Trump’s Reagan moment in Helsinki: Tell Putin to free political prisoners

Trump’s Reagan moment in Helsinki: Tell Putin to free political prisoners

Days before his summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988, President Reagan publicly called on the Soviet leader to “release all people still in jail for expression of political or religious beliefs.”

That speech was in Helsinki, where Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will soon meet. Helsinki is also where, in 1975, all North American and European leaders, including Soviet, signed the Helsinki Final Act, committing their governments to respect fundamental freedoms.

Putin is not living up to Russia’s Helsinki commitments. Like Reagan, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE should urge his counterpart to recommit to those principles to which Russia agreed.

According to the State Department, there are more than 150 political prisoners in Russia. Memorial Human Rights Center, Russia’s leading human rights foundation, lists Aleksey Pichugin as the longest-serving.


Pichugin has been held by the Kremlin for 15 years, on trumped-up charges as part of Putin’s campaign against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other leaders of the Yukos oil company. The European Court of Human Rights has issued not one but two judgments calling his conviction and imprisonment contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.


Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker, is serving a 20-year sentence in the Russian Far North. Ostensibly convicted for terrorism, his real crime appears to be opposition to Putin’s annexation of Crimea. In May, he began a hunger strike to call for the release of 64 other Ukrainian political prisoners held by Russia. He is now in his third month of that hunger strike.

Oyub Titiev, head of the Chechnyan branch of human rights group Memorial, has been behind bars since January, again on trumped-up charges (Titiev says the police planted the drugs on him). His real crime? Apparently calling the local regime out for gross human rights abuses.

These are just a few of the more prominent cases. Common to them all is the use of the court system to imprison regime foes.

Earlier this month, Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian democracy activist and survivor of two poisonings that took place in Moscow, spoke out for Pichugin and all Russian political prisoners at the United Nations Human Rights Council. He said: “It is unacceptable to use the judicial system as a tool of political persecution. We hope that the international community stands in solidarity with those of us in Russia who want our country to adhere to its commitments on human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

With the Helsinki Final Act, the international community recognized that security among nations depends on respect for fundamental freedoms within nations. Russia’s abuse of its own people is not an “internal matter,” off limits to other nations and international organizations. The Putin regime is waging war against its own people, depriving them systematically of their human rights and rendering rule of law in Russia a cruel pretense. There’s a straight line from internal human rights violations to external aggression. 

President Trump says he wants a fresh approach to Russian relations. After nine years of presidents going along and looking away, maybe the best approach is Ronald Reagan’s of 30 years ago.

Tell Mr. Putin to let these people go.

Former Ambassador to Georgia Ian Kelly served as U.S. Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and in a range of senior positions at the Department of State, including director of the Office of Russian Affairs.