It has been a Caucasian weekend for the Clooney couple. The Hollywood-star husband went to Armenia for an anti-genocide forum, while the human-rights-lawyer-star wife went to Washington to rally support for her Azerbaijani client, jailed investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.
George Clooney, who deems it “ridiculous” to deny that Ottoman Turkey committed genocide against ethnic Armenians, joined Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in Yerevan on April 24 for a commemorative ceremony of the massacre, and then presented a peace award to Burundi humanitarian Marguerite Barankitse in commemoration of the survivors of the 1915 slaughter.
Clooney said that his wife, Amal, could not join him in Yerevan because she was making a case in Washington for her client, Khadija Ismayilova.* “She is visiting the White House today and then will meet with Senator [John] McCain and others,” the actor elaborated in an interview with Armenian TV stations, local outlets reported. “She’s there trying to find ways to gets this incredible, brilliant reporter free.”
He quipped that because of his wife taking up cases like Ismayilova’s, they are “starting to run out of places we can go.”
Azerbaijan is certainly shaping up as one such place.
Following the most potent criticism to date over the treatment of jailed activist Azimjan Askarov, Kyrgyzstan’s highest court said on April 25 that the case may be reviewed after all.
Whether that means Askarov could be released is not yet certain, but it suggests the authorities may be changing tack from their usual indignant combativeness over the issue.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee on April 21 urged Kyrgyzstan to immediately free the rights activist, who it said had been subjected to torture and denied a fair trial. In September 2010, Askarov, who is an ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer amid ethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan in June of that year. Many suspect he had been singled out for prosecution because of this prior activism highlight the routine abuses of police officers.
A day after the UN issued its statement, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) doubled down on the calls for Kyrgyzstan to overturn Askarov’s sentence.
“Kyrgyzstan now has an opportunity to correct this injustice, restoring both Mr. Askarov’s rights and its national human rights record in this regard,” ODIHR director Michael Georg Link said in a statement. “Freeing him will also send a strong signal to law enforcement and judicial actors in Kyrgyzstan that the rule of law must be upheld equally for all citizens.”
The Supreme Court said in a statement that the UN Human Rights Committee’s complaint created grounds, under Article 41 of the constitution, for Askarov to lodge a fresh appeal.
Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Russian officers take place in the opening ceremony, in Tajikistan, for the CSTO joint exercises "Poisk 2016" (photo: CSTO)
Russia and several of its allies have wrapped up their first-ever joint military reconnaissance exercises in Tajikistan where they "eliminated" a make-believe ISIS commander who was plotting to seize power in Central Asia.
The exercises took place in Tajikistan's Romit Gorge, where -- incidentally -- Tajikistan security forces last year killed a rogue general who had mutinied and whom Dushanbe (unconvincingly) claimed was part of ISIS. They involved 1,500 military intelligence officers from Russia and its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
The primary purpose of the exercise seemed to be to work out joint operations of the CSTO countries' reconnaissance units and equipment (i.e. the forces that allow armed forces to locate and target enemy units). In one phase, for example, helicopter crews dropped paratroopers close to enemy formations and cut off their lines of communication. In another, they used their electronic reconnaissance equipment to target enemy communications points.
Protests are picking up steam in Kazakhstan against reforms that many fear could enable foreigners to buy up massive swaths of land and open the way to shady and corrupt transactions.
More than 1,000 people rallied in the western city of Atyrau on April 24, only the latest in a string such demonstrations. Civil activist Galymbek Akulbekov was able to hold a one-man picket in the capital, Astana, for about five minutes last week before being hauled away by police. Another larger rally in Almaty on April 22 drew some 30 people.
Although modest in size, the protests are an unusual sight and the authorities will be wary about cracking down too severely over a potentially incendiary and sensitive issue.
As the ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan is well-stocked on the land front. The country has 2.7 million square kilometers of farming land stock, of which around one-third is unused, according to the National Economy Ministry. Another 602,000 square kilometers is made up residential space, industrial areas and protected nature reserves.
Under government plans, the unused farming land could be sold or made available for rent, with the revenue going to the National Fund — Kazakhstan’s stabilization fund — instead of the state coffers.
A senior American NATO official has signaled support for a proposal to create a regular alliance naval presence on the Black Sea, where tension has been rising between Russia and its maritime neighbors.
"There are some very valuable discussions under way among the allies who live on the Black Sea ... of more closely integrating their naval forces and operations," said NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, an American diplomat, referring to Bulgaria, Turkey, and Romania, Reuters reported. "We need to consider a more persistent NATO military presence in the region, with a particular focus on our maritime capabilities."
Vershbow was apparently referring to an idea, promoted by Romania, to creating a permanent NATO presence on the sea. Romanian officials also have said that their proposal envisages cooperation with non-NATO partners on the Black Sea, in particular Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the United States. The proposal looks to be considered at the alliance's June summit in Warsaw, as the alliance continues to build up its military presence along Russia's borders.
A quick tip to anybody planning a bank heist in Uzbekistan — make sure your getaway can carry heavy loads.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service has reported on a robbery that took place at a Mikrokreditbank branch ub the western Khorezm region in early April that netted its organizers 16 million Uzbek sum. Though that sounds like a lot, it is a mere $2,560 at the black market rate.
The thieves got into the bank around midnight by disconnecting the alarm system and then cracked a safe containing 45 sacks of cash. Officials told RFE/RL that the robbers loaded the sacks onto a Damas minibus.
Two people have reportedly been arrested for the heist. One of those charged was none other than a local police officer.
“The head of the criminal gang used to guard this bank in his capacity as an officer with the patrol service. The policeman enlisted his unemployed 34-year old brother to take part in the robbery,” a law enforcement official told RFE/RL.
One businessman queried by RFE/RL expressed dismay at the small quantity of money that appeared to be in the bank, which he said confirmed the grave lack of liquidity gripping Uzbekistan. State workers regularly complain of not being able to receive their salaries because of the lack of hard cash in the banks. Others are unable to collect remittances sent from relatives abroad.
While the authorities are remaining mum about the events of the heist, one local journalist in the Khorezm region confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that he too had heard about the event.
He said that the thieves made away with 14 sacks of cash, however, and not 45, as claimed by RFE/RL.
The Azerbaijani government has taken aim at Meydan TV, one of the few independent Azeri-language news outlets, after the station alleged that Baku under-reported the number of Azerbaijani deaths in this month’s fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, the station says.
The Azerbaijani prosecutor’s office has not released any public information about its investigation, but a lawyer for Meydan, Elchin Sadigov, stated that 15 Azerbaijanis have been named in a government investigation into supposed tax evasion and illegal business activity; the usual charges against journalists and those who refuse to toe the government’s line.
“We consider this as a declaration of war against independent journalism in Azerbaijan,” Meydan’s founder, activist Emin Milli, commented to EurasiaNet.org.
None of the individuals has yet been charged, though the station reports that the government banned “a number of journalists” from leaving Azerbaijan as well as searched their residences and took work equipment without a warrant.
The government has not responded to these reports. Prosecutors could not be reached for comment.
Earlier, Meydan TV had come under attack from mainstream, pro-government news outlets and officials alike for its critical coverage of the so-called Four-Day War, the April 2-5 flare-up in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over separatist Nagorno Karabakh. Amidst the fighting, all sides – Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Karabakhi separatists – made grand claims of losses inflicted on their respective enemies.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee on April 21 urged Kyrgyzstan to immediately free jailed activist Azimjan Askarov, who it said has been subjected to mistreatment and torture since his imprisonment in 2010.
That appeal is bound to provoke deep irritation in Kyrgyzstan, which has reacted combatively to all international appeals over this particular case.
The Human Rights Committee said in a statement that 18 international human rights experts had found that Kyrgyzstan routinely flouted articles of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights in their treatment of Askarov.
In September 2010, Askarov, who is an ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer amid ethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan in June of that year.
Echoing the positions adopted earlier by advocacy groups and Western governments, the UN rights committee said Askarov had been denied the basic right to properly prepare for his trial and criticized the manner of his initial detention.
“Askarov was initially detained at the police station where the deceased officer was based and … no specific security measures were in place to safeguard him,” the UN rights committee statement said.
Committee members ruled that independent medical examinations suggested Askarov had been subjected to acts of torture.
A subsequent inquiry in 2013 was found to be lacking “the element of impartiality, as it interviewed more than 100 law enforcement officers, judges, court clerks and prosecutors but failed to interview [Askarov’s] lawyers, human rights defenders who visited him in prison, and his relatives,” the committee said.
Going by recent form, Kyrgyzstan is unlikely to take this parade of charges well.
“War is over, beware of peace” goes a phrase from the Caucasian Chalk Circle, a play by Bertolt Brecht. It rings true today when peace in the Caucasus is brought by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who is initiating a new phase of the roughly 24-year-long talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
After brokering a shaky April 5 ceasefire between the two, Moscow now has hit on “intensive negotiations,” a familiar prescription, as the way forward. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Yerevan on April 21 to talk about the Karabakh negotiations.
As yet, however, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, the tripartite body headed by Russia, the US and France, which has overseen the Karabakh talks since 1992, is not in the picture.
“It was the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” said Ali Hasanov, a senior aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. “He addressed the presidents of both countries [Armenia and Azerbaijan] and preparations are underway now for the negotiations process.”
“We have activated all necessary diplomatic mechanisms to place the sides at the negotiations table,” Russia’s Kommersant newspaper quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as saying.
The official said that Moscow attaches top importance to finding peace in Karabakh, but, then, whether in South Ossetia, Ukraine or Syria, it always does, supposedly.
A mural created by street artist Pavel Kas in the industrial city of Temirtau.
A graffiti artist in the industrial Kazakhstan town of Temirtau has ended up in the authorities’ crosshairs for creating a giant mural in protest at the environmental damage caused by a local smelter.
The mural was painted on the side of an apartment block by Pavel Kas in the style of Henri Matisse’s The Dance and shows a circle of human figures around a chimney stack chugging out thick black smoke. The vividness of the painting is in ironic contrast to the bleak backdrop of the real factories.
But one city’s vandalism is another city’s art, and so the town hall in Shymkent, in southern Kazakhstan, has now invited Kas to take part in an art festival being held there on May 13-15.
Shymkent Art Days 2016 will host street artists, sculptors, architects, designers and graffiti artists for an event to celebrate contemporary style. While Temirtau has reacted poorly to the notion of people painting on its walls, Shymkent is actively inviting festival participants to break out the paints.
“Pavel Kas is a lively representative of informal art dealing with current issues. Shymkent will be happy to welcome Pavel to its festival and organizers will provide all materials needed to create works that will decorate our city,” Shymkent deputy mayor Kairat Nurtai said in remarks reproduced on the city’s official website.
Temirtau is the heart of Kazakhstan’s steel industry, which environmentalists say has had a heavy toll on the quality of the air. One the earliest workers at the city’s first blast furnace in the 1960s was none other than President Nursultan Nazarbayev.