An annual report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, published by rights group Amnesty International on 22 February delivers comprehensive analysis of the state of human rights around the world in 2016, covering 159 countries, including those from the Caucasus.
According to the report, 2016 was marked by economic and political volatility, and growing security concerns linked to the outbreak of a large-scale military confrontation in April in Nagorno-Karabakh, the de facto republic supported by Armenia, and internationally recognised as a region of Azerbaijan.
Amnesty focused on the excessive use of force in Armenia in connection to the tense hostage standoff in the Erebuni District of the capital Yerevan. On 17 July a group of armed men stormed a police compound, killing one police officer, injuring two and taking several as hostages. This was followed by waves of protests and several clashes with the police. The protests took place daily and dwindled after the hostage takers surrendered. While police allowed peaceful gatherings in most instances, they regularly detained protesters. On several occasions, protests in Yerevan were dispersed with excessive force. Arbitrary arrests and detentions along with torture and other ill-treatment is also mentioned in the report.
It is also noted that the Armenian government changed the law on abortion to ban sex-selective abortion between the 12th and 22nd weeks of pregnancy. Some women’s groups raised concerns that the changes might discourage women from having abortions, and result in increased corruption, unsafe abortions, and consequently, an increase in maternal mortality.
In 2016 Azerbaijan’s oil-dependent economy was deeply affected by falling oil prices and the decline of its currency, the manat, by half of its value. From early January, spontaneous, and in most cases peaceful, protests against the devaluation of the manat and consequent price hikes across the country were clamped down on by police and security forces.
In September, a referendum approved proposed amendments to the Constitution, granting the president power to to declare early presidential elections and to dissolve parliament. The constitutional amendments also granted the government even more power to restrict the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. The amendments limited property rights and allowed the restriction of freedom of assembly if it breached ‘public morals’.
Government critics continued to be incarcerated — at the end of the year, at least 14 prisoners of conscience remained in prison. Local human rights activists estimated that more than 100 people remained imprisoned on politically motivated charges. In addition, all mainstream media remained under government control; independent outlets continued to come under pressure from the authorities, as independent journalists faced intimidation, harassment and physical violence in connection with reporting that criticised the authorities. Police continued to suppress and disperse peaceful protests using excessive force.
Concerns persisted about a lack of judicial independence and political interference following a series of favourable rulings for the government in high-profile cases. New cases of torture and other ill-treatment by police were reported. Continuing border fencing along the administrative boundary lines of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had a further negative impact on the economic and social rights of local residents.
The report highlighted the dispute over Rustavi 2 and the Cable Case, and claims that Georgian courts were more likely to approve detention or give custodial sentences to members of the opposition United National Movement party compared with bail and fines issued to pro-government activists in comparable cases. In July, the Chairman of the Constitutional Court stated that some judges of the Court were pressured by the authorities to delay verdicts or rule in their favour in several high-profile cases, which was followed by the opening of an investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office about these allegations in August.
The report also refers to the right of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression and rights of LGBTI people. Parliament dropped a bill by the Human Rights Committee that sought to make ‘insulting religious feelings’ an administrative offence. The parliamentary Human Rights Committee endorsed a bill calling for a constitutional amendment to restrict the definition of marriage in the constitution from ‘the voluntary union based on equality between the spouses’ to ‘a union between a man and a woman’. However, President Margvelashvili refused to call a referendum.
Serious human rights violations, including forced disappearances and alleged extrajudicial executions committed in the course of security operations continued to be reported in 2016 from the North Caucasus, Amnesty’s report states. According to the report, human rights defenders were also at risk.
One notable case mentioned in the report was Zhalavdi Geriyev’s detention — Geriyev, a journalist working for Caucasian Knot was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for possessing 167g of marijuana. At his trial he withdrew his confession to the drugs charge, saying that three men in plain clothes had detained him on 16 April, forced him into a car and driven him to a forest outside Grozny, where he was tortured before being handed over to law enforcement officers who forced him to confess.
According to the report, the Chechen leadership continued to exercise direct pressure on the judiciary. In May, Chechnya’s head, Ramzan Kadyrov, called a meeting of all judges and forced four of them to resign. There was no response from the federal authorities.