Eastern Europe and Central Asia: Governments must stop abusing emergency powers during COVID-19 pandemic

A young woman looks through a window of a quarantined building in St Petersburg © Alexander Demianchuk/TASS

Governments in the region routinely resort to repressive measures to silence critical views but some have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to further clamp down on opposition 

Authorities in Kazakhstan have welded apartment doors shut to trap residents inside, while Chechen police have assaulted people for not wearing facemasks

‘As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in the region, many governments seem more interested in cracking down on dissent than protecting public health’ - Heather McGill

Governments in Eastern European and Central Asian countries are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with repressive and abusive measures which fall far short of their human rights obligations, Amnesty International said today. 

The organisation has released a new briefing setting out the responsibilities of governments in the region. 

Heather McGill, Amnesty International’s Central Asia Researcher, said: 

“As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in the region, many governments seem more interested in cracking down on dissent than protecting public health. From authorities in Kazakhstan welding apartment doors shut to trap residents inside, to Chechen police assaulting people for not wearing facemasks, governments seem to be viewing the pandemic as a free pass to trample on human rights. 

“Any strict measures to stop the spread of the virus must be temporary, proportionate, and in line with human rights standards.

“The governments of Azerbaijan and Russia have prosecuted social media users, journalists and medical professionals for exposing flaws in their COVID-19 responses. Other countries, like Uzbekistan, have imposed ruinous fines for dissemination of ‘fake news’. This sends a chilling message to journalists throughout the region.

“Governments must allocate all available resources to fulfil the right to health and put human rights at the centre of their response to the virus.”

Excessive use of force and restrictive measures

Authorities in Eastern Europe and Central Asia routinely resort to repressive measures to silence critical views. Unsurprisingly some governments have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a total disregard for basic human rights. 

On 6 April, in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan, the authorities welded shut the doors of an entire apartment block housing dozens of families, after one resident tested positive for COVID-19. Kazakhstani authorities have also enforced quarantines on blocks of flats by welding shut doors and forcing residents to stay inside. 

On 18 April, the Ukrainian army shut off the only access to the village of Staromaryivka, which is situated in government-controlled territory affected by the conflict in eastern Ukraine. This left the village’s 150 residents with no access to food, medical services or any other assistance. 

At the end of last month, in the Russian Republic of Chechnya, police were filmed wielding plastic pipes. Video evidence suggests that police physically assaulted people who did not wear face masks

Irresponsible governance: A threat to health

In Belarus, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, political leaders have played down the gravity of the pandemic and promoted cures with no proven efficacy. 

Last month Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka claimed that daily shots of vodka would kill the virus as would visiting saunas and partaking in sports activities. As of today, his government has taken no physical distancing measures. His Turkmenistani counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, hardly mentioning COVID-19 at all, has advised burning the leaves of the harmala plant to ward off disease. 

Across the region, underfunded healthcare systems struggle to provide adequate care. In Russia, public healthcare reforms over the last decade have led to a sharp reduction in the number of medical personnel and health facilities. Shortages of PPE have also exposed medical staff to the virus.

Clampdown: Freedom of expression and access to information

To combat the spread of coronavirus, governments must ensure the dissemination of accessible, accurate and evidence-based information about the disease and how people can best protect themselves. 

Instead authorities in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have more often used newly introduced emergency powers to harass journalists and others who have tried to share information.

Kazakhstani human rights activist, Alnur Ilyashev, was arrested on 17 April for social media posts criticising the ruling party and its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and now faces up to seven years in prison. After his arrest, police officers used intimidation and physical force against his relatives. 

In Azerbaijan, the authorities have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to crack down on the opposition. On 19 March, President Ilham Aliyev announced “new rules” for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, including “isolating” and “clearing” his country’s opposition. Subsequently, opposition activist Tofig Yagublu was arrested on bogus charges of hooliganism, followed by human rights defender Elchin Mammad who is accused of theft.

In Russia, Anastasiya Vasilieva, the chairperson of the independent Doctors’ Alliance Union, was called in for questioning after allegedly spreading “fake news”. Her organisation had appealed to Russian medical professionals to expose the authorities’ incompetence. As a result, many Alliance members were subjected to harassment and threats, and Vasilieva herself was detained by police for “quarantine breach” while providing a local hospital with equipment.

Russian media has not escaped the pressure either. The authorities forced the well-respected Novaya Gazeta newspaper to delete an article criticising the Chechen authorities’ lockdown policies after the Republic’s head, Ramzan Kadyrov, publicly threatened its author Elena Milashina.

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