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Watch List: July 15, 1999

15 July 1999, Volume 1, Number 26

UZBEK HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST DETAINED... Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued statements expressing "serious concern" about the safety of Ismail Adylov, detained by the Uzbek Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). On 10 July, two plainclothes MVD officers, accompanied by a policeman, went to Adylov's home in Tashkent and whisked him away in a car. An hour later, 30 plainclothes MVD officers arrived at the house and conducted a search, removed papers, and, according to the HRW statement, probably "planted" leaflets from a banned Islamic group. Since then, his family and the local HRW representative have been unable to locate Adylov, who suffers from a chronic kidney disease and requires constant medical attention. His detention may be related to his work as a member of the democratic opposition group Birlik and the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan. While monitoring a recent trial of members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Adylov was threatened by the judge that he too might be charged with membership in that banned Islamic movement, one of many opposition groups that the regime blames for bomb attacks that killed 16 people in February. HRW views Adylov's detention as "part of the wider government crackdown on human rights activists, designed to silence criticism of the mass arrests and torture of religious Muslims."

...RUSSIA DEPORTS UZBEK WHO MAY FACE EXECUTION. Russian authorities returned Bakhadir Ruzmetov to Uzbekistan, where he "faces a death sentence for perpetrating acts of terrorism," Russian TV reported on July 11. The next day, in an statement calling for "urgent action," Amnesty International protested Russia's "failure, in spite of its obligations under international law, to provide adequate protection for individuals at risk of grave violations of their human rights if returned to their country of origin." AI reminded the Russian Federation that its parliament ratified the Convention against Torture and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. AI fears that in order to force a confession, Uzbek authorities may torture Ruzmetov and execute him after "an unfair trial."

KOSOVA'S ROMA IN DANGER, RIGHTS GROUP WARNS. Killings, abduction, rape, arson, robbery, and expulsion of Roma in Kosovo are occurring at "an alarming rate," and Roma are in immediate danger of pogroms by ethnic Albanians, according to the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center. Measures to protect Roma are inadequate, ERRC stated, and it urged KFOR to provide "immediate effective protection of the human rights of all inhabitants of Kosovo, regardless of their ethnicity." Nearly all the Roma contacted by ERRC said that they wish to leave Kosovo as soon as possible because they fear for their safety. Another sign of Kosovar Roma desperation is that Roma refugees have been trying to enter Serbia. In one border town, Bujanovac, Yugoslav authorities turned back 3,500 of them.

ETHNIC SERBS CHARGE ALBANIAN VIOLENCE; U.S. PLEDGES NEUTRALITY. A week after signing a nonviolence agreement with Kosova Liberation Army leaders, on 12 July ethnic Serbs charged "ceaseless and systematic violence against Serbs by Albanian terrorists" and announced that they have broken ties with NATO's KFOR peacekeepers, accusing them of failing to protect the province's Serb minority. NATO and UN officials say that they are trying to get members of the two communities together. Secretary of Defense William Cohen called the Kosova situation "extremely dangerous" and pledged that in maintaining order "KFOR will remain neutral."

U.S. OFFERS FREE FLIGHTS HOME TO REFUGEES. On July 12, the State Department offered free flights to Kosova to those among the 9,700 ethnic Albanian refugees admitted to the U.S. who wish to return. The offer is valid from next week to May 2000. The U.S. statement was made in conjunction with 28 other countries that agreed to coordinate the return of those refugees who want to go back.

JOURNALIST ASSOCIATION URGES REPEAL OF SERB PRESS LAW. On July 12 the World Association of Newspapers renewed its call to President Slobodan Milosevic to repeal Serbia's "draconian press law," stating that press freedom is "a necessary condition for Balkans peace." Representing 15,000 newspapers and 61 national newspaper associations, the group argues that the law introduces personal liability for free expression, imposes disproportionate fines, and inhibits freedom to disagree with state media. The statement cites a case involving Milosevic's son, Marko, who sued an opposition newspaper in Belgrade for making fun of him, and a court ordered that newspaper to pay $15,000 in compensation for "inflicted moral damage."

MACEDONIAN-BULGARIAN LANGUAGE DISPUTE EASES. Macedonia lifted a ban on the importation of Bulgarian books in the latest chapter of a dispute with its neighbor, but the move ignited a firestorm of protest from the main opposition party, the formerly communist Social Democratic Alliance, Reuters reports from the capital Skopje. The SDA introduced a censure motion in the parliament against Culture Minister Dimitar Dimitrov, calling his decision "a Bulgarianization of Macedonia" and tantamount to treason. After years of refusal, last February Bulgaria accepted Macedonian as a separate language rather than a dialect of Bulgarian. Reuters observes that relations between the two countries have "improved greatly" since. SDA does not have the votes in the parliament to oust Dimitrov, who called the ban on Bulgarian books "an ideological leftover of the communist era."

LATVIAN PARLIAMENT TOUGHENS LANGUAGE LAW. On July 8 Latvia's parliament gave final approval to the long-awaited Law on the State Language, which elicited complaints from Council of Europe chairman Daniel Tarschys and OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Max van der Stoel, as well as EU representatives. In a letter to Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Van der Stoel asserted that the law diverges from international human rights standards in requiring employees of private enterprises and self-employed individuals to use Latvian at public functions and in making Latvian obligatory at all large-scale public events and for all publicly-displayed signs, banners, posters, and notices. On 14 July, Vike-Freiberga returned the bill to parliament, asserting that the approved version was "imprecise and improper" and needed to define more precisely some terms and conditions that were "too directed at limiting, rather than educating and integrating Latvian society," according to Reuters. On 15 July, Reuters reported that Prime Minister-designate Andris Skele has pledged that his three-party coalition would "respect the president's views" and press for the law's review at the parliament's next session, scheduled for 26 August.

LATVIAN PARLIAMENT TOUGHENS LANGUAGE LAW. On July 8 Latvia's parliament gave final approval to the long-awaited Law on the State Language, which elicited complaints from Council of Europe chairman Daniel Tarschys and OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Max van der Stoel, as well as EU representatives. In a letter to Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Van der Stoel asserted that the law diverges from international human rights standards in requiring employees of private enterprises and self-employed individuals to use Latvian at public functions and in making Latvian obligatory at all large-scale public events and for all publicly-displayed signs, banners, posters, and notices. On July 14 the law was vetoed by Vike-Freiberga and returned to the parliament for further consideration, an action called for by Tarschys and Van der Stoel. The previous day, Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs had told Latvian Radio that the adoption of the law will not affect Latvia's chances of gaining EU membership. In time, he said, the law will be amended to conform with OSCE recommendations, and such amendments "won't ruffle anyone's feathers."

CZECHS PASS LAW ENABLING ROMA TO GET CITIZENSHIP. On July 9 the Czech Chamber of Deputies voted by 114 to 58 to pass an amendment that will enable Roma who are permanent residents of the Czech Republic and who were previously excluded from citizenship to normalize their status. The amendment changes a citizenship law that human rights organizations had called one of the most restrictive of the 21 newly independent states of the OSCE, rendering tens of thousands of former Czechoslovak citizens--all of them Roma--stateless. U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Chairman Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) called the amendment "an important victory in the Romany civil rights movement," praised the current Czech government for championing its cause, and expressed hope that the Senate will approve it.

*** UPDATE *** Russian journalist and former naval captain Grigory Pasko, in jail since 1998 awaiting court action on charges of high treason, has published on the Internet his denial of charges that he disclosed military secrets on a Japanese Television program. He accused the police and the security services of trying to stamp out free speech. His trial before a military tribunal in Vladivostok is closed, and his Internet statement is his first since his arrest. "This case is not about treason since treason was barely mentioned during the entire hearing," Pasko asserted in his statement. "All that was ever discussed, including those things mentioned by witnesses, only concerned my journalistic profession." The prosecution has called for a 12-year-prison term, the minimum sentence in treason cases. A verdict is expected before the end of the month.


by Charles Fenyvesi

The specter of Slovak Roma refugees flooding hapless Finland vanished as abruptly as it appeared. But one wonders which country 1,000 Roma asylum-seekers may choose next, and whether rising Western sensitivity to mistreated minorities might inspire Western leaders to develop joint strategies to deal with governments indifferent toward the issue.

Once the Finnish government reinstated the requirement of an entry visa for all Slovak citizens--on July 6, a little more than a week after the first group of Roma arrived--the stampede stopped. The additional thousands of Roma rumored to be bound for Helsinki did not materialize; nor did Roma line up at Finnish consulates to apply for visas. So far neither the press nor the two governments have found an answer to the question of whether an organizer or an organization sparked the exodus.

The Helsinki press speculates that Slovak Roma gave Finland a try, but after the government hastily restored the entry visa requirement--thus making it clear that the door was no longer open to others, including the families of those already in the country--the word quickly reached Slovakia that investing in an airplane ticket to Helsinki was not worthwhile.

The Finnish government expects most of the 1,069 Roma who requested asylum to stay around and wait for their interviews with immigration authorities. "We'll take care of those who stay," said one Finnish official. "Our refugee situation is managable."

The one sizeable refugee group in Finland, which has a total population of 5 million, consists of Somalis, who number 20,000 and received political asylum in the early 1990s after civil war broke out in their East African homeland. "But there is no civil war in Slovakia," the Finnish official added, suggesting that his government may not be so generous to Roma asylum-seekers.

In Central Europe, there is little relief in sight for the Roma. While a small percentage of them seized the opportunities of private enterprise and thrive buying and selling merchandise such as antiques and second-hand cars, perhaps as many as 75 percent of Roma adults are unemployed. Most of those who were skilled and semi-skilled workers in coal mines and the metallurgical showcases of communist industrialization shut down in the early 1990s have given up looking for jobs.

Discrimination is rampant. People voice their racist sentiments openly, without fear of the law, and justice to punish anti-Roma violence is haphazard. For instance, on May 12, 1999 a court in the Slovak town of Banska Bystrica ruled that a skinhead who had assaulted a Romany university student was not guilty of committing a racially motivated crime because the Roma and the ethnic Slovak skinhead belonged to the same race. The court ignored testimony that the skinhead, who had called his victim "a filthy Gypsy," had no reason other than the victim's race to single out the man for an attack.

The Slovak Roma flight to Finland had its precedents. In 1998, 146 Hungarian Roma received refugee status after their arrival in Canada, and more than 700 applications are now pending. In 1999, 737 Czech Roma were granted asylum, though 78 were denied it. In both cases the exodus received much news media attention, which in turn inspired the two Central European governments to look for ways to tackle the plight of Roma seriously, rather than to accept it passively as an endemic problem for which the Roma can blame only themselves. The previous Slovak government, headed by Vladimir Meciar, stuck by that time-honored position, which had hardened into ideology during the communist era. Meciar added his suspicion that Romany complaints were part of a large international conspiracy that sought to malign the good name of the country. However, the government that won the election last year has distanced itself from Meciar's line.

"The situation in Slovakia is not the worst in the region, and the new government has taken some steps to address Roma concerns, though not enough," says Erika Schlager, international law specialist at the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. "Until this year, the Czech government had the worst record." Schlager finds that things are worse in Romania, partly because the government feels that due to economic problems it cannot single out the Roma for any favor and partly because Roma expectations are relatively low. "The critical measure is not so much how badly off the Roma are in a country," Schlager argues, "but what the gap is between ever-increasing Roma expectations and government measures to address their concerns. In Romania the Roma have been conditioned to suffer and accept mistreatment that Roma in Hungary and Poland would not tolerate."

Schlager and other observers recall that the European Union did not pay much attention to Roma until Hungarian and Czech Roma flew to Canada. Now the Finnish episode may put the subject of Roma on the agenda of the EU meeting in Brussels at the end of this month and the OSCE summit in November.

It is harder for the Roma in Romania, Bulgaria, Russia to hop on a plane and seek asylum somewhere in the West. Like other citizens, they must obtain visas that are usually conditioned on proof of financial resources, and they must be psychologically prepared to face immigration officers unsympathetic foreigners complaining about racial discrimination in their homelands.

But stamping out discrimination at home and extending the right to political asylum to victims of discrimination abroad are now the law of the lands of the OSCE. Responsible governments need to devise ways to make all member states comply with their obligations. In the meantime, law-abiding governments may find themselves facing large numbers of individuals, such as the Roma, who discover that they have the right to a better life in countries more respectful of the law than their own.