“I am not asking for declarations. I demand actions.” – Europe and Central Asia in February

February saw both welcome and worrying developments in the region, including: the conviction of a lifelong criminal for the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia; Alexei Navalny sent to prison and losing his prisoner of conscience status; harsh prison sentences handed to two journalists in Belarus; and a sharp rise in homophobic hate speech and intolerance of trans rights.

Russia: A question of conscience

On 2 February, anti-corruption journalist and opposition leader Alexei Navalny was sentenced to serve two-and-a-half years in prison on highly dubious embezzlement charges. On 25 February, he began his transfer to a Russian prison colony. This prisoner transfer process can take a long time and prisoners’ families often lose track of their loved ones’ whereabouts. Navalny’s own lawyer has said that he didn’t know where his client was being sent.

A lot happened between 2 and 25 of February: Navalny delivered a defiant speech at his embezzlement hearing, in which he lambasted “Vladimir [Putin] the Underpants Poisoner” and the corrupt regime over which he presides; Navalny was also convicted of slandering a WWII veteran and ordered to pay €9,500; and Amnesty International declared that it was removing Navalny’s prisoner of conscience status (though it said it would still campaign for his release).

That decision puzzled and angered many.

Navalny supporters and others accused Amnesty of having surrendered to an organised campaign by Kremlin-friendly actors to get Navalny ‘de-listed’ as a prisoner of conscience (based on well known xenophobic comments he made over ten years ago – see January’s brief for details). Amnesty’s accusers say that removing this classification will tarnish Navalny’s credibility as a victim of Russian authoritarianism – something that the Kremlin has been trying to do for a long time.

But it also does more than this.

Being classified as a prisoner of conscience lends serious weight to a victim of injustice, both in the minds of activists and the general public; it underscores the credibility of the case. It can also provide a significant morale boost to that prisoner as they face an often extended period of time behind bars. Removing that status is arguably just as potent an act as bestowing it in the first place because, by introducing an element of doubt, it lays the groundwork for a potential erosion of support and solidarity. Doing this to a prisoner (acknowledged this month by an Amnesty leader as “the most important case in Russia”) at such a pivotal moment – i.e. just as he is about to be transferred into an unforgiving and often brutal prison system – is unlikely to have positive consequences for that prisoner.

A statement on 25 February by Amnesty denied that a Russian smear campaign had influenced the organisation but regretted the “poor timing” of an “internal decision” which had “unintentionally distracted from the campaign for Navalny’s immediate release”. It concluded thus:

“There should be no confusion: nothing Navalny has said in the past justifies his current detention, which is purely politically motivated. Navalny has been arbitrarily detained for exercising his right to freedom of expression, and for this reason we continue to campaign for his immediate release.”

This statement was followed the day after by another, this time from Amnesty’s Acting Secretary General, acknowledging that Amnesty had been targeted by a “Russian smear campaign” and promising an investigation into “what went wrong”.

This second statement came after two well known, pro-Kremlin pranksters posing as Navalny’s colleague Leonid Volkov took part in a video call about the prisoner of conscience decision with Amnesty leaders. They then posted the video online.

The Kremlin is well known for targeting rights organisations (usually within Russian borders) via legislation, judicial harassment or by attempting to undermine their credibility. And the threat posed by disinformation and smear narratives emanating from Kremlin-friendly sources is widely recognised. The Navalny-Amnesty affair would seem to be a pretty good example of all this at work.

For some context on Navalny’s past xenophobic comments and nationalism, the Global Voices website provides some analysis from a Central Asian perspective. Also, check out this Twitter thread by Kyrgyz journalist Bermet Talant, who focuses on the Amnesty aspect of the Navalny story.

On 1 March, UN experts issued a firm statement calling on Russia to release Navalny and urging an international investigation into the near-fatal poisoning of the opposition leader on Russian soil last year. “We believe that poisoning Mr. Navalny with Novichok might have been deliberately carried out to send a clear, sinister warning that this would be the fate of anyone who would criticise and oppose the Government. Novichok was precisely chosen to cause fear”, they said.

Malta: A win against impunity

The final week of February saw a welcome win in the battle against impunity in Malta: a court sentenced lifelong criminal Vincent Muscat to 15 years in prison for the 2017 car bomb murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia; another four men – Robert and Adrian Agius, Jamie Vella and George Degiorgio – were charged by police in connection to the killing and other crimes.

Although there has been much speculation about the possible involvement of political figures in the murder – especially since Caruana Galizia exposed serious corruption in the ranks of the political establishment – Police Commissioner Angelo Gafa declared that everyone involved in the crime had been caught and that the police had found no evidence of any politician’s involvement.

According to reports, however, the murderer Vincent Muscat told police that former economy minister Chris Cardona was involved in one aborted plot to kill Caruana Galizia in 2015, and that he had known of the plot to kill her in 2017. Cardona strenuously denies these accusations and police are understood to be treating the claims with caution.

IFEX members welcomed the news of the conviction but also called for all of those involved in the crime to be brought to justice.

Belarus: UN must do more

With the crackdown on independent media and opposition activists continuing into February, a coalition of IFEX members and other rights groups called for the immediate release of all journalists detained in Belarus. Among those journalists were Belsat reporters Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova who, mid-month, were sentenced to two years in prison – solely for reporting on a protest in November 2020.

Mid-month also saw police raids on rights organisations’ offices and, in some cases, their members’ homes. Among the groups targeted was local IFEX member the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). BAJ’s chairman Andrei Bastunets was briefly detained while officers searched his office. The organisation’s premises were also sealed, seriously obstructing its work.

Towards the end of the month, at the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights presented her report on the situation in Belarus in which she detailed ongoing, serious rights violations and made multiple recommendations with regard to redress for victims and the improvement of the rights environment generally. At the enhanced interactive dialogue session, ARTICLE 19 and BAJ delivered an oral statement calling on the Council to put “greater accountability mechanisms in place to collect and preserve evidence of crimes under international law, and ultimately ensure that perpetrators are held accountable”.

Gender focus

In February, LGBTQI+ rights organisation ILGA-Europe published its 2021 review of the human rights situation for LGBTQI+ people in Europe and Central Asia. In many ways, it makes for discouraging reading. Noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted “all the gaps in terms of lived realities” for LGBTQI+ people across the region, the report finds that there was a sharp rise in hate speech during the last year, and that legislative changes essential to achieving equality are stagnating or backsliding in a substantial number of countries.

According to the report, hate speech directed at LGBTQI+ people by politicians has increased in Albania, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Kosovo, Latvia, Moldova, North Macedonia, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, and Turkey. In Belarus, Greece, Slovakia, Turkey and Ukraine, religious figures have also been prominent in carrying out verbal attacks on LGBTQI+ people, in many cases blaming them for COVID-19.

The report also finds a significant growth in opposition to trans rights, which is having a negative impact on legal gender recognition:

“There is regression in Austria, Croatia, Finland, Hungary, Lithuania, Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia and the UK, and stagnation in Germany, Andorra, Cyprus, Czechia, Georgia, Germany, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Sweden. In many of these countries, opposition forces have become louder, pretending that advancing the protection against discrimination and self-determination for trans people would harm women’s rights or ‘the protection of minors’.”

The report contains short chapters on each country in the region: it’s well worth checking out.

CIVICUS published an interesting article this month on the persecution of women’s rights activists in Poland. Since last year, when the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortion in cases of severe and irreversible foetal abnormalities was unconstitutional, women’s groups have been protesting via a national Women’s Strike. The Tribunal’s decision, which, in practical terms, meant an almost total ban on abortion in Poland, came into effect in January 2021. The response from the police to the Women’s Strike has often been harsh and, at times, violent. The CIVICUS article reports that at least 150 people have been detained in connection with the protests and that Marta Lempart, a co-founder of the Women’s Strike, has been charged with “insulting a police officer”, “causing an epidemiological threat”, “praising the vandalism of churches” and the “malicious obstruction” of religious services.  If convicted, she faces up to eight years in prison.

Lempart addressed the European Parliament in late February and called on the EU to take action and hold Poland to account for its ongoing war on women’s rights. Lempart’s address was passionate and direct:

“I am not asking for your concerns. I am not asking for declarations. I demand actions.”

You can watch a video of her address on the European Parliament website.

Hillary Margolis of Human Rights Watch provides useful context for Lempart’s speech and the EU’s hesitancy in taking definitive action against Poland on this matter.

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Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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