A few weeks back I blogged a compilation of what others had written about the British Helsinki Human Rights group. The compiler of the Transition Trends blog responded, “BHHRG is a joke organisation. Why the Guardian has any time for them, I don’t know.” and pointed to a link on his own blog here.

Last night, someone else (a Euronet/Wanadoo customer who left no other clue to his or her identity) replied to the previous comment, saying, “Why is it a “joke organisation”? Because it reports findings you disagree with? How very democratic of you.”

Let’s take this backwards.

Yes, of course it is democratic, in the best sense, to express robust opinions about what other people may say.

Yes, they do report “findings” that I (and the TOL blogger) disagree with. And that word “findings” is crucial here. If it was a simple question of opinion, that would be one thing; but BHHRG specialises in statements of fact which are simply inaccurate. For instance read their own report of the 2000 Transdniestrian parliamentary elections, which they say met international standards, and ask yourself how well this fits an election with (by BHHRG’s own report) no election law, where (by BHHRG’s own report) nobody dares to run for parliament against the major employers when they are candidates, and where (by BHHRG’s own report) something very fishy was going on in the polling station in the frontline town of Bendery. (In a later report they also completely mischaracterise our first report on Moldova – though that I’ll allow as a matter of opinion – and badly misspell the name of its principal author, which they could have easily checked.)

I first encountered BHHRG a few years back, when I was rather taken aback to read their report on the 1996 Albanian elections which gave them a positive write-up not shared by other international observers. I asked a friend of mine who was also there at the time to look at their report. She commented:

I went to their report and was scandalized. I do recall this group enjoying its contrarian status and saying that everyone overreacted…

I have some good written material at home, I believe, from that traumatic event. I was in the town of [], where [Minister] was a candidate, and it was a virtual police state. One of the PS candidates was severely beaten as were many PS pollwatchers (the USIS Officer was in that town too and we all were a bit concerned for our own safety!). The election commissions were a joke — opposition members had been intimidated to leave and young guys were posing as various party reps. I caught on to that and asked their candidates name and some couldn’t even answer the question. Scary bouncers at the door at some places said to our translator (not knowing I speak Albanian) “Get them out of here” Oh, I could go on.

Granted, I’m sure it was not like this all over the country, but it was not the peaceful environment outlined in the report you reference. They only visited 20 polling sites in two towns??? Do you need the OSCE/ODIHR report or anything I might find around here? US Embassy press release? IRI did a fairly critical report too and they were best friends of the old PD. Maybe [BHHRG] mean that things were this bad in other communist countries and that people have always turned a blind eye — that I cannot speak to, having only done Albania. They were not free and fair to my mind. The opposition were idiots for boycotting mid-day (but they were getting beat up, literally and maybe figuratively, at the polls) — they should have boycotted beforehand. The Democrats were idiots for going overboard because they would have won it anyway.

Let’s take another example, the actual Latest News article on their website, which begins by referring to the case of

Bulgarian BBC employee, Georgi Markov, allegedly murdered by the Bulgarian Communist secret police on a London street in 1978. Legend has it Markov’s murderer stuck him with an umbrella, the tip of which contained a tiny pellet of the deadly organic poison known as ricin.

Note the use of “allegedly” and “Legend has it”, to support the main thrust of the article that one should not always take Soviet poisoning stories seriously. But the fact that Markov was killed by an injection of ricin from a modified umbrella is pretty well attested, not legendary at all. That the wielder of the umbrella was acting on behalf of the Bulgarian state is generally accepted as well; as the BBC points out, “In 1992, General Vladimir Todorov, the former Bulgarian intelligence chief, was sentenced to 16 months in jail for destroying 10 volumes of material relating to Markov’s death. A second person suspected of destroying documents committed suicide, while a Bulgarian spy who was believed to be involved in the assassination died in a car accident.”

I myself have been assured by a Bulgarian official who was in a position to know what he was talking about that they did indeed kill Markov. (He denied, however, any involvement with the 1981 assassination attempt on the Pope – interestingly the Pope agrees.) I don’t possess enough medical knowledge to rate their proposed diagnosis of Yushchenko’s problems, but the desperate attempt to spin the murder of Markov as mythical doesn’t help me take the rest of the article seriously.

So finally, is BHHRG a “joke” organisation? Not my phrase, but that of the TOL blogger. It’s not a phrase I would use; but if I had to sum them up in a sentence, I would say that the accuracy of BHHRG reports is so unreliable that I cannot use them for my own research. That’s my assessment as a fellow professional. And a democrat.

Later edit: more links on this. First from The Exile, not normally a pro-Russian source, though it spends most of its time attacking the GuardianWikiPediaargues that the BHHRG’s lack of credibility shouldn’t stop us asking questions about Ukraine.

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