Why is the Obama administration sanctioning one post-Soviet dictator with an atrocious human rights record and not another?
Barack Obama has signed a new bill banning some top Belarusian officials from visiting the United States -- and requiring Washington to monitor restrictions on press freedom and human rights abuses in Belarus -- because President Alexandr Lukashenko wantonly jails political opponents and journalists.
Those are hallmarks of Uzbekistan strongman Islam Karimov’s regime, where journalists are regularly imprisoned and critics tortured. Says the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ): “He personally oversaw the May 2005 massacre in the city of Andijan, and his regime virtually annihilated the independent press after it spread the word about those brutalities.” But instead of censure, Karimov “has received stunningly cordial treatment from the Obama administration,” including, in the past few months, a friendly phone call from the president and a visit from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. From CPJ:
There are scores of examples to position the Uzbek leader as far more brutal and dictatorial than Lukashenko's regime. The human rights abuses include forced child labor; arbitrary detentions and torture of detainees; harassment of lawyers and imprisonment of rights defenders; absolute state control over the media and Internet; and eviction of the last international monitor--Human Rights Watch--from its offices in Tashkent. All of these and other issues are listed in the U.S. State Department's own 2010 Human Rights report for Uzbekistan, which brands the country as "an authoritarian state."
Critics of Tajikistan’s justice system probably cringed on January 10 when the prosecutor’s office announced it had convicted 168 alleged terrorists and extremists last year.
The number includes suspected members of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), as well as supporters of Muslim groups with no documented link to violence. Four members of Tablighi Jamaat – a missionary group operating openly in many countries, including Kyrgyzstan and the United States – were among the convicted. (In total, approximately 200 terrorism and extremism suspects were arrested last year – apparently a local record. According to Asia-Plus, it appears the remainder are awaiting trial.)
Those convicted include the father of an alleged terrorist who died in mysterious circumstances last January. Seventy-six-year-old Muzaffar Davlatov was sentenced to seven years in November, seemingly for being Ali Bedaki’s dad.
The riot-hit town of Zhanaozen will be casting ballots in Kazakhstan’s January 15 parliamentary election after all: A postponement of the vote there, announced on January 6, has now been overturned by the president. But several big names have been struck from the poll.
Nursultan Nazarbayev vetoed the postponement on January 10 after “he took account of the disquiet and concern of the inhabitants of Zhanaozen at the fact that by this Constitutional Council decision their electoral rights … were restricted,” his office said.
Zhanaozen will vote under a state of emergency ordered after at least 16 protestors were shot dead by security forces on December 16.
But as Nazarbayev moved to increase the legitimacy of the election by allowing Zhanaozen to participate, two of Kazakhstan’s best-known opposition leaders – Bolat Abilov, co-leader of the OSDP Azat party, and Gulzhan Yergaliyeva, a leading party member and journalist – were thrown out of the election, accused of irregularities in financial declarations.
OSDP Azat was not the only party affected: Vladimir Bobrov of the ruling Nur Otan party was also struck off, as were three candidates from smaller parties. However, OSDP Azat is the only genuine opposition party allowed to stand, and the expulsion of two of its leading lights deals a severe blow to its hopes.
When Kazakhstan goes to the polls to elect a new parliament on January 15, voters in the restless western oil town of Zhanaozen, where at least 16 people were shot dead when police opened fire on protestors last month, will not be allowed to cast their ballots.
Astana has postponed the election in Zhanaozen, promising that its 50,000 voters can head to the polls at an unspecified later date.
The Central Electoral Commission announced the move on January 6 after consultations with the Constitutional Council, on the grounds that the vote cannot be held in the town while a state of emergency is in place. On January 4, President Nursultan Nazarbayev extended the state of emergency until the end of the month.
The exclusion of Zhanaozen’s voters from the election, even if temporary, raises the question of how legitimate the election will be. Central Electoral Commission head Kuandyk Turgankulov said casually that Zhanaozen’s exclusion would have only “minimal” impact on the nationwide election results.
Kazakhstan has never held an election deemed free and fair by international observers, and Nazarbayev and his ruling Nur Otan party regularly win with eye-popping landslides. Nazarbayev won reelection last April with 95.5 percent of the vote; Nur Otan won the last parliamentary election in 2007 with 88 percent, forming a single-party parliament after other parties failed to clear the 7 percent voter threshold.
Were Islamist radicals in Tajikistan responsible for murdering “Father Frost,” the Santa Claus lookalike who delivers gifts and New Year’s cheer throughout the formerly Soviet world?
That’s one official theory floating around Dushanbe. Police there say 24-year-old economist Parviz Davlatbekov was stabbed early on January 2, by a crowd yelling “You infidel!” local and international news agencies reported. Davlatbekov had dressed up as Father Frost to visit family for a New Year’s party. (Earlier, police had described three detained suspects as “hooligans.”)
The idea of an Islamist link to the crime may sound far-fetched to most people familiar with the secular underpinnings of the New Year and the moderate Islam practiced in Tajikistan. But as Islam spreads in the former Soviet Union, confusion about religious ideas and practices seems to be a problem. Just look at neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where last month the country’s chief cleric said Muslims should not mark New Year’s because it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, not just the changing of the calendar.
New Year’s remains one of the most popular holidays throughout the former Soviet Union, celebrated with family meals and fireworks. The robed Father Frost -- Ded Moroz as he’s known in Russian -- brings children gifts, much as Santa Claus does on Christmas Day in the West, but the New Year’s holiday is entirely secular.
A load of cash might be one reason Bishkek would keep the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan. But seeing as the facility is within striking distance of Iranian missiles, it will just have to close in 2014, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev said on December 29, in full anticipation of a US-Iranian war.
Describing the US-led airbase near Bishkek as a “potential threat to the country,” Atambayev mused on the disaster that would unfold if Iranian missiles missed the airbase and landed in a civilian area instead.
“Keeping a military base, even for $150 million, is not just a little dangerous but very dangerous,” the president stressed.
Apparently the Americans, who are not actually at war with Iran, feel for his predicament.
“I am glad that many on the American side understand my position – I’m not playing a political game under the influence of Russia, I’m taking care of my people,” he told parliament.
But the question remains if the US will go for Atambayev’s idea of operating the air base and the Manas International Airport as a “major civilian international transport junction.” What’s more, Atambayev thinks Washington should cooperate with Russia to make that happen.
Prosecutors in Kazakhstan have opened an inquiry into the shooting of protestors by police in the western oil town of Zhanaozen on December 16.
Investigators opened the case into the fatal shootings on December 27, the prosecutor’s office announced two days later. Security forces are being investigated for “exceeding authority or official powers with the use of weapons and special tools.”
The move comes amid mounting pressure on Astana to investigate the circumstances of how police came to fire on protestors involved in an industrial dispute in Zhanaozen. The government is already pursuing an inquiry into the overall circumstances of how the protest turned violent, killing 16 people according to the latest death toll, and has invited UN participation. However, this is the first time that officials have specifically instigated a probe into the police for the deaths.
Video posted on YouTube, apparently filmed by a local resident, shows police opening fire directly at retreating demonstrators and beating one protestor lying prone on the ground with truncheons. The police claim to have exonerating video but have yet to produce it.
Almost nine percent of Tupolev-134s ever manufactured have crashed.
Frequent flyers in Kyrgyzstan know the feeling: An aging Soviet-built plane starts to careen over the high Tien Shan mountains; perhaps familiar with the horrifying statistics, men and women scream, a few vomit, and the drunk in the next seat grabs your knee as if it’s an emergency eject button.
After the longest 15 seconds ever, the pilot pulls back onto course and, when he lands, you remember to breathe. But every once in a while these poorly maintained aircraft just don’t make it, and parliament again declares itself outraged.
On December 28, 31 people were injured when a Tupolev-134 operated by Kyrgyzstan Airlines flipped and caught fire while landing in bad weather in Osh. The plane was carrying 82.
Of course, such an accident was only a matter of time. Even to a casual observer, Kyrgyzstan’s red-and-blue striped, Soviet-built Tu-134 seemed long past any safe operational life. There was the goo dripping from the ceiling, the permanently fogged windows, and the burn marks on the underside of the wing. But the airplane graveyard at the end of Bishkek’s runway has long ago been cannibalized of any useful spare parts.
And then there is the Tu-134’s safety record – after one crashed near Petrozavodsk, Russia, last summer, Russian state media reported that (as of June) 8.5 percent of all Tu-134s ever manufactured had crashed.
The dream sours: A national energy company poster showing Nazarbayev and the slogan "Our oil for our independent nation." It was damaged by fire in deadly riots in Zhanaozen on December 16 for which Nazarbayev has blamed the oil bosses.
Police in Zhanaozen, scene of deadly riots on December 16 when security forces opened fire on protestors, have been pouring over video of the incident—as well they might. They stand accused of shooting unarmed demonstrators, killing 15 according to the official death toll (rights groups say the true figure may be higher). An incriminating video challenges the official version that police fired in self-defense.
Now police claim to be in possession of video exonerating themselves, Kazakhstan Today reports.
“They started it,” Zhanaozen police chief Mukhtar Kozhayev said. “This is registered by all the video recordings.” Police tried to hold protestors seeking to disrupt Independence Day celebrations back, he said, but “they broke through our encirclement, some officers were beaten up” and “bottles, rocks, and steel bars flew at us.”
Kazakhstan Today quoted Kozhayev as saying video showed people “shooting from sawn-off shotguns and pistols.” Unfortunately, there is no record of Kozhayev showing this mysterious video to exonerate his own officers.
Police have also been scrutinizing the incriminating YouTube video—and they are on the tail of those that filmed it from the window of an apartment block, Tengri News reports. “The address has been established, but the inhabitants have not been found. They may be in [nearby city] Aktau,” regional police chief Amanzhol Kabylov said ominously.
Heads are rolling in the aftermath of violence in Kazakhstan’s oil-rich west. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has dismissed oil industry officials after insinuating that their inaction over the labor dispute that had festered since May contributed to the turmoil. But despite concerns that security officials overreacted, top brass remain untouched.
During a December 22 visit to Aktau and Zhanaozen, epicenter of the December 16-17 violence that left 16 dead, Nazarbayev named Deputy Oil and Gas Minister Lyazzat Kiinov to replace Bolat Akchulakov as head of the KazMunayGaz (KMG) state energy company. At London Stock Exchange-listed daughter company KazMunayGaz Exploration Production, Alik Aydarbayev was promoted from board chairman to chief executive, replacing Askar Balzhanov.
The dismissed officials are first to take the rap for the violence, which Nazarbayev distanced himself from, remarking that “my instruction to resolve the labor dispute in a timely manner was not carried out.” He described the dismissals of strikers as “illegal” and their demands as “substantiated,” pledging to find them new jobs at the same salaries. Their vindication begs the question why 16 people had to die before Astana acted.