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Transnistria: Human rights in the shadow of football

On 24 November, Sheriff Tiraspol FC will again face Real Madrid, which it beat 2-1 in September, causing a major surprise among Champions League fans. But who hides behind the club that has taken the football world by storm? More to the point for a human rights blog: what is going on in the Transnistria region of Moldova from where Sheriff Tiraspol hails? We put these questions to Alexandru Postica, Strategic Development Adviser at leading Moldovan human rights group Promo-LEX, a member organisation of OMCT’s SOS-Torture Network.

Alexandru Postica

What is Transnistria ?

It is a breakaway strip of land with 450,000 Inhabitants on the Moldovan-Ukrainian border that remains, under international law, part of the Republic of Moldova. In August 1991, Moldova was one of several States to become independent following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The following year, a separatist militia launched a war against the Moldovan police, with armed support from the Russian Federation. Over 1,000 people were killed on both sides, with much larger numbers injured. Since then, the self-proclaimed ”Moldovan Republic of Transnistria” has created a parallel administration in Tiraspol, which relies for its survival on the political, economic, and military support of the Russian Federation.

Even if no country has recognised Transnistria, this state of affairs weighs heavily on Moldova, a small country of 2.6 million people.

How would you qualify the human rights situation?

It is as alarming today as it was back in 1992. Militia groups threaten the personal liberty and security of the population. Freedom of expression and assembly are suppressed. Any criticism of the regime is considered a crime, while civil activism can be treated as an attack on the region’s sovereignty. Several civil activists are currently in detention. The territory’s isolation makes monitoring human rights complicated. For all these reasons, Freedom House considers the Transnistria region as not free.

    Was Promo-LEX ever able to work in Transnistria?

    Promo-LEX was created in 2002, and two years later it started to litigate serious cases of human rights violations before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). By 2010, we already had more than 100 cases of violations in the Transnistria region before the Court, with over 1,800 applicants. In 2012, the ECtHR issued a judgment in one of the cases, confirming the violation of the right to education of more than 170 applicants in the region. In 2016, Promo-LEX obtained another historic ruling, in the case of a detainee who had been tortured. The ECtHR ruled that the so-called courts in the Transnistria region have no right to try and convict persons, given that they do not act under any law corresponding to the spirit of the European Convention on Human Rights.

    Most of the local independent human rights organisations have been shut down

    In April 2014, the body in charge of the so-called “State security”, the MGB, filed a criminal case against Promo-LEX for ”various actions against Transnistria’s statehood". This means that the members of our organisation risk up to 15 years in prison. It is not clear what Promo-LEX activities led to such an extreme measure. Since then, we have been prevented from entering the region. Moreover, I have been personally declared undesirable and am not allowed to enter the Russian Federation.

    All this has affected our ability to get information from our beneficiaries, and we had to revise our working methods. Unfortunately, our local network of partners were harassed by the administration and the secret services in Transnistria, to the extent that some of them had even to leave the region. Despite these obstacles, we continue to be in touch with victims and witnesses, and help the people by undertaking legal actions on their behalf.

    Can any independent observers, such as journalists, enter Transnistria?

    Access for journalists is limited and there is a complicated accreditation procedure. This involves thorough identity checks and background checks into previous coverage by the journalists. Several journalists have mentioned that they had been ordered to refrain from reporting on certain topics. It is actually easier to enter as a tourist.

    The situation is much more complicated for human rights defenders. Most of the local independent human rights organisations have been shut down. NGOs are submitted to restrictive rules, and any sign of independence is seen as subversive. At the moment, neither we nor colleagues from other NGOs can enter the region, given our firm position on the human rights situation there.

    There have been allegations of unlawful activities by Sheriff Ltd, the shadowy corporation behind Sheriff FC. Is the company involved in human rights violations?

    The Sheriff Company was founded in 1993 by former employees of the MGB (ex-KGB), the local secret services, who also participated in the creation of the so-called “Moldovan Republic of Transnistria”. At present Sheriff owns a chain of petrol stations, a chain of supermarkets, a TV channel, a publishing house, a construction company, a Mercedes-Benz dealer, an advertising agency, a spirits factory, two bread factories, a mobile phone network, the football club FC Sheriff Tiraspol and its newly built Sheriff Stadium at an estimated cost of $ 200 million, including a five-star hotel still under construction. Over the years, there have been several media investigations that have spoken of profits from illegal activities such as smuggling, arms trafficking or human trafficking by people linked to the Sheriff corporation.

    There have been allegations of torture of the employees of a telecommunications company that is affiliated to Sheriff Corporation

    The founder of the Sheriff Corporation, Victor Gușan, was overseeing the MGB during the conflict in 1992. He led the arrest and imprisonment of members of the Ilașcu group – four local fighters - , who were subsequently sentenced to death by an ad-hoc court set up in Tiraspol. Mr. Ilașcu was finally not executed thanks to international pressure. In the case of Ilașcu and others v. Moldova and Russia, the ECtHR found a violation of several rights provided by the European Convention, especially the right to not be subjected to torture and the right to life.

    There have also been allegations of torture of the employees of a telecommunications company that is affiliated to Sheriff Corporation.

    Over the years, the Sheriff corporation has been involved in local election campaigns, to the extent that its protégés are now in charge. The current “president” of the region, Vadim Krasnoselsky, was an employee of the Sheriff corporation, which also supports the ruling party. There is hardly any aspect of life in Transnistria that escapes the influence of the Sheriff corporation.

    What else would you want the world to know about Transnistria and its people?

    When we talk about the Transnistria conflict, we must keep in mind that it was created artificially to maintain Russian influence in the region. For example, the local administration only uses Russian, despite the fact that Moldovan (a form of Romanian written in Cyrillic) and Ukrainian are also official languages.

    There is no ethnic conflict in the region, and people on the left bank of the Dniester are integrated into Moldovan society. Most of them have the citizenship of the Republic of Moldova and enjoy access to constitutional bodies. On the other hand, the de facto authorities of the region receive external assistance but refuse to cooperate with the constitutional authorities on many vital areas, especially in the legal field.

    There is currently a parallel justice system in the region, which does not correspond to human rights standards. This system is under the influence of the de facto authorities and as such, it’s neither independent nor fair. It is a repressive system, targeting primarily people who criticise the regime.

    There are political prisoners, suspicious deaths that have not been investigated, as well as legal provisions contrary to human rights.

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