Contribution to the 2012 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (September 24 - October 5)

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of their joint programme, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, wish to draw the attention of the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on the threats and obstacles faced by human rights defenders in OSCE Participating States.

In 2011 and 2012, human rights defenders in Eastern Europe and Central Asia continued to operate in a difficult, and sometimes hostile environment. The lack of accountability and respect for the rule of law remained acute, particularly in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation, Turkey and Uzbekistan.

Over the past year, the situation particularly deteriorated in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Turkey. In both Belarus and the Russian Federation, the civil society has continued to face acts of reprisal by the authorities and domestic legal frameworks governing the exercise of the right to freedoms of assembly and association were drastically restricted.

In addition, in some countries, human rights defenders have been subjected to punitive pre-trial detention on spurious charges or serving prison terms following blatantly unfair trials, in particular in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Turkey continued to abusively resort to an “anti-terrorism” arsenal in order to silence human rights defenders.

Moreover, attacks and threats against human rights defenders continued, most of the time, with impunity.

Obstacles to human rights defenders’ freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, expression and information

In 2011-2012, in a number of countries, the authorities continued to resort to a variety of repressive or restrictive laws to impede the work of human rights defenders with the aim to control civil society organisations.

These practices breach Articles 5 and 13 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which guarantees freedom of association and access to funding for human rights purposes.

In Belarus, the Belarusian Parliament adopted several restrictive amendments to important laws, thus negatively impacting the work of human rights defenders. These laws include the Law on Public Associations, the Law on Political Parties, the Electoral Code, the Code of Administrative Offences, the Criminal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code of Belarus. and the Law on Public Gatherings. The amendments were voted in almost complete secrecy. The texts of the amendments were not available for public viewing before adoption, thus eliminating any possible input from civil society groups. Article 21 of the Law on Public Associations, as amended, prohibits Belarusian NGOs from keeping funds in banks and other financial institutions on the territory of foreign states. Additionally, administrative penalties can be applied to NGOs that accept foreign donations ‘in violation of law’. In a similar fashion, the Criminal Code of Belarus, as amended, establishes criminal liability for receiving any foreign grants or donations ‘in violation of the Belarusian legislation’. These provisions may result in the indiscriminate persecution of activists and civil society groups for receiving foreign funding. In addition, Article 356 of the Criminal Code, as amended, provides for a new, expanded, definition of ’espionage’, which includes ’intelligence gathering activity’ or ’any other form of assistance to a foreign state, foreign organisation or their representative in carrying out activities undermining the national security of Belarus’. These potentially wide-ranging offences and overly vague definitions can be used to target human rights defenders. Amendments to the Law on Public Gatherings further restricts the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly. According to the new regulation, any kind of pre-planned public gathering now constitutes ‘a picket’ and therefore can be deemed a violation of the law. Additionally, organisers are required to report on ‘financial sources’ used for the event. They are not allowed to spread information about the event, including through social networks, until permission is granted by the authorities. According to another provision, a ‘public call for initiating’ a gathering or a rally shall be deemed an “administrative offence”. The amendments also grant wider powers to the law enforcement officials during public gatherings, including the possibility to make audio and video recordings, to limit access of participants to the event and to carry out full body search of participants.

In the Russian Federation, on July 13, 2012, Russia’s lower house voted on a bill to recriminalise libel and slander, despite these offences having been downgraded from criminal to administrative offences by President Medvedev only in December 2011. The bill envisages fines of up to five million rubles (around 125,000 Euros) or 480 hours of community service for “misinformation intentionally disseminated to damage reputation”. On the same day, 323 of the Duma’s 450 deputies also approved a bill requiring all NGOs receiving funding from abroad and engaging in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents”, a loaded Cold War era term that exploits suspicions of foreign interference in Russia’s affairs. NGOs will be forced to display this “foreign agent” label on their websites and publications, and to publish a biannual report of their activities as well as an annual financial audit. Failure to comply will be punishable with large fines of up to 1 million Rubles (24,600 Euros), and up to two years of imprisonment. Consequently, NGOs have to choose between registering themselves as “foreign agents” or being heavily penalised under criminal law for not doing so.

The rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of information have also been restricted. In June 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin ratified a set of amendments to the Administrative Code raising the maximum penalty for organisers of illegal protests to a 1 million rubles (24,600 Euros) fine. This came two days after Mr. Putin’s United Russia party introduced a new amendment threatening citizens’ access to information on the internet by establishing a register of blacklisted websites: this legislation would allow for the blocking of IP-addresses and internet domains, as opposed to merely individual URLs. Given that a single IP-address generally hosts several internet pages, this could result in the blacklisting of a large number of websites that have not displayed any detrimental information or illegal content under Russian law.

At the local level, on February 29, 2012, a bill prohibiting public activities “promoting homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgenderism among minors” was approved in third reading by the Legislative Assembly of St Petersburg. Shortly before the passage of that local law, on February 8, 2012, six Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) activists were arrested during a protest before the St Petersburg Legislative Assembly, as they were calling for respect for LGBT rights. Five of them were then abusively charged under the Administrative Code. The prohibition of so-called promotion of homosexuality is already in force in Ryazan (since 2006), Arkhangelsk and Kostroma regions (since 2011). The new provisions and the arrests constitute a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and breach of the provisions of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and in particular these of Article 6 (b) and (c), which states that “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others [...] freely to publish, impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms"; "to study, discuss, form and hold opinions on the observance, both in law and in practice, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and, through these and other appropriate means, to draw public attention to those matters ”. It is in that context that in May 4, 2012, the Zentralnyi District Municipal Court of St. Petersburg sentenced Mr. Nikolai Alexeyev, a prominent LGBT rights activist, lawyer and head of the LGBT Human Rights Project GayRussia.Ru, to a 5,000 rubles fine (about 120 euros) under charges of “promoting homosexual propaganda”. Mr. Alexeyev was arrested on April 12, 2012 while picketing alone in front of Smolny institute and holding a sign that affirmed that “homosexuality is not a perversion”.

Judicial harassment and arbitrary detention of human rights defenders

Throughout the region, a number of human rights defenders continued to be subjected to judicial harassment and arbitrary detention to sanction their human rights activities.

In Turkey, several dozens of human rights defenders, including lawyers, trade-unionists, journalists and NGO members – among which 11 executive members of the Human Rights Association (IHD) – have been in pre-trial detention for months, sometimes years, pending the outcome of trials launched under spurious terrorism charges. On June 28-29, 2012 in particular, the Ankara Heavy Penal Court No. 12 decided to place Mr. Osman Işçi, member of the Human Rights Association (İHD), Executive Committee member of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) and member of Eğitim Sen, the Education and Science Workers Trade Union affiliated to the Confederation of Public Workers’ Trade Unions (KESK), on pre-trial detention. 27 other trade unionists were also placed on pre-trial detention under charges of allegedly being a “member of an illegal organisation” under Article 314 of Turkish Penal Code (TPC), while 25 additional unionists were provisionally released pending the outcome of the investigation. All were arrested by police forces in the framework of an anti-terrorist operation intended to dismantle the alleged terrorist network “Kurdish Communities Union (KCK)” - an organisation considered by the authorities to be the “urban branch” of the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

In Kyrgyzstan, Mr. Azimjan Askarov, Director of the human rights organisation “Vozdukh” (Air) based in Jalal-Abad region, is serving a sentence to life imprisonment. He was unfairly accused of having allegedly ordered the blockade in 2010 of the Bishkek-Osh Highway by some 500 armed protesters, and having attacked police officers causing the death of one of them. It is to be noted that on July 11, 2012, the Jalal-Abad Regional Prosecutor’s Office refused to allow the re-opening of the investigation, after new facts were brought to its knowledge, including new testimonies, unanimously asserting that Mr. Askarov was not present on the bridge where Mr. Suleimanov was assassinated.

In Belarus, August 4, 2012, sadly marked the one-year anniversary of the arrest of Mr. Ales Bialiatski, President of the Human Rights Centre (HRC) “Viasna” and FIDH Vice-President, on charges of “concealment of profits on an especially large scale”. In February 2012, he was sentenced in appeal to four and a half years imprisonment under strict regime conditions, confiscation of property, including the premises used for Viasna’s offices, and a fine of 757,526,717 Belarusian Rubles (approximately 70,000 Euros). In addition, several arbitrary restrictive and discriminatory measures were imposed on Mr. Ales Bialiatski while in detention on the pretext that he had refused to admit to having committed a crime, that he did not belong to “amateur talent groups” and that a “measure of reprimand” was reportedly issued against him. Therefore, his basic prison wages were reduced to a fifth of what is ordinarily granted to other inmates to buy items at the prison stores. His right to receive and send letters was also curtailed, as the prison authorities failed to deliver a significant portion of his correspondence. By depicting him as an offender, the prison administration clearly aimed at depriving him from the possibility to benefit from the amnesty law of July 3, 2012, and to benefit from other early release measures. In addition, on May 24, 2012, Mr. Aleh Volchek, Head of “Legal Aid to the Population”, an organisation that provided legal assistance until it was liquidated in 2003, was arrested by plain-clothed police officers who accused him of “swearing in public”. He was later brought to the Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tsentralniy district in Minsk, and sentenced on the same day to nine days’ administrative imprisonment by the Minsk Tsentralniy District Court, under Article 17.1 of the Code of Administrative Offences (“swearing against the police”).

In Uzbekistan, Mr. Alisher Karamatov, Head of the Mirzaabad regional branch of Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU), particularly active in the defence of economic and social rights, benefited from an early release on April 12, 2012. In addition, Mr. Khabibulla Okpulatov, member of the Ishtikhan regional branch of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU) in the district of Ishtikhan (Samarkand region), was released on July 4, 2012 after serving his sentence. However, several other human rights defenders remain detained arbitrarily in Uzbekistan, in particular Messrs. Azam Formonov, Nasim Isakov, Yuldosh Rasulov, Zafar Rakhimov, Ganikhon Mamatkhanov, Gaybullo Jalilov, Solijon Abdurakhmanov, Dilmurod Saidov, Azam Turgunov, Abdurasul Hudoynazarov.

Attacks and threats against human rights defenders

In the Russian Federation, several human rights defenders were threatened or intimidated in order to sanction their human rights activities, for instance:

- Mr. Philipp Kostenko, a member of the Anti-Discrimination Centre (ADC) “Memorial”, also known for his participation in various protest actions to denounce notably corruption, electoral irregularities, abuse by the police, racism, etc. in Saint Petersburg, was beaten on February 3, 2012, by two unidentified men while he was heading towards ADC Memorial’s offices;

- Ms. Elena Milashina, journalist at Novaya Gazeta newspaper that reports on human rights issues, was brutally beaten on April 5, 2012 by two unidentified men while she was going back home in Balashih (Moscow region);

- Mr. Alexey Dmitriev, a lawyer by education and a supporter of the Campaign for the Defence of the Khimki Forest (Moscow region), was attacked on April 16, 2012, by unknown individuals outside his flat;

- Mr. Dmitry Utukin, Head of the Investigations Department of the Interregional Committee Against Torture (CAT) and Mr. Roemer Lemaitre, CAT international law expert, were defamed and vilified. After Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov strongly criticised human rights organisations in general, and the CAT in particular, during an impromptu meeting organised on June 1, 2012, in Grozny, and referring personally to Mr. Lemaitre, he accused “them” of having “unleashed the war” and lashed out at the Joint Mobile Group[1] members for “hating” the Chechens and for “not want[ing] to put an end to lawlessness”. He asked the human rights defenders present in the meeting if they were going to “help [him] or only (…) shaitans [i.e. devils] and their aides who must be destroyed?”.

Recommendations

In view of the situation of human rights defenders in the OSCE area, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders urges OSCE Participating States to:

· Guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of human rights defenders in the OSCE Participating States;

· Put an end to the continuous repression and harassment of human rights defenders and their organisations;

· Release immediately and unconditionally all human rights defenders since their detention is arbitrary and only aims at sanctioning their human rights activities;

· Carry out immediate, thorough, impartial and transparent investigations into the threats and acts of intimidation mentioned above, in order to identify all those responsible and sanction them according to the law;

· Fully recognise the vital role of defenders in the promotion and consolidation of democracy and the rule of law;

· Review their national legislation to conform with international and regional human rights instruments, in particular regarding freedoms of association and assembly;

· Comply with the provisions of the final document of the 1990 Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension, of the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) and of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted on December 9, 1998 by the United Nations General Assembly;

Contacts:
- E-mail: Appeals@fidh-omct.org
- Tel and fax FIDH: + 33 (0) 1 43 55 25 18 / +33 1 43 55 18 80
- Tel and fax OMCT: + 41 (0) 22 809 49 39 / + 41 22 809 49 29

[1] The JMG, a group of representatives of various Russian human rights organisations, has been working in Chechnya since 2009. Its mandate is to conduct investigations of cases of torture and abductions that have taken place in the Republic, and to represent the interests of individuals recognised as victims in criminal proceedings.

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