War crimes, draconian sentencing, and defending LGBTQI+ civic space

September 2022 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.

Police officers provide security for LGBTQI+ activists during a pride march in front of the Constitutional Court in Belgrade, Serbia, 17 September 2022. OLIVER BUNIC/AFP via Getty Images

Mass arrests at anti-mobilisation protests in Russia; UN confirms war crimes committed in Ukraine; Pride marches go ahead in Kharkiv and Belgrade; conservative rally calls for ‘gay propaganda’ law in Turkey.

Brutal, chaotic and unpopular

President Putin’s partial mobilisation of military reservists has proved to be brutal, chaotic and unpopular in Russia, with many tens of thousands of eligible men fleeing the country since the policy was announced. Kazakhstan alone has reportedly experienced an influx of approximately 100,000 Russian men in recent days.

There have been several anti-mobilisation demonstrations across Russia, which have seen nearly 2,400 people arrested. Among those arrested or detained by 24 September were at least 27 journalists who were covering the protests.

There were also numerous reports of shocking violence inflicted by the authorities on protesters. According to his lawyer, the poet and activist Artem Kamardin was beaten and raped by police officers who detained him at his Moscow apartment for reading anti-war poetry. They also forced him to apologise on camera for his anti-war views. Kamardin’s activist girlfriend was beaten up as well and threatened with rape.

As ever, the Putin government has tried to control the narrative. The state media regulator announced this month that press outlets would be fined or blocked for spreading “false information” about the mobilisation. Media organisations, it said, must only use information provided by official sources.

And the persecution of the press continued: the renowned independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta (which stopped printing in Russia in March after it was accused of violating the ‘foreign agent’ law) was stripped of both its print and website licences this month; and the Journalists and Media Workers’ Union (convicted in August of ‘discrediting the Russian armed forces’) was liquidated by the Moscow City Court.

Against this backdrop of escalating repression and suppression of civic space, rights groups called on members of the UN Human Rights Council to support the resolution at the 51st session of the UNHRC on the establishment of a Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Russia.

UN confirms war crimes committed

The first report of the UN-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine confirmed that Russian occupiers have committed war crimes against Ukrainian civilians. The report documents unlawful killings (including summary executions), acts of torture and sexual violence.

According to the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), the tally of crimes committed by Russian forces against the media in Ukraine now stands at 454. IMI has compiled a list of the 38 journalists (six of whom were women) who were killed by Russia in the first seven months of the war to 24 September 2022, either in the course of their reporting or in activities unrelated to their profession.

Among those crimes against the media that IMI documented this month were the kidnappings by Russian forces of pro-Ukraine bloggers, who were then forced to make ‘apologies’ for their views on video.

IMI’s media expert, journalist Iryna Zemlyana, reported that Russia has opened an investigation into her May anti-war protest in front of the Russian ambassador in Warsaw. She continues to receive death threats from pro-Putin sources because of her protest and remains in hiding.

Defending LGBTQI+ civic space

Despite Russia’s daily shelling of Kharkiv (Ukraine’s second largest city), organisers of Kharkiv Pride resolutely continued with their annual march on 25 September, albeit using an altered route: through the city’s metro system. Although there were far fewer attendees than in recent years — owing to the fact that several members of the LGBTQI+ community and their allies are actively involved in the defence of Ukraine and related activities, or have become refugees — those who marched made their presence felt.

Kharkiv Pride is co-ordinated by Sphere, a lesbian-feminist NGO, which used the occasion to call for marriage equality in Ukraine. This followed President Zelensksy’s announcement in August that there would be no move to legalise same-sex marriage while the war with Russia continued. (Zelensky did, however, say that his government was looking at the legalisation of same-sex relationships.)

A report on Kharkiv Pride by the online news outlet Zaborana showed why — especially in time of war — legislative change is so important to LGBTQI+ people. One Pride marcher who was interviewed explained: “During the war, we did not disappear and we still have needs, in particular those related to the war — for example, to pick up the body of a deceased partner or simply visit them in the hospital”.

A much anticipated EuroPride march went ahead in Belgrade, Serbia, in September. It was a historic moment — the first time that a EuroPride march had been organised in southeast Europe. Mid-month, the Ministry of Interior banned the Pride march — and also a planned far-right counter-march — citing security reasons.

EuroPride’s local leader was adamant that their march would take place, saying: “It is important that we go out and that our voice is heard.” At the eleventh hour, LGBTQI+ groups reported that Serbia’s openly gay prime minister had given them assurances that the event could go ahead.

Both the EuroPride march and the anti-LGBTQI+ one went ahead on 17 September, and saw 87 homophobic protesters arrested after scuffles with the police.

Only days before the government announced its ban on EuroPride, thousands had attended an anti-Pride demonstration in Belgrade, organised by right-wing groups with the support of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Several thousand also attended an anti-LGBTQI+ demonstration in Istanbul, Turkey, on 18 September. The organisers — who had named the event ‘ The Big Family Gathering ‘ — called for a law prohibiting so-called ‘gay propaganda’, which would involve the shutting down of LGBTQI+ associations and public, LGBTQI+ related activities. The organisers claimed to have collected 150,000 signatures on a petition demanding this legislation.

As in other countries — such as Poland, Hungary and Russia — anti-LGBTQI+ sentiment in Turkey often goes hand-in-hand with an intolerance of gender equality and sexual and reproductive rights (sometimes referred to disparagingly by the hard-right elsewhere as ‘gender ideology’). Bianet quoted one of the speakers at the rally, Meltem Ayvalı (deputy chair of the Patriotic Party) as saying: “Withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention [on violence against women], which is a LGBTQI+ convention, was the first step. Now, a tougher battle awaits us”.

According to ILGA-Europe’s 2022 report on the situation for LGBTQI+ people in Europe, Turkey is already the second worst country in the region for LGBTQI+ rights. Worrying trends that the report highlights are the promotion of homophobic sentiment by leading politicians, a ban on pride parades since 2015 (and their often violent dispersal by the police), the harassment of trans sex workers by law enforcement and “countless hate crimes”.

Allies of Turkey’s LGBTQI+ community are often targeted too. In September, pop singer Aleyna Tilki had a music concert cancelled by Osmancık District Municipality (in the northern province of Çorum) after she criticised Istanbul’s anti-LGBTQI+ rally.

In Italy, the far-right’s general election win this month does not, unsurprisingly, bode well for LGBTQI+ rights (or, indeed, a host of other rights). Giorgia Meloni, whose party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) has neo-fascist roots, is set to lead a new government of figures chosen from the far-right coalition she led to victory. A speech she gave [VIDEO] in June 2022 to the far-right Spanish party Vox gives a taste of the thinking that is likely to inform government policy once she is in charge:

“Yes to natural families, no to the LGBT lobby, yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology, yes to the culture of life, no to the abyss of death. No to the violence of Islam, yes to safer borders, no to mass immigration, yes to work for our people, no to major international finance”.

The “purge” continues

September was a month of shocking prison sentences in Belarus, as the authorities continued their “purge” of civil society.

Early in the month, Viasna volunteer coordinator Marfa Rabkova and Viasna volunteer Andrei Chapiuk were handed 16 and six years in prison respectively on spurious charges related to the anti-Lukashenka rallies of 2020. The two have already been behind bars for approximately two years.

Their Viasna colleagues Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimir Labkovich (all detained arbitrarily since 2021) now face harsher charges than those they were arrested on. According to Viasna, the three are currently accused of ‘smuggling’ cash across the border and ‘financing group actions that disrupt public order’. If convicted they each face between seven and 12 years in prison.

Others who received draconian prison sentences this month were journalist Dzianis Ivashyn, who was jailed for 13 years after he reported on the presence of former Ukrainian riot police in the Belarusian police force, and Belarusian PEN member Aliaksandar Fiaduta, who has handed a ten-year sentence for ‘conspiracy to seize power’.

There was also some welcome news in September: RFE/RL correspondent Aleh Hruzdzilovich was released from prison, where he’d been since December 2021; and Belsat TV journalist Darya Chultsova was released after serving a full two-year sentence. Both journalists had been dubiously convicted of participating in the mass protests that swept Belarus after August 2020’s disputed presidential election result.

There are currently over 1,330 political prisoners in Belarus, including 31 journalists. The Belarusian Association of Journalists got in touch with their families and friends recently and has provided an update on the jailed journalists’ situations.

Originally published at https://ifex.org on September 29, 2022.

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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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IFEX

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