Partial justice in Turkey and holding Lukashenko to account

March 2021 in Europe and Central Asia: A free expression round up produced by IFEX’s Regional Editor Cathal Sheerin, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.

Women in red dance holding up red tulips as they welcome spring during a protest against the Belarus presidential election results near the village of Maloje Zapruddzie, 1 March 2021, -/AFP via Getty Images

March saw Turkey dismantling human rights protections and democratic norms, the promise of change — both good and bad — in Central Asia, and the launch of a new website devoted to tackling SLAPPs. It also saw IFEX members calling on the EU to confront Hungary, Poland and Slovenia’s attacks on media freedom, and important developments in the campaign to hold the Belarusian authorities accountable for human rights violations:

Holding Lukashenko’s regime to account

March saw numerous acts of solidarity and developments in the campaign to hold President Lukashenko’s regime to account for its appalling human rights violations:

Some of the individual cases of persecuted activists or journalists that IFEX members highlighted this month included: journalist Katsiaryna Barysevich, who was jailed for six months over her coverage of protests; renowned translator Volha Kalackaja, who was sentenced to two years of house arrest on charges of “malicious hooliganism” (she had been held in pre-trial detention for two months); journalist Dzyanis Ivashin, who was arrested after he published a story about former Ukrainian riot police joining the Belarusian police force; and punk musician Ihar Bantsar, who was sentenced to 1.5 years’ restricted freedom on “hooligan” charges this month and released with a travel ban. Bantsar, who had been in jail since October 2020, had been on hunger strike for approximately two weeks.

For recent updates on how the crackdown is affecting Belarus’s cultural sector, take a look at PEN Belarus’s latest edition of Cultural Resistance in Belarus. For some legal analysis of the Belarusian authorities’ abuse of “extremism” and “hate speech” legislation to silence opposition voices, please see this report by ARTICLE 19 and Human Constanta. For more about the impact of Lukashenko’s crackdown on independent journalists and their families, see HRW’s recent report. Also, check out BAJ’s report on the persecution of Belarusian media in 2020, which looks at the situation before and after the presidential elections.

Turkey: “Partial justice”, dismantling human rights protections

Earlier in the month, Hazım Özsu, a local radio host in Bursa province, was shot dead at his home by a man who later said that he disliked some of the comments Özsu had made about religion on his radio programme. The suspect is in custody and has reportedly confessed to the murder.

HRW condemned Turkey for “dismantling human rights protections and democratic norms” following two recent disturbing developments. The first of these was Turkey’s abrupt withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women, which saw thousands of women take to the streets to demonstrate and protests by UN experts and the Council of Europe.

The second development was the chief prosecutor of the Court of Cassation’s move to close down the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). This came after parliament expelled the HDP deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu on the pretext of his conviction (and impending 2.5 year prison sentence) for a 2016 social media posting. In protest, Gergerlioğlu, who is well known for his human rights work, refused to leave parliament and was detained in his pyjamas just as he was preparing to pray.

Earlier in the month, President Erdoğan announced a Human Rights Action Plan for Turkey, which seems ironic considering his government’s ongoing crackdown on the press, social media, rights activists and civil society in general. The plan was criticised by rights defenders for its “lack of a clear implementation schedule, the exclusion of NGOs in the mechanism for protection of human rights, and failure to word the measures to be taken in concrete language”, all of which “raise doubts on the implementation of the plan”.

Central Asia: Steps forwards, steps backwards

In recent years, Uzbekistan has taken steps to improve its dreadful human rights record, though serious rights violations are still very common. A new draft Penal Code promises change, but not enough. HRW has noted some small but welcome improvements in the draft, but also points out that it “retains many provisions that violate the rights to freedom of speech, association, and religion”, while also falling short on protections for women and LGBTQI+ people.

Uzbekistan is one of only two countries in Europe and Central Asia (the other being Turkmenistan) where consensual sex between men is a crime. HRW called for decriminalisation this month, saying that the current situation leaves gay men vulnerable to “arbitrary detention, prosecution, and imprisonment as well as homophobia, threats, and extortion”. Uzbek social media has seen lots of debate about LGBTQI+ rights in recent days and 28 March saw a demonstration in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, to protest against decriminalisation of consensual sex between men (even though there are no plans to decriminalise). On the same day, Miraziz Bazarov, a blogger who openly supports LGBTQI+ rights, was hospitalised after a brutal attack by a homophobic mob in Tashkent.

While a conservative, patriarchal, often homophobic outlook is dominant in the Central Asian states, women’s and LGBTQI+ rights activists are continually chipping away at change-resistant, traditional power structures, sometimes with success.

This month saw the authorities in Almaty, Kazakhstan, allow (for the first time) an International Women’s Day march to proceed. The marchers called for equality and respect for women’s rights, for the criminalisation of domestic violence, and for a new law on combating domestic violence that has stalled in parliament, to be adopted.

Next month, Kyrgyzstan’s local council elections will be an interesting test of its 2019 Gender Quota Law, which reserves 30% of the seats in each village council for women. In all, 9,800 women are running for positions in 448 local councils across the country, which means more than 2,800 of them are guaranteed to secure seats. In an article for The Diplomat, Colleen Wood acknowledges that the gender quota is “no panacea for the problems women face”, but argues that this “nudge” at including women in local politics “stands to challenge and shift gender stereotypes, to give women a chance to fight bride kidnapping and domestic violence head-on, and to gain much needed experience to run for higher level positions”.

Working together

Multiple IFEX members joined other rights groups in calling on MEPs to reject the Terrorist Content Online Regulation, which will be debated in the European Parliament on 28 April. The groups argue that the Regulation poses serious threats to the rights to freedom of expression, access to information, privacy, and the rule of law. Details of its failings can be found here.

IFEX and IFEX members also joined other press freedom groups in calling on the EU to act in the face of threats to media freedom in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. In a joint statement the groups describe how the Hungarian government, “through the misuse of legislative, regulatory and administrative tools has muzzled critical media while building a vast array of government cheerleaders that dominate the national media landscape”, thereby providing a useful model to Poland and Slovenia who are following the same dark path. Please check out the statement for a list of our recommendations.

Originally published at https://ifex.org on March 29, 2021.

IFEX is a global network of organisations that defend and promote the right to freedom of expression and information. Email: info@ifex.org

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