UPDATE, March 28: American journalist Umar Farooq says he has been freed and is leaving Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, lawyers for human rights watchdog Bir Duino have filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office for the raids on their office and several top employees’ homes.
The arrest of an American journalist on extremism charges and the subsequent raid of a prominent human rights organization, both in southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest city, Osh, suggest that Kyrgyz authorities are still cagey about independent inquiry in a region associated with growing adherence to Islam and festering inter-ethnic tensions.
Kyrgyzstan has styled itself as a bastion of democracy in an authoritarian region, but rights activists see looming Russian-style legislation that would brand NGOs “foreign agents” as impending death for the country’s once-vibrant civil society.
Umar Farooq was researching the recent arrest of a popular cleric accused of supporting Syrian radicals, said a local journalist who had met with him shortly after he arrived in Kyrgyzstan a few weeks ago. On his webpage, Farooq identifies himself as a journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor and others.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) released a statement late March 27 confirming Farooq’s March 25 arrest, and claiming he had been found with documents and video materials of a "religious extremist and terrorist character."
A US Embassy spokeswoman told EurasiaNet.org that American officials had been in touch with Farooq and were providing consular support.
Azerbaijan’s most prominent investigative reporter, Khadija Ismayilova remains in extended pre-trial detention, awaiting her day in court to face a variety of criminal charges. Meanwhile, Ismayilova’s fellow reporters at the Azeri service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are experiencing a rising level of harassment.
Authorities seem intent on turning the screws slowly on Ismayilova. On February 23, following a closed-door trial, she was found guilty of libel and fined the equivalent of $2,400. Ismayilova was originally arrested on December 5 on charges of incitement of suicide. She denies all charges. Media freedom monitors consider the criminal case against her to be politically motivated.
In a recently published letter to The Washington Post, Ismayilova says she has no access to news and her family members are not allowed to visit her. “My cellmates are also my new audience, that most precious thing that every journalist must have, even a journalist whom the government is trying to silence,” Ismayilova wrote.
These days, Azerbaijani authorities are paying more attention to others with an RFE/RL affiliation. For example, Babek Bakirov, RFE/RL’s former Baku bureau chief, was not allowed to board an international flight on February 23, the same day when Ismayilova’s libel decision was announced. The RFE/RL bureau also revealed that one of its contributors was questioned by prosecutors. His name was not disclosed for safety concerns.
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."
Kazakhstan does not persecute political opponents or attack freedom of expression, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has avowed, fending off awkward questions from journalists during a December 5 visit to Astana by his French counterpart, François Hollande.
“There are no censorship questions here, no political persecutions,” Nazarbayev said in remarks quoted by Vlast.kz, calling on critics to “abandon stereotypes here and look with new, open eyes.”
Nazarbayev was speaking the same day that two high-profile cases which raise questions about political liberties and freedom of speech reached the courts.
In one, the Adam Bol magazine – which was one of the last remaining independent media outlets in Kazakhstan – is fighting closure on the grounds that it allegedly called for war in its coverage of the Ukraine conflict. The case was adjourned until December 22.
The magazine was closed down on November 20 over an interview in which opposition activist Aydos Sadykov pledged to urge citizens of Kazakhstan to take up arms to fight pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. The closure was condemned by OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic as “drastic and disproportionate,” and by Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog, as the “orchestrated throttling” of an opposition-minded outlet.
For 12 years, Tatyana Shikmuradova has wondered if her husband is alive or dead. Authorities in her country, Turkmenistan, have answered none of her queries.
Her husband, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikmuradov, was one of dozens arrested, charged, sentenced and jailed within days of a purported assassination attempt on former Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov on November 25, 2002. The New York Times characterized the show trials aired on Turkmenistan’s state-run television at the time as “the most chilling public witch hunt since Stalin.”
At his trial, Shikmuradov – whom the police claimed to have “picked up with drugs in his pockets” – admitted to being an “addict” and a “thug.” Sentenced to 25 years, Shikmuradov’s prison term was increased to life the day after his trial. His sentincing was clearly political, activists say.
“I need to know where my husband is,” Tatyana Shikmuradova pleads in a new video released by Human Rights Watch to mark the anniversary. “For the past 12 years now I haven’t been able to get any information.”
The video is part of the Prove They Are Alive campaign, which demands Turkmenistan provide proof of life of the missing, or admit they are dead. From Human Rights Watch’s statement:
Azerbaijan wrapped up its chairmanship on November 13 of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, one of the continent’s leading human rights organizations. Civil society activists used the occasion to lob verbal brickbats at Baku, assailing the Azerbaijani government for accelerating a domestic crackdown on dissent during its tenure at the helm in Strasbourg.
Azerbaijan took over as chair of the Committee of Ministers, the Council of Europe’s executive arm and decision-making body, back in May. Over the course of its six-month term, authorities in Baku bullied and imprisoned scores of local journalists and rights advocates, jailing some of the country’s most prominent civil society figures, including Leyla and Arif Yunus, on what watchdog groups contend are trumped-up, politically motivated charges.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov attended a ceremony in Strasbourg on November 13 marking the transfer of the chairmanship from Azerbaijan to Belgium. He also presented an assessment of Azerbaijan’s performance as the committee chair. A document posted on the Council of Europe’s website, titled “Stocktaking of the Azerbaijani Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe,” said that “Azerbaijan deployed considerable efforts in furthering the objectives of the Council of Europe around its three key pillars – human rights, rule of law and democracy.”
The 19th-century Kazakh and Russian cultural icons depicted enjoying a kiss on a poster may be long dead. But that has not stopped a court in Kazakhstan awarding massive damages to a group of living people who claim the image of two men kissing has hurt their feelings.
On October 28, a court in Almaty ordered the advertising agency that designed the poster – which shows Kazakh composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbayuly and Russian poet Alexander Pushkin kissing – to pay 34 million tenge ($188,000) to a group of 34 music students and teachers whose only tenuous connection to the image is that they study and work at the Kurmangazy Kazakh National Conservatory, Tengri News reports.
The ruling awarding each plantiff a million tenge is “unfair,” said Dariya Khamitzhanova, director of the Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan agency, which designed the poster. “This 34 million will ruin our company.” She pledged to appeal, but meanwhile the court has frozen the agency’s assets.
The controversial poster – advertising an Almaty gay club at the intersection of Kurmangazy and Pushkin streets and inspired by a famous image of the leaders of East Germany and the Soviet Union kissing in 1979 – was designed for an advertising competition in August and was never intended for showing in the public domain.
However, after the picture started doing the rounds on social media a public outcry ensued and three separate lawsuits were launched against the agency, which has repeatedly apologized for any offense caused.
A band of treacherous radicals will swoop into Tajikistan’s capital and seize power tomorrow at 3 p.m.—at least that’s what senior government officials seem to fear. To thwart their nefarious plans, prosecutors are visiting schools, telling children to avoid provocations; someone in government has shut down a bunch of Internet sites; and with a straight face the nation’s highest court has branded the hazy, little-known Facebook group terrorists.
Last weekend, Group 24, as the proto-opposition movement is known, called on Facebook for supporters to gather in one of Dushanbe’s main squares on October 10 and demand free elections and an end to the rule of long-serving strongman Emomali Rakhmon. Within hours, dozens or possibly hundreds of websites including Facebook and YouTube became inaccessible. Authorities would not say why. Instead, riot police closed off a large patch of Dushanbe, the capital, and, in a rare show of police strength, dispersed a mob – actors they’d brought in for the occasion, as it later turned out.
On October 8, the Interior Ministry deployed armored personnel carriers at entrances to the city. Ministry officials say the troop movements – which are anything but routine – are related to the president’s trip to a CIS Summit in Belarus.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev is in Brussels putting the finishing touches to a landmark agreement with the European Union, cementing ties with Europe even as Astana pushes ahead to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Nazarbayev met Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, on October 9, to “confirm the conclusion of negotiations” on the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, the EU said.
The agreement – three years in the making – aims to boost cooperation in around 30 policy areas including trade and foreign and security policy, it said, and will “significantly deepen political and economic ties” between Kazakhstan and the EU (Astana’s largest trade partner and a major consumer of its energy exports).
The agreement is a far weaker deal than the Association Agreement signed by Ukraine this year, but is still the most ambitious deal to be concluded between the EU and any Central Asian state.
It “puts a strong emphasis on democracy and the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the EU stated, although it failed to specify how.
The visit was marred by news that France is investigating possible kickbacks involving a helicopter deal with Kazakhstan, and probing allegations that Nazarbayev put indirect pressure on Brussels to close a bribery case against Kazakhstani oligarchs.
There was also controversy over Kazakhstan’s human rights record.
At PEN International there is a tradition: During the organization’s general assemblies, empty chairs are left prominently vacant as a reminder of imprisoned writers and journalists around the world.
This year, for the free expression watchdog’s 80th anniversary – marked this week in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek – three empty chairs reminded the assembly of three Central Asian men imprisoned for their writings and activism: Azimjon Askarov from Kyrgyzstan, Ilham Tohti from China and Vladimir Kozlov from Kazakhstan.
PEN President John Ralston Saul noted that Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev extended a personal invitation to the organization. During a private meeting, Atambayev himself raised the case of Askarov, an Uzbek journalist and rights activist serving a life sentence for complicity in murder and other crimes connected to the June 2010 ethnic violence. Human rights groups have pointed to glaring irregularities during his trial and say Askarov was framed to stop him from documenting police abuse. While PEN and the president “disagreed” over the continuing imprisonment of Askarov, the fact that the president invited PEN to discuss the issue with him was itself “significant,” Saul said.