Wednesday, June 29, 2005
IHF report finds violations throughout region
Throughout the year opposition activists were arrested, faced prosecution on questionable grounds, and were physically assaulted. Party offices were vandalized or raided by the police and equipment and materials were seized. Many arrested activists were ill-treated while in police custody.
In order to seize control of the situation, the government took a number of steps to restrict civil rights and democratic freedoms. By way of adopting new laws, the rights to association and peaceful assembly were restricted, and the regular parliamentary sessions were limited from once every two weeks to once every three.
Freedom of expression is guaranteed under article 24 of the Constitution of Armenia. The constitutional provisions are regulated by the Law “On Television and the Radio” (2000), the Law “On Freedom of Information” (2003), and the Law “On Mass Media” (2003).
In reality, however, the president of Armenia and other authorities controlled the entire national TV broadcasting. Only a few opposition newspapers were free from the authorities’ control: the Haykakan Jamanak (daily), Chorrord Ishkhanutyun (bi-weekly), and AiB-Fe (weekly, together with its daily news web site).
Police frequently hindered journalists from carrying out their duties, and journalists and reporters were subjected to harassment and physical assault. Law enforcement officials remained inactive or, even worse, often participated in harassment.
While arbitrary arrest and detention were common in Armenia in general, they occurred on a massive scale from April through June – similar to the aftermath of the 2003 presidential elections. Both the use of administrative detention and violations of provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code regarding arrest and detention gave rise to serious concern.
While the CPT reported that torture and ill-treatment were still common in 2002 in pre-trial establishments, it appeared that this was no longer the case in 2004. However, in 2004, 60% of all detainees were reportedly beaten at the time of arrest or while in police stations. The Armenian Helsinki Association registered two deaths of detainees in police stations, one of which was suicide.
The freedom of assembly and association were frequently violated. Mass events of the opposition were dispersed, the demonstrators arrested and fined. Human rights defenders and journalists were attacked in the media, and as of the end of 2004, there were still about 250 political prisoners in the country. The unresolved conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh as well as the presence of up to 880,000 refugees and IDPs in Azerbaijan contributed significantly to aggravating the economic, social and political situation in the country. Up to 20% of the country’s territory continued to be occupied by Armenian forces.
There was a visible gap between the legal framework and its implementation. Courts demonstrated dependence on the executive branch, especially in politically sensitive cases such as those regarding arrests for participation in demonstrations in protest against the October 2003 election fraud.
Prison conditions remained harsh, with numerous allegations of torture and ill-treatment made by those prisoners whose arrests were most likely politically motivated. Lack of access to prisons made it difficult for human rights defenders to confirm such information.
In January 2004, PACE expressed its concern about the serious irregularities during the presidential elections of 15 October 2003. Ten months later, on 5 October, it repeated its concern that “despite the requests made in Resolution 1358 (2004), transparency of the entire electoral process has still not been satisfactorily ensured.” The PACE recommended that the government “ensure that election officers who are indeed responsible for fraud are taken to court; publish full election results for each polling station and officially acknowledge the serious irregularities that marred the 2003 elections; draw up a new civil register so that voters can be properly registered, if possible, in time for the forthcoming municipal elections scheduled for the end of 2004, and at the latest, in time for the parliamentary elections in 2005.”
Opposition and independent journalists continued to be arrested and stand trial under questionable charges, including for defamation. Huge fines were frequently issued for legitimate criticism of state officials.
Dismissals based on political affiliation were common in Azerbaijan, particularly at the time of pre-election campaigns. By the end of March 2004, only 26 of the 114 members of the Muslavat party – most of them teachers – who had been dismissed from their jobs during the October 2003 presidential election campaign were reinstated, and then to lower positions. Documents were falsified to give the impression that the dismissals had happened earlier.
Belarus remained one of the worst countries in Europe in terms of respect for the rule of law, democracy and human rights. The government’s record fell short in respect to a number of basic rights. It imposed excessive restrictions on the freedom of expression, association and the media, while violations of the right of peaceful assembly continued. Conditions in prisons and detention facilities remained poor, amounting in some instances to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Police misconduct continued, including arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment, and unsolved “disappearances” of the past remained uninvestigated. Fair trial standards were repeatedly violated by the courts. The Criminal Code and other legislation allowed arbitrary accusations against persons for various offences. As a result, intimidation and manipulation of critically minded public officials also became possible.
The elections were not transparent at any stages of the process – observers were not allowed to monitor the establishment of the election commissions; they did not have a genuine possibility to control the ballot-boxes and vote count; and they were generally prevented from monitoring the tally of absentee ballots. The Central Election Commission, according to its own interpretation of the Election Code, illegally restricted public associations’ ability to participate in monitoring: only official members of NGOs were allowed to observe the elections, not other people selected by the NGO for this purpose. Members of the election commissions refused to authorize protocols on the election results that were prepared by the observers and by candidates.
The principle of a free and secret ballot was massively violated. Citizens, especially students and employees of state companies and institutions, were forced to vote in advance – often in the presence of the administration and other people. The ballots were not adequately protected against copying, their exact number was unknown and the final protocol confirmed by the local election commissions did not include all the necessary information.
The parliamentary elections were combined with a referendum aimed at lifting all limitations on the tenure of President Lukashenka. The BHC stated that the Constitution and other laws clearly limit his tenure to two terms, and, therefore, a referendum on this question was illegal.
The fraudulent referendum decided that the number of presidential terms must not be limited. After this, the Constitution was changed, enabling President Lukashenka to nominate himself and to run in the next presidential elections.
Belarusian human rights activists faced constant harassment, judicial proceedings and other threats. The authorities targeted especially the BHC, which was the only nation-wide human rights organization that still maintained its legal status.
Members of the political opposition and other critical public figures were constantly targeted, harassed and risked detention on fabricated or questionable charges.
Mikhail Marynich, former minister, Member of Parliament, ambassador, and presidential candidate was taken into investigative custody of the State Security Committee (KGB) on 26 April and was still detained as of the end of the year. Marynich was first charged under article 295(2) of the Criminal Code (illegal actions with firearms, ammunition and explosives), and later with additional criminal offences: theft or damage of documents, stamps, and seals (article 377.2) and larceny committed with abuse of power by an organized group or at an especially high rate (article 210.4). While the court dismissed the first charge, it sentenced Marynich for alleged larceny. The BHC believes that these charges were fabricated and the real reason for Marynich's detention appeared to be his opposition activities. On 25 August, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions was denied access to Marynich. On 30 December, despite reported due process violations and domestic and international protests, Marynich was sentenced to five years of imprisonment with confiscation of property.
In 2002-2004, well-known public figures and intellectuals were increasingly subjected to beatings by “unidentified individuals” who, as a rule, were never caught. The victims included Professor Adam Maldzis; Yury Khaschavatski and Valery Mazynski, producers; Yauhen Kryzhanouski and Victar Charnabayeu, actors; Radzim Haretski and Yauhen Babosau, academicians; Uladzimir Kolas, director of the recently closed National Humanitarian Lyceum; Siarhey Zakonnikau, a poet; Aleh Volchak, head of the recently closed “Legal Aid to Population”; and Valery Fralow, member of parliament.
In 2004, criminal, administrative and economic pressure on the independent mass media increased. The state-run media was financed from the national budget, and the Academy of Management under the President of the Republic of Belarus trained staff journalists for the state-owned mass media. At the same time, the independent media faced serious financial problems.
Fearing problems from the authorities, shops and supermarkets refused to sell independent newspapers and magazines.
Another powerful form of indirect censorship was the right of the authorities to issue official warnings to the mass media—after two warnings, a court was able to order the closure of an media outlet. Moreover, the Ministry of Information was able to suspend the operation of an outlet without a court decision. In 2004, the ministry punished a number of media outlets after their critical reporting. The following newspapers were suspended: Novaya Gazeta Smarhoni, Navinki, Zgoda, Vremya, Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta, Vecherni Stolin, Regionalnaya Gazeta, Narodny Predprinimatel, Regionalnye Vedomosti, Birzha Informacii.
There was a serious threat to free access to the Internet and specific websites were banned. According to new rules, visitors of internet cafes were obliged to identify themselves and the cafe administration was required to keep track of their customers surfing on the Internet.
Criticism of the authorities often equalled to an insult of the authorities, which, under article 369 of the Criminal Code, entails a fine, correctional labor or deprivation of liberty for up to three years. This circumstance essentially affected the course of the electoral campaign in October 2004. Moreover, during the elections, the authorities censored speeches of the candidates.
All state organizations and enterprises with a staff more than 300 people employed “deputy managers for ideological work.” Their task was to promote the ideology of the Belarusian state and its home and foreign policies.
In addition, each university and other institutes of higher education provided for compulsory courses on state ideology. State officers and state-run enterprises were obliged to subscribe to the presidential and governmental newspapers Sovetskaya Belorussija and Respublika.
It was only possible to hold peaceful assemblies and demonstrations if permitted by authorities, and organizers had to cover the costs for “providing for public order.” Opposition rallies were as a rule not sanctioned and – if they were held at all – were dispersed by the police and the participants were beaten, arrested and fined. Authorities often moved even sanctioned demonstrations to suburban areas or they banned them outright.
New regulations and practices led to a wave of threats to and liquidations of NGOs, which seriously affected the whole Belarusian civil society. A number of NGOs were closed down for alleged violations of regulations relating to foreign aid and rules on registration. A number of restrictions on the freedom of associations and activities of NGOs were not based on laws but were merely outlined in presidential decrees and instructions of the Ministry of Justice.
The main threat to the independence of the judiciary lay in the system of material and social subsistence of judges. For example, a judge had the right to a publicly owned apartment but the apartment was allocated by local authorities. Judges’ salaries and social guarantees were established by the president. Their monthly income was about 750,000 Belarusian roubles (approximately EUR 285).
Courts frequently accepted as sole evidence a confession by the suspect, even if there was reason to believe that it had been given under duress. The punishments were often totally disproportionate to the harm done. For example, fines for felonies were sometimes as high as EUR 625, which equals an average annual salary. Trials were often held behind closed doors without adequate justification, and representatives of human rights organizations were not allowed access to courts to monitor hearings.
Participants of peaceful meetings and demonstrations were the principal victims of arbitrary detention. Dozens of members of the informal oppositional youth movements Zubr and Malady Front, as well as other political activists and journalists, were arbitrarily detained during 2004.
The whereabouts of four people critical of the government remained unknown as of the end of 2004 and were also specially mentioned by the UN rapporteur. They were: Yury Zakharanka, former Minister of Interior; Viktar Hanchar, vice-speaker of Belarusian Parliament (XIII convocation); Anatol Krasowski, a businessman supporting the opposition; and Dzmitry Zavadski, Russian public TV operator and former personal cameraman of President Lukashenka. All of them vanished in 1999-2000, and Belarusian authorities have failed to conduct a comprehensive and objective investigation into the “disappearances”. The BHC suspected that the failure to investigate the cases was due to the fact that the highest state officials were involved in organizing the kidnappings and possible killings of the “disappeared” persons.
Prisoners and detainees in Belarus typically had less than two square meters of space, including bed space, in dirty, dusty, and poorly ventilated cells. In some extremely overcrowded jails, prisoners had to take turns sleeping. Inmates were not given enough food, were forced to use inadequate hygiene facilities, and did not always receive the medical care or medicines that they needed.
Belarus was one of only three OSCE states, which still carried out executions in 2004.
In February, the Georgian Parliament adopted a set of constitutional amendments that strengthened presidential powers, allowing the president to dissolve parliament if it fails to approve the draft budget or in the event of a government crisis. The president said the new model was based on those of Western Europe, especially France, according to Interfax. Saakashvili argued that "strong authority" is needed to extract Georgia from its present crisis, but denied that such authority is tantamount to dictatorship, as some political opponents claimed.
Yet, the constitutional changes did not bring the system of government closer to the European model - in fact, the outcome was exactly the opposite. Saakashvili had asked the Council of Europe Venice Commission to review the draft amendments, but in the end the suggestions of the commission were not taken into account. The Venice Commission had concluded that the amendments did not fully realize the proclaimed aim.
After coming into power, the Saakashvili administration immediately set out on a fierce campaign to fight corruption. While the determination of authorities to root out corruption deserves commendation, the tactics used amounted to violations of some basic principles of due criminal process and introduced the controversial system of “plea bargaining.” This system makes it possible for some suspects to have their charges reduced or dropped in return for the payment of the money they have allegedly embezzled.
In its widely publicized fight against corruption, high profile figures were frequently arrested in a spectacular manner. However, Georgian NGOs and others have complained that the authorities were selectively targeting individuals for political reasons, and that the law was not applied equally to all.
Individuals suspected of corruption were often arrested without warrants even in cases where there was no indication that they had the intention to flee. In addition, in several cases, law enforcement officials used excessive force, and some arrests were filmed and widely broadcast on TV, a practice that amounted to degradation of the suspects and violated the principle of the presumption of innocence.
As for the repeated parliamentary elections on 28 March 2004, the international election observation mission of the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the EU listed a number of serious shortcomings that still have to be addressed for future elections but declared that they demonstrated commendable progress in relation to previous elections and brought “Georgia’s election process in closer alignment with European standards for democratic elections.” Among continuing concerns were problems with the voter lists, the failure of state TV to provide balanced coverage of the election campaign, the inability to ensure a balanced election commission on all levels, a continuing lack of clear separation between state administration and political party structures, and a complete lack of commitment of local authorities to guarantee sufficient conditions for democratic elections in Adjaria.
Moreover, President Saakashvili, his ministers and other members of the government violated the Georgian law by actively partaking in the election campaign and calling on the public to vote for the president’s party. The president even stated publicly that he did not need any opposition parties in the parliament. There were also sporadic reports that that the central government in some cases put pressure on local authorities to take efforts so as to ensure the victory of the ruling party.
In 2004, the diversity of the media narrowed alarmingly as most formerly critical media outlets became closely linked to the new government and were loyal to it. Political debate in the media was particularly affected after three television stations simultaneously took off the air their popular evening talk shows that discussed political issues. While political pressure was rumored, the central reasons appeared to be financial.
Journalists and outlets that were not pro-government were automatically labeled as supporters of the previous government and faced reprisals soon after the Rose Revolution. Pressure on them and independent media was exercised, for example, by threatening owners with tax and other financial controls and in some cases following through with such threats. These superfluous controls appeared to be based on the political loyalty of the outlet.
Anti-governmental demonstrations held in 2004 were in most cases dispersed by the police, frequently through excessive force.
Torture and ill-treatment were among the central human rights concerns during the Shevardnadze era. In 2004, the number of cases of torture, ill-treatment and inhuman and degrading treatment as well as arbitrary detentions increased further. While in some areas of law enforcement improvements were reported, it appeared that the authorities and police officers were willing to sacrifice the right to physical integrity for efficiency in the fight against criminality. In addition, the practice of isolating detainees, restricting access to family and defense counsel, and denying detainees the representation of a lawyer of their choice were still common in Georgia in 2004.
The official status of religious minorities continued to be a problematic issue in Georgia in 2004. There is no law specifically detailing the rights of minority religious groups, although the government does have a formal concordat with the Georgian Orthodox Church signed in 2002. In 2004 the issue of minority rights centered a great deal upon organizational and building rights. It remained virtually impossible for non-Orthodox religious groups to build places of worship, either because they were refused permits by secular authorities claiming that the 2002 concordat gives the Orthodox Church the right to veto applications by other religious bodies, or because of strong resistance and the threat of violence from local populations.
On 19 September and 3 October, parliamentary elections were held in Kazakhstan. International election observers deployed by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) concluded that the elections did not correspond to the generally accepted standards of free and fair elections, although some improvements in comparison to previous elections were observed.
According to the OSCE/ODIHR, main points of concern included the opacity of the electronic voting procedures and biased mass media coverage. It was also noted as a serious shortcoming that the Central Election Commission (CEC) was composed in a politically unbalanced way, which resulted in decisions favoring the government, and that its actions lacked transparency. The Almaty t its actions were primarily oriented toward furthering the interests of the authorities.
Unlike in previous election campaigns, no media outlet was shut down and no serious cases of persecution of journalists were reported. Yet, the International Foundation for the Protection of Freedom of Speech, Adil Soz, documented 39 cases where journalists’ rights were violated in connection with the parliamentary elections. For example, journalists were denied access to polling stations – sometimes through the use of force – and refused interviews and access to voting protocols.
Libel and defamation charges were actively used to persecute critical journalists. Because journalists feared that they may be prosecuted on these grounds and ordered to pay high damages, they often engaged in self-censorship.
As in previous years, NGOs were subjected to harassment, such as intimidating visits by security and law enforcement agencies, arbitrary investigations by the tax police and surveillance by law enforcement and security agents. In a highly worrisome development, the major opposition party DCK faced severe sanctions in an apparently politically motivated case.
A broad debate about torture and ill-treatment in prisons followed after the TV channel KTK in February broadcasted footage of the brutal beating of inmates at a prison in Arkalyk, northern Kazakhstan. A commission set up by the Justice Ministry to look into the events later confirmed the KTK report. The prison guards responsible for the documented abuse were imprisoned, however not for torture or ill-treatment but for “exceeding their authority.”
The situation regarding religious freedom has improved in Kazakhstan in recent years and remained hopeful during the first part of 2004. However, toward the end of the year, there were indications that the authorities attempted to step up control of religious communities, which gave rise to new concerns about undue interference with religious rights.
The general situation of the independent human rights community in Kyrgyzstan gave cause for profound concern. Numerous activists routinely faced intimidation, harassment and denunciations in state-controlled media that amounted to incitement to violence. Officials often persuaded inhabitants not to cooperate with human rights defenders, for example, by threatening to stop the provision of necessary supplies such as tractors or gasoline to their villages.
During 2004, independent media outlets faced increasing pressure and journalists harassment. Open criticism of government policies and of widespread corruption remained a risky topic for journalists and outspoken individuals and easily led to harassment. In April to May 2004 alone, forty cases of detention, interrogation and other intimidation of journalists usually based on bogus accusations were reported by the Journalists Association in Kyrgyzstan.
Defamation charges were used to stifle criticism, aiming particularly at the closure of independent media outlets under the heavy burden of compensation awards ordered by courts, and under obvious political pressure.
No serious reforms were taken in Kyrgyzstan to provide for a more independent judicial system. The presidential administration and local authorities greatly influenced and pressurized courts and judges. Authorities constantly held attestations of judges in order to keep them under their control. Courts remained underfinanced and judges underpaid, which made the judicial personnel vulnerable to bribes. For all these reasons, the independent administration of justice in the country could not be guaranteed.
The Criminal and Civil Codes were not in line with international standards. Lawyers were often hindered from working freely, which was especially true if their client was a well-known opposition activist.
Torture and ill-treatment remained common practice. In spite of the fact that under the initiative of the KCHR the parliament had adopted a new article to the Criminal Code regarding “torture and the responsibility for its application” as a criminal offense, abuse by law enforcement officers did not become less frequent.
Conditions in Kyrgyz prisons and detention facilities were seriously substandard. Prisoners did not undergo a medical check upon their arrival, and healthy prisoners were kept in overcrowded cells together with prisoners suffering from infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Each prisoner usually had less than one square meter of space, far less than that required by international standards. There were no special facilities for mentally ill prisoners. Accordingly, they did not receive necessary treatment, which often led to conflicts – even violent attacks – between them and other inmates.
In Transdniestria, the local “Ministry of State Security” posed restrictions on civil society activities, especially if they concerned human rights. All non-governmental activities, such as conferences and training sessions, were to be coordinated with local authorities. The organizers were required to submit to the “ministry” the program of their meetings, a list of participants, and the names of the hotels they were staying at. Failing to do this meant that the event was illegal.
Throughout 2004, the media was under unofficial and indirect governmental censorship that took the form of administrative, economic, and judicial pressure. Administrative pressure was used especially against journalists working for public electronic and printed media such as Teleradio Moldova and the newspapers Moldova Suverana, and Nezavisimaia Moldova. The managers of these media outlets punished their journalists (for example, with pay cuts) who did not respect the “corrections” made by the ruling party.
Judicial censorship was applied through courts, which were subordinated to the executive power. Most independent newspapers (for example, Jurnal de Chisinau, Ziarul de Garda, Moldavskie Vedomosti, Flux, Timpul de Dimineata, etc.) faced trials initiated by political leaders or powerful businessmen for defamation. The newspaper Timpul lost a trial and was forced to change its name and juridical status. Several members of parliament (for example, V. Stepaniuc and Iu.Rosca), and members of the government (for example the Minister of Internal Affairs Gh. Papuc) and other high state officials filed defamation charges against newspapers for legitimate criticism of their activities or allegations of corruption.
Moldovan legislative process lacked clarity and transparency. The ruling Communist Party, which had the absolute majority in the parliament from 2001 to 2004, appeared not to be interested in parliamentary dialogue, and there was no mechanism for public input in to the legislative process, for example, in terms of discussing draft laws.
Authorities continued to interfere in the operation of the courts and the judiciary. Several newspaper articles, some parliamentary deputies from the opposition party and a former judge of the Constitutional Court, Gheorghe Susarenco, voiced concern regarding the erosion of the independence of judiciary and political interference on the part of the government party in some cases that were pending in the national courts or were under investigation.
The presidents of courts were under the de facto control of the Communist authorities. They were also in charge of the distribution of case files among the judges, and many of them abused this position to give specific cases to those judges from whom they could expect judgments that were politically desirable.
A specific cause of concern was the fact that Moldovan authorities handed over Moldovan citizens to the authorities of the breakaway Transdniestrian region to stand trial under the unconstitutional provisions of that region. Not only were these people stripped of judicial protection under Moldovan law, they also faced proceedings under provisions of Transdniestria that ran counter to both Moldovan law and international human rights standards.
In recent years, authorities in Transdniestria have denied registration to Baptists, Methodists, and the Church of the Living God. Unregistered religious groups were not allowed to gather publicly. The law prohibits renting premises for religious meetings and authorities regarded meetings of unregistered groups in private homes as illegal.
Transdniestrian policy toward the Moldovan/Romanian speaking minority hardened dramatically in 2004. The conflict escalated in July when Transdniestrian authorities closed down the last eight Moldovan/Romanian-language schools that used Latin script, instead of Cyrillic, as required by the authorities. Moldovan/Romanian is the mother tongue of an estimated 40% of the population in Transdniestria. Approximately 5,000 pupils had been studying using the Latin script for over ten years and wanted to continue to do so. The right to use Latin script is perceived as an important sign of the right to self-identification but is also an essential prerequisite for successful studies in Moldovan/Romanian schools of higher education.
(For some reason, we were unable to access the sections on Russia and Tajikistan.)
Turkmenistan remained the most repressive state in the OSCE region. President Saparmurat Niyazov has ruled the country with an iron fist ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and has gradually built up a personality cult of grotesque proportions.
On 19 December 2004, parliamentary elections were held. Despite claims by the government to the contrary, the elections were not democratic. According to Turkmen newspapers, 135 candidates were competing for about 50 deputy mandates. However, the elections did not offer any genuine choice since all candidates represented the so-called Galkanish (“Revival”) movement, which was initiated by President Niyazov.
The role of the parliament was merely symbolic. As a result of the 2003 constitutional reform, the People’s Council was the major legislative, executive and judicial body in the country. The primary function of this body was again to formally approve policy initiatives by President Niyazov, who was present at all its sessions.
Turkmenistan remained one of the most oppressive countries in the world in terms of media freedom. The 2004 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders listed Turkmenistan on place 164 out of 167 countries.
All Turkmen media were state-owned and reported on events taking place in the country from a one-sided, government sanctioned perspective. Journalists worked under strict control by the secret service. Also, journalists often did not have adequate qualifications for their work since formal education was poor and many experienced journalists have left the country in recent years.
Access to information from abroad was seriously restricted. The only existing Internet provider, Turkmentelecom, is a state company and all Internet traffic was monitored, which enabled authorities to take sanctions against Internet users who visited foreign web sites that contained information critical of the Turkmen regime. It has been prohibited to subscribe to foreign newspapers and magazines since 2002, and while the last foreign TV station allowed to broadcast on national frequencies (Russian ORT) was taken off air in 1998, the last foreign radio station faced the same fate in 2004. Following this measure, foreign TV and radio stations were only available over satellite.
Following the alleged assassination attempt against President Niyazov in late 2002, more than 50 people were convicted in trials conducted in gross violation of international due process standards. These prisoners were reportedly held in a secret prison close to Ashgabat, where they were not allowed to receive visits by relatives. However, no further information about their fate was available.
A law adopted in late 2003 established serious new restrictions on freedom of association. This law outlawed the activities of unregistered public associations and granted authorities extensive powers to exercise control over associations and to close them down.
The use of torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials was widespread. Detainees were pressured and subjected to beatings, electric shocks, suffocation and other forms of torture in order to force them to confess to crimes they were alleged to have committed. Courts routinely admitted evidence obtained under duress, and an overwhelming majority of all verdicts that were handed down were based solely on “confessions.” No information regarding investigations into and prosecutions of cases of abuse were available. However, it was clear that law enforcement officials engaged in abusive practices with a high degree of impunity,
By early 2005, four minority religions had been registered – Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist, Baha’i and Hare Krishna communities. Other minority religious communities were denied registration or declined to apply for registration because they did not believe that registration would facilitate their religious practice. Indeed, religious communities that gained registration continued to face a number of restrictions, such as not being able to worship outside of approved places of worship, print or import religious literature, or receive financial contributions from fellow believers abroad.
In a similar pattern as in previous years, the secret service raided the meetings of unregistered religious communities, threatened and abused their members and confiscated their literature. During the latter half of the year, it was also reported that the secret police cracked down on members of religious communities that had obtained registration.
While it was compulsory for citizens to register their place of residence with the authorities, it was very difficult to obtain official permission to change place of residence. As a result, many people who had come to the capital Ashgabat to work were not officially registered there. In a campaign carried out in the capital in October, hundreds of employees who were not registered with the authorities were fired from their jobs at both state-owned and privately run companies.
Considerable parts of the country were declared border zones. The border zones could only be entered by people who were registered as residents of these areas or who had been granted special permission. During the year, new requirements for obtaining a permit to visit border zones were established. Firstly, applicants were required to present an invitation from relatives residing in such areas, while invitations from non-related friends were no longer accepted. Secondly, the process for considering applications was prolonged from a few days to up to three weeks.
President Niyazov stated in the spring that children would no longer have to work in agriculture. However, as in previous years, school children were made to gather cotton during the harvest season from early September to the end of November. Students attending countryside schools typically worked in the fields from early morning to late evening, with children as young as eight years old participating in some villages. Students at city schools were allowed to have classes two hours a day before being sent to the fields.
A new education program, “Bilim,” was launched in 1993. Under this program, the period of compulsory education has been shortened to nine years, and education has increasingly been given an ideological content. The teaching of arts and science subjects has been significantly reduced, and some subjects such as physical education have been abolished altogether. Instead, new subjects focusing on the political achievements of President Niyazov and his literary contributions, in particular his spiritual guide Rukhnama, have been introduced. The Ministry of Education also encourages the incorporation of Niyazov’s works into traditional disciplines and has, for example, published math text books that feature problem solving examples related to the president.
(The Ukraine section refers entirely to events before the Orange Revolution.)
The government of President Karimov has established a number of public human rights institutions. Among these are the Ombudsman on Human Rights, which was founded as the first of its kind in Central Asia in 1996, and the National Human Rights Center of Uzbekistan, which was set up in 1997. However, according to the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU), public human rights institutions were not engaged in any genuine efforts to promote human rights but primarily served propaganda purposes of the government.
The elections were neither free nor fair. All five political parties that had been registered with the authorities were pro-government and had similar electoral platforms. Neither these parties nor the 55 candidates nominated by initiative groups offered the electorate any real choice.
The authorities exercised strong control over media and sought to prevent the spread of critical information. While censorship was officially lifted in 2002, media outlets that were allowed to operate exercised strict self-censorship. Self-censorship was also reinforced by vaguely formulated legislation that prohibited the disclosure of state secrets and Criminal Code provisions that made defamation and libel punishable.
The process for registering media outlets was complicated, and registered media outlets could be closed down without a court decision. A new law adopted in 2003 broadened the definition of media outlets that need registration so as to include bulletin-style publications and websites. These amendments further restricted the circulation of independent information by making it unlawful for opposition political parties, NGOs and others to spread information through bulletins and websites without official registration.
Trials were often conducted in serious violation of international standards. This was inter alia the case when some 100 people charged with offences related to the violent events in the spring (see also the section on Freedom of Religion and Religious Tolerance) were tried in the second half of 2004. In these processes, defendants were as a rule declared guilty before their trials had begun and they were deprived of an adequate defense. Law enforcement authorities also reportedly planted evidence such as banned religious literature, drugs and weapons and used intimidation, pressure and torture to force defendants to confess to the crimes they were charged with (see also the section on Torture and Ill-treatment).
The use of torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials remained widespread and such practices were routinely used to extract confessions and testimonies. In particular, torture and ill-treatment were used in the crack-down on independent Muslims (see also the section on Freedom of Religion and Religious Tolerance).
In addition to Belarus, Uzbekistan was the only former Soviet Union republic where the death penalty remained in use throughout 2004. In December, President Karimov stated that it was his personal opinion that “we should stop handing down death sentences.” However, he also said that he thought it would be premature to abolish the death penalty in a situation where a majority of the population supported its retention.