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January 03, 2023

The Abuse of Counter-Terrorism and Extremism Laws to Target Human Rights Defenders in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

Executive Summary

States misusing and abusing their counter-terrorism and extremism laws to target human rights defenders (HRDs), journalists, and political opponents has become an increasing trend around the world. This report examines this growing trend across Eurasia, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula (Crimea), and Belarus. It looks at select cases in which counter-terrorism and extremism laws, as well as provisions of the criminal code, have been used against HRDs and other activists. The report also addresses the trend in domestic counter-terrorism legislation of using vague and overly broad definitions of “terrorism” and “extremist activity” and sweeping provisions that make it difficult to understand exactly what constitutes a criminal offense. In addition, the report highlights recent legislative reforms in these countries that further expand the reach of the governments’ counter-terrorism and extremism laws.

The report analyzes the compliance (or lack thereof) of the governments’ laws and practices with international law and standards – namely, the obligation imposed on United Nations (U.N.) Member States to respect international human rights while fighting terrorism and extremism. The U.N. has put forth an expansive international counter-terrorism framework, consisting of at least 19 conventions and protocols, as well as numerous resolutions by the U.N. Security Council and U.N. General Assembly. However, no comprehensive counter-terrorism treaty exists, nor has the international community adopted universally agreed upon definitions of “terrorism” or “extremism.” Nonetheless, international law and standards on fighting terrorism and extremism impose on States the obligation to prevent and punish acts of terrorism while ensuring the “complementary and mutually reinforcing” goal of protecting human rights.

It is against this framework that the ongoing regional trends in fighting terrorism and extremism and the case illustrations discussed herein are analyzed. Specifically, the cases selected for this report illustrate how the counter-terrorism and counter-extremism laws contradict the international principles of legality and predictability and how use of the laws by state authorities to search, arrest, detain and prosecute HRDs violate their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and privacy. Concerns over rights violations are compounded by the lack of independent judiciaries and adherence to the rule of law in many of these countries.

Finally, the report sets forth a number of recommendations aimed at fostering full compliance with international law and standards on counter-terrorism and extremism. The author urges governments in Eurasia – including, but not limited to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Crimea, and Belarus – to take active steps to ensure that:

  • Domestic counter-terrorism and extremism laws are reviewed and brought intofull compliance with international law and standards, including the rights tofreedom of expression, freedom of association, and privacy;
  • Definitions of “terrorism,” “terrorist acts,” and other related provisions indomestic legislation comply with the international principles of legality and legalcertainty;
  • Provisions on “extremism” or “extremist activity” are removed entirely from domesticlegislation;
  • Domestic counter-terrorism and counter-extremism legislation is applied in a mannerconsistent with international law and standards – in particular, that such laws are not usedto punish human rights defenders, civil society organizations or journalists for engaging inpeaceful activity, including associating with others in a peaceful manner and expressing viewsthat do not call for or incite violence;
  • Any surveillance or home searches performed by state authorities in the name of counteringterrorism or extremism comply with international human rights law – in particular, that suchsurveillance and/or searches are authorized by law and meet the requirements of legitimacy, necessity, and proportionality; and
  • Their courts interpret and apply all legal provisions concerning terrorism and extremism in amanner consistent with the requirements of international human rights law.

The author also urges the U.N., the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the European Union in their dealings with the individual governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Crimea, Belarus, and other Eurasian countries, to require measurable improvements in the country’s protection of people’s rights in cases of suspected extremism or terrorism.

Read the full report (ENGLISH)

Read the full report (RUSSIAN)