A senior judge in Kyrgyzstan has been sacked after challenging the government’s plan to collect fingerprints and other biometric data from citizens.
Klara Sooronkulova had become a hero for civic activists who believe the top-down effort to force citizens to share their fingerprints in exchange for the right to vote is unconstitutional and at odds with their civil liberties.
Sooronkulova, a judge at the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, was drafting a document declaring the 2014 Law on Biometric Registration unconstitutional. She had attracted legal expertise from abroad to reinforce her position.
She now seems certain to lose her position after the Council of Judges (kind of a judges’ board of directors) voted unanimously on June 18 to dismiss her, citing a breach of judicial discipline.
As support builds for Sooronkulova – about 100 supporters protested outside parliament on June 24 – the president and parliament must now confirm her dismissal.
Well-known rights activist Cholpon Djakupova, director of the Adilet legal clinic, told Vechernii Bishkek that Sooronkulova had been punished “for going against the system.”
Biometric passports, otherwise known as e-passports, are identity documents containing the holder’s biometric information – usually a fingerprint. As of 2014, over a 100 countries issue them. Supporters argue that the built-in electronic identification mechanisms make travel documents less prone to identity theft.
With the World Bank and Asian Development Bank soon to decide on Tajikistan’s request for $40 million more in budget support, they may wish to consider how past donations have benefited people close to the autocratic president while doing little to solve the long-term problems they were aiming to fix.
The two banks have spent over $140 million since 2009 topping up Tajikistan’s budget. But where does the money go? In 2012 alone the government spent $145 million recapitalizing a private bank that had handed out dozens of astronomically risky loans, many of them benefitting companies owned by relatives of the then-deputy prime minister, Muradali Alimardon (a man who had been promoted after admitting he’d lied to the IMF about the country’s reserves).
As I wrote for The Economist last week, the loans then disappeared but the directed lending continued. The bank is now deep in the red and Tajikistan’s whole banking sector looks on the edge of collapse.
Donors concede they struggle to piece together what is really going on. Their documents repeatedly describe Tajik bank statements as if they are purposely misleading. Internal memos say the banking sector’s structural problems stem from government resistance to reform, the lack of an independent central bank, ineffective internal controls, and ongoing fraud.
As Tajikistan’s banking crisis has snowballed over the last two or three years, donors have repeatedly seen their calls for reform ignored. So will they reward President Emomali Rahmon and his cronies for their persistent unwillingness to change the system?
Tajikistan’s most high-profile Islamic State fighter has threatened to kill his brother back home and dismissed rumors he is a government mole on a secret mission inside the so-called caliphate.
Police special forces (OMON) commander Gulmurod Halimov’s shock defection last month to the Islamic State caused panic in Dushanbe. Authorities quickly blocked access to social media carrying his video, in which he condemned authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon and vowed “we are coming to you with slaughter.”
On June 18, Halimov appeared in another video published online. Lounging between two Tajik militants, and sporting a bushier beard than in his first video, Halimov responds to criticism from his older brother by threatening to cut off his head.
Saidmurod Halimov had denounced his brother’s decision to join the Islamic State in an interview with Radio Ozodi.
The five-minute video lacks the high-tech editing and graphics seen in his first clip.
Astana places severe restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of expression, conscience, and assembly, a United Nations rapporteur says in a report published following a visit to Kazakhstan earlier this year.
The country offers “very limited space for the expression of dissenting political views” and treats freedom of assembly “as a privilege or a favor rather than a right,” Maina Kiai, rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, said in a report being presented to the United Nations in Geneva on June 17.
“A web of policy, practice and perception contributes to a general environment where engaging in political activities is difficult, discouraging and sometimes dangerous,” Kiai found. “Dissent may be criminalized and critical political expression is often portrayed as threatening the stability of the state.”
He expressed concern about the case of Kazakhstan’s most prominent prisoner, Vladimir Kozlov, jailed on charges of fomenting fatal violence in western Kazakhstan in 2011.
The rapporteur, who met the opposition leader behind bars during his January visit, “is seriously concerned that Mr. Kozlov’s ordinary political speech and association activities were deemed criminal incitement of social hatred,” the report stated.
The case “seems emblematic of a more general trend to marginalize political leaders voicing dissent,” it added.
A corruption scandal has engulfed a high-profile international exhibition that Astana is organizing, just as Kazakhstan enters the final stages of its bid to stage another prominent global event – the Winter Olympics.
Talgat Yermegiyayev, the chief organizer of Kazakhstan’s EXPO-2017 exhibition (which is due to be held in Astana in two years) has been placed under house arrest on suspicion of embezzlement, reports the Today.kz website.
The court ruling was issued on June 12, the day after President Nursultan Nazarbayev had fired Yermegiyayev from his position as chief executive of the Astana EXPO-2017 company, which is organizing the international exhibition. Nazarbayev’s administration has billed the event a major PR coup for Kazakhstan.
Another top EXPO official, Kazhymurat Usenov, who was in charge of the department overseeing construction of facilities for the exhibition, has also been placed under house arrest. He is suspected of embezzling 214 million tenge ($1.2 million) from the $385 million the state has allocated for the $3 billion event.
The corruption scandal has erupted as Kazakhstan enters the final stages in the race to stage the 2022 Winter Olympics, in which commercial capital Almaty is competing with Beijing to host the prestigious sporting event. A vote is due at the end of July.
The march against corruption advances undaunted in Tajikistan. Or does it?
A senior official has been felled in the trumpeted campaign to battle the country's scourge of all-encompassing graft, Russian news agency Interfax reported on June 15. Khasan Radzhabov was serving as adviser to the president on personnel affairs at the time of his arrest by the anticorruption agency.
Interfax cites a law enforcement source as saying that Radzhabov is suspected of embezzlement and bribe taking on a massive scale. No other details are yet available.
What personnel recommendations might Radzhabov have given the president?
He may learn to regret them if they included the March appointment of President Emomali Rahmon's 27-year-old son, Rustam Emomali, as head of the Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption.
That nod invited immediate suggestions of high-level nepotism, although Emomali appears to have sought to dispel those thoughts by embarking on his job with gusto.
Izzattullo Azizov, an official with the state religious affairs committee, was arrested days after Emomali took up his post on suspicion of soliciting $2,000 bribes from devout Muslim hoping to go on the hajj. That detention was eagerly advertised on the evening news.
Interfax says several other senior functionaries have been arrested since.
There can be little disagreement that Tajikistan has a major corruption problem. The country ranks 152 out of 175 in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.
Five years after an ethnic conflict left hundreds dead and Kyrgyzstan’s second city smoldering, the uneven application of racial hatred laws is still hindering open conversations about nationalism.
Last week, veteran journalist Ulugbek Babakulov, who is editor of the MK Asia newspaper and a member of an ethnic minority group, was questioned by Kyrgyzstan’s GKNB security service and informed that tens of people had signed a statement calling for him to be charged for spreading ethnic hatred.
Babakulov had not publicly defamed another ethnicity. His alleged offence appears to be criticizing an ethnic Kyrgyz public figure for doing so.
In a May issue of MK Asia (a local branch of the Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets), Babakulov highlighted comments made late last year by Abdyrakhman Alimbaev, a former head of the Writer’s Union of Kyrgyzstan, likening non-Kyrgyz ethnic groups to “jackals.”
During the December 7 broadcast of the Kyrgyz talk show Tooluktardyn – “Mountain People” – on state broadcaster OTRK, Alimbaev allegedly said: “Of course, if the child's mother is an Uzbek, an Uighur woman or a Jew, the child may become a trader. […] What do we see today? Kyrgyz women marry men of different nationalities, and Kyrgyz men also marry different women. It is like a lion marrying a jackal or a jackal marrying a lioness.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has finished a weeklong tour of the five Central Asian states by appealing for them to improve their dismal human rights records. He called on the region’s autocrats to respect civil liberties, at the very least as a means to preserve stability.
“There is no peace without development. No development without peace. And neither is possible without a respect for human rights,” Ban told a meeting of students and officials in Turkmenistan, which campaigners describe as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
Speaking in Ashgabat on June 13, the last day of his tour, Ban pointed to concerns about a “deterioration of some aspects of human rights – a shrinking democratic space” across Central Asia.
Restrictions on freedoms might foster “an illusion of stability in the short-run,” he added, but ultimately threatened to create “a breeding ground for extremist ideologies.”
“Around the world, the way to confront threats is not more repression, it is more openness. More human rights,” he added.
A day earlier, in Uzbekistan, Ban had heeded calls by human rights campaigners to press Tashkent over the issues of forced labor and torture.
He acknowledged progress in eliminating the use of child labor, but urged the government to address “the mobilization of teachers, doctors and others in cotton harvesting,” and also “prevent the maltreatment of prisoners.”
Ban hailed “good laws” adopted in Uzbekistan to uphold the rule of law, but added that “laws on the books should be made real in the lives of people.”
Kazakhstan is poised to become part of the World Trade Organization (WTO) nearly two decades after it first applied to join. The Central Asian nation has completed entry talks that have been among the most “challenging” the global body has faced with any country.
Kazakhstan “finalized the negotiations of its WTO membership terms with WTO members at the Working Party meeting on Kazakhstan’s accession on 10 June,” the international trade body said in a statement issued the same day.
Farida Batyrbayeva, spokeswoman for Minister of Economic Integration Zhanar Aytzhanova, confirmed to EurasiaNet.org the completion of talks that started back in 1996.
Astana will not release details of the accession package until after a meeting in Geneva on June 22 at which the WTO’s 161 member states will consider formal approval of the draft accession package, Batyrbayeva added.
The WTO announcement came on the same day that the Agriculture Ministry had declined to put a date on Kazakhstan’s long-delayed accession, hinting at behind-the-scenes disagreements over agricultural subsidies.
The size of subsidies Kazakhstan would be permitted to retain for the agricultural sector – which contributes some 5 percent of GDP and employs around a quarter of the workforce – remained “unresolved,” as Kazakhstani negotiators tried to secure “the maximum possible domestic support,” the ministry told Tengri News on June 10, shortly before the WTO issued its statement on the completion of the accession talks.
Evidently, negotiators overcame the stumbling block to conclude the deal, which WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo hailed as a “historic step.”
The accession talks with Kazakhstan were among “the most challenging negotiations” in the WTO’s 20-year history, the statement said.
Kazakhstan's financial capital, Almaty, has deployed an obvious but credible argument in its battle with Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics – its real snow.
The bidding battle is coming to a close as the two finalists made their presentations to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Switzerland on June 9. The decisive votes will be cast in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 31.
Before the pitches, Almaty was perceived to be lagging behind Beijing in the contest. But a strong performance that focused on its rival's main weakness – a lack of natural snow – drew praise from IOC delegates.
“I was very, very agreeably surprised,” Canadian IOC member Dick Pound told the Associated Press after Almaty's pitch. “I think they attracted the attention of people who may not have been convinced before. It looks to me like they figured out all of the weaknesses of the competitors and they just nailed the differences – snow, water, air, experience.”
The two cities were given a 45-minute presentation slot to impress the delegates followed by a 45-minute question-and-answer session. Almaty’s message was simple: Its mountains, covered in genuine snow, are the ideal backdrop for the Games.
“I think the Almaty presentation scored some points,” U.S. Olympic Committee chairman and IOC member Larry Probst told the AP. “They drove home the message 'keeping it real.' That was all about snow versus making snow. I think that resonates.”