A political journalist in Uzbekistan who has languished behind bars for 18 years has been released in a development that has elicited elated responses from rights activists.
Muhammad Bekjanov, the 63-year old brother of prominent exiled opposition leader Muhammad Solih, was abducted from his home in Ukraine in 1999 and jailed for 15 years on what his supporters say were trumped-up charges of threatening the constitutional order. His sentence was extended by five years in 2012 on the grounds that he had violated unspecified prison rules.
News of Bekjanov’s release was broken by his relatives and Umida Niyazova, head of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
“I am sure that this decision was made at the very top of the Uzbek leadership, and it was the right one,” Niyazova wrote on her Facebook account.
New York-based Human Rights Watch researcher Steve Swerdlow welcomed Bekjanov’s release, while noting that much more remained to be done by Uzbek authorities to address the country’s blemished rights record.
“This is a husband and a father who was literally ripped out of the arms of his family, kidnapped from another country, tortured in the most horrific ways, including psychological, and kept locked away for 18 years simply for doing his job as a journalist,” Swerdlow said in a statement.
Bekjanov was not released by virtue of any reprieve but rather because he had served his original sentence in full, and then some.
“We welcome his release, although it is important to note that he was only released following the arbitrary extension of his prison term in 2012 on wholly absurd grounds and fully served out his extended term. In this case Bekjanov left prison at the end of his term,” Swerdlow said.
The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus out of the Black Sea on February 13 after conducting NATO exercises. (photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
NATO countries have agreed to increase the alliance's activities around the Black Sea, including more air and naval patrols of the sea, further increasing pressure in an area Russia considers to be of vital strategic importance.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the decision at last week's defense ministerial in Brussels. "Today, we agreed on two additional maritime measures: an increased NATO naval presence in the Black Sea for enhanced training, exercises and situational awareness, and a maritime coordination function for our Standing Naval Forces when operating with other Allied forces in the Black Sea region," he said.
Stoltenberg didn't provide any more specific information, but that seems to fall short of what was originally being proposed by Romania: some sort of permanent NATO structure dealing with the Black Sea. Asked for more details, a NATO official told The Bug Pit that the specifics were still being worked out, but thus far the plan involved a greater tempo of air and sea patrols, and expanding the already existing land forces brigade based in Romania:
The Black Sea is key to NATO’s security and in response to Russia’s build-up there, the Alliance is increasing its presence in the region. On land, this presence will be built around a Romanian-led multinational brigade. It will focus on the training and interoperability of allied forces. This year we also plan more air patrols over the Black Sea and NATO’s Standing Naval Forces will be in the Black Sea more frequently for training and port visits. This will increase our situational awareness and contribute to NATO’s overall deterrence posture.
When Uzbekistan suddenly decided this week to deny permission for an airline from Tajikistan to land in its capital, it might have been safe to expect an outcry.
Privately owned Somoni Air was due to carry a couple dozen paying passengers for the February 20 flight to Tashkent — the first along this route in 25 years — when it learned permission had been revoked.
Tajikstan’s Asia-Plus reported on January 21 that Uzbek authorities fired off an incensed letter laying all the blame at the feet of the Tajiks.
The letter argued that Somoni Air had filed a request to effect charter flights and not regular scheduled flights. It also claimed it only received the official paperwork authorizing the route on February 19, one day before the flight. That gave the insufficient time to adopt a decision, as the matter had to be considered by security services and air defense officials, the Uzbek letter stated.
And finally, the Uzbek authorities said Somoni Air still had no branch office in Tashkent and that the sale of tickets was accordingly not possible.
This is high bunkum even by the normally lofty standards of Central Asian officialdom.
A date for the Somoni Air maiden flight had been set weeks ago and widely advertised by media in both countries, which makes nonsense of the implication that Uzbek oversight bodies were somehow caught by surprise. As to the sale of tickets, Somoni Air has a website through which that can be done, so even this is unconvincing grounds for rescinding permission to operate. In any event, it is unclear how Somoni Air’s commercial strategy is supposed to be of any interest to Uzbek authorities.
Supporters of a jailed journalist in Kazakhstan have said he has been targeted for physical mistreatment since being detained last week.
Authorities accuse Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of Tribuna newspaper, of involvement in fraudulent schemes with fugitive banker and government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Mamay’s lawyer, Zhanara Balgabayeva, said on February 21 that she filed a request to meet see her client in person and for him to be moved to a more secure pretrial detention facility but was rebuffed on both counts.
Tribuna is one of very few independent media outlets in Kazakhstan that have either not been shut down or coopted by the authorities, leading rights activists to speculate Mamay is facing politically motivated charges. Unlike most media in Kazakhstan, Tribuna is not a beneficiary of the “state order” system, whereby the government either finances outlets outright or pays for the publication of material publicizing state policies and initiatives. It focuses primarily on social issues and has a line that tends toward robust criticism of the government and provides a platform for the few opposition politicians remaining on the scene.
Balgabayeva cited a note conveyed to her by Mamay stating that he had been “subjected to beatings in his prison cell,” but added that the claim might have been “sharply worded” and that there was no way to independently verify his wellbeing for now.
Mamay’s spouse, Inga Imanbay, said in a Facebook video message that she had met with the head of pretrial detention facility No. 18, where her husband is being held, in a failed bid to see him.
First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva at a meeting of Azerbaijan's Security Council at which she was named vice president of the country. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as the country’s first vice president, a move that had been anticipated since the VP post was created as the result of a constitutional referendum last year.
The move places the first lady first in line of succession, a responsibility that formerly fell to the prime minister. It was condemned and mocked in roughly equal measure; opposition politician Ali Kerimli called it “an official step towards the establishment of a monarchy.” Pro-government voices were relatively muted on the news. “Without doubt, everyone had been expecting Mehriban Aliyeva in particular to be appointed to the position of First Vice-President of Azerbaijan,” Novruz Mammadov, deputy head of the presidential administration, wrote on Facebook.
Aliyeva professed to be humbled by the appointment. “Mr. President, I express my deep gratitude to you for this high confidence in me,” she said at a meeting of the Security Council. “Over the past years, your ideas of statehood, patriotism, your courageous protection of Azerbaijan’s national interests, and your unity with the people of Azerbaijan were an example for me.”
Unguarded comments made by Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev in remarks to Euronews while on a visit to Brussels have been greeted with dismay in neighboring Kazakhstan.
The flare-up has once again illustrated the persisting underlying tensions within the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union trade bloc, which has to date fallen far short of the hopes of its backers.
A recurrent criticism made by EEU objectors stems from the perception that the trading bloc has been designed to serve primarily Russian interests. Asked about this point by a Euronews interviewer, Atambayev deflected the blame elsewhere.
“We have to trade with somebody, we have to work with our neighbors somehow. If we had not entered the Eurasian Economic Union we would have been at risk of a blockade. In 2010, when Kazakhstan blockaded us for one and a half months, we even had casualties,” he said. “We have six million people. What are supposed to do — shut ourselves off and survive like we’re in the jungle or something? We have to develop, we need a market.”
It is not entirely clear what casualties Atambayev was alluding to, and requests for clarification filed by reporters with the presidential administration have shed no light on the matter.
But media in Kazakhstan appear to have gone out of their way to whip up some ill-will by, for example, writing headlines about the interview such as “The president of Kyrgyzstan accuses Kazakhstan of claiming human casualties.”
The first regular scheduled flight between Uzbekistan and Dushanbe in 25 years was unexpectedly nixed on February 20 in an embarrassing anticlimax after weeks of anticipation.
Privately owned Tajik carrier Somoni Air said in a statement of apology to its customers that the flight was cancelled on the instructions of the airport in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.
It is not clear what lies behind the cancellation of the flight and this threatens to descend into an all-too familiar round of mutual accusations.
State-run carrier Uzbekistan Airlines has blamed Somoni Air for the impasse.
“Somoni Air did not submit form “R,” which lists all the requisite conditions for completing an international flight. That is the main reason for this flight being cancelled,” a spokesperson for the airline told EurasiaNet.org.
The company promised a full explanation would be posted on its website by the end of the day, but that statement failed to materialize by the promised time.
An estimated 26 passengers had been due to travel on the flight.
Tajik news website Asia-Plus reported that disappointed customers were reimbursed or given tickets for the flight from the Tajikistan capital, Dushanbe, to Khujand. In the absence of a direct link to Tashkent, many people in Tajikistan traveling to Uzbekistan typically make their way to the northern city of Khujand and then cross the border overland.
It had all started so promisingly.
A trial flight between Dushanbe, and Tashkent was carried out on January 10. A total of 56 people, including Somoni Air representatives, journalists and regular passengers, flew on that occasion. The travelers were met with a great fanfare at Tashkent airport.
The president of Tajikistan’s son has only been mayor of the capital city for a few weeks and already life is improving.
In the old days, people traveling on public transport had little by way of mental stimulation beyond possibly staring blankly out of the window or reading a newspaper.
But now Mayor Rustam Emomali has instructed taxi and minibus drivers in Dushanbe to play musical paeans of praise to the country and, of course, President Emomali Rahmon himself.
Asia-Plus news website reported that the instructions were already being carried out on February 20.
One minibus driver said that they buy flash drives carrying patriotic duties from their own employers at 35 somoni ($4.50) a pop. City officials told Asia-Plus that the practice will soon be rolled out across all public transport vehicles.
The surge of patriotic song-writing followed the adoption of the 2015 law decreeing that Rahmon be officially designated “The founder of peace and leader of the nation.” That formulation, which is even more cumbersome in the original Tajik, is now used pretty much every time the president is referenced on state television. Beyond elevating Rahmon to para-demigod status, the founder of peace and leader of the nation law also granted the president de facto rule for life, since he will retain a degree of power even after or if he should ever step down.
It is not just the middle of the road, light entertainers that have volunteered (or been enlisted) to performs songs to flatter Rahmon. Hip-hop artists have got in on the act too.
A photo released by the de facto authorities of Nagorno Karabakh of an Azerbaijani Israeli-produced ThunderB drone that Armenian forces shot down during last April's fighting.
Turkmenistan was Turkey's single largest weapons buyer over the past five years, while the arms industries of Belarus and Israel are increasingly dependent on Azerbaijan's business, a new report has shown.
The report, by the arms trade research group Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, also shows that Azerbaijan is one of the world's leading arms importers. And while a large majority of Baku's purchases still come from Russia, its dependence on Moscow is declining.
Azerbaijan was the 21st leading arms importer in the world over the period 2012-2016, according to new data published by SIPRI. Only two countries ahead of Azerbaijan on that list had smaller populations -- Israel and Singapore.
According to SIPRI's data, 69 percent of Azerbaijan's weapons imports come from Russia, with 22 percent from Israel and under four percent from Belarus. That makes Azerbaijan Israel's second-largest arms customer (accounting for 13 percent of its exports) and Belarus's third-most important customer (11 percent of Belarus's exports).
That 69 percent from Russia is a lot, but when SIPRI made similar calculations two years ago, Azerbaijan had bought fully 85 percent of its weapons over the previous five years from Russia.
Most of Russia's sales to Azerbaijan have been for land forces, including armored vehicles, artillery, and anti-tank missiles. From Israel, Azerbaijan has bought a large variety of drones, as well as anti-tank missiles and some naval equipment.
Any musician or singer in Uzbekistan hoping to make a living on their stage has had for years to contend with the all-important parastatal Uzbeknavo performance agency. Dancers, meanwhile, obtained their performing licenses from an analogous body called Uzbekraks.
Media have reported this week that these two entities are by presidential decree now to be dissolved and merged into a single body, Uzbekkoncert, which will operate under the aegis of the Culture Ministry.
The new organization will oversee around 2,500 solo and group acts. Authorities have said this entity will be a more effective mechanism for developing the performance industry.
Historically, Uzbeknavo has been used in large part as a stick to wield over artists to keep them in line. Denial of licenses typically represents the death of any jobbing musician’s career as it deprives them of the right to make a living performing at public venues and most certainly on television or the radio.
In the best-publicized instance of licenses being revoked, perceptions of moral failings or suspect political views have usually been at play. Officials are also wont to voice concern at what they see as alien and culturally inappropriate fads.
Prior to the announcement that Uzbeknavo was to be dissolved, its head, Murod Madjidov, was switched out in favor of Kabul Yuldashev, about whom little public information is available. Yuldashev, 49, who was previously deputy head of Uzbeknavo, will now preside over the Uzbekkoncert merger.