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.
Rights activists are embracing an economic argument against Uzbekistan’s ongoing use of forced labor in the cotton sector: a reliance on slaves is far more inefficient than using wage labor.
Representatives of the advocacy group Anti-Slavery International organized a small protest outside the Uzbek Embassy in London on September 30, during which they attempted to deliver a petition signed by over 2,700 people that calls for an end to the used of forced labor.
“Year on year hundreds of thousands of Uzbek citizens are forced by their own government to pick cotton for the benefit of a narrow political elite,” Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International told Eurasianet.org.
The petition is addressed to Uzbek President Islam Karimov. It states that the Uzbek government’s continuing reliance on forced labor “condemns Uzbekistan to a cycle of under-development as generations are denied education, health-care and decent work opportunities.”
“The time to end state-orchestrated, modern-day slavery in Uzbekistan is now,” it adds. The document specifically calls on the state to raise the price paid for raw cotton, something that would encourage farmers to offer higher wages to laborers. Higher wages would, in turn, discourage the use of forced labor and lead to greater efficiencies in the sector, as workers would have a greater incentive to pick more cotton, faster.
As Gulnara Karimova, the embattled daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman President Islam Karimov, stares the prospect of a jail term in the face, a new report by an international human rights watchdog offers a chilling peak at life behind bars in her father’s authoritarian state.
The report, released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on September 26, details the cases of 34 detainees and ten former detainees whom the watchdog views as political prisoners, jailed on trumped-up charges ranging from plotting to overthrow Karimov to corruption, illegal religious activity, and human trafficking.
These cases “shed light on larger trends of political repression in Uzbekistan and on the government’s attempt to suppress a wide range of independent activity that occurs beyond strict state control,” the watchdog said in the 121-page report, entitled Until the Very End: Politically Motivated Imprisonment in Uzbekistan.
The detainees profiled include human rights campaigners, political activists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and witnesses to the shooting of protesters in Andijan in 2005.
Tashkent “appears to have a policy of using imprisonment to target virtually anyone engaged in activities outside very tight state controls,” Steve Swerdlow of HRW, the report’s author, told EurasiaNet.org.
Like other detainees inside Uzbekistan’s notoriously harsh jails, political prisoners are held in tough conditions and suffer “a wide range of human rights abuses,” the research found, with “credible allegations of torture or ill-treatment” made in 29 of the case studies.
Apple, the beloved maker of addictive gadgets, says it is using gold mined in Uzbekistan, one of the world’s most notorious human rights abusers, in some of its most popular products.
The disclosure follows new American legislation requiring US-listed companies to reveal supply chains to show they are not using "conflict minerals" – tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold – that have helped fund Congo’s never-ending war.
According to Apple’s May 29 Specialized Disclosure Report to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), last year the California-based company used gold from Uzbekistan's Almalyk Mining and Metallurgical Complex and Navoi Mining & Metallurgy Combinat. Gold from those companies could have ended up in “Apple’s iPhone, iPad, Mac, iPod, Apple TV, displays, and accessories,” the disclosure said.
“The ethical sourcing of minerals is an important part of Apple’s mission to ensure safe and fair working conditions in its supply chain. Apple is determined to use ‘conflict free’ minerals in its products,” Apple said in its SEC filing.
The new SEC reporting requirements affect some 6,000 US-listed companies, Forbes reported last month. The SEC estimates the extra due diligence will cost these companies between $3 and $4 billion this year and $207 to $609 million annually afterward, Forbes said.
An imprisoned human rights activist in Turkmenistan “has hours to live” following a 14-day hunger strike, Amnesty International said yesterday.
Mansur Mingelov, 39, was arrested in 2012 after documenting police torture, including instances where police subjected detainees to electric shocks and yanked on their genitals with pliers, Amnesty said.
“The Turkmenistani authorities can avert his death by abiding by their obligations and granting Mansur Mingelov a fair trial,” said Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Program.
Mingelov has refused food since May 19 “in protest at the 22-year sentence for alleged drug and child pornography offences passed down after an unfair trial. Prison doctors say he is in a critical condition,” Amnesty said in a June 2 statement:
His conviction was largely based on the testimony of four alleged victims who did not understand the Turkmen language and signed untranslated statements – reportedly under intimidation and threat. […]
[O]n 10 September 2012, he was convicted and sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment on what he alleges to be spurious charges of “involving minors in socially inappropriate actions” and the production and distribution of pornography and drugs.
Tajik authorities are apparently not satisfied jailing only their opponents, but wish to silence their opponents’ counsel, too.
Fakhriddin Zokirov, who represented former Industry Minister Zaid Saidov in a controversial corruption trial last year, was arrested March 8 on charges of forging documents to receive a million-dollar bank loan, an unnamed source at Tajikistan’s anti-corruption agency told Asia-Plus today.
Saidov, the former minister, was arrested last summer shortly after announcing he was forming a new political party with several leading technocrats. After a closed trial that Human Rights Watch called “politically motivated,” he was sentenced to 26 years for fraud, corruption, statutory rape and polygamy. The charges appeared to be as much about disgracing the charming reformist as locking him away. Saidov denied the charges.
After his arrest, several of Saidov’s supporters said they received death threats. The case epitomized a chilling in Tajikistan’s political atmosphere ahead of last year’s presidential elections, which incumbent President Imomali Rakhmon went on to win in a landslide and which independent monitors said lacked meaningful competition.