For Eurasia’s activists, no place is a safe haven

Existence of regional safety hubs is key to alleviating Eurasia’s human rights crisis.

Ismail Djalilov Tamara Grigoryeva
12 March 2018

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Zhanara Akhmet at Kyiv regional court, January 2018. Source: Facebook.

In March 2017, Zhanara Akhmet packed two rucksacks: one for herself and one for her 10-year-old son. Soon afterward, Zhanara and her son left their home in Almaty, Kazakhstan. If she didn’t, her lawyers told her, the journalist would soon be arrested for her reporting. As they were walking out, she looked into her son’s eyes, squeezed his hand and tried to smile reassuringly. Akhmet hugged him and promised they’d find a safe place.

They spent the next 65 hours on the run.

“We first went to the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It took us almost one full day to cross it. We were hiding nearby, looking for a place to cross. The guards with guns, flashlights and dogs, were in the vicinity and could get us any time. My son became so scared, he had a panic attack. I tried to calm him down… We found a smuggler who helped us cross the border by river. He carried my son, and I carried our bags. My legs were freezing as we waded through the icy water. I could barely move my feet, but I didn’t stop… Once in Kyrgyzstan, we caught a plane to Istanbul, and then on to Kyiv. We spent a day at acquaintances’ house, and then rented an apartment.”

Since 2013, when she started covering the activities of Kazakh human rights defender Yermek Narymbayev, Akhmet had been frequently harassed by the government for her work. But in 2017, the Kazakh authorities launched three administrative and two criminal cases against her, including charges of political extremism, for her investigative reporting and news coverage, as well as jaywalking, for good measure.

Akhmet’s case is one of many in Eurasia. According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2018 report, most Eurasian countries are at the very bottom of the list in terms of fundamental freedom indicators. With the rise of authoritarianism, the guardians of those fundamental freedoms – human rights activists, journalists, lawyers and other civil society actors – are increasingly becoming targets of state harassment. Unable to reinforce the rule of law and protection mechanisms at home, in some of the gravest cases civil society members have no other way but to flee in search of safety.

Unfortunately, the number of safe havens is rapidly dropping.

Regional safe havens

Ironically, the Iron Curtain may have fallen long ago for everyone except civil society actors – people who advocate for the values espoused by western states. No matter how grave the threats, without a Schengen visa, activists often have few options left. In Eurasia, possible destinations include Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Georgia – states that are somewhat more democratic and respectful of the rule of law, according to Human Rights Watch’s World Report. But recent developments show that these states are also failing to provide safety and protection to fleeing civil society actors.

Richard Kauzlarich, a former US ambassador to Azerbaijan and Distinguished Visiting Professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, says that authoritarian governments “don’t really feel constrained by national boundaries so that people who are unable to function in their home country are no longer safe in neighbouring countries.”

According to Kauzlarich, human rights and fundamental freedoms across the region are at stake when countries like Georgia or Ukraine, for which there was “some hope in the west that the political process was moving in the right direction”, renege on their human rights commitments.

Georgia: a drowning island

On a gloomy morning in late May 2017, Leyla Mustafayeva woke up in her Tbilisi apartment with an uneasy feeling that something was wrong. Mustafayeva, who’d been living in the city for more than two years, is a journalist and wife of Azerbaijani investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli.

“I realised Afgan wasn’t home. When I saw that his side of the bed was untouched, I became frantic. I called our friends with whom my husband went to dinner the night before, and they told me they’d parted company in the early evening.”

Mustafayeva rushed to the local police station a few blocks away. Walking briskly up – and downhill through the windy streets, she tried to comfort herself thinking they’d lived in a part of town very close to the city centre. The area was littered with video surveillance cameras trained in every direction, the majority operated by the Georgian police. On the way to the station, Mustafayeva passed a large number of restaurants, banks and small shops in this lively part of Tbilisi that was just waking up, taking mental note of their own surveillance cameras.

“I realised my husband was taken, and when I went to the police asking them for help, they played along, feigning concern and ignorance, and promised to help.”


Afgan Mukhtarli in Tbilisi. Image via Kavkazskiye Novosti / YouTube. Some rights reserved.

“When the inquiries were made later with the police as to the footage recorded by the surveillance cameras belonging to them,” Mustafayeva adds, with notes of resignation and frustration in her voice, “the response was that there was no footage at the time of the kidnapping because the cameras were being upgraded. In addition, the border post [between Georgia and Azerbaijan through which Mukhtarli is believed to have been forcibly taken out of the country] still hadn’t supplied us with their footage. It shows that this kidnapping operation was organised at the level of the [Georgian] government. The police went to the shops that had their own surveillance cameras and erased the footage from them too.”

In the immediate aftermath of the disappearance of Mukhtarli, who exposed high-ranking corruption and foreign assets belonging to the Azerbaijani regime, the Georgian government’s official response closely mirrored their counterparts across the Azerbaijani border: “They [the Georgian government] even wanted to launch a criminal investigation similar to the one already launched in Azerbaijan regarding the illegal border crossing by Afgan, but when the issue drew public attention, I think it made them change their minds.”

Mustafayeva looks pained as she recalls the immediate aftermath of her husband’s disappearance from the downtown of the capital of a state where they thought they had finally found safety. From the modest surroundings of her kitchen in Germany where she had to urgently flee and subsequently seek asylum, she remembers feeling scared: “I was followed. After Afgan’s kidnapping, we forwarded the pictures of the people following me in the streets to the prosecutor’s office. These pictures were taken by my friends. But we received no response as to these people’s identities or motives.”

Unlike law enforcement, Georgia’s civil society reacted strongly to the prosecution of Afgan Mukhtarli. Natia Tavberidze, coordinator at Human Rights House Tbilisi, says that the incident was on top of the agenda for the civil society.

“The government saw how civil society reacted,” Tavberidze adds, noting that before the apparent kidnapping, the issue of Azerbaijani activists living in Georgia wasn’t a prominent one. But while Georgian civil society was strongly supportive, Azerbaijani dissidents started reporting that they didn’t feel safe in Georgia anymore. To many, this posed a question whether Georgia was no longer a safe hub for the fleeing activists.

Svitlana Valko, manager of Tbilisi City Shelter, a non-profit that hosts activists and journalists from Eurasia and MENA regions, says there are nuances. “If we look at hubs as a temporary place to make a stop and restore your resources in order to return to one’s home country and continue work, they’re there. If we talk about moving for good, it’s another issue altogether. Bishkek, Kyiv and Tbilisi are still hubs,” Valko says, adding, “…if you follow certain security measures and follow certain rules, everything will be fine if you are there temporarily.”

But for Mustafayeva, hunched over her notebook in a kitchen in Germany where she and her daughter are just starting to feel at home, the situation in Georgia looks less nuanced. “We had chosen Georgia as a place to stay permanently. Since 2016, the situation started to change. We started feeling that the government wasn’t too amenable to us staying there, but they couldn’t also directly tell us to leave because they didn’t have any legal grounds for that. In 2016, the first ‘soft rejection’ came with regards to the permanent residency. I’d officially applied for [it], and in spite of the fact that I had previously been granted such a permit twice, the third time, I was denied.”


Leyla Mustafayeva and Afgan Mukhtarli, 2016. Source: Author's personal archive.

Asked to explain the reasons for this change, Mustafayeva pauses. Her tone exudes quiet confidence; her deliberate and contemplative speech mixed with detached melancholy betrays no doubt: “When the Georgian Dream party came to power, the situation changed drastically.” She said that the fact that pro-Russian politicians have replaced the pro-European wing in the Georgian state “will make these safe islands [in Georgia] drown.”

But Georgia is not the only safe haven where things started changing.

Ukraine: abusive security services, supportive civil society

On 21 October 2017, Zhanara Akhmet was reading in her apartment in Kyiv, Ukraine when the lights suddenly went off.

“I thought, this is weird. I opened the door to look into the hallway, and suddenly somebody grabbed my arm above the elbow and dragged me out. There were a few men in plain clothes, they forced me to follow them to the courtyard downstairs where there were two cars. These men started twisting my arms, pushing me into one of the cars and telling me there is an Interpol Red Notice on me. I started screaming for help, and at that time, my son who was playing in the courtyard, heard my voice and ran to me. I remember seeing horror in his eyes,” she says gasping, her voice trembling.

The men didn’t provide any credentials, so Akhmet screamed at the top of her lungs until the apartment complex’s security arrived, and then she asked to call the police. When the police came, Akhmet was taken to a detention centre.

Ukraine is perceived as a “more or less democratic country in the post-Soviet space, but, unfortunately, there were recently a number of cases where bilateral agreements and Interpol Red Notices were used by authoritarian governments to harass activists that found refuge here,” explains Maria Tomak from the Media Initiative for Human Rights in Kyiv. Red Notice is an alert system that Interpol member countries’ law-enforcement agencies use to put criminals on “wanted” lists. Authoritarian regimes use this system to hunt critics.

Ukraine is a member of the Minsk Convention (for Eurasia region states) and the European Convention (for European states), explains Boris Zakharov, director of the Lawyers Center of the Ukraine Helsinki Union for Human Rights, adding that Ukrainian authorities claim that they only abide by the European Convention.

According to this convention, a person can be detained for 18 days until the country that submitted documents with Interpol for a Red Notice provides further clarifications and evidence. Also, according to Ukrainian legislation, temporary arrest is compulsory and cannot be substituted with a fine or a release on bail. After temporary arrest comes extradition arrest, which usually lasts for two months, but can be replaced by release on bail.

However, Zakharov says, when processes are happening “within the law [as is the case with Red Notices],” then “we can fight, and we haven’t lost a single case, even during president Viktor Yanukovych’s time.” The biggest problem, he says, is “the formal and informal collaboration between post-Soviet security services. We have lots of such cases. And we see that Ukraine's security services are for some reason interested in this”.

Zakharov cites the case of Fikret Huseynli, an Azerbaijani dissident who became a Dutch citizen, as an example of cooperation between the security services of Eurasian states. “He came to Kyiv on 7 October 2017, to open the office of the opposition Turan TV. On 10 October, the Azerbaijani authorities filed a Red Notice against him, and he was detained on 13 October.” After being trapped for months in Ukraine, Huseynli was viciously attacked at his Kyiv apartment on 5 March in a kidnapping attempt by men who presented themselves as Ukrainian police. 


Fikret Huseynli. Source: Facebook.

Speaking of Zhanara Akhmet’s case, Zakharov says when Kazakh authorities filed a Red Notice against her, “they knew her exact Ukrainian address and other details of her whereabouts. Such factors either mean that Ukrainian security services are so arrogant they don’t see their colleagues from neighbouring countries operating on their soil, or, which is more likely, that they cooperate.”

Maria Tomak, who has also encountered these kind of cases in her work, adds that “while Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies sometimes don’t know how to deal with such cases, we see good support from Ukrainian civil society and media.” Akhmet echoes Tomak’s praise for Ukraine’s supportive civil society , but says her case was a vivid example of the Kazakh government’s involvement and pressure. “I was released, but I rarely go out these days. I don’t walk outside in the evenings. I don’t feel safe,” she adds.

Back in Germany, Mustafayeva is wondering whether there’s any place where dissidents feel safe.

“The deaths of Daphnie [Caruana Galizia] and Jan Kuciak several days ago,” she says, referring to the investigative journalists from Malta and Slovakia, “showed that even in Europe itself it’s meaningless to look for safe hubs. If a criminal group or a corrupt government get it in their heads that a journalist must be killed, they can carry it out regardless of the location.”

One of the most vivid examples of an authoritarian regime targeting activists inside the EU is Turkey.

The long arm of Erdoğan

The Turkish government, notorious for its determination to target dissidents globally and particularly in the EU, went to a new extreme in late February. Turkey’s authorities issued an Interpol Red Notice that resulted in Czech authorities arresting Salih Muslim, former head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria and a Syrian citizen.

A Czech court released Muslim several days later, but Rosa Burç, editor at Kurdish media outlet theregion.org and a political scientist at the University of Bonn, calls Muslim’s arrest outrageous. “He is a Syrian citizen, he has been in Europe for two and a half years, he is participating in various international conferences, he is a very public and civil person, while they accused him of being a terrorist. He was released, yet it was possible for the Turkish government to at least detain and yank him into the courtroom.”


PYD leader Salih Muslim marches during a rally in support of Kobane in November 2014 in Paris. (c) Apaydin Alain/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

According to Burç, Turkey now not only prosecutes its own citizens, but even those of other countries. She adds that it was clear that nothing would come of this as the charges were fabricated. “Muslim was one of the people who mediated between the YPG and Turkey, he was in Ankara, he was welcomed, but now the narrative changed, and now anyone in his situation is being accused,” she adds.

Jens Uwe Thomas from Reporters without Borders says the German government is generally very careful when it comes to Interpol’s requests for arrests. He says due to the high presence of Turkish dissidents in Germany and their active advocacy directed at the German authorities, the government has been continuously supportive. Thomas cites two recent cases in which the German government was actively involved – one of Turkish-German writer Doğan Akhanlı, who was released after being detained in Spain, and that of Deniz Yücel, the recently released Turkish German Die Welt journalist.

But Can Dündar, one of Turkey’s most prominent dissident journalists and editor of the Ozguruz media outlet, recalls that these two individuals were German citizens. He wonders about the “many other voiceless imprisoned activists or prosecuted dissidents”, joking: “now our project is to get every Turkish journalist a German passport.”

But while Germany is one of those countries taking a strong stand on Turkey’s crackdown, many other countries continuously abuse the system in order to further prosecute activists. Valko, who calls Interpol a “large, fat, clumsy machine”, says the organisation needs to review some of its practices.

Interpol: a large, fat, clumsy machine?

Bruno Min, Legal and Policy officer at Fair Trials, a London-based NGO that closely works with the Interpol, says that there have been some positive reforms at the organisation and cites Fair Trials’ 2017 report.

“In 2016, Interpol introduced timeframes. Now, requests for access to information sent to them have to be considered within four months, and requests for removals of the names from the Red Notices lists within nine months,” he says, adding that before one could wait for years prior to hearing back from the organisation. Another change is related to the organisation’s refugee policy. Now, if a person is granted a refugee status in the country to where they fled, the Red Notice against them that originated in the country they had fled is deleted.

If a Red Notice is issued concurrently with the person’s asylum application, “there’s no procedure for that case, but an argument can be made,” Min says, adding that the Interpol also has political neutrality and respect for human rights provisions under which it operates.

He also says that the Interpol is often misinterpreted, and what stands behind the Red Notices is really just the issuing country. According to Min, countries don’t always act on every Red Notice they receive, and often it “has no grounds, the situation gets resolved quickly, like in the case of Salih Muslim.”

Among solutions to the Red Notice dilemma, Min suggests closer interactions with Interpol, pointing to the increasing number of extradition lawyers who are concerned with the existing procedures.

Zhanara Akhmet, whom Fair Trials helped remove her name from the Interpol list, however, says that the solution has to be more complex than simply addressing the Red Notice system, and include multiple components that would help strengthen regional safe hubs.

Publicity, reforms and accountability

Civil society actors, victims and western diplomats involved in this process echo Akhmet’s concern. Interpol is only one of the many tools dictators use to reach activists: kidnappings, surveillance, loopholes in other countries’ legislation and close cooperation between law enforcement agencies have been used in multiple cases as well.

Valko, with Tbilisi Shelter, says that, in order to make the hubs stable, the support of the host nation’s government is essential. “We work with the office of the [Georgian] ombudsman and are trying to cooperate with the municipal government. If this works out, we will be more protected in terms of the status and reputation.”

In cases of arrests and other attacks, Rosa Burç says, public support from local communities (whether in Prague, Berlin or Kyiv) could change things for the better.

Oleksiy Skobrach, a Ukrainian lawyer who often works with persecuted dissidents, recommends reforms to Ukraine’s legislation on refugees and asylum, revisiting the arrest and detention procedures as well as increasing the accountability of the law-enforcement agencies involved. Boris Zakharov, on the other hand, says reforms of the national security agencies are essential: “They should be dealing with matters of national security, and not like now, with every sphere.”

Tavberidze wants to see a Georgia where there are no illegal migrants: “In Georgia, it’s a criminal act if someone crosses the border illegally, but I don’t think it should be criminalised. You never know why someone is crossing the border and why he or she is coming into the country this way.”

Ali Feruz, the Uzbek journalist who spent months in Russian prison in fear of extradition to Uzbekistan, and was finally able to leave for Germany in February 2018, says he’s been waiting for his Schengen visa forever, and therefore simpler visa procedures and local safe hubs in Eurasia are important.

Back in her apartment in Germany, Leyla Mustafayeva dreams about what improvements she would want to see if she were granted a wish with an unexpected laughter: “Of course, first, we would have changed the situation in our own country.” Suddenly, the well-suppressed notes of worry return: “If there’s no normal government, no democratic government at home, you can go wherever you want, reach whatever safe hub you want, those tyrants will reach you there with their long arms.”

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