In 2019, the People’s Advocate of Albania monitored 31 public demonstrations organised by various entities, including opposition political parties, civil society, students, and citizens. Some of these resulted in physical confrontations. Through working groups, the NHRI monitored the situation on the ground and immediately verified cases of alleged rights violations committed by state authorities.
During mass anti-government protests in 2020, the Ombudsman of the Republic of Bulgaria received several complaints from individuals and civil society concerning violations of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to legal aid. Protesters were detained by police in Sofia on 10 July and 2 September 2020 in reportedly overcrowded premises and with no access to lawyers. The media published images of violence and presumably excessive use of force against protesters and reporters by law enforcement. The Ombudsman issued a public statement emphasising the need to ensure that any use of physical force and auxiliary means by law enforcement is proportionate and in line with national law and international and regional standards.
The Human Ombudsman of Slovenia addressed a detailed inquiry to the Ministry of the Interior regarding the procedures the police followed when establishing some protesters’ identities during protests in Ljubljana on 19 June 2020. The justifications provided by the police for the identification of 69 individuals were in view of the Ombudsman so general that they could, most likely, be attributed to all the protesters, who numbered around 7,000. The Ombudsman, therefore, recommended that police always conduct identification procedures according to applicable laws and regulations.
The Public Defender (Ombudsman) of Georgia has drawn attention to the challenges and threats faced by human rights defenders and civil society in both Europe and Georgia. The Public Defender dedicated a chapter to this topic in the 2018, 2019 and 2020 annual reports it submitted to parliament. The reports underlined an increasing trend of verbal abuse, physical assaults, intimidation, and defamation, including by high-ranking political officials. Specifically, the reports pointed to challenges faced by women and LGBTI+ defenders and voiced concerns about cyber threats against and the bullying of human rights defenders. The reports analysed the rights of peaceful assembly, association and expression, as well as media freedom. The NHRI called on law enforcement agencies to undertake effective, timely investigations into any cases of human rights defenders at risk. It also provided recommendations to the government on the promotion and protection of human rights defenders.
After receiving two complaints about the activities of civil society organisations being suspended following a request from a security body, the Ombudsperson Institution of Kosovo* published a report in 2018. It includes specific recommendations on compliance with the right to freedom of association. The report concluded that any suspension of activities based solely on suspicion – and without proper investigation – interferes with the right to freedom of association. The Ombudsman argued that this precedent poses a serious risk of other cases of state interference being justified on the same basis.
In 2019, the Human Rights Ombudsman of Bosnia and Herzegovina received numerous complaints from individuals concerning alleged violations of the right to peaceful assembly. These were prompted by the alleged excessive use of force by law enforcement agencies at public gatherings. In 2020, the Ombudsman published a Special Report on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly. This looked at the overall situation concerning freedom of assembly and listed challenges that law enforcement agencies and organisers of public gatherings face during said gatherings. The report analysed relevant domestic and international regulations and collected information through questionnaires filled out by civil society organisations and ministries. The NHRI shared the recommendations with state authorities, organisers of public gatherings and civil society organisations in order to improve the relevant legislation.
In its report to the UN Committee against Torture, the Federal Institute for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights criticised the use of the concepts of “radicalism” and “radicalisation” by Belgian authorities to preventatively manage the threat of terrorism. It highlighted the increasing tendency to use vague and ill-defined concepts to justify a variety of actions. These include bans on working in certain sensitive areas, refusal to grant Belgian nationality, the closure of establishments by local authorities, refusing to issue a Belgian passport or travel document, revoking residence permits, and expelling foreigners from Belgian territory.
The activities of human rights defenders and civil society in the Transnistrian region of the Republic of Moldova have been restricted by rules and laws that limit their right to information and ability to express opposition to Transnistrian authorities. Human rights defenders’ freedom of expression was violated in 2020 when defenders were arrested and intimidated. In response, the People’s Advocate of Moldova issued recommendations to Moldovan authorities, mediators and observers. These aimed to make sure these parties applied international law and guaranteed the protection of human rights when designing measures to address the situation.
In 2021, the Constitutional Court of Albania examined the constitutionality of a Criminal Code article relevant to freedom of assembly and referring to “obtaining permission from the competent body according to special provisions”. When conducting the examination, the People’s Advocate of Albania submitted observations stating that all legislation referring to rights to freedom of assembly must be clear and drafted in accordance with international human rights standards. Additionally, they highlighted that freedom of assembly cannot be subject to any formal approval by police. It is sufficient that authorities are notified in sufficient time. Lastly, the People’s Advocate underlined that it was disproportionate to have fines or imprisonment (of up to one year) as possible punishments for organisers of/participants in peaceful rallies. The Constitutional Court accepted these points.
In 2018, the State Revenue Committee of Armenia prepared a draft on making amendments to the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations which may interfere with the right to freedom of association. The amendments include that all NGOs are obliged to publicise the content of their annual report, including information about their financial activities, projects, number of employees and personal data of their employees among other requirements.
At the end of 2020, a young person was murdered by a state police employee. This caused nationwide protests lasting several days that demanded the responsible person be brought to justice. The People’s Advocate of Albania launched an investigation into police conduct when arresting journalists during these protests. Media reports documented several media actors being taken to police premises. The NHRI recommended that the police analyse the cases in terms of what constitutes lawful conduct of police officers when escorting individuals. It also recommended that the police guarantee the media’s right to cover protests; train police officers to improve their conduct towards media actors; avoid violating the rights of escorted persons; and establish special rules concerning the treatment of media actors. The police have followed up on the recommendations with concrete measures and actions addressing them.
During the unauthorised public events of January and February 2021, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Russian Federation established a working group to immediately review and take urgent measures to respond to all complaints received through the NHRI’s hotline. Some complaints related to alleged violations to the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, access to a lawyer, obstruction of journalists’ activities and administrative detention conditions. In total, 83 requests for verification of persons under administrative arrest were submitted to the prosecutorial and government authorities. Moreover, the High Commissioner held in-person meetings with representatives of the human rights community on the above-mentioned issues, and members of her Office visited internal affairs departments and special detention centres for persons under administrative detention.