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(Un)Civil Societies: March 12, 2007

World: U.S. Report Paints Mixed Picture Of Human Rights Situation

By Frank Csongos

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presenting the human rights report today

WASHINGTON, March 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. State Department today released its "2006 Country Reports On Human Rights Practices."

This year's annual report, which is mandated by the U.S. Congress, painted a gloomy picture in many countries for 2006, but noted some hopeful trends.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presented the findings to reporters in Washington and said in many places around the world, human rights are suffering.

"Too often in the past year, we received painful reminders that human rights, though self-evident, are not self-enforcing," she said. "And that mankind's desire to live in freedom, though universally deserved, is still not universally respected."

Rice said full respect for human rights can only flourish if a society has several key elements. "Liberty and human rights require state institutions that function transparently and accountably, a vibrant civil society, an independent judiciary and legislature, a free media, and security forces that can uphold the rule of law and protect the population from violence and extremism," she noted.

The State Department report said the ongoing genocide in Sudan's Darfur region was the world's worst human rights abuse in 2006 -- calling it the "most sobering reality of all." It said mass killings continued to ravage the African country.

At the same time, the report said there was a growing recognition across the world that democracy is the form of government that is best able to bestow dignity, liberty, and equality on people. The report singled out Ukraine, Georgia, Liberia, Indonesia, Morocco, Congo, and Haiti for making some progress, though it said problems remain.

Problems In Russia

Chechnya and other areas of Russia's North Caucasus, the report said, continued to experience "serious human rights violations."

Not a 'level playing field' (ITAR-TASS file photo)

The State Department cited killings and abuses of civilians by both federal and Chechen security forces, and said rebel fighters carried out terrorist bombings and politically motivated disappearances in the region. In a growing number of cases, the European Court of Human Rights has held Russia responsible for these abuses.

In Russia, the report said that in 2006 the government continued to centralize presidential power. Taken together with a compliant State Duma, corruption in law enforcement, political pressure on the judiciary, and restrictions on NGOs and the media, the report said, "these trends resulted in the further erosion of government accountability."

Barry Lowenkron, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for human rights, democracy, and labor, told reporters that the political situation in Russia favors some, and excludes others.

"The notion that there was a level playing field, in terms of electoral politics in Russia, is increasingly suspect," he said. "I think if you take a look at the media, I think if you take a look at the statements coming out of Russian officials -- [they say] that they have something called 'sovereign democracy' or 'managed democracy.' I am probably dating myself, but from my years in the State Department back in the 1980s, I was never big on adjectives [in front of the word] democracy, like 'people's democracy.' And 'sovereign democracy' and 'managed democracy' is problematic."

Civil Society 'Still Trying'

The report also criticized the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus for intensifying its repressive policies. But Lowenkron said that country's civil society is still working for freedom.

"There is nothing good to say about the regime in Belarus, except the fact that civil society is still trying," he said. "We had a group from Belarus that came to Washington just last week. I had the privilege of meeting with them. I was interested in their plans. They are not going to give up. They are going to continue to press.

"The citizens of Belarus will find, themselves, that there is an alternative, there is an alternative to Lukashenka, there is an alternative to a regime that suppresses their human rights, and that alternative lies [with] its other neighbors."

The U.S. State Department praised authorities in Georgia for taking steps to improve the human rights situation in their country. The report said Georgia's judicial reforms were especially noteworthy.

By contrast, the human rights situation in both Armenia and Azerbaijan was judged to be poor.

Across Central Asia, the State Department found freedom of speech remains tightly restricted.

In Kyrgyzstan, where human rights improved considerably following the change to democratically elected leadership in 2005, the State Department said the new constitution that was passed in December negated many key checks and balances.

Scourge Of Terrorism

The report said Afghanistan has made important human rights progress since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 but its human rights record remained poor.

On Iran, it said the Tehran government "flagrantly violated freedom of speech and assembly" and continued to "flout domestic and international calls for responsible government by supporting terrorism movements in Syria and Lebanon as well as calling for the destruction of a UN member state."

And the report said that in Iraq, despite the government's "continuing commitment to establish the rule of law, deepening sectarian violence and acts of terrorism seriously undercut human rights and democratic progress during 2006."

As for the United States, the State Department said it recognizes that some of the country's actions against global terrorism "have been questioned," including its detention of foreign suspects.

"We do not issue these reports because we think ourselves perfect, but rather, because we know ourselves to be deeply imperfect, like all human beings and the endeavors that they make," Rice said. "Our democratic system of governance is accountable, but it is not infallible."

Rice said the United States "is committed to continual improvement" of its human rights record.

The State Department's annual study reviews the status of internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and workers' rights, as set forth in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

World: U.S. Official Rates Human Rights In Middle East, Central Asia

Police breaking up a women's right demonstration in Tehran in June 2006

WASHINGTON, March 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. State Department on March 6 issued its annual report on human rights around the world in 2006. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully spoke with Erica Barks-Ruggles, deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor focusing on the Middle East and South and Central Asia

RFE/RL: Iran has the most advanced democracy of any Muslim state in the Middle East. How did it fare on human rights during 2006?

Erica Barks-Ruggles: Well, the situation there has unfortunately continued to grow worse over the course of the last year. We've seen increasing restrictions on media freedoms, including the shuttering of many independent media outlets -- including two of the most prominent ones -- crackdowns on ownership of satellite dishes, [and] mandated slow Internet speeds. Obviously, the government there is trying to restrict the population's ability to access independent opinions and media.

We've also seen increased harassment of ethnic and religious minorities, increased restrictions on women, increased restrictions on labor, and a serious up-tick in hostile rhetoric and actions on anti-Semitism issues, including a Holocaust-denial conference that was sponsored by the government in December.

RFE/RL: What human rights challenges does Iraq face, both from the newness of its institutions, and of course from the attacks by the insurgency and sectarian militias?

Barks-Ruggles: The government of Iraq continues to be committed to fostering national reconciliation and reconstruction, and continues to work on improving the human rights record, including the formation of a Human Rights Ministry and a Human Rights Commission. And obviously the situation there is much better than it was under [former Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein. But there are serious and difficult hurdles that they still have to overcome, including the deepening sectarian violence [and] acts of terrorism. There're corruption issues there that are a challenge, as well as the weak central institutions of the government that lack the capacity to meet some of these challenges.

RFE/RL: What was Afghanistan's human rights record in 2006?

Barks-Ruggles: Afghanistan has made huge improvements on their human rights record since the fall of the Taliban. But the insurgency and the increased Taliban attacks -- combined with building institutions from scratch, including a judicial framework that just didn't exist until three years ago -- is proving difficult. And it has hampered their ability to make progress.

Afghan children at a school near Kabul in June 2006 (epa)

In particular there have been increasing attacks on women this last year and on women's educational institutions, which is something that this government has been very, very committed to improving -- access for girls and women to education -- and we applaud that. And that has been an area where it has been very difficult for them to continue making progress because these attacks have been very targeted.

But the real issue here, besides the security question, is just the lack of capacity. And that takes time to build. The government's committed to that, and we'll keep working with them to make improvements and to build that capacity so that they will have more resiliency against these attacks.

RFE/RL: Moving to Central Asia, Kazakhstan has been the most open to Western financial investment. Has this contact also helped the country's human rights record?

Barks-Ruggles: In Kazakhstan, despite some modest improvements that we saw in things like trafficking in persons, the human rights record there remained poor. There were new restrictions on the media, continued harassment of the opposition and, very troubling to us -- and this is a trend that we've seen across a number of countries in Central Asia, as well as with Russia -- increasing constraints on NGOs in civil society that are trying to work with the government to improve their own accountability mechanisms and their own institutions.

RFE/RL: Turkmenistan has long been regarded as a fairly closed state. Does this mean that its human rights record is poor?

Barks-Ruggles: Turkmenistan was probably the most closed society in the region until December and the death of former President [Saparmurat] Niyazov. The new government there has hinted at some reforms. They've particularly emphasized education reform, for which we applaud them. It's a needed thing. But we will of course be looking to see how this very new government -- which just took office formally in February -- will undertake to improve what has been an extremely poor human rights record.

We'd like to see, for instance, greater media freedoms and opening for NGOs in civil society where there hasn't been in the past, opening political space for a greater diversity of opposition voices. And we'd like to see accountability for prisoners who were thrown into prison under the previous regime, including ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] access to their prisons.

RFE/RL: It's been nearly two years since the bloodshed at Andijon in eastern Uzbekistan. How have human rights fared in that country since then?

Barks-Ruggles: On Uzbekistan, this is a country that wasn't as closed as Turkmenistan, but has had a poor human rights record, and it continued to worsen over the last year. They've refused to authorize an independent international investigation as has been called for by the international community into the May 2005 events in Andijon.

There's been continued and increased pressure on NGOs in civil society. They've shuttered more than 200 NGOs, many of them local NGOs, in the last two years. And there's been a crackdown on political opposition and independent media there as well. So we continue to urge them to take a step back and work with the international community as has been called for. And we hope in the next year that we'll see some improvement, but this year, unfortunately, we didn't.

RFE/RL: And what of human rights in Tajikistan?

Barks-Ruggles: They have some serious problems with corruption issues there, which have hampered their democratic and social reforms. But it's not a closed place like Turkmenistan was. There have been NGOs in civil society active there, although they have come under increased pressure this last year, and we would hope that that would ease off in the coming year. In particular, there's been denial of licenses to NGOs to operate there, and there have been some problems with independent media organizations, and we would hope to see, again, and improvement there next year. But it is not in the same category as Turkmenistan has been in the past.

RFE/RL: Finally, Kyrgyzstan. It's also been two years since a popular uprising forced the departure of President Askar Akayev. How was Kyrgyzstan's human rights record in 2006?

Barks-Ruggles: In Kyrgyzstan, it was a really mixed picture this last year. The situation certainly is better than it was under the regime under Akayev, but we did see increased restrictions on the media and NGOs again here. There was a back and forth on constitutional reform in December, which ended up with, unfortunately, not as many improvements as we would have liked to have seen. And we'd like to see more balance between the executive and the legislative branch. But this remains a place where there's still a mixed picture.

There's still a robust independent media and civil society is very active there, and we would hope that the government would build on those strengths and actually improve their constitutional record for next year.

U.S. Official Discusses Rights Issues In Russia, Caucasus

Human rights activists in Azerbaijan conducting a hunger strike in November 2006

WASHINGTON, March 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. State Department has issued its annual report on human rights around the globe. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully spoke with Jeff Krilla, deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, about the report's conclusions in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the former Yugoslavia.

RFE/RL: U.S. President George W. Bush often speaks highly of Russian President Vladimir Putin. How did Putin's Russia stand on human rights last year?

Jeff Krilla: 2006 was a bad year for Russia in terms of human rights. One of the things we do in our human rights report is not only talk about the human rights conditions in each country on the planet, but we talk about trajectory. And unfortunately, when we talk about trajectory, one of the biggest backsliders we've seen -- certainly in terms of Europe -- has been Russia. And it's very disconcerting to those of us who follow human rights issues.

We see government accountability to the people decreasing through a continued concentration of power in the Kremlin. We see increased restrictions on NGOs, declined media freedoms, and certainly the harassment and killing of journalists has been particularly troubling to those of us that continue to promote media freedoms as fundamental to any democratic society.

RFE/RL: What about Russia's record in Chechnya -- and the record of those who oppose Russia there?

Krilla: One of the things that we have done, as U.S. officials, has been to stress to Russian officials our support for a political rather than a military solution in Chechnya. We've urged an end to human rights abuses by all parties to the conflict, and accountability for abuses that occur and that have occurred. We've urged cooperation with the international community on humanitarian, economic, and stability issues. So we've worked very hard on the Chechnya issue and certainly met frequently with human rights NGOs to discuss the situation on the ground in Chechnya and to show support for their very hard work.

RFE/RL: Westerners watched the 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine with great optimism a little more than two years ago. How is Ukraine faring now?

Krilla: One of the things that I do want to stress is that we have seen the situation in Ukraine improve. The fact that the March 2006 parliamentary elections were the most open and honest in Ukraine's history is a huge step forward for the country. And Ukraine has continued to show improvement in press freedom, freedom of association, and development of civil society.

Pro-Moscow Chechen security forces caught on film abusing a civilian (courtesy photo)

For those that would argue that the luster has worn off of the Orange Revolution, I would argue that a lot of the lasting effects of the Orange Revolution are in place and, in fact, have been consolidated. We're not in the business of picking winners and losers in terms of these elections. The fact that elections are up to internationally recognized standards is what's critical to us and to other democratic countries that work to promote human rights and democracy.

RFE/RL: And what of Georgia?

Krilla: Georgia's another country that we see having a very positive trajectory, although for all the improvement that we've seen recently, there are serious problems that remain in certain areas. There [are] reports of deaths due to excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, cases of torture and mistreatment of detainees, increased abuses of prisoners, overuse of pretrial detention, and certainly concerns about worsening conditions in detention facilities.

But we still have seen a lot of progress, the last couple of years have been very positive in Georgia overall, but I think we continue -- in these human rights reports -- to focus on the conditions across the society, across all the institutions. And certainly I noted a number of areas that Georgia could show increased improvement that we're focused on, in our bilateral relations with the Georgians.

RFE/RL: How is the human rights situation in Armenia, which has tilted more to Moscow than the West since the breakup of the Soviet Union?

Krilla: We've got an election coming up in Armenia this year in April, but I think the human rights conditions continue to remain poor. There are credible reports that law enforcement officials engaged in arbitrary arrests [and] detention and abuse of detainees. There's a lot of concern, from our perspective, of rule-of-law issues in Armenia. And certainly media freedom is not what it could be. The government has restricted freedom of speech and the press, and I might even note -- through a very unusual move -- lawmakers rejected a government-sponsored bill that would have further restricted media activities.

There is still an opposition, in that we see having some sort of force to try and keep the checks and balances in the government in place. But overall media freedom and rule-of-law issues are of concern to us.

I will also add two other areas of concern. Religious freedom. Government and overall Armenian society continue to view minority religious groups with suspicion. Although they are allowed to operate, I think this is something that bears watching. And secondly, trafficking in persons. Trafficking in persons for purposes of sexual and labor exploitation continued to be a problem in 2006, although the government did pass legislation that toughened penalties for trafficking -- something else that bears attention, I think, in the future.

RFE/RL: And what of Armenia's neighbor, Azerbaijan?

Krilla: The human rights conditions in Azerbaijan remained poor in 2006. The government continued to imprison persons for politically motivated reasons, and restrictions on freedom of media, freedom of assembly and political participation worsened. Now, there were some improvements in the period leading up to the November 2005 parliamentary elections, but the May 13 partial reruns in 10 of the races in Azerbaijan failed to meet a number of international standards. So I think we're going to keep an eye on the situation there.

Squalid conditions in a Georgian prison in March 2006 (Interpressnews)

Our report is very comprehensive for the conditions in 2006, but certainly elections have been troubling in recent years in Azerbaijan. And we've seen restrictions on freedom of the press increase, and harassment and violence against journalists have continued. Freedom of assembly has been a problem in Azerbaijan. Restrictions on freedom of assembly have worsened, [the] government has often denied opposition parties' requests simply to hold political rallies.

And then on the issues of religious freedom and trafficking in persons. Religious freedom issues: [the] government of Azerbaijan generally respected religious freedom but did restrict it for some Muslim groups on grounds that these groups were radical or fundamentalist -- something else that I think bears attention. And then in terms of trafficking in persons, I'd actually say this is a bright spot for the government of Azerbaijan. The government's taken several important steps to combat trafficking in persons, and I think we'd like to see that trend continue as well.

RFE/RL: Finally the former Yugoslavia -- specifically Serbia. How has it fared since breaking with Montenegro?

Krilla: I think we did note in our human rights report for 2006 that the government [of Serbia] generally respected the human rights of its citizens, but we did note numerous problems that persisted. Corruption in the police and the judiciary [was] a problem in 2006, there still continues to be inefficient and lengthy trials. There's been a failure to cooperate with the ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia] in apprehending war crimes suspects.

There's ongoing harassment of journalists, human rights workers, and others critical of the government, and we've seen arbitrary arrests and selective enforcement of the law for political purposes. Following the May 21 referendum of last year, we did see a very peaceful dissolution of the state union of Serbia and Montenegro, and I think the Serbians -- and the Montenegrins -- can be praised for that peaceful transition that we saw there.

World: Women In Government Still Rarity In Many Countries

By Daisy Sindelar

Kyrgyzstan's parliament is one example of an all-male chamber (file photo)

March 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- If you had to guess which country out of Peru, Rwanda, Belarus, and France had the largest representation by women in parliament, which would it be?

The correct answer is Rwanda, where just under half the members in the lower house are women. In last place? France, where that figure drops to just 12 percent.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an international parliamentary organization that conducts an annual head count of female lawmakers, it's developing countries -- and not the so-called "old democracies" -- that are doing the most to ensure a fair gender balance in parliament.

Flowers On Women's Day

Among the last-place finishers in this year's IPU survey of 189 national parliaments, is Kyrgyzstan, which has no female lawmakers.

The situation hasn't gone unnoticed. Activists in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on March 6 presented male lawmakers with flowers, congratulating them ahead of International Women's Day on March 8.
"We find that the women who are in parliament tend to bring a different kind of sensitivity and sensibility on social issues than men do, and as a result that tends to lead to legislation, budgets, and programs that are more gender-sensitive, and therefore better in many ways from a gender-equality point of view."

They would have preferred to give the flowers to female parliamentarians, the activists explained -- but since there were none, the men would have to do.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, former lawmaker Jolbor Jorobekov bemoaned the situation -- but offered a clue to the mind-set behind it.

"Of course, it's very sad that there are no women in parliament, and very few in higher positions of power," he said. "I think if we hold new parliamentary elections in 2010 based on party lists, then we'll have some women in parliament. I'm personally opposed to giving a certain number of seats to women, or giving them an equal number [to those of the men]. I think a woman's main mission is raising children, bringing up a new, worthy generation. But to have some 10-20 percent of women [in parliament] would look natural."

The tongue-in-cheek gesture came on the same day that lawmakers took a small step toward improving the gender equation -- approving a woman, Aichurek Eshimova, as head of the country's Central Election Commission.

Kyrgyz activists attempt to present flowers to a lawmaker in Bishkek on March 7 (photo courtesy of Eric Gourlan/Agency of Social Technologies)

Eshimova, holding a congratulatory bouquet of her own, brusquely took the floor and told parliamentary deputies that she would do everything in her powers to ensure clean elections.

"The election commission will organize the elections, not the authorities," she said. "I have been working [as a commission member] for a long time, and I have been fighting against the involvement of the government administration [in the election process]."

Equal, But Toothless

From Rwanda at the top to Kyrgyzstan at the bottom, there are surprising trends in which countries do best at incorporating women into their lawmaking structures.

For example, Cuba -- which just came under harsh criticism from the U.S. State Department for its human rights record -- is in eighth place. Women there hold 36 percent of the seats in its single-chamber parliament, the National Assembly of People's Power.

Then there is Belarus, which has been called the "last dictatorship in Europe." But with roughly 30 percent representation by women in both its lower and upper houses, it ranks higher (21st place) than many of its critics -- including Lithuania (32nd), Poland (48th), Canada (47th), and the United Kingdom (52nd).

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has said he would be happy to see as many as 40 percent of parliament seats held by women. In defending the need for more female lawmakers, however, he has praised not their intelligence or determination, but their "kindness."

Surprising Trend

"The region that is doing best right now -- and this will come as a surprise to many people -- is the Arab world and the [Persian] Gulf countries," IPU Secretary-General Anders Johnson notes.

"They are starting farther behind than any of the other regions. They [have] the longest way to go," he continues. "But they seem to take it in large strides. And the one country, for example, that had the largest gain this year -- with well over a 20 percent increase -- is the United Arab Emirates. So that is a positive sign."

There are still notable exceptions in that region. In Iran, where more than 30 female activists were arrested on March 4, women hold just 4.1 percent of parliament seats.

One of Kyrgyzstan's companions at the bottom of the IPU survey is Saudi Arabia, where women are still unable to vote, let alone run for election.

Another is Qatar. Women there can vote, but officials this year ruled out the introduction of a quota system to grant women a minimum number of parliament seats.

The Question Of Quotas

A quota system is often the essential first step toward quashing traditional notions that women and government don't mix. Both Iraq and Afghanistan, in creating their first postwar governments, reserved a certain portion of seats for female lawmakers.

Johnson says quotas break through those gender stereotypes -- and often lead to better, more equitable legislation. "We find that the women who are in parliament tend to bring a different kind of sensitivity and sensibility on social issues than men do, and as a result that tends to lead to legislation, budgets, and programs that are more gender-sensitive, and therefore better in many ways from a gender-equality point of view," he says.

Post-Soviet Rhetoric, Not Reality

One region that "could be doing better," according to Johnson, is the former USSR. There, Soviet rhetoric about the social and economic emancipation of women has not translated into gender parity in government.

Yuliya Tymoshenko is a powerful figure in Ukraine (epa file photo)

Apart from Belarus (30 percent) and Moldova, where women hold 22 percent of parliament seats, CIS countries fare poorly.

In Russia, just 9.8 percent of seats in the State Duma, or lower house, are held by women. In the upper house, the Federation Council, that figure drops to just 3.4 percent.

In that case, the figures may reflect public antipathy toward women in power. A 2006 survey conducted by the Levada polling center showed that 56 percent of Russian men are "strongly opposed" to having a female president. Perhaps more surprisingly, one-fourth of Russian women feel the same way.

"The attitudes of the population, of politicians, of decision-makers, is to a large extent determined by a Soviet mentality -- behind which stand even more archaic values," says Boris Dubin, a Levada Center sociologist. "The population believes that having women in politics is not bad, provided they don't occupy leading posts. In the opinion of Russia's general public, and of a large number of politicians, a politician is a man of mature age, preferably ethnically Russian."

Even countries eager to demonstrate their enthusiasm for democratic progress and reform fall fairly low on the IPU survey. Georgia and Ukraine, for example, have just 9.4 and 8.7 percent female representation in parliament.

At the same time, however, those women who are in politics there are often extremely powerful -- for example, Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, who currently heads her own parliamentary bloc.

Other figures include:

-- Tajikistan: 62nd place, with 17.5 percent (lower house) and 23.5 percent (upper house);
-- Uzbekistan: tied for 62nd place, with 17.5 percent (lower house) and 15 percent (upper house);
-- Azerbaijan: 89th place, with 11.3 percent;
-- Kazakhstan: 95th place, with 10.4 percent (lower house) and 5.1 percent (upper house);
-- Armenia: 123rd place, with 5.3 percent.

The repressive Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan fares somewhat better, ranking 68th with 16 percent of its parliament seats held by women.

Practice What You Preach

That puts it just below the United States -- where women make up 16.3 percent in the House of Representatives and 16 percent of the Senate.

It also puts it far above France, which comes in 86th place, with women making up 12.2 percent of the National Assembly and 16.9 percent of the Senate.

Apart from Scandinavia and the Netherlands, which are among the highest-ranked countries on the IPU survey, Johnson says there are few "old democracies" doing anything to boost the role of women in government:

"The ones that we hold forth as being shining examples of what countries should be doing are very often the developing countries, be they in Latin America; in Africa; increasingly, as I say, in the Arab region as well," he says.

"And of course, the Nordic countries in particular have a long and good track record. We would like the old democracies -- starting with the United States, France, and some others -- to learn from these countries and practice [at home] what they preach in those countries."

Meanwhile, the countries of Southeastern Europe generally do better than those of the former Soviet Union, with the notable exceptions of Montenegro and Albania:

-- Bosnia-Herzegovina: 76th place, with 14.3 percent (lower house) and 6.7 percent (upper house);
-- Macedonia: 24th place, with 28.3 percent;
-- Croatia: 45th place, with 21.7 percent;
-- Serbia: tied with Poland for 48th place, with 20.4 percent;
-- Montenegro: 105th place, with 8.6 percent;
-- Albania: 114th place, with 7.1 percent.

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg contributed to this report.)

Women Journalists Subject To Increasing Violence

By Breffni O'Rourke

Ogulspar Muradova, shown here at her son's wedding in 2004, was killed why detained by Turkmen authorities

March 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The media rights organization Reporters Without Borders is marking International Women's Day on March 8 by drawing attention to increasing violence against women journalists.

The Paris-based group says women in the media are the victims of murder, arrest, threats, and intimidation. And it says conditions are among the worst in Russia, Central Asia, Iraq, and Iran.

In Praise Of Women Journalists

The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says deadly violence against female media workers has reached an all-time high in the last two years. Of the 82 journalists murdered in 2006 alone, nine were women.

"In some countries, like Iran, for instance, more and more people are using blogs to avoid censorship and to express themselves freely; a lot of women have blogs in Iran, and also in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, like Tunisia."

RSF marks International Women's Day by paying tribute to the courage of women journalists "who go beyond the call of their journalistic duties to defend their right and the right of their fellow citizens to free expression."

RSF spokesman Jean Francois Juillard explained to RFE/RL from Paris why women journalists are increasingly on the front line of danger.

"More and more women are taking risks in their jobs because there are an increasing number of exposes, and they are doing a lot of investigative reporting, which can upset a lot of people," he said.

Killed For Being A Journalist

The organization lists several recent casualties, starting with Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a renowned figure who was shot dead in Moscow last year, apparently because of her opposition to Russian policies in Chechnya.

Demonstrators in Moscow after the killing of Anna Politkovskaya (epa)

Then there is an RFE/RL correspondent in Turkmenistan, Ogulsapar Muradova, who died in jail in September, possibly from blows to the head.

She had been arrested a few months earlier on charges of possessing ammunition, but many believe it was the help she gave to a French journalist filming a television documentary in Turkmenistan.

The head of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation on Human Rights, Tadjigul Begmedova, spoke to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service about Muradova.

"For our sake, for the sake of the people of Turkmenistan, she overcame the barrier of fear that held back the entire Turkmen society. When she began defending human rights, when she made this courageous step under conditions of persecution of the mass media, when she decided to go into journalism, it was a conscious attempt to influence the situation and communicate to the people of Turkmenistan that they should be more active in civil life," she said.

Harassment, Repression

In Iraq, there have been a series of hostage-takings of women journalists, some of whom were murdered, including Atwar Bahjat of Al-Arabiya television, and some of whom are still missing, including Reem Zeid of Sumariya television.

In Uzbekistan, Umida Niyazova is in jail facing a possible maximum sentence of 10 years for distributing written accounts of people who died during government's 2005 security crackdown on protesters in the city of Andijon.

Iran is another country where women journalists are having a hard time. An RSF researcher on Iran, Reza Moini, spoke to Radio Farda.

"In Iran during the past year, several Iranian women journalists were summoned to court, threatened, and jailed," he said. "Among the 34 women who were arrested [at a demonstration] on March 4, there are over 20 online journalists and bloggers. Among them are also several veteran journalists who have been for years under pressure and harassment by the Iranian regime."

The reference to bloggers (web loggers) shows how a new medium, the Internet, is beginning to make an impact on the human rights scene. RSF describes the women bloggers as "new free-expression advocates."

Role Of The Internet

"In some countries, like Iran, for instance, more and more people are using blogs to avoid censorship and to express themselves freely; a lot of women have blogs in Iran, and also in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, like Tunisia," he said. "So there are more and more women who create websites to speak about their freedom and their right to be women."

RSF also praises the courage of the women who run nongovernment organizations that support media freedom. It names Bedmedova in Turkmenistan, Rozlana Taukina in Kazakhstan, Zhanna Litvina in Belarus, and others.

So what can be done to make women reporters less exposed to reprisals from the government? Juillard says governments have to take their obligation to protect the public seriously.

"In a lot of countries, women journalists ask the police or the authorities for protection, and they don't get any answer," he said.

The RSF report on violence against women media activists is part of the broader theme of International Women's Day, which this year is dedicated to ending violence against women and girls.

Iran: Activists Arrested Ahead Of International Women's Day

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani (undated file photo)

March 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- More than 30 Iranian women have been arrested in Tehran for protesting against government pressure being put on women's rights activists.

The women had gathered outside a court in Tehran on March 4 to show their support for four women's rights activists who went on trial that day for organizing a protest last summer against discriminatory laws. Reports say many of the protesters and the activists are now in jail.

The arrests are the culmination of a year of increasing pressure on women's rights activists, who have been arrested, summoned to court, threatened, and harassed. Their protests have also been disrupted -- in some cases violently -- and their websites have been blocked.

MORE: Coverage in Farsi from Radio Farda.

Trying To Silence Activists

Some observers believe the arrests are aimed at intimidating activists who were planning to hold a gathering on March 8 to mark International Women's Day and to protest injustice against women.

The move is also seen as an attempt to silence activists who have been fighting for equal rights.

Many of those who had called for holding a protest in front of the parliament on March 8 are now in jail.

Iranian rights groups report that between 30 and 34 women who were arrested are being held in Tehran's Evin Prison. Among them are four top women's movement leaders: Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, Parvin Ardalan, Sussan Tahmassebi, and Shahla Entesari.

Right To Freely Assemble

They went on trial on March 4 in connection with a June gathering against laws that they consider discriminatory against women. Charges against them include acting against Iran's national interests and participating in an illegal gathering.

The four leaders were arrested after they left the court and joined other women who had gathered outside Tehran's revolutionary court. They were reportedly holding banners that said: "Holding peaceful gatherings is our absolute right."

Shahla Entesari (

Activists say the Iranian Constitution ensures the right to holding a peaceful gathering. Yet police forces disrupted the activists on March 4 and drove the women away in minibuses.

Peyman Aref, a student activist in Tehran, told Radio Farda that police used force against demonstrators.

"They were threatened and they were also beaten up," Aref said. "The crowd -- [which] included more than 50 people -- tried to resist by sitting on the ground and not reacting to the beatings. Finally, around 10:00, female police came and the activists were arrested."

Reaction To Activists' Campaigns?

During the June demonstration, which was also violently dispersed by police, some 70 people were arrested. All of them have since been released.

An Iranian rights group, the Student Committee of the Human Rights Reporters, said today that the families of some of those arrested on March 4 gathered in front of Evin Prison and called for their release. Authorities have said they are investigating the case.

Azadeh Kian, a lecturer in political science and an Iran researcher at France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), believes women's rights advocates are being targeted in connection with two campaigns they have launched in recent months.

One campaign aims to end the practice of stoning to death convicted adulterers. Authorities, however, deny that stoning sentences are being carried out.

Another campaign aims to gather the signatures of one million Iranians who are in favor of changing discriminatory laws and to present these signatures to the parliament. Islamic laws as applied in Iran deny women equal rights in divorce, child custody, inheritance, and other areas.

Kian tells RFE/RL that the campaigns have been well received, leading to concern among Iranian leaders.

'Intolerance For Human Rights'

Parvin Ardalan (undated file photo)

"The goal of women's rights activists is to gain the support of women from different classes who are in favor of changing the laws but have so far not joined the women's movement," Kian said. "This leads to concern among some of those in power in Iran about the implications of these actions. I see the arrests of activists [on March 4] in this relation; it shows that more and more women want changes in laws and also that women's issues are in fact becoming more and more political."

Human rights groups have expressed concern over the pressure and persecution of women's rights advocates, including those who are calling for reform legislation.

Kian says that by arresting peaceful activists, Iranian leaders are demonstrating their intolerance and lack of respect for human rights.

"It shows once more that under the Islamic establishment, especially under the current government, there is no respect for human rights principles," Kian said. "These women were arrested even though they had not committed any violent or armed action against the establishment. None of the demands of these women are against Islam. This shows that the current government is not ready to accept even the slightest opposition."

The Center of Human Rights Defenders, cofounded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, today described the March 4 arrests as "illegal" and called on authorities to release all of those arrested.