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 Greek National Commission for Human Rights (GNCHR) closely monitors the execution of European Court of Human Rights judgments, including those related to human rights defenders. In August 2018, the GNCHR submitted to the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers its Recommendations under Rule 9(2) with regard to the immediate full compliance of the Greek government with the landmark Court judgment Chowdury and Others v. Greece (known as the “Manolada case”). Two years later, in June 2020, it made an additional Communication on the assessment of the level of compliance of the Greek State with the GNCHR’s recommendations on the Chowdury judgment.
In another emblematic case for the protection of human rights, the Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN) – an initiative of the Commission and UNHCR in Greece – activated the same procedure under Rule 9(2), in December 2020, by submitting a communication for the supervision of the execution of judgments and the terms of friendly settlements, relating to the case of Sakir v. Greece.
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 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 Hungary, civil society organisations (CSOs) sent a letter to the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights complaining about an audit initiated by the Government Control Office. The audit started to review the distribution of funds under the CSO Fund of the European Economic Area (EEA) / Norway Grants. The Commissioner called on the Prime Minister’s Office to discuss the signed agreement, clarify its provisions, and define the Control Office’s powers vis-à-vis this funding with the Norwegian government. In 2020, the Norwegian and Hungarian governments reached an agreement to make funding directly available to CSOs and establish a fund operator independent of the Hungarian authorities. In January 2021, the NHRI received the Ambassador of Norway to Hungary to reinforce their cooperation and enhance the execution of the agreement.
A human rights activist from an area outside of state control faced physical danger and criminal charges while being imprisoned due to her human rights work. The Public Defender (Ombudsman) of Georgia challenged her detention and harassment as illegal, calling for a fair investigation and issuing several public statements calling on authorities to ensure her safety. The NHRI also raised international and regional attention of the case and nominated the HRD for the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize and the UN Human Rights Prize.
The Public Defender (Ombudsman) of Georgia submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Batumi City Court regarding the internal and social media code of conduct of Adjara TV. The code restricted the freedom of expression of company employees. The NHRI analysed the cases of four employees and established that their dismissal or move to another position contravened Georgia’s Labour Code and Adjara TV’s internal labour regulations. The Public Defender recommended that the Adjara TV director restore the rights of the employees. As this was not done, the NHRI asked the Prosecutor General to launch an investigation. The Public Defender also contacted both the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media in relation to the case.
NHRIs can individually and collectively intervene before the European Court of Human Rights. ENNHRI, through its Legal Working Group, provides support for strategic litigation and prepares third-party interventions on key human rights concerns. In the case Big Brother Watch & Others vs The United Kingdom, which related to the right to respect for private life and data protection, ENNHRI submitted written observations through two third-party interventions in 2013 and 2019. These provided recommendations based on an analysis of the international and European legal framework, as well as practices by Member States. The Court delivered its judgements on the 13 September 2018 and 25 May 2021. On both occasions, ENNHRI’s submission was included within its conclusions.
In 2021, taking into account the importance of strengthening the cooperation with civil society organizations, a special Department on Cooperation with International Organizations and Civil Society Institutions was established at the Ombudsman Office. The main function of the Department is to create a bridge between the government bodies and CSOs. In this respect we on a regular basis hold meetings with the members of CSOs, learn about their problems, discuss the ways of cooperation and receive their proposals. Moreover, a new platform was set up with CSOs for enhancing this cooperation, several joint events have been organized so far.
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.