Seven citizens of Kazakhstan who strayed into Turkmenistan accidentally have been jailed for seven years, reports western Kazakhstan’s Lada newspaper, quoting an unnamed relative of one of the detainees.
The group includes four law-enforcement officers who were working in the border area, and three hunters who were in their company for reasons yet to be established. The four officers had been sent to a border district with Turkmenistan on the hunt for illegal migrants and wanted criminals, Mangystau Region police chief Kayrat Otebay said following their October 19 arrest.
Otebay said the law-enforcement officers were headed to Kazakhstan’s Boget border unit but lost their way in the desert. Officials have yet to establish why they had teamed up with the three hunters, but there has been speculation the officers were giving them a lift.
Confirming the arrest a week after it happened, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry said the seven had been arrested for “illegally crossing the state border and penetrating three kilometers into the territory of Turkmenistan.” It also said they were carrying firearms.
The group received prison terms of seven years after a trial in the Caspian city of Turkmenbashi, Lada quoted the sister of one of the detained Kazakhs as saying. The newspaper, which is based in Kazakhstan’s Caspian city of Aktau, did not identify the source by name.
American government statements on human rights in Central Asia tend to be pretty tepid, especially when they focus on countries necessary for transit routes into and out of Afghanistan.
A December 6 speech by Hillary Rodham Clinton, the US Secretary of State, was not much different, though she did single out the region for attention as part of what she called wider backsliding on human rights in the former Soviet world.
I just met with a group of the Civil Society Solidarity Platform leaders from a number of member states. They talked to me about the growing challenges and dangers that they are facing, about new restrictions on human rights from governments, new pressures on journalists, new assaults on NGOs. And I urge all of us to pay attention to their concerns.
For example, in Belarus, the Government continues to systematically repress human rights, detain political prisoners, and intimidate journalists. In Ukraine, the elections in October were a step backwards for democracy, and we remain deeply concerned about the selective prosecution of opposition leaders. In Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, there are examples of the restrictions of the freedom of expression online and offline as well as the freedom of religion. In the Caucasus, we see constraints on judicial independence, attacks on journalists, and elections that are not always free and fair.
Clinton was speaking at an OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Dublin (all five Central Asian states are OSCE members). She didn’t get into details on Central Asia, so here’s a quick recap of recent events:
--In Tajikistan, authorities have been blocking websites critical of President Emomali Rakhmon and his military’s violent assault on the Gorno-Badakhshan region this summer.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili says that NATO was ready to offer his country the long-coveted Membership Action Plan to join the alliance but that "events of recent months" have scuttled those hopes. That seems to contradict statements made a day earlier by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in which he said there were never any such plans.
Saakashvili was speaking to Georgian journalists in Warsaw, on the way back to Georgia from NATO meetings in Brussels, reports Civil.ge:
“We were permanently making progress in respect of NATO [integration]. At Bucharest summit [in April 2008] we failed to get MAP, but we got a direct declaration that Georgia will become a NATO member and it was a real geopolitical breakthrough. Then NATO-Georgia Commission was established [in September, 2008]… Then we received a status of an aspirant state [December, 2011]… Then there was a statement at the NATO Chicago summit [in May, 2012] that at the next summit NATO should expand and that Georgia was one of the major candidates,” Saakashvili said....
“Yesterday [December 5] NATO-Georgia Commission meeting was held in Brussels. After the elections we had a chance of receiving MAP, because at the time discussions were ongoing that because elections were held so well and because we had a consensus between the new [government] and the President about NATO membership, there was a chance of at last getting this MAP by December – I was personally told about it at the very highest level,” Saakashvili said....
“Unfortunately, events of recent months – and I am saying it with great regret – did not allow us [to get MAP].”
“Yesterday’s [NATO-Georgia Commission] meeting was held actually without having new institutional progress [with NATO],” Saakashvili said.
Respublika has been suspended by the courts, but published last week under the name Azat (Freedom). Photo: EurasiaNet.org
A prominent Kazakh opposition party, Alga!, and outspoken media outlets are fighting a legal battle against a bid to shut them down. They say authorities are attempting to muzzle dissident voices in Kazakhstan.
The move to close Alga! -- whose leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a jail term for allegedly inciting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December, which he denies -- has become bogged down in a legal paradox: Alga! has been arguing in court that it cannot be closed because it does not exist, since the authorities have for years refused to register it and make it legal. Alga!’s case has been adjourned to December 11.
One media outlet, the Stan TV Internet television station, has already been ordered to close by a court, which on December 4 declared its output “illegal,” Kazakhstan’s Adil Soz media watchdog reported.
So, how will US troops come home from Afghanistan? According to Baku officials, by catching a train in Azerbaijan.
To borrow from American journalist H.L. Mencken’s line, war, like love, is easy to begin, but hard to end, and the 2014 NATO pullout from Afghanistan is likely to be a logistical nightmare, with thousands of troops to transport and scads of guns to pack and ship.
But worry not: Azerbaijan, NATO’s Caspian-Sea chum, is offering a cheap ticket home for American and other troops via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, scheduled for completion in 2014.
If it all goes as planned, troops from Georgia, the largest non-member troop contributor to the NATO campaign, can get off midway.
To date, 35 percent of the “non-lethal” military supplies for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan went through Azerbaijan, Mammadyarov stated.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railroad, constructed by NATO-friendly Azerbaijan, NATO-aspiring Georgia and NATO member Turkey, was presented to the Alliance last month by envoys of the three countries. The presentation included other existing and upcoming sea, air and land transport infrastructure.
Human rights groups are calling on Uzbekistan’s government to use a Constitution Day amnesty to release political prisoners, not just petty criminals.
Authorities often mark Constitution Day, December 8, with a mass prisoner release, freeing convicts accused of minor crimes who are not considered a threat to national security. However, those jailed on politically motivated charges are rarely released as part of these amnesties.
“Journalists, rights defenders, writers, and opposition and religious figures held solely on account of their peaceful activities shouldn’t be in prison in the first place,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a December 6 statement signed by nine groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Fiery Hearts Club. “Freeing political prisoners for Constitution Day is an opportunity for President Islam Karimov to show Uzbekistan’s people and international partners that he’s willing to take a genuine step toward reform.”
Last week, a leading activist said Uzbekistan is holding more than 2,000 political prisoners.
Nadejda Ataeva of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, one of the signatories, described how, when political prisoners’ terms are almost up, they often are charged with new transgressions. Ataeva pointed to the the case of Murad Juraev, a former member of parliament who has been jailed since 1994 and is reportedly gravely ill with tuberculosis:
His fourth term expired on November 13, but was not released. Between October 10 and 22, he was held in solitary confinement near the town of Almalyk, on a disciplinary charge.
Juraev’s lawyers have not been given access to his case files in 18 years. It’s possible there’s no evidence there.
Do French merlots or German rieslings have Turkish ancestors? That's the intriguing proposition raised by a Swiss botanist, who, using DNA analysis, is arguing that many of the wine grapes used today in western Europe and other parts of the world descend from wild grape varieties domesticated by Stone Age farmers in what is now Turkey. Reports AFP:
Today Turkey is home to archaeological sites as well as vineyards of ancient grape varieties like Bogazkere and Okuzgozu, which drew the curiosity of the Swiss botanist and grape DNA sleuth Jose Vouillamoz, for the clues they may offer to the origin of European wine.
Together with the biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern, Vouillamoz has spent nearly a decade studying the world's cultivated and wild vines.
"We wanted to collect samples from wild and cultivated grape vines from the Near East -- that means southeastern Anatolia, Armenia and Georgia -- to see in which place the wild grape was, genetically speaking, linked the closest to the cultivated variety."
"It turned out to be southeastern Anatolia," the Asian part of modern Turkey, said Vouillamoz, speaking at the EWBC wine conference in the Turkish city of Izmir this month. "We propose the hypothesis that it is most likely the first place of grape vine domestication."
McGovern's lab at the University of Pennsylvania Museum also provided archaeological evidence of wine's Anatolian roots after analysing residues of liquid recovered from vessels thousands of years old.
Author of "Uncorking the Past" and "Ancient Wine", McGovern used a sensitive chemical technique to look for significant amounts of tartaric acid -- for which grapes are the only source in the Middle East.
Although Pakistan reopened its border with Afghanistan of U.S. and NATO military back in July, traffic there is still moving so slowly that the coalition forces haven't even moved all of the goods that had backed up there -- meaning the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia remains the key means of supplying foreign forces in Afghanistan. That's according to Air Force Col. Robert Brisson, chief of operations for U.S. Transportation Command, in a recent interview with Military Times.
U.S. military officials have spent the past five months wrangling with the Pakistanis over a formal legal agreement and also working to clear out the roughly 7,000 shipping containers that were stalled in transit when the Pakistanis abruptly closed the border crossings in November 2011.
Coalition forces are only able to get between 10 and 50 cargo trucks per day across the border, compared to around 100 before the border was closed, Col. Brisson said.
“We haven’t booked any new cargo into the ports of Karachi and Qasim to move northbound, nor have we started moving new cargo heading southbound out of Afghanistan,” Brisson said.
New cargo may begin moving in late December or January, he said.
The U.S. and Pakistan are still working out the terms of the new agreement to ship goods through that country, and apparently the biggest sticking point is the question of transit fees.
If Armenia ever decided to adapt "A West Side Story," it's conceivable that “I Like to Be in America” might well be changed into “I Like to Be in Russia" to describe the choices faced by thousands of Armenian migrants each year.
But those choices are slightly less tempting now. A controversial Russian state program that grants jobs and citizenship to foreign nationals from former Soviet republics has stopped accepting applications from Armenians, Armenian news sources report.
Grappling with the double whammy of a low birthrate and a population exodus, Yerevan repeatedly has urged Moscow to stop the program, called Compatriots, which Armenian officials say has become a floodgate for emigration.
“We have a serious demographic problem in Armenia… and the organized outflow of the population is a blow to our national interests,” Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian said of the program last month.
According to official numbers, some 26,000 Armenians have applied for the program since its start in 2007; 2,500 have actually left for Russia.
Baku has said it before and now it says it again: Azerbaijan will not become a launching pad for an Israeli attack on Iran, so, naysayers, check your sources.
On December 2, the British Sunday Times ran a story on supposed plans by Tel-Aviv to use Azerbaijani bases to send off terminator drones into Iran if there is an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites and if Tehran moves to respond to it. The drone fleet would lay to waste Iran’s missile system before the Islamic Republic can pull out its guns, the paper said, citing unnamed sources.
In response, Azerbaijan claimed that The Sunday Times was essentially delirious. “Baku will never let anyone use its territory for an attack on our neighbors,” asserted foreign ministry spokesperson Elman Abdulayev, ANSPress.com reported.
Azerbaijan’s relations with fellow Muslim neighbor may be less than neighborly, but since Iran is home to millions of ethnic Azeris, Baku repeatedly has said it would never get pulled into a conflict with Iran.