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No holiday for Europe's rights abusers or their victims in August

Although August is traditionally associated with taking some time off, no-one appears to have informed Europe's worst rights abusers: they kept up their respective crackdowns on journalists, the internet and civil society throughout the month, as if they were trying to impress a new, nasty boss.

Demonstrators protest against the detention of Avaaz activist Ozlem Dalkiran and other human rights acitvists outside Turkey's embassy in London, Britain, 25 July 2017
Demonstrators protest against the detention of Avaaz activist Ozlem Dalkiran and other human rights acitvists outside Turkey's embassy in London, Britain, 25 July 2017

REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Trumped up charges of terrorism, extremism and tax evasion

Turkey's crackdown on independent voices, civil society and journalism goes on. Eight of the ten human right defenders (HRDs) who were arrested at a training workshop in Büyükada on 5 July 2017 are still detained; some have been moved to Silivri Prison. One of them, Özlem Dalkıran, recently sent a public letter to Agos Weekly, in which she thanked the international rights community for its ongoing support:

Thanks to the splendid solidarity we have been receiving from both the national and international human rights community since the moment we were taken into custody, we have been able to keep going without losing our strength. We have in any case not lost our faith in ourselves, in what we did and the fight for rights that we have been carrying out, but it makes us more resilient that you are standing by us.

To read the full letter, please visit Bianet.

The ongoing detention of the HRDs has drawn global condemnation from governments and civil society groups: Zara Rahman provides an overview of the international response for the Global Voices website. Germany's Ambassador to Turkey, Martin Erdmann, visited another of the detained HRDs (and also the detained journalist Deniz Yücel) in late August.

The Committee to Protect Journalists and Platform for Independent Journalism provide regular updates on the state of journalistic free expression under Turkey's state of emergency. The Initiative for Freedom of Expression - Turkey continues to deliver the latest news on individual cases. Other IFEX members have focused on campaigning for individual detainees: PEN International launched actions on behalf of two detained Kurds, the artist Zehra Doğan and the writer Hasip Yanlıç; Reporters Without Borders protested the arrest of the French reporter Loup Bureau. All three detainees are facing terrorism related charges.

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, made an important intervention this month with regard to Turkey's cynical use of Interpol's Red Notices (similar to an international arrest warrant), which were enforced in Spain to detain the writer Doğan Akhanlı and the journalist Hamza Yalçin.

Although Akhanli has been released, Yalçin is still detained.

Azerbaijan seems determined to obliterate any remaining vestige of the free press within its borders. The Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety (IRFS) reported in mid-August that the country's only independent news agency, Turan, had been hit with dubious charges of tax evasion (a common tactic used to paralyse the press in Azerbaijan). The agency's offices were raided by the police on 16 August, and, on 25 August, the director Mehman Aliyev was placed in pre-trial detention. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media called for Aliyev's immediate release, saying "There is every reason to believe that Mehman Aliyev's detention and arrest is politically motivated." Nils Muiznieks, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, described the arrest as the "last blow" to the free media in Azerbaijan:
In Russia, there was mixed news for the Uzbeki journalist Khudoberdi Nurmatov (who writes under the pen name 'Ali Feruz'). In 2009, after being persecuted by Uzbeki intelligence agents, Nurmatov sought asylum in Russia and eventually found work with the independent Novaya Gazeta. The journalist's asylum application was rejected in May 2017 and on 1 August a judge ordered his return to Uzbekistan, where he risks imprisonment, torture and possibly death. However, Index on Censorship, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders called for Nurmatov to be allowed to stay in the Russia, and, on 4 August, the European Court of Human Rights issued an injunction ordering Russia not to deport the reporter until the court could review the case. Although Russia has complied, Nurmatov remains in detention, where he says he has been physically abused.
There were also developments in other notable Russian cases this month. On 10 August, the investigative reporter, Alexander Sokolov (who covers politics and corruption), was sentenced to three and a half years in a penal colony for "perpetuating the activities of a banned extremist organization." On 22 August, the well-known film director and Kremlin critic, Kirill Serebrennikov, was placed under house arrest while he is investigated on charges of fraud: ARTICLE 19 has condemned the arrest and called on Russia to uphold the director's right to a fair trial and proportional punishment.

Digital rights, surveillance and privacy

Russia continues its war on digital free expression. In late July, President Putin signed a law banning technologies that facilitate access to an open internet and communication tools that allow for privacy online. Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, noting that the law will come into force a few months before Putin seeks election for another term in office, called on the Canadian government to advocate for digital security in its dealings with Russia, and for support from Canadian internet companies.

In late July, Tajikistan's lawmakers passed legislation allowing the intelligence agencies to monitor its citizens' online activities. As the Akhal-Tech Collective (writing for the Global Voices website) notes, government agents will now be able to keep detailed records of SMS and mobile messages, social media posts and visits to 'undesirable' websites.

Privacy International and the rights NGO Metamorphosis wrote a public letter this month to Macedonia's government, calling on it to safeguard citizens' right to privacy and desist from any form of mass communications surveillance. Two years ago it was revealed that the ruling party was intercepting the telecommunications of approximately 20,000 opposition politicians, activists and journalists. The scandal brought down the government and a new coalition has been in place since May 2017. The public letter asks the new government to commit to implementing reforms and urgent protections against mass surveillance.

Gender in focus

The Center for Independent Journalism - Moldova has been contributing to an educational campaign since April 2017 ('Divided by Two'), the aim of which is to bring attention to various aspects of gender issues and present "positive models of men and women in diverse spheres of life." This month, the focus is on sexism in advertising in Moldova, the way it "damages human dignity" and how to get rid of it. The project takes the form of short films, all of which can be viewed here.

Civil society under pressure

Hungary's increasingly fractious relationship with the EU, largely over the former's legislative targeting of the Central European University and NGOs, continues to deteriorate. In mid August the Venice Commission declared that some parts of Hungary's new law on foreign universities were "highly problematic." One of the leaders of Hungary's ruling Fidesz party responded that the commission was under the "influence" of George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who funds democracy and rights projects across the former Soviet Union, and who is the target of a vitriolic hate campaign which has been promoted by the Hungarian government.

Independent reporting also looks like it might be under pressure in Hungary, with the authoritarian Prime Minister Orbán's allies buying up the last five independent regional newspapers.

Much like Hungary, Moldova seems to be following in Russia's footsteps by attempting to legislatively shackle civil society. In July, Moldova's Minister of Justice made public a draft law that would place serious restrictions on NGOs that receive funds from abroad and which engage in what the government considers 'political activities'. According to Freedom House, the draft law - if passed - would restrict the work of around 90% of Moldovan NGOs.

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