President Mikheil Saakashvili’s political camp suffered a major blow on May 21 when two prominent presidential allies, former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, once one of Georgia’s most influential politicians, and Kakheti Governor Zurab Tchiaberashvili, were detained on criminal charges of misusing 5.2 million lari ($3.19 million) in public funds.
Lawyers for the two men interviewed by Maestro television reported that they had not yet received the official charges. Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili are currently meeting with their attorneys in a jail in the parliamentary seat of Kutaisi. A court has 48 hours to decide whether to release them on bail.
Merabishvili, who, as interior minister from 2004 to 2012, led the charge under Saakashvili to revamp Georgia’s notoriously corrupt interior ministry, also faces separate charges for allegedly confiscating private property.
Prosecutors have indicated that Merabishvili, now head of the president’s United National Movement (UNM), will likely be charged for additional crimes stemming from the 2006 murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani and excessive use of police force during May 26, 2011 protests in Tbilisi as well, Interpressnews.ge reported.
Saakashvili blasted the arrests, accusing the Georgian Dream majority of turning Georgia into a pariah in the international community. The UNM has charged repeatedly that a desire for political retribution drives the government’s prosecution of former senior officials.
Authorities in Kazakhstan are again undermining religious freedom with the detention of a Protestant pastor and a Baptist leader on unrelated charges, a watchdog says.
Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev of Astana's Grace Church was detained May 19 on vague charges related to how he said his prayers. Forum 18, the Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog, reports that Kashkumbayev was questioned on May 17 and two days later remanded for two months' pre-trial detention on “unclear charges, apparently including praying and singing.”
In an unrelated case, in early May Baptist leader Aleksey Asetov from Ekibastuz in northeastern Kazakhstan spent three days in jail for failing to pay a fine imposed for holding a worship meeting without state permission. In 2011, Astana introduced legislation vastly curbing the activities of unregistered religious groups in the country.
The Astana police told local media on May 18 that Pastor Kashkumbayev was detained on suspicion of committing an offence under Article 103 of Kazakhstan's criminal code, which can carry a sentence of between three and seven years’ imprisonment.
The Grace Church had a run-in with the authorities last October when it was bizarrely accused of spiking its communion wine with unidentified hallucinogens.
The exact nature of the charges against Kashkumbayev are unclear, but members of the church who attended his arraignment told Forum 18 he was detained, not for the wine, “but for praying in tongues and singing.”
Kyrgyzstan MP Akram Amirjanov looks out a window of a KC-135 Stratotanker during an air refueling demonstration over Kyrgyzstan in 2012. (photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Brett Clashman)
Kyrgyzstan's government has declared that it is canceling the current agreement that it has with the U.S. on the Manas air base the Americans operate in that country. But it's not clear, given that the agreement is scheduled to expire next year anyway, what import the announcement has, and it is probably of greater political than legal significance. And the U.S. State Department reiterates that it isn't giving up yet.
On its website, the Kyrgyzstan government announced that as of July 11, 2014, the agreement it has with the U.S. will be "repudiated." But that's when the agreement, reached in 2009 for a five-year period, expires.
Kyrgyzstan's president, Almazbek Atambayev, consistently says that he wants the U.S. to leave Manas in 2014. He said that again today, explaining that "the government has already made its decision and confirmed legislation about the end of the term of the agreement...All that's left is for the parliament to accept this law... I am deeply convinced a civilian airport should not have a military base."
Whether this is his final decision or a bargaining point is anyone's guess. The U.S. clearly hopes to extend its presence beyond July of 2014, and in a statement to The Bug Pit, a State Department spokesperson downplayed Bishkek's announcement. "Our understanding is this text is a draft of a possible law. Therefore, I’m not going to speculate on hypothetical next steps," the official said. "This does not change our existing agreements or timeline with the Kyrgyz Government." The U.S. "remains in close contact" with Kyrgyzstan, the official added.
The jailed former boss of Kazakhstan’s nuclear industry has marked the fourth anniversary of his arrest by voicing suspicions from his prison cell that Russian machinations were behind the charges against him.
Mukhtar Dzhakishev, the highly respected head of Kazakhstan’s state nuclear company Kazatomprom until he was abruptly fired and arrested on May 21, 2009, said he was “convinced” Moscow had “prepared a bundle of accusations and ‘proof’ tailored to Soviet mentality” to have him arrested to stymie a nuclear deal.
On the day of his arrest, Dzhakishev was scheduled to meet Sergey Kiriyenko, the visiting head of Russia’s state-run Rosatom nuclear giant, to discuss possible trilateral nuclear collaboration with Japan, he said in comments posted on a website set up by his daughter, Aigerim Dzhakisheva.
“[The Russian] delegation had been in Japan and made an offer of a partnership that would exclude Kazakhstan,” Dzhakishev said. “The Japanese refused and demanded to have Kazakhstan included in these deals, as I had previously discussed and agreed with them.”
Video filmed after Dzhakishev’s arrest and leaked to YouTube showed him discussing his ambition to transform Kazakhstan's nuclear industry into a world leader and saying he wanted to stop Russian investors gaining a controlling stake in Uranium One, a Canada-based company with operations in Kazakhstan, which he believed would impede Kazakhstan's atomic ambitions.
Last week, Inside the Cocoon wrote about an Atlantic Council-sponsored conference on Kyrgyzstan and the potential for a conflict of interest. So now that the conference is over, were those concerns borne out? The answer depends on who you talk to.
The controversy centered on Latvian financier Valeri Belokon, who provided funds to help make the conference, titled Kyrgyzstan since 2010: Progress, Problems and Opportunities, possible. Belokon is under investigation in Kyrgyzstan for money-laundering, thus his sponsorship was seen by some participants as potentially compromising the event’s underlying purpose of nudging Bishkek in a westward direction.
The chief organizer, Ambassador Ross Wilson of the Atlantic Council, called the meeting a success, describing the full day of discussions on May 15 as “honest and straight-forward.”
“The presence of Belokon did not in any way influence the conversation,” Wilson stated. His portrayal of the discussions was generally echoed by other participants at the event.
Even so, the conference may end up aggravating already contentious relations between Kyrgyzstan and Latvia. A Kyrgyz participant at the conference, Baktybek Abdirisaev, offered scathing criticism of Belokon and Latvia in a letter sent to Ambassador Wilson and other event attendees, and made available to EurasiaNet.org.
Abdrisaev called the conference “counterproductive” and assailed Belokon as “the banker who empowered [Kyrgyzstan’s] former dictator Kurmanbek Bakiyev and who helped Bakiyev and his henchmen move hundreds of millions of dollars in assets out of our country as the regime collapsed in April 2010.” Belokon vehemently denies any wrongdoing.
A human rights dialogue between Ashgabat and Brussels has failed to clarify why journalist Rovshen Yazmuhamedov was detained two weeks ago.
Yazmuhamedov, 30, a correspondent with Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen Service (Azatlyk Radiosy) was detained May 6 on undisclosed charges. He remains in custody where he faces a "grave risk of torture," according to Amnesty International.
Ahead of the Turkmen-EU talks last week, Human Rights Watch called on Ashgabat to "immediately free or credibly charge" the journalist. “We are deeply concerned that the authorities arrested Rovshen Yazmuhamedov because of his work as a journalist,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkmen government doesn’t tolerate public criticism of its policies, no matter how mild.”
Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL) on May 17 that at a meeting with Turkmen officials in Ashgabat on May 15 the EU human rights delegation expressed concern over Yazmuhamedov’s detention.
Uneasy neighbors: An Armenian flag provides the backdrop for a bust to the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev in downtown Tbilisi.
Tbilisi’s Old Town has long been an area where ethnic Armenians, Azeris, Jews, Kurds, and Georgians intermingle.
There’s the Azeri teahouse run by ethnic Armenians on one street, and, on another, one run by ethnic Azeris, where an ethnic Armenian waitress serves customers.
A mosque frequented mainly by ethnic Azeri Muslims sits atop a hill just a few minutes away from an Armenian church where Sayat Nova, the 18th century troubadour who wrote songs and poetry mainly in Azeri, is buried.
A statue to Sergei Paradjanov, the surrealist ethnic Armenian filmmaker whose last film was shot in Azerbaijan, stands just meters away from a shisha café, staffed by ethnic Armenians from the Middle East and often frequented by customers from Azerbaijan.
Home to sizable ethnic Azeri and Armenian populations, Georgia is well-accustomed to such coexistence. But, nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that awkward situations cannot occur.
Recently, for example, an Armenian flag appeared flying outside a privately owned, neighborhood bathhouse that adjoins a park featuring a bust of Heydar Aliyev, the late Azerbaijani president.
The flag was still flying until the eve of Azerbaijan’s May 10 Flower Day celebration, an event to mark the birthday of the late president. On the day itself, the flag reportedly disappeared. A day later, it reappeared.
The juxtaposition, needless to say, is unusual. Aliyev, in office from 1993 until 2003, was Azerbaijan’s president when the war with Armenia and Karabakhi separatists over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh ended with a cease-fire in 1994.
Precise reasons for the flag’s appearance, disappearance, and reappearance could not be confirmed. The management of the bathhouse that displays the flags was not available for comment. “They just chose some international flags from somewhere,” an employee commented, with a shrug.
A United Nations report has implicated Azerbaijan and a Kazakhstan airline executive in violations of arms embargos against North Korea. The Associated Press acquired the report, to the U.N. Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against North Korea.
Among the violators was Azerbaijan, for trying to buy anti-aircraft missiles from North Korea:
The panel... recommended sanctions against the Hesong Trading Corporation, a subsidiary of the Korea Mining Development Trading Corp., which was involved in trying to sell 70 North Korean portable anti-aircraft missiles to Azerbaijan. British arms dealer Michael Ranger was convicted in July 2012 of attempting to sell the missiles.
The court heard that in email correspondence with his arms supplier in North Korea, Ranger boasted that he had been a guest of the Azerbaijani government and was driven round in a Lexus limousine whilst on business there to discuss the supply of Man-Portable Infrared Homing Surface to Air Missiles. It also heard how he told the US manufacturers of Berettas pistols that he had secured orders from the Azerbaijani Ministry of Emergency Situations following a meeting with ‘two people directly under the President’ in February 2010. The jury agreed that the evidence clearly demonstrated Ranger’s intention to disregard the embargos and duly delivered a conviction.
The U.N. report also named a citizen of Kazakhstan it says was involved in shipping arms to North Korea:
Shouting “Kill them! Tear them to pieces!” a mob of several thousand mostly young men, but also robed priests and women in headscarves, broke through police lines to attack several dozen gay-rights supporters gathered in Tbilisi's central Freedom Square.
A raging mob in Tbilisi chased away a downtown rally designed to commemorate the May 17 International Day against Homophobia. “Kill them! Tear them to pieces!” yelled the agitated crowd as police struggled to evacuate a handful of gay-rights supporters from the Georgian capital's central Freedom Square.
It was a scene of medieval mob violence, as thousands of Georgians -- mostly young men, but also robed priests and women in headscarves -- stormed through a police cordon and went pursuing the activists. “Where are they? Don’t let them leave alive!” screamed frenzied men, as they took over the square, outnumbering and overpowering police troops.
Police barely managed to herd some of the LGBT activists into municipal buses, before angry protesters surrounded the vehicles. The crowd hit, threw stones and followed the buses as they pushed their way out of the square.
The pursuit continued on the side streets. Just outside the square, a mob tried to storm a house, where several gay rights activists had sought refuge. “Drag them out, stomp them to death,” screamed one woman as she tried to push her way through a group of policemen, who wrestled with the mob at the entrance of the house.
Youngsters swore, beat and threw various objects at police officers, who eventually pulled the activists into a car. A stampede occurred as the mob tried to chase the car down the narrow street, with some falling into ditches.
At the different corner of the downtown, several activists sought asylum in a grocery store and police managed to fight off the mob that tried to break into the shop.
Very few civilians dared to speak against the violence. “Look at yourselves! You call yourselves Christians?” objected one elderly woman in tears, speaking from a balcony. “Go ahead, kill everyone you are told to hate in the name of God and national values.”