Authorities in northern Kazakhstan are disbanding a community of Muslims, believed to be the last independent Muslim congregation in the country.
Officials from a court-appointed Liquidation Commission arrived at the Din-Muhammad Tatar-Bashkir Mosque in the city of Petropavl on February 4, Oslo-based religious freedoms watchdog Forum 18 reports.
The mosque “is to be handed over to another [unspecified] religious organization,” Forum 18 quoted Marat Zhamaliyev, the deputy head of North Kazakhstan Region’s Finance Department, as saying.
The closure comes after the community that worships at the mosque failed to gain the official registration required under a controversial law on religion passed in 2011, which critics have called over-restrictive. The legislation controversially prohibits prayer in state buildings (including government offices, educational establishments, and military facilities), sets strict registration requirements for religious groups, and allows authorities to vet religious literature.
Forum 18 believes the 162-year-old mosque “may possibly be the last remaining publicly accessible mosque independent of the state-backed Muslim Board,” which is responsible for licensing mosques and regulating their activity.
The watchdog says that a community still exists at the mosque, regularly holds prayers there, “and intends to continue to exist.”
“We're not liquidating the mosque, we're liquidating the community,” Zhamaliyev said in response.
“No one is banning people from praying,” he added. “People can go to pray in the new community.”
As country rebranding goes it’s quite radical: President Nursultan Nazarbayev has suggested changing the name of Kazakhstan and calling it Kazak Yeli (Kazakh Country) instead.
Offering a clue to his thinking, Nazarbayev singled out the ‘stan’ part of the name – and held up neighboring Mongolia as an example of a country without the Persian suffix, which means “land of.”
“The name of our country has the ending ‘stan,’ as do the other states of Central Asia,” he said in remarks quoted by his press service on February 6.
“At the same time, foreigners show interest in Mongolia, whose population is just two million people, and its name lacks the suffix ‘stan.’ Perhaps with time the question of changing the name of our country to Kazak Yeli should be examined, but first this should definitely be discussed with the people.”
The people were quick to react, taking to Twitter to vent—some firmly for and others as staunchly against.
“I support Kazak Yeli!” tweeted one user named Ruslan Zhangazy, in Kazakh. “And you?”
“Perhaps now the Twitterati will think how to stand up for the name of our country together,” remarked another, Nikita Shabayev, in Russian.
Nazarbayev was speaking at a meeting with intellectuals during a trip to the western oil town of Atyrau on February 6. The nature of the venue suggests that these may have been off-the-cuff remarks rather than a firm policy statement, but the proposal does suggest that a country name change is on the president’s mind.
Russia has agreed to give Kazakhstan S-300 air defense systems, as well as to share a Russian missile-testing range in the country with Kazakhstani troops, the two countries' defense ministers announced.
The S-300 gift had been announced some time ago, but nothing had been said about it for years, leading to speculation that Russia had rescinded the offer. But on a visit to Astana on January 31, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said that Moscow would deliver five "divisions" of S-300PS (consisting of 12 units per division) this year.
Good news for the endangered saiga antelope in Kazakhstan: Numbers have almost doubled over the past two years to hit 187,000, the environment minister reports.
That means that numbers of this unusual-looking antelope, with its distinctive long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters, have risen by over a third since last June, when the Ministry for Environmental Protection estimated the tally at 137,000, and almost doubled since 2011, when numbers rose above the symbolic 100,000 mark.
The latest figures indicate that the population of the saiga, which is listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, is starting to recover, although numbers still stand at less than a fifth of Kazakhstan’s million-strong population of the 1970s. The government has set a target to bring the population up to half a million by 2025.
A man in northern Kazakhstan who was the victim of police torture has won a seven-year legal battle for damages, after a court upheld a ruling that he is entitled to financial compensation for his injuries.
The ruling was handed down by an appeals court in Kostanay on January 23, local newspaper Nasha Gazeta reported. Police must now pay some $13,000 in compensation to 44-year-old Aleksandr Gerasimov for injuries they inflicted by beating him up and suffocating him with a plastic bag in police detention to extract a confession in 2007. Gerasimov was arrested after going to a police precinct looking for his stepson, who had been rounded up during a murder investigation.
The court upheld a lower court ruling issued in November which came after Gerasimov, supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, won his case at the UN Committee Against Torture in 2012, the first ever brought from Central Asia. [Editor’s note: The Open Society Justice Initiative and EurasiaNet.org are separate entities operating under the auspices of the Open Society Foundations.]
“This ruling is an important step in redressing unjust actions from which victims of the most terrible violations of human rights such as torture continue to suffer,” Roza Akylbekova, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, said in remarks quoted by Nasha Gazeta.
Kazakhstan’s parliament was the scene of heated debates about bride kidnapping on January 23. One outraged lawmaker urged the death penalty for the crime; another vehemently defended the abduction and forced marriage of young women as a national tradition.
“For kidnapping a person for one hour, for a minute, for a whole life – there should be [execution by] shooting,” MP Kamal Burkhanov told parliament as it discussed a new draft of the Criminal Code.
“The main thing here is the infringement of basic human rights -- the kidnapping of a person and their detention,” Burkhanov said in remarks quoted by Tengri News. “It doesn’t matter to what end – for exploitation, for violence, for marriage, for something else. A basic human right has been infringed, and for this the toughest punishment should be introduced.”
Another male parliamentarian, Kairbek Suleymenov, pointedly disagreed, defending the practice as “our national tradition.” (National traditions are a mantra for Suleymenov, who last year urged “mechanisms” against gay marriage – which does not exist in Kazakhstan – as “alien to Kazakhstani psychology” and “traditions.”)
Suleymenov said he was not “justifying” bride kidnapping but claimed, without citing a source, that 90 percent of kidnapped women wish to be abducted.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Turkish President Abdullah Gul inspect an Israeli UAV during the KADEX defense exposition in Astana in 2010. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Kazakhstan's defense minister has visited Israel, where he met with officials including President Shimon Peres and discussed what seemed to be an ambitious expansion of military cooperation between the two countries. The focus of the cooperation would be training -- including Israeli soldiers conducting drills in Kazakhstan -- and Israeli technical expertise for Kazakhstan's nascent defense industry. From a Kazakhstan Ministry of Defense press release:
In the sphere of military interaction the President of Israel offered to conduct joint exercises of the Armed Forces of two countries on Kazakhstan firing fields.
In turn, [Kazakhstan Defense Minister] Adilbek Dzhaksybekov noted that Kazakhstan gives special importance to the expansion of investment and technical cooperation with Israel in military industry....
“Today the defining tendency of development of the Armed Forces of Kazakhstan is its professionalization. At the present stage changed forms and methods of warfare and applied them in armaments and military equipment require highly skilled experts - military professionals. In this context, we attach particular importance to the possibility of studying the experience of combat training of the Armed Forces of Israel,” the Minister of Defence of Kazakhstan noted.
Kazakhstan’s famous alpine skating rink outside Almaty turned into a love-fest for President Nursultan Nazarbayev this weekend, as skaters were bombarded with pearls of wisdom from his recent state-of-the-nation address.
Hundreds of students from Almaty universities were bussed up to the Medeu complex on January 18 amid an attempt to break the world record for mass alpine skating, with at least 500 people gathering on the ice in the presence of an official from Guinness World Records, the body which will assess the record-breaking bid.
But the event was soon hijacked to remind the young people whom they have to thank for all their fun – Nazarbayev, who goes by the title of Leader of the Nation. The giant screen that usually plays pop videos as skaters circle the ice was given over to excerpts from his state-of-the-nation address, which was delivered on January 17 and contained the usual dry statements about improving the economy and boosting social well-being.
Critics have long claimed that 73-year-old Nazarbayev – who, in power for over two decades, is one of the world’s longest serving rulers – is the subject of a thriving cult of personality in Kazakhstan, where he brooks no opposition to his autocratic rule but also enjoys genuine public popularity for bringing stability and relative economic prosperity.
Kazakhstan’s parliament is to discuss the possibility of introducing legal sanctions against “lesbianism,” a member of the lower house revealed on January 14 in remarks that will alarm Kazakhstan’s low-profile lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
Parliamentarians are to raise the question of “bringing to book” for “lesbianism and other aspects of the sexual and gender sphere,” deputy Nurlan Abdirov told a session of the lower house’s legal affairs committee in vaguely worded remarks quoted by Tengri News. Deputies plan to hold “special themed sessions and round tables” on the topic, he said, without offering further details.
So far no bill has been drawn up and the type of discussions Abdirov is proposing would not carry legal force. Nevertheless, the remarks are alarming for the embattled LGBT community, which was shaken by a spate of homophobic outbursts in parliament last year.
MP Kairbek Suleymenov was the first to speak out, demanding “mechanisms” to counteract gay marriage as “alien” to national traditions, in response to a symbolic lesbian wedding held last April in Karaganda. But no legal mechanism for gay marriage exists or is planned in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan wants more control over the town and cosmodrome of Baikonur, now largely controlled by Russia, the country's space agency chief said in an interview. His comments are the latest move in the effort by an increasingly assertive Kazakhstan to renegotiate the terms of its ties with Russia, of which the most symbolic manifestation has been the wrangling over the legendary Baikonur site.
Baikonur was the Soviet Union's main space launch site, and continues to play that role for the Russian space program although it lies within the territory of Kazakhstan. And as a legacy of the Soviet era, Moscow continues to control Baikonur. But Talgat Musabayev, the head of Kazakhstan's National Space Agency, told Russian newspaper Izvestia that his country wanted more control over Baikonur. Musabayev said that under the previous leadership of the Russian space agency, he didn't even have permission to go to Baikonur, but that the situation has recently gotten better. Still, he said, Kazakhstan wants to formalize its rights so it doesn't depend on who is in charge in Russia:
Finally, we are able to visit the territory of our own cosmodrome, located in our country. Until this the conversation was short: "We won't let you and that's final; it's a secret 'object.'" But what is so secret there? If there was something, everyone knows about it by now. We heard phrases about maintaining the regime of nonproliferation of rocket technology, but that is for the most part just an excuse.
The two countries recently signed a "road map" laying out the plans for the city and cosmodrome for the period 2014-2016, and it includes some extension of Kazakhstan's sovereignty into Baikonur: