CSOs providing assistance to migrants at the border face investigation

CSOs providing assistance to migrants at the border face investigation
Police officer patrols the Lithuanian/Belarus border (Photo by Paulius Peleckis/Getty Images).

Background

On 5th January 2022, the Lithuanian government decided against extending the state of emergency on the border with Belarus. Extended in November 2021, the measure introduced certain limits on entering a five-kilometre-long zone along the Belarus-Lithuania border as a means of dealing with the influx of asylum seekers attempting to cross into the country. Lithuania and other Western countries had accused the government of Belarus of inciting the refugee crisis. Meanwhile, journalists and activists, many of whom were barred from entering the zone, expressed concern over the unwarranted restrictions to freedom of information. In the final weeks of 2021, the total number of migrants and refugees coming to Lithuania from Belarus dropped drastically. While the Interior Ministry was in favour of extending the state of emergency at the beginning of January 2022, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said that “the migrant problem has been solved for now.” At the beginning of January 2022, 3,166 asylum seekers were being held in reception camps near the border.

Less than two months later, on 24th February 2022, the Baltic state declared another state of emergency, this time in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The new measures had initially been set to expire on 10th March 2022 but were extended until 21st April 2022. Although Lithuania is a member of the intergovernmental military alliance NATO, officials agree that Russia’s actions pose a grave geopolitical threat to the security apparatus of the country. The state of emergency introduces a host of new legal restrictions concerning, among other things, Russian and Belarusian-owned media, pro-Kremlin demonstrations and disinformation campaigns. Additionally, it suspends visa applications of Russian and Belarusian nationals. Opposition members in Seimas, the Lithuanian Parliament, have called the legislation excessive and unreasonably restrictive to Lituanians’ rights.

In a separate development, like many other governments in Europe, the Lithuanian government has started to loosen its COVID-19 restrictions. As of the beginning of February 2022, people will no longer have to show their vaccination certificates to enter shops, restaurants, entertainment venues and in-person services. A few weeks later, the Health Ministry announced that people who have been in contact with a COVID-19 case will not be required to self-quarantine. Finally, as of 8th March 2022, event attendees may wear basic medical masks in lieu of respirators, or FFP2 masks. 

Association

On 30th December 2021, the NGO Sienos Grupė posted on Facebook that they were part of an investigation by the State Border Guard Service (VSAT) into “people smuggling” on the Belarus-Lithuania border. Sienos Grupė, backed by the Lithuanian Forum of Christian Social Initiatives, provides direct humanitarian assistance to refugees and migrants. In a statement, VSAT claims that “information about migrants who had crossed the border from Belarus[…] and their whereabouts in Lithuania were being hidden from law enforcement.” The public broadcaster LRT notes that the investigation follows two related cases of border crossings in late December 2021, the first concerning four migrants of Pakistani origin who had reportedly been in contact with Sienos Grupė while they were camping in the forest, and the second concerning a Syrian man found stranded near the border. Volunteers from Sienos Grupė and the international organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF) had tried to help the man, who was later admitted to a nearby hospital and granted temporary protection by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). All of the volunteers present were fined 100 Euros for entering the state-of-emergency zone without a permit.

According to Mantautas Šulskus of Sienos Grupė, volunteers in Lithuania no longer bother to apply for emergency zone permits because “from our experience, we know that we wouldn’t get [them].” In fact, the only organisations with official access are the Red Cross, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). On their Facebook page, however, Sienos Grupė assured of its continued efforts to provide full humanitarian assistance to migrants at the border and called on the Lithuanian government to “adhere to the presumption of innocence and avoid unfounded accusations or pressure on the Forum of Christian Social Initiatives providing humanitarian aid.”

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, asylum seekers travelling to Lithuania from Belarus face many obstacles at the border. On 13th January 2022, during a committee session on home affairs, members of the European Parliament and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) implicated Lithuania, Poland and Latvia in “pushbacks and other violations of human rights” at the Belarus-EU border. Earlier in December 2021, the Lithuanian parliament voted to allow the forceful detention of undocumented migrants for up to six months after arrival. Critics see this as an attempt to make Lithuania an unattractive destination for asylum seekers in Europe. In response, the Lithuanian Coalition of Human Rights Organisations, together with several other NGOs, published a joint letter to President Gitana Nausėda in which they openly condemned the new regulation, arguing that it unjustly restricted freedom of movement and would damage the country’s reputation internationally.

Peaceful Assembly

Intelligence agency warns of possible violence at demonstration

On 15th February 2022, Lithuania’s State Security Department (VSD) warned of possible “provocations” from right-wing activists during nation-wide celebrations scheduled for the following day, the 104th anniversary of Lithuanian independence from the Russian Empire. The country’s intelligence agency singled out “Pro-Kremlin actors, spreaders of Covid conspiracy theories, as well as individuals interested in radicalising public sentiments and destabilising the situation in the country.” Since the VSD had previously noted trends towards radicalism and politician extremism in Lithuania, it indicated the likelihood of violence at the protests the next day. However, despite the concern, Independence Day festivities concluded without any major disruptions.

Anti-COVID-19 Demonstrations

13th January 2022 marked the 31st anniversary of the 1991 Soviet crackdown in Lithuania, commonly referred to as Bloody Sunday. At an event organised by Seimas, about 2,500 protesters gathered outside the parliament building in Vilnius to protest the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. During speeches by Parliament Speaker Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielson and Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, the crowd whistled and shouted “shame!” At one point, the host of the commemorations implored the hecklers, “If you do not respect the audience, at least respect the moment of the dead.”

Raimondas Grinevičius, head of the Lithuanian Family Movement, told the press that the protesters were there to express their opposition to the COVID-19 vaccination certificate and mandatory testing requirements for workers and to demand the resignation of the current government. According to local authorities, the Lithuanian Family Movement, which organised several anti-vaccination rallies in 2021, had secured rally permits for up to 1,000 people every day until 16thJanuary 2022.

Despite the government’s announcement at the beginning of February that it would lift the requirement for COVID-19 vaccination passes, another anti-COVID demonstration took place on 4th February 2022. The vaccination pass was required to access certain public establishments like restaurants, theatres, events and in-person services. Standing outside the Constitutional Court without shoes (to signal non-violence), the protest group “Barefoot Mothers” argued that the government had only decided to rescind vaccination pass requirements to avoid a negative ruling from the country’s supreme court. “It does not matter that this ‘passport’ was hastily revoked,” one organiser told Vakaro žinios. “There are still a lot of unanswered questions.” Demonstrators urged the Constitutional Court to rule on the case regardless.

Rallies for Ukraine

A number of protests have taken place in Lithuania since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022 as a show of solidarity with Ukrainians:

  • On 24th February 2022, thousands of Lithuanians gathered in major cities to condemn the start of Russia’s military invasion. In Vilnius, participants crowded onto Independence Square outside Seimas and then marched to the Russian embassy, where they observed a minute of silence and sang the national anthems of Ukraine and Lithuania. Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė expressed support for the demonstrations and added, “Mr. Putin, by declaring war on Ukraine, has very clearly declared war on all things on which the statehood of Lithuania is built.”
  • On 27th February 2022, thousands of women protested in front of the Russian embassy in Vilnius, calling on Russian women and mothers of soldiers to denounce the war. They held up signs reading, “The children of Ukraine need peace now,” and “Russians, stop Putin before he kill[s] your kids.” According to LRT, the event inspired similar protests in the Lithuanian cities of Kaunas and Klaipėda.
  • Four days of continuous protests occurred in front of the Russian embassy from 1st to 4th March 2022. The sustained demonstration had been initiated by media outlets LRT Radio and Freedom TV. People waved Ukrainian flags and displayed anti-war slogans, and tents were set up to collect donations for Ukrainian aid relief.
  • On 5th March 2022, eight hot air balloons unfurling three-metre-long Ukrainian flags drifted over the capital city. The pilots had initially planned to fly over the Russian embassy, in front of which people were still rallying, but the wind blew them off course. In the city, people attended a charity event at which famous chefs served Ukrainian borscht in return for donations. The Lithuanian Prime Minister was also reportedly in attendance.
  • Another women’s march was scheduled for International Women’s Day on 8th March 2022. Hundreds of people stood outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Vilnius waving blue and yellow flags and carrying sunflowers to show support for Ukrainian women. Speaking at the event, Lithuanian Parliament Speaker Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielson expressed solidarity with all the women who were “making sure that their loved ones, children, and families survive.”
  • On 11th March 2022, Lithuania remembered its independence from the Soviet Union and this year the annual demonstration was filled with pro-Ukraine messaging. In the coastal city of Klaipėda, people waved Ukrainian flags, ate Ukrainian borscht and performed songs mocking Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Temporary ban of pro-Kremlin rallies

In a press conference on 9th March 2022, Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė announced a temporary ban on “various events, rallies, and similar gatherings directly supporting what is falsely called by the Kremlin a special operation.” The ban is part of the new sweep of legislation under the extended state of emergency.

Expression

Restricting Russian-backed media outlets

Under the state of emergency introduced on 24th February 2022, the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission (LRTK) has the power to block media outlets controlled directly or indirectly by Russia or Belarus for an extended period of time. On the first day of Russia’s military invasion, the Lithuanian State Security Department (VSD) warned of “pro-Kremlin propagandists” influencing media activity in the country. So far, the Commission has banned retransmissions from Belarus 24, NTV Mir, RTR Planeta, Rossija 24,MIR24, and RBK-TV for the next five years, and retransmissions from PBK and TVCi for three years. The LRTK has also restricted access to 57 websites accused of rebroadcasting Russian and Belarusian disinformation.

On 28th February 2022, the prime ministers of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland sent ajoint open letter to Meta, Twitter, Google and YouTube urging them to suspend any accounts denying, glorifying or justifying war crimes in Ukraine, as well as the accounts of Russian and Belarusian government institutions, state-controlled media and the personal accounts of state leaders and their associates. “Russia’s disinformation [has] been tolerated on online platforms for years,” they wrote, “they are now an accessory to the criminal war of aggression the Russian government is conducting against Ukraine and the free world.” That same day, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, blocked the Russian state media outlets RT and Sputnik within its EU network and, on 11th March 2022, YouTube announced that it would remove the accounts of Russian-state-funded media from its video-sharing platform.

Under the state of emergency, the LRTK also has the power to restrict the activities of Lithuanian media if they are found to be spreading war propaganda, disinformation, incitements to war, or calls to breach Lithuanian sovereignty. The Committee has, without going into specifics, confirmed several potential violations of the new legislation.

While the ruling coalition party holds the position that these measures serve to strengthen state security, opposition members in government have lambasted them for being too excessive. Some went so far as calling these the toughest constraints on personal freedom since the Soviet era. In response to these criticisms, Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė said, “We are not restricting citizens’ rights but the rights of propagandists to spread lies about Putin’s war on Ukraine in Lithuania.”

Journalistic associations condemn SLAPPs

On 27th January 2022, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) sent a joint open letter to the Lithuanian State Data Protection Inspectorate (SDPI) in which they deplored the department’s attempts to obstruct reporting by the investigative platform Karštos Pėdos. The term karštos pėdos, or “hot feet,” refers to the old police practice of using suspects’ footprints to obtain information. On its website, the online platform by the same name describes itself as “the most comprehensive public database in Lithuania, allowing you to quickly and easily see how politicians, high-ranking civil servants and businesses are interconnected, as well as how budget funds and EU investments are used.” Karštos Pėdos is part of a transparency initiative co-funded by the European Commission.

Since its launch in 2020, the platform has been under investigation by the SDPI. According to the authors of the joint open letter, the outlet has been ordered to prove that its reporting does not violate the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), an EU-wide regulation on data privacy. Karštos Pėdos maintains that it is entitled to journalistic exemption under the GDPR, a position which the Lithuanian Office of the Inspector of Journalist Ethics has also backed. In their letter, the EFJ and the MFRR concurred:

“Karštos Pėdos’s activities and content available are in line with the journalistic purposes serving the public interest[…] We further recall that the GDPR obliges the Member States to reconcile the right to protection of personal data with the right to freedom of expression and information.”

Progress on LGBTQI+ rights

In a more positive development, Lithuania is set to reconsider a billthat would officially recognise same-sex unions in Spring 2022. The liberal Freedom Party in Seimas has repeatedly campaigned for legalising same-sex marriage and officially made it part of the coalition agreement of the current government. The Lithuanian Parliament had previously rejected the bill in May 2021.

Same-sex marriage remains a controversial issue in Lithuania, and some fear that this may be the last chance to pass such a bill before municipal elections take place in early 2023. However, as Freedom Party chairperson Aušrinė Armonaitė told LRT, “We’ve always wanted to resolve these issues as soon as possible—not because of some political conjuncture but first and foremost because Lithuania is very late.”

Additionally, as of 2nd February 2022, transgender people in Lithuania are able to change their names on legal documents without having to provide medical proof of gender affirmation surgery. However, they still need to obtain an official medical diagnosis by a Lithuanian or EU healthcare establishment, a point which transgender activists have criticised. And while the bureaucratic process for name changing has become easier, on the whole, transgender people will still have to go through the court system in order to have their gender legally changed.