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Harassment of human rights activists is widespread in CIS - report

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Jean-Christophe Peuch
Publication Date 13 December 2007
Cite as EurasiaNet, Harassment of human rights activists is widespread in CIS - report, 13 December 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4783866724.html [accessed 23 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Jean-Christophe Peuch: 12/13/07

The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the center of a struggle between western countries and some CIS states that blame it for its critical assessment of most elections held in the former Soviet Union since 1991. In particular, Russia and a number of its neighbors accuse the ODIHR of meddling in turbulent elections that brought new, Western-oriented political leaders to power in Georgia and Ukraine.

But ODIHR's activities are not limited to election monitoring. As its name indicates, it also deals – more broadly – with human rights and democratization. The Warsaw-based office on December 10 issued a report, the first of its kind, which identifies patterns of harassment against human rights defenders in the OSCE area between April 2006 and April 2007. The presentation, which coincided with the 59th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, took place at the OSCE headquarters in Vienna.

Called "Human Rights Defenders In The OSCE Region: Our Collective Conscience," the report is unlikely to mollify ODIHR's critics, as it clearly identifies Russia and several other former Soviet republics as countries where restrictions imposed on rights activists are the most frequent. The report also contains recommendations to OSCE participating states on how to improve working conditions for human rights defenders. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Among those experts who helped draft the 70-page document is Belarusian human rights advocate Ales Byalyatski, whose Vyasna (Spring) organization has been repeatedly denied registration by President Aleksandr Lukashenko's administration.

"This report is no light literature. It is a dramatic document," said Byalyatski, who is also vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights. "The situation of human rights defenders and organizations and the way individual states react to their activities are a very precise indicator of how authorities in those countries consider human rights," he told the panel of OSCE ambassadors – mostly Western – who attended the December 10 presentation.

ODIHR Director Christian Strohal identified the patterns of violations affecting human rights defenders – which he said often occur with the explicit or tacit approval of local governments – as follows: physical attacks; curtailment of freedom of association; failure to respect the freedom of assembly; and restrictions imposed on the freedom of movement.

Among individual cases that were mentioned at the launching of the report were the October 2006 slaying of Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya, and the tragic death of Ogulsapar Muradova in Turkmenistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

A RFE/RL correspondent affiliated with the Bulgaria-based Turkmen Helsinki Foundation rights group, Muradova died in custody in September of 2006. Relatives say she died as a result of ill-treatment, but Turkmen authorities attribute her death to natural causes. They also deny that Muradova was a journalist, or a human rights activist. At a closed trial held a few days before her death, Muradova and two other people had been sentenced to heavy jail terms on dubious arms possession charges.

Another high-profile case mentioned by Byalyatski is that of Umida Niyazova, an Uzbek investigative journalist who worked as a translator for the New York-headquartered Human Rights Watch (HRW) organization. Niyazova was arrested in December 2006 and charged with illegal border crossing, smuggling, and fostering civil unrest with the help of foreign funding.

On May 1, a Tashkent court sentenced Niyazova to seven years in jail. Following harsh western reactions, a higher Uzbek court later reduced that sentence to a three-year suspended jail term, but only after Niyazova agreed to plea guilty and state that she had been deceived by HRW.

At the time of Niyazova's release, another 14 Uzbek rights defenders remained in custody.

Among them was Gulbahor Turayeva. The name of Turayeva, a physician by training, became well-known after she gave foreign media her own account of the May 2005 bloody government crackdown in Andijan. Uzbek authorities arrested her in January 2007 and charged her with threatening the constitution. Turayeva was sentenced to six years in jail and released in June after publicly expressing regret for her activities.

Among other Central Asian rights campaigners who were physically assaulted during the period covered by the ODIHR report are Uzbekistan's Yelena Urlayeva, Bahtiyor Hamrayev, and Rahmatullo Alibayev. Attacks were also reported on Kyrgyzstan's Edil Baisalov and Ramazan Dyryldayev.

Georgia appears in the ODIHR report among those countries where human rights defenders suffer milder forms of harassment. In February, Interior Ministry officers visited the premises of the Human Rights Information and Documentation Center, claiming they wanted to learn about the organization's activities, and threatened several employees.

The ODIHR reports also contained information about intimidation attempts against a non-governmental organization that promotes the rights of Georgia's ethnic minorities. Unknown individuals in June broke into the Tbilisi office of Multinational Georgia and stole several documents, including the draft of an alternative report on the implementation of the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities to be addressed to the United Nations and the Council of Europe. The incident followed unsuccessful government attempts to obtain this document from Multinational Georgia employees.

In its latest report on human rights violations worldwide, HRW took note of repeated instances of government harassment against the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA), a non-governmental organization that promotes national legislation that is more protective of human rights. In addition, the group has been critical of President Mikheil Saakashivli's policies. For example, then-defense minister Irakli Okruashvili in 2006 accused the GYLA of misusing foreign funds and demanded the resignation of its then-chairwoman, Ana Dolidze.

Lawyers engaged in human rights work can also face administrative harassment, as in Armenia, where three defense attorneys were prosecuted for appealing the sentencing of three soldiers accused of murder.

The ODIHR report contains numerous occurrences of harassment targeting Russian and Belarusian human rights defenders. Violations were also reported in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and a number of non-CIS countries.

The report additionally includes a summary of written responses sent by OSCE participating states on individual cases. A simple look at the list shows that most of those post-Soviet countries which figure prominently in that document declined to comment.

Also, none of them attended the presentation ceremony.

Summarizing the report, ODIHR Director Strohal said: "The situation is not improving, to put it diplomatically."

"The situation of human rights advocates and the pressure they have been exposed to [tells us] very clearly that [we are facing] a major challenge," he added.

Editor's Note: Jean-Christophe Peuch is a Vienna-based freelance correspondent, who specializes in Caucasus- and Central Asia-related developments.

Posted December 13, 2007 © Eurasianet

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