A court in Kyrgyzstan has frozen the bank accounts of two media outlets facing libel lawsuits mounted on behalf of the president by the General Prosecutor’s Office.
Bishkek city court on March 22 ruled that assets belonging to RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, Radio Azattyq, and news website Zanoza.kg should be frozen pending hearings over their alleged “spread of dishonest information” about President Almazbek Atambayev.
Zanoza.kg chief editor Dina Maslova told EurasiaNet.org that the decision has put the operations of her outlet at risk.
“These are the funds we use to pay taxes, the salaries of our employees and our rent. Now we need to look into different options — opening another outlet, another website or just use social media. And there could be problems with advertisers,” she said.
Maslova said the website will appeal the ruling.
She and others have argued that the government is trying to force Zanoza.kg into refraining from critical reporting by filing unwarrantedly large lawsuits — Maslova has said her outlet is being sued for more than $140,000.
“We consider this a form of pressure. If the authorities wanted to get to the truth, then they would have settled this matter before going to court. They would have called, told us of their indignation, there would have been meetings. None of this happened. They want to ruin us from the outset, because what Kyrgyz outlet has this kind of money?” she said.
The court justified its ruling by saying that in the event of the lawsuit going the way of the General Prosecutor’s Office, it could directly levy the amount from the accounts.
But Maslova said the amount in question was not even on the accounts in the first place.
Chinese authorities are on high alert in western Xinjiang Province after the appearance of an Islamic State propaganda video featuring militants from China’s Uighur ethnic minority group.
In the 30-minute video, released in late February by the Al-Furat Province division of the Islamic State (IS) in western Iraq, heavily armed fighters and children give speeches, pray, and even kill “informants.”
One Uighur fighter is filmed saying, “Oh, you Chinese who do not understand what people say. We are the soldiers of the Caliphate, and we will come to you to clarify to you with the tongues of our weapons, to shed blood like rivers and avenge the oppressed.”
Chinese officials are taking this threat seriously. In early March, a spokesperson from China’s Foreign Ministry said Beijing was ready to work with the international community to combat terrorism. Normally, China has dealt with security issues on its own, or has worked with other states within the framework of regional groupings, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS).
Beijing has long worried that disaffected ethnic Uighurs — a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in Xinjiang and in neighboring Central Asian states, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan — would attract the attention of, and support from, Islamic State.
The United States and Romanian navies practiced storming the beaches of the Black Sea, a relatively rare example of practicing an attack in the region that Russia considers its own and where it increasingly feels under siege.
The USS Carter Hall, an amphibious dock landing ship, exited the Black Sea on March 22 after taking part in the exercises, Spring Storm 2017. U.S. or NATO exercises in the Black Sea have become fairly dog-bites-man news -- and NATO has promised to conduct them even more frequently -- but these are novel in that they are practicing an explicitly offensive scenario.
The U.S. Navy didn't say much about the goals of the exercises, except that they were " to enhance tactical unit and staff interoperability between Romanian and U.S. naval forces." But images and video of the exercise depicted U.S. Marines and Romanian troops storming the beach with amphibious armored vehicles and hovercraft known as LCACs, Landing Craft Air Cushion. They were accompanied by air support.
"We're going to conduct an assault from ship to shore and attack their position," explained one unidentified Marine in the video.
Russia has been relatively quiet officially about these particular exercises, particularly considering their potentially provocative scenario. "Of course we're following them and we're ready for any developments," one anonymous source in Russia's Black Sea Fleet told Pravda.
An earlier version of this story offered a regrettably inaccurate snapshot of the state of remittances paid by migrant laborers from Russia to Central Asia in 2016.
Contrary to what was asserted in that report, remittances have not been rising but mostly falling.
As stated before, the Russian Central Bank did note this week that money transfers by individuals to Uzbekistan had hit $2.74 billion in 2016, but this actually represented a drop not a rise, since the figure for 2015 was $3 billion.
Second place among cash transfers made from Russia to former Soviet states is taken by Tajikistan. The figure for remittances in 2016 was $1.9 billion — a global figure smaller than Uzbekistan, but one that accounts for a far greater proportion of the nation’s economy as a whole. This is a fall from the previous year, when it was $2.2 billion.
In third place in Kyrgyzstan, with $1.7 billion. Now, this is an improvement, from the $1.5 billion recorded in 2015
This picture affects the prior evaluation of the figures somewhat, and indeed in a way that makes more sense.
One obvious takeaway is that Kyrgyzstan’s decision to join the European Economic Union may indeed be starting to bear some scanty fruit, since the uptick in the inflow of remittances is likely connected to the greater ease with which Kyrgyz workers can now settle in Russia for employment.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets his de facto South Ossetian counterpart Leonid Tibilov in the Kremlin on March 21. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Upcoming elections for the presidency of South Ossetia have been thrown into turmoil after the de facto authorities refused to register former president Eduard Kokoity and his supporters took to the streets to protest.
South Ossetia's Central Election Commission on March 4 said that they would not allow Kokoity to run in the April 9 elections, on the grounds that he fails to satisfy the ten-year residency requirement. He has been living in Russia since leaving office in 2011. The vote will pick a new leader of South Ossetia, which considers itself an independent country, but is recognized as part of Georgia by Tbilisi and most of the rest of the world (with the conspicuous exception of Moscow).
Following the decision, Kokoity rallied his supporters in South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinval (which Georgians call Tskhinvali), to protest. In response, the authorities temporarily closed the center of Tskhinval to motorized traffic and deployed security forces. Not everyone has fond memories of Kokoity's time in power, though, and on March 21, around two thousand people attended a counter demonstration against Kokoity.
Rally organizer and public activist Edil Baisalov, center, marching at a rally in defense of freedom of speech in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on March 18, 2017. (Photo: Danil Usmanov)
Hundreds of people went onto the streets of Kyrgyzstan’s capital over the weekend to demonstrate in support of free speech — only for many of them to be detained by police.
The rally in the center of Bishkek on March 18 was prompted by a wave of libel lawsuits filed on behalf of President Almazbek Atambayev that media rights advocates say are intended to crush independent reporting.
Among those participating were numerous journalists, members of parliament, rights activists and regular members of the public. The MPs were from the opposition Ata-Meken party, whose leader Omurbek Tekebayev is in jail facing charges of corruption. Several of the lawsuits involve the reporting of unproven allegations made by Tekebayev.
One participant in the rally was Alexander Kim, who is facing investigation over alleged financial misdemeanors while he was in control of Kyrgyzstan’s largest newspaper, Vecherniy Bishkek. The newspaper was wrested from his control by court ruling in 2015 and has since tacked to a fiercely pro-government and, accordingly, anti-opposition line. On the eve of the rally, finance police turned up at Kim’s home to detain him, but were foiled when it was found they did not have a warrant.
While the rally began peacefully enough, it was quickly interrupted by police, who said they had a court order to bring the march to a halt. After that, police began detaining participants, including activists Mavlyan Askarbekov, Aibek Myrza and Azamat Attokurov. Ata-Meken MP Kanybek Imanaliyev was held briefly before being released.
Rally organizer and public activist Edil Baisalov confronted the police, stating that the mayor’s office had given its approval. City Hall confirmed this information.
The former owner of Kyrgyzstan’s largest newspaper — which has tacked away from its formerly sparky reporting style since a court-ordered takeover in 2015 — is being targeted for arrest.
After nightfall on March 17, a group of officers with the finance police attempted to forcibly detain 70-year old Alexander Kim at his apartment, but their efforts were foiled following a public uproar.
The move comes against the backdrop of mounting intimidation of independent press and attempts by state prosecutors to seek crippling libel damages from critical outlets, such as Zanoza.kg, which is owned by Kim.
The State Service for Combating Economic Crimes has said it is investigating Kim over suspect financial activity when he was the director of the holding company that owned Vecherniy Bishkek newspaper.
Shortly after the arrival of the finance police squadron at Kim’s apartment, civic society and rights activists rushed to the scene. After a standoff lasting several hours, finance police relented but left a summons for Kim to present himself to the authorities on March 22.
Vecherniy Bishkek, a daily newspaper, has had a complicated and troubled past, having changed beneficiaries repeatedly through nebulous means.
Its current owner, Alexander Ryabushkin, previously had a degree of control over the paper, but argued that it was illegally wrested out of his hands. A court in September 2015 ordered that ownership of the newspaper be transferred from Kim to Ryabushkin.
Kim argued that the court decision was politically motivated and engineered by people close to the presidential administration.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov meets with Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Doha on March 15, 2017. (Photo: Turkmenistan State News Agency)
The president of Turkmenistan embarked on a two-day trip to Qatar this week in the hope of drumming up vital investment, although he does not seem to have come back any with any visible results.
Aside from meeting with Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and attending a banquet of honor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov spent the day in Doha on March 15 holding talks with purse-string holders, like the chief executive of the Qatar Investment Authority. But the only firm outcome of the visit came with the signing of a spate of memoranda of understanding on cooperation in areas like energy, aviation, education and wildlife conservation.
Hopeful talk on energy was naturally at the forefront of Berdymukhamedov’s thoughts.
“Qatari companies have been invited to participate in the building of gas processing plants, and petrochemical and gas chemical plants in Turkmenistan, and to develop [energy] projects on the Turkmen shelf of the Caspian Sea,” the state news agency report on the visit stated.
Another would-be opportunity touted by Berdymukhamedov was for Qatar to sink money into the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline (TAPI), which will be indispensable if Turkmenistan is ever to loosen China’s near-monopoly grip on its energy exports.
Turkmenistan has looked at fellow gas-rich nation Qatar’s recent extravagant forays into foreign investments — which include Qatar Investment Authority’s recent joint purchase of a big chunk of Russian oil giant Rosneft — and must be hoping to get in on the act.
This plan has flaws that will be obvious to seasoned Turkmenistan watchers.
Parliament in Kyrgyzstan has narrowly rejected legislation that would have made it illegal to hunt endangered animals until 2030.
Opponents of the bill, which was defeated 56 to 52, argued that the ban could cost the country money in lost tourist revenue. They also said the legislation would do nothing to solve the problem of poaching.
“We could get a boomerang effect from a moratorium. Besides, we would lose revenue from foreign hunters,” said Isa Omurkulov, a member of parliament with the ruling Social-Democratic Party (SDPK).
The government currently charges 450,000 som ($6,000) for a license to hunt Argali mountain sheep, known locally as Arkhar, the most commonly sought trophy animal for foreign hunters. An all-inclusive hunting expedition to the country can about $15,000-20,000 — likely the lowest rate in the whole region. (Here is footage of a foreigner on a hunt in Kyrgyzstan).
Authorities freely admit that foreigners buying a single license are at liberty to shoot dead as many animals as they care to.
Lawmakers certainly have a point about poaching.
According to official figures, there were 520 instances of illegal hunting recorded in the 2015-16 season, while only 69 licenses were handed out. Indeed, while those lawfully hunting contribute substantial sums of money to the economy, illegal hunters do nothing but cause possibly permanent environmental damage.
Supporters of the moratorium have said they will continue their campaign, however.
“We must continue to protect our ecology, which was religiously cared for by our ancestors,” said lawmaker Zhanar Akayev, who helped draft the bill. “There will always be those that resist major changes, but we must continue to expand the ranks of our supporters.”
A jailed lawyer in Tajikistan has had his lengthy sentence extended by two years for contempt of court for quoting the words of an 11th century Persian philosopher and poet during his original trial.
The ruling handed down on March 16 means Buzurgmehr Yorov now faces 25 years in jail. He was sentenced in October on what his supporters say were trumped-up charges of fraud and inciting hatred and extremism, among other offenses.
Rights advocates argue Yorov was targeted for reprisal because he was one of the few lawyers willing to take up the case of arrested members of the now-banned opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).
During hearings at his trial in October, Yorov quoted Avicenna to say that “society is spoiled by a few ignorant people who believe themselves the wisest; those that would make infidels of all who do not abide by their wishes.” The court was sufficiently offended by the words to file a criminal case of charges of contempt and offending a state representative.
And that isn’t all.
Yorov’s sister, Hosiyat, has told EurasiaNet.org that the Firdavs district court in Dushanbe is now bracing for hearings into yet another case, again on fraud charges, which envision anything up to another 12 years in jail.
In addition to defending the IRPT members, Yorov was the first person to make a public statement about the apparent physical abuse being meted out to the jailed party leadership. That appears to have precipitated in his arrest in September 2015.
State media cast Yorov as a defender of terrorists, which is how the IRPT is now characterized.
“He must be a terrorist himself if he defends terrorists,” one article argued.