruel to get out of it unpunished. Why are we scared to do the right thing? Why do we need such conferences? It’s a shame that we need to organise such events, as all those topics have been discussed for the past 70 years. It’s time to act, we shouldn’t be scared of living in a better, fairer society and let’s tell the world that those who steal people’s treasures and violate civil rights will face sanctions. There’s no need for a military intervention but most of the countries’ actions seem to go in the other direction.”
He continued: “less than a year ago, I was tortured in prison and my chances of being free were close to zero. Today I’m here thanks to the pressure put on authorities by the international community. I ask Italy to act, we need an engaged Italy which works for the respect of human rights”.
Deputy Lia Quartapelle spoke out in support of the Magnitsky bill: “We really need an instrument allowing us to demand the respect of human rights. What we need is to change its title, as the bill itself is not specifically directed to one state and we must clarify what it truly entails. Also, we need a comprehensive system to tackle human rights issues, which covers what happens inside the Italian borders as well as what concerns foreign affairs and Italian citizens living abroad. We need solid arguments to justify the adoption of this instrument: it would be a strong foreign policy tool and it would also help to solidify Italy’s position and power in the international community”.
After a short break, the conference resumed with a speech from Deputy Mauro del Barba: “The elections period is a perfect occasion to highlight the persisting bad behaviors, especially in those countries where freedom of expression and assembly are not granted. It’s our duty to make sure that all democracies grow within a framework of respect towards human rights. Granting human rights, especially in authoritarian regimes, is the key to also make sure that democratic values are still solid in our own democracies”.
As Del Barba said, all democracies are different but “it is important, in all different contexts, to make links and bridges between them, creating a dialogue which is respectful but also inflexible when it comes to the defense of human rights. It’s difficult but necessary to increase the level of democratic participation”.
Both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies are working hard on the Magnitsky regulations because “it is important to show unity and solidarity in the way we defend human rights.”
At the end of his speech, he showed a phone SIM card which was given to him during a mission in Kazakhstan by Daniyar Khassenov, Kazakhstani human rights activist, whose case was mentioned during the event: “Even though he is not here today and we still don’t know exactly why he wasn’t allowed to come to Rome, I still brought this SIM card with me as a proof of our support towards civil society and its fight for a more free, more fair Kazakhstan. They are not alone”.
The next testimony came from Mehman Huseynov, who spoke about his own experience as a political prisoner in Azerbaijan: “We have no freedom of speech, no human rights, and that’s why investigative journalists struggle so much in their work to expose corruption schemes. Often, they are imprisoned and killed for their ideas. Two months before the end of my imprisonment, the authorities opened a new procedure against me to increase my prison time; for this, I started a hunger strike. Luckily, the international community put pressure on the authorities, which quickly agreed to release me once they realised they were facing strong sanctions from the western community”.
Huseynov had harsh words to say about Azerbaijani authorities: “My mother was killed in the hospital she had been staying in and the authorities refused to investigate. They killed several of my prison mates. They imprison journalists who are telling the truth. These people have no respect for human rights and freedom of speech and they are coming to Italy for their holidays in Sardinia. All the money they have stolen from my country, they spent it in Italy. This is not good and it’s dangerous for the Italian government. Today I ask you all to join our campaign to help civil society in their fight for human rights”.
The last testimony came from Olexandra Matviychuk of the CCL: “For the last six years, I’ve been devoting my efforts to defend the rights of displaced Ukrainian citizens, political prisoners and hostages in the occupied region of Crimea and in Donbass. The main aim of our campaign was the release of all these prisoners, also counting on the support of European and international institutions which unfortunately couldn’t do much against Russia. Still, when we started to investigate more deeply and started to find out about the gruesome tortures that prisoners have to endure, we realised that our goal is to make sure those people survive while we wait for their release”.
After providing several concrete stories of political prisoners, she spoke about the reality faced by lawyers: “Russian authorities in Crimea have started to pursue lawyers and human rights defenders, even when they come to hearings bearing food and medicines. We are living in a world where international human rights NGOs couldn’t do much to help us overcome this situation. We need to find another way to react. We think that an instrument such as the Magnitsky Act would already bring an improvement and act as a deterrent for human rights violators.”
The conference was closed by a few remarks from Eleonora Mongelli, vice President of FIDU: “Sometimes we think that declaring ourselves in favor of the respect of human rights is enough to make a statement, but everything we heard today shows us that this is far from the truth. It is very important today to find an efficient tool to face these issuesand the Magnitsky Act can be a good solution to impose proper sanctions on targeted human rights violations. This is a global campaign, it doesn’t have a political colorand it will become stronger through a joint effort of public institutions, NGOs and private actors”.
- ODF’s report “Election in Kazakhstan: Gross falsifications and mass arrests of peaceful protesters“
- The Open Dialogue Foundation co-organized an international conference on the application of the Magnitsky law