Azimjon Askarov dies in prison, thought crime in Russia, a new social media law in Turkey
July in Europe and Central Asia: A round up by IFEX’s Regional Editor Cathal Sheerin of key free expression news, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
“They intended for him to die in prison, and so he has”
Rights activist and investigative journalist Azimjon Askarov died in prison on 25 July 2020. Askarov, 69, was one of Central Asia’s most famous political prisoners and had been behind bars since he was arrested, tortured and unfairly convicted on trumped up charges in 2010.
Askarov’s journalism exposed corruption, which made him many enemies. But his work documenting Kyrgyzstan’s inter-ethnic conflict of 2010 — and the role of ethnic Kyrgyz police officers in targeting ethnic Uzbek civilians — was what led to his arrest. Multiple appeals against his subsequent unfair conviction on charges of complicity in the death of a police officer failed. In May 2020, the Supreme Court upheld Askarov’s life sentence.
Askarov had been suffering from various health problems when he died. Numerous IFEX members including PEN International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch spent many years campaigning on his behalf. Only a few days before he died, Human Rights Watch’s Mihra Rittmann published an article detailing the alarming decline in Askarov’s health. Human Rights Watch had been calling for Askarov’s urgent release due to the risk of COVID-19 since March.
When news of Aksarov’s death broke, Mihra Rittmann spoke for many when she said: “Kyrgyzstan’s authorities bear full responsibility for Askarov’s death… They had every opportunity to end his wrongful imprisonment, but each time they flouted their obligations. They intended for him to die in prison, and so he has.”
Terrorism convictions and a social media law
In Turkey, the crackdown on free expression, both offline and online, goes on.
On 29 July, lawmakers approved a law that gives the authorities much greater control over social media. In draft form, the law had been much criticised by IFEX members because it effectively handed the Turkish state power to censor online speech.
The approved law requires the following: social media companies will have to keep an office and representatives in Turkey so that they can answer complaints about content (if the companies refuse to comply, they face massive fines, advertising bans and bandwidth reductions); the companies will have to remove content considered to have violated privacy and personal rights within 24 hours or be liable for damages; the companies will also have to store data from users in Turkey locally, which will be available for use in judicial proceedings. As one opposition lawmaker warned, “State authorities having ease of access to people’s private information will be dissuasive for social media users.”
(By way of context: in 2019, Turkish authorities blocked access to 130,000 URL addresses, 7,000 Twitter accounts, 10,000 YouTube videos and 6,251 Facebook posts; content providers removed content on more than 50,000 addresses after access block orders.)
In mid-July, Turkey correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt, Deniz Yücel, was convicted in absentia of “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation”. He was sentenced to two years, nine months and 22 days in prison. He was acquitted on a separate charge of “inciting people to hatred and hostility”. The charges related to articles Yücel published in 2016 about the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the movement headed by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. Yücel was arrested in February 2017 and spent one year behind bars before being released on bail in February 2018.
Earlier in the month, the farcical terrorism trial of 11 human rights activists (also known as the #Istanbul10 plus Taner Kiliç) concluded with the convictions of four defendants. Honorary chair of Amnesty International Turkey, Taner Kiliç, was sentenced to six years and three months in prison; İdil Eser, former Amnesty International Director in Turkey, Günal Kuşun, a member of the Human Rights Agenda Association in Ankara, and Özlem Dalkıran, a member of the Citizens’ Assembly NGO, were each sentenced to two years and one month in prison. The remaining seven defendants were acquitted.
In Poland, justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro told a news conference on 25 July that he would initiate a withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention (a European treaty on violence against women). This is yet another attack by the far right ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) on so-called “gender ideology” (a disparaging term used by PiS to refer to LGBTQI+ rights, women’s rights and reproductive health rights). The President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the General Rapporteur on violence against women, and co-rapporteurs on the monitoring of Poland issued a statement in response. Noting that the Convention had been wilfully misrepresented for political purposes, they urged Poland not to withdraw, saying that it would “represent a major setback for the respect for human rights in the country”.
Open Line, a charity in Kyrgyzstan, has developed an app to educate young women about how to defend themselves against the illegal practice of bride kidnapping. The app takes the form of a role-playing game and has already been downloaded by 10,000 users. It is estimated that 15% of women below the age of 24 are forced into marriage in Kyrgyzstan. Check out Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s short video about the app:
In the UK, the government announced in July that it would “consider all options for ending the practice” of LGBT “conversion therapy” (a psychologically damaging and ineffective pseudo-therapy). The Conservative government has really dragged its feet on this issue: it announced that the practice would be banned over two years ago.
In the Netherlands, gender markers on ID documents are set to become a thing of the past. As Human Rights Watch explains, the decision takes into account the risk of harassment and discrimination posed by declaring one’s gender on documents; it is also partly based on the “recognition that [gender markers] do not accommodate non-binary people and that even rights-respecting legal gender recognition procedures impose burdens on trans people to proactively change their gender markers.”
In Russia, LGBTQI+ activist Yulia Tsvetkova was fined 75,000 roubles (US$ 1,000) for posting images online of happy LGBTQI+ families. She was charged with spreading “gay propaganda” which, in practice, is interpreted as any positive depiction of LGBTQI+ life. This was the third time that Tsvetkova had been targeted under the anti-“gay propaganda” law, which has been in force since 2013.
In Belarus, presidential elections are set to take place on 9 August. The incumbent, President Lukashenko, has been in power for 26 years and has a long history of dealing ruthlessly with any opposition — often jailing their candidates or barring them from appearing on the ballot (as happened this month). The last two months have seen hundreds of people arrested at peaceful protests calling for democratic change. Independent journalists and bloggers have also been targeted, with numerous reporters beaten up by police at demonstrations. The Belarusian Association of Journalists has been posting regular updates on its website and this month called for an end to the persecution of journalists.
In Hungary, the independent press suffered another body blow in July when Szabolcs Dull, the editor-in-chief of Index.hu, the country’s largest independent news portal, was fired. Prime Minister Orbán’s allies have been expanding their ownership of Hungary’s media for some time and a pro-government businessman acquired significant control over Index.hu’s funding earlier this year. Last month, Index.hu declared publicly that its independence was at risk due to external pressure. On 24 July, the editorial board and over 70 staff resigned in protest at Dull’s firing.
In Malta, Melvin Theuma, the key witness in the investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caurana Galizia, was rushed to hospital after reportedly stabbing himself in the neck and body. News reports suggested that Theuma’s self-harm was motivated by feelings of remorse and the fear that his evidence wasn’t being taken seriously. Theuma acted as a middleman in Caruana Galizia’s murder and turned State’s evidence after receiving a presidential pardon in 2019.
The UK launched its human rights sanctions regime in early July. Like the Magnitsky Act, it will be used to target international human rights abusers by freezing their assets and banning them from entering the country. The Foreign Office also released the initial list of individuals to be sanctioned; it includes 25 Russian nationals involved in the mistreatment and death of tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, and 20 Saudi nationals implicated in the Istanbul murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In Russia, of the many attacks on free expression this month, two stand out for their “thought-crime” overtones. One is the case of journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva, who was convicted of “justifying terrorism” for speculating on the motives of a suicide bomber (she was fined approximately US$ 7,000). The other is the conviction and sentencing of historian Yury Dmitriev to three and a half years in prison on unfounded child pornography charges: it is widely believed that the charges are punishment for his research into mass killings during the Stalin era.
This month, long time enemies of press freedom, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, blocked the renewal of Harlem Désir’s mandate as OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, thus sparking outrage across the region and amongst IFEX members and other rights defenders. OSCE member consensus is required to fill the post.
Originally published at https://ifex.org on July 29, 2020.