Uzbekistan is taking increasingly drastic measures in the fight against college admission exam cheats by ordering cellphone companies to disable some of their services temporarily.
Local news website Gazeta.uz cited three major mobile providers — Beeline, Ucell and UMS — as saying that they temporarily suspended messaging services for five hours on August 1. The time coincided when school-leavers take their all-important tests that decide their long-term future.
The message-blocking practice is now carried out annually and is intended to thwart crafty students hoping to get assistance from accomplices outside the exam hall.
Rampant cheating has been a feature of exam-taking across the former Soviet Union for many decades. Educational authorities appear to be taking the matter more seriously, although some creative souls try to slip through.
Earlier this year, a student in Kazakhstan schemed to help his girlfriend ace her exams by dressing in her clothes and taking her place. The black wig, skirt, eye makeup and pink lipstick were not enough to fool the invigilators, however. Police were called in, leading to the young man facing charges of fraud.
Exam-takers in Uzbekistan are, like most places in the world, forbidden from bringing in their phone, but that has not deterred the ingenious in the past.
One website, Uz24, explains how some students have circumvented the ban by taking their mobile phones apart and distributing the components in various pockets for later assembly. Others simply hide their phones in toilets or tape them under conveniently located tables, if they know in advance where they are to be seated.
Uzbekistan is planning to introduce a new form of criminal penalty that appears tailor-made to wield against Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced daughter of strongman leader Islam Karimov, in due course.
Parliament is considering amendments to the criminal code that would allow the courts to sentence convicted offenders to house arrest instead of prison or other forms of punishment, MP Aliya Yunusova, told the legal news website Norma.uz on July 29.
House arrest is currently only applied as a form of pre-trial detention, but if the change is passed by Uzbekistan’s rubber stamp parliament — a foregone conclusion — it will be on the statute books as a penalty.
That could theoretically provide Karimov’s administration with a face-saving legal resolution to the saga of the disgraced Karimova, who has been held under house arrest since February 2014 but never charged with a crime (at least to public knowledge).
At first no explanation was given for her detention, but last September prosecutors said Karimova was under investigation on suspicion of involvement in organized crime and corruption.
Her associates Gayane Avakyan and Rustam Madumarov had been convicted in a related case, the prosecutors said. They are believed to be serving jail terms in Uzbekistan.
The two also feature in a Swiss money-laundering investigation in which Karimova is a suspect, which is linked to a Swedish probe into allegations of illicit payments in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector.
The sudden move to introduce house arrest as a penalty may be a prelude to developments in Karimova’s case, such as filing formal charges against her with a view to bringing her to trial.
General Lloyd Austin and other U.S. officials in Tashkent for meetings with President Islam Karimov on military cooperation. (photo: president.uz)
A senior American military official has visited Uzbekistan to discuss unspecified military cooperation issues.
General Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. Central Command, visited Tashkent on July 27 and met with President Islam Karimov and other officials. Uzbekistan's press release on the event said that Afghanistan was the topic of conversation, among other issues of regional security. RIA Novosti, citing "a source close to the negotiations," said the talks focused on the delivery of over 300 armored vehicles that Washington has promised. CENTCOM does not appear to have commented on the visit at all.
All that is fairly routine, and the talks also likely dealt with the possibility of further U.S. military aid that officials in Washington have hinted at. Meanwhile, Russia also recently ratified a deal under which Moscow would write off $900 billion in Uzbekistan's debt in order to open up new lines of credit for military purchases.
When it comes to human rights and Uzbekistan, the news is usually bad.
The U.S. State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, published on July 27, does not buck that trend, but it is notable in recognizing what it says are efforts by Tashkent to reduce forced child labor.
That has prompted the American government to promote Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to Tier 2 on its watch list — a move that has stunned the Cotton Campaign advocacy group.
Cotton Campaign, which has as it aim the end of forced child and adult labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, says the upgrade lets Tashkent off the hook.
“The Uzbek government continues to operate one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labor in the world,” the group said in a statement.
Nadejda Ataeva, president at the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, said in comments carried on the Cotton Campaign statement, that the United States “has effectively sent a message to Uzbek authorities that forced labor of millions of its citizens is cost-free.”
The U.S. State Department paints a grim picture, but offers some ostensibly consolatory remarks in passing:
“Government-compelled forced labor of adults remains endemic during the annual cotton harvest. In 2014, despite a central government-decree banning all participation of those under age 18 in the cotton harvest, local officials mobilized children in some districts. In addition, across much of the country, third-year college and lyceum students continued to be mobilized, an unknown number of whom were not yet 18 years old.”
A dispute among rival outlaw gold miners in Uzbekistan has ended with the death of around 25 people in a blast at an abandoned mine, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service reported on July 17.
Radio Ozodlik reports that the explosion occurred on July 13 at a mine near the village of Kochbulak, around 90 kilometers southeast of the capital, Tashkent.
There has been no official disclosure on the incident, as is typical in Uzbekistan, which has in the past sought to quash all information about major accidents. An Emergency Services Ministry spokesman contacted on July 17 said he was unable to provide any information.
Ozodlik’s unnamed source said villagers from Kochbulak regularly went down a nearby mine in search of gold.
“There was a quarrel between two groups. The losing side set fire to the supporting columns that held up the mine. The masonry fell on top of those that remained inside, some were poisoned by the toxic smoke,” the source told Ozodlik.
A local activist from Kochbulak cited by the broadcaster said rescue workers have recovered at least five bodies.
Illegal mining is commonplace across much of Central Asia _ the result of poor employment prospects and ample disused Soviet-era industrial mining facilities.
Uzbekistan is particularly rich in gold reserves, which are estimated to stand at around 5,300 metric tons, and was ranked the world’s seventh largest producer of the metal in 2014.
The industry remains severely underdeveloped, however, and is dominated by two state-controlled companies _ Navoi Mining and Metallurgy Combinat and Almalyk Mining-Metallurgical Complex.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the SCO summit in Ufa. Behind the smiles, there were disagreements over the planned accession of India and Pakistan to the group. (photo: president.uz)
Central Asian states are eyeing with concern the planned expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to include India and Pakistan, regional analysts say.
With the addition of the two South Asian countries, the membership of the organization -- now China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- would increase from six to eight. Four of those are outside Central Asia, and all four of those are nuclear powers with populations and economies that far surpass those of the SCO's four Central Asian members.
While there is little room in the SCO for public dissent, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov issued probably the most surprising statement of the summit, saying that the addition of India and Pakistan "would not only change the political map, but would change the balance of power. This is not a simple issue, and it needs to be discussed."
That went against the conventional wisdom in Ufa, which was that the addition of India and Pakistan would make the SCO stronger and was to be welcomed.
On India and Pakistan, Karimov "said what everyone was thinking, but wouldn't say," said Galiya Ibragimova, a consultant on Central Asia at the Moscow PIR Center on Political Research, in an interview with The Bug Pit.
The concerns about the addition of India and Pakistan are various. In Karimov's case, he is worried that it would shift the group's attention away from Central Asia to South Asia.
Ibragimova pointed out that Karimov has traditionally not wanted to participate in groups where the focus was outside of Central Asia, noting that its decision to pull out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2012 was justified by the fact that the CSTO was also getting involved in conflicts outside the region, for example Nagorno Karabakh.
State Department officials have defended the provision of armored vehicles to Uzbekistan against criticism that it is irresponsible to reward a government with such a poor record of treating its citizens, while more military aid to Tashkent appears to be in the works.
In January, the State Department announced that it was giving more than 300 used Mine-Resistant Armor-Protected (MRAP) vehicles to Uzbekistan, the largest transfer of U.S. military equipment to a Central Asian country. It was surprising move given that Uzbekistan's star in Washington seemed to be falling: the U.S. is pulling out of Afghanistan and so neighboring Uzbekistan is no longer a critical partner in the war effort.
Nevertheless, the U.S. wants to help Uzbekistan and the MRAPs are "purely defensive vehicles" and would only be used by the Ministry of Defense forces and not by police units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Daniel Rosenblum.
Rosenblum was testifying before Congress at a June 25 hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, "Civil and Political Rights in Uzbekistan and Central Asia: Implications for Post-2014 U.S. Foreign Policy." He was asked by the commission's chairman, Massachusetts Democratic Rep. James McGovern, what the "rationale" was for giving the vehicles to Uzbekistan given the country's poor human rights record, which includes firing on and killing hundreds of its own civilians in 2005 protests.
An Airbus C295W military transport aircraft with Uzbekistan markings, captured by a Spanish aviation photographer. (photo: @ja_almarza)
Uzbekistan appears to have bought four military transport aircraft from Airbus, as it continues to try to get new military equipment from Western partners.
Neither Uzbekistan nor Airbus have confirmed the sale, but the news appears to have been broken by a Spanish aviation photographer, J.A. Almarza, who captured images of the aircraft in Spain with the Uzbekistan flag painted on the tail.
Earlier, Airbus announced that it had sold eight C295W aircraft to customers who did not want to be identified. Last week, Saudi Arabia announced that it was buying four of those. The publication of the Spanish photographs seems to solve the rest of the puzzle. "Photographs recently published on the internet by aviation enthusiasts show a C295W at Seville in the markings of the Uzbekistan Air Force, indicating this will be the recipient of the other four," reported IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
The leading Russian defense blog, BMPD, came to the same conclusion: "The June 17 appaearance of the first photographs of the C295W in the colors of the Uzbekistan Air Force leads to the conclusion that the purchaser of the other four aircraft is Uzbekistan."
A spokesman for Airbus, asked by The Bug Pit to confirm or deny the purchase, declined to comment.
The State Department has released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" reviewing terrorism activity from the past year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISIS is the overwhelming focus throughout the report, but also in the former Soviet Union.
"The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014," State wrote in the report's introduction. "The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years."
The report continues State's practice of describing governments' perceptions of the threat of terrorism, rather than Washington's own perception. The introduction of the section on South and Central Asia reads: "Central Asian leaders have expressed concern about the potential terrorist threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters to the region in the wake of ISIL’s growth in the Middle East and the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan."
Last year's report expressed substantial skepticism about Central Asian government's claims about terror threats; that skepticism is less apparent in this report's newly written sections on ISIS. However, a senior State Department official testified before Congress earlier this month on ISIS in Central Asia and downplayed the threat, noting that the vast majority are not recruited in Central Asia but abroad, particularly in Russia.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has finished a weeklong tour of the five Central Asian states by appealing for them to improve their dismal human rights records. He called on the region’s autocrats to respect civil liberties, at the very least as a means to preserve stability.
“There is no peace without development. No development without peace. And neither is possible without a respect for human rights,” Ban told a meeting of students and officials in Turkmenistan, which campaigners describe as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
Speaking in Ashgabat on June 13, the last day of his tour, Ban pointed to concerns about a “deterioration of some aspects of human rights – a shrinking democratic space” across Central Asia.
Restrictions on freedoms might foster “an illusion of stability in the short-run,” he added, but ultimately threatened to create “a breeding ground for extremist ideologies.”
“Around the world, the way to confront threats is not more repression, it is more openness. More human rights,” he added.
A day earlier, in Uzbekistan, Ban had heeded calls by human rights campaigners to press Tashkent over the issues of forced labor and torture.
He acknowledged progress in eliminating the use of child labor, but urged the government to address “the mobilization of teachers, doctors and others in cotton harvesting,” and also “prevent the maltreatment of prisoners.”
Ban hailed “good laws” adopted in Uzbekistan to uphold the rule of law, but added that “laws on the books should be made real in the lives of people.”