A press conference in Almaty on the proposed plans to rent land to foreign investors had to be cancelled April 29 after police detained the organizers.
The heavy-handed effort to prevent a public discussion is highlighting the nervous state of a government that is flailing in its attempts to quell a wave of protests over the land issue.
Mukhtar Taizhan and Rysbek Sarsenbaiuly, who were set to speak at Almaty’s National Press Club, were forcibly denied from getting to the building by police. Rights activists filming the detention, like Galym Ageleuov, were themselves also hauled away by police.
Some time later, Sarsenbaiuly’s wife, Marzhan Aspandiyarova, did manage to reach the National Press Club to explain to reporters what had happened to her husband, but the scene degenerated into chaos as she spoke. As journalists gathered around her to listen, several policemen barged in to physically drag her away into a waiting car.
“If you want to prosecute, go ahead. The land will not be sold,” Aspandiyarova yelled as she was being manhandled.
The protests that have sprung up in several locations in Kazakhstan revolve around government plans to sell off unused farming land, which many Kazakhstanis fear could be bought up by foreign buyers — the Chinese are the main suspects.
Authorities have tried to reassure the public, specifying that the land being made available can be sold only to citizens of Kazakhstan, while foreigners must do with renting for periods of up to 25 years.
Those reassurances have had little effect. Some argue that once the 25 year period is up, foreigners may choose to squat on the land, while others suspect unauthorized sales will be approved on the sly.
The US Ambassador to Tajikistan this week attended the launch of a new printing press intended for the use of the country’s would-be independent media, which has in fact almost all but disappeared.
If one recently published article is anything to go by, however, the only things to be printed freely in Tajikistan these days are anti-opposition screeds.
Ambassador Elisabeth Millard unveiled the press on April 27 alongside Munim Olamov, the secretary general of the Media Alliance, which is comprised of 12 media organizations, and the general director of Imruz News daily newspaper.
As Millard explained, US financial support for creating the press was intended to promote a free media.
“Freedom of expression is one of our country’s core values, and one that we promote in Tajikistan. We sincerely hope that through the use of this printing press, your news agencies will prosper and access to information in Tajikistan will increase as more people are able to regularly read your newspapers,” Millard said, according to a US Embassy press release.
And what sort of information will the public be able to access exactly?
One article that appeared in a supplement inside an edition of Imruz News only days before the printing press opening is highly indicative.
In the piece, Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda launches a phenomenal tirade against the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which has been liquidated and had almost its entire leadership stuck behind bars.
The land protest movement in Kazakhstan is gathering momentum and spreading to more cities, while the authorities appear determined to ride out the public anger.
RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service reported on April 27 that activists in the city of Uralsk applied for permission to rally next month on the heels of major demonstrations earlier in the day in Aktobe and Semey.
The demonstrations are ostensibly against government plans to sell off unused farming land, which many Kazakhstanis fear could be bought up by foreign buyers — the Chinese are the main suspects — but public speeches at the rallies indicate the discontent is spreading to other issues, such as corruption.
Authorities have tried to reassure the public, specifying that the land being made available for acquisition can only be sold to citizens of Kazakhstan, while foreigners will only be able to rent for up to 25 years. The president’s office has argued this move will put the farming land back into circulation and provide economic return on land that is now lying unused.
That has reassured few, however.
Footage uploaded to the Internet from the unsanctioned meeting in Aktobe, which looks to have gathered many hundreds, showed speakers touching on a variety of issues, from the justice system to recurrent plans to build a nuclear power station — another popular source of unhappiness.
All the protests appear to have proceeded peacefully so far, not least as the police have refrained from attempting to break them up.
Although state media have studiously avoided reporting on the protests, President Nursultan Nazarbayev on April 26 criticized what he said was a swirl of disinformation surrounding the planned land sales.
Kazakhstan has approved chemical castration as a form of punishment for people jailed on charges of pedophilia.
The law entered into force with approval from President Nursultan Nazarbayev last week.
Under the law, chemical castration will be administered through a course of injections that will act on the body over a number of months to reduce sexual urges.
“The drugs being administered by injection to the subject of castration are anti-androgenic,” psychiatrist Ahtolkyn Meyrmanova told 365info.kz, referring to a type of medication intended to reduce male hormones in the organism. “The injections will be carried out once every three months under observation from a specialist.”
The legislation to introduce chemical castration in Kazakhstan was proposed by the office of the General Prosecutor. The deputy to the General Prosecutor, Nurmahanbet Isayev, has estimated that up to 100 rapists are released from jail ever years.
KazTAG news agency cited official data stating that more than 3,000 people have been sentenced on sex crimes over the past five years. Of the more than 200 whose offenses involving underage children, 63 had prior convictions for similar crimes.
The drastic measures against pedophiles have broad support in society, although some rights activists have spoken out against the punishment.
Following the most potent criticism to date over the treatment of jailed activist Azimjan Askarov, Kyrgyzstan’s highest court said on April 25 that the case may be reviewed after all.
Whether that means Askarov could be released is not yet certain, but it suggests the authorities may be changing tack from their usual indignant combativeness over the issue.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee on April 21 urged Kyrgyzstan to immediately free the rights activist, who it said had been subjected to torture and denied a fair trial. In September 2010, Askarov, who is an ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer amid ethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan in June of that year. Many suspect he had been singled out for prosecution because of this prior activism highlight the routine abuses of police officers.
A day after the UN issued its statement, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) doubled down on the calls for Kyrgyzstan to overturn Askarov’s sentence.
“Kyrgyzstan now has an opportunity to correct this injustice, restoring both Mr. Askarov’s rights and its national human rights record in this regard,” ODIHR director Michael Georg Link said in a statement. “Freeing him will also send a strong signal to law enforcement and judicial actors in Kyrgyzstan that the rule of law must be upheld equally for all citizens.”
The Supreme Court said in a statement that the UN Human Rights Committee’s complaint created grounds, under Article 41 of the constitution, for Askarov to lodge a fresh appeal.
Protests are picking up steam in Kazakhstan against reforms that many fear could enable foreigners to buy up massive swaths of land and open the way to shady and corrupt transactions.
More than 1,000 people rallied in the western city of Atyrau on April 24, only the latest in a string such demonstrations. Civil activist Galymbek Akulbekov was able to hold a one-man picket in the capital, Astana, for about five minutes last week before being hauled away by police. Another larger rally in Almaty on April 22 drew some 30 people.
Although modest in size, the protests are an unusual sight and the authorities will be wary about cracking down too severely over a potentially incendiary and sensitive issue.
As the ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan is well-stocked on the land front. The country has 2.7 million square kilometers of farming land stock, of which around one-third is unused, according to the National Economy Ministry. Another 602,000 square kilometers is made up residential space, industrial areas and protected nature reserves.
Under government plans, the unused farming land could be sold or made available for rent, with the revenue going to the National Fund — Kazakhstan’s stabilization fund — instead of the state coffers.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee on April 21 urged Kyrgyzstan to immediately free jailed activist Azimjan Askarov, who it said has been subjected to mistreatment and torture since his imprisonment in 2010.
That appeal is bound to provoke deep irritation in Kyrgyzstan, which has reacted combatively to all international appeals over this particular case.
The Human Rights Committee said in a statement that 18 international human rights experts had found that Kyrgyzstan routinely flouted articles of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights in their treatment of Askarov.
In September 2010, Askarov, who is an ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer amid ethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan in June of that year.
Echoing the positions adopted earlier by advocacy groups and Western governments, the UN rights committee said Askarov had been denied the basic right to properly prepare for his trial and criticized the manner of his initial detention.
“Askarov was initially detained at the police station where the deceased officer was based and … no specific security measures were in place to safeguard him,” the UN rights committee statement said.
Committee members ruled that independent medical examinations suggested Askarov had been subjected to acts of torture.
A subsequent inquiry in 2013 was found to be lacking “the element of impartiality, as it interviewed more than 100 law enforcement officers, judges, court clerks and prosecutors but failed to interview [Askarov’s] lawyers, human rights defenders who visited him in prison, and his relatives,” the committee said.
Going by recent form, Kyrgyzstan is unlikely to take this parade of charges well.
A mural created by street artist Pavel Kas in the industrial city of Temirtau.
A graffiti artist in the industrial Kazakhstan town of Temirtau has ended up in the authorities’ crosshairs for creating a giant mural in protest at the environmental damage caused by a local smelter.
The mural was painted on the side of an apartment block by Pavel Kas in the style of Henri Matisse’s The Dance and shows a circle of human figures around a chimney stack chugging out thick black smoke. The vividness of the painting is in ironic contrast to the bleak backdrop of the real factories.
But one city’s vandalism is another city’s art, and so the town hall in Shymkent, in southern Kazakhstan, has now invited Kas to take part in an art festival being held there on May 13-15.
Shymkent Art Days 2016 will host street artists, sculptors, architects, designers and graffiti artists for an event to celebrate contemporary style. While Temirtau has reacted poorly to the notion of people painting on its walls, Shymkent is actively inviting festival participants to break out the paints.
“Pavel Kas is a lively representative of informal art dealing with current issues. Shymkent will be happy to welcome Pavel to its festival and organizers will provide all materials needed to create works that will decorate our city,” Shymkent deputy mayor Kairat Nurtai said in remarks reproduced on the city’s official website.
Temirtau is the heart of Kazakhstan’s steel industry, which environmentalists say has had a heavy toll on the quality of the air. One the earliest workers at the city’s first blast furnace in the 1960s was none other than President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Tajikistan industry’s visiting card: That was how President Emomali Rahmon once described aluminum producer TALCO.
But things are looking a bit grim for the company at the moment with the news that it has had to lay off 607 employees, equivalent to 7 percent of the entire workforce, because of low global prices for its product.
Reuters news agency on April 19 cited TALCO press secretary Igor Sattarov as saying that 8,200 workers would be left at the company after the cutback.
Although the loss of employment will come as a massive blow to the laborers affected, the cutback is still quite a bit short of the 2,000 job cuts called for international consultants. Sattarov said TALCO instead opted for a “mitigated plans for the staffing optimization” and has put a number of people on unpaid leave.
International aluminum prices are currently hovering around $1,600 per ton, which marks something of a recovery from the lows seen last year, but still falls short of a figure that would make TALCO seriously profitable.
Wanting to help TALCO out of a tight spot, the government in November granted the company licenses to develop two gold deposits in the northern Sughd province, Konchoch and Chulobi. Usage rights over the deposits will extend to 25 years.
Tajikistan has slipped 34 places in the media rights group Reporters Without Borders annual index in a stark reflection of the country’s intensifying assault on political freedoms this past year.
Tajikistan now stands 150th out of 180 positions.
“On the pretext of combatting terrorism, the government has eliminated the political opposition and is stepping up pressure on the remaining independent media. Interrogation by intelligence officers, intimidation and blackmail have become part of the daily fare of independent journalists. Surveillance of communications is now routine, while the blocking of the main news websites and social networks is virtually permanent.” RSF said in a commentary on Tajikistan to go with the index.
By virtue of the state pressure against reporters, few instances of intimidation gain public attention as even the few remaining independent-minded outlets increasingly exercise robust self-censorship.
Little appears to have improved since the visit in March of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the protection of the right to freedom of expression, David Kaye, who spoke of his concern that instability in Afghanistan was serving as a smokescreen for repression.
“I recognize that there is a serious security problem in this part of the world, in particular in Tajikistan and in this neighborhood. But I’m afraid that the security situation has been used as a pretext, as an excuse, to crack down on freedom of expression, whether in the media or in civil society,” Kaye told a press conference at the conclusion of his visit in Dushanbe.