Accessibility links

Breaking News

Watchdog

Iranian protesters rally against an increase in gasoline prices in the capital, Tehran, on November 16, 2019.

The United States has singled out Iran, China, Venezuela, and Cuba for their gross abuses in its yearly report on human rights practices that covers 199 countries and territories.

Iran was chastised for its November crackdown on protesters following a government decision to raise fuel prices, according to the report, which covers global rights developments during 2019.

Security forces used lethal force to quash the protests, "killing approximately 1,500 persons and detaining 8,600, according to international media reports," the report stated.

Rights watchdog Amnesty International has provided a different estimate, saying that at least 304 people were killed and thousands injured.

During the unrest, the authorities "arbitrarily" detained thousands of people and subjected some to torture and other ill-treatment, the rights group has said.

"I want to let great Iranians...know America remembers those [lives] lost and stands for their freedom," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in opening remarks as he presented the report on March 11.

The report stated there was no indication "government entities were pursuing independent or impartial investigations into protester deaths."

Pompeo also highlighted the use of high-tech surveillance systems by China's Communist Party to monitor dissidents. He said Beijing imprisoned "religious minorities in internment camps [as] part of its historic antipathy toward religious believers," especially in the western Xinjiang Province.

Beijing's human rights record in the predominantly Muslim province "is the stain of the century," Pompeo said.

It was the State Department's 44th report and covers "internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements."

"Nothing is more fundamental to our identity than our belief in the rights and dignity of every single human being," Pompeo said.

"It's in our Declaration of Independence. On this issue all Americans have a common cause with freedom-loving people all around the world."

Russian conscripts depart from a recruiting station in St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- In December 2016, Igor Suvorov thought his problems with his local draft board were over when the officials approved his request for alternative civilian service. But his troubles were only just beginning.

Over the next few years, he went from being an acknowledged pacifist to being convicted of dodging the draft. His case has moved all the way to the Russian Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction. His case has been accepted by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. And earlier this month, more than three years after the story began, Suvorov appealed to Russia's Constitutional Court.

"In our appeal to the Constitutional Court, we argued that the state has no legitimate basis for depriving an individual of his right to alternative civilian service," lawyer Aleksandr Peredruk, who works with the St. Petersburg Committee of Soldiers' Mothers and is representing Suvorov, told RFE/RL. "From the point of view of the defense capability of the country, the state -- as represented by the draft board -- already acknowledged that Igor is a pacifist. But when he committed, in their opinion, some infraction, they decide to punish him and send him to serve. De facto, they are making him carry a weapon against his will."

In December 2016, the then-16-year-old convinced his draft board in the Krasnodar region city of Gulkevichi that he was a pacifist and should be allowed to complete alternative civilian service instead of being drafted into the army for a year.

Article 59 of the Russian Constitution enshrines the right of Russians to perform alternative service if "his convictions or religious beliefs contradict military service." Under the law on alternative civilian service, conscripts can either work for 21 months at any "organization subordinate to the bodies of the executive branch" or 18 months at a defense-industry plant. According to the Defense Ministry, about 2,000 people apply for alternative civilian service each year and about half of them are approved.

"The most important issue is that alternative civilian service is not a privilege," said lawyer Sergei Golubok, who is also defending Suvorov. "It is a right, a means of carrying out a constitutional obligation to defend the country. Alternative service is longer than military service. It is work at miserly pay in places where it is difficult to find workers. It is not a way of avoiding service. It is a form of service but without carrying a weapon."

Sergei Golubok
Sergei Golubok

This form of service, however, carries a stigma in Russia, particularly among many of the officials who oversee the process of approving it, Golubok added. "It is a serious problem -- discrimination around alternative civilian service is often seen as a refuge for some sort of losers," he said. "But for society, it is a very significant form of volunteerism. If we had more of these people, it would solve a lot of problems in a whole raft of industries. In fact, the state should be interested in seeing the right to alternative civilian service observed without hindrance from military bureaucrats in the regions."

Non-Draft Dodger

In the spring of 2017, however, Suvorov showed up again at his draft board for his medical examination. And that is where the trouble began. The examining doctor ordered Suvorov and the other conscripts to strip naked in the corridor outside his office. Suvorov objected, saying it was humiliating. When his objections were ignored, he left the building and filed a complaint with local prosecutors.

His complaint went nowhere, but in the autumn, he began receiving orders to report for military service. He ignored them and continued waiting for an order regarding his approved alternative military service.

The next document that came to him, however, was notification that a criminal charge of draft evasion had been filed against him. He learned from that document that his local military district commissar had unilaterally nullified his application for alternative civilian service.

With the help of the St. Petersburg-based Committee of Soldiers' Mothers and a nongovernmental organization called Citizen and the Army, Suvorov appealed the commissar's decision in court. His appeals were rejected at every level up to the Supreme Court.

Among other issues Suvorov's lawyers raised was the argument that the law on alternative civilian service unconstitutionally allows a person who has been officially acknowledged as a conscientious objector to be prosecuted for draft evasion.

'Just A Pose'

In the summer of 2018, Kommersant and other websites published the transcript of Suvorov's April 2018 court hearing on the draft-evasion charge in the Gulkevichi district court in which Judge Yury Yermakov aggressively questioned the defendant and his witnesses.

"No one needs to be forced to serve these days," Yermakov said. "Our army is powerful enough today to give the whole world cancer. Do you see? No one forces anyone to serve. We don't have hazing or whatever in the Russian Army. No one ties up your arms or stuffs your head in a bag. You just needed to go to the military commission. What was the problem?"

"I insisted on my right to alternative civilian service," Suvorov answered.

"You weren't insisting on your right," Yermakov answered. "You adopted a pose. You were just posing. No, listen to me! Don't interrupt.... The most interesting thing is that serving a year in the army passes very quickly, you see? There is no hazing. They feed you well.... Where did you get this idea?

"It is my conviction that contradicts military service," Suvorov replied. "It is my pacifist views. Even if the army had golden tables and smorgasbords."

The judge then insisted he did not want to debate the defendant.

"If you don't know how to defend yourself," he concluded, "that means that tomorrow you will be shoveling shit for someone. For the Americans. For NATO. For China. For someone or other, do you understand?"

In general, lawyer Peredyuk said, Russia needs clarity on alternative civilian service. He said the local military commissions are not actually even required to explain why they reject an application for such service.

Peredyuk mentioned one case in which a draftee who applied for alternative civilian service argued that he held the beliefs of the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose members refuse military service, even though he did not belong to the group, which has been banned in Russia as an "extremist organization."

"[The commission] wrote in their decision that since the Jehovah's Witnesses are banned by a Supreme Court decision, he had no right to alternative civilian service," Peredyuk said. "That is, for them it is perfectly normal to give a gun to a man and send him to serve although he admits holding the beliefs of an organization that has been labeled 'extremist.'"

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Tatyana Voltskaya of the North Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service

Load more

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.

Subscribe

Journalists In Trouble

RFE/RL journalists take risks, face threats, and make sacrifices every day in an effort to gather the news. Our "Journalists In Trouble" page recognizes their courage and conviction, and documents the high price that many have paid simply for doing their jobs. More

XS
SM
MD
LG