Authorities in Kazakhstan said at least 10 people were killed on June 5 in a spate of shootouts in the western city of Aktobe instigated by a group of religious extremists.
Internet connections in the city were suspended shortly after the unrest broke out and officials provided only scant details about the unfolding events, fueling online speculation and sometimes muddled reporting.
Late in the evening, Interior Ministry spokesman Almas Sadubayev was reported as saying that a group of gunmen in the mid-afternoon stormed a hunting supplies shop, killing a sales clerk and a guard. Three police officers dispatched to the scene received gunshot wounds. During a raid on another gun store later in the day, a customer was killed, Sadubayev told Vlast.kz.
Sadubayev the armed gang also commandeered a commuter bus and rammed the gates of military base in the city.
“Having got into the grounds [of the base], they opened fire indiscriminately, killing three and wounding six servicemen,” he said.
Police joined troops on the base in repelling the assault and killed one of the attackers in the process, Sadubayev said.
Authorities reacted to the outbreak of violence by deploying special forces and declaring an antiterrorist operation.
“During the antiterrorist operation in Aktobe, four criminals were killed, seven were detained — two of them were injured,” Sadubayev said.
Earlier statements from the Interior Ministry identified the attackers as “adherents of nontraditional, radical religious groups.” That term is typically used as shorthand for Islamic extremists.
In recognition of their degree of concern, authorities declared a level red terrorism alert, the highest available.
The leadership of what was once Tajikistan’s last surviving genuine opposition party has been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, ending a trial that has sealed the country’s inexorable descent into full-fledged authoritarianism.
The Supreme Court in Dushanbe sentenced Mahmadali Hayit and Saidumar Khusaini, deputy leaders of the now-banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, to life in prison, RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Ozodi, reported on June 2.
IRPT faced accusations that it was involved in an alleged attempted coup in September that authorities say was mounted by a disaffected deputy defense minister.
Another 12 leading party figures were handed sentences of between two and 28 years in jail at the end of the closed-doors trial, according to lawyers and relatives of the accused.
The mildest sentence, two years in jail, was reserved for Zarafo Rahmoni, the only woman on trial. The others senteced were Rahmatullo Rajab, Kiemiddin Avazov, Abdukahhor Davlat, Sattor Karimov (28 years), Zubaydulloh Roziq (25 years), Fayzmuhammad Muhammadalii (23 years), Rustam Sadiddin (20 years), Vohidkhon Qosiddinov (20 years), Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda (16 years), Mahmadsharif Nabiev and Abdusamad Ghairatov (14 years). All were members of IRPT political council, except for Ghairatov, who led the party cell in the southern Kulob region.
The sentences are in line with what had been expected and reflect the rapid decline of Tajikistan’s political freedoms and human rights.
The summit of leaders from Eurasian Economic Union member states in Astana this week brought much grumbling with it, but there are some incremental signs of progress.
Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev set the tone on May 31 by pointing out problems on the border with Kazakhstan.
“Despite the positive aspects of integration, including the elimination of customs controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border, the improvement of conditions for [Kyrgyz labor] migrants in Russia and other [EEU] states, I would like to note a number of problems. These are the matters of the harmonization of railway [transit] tariffs, the ban on the export of Kyrgyz potatoes to Kazakhstan, [phytosanitary-veterinary] controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border, the transit of goods in Russia and a number of other things,” Atambayev said in remarks cited by Sputnik news agency.
There is a lot to unpack there, and even the good news Atambayev offered needs to be qualified.
Although custom controls were indeed lifted at the Kyrgyz-Kazakhstan border, it was only for them to be replaced with more stringent inspection regimes aimed at quashing the activities of unregistered traders exploiting differences in prices for various goods in the respective countries. Lengthy waits are still the norm for motorists and it will be a long time before the EEU becomes the kind of border-free space one sees in western Europe.
A group of activists in Kazakhtan’s business capital, Almaty, held an unsanctioned rally on May 31 in front of the US consulate in a gesture of support for the government.
A similarly unauthorized demonstration 10 days previously in the same city — albeit one against the government — resulted in firm action by riot police and multiple detentions, including of journalists covering the event.
The contrast has neatly illustrated the government’s arbitrary approach to enforcing public assembly laws that have come under much international criticism.
The US consulate rally was intended as a protest against marches that were held in two US cities, New York and San Francisco, in a show of solidarity for those detained on May 21. Curiously, the anti-US event was mounted by activists that have themselves repeatedly organized public events aimed at pressuring authorities into relieving them of what they feel to be onerous mortgages repayments.
“We understand everything perfectly well. If the United States begins to interfere in the affairs of one or other government, then soon enough this country will descend into chaos and disorder,” Zhanna Sadykova, a member of the Leave the Houses to the People coalition, told RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service, Azattyq.
Sadykova’s remarks appeared to very closely echo positions expressed in recent weeks by media either owned by or loyal to the state.
Estimates of the number of people attending the US consulate rally ranged between 20 and 40.
People attending the solidarity marches in New York and San Francisco carried flags of Kazakhstan and carried signs calling for the ouster of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. It is presumed they were citizens of Kazakhstan, although it has not been possible to independently verify that fact. Sadykova was in little doubt, however.
Villages in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan and Afghanistan have been joined by an electricity transmission line that will bring power to 3,000 Afghans for the first time in their history.
A ceremony to commemorate the event was observed by representatives from the US Embassy and the Aga Khan Foundation, who jointly funded the project, and Tajik and Afghan government officials, a US Embassy said in a statement issued on May 31.
The tortuous road that snakes along the Panj River, which marks the boundary between Tajikistan’s Pamir region and Afghanistan, presents a scene of stark contrasts. Villages on the Tajik side receive steady supplies of electricity from Pamir Energy, an energy company founded in 2002 as a public-private partnership between the government of Tajikistan, the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development and the International Finance Cooperation. When night falls, Afghan villages are largely plunged into darkness, while countless electric lights almost a literal stone’s throw away twinkle in the Tajik villages.
The US Embassy statement said that joining the Afghan villages to the electricity grid in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast
was completed with $1 million grant from USAID and a complementary $464,000 contribution from the Aga Khan Foundation.
“In addition to the newly connected villages, the project helped Pamir Energy upgrade its existing systems and infrastructure, laying the groundwork for further expansion and service improvement to customers on both sides of the Tajik-Afghan border,” the statement said.
Similar stories of cross-border cooperation are all too rare, but this precedent is a heartening change from the stories of violence and drug-trafficking more typically associated with the Afghan border.
Being hard of hearing in Kazakhstan is enough in at least one major credit company to ensure you will be denied a loan.
News website Nur.kz has reported on the recent case of a woman with a hearing impairment in the southern city of Kyzylorda who tried, and almost failed, to raise the money to buy a tablet computer worth 55,000 tenge ($164). The woman’s plan was to take out credit and pay the debt off out of her disability benefits.
She was turned down by one bank, so she went instead with a relative, who could communicate through sign language, to a branch of Bank Home Credit, which is one of Kazakhstan’s largest household credit institutions.
While processing the forms, the Bank Home Credit employee hid the fact that the applicant had a disability. The bank worker warned that if a manager from a head office called the customer for further questions, she should avoid mentioning the disability as it could result in a disqualification. In the event, no information about the disability was disclosed and the loan was granted.
Following the furor caused by the story, Bank Home Credit on May 30 had to issue a statement defending its policy of denying loans to disabled customers. The lender said that in order to establish the creditworthiness of an individual, they have to be able to communicate fully with the person, which they said was rendered impossible by impairments in vision, hearing and speech.
The woman in Kyzylorda confessed to being shocked by the bank’s policy. Her loan would have required monthly repayments of 7,000 tenge ($21), a sum that she said even benefit recipients could manage.
As bizarre as it may seem, this kind of discrimination is not unique.
A public commission set up in Kazakhstan as an attempt to defuse tensions over contentious planned land auctions convened for its third session over the weekend, but was overshadowed by an ongoing campaign by prosecutors against anti-reform demonstrators.
Out of the 75 people initially nominated to the commission, which is intended as a platform of discussion between government officials and critics of the land reform, 62 turned up on May 28.
Deputy prime minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev, who moderated the session, said the land commission would work for the next six months to compile public recommendations for submission to parliament. In the coming week, representatives from the commission will travel across the country to sound out public opinion.
The commission has been broken down into four working groups focusing on legal and economic aspects, as well as on how to draw up effective mechanisms for informing the public about, and enhancing transparency of, eventual land sales. The working groups met for the first time on May 25 to generate suggestions that will eventually be pooled at plenary sessions of the commission in Astana.
The primary area of discussion this past weekend was the thorny topic of renting land to foreigners. The semi-formal exchange of views lasted around four hours and drew contributions from around 30 or so of the commission’s members. Many others, however, could be seen uninterestedly perusing their smartphones at length.
One of the more practical suggestions was to create a publicly available land ownership database.
Authorities in Kazakhstan are categorical about what they believe was the ultimate goal of last weekend’s protests against land reforms — to seize power by sowing unrest and ethnic hatred.
In a statement published on May 27, the General Prosecutor’s Office laid out a stark declaration of intent on how it intends to proceed against future displays of antigovernment activity.
The prosecutor’s office is attempting to cast the government as the reasonable party, arguing that it invited people that had announced their intent to take part in the unsanctioned May 21 rallies to engage in “clarificatory activities.” That term is typically a euphemism for preventative summons issued to individuals suspected of planning to participate in anti-government demonstrations.
“Despite that, certain people tried to ignore the law on meetings and to provoke people into taking part in illegal actions,” the prosecutor’s statement said. “Their final goal was not to hold peaceful meetings and to seek changes to the land code, but to destabilize to social and political situation, to incite ethnic hatred and to seize power.”
The General Prosecutor’s Office certainly seems to adopt a loose definition what clarification constitutes. In several cases, it consisted of jailing people for intent to rally. For what it’s worth (not much as it turns out), Kazakhstan is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which grants citizens the right to protest peacefully. Laws on public assembly in Kazakhstan severely curtail that privilege, however, so the prosecutors are in effect on formally legitimate grounds when they formulate their accusations.
Lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan have provoked outrage in some quarters by rejecting proposals to change the criminal code that would have outlawed the religious consecration of marriage rites for minors.
The phenomenon of the very young entering into marriages in Kyrgyzstan is not unusual. The National Statistics Commission estimates that 15 percent of married women between the ages of 25 and 49 sealed their nuptials before turning 18 — 1 percent did it under the age of 15.
The changes to the law rejected by parliament on May 26 specifically related to religious marriage rites (nikah), as opposed to nuptials registered with the state. The legal age of marriage in Kyrgyzstan is 18, although that can be lowered by special dispensation.
The broader ambition of the amendments proposed by Ata-Meken party deputy Aida Salyanova were to criminalize the forcible imposition of religious marriage rites before their official registration.
“The religious consecration of marriages before registration with authorized bodies is a crude violation of human rights. It is inimical to development and substantially increases the likelihood of a woman becoming a victim of (domestic) violence,” Salyanova was cited as saying by Zanoza.kg in a report on parliament’s vote.
By way of a regional comparison, Islamic authorities in neighboring Kazakhstan have as recently as last year issued orders for mosques to desist from performing religious marriage rites without a state-issued marriage certificate, but many have reportedly flouted that edict.
Kyrgyzstan’s largest foreign investor is in hot water again and has been ordered to pay out 6.7 billion som ($98 million) in fines for claimed environmental violations.
24.kg news agency reported that a judge at the Inter-District Court of Bishkek on May 25 ruled in favor of the penalty as part of a handful of lawsuits filed against Kumtor Operating Company by the State Ecology and Technical Inspection Agency.
Kumtor’s parent company, Toronto-based Center Gold, said in a statement that the award was related to accusations that the miner placed waste rock on dumps “subject to tariffs that are normally applicable to industrial or domestic waste.”
Local media has cited authorities as saying waste rock was placed too close to waterways, which risked contaminating rivers and and would eventually require the construction of water purification facilities downstream.
The longer-term concern surrounds the major glaciers alongside which the Kumtor mine is located. Kyrgyz officials, as well international environmentalists, worry that the practice of piling excess amount of waste rock on top of glaciers is causing them irreparable damage. Kumtor, meanwhile, has engaged its own independent expertise to evaluate the impact of its operations on the glaciers and apparently found the threat to be “insignificant.”
On May 24, the Inter-District Court of Bishkek fined Kumtor another $10,000 after it found it guilty of failing to record waste being expelled from the concession’s sewage treatment facility.