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Europe and Central Asia Overview

Human Rights Developments

The civilian carnage in Chechnya and the further entrenchment of authoritarian governments in Central Asia dominated human rights concerns in 2000. The democratic defeat of Slobodan Milosevic, who had laid waste to democracy in Serbia and instigated the deadly Balkan wars, held out hope of a new hope for peace and rule of law in the Balkans. But the international community's selectivity in using leverage hindered efforts for positive change in human rights in the region, especially in the crises in Chechnya and Central Asia. While the victory of Vojislav Kostunica over Milosevic was strongly supported by the lifting of international sanctions, governments were reluctant to take a strong position on the need to bring Milosevic, an indicted war criminal, before the International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), as well as the broader issue of cooperation with ICTY.

The international community lacked the political will to exercise leverage with Russia to press for a halt to the massive abuses perpetrated by Russian forces in Chechnya. This stood in stunning contrast to international engagement in other crises in the world, notably East Timor, but was regrettably consistent with the international community's response to the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya. The pattern of impunity for abuse that so easily prevailed in that war persisted in the current war, as Russia clearly sensed it had nothing to lose by prosecuting the war without thought to civilian costs or to the consequences of wanton brutality.

Russian forces' violations of humanitarian law in the current war, which began in late 1999, caused some thousands of civilian casualties, the result of indiscriminate bombing. The capital of Chechnya, Grozny, was razed to the ground. At least 125 civilians were summarily executed in three massacres. Thousands of Chechens were detained arbitrarily on suspicion of rebel collaboration, and once in Russian custody guards and riot police tortured many of them systematically.

The international community often lamented that it had no significant influence over Russia, but squandered real opportunities for leverage or sanctions in favor of political expediency. During one of the war's bleakest moments the World Bank refused to withhold credit payments to the Russian general budget. The U.S. government and other member states refused even to entertain the notion of conditionality. A U.N. Commission on Human Rights resolution might have had a positive impact, but the member states who so commendably sponsored it stood idle as Russia ignored the resolution's requirements. Chief among them was that Russia establish a national commission of inquiry that would lead to prosecutions for abuse. In a more principled move, the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly voted to suspend Russia's delegation.

The blatant impunity for war crimes in Chechnya cried out for accountability, but there was none. This failure quickly became obvious, but governments were unwilling to take up a more robust commitment to international justice as they had in other parts of the world. No member state of the Commission on Human Rights had the courage to insist, for example, on an international commission of inquiry, which would have necessarily invoked higher standards of rigor and impartiality than the wan Russian effort. Council of Europe member states declined to lodge an interstate complaint at the European Court of Human Rights. Unlike the Kosovo conflict, where the international community responded quickly to the needs of ethnic Albanian refugees, security concerns and a lack of international interest meant that many of the needs of displaced Chechens went unmet. Food, safe water, medical care, gas, wood supplies, and electricity were provided haphazardly and often ran out. Most children had their education disrupted, and during the early days of the war, disease and exposure claimed the lives of some displaced persons.

As corruption and grinding poverty worsened in Central Asia, fighting terrorism and "religious extremism" was an overwhelming concern both to national governments otherwise intent on maintaining their grip on power, and to the international community. This came at the expense of human rights and a long-term vision for the rule of law in the region. Uzbekistan's unrelenting crackdown against political and religious dissenters continued unabated, and authoritarianism deepened in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan.

For the second time in two years, violence erupted in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In August pitched battles erupted between armed insurgents and government troops in southeastern Uzbekistan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Thousands were displaced from their homes by the clashes. The group responsible, the so-called Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, demanded that the Uzbek government release what the group claimed were an estimated 100,000 wrongfully jailed Muslim prisoners and allow for the observance of Islamic law precepts, including permission for Muslim women to wear the veil.

Some observers viewed the August violence as the self-fulfilling prophesy of the government's multi-year campaign against "religious extremism," the product of fierce and violent repression of thousands of Uzbek citizens. This year the government's campaign to stop the spread of "religious extremism" expanded and caused pervasive fear. Hundreds more independent Muslims who chose to study Islam or worship outside government-controlled religious institutions joined thousands imprisoned in previous years. Many were sentenced to long prison terms, for alleged membership in illegal religious organizations, or distributing religious leaflets not approved by the state. They were often arrested on trumped-up charges of illegal possession of narcotics, weapons, or religious literature, held incommunicado and denied legal counsel, and convicted in grossly unfair trials at which judges routinely ignored credible evidence of torture.

Symbolic of the Uzbek government's confidence that concern about terrorism trumped its human rights obligations was its decision in October not to appear to defend its initial report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee on the day it convened. The government's explanation was that officials needed to prepare for a conference on terrorism.

Governments in other parts of Central Asia continued the drift toward worsening authoritarianism by manipulating elections, harassing the media, and jailing political rivals on trumped-up charges. The government of Kyrgyzstan employed these with a vengeance this year, which sobered those who still considered that country to be Central Asia's "island of democracy." The Kyrgyz government jailed prominent opposition candidates before the October presidential elections, persistently harassed the opposition media, and drove some nongovernment organization activists into exile. The government of Kazakhstan, firmly entrenched after last year's deeply flawed elections, continued to harass opposition media and political figures. The Tajik government flagrantly manipulated the February ballot to guarantee the election of a parliament dominated by the ruling party. In November 1999, Turkmenistan, one of the most repressive countries in the world, held utterly hollow parliamentary elections, followed by an indefinite extension of the president's term in office.

Once again, the international community chose not to use available policy tools to effect change or take a principled stand. This was particularly true of the United States government, which was concerned about losing its influence in Central Asia to Russia by putting too much emphasis on human rights. Yet the U.S. and its European allies were in unique positions to deliver the economic assistance that Central Asiancountries badly want, whereas Russian influence served to weaken these countries' independence. The U.S. government declined to interpret the crackdown in Uzbekistan as one targeting people for their religious convictions, and for this reason did not name Uzbekistan as a country of particular concern in the area of religious freedom under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. By contrast, Serbia was considered a country of particular concern. The U.S. Department of State certified Uzbekistan as eligible for U.S. security assistance, available under U.S. law only to countries committed to upholding international human rights standards.

The European Union (E.U.), for its part, resisted using its lucrative trade agreements with Central Asian countries to press for human rights improvements. And the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the chief regional organization with a mandate to strengthen human rights, emphasized economic and security cooperation instead, an approach that failed to yield any progress on human rights. OSCE missions in Central Asia did not engage in regular, frank, public reporting on the human rights situation in the region; this was a glaring failure, particularly when juxtaposed against the massive and laudable public documentation and reporting effort undertaken in Kosovo.

Authoritarianism deepened in other parts of the former Soviet Union as well. Under President Alexander Lukashenka, the Belarus government continued to jail opposition figures, drive the opposition media to bankruptcy, and intimidate human rights organizations with abandon. Its October parliamentary election process was deeply biased to favor pro-government parties, which prevailed on election day thanks to falsified election results. In Azerbaijan as well, prior to the November parliamentary elections, the government attempted to exclude major opposition parties and many individual candidates from participating.

In December 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned. Vladmir Putin was elected president in March, riding a tide of domestic popularity with carefully-controlled information about the war in Chechnya and promises to get tough on crime and corruption. Putin was a career KGB agent who became head of the Federal Security Service, the KBG's successor. Despite numerous public assurances of support for democratic values, Putin's conduct of the war in Chechnya and his impulse to stifle critical media coverage fuelled fears of growing authoritarianism in Russia.

Political developments in Serbia and Croatia toward the rule of law were contrasted sharply, and positively, with those in the former Soviet Union. Perhaps the most dramatic event of the year was the deposing of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and the election of Vojislav Kostunica as president. Milosevic had attempted to remain in power by staging early presidential elections on September 24. The stakes were high, as Milosevic no doubt wanted to avoid facing trial by the ICTY. For the first time facing a united opposition, the government had engaged in an unparalleled effort to ensure victory by intimidating, at times violently, opposition members and movements, and brazenly rigging the electoral process. Despite these obstacles, the opposition prevailed in the vote. When Milosevic tried to force a run-off, citizens took the streets, seizing the parliament and television station and ultimately forced Milosevic to acknowledge his defeat.

Milosevic's departure from power meant new hope for the rule of law and human rights protections in Serbia. At year's end, top concerns were Serbia's cooperation with the ICTY, including the transferal of Milosevic and other indicted war criminals hiding in Serbia to The Hague, the release of hundreds of Kosovo Albanian political prisoners, restoring the independence of the judiciary, and bringing to justice police and security forces responsible for serious abuses under Milosevic.

Following the death of Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, the opposition came to power in the presidency and parliament in early 2000. Important progress in human rights quickly followed. The new government began a policy of full cooperation with the ICTY by transferring an indictee to the Hague and allowing the ICTY access to investigate the sites of alleged 1991 war crimes against Serbs. There were positive changes in governance and minority rights as well. The government made a dramatic commitment to the right of Serb refugees to return to Croatia and backed this up with a financial commitment, legislative reform that promised equal treatment for all returnees, and the creation of a new government structure to facilitate returns.

The international community had insisted on cooperation with The Hague as a condition for loans and other important benefits to Croatia. After the fall of Milosevic, however, the international community wavered in its commitment to press for cooperation with the ICTY. While legitimately acknowledging the difficulties for the new authorities if Kostunica attempted to arrest and transfer Slobodan Milosevic to the ICTY, the international community also appeared to postpone indefinitely the whole issue of cooperation with ICTY from its agenda with Serbia, rather than insisting on deliverable interim measures such as the start of negotiations between the ICTY and the new authorities on access for ICTY investigators, discussions on the opening of an ICTY office in Belgrade, and the transfer of official documents necessary for the ICTY's investigations. The international community's apparent willingness to compromise cooperation with ICTY as a condition of upgraded relations with Belgrade made it appear as though Serbia was receiving special treatment as compared to Croatia and Bosnia.

Between October 1999 and October 2000, eight indicted war criminals were arrested by NATO forces in Bosnia and transferred to The Hague. Another indicted war criminal killed himself in the course of an October 2000 NATO arrest operation. Croatia also transferred one indictee to the tribunal in 2000. Nonetheless, at this writing, wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic remained at large. Although most North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member government officials continued to insist that they would eventually see their day in court, some continued to resist their arrest. No longer able to argue that Karadzic and Mladic were so prominent in Bosnia that their arrest would ignite popular protest and retaliation against the international community, opponents of the arrests shifted to arguing that these figures had become so sidelined in Bosnia that their detention was no longer necessary to the peace process.

International agencies bore responsibility for guaranteeing human rights in several of the region's major postconflict zones they oversaw in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Tajikistan. In Kosovo and Tajikistan, these agencies displayed a disturbing tendency to rush the holding of elections in order to satisfy a pre-determined political schedule, even where the conditions for elections to be free, fair, and meaningful were absent, overlooking the harmful way in which serious, ongoing human rights problems undermine the prospects for long-term peace and democracy.

In Kosovo, a de facto protectorate of the international community after the 1999 war between NATO and Serbia, steady violence imperiled the lives of non-Albanians, who were for the most part confined to mono-ethnic enclaves and were unable to travel without KFOR peacekeepers as escorts. Kidappings, drive-by shootings, fire-bombing of homes, and grenade explosions were combined with threats and harassment by Albanians to force ethnic minorities to leave the province. NATO-led KFOR forces and United Nations Civil Police, which together had full responsibility for policing and security respectively, were either unable or unwilling to confront the armed elements of the former Kosovo Liberation Army and others implicated in the violence. U.N. police often lacked the resources and cooperation adequately to investigate and arrest those responsible. While the United Nations' peace implementation mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) oversaw the administration of justice, the courts were staffed primarily by local judges whose rulings raised serious questions about the impartiality of justice.

The 1996 Bosnian example demonstrated that rushed elections in a postconflict situation could serve to legitimize further some parties and leaders which had been responsible for gross abuses, but the international community chose to overlook this important lesson. Kosovo's first postwar elections, scheduled for October 28, were by all measures premature, driven more by the desire to meet a predetermined deadline set by the Rambouillet agreement than the need to create the minimum conditions and set the framework for long-term democracy. All but a handful of Serbs and many other minorities boycotted registration, rendering them ineligible to vote. Political violence resulted in the deaths of at least nine people affiliated with the Democratic League of Kosovo or parties linked to the former KLA, and there were politically motivated attacks on journalists.

Whereas in Kosovo the international community accepted premature elections in order to speed along the province's political development, in Tajikistan the United Nations (U.N.) presided over parliamentary elections in utterly inhospitable conditions as part of its strategy to hasten the end of its own peacekeeping operation. The result for human rights was disastrous. A 1997 U.N.-brokered peace agreement ending that country's civil war envisioned the elections, held in February 2000, as the last step in the implementation of the agreement. But opposition parties were excluded from the vote, there was widespread fraud, the media was clearly biased, and the overall rights situation was extremely poor. The vote served to legitimate the current president rather than to serve U.N. goals of democratization.

In Bosnia, members of minority groups returned in significant numbers for the first time since the end of the war. In the first six months of 2000, the United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registered nearly 20,000 minority returns in Bosnia, nearly three times the number recorded for the same period in 1999, thanks in part to focused international effort. With the success, however, has come a drop in funds from donor nations, even though a sustained, longer-term level of funding is necessary for the return of Bosnia's remaining refugees. Croatia's new commitment to returns was effective in encouraging the return of ethnic Serbs: more than 10,000 returned during 2000, the highest number since the mass exodus of more than 200,000 in 1995.

In Serbia and Montenegro, about 230,000 persons were displaced from the Kosovo conflict and the postconflict persecution of minorities, and 500,000 were refugees from Croatia and Bosnia. This burden continued to strain the resources of Serbia and Montenegro.

Minority rights violations accompanied returns in Croatia and Bosnia, and were a problem elsewhere in the region. Bosniak returnees to Republica Srpska were the victims of violent attacks in March and July. Serb returnees to Croatia continued to face discrimination at the hands of local authorities, despite a raft of new antidiscrimination measures adopted by the new government in Zagreb, and Serb and Croat communities remained deeply mistrustful of one another.

Roma continued to suffer shocking levels of harassment, violent attacks, and malicious discrimination in Croatia, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, and Slovakia, marring much of the region's record of progress on other human rights issues. Law enforcement authorities in all of these countries typically did not investigate violent attacks on Roma. Roma children often lacked access to education in Croatia, and in the Czech republic they were disproportionally channeled into classes for the mentally disabled. Municipalities in Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, and Greece forced Roma to abandon their homes, usually citing spurious zoning laws. Roma were evicted from their homes in Athens to clear land for facilities for the 2004 Olympics. In July, a municipal bulldozer, accompanied by the mayor and police, demolished numerous Roma huts in the Athens Aspropyrgos suburb. Greek and Albanian Roma families in the settlement situated on a garbage dump were ordered to leave within three days. In Bulgaria, villagers refused to allow Roma in public places and threatened them with expulsion after an unresolved murder. Roma homes in Macedonia were burned down in suspicious circumstances in the village of Stip. Roma homes in the village were the target of earlier arson attacks in 1992. And in a Serbian town, Roma were banned from a public pool.

Torture of detainees reached crisis proportions in government arrest campaigns in Uzbekistan and Russia (Chechnya). These crises were not aberrations, however, since torture had been part and parcel of the criminal justice systems of both countries for years. Torture of detainees held in Russian custody in Chechnya followed the same methods and patterns as torture perpetrated against common suspects in Moscow or Irkutsk. Similarly, torture to coerce testimony from people arrested in the crackdown against independent Islam in Uzbekistan was systematic.

Torture remained common in Turkey and was used to coerce testimony and confessions in both common criminal cases and security-related cases. In a positive development that suggested heightened government acknowledgment of the problem, the Turkish parliament's Human Rights Commission published nine detailed reports documenting the persistence of torture. The commission was able to find and photograph torture implements and a "torture room" described to it by victims. This was chilling testimony to the credibility of torture victims, whom governments often dismiss as unreliable or biased.

Several factors accounted for the persistence of torture, among them impunity and poor due process protections, especially in countries of the former Soviet Union. Some countries began to make progress toward reforming due process to prevent torture, but backtracking also occurred. Azerbaijan, where torture was widespread, adopted legislation that for the first time required detainees to be brought before a judge within forty-eight hours. Last year Georgia repealed important due process reforms, and took no steps this year to restore them.

The governments of nearly all Central Asia states took steps to restrict or control the Internet. In a positive move, Croatia decriminalized most aspects of libel, but criminal libel statutes were enforced in Greece and Romania. The governments of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan made liberal use of prohibitive libel suits to bankrupt critical media. In September a Turkish court acquitted Nadire Mater who had been charged with "insulting the armed forces" for writing Mehmet's Book: Soldiers Who Have Fought in the Southeast Tell Their Stories. Unfortunately, this was not part of a broader pattern of improvements in freedom of expression. Turkish media and politicians furiously debated many issues and openly criticized the government, but those who contradicted the official line on the role of ethnicity, religion, or the military in politics continued to risk prosecution and imprisonment.

Governments made little progress this year protecting women from violence in armed conflict, domestic violence, trafficking, and discrimination. Credible information surfaced about rape of the Chechen women by Russian forces, both in detention centers and during community sweep operations. Even in postwar periods, women's human rights were not protected. Kosovar women confronted discrimination, domestic violence, rape, trafficking, and abductions following the war. Particularly in the former Soviet Union, those who trafficked women for work in the sex industry continued to operate with impunity, while governments offered thoroughly inadequate protection to women willing to come forward as witnesses to this crime. Police made no visible progress in promoting among their ranks a better response to domestic violence. In Uzbekistan, local governments compounded the problem by pressuring women to stay in abusive marriages in order to keep the divorce rate low.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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