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The “humanity free zones”, 12,000 arrests, and new initiatives by IFEX members (Demo)

Belarus: broken bones and mild traumatic brain injuries

In Belarus, the huge demonstrations calling on President Lukashenka to step down continued in September, as did the brutal tactics employed by the authorities to repress these overwhelmingly peaceful protests. The month saw further persecution of journalists  and many hundreds of protesters detained: so far, there have been an estimated 12,000 arrests since the rigged presidential election in August.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report showing that hundreds of these detainees were subjected to systematic beatings and torture whilst in custody. According to HRW, the victims described beatings, prolonged stress positions, electric shocks and rape; many had serious injuries, “including broken bones, cracked teeth, skin wounds, electrical burns, and mild traumatic brain injuries”.

The authorities continued to target prominent independent and opposition voices, including members of the Belarusian Association of Journalists and Belarusian PEN. The most high profile arrests included those of opposition leader Maryia Kalesnikava and lawyers Maksim Znak and Illya Saley, all of whom are ranking members of the Coordination Council (the opposition organisation set up after the presidential election). They are all accused of attempting to harm Belarus’s national security.

The Internationally renowned writer and president of Belarusian PEN, Svetlana Alexievich, is the only member of the Coordination Council still in Belarus who is not in jail. Early in the month she reported that she was being harassed at her home by masked men in plain clothes. In response, diplomats from at least seven countries rushed to her home to protect her.

Mid-month, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced an independent expert investigation into the repression in Belarus and the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution setting in motion close UN human rights monitoring of the situation.

Towards the end of the month, there were reports that the US, UK and Canada were close to imposing sanctions on Belarusian officials.

Gender focus: Poland, Slovakia, Romania

“So I want to be crystal clear – LGBTQI-free zones are humanity free zones. And they have no place in our union.”

These were the words of the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, as she denounced the homophobic rhetoric and policies of Poland’s ruling party before the European Parliament in mid-September. She was referring to the discriminatory so- called ‘LGBT-free zones’ that have been promoted by the government and which now cover approximately one third of the country.

The EU has been deeply concerned about Poland’s direction of travel for some time. In 2017, it triggered Article 7 disciplinary proceedings against the country, declaring that Poland had seriously breached the core values of the EU. Though the Article 7 procedure can lead to the suspension of a country’s voting rights in the Council of the EU, there has not been much movement so far in Poland’s case.

The day after von der Leyen made her speech, MEPs adopted a resolution calling on the Council to “finally act” and conclude Article 7 proceedings against Poland. They cited ongoing discrimination against LGBTQI+ people, as well as the government’s attempts to undermine the independence of the judiciary, the “de facto criminalisation of sexual education and the drastic limitation, coming close to a de facto ban, on abortion and emergency contraception”, and the announced withdrawal of Poland from the Istanbul Convention.

In September, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, called on lawmakers in Slovakia to reject a draconian bill that would seriously restrict women’s right to access an abortion. If the bill becomes law, the mandatory waiting period before a woman can access abortion on request will be increased from 48 to 96 hours and women seeking an abortion on health grounds will need two medical certificates from separate doctors. The new legislation would also restrict a woman’s right to information by limiting the information that medical professionals can provide publicly about abortion services.

On 21 September, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights also published her observations on the absence of legal recognition of same-sex relationships in Romania. These observations took the form of a third party intervention before the European Court of Human Rights concerning the case of Florin Buhuceanu and Victor Ciobotaru v Romania and 12 other cases, which relate to the absence of a legal framework for the recognition of stable same-sex relationships.

In her observations, Mijatović cited a 2020 survey showing that while 48% of LGBTQI+ people in Romania are in stable, committed relationships (with 27% cohabiting with their partner), a massive 76% of them do not live openly and do not disclose their sexual orientation and gender identity. The Commissioner stressed that all states should afford same-sex couples effective and non-discriminatory legal recognition in the form of civil marriage, civil unions or registered partnerships, saying that without such recognition they are barred from fully enjoying their right to private and family life.

New initiatives by IFEX members

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) mechanism launched the ‘Report It’ campaign this month to create awareness of threats to journalists across Europe and provide an online platform to facilitate the easy reporting of those threats.

PEN Norway launched its Turkey Indictments Project which closely investigates the state of rule of law in Turkey via expert legal examination of 12 indictments in cases against the media, human rights activists and civil society.

The Center for Independent Journalism – Romania published a report, ‘Fundamental rights under siege. Exceptional circumstances create dangerous antecedents for the Romanian press’, which examines the threat presented to the press in Romania by the country’s COVID-19 emergency laws.

Index on Censorship published ‘Breaking the Silence, a report on implementable measures that could protect journalists threatened by SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) in Europe.

ARTICLE 19 launched a series of videos which explain the current violent crackdown on freedom of expression in Belarus. The first video is an interview with the chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Andrei Bastunets.

In brief

In France on 25 September, a knifeman stabbed two media workers outside the former Paris offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. The suspected attacker was arrested and, according to reports, admitted that he had been trying to target the magazine.

The trial of 14 people implicated in the 2015 mass shooting at the Charlie Hebdo offices began on 2 September, and, on the day the trial opened, the magazine republished the Muhammad cartoons which had originally made the publication a target of militant Islamist groups. The 14 defendants are mostly accused of providing weapons and logistics. Those who carried out the shooting are dead.

Albania looks set to press ahead with a worrying – and much criticised – ‘anti-defamation’ law that will drastically extend the authorities’ power over online free expression. For more on this law, see here.

In Malta, Prime Minister Robert Abela announced that the public inquiry into the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia would be extended until 15 December, effectively imposing a deadline on the inquiry. The late journalist’s family has objected to this arbitrary time limit, as has the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe’s rapporteur on the Caruana Galizia murder, Pieter Omtzigt.

In Turkey, the persecution and imprisonment of journalists, civil society activists and opposition voices goes on. The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers this month urged Turkey to abide by a 2019 decision by the European Court of Human Rights to immediately release civil society leader Osman Kavala. Except for a few hours in March 2020, Kavala has been behind bars on trumped up charges since October 2017.

Kremlin critic and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was released from hospital in Germany, where he had been receiving treatment following his poisoning in Russia last month. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called on Russia to carry out a thorough, independent and transparent investigation into the attempt on Navalny’s life and said that it was incumbent upon Russia to provide him with state protection.

In Slovakia, there was frustration and disappointment when a court acquitted the alleged mastermind behind the 2018 murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée. However, one of the hitmen was convicted and will serve 25 years in prison.

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