Tag Archives: Free Speech

Poland: Draft Law Threatens Supreme Court

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People wave EU and Polish flags as they march during anti-government demonstration organized by main opposition parties in Warsaw, Poland May 7, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

(Budapest) – A bill being rushed through Poland’s Parliament would pave the way for government control of the Supreme Court, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill would terminate the mandate of existing Supreme Court judges, except those chosen by the government, and lead to a court in which all judges were effectively selected by the government. Parliament is set to vote on the bill on July 20, 2017.

Under the draft law, the National Judicial Council (NJC) will select new judges. A July 12 law effectively ensures that the council’s membership would predominantly consist of government appointees. The draft bill also states that the mandate of the first president of the Supreme Court, the most senior member on the bench, would expire when the incumbent turns 65. The current first president will turn 65 in November.

“This is a blatant attack by Poland’s government on the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Poland’s parliament should vote down this deeply flawed bill, which runs counter to European Union and Council of Europe standards.”

The Supreme Court plays a vital role in Poland. It supervises the work of lower courts, confirms the validity of parliamentary and presidential elections, and issues opinions on draft legislation. It has assumed greater importance since 2016 because the governing party has deliberately weakened the country’s highest court, the Constitutional Tribunal, and undermined its ability to review the constitutionality of laws. It appears that the ruling party is trying to do the same to the Supreme Court, Human Rights Watch said.

The draft law in its current state would call into question the independence of newly appointed judges and thereby undermine the Supreme Court, Human Rights Watch said.

The law adopted on July 12 effectively gives the government control over judicial appointments. It gives parliament, which is controlled by the ruling party, the power to dismiss current members of the National Judicial Council and appoint 22 of its 25 members. The council is responsible for appointing judges, including Supreme Court judges, and safeguarding the independence of courts and judges. The law undermines the separation of powers between the executive and judiciary and poses a serious threat to the independence of Poland’s justice system.

The moves have faced some opposition in parliament. During a fast-track first and second reading of the draft Supreme Court law on July 18, President Andrzej Duda, who usually backs the ruling party, submitted amendments to the July 12 Act that would require a three-fifths majority in parliament to appoint judges. The change would make it more difficult for the ruling party to push through Supreme Court appointments. The government said on July 18 that it planned to include amendments reflecting Duda’s to the draft law on Supreme Court. A parliamentary commission is reviewing the draft law ahead of the third and final reading and vote.

Since it came to power in October 2015, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) government has repeatedly undermined the rule of law. The Constitutional Tribunal has been a particular target. The governing majority failed to recognize the appointment of several duly appointed judges before the current government took power and passed laws that extended government influence over the tribunal and undermined its effectiveness and independence. The government has also refused to implement several court rulings that it viewed as unfavorable.

The government has also passed laws that interfere with media freedom, restrict freedom of assembly and association and sexual and reproductive rights, and adopted a problematic counterterrorism law.

The Polish government’s attack on the rule of law has drawn wide condemnation from the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner and secretary general, and other international bodies.

The European Commission in January 2016 triggered its 2014 rule of law mechanism against Poland, the first time it had used a procedure intended to address systematic threats to rule of law in member states. It includes three stages: a Commission assessment, dialogue with the member state, and recommendations and monitoring a member state’s follow up of the Commission’s recommendations. The European Commission issued recommendations to Poland for reforms to the Constitutional Tribunal in June 2016, which the Polish government has largely ignored. But the Commission has yet to take meaningful action in response.

On July 19, the Commission first vice-president, Frans Timmermans, indicated that the Commission was planning infringement proceedings if the law were adopted. He said that the Commission was also considering proceedings under article 7 of the EU Treaty that if accepted by the Council of EU member states could lead to the suspension of Poland’s voting rights.

The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, a constitutional law expert advisory body, published opinions in March and October 2016 raising serious concerns about Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal Act. The Polish government has ignored the concerns. On July 18, the Council’s secretary general, Thorbjorn Jagland, sent a letter to the speaker of Poland’s parliament expressing concern about the draft law on the Supreme Court and the National Judicial Council Act. He urged the Polish parliament to uphold Council of Europe standards.

In April, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, said the Polish parliament should reject amendments to the National Judicial Council Act because they would compromise judicial independence. The Polish government ignored these calls.

The disturbing developments in Poland bear a striking resemblance to similar efforts by the Hungarian government to weaken its Constitutional Court, forcibly retire judges, and assert greater control over judicial appointments. The weak responses, and at times complete lack of responses, to developments in Hungary and Poland by other EU member states sends a signal that undermining the rule of law and flouting EU values carries few consequences, Human Rights Watch said.

“The European Commission has a responsibility to protect compliance with EU treaty obligations and use every tool at its disposal to deal with attacks on core rights in Poland, and member states have a responsibility to support those efforts,” Gall said. “Turning a blind eye to Poland’s efforts to undermine these rights would potentially encourage further rights violations that would be detrimental to people in Poland and to the EU as whole.”

http://ift.tt/2uLkynO Source: https://www.hrw.org

Indonesia’s Ban of Islamist Group Undermines Rights

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A masked member of the Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia takes part in a rally in Makassar, South Sulawesi, November 1, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

The Indonesian government today ordered the disbanding of Hizbut Tahrir, a conservative Islamist group that supports the creation of a Sharia-based Islamic caliphate to replace the country’s pluralist democracy. The government sought to justify the ban on the basis that the organization’s activities were “against Pancasila and the soul of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia.” Pancasila, or “five principles,” is Indonesia’s official state philosophy.

The government’s action follows President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s issuance of a decree on July 12 that amended the country’s law regulating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and enabled the government to fast-track the banning of groups it considers security threats. The decree stripped the 2013 Mass Organizations Law of a detailed set of procedures required before official bans could be imposed on such groups.

Today’s action was an apparent response to pressure from 14 Muslim organizations, including the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic mass organization, to ban Hizbut Tahrir for posing a “national security threat.” Within the government, there was a deepening concern about the possible destabilizing impact of increasingly influential Islamists propagating an intolerant strain of Sunni Islam.

Hizbut Tahrir has been banned in much of the Middle East and countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Russia, while its public activities have been restricted in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Hizbut Tahrir’s Indonesian branch has an estimated 40,000 registered members.

The decision to ban Hizbut Tahrir constitutes a troubling infringement of the rights of freedom of association and expression. If the organization or its members have broken the law, the response should be criminal prosecutions, not banning. International law ensures the right to form associations, and any limitations on activities must be based on law, strictly necessary, and the least restrictive possible. Banning an organization should be a last resort, and the organization should be able to contest the ban in court.

Banning any organization strictly on ideological grounds, including Pancasila, is a draconian action that undermines rights of freedom of association and expression that Indonesians have fought hard to establish since the end of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. The government’s move to ban Hizbut Tahrir only underscores the fragility of the rights and freedoms Indonesians have come to take for granted since Suharto’s fall.

http://ift.tt/2vkuT70 Source: https://www.hrw.org

Tajikistan: Stop Persecuting Opposition Families

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(Bishkek) – Tajik authorities have detained, interrogated, and threatened relatives of 10 peaceful opposition activists who took part in a conference in Germany on July 9, 2017, in retaliation for the peaceful exercise of their fundamental rights, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said today.

Activists provided details about 10 incidents in cities around the country that have been sanctioned by the Tajik government at the highest level. Tajik security services officers and local officials publicly shamed, banned from leaving the country, and threatened to confiscate the property of the activists’ relatives, and in one case threatened to rape an activist’s daughter.

“The Tajik government’s vicious campaign of intimidation against dissidents’ relatives is widening and becoming ever more brazen,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The simultaneous actions by security services and local officials across numerous cities suggest a policy of collective punishment sanctioned at the highest levels, which should end immediately.”

Hundreds of political activists, including several human rights lawyers, have been jailed in the widening crackdown on free expression, and opposition parties banned. The authorities are also violating the rights of family members who remain in the country, primarily relatives of members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and the opposition movement Group 24. National and local officials mobilize vigilante groups of “concerned citizens,” including school officials, who surround relatives’ homes and brand the families “enemies of the people.”

Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) chairman Muhiddin Kabiri addresses a conference attended by Tajikistani opposition activists in Dortmund, Germany on July 9, 2017. 

© 2017 IRPT

The latest string of attacks was retaliation against opposition activists who attended the July 9 conference in Dortmund, Germany, marking the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords that formally ended Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war. On July 10, Tajik media reported that a pro-government security analyst, Saifullo Saidov, deputy director of the Strategic Research Center of the Office of the President of Tajikistan, appeared on national television condemning the opposition activists who attended the Dortmund conference. He stated that their attempts to unite into a coordinated opposition movement posed a “serious threat” to Tajikistan’s national security.

Earlier incidents of retaliation occurred in September and December 2016, when activists abroad engaged in peaceful protests.

IRPT activists provided detailed accounts to Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee about violations against their families committed by authorities between July 7 and July 10 in the capital, Dushanbe, and seven other villages and cities across the country. In each case, security services officers explicitly linked their visits and abusive actions to the participation of the people’s relatives in a peaceful political conference in Dortmund, Germany.

The United States, the European Union and its member states, and other international partners should urgently address the growing pattern of retaliatory attacks in Tajikistan as part of the wider deteriorating human rights situation there and publicly condemn the abuses, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said. Washington, Brussels, and other actors should consider asset freezes and visa denials to Tajik officials and government entities that take part in these abuses.

“The catalogue of retaliatory abuse in Tajikistan simply for exercising freedom of expression is staggering,” said Marius Fossum, Central Asia representative for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “No one should be publicly shamed, pressured to divorce their spouse, or be threatened with having their child raped or property arbitrarily confiscated under any circumstances, let alone for the exercise of basic human rights.”


On July 7, 2017, police and security services officers in Sebiston, a village in Tajikistan’s southern Dangara district, went to the home of the parents of Jannatulloh Komilov, an IRPT activist now based in Germany. The officers berated Komilov’s elderly mother, Saima Kulova, for her son’s opposition activities, and questioned and intimidated his brothers, Zubaidulloh and Ubaidulloh Komilov. The officials threatened to confiscate the family’s home and adjoining land unless Jannatulloh Komilov ceases his participation in opposition activities abroad. Two days later, officials returned, detaining Komilov’s father-in-law, Zubaidulloh Atovulloev, overnight.


On July 7 and 8, several security service officers in the southern city of Kulob threatened the Turkey-based IRPT activist Bobojon Kayumov’s mother and father at their family home. The officers stated that unless Kayumov ended his opposition work and specifically refrained from participating in the Dortmund conference they would “demolish” the family’s home. The officers then forced the two to record a videotaped statement condemning their son’s activities. On July 9, officers detained Kayumov’s father, holding him at the Kulob city security services facility until nighttime, and repeatedly interrogated him.


Jamshed Yorov is a Germany-based lawyer and the brother of Buzurgmehr Yorov. a lawyer imprisoned in Tajikistan since September 2015. He is serving a 25-year sentence following a flawed trial on politically motivated charges after publicly announcing he would represent jailed IRPT members. Jamshed Yorov participated in the Dortmund conference and made a public statement on July 9.

The next day security services officers went to his family’s home in Vahdat, Tajikistan, and told Yorov’s wife, Dilbar Zuhurova, that she and her children were barred from leaving Tajikistan and would be imprisoned if they tried to leave. Yorov told Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that officers pressured Zuhurova to divorce him, promising to supply her with food and money if she agrees. They also threatened to rape Jamshed’s 15-year-old daughter.

Pandovchi Sari dasht Village, Nurobod District

On July 8, security service officers detained Asomuddin Saidov, father of Poland-based IRPT activist Islomiddin Saidov, in the village of Pandowchi Sari dasht in Tajikistan’s central Nurobod district. The officers took the father to the Dushanbe security services detention facility for interrogation. They showed Saidov pictures of his son taking part in peaceful demonstrations in Warsaw in September 2016 and threatened to take “necessary actions” against his son if he would not cease his political activism. The officers also visited Islomiddin’s sister’s home in Dushanbe seeking to interrogate her.

On July 9 and 10, Pandowchi Sari dasht village officials summoned the father in front of a group of “concerned citizens” while officials and others denounced his son and the entire family for their “treacherous” political activities against the government. Officials and other people publicly shamed Saidov and exhorted him to bring his son back to Tajikistan to face justice.

Pakhtakor Village, Jayhun Village Council, Khatlon Region

On July 8, security service officers in the village of Pakhtakor in Tajikistan’s southern Khatlon region visited the home of Abdumuslim Rustamov, brother of IRPT activist Iftikhor Rustamov, as well as the separate homes of Iftikhor’s sisters Sabohat Khodjaeva and Zarnigor Rustamova, interrogating them about Rustamov’s political activities. They threatened further problems if he continues his opposition political activity.

On July 11, security service officers in the same village took Masnavikhon Faizrahmonova, the mother of the Austria-based IRPT activist and spokesman Mahmudjon Faizrahmonov, to the local security services building to be interrogated about her son’s activities. The authorities held a public meeting where various village residents condemned Faizrahmonov and his brothers for their political activities. Faizrahmonov told Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that the community had ostracized his family and that his mother’s health markedly deteriorated following the public shaming.


On July 7 security service officers in the northern city of Khujand summoned relatives of IRPT activist Ilhomjon Yakubov to their facility, where the officers interrogated them for hours about his activities and threatened them with further unspecified “consequences” if he continues his political activism.


On July 8, authorities in the Rudaki district went to the home of Muhammadi Teshaev, the former head of the IRPT’s chapter in this area. They interrogated his family members and threatened to confiscate their house if Teshaev does not stop his political work.


Before the Dortmund conference, security service officers in Dushanbe went to the family home of Poland-based IRPT activist Gulbarg Saifova, a relative of the exiled IRPT chairman Muhiddin Kabiri, who is also based in Europe. Officers forced Saifova’s parents to videotape a recording denouncing Saifova’s and Kabiri’s activities. Saifova ran for parliament in the March 2015 elections but was forced to flee the country and seek refuge in Poland due to persecution for her association with the IRPT.

On July 7, police in Dushanbe’s Firdavsi district visited the home of Europe-based IRPT activists Mijgona and Sayriniso Amonova and interrogated their father. Police officers called the women “traitors” and pressured their father to seek their return to Tajikistan so they could ask forgiveness of President Emomali Rahmon.

http://ift.tt/2tpmi5L Source: https://www.hrw.org

Turkey: Disgraceful Court Ruling to Jail Rights Defenders

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Human rights defenders detained by police in Istanbul on July 5, 2017. From bottom left: Nalan Erkem; Nejat Taştan; İlknur Üstün, İdil Eser, Özlem Dalkıran, Günal Kurşun.

© 2017 Bianet

(Istanbul) – A court decision to remand six human rights defenders to pretrial detention on alleged terrorism charges without evidence of any criminal wrongdoing is a shameful day for Turkey’s judiciary, Human Rights Watch said today.

The six jailed by the Istanbul court pending trial include the director of Amnesty International Turkey and two foreign nationals. The court released four activists on bail, conditional on signing in at a police station three times a week and with a ban on overseas travel.

“It’s outrageous that a Turkish court jailed six human rights activists in a politically motivated effort to silence their work defending the rights of ordinary people,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “After a smear campaign by pro-government media and harsh comments by President Erdoğan the court accepted the prosecutor’s case of aiding a terrorist organization without a shred of evidence against them. This ruling is a profound injustice.”

The six remanded to custody are: Özlem Dalkıran (Citizens’ Assembly); İdil Eser (Amnesty International Turkey director); Veli Acu (Human Rights Agenda Association); lawyer Günal Kurşun (Human Rights Agenda Association); Şeymus Özbekli (Rights Initiative); Nejat Taştan (Equal Rights Watch Association); Ali Gharavi (information security consultant, a Swedish national); and Peter Steudtner (well-being trainer and facilitator, a German national).

The four released on bail are: lawyer Nalan Erkem (Citizens’ Assembly); İlknur Üstün (Women’s Coalition); Şeymus Özbekli (Rights Initiative); and Nejat Taştan (Association for Monitoring Equal Rights);

All 10 spent 12 days in police custody following their detention at a workshop in Istanbul on July 5, 2017, on alleged suspicion of membership of a terrorist organization.

The prosecutor later modified the charge to aiding a terrorist organization, referring to the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (the term the government uses to describe followers of the exiled cleric Fetullah Gülen), the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and another outlawed armed revolutionary group.

During their police custody, media close to the Turkish government ran a relentless campaign vilifying the activists as terrorists and spies. The media falsely represented the legitimate human rights workshop they were attending as a meeting of conspirators. The workshop was about human rights work and information security for defenders in harsh times. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suggested there were intelligence reports that the 10 were involved in coup plotting, and made other disparaging comments about them on two other occasions during their police custody.

The detention of the 10 came less than a month after the arrest of Taner Kılıç a human rights lawyer and chair of Amnesty International Turkey, on June 6. Kılıç is in pretrial detention pending the completion of a criminal investigation over alleged membership of a terrorist group.

The prosecutor alleges that the security workshop was all about hiding information on cell phones and laptops from state authorities. The prosecutor cited the existence of emails not written by any of the 10, and phone calls by some of them to individuals alleged to have the encrypted communication application ByLock on their phones as evidence of alleged criminal activity. The government accuses Gulenists of having used the app and treats its mere possession as grounds for criminal investigation.

The so-called evidence also consists of the fact that one defender made telephone calls to an individual later detained, as well as documents and publications found on the defenders’ computers. The evidence against the two foreign defenders consists of digital training materials and a map used at the workshop. The prosecutor provided no explanation of how any of the alleged evidence was used to commit crimes or with criminal intent or amounted to a crime. Despite this, the prosecutor stated that an investigation into “the suspects’ activities to finance terrorism and to spy” will continue.

“The prosecutor has produced no evidence of criminal activity by the 10 human rights defenders and yet continues with a bogus, politically motivated investigation,” Williamson said. “This has nothing to do with justice: it’s a pretext for crushing legitimate human rights work in Turkey. The court, which should be upholding rights and the rule of law, was willing to go along with this charade, making this another shameful day for Turkey’s judiciary.”

http://ift.tt/2tnlHkZ Source: https://www.hrw.org

Essam Koshak Case Will Test Saudi Arabia’s ‘Reformed’ Prosecution Service

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Saudi Arabia’s announcement in mid-June that that the dreaded Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution (BIP) would be reorganized as an independent entity sparked a flicker of hope throughout the Saudi human rights community. 

Essam Koshak’s case will be an early indication of whether the prosecution reorganisation as an independent entity is anything more than just ink on paper

Adam Coogle

Middle East Researcher

The BIP, previously controlled by the Interior Ministry, has terrorized peaceful Saudi dissidents since 1988 through various means, including harassment, endless summonses for interrogation, arbitrary detention, and prosecution in blatantly unfair trials on laughably spurious charges.

The BIP targeted numerous Saudis over the years who dared to speak out for human rights, including the online activist Essam Koshak, who has languished in Mecca General Prison for more than six months without charge. 

The BIP apparently went after him because of his online activism, including his work highlighting the repression of women and jailed peaceful dissidents. He is merely one of numerous BIP victims, but his case will be an early indication of whether the prosecution reorganization as an independent entity is merely ink on paper.

The Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution had a nasty penchant for operating outside the bounds of the law with impunity

The new agency, to be called simply the Public Prosecution, will technically be an independent entity under the king. The June 17 royal decree stated that the change was ‘in [accordance] with the rules and principles of many countries of the world,” and based on “the necessity of separation between executive authority in the state and the bureau and its work since it is part of the judicial authority.”

Saudi watchers immediately viewed the royal decree – especially the reference to executive authority – as an internal power grab against then Interior Minister Mohammad bin Nayef, whom King Salman sacked as interior minister and crown prince five days later. He appointed his son Muhammad bin Salman as the new crown prince on the same day and the new leadership then reportedly put Mohammad bin Nayef under house arrest.

Under Mohammad bin Nayef’s authority, the BIP repeatedly bullied and harassed Saudis who expressed their own independent views on politics, religion, and society, that were at odds with the state-imposed narrative. It also had a nasty penchant for operating outside the bounds of the law with impunity, in effect sending the message to Saudis that the BIP was irreproachable and could not be held to account.

Essam Koshak 

© Private

Once you got into the BIP’s crosshairs, it was nearly impossible to get out. When the BIP brings charges against activists and dissidents, it tends to use vague catch-all categories such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or “insulting the judiciary” or “participating in protests” – none of which constitute recognizable crimes.

Koshak’s case also demonstrates the BIP’s total disregard for Saudi Arabia’s own rule of law. In all the time he has been held without charge, its investigators have conducted only one investigation session with him. At no point have authorities explained to Koshak or his family the reasons for his detention, as stipulated by article 116 of the country’s criminal procedure code (CPC).

Under article 114, the CPC says that six months is the upper limit for detention without charge, yet Koshak has been held for more than 20 days past the six-month limit.

Article 114 also holds that no extension of detention can be more than 30 days, yet Koshak’s latest BIP detention extension order from late February was for 90 days. Authorities can extend detentions for more than 90 days at a time and for more than six months total under the country’s abusive counterterrorism law, but holding a suspect longer than six months requires approval from the country’s terrorism court. In addition, the possibility that Koshak could face terrorism charges for tweeting about women’s rights is ludicrous.

Koshak’s case demonstrates clearly why Saudi Arabia’s prosecution service needed an overhaul, but it will also test whether the change is merely cosmetic to disguise its intent to further concentrate power with the new crown prince.

Unlike the 20 or so prominent activists and dissidents whom Saudi courts have sentenced to long jail terms in unfair trials since 2011, Koshak has is not yet facing trial — his case is still in the hands of the public prosecution.

Saudi Arabia’s prosecution service can prove its independence and respect for the rule of law by putting an end to the arbitrary practices of its predecessor agency and treating everyone with fairness and respect. 

A good first step would be the immediate release of Essam Koshak, who has suffered the indignity of prison for no good reason and with no idea when his nightmare will end.

http://ift.tt/2u3YZeP Source: https://www.hrw.org

Witness: Russia’s New Normal

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Russia has introduced significant restrictions to online speech and invasive surveillance of online activity and prosecutes critics under the guise of fighting extremism.

When Ekaterina Vologzheninova posted a satirical cartoon criticizing Russia’s involvement in Ukraine on her social media page, she had no idea what was coming next or that she would end up with a criminal record. After all, she only had four followers.

The cartoon showed a man resembling Vladimir Putin leaning over a map of Ukraine with a knife. It was one of a few posts Ekaterina, a cashier from Yekaterinburg, Russia, put up on the popular Russian social network Vkontakte that were critical of the country and its policies. She said she made the posts out of frustration with the state-run media, which she felt only followed the party line and didn’t offer any balance.

After that post, everything changed.

The 46-year-old single mother’s home was raided, while her elderly mother was present, and her computer was seized. She faced criminal charges. In a kafka-esque twist, during her trial in February 2016, the court ordered her to destroy the computer, charger, and mouse as “instruments of a crime.”

The crime of criticizing Russia.

Cases like Ekaterina’s, in which the authorities target people who have never been activists or even particularly political, are becoming increasingly common in Russia. In 2016, 90 percent of convictions for extremist expressions were related to statements made online. A new human Rights Watch report, “Online and On All Fronts: Russia’s Assault on Freedom of Expression,” looks at how Russia is using an overly broad interpretation of certain laws to bring people to trial for expressing opinions or voicing criticism. Some are more traditional activists, but others – like Ekaterina – are regular citizens.

Her official charges were for incitement of hatred toward “Russian people,” “Russian volunteers fighting on the side of the insurgents in eastern Ukraine,” “authorities,” and “residents of eastern Ukraine who do not support the political course of modern Ukraine.”

Her posts had included a poem criticizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine and images reminiscent of USSR period posters with captions, “Stop the plague,” and “Death to Moscow invaders.”

During her trial, Ekaterina looked small and out of place in the courtroom, flanked by masked guards. She was sentenced to 320 hours of community service, and was told to destroy her computer equipment.

World Report 2017: Russia

World Report 2017: Russia

In Russia, the government in 2016 further tightened control over the already-shrinking space for free expression, association, and assembly and intensified persecution of independent critics. 

“Ekaterina’s case is an example of how courts interpret Russia’s anti-extremist legislation very broadly. In particular, the notion of incitement to hatred towards a social or ethnic group is very vague,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

During the trial, Ekaterina’s lawyer said, the courts rejected all defense motions. She was charged under anti-extremist legislation, though the social media post could hardly be called extreme. And she was convicted of inciting hatred against Russians, which was deemed a social or ethnic group by the court. Her conviction and sentence were upheld on appeal.

By criticizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine to her four followers, the courts deemed Ekaterina had somehow humiliated or offended the whole of Russia and its people.

Although the community service sentence was not as harsh as the prosecution requested, the result of the trial was exactly what the Russian authorities wanted.

Ekaterina told her lawyer that the shock of the trial and her conviction meant she would be much more cautious in what she says – even in her own home. This is exactly what the Russian authorities are trying to achieve.

Before her arrest, when Ekaterina’s mother asked the men raiding her daughter’s home what possible reason they could have to turn the flat upside down, one replied, “Well that’s the thing, nobody should say or write anything.” The man then used an old soviet expression, which loosely translates as “say whatever you want but keep it to your kitchen table,” referring to an old Soviet dissident practice of discussing sensitive issues only at home.

“They only need to have a few trials like this to make everyone scared to speak out,” Gorbunova said. “Ekaterina’s case can be viewed as part of the new norm for Russia.”

http://ift.tt/2ta4UxV Source: https://www.hrw.org

Review of Somalia’s Media Law Falls Short

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When Somalia’s new minister of information took office in March, he promised to review the country’s restrictive media law, raising hopes of fostering a better environment for journalists and free expression in the country.

Journalists queue for a security sweep outside the venue of the presidential vote at the airport in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Those hopes have largely been dashed. The amended law, approved by the cabinet on July 13, makes some reforms but does little to address the law’s deep flaws. Somalia’s journalists – a grueling and life-threatening profession here – deserve better.

Being a journalist in Somalia is dangerous: at least two journalists were murdered in 2016. Authorities have used various tactics to restrict media coverage, including arbitrary arrests and forced closures of media outlets, threats, and occasionally, criminal charges. The Islamist armed group Al-Shabab also targets journalists for reporting deemed unfavorable. Not surprisingly, journalists often self-censor on key issues of public interest, including security and governance, to stay safe.

While amendments to the law have partially addressed some concerns raised by Somali media organizations – including by reducing the heavy fines imposed on journalists for violating the law’s restrictions, and no longer making a journalism degree a requirement to practice journalism – the law still hands authorities a big stick to keep the media under control.

The law maintains vague and overbroad restrictions, including prohibiting “propaganda against the dignity of a citizen, individuals or government institutions,” and “dissemination of false information.” This leaves lots of room for interpretation by authorities – in response, journalists unclear of where the lines are drawn are likely to self-censor even more.

International and regional legal standards place a high value upon uninhibited expression concerning public persons and state institutions, and discourage open-ended and ill-defined provisions that risk chilling the media. Similar articles persist in Somalia’s 1963 criminal code, also under review.

But journalists continue to be arrested, and on occasion charged, under such outdated provisions. Two weeks ago, the authorities in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland arrested a journalist, Ahmed Ali Kilwe, reportedly for criticizing the president; he has since been released without chrge.

The amended media law does not provide for parliamentary oversight of nominations for a new media regulatory body. It also maintains watered-down but still substantive requirements for entry into the journalism profession – there should be none. 

When the revised media law heads to parliament for review, key committees should direct that the law be sent back to the drawing board to ensure that the final version helps to promote, not stunt, the development of a free and vibrant media in Somalia.

http://ift.tt/2vcJbXl Source: https://www.hrw.org