Prison may be just a click away for many Internet users in Azerbaijan now that the energy-rich, but rights-poor country has made online defamation and offensive languagea criminal offense. The move is seen by critics as an attempt to censor the Web ahead of this October's presidential election.
Human rights watchdogs have long maintained that Facebook-organized anti-government rallies, YouTube videos satirizing officials and other online activity have resulted in imprisonment of government opponents on various trumped-up charges. Now, they imply, prosecutors may not need to bother with tales of drugs or brawls to jail or fine critics.
What constitutes defamation or offensive language will be left to Azerbaijan’s government-loyal courts to decide. Judges can pick the preferred punitive measure from a list of punishment options for offline defamations and verbal abuse – a fine, corrective labor, or prison.
Rights groups have called on Azerbaijan to scrap the new law as a bad for democracy, something international watchdogs believe already is in short supply in the ex-Soviet republic.
"The authorities must not use the upcoming presidential election as a pretext to silence critical voices and a meaningful debate,” Amnesty International said.
Belarus’ leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka went down to Armenia this week to pick President Serzh Sargsyan’s brain about how to operate nuclear reactors.
That might sound like the beginning of an anecdote, but it's for real.
Belarus plans to build two nuclear power plants and, so, any safety tips from Armenia would be much appreciated, Lukashenka said on May 13 in Yerevan.
“You have serious experience in exploiting such facilities and we hope Armenia will be able to send at least a dozen good specialists so that they assist us in the initial stages of operating the under-construction power plants,” Lukashenka told Sargsyan, RFE/RL reported.
Armenia’s nuclear expertise comes in the form of a rusty, Soviet-era plant that huffs and puffs in the town of Metsamor, thirty kilometers west of Yerevan. Built in the 1970s, Metsamor has no primary containment enclosures to hold escaping radiation and sits in an earthquake and conflict-prone vicinity. The plant was put on the back burner during the devastating 1988 earthquake, but was reopened in 1993 as Azerbaijani and Turkish blockades starved Armenia of energy.
Citing safety concerns, the US and EU both have pled with the Armenian government to modernize the Russian-operated plant. Armenia plans to replace the plant with a modern facility soon, but, in the meantime, the tired plant continues churning out 405.7 megawatts of power, feeding some 40 percent of Armenia’s needs.
Nonetheless, Lukashenka is convinced he needs Armenia’s two cents on nuclear safety; even though the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which had a devastating effect on Belarus, might have taught him that Soviet-made plants do not provide examples of the best safety practices.
After weeks of suspense and guesswork, Georgia finally has a nominee for president from its ruling Georgian Dream coalition. To the fanfare in walks 43-year-old Education Minister Giorgi Margvelashvili.
Margvelashvili, who holds a doctorate in philosophy, may not cut as prominent a figure as the last three individuals who ended up becoming Georgia's president (in order of appearance: a nationalist dissident, a USSR foreign affairs chief and a pro-West revolutionary), but neither is the president’s office the desired job it used to be.
Constitutional changes, which go into effect after the October presidential election, will place key powers in the hands of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, while the president, aside from the role of commander-in-chief, becomes largely a ceremonial head of state.
Fluent in English and Russian, Margvelashvili is mostly known in Georgia as the former rector of the private Georgian Institute for Public Affairs, a higher-education facility, and as a frequent commentator on politics. He has not been in public office long enough to succeed or to fail, and the biggest controversy involving him pales compared to the bare-knuckle battles of the past.
That said, Margvelashvili does not command a wide personal following, and, arguably, Ivanishvili could have found more popular candidates in his cabinet of ministers. Among those whose names Georgian media bandied about were soccer- star-turned-energy-minister Kakha Kaladze and Defense Minister Irakli Alasania.
Amid a growing awareness of Western-style civil rights in Georgia, journalists are wrestling with a thorny question: where is the line between reporting and social activism? A recent tussle in the Georgian capital Tbilisi between police and protesters illustrates the trouble that many have in answering.
California’s Fresno County has become entangled in a conflict from another world.
Late last month, on the eve of the April 24 anniversary of the 1915 slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, the county government felt the urge to weigh in on the decades-long dispute over the predominantly ethnic-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region and recognize Karabakh's independence from Azerbaijan. Soon enough, angry Azerbaijan, which has vowed to reclaim the territory, came knocking on the county’s door.
The Fresno Bee has the story:“The resolution [supporting Karabakh's independence], even if symbolic and from a seemingly irrelevant county government, undermines Azerbaijan’s sovereignty, wrote the nation’s officials in a recent letter to the county. The [county] supervisors’ support, they wrote, contradicts even the US government’s official position that Nagorno-Karabakh is rightfully part of Azerbaijan.”
But Fresno has snapped its fingers back at Azerbaijan, saying the energy power picked the wrong guy. “We will not be muscled by a well-funded lobbying effort by the Azerbaijanis," Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, who penned the Karabakh resolution, proudly commented to The Fresno Bee.
Georgia has begun thinking of banning abortions after influential Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II pitched the idea in his Easter sermon on May 5.
Many churches may be pro-life, but in this devotedly Christian country, which cherishes the church leader above any other public figure, words from the patriarch can carry as much power as papal bulls once did in Europe.
During his sermon, the patriarch called on the government to stop the “terrible sin” of abortion and “filicide,” aside from a few circumstantial exceptions. He blamed both Bolshevik “atheists” from the past and modern liberal philosophy for the prevalence of abortions.
Georgia tops the South Caucasus for abortions, with 408 performed per 1,000 live births, according to a study by the World Health Organization, the Caucasus Research Resource Centers reported. (By comparison, the European Union rate is 222.)
Georgian government officials, who cannot hold a candle to the patriarch in terms of public support, quickly gave the nod to the church on considering an abortion ban. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili responded by saying that baby-boosting legislation is in order. He carefully suggested, however, that to improve the country’s bleak demographic situation, the main focus should be on economic incentives rather than abortions.
This EurasiaNet special feature takes an in-depth look at the winemaking sectors in Georgia and Moldova as a way of highlighting the challenges that both countries face as they reorient their economies toward the European Union.
Iranian police have arrested a visiting Azerbaijani scholar, prompting a fresh round in the ongoing ping-pong of diplomatic notes between the two Muslim Shi'a neighbors.
On April 30, Iranian security police raided a gathering of literati in Tabriz, the capital of Iran's predominantly ethnic Azeri northwest, confiscating books and making arrests, APA reported. Among the detained was Khalida Khalid, an Azerbaijani researcher of oriental literature, who had traveled to Iran on a research trip.
Her assistant, also an Azerbaijani, was arrested along with several Iranian writers who promote Azeri culture and the rights of Iran's Azeri minority, the country's largest.
Baku has demanded an explanation from Tehran; the whereabouts of the two arrested Azerbaijanis remain unknown.
Tabriz long has been the site of frictions between the two Muslim neighbors, who routinely vacillate between mutual arrests and mutual declarations of friendship. Last year, two Azerbaijani poets were arrested in the city on spy charges and spent four months in prison.
But, this time, another ingredient has been added to the mix.
Although no direct line has been drawn between the mission to Israel and the Tabriz arrests -- and direct lines don't happen much in either Azerbaijani or Iranian affairs -- the timing of the incident leaves the field wide open to interpretation.
Azerbaijanis better start watching their online language. Any unkind word thrown into cyber space may soon result in a legal action if plans to censor publicly accessible virtual conversations go through.
The new draft law proposes making web-based profanity and libel a criminal offense. The amendments, brought to the Milli Majli's floor by the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, suggest equalizing offline and online insults and libel. Depending on how hard and at whom an Azerbaijani Internet user swears, he/she could face a fine up to 1,000 manats (upwards of $1,274), 240 hours of community service or even incarceration. An online libel offense would result in a similar assortment of punishments.
Legislating about the Internet may be a global trend, but, conceivably, this could spell trouble for online political dissent in tightly governed Azerbaijan. Police are believed to be watching the Facebook activity of government critics and have not been shy in the past about clapping people into jail after certain differences of opinion with the government.
If it’s any consolation, Azerbaijanis most likely would be able to watch the court proceedings on such or any other offenses online. With financial assistance from the World Bank, the country is making court hearings available online, Trend (http://www.trend.az/life/crime/1993850.html) reported.
No word yet whether the Azerbaijani government would consider including a Miranda-warning-style message that pops up every time someone logs onto the Internet to make sure everybody stays out of trouble.
In a departure from its usual fascination with President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration, Georgia plans to take a fresh look at the 1993 killing of CIA station chief Freddie Woodruff during the murky, riotous epoch of President Eduard Shevardnadze.
"We have some serious doubts about what really happened, " Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani told The New York Times in reference to the shooting.
Investigators at the time said that Woodruff was killed by a pot shot fired by a drunken ex-soldier, a frequent occurrence in Georgia those days. But the circumstances and the timing led to many theories -- some straight from a film noir plot -- that linked the death to Washington-Moscow turf wars over the newly independent South Caucasus.
The man blamed for Woodruff's murder, Anzor Sharmaidze, spent 12 years in prison before being released in 2008 after witnesses claimed police had tortured them into implicating Sharmaidze. Tsulukiani commented to the Times that she suspects that Sharmaidze was jailed just because Tbilisi was under pressure to present Washington with a killer.
Aside from its profession of "serious doubts," it is unclear what has motivated the Georgian government to take a second look into the Woodruff case just now. Prosecutors already are facing a series of high-profile investigations into senior officials under the nearly nine-year rule of President Saakashvili’s United National Movement -- including a potential questioning of Saakashvili himself about the 2008 war with Russia -- that alone could prove a hefty burden.