Europe & Central Asia

Human Rights by region

A man and young boy stare at a burnedout house in an Uzbek district of Osh city, southern Kyrgyzstan, June 2010.

© AP Photo/Sergei Grits

“The great lie has been laid bare. The truth has been brought home at last.”

Tony Doherty, whose father Paddy died on Sunday 30 January 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland, when soldiers opened fire on a civil rights march.

The right to truth and justice, and the determination of victims and their relatives to achieve this however long and however hard the struggle, remained a key part of the human rights landscape across the Europe and Central Asia region throughout the year.

On 15 June, families gathered in a council building in Northern Ireland in the UK to have first sight of the findings of a long-running – and long-awaited – inquiry into the killing of 13 people by the British army on a day that became known as Bloody Sunday.

They had waited nearly four decades for justice, and their jubilation when it came was unrestrained. The inquiry rejected all claims from earlier government reports that any of those killed and injured by soldiers were posing a threat, were armed with a firearm, or threw a nail or petrol bomb. It vindicated all their loved ones of any responsibility for the shootings. The report confirmed that several of the victims had been shot in the back while running away, and found that accounts by many of the soldiers were manifestly untrue. In response, the UK Prime Minister gave a public state apology.

Freedom of expression

For a region that prides itself as a beacon for free expression, the real picture was very different for many seeking to publicize abuses, articulate alternative views, or hold governments and others to account. Freedoms of expression and association remained under attack – as did human rights defenders themselves.

In Turkey, despite increasingly open debate regarding previously taboo issues, numerous criminal prosecutions followed the expression of dissenting opinions: especially those relating to criticism of the armed forces, the position of Armenians and Kurds in Turkey and ongoing criminal prosecutions. Alongside various articles of the Penal Code, anti- terrorism laws carrying higher prison sentences and resulting in pre-trial detention orders were frequently used to stifle legitimate free expression. Kurdish political activists, journalists and human rights defenders were among those most frequently prosecuted. Arbitrary restrictions continued to be imposed, blocking access to websites, and newspapers were issued with temporary closure orders. Threats of violence against outspoken individuals continued.

Elsewhere, the clampdown remained depressingly familiar. Virtually any form of dissent was suppressed in Turkmenistan. Journalists working with foreign media faced harassment and intimidation, and independent civil society activists were unable to operate openly. Fears for their safety were heightened after the President called on the Security Ministry to fight those who “defame our law-based democratic state”. In Uzbekistan, human rights defenders and independent journalists were harassed, beaten, detained and imprisoned after unfair trials. A similar pattern was seen in Azerbaijan, with criminal and civil defamation laws used to silence criticism, and Serbia, where human rights defenders and journalists continued to be subject to threats, attacks and hate speech.

In Russia, the authorities continued to send out mixed messages on freedom of expression. They promised respect and protection for journalists and civil society activists, while at the same time launching, or failing to curb, smear campaigns against prominent government critics. The environment for human rights defenders and independent NGOs remained difficult. Threats, assaults, administrative harassment and public attacks on their character and integrity continued, with the intention of impeding their work and undermining their credibility. Investigations into attacks on, and the murders of, other prominent human rights defenders and journalists produced few results. The clampdown on social activism also continued, including through the banning of demonstrations, their violent dispersal and the prosecution of individuals under anti-extremism legislation.

In a worrying new trend, the picture darkened in Ukraine for human rights defenders. They were physically attacked, and faced harassment from law enforcement officers, in connection with their legitimate human rights work. There was a fresh assault on civil society in Belarus, obliterating the fragile signs of openness in the run-up to the presidential election in December. In the aftermath of the election, which was marred by irregularities, riot police violently dispersed mainly peaceful demonstrators. By the end of the year, 29 people, including six opposition presidential candidates, members of their campaign teams and journalists, faced trumped-up charges of organizing mass disorder – and up to 15 years’ imprisonment – in connection with the demonstrations. In Kyrgyzstan, in a climate of mutual blame and growing nationalist discourse following the June violence which left hundreds dead, human rights defenders faced the difficulty of having to justify their work protecting different ethnic communities, and obstruction from the authorities, when trying to document the events. The situation also worsened for women who chose to wear a full face veil as an expression of their religious, cultural, political or personal identity or beliefs. Legislation banning the wearing in public of clothing intended to conceal the face was discussed in the parliaments of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Italy, proposed by the new government of the Netherlands, was voted for in the Belgium parliament and was adopted in France. Several municipalities in Spain also passed regulations banning the wearing of full-face veils in municipal buildings. In Turkey, no progress was made in removing legal barriers preventing women wearing the headscarf in universities, although implementation of the ban relaxed during the year.

People on the move

Despite the economic downturn, Europe remained a destination for those seeking to escape poverty, violence or persecution. Large numbers of migrants and asylum-seekers continued to travel along routes which evolved in response to states’ efforts to thwart arrivals, including policies of interception at sea, readmission agreements with countries of origin and transit, and strengthened border controls. The main routes of previous years from western Africa and Libya to the maritime borders of Spain, Italy and Malta saw much-reduced flows, with the migration focus into the EU shifting to the land borders of Greece with Turkey.

The global economic crisis also exacerbated the vulnerability of asylum-seekers and migrants, in particular to trafficking and smuggling networks, and pushed others into the informal economy, with restrictions in access to economic and social rights. In many countries across the region authorities failed to adequately protect foreign nationals in their territory, including refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, from rising hostility and racially motivated violence. By making unsubstantiated links between immigration status and crime, some politicians and government representatives themselves contributed to fostering a climate of intolerance and xenophobia.

The signature response of European states to the challenges of significant and complex flows of mixed migration remained repressive, resulting in a consistent pattern of human rights violations linked to the interception, detention and expulsion by states of foreign nationals, including those eligible for international protection. Detaining asylum- seekers and irregular migrants as a tool of deterrence and control was widespread, rather than a last, legitimate resort.

Asylum systems in the region also frequently failed those seeking protection, with asylum-seekers facing a range of violations including being blocked from access to territory and asylum procedures; detained unlawfully; denied necessary guidance and support to pursue their claims; forced into destitution; unlawfully expelled before their claims could be heard; and sent to countries where they were at risk of grave human rights violations.

One depressing trend was the willingness of states to send people back to places where they faced a real risk of persecution or serious harm. Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK sent rejected asylum-seekers back to Iraq, despite recommendations by the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. EU countries and Switzerland also continued to forcibly return Roma to Kosovo, contrary to the advice of the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights: many of those returned were denied basic rights and were at risk of cumulative discrimination amounting to persecution. A number of EU countries sent asylum-seekers back to Greece under the Dublin II Regulation, despite that country’s lack of a functioning asylum system. People were returned from Italy and Turkey without even being able to access the asylum systems there. Kazakhstan stepped up efforts to forcibly return asylum-seekers and refugees to China and Uzbekistan under national security and counter-terrorism measures.

In a positive move, however, a number of European states including Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Germany, Latvia, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland accepted former Guantánamo Bay detainees who could not be repatriated to their home countries as they might be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.

Across the region, hundreds of thousands of people also remained displaced by the conflicts that accompanied the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, often unable to return owing to their legal status – or lack of it – and discrimination in access to rights including property tenure.


A continuing rise in racism and hate speech in public discourse in many countries served to further marginalize those already sidelined by poverty or discrimination.

One of the most profound illustrations of systemic discrimination was against the Roma, who remained largely excluded from public life and often the focus of overt public hostility and xenophobic political discourse. Roma remained one of the few groups in respect of which openly racist comments and attitudes were not just tolerated, but widely shared. Roma families were frequently unable to enjoy full access to housing, education, employment and health services.

Many Roma continued to live in informal settlements or slums lacking even a minimum degree of security of tenure, because of the irregular status of the settlements or their lack of official documents to confirm tenure arrangements. They remained vulnerable to forced evictions, in places such as Italy, Greece, France, Romania and Serbia, driving them further into poverty and marginalization with little hope of redress. In Italy, for example, some families were subjected to repeated forced evictions, which disrupted their communities, their access to work and made it impossible for some children to attend school. In France, a speech by the President describing the camps inhabited by Roma as sources of criminality was followed by a ministerial instruction (later reworded but the effect remained the same) to dismantle them. The incident revealed the tensions resulting from lack of attention over decades to the situation of the Roma in Europe, provoking calls for the EU to do more to engage states on respect for the rights of Roma.

Millions of Roma across Europe also remained severely disadvantaged by low levels of literacy and poor or incomplete education. One of the routes out of the vicious cycle of poverty and marginalization, education, was denied to many Romani children who continued to be placed in substandard, segregated classes or schools, including in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. Negative stereotyping, as well as physical and cultural isolation, also blighted future prospects.

Authorities in a number of countries also fostered a climate of intolerance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) communities. In Italy, against a backdrop of derogatory remarks by some politicians and officials, accompanied by a significant rise in intolerance and hate speech against the communities, violent homophobic attacks continued. In Turkey, the Minister for Women and the Family stated that homosexuality was a disease and required treatment.

In Lithuania, legal provisions entered into force which attempted to stifle any public discussion of homosexuality or public expression of the identity of LGBT people. The country’s first Pride march took place, however, despite efforts by certain authorities to ban it. Such efforts elsewhere were unfortunately successful, with marches banned or impeded in Belarus, Moldova and Russia.

Regrettably, member states continued to block a new EU-wide directive on non-discrimination, which would simply close a legal protection gap for those experiencing discrimination outside of employment on the grounds of disability, belief, religion, sexual orientation and age. EU laws in this field would make a crucial difference to how all forms of discrimination are tackled across Europe.

Counter-terror and security

In spite of the lack of political will and outright obstruction by some governments, there were some small but significant steps towards insight into, and accountability for, European governments’ roles in the CIA-operated rendition and secret detention programmes.

A criminal investigation into Poland’s complicity in such programmes continued, and in July it was confirmed that CIA-operated flights had landed at an airport near an alleged secret detention centre at Stare Kiejkuty. In September, the Prosecutor’s Office confirmed that it was investigating claims by a Saudi Arabian national that he had been held in a secret detention centre in Poland. He was granted “victim” status in October, the first time a rendition victim’s claims had been acknowledged by the authorities anywhere in Europe. New evidence of Romania’s participation in the rendition and secret detention programmes came to light when the Polish Border Guard office released information that a flight from Poland carrying passengers had continued on to Romania – although the government there maintained its increasingly implausible denials of involvement.

In the face of mounting pressure the UK announced an inquiry into allegations that state actors had been involved in the rendition, secret detention and/or torture and other ill-treatment of a number of detainees held abroad. A delegation from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture visited two secret prison sites in Lithuania, where a criminal investigation was ongoing into the establishment and operation of the sites, although there were concerns that this investigation would be closed prematurely. In Italy, an appeal court upheld the first and only convictions to date in relation to human rights violations in connection with the rendition and secret detention programmes. Twenty-five individuals, - 22 CIA agents, a US military official, and two Italian intelligence operatives - had been convicted for their involvement in the abduction of an Egyptian national from a street in Milan. He was subsequently unlawfully transferred by the CIA from Italy to Egypt where he was held in secret and allegedly tortured. The Italian government’s claims of “state secrecy”, however, resulted in the dismissal of charges on appeal against five Italian high-ranking intelligence officials.

As in previous years, however, the watchwords of security and state secrecy were too often used to drive policies and practices that undermined rather than strengthened human rights. For example, governments continued to use unenforceable diplomatic assurances to rid themselves of foreigners alleged to be involved in acts of terrorism, instead of prosecuting those people for any crimes of which they were accused. The UK, for example, continued to deport individuals alleged to pose a threat to “national security” to countries where they would be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.

While constitutional amendments in Turkey and revisions to the Anti-Terrorism Law represented positive steps, unfair trials under anti- terrorism legislation continued, and anti-terrorism laws carrying higher prison sentences and resulting in pre-trial detention orders were frequently used to stifle freedom of expression.

The security situation in Russia’s North Caucasus remained volatile, with violence affecting Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and neighbouring regions. Government authorities publicly acknowledged that measures to combat armed violence were not effective. High numbers of law enforcement officials, as well as civilians, were killed in attacks by armed groups.

Armed groups also caused death and destruction elsewhere in the region, including those based in Greece, Spain and Turkey. In September, the armed Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) announced that it would not carry out any “offensive armed actions”.

Death penalty

Mixed signals continued from Belarus, the last executioner in the region. In a continuing positive trend state representatives expressed their willingness to engage with the international community regarding the death penalty, and their intention to mould public opinion in favour of abolition. Despite this, three death sentences were handed down and two people executed within a flawed criminal justice system which continued to shroud the process in secrecy. Prisoners and their relatives had no advance warning about the date of execution, and relatives were denied permission to claim the body or even to know where the burial place was. The executions were carried out despite a request for a stay by the UN Human Rights Committee so it could consider the men’s cases.

Impunity in post-conflict situations

Some progress was made in tackling impunity for crimes committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia during the wars of the 1990s, both through the domestic courts and through international discourse. In notable moves the Croatian President apologized to families and victims, and the Serbian parliament condemned crimes committed against the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) population of Srebrenica in July 1995 – while falling short of referring to them as genocide.

Fundamental problems remained, however. In spite of the President’s stance in Croatia, the political will to implement justice system reforms and tackle impunity, including for ethnic bias in prosecutions, was still largely missing. Allegations pointing to command responsibility for war crimes against several high-profile political and military leaders remained uninvestigated. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, verbal attacks on the justice system and denial of war crimes by high- ranking politicians, including of the genocide in Srebrenica in July 1995, further undermined the country’s efforts to prosecute war crimes cases. In both countries witness support and protection measures remained inadequate, and continued to be one of the main obstacles for victims of war crimes and their families in seeking justice. Little progress was made in Kosovo and Serbia in establishing the fate of those missing since the 1999 war. The International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia urged Serbia to take more proactive measures to arrest former Bosnian-Serb General Ratko Mladić and former Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadžić.

None of the sides to the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia conducted comprehensive investigations, in spite of a report by an international fact-finding mission commissioned by the EU the following year which confirmed that violations of international human rights and humanitarian law had been committed by Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian forces.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Victims of torture and other ill-treatment were likewise too often failed by justice systems which did not hold those responsible to account. Obstacles to accountability included lack of prompt access to a lawyer, failure by prosecutors to vigorously pursue investigations, victims’ fear of reprisals, low penalties imposed on convicted police officers, and the absence of properly resourced and independent systems for monitoring complaints and investigating serious police misconduct.

Too often, the rhetoric of compliance masked continuation in practice. In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, for example, reports of torture and other ill-treatment continued unabated despite government promises to adopt a zero-tolerance policy, or assertions that the practice had decreased. In Russia, in spite of a stated desire for police reform, corruption and collusion between the police, investigators and prosecutors were widely perceived as undermining the effectiveness of investigations and obstructing prosecutions. Detainees frequently reported unlawful disciplinary punishments and the denial of necessary medical care.

A landmark judgment in Turkey, however, saw 19 officials including police officers and prison guards convicted for their part in the torture that resulted in the death of political activist Engin Çeber in Istanbul in October 2008. Four of those convicted were sentenced to life imprisonment, the first time in Turkish legal history that state officials had received such a sentence for causing death through torture. Regrettably, this contrasted starkly with other cases involving alleged torture committed by state officials where criminal investigations and prosecutions of law enforcement officials remained ineffective.

Violence against women

Violence against women and girls in the home remained pervasive across the region for all ages and social groups. Only a small proportion of women officially reported this abuse. They were deterred by fear of reprisals from abusive partners, the idea of bringing “shame” on their family, or for reasons of financial insecurity. Migrant women in an irregular situation in particular feared registering a complaint with the police due to the risk of expulsion should their lack of status be discovered. Mostly, the widespread impunity enjoyed by perpetrators meant they knew there was little point.

Those who did come forward were too often failed by justice and support systems which were inadequate and unresponsive. In some countries such as Albania domestic violence was not a specific criminal offence. Many countries lacked functioning nationwide cross- referral systems and the services to protect survivors of domestic violence, such as shelters and adequate and safe alternative housing, were woefully inadequate. Armenia, for example, had only one shelter, funded by foreign donations.

Justice and impunity

Across the region the desire for truth, justice and redress remained unquenchable. For some, these came through a shift in the political will to address the past, or the indefatigable refusal of friends, family and advocates to give up. For many, the wait was long, but always worth it: people like the family of Himzo Demir, who was abducted and subjected to enforced disappearance in 1992 during the Yugoslav wars. In October, they finally received confirmation that his remains had been among those buried as unidentified in a mass grave in Višegrad. The search was over and they could finally hold the funeral.

What is striking among so many inspiring stories, however, is how many people are still waiting because states have sought to block access to the truth, obstruct justice, and default on redress. Particularly in a region which has a human rights architecture unrivalled elsewhere in the world.

It is time Europe’s governments realize that efforts at denial and obfuscation – by themselves or their allies – will not in the end prevail against those courageous people who dare to stand up, whatever the personal cost, and hold them accountable.

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