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Defending Human Rights

The treatment of human rights defenders varied widely in the region. In some places they were able to initiate groundbreaking work, review national legislation, and seek remedies for abuse in domestic courts and at the European Court of Human Rights. In others, governments went to great lengths to curtail their activities and undermine their credibility.

On October 16, Antonio Russo, a journalist who had documented humanitarian law violations in Chechnya, was killed near his home in Georgia.

Some human rights defenders in the region have had to operate in exceedingly hostile circumstances. The record was extremely poor in Uzbekistan, where the government had a history of jailing human rights activists and denying registration to human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This year the government failed to release two activists and continued to harass those who brought their cases to human rights defenders. It frequently denied defenders access to public trials.

In Serbia, activists, braving constant and baseless accusations of being NATO spies, defended ethnic Albanian political prisoners' right to due process. One Serbian defender, Bojan Aleksov, was tortured by police.

In Kyrgyzstan the environment for defenders dramatically deteriorated, even as local defenders gained broader exposure to the international community. The government accused some activists of "destabilizing the social order" and threatened one of the country's most active defenders with arrest, driving him into exile. Turkmenistan refused to allow human rights monitoring of any sort.

Governments employed a range of tactics to impede the work of human rights organizations. The government in Serbia subjected several human rights organizations to groundless tax inspections. The Azerbaijani government banned prominent NGOs from monitoring elections. The Belarus government evicted a legal defense group from its office and was believed to be behind the unresolved series of break-ins and raids of other groups' offices. In Kazakhstan an unexplained fire damaged the office of one of the country's most prominent groups. In Georgia, the Ministry of Internal Affairs simply shut down an NGO program that would have provided round-the-clock pro bono legal services to detainees.

Defenders faced difficulties in conflict and postconflict zones. The Russian government carefully controlled access to Chechnya, making human rights reporting directly from the conflict zone extremely difficult. Human Rights Watch was repeatedly denied access to Chechnya, and Memorial, a leading Russian group, faced many problems with its work there. A coalition of Russian NGOs urged Council of Europe member states to file an interstate complaint against Russia with the European Court of Human Rights. In Kosovo, the compounding effects of years of repression, armed conflict, and the resulting inter-ethnic animosity made local human rights reporting extremely difficult.

In Europe, defenders actively took up discrimination and violence against Roma, often among the most marginalized groups in the region. Defenders in Romania and the Czech Republic lodged cases of discrimination against Roma with the European Court of Human Rights. In Greece, human rights defenders were able in one case to halt temporarily the eviction of Roma. Hungarian Roma families from Zamoly fled to France, applied for asylum, and lodged a complaint against Hungary for failing to protect them from discrimination and violence with the European Court of Human Rights.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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