ECtHR win for Khadija Ismayilova, Assange on trial and coronavirus lies
February in Europe and Central Asia: A round up of key free expression news by Regional Editor Cathal Sheerin, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
Prisoners at risk
In the UK, Julian Assange’s extradition hearing began in February. Multiple IFEX members have called on the UK not to extradite the Wikileaks publisher to the US, where he faces up to 175 years in prison if convicted on espionage charges.
Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) Rebecca Vincent has been attending the hearings every day since they began and has posted useful daily video summaries on Twitter: follow her to stay updated. You can also read RSF’s summary of the hearings so far.
Those attending the hearings have expressed shock at the authorities’ treatment of Assange, and also at his poor physical condition. He is forced to sit in a glass box for every court appearance, severely limiting his contact with his lawyers. There are also reports that he has been deliberately ill-treated by the authorities.
Human rights experts have called on the UK not to extradite Assange, including Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatović, who warned of “serious concerns over the treatment [that] Assange would be subjected to in the United States”.
Bad news so often follows on the heels of good news in the prosecutions of journalists and activists in Turkey. Jailed civil society leader Osman Kavala suffered this bitter experience in February when, after he and eight others were acquitted of all charges connected to the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the Public Prosecutor announced that he would be investigated on the new, ludicrous charge of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order during the 2016 failed coup. The prosecutor also announced that he would appeal the Gezi Park acquittals. Kavala was re-arrested shortly after his acquittal. IFEX members called on the new charge to be dropped.
Kyrgyzstan’s most famous political prisoner, journalist and activist Azimjon Askarov, was dubiously convicted in 2010 of incitement to ethnic hatred, organising mass disorder and complicity in a police officer’s murder; he was handed a life sentence. International human rights experts condemned the trial, sentencing and ill treatment of Askarov by the Kyrgyz authorities and Askarov has lost numerous appeals against his conviction. The Supreme Court was due to hear what could be Askarov’s final appeal on 25 February; however, the hearing was quickly adjourned until April. According to Askarov’s family, the authorities did not allow journalists or human rights defenders into the courtroom.
New and noteworthy
Inevitably, fears over coronavirus (COVID-19) have been exploited by disinformation peddlers. In Ukraine, a fake email purporting to be from the Ministry of Health ‘informed’ the ministry’s entire contact list — on the day that a plane brought home evacuees from China — that there were five infected people in the country (at this point there were no recorded cases of the virus in Ukraine).
The lie spread like wildfire and resulted in multiple protests and violent disturbances, including attacks on buses transporting the evacuees. It also sparked further disinformation, such as the false rumour that doctors were fleeing medical facilities.
In late February, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that Azerbaijan had arbitrarily detained journalist Khadija Ismayilova, and that it had violated her right to presumption of innocence, when she was arrested on fabricated charges in December 2014 (and then held in pre-trial detention until May 2016). The Court ordered Azerbaijan to pay Ismayilova EUR 20,000 in compensation.
Ismayilova has long been targeted by the Azerbaijani authorities and this was not her first win at the ECtHR. In January 2019, the Court ruled that Azerbaijan had violated her rights to privacy and freedom of expression through its flawed criminal investigation into a smear campaign against her.
In Northern Ireland, there was progress this month in the investigation into the killing of journalist Lyra McKee, who was shot dead while reporting on a riot in Derry on 18 April 2019. (The New IRA admitted responsibility for the shooting, but said that McKee had not been the intended target.) On 11 February, police arrested four men under the Terrorism Act; one of these men, Paul McIntyre, was charged with the murder; he was granted bail on 27 February.
Pieter Omtzigt, the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe (PACE) rapporteur on the 2017 murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the rule of law in Malta, conducted a two-day visit to Malta in mid-February. Reporting afterwards, he described the ongoing public inquiry as “truly independent” and judged it to be “making real progress”; however, he also said that he was “disappointed to see that there are still no results from the multiple inquiries into high-level corruption”.
In France, the National Prosecutor opened an investigation into the assets of Yorgen Fenech, the suspected mastermind behind the Caruana Galizia murder. The inquiry comes in response to a complaint filed in December 2019 by Caruana Galizia’s family and Reporters Without Borders, in which they accused Fenech in a French court of being an accomplice to murder and corruption.
There was good news from Spain for rapper Cesar Strawberry, whom, in 2017, the Supreme Court sentenced to one year in prison for “glorifying terrorism” (the charge was based on the rapper’s tweets about sending a “cake bomb” to King Juan Carlos I on his birthday). On 25 February, the Constitutional Court overturned that verdict, declaring that the Supreme Court had not adequately considered the rapper’s fundamental rights and that its verdict had violated his right to freedom of expression.
Spain has frequently been criticised for its draconian legislation that criminalises the “glorification of terrorism”. This broad, vague law has resulted in numerous prosecutions of rappers and citizens solely on the basis of song lyrics or tweets.
In Turkey, a verdict was expected in February in the trial of Amnesty Turkey Chair Taner Kılıç and the #Istanbul10 (human rights defenders on trial on trumped up terrorism charges). However, the hearing was postponed until 3 April.
Gender in focus
There was historic news this month, when Robyn Peoples and Sharni Edwards became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in Northern Ireland. This followed a change to the law in October 2019.
There was also good news from Switzerland, where the public voted in a referendum to make LGBTQI+ discrimination illegal. Switzerland holds regular referendums giving voters a direct say in policy-making. Lawmakers are also currently reviewing a bill to legalise same-sex marriage.
There was intriguing news from Poland, when President Andrzej Duda suggested that he could sign a law introducing same-sex civil partnerships. Duda is seeking re-election in 2020 and has the support of the openly homophobic ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), of which he was a member. Duda has avoided getting involved in the anti-gay ‘ LGBT-Free Zone ‘ campaign promoted by many PiS-controlled councils, but critics are sceptical of his gay-friendly words, saying that Duda has done nothing to advance LGBTQI+ rights while in office.
ILGA-Europe has released its 2020 annual review of the human rights situation for LGBTQI+ people across Europe and Central Asia. One of the trends the review highlights is a worrying rise in homophobic hate speech by public figures across Europe, including in countries such as Bulgaria, Poland and Turkey, Cyprus, Finland, Greece, Portugal and Spain.
Originally published at https://ifex.org on March 2, 2020.