Ahead of International Day of Democracy, OSCE/ODIHR Director calls for protection of human rights defenders

Ahead of Sunday’s International Day of Democracy, Ambassador Janez Lenarčič, the Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), called on participating States to ensure the protection of human rights defenders.

Lenarčič stressed that the need to guarantee the ability of human rights defenders to work free of intimidation is highlighted in the theme of this year’s International Day of Democracy – “strengthening voices for democracy”.

“Human rights defenders’ voices should be welcomed, rather than silenced, as they call attention to cases where states are failing to protect and promote the rights and freedoms that lie at the very heart of democracy,”  Lenarčič said. “Employing  threats, intimidation and abuse of the law to stifle the voices of those who are simply defending human rights is unacceptable.”

Lenarčič noted that Sunday will also mark the third anniversary of the conviction in Kyrgyzstan of Azimjan Askarov, a journalist and human rights defender whose work prior to his arrest included documenting and publicizing police abuse and misconduct in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment and confiscation of his property on charges of organizing mass disorder, inciting inter-ethnic hatred, hostage taking and incitement to murder, following proceedings in which international monitors reported serious violations of fair trial standards.

International observers, including those from ODIHR, at Askarov’s first and second instance trials quoted over-reliance on police evidence and the failure of the authorities to adequately address the intimidation of defence witnesses and lawyers, to consider exculpatory evidence, and to effectively follow-up on indications of possible torture.

“Sadly, Askarov’s is not the only case in the OSCE region in which questions have been raised about the conduct of and motivation behind the prosecution of a human rights defender,” the ODIHR Director said. “Where violations of fair trial rights of defendants have been reported, states should promptly review the proceedings and any resulting convictions.”

OSCE commitments oblige all participating States to guarantee the protection of human rights, including the right to a fair trial, and emphasize the need to protect human rights defenders.