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Europe: Murder in Nizhny Novgorod - and has Turkey's state of emergency really ended?

Europe and Central Asia: Journalist murdered in Russia, ECHR rules in favour of Pussy Riot and Anna Politkovskaya, CoE members expelled following Azerbaijani bribery scandal, IFEX member held incommunicado, UK surveillance and more in our round-up of July's free expression news.

A woman holds a portrait of slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya during a rally marking the 10th anniversary of her murder in Moscow, 7 October 2016
A woman holds a portrait of slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya during a rally marking the 10th anniversary of her murder in Moscow, 7 October 2016


Russia: a murder in Nizhny Novgorod and ECHR rules in favour of Pussy Riot

On 23 July, the journalist Denis Suvorov was found dead near a construction site in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. According to various reports, he had suffered a skull fracture and may also have been stabbed. Suvorov, 27, worked as a presenter and online editor at the state-run Rossia Nizhny Novgorod. He had disappeared on his way home from work the night before his body was found. The police have launched a murder inquiry and the International Federation of Journalists has urged the authorities to consider Suvorov's journalistic activities as a possible motive for the crime.

This month saw some welcome developments regarding two of Russia's emblematic free expression cases.

On 17 July, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the Russian authorities had "failed to look properly into who commissioned" the 2006 murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The Court ruled that the Russian government had violated Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights and ordered it to pay 20,000 Euros in compensation.
On the same day, the ECHR also ruled that the Russian government had violated Pussy Riot's right to freedom of expression and other rights when it arrested and jailed them following their 2012 punk protest in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral. The Court ordered Russia to pay Mariya Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich a total of 37,000 Euros [USD 43,300] in compensation, plus legal costs of 11,760 Euros [USD 13760]. Two days before the judgement was released, other members of Pussy Riot staged a brief pitch action (to protest human rights abuses in Russia) during the France v Croatia match at the World Cup. They were arrested and handed 15-day prison sentences.

Earlier in the month, the State Duma's information and communication committee approved a bill that would allow the state to classify individual journalists as "foreign agents". The bill will have to be passed by the upper house of parliament and then be approved by the president before becoming law.

Turkey: state of emergency ends but draconian measures to continue

The state of emergency, in place since the failed coup of July 2016, officially ended this month. Bianet provided us with statistics demonstrating the massive toll that the executive's use of emergency powers has had on Turkish society: over 134,000 people have been fired from their jobs and at least 228,000 people have been arrested during the last 24 months. Reuters reported that more than 18,000 civil servants were fired by decree just before the state of emergency was due to end.

Although the lifting of the state of emergency was welcome news, rights organisations warned us against celebrating too soon. The International Press Institute, commenting on the recent shutdowns of Kurdish newspapers, warned that Turkey's assault on the press would "outlive the state of emergency". Human Rights Watch warned us that many of the draconian powers granted to the executive under the state of emergency would be retained if a new draft security law was passed - which it was, on 25 July.

The 75th hearing of the Hrant Dink murder trial took place this month. Dink, a Turkish-Armenian editor, was shot dead in 2007. There is a widespread belief that members of the Turkish security services were involved in the assassination: the former head of Turkish police intelligence testified in 2017 that the security authorities in Istanbul and Trabzon had "deliberately not prevented" the killing from taking place. There are currently 71 defendants standing trial; two were released this month. The next hearing is scheduled for late September.

On 6 July, six journalists from the Zaman newspaper were convicted of "membership of a terrorist organisation". They were handed jail sentences ranging from eight years and nine months to ten and a half years.

If you want to stay informed about all the most prominent free expression cases in Turkey, the following IFEX members provide ongoing updates: Platform for Independent Journalism (and its sister site Expression Interrupted), Bianet and the Committee to Protect Journalists' Crackdown Chronicle.

Azerbaijan: President on charm offensive and IFEX member held incommunicado

The authoritarian President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, went on a European charm offensive this month. On 19 and 20 July he was in Paris, where he met with French President Emmanuel Macron. Before the meeting, IFEX members the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) and Reporters Without Borders publicly urged Macron, under whom France is expanding economic cooperation with Baku, to raise with Aliyev his country's abysmal record on human rights and corruption. That record, said IRFS in its public letter, includes over 100 political prisoners and - over the last 15 years - the destruction of the free press and civil society.

Azerbaijan's corruption extends well beyond its borders and includes allegations of attempts to bribe fellow Council of Europe members so that certain votes go Azerbaijan's way. Following an independent investigation into these practices, 13 members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) were expelled from the organisation this month for accepting bribes.

Afgan Sadygov, the editor of the now defunct independent news website Azel, was arrested at his mother's house on 6 July. He was rushed through a trial the following day, convicted of 'hooliganism' and handed a 30 day jail sentence. Sadygov is known for criticising the government. He was released from prison last May after serving a two-and-a-half year jail sentence on questionable charges of assaulting a state employee. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Sadygov's family do not know where he is serving his current sentence.

Elvin Huseynli, who works for IFEX member IRFS, was detained and held incommunicado for four days this month. He also says that he was ill treated by the police whilst in custody. He was released on 16 July.

IRFS has again called for the release of its chairman, the blogger Mehman Huseynov. Huseynov's mother is currently in hospital on life support and the authorities have denied the blogger even temporary leave to visit her. Huseynov was jailed for two years in March 2017 after he was dubiously convicted of defaming a whole police station; this occurred after police officers abducted and tortured him.

There was welcome news earlier in the month when the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) appointed a rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

Gender focus

In mid-July, Zelimkhan Akhmadov, a twenty-year-old gay man from Chechnya, was kidnapped in St Petersburg by members of his family (who were assisted by police officers). Akhmadov had fled Chechnya due to its persecution of the LGBTQI+ community. Last year, dozens of gay men - including Akhmadov - were rounded up, detained and allegedly tortured during a Chechen police operation. According to reports, Akhmadov's father (who disapproves of his son's sexuality) listed him as 'missing' with the Chechen authorities, who then issued an arrest warrant. The young man was found by the St Petersburg authorities a few days after his kidnapping and the group that abducted him was arrested.

In brief

In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the far-right Interior Minister who last month threatened to remove police protection from the mafia-threatened Roberto Saviano, is now suing the writer for defamation. This comes after Saviano called Salvini "minister of the underworld". Referring to Salvini's anti-immigrant, anti-Roma views, Saviano had also tweeted "the hatred you have sown will overthrow you". Harlem Desir, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media, expressed his concern about the lawsuit, saying, "public officials must have a higher threshold for criticism and respect critical voices as crucial for public debate and information".

The Italian investigative journalist Marilù Mastrogiovanni received hundreds of emailed death threats in early July. As The Shift reports, she "is also one of the main drivers behind the international voices calling for justice over [Daphne] Caruana Galizia's assassination"; she has also been pushing for the Maltese journalist's investigations to be continued.

When President Trump visited the UK this month, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest his racism, sexism, Islamophobia and attacks on the press. The human rights organisation Liberty used the event as an opportunity to highlight the British police's mass use of facial recognition surveillance technology on the streets of the UK. "Facial recognition cameras", explains Liberty, "create a unique biometric map - more like a fingerprint than a CCTV image"; this "map" is then matched against images stored by the police. The cameras scan crowds en masse and, as well as being a gross invasion of the right to privacy, the technology has a history of misidentifying women and people from ethnic minorities. During the demonstration, Liberty's protesters wore 'camera dazzle' face paint which makes it difficult for the cameras to scan your face.

In Tajikistan, journalist Khayrullo Mirsaidov was convicted of false reporting, embezzlement and misuse of state funds; he was handed a 12-year prison sentence. Mirsaidov, who reports on human rights issues and the environment, denied the charges against him and the harsh sentencing has been condemned as completely "disproportionate" by EU states, the US, the OSCE and others. Mirsaidov was charged and prosecuted after he made allegations of corruption in local government. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other organisations wrote to the European Commission, calling on it to push for the release of Mirsaidov and of all those imprisoned on politically-motivated charges.

On 20 July, IFEX members the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), ARTICLE 19 and Index on Censorship marked the second anniversary of the unsolved murder of the Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet by transferring his case on the Council of Europe's Platform for Journalists' Safety to the impunity category. Sheremet was killed by a car bomb in Ukraine, which now has six cases of impunity on the Platform. Sheremet was remembered by family and colleagues at a memorial in Minsk, Belarus.

In Belarus, the investigative journalist and critic of the government Dzmitry Halko was convicted of assaulting a police officer during a raid of his home in last November and was sentence to four years forced labour in a low security prison. Halko was editor of the Belarusian Partisan, which was shut down by the authorities in December. He is appealing his conviction.

The European Commission (EC) has referred Hungary to the European Court of Justice over its adoption of the so-called "Stop Soros" legislation (a package of bills that criminalises NGOs - and makes their workers liable for jail terms - if they try to help immigrants who seek asylum but are judged not to be entitled to it). The Commission regards the Hungarian legislation to be incompatible with EU law. Part of this legislative assault on immigrants is a new "immigration tax" bill, adopted by Hungarian lawmakers on 20 July. Under this law, donors funding organisations that carry out work "in favour of promoting immigration" will be forced to pay a 25% special tax on the financial support they provide. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (which has produced an English translation of this law) has dubbed it a #freespeechtax because of the restrictions it will inevitably place on media campaigns and university legal studies. The law will enter into force on 25 August.

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