Kyrgyzstan has upped the stakes in its on-and-off battle against the operators of its giant Kumtor gold mine with a raid on the company’s offices that officials say is part of an alleged corruption probe.
Few doubt the April 28 raid in Bishkek was unrelated to the increasingly frayed relationship between Kyrgyzstan and Toronto-based Centerra — in which the Central Asian state’s government owns an almost one-third stake. Negotiations to revise the Kumtor concession collapsed last year, so the authorities have reverted to hardball tactics.
The state prosecutor’s office and the State Committee for National Security have said they are digging into payments made by Centerra’s local affiliate to the mother company in Canada going back as far as 2013.
It is too early to tell if government suspicions that some money may have gone astray are founded, but the sight of rifle-toting men entering the country’s largest private investor is going to do nothing to bolster Kyrgyzstan’s reputation as a promising destination for foreign money.
Mark Burton, Kumtor vice president for finance, and Leslie Louw, the vice president for procurement and logistics, both flew out of the country on the day after the raid, although Centerra insists — and on May 3 even offered proof — that both had planned holidays in advance of the event.
The company’s response to the raid itself was immediate and typically sanguine, noting the government had “expressed concerns regarding, among other things, an inter-corporate dividend paid by KGC to Centerra in 2013.”
Tajikistan has climbed down on recent proposals to abolish Slavic-sounding surnames following outraged reactions from members of parliament in Russia’s State Duma.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Ozodi, on April 29 cited the deputy head of the Tajikistan’s civil registration service, Jaloliddin Rahimov, as saying that a new law would spell an end to surnames ending in -ov, and even the -ovna and -ovich suffix for patronymics. The provision, which seems to have been specifically targeted at phasing out Slavic-style family names, is part of plans to inculcate greater national pride.
President Emomali Rahmon led the way in 2007 by ditching the old form of his surname, Rahmonov.
Rahimov, whose own surname is notably furnished with the -ov suffix, said that officials would have “clarifying conversations” with people wanting to keep their names unchanged.
“If the situation doesn’t change, then within 10 years our children will be split into two groups — one will be proud of their Tajik names, and the others will have foreign names,” said Rahimov.
As a rule, Tajik surnames end with the suffixes -i, -zod, -zoda, -on, -yon, -ien, -yor, -niyo or -far.
The surname rule fits into a broader pattern of fiddling while Rome burns as authorities busy themselves indulging in petty bans as the country descends into economic ruin.
In January, the lower house of parliament voted to make it illegal to give babies non-Tajik names or to seal nuptials without a medical certificate. The language and terminology committee at the Academy of Sciences drew up a list of 4,000 suitable names to make sure wayward parents do not try to endow their children with names like Sang (Stone), Safol (Ceramic), Zog (Crow) and Gurg (Wolf).
Rights groups have pressed Tajikistan to unconditionally release lawyers who were jailed after taking on cases of behalf of political opposition figures.
Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said in a statement on May 4 that the intimidation of rights lawyers has become commonplace in Tajikistan and even extended to the lawyers’ relatives.
“The Tajik government is tightening the screws on lawyers it deems trouble, locking up those who represent the opposition alongside its political foes,” HRW Central Asia researcher Steve Swerdlow said in the statement. “Each day these lawyers spend behind bars is a disgrace and brings shame on Tajikistan’s judicial system.”
In some cases lawyers have been targets of death threats.
The escalation of pressure against the legal profession intensified following the liquidation of the country’s only remaining viable opposition force, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Almost all the party’s leading figures were arrested in the wake of a purported attempted coup d’etat in early September. Lawyers agreeing to represent the IRPT leaders were immediately targeted for arrest in flimsily fabricated cases.
“Since 2014, Tajik authorities have arrested or imprisoned at least five human rights lawyers — Shukhrat Kudratov, Fakhriddin Zokirov, Buzurgmehr Yorov, Nuriddin Makhkamov, Dilbar Dodojonova — and Firuz and Daler Tabarov, sons of Iskhok Tabarov, another prominent lawyer,” HRW and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee noted in their statement.
Zokirov has since been released, but all the rest are still imprisoned. He and Kudratov represented government critic Zaid Saidov, who has been serving a 26-year jail sentence since late 2013.
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.