More bad news for journalists in Central Asia: An international ranking by Washington-based watchdog Freedom House has shown the region's five former Soviet states performing dismally when it comes to protecting press freedom. All five fall into Freedom of the Press 2012’s "Not Free" category.
Two, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, are singled out (not for the first time) as among the world’s worst abusers of press freedoms. These two authoritarian states languish at the bottom of Freedom House’s ranking of 197 countries: Reclusive Turkmenistan stands at 196 (beaten to last place by North Korea); Uzbekistan hovers at 195.
In these two countries “independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, citizens’ access to unbiased information is severely limited, and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture, and other forms of repression,” the report says.
The media situation in Kazakhstan, which has a handful of independent domestic outlets and allows foreign journalists to work, is somewhat less restricted. Nevertheless, Freedom House singles it out as among “countries of special concern,” alongside Russia and Azerbaijan. Kazakhstan ranked 175th, tying with Ethiopia and The Gambia.
Villagers in southern Kazakhstan have sacrificed a camel to ward off the evil eye after a spate of teenage suicides, a local TV channel reports.
The sacrifice was carried out in the village of Karabulak near Kazakhstan’s southern border with Uzbekistan to “drive the evil spirit out of the village,” Otyrar TV said, after two teenagers hanged themselves.
“Sixty years ago there was a similar case in our village,” Mayor Alimzhan Nishankulov told the TV channel. “At the time one elder said that it was necessary to sacrifice a white camel. Only then would there be peace and quiet here again. Our aim is to shelter young people from all afflictions.”
The local imam said that three teenagers who were saved during botched suicide attempts in recent weeks had subsequently told him of having strange dreams about an old man dressed in white. “In the visions the old man told them that life was pointless and called on him to follow them, pointing to a rope around his neck,” Imam Abdurrafi Rakhmutallayev said.
The creepy man who appeared in the dreams, the imam suggested, “was the devil in the form of a man who was manipulating them.”
Otyrar TV said that, in addition to the latest suicides, 14 people (mostly adolescents) had committed suicide in Karabulak in 2011. The previous year Kazakhstan also faced a baffling spate of teenage suicides.
As the trial of 37 people accused of crimes related to fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December continues in western Kazakhstan, prosecutors have singled out foreign journalists in their indictment of suspected ringleaders.
The Associated Press reported on April 27 that one of its correspondents was among reporters named in the charge sheet, which also named correspondents from the BBC and Kazakh newspaper Respublika, and a researcher from New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The indictment included transcripts of their December 16 conversations with Roza Tuletayeva, who faces up to 10 years in jail on charges of organizing mass unrest that day. It said she reported by telephone during the violence “to domestic and foreign correspondents,” described in the indictment as “miscreants.” In the transcripts, the reporters ask Tuletayeva what is happening and she describes events.
Tuletayeva is a former staff member from the OzenMunayGaz energy company who was involved in a strike that descended into violence last December. At least 16 people died when police fired on protestors.
Tuletayeva and others on trial have told the court that testimony was extracted from them by torture.
The indictment alleges that Tuletayeva was among ringleaders who organized premeditated unrest. It published transcripts of her SMS messages and calls, suggesting that her telephone was tapped before the unrest erupted.
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has launched a broadside against the West, warning in a TV interview of the dangers of seeking to export Western values to states with different traditions.
Speaking to Russia’s state-run Rossiya 24, Nazarbayev identified the West’s use of media spin to manipulate public opinion and generate protests as a “threat.” He attacked the West for attempts at “implanting their own ideas with the aim of influencing states’ domestic policy, creating people who are pro-protest.” Though he did not name a Western state, the position jives closely with his allies’ in Moscow.
“What is needed is evolution not revolution,” Nazarbayev added, repeating one of his favorite mantras.
Nazarbayev believes revolutions bring poverty in their wake, adding that “permanent revolution” in neighboring Kyrgyzstan (which has seen two presidents overthrown since 2005) was not making people’s lives better.
Even before Middle Eastern leaders started toppling like dominoes last year, Nazarbayev had made improving the lives of ordinary people in Kazakhstan a stated cornerstone of policy. In his interview he named poverty and unemployment as the chief causes of the Arab Spring – but added that “external forces” also played a role.
This was the second time in a week that Nazarbayev had condemned the Arab Spring: On April 20 he described the events as an “erosion of international law” that had shown that “society is not ready to accept the value reference points of the Western mass media.”
Prime Minister Karim Masimov has topped a new ranking of Kazakhstan’s movers and shakers published by the Vlast online magazine.
Masimov, Kazakhstan’s longest serving premier (he has headed the cabinet since 2007), managed to come top since the study did not include President Nursultan Nazarbayev. As Vlast put it, “it is obvious that in terms of level of influence not a single participant in the ranking could compare [with the president].”
Nazarbayev is by far Kazakhstan’s most influential figure, but Vlast’s take on who else wields power, formed by polling 90 experts, makes interesting reading.
Timur Kulibayev, a son-in-law of Nazarbayev who has been tipped as a possible successor, was in third place: After Masimov came Aslan Musin, head of Nazarbayev’s administration and a gray cardinal on Kazakhstan’s political scene.
Another presidential relative featured on the list: Dariga Nazarbayeva, the president’s eldest daughter, who has recently staged a political comeback by winning a parliamentary seat.
Kulibayev and Nazarbayeva are joined on Vlast’s ranking by other influential people mooted as possible presidential successors: Nurtay Abykayev, the 64-year-old head of the domestic intelligence service, is at number four; Akhmetzhan Yesimov, the 61-year-old mayor of Almaty, is at number 10.
Yesimov’s influence is outranked by two younger contenders tipped as possible future presidents: 43-year-old Deputy Prime Minister Kayrat Kelimbetov at number six; and, on his heels at number seven, Imangali Tasmagambetov, the 55-year-old mayor of Astana.
An attempt to render justice is quickly turning into a PR debacle for Kazakhstan. Troubling allegations that torture was employed to obtain incriminating statements is engulfing the trial of 37 individuals accused in connection with a deadly riot last December in the western oil town of Zhanaozen.
A journalist is recovering in a West Kazakhstan Region hospital following a vicious attack in which he was knifed eight times and shot with an air gun, local newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya reports.
Lukpan Akhmedyarov, a journalist from Uralskaya Nedelya who is well-known for his hard-hitting reporting, was attacked by five young men near his home in the regional capital of Oral (known in Russian as Uralsk) late on April 19, according to eyewitness reports.
He was hit over the back of the head with a heavy object then stabbed eight times, leaving him with deep knife wounds to the jaw, abdomen and chest. The newspaper published a photo of him covered in blood on a stretcher, and quoted a surgeon as saying Akhmedyarov’s body had traces of air gun wounds.
Doctors operated and said on April 20 that the journalist’s life was not in danger.
Uralskaya Nedelya editor-in-chief Tamara Yeslyamova said she believed the attack was the result of the reporter’s work. She quoted Akhmedyarov as saying the day before the assault that his wife was under pressure at her work over his reporting. In turn, Yeslyamova said, Akhmedyarov’s wife’s managers were being pressured by the security services.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the attack, though it pointed out that it is not yet clear if there is a link to Akhmedyarov’s reporting.
A closed terrorism trial has ended in western Kazakhstan with guilty verdicts for the 42 defendants, who received sentences ranging from five to 15 years in jail.
A court in Atyrau found the defendants, aged 22 to 32, guilty on charges including organizing a terrorist group; preparing terrorist acts; financing terrorism; and possession of weapons, explosives and explosive devices.
No specific details have been released about the alleged conspiracy. The suspects were arrested following a spate of militant activity in western Kazakhstan last summer, in an operation in which one man was shot dead.
Two months later, the energy hub of Atyrau was hit by two explosions that killed one perpetrator, in what was later reported to be a botched bombing attempt. In a separate closed trial, on April 2 five defendants received prison sentences of six to 12 years for those attacks.
As EurasiaNet.org reported last fall, those attacks were part of a series of extremist-related incidents that jolted Kazakhstan, starting with its first-ever suicide attack in another western city, Aktobe, in May, and culminating in a November rampage by a gunman in the southern town of Taraz that left the attacker and seven others dead.
In a workshop in the heart of Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley, Nigora Akhonova is seated over a steaming vat of silk cocoons. With measured movements she stirs the pot and pulls out some of the off-white, almond-sized cocoons using a stick to hook the gossamer threads spilling out of them. Slowly unraveling the strands, she feeds them across to Maryam Madaminova, who winds them onto a spindle.