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Council of Europe fears virus measures hurting democracy

Europe’s leading human rights body warned Tuesday that threats to democratic rights and personal freedoms have worsened during the pandemic, with some governments using health restrictions as a pretext to advance undemocratic political agendas.

In a 148-page report lamenting a state of “democracy in distress,” the Council of Europe said several countries where safeguards for the judiciary and other institutions were already under threat had been further eroded in 2020.

It highlighted a “clear and worrying degree of democratic backsliding,” said Marija Pejcinovic Buric, the council’s secretary-general. “The danger is that our democratic culture will not fully recover.”

Based in Strasbourg, France, the Council of Europe was created after World War II to protect human and democratic rights and its membership expanded to include Russia and many formerly Communist states. It’s not a European Union institution.

Among countries cited for undemocratic practices were Russia, Turkey, Moldova, Hungary, and Azerbaijan. The practices included intimidation and arbitrary detention of government critics, journalists and members of civil society, as well as changes to the judiciary that were seen as threats to its independence.

The report noted that elections were postponed in many countries, or conducted “in less than ideal conditions, while the observation of elections was almost impossible to carry out.” It said that the quality of future polls must be vastly improved to restore the trust of wary citizens.

Power was also concentrated and centralized in government hands in some cases as coronavirus restrictions meant to fight the pandemic were misused or kept in force for too long.

Buric said violence against women had also worsened due to lockdown confinement while migrants and other vulnerable groups were facing more frequent abusive behavior at the hands of authorities.

“The sad reality is that an increase in the rates of domestic abuse was predictable from the very outset of the crisis. Periods of confinement mean that victims are often trapped with their abusers,” she said by videoconference at a meeting in Athens that coincided with the report’s release. ___ Lorne Cook reported from Brussels. [AP]

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