Freedom On Decline Around The World
In its annual "Freedom Of The World" report released today, the New York-based group Freedom House found that one-fifth of the 193 countries it studied suffered setbacks last year. None of the states that earned the lowest designation, "not free," in 2006 showed any improvement last year, and it was the first time in the report's 15-year history that a two-year decline had been recorded.
The countries of the former Soviet Union were among the worst performers, with parliamentary elections late in the year in Russia, rated "not free," highlighting the perilous environment in the region's most influential state.
"It's fair to say that freedom is seriously lacking in this region or unit, that is to say the former Soviet Union," Freedom House Director of Studies Chris Walker told RFE/RL. "Of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics, seven of those are assessed by Freedom House as 'not free,' four are 'partly free,' and one is 'free' [Ukraine]. So, it's a very challenging landscape for freedom in that part of the world."
Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are among the "worst of the worst" countries in the world in terms of human rights, and are joined on the list of "not free" countries by Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
Two countries looked upon as examples of positive democratic change, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, both rated "partly free," took steps backward -- with Russia's influence in obstructing reforms being noted in the case of Kyrgyzstan.
"There were big hopes for Kyrgyzstan and Georgia that if new people came to power, then [the new governments] would apply democratic principles by their actions and pressure [on the opposition] would stop," Ilim Karypbekov, director of the Media Representative Institute in Kyrgyzstan, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.
"However, if you look at Georgia, protest rally participants were beaten up again," Karypbekov continues. "At the same time, international observer missions showed that the [Georgian presidential] election was held under enormous pressure [on the opposition] and with the use of administrative resources. The same happened in Kyrgyzstan's [early parliamentary elections in December 2007]."
Joining Kyrgyzstan and Georgia among the former Soviet states considered "partly free" were Armenia and Moldova.
The best of the bunch is Ukraine, which Walker says remains "free" because it has competing factions with well-defined positions, and a population that accepts the results of well-conducted elections.
Democracy in Georgia, rated "partly free," suffered in 2007 due to President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili's ability to dominate the political scene. The imposition of a state of emergency and a violent police crackdown on opposition rallies late in the year served to highlight the country's problems, according to Freedom House, but Walker notes that there is room for vocal dissent in the country.
'A Semblance Of Freedom'
Russia is a different matter altogether, according to Walker.
"2007 was a pivotal year for authoritarian consolidation in Russia in part due to the manipulated parliamentary elections in December, and the managed succession process which really revealed itself by the end of the year where it became very clear that there would not be an opportunity for ordinary Russians to have an open and fair selection of their next president," Walker says.
A man in Nizhny Novgorod, who requested anonymity, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that "I've never been to other countries, so I can't say how the situation in our country is different from theirs. But compared to the Soviet Union, I don't see any radical changes."
"We never had freedom even though they tried to create it in the 1990s," the man adds. "What we are left with now, at least in my opinion, is a semblance of freedom."
A man in Yekaterinburg, meanwhile, tells the service that freedoms in Russia cannot be compared with those in European countries.
"I think we're at the level of Central Asian countries where rights and freedoms basically exist on paper but in reality [are not upheld]," he says. "The presidential election campaign has exceeded all limits because there is a cult of personality, and that is taking us back to the past."
Of the former communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe, most advanced on the road to freedom, according to the report. Only Latvia -- rated "free" -- and Bosnia -- rated "partly free" -- showed signs of moving backward during 2007.
Aneta Grosu, editor in chief of the weekly investigative magazine "Ziarul de Garda," describes the situation in Moldova, which retained its "partly free" rating.
"Year by year it is more difficult with freedoms in Moldova: with press freedom, freedom of different opinions, human rights," Grosu tells RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service. "And for us, journalists, it is more and more difficult to do our job in these circumstances. Access to information is more limited, there is tougher punishment for what the authorities call libel, sometimes we face threats or acts of revenge from people we write about."
The report characterized Iran as "not free" and called it a "dictatorship," accusing it of not only suppressing the rights of its people, but also of imposing its influence on other countries through the support of Muslim militants.
Iraq, too, is rated "not free" because it has limited freedom, given the persistent sectarian fighting between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims that poisons daily life in much of the country.
Walker says the annual report is meant to be studied by all those with influence in the countries that are rated, from government officials to members of the local news media. The point: to spark debate about how freedoms can be improved.
Sometimes, however, governments react with hostility, Walker says, again pointing to Russia as an example.
The work of nongovernmental organizations, including Freedom House, has been increasingly scrutinized in Russia, which argues that some countries use such entities work to spread their influence in Russia.
Recently Russia opened branches of its own Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris and New York, with the intention of improving Russia's image abroad.
The organization's chairman, Anatoly Kucherena, recently told "The Moscow Times" that the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation has "no desire to copy the behavior of organizations like Freedom House...which has only one goal: to publish data which was assembled using methodologies that nobody understands, in order to draw attention to themselves."
Walker says that "attacks on our findings" aren't based on the substance of the report.
And, he says, too often governments criticized in the report fail to debate such findings with the country's opposition.
"The local civil society in the country like Russia should have a right to talk about these findings without fear of reprisal and the hope is that it will help identify areas of concern, areas where there are problems, areas where there are possibilities for improvement so that domestic institutions can take the steps to make those improvements," Walker says. "I think that ultimately is the fundamental hope here."
(RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev interviewed Freedom House's Christopher Walker.)
Court Charges Beslan Victims' Group With 'Extremism'
For the Voice of Beslan, a victims' group led by women who lost children in the siege, this year's holidays brought further distress: a court summons from neighboring Ingushetia, where local prosecutors had filed charges accusing the organization of "extremist" activities.
"We received a telegram around the New Year inviting us to a Nazran court," says Ella Kesayeva, one of the group's leaders. "We think this trial was specially commissioned by someone. A lot has been happening lately around Voice of Beslan. What's happening now is one more attempt to pressure a civil group that is carrying out its own investigation."
More than three years after the siege, many questions remain unanswered. For Voice of Beslan and other groups, the key detail is who sparked the violence that brought the three-day siege to its deadly conclusion -- the hostage takers, most from the North Caucasus, demanding a military withdrawal from Chechnya, or the federal forces brought in to negotiate an end to the crisis.
After a private investigation, Voice of Beslan says it believes it was federal security forces outside the school, using flamethrowers and tanks against the school, that caused the blast that killed many of the 1,000 hostages and triggered a bloody battle with the militants.
Two reports have backed these claims -- one penned by the North Ossetian parliament's investigative commission, the other by Russian politician and explosives expert Yury Savelyev.
The State Duma has yet to release its own final official report on the events. But the chief parliamentary investigator, Aleksandr Torshin, has suggested that militants were responsible for the explosion.
No 'Official' Account
The large number of parallel investigations conducted into the Beslan siege illustrates the extreme controversy and high political stakes surrounding what remains the most horrifying event in recent Russian history.
Voice of Beslan says its campaign to bring senior officials to trial for botching the Beslan rescue operation has angered many. The group's trial -- currently due to begin on January 15 -- is not the first time Voice of Beslan has encountered trouble with the authorities.
A North Ossetian court ordered the organization to close down in December, claiming that Kesayeva was not its leader and that a former member who claimed to be the leader of the group should replace her. That ruling was subsequently annulled by the Russian Supreme Court.
This time, prosecutors' charges are tied to an open letter accusing President Vladimir Putin of covering up the truth about the carnage to protect top officials.
"We are guilty of electing a president who solves problems with the help of tanks, flamethrowers, and gas," Voice of Beslan said in the text, posted in 2005 on its website. "But it's not our fault that the global political elite supports our president, who has become a backer of criminals."
The charges fall under Russia's 2007 amended law on extremism, which broadens the definition of extremist activities to include "slander of public officials" and "humiliating national pride." The legislation can be applied retroactively and has been used to investigate journalists, human rights activists, and opposition figures.
Why authorities might seek to shut down Voice of Beslan is obvious. Russian officials have shown little compunction about using the extremism legislation to crack down on their critics. What is less clear, however, is why the charges come from Ingushetia, rather than Moscow -- and more than two years after the text's publication.
Some see the case as a product of the ongoing tensions between North Ossetia's Christian population and the mainly Muslim Ingush following an interethnic conflict in 1992 that killed about 200 people and displaced tens of thousands.
But Marina Litvinovich, who runs Truth of Beslan, an information website dedicated to the case, rejects this scenario. "I closely follow the activities of the Voice of Beslan committee," she says. "Its representatives never allowed themselves any comments against the Ingush people and never raised the question of the involvement of Ingush in the hostage taking."
Whatever the motive behind the extremism charges against Voice of Beslan, stoking regional tensions in the North Caucasus will not work to the Kremlin's benefit.
"The issue here is not only about the scandal," says Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. "This [trial] will inevitably be viewed as an interethnic act, which could have uncontrolled consequences. And that's something the Kremlin definitely doesn't want. Of course the Kremlin believes that Voice of Beslan must be shut down, but they also believe that it's the bureaucracy in Ossetia, rather than another region, that should muzzle this Ossetian group."
Kesayeva says Voice has Beslan has urged Putin to call off the trial. Russian human rights campaigners have already thrown their weight behind the organization, describing the extremism charges as an attempt to silence the group.
Veteran Russian rights campaigners Lyudmilla Alekseyeva condemned authorities for unleashing their "governmental and judicial might" against women whose sole offense is to search for answers to why their children were killed.
(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)
Kyrgyzstan: The Art Of Political Assassination
Until a month ago, the 30-year-old democracy activist was considered to be one of the Central Asian country's most promising young politicians, a social democrat with verve and a modern vision for Kyrgyzstan. But that was before last month's elections handed President Kurmanbek Bakiev's ruling party near-complete control of parliament in polls that Western observers said fell short of international standards.
Days before the December 16 vote, Baisalov was barred after complaints by election officials that he posted on his website a photograph of the ballot set to be used in the upcoming vote. Election officials, who said the photo could be copied to make fake ballots and stuff ballot boxes, sued the Social Democratic Party to cover the cost of printing new ballots -- some $570,000. Baisalov was banned from elections in which he was set to lead the party's list of candidates.
Baisalov, who for several years has organized demonstrations for democracy and against official corruption including election fraud, then fled to neighboring Kazakhstan, in fear for his safety following an attack by unidentified assailants.
"There were attacks on me," Baisalov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service from Almaty. "The authorities couldn't protect me. In answer to my questions about the assailants, the authorities told me they were people from Issyk-Kul who were on the run in Almaty. I am also in Almaty. Let them [the authorities] find those who attacked me."
Victim Of A Political 'Vendetta'
But why the backlash against him the first place? Baisalov maintains that it "was a provocation against the Social Democratic Party." He says it was done "in order to arrest me, to send me to jail and make me into a criminal." Baisalov describes himself as the victim of a political "vendetta."
Baisalov adds that he posted the photo in order to point out serious flaws in the ballot before the elections. And he denies that posting it compromised the election process in any way. He says the accusations against him are "groundless and without basis," and that the ballots "didn't have any protection," like a watermark, but "were printed on regular paper," and that he had contacted election authorities before posting the photo.
For now, Baisalov has temporarily suspended himself from the post of secretary of the Social Democrats, which won 11 seats in parliament -- the only opposition party to get any seats. But he remains defiant about challenging Bakiev and the government, and vows sooner or later to return to the political fray.
"All this talk about me fleeing, that I was seeking asylum, that I became a refugee, are complete lies," he says. "I am Kyrgyz. But now in Kyrgyzstan injustice is ruling. I will fight against this wherever I am, in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan. I will not leave politics. I will always remain in politics."
Baisalov did not say when he planned to try to return to Kyrgyzstan, but human rights activists will be watching his case closely.
In 2006, Human Rights Watch called Baisalov "a respected human rights defender and champion of the rule of law" after he was attacked for organizing rallies to prevent a known criminal kingpin from running for parliament. Bakiev and former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov in the past also voiced support for Baisalov. But both men later became objects of his criticism, including calls to leave office.
(Burulkan Sarygulova conducted the interview and Amirbek Usmanov contributed to this report. Both are with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.)
Authorities Target More Iranian Student Activists Ahead Of Elections
Meanwhile, at least 20 leftist students remain in Tehran's Evin prison after being arrested in December during protests on Iranian Student Day.
The punitive measures target around 60 students in several universities in Tehran, Mazandaran, Isfahan, Mashhad, and other cities, but student activists say they won't be cowed and vow to continue protests for democratic change.
Amin-e Nazari, the leader of the Association of Islamic Students in Hamadan University, told Radio Farda that the most recent action involved four members of the association being suspended from the university, while six others have received an official warning.
Nazari says the students believe that authorities want to silence outspoken students who are critical the government's policies. "As the [March 14 parliamentary] elections approach, the authorities want the groups who criticize them to stay silent, so that they can arrange an election show with the people," Nazari says.
Salman Yazdanpanah, who calls himself a pro-democracy student, has been temporarily expelled from Tehran University. He told Radio Farda that the authorities accuse him of insulting university personnel and taking part in unauthorized demonstrations.
Yazdanpanah says he has never insulted any university staff. He says he was punished "in connection with our activities at the university, in connection with the materials we wrote in our publication and for participating in demonstrations." "I wrote in my defense that not one university employee ever came and told me, 'Salman has insulted me.' These charges are false," Yazdanpanah says.
The disciplinary measures follow the arrest of at least 20 leftist students in Tehran and other cities in December. Most of them are still in Evin prison's notorious Section 209, where detainees are held in solitary confinement. Section 209 is solely controlled by Iran's Intelligence Ministry, and even Evin authorities are said to have no access to the section.
The security officials have reportedly called them "rebel students" and family members have been told that their children "had acted against national security."
However, the imprisoned students have not been officially charged. Their parents and relatives have protested the arrests and asked the country's top leaders and the United Nations office in Tehran to help secure their release.
No Visitors Allowed
Despite promises from judiciary officials, the parents have not been allowed to meet with their arrested children.
According to Nasreen Abdullahi Musavi -- whose daughter, Ilnaz, is among those detained -- Evin authorities told parents this week that the imprisoned students "are still being interrogated" and that decisions about their cases would be made "very soon."
The leftist students, whose main slogan is "Freedom and Equality," initiated demonstrations at Tehran University in December to mark Student Day. Other groups soon joined, including students from Islamic schools, and the protests spread to other Iranian cities. Several students were arrested in provinces, but most of them have reportedly been released.
The demonstrators criticized President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government for cracking down on dissent on campuses and elsewhere, and they called for broader democratic changes -- such as freedom of political and social organizations -- and improved human rights.
Amin-e Nazari says the students' activities would continue despite the arrests and punishments by the authorities because "no one is afraid of disciplinary committees and prisons anymore."
"After all of those measures, have universities become quieter? Actually, the opposite is true. The university has become more decisive," Nazari says. "As one of my friends said, when they arrest or suspend our classmates, obviously we cannot remain silent."
Iranian journalist Iraj Jamsheedi told RFE/RL that the student movements have gathered support among Iranian society "because their demands reflects those of the majority of the Iranian people."
Helsinki Federation Shuts Down After Fraud Scandal
The gathering, however, was no occasion for celebration. The Vienna-based headquarters of the human rights movement announced its likely closure over a massive fraud scandal in which the IHF's former finance manager confessed to having embezzled some 1.2 million euros ($1.76 million) from its budget.
The offense was uncovered in September after going undetected for several years. The case goes to trial in January.
"The executive committee and a number of other supporters of the organization did everything they could to try and find a solution that would allow the IHF to continue its work," says Holly Cartner, who works for Human Rights Watch and served on IHF's executive committee. "But unfortunately, we were not able to find sufficient resources to pay for the debt, and as a result the IHF decided to declare bankruptcy."
The group's treasurer, president, vice president, and executive committee all immediately handed in their resignations over the scandal. The IHF shut down its office earlier this month, sealing the demise of one of the world's best-known rights watchdogs, which in recent years has focused much of its energy on documenting rights abuses in Belarus, Central Asia, and the North Caucasus.
A Blow To Rights Groups
The closure deals a severe blow to civil society in some of the countries where the group has sister committees. Individual Helsinki committees operate in 46 countries, many from the former Soviet bloc. Since national Helsinki committees are technically independent legal entities, they are not directly threatened by the IHF collapse. The Vienna headquarters, however, were vital in lobbying for some of the smaller and more vulnerable national Helsinki committees.
"Clearly, it's a devastating loss to the human rights movement in the region," says Cartner. "It will have a negative impact on the ability of these organizations to function as a network and to be something more than what they are in their individual capacities -- it being able to influence European foreign policy toward Central Asia or Russia, for example."
There's also concern that authorities in Russia and Central Asia may take advantage of the scandal to intensify their ongoing crackdown on local Helsinki committees and other nongovernmental organizations.
But for now, the Moscow Helsinki Group remains optimistic.
"This doesn't affect us at all, since we are not branches of this federation," says Moscow office head Lyudmilla Alekseyeva. "We are all independent organizations. [The Vienna office] was not responsible for coordinating our work, they worked with us on joint projects and ensured that groups from various countries helped our organizations that ran in trouble like in Kosovo, and now in Belarus."
Even in Belarus, where it has come under consistent state pressure, the group is not hitting the panic button. The local Helsinki Committee told a press conference today that the IHF's closure will not affect activities in Belarus.
It may take time, however, before the Helsinki movement is able to mend its dented reputation.
To add to the embattled watchdog's trouble, the Vienna headquarters last month expelled the Moldovan Helsinki committee over apparently unrelated financial mismanagement.
(RFE/RL's Romania/Moldova and Belarus services contributed to this report.)