Saakashvili announces second hunger strike

Warner Speed

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced on February 21 that he will begin a hunger strike for the second time since his imprisonment on October 1, 2021.

Saakashvili, who had been in self-imposed exile for 8 years before returning to Georgia in October, stated that he will refuse all rations until he receives adequate medical care. The former president claims that prison officials have prevented his personal doctors from treating health issues arising from his first hunger strike, which lasted from his arrest on October 1 until November 19.

Before serving as president from 2004 to 2013, Saakashvili emerged as the leader of the 2003 “Rose Revolution,” a pro-Western protest movement which led to the resignation of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Saakashvili announced his second hunger strike in court, where he is facing charges from 2014 of abuse of power and embezzlement. Prosecutors allege that Saakashvili ordered police to violently disperse antigovernment protests in 2007. Saakashvili, who had been out of the country when charged in 2014, sought refuge in Ukraine from 2014 to 2021.

Saakashvili has called the charges baseless and politically motivated. Georgia’s western allies, including the United States, share many of Saakashvili’s concerns. The United States Department of State issued a statement on November 18 urging the Georgian government to treat the former president with dignity and to respect his right to a fair trial.

In November, Georgia’s human rights ombudsman stated that the first hunger strike left Saakashvili in “critical condition,” while the Public Defender of Georgia noted that the former president was at risk of heart failure. Given the state of Saakashvili’s health at the end of his first strike, a second could prove even more dangerous.

An Update on China’s Human Rights Controversy Ahead of the 2022 Beijing Olympics

With the Beijing Olympics fast approaching, several countries (including the United States, Canada, Japan, and Great Britain) have announced diplomatic boycotts of the 2022 Winter Games over China’s continued maltreatment of its minority Uyghur Muslim population residing mainly in the Xinjiang province

Although Liberty Lexington published a more in-depth report back in April 2021, here are some fast facts and updates regarding the current situation:

For several years, international human rights groups have gathered evidence indicating that roughly two million Uyghurs, an ethnically-Turkish sub community of China’s northwestern region, are being held against their will in over 380 “re-education camps” located throughout the country.

In addition to incarceration and indoctrination, reports indicate that China is implementing widespread forced abortion and sterilization campaigns within the Uyghur community, leading many to label China’s actions as a genocide. These allegations picked up steam in 2021 when a variety of governments (including the United States) endorsed the claim and began implementing sanctions.

China has continually denied the genocide and indicates that their re-education camps are part of an effort to eradicate extremism in the country, despite overwhelming evidence indicating that these detentions are baseless and unjustified.

Although a variety of nations have adopted diplomatic boycotts (meaning no official government delegation will be sent to Beijing come February), corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola, Airbnb, and Procter & Gamble are facing criticism for not following suit. Over 200 groups around the world are pushing for these companies to vacate their sponsorships, but so far the economic importance of China’s markets and the publicity of the Olympics have seemingly compelled the sponsors to continue their partnerships for the 2022 Games.

Stringent media law takes effect in Azerbaijan

by: Warner Speed

A new law restricting freedom of the press went into effect in Azerbaijan on January 1, 2022.

The law requires all journalists and media organizations to obtain legal approval of their operations from the government by registering with a newly created state media database. After entering the database, journalists must then pass a test administered by the state to receive a universal press pass required to communicate with state officials.

Members of the local press fervently opposed the bill as it worked its way through Azerbaijan’s legislative body, the Milli Majlis, in December. On December 28, journalists peacefully protesting the bill’s passage were attacked by police outside the legislature.

According to local journalist Alasgar Mammadli, the government has largely ignored protests from members of the media.

The law also forbids anyone with a criminal record from receiving state approval, a stipulation that could seriously hamper the work of many critical journalists who have been arbitrarily arrested in the past.

Reporters without Borders (RSF) has strongly criticized the new law, raising concerns that the Azerbaijani government will use journalists’ personal information registered in the new media database to crackdown on dissent and free speech.

Among the law’s provisions is a ban on the use of anyone’s image without their express permission. RSF has warned that the ban can be used to censor videos of government abuses such as electoral fraud and police violence. The law also contains a requirement that journalists present an objective account of facts and events, a provision that RSF claims was left intentionally vague to allow the judiciary to decide what constitutes acceptable reporting.

The new media law represents only the latest assault on press freedom in a nation that ranks 167out of 180 in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.  

Roma people targeted in Ukraine by radicals

by: Jackson Sharman

While Ukraine faces military aggression from Russia, there is strife within the country’s borders as Roma people are being targeted.

On October 17, 2021, a group of 50 far-right radicals went to Irpin (a city 15 miles from Kyiv) and called for violence against the city’s Roma community. The marchers were apparently acting in response to an attack on a 22-year-old man in Irpin two days earlier, in which two Roma teens, aged 16 and 17, were accused.

The mayor of Irpin and other city officials did not condemn the marchers or their hateful speech. An Irpin police official referred to the march as a “peaceful gathering.” However, other officials admitted that the marchers “scared Roma [people]” and “made them hide in their homes.”

Up to 400,000 Roma people live throughout Ukraine, with about half residing in cities.

The October march ignited an Internet campaign of further abuse against Roma people. The intensified targeting is not a new trend in the country; in 2018, Ukraine’s Roma community faced increasing levels of violence from right-wing gangs.

In a 2018 attack on the outskirts of the western city of Lviv, a 24-year-old Roma man was stabbed to death and four others were injured.

A Roma activist named Anzhelika Bielova said that she and her friends and colleagues have received death threats as part of the more recent targeting. In 2019, Bielova was stabbed for what her colleagues believe were her activist efforts for Roma people.

Ukrainian officials should work to implement legal and political solutions to ensure Roma peoples’ safety. Official investigations into waves of violence against Roma have rarely ended in convictions and attackers are almost never held accountable by the Ukrainian government.

photo credit: AP Photo

Kazakhstani president orders troops to “shoot to kill” after anti-government protests turn violent

by: Nick Mosher

On January 2, protests erupted in Zhanaozen, a town in western Kazakhstan, over increased gas prices. The Kazakhstani government recently removed its pricing cap on gas, which caused prices to double. Although protests began over high gas prices, they quickly led to a nation-wide protest over a lack of democratic governance and extreme wealth disparity in the country.

In Kazakhstan, 162 people hold over half of the wealth of the entire country. The figurehead for such inequity and corruption is former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose authoritarian rule spanned from Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991 until 2019. During his time in power, Nazarbayev consolidated the country’s wealth into the hands of a small group of elites.

While the average income in Kazakhstan is less than $3,500 a year, Nazarbayev obtained an immense amount of wealth for himself and his family while president. Nazarbayev’s second daughter, Dinara Kulibayeva, has a net worth of $2.7 billion, and in 2020, a UK Unexplained Wealth Order revealed that Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, held $103 million worth of luxury real-estate in London.

Although no longer president of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev—who handpicked the current president, Kassym Tokayev, as his successor—continues to wield power as the head of Kazakhstan’s Security Council, a position with significant influence in Kazakhstan’s government.

To crush protests that led to the destruction of government buildings and the airport in Almaty (Kazakhstan’s largest city), President Tokayev ordered security forces to shoot to kill without warning. Additionally, at Tokayev’s request, the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) deployed 2,500 troops to help “stabilize” the country.

President Tokayev, along with his political ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, argues that otherwise peaceful protests were hijacked by foreign-trained terrorists hoping to seize power in Kazakhstan. Although repeatedly making these claims, neither leader offered any evidence to substantiate them. Kazakh authorities reported that 225 people were killed in the unrest, 19 of whom were security forces.

Even with the president’s harsh treatment of protesters, Tokayev promised to curb the country’s widespread corruption problem. As protests were ongoing, Tokayev began his alleged anti-corruption efforts by removing former president Nazarbayev from his position as head of Kazakhstan’s Security Council. Along with Nazarbayev, several other government officials considered to be Nazarbayev loyalists are being removed, such as Karim Massimov, head of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee (Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence agency). Massimov, who also served as Prime Minister of Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev, was removed from his position and detained on suspicion of treason. This move—while publicized as a battle to fight corruption—could instead be a power play by President Tokayev to remove any threat to his rule and stamp out remaining loyalty to his predecessor.

Although protests have led to the removal of many corrupt officials who were well engrained in government, this does not necessarily prove that Kazakhstan is moving in the right direction. Corruption is widespread throughout Nur Otan, Kazakhstan’s long-time ruling party, and President Tokayev has made promises of reform in the past which have amounted to very little actual improvement.

The perilous condition of internationally displaced persons from Abkhazia

by: Sam Carley

On January 16th, 2022, 52-year-old Zurab Chichoshvili died in a suspected suicide in a Tbilisi housing facility for internationally displaced persons (IDPs). His death has underscored the treacherous situation that the hundreds of thousands of IDPs in Georgia find themselves in.

While Georgian Health Minister Zurab Azarashvilli has publicly stated that the death was being treated as an accident and should not be connected to the plight of IDPs in Georgia, Chichoshvili’s abysmal living conditions in the IDP facility make it difficult to separate his death from the wider IDP tragedy.

Over 200,000 Georgians were displaced during the 1992-3 war with the Republic of Abkhazia, a breakaway state on the Russian border. A second breakaway state along the Georgian-Russian border, South Ossetia, became embroiled in conflict with Georgia during the 1990’s and contributed to the displacement of roughly 100,000 Georgians. Continued violence in both breakaway states has only increased the number of Georgian IDPs in the years since. Most recently in December 2021, violent protests broke out in Abkhazia over the republic’s constitution and humanitarian issues.

The facilities for IDPs, like the one Chichoshvili lived in, are notorious for overcapacity and poor conditions. IDPs were placed in the facilities intended for short-term use, but as many IDPs in the Republic of Georgia have been displaced for nearly three full decades, they became long-term facilities without the necessary additions. Many of the facilities are fracturing, and residents worry about the potential for collapse. IDPs have protested these conditions unsuccessfully for years without acknowledgment from the Georgian government.

A briefing on Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine

By: Lane Johansen

Over the past month or so, headlines have been dominated by news about the buildup of almost 100,000 Russian troops at the Ukrainian border for the second time this year and warnings of an imminent Russian invasion. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that Russian troops have occupied eastern Ukraine since 2014.

When Russia invaded and illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, Moscow also sent in troops to Donbas in eastern Ukraine—a region comprising Donetsk and Luhansk—to ostensibly “support the separatist movement.” War broke out on April 6, when Ukraine launched the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO). In May, after an unofficial referendum that has internationally been rejected as falsified, the two regions declared independence from Ukraine as the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR).  

A low-grade war has been simmering in eastern Ukraine ever since. In 2018, Ukrainian forces renamed the ATO the Joint Forces Operation, and the most recent ceasefire agreement came in July 2020.  

While fighting in Donbas may be considered a low-grade war, it is a war nevertheless; to date, about 14,000 people (including Ukrainian soldiers are civilian casualties) have been killed in Donbas. This past year, over 65 Ukrainian solders were killed in the JFO.

Russia has been accused of conducting “hybrid warfare”—meaning a blend of conventional and unconventional instruments of power, such as psychological warfare and disinformation campaigns—in eastern Ukraine. One of the most decried tactics of Moscow is “Russian passportization”: in April 2019, Putin signed a decree simplifying the process of issuing Russian passports living in the Donbas region, and in July 2021 announced that passport holders in Donbas would be able (and were essentially forced) to vote in the Russian parliamentary elections in September of this year. About 3 million Ukrainians now have Russian passports.

Warnings of a Russian invasion of Ukraine must therefore be taken in the context of an incursion that has already lasted over seven years. The Kremlin insists it does not have Russian Federation forces in Ukraine, but there is ample evidence challenging this assertion—most recently when a Russian court inadvertently recognized the presence of Russian regular troops in the occupied DNR/LNR. Occupation forces have consistently violated ceasefire agreements and international humanitarian law, and numerous civilians have suffered illegal imprisonment and torture.

Ukrainian political prisoners tortured in occupied Donbas

By: Lane Johansen

Since Russia began its hybrid war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, countless civilians have suffered, including the over 280 Ukrainians in prisons in the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Donbas. There have been numerous reports of torture and inhumane conditions in these prisons, especially in the infamous Izolyatsia prison in Donetsk.

Before Russian occupation, the prison was a factory turned into an international charity foundation known as “Izolyatsia: Platform for Cultural Initiatives” that hosted art exhibitions. The building is now described as a “concentration camp,” with the underground structures of the factory building used as prison cells and inmates subjected to brutal forms of torture, including waterboarding, electric shocks, mock execution, and rape.

Lyudmyla Denisova, the Commissioner for Human Rights in Ukraine, issues daily reports via Facebook about conditions in these makeshift illegal prisons in Donbas. Most recently, she has warned about the critical health condition of political prisoners Ivan Yatskin and Grigory Sinchenko, noting that the detention and torture of these civilians violates international law (i.e., the Geneva Conventions) and are therefore considered war crimes.

Earlier this month, the Kyiv Independent reported on two Ukrainian political prisoners in Donbas who are in dire health conditions: Igor Nazarenko and Olena Piekh. According to Nazarenko’s relatives, Igor Nazarenko suffers from a chronic lung disease, has lost considerable weight, and has been denied any medical care. Denisova reported on December 20 that Olena Piekh developed knee and hip joint osteoarthritis after torture – including electric shocks, two mock executions, and screws nailed into her knees – and cannot move without a cane; Piekh also suffers from severe epilepsy, angina, hypertension, and visual impairment.

Nazarenko was sentenced to 11 years in a maximum-security prison for allegations of espionage. Piekh was sentenced to 13 years of confinement for high treason; her daughter says the real reason was “for [possessing] a Ukrainian passport.”

Aside from the 280 Ukrainian prisoners in Donbas, 76 Ukrainian political prisoners were kept in Russia and 33 in Crimea as of February of this year. The number has since increased.

Human Rights Group International Memorial shut down by Russian government

By: Jackson Sharman

The Russian Supreme Court delivered a ruling on December 28 that ordered the closure of International Memorial, one of the country’s most prominent human rights groups.

Founded in the late 1980s while the Soviet Union still existed, Memorial established 23 branches of the society. The group’s primary work was to study and expose abuses of the Stalinist era.

State prosecutors accused the group of distorting history from the Stalinist era and denied that shutting down the organization was politically motivated.

Memorial is the latest organization in the country that the Russian government has charged with violating the internationally condemned “foreign agent” law. The law has targeted news organizations, human rights groups, and individuals that have criticized the Kremlin and its authoritarian governing.

Russia’s Justice Ministry applied the foreign agent label to the group in 2016 because of a part of the law that targets groups which receive international funding.

In a statement to CNN, Tatiana Glushkova, Memorial International’s lawyer, said that the group would appeal the Supreme Court’s ruling. “The real reason for Memorial’s closure is that the prosecutor’s office doesn’t like Memorial’s work rehabilitating the victims of Soviet terror,” she said.

The decision was protested by groups and individuals inside and outside of Russia. Earlier in December, Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said that shutting down memorial would be “a new low for human rights defenders in Russia.”

It is unlikely, however, that such criticism will change the court’s decision.

Minsk adds RFE/RL’s Belarus Service to list of extremist organizations

By: Lane Johansen

Last year, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry revoked the accreditation of all RFE/RL journalists. In November, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that Andrey Kuznechyk – a Belarusian journalist who had worked as a freelancer for RFE/RL – was arbitrarily detained in Minsk. A month later, on December 23, Belarus’ Interior Ministry added RFE/RL’s Belarus Service (locally known as Radio Svoboda) to its list of extremist organizations.

The extremist label – the latest attack on RFE/RL and the free press in Belarus – means that any Belarusians who subscribe to Radio Svoboda online could face up to six years in prison. The move came almost three weeks after a Minsk court designated the RFE/RL Telegram channel and several social media accounts as extremist. The RFE/RL website has been blocked in Belarus since August 2020. 

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly responded that “Radio Liberty categorically rejects this ridiculous label… The Lukashenko regime continues to make it clear that its disregard for the truth and its efforts to restrict access to independent information have no limits.”

On December 23, almost a full month after Kuznechyk was detained, the journalist’s relatives told RFE/RL that Kuznechyk is facing unspecified criminal and will be transferred to another detention center in Minsk. Originally sentenced to 10 days in jail on November 26 on a controversial hooliganism charge, Kuznechyk was given another 10-day jail term on December 6 for hooliganism. He has yet to be released from this second jail term.

Currently, over 30 Belarusian journalists are currently in jail, either serving sentences or awaiting trial. Several of these journalists worked or freelanced for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service.