Europe and Central Asia 2017/2018
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Europe and Central Asia 2017/2018

The space for civil society continued to shrink across Europe and Central Asia region. In Eastern Europe and in Central Asia, a discourse hostile to human rights remained prevalent. Human rights defenders, activists, the media and political opposition were frequently targeted by authorities. Across the region, the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of opinion and expression came under attack. Public protests were met with a range of restrictive measures and excessive use of force by police. Governments continued to implement a range of counter-terrorism measures disproportionately restricting people’s rights in the name of security. Millions of people faced an erosion of their economic, social and cultural rights, which led to diminished social protection, increased inequality and systemic discrimination. States repeatedly failed to meet their protection responsibilities towards refugees and migrants. Women and girls continued to experience systemic human rights violations and abuses, including torture and other ill-treatment, and faced widespread gender-based violence. Discrimination and stigmatization of minorities remained common with groups facing harassment and violence. Some prisoners of conscience were released.

In 2017, for the first time in Amnesty International’s almost 60 years of existence, both the chair and director of an Amnesty International section became prisoners of conscience themselves. In June, Taner Kılıç, Chair of Amnesty International Turkey, was arrested. In July, 10 other human rights defenders, known as the “Istanbul 10”, including Idil Eser, Director of Amnesty International Turkey, were detained while attending a routine workshop in Istanbul. The Istanbul 10 and Taner Kılıç were later put on trial for terrorism-related offences, their arrests falling into a broader pattern of repression against civil society following the failed coup attempt of July 2016. By the end of the year, the Istanbul 10 had been released pending trial, but Taner Kılıç remained in detention. Although the prosecutor failed to provide any incriminating evidence against them, they remained at serious risk, facing an ongoing trial on absurd charges carrying up to 15 years’ imprisonment.

The crackdown on dissenting voices in Turkey was part of a broader trend of shrinking space for civil society across Europe and Central Asia. Human rights defenders faced huge challenges, and the rights to freedom of association and assembly in particular came under attack.

In the east, a discourse hostile to human rights remained prevalent, frequently leading to the repression of human rights defenders, political opposition, protest movements, anti-corruption campaigners and sexual minorities. This hostile discourse also inched westward and found its first legislative expression in Hungary with the adoption of a law effectively stigmatizing NGOs that received foreign funding.

Violent attacks caused deaths and injuries, including in Barcelona, Brussels, London, Manchester, Paris, Stockholm, St Petersburg and multiple locations across Turkey. In response, governments continued to implement a range of counter-terrorism measures disproportionately restricting people’s rights in the name of security.

Millions of people faced an erosion of their economic, social and cultural rights. This led to diminished social protection, exacerbated inequality and systemic discrimination in many countries. Those most affected by higher levels of poverty included women, children, young or low-paid workers, people with disabilities, migrants and asylum-seekers, ethnic minorities, and retired and single people.

Across the region, governments repeatedly failed to meet their responsibilities towards refugees and migrants. The number of irregular arrivals of refugees and migrants in the EU dropped significantly in the second half of the year, largely as a result of co-operation agreements with Libyan authorities that turned a blind eye and even contributed to the abuses faced by those trapped in the country. Those who did make it to the EU faced an increased risk of forcible return to countries such as Afghanistan, where their life or liberty were at risk.

At the UN Security Council, Russia used its veto for the ninth time to shield the Syrian government from the consequences of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Russia’s routine use of its veto had become the equivalent of acquiescence in war crimes, allowing all parties in Syria’s conflict to act with impunity, with civilians paying the ultimate price.

Freedom of expression

Across Eastern Europe and across Central Asia, civil society faced a range of harassment and restrictions. Dozens of individuals were jailed for their peaceful activism and became prisoners of conscience in Belarus and Russia, amid ongoing legislative restrictions on media, NGOs and public assemblies.

The deterioration of the respect for freedom of opinion and expression in Tajikistan became further entrenched with the authorities imposing sweeping restrictions to silence critical voices. The police and security services intimidated and harassed journalists. Human rights lawyers endured arbitrary arrests, politically motivated prosecutions, harsh prison sentences and harassment.

In Kazakhstan, journalists and activists faced politically motivated prosecutions and attacks. Having all but strangled independent media already, the authorities used increasingly elaborate and aggressive methods to stamp out dissenting voices on the internet and social media. A targeted cyber campaign was being waged against critical voices in Azerbaijan.

The Uzbekistani government used unlawful surveillance on its citizens at home and abroad – reinforcing a hostile environment for journalists and activists, and fostering a climate of fear for Uzbekistani nationals in Europe. Human rights defenders and journalists continued to be summoned for questioning at police stations, placed under house arrest and beaten by the authorities.

In Crimea, the de facto authorities continued to suppress dissenting opinion. Leaders of the Crimean Tatar community who spoke out against the Russian occupation and illegal annexation of the peninsula faced exile or prison.

Turkey continued to detain tens of thousands of perceived government critics in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt. Criticism of the government largely disappeared from mainstream media. More than 100 journalists languished in jail – more than in any other country – many for months on end, on spurious charges.

The primary positive developments in Eastern Europe and in Central Asia involved releases of prisoners of conscience and other long-term prisoners, notably in Uzbekistan. In Azerbaijan, some prisoners of conscience were released; however, new ones took their places in the never-ending policy of repression. In Russia, prisoner of conscience Ildar Dadin – the first and so far only person imprisoned under a recent law criminalizing repeated violation of Russia’s draconian restrictions on public assembly – was released and cleared of conviction following a Constitutional Court ruling.

Restrictive laws

Across Europe and Central Asia, restrictive laws were passed. Drawing inspiration from similar legislation adopted in Russia in 2012, Hungary adopted a law on the transparency of organizations funded from abroad, which forced NGOs receiving more than EUR24,000 direct or indirect funding from abroad to re-register as a “civic organization funded from abroad” and to put this label on every publication. The move was accompanied by highly stigmatizing government rhetoric. Similar legislation was tabled in Ukraine and in Moldova, but was withdrawn in Moldova due to objections from civil society and international organizations.

In November, there were protests throughout Poland when MPs voted on two legislative amendments threatening the independence of the judiciary and placing the right to a fair trial and other rights at risk. President Andrzej Duda vetoed the amendments in July, but subsequently redrafted and submitted them to Parliament in September.

Freedom of association and assembly

In Eastern Europe and in Central Asia, the authorities clamped down on peaceful protesters. In Russia, during mass anti-corruption protests across the country in March, police used excessive force and arrested hundreds of overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrators in the capital, Moscow, and well over a thousand across the country, including opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Hundreds of people were again detained and ill-treated during anti-corruption protests across the country in June, and on 7 October, President Vladimir Putin’s birthday.

In Kazakhstan, organizing or participating in a peaceful demonstration without the authorities’ prior authorization remained an offence. Police in Kyrgyzstan disrupted a peaceful demonstration in the capital, Bishkek, organized to protest against deterioration of freedom of expression, and arrested several participants. The Belarusian authorities violently suppressed mass demonstrations against a tax on the unemployed.

A discriminatory amendment to a law in Poland led to bans of certain demonstrations and favoured pro-government assemblies. People participating in demonstrations against the government policies were prosecuted, harassed by law enforcement officials and political opponents, and prevented from exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

In several countries of Western Europe, public protests were met with a range of restrictive measures and abuses. In Germany, France, Poland and Spain, governments’ response to public assemblies against restrictive policies or human rights abuses included sealing off public spaces, excessive use of force by police, containment of peaceful protesters or “kettling”, surveillance, and threats of administrative and criminal sanctions. France’s government continued to resort to emergency measures to ban public assemblies and to restrict freedom of movement to prevent individuals from participating in demonstrations.

In October, Spanish security forces that were ordered to prevent the holding of the Catalan independence referendum used unnecessary and disproportionate force against demonstrators, injuring hundreds of them. This included evidence of police beating peaceful demonstrators.

Counter-terror and security

In Western Europe, a raft of disproportionate and discriminatory counter-terrorism laws continued to be rushed through. The adoption of the EU Directive on Combating Terrorism in March looked set to lead to a proliferation of such measures in 2018, as states were to transpose the Directive into domestic law.

Broad definitions of terrorism in the law, and the misapplication of counter-terrorism laws to a wide group of people – human rights defenders, environmental activists, refugees, migrants, and journalists – continued, notably in Turkey but also throughout Western Europe. Vague laws punishing “glorification” or “apology” of terrorism were used to prosecute activists and civil society groups for opinions expressed on the internet and social media, including in France, Spain and the UK.

France’s state of emergency ended in November, having lasted almost two years. In October, France adopted a new counter-terrorism law embedding in ordinary law many of the measures permitted under the emergency regime.

Instead of investigating and prosecuting suspected perpetrators of violent attacks, many states implemented administrative control measures limiting everyone’s rights and often applied these based on vague grounds, often connected to religious belief or associations. Detention without charge or trial was proposed in several countries, including France, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and introduced in Bavaria, Germany.

Many EU member states also attempted to draw links between the refugee crisis and terrorism-related threats. Although a Hungarian court’s conviction on spurious terrorism charges of “Ahmed H”, a Syrian resident in Cyprus, was annulled, Ahmed H remained in detention while his new trial unfolded. The trial was ongoing at the end of the year. He had been convicted of an “act of terror” for throwing stones and speaking to a crowd through a megaphone during clashes with border police.

A number of states in Europe and in Central Asia intensified their focus on online activity as a perceived potential driver for terrorism-related or “extremist” activity. The UK proposed criminalizing repeated viewing of “terrorism-related” content online with a maximum 15-year prison sentence. Similar measures already existed, and were deemed unconstitutional, in France.

In Eastern Europe and in Central Asia, government responses to the real and perceived threats posed by terrorism and extremism followed an all-too-familiar pattern. Extraditions and renditions of suspects to destinations where they were at risk of torture and other ill-treatment were frequent and swift, individuals being forcibly returned, in contravention of international law. In Russia’s North Caucasus, enforced disappearances, unlawful detention, torture and other ill-treatment of detainees, and extrajudicial executions were reported in the context of security operations. In Russia-occupied Crimea, the de facto authorities pursued all forms of dissent and continued to arbitrarily target the Crimean Tatar community under anti-extremism and counter-terrorism legislation.

Refugees and migrants

During 2017, 171,332 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe by sea, compared to 362,753 in 2016. The decrease was mainly due to EU states’ co-operation with Libya and Turkey. At least 3,119 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. EU states intensified their efforts to prevent irregular entry and increased returns, including through policies that exposed migrants and those in need of protection to ill-treatment, torture and other abuses in countries of transit and origin.

By using aid, trade and other leverage, European governments encouraged and supported transit countries – even those where widespread and systematic violations against refugees and migrants were documented – to implement stricter border control measures, without adequate human rights guarantees. This trapped thousands of refugees and migrants in countries where they lacked adequate protection and where they were exposed to serious human rights violations.

NGOs, which performed more rescues in the central Mediterranean in the first half of 2017 than any others, were discredited and attacked by public commentators and politicians, and faced restrictions on their activities by a new code of conduct imposed by the Italian authorities.

Russia continued to return asylum-seekers and refugees to countries where they were at risk of torture and other ill-treatment, as did other countries in Europe and Central Asia.

European collaboration with Libya

With most refugees and migrants crossing the sea into Europe embarking from Libya, the EU and European governments, with Italy at the forefront, sought to close down this route by co-operating with the Libyan coastguard and other actors in the country. They entered into a string of co-operation agreements with Libyan authorities responsible for grave human rights violations, in particular the Libyan Coast Guard and Libya’s General Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM).

Italy and other governments failed to include key human rights guarantees in these agreements and turned a blind eye to the abuses, including torture and extortion, against refugees and migrants by the very institutions they were co-operating with. The actions of European countries were leading to increasing numbers of people being stopped or intercepted. In so doing, European governments, and Italy in particular, were breaching their own international obligations and becoming complicit in the violations committed by the Libyan authorities they were sponsoring and co-operating with.

EU-Turkey migration deal, conditions in Greece

The March 2016 EU-Turkey migration deal remained in place and continued to restrict access to territory and asylum in the EU. The deal aimed at returning asylum-seekers to Turkey, on the pretence of it being a “safe country” of transit. European leaders maintained the fiction that Turkey provided protection equivalent to that of the EU, even though Turkey had become even more unsafe for refugees since the 2016 coup attempt. The removal of procedural safeguards under Turkey’s state of emergency put refugees there at heightened risk of refoulement, the forcible return to countries where they were at risk of facing serious human rights violations.

Throughout 2017, the deal left thousands exposed to overcrowded, squalid and unsafe conditions on Greek islands that were transformed into de facto holding pens and condemned them to extended asylum procedures. Some suffered violent hate crimes. Compared to 2016, arrivals on the Greek islands dropped sharply, mainly due to the deal,but a relative increase in arrivals during the summer stretched the islands’ already insufficient reception capacity once again. In December, around 13,000 asylum-seekers remained in limbo, stranded on the islands.

Reception conditions both on the islands and in mainland Greece, meanwhile, continued to be inadequate, with many still forced to sleep in tents unfit for winter and women and girls particularly vulnerable in unsafe camp facilities.

In September, Greece’s highest administrative court paved the way for forcible returns of Syrian asylum-seekers under the EU-Turkey migration deal by endorsing decisions by the Greek asylum authorities that deemed Turkey safe for two Syrian nationals.

Relocation schemes

Solidarity with frontline countries receiving the majority of arrivals continued to be in short supply. European countries failed to relocate their committed numbers of asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy under the emergency relocation scheme adopted in September 2015. As of November, European states had fulfilled just 32% of their legal commitment. At the end of 2017, 21,703 asylum-seekers out of 66,400 had been relocated from Greece, and 11,464 out of around 35,000 from Italy.

Among the worst offenders were Poland and Hungary, both having refused to accept a single asylum-seeker from Italy and Greece by the year’s end.

The European Court of Justice rejected Slovakia’s and Hungary’s complaint against the mandatory refugee relocation scheme. The European Commission also opened infringement proceedings against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic for failing to comply with their relocation obligations.

Curtailing access to asylum and pushbacks

Hungary reached a new low by passing legislation allowing pushbacks of all people found in an irregular situation in the country and by introducing the automatic detention of asylum-seekers, in blatant breach of EU law. The authorities locked up in containers asylum-seekers arriving at its borders. Hungary’s systematic flouting of the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants also included severely restricting access by limiting admission to two operational border “transit zones” in which only 10 new asylum applications could be submitted each working day. This left thousands of people in substandard camps in Serbia, at risk of homelessness and forcible return further south to Macedonia and Bulgaria.

Abuses and pushbacks continued at the EU external borders, from Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, and Poland. Poland’s government proposed legislation to legalize pushbacks, a regular practice at a crossing between Poland and Belarus. In a landmark ruling, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Spain for breaching the prohibition of collective expulsions and for violating the right to an effective remedy in the case of two migrants who were summarily returned from the Spanish enclave of Melilla to Morocco.

Slovenia adopted legislative amendments under which it could deny entry to people arriving at its borders and automatically expel migrants and refugees who entered irregularly, without assessing their asylum claims.

Forced returns

EU member states also continued to put pressure on other governments to accept readmissions – in some cases without including adequate guarantees against refoulement.

At a time when civilian casualties in Afghanistan were at some of their highest levels on record, European governments forced increasing numbers of Afghan asylum-seekers back to the dangers from which they fled in Afghanistan. Forced returns to Afghanistan were made from countries including Austria, the Netherlands and Norway.

Impunity and accountability in the former Yugoslavia

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia delivered its final judgment on 29 November 2017, bringing to a close its largely successful 23-year effort to hold perpetrators of war crimes to account. Also in November, it sentenced Bosnian Serb war leader Ratko Mladić to life imprisonment for crimes under international law, including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

At the national level, with the exception of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which some modest progress was made, impunity remained the norm, with courts continuing to have limited capacity and resources, and facing undue political pressure. Prosecutors across the region lacked the support of the executive and their work was compromised by a climate of nationalist rhetoric and lack of political commitment to sustained regional co-operation.

By the end of the year, the authorities had made no progress in establishing the fate of over 11,500 people disappeared during the armed conflicts in the Balkans. Victims of enforced disappearance and their families continued to be denied access to justice, truth and reparation. Nominal improvements in the laws regulating reparation for victims of wartime sexual violence continued to be made in several countries.


The “traditional values” pretence in Eastern Europe and in Central Asia

Governments across Eastern Europe and across Central Asia continued to prop up repression and discrimination by promoting and increasingly invoking the rhetoric of a discriminatory interpretation of so-called “traditional values”. The “traditional values” referred to were selective xenophobic, misogynistic and homophobic interpretations of cultural values. In Tajikistan, this discourse and its application was used to punish LGBTI communities for “amoral” behaviours and enforce “norms” for dress code, language and religion primarily against women and religious minorities, including through new legislation. In Kazakhstan and Russia, there was an increasing number of criminal prosecutions and other harassment of religious minorities, on arbitrary grounds, under “anti-extremism” legislation. The said interpretation assertion of “traditional values” reached a terrifying dimension with the secret torture and killing of gay men in Chechnya by authorities.

Women’s rights

Following sexual harassment allegations against US Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and others in the show business industry, millions of women worldwide used the online hashtag #MeToo to break the silence about their experiences as survivors of sexual violence. This became a rallying cry for challenging victim blaming and holding offenders to account. The year also saw the womens and feminist movements mobilizing thousands – including during January’s Women’s Marches across Europe, and Black Monday protests in Poland that successfully pushed the government not to further restrict access to safe and legal abortion. Yet, throughout Europe and Central Asia, women and girls continued to experience systemic human rights violations and abuses, including torture and other ill-treatment, denial of the right to health and bodily autonomy, inequality of opportunity, and widespread gender-based violence.

Access to abortion remained criminalized in most circumstances in Ireland and Northern Ireland and severely restricted in practice. In Poland, there were systemic barriers in accessing safe and legal abortion. Abortion remained criminalized in all circumstances in Malta.

The EU and Moldova signed the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention). It was ratified by Cyprus, Estonia, Georgia, Germany, Norway and Switzerland – bringing to 28 the number of states to have done so. Ukraine signed it in 2011 but failed to ratify the Convention.

Despite increasingly strong legislative protections, gender-based violence against women remained pervasive, including in Albania, Croatia and Romania. In Russia, under the cover of the so-called “traditional values” narrative, and encountering little public criticism, the Parliament adopted legislation decriminalizing some forms of domestic violence which President Putin signed into law. In Norway and Sweden, gender-based violence, including sexual violence, remained a serious problem with inadequate state response.

Minority rights

Discrimination and stigmatization of minorities remained pervasive across Europe and Central Asia with several groups facing harassment, violence, and obstacles to meaningful participation in society.

Discrimination against Roma remained widespread in Slovakia. The European Commission continued an infringement procedure against Slovakia and Hungary for systematic discrimination and segregation of Roma children in schools. Segregated camps, discrimination in access to social housing and forced evictions remained a daily reality for thousands of the 170,000 Roma estimated to be living across Italy, around 40,000 of them in camps in squalid conditions. The European Commission still failed to take effective action towards ending discrimination against Roma.

Muslims faced discrimination, particularly when looking for work, at work, and when accessing public or private services such as education and health care.

In Austria, a new law banned any kind of full-face covering in public spaces, disproportionately restricting the rights to freedom of expression and of religion or belief. Tajikistan’s authorities forced thousands of women to remove their Islamic headscarves (hijabs) in public places to comply with the law on traditions.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

LGBTI people faced growing abuse and discrimination across the east, including violence, arbitrary arrests and detention. In Azerbaijan, over 100 LGBTI people were arbitrarily arrested on one day in the capital Baku. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, consensual sex among men remained a crime punishable by prison. Georgia’s new Constitution restricted the definition of marriage to exclude same-sex couples. Lithuania’s Parliament adopted legislation discriminating against LGBTI people. In Russia, the “gay propaganda law” continued to be used, despite being ruled discriminatory by the European Court of Human Rights.

Reports emerged in April that the Chechen authorities were secretly and arbitrarily detaining, torturing and killing gay men. In response to the international outcry, the authorities claimed that gay men did not exist in Chechnya, while the federal authorities failed to carry out an effective investigation.

There were also positive developments and examples of human courage and solidarity. The Russian LGBT Network organized a hotline and facilitated the evacuation to safety of LGBTI people from Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus. The biggest-ever Pride rally in Ukraine was held. Malta’s parliament approved same-sex marriage legislation and extended full marriage rights to same-sex couples. Germany granted marriage rights to all, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, and equal rights to adoption for married people.

Transgender people and people with variations of sex characteristics

Transgender people in Europe and Central Asia faced hurdles seeking legal recognition of their gender identity. Children and adults with variations in sex characteristics continued to face human rights violations, perpetrated in the course of non-emergency, invasive and irreversible medical interventions which often had harmful consequences on physical and psychological health, especially for children. In 18 European countries, transgender people were required to undergo sterilization, and in 35 countries they had to receive a mental health diagnosis in order to change their gender.

There was progress in Belgium and Greece; they were the latest European countries to abolish sterilization and mental health diagnosis requirements, although legal gender recognition reforms in both countries still fell short of establishing a quick, transparent and accessible administrative procedure.