Tajikistan has sent an award-winning human rights lawyer to prison on charges his supporters say are meant as a warning to critics of the authoritarian regime.
A court in Dushanbe sentenced Shukhrat Kudratov to nine years in a penal colony for bribery and fraud on January 13, Asia-Plus reported.
Kudratov’s real crime, it appears, was defending opposition activist Zaid Saidov in 2013. That year, Saidov, a local businessman and former official, was swiftly arrested after starting a political party and charged with, among other things, polygamy. He received 26 years in prison. The politician’s supporters said they had received death threats.
Last year, another one of Saidov’s lawyers, Fakhriddin Zokirov, was arrested on forgery charges. He was released after eight months and promised he would no longer defend Saidov.
The cases against the lawyers are widely seen as politically motivated. Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch called Kudratov's jailing "a serious setback for the freedom of expression and the independent legal profession in Tajikistan."
Tajikistan has cast doubt over its willingness to continue hosting a network of leading charter schools inspired by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen.
This week Education Minister Nuriddin Saidov suggested that the Tajik government is planning to review the schools’ licenses, which are currently held by a company called Shalola. The schools – often known as “Gülen schools” or “Turkish schools” – adhere to the educational principles of Gülen’s transnational religious movement, which has been praised for its modern interpretation of Islam but also accused of bearing resemblance to a cult.
“The activities of Turkish schools in Tajikistan should be transformed; they need to work on a charitable basis. This is my position. Now we are working on this issue,” Saidov told journalists January 5.
While the schools (numbering 10, according to one count) in Tajikistan were initially free to attend, they now cost $1,000 dollars per year, according to RFE/RL’s Tajik service.
RFE/RL says the schools’ domestic critics tend to associate them with “Pan-Turkism,” while supporters argue that they offer an education far superior to that at Tajikistan’s impoverished state schools, which are among the worst in the former Soviet Union. Instruction is in English, Russian and Turkish. Tajik social media users claim that many officials place their children in the secular Gülen schools.
It is not clear what precisely Shalola and its schools have done to offend Tajikistan’s aid-dependent and graft-prone government.
Whether or not Vladimir Putin bribed Uzbekistan, as a Bishkek newspaper claims, it is welcome news all around that Uzbek gas is once again flowing into southern Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan is happy because 60,000 customers in a potentially restive part of the country aren’t relying on dung to heat their homes; Uzbekistan again has revenue from the cross-border gas trade; and Russia, whose energy giant Gazprom promised a constant supply of gas when it bought Kyrgyzstan’s gas distribution network last year, gets to save face.
But the sudden resumption of gas deliveries from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan on December 30 begs two related questions: Why wasn’t a deal reached earlier, after Uzbekistan abruptly cut supplies last April? And what made the recalcitrant Uzbeks change their mind?
Kyrgyz newspaper Vechernii Bishkek, citing an unidentified Kyrgyz government source, claims it knows the answer to the second question.
The source told Vechernii Bishkek today that no less a figure than Russian President Vladimir Putin negotiated the gas deal during a December 10 meeting with his counterpart Islam Karimov in Tashkent. Karimov, according to this account, pushed Moscow to forgive $3 billion of Uzbek debt (oddly, that’s much more than the $890 million other media reported Uzbekistan as owing). In the end the Kremlin agreed to write off $865 million.
Five former prisoners from the notorious US-run Guantanamo prison camp who arrived in Kazakhstan at the end of last year have lodged asylum claims in the Central Asian state, the government says.
The five arrived in Kazakhstan on December 31, the Foreign Ministry said in a January 5 statement, after being freed from Guantanamo owing to “the absence of sufficient grounds to present them with charges of committing a crime.”
The ministry did not name the five, but press reports had previously provided their names and identified them as three men from Yemen and two from Tunisia. They had been in detention for over a decade, Reuters reported, but “were identified as low-risk detainees cleared long ago for transfer.”
The five have been granted the status of asylum seekers pending the hearing of their claims, the Foreign Ministry said. By law, a ruling should be made within three months.
These are the first asylum claims Kazakhstan has received from former Guantanamo prisoners, Foreign Ministry spokesman Nurzhan Aytmakhanov added in remarks quoted by Tengri News on January 5. Coming to Kazakhstan was their “personal choice,” he said.
After three years of negotiations, Kyrgyzstan has signed up to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Union, a protectionist post-Soviet economic club that some fear will allow the Kremlin to reassert political influence in its former backyard. But in what has become a tradition, Kyrgyzstan’s actual accession will be delayed yet again.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev signed on the dotted line at a Moscow meeting of the Eurasian Economic Council December 23 along with his counterparts from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
Atambayev was in high spirits after signing, waxing lyrical about the benefits of regional integration.
“I’d like to emphasize that today is December 23. I am a person that sometimes lends a lot of credence to things, dates, signs of destiny, lets say. Yesterday, December 22, was the shortest day and the longest night [of the year] and today, December 23 is the day when light starts to defeat night. It seems very significant. I am confident that even in these difficult times, things will be a lot easier for all of us if we are friendly with one another and help one another,” Atambayev said, to what looked, on camera, like sniggers from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko.
More importantly, Atambayev confirmed that Kyrgyzstan would not be ready for full membership in the Eurasian Economic Union – which fellow aspirant Armenia will join on January 1 – until the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s 1945 victory over Germany on May 9. All year officials have said Kyrgyzstan will join on January 1, when the Customs Union becomes the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has paid a visit to Kiev to meet his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko – Vladimir Putin’s sworn enemy – the day before heading to Moscow for an important meeting of the fledgling Eurasian Economic Union.
Poroshenko used Nazarbayev’s surprise visit to Kiev on December 22 (announced with just three days’ notice) to thank him for Kazakhstan’s “firm and consistent position of support to the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” The remarks are guaranteed to arouse the ire of Putin, whose annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in March sparked international condemnation and Western sanctions against Russia.
Nazarbayev took a conciliatory line, calling on Moscow and Kiev to move from confrontation to compromise. But his very presence in Ukraine is likely to irritate Putin, coming the day before leaders of member states of the Eurasian Economic Union, a new regional integration effort to be launched on January 1, meet in Moscow.
At that meeting, Kyrgyzstan is expected to join the union – alongside Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia – which Putin has sought to expand to boost the Kremlin’s regional clout in the face of Moscow’s geopolitical setbacks in Ukraine.
An exiled Tajik opposition leader who heads a group Dushanbe classifies as “extremist” has reportedly been detained in Turkey.
Umarali Quvvatov’s wife told RFE/RL’s Tajik service December 20 of a raid on the family’s Istanbul home the day before. She said his passport and computers were confiscated and a group of guests was also detained. Turkish officials have not commented.
Quvvatov is a former oil trader and business partner of Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon’s son-in-law. He now heads the anti-government and social media-savvy Gruppa 24. Though it appears to have little popular following at home in Tajikistan, the group of exiles has made authorities edgy in recent months.
This is the second time Quvvatov has been nabbed by a foreign government, likely at Dushanbe’s request. In December 2012 he was arrested in Dubai on accusations of mass fraud raised by the Rakhmon regime before being released without explanation in September 2013. Quvvatov calls the charges politically motivated.
Quvvatov has applied for asylum in Turkey. Nadejda Atayeva, France-based leader of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, has called on Ankara to respect the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR). Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch told EurasiaNet.org that HRW “is closely following the situation.”
The grandson of President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been parachuted into a top political job in Astana, sparking speculation in Kazakhstan that the aging president may be grooming him as his successor.
Nurali Aliyev, the millionaire eldest son of the president’s daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva and her disgraced ex-husband Rakhat Aliyev, has been appointed deputy mayor of the capital of Kazakhstan, the Astana administration’s website has announced.
This is the first foray into politics by Aliyev, hitherto a prominent banker who has occupied top jobs in Kazakhstan’s financial system, including as chairman of the boards of Nurbank and the Development Bank of Kazakhstan. Aliyev – who has an estimated fortune of $200 million, according to Forbes Kazakhstan’s rich list – is currently chairman of the board of the Transtelekom telecommunications company.
Aliyev is Nazarbayev’s eldest grandson and is rumored to be his favorite grandchild (though the president does not believe in nepotism, which he railed against angrily earlier this year).
Aliyev’s mother Dariga Nazarbayeva, an MP and deputy speaker of parliament’s lower house, is a powerful political player who is herself sometimes tipped as possible presidential material.
Kyrgyzstan’s government has de facto blocked a popular and hard-hitting news website with the argument that reporting on terrorism is akin to supporting terrorists. Authorities seem to have pressured the website’s local host to disconnect its servers.
ProHost said on December 15 that it would immediately kick Kloop.kg off its servers following a request from the State Agency for Communications, Kloop co-founder Bektour Iskender informed readers through Facebook.
The block has been looming since November 24, when Kloop reposted a video from Britain’s Daily Mail featuring a propaganda video that showed Kazakh children allegedly training as jihadists in Syria. Officials in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan both insist Kloop has aided the terrorist Islamic State by republishing the video.
Kloop was swiftly blocked in Kazakhstan after refusing a written request from the Kazakh prosecutor’s office to remove the offending material; harassment from Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry quickly followed.
Kyrgyz authorities have stepped up pressure on the media in recent months. In October President Almazbek Atambayev broadly blamed journalists for sullying Kyrgyzstan’s reputation abroad.
Last month, Kyrgyzstan’s Education Ministry announced two tenders worth almost $3 million to print more than 1 million textbooks. But it appears the ministry did not want just anyone to bid.
Someone involved in posting the tenders on the government’s procurement website included a couple of Latin-script vowels within Russian keywords (written in the Cyrillic script), making it impossible to search for the announcement.
For example, there is no difference to the naked eye between these two words: books and bооks. But the second word contains two Cyrillic o’s. That makes it impossible to find with an Internet search, which requires an exact match.
In the same way, the Education Ministry used the Latin letters a, e and o (which also appear in the Cyrillic alphabet) in its tender announcements, which are worth a total of $2.8 million. Reporters at Kloop.kg, who revealed the trick, recorded video evidence of how the announcements were hidden.
Anyone who didn’t know about the Latin letters would struggle to find the tender announcements. Anyone who did – someone colluding with a ministry official, for example – would have a massive advantage.
Kyrgyz officials didn’t think up this scheme on their own.
Back in 2012, Russian anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, known for revealing fraud in state procurements there, described how officials “embezzle millions and billions” using this tactic.