OSCE SUPPLEMENTARY HUMAN DIMENSION MEETING, VIENNA - March 2007

The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), 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) to the situation of human rights defenders in some member countries.

Indeed, 2006 witnessed the confirmation of strong tendencies of repression aimed at reducing - sometimes drastically - the capacity of independent civil society to operate in several countries of OSCE member States, as highlighted by the Observatory 2006 Annual Report, which documented cases of repression against 161 defenders in the region, including 4 assassinations or assassinations attempts and 49 arbitrary detentions.

The strategies used by these States, in particular in Belarus, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, were aimed primarily at making national laws more restrictive in relation to freedom of association, thus making it easier to control independent civil society, which was frequently considered as a threat to the maintenance of ruling powers.

Freedoms of assembly and peaceful gathering were also flouted in many countries (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Russian Federation, Uzbekistan), whilst freedom of expression was still the most common reason invoked for repressing human rights defenders in the region, particularly when denouncing the lack of democracy or freedoms, fighting discrimination or even denouncing corruption or torture.

Similarly, activists promoting universal values faced serious reprisals by nationalist and far-right groups, while State authorities failed to provide adequate protection. Indeed, human rights defenders were still being subjected to serious retaliation as a result of their activities.

Obstacles to the freedom of association

In Belarus, the situation of independent human rights organisations continued to worsen following the entry into force, in December 2005, of restrictive amendments to the Criminal Code outlawing, in particular, activities within unregistered organisations. The enforcement of these amendments is particularly worrying in a country where almost every independent NGO has been deprived of its legal status, since they were closed down by court order in 2003.

In the Russian Federation, since the new Federal Law on NGOs, adopted in December 2005, entered into force on April 17, 2006, the registration conditions for NGOs have been toughened, and the powers of the authorities to interfere in their activities strengthened. The decree affecting the application of this Law came into force on the same day, and in particular stipulated that foreign and international NGOs had to take steps for their re-registration before October 17, 2006. The tedious amount of which often demanded additional paperwork that was difficult or even impossible to obtain, meant that many NGOs were refused legal recognition given time-limit.
Some provisions of the Law on Combating Extremist Activities were also used in 2006 to hinder the activities of NGOs. For example, the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society (RCFS), based in Nizhnyi-Novgorod, was closed down by court order, on grounds that it had allegedly committed an extremist act by “omitting” to publicly and formally disapprove the “extremist” acts committed by its executive director, Mr. Stanislav Dmitrievsky, who had been convicted by the Sovetsky District Criminal Court in Nizhnyi-Novgorod a few months earlier.
In addition, the new legislative obstacles to freedom of association and the ensuing exploitation of the judicial system continued to be combined with many smear campaigns, orchestrated at the highest State level, aimed at discrediting independent organisations and their members.

In Tajikistan, on June 19, 2006, Mr. Sherali Jononov, a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, announced that the Bill on Associations, which had been put forward by the government on December 2, 2005, would be examined by Parliament in early 2007. This bill notably specifies that all public organisations shall re-register within two months of its coming into force. Although the law currently in force authorises NGOs to include in their objectives the exercise and defence of civil, political, social and/or cultural rights of citizens as well as participation in the creation of an independent, united, secular and democratic rule of law in the country, this new bill would limit these activities to the protection and attainment of the “public interest”. This particularly vague formulation, if restrictively interpreted, could significantly limit the scope of NGOs activities. Moreover, the bill gives strengthened discretionary powers to the registration services, which shall be entitled to: require that organisations operate in conformity with their own statutes; request internal decision-making documents; monitor NGOs activities, in which their representatives may be required to participate; and issue warnings against organisations suspected of operating in contravention with the law or their statutes. Lastly, foreign nationals and stateless persons are prohibited from founding an association or taking part in its activities if they fail to present a valid permanent residence permit. Following the introduction of this Bill, several NGOs operating in the Sogdiyskaya region were inspected by the Prokuratura (office of Public Prosecutor) in January and February 2006, although it was not legally authorised to carry out such controls.

In Uzbekistan, the authorities also continued in 2006 to make use of this repressive context to further muzzle civil society and to suspend the activities of numerous organisations, in particular foreign ones, on the basis of restrictive laws adopted or reinforced in the past few years. For instance, on March 17, 2006, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered the closure of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR), on the grounds that the HCR had “fully implemented its tasks” and that there were “no evident reasons for its further presence in Uzbekistan”. In such a context, Uzbek defenders, who were subjected to a fierce repression for several years, became increasingly isolated, and their situation has, yet again, considerably deteriorated in 2006.

Restrictions on freedoms of assembly and peaceful gathering

Freedoms of assembly and of peaceful gathering remained widely ignored in a certain number of countries, where the authorities regularly banned or brutally dispersed numerous demonstrations.

In Azerbaijan, demonstrations in favour of the freedom of the press were fiercely suppressed. In particular, Mr. Emin Huseynov, a member of the Institute for the Freedom and Safety of Reporters, was brutally beaten by the police on November 7, 2006, while participating in a rally in favour of the opposition newspaper Azadlig which was violently dispersed.

In Belarus, all peaceful gatherings denouncing the lack of democracy in the country continued to be repressed, especially during the electoral period during which hundreds of people were arrested, including several members of Viasna who were charged with “hooliganism” after peacefully demonstrating.

In Kyrgyzstan, on May 29, 2006, activists were brutally beaten by over 200 police officers when marching towards the Office of the Presidency of the Republic to protest against the decision of the Supreme Court to discharge all senior officials allegedly responsible for the deaths of several participants in the Aksy demonstrations in 2002.

In Poland, a march in support of tolerance, notably in favour of LGBT rights, was brutally attacked in April 2006 by demonstrators from the All-Polish Youth, a movement affiliated to LPR and founded by the Deputy Prime Minister of Poland.

In the Russian Federation, peaceful assemblies organised by human rights defenders were increasingly restricted in 2006. For instance, a rally scheduled for September 3, 2006 in Moscow to commemorate the second anniversary of the Beslan massacre and calling for those responsible to be brought to justice was banned. On October 16, 2006, in Nazran, forces from the Ingush Ministry of the Interior brutally dispersed a demonstration in memory of Ms. Anna Politkovskaya, who had been assassinated a week earlier. A member of Memorial was wounded and several defenders were prosecuted. Lastly, the Moscow authorities banned a march planned for December 17, 2006 by the Russian Union of Journalists, in memory of the journalists killed in their country. The authorities finally gave in to pressure and allowed the demonstrators to observe one minute of silence in Moscow’s Pushkin Square.

Furthermore, in an increasingly violent atmosphere against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT), the Mayor of Moscow banned the Gay Pride march, a step which he justified with some particularly intolerant remarks. Those who finally took part in the gathering that was held in two different parts of Moscow instead of the planned Gay Pride march on May 27, 2006, were attacked by fascist, nationalist and orthodox supporters and received no protection from the forces of law and order. Dozens of participants were arrested, including a German Member of Parliament, who had just been attacked by skin-heads. Six participants were further charged with taking part in a prohibited demonstration.

In Turkey, on August 6, 2006, the police prevented the holding of an unauthorised demonstration organised by the Rainbow Solidarity and Cultural Association for Transgenders, Gays and Lesbians in the city of Bursa to protest against the decision by the governors of Bursa and Istanbul to prohibit LGBT organisations in these cities, and against the seizure by the Ankara authorities of the latest edition of the magazine published by the Gay and Lesbian Kaos GL organisation for solidarity and cultural research.

Similarly, in Uzbekistan, peaceful gatherings organised by defenders were almost systematically disrupted by the intervention of police or anti-terrorist forces. For example, on October 16, 2006, a demonstration organised to request that human and constitutional rights be observed by the authorities, was brutally dispersed by plain-clothes officers from the anti-terrorist squad. Likewise, on October 28, 2006, defenders protesting in favour of the release of political prisoners and human rights defenders were dispersed after a few minutes by a group of police officers. On November 27, 2006, members of the Society for the Protection of the Rights and Freedoms of Citizens of Uzbekistan (SPRFCU) were arrested in Tashkent while about to assemble outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They were requesting that a dialogue on human rights be established with Mr. Vladimir Norov, Minister for Foreign Affairs, who had said he would open such a dialogue at a meeting with representatives of the European Union on November 8, 2006, in Brussels.

Recommendations

In view of the situation, the Observatory urges OSCE Participating States to:

- guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of human rights defenders in the OSCE Members States;

- put an end to the continuous repression of human rights defenders and their organisations;

- fully recognise the vital role of defenders in the advent 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;

- support and implement all recommendations brought to them from the March 2006 Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Human Rights Defenders.

In addition, the Observatory reiterates its complete support for the work of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) on freedoms of association and peaceful assembly and recommends its development and extension.

The Observatory further welcomes the announcement of the establishment of a department specially dedicated to the protection of defenders during the last Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, which took place in Warsaw in October 2006. Nevertheless, the exact mandate of this new department should include the possibility of addressing member States on individual cases.

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