Eastern Europe and Central Asia: Human rights must be protected during COVID-19 pandemic

Governments in Eastern European and Central Asian countries are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with repressive and abusive measures which fall far short of their human rights obligations, Amnesty International said today. The organization has released a new briefing Eastern Europe and Central Asia Confronted with COVID-19: Responses and Responsibilities setting out the responsibilities of governments in the region.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in the region, many governments seem more interested in cracking down on dissent than protecting public health,” said Heather McGill, Amnesty International’s Central Asia Researcher.

“From authorities in Kazakhstan welding apartment doors shut to trap residents inside, to Chechen police assaulting people for not wearing face masks, governments seem to be viewing the pandemic as a free pass to trample on human rights. Any strict measures to stop the spread of the virus must be temporary, proportionate, and in line with human rights standards.”

From authorities in Kazakhstan welding apartment doors shut to trap residents inside, to Chechen police assaulting people for not wearing face masks, governments seem to be viewing the pandemic as a free pass to trample on human rights
Heather McGill, Amnesty International's Central Asia Researcher

Excessive use of force and restrictive measures

Authorities in Eastern Europe and Central Asia routinely resort to repressive measures to silence critical views. Unsurprisingly some governments have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with disregard for basic human rights.

On 6 April, in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan, the authorities welded shut the doors of an entire apartment block housing dozens of families, after one resident tested positive for COVID-19. In Kazakhstan,  authorities have also enforced quarantines on blocks of flats by welding shut the doors and thereby forcing residents to stay inside.

On 18 April, the Ukrainian army closed off the only access to the village of Staromaryivka, which is situated in government-controlled territory affected by the conflict in eastern Ukraine. This left the village’s 150 residents with no access to the outside world, and no means of getting food, medical services or any other assistance.

At the end of March, in the Russian Republic of Chechnya, 
police were filmed wielding plastic pipes. Video evidence suggests that police physically assaulted people who did not wear face masks.

Threats to the right to health

In Belarus, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, political leaders have belittled the seriousness of the pandemic and promoted cures with no proven efficacy. At the end of March, Aliaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus said daily shots of vodka would kill the virus as would visiting saunas and sports activities. As of today, his government has taken no physical distancing measures. His Turkmenistani counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, hardly mentioning COVID-19 at all, has advised burning the leaves of the harmala plant to ward off disease.

Across the region underfunded healthcare systems struggle to provide adequate care. In Russia, the reform of the public healthcare called “optimisation” over the last decade has led to a sharp reduction in the number of medical personnel and health facilities. Shortages of equipment have exposed medical staff to the virus.

Threats to freedom of expression and access to information

To combat the spread of the virus governments must ensure the dissemination of accessible, accurate and evidence-based information about COVID-19 and how people can protect themselves. However, all too often, authorities in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have used newly introduced emergency powers to harass journalists and others who have tried to share information.

“The governments of Azerbaijan and Russia have prosecuted social media users, journalists and medical professionals for exposing flaws in their COVID-19 responses. Other countries, like Uzbekistan, have imposed ruinous fines for dissemination of ‘fake news,’” said Heather McGill.

“This sends a chilling message to journalists throughout the region and shows that many governments care more about attacking critics than protecting people’s health.”

The governments of Azerbaijan and Russia have prosecuted social media users, journalists and medical professionals for exposing flaws in their COVID-19 responses.
Heather McGill, Amnesty International's Central Asia Researcher

In Azerbaijan, the authorities have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to crack down on the opposition. On 19 March, President Ilham Aliyev announced “new rules” for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, including “isolating” and “clearing” his country’s opposition. Subsequently, opposition activist Tofig Yagublu was arrested on bogus charges of hooliganism, followed by human rights defender Elchin Mammad who is accused of theft.

In Russia, the chairperson of the independent “Doctors’ Alliance” union, Anastasiya Vasilieva, was called for questioning for allegedly spreading “fake news.” Her organization called on Russian medical professionals to expose the authorities’ incompetence. As a result, many Alliance members were subjected to harassment and threats, and Vasilieva herself was detained by police for “quarantine breach” while providing a local hospital with equipment.

Russian media has not escaped the pressure. The authorities forced the well-respected Novaya Gazeta newspaper to delete an article criticizing the Chechen authorities’ lock-down policies after the Republic’s head, Ramzan Kadyrov, publicly threatened its author Elena Milashina.

The people of Eastern Europe and Central Asia deserve better during these tough and challenging times,” said Heather McGill.

"Their governments must allocate all available resources to fulfill the right to health and put human rights at the centre of their response to the virus.”