Authorities in Azerbaijan took steps December 5 to muzzle Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist who is the country’s most vocal government critic. A Baku court granted a motion to hold Ismayilova in jail pending a criminal trial, while her Facebook page mysteriously went dark.
Prosecutors in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital, have dropped a criminal case against a local non-governmental organization accused of inciting inter-ethnic conflict. The decision is being cheered by civil society activists, who had earlier expressed concern that the case was a possible harbinger of a crackdown on the non-governmental sector.
In a resolution dated November 28, the Osh prosecutor’s office halted the investigation of the Advocacy Center for Human Rights for lack of evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The criminal case was opened in late September at the instigation of the local branch of the GKNB, or Kyrgyz state security service, which alleged that a research project conducted by the NGO posed a threat to national security. The Advocacy Center, in conjunction with the US-based watchdog organization Freedom House, had been carrying out a pilot research project on the civil rights of ethnic minorities in two regions of southern Kyrgyzstan – Batken and Jalal-Abad.
“We are pleased that the prosecutor rejected the charges of inciting inter-ethnic hatred against the staff of the Human Rights Advocacy Center,” Robert Herman, Freedom House’s vice president for regional programs, said in a written statement distributed by the watchdog organization. “The allegations were baseless and the prosecutor’s decision represents a triumph of the rule of law.”
While the decision may mark a limited victory for due process in Kyrgyzstan, a convoluted provision in the prosecutor’s November 28 resolution indicates that the rule of law was probably not the sole factor in the decision to drop the case. Instead, it hints that behind-the-scenes maneuvering among various state agencies played a significant role in the outcome.
Western and Russian companies are helping Central Asian governments build and maintain vast surveillance networks that facilitate indiscriminate monitoring of all types of communication, according to a report released November 20 by a watchdog organization. Such sales of technology appear to violate international law and obligate Western governments to take action to tighten export controls of surveillance-related trade, the report adds.
The report, titled Private Interests: Monitoring Central Asia, is the product of a year-long investigation carried out by the watchdog group Privacy International. It shows how local and foreign communications service providers, including telecoms and Internet-related companies, are complicit in helping governments carry out authoritarian-style snooping. It also provides exhaustive documentation on the types of spyware and technical assistance that firms based in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Israel are supplying to Central Asian states.
While focusing on the surveillance architecture of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the report also provides overviews of practices in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
"Some countries are equipped with sophisticated surveillance capabilities that allow the monitoring of communications on a mass scale,” the report stated. “These surveillance capabilities are centralized and accessed by security agencies in monitoring centers, located across the region, allowing agents to intercept, decode and analyze the private communications of thousands of people simultaneously.”
Civil society activists in Kyrgyzstan are warily eyeing a criminal case initiated by the state security service against a local non-governmental organization in the southern capital Osh. The probe is fanning concern in the non-governmental sector that authorities are gearing up for a renewed push to pass a “foreign agents” law.
In going back to the drawing board to work on fresh ways to foster democratization in Central Asia, civil society advocates need to pay more attention to property rights, a leading rights activist contends.
Yevgeniy Zhovtis, a prominent human rights advocate in Kazakhstan, gave the keynote address at the annual Central Eurasian Studies Society conference, held at Columbia University in New York on October 24-26. He painted a bleak picture of the existing social and political landscape in Central Asia. Outside of Kyrgyzstan, Zhovtis noted, authoritarianism has taken deep root in Central Asia, with governments implementing extensive measures to squash basic freedoms.
“Single-party parliaments, … special forces exercising total surveillance, law-enforcement [bodies] protecting the interests of the ruling elite at all times – this is reality in Central Asia,” Zhovtis said.
Hopes for reversing the current trend rest mainly on solving dilemmas relating to property rights in Central Asia, Zhovtis suggested. He noted that 70-plus years of communism in the former Soviet Union completely skewed the way citizens in the region understand the concept of private property, adding that the sanctity of property rights is the fundamental building bloc of any civil society.
“In modern societies, the evolution of economic and legal foundations for private property facilitated ideas of individual rights and freedoms. In post-Soviet countries, this process never took root,” he said.
It’s no secret that Turkmenistan, a modern-day hermit khanate with one of the most repressive governments on earth, has an abundance of political prisoners. But until now, few details were known about how enemies of the state spent their time behind bars.
Federal Prosecutors unsealed an indictment on May 30 charging Khairullozhon Matanov, a 23-year-old citizen of Kyrgyzstan, with four counts of obstructing justice in connection with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
The indictment asserts Matanov was a close acquaintance of the accused Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and that he had repeated contact with the duo in the days following the April 15, 2013, tragedy. In particular, it outlines that Matanov had dinner with the Tsarnaev brothers just hours after two home-made bombs detonated near the marathon finish line. In addition, “in the hours and days following the bombings, Matanov contacted and attempted to contact Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev by cellphone and saw Tamerlan in person at least twice.”
Matanov is specifically charged with destroying potential evidence and making false statements that impeded the criminal investigation into the Tsarnaevs’ alleged actions. Authorities identified the Tsarnaevs as prime suspects on April 18, 2013.
The indictment notes that Matanov spoke with federal investigators several times on April 20, 2013. “Although Matanov soon dropped the pretense that he and Tamerlan Tsarnaev had not seen each other much, he continued to falsify, conceal and cover up evidence of the extent of his friendship, contact and communication with the Tsarnaevs during the week of the bombings, especially during the hours following the bombings,” the indictment states.
“One subject about which Matanov misinformed federal investigators concerned his interactions with the Tsarnaevs on April 15, 2013, the afternoon and evening of the bombings," it adds. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died during a shootout with law-enforcement officers in the early hours of April 19, 2013. Dzhokhar was taken into custody late the same day; his trial is scheduled to begin November 3 in US District Court in Boston.
Could 2018 become the new 1980? It might, if recent initiatives aiming to use a major sporting event to punish Russia for geopolitical misbehavior can gain traction.
Back in 1979, it was the Kremlin’s military occupation of Afghanistan that prompted a US-led boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympic Games the following year. The trigger today is Russia’s land grab in Crimea, an act of territorial aggression that has evoked memories of Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland back in 1938.
Russia, as readers may remember, is scheduled to host the 2018 World Cup football tournament, the world’s most watched sporting event. A couple of football fans in the United States and Europe, outraged by Russia’s incursion, have launched web-based petitions calling on FIFA, football’s governing body, to relocate the 2018 World Cup.
“International sporting bodies have an obligation to speak up when there’s injustice, and there’s a tournament being held in the country that’s perpetuating the injustice,” said Zach Lewis, a New York City resident who launched a petition drive hosted by the global activism website, Change.org.
As the reality of the Vladimir Putin’s Crimean land grab sinks in, the most alarming aspect of it all is not the ease with which Russian troops seized the peninsula, but the way the Kremlin mobilized Russian public opinion behind its agenda.