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The October revolution: Europe and Central Asia round-up

Rebellion charges in Catalonia, human rights defenders released in Turkey, EU protection for whistleblowers, independent journalism undermined in Hungary, Interpol red notices abused, LGBTQI+ targeted in Azerbaijan, journalists attacked in Malta and Russia….

Independence supporters march during a demonstration in downtown Barcelona, Spain, 2 October 2017
Independence supporters march during a demonstration in downtown Barcelona, Spain, 2 October 2017

AP Photo/Felipe Dana

Spain vs Catalonia

On 27 October 2017, nearly four weeks after the disputed independence referendum, Catalan lawmakers voted to declare independence from Spain. A few hours later, the Spanish senate voted to implement Article 155, imposing direct control over the autonomous region, including Catalonia's public media, which Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy says he wants to ensure is "truthful, objective and balanced". The Madrid government has announced that the President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, will be removed from office and his government dissolved; regional elections will then be held on 21 December. Puigdemont remains defiant and has called for 'peaceful resistance' against the imposition of Article 155. Spanish prosecutors have said that he (like other Catalan leaders) will be charged with 'rebellion', which carries a punishment of up to 30 years in jail.

Throughout this political crisis, the Spanish government has not been shy about curtailing free expression rights or employing very heavy handed tactics to quell separatist activities. On 17 October, two leading figures in Catalan civil society, Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart (both of whom are also prominent separatists), were arrested and imprisoned without bail while being investigated on charges of sedition. High ranking Catalan officials were jailed on the same charges in late September. All have been detained solely for their part in organising the independence vote.

Earlier in the month, IFEX members released reports and statements on the violence that took place on referendum day (1 October) and which had resulted in approximately 900 civilians being injured by police. A thorough report by Human Rights Watch found that police had used excessive force in order to prevent the vote, and called for an independent investigation. ARTICLE19 released a statement saying that some of the actions taken by the Spanish government were "contrary to international law." Reporters Without Borders found that journalists had suffered harassment and pressure from those on both sides of the argument. The International Federation of Journalists registered the attacks suffered by journalists covering the events of 1 October with the Council of Europe's journalists' safety Platform.

Soon after the dramatic events of 27 October, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, tweeted his support for the Spanish government, but he was clearly concerned by the tactics it had used so far:

Turkey: some good news amidst the bad

There was very welcome news from Turkey on 25 October: the ten human rights defenders (also known as the Istanbul 10) who had been detained on terrorism charges since July were released, pending trial.

Human rights organisations including IFEX members had been advocating for their release, and for the absurd charges against them to be dropped, since their detention began. You can read more about the background to their case here. The next hearing in their trial will be on 22 November.

The rest of the news from Turkey, however, was not so positive. The wave of prosecutions and detentions that began with the declaration of a state of emergency in 2016 continues unabated; Reporters Without Borders reminded us that during the last week of October alone there were 48 journalists on trial in Turkey.

In an important development, IFEX members collaborated this month with other rights groups to file a brief with the European Court of Human Rights in support of a challenge by Cumhuriyet newspaper's staff to their lengthy pre-trial detention on terrorism charges.

On 18 October, the authorities arrested another high-profile civil society leader - the human rights philanthropist Osman Kavala. He is being investigated in relation to terrorism offences. MEP Kati Piri, the Turkey rapporteur of the European Parliament, announced that a cross-party group of MEPs was calling for Kavala's immediate release:

Under pressure: Azerbaijan and Hungary

The blogger Mehman Huseynov - an IFEX member and chairman of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) - remains in jail following the 29 September decision by the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan to return his case to the appellate court that had convicted him. Huseynov is serving a two year prison sentence, having been jailed in March 2017 on trumped up charges of slandering an entire police station; the charge was retaliatory and followed his allegation that he had been tortured by the police whilst detained incommunicado. IFEX continues to call for Huseynov's release.

Huseynov's case is emblematic of what Human Rights Watch so accurately describes as Azerbaijan's abysmal human rights record. In October, HRW reported, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) attempted to pressure Azerbaijan by adopting two reports and resolutions urging that the government cease its ongoing crackdown on critics and dissident voices. Further pressure will be applied in May 2018 when Azerbaijan's human rights record comes under scrutiny as part of the UN's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process; a collection of rights groups - including ARTICLE 19, Index on Censorship, IRFS, PEN International and Reporters Without Borders - made a joint submission on Azerbaijan this month to the UPR.

With Hungary's parliamentary elections set to take place in spring 2018, the ruling party and its supporters are attempting to intimidate and undermine independent journalists. This has gone hand-in-hand with a government-sponsored hate campaign against George Soros (philanthropist funder of human rights and democracy projects) and the EU, both of which - Human Rights Watch reports - are accused of wanting to bring millions of immigrants to Europe. However, apparently not satisfied with merely bullying independent voices in the media, Prime Minister Orbán's allies have recently bought up all of Hungary's regional media in order to ensure favourable coverage of their man.

This month, the European Commission (EC) stepped up its infringement procedure against Hungary over its repressive NGO laws. Hungary has one month to respond to the EC's concerns that this legislation (passed in June) does not comply with EU law; if it fails to do so satisfactorily, the case could be referred to the European Court of Justice. If you're wondering how the situation in Hungary came to be so bad, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HLCU) - in collaboration with other Hungarian NGOs - has just published a report on this 'Illiberal state in the Heart of Europe'.

Gender focus: women in the media, LGBTQI+ in Azerbaijan

The struggle for gender equality for women working in the media is a never-ending battle. This month, a European group comprising universities, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the Permanent Conference of the Mediterranean Audiovisual Operators (COPEAM) announced the start of a project to advance gender equality in media industries (AGEMI). At this stage, they are asking interested parties to submit their best media practices on gender equality for inclusion in a database. Check here for more details.

Azerbaijan's crackdown on the LGBTQI+ community has sparked disturbing allegations of police torture. Although homosexuality was decriminalised in 2000, homophobia is very much alive and kicking. The authorities, who started rounding up gay men in Baku in mid-September, claimed that it was being done, in part, to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (the men were reportedly tested). However, reports suggest that up to 60 LGBTQI+ individuals were either jailed or fined for resisting police orders. And in recent days, some of the detainees have alleged that they were tortured by police officers, including by the use of electric shocks.

Briefly: murder in Malta, whistleblowers, a Russian journalist attacked, Interpol, digital rights

On 16 October, the Maltese investigative journalist and blogger, Daphne Caruana Galizia, was murdered by a car bomb. The news shocked Malta and the wider international community; Caruana had led the investigation into the Panama Papers, which had exposed political corruption in her home country, and her blog was one of the most popular news blogs in the Mediterranean area. IFEX members called for an immediate investigation into the killing, as did the EU. The Malta Independent, in which she had a column, paid a sad, respectful tribute:

On 24 October, the EU Parliament voted to adopt a proposal demanding EU-wide legislation protecting whistleblowers. This extremely welcome move is the result of months of hard work by rights groups and lawmakers, and the hope is now that the European Commission will propose a directive to make this law.

On 23 October a man entered the office of Ekho Moskvy, one of Russia's few genuinely independent media outlets, and stabbed the journalist Tatyana Felgenhauer in the neck; thankfully, Felgenhauer survived and the attacker was arrested. However, as Human Rights Watch pointed out, 'Russia is no safe place for independent journalists.' October also saw the 11th anniversary of the murder of the courageous reporter Anna Politkavskaya.

IFEX members will be aware that the Interpol red notice system has been exploited recently by countries such as Turkey, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in order to target independent journalists around Europe. These international arrest warrants have been used to detain six journalists since August, and, according to reports, one has just been issued for the exiled Cumhuriyet journalist Can Dündar. Index on Censorship provides a good overview of what's been going on: please visit their website to find out more.

Digital rights are a relatively new battle ground for human rights and free expression advocates. October saw the launch of the Digital Freedom Fund (DFF), which aims to support strategic litigation on digital rights in Europe through the provision of financial support and the facilitation of collaborative work between those working to advance digital rights. To find out more, visit the webpage.

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