Many governments across Eastern Europe and Central Asia have pursued an "extensive offensive" against human rights, deploying draconian tactics and tools of the state to suppress protests, freedom of expression, and civil society, Amnesty International says in its annual regional review.
But while human rights defenders, journalists, nongovernmental organizations, and protesters faced mounting pressure in 2019, peaceful demonstrators took growing collective action in their fight to hold their governments to account, according to the report released by the London-based human rights group on April 16.
The already dire situation last year across a region spanning from Belarus to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to Russia comes as governments implement emergency measures and a wide range of restrictions in a bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, raising concerns those health measures will be deployed to further squash rights.
Daniel Balson, the advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty, described the states of emergency declared across the region as a “fertilizer” for human rights abuses.
"By and large, governments in the region have not used the pandemic to invent new ways to repress people but have accelerated their use of well-honed methods," he told RFE/RL. "What has changed is that many governments have viewed the pandemic as a carte blanche to roll out even more draconian methods and overtly telegraph their abuses."
Last year, the right to freedom of assembly "continued to be violently repressed" in many countries, Amnesty said in the report, adding that "street power showed that people knew it mattered and they were brave enough to reclaim it back" by protesting against rigged elections while also demanding good governance, environmental protection, and a better life.
In Russia, where authorities used legal tactics and police force to quell protests, people nonetheless took to the streets across the country in growing numbers to raise their voice against a range of issues including corruption and worsening human rights.
In July and August, Moscow saw some of the largest protests in years after authorities refused to register opposition candidates for the capital’s city election.
"The reprisals against participants of mass protests in Moscow kick-started an unprecedented solidarity campaign that signals the further awakening of human rights awareness and people power in Russia," said Marie Struthers, Amnesty’s regional director, for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Meanwhile, freedom of expression and media remained under assault all across the region in 2019.
Despite media pluralism in Ukraine, regular violent attacks against journalists were rarely properly investigated,
Bar Set 'Ominously Low'
And in Russia, legislation on "foreign agents" and "undesirable organizations" was "systematically wielded against human rights and other [nongovernmental organizations], alongside criminal prosecutions and smears in government-controlled media," Amnesty said.
It added that the authorities "further set the bar ominously low" with new legislation expanding the status of "foreign agents" to individuals, including bloggers and journalists.
In Tajikistan, "national security" was invoked to clamp down on nongovernmental organizations, as well as defenders of human rights and media freedom, while torture and ill-treatment remained pervasive, according to Amnesty’s report.
It said the grim record of Azerbaijan continued unabated with severe restrictions across the board on any dissent against the government.
Across the region certain ethnic minorities, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, some religious groups, and those with disabilities sometimes faced discrimination, prosecution, and even violence, Amnesty said.
Domestic violence against women and children also continued to plague societies.
Rights abuses against individuals and groups across the region were exacerbated by judicial systems subject to political pressure, Amnesty said.