Sunday, February 01, 2015

Ukrainian Pilot In Russian Custody Transferred To Prison Hospital

A demonstrator in Kyiv holds aloft a picture of the Ukrainian army officer captured by pro-Russian insurgents and taken to Russia, Nadia Savchenko, with the words "Free Nadia Savchenko."


A lawyer for Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian military pilot who has been on a hunger strike in a Russian jail since mid-December, has been transferred to a prison hospital due to severe weight loss.

Savchenko lawyer Ilya Novikov told Interfax that his client, who is in the seventh week of a hunger strike, was transferred to the medical department at Moscow's notorious Matrosskaya Tishina detention center on January 29.

Nadia Savchenko: Anatomy Of A Hunger Strike


Savchenko has been charged with involvement in the deaths of two Russian journalists killed in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Savchenko, who was captured by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine in June and transferred to Russian custody in July, says Russia has no right to hold or try her.

Savchenko won a seat in Ukraine's parliament in October and was elected to represent Ukraine in the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE).

PACE officials and western leaders have called for Russia to release Savchenko. 

With reporting by Interfax

HRW: 'Big Mistake' For Governments To Ignore Human Rights During Crises

Riot police detain a protester during an opposition rally in Moscow. (file photo)

Antoine Blua

Human Rights Watch (HRW) warns in its annual world report that many governments across the globe are making a “big mistake” by ignoring human rights to counter security challenges, calling human rights instead a "path out of crisis and chaos."

The New York-based group on January 29 published its World Report 2015, a review of human rights practices in more than 90 countries from the end of 2013 through November 2014.

In his introductory essay, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth says the last year has been particularly tumultuous.

HRW chief Kenneth RothHRW chief Kenneth Roth
HRW chief Kenneth Roth
HRW chief Kenneth Roth

He cites conflicts that followed Arab Spring uprisings, atrocities committed by Islamist extremists across the Middle East and parts of Asia and Africa, and Cold War-type tensions revived over the Ukraine crisis.

Stressing the important role that human rights violations played in “spawning or aggravating” those crises, Roth argues that “protecting human rights and ensuring democratic accountability are key to resolving them.”

Roth says, for instance, “the sectarian and abusive policies of the Iraqi and Syrian governments [and] international indifference to them” have been important factors in fueling the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.

HRW European Media Director Andrew Stroehlein tells RFE/RL: “What we're really seeing now are a lot of excuses for not upholding fundamental rights on the basis of security concerns.”

"Really, we want to turn that security versus human rights idea completely on its head," Stroehlein says, "because you don't have security unless you have a guarantee of human rights."

Members of an Iraqi Shi'ite militia flash the victory sign while holding an Islamic State flag captured in southern Iraq in October 2014.
Members of an Iraqi Shi'ite militia flash the victory sign while holding an Islamic State flag captured in southern Iraq in October 2014.

On Iraq, HRW’s World Report 2015 says the government still relies primarily on Shi'ite militias "who carry out killing and cleansing of Sunni civilians with impunity."

It adds: "Reforming a corrupt and abusive judiciary, and ending sectarian rule so Sunnis feel they have a place in Iraq, will be at least as important as military action" against atrocities committed by IS militants.

On Russia, Roth says the Kremlin in 2012 began what has become “the most intense crackdown on dissent since the Soviet era,” targeting human rights groups, dissidents, independent journalists, and peaceful protesters.

Roth says the “relatively narrow” Western reaction to such violations “may well have aggravated” the Ukrainian crisis as the resulting closed information system enabled the Kremlin to suppress most public criticism of its actions in Ukraine.

"The fact that nobody actually addressed these [abuses] in any coherent and direct way gave Moscow a feeling that, 'We can keep going, we can push and push,’” Stroehlein says. “Again we see how security and human rights are not opposites.”

Meanwhile, Roth says, the desire to present Ukraine as the innocent victim of Russian aggression has made the West reluctant to challenge Ukrainian abuses, including “the use of ‘voluntary battalions’ that routinely abuse detainees, or the indiscriminate firing of weapons into populated areas.”

Pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine themselves, he adds, have “seriously abused detainees and have endangered the civilian population by launching rockets from their midst.”

Azerbaijani rights activist Leyla Yunus was arrested in July, and her husband, Arif Yunus, was arrested in August.They are being held separately in pretrial detention on charges of treason and other crimes, which they say are unfounded and politically motivated.
Azerbaijani rights activist Leyla Yunus was arrested in July, and her husband, Arif Yunus, was arrested in August.They are being held separately in pretrial detention on charges of treason and other crimes, which they say are unfounded and politically motivated.

Elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, Stroehlein says there hasn’t been "anything spectacularly good in the last year."

He cites the Azerbaijani government’s “horrific crackdown” on civil society and critics, marking a dramatic deterioration in its already poor rights record.

The HRW report says Azerbaijani authorities convicted or imprisoned at least 33 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers on politically motivated charges, while many independent civic groups were forced to cease their activities.

Such abuses took place as Azerbaijan in May took over the six-month rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights organization.

Report Warns Of 'Disturbing' Decline In Global Freedom

Freedom House said terrorism had a "devastating" impact on many countries including Syria.


A leading democracy watchdog says global freedom suffered a "disturbing" decline in 2014, with Syria ranking as the world's least free country and Russia's "invasion" of Ukraine dealing a bad blow to democracy.

In an annual report, U.S.-based Freedom House found that an upsurge in terrorist attacks and increasingly aggressive tactics used by authoritarian regimes had contributed to "a growing disdain for democratic standards" in nearly all regions of the world in 2014.

"Acceptance of democracy as the world's dominant form of government -- and of an international system built on democratic ideals -- is under greater threat than at any other point in the last 25 years," said Arch Puddington, vice president for research at Freedom House.

The Freedom in the World 2015 report, published on January 28, assessed the level of freedom in 195 countries. Its subtitle is Discarding Democracy: Return to the Iron Fist.

Despite advances in countries such as Cuba and Tunisia, it said nearly twice as many countries suffered democratic declines as gains in 2014.

It pointed to terrorism as a leading factor, saying Islamist militants in many regions of the world "massacred security forces and civilians alike, took foreigners hostage, and killed or enslaved religious minorities, including Muslims they deemed apostates."

Freedom House said terrorism had a "devastating" impact on countries including Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Nigeria.

In Iraq, the report said last year was marked by "the Islamic State's attempts to destroy Christian, Shiite,Yazidi, and other communities under its control, as well as attacks on Sunnis by state-sponsored Shiite militias."

In Iran, Freedom House said hardliners were preventing the passage of any potential reforms to increase civil liberties or decrease government interference in the lives of Iranians.

Afghanistan suffered "increased violence against journalists and civilians amid the withdrawal of international combat troops." It also noted an increase in violence against women there.

The report said freedom also receded in a "troubling number" of large, economically powerful countries including Russia, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Mexico, or Turkey.

It cited what it called "Russia's invasion of Ukraine, including the outright seizure and formal annexation of Crimea," as one of the worst democratic rollbacks of 2014.

Russia itself was ranked as "not free" due to deepening government crackdown on dissent, independent media, and nongovernmental organizations.

The report said that in Azerbaijan. there was an increase in cases of abuse and jailings of government critics, including human rights advocates and journalists.

The report voiced concerns over dwindling freedoms in Egypt, pressure on independent media and civil society in Turkey, and further centralization of authority in China.

Syria, described as "a dictatorship mired in civil war and ethnic division and facing uncontrolled terrorism," received the lowest score of any country in more than a decade.

In Ukraine, the report found that the gains "related to the ouster of corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych" were offset by Russia's annexation of Crimea and ongoing fighting between government forces and Russian-backed separatists in the country's east.

Ukraine was rated as only "partly free."

Crimea -- under Russian control since March -- was evaluated separately for the first time and received ratings "only slightly better" than those of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, two of the worst-ranked countries.

The other "worst of the worst" countries and territories were the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tibet, and Western Sahara.

The report singled out Kyrgyzstan as enjoying the highest levels of freedom in Central Asia despite "increased government restrictions on freedom of assembly and civil society groups."

Kyrgyzstan, rated as "partly free," was the only Central Asian country that didn't receive a "not free" rating.

While Europe was found to have suffered limited democratic setbacks in 2014, the report highlighted the wave of protests sparked in the United States by the police killings of unarmed African Americans and denounced "the repeated failure of prosecutors to secure indictments of the officers responsible."

It also cited the CIA's reported "torture and mistreatment of terrorism suspects" in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Of the 195 countries assessed in the report, 89 were rated "free," 55 "partly free," and 51 "not free."

UN Official Urges Independent Investigation Of Zhanaozen

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

ASTANA -- The UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association says an independent international investigation into the deadly 2011 events in the Kazakh city of Zhanaozen is needed.

Maina Kiai said at a public hearing in Astana on January 27 that such investigations are needed to restore people's trust in the central government.

Kiai came to Kazakhstan last week and met in Zhanaozen with residents, rights activists, union members, and local officials.

Kazakh police shot dead at least 16 people during a crackdown on an oil worker protest in Zhanaozen in December 2011.

International and domestic rights organizations condemned the action against the protesters, who were demanding the payment of overdue salaries.

Dozens of activists, several police, and local officials were sentenced to prison terms after the deadly crackdown.

But Kazakh civil rights activists say none of those who gave the command to shoot were arrested. 

Advocate For Azerbaijani Rights Activist Attacked In Baku

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

BAKU -- A jailed Azerbaijani human rights activist's social defender and supporter has been attacked in Baku.

Gunay Ismayilova told RFE/RL that an unknown man came up behind her and grabbed her neck as she walked near her apartment block in Baku the night of January 26.

Gunay Ismayilova is one of several "social defenders" of rights activist Rasul Cafarov, whose trial is under way in Baku.

Ismayilova says after being grabbed she immediately pushed backwards and the attacker lessened his grip on her.

As Ismayilova escaped his grasp and screamed, the assailant ran away. 

Ismayilova says she does not think the attack was an attempted robbery.

Cafarov, who was arrested in August, has been charged with tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, abuse of office, and forgery.

His supporters say the charges are politically motivated.

Georgian Media, Rights Groups Say Bill Would Stifle Free Expression

RFE/RL's Georgian Service

TBILISI -- Twenty Georgian media freedom and human rights groups joined more than a dozen news outlets in condemning a government-proposed bill criminalizing "strife-inciting calls."

In a joint statement issued on January 26, the news and rights organizations warned that the bill poses the "risk of unreasonably restricting freedom of expression and stifling criticism."

The bill, drafted by the Interior Ministry, that "calls inciting strife, i.e. public calls for violent actions, made verbally, in written or through other forms of expression and aimed at causing enmity or discord between racial, religious, national, ethnic, social, linguistic or other groups, shall be punished with imprisonment from 2 to 5 years."

It was submitted to Parliament last week and it has yet to be debated.

Opponents warned that the "ambiguity" of the wording oin the proposed law would leave it open to broad interpretation and selective enforcement.

With reporting by

Navalny Calls For Rally After Court Upholds House Arrest


Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny has called on supporters to protest against the government on March 1.

Navalny issued the call on January 27, after a Moscow court rejected his request to throw out a house arrest order he contends is illegal.

On his website, Navalny urged supporters to attend the  "Vesna (Spring) Anti-Crisis March, which is being organized by opposition groups.

Navalny said demands would include the resignation of President Vladimir Putin and his government, fair elections on all levels, an end to the war in Ukraine, and the release of all political prisoners.

Navalny was convicted of fraud on December 30, given a 3 1/2 -year suspended sentence, and ordered to remain under house arrest until his appeals are exhausted.

Navalny denies guilt and says he is the target of a Kremlin-driven campaign to punish him for leading opposition protests and spearheading anticorruption investigations into powerful Putin allies.

With reporting by Interfax and AP

About This Blog

"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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