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Taking Your Country To Court

October 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The story is a familiar one in the postcommunist world.

Moldovan journalist Petru Poiata wrote two articles in 2002 that implicated a Communist parliament deputy of influence-peddling in the public transport business.

A Moldovan court then ordered Poiata to pay a fine and apologize for his articles. Despite Poiata's protest that his allegations were backed up by statements from bus drivers and the managers of a bus company, Moldovan courts rejected his appeals against the defamation verdict.

But on October 16, Poiata received the redress that he sought. The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Poiata and awarded him and the newspaper 4,570 euros ($6,495).

Poiata is one of tens of thousands of people from the Council of Europe's 47 countries that lodge complaints with the European Court of Human Rights.

"It was more difficult for me to get a 'no' from Azerbaijani courts than a 'yes' from the European Court of Human Rights." -- Sheyda Nasibova

They seek redress against their governments for a wide range of offenses, from police abuse to nonpayment of pensions to press freedom violations and failure to fulfill court judgments.

A rising share of these applications come from countries that joined the Council of Europe in the 1990s following the Soviet collapse, and where justice is often still shaky. Last year, the court received 112 cases from Georgia, 641 from Moldova, and 4,146 from Ukraine.

The judgment, Poiata says, is a victory for all Moldovan journalists amid a tightening media clampdown. "These days I work for the 'Flux' newspaper, and almost every day I hear this or that colleague has been sued for doing nothing more than quoting other people's opinions. All we journalists do is give people a chance to use their right to express their opinions," he says.

Freedom Of Speech And Assembly

One of the latest plaintiffs to win a case at the European Court of Human Rights is Sheyda Nasibova, an Azerbaijani citizen who heads a press freedom organization called Journalist Inquiry Center. She filed an application to the court after Azerbaijan's Justice Ministry refused to grant her group state registration.

Nasibova turned to the Strasbourg-based court after a protracted and fruitless legal battle in her own country. "It was more difficult for me to get a 'no' from Azerbaijani courts than a 'yes' from the European Court of Human Rights," she told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. "Cases drag on forever in Azerbaijani courts. In the end, I was able to appeal to the European Court."

The European Court of Human Rights on October 18 unanimously ruled that Azerbaijani authorities had violated Nasibova's right to a fair trial and to freedom of association.

The court ordered the government to award her $4,260 in damages. But like most plaintiffs, Nasibova says money matters less than moral reparation.

The European Court is also taking on an increasing number of complaints from Armenia. This year, it passed its first-ever ruling against the Armenian government, condemning it for arresting opposition politician Armen Mkrtchyan during a street protest.

One of the pending cases was filed by Armenia's A1 Plus television channel, which was pulled off the air in April 2002 after losing its broadcasting frequency in a tender organized by a president-appointed body.

A1 Plus says it has filed a dozen applications for a new broadcasting license to the National Commission on Television and Radio. All have been rejected.

"We complained about two violations -- one concerning human rights, the other freedom of speech," says Mesrop Movsisian, the owner of the company that founded A1 Plus. "Now we are waiting for the court's decision. We are very eager to be back on the air, because we feel there's an information vacuum."

The Council of Europe and international rights groups have criticized Armenian authorities for closing the channel.

This year saw a raft of Strasbourg court rulings holding Russia responsible for atrocities committed by federal troops in Chechnya.

Setting A Precedent

One of the Chechen plaintiffs to recently win a case was Marzet Imakayeva, a woman whose 25-year-old son and husband disappeared after being detained by Russian forces in 2000 and 2002 respectively.

"I thought that applying to the Strasbourg court could help me find my son," she told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. "I thought that maybe he would be given back to me in order to avoid a court case. I told them that no money in the world would compensate for my son, that I would lodge an application in the hope that they return him to avoid a precedent. That's how I prepared the documents and sent them to the court."

Imakayeva said an official came to her home and threatened her with dire consequences if she didn't withdraw her complaint.

The court ordered Russia to pay $128,000 to Imakayeva, who has since emigrated to the United States. Both her son and husband are still missing and are feared dead.

In July, the court held Russia responsible for the death of 11 civilians killed in the Grozny suburb of Novye Aldy during a Russian military operation in 2000. The raid killed at least 60 people. The court awarded damages to relatives of two other civilians killed by Russian forces the same year in the Chechen village of Gekhi. In total, Russia was ordered to pay more than $350,000 in compensation.

Further articles in this series: Judicial Reform Under Way, But For The Right Reasons? and From Electric Shocks To The European Court

(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani, Romanian/Moldovan, Armenian, and North Caucasus services contributed to this report.)

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