Gay Rights Activists Arrested In Russia Ahead of Olympic Opening Ceremony

by Tony Iozzo
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

MOSCOW, Russia – Russian police arrested fourteen gay rights protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg on Friday, shortly before the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.

Protesters are detained in Moscow’s Red Square on Friday. (Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera)

In the incident Moscow, Russian police detained ten protesters in the City’s Red Square after they had been waiving rainbow flags. In the incident in St. Petersburg, four protesters were waving displaying a banner which included the language of the Olympic Charter which bars any form of discrimination.

A Russian law banning gay “propaganda” from reaching minors has elicited international criticism since its passing, with some calling for a boycott of the Sochi Olympic Games. Russian law also bans any unsanctioned protests.

Anastasia Smirnova, one of Russia’s leading gay activists and an arrestee in the St. Petersburg protest, posted a thank-you to supporters on her Facebook page, writing, “Can’t write much as phones are not permitted, and they are now calling us to sign papers. Cosmic hugs to you from our police station … Detention for a photo with a banner — isn’t it an amazing way to celebrate the Opening of the Games?”

Western powers have been urging Russia to rescind its anti-gay laws since before the commencement of the Sochi Games. On Friday, President Putin met with Dutch authorities who challenged the country’s gay laws, but President Putin opined that the Winter Olympic Games should be about sports and not about discussing political views.

Some world leaders, such as U.S. President Barack Obama, have chosen to stay away from the Games completely, while other world leaders appeared less troubled by the issue. Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Putin on the Olympics and praised their countries’ growing alliance. China’s state-controlled media has barely reported on the Russian anti-gay propaganda law.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is also in attendance at the Games, and has advocated for gay equality in sports. “Many professional athletes, gay and straight, are speaking out against prejudice. We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people. We must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they face.”

Corporations have spoken out, either explicitly on the issue, as well. Google changed its homepage logo to depict illustrations of athletes skiing, sledding, curling and skating against a rainbow-colored backdrop and language from the Olympic charter that bans discrimination. The company has stated that it wanted the illustration to speak for itself. The logo has widely been interpreted as support for gay rights and a rebuke of Russia’s propaganda law.

For more information, please see:

Al Jazeera – Russian LGBT Activists Arrested on First Day of Sochi Games – 7 February 2014

The Independent – Winter Olympics 2014: Sochi Protesters Arrested Over Banner Citing Olympic Charter’s Words Against Discrimination – 7 February 2014

New York Times – Scores Detained in Russia Before Olympic Ceremony – 7 February 2014

Reuters – Gay Rights Protesters Detained in Russia as Games Start- Activists – 7 February 2014


US Dept. of Homeland Security Warns Global Sochi Flights of Homemade Bombs

by Tony Iozzo
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Department of Homeland Security of the United States has warned airlines with flights to the Sochi Games in Russia that toothpaste containers, or similar personal hygiene items could be used as homemade bombs.

Russia has deployed over 30,000 security troops to the Sochi Olympic Village, both in part reactive, and in part proactive to security threats. (Photo courtesy of BBC News)

The DHS authorities issued the warning to both domestic, as well as international flights heading to Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

Major news outlets have reported that anonymous government officials stated that ingredients could be brought on board to these flights and the bombs could be assembled either on the flight, or afterwards in the Sochi Olympic Village. The warning seems to be a proactive attempt to be consistent with Russia’s massive security efforts, as authorities did state that they haven’t identified any specific threat to the United States or the Sochi Games.

“While we are not aware of a specific threat to the homeland at this time, this routine communication is an important part of our commitment to making sure we meet that priority. As always, our security apparatus includes a number of measures, both seen and unseen, and DHS will continue to adjust security measures to fit an ever evolving threat environment,” a DHS official stated.

Security in the host city of Sochi has been amped up for several months, as the Russian government prepares for the Winter Olympics that start this week, while also combating the threat of militants operating in the Caucasus. The Kremlin has deployed over 30,000 security forces to the Sochi Olympic Village and has severely restricted access to the area. In the months leading up to the Olympics, terror groups have issued threats, and three suicide bombings in as many months have rocked cities across Russia.

“Out of an abundance of caution, [DHS] regularly shares relevant information with domestic and international partners, including those associated with international events such as the Sochi Olympics,” the DHS said in the issued statement on Wednesday.

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Sochi 2014: U.S. Warns Airlines of Russia “Toothpaste Bomb” Threat – 5 February 2014

Reuters – U.S. Warns Airports Over Possible Bomb Ingredients in Toothpaste Tubes – 5 February 2014

Russia Today – U.S. Warns of Explosives in Toothpaste Tubes on Russia Flights Ahead of Olympics – 5 February 2014

TIME World – Americans Warn Airlines of Toothpaste Bombs on Sochi Flights – 5 February 2014


Former Rwandan Official on Trial in France for Genocide Charges

by Tony Iozzo
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

PARIS, France – A French court began a genocide trial on Tuesday against a former Rwandan intelligence officer who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.

If convicted, Simbikangwa would face life imprisonment. (Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera)

In what has been promised to be the first of several prosecutions of former Rwandan officials, Pascal Simbikangwa appeared before a panel of judges in Paris to face the charges of complicity in genocide and crime against humanity. Simbikangwa, 54, had been sought under an international arrest warrant beginning in 2008. He had been in hiding on the island of Mayotte, a French territory in the Indian Ocean.

Simbikangwa could receive a sentence of life imprisonment if he is convicted. The initial indictment, drafted by Judge Olivier Leurent, stated that Simbikangwa had stashed a massive amount of weapons in his home, as well as harassing members of the minority ethnic group- the Tutsi. Simbikangwa is a Hutu, which was the ethnic group that constituted the majority of the government during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

The trial is expected to last seven weeks, and the panel of judges is expected to hear from 53 witnesses. The potential witnesses include Simbikangwa’s former neighbors back in Kigali, the Rwandan capital; French historians, and former Rwandan officials. The trial is scheduled to conclude with testimony from Tharcisse Renzaho, a former politician and prefect, who was sentenced to life in prison by the United Nations’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

France has widely been considered a refuge for Rwandan fugitives that participated in the country’s ethnic genocide, which killed over 800,000 people in 100 days back in 1994. Human rights groups see Simbikangwa’s trial an effort by France to shed this reputation, and end the protection of the fugitives.

France also has been accused of providing military training to the Hutus, and has never tried anyone accused of complicity in the Rwandan genocide. After restoring diplomatic relations with Rwanda in 2009, Paris appointed five judges to investigate the matter of the Rwandan fugitives and opened a police unit that specialized in genocide crimes.

In addition to the criminal case, five human rights groups have filed civil suits against Simbikangwa. On Tuesday, the civil plaintiffs included the Collective of Civil Plaintiffs for Rwanda, the group that first found Simbikangwa in Mayotte and filed a complaint against him.

In Europe, several countries including Belgium, a former colonial overseer of Rwanda, as well as Norway, have already brought Rwandans to justice in their countries.

For more information, please see:

Al Jazeera – Landmark Rwanda Genocide Trial Opens in Paris – 4 February 2014

BBC News – Rwanda Ex-Spy Chief Tried in Paris on Genocide Charges – 4 February 2014

France 24 – 20 Years On, France Confronts Rwandan Genocide – 4 February 2014

NY Times – Former Rwandan Intelligence Chief Goes on Trial For 1994 Genocide – 4 February 2014

Widespread Corruption Reported Across Europe, Suggestions for Change Follow

By Ben Kopp
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

BRUSSELS, European Union – The European Union Anti-Corruption Report, a first of its kind, highlighted “breathtaking” corruption across the EU. The report offered suggestions to help reduce corruption.

A new report revealed perceptions of corruption across all 28 EU countries. (Photo courtesy of Irish Independent)

While presenting the European Union Anti-Corruption Report, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem stated that corruption in the EU costs the bloc’s economy 120 billion euros per year. That amount is roughly the same as the EU’s annual budget. Malmstroem called the extent of EU corruption “breathtaking.”

The first-of-its-kind report analyzed all 28 EU Member States, looking into existing measures, problems, and successful policies related to corruption. Over three-fourths of surveyed persons in the report said they believed corruption is widespread in their own country. More than a half added that corruption levels were on the rise.

The report suggested more accountability standards, control mechanisms in public authorities, improve the effectiveness of courts and police, protection for whistleblowers, more transparent lobbying practices, and increased transparency through e-tools.

The EU Commission plans to meet with all Member States, European Parliament, and national parliaments to discuss and work on recommendations discussed in the report. A follow-up report is being planned for about 2016 to measure European progress.

“There are no corruption-free zones in Europe,” Malmstroem said.

While carrying the lowest levels of witnessed corruption, Finland and Denmark each had three percent of respondents claim that corruption in their country was widespread.

Greece and Italy ranked as the top countries in which respondents believed corruption was widespread; Lithuania, Spain, and the Czech Republic tied for the third place ranking. The report highlighted that countries behind in their scores of “perceptions and actual experience of corruption” include Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece.

“In these countries,” the report stated, “between 6 and 29 percent of respondents indicated that they were asked or expected to pay a bribe in the past 12 months, while 84 percent up to 99 percent think that corruption is widespread in their country.”

When it came to doing business in the EU, more than 40% of companies claimed that corruption is a problem for European operations.

In a press conference, Malmstroem said that corruption destroys democracy and the trust in public institutions. “It undermines our internal market, it hampers foreign investment, it costs taxpayers millions, and in many cases it helps organized crime groups do their dirty work.”

While Bulgaria, Romania, and Italy were noted hotspots for organized crime, white-collar crimes and VAT fraud were deemed widespread in many EU countries.

“The price of not acting is simply too high,” Malmstroem concluded.

For further information, please see:

RT – Cost of Corruption across EU Equals Its Annual Budget – EU Commission – February 4, 2014

AFP – ‘Breathtaking’ EU Corruption Costs 120 bn Euros a Year – February 3, 2014

BBC – Corruption across EU ‘Breathtaking’ – EU Commission – February 3, 2014

Irish Independent – Corruption Costs EU £99bn a Year – February 3, 2014

New York Times – Study Details Graft in European Union – February 3, 2014

Unseen President Unsuccessfully Attempts to Resolve Ukrainian Unrest

By Ben Kopp
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

KYIV, Ukraine – Ukrainian tensions remained high following President Yanukovich’s attempted relief to the opposition. However, world leaders offered help.

Ukrainian opposition continues to stand against the government, despite amnesty and the repeal of anti-protest laws. (Photo courtesy of RT)

Unseen since taking sick leave, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich repealed anti-protest legislation, and signed an amnesty into law for activists detained during massive protests. Amidst news reports of a prominent opposition activist’s kidnapping and torture claims, many rejected Yanukovich’s decision because he conditioned it on activists leaving occupied buildings.

“There’s no point in signing this amnesty law,” said an improvised clinic worker at Kyiv’s occupied city hall. “No one will leave here until this government is gone.”

Concerned for demonstrators’ health in Arctic temperatures, opposition leaders urged protesters not to take to the streets for their weekly rallies. However, media outlets continued to replay video of activist Dmytro Bulatov’s story of kidnap and torture, which has kept anti-government tensions high.

Bulatov disappeared on 22 January 2014, at the hands of unknown kidnappers. Since Bulatov’s return, an interior ministry official has accused him of faking his claims to stir unrest.

“There isn’t a spot on my body that hasn’t been beaten. My face has been cut. They promised to poke my eye out. They cut off my ear,” Bulatov said. “They crucified me by nailing me to a door with something and beat me strongly all the while.”

In a statement, the Defense Ministry said, “The military and the Ukrainian armed forces … called on the supreme commander to take immediate steps, within the framework of the law, to stabilize the situation in the country and reach agreement with society.”

While Yanukovich has expressed concerns that Ukraine is on the verge of civil war, the military refused to take sides. A Defense Ministry news website quoted retired Admiral Serhiy Rybak, as he recalled Ukrainian peacekeeping missions abroad: “No political ambition is worth a drop of human blood.”

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen tweeted that the “military must remain neutral” even if it were to become involved in the crisis.

Moscow highlighted its economic over Ukraine by refusing its planned purchase of $2 billion of Ukrainian government bonds. The move contributed to the currency falling to its lowest point against the dollar in over four years.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry planned to meet opposition leaders, on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich.

“Our message to Ukraine’s opposition will be the full support of President Obama and of the American people for their efforts,” Kerry said in Berlin before the meetings. “But we will also say to them that if you get that reform agenda… we would urge them to engage in that because further standoff, or further violence that becomes uncontrollable, is not in anybody’s interests.”

Kerry also said, “We would … say to our friends in Russia this does not have to be a zero (sum) game, this is not something where Ukraine should become a proxy and trapped in some kind of larger ambition for Russia or the United States.”

For further information, please see:

Al Jazeera – Tension Grips Ukraine over Torture Claims – February 1, 2014

BBC News – Stand-Off over ‘Tortured’ Ukrainian Activist Dmytro Bulatov – January 31, 2014

Reuters – Ukraine President Signs Amnesty but Anger Remains, Currency Slumps – January 31, 2014

RT – Russia’s Emergency Loan to Ukraine on Hold until Govt Forms – January 30, 2014

Times Of India – Ukrainian President Takes Sick Leave, No Crisis Solution in Sight – January 30, 2014