TeliaSonera's is a familiar logo in Central Asia and the Caucasus
Traveling to the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku this month? You might think twice before picking up an Azercell SIM card for your mobile phone, even though the company is one of the event's main sponsors.
An investigation by the Swedish public broadcaster, Sveriges Television (SVT), last month alleges that TeliaSonera, the Swedish-Finnish telecommunications giant, is helping authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union spy on their own citizens, making the company complicit in human rights abuses.
TeliaSonera has given dictatorships like Azerbaijan, Belarus and Uzbekistan – which rank among the world's worst human rights abusers – access to its systems in exchange for lucrative contracts, says the hour-long report, which aired on April 17 and is available online with English-language subtitles.
A former executive from the company said on condition of anonymity that TeliaSonera – which is 37 percent owned by the Swedish government – has granted security services in these countries real-time access to all telephone calls, data and text messages, which has facilitated the arrest of opposition members in Belarus and a savage attack on an Azerbaijani journalist.
In Azerbaijan, the security agency even has an office of its own in the Azercell building, said the report. TeliaSonera operates Azercell in Azerbaijan, Geocell in Georgia, Kcell in Kazakhstan, Tcell in Tajikistan and Ucell in Uzbekistan, among others. It also holds a major stake in Turkey's Turkcell.
“If there was a glitch [with monitoring calls], the security agency called. They’d want us to shut down the network until the problem was solved,” the former TeliaSonera executive said of his experience dealing with the Belarusian KGB.
Everything is fine, no need to look here, we don’t secretly cut out our women’s wombs.
That’s the message from Uzbekistan’s state-run Uzdaily.uz, which has decried as the work of the “yellow press” a recent BBC report on how Uzbek doctors are secretly sterilizing tens of thousands of women.
Only women who wish to be sterilized are having the procedure, says Uzdaily. The BBC, however, reported that doctors are convincing women to give birth by Caesarean section in order to gain access to their internal reproductive organs: "Rules on Caesareans used to be very strict, but now I believe 80 percent of women give birth through C-sections. This makes it very easy to perform a sterilization and tie the fallopian tubes," a senior surgeon at a Tashkent hospital told the BBC. Uzdaily reiterated the government claim, which doctors ridicule, that only 6.8 percent of Uzbek women have C-sections.
The controversial sterilizations are not new, but the BBC report – which suggested officials are concerned with Uzbekistan’s ranking on international maternal mortality indices – appears to have gotten Tashkent’s attention. The Associated Press reported in 2010 on the “Uzbek women who have been surgically sterilized without their knowledge or consent in a program designed to prevent overpopulation from fueling unrest.”
The doctor “never asked for my approval, never ran any checks, just mutilated me as if I were a mute animal," one mother, who had part of her uterus removed during a C-section, told the AP, shortly after the death of her first, and last, baby.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov Meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Will he be shaking hands with Obama next?
U.S. President Barack Obama should meet with his Uzbekistan counterpart, Islam Karimov, at the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago, says the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce. The AUCC has written two letters, one to Obama and the other to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arguing that an Obama-Karimov meeting would improve opportunities for American businesses in Uzbekistan:
[T]he Republic of Uzbekistan is important to U.S. interests in ensuring stability and security in the region, and under the Partnership for Peace Program, NATO and Uzbekistan are developing practical cooperation in a number of areas through Uzbekistan's Individual Partnership Program and the Planning and Review Process.
The Republic of Uzbekistan's political stability as well as its determination and commitment to ensure peace in the region are important features for business success. For AUCC member companies, the positive political dialogue between the United States of America and the Republic of Uzbekistan pursued by your office reinforces the U.S. business community's ability to increase investments and exports to the Uzbek market.
The AUCC would welcome your support for the request that you meet Uzbek President Islam A. Karimov during the NATO Summit in Chicago, IL. The U.S. business community believes that such a meeting with further enhance our bilateral relations, reiterate the U.S. commercial interest in this resource-rich country and strengthen our companies' business stance in the region.
The Bug Pit obtained copies of the letters, you can read the entire letter to Obama here. (The letter to Clinton is almost identical.)
The person who sent me the letter wasn't sure if Karimov was already planning to attend the NATO summit, but if he does, that will certainly be a bit of a spectacle.
Rumors are circulating that London has rejected the daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman Islam Karimov as his ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. Gulnara Karimova, the self-styled glamorous society queen, has already served as Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Spain and representative to the United Nations in Geneva. If true, the rebuff could spell trouble for Britain’s Afghanistan exit plans.
Though the idea Gulnara would seek such a sinecure is not far-fetched, for now the main source seems to be Craig Murray, a scandalous former British ambassador to Tashkent known for his debauched parties and long-standing hatred for the Karimov regime.
In an interview published April 19 with the BBC’s Uzbek service, Murray, citing “friends” in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), insists London has not agreed to Tashkent’s request.
BBC: We have asked the Foreign Office about the possible appointment of Gulnara Karimova as ambassador to the UK, but the Foreign Office said there had been no such agreement or request. You are not a member of the British government, but where are you getting this kind of information? Why should we trust you?
Murray: I worked as a member of the British government for over 20 years […] I still have many friends among former colleagues that I worked with during that time. They keep giving me information about what is going on. I’d like to stress one thing: The British government has not agreed to host Gulnara Karimova as ambassador and no deal has been achieved to this effect. But the information that there has been no such a request or demand is false. This request was sent to Britain from Tashkent.
Yelena Bondar, one of the few independent journalists operating inside Uzbekistan, is defiant after a Tashkent court ruled earlier this month that she must pay $3,700 in fines for researching the closure of a Russian university campus there.
The court decided that Bondar's research had insulted the nation, as photographer Umida Ahmedova had in 2010 by documenting gender inequality. “Bondar’s defense lawyer says no actual evidence was brought to demonstrate her guilt. Journalists and human rights defenders were not allowed to attend the hearing,” reports the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. From IWPR’s interview with Bondar:
IWPR: This isn’t the first case where lawyers and human rights defenders say charges have not been supported by evidence in court. In March, Viktor Krymzalov was fined for an article he never wrote, while last autumn, Leonid Kudryavtsev, the press officer at the British Embassy, was fined for conducting “illegal training.”
Why is this happening now?
Yelena Bondar: In the cases you’ve cited, trials are not intended to provide fair hearings; they are a pretext for punishing journalists and those who support them. The guilty verdict and the charges are invented.
The authorities are using every means possible to maintain authoritarian rule, so they wage war on dissent and freedom of speech.
IWPR: What measures can journalists who are charged in Uzbekistan take to prove their innocence?
Uzbek officials are still ordering women to be forcibly sterilized, but Tashkent has christened 2012 the “Year of the Family,” pledging to help young couples marry and families stay together. Getting into the spirit, First Daughter Gulnara Karimova and her charitable foundations are promising parties in a campaign dubbed “1,000 weddings, 1,000 circumcisions.”
Karimova’s charity-cum-PR agency Fund Forum presented the idea at UN Plaza in New York earlier this month with representatives from both her country’s Permanent Mission to the UN and Consulate General in New York in attendance.
In Uzbekistan, the celebrations have already begun. At the end of March, 123 weddings and 200 sunnat-toys (circumcisions) were held in the Navoi and Kashkadarya regions with Fund Forum sponsorship. According to the UzDaily, a pro-government news portal, these ceremonies help orphans and couples from needy families get married, and for the male children of needy families to be circumcised free of charge. The new couples received gifts of furniture, televisions, and refrigerators, while the boys were given bikes, toys, and books. Fund Forum is tight-lipped on how the project is financed.
Though she could not make the party in person, Karimova sent her blessings to the new couples, as well as weddings dresses from her own designer fashion line, Guli. Guli was in the news last fall when human rights activists protested Karimova’s planned appearance at New York Fashion Week, prompting organizers to cancel her show.
Stories have been leaking out for years about doctors secretly performing hysterectomies on women who have given birth in hospitals. The surgeries are described as “voluntary,” but EurasiaNet.org has reported how increasing numbers of women are choosing to give birth at home, fearing doctors will tie up their fallopian tubes or cut out their uteri without their consent.
The UN Committee Against Torture and the US State Department have both expressed concern. Nevertheless, it appears Tashkent is issuing doctors quotas for the procedures.
"Every year we are presented with a plan. Every doctor is told how many women we are expected to give contraception to; how many women are to be sterilized,” a gynecologist from Tashkent told the BBC’s Natalia Antelava.
Several doctors I spoke to say that in the last two years there has been a dramatic increase in Caesarean sections, which provide surgeons with an easy opportunity to sterilize the mother. These doctors dispute official statements that only 6.8% of women give birth through C-sections.
"Rules on Caesareans used to be very strict, but now I believe 80% of women give birth through C-sections. This makes it very easy to perform a sterilization and tie the fallopian tubes," says a chief surgeon at a hospital near the capital, Tashkent.
One local expert estimated tens of thousands of forced sterilizations have happened in the past few years across Central Asia's most populous nation, a vast country of, officially, 28 million.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov hopes to lure big spenders to Tashkent with promises of fixed tax rates and less bureaucracy. But while he hatches plans to spend big in the capital, authorities in rural areas are taking farcical steps to shore up their failing economies.
Karimov signed a decree on April 10 allowing foreign companies that spend over $5 million to have their tax rate fixed at the time of investment for ten years, and not be subject to Uzbekistan’s unpredictable legislative process. The president’s decree also warns local powerbrokers and police officers to lower bureaucratic hurdles, which have scared off foreign companies in the past.
Maybe the measures will help soften Uzbekistan’s image after a series of scandals, allegedly orchestrated by foreign-owned companies’ Uzbek partners, forced some big investors to liquidate their assets, which were quickly bought for cheap by the government. “The central thrust of the plan to draw foreign companies appears based on making conditions more predictable,” the Associated Press said of the decree.
Human rights activist Elena Urlaeva has been admitted to a psychiatric clinic in Tashkent.
Opposition news agency Uznews.net reports that Urlaeva’s “fellow activists” admitted her to Psychiatric Clinic Number 1 on April 5 because they were concerned about her behavior following a recent visit to Turkey.
Urlaeva, who runs The Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, had reportedly gone to Turkey to meet with the head of the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU), an umbrella group of exiled Uzbek opposition parties and activists. Upon returning, her relatives say, she wasn’t herself, became hysterical, and chanted the phrase “Allahu Akbar,” meaning “God is Great” in Arabic. Some loved ones fear her hospitalization will conveniently keep her from attending a meeting of human rights activists in Switzerland next month.
Whenever it comes to human rights in Uzbekistan, the story gets confused. On April 5, Uzmetronom, a website that often appears close to the Uzbek security services, posted an article entitled “True-believer Elena.” The article alleges that people close to Urlaeva claim she had converted to Islam while on a recent trip to Sweden. An unnamed source in the article asserts, “It was specifically that step that caused the sharp psychological break in a woman with heightened susceptibility.”
Before announcing the release of her latest disco pop album yesterday, the daughter of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov – who records under her father’s pet name for her, Googoosha – has been traipsing the globe promoting Uzbek culture, including her country’s Islamic heritage.
Under the auspices of her Fund Forum, an exhibition, “Masterpieces of Eastern Calligraphy and Miniature Art: Traditional Culture of Uzbekistan,” opened last week in Dubai with works borrowed from the Institute of Oriental Studies at Uzbekistan’s Academy of Sciences, the Spiritual Council of Muslim of Uzbekistan, and private collections. Fund Forum, an organization claiming to promote art and culture within Uzbekistan and abroad, published an accompanying book – "Models of Eastern Calligraphy and Miniatures."
Some might find it odd that as Karimova publicizes the role of Islam in Uzbek art, her father bans religious clothing, installs cameras to keep track of worshippers, and locks away anyone suspected of an interpretation of Islam that does not conform to his standards. Throw in his penchant for torture, and watchdogs call Uzbekistan one of the most repressive countries on the planet.
But Karimova endorses a more “traditional” Uzbek art.