For more than two decades, Murod Juraev languished behind bars in Uzbekistan and was subjected to torture and ill-treatment so bad that all his teeth fell out.
All kinds of pretexts were cooked up to extend the political activist’s jail term, including, on one occasion, a charge that he peeled carrots incorrectly.
Now, after 21 years in detention — a timespan that has made him “one of the world’s longest imprisoned peaceful political activists” — Juraev has been released, nine human rights groups said in a joint statement on November 12.
Juraev was a member of the Erk opposition party and a former local mayor in southern Uzbekistan when he was jailed, in 1994.
“The last 21 years have been a living hell that Murod Juraev and his family should never have had to experience,” Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch, said in the joint statement. “The Uzbek authorities should see to it that those who are alleged to have tortured Juraev and arbitrarily extended his prison sentence are promptly investigated and brought to justice.”
Swerdlow was referring to abuse to which Juraev, now 63 years old, was allegedly subjected in jail and to apparently groundless extensions to the original nine-year prison sentence.
Juraev had his jail term extended four times to keep him in jail — in 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2012 — after authorities found he had broken prison rules, including “peeling carrots incorrectly.”
In a signal not all is well, Uzbekistan has posted a slightly below-average economic growth forecast for 2016.
And on the black market — typically a more reliable barometer of economic well-being than the generously massaged government statistics — the national currency, the sum, sank to new lows of 6,000 against the dollar on November 12.
Government figures on predicted gross domestic product (GDP) growth for next year, as reported by the UzA state news agency, suggest the authorities are gradually acknowledging Uzbekistan is not immune from the economic shocks roiling Central Asia.
According to a national budget for 2016 passed by Uzbekistan’s parliament on November 11, GDP will grow by 7.8 percent.
The number ostensibly looks healthy for a region suffering the consequences of low commodity prices and from the repercussions of slowdowns in Russia and China, both major trading partners and investors. To make matters worse, remittances from migrant laborers abroad have been falling steadily, by 14 percent in 2014 and 45 percent in the first quarter of 2015, compared to the same period the previous years, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
But Tashkent has for years stubbornly predicted 8 percent growth and then proceeded to meet its targets precisely. Admission of anything even a whisker below is striking and shows the government is facing up to some of the economic challenges that will translate into slower growth.
Uzbekistan is also forecasting a budget deficit — of 1 percent — for the first time in years. It generally posts a surplus.
The government is sticking to its guns for this year at least and has reported 8 percent growth in the economy over the first three quarters.
Cruelty to animals has hit the headlines in Kazakhstan following the arrest of a young man for demonstrating his wrestling technique on a donkey.
This is the latest in a series of stories of abuse of animals – ranging from donkeys and dogs to wolf and bear cubs – that have caused public consternation.
Video of the man hurling the donkey over his head and onto the ground appeared online in early November, prompting police to launch an investigation after an outcry among social media users.
Police later arrested two unidentified suspects, a 19-year-old man and his accomplice, who was behind the video camera. The latter can be heard on the film screaming with laughter and making comparisons with “kures” — the traditional Kazakh sport of wrestling — as the donkey is thrown into the air and makes several hard landings onto its back and its head.
The two Almaty residents will face charges of cruelty to animals, police spokeswoman Zhanar Tolegenkyzy said in remarks broadcast by Khabar TV on November 9.
This is not first story involving animal abuse to hit the headlines in Kazakhstan of late.
In July, four men were arrested after appearing in a video showing them torturing some wolf cubs that they had caught. One attempted to decapitate one of the new-borns with a spade.
The era of cheap bread is coming to a close in Kazakhstan as the authorities prepare to scale back subsidies amid efforts to contain government spending.
Agriculture Minister Asylkhan Mamytbekov told parliament on November 9 that the government will lift price controls on the most basic type of bread — a subsidized loaf that is favored by the hardest-up.
As the minister explained in remarks broadcast by the private KTK TV channel bread subsidies not only put a burden on the state coffers but are also socially unjust since they are available to the rich and poor alike.
The authorities have pledged instead to provide targeted benefits to the needy in order to ensure that they do not go hungry. That will place the onus on those that normally rely on cheap bread to work out whether they qualify for assistance and to then go through the bureaucratic procedure of applying for that help.
No plan has been put in place for the transition and there are no plans to let bread prices rise until a new mechanism is put in place. One proposal under review involves handing out bread coupons.
The price of subsidized bread is set by the local authorities and is different in each region. The most expensive bread is on sale in Astana, at 65 tenge (around $0.20) per loaf, and Almaty, at 62 tenge. The nationwide average is 52 tenge (or $0.17), according to state newspaper Kazakhstanskaya Pravda.
By contrast, the price of non-subsidized bread varies wildly depending on location, outlet and quality, and can range from around 80 tenge per loaf to upward of 300 tenge.
The youngest daughter of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev is set to play a starring role in a new historical soap opera designed to rouse patriotic fervor.
Aliya Nazarbayeva is in discussions with the filmmakers to play a descendent of Tamerlane in the television show about the history of the Kazakh khanate, producer Artem Asenov told Tengri News.
“We’re holding talks with Aliya Nazarbayeva,” he said. “It’s not yet definite, because there might be clashes between her timetable and ours.”
If agreement is reached, 35-year-old Nazarbayeva will play Tamerlane’s great granddaughter Rabii (or Rabiga) Sultan Begum, whose mausoleum is located in the town of Turkestan in southern Kazakhstan.
Called Kazakh Khanate and currently filming in Almaty Region, the program is being made as part of this year’s celebrations of the 550th anniversary of the founding of the first Kazakh khanate in 1465.
The festivities, which were announced after Russian President Vladimir Putin said in 2014 that Kazakhstan had a short history of statehood, have been used as a way of “showing the world our great history,” as Nazarbayev put it during celebrations last month.
Uzbekistan is on a mission to woo foreign investors, touting a massive privatization drive that will see the state relinquish some control over an economy in which it retains a heavy hand.
However, investors may be leery of channeling their cash into a country with a reputation for seizing foreign assets without recompense.
Uzbekistan is putting up stakes for sale in a whopping 1,247 enterprises, First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov said at an investment forum in Tashkent on November 6, as reported by the UzA state news agency.
Foreign investors are being offered the opportunity to snap up state-owned stakes in 68 companies and bid at auctions against local investors for another 667 enterprises, Azimov said.
They will also have the chance to take on 512 (evidently loss-making) businesses for free, if they take on investment obligations.
Kazakhstan’s embattled currency has continued its downward slide to hit fresh lows after the dismissal of the central bank chief this week failed to restore market confidence in the tenge.
The latest drop came after the National Bank of Kazakhstan announced late on November 5 that it would stop propping up the tenge and let market forces decide the rate.
The currency fell to 307 to the dollar on November 6, a significant but not precipitous 2.5 percent fall on the previous day.
However, the tenge has fallen by 10 percent overall in the five days since President Nursultan Nazarbayev fired Kayrat Kelimbetov as chairman of the National Bank and replaced him with Daniyar Akishev — a move Nazarbayev said aimed to restore confidence in the ailing currency.
The tenge has now lost 64 percent of its value against the dollar since August, when the National Bank abandoned its policy of maintaining it in a managed corridor — a strategy Kelimbetov inherited from his predecessor, Georgiy Marchenko.
Under pressure from external forces ranging from the depreciation of Russia’s ruble to the fall in global oil prices, the tenge fell sharply in mid-September, prompting the National Bank to step in again to prop it up.
As of November 5, it has once more abandoned that policy, the central bank said in a statement, and decided on “the minimization of its participation in the currency market” in order to preserve hard currency reserves.
A top Norwegian business executive has been arrested in Oslo on corruption charges relating to a multimillion-dollar bribery case involving the ruling Karimov family of Uzbekistan.
The detention ramps up the pressure from international investigations into alleged bribery by multinationals of Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced daughter of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, to gain a foothold in the country’s lucrative telecoms market.
Jo Lunder, former chief executive of embattled Russian-owned telecoms company VimpelCom, was arrested as he flew into Oslo airport late November 4, a public prosecutor told Norwegian media the following day.
“He has been charged in connection to the VimpelCom case. It is a corruption charge,” Marianne Djupesland said in remarks quoted by Stockholm-based newspaper The Local, declining to reveal further details.
Lunder’s lawyer Cato Schiotz says the accused believes he is innocent, the newspaper reported.
The arrest comes three months after the U.S. Department of Justice won a ruling in a New York court to have $300 million dollars frozen as part of an investigation into what it described as an “international conspiracy to launder corrupt payments.”
The lawsuit alleges that illicit payments were made by two telecoms companies, Russia’s MTS and Amsterdam-based VimpelCom, which is majority owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman, to curry influence and secure favorable decisions to operate in Uzbekistan’s telecommunications sector.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev got the red carpet treatment at Buckingham Palace this week after signing billions of dollars in investment deals in London.
The focus of the two-day trip, which started on November 3, was trade, and British Prime Minister David Cameron – fresh from hosting China’s leader Xi Jinping about to welcome Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi – showed no sign of succumbing to pressure from campaigners to press Nazarbayev over Kazakhstan’s checkered human rights record.
Nazarbayev met Cameron and British businessmen and came away with 40 trade and investment deals worth around $5 billion, according to Nazarbayev's office.
One coup for Nazarbayev was an agreement for a British company to invest some $3.1 billion in a project to bring gas from the energy-rich west of his vast country to the capital Astana and the industrial heartlands.
Kazakhstan may have plenty of gas, but it lacks distribution capacity. So the deal reported by TengriNews for Britain’s Independent Power Corporation to build a gas pipeline and construct four gas stations is welcome for Astana.
Nazarbayev also secured agreement for British involvement in EXPO-17, a flagship international exhibition that Astana is hosting in two years, and investment in the steel and solar industries.
Washington’s top diplomat traveled to Central Asia to kick-start a historic initiative to reinvigorate U.S. engagement with the region, but it was the unceremonious treatment of a reporter that is going to stick in the memory.
Activists had hoped in advance of John Kerry’s whistle-stop tour that human rights issues might feature prominently on the agenda. But talk of those was relegated to the sidelines — in public at least.
Instead, Kerry focused on prospects of security, energy and economic cooperation, which have long constituted core priorities for Washington.
The closest Kerry came to mentioning Central Asia’s poor human rights record in public was in remarks about “quality of governance and the strength of democratic institutions.”
“In Central Asia, as elsewhere, people have a deep hunger for governments that are accountable and effective,” he said at the meeting on November 1 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, with foreign ministers from the region’s five former Soviet republics.
The U.S. State Department said in advance of the tour that this meeting would form the basis of a new diplomatic format, which it has dubbed C5+1.
“We should have no doubt that progress in democratic governance does lead to gains in every other field about which we are concerned and about which we are talking,” Kerry said.
The muted tone of those remarks will have come as a disappointment to many.