Amnesty International Report 2016/17 - Regional Overview: Europe and Central Asia

On 30 November 2016, "Ahmed H", a Syrian man living in Cyprus, stood trial on terrorism charges in Budapest, capital of Hungary. He was accused of orchestrating clashes between police and refugees following the sudden closure of Hungary's border with Serbia in September 2015. His prosecution played to the government's conflation of Muslim asylum-seekers with terrorist threats. In reality, Ahmed H was only there because he was helping his elderly Syrian parents flee their war-torn country. Caught in the melee, he admitted to throwing stones at the police, but, for the most part, as numerous witnesses testified, he had been trying to calm the crowd. Nevertheless, he was convicted, becoming a tragic, chilling symbol of a continent turning its back on human rights.

In 2016 populist movements and messages burst into the mainstream. Politicians across the region tapped into widespread feelings of alienation and insecurity. Their targets were many: political elites, the EU, immigration, liberal media, Muslims, foreign nationals, globalization, gender equality and the ever-present threat of terrorism. In power, in countries like Poland and Hungary, they achieved most, but also further west, they forced anxious establishment parties to borrow many of their clothes and usher in many of their policies. The result was a pervasive weakening of the rule of law and an erosion in the protection of human rights, particularly for refugees and terrorism suspects, but ultimately for everyone.

Further east, long-established strongmen strengthened their grip on power. In Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, constitutional amendments extending presidential terms were ushered in. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin continued to surf the wave of popularity generated by Russia's excursions in Ukraine and its resurgent influence internationally, while undermining civil society at home. Across the former Soviet Union, the repression of dissent and political opposition remained surgical and constant.

The region's most tumultuous developments took place in Turkey, which was shaken by ongoing clashes in the southeast, a series of bombings and shootings and a violent coup attempt in July. The government's backsliding on human rights accelerated dramatically in its wake. Having identified one-time ally turned bitter foe Fethullah Gulen as responsible, the Turkish authorities moved with speed to crush the extensive movement he had created. Around 90,000 civil servants, most of them presumed Gulenists, were dismissed by executive decree. At least 40,000 people were remanded in custody, amid widespread allegations of torture and other ill-treatment. Hundreds of media outlets and NGOs were closed down and journalists, academics and MPs were arrested as the crackdown progressively moved beyond the nexus of the coup and weaved in other dissenters and pro-Kurdish voices.


Following the arrival by sea of just over a million refugees and migrants in 2015, EU member states were determined to dramatically reduce their number in 2016. In this they succeeded, but only at the considerable, and quite deliberate, expense of their rights and welfare.

At the end of December, around 358,000 refugees and migrants had made the crossing into Europe. There was a modest increase in numbers taking the central Mediterranean route (up to around 170,000), but a sharp decline in numbers arriving on the Greek islands (down from 854,000 to 173,000), owing almost entirely to the migration control deal between EU and Turkey agreed in March. The International Organization for Migration estimated that a record 5,000 people died at sea compared to around 3,700 last year.

The EU-Turkey deal was the EU's signature response to the so-called "refugee crisis". Turkey was offered €6 billion to police its coastline and accept the return of asylum-seekers who made it across to the Greek islands. The deal was premised on the untrue assertion that Turkey offered asylum-seekers all the protections they would be entitled to in the EU. With a barely functioning asylum system in place, and nearly three million Syrian refugees already struggling to get by, the claim stood testimony to the EU's willingness to ignore the rights and livelihoods of refugees to suit its political purposes.

Even though the numbers of new arrivals slowed to a few thousand a month on average, the reception capacity on the Greek islands was still severely stretched. By the end of the year, some 12,000 refugees and asylum-seekers were stranded there in increasingly overcrowded, insanitary and dangerous conditions in makeshift centres. The poor conditions periodically sparked riots within the camps, while some were attacked by locals accused of links to far right groups. Conditions for the around 50,000 refugees and migrants on the Greek mainland were only marginally better. By the end of the year, most had found shelter in official reception facilities. However, these mostly consisted of tents and abandoned warehouses and were unsuitable for accommodation for more than a few days.

As the year drew to a close, the EU-Turkey deal remained in place, but looked increasingly fragile. By then it was clear, however, that it was only a first line of defence. The second initiative to stop people arriving in Europe was the closure of the Balkan route above Greece in March. Macedonia and successive Balkan countries were prevailed upon to close their borders and assisted in the task by border guards from different European countries. The move was initially championed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, then taken up by Austria. For many EU leaders, the misery of refugees trapped in Greece was clearly a price worth paying to discourage more from coming.

The lack of solidarity with refugees and fellow EU member states was typical of the migration policies of most EU countries, which united in their plans to restrict entry and expedite return. This became apparent in the failure of the EU's flagship relocation scheme. Adopted by EU heads of state in September, with a view to distributing the responsibility for receiving the large number of refugees arriving in a small number of countries, the plan foresaw the relocation of 120,000 people from Italy, Greece and Hungary across the EU within two years. After Hungary rejected the scheme, figuring it would be better off simply closing its borders altogether, its quota was reallocated to Greece and Italy. By the end of the year, only around 6,000 people had been relocated from Greece and just under 2,000 from Italy.

The relocation scheme was coupled with another EU initiative from 2015: the "hotspot approach". This EU Commission-inspired plan foresaw large processing centres in Italy and Greece to identify and fingerprint new arrivals, swiftly assess their protection needs and either process their asylum applications, relocate them to other EU countries or return them to their country of origin (or for those arriving in Greece, to Turkey). With the relocation component of the plan effectively falling away, Italy and Greece were left facing enormous pressure to fingerprint, process and return as many migrants as possible. There were incidents of ill-treatment being used to secure fingerprints, arbitrary detention of migrants and collective expulsions. In August, a group of 40 people, many from Darfur, were returned to Sudan shortly after a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by Italian and Sudanese police. Upon arrival in Sudan, the migrants were interrogated by the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service, an agency implicated in serious human rights violations.

The drive to return as many migrants as possible increasingly became a key feature of EU and member state foreign policy. In October the EU and Afghanistan signed the co-operation agreement "Joint Way Forward". Signed on the back of a donor conference, the agreement obliged Afghanistan to collaborate in the return of failed Afghan asylum-seekers (asylum recognition rates for Afghans fell in most countries despite growing insecurity in the country), including unaccompanied minors.

The central place of migration management in EU foreign policy was explicitly laid out in another document, the "Partnership Framework", endorsed by the European Council in June. The plan proposed using aid, trade and other funds to pressure countries to reduce the number of migrants reaching EU shores, while negotiating border control co-operation and re-admission agreements including with serial human rights abusing countries.

The drive to externalize Europe's migration management went hand in glove with measures to restrict access to asylum and related benefits nationally. The trend was particularly observable in previously generous Nordic countries: Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway all introduced regressive amendments to their asylum legislation, the last with the intention to ensure that Norway had "the strictest refugee policy in Europe". Finland, Sweden and Denmark, as well as Germany, all restricted or delayed access to family reunification for refugees.

States closest to the EU main external borders adopted the strictest measures. In January, the Austrian government announced a cap of 37,500 asylum applications for the year. In April, an amendment to the Asylum Act granted the government the power to declare an emergency in the event of the arrival of large numbers of asylum-seekers, triggering the accelerated processing of applications at the border and the immediate return, without reasoned motivation, of those rejected.

The deterioration of Europe's asylum system hit its lowest point in Hungary. After constructing a fence along the majority of its border with Serbia in September 2015 and amending its asylum legislation, in 2016 the Hungarian government ushered in a set of measures which resulted in violent push-backs at the border with Serbia, unlawful detentions inside the country and poor living conditions for those waiting at the border. While the Hungarian government spent millions of euros on a xenophobic advertising campaign in support of its ultimately failed referendum to reject the EU relocation scheme, refugees were left to languish. Infringement proceedings initiated by the European Commission for the multiple breaches of EU and international asylum law remained open at the end of the year.

At the opposite end of Europe, in France, the build-up of asylum-seekers and migrants at the "Jungle" camp in Calais and its dismantling in October became as much a symbol of Europe's failed migration policies as the bursting camps on the Greek islands Lesvos and Chios and the makeshift shelters in front of Hungary's razor wire fences.

Germany's impressive efforts to shelter and process the asylum applications of the almost one million people who arrived in Germany the year before was perhaps the only positive government response to the "refugee crisis" in Europe. Overall, it was left to ordinary citizens to show the solidarity their leaders were lacking. In countless reception centres across Europe, tens of thousands of people showed again and again that there was another side to the increasingly toxic migration debate by welcoming and supporting refugees and migrants.


Over a hundred people were killed and many more injured in violent attacks in France, Belgium and Germany. They were shot by armed men, blown up by suicide bombers and deliberately run over as they walked in the street. Protecting the right to life and enabling people to live, to move and to think freely became an increasingly pressing concern for governments across Europe. However, many responded to the challenge of upholding these essential freedoms by rushing through counter-terrorism measures that undermined human rights and the very values that had come under attack.

2016 witnessed a profound paradigm shift: a move from the view that it is the role of governments to provide security so that people can enjoy their rights, to the view that governments must restrict people's rights in order to provide security. The result has been a dangerous redrawing of the boundaries between the powers of the state and the rights of individuals.

One of the most alarming developments was the effort by states to make it easier to invoke and prolong a "state of emergency". Hungary led the way with the adoption of legislation providing for sweeping executive powers in the event of a declared emergency, including the banning of public assemblies, severe restrictions on the freedom of movement and the freezing of assets with no judicial controls. The Bulgarian Parliament passed a similar set of measures at first vote in July. In December, France extended for the fifth time the state of emergency imposed following the November 2015 attacks. The emergency powers were significantly expanded in the July extension, which reintroduced house searches without prior judicial approval (a power dropped from an earlier extension) and new powers to prohibit public events on public security grounds, which were variously used to ban protests. Figures released by the government in December 2016 indicated that since November 2015, 4,292 house searches had been conducted and 612 people had been assigned to forced residency, raising concern that the emergency powers were being used disproportionately.

Measures once viewed as exceptional were embedded in ordinary criminal law in several European states. These included extensions in the period of pre-charge detention for terrorism-related suspects in Slovakia and Poland and a proposal to do the same for all charges in Belgium. In the Netherlands and Bulgaria, proposals were put before Parliament to introduce administrative control measures to restrict people's freedom of movement without prior judicial authorization. Pioneered in the UK and France, such controls, in some cases amounting to house arrest, were imposed on the basis of secret security files leaving those affected unable to effectively challenge measures with harmful effects on their lives and families.

Hundreds of people were prosecuted, in violation of the right to freedom of expression, for offences of apologizing for or glorifying terrorism, especially in France, often for comments posted on social media, and less frequently in Spain. A proposed EU Directive on Combating Terrorism, which was still pending adoption at the end of the year, would lead to the proliferation of such laws. A proposal to prohibit the vague "promoting terrorism" was put forward in Germany, while bills setting out similar offences were put before Parliament in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Across Europe, states significantly enhanced their surveillance powers, in defiance of repeated rulings by the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights that covert surveillance and the interception and retention of communications data would violate the right to privacy unless based on a reasonable suspicion of serious criminal activity and to the extent strictly necessary for making an effective contribution to combating such activity. Both courts have repeatedly stated that national legislation on surveillance must provide sufficient guarantees against misuse, including prior authorization by a court or other independent authority. The UK introduced perhaps the most wide-ranging bulk and targeted surveillance powers with the adoption of the Investigatory Powers Act in November. Commonly referred to as the "snooper's charter", it permitted a broad range of vaguely defined interception, interference and data retention practices, and imposed new requirements on private companies to store communications data. All powers under the new law – both targeted and mass – could be authorized by a government minister after review, in most but not all cases, by a quasi-judicial body composed of members appointed by the Prime Minister. In December, the Court of Justice of the EU ruled that the UK surveillance legislation violated the right to privacy.

In addition to the UK, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Russia and Poland adopted new surveillance-related legislation during the year, all introducing, with minor variations, extensive powers to collect and store electronic data and conduct targeted surveillance activities on loosely defined target groups or suspected individuals with little to no judicial or other oversight. The Netherlands and Finland both had legislative proposals pending at the end of the year.


Across Europe, Muslims and migrants were vulnerable to racial profiling and discrimination by police, both in connection with anti-terrorism powers and during regular law enforcement operations, including identity checks.

Initiatives to combat violent extremism, often including reporting obligations on public institutions, risked alienating Muslim communities and curbing freedom of expression. Bulgaria and the Swiss Parliament adopted legislation banning the wearing of full-face veils in public. Draft legislation banning full-face veils was still pending before the Dutch Parliament by the end of the year, while a similar proposal was put forward in Germany. In France several coastal municipalities sought to ban the wearing of "burkinis" on the beach. The discriminatory provisions were struck down by the Council of State, but a number of municipalities persevered regardless.

Several European countries saw an increase in hate crimes targeting asylum-seekers, Muslims and foreign nationals. In Germany there was a sharp increase in attacks on shelters for asylum-seekers, and in the UK hate crimes surged by 14% in the three months after the referendum on the UK's withdrawal from the EU (Brexit) in June compared to the same period the previous year.

Roma continued to face widespread discrimination across Europe in access to housing, education, health and employment. Roma remained vulnerable to forced evictions across Central Europe, but also in France and Italy. There was a growing trend of courts finding in favour of evicted communities, but their decisions rarely led to improvements for the affected residents.

There were positive developments in the Czech Republic; under the impulse of EU infringement proceedings, a series of reforms to reduce the over-representation of Roma in special schools came into effect with the start of the school year in September.

There was progress, albeit uneven, in the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. France adopted a new law scrapping medical requirements for legal gender recognition and Norway granted the right on the basis of self-identification. Similar moves were under way in Greece and Denmark. A number of countries moved to respect the rights of same-sex couples and second-parent adoptions. Italy and Slovenia adopted legislation recognizing same-sex partnerships. An LGBTI Pride March on 12 June in Kyiv, capital of Ukraine, supported by the authorities and heavily protected by police, passed without incident. With about 2,000 participants, it became the biggest-ever event of its kind in Ukraine.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, consensual same-sex acts remained criminal offences in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In Kyrgyzstan, draft legislation to criminalize "fostering a positive attitude" towards "non-traditional sexual relations" was still under discussion in Parliament, and a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage was approved in a referendum in December. There was also push-back from increasingly organized, sometimes state-supported, conservative groups. Proposals for referendums to change constitutional definitions of marriage and family to explicitly exclude same-sex couples were blocked by the President in Georgia, but allowed to be put to Parliament by the Constitutional Court in Romania. A proposal to amend the Lithuanian Constitution to this effect passed the first of two required votes in Parliament in June, just days after 3,000 people joined a "March for Equality" to celebrate the 2016 Baltic Pride in the capital, Vilnius.

Progress on women's rights was also fitful. Violence against women remained pervasive, despite increasingly strong legislative protections. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Latvia signed the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women (Istanbul Convention). It was ratified in Romania and Belgium. In a sharply regressive move, however, the Polish government announced its intention to withdraw from the Convention, only one year after its ratification, and despite an estimated up to one million women victims per year in the country. The ruling party also restricted sexual and reproductive rights. Following a general women's strike on 3 October, the Polish Parliament rejected a bill proposing a near total ban on abortion and criminalization of women and girls who obtained an abortion and anyone assisting or encouraging them to have an abortion. In Ireland, calls to overhaul highly restrictive abortion legislation gained increasing momentum, while the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on Ireland to decriminalize abortion. Abortion remained criminalized in all circumstances in Malta.


The repression of dissent, critical opinion and political opposition remained the norm across the former Soviet Union. It remained particularly acute, but not noticeably worse than in previous years, in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Belarus. There was a marked deterioration in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, while Russia and Azerbaijan saw the deepening of a long-standing downward trend. Pro-Russian media came under ever greater attack in Ukraine, while pro-Ukrainian and Tatar voices were severely repressed in Crimea and within Russia. Freedom of expression was aggressively restricted in Turkey in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt. The Balkans remained a dangerous place for investigative journalists, dozens of whom faced prosecution and beatings for exposing abuses, while within the EU, Poland, Hungary and Croatia muzzled public broadcasters.

Russia continued to tighten the noose on NGOs, using defamatory media campaigns and the "Foreign Agents Law" to target the most critical. Dozens of independent NGOs receiving foreign funding were added to the list of "foreign agents" bringing the total number to 146, of which 35 had closed down permanently. Prosecutors also brought the first criminal case for "systematic evasion of duties imposed by the law" against Valentina Cherevatenko, the founder and Chair of the Women of the Don Union. The freedom of peaceful assembly also continued to be tightly controlled.

Kazakhstan also used criminal law provisions targeting NGO leaders for the first time. Dozens of "organizers" and hundreds of participants in protests in April and May against the new land code were detained. There was an increase in prosecutions for posts on social media in violation of the right to freedom of expression, while several prominent journalists were convicted on charges of "knowingly disseminating false information" and embezzlement. In January, changes to the Law on Communications came into force requiring internet users to install a "national security certificate" which allowed authorities to scan communications and to block access to content which the authorities judged to be illegal.

Tajikistan saw a significant crackdown in the wake of the targeting of the banned opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, 14 of whose leading members were sentenced to long prison terms on terrorism charges in secret trials. In August, the government issued a five-year decree giving it the right to "regulate and control" the content of all television and radio networks through the State Broadcasting Committee. Human rights defenders came under tight surveillance, while independent media outlets and journalists faced intimidation and harassment by police and the security services. The authorities continued to order internet service providers to block access to certain news or social media sites, while a new decree required internet providers and telecommunications operators to channel their services through a new single communications centre under the state-owned company Tajiktelecom.

Azerbaijan continued to repress opposition activists, human rights NGOs and independent media. Twelve prisoners of conscience were released, but 14 remained in jail at the end of the year, including Ilgar Mammadov, whose sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court in November despite the European Court of Human Rights ruling requiring his release. Amnesty International was denied entry to the country, bringing Azerbaijan in line with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Public protests remained severely restricted; the few that took place were dispersed by police with excessive force and political activists were arrested for organizing them.

The media in Ukraine remained generally free, but a number of media outlets perceived as supporting pro-Russian or pro-separatist views and those particularly critical of the authorities faced harassment. Independent journalists were unable to work in Crimea, where the occupying Russian authorities continued to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression, of association and of peaceful assembly. Crimean Tatars faced particular repression.

The respect for freedom of expression deteriorated sharply in Turkey, especially after the declaration of a state of emergency in the wake of the failed coup attempt in July. There were 118 journalists remanded in pre-trial detention and 184 media outlets were arbitrarily and permanently closed down under executive decrees. Internet censorship increased and 375 NGOs, including women's rights groups, lawyers associations and humanitarian organizations were shut by executive decree in November.


Torture and other ill-treatment was widespread throughout the former Soviet Union; nominal improvements in law continued to be made in a few countries, but impunity remained the norm. The prospect of accountability for the large-scale abuses by law enforcement officials during the Euromaydan protests in 2013-14, the Gezi park protests in 2013 and the ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010 receded in Ukraine, remained remote in Turkey and dwindled to vanishing in Kyrgyzstan.

In the EU, accountability for complicity in the US-led rendition programme remained distant, despite ongoing proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights. By the end of the year, not a single person had been found criminally liable for their involvement in the unlawful detention and torture and other ill-treatment of terrorism suspects in Poland, Lithuania or Romania.

Having made notable progress in the eradication of torture in places of detention over the last decade, there was an alarming spike in the number of reported cases in the wake of the failed coup attempt in Turkey. With thousands of people detained in official and unofficial police detention, reports of severe beatings, sexual assault, threats of rape and rape were consistently but implausibly denied by the Turkish authorities.


Towards the end of the year, Turkey's President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan promised to put the reintroduction of the death penalty before Parliament, in defiance of widespread international condemnation and Turkey's obligations as a Council of Europe member state. Belarus, Europe's last remaining executing state, executed four people in the course of the year, despite the government making – not for the first time – some encouraging noises about its imminent abolition. In Kazakhstan, one man was sentenced to death on terrorism-related charges.


In November, the International Criminal Court in its preliminary examination of the fighting in eastern Ukraine concluded that it amounted to an international armed conflict. Sporadic clashes continued, but the overall situation remained militarily and politically deadlocked. The Russian-backed authorities in Donbas retained near total autonomy. By the end of the year, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine estimated the number of casualties at almost 10,000, including at least 2,000 civilians. Both the Ukrainian authorities and separatist forces in eastern Ukraine engaged in unlawful detentions of civilians they suspected of sympathizing with the other side, as currency for "prisoner exchanges". All of those known to be secretly detained by Ukrainian forces had been released by the end of the year.

A brief flurry of fighting broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Armenian-backed breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region in April. The fighting lasted four days, resulting in small numbers of military and civilian casualties, mutual recrimination and small territorial gains by Azerbaijan.

The Turkish authorities continued to conduct heavily militarized operations in numerous urban areas across southeast Turkey, in response to the digging of trenches and erecting of barricades by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) affiliated groups towards the end of 2015. These operations were largely over by June, by which time round-the-clock curfews and the use of excessive force, including heavy weaponry, had resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties, large-scale destruction of residential areas and the forced displacement of up to half a million people.

Clashes between the PKK and Turkish forces outside urban areas, and sporadic PKK attacks on government buildings were ongoing at the end of the year as the peace process that broke down in 2015 showed no sign of resuming. The prospect of renewed talks was undermined by a severe crackdown on Kurdish media, civil society and political opposition, including through the use of emergency powers adopted in the wake of the July failed coup.

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