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Newsline - January 18, 2005


PUTIN PROPOSES HIKING PENSIONS...
President Vladimir Putin broke his silence on the issue of the pensioner protests on 17 January, by charging that the federal government and regional leaders have not been doing their jobs properly and did not ensure the social-benefits reform did not materially worsen the situation of Russia's neediest citizens, Interfax and RTR reported (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2005). According to Putin, the problem of public transportation can be resolved easily by providing monthly tickets for a price that does not exceed the cash payments pensioners are receiving. He said that way "any citizens can decide whether they want to buy a season ticket that they will use for a whole month on all types of public transport or to keep the money if they do not use public transport that often." Putin also suggested increasing pensions by 1 March rather than by the planned date of 1 April, adding that the rate of the increase should be at least double the level currently planned. He said that pensions should be raised "at least by 200 rubles [about $6] or maybe a little more in order to resolve at least the problem of providing transport." JAC

...AS HIS POPULARITY DIPS
The Levada Analytical Center found that at the end of 2004 the number of their respondents who did not approve of the policies of President Putin has doubled from the same time the previous year. In December 2003, only 14 percent did not approved of Putin's activities; a year later the number has increased to 28 percent, lenta.ru and Ekho Moskvy reported on 14 January. At the end of 2003, some 34 percent believed the government could improve the situation in the country in the short term, while a year later that percentage had dropped to 25 percent. Nevertheless, Putin's approval rating remains fairly high, with 69 percent of respondents approving of his activities. JAC

PENSIONERS CONTINUE TO TAKE THEIR COMPLAINTS TO THE STREETS...
Protests against the monetization of in-kind benefits continued on 18 January in various Russian cities for the 10th consecutive day, Russian news agencies reported. In Moscow Oblast there have been 24 unauthorized rallies involving some 10,000 people in 14 districts since 9 January, ITAR-TASS reported, citing the Interior Ministry directorate for Moscow Oblast. St. Petersburg experienced three days of unauthorized rallies starting on 15 January. On 16 January about 1,500 people blocked Nevskii Prospekt, the city's main thoroughfare, RIA-Novosti reported. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 17 January that some demonstrators in St. Petersburg were wearing "the orange color of the Ukrainian revolution." In Samara, a rally was held for the sixth consecutive day on 17 January. In the Siberian city of Angarsk, some 2,000 people blocked traffic along the main streets and gained access to the city administration building. JAC

...AS PROTESTS SPREAD ACROSS RUSSIA
A map on gazeta.ru depicting areas where protests have taken place shows that the demonstrations have not been concentrated in any particular federal district, but have occurred throughout Russia (http://www.gazeta.ru/firstplace.shtml). Among the latest cities experiencing unauthorized rallies since 14 January are Orel, Kaluga, Stavropol, Vologoda, Kazan, Novgorod, Khabarovsk, Angarsk, Nalchik, Cherkessk, Perm, Saratov, Tyumen, Novosibirsk, Naberezhnyi Chelny, and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, according to gazeta.ru and "Gazeta." JAC

'CHINTZ REVOLUTION' SEEN AS PRECURSOR TO MORE DISTURBANCES...
"Nezavismaya gazeta" on 17 January argued that although some people have already dubbed the protests as the "chintz revolution" (chintz is a cheap material often worn by pensioners) the real revolution will take place in February when people start to receive bills for their utilities and rent. According to the daily, in a majority of regions, rates will increase an average of 35-40 percent. "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 16 January put the average rate of increase lower, between 15 and 35 percent. Nevertheless it also predicted a second wave of public protests when the increases come into effect. JAC

...AS GOVERNORS ACQUIESCE TO SOME OF PROTESTORS' DEMANDS
According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 17 January, regional leaders are now scurrying to restore public order for fear that they won't be reappointed to their positions by President Putin. They have started to draw on their "internal reserves" and are restoring benefits. Nizhnii Novgorod Governor Gennadii Khodyrev raised pensioners' transportation compensation from 50 to 100 rubles, the daily reported, while Kemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleev and Moscow Oblast Governor Boris Gromov have restored free public transportation. The same situation is occurring in Primorskii Krai, Penza Oblast, and other regions, according to the daily. JAC

COMMUNIST PARTY TO SEEK VOTE OF NO-CONFIDENCE...
The Communist Party faction plans to seek a no-confidence vote in the government in the lower legislative chamber, Ekho Moskvy reported on 17 January. However, even if the party is able to combine forces with every member of the Motherland faction and independent deputies, they would still be unable to gather the 226 votes required for a no-confidence vote to be held without the support of some members of the Unified Russia or Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) factions. An LDPR deputy told Ekho Moskvy that his faction would support a vote of no-confidence; however, Oleg Morozov, deputy speaker and member of Unified Russia, said that a hasty decision on a no-confidence vote could aggravate the situation. Fellow Unified Russia faction member and First Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska said on 17 January that the "voluntary resignation of some cabinet members responsible for this reform could significantly ease social tensions," ITAR-TASS reported. JAC

...AS UNIFIED RUSSIA DEPUTIES SAYS REGIONAL GOVERNMENTS AT FAULT
Valerii Draganov (Unified Russia), chairman of the State Duma's Economic Policy and Business Committee, laid the blame for the protests on the failure of certain regions to provide adequate cash compensation Radio Rossii reported on 17 January. He accused certain regions of paying less in benefits than was recommended by the federal government, and he said that he has asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to look into the situation in Vladimir Oblast. In an interview with ORT, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov (Unified Russia) also singled out the city of Vladimir. He said the compensation for transport fares there was insufficient and did not cover at least 30 trips a month. LDPR Duma Deputy Aleksei Mitrofanov commented to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 17 January that "practically all of the disturbances started in the donor-regions, such as Bashkortostan and Tatarstan. For some reason in the poorest regions in Russia, such as Pskov Oblast and Kostroma Oblast, everything is quiet." JAC

HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP NOTES CONTINUED EROSION OF RUSSIANS' RIGHTS
In its annual "World Report 2005" issued on 13 January, Human Rights Watch concluded that in 2004, Russia experienced a "further erosion of fundamental rights that underpin the country's fledgling democracy." The report noted that before 2004 the NGO community "was the only part of civil society that had not faced any significant meddling by the Kremlin." However, President Putin's May state-of-the-nation address, which criticized NGOs, sparked a new campaign of pressure. The report praised the reform of the prison system, where overcrowding has been eased, but criticized the government for failing to make use of Russia's current economic prosperity "to reform state institutions that have entrenched human rights problems." Among the entrenched human rights problems listed were systematic hazing practices in the armed forces, torture and abuse of criminal suspects by the police, poor treatment of children in orphanages, and inhumane treatment of patients in psychiatric institutions. JAC

GOVERNMENT TO ENCOURAGE NGOS TO PROMOTE RUSSIAN INTERESTS ABROAD
Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko told a conference in Petrozavodsk on 18 January that the ministry will do more to promote the international work of Russian nongovernmental organizations, ITAR-TASS reported. The ministry "will focus on strengthening interaction with public institutions in light of the tasks set out by President Vladimir Putin in his annual address to the Federal Assembly," Yakovenko said. Among those tasks, Yakovenko said, are the strengthening of ties with Russian communities abroad, promoting the Russian language and culture, and helping to form a positive international image of Russia. RC

RUSSIAN AUDIT CHAMBER ISSUES PERFORMANCE EVALUATION
According to a report by the Audit Chamber, the Russian government did not receive some $30 billion due to it since 1995 and the chamber has succeeded in recovering about 7 percent of that figure, "Vedomosti" reported on 18 January. The daily reported, however, that the Finance Ministry has not accepted these figures. Audit Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin was quoted as saying that the chamber has uncovered "a huge volume of ineffective or illegal spending" and has presented materials that have served as the basis of "hundreds of criminal cases." In a decade of work, the chamber has conducted 3,857 audits that have resulted in 702 criminal cases, "Vedomosti" reported. According to the daily, the Audit Chamber decided on 17 January to conduct quarterly monitoring of the implementation of the social-benefits reform. RC

U.S. GRANTS ASYLUM TO 1999 APARTMENT-BUILDING EXPLOSION VICTIM
Alena Morozova, who survived a 1999 terrorist explosion in her Moscow apartment building, has been granted political asylum in the United States after claiming that her investigations into the possibility that the Federal Security Service (FSB) carried out the bombing had put her life in danger, Ekho Moskvy and other Russian media reported on 17 January. Morozova's lawyer, former FSB officer Mikhail Trepashkin, was sentenced to four years' imprisonment by a Moscow court in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 2004), in what many believe was a trumped-up case intended to punish him for attempting to implicate the FSB in the 1999 bombings. "I know the material collected by Trepashkin, for which he is being persecuted by the Russian government, would leave even the most skeptical bureaucrat in the [U.S.] immigration service in no doubt that the Russian authorities will stop at nothing to hide the truth about the apartment-building explosion," Morozova told Ekho Moskvy. She said that she intends to ask U.S. President George W. Bush to raise Trepashkin's case with President Putin at their 24 February summit in Slovakia. RC

RABBI IS LATEST VICTIM OF ANTI-SEMITIC ATTACKS IN MOSCOW
The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia on 17 January called on Moscow authorities to do more to combat anti-Semitism in the wake of the severe beating on 14 January of Rabbi Aleksandr Lakshin, RIA-Novosti reported. Lakshin was reportedly assaulted while walking with a friend and two children by a group of teenagers shouting anti-Semitic insults. Lakshin was beaten, kicked, stabbed, and struck with bottles before the assailants fled. He was later hospitalized. The news agency quoted federation spokesman Borukh Gorin as saying that there have been five assaults on Jews in the same neighborhood, where the Moscow Jewish Community Center is located, in the last month. RC

RUSSIAN OFFICIALS CLAIM TO THWART HOSTAGE-TAKING...
Russian security forces backed by a tank and an armored personnel carrier waged a 15-hour gun battle on 14-15 January against five Chechen fighters hiding in a building on the outskirts of Makhachkala, Russian media reported on 16 January. One Russian serviceman was killed in the battle, which ended only when the tank flattened the building. Three members of the Russian special forces were killed in a similar incident the same day in the Caspian Sea town of Kaspiisk when security forces tried to apprehend suspected Chechen fighter Magomedzagir Akaev. That suspect was killed and several others arrested. Daghestan Interior Ministry spokesman Ruslan Magometkadiev and FSB official Nikolai Gryaznov told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that the two groups of Chechens were in contact and were preparing a "major terrorist act" in Daghestan comparable to the September hostage-taking at a school in North Ossetia. LF

...CLAIM CHECHEN LEADER PLANNING FURTHER 'TERRORIST ACTS'
Interfax and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 17 and 18 January, respectively, quoted Russian military officials as claiming that Aslan Maskhadov, who is Chechen president and resistance commander, and radical field commander Shamil Basaev are planning large-scale terrorist acts in regions bordering Chechnya. The 15 January police operations in Makhachkala and Kaspiisk, and the wave of arrests in Ingushetia that began on 11 January, were intended to thwart those plans, the officials said. Maskhadov has repeatedly forbidden the fighters under his command from targeting civilians or from engaging in military operations outside Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 June 2003). LF

WAS SENIOR CHECHEN OFFICIAL APPREHENDED?
Citing "Kommersant-Daily" of 17 January, "The Moscow Times" reported on 18 January that Vakha Arsanov, who was elected Chechen vice president in January 1997, was arrested in Grozny. But Interfax on 17 January quoted Chechen interim parliament Chairman Taus Djabrailov as saying he cannot confirm those reports; Interfax also quoted Chechen Interior Ministry Chief of Staff Colonel Akhmed Dakaev as dismissing the report of Arsanov's arrest as "an invention." According to Aleksandr Cherkasov of the Russian human rights group memorial, Arsanov played no role in the second Chechen war that began in 1999. LF

KREMLIN REPRESENTATIVE SAYS POWERS, RESPONSIBILITIES OF REGIONS SHOULD BE AUGMENTED...
Echoing comments made last month by State Duma Deputy Vladimir Katrenko (Unified Russia) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2004), presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitrii Kozak told journalists in Krasnodar on 14 January that Russia's regions should be granted the maximum additional powers in order to ensure economic growth, but that their responsibilities should also be commensurately larger, ITAR-TASS reported. Kozak singled out the North Caucasus as having the largest potential in Russia for improving social and economic conditions. LF

...AND DENIES TENSIONS BETWEEN CHECHNYA, DAGHESTAN
Referring to the standoff several days earlier in Daghestan's Khasavyurt Raion between local police and security forces subordinate to Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 14 January 2005), Kozak said in Krasnodar on 14 January that the Russian Prosecutor General's Office will investigate the violations of the law that took place, ITAR-TASS reported. But he stressed that "there is full understanding between the leaders of Chechnya and Daghestan concerning what to do and how to prevent" such conflicts from recurring. But on 17 January, chechenpress.com reported that the authorities in Daghestan have released a statement decrying repeated illegal incursions into Daghestan by Kadyrov's security forces. The statement accused those forces of seizing and transporting back to Chechnya with Moscow's connivance both residents of Daghestan and former residents of Chechnya who had fled the fighting. It noted that the population of Khasavyurt has repeatedly blocked local highways to protest those Chechen incursions. LF

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION LEADER DEPLORES PLANNED NEW BLOC
People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian, who was the opposition Artarutiun bloc's candidate in the February-March 2003 presidential election, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 17 January that he considers Artarutiun "a real example of unity" and the best possible instrument for forcing the resignation of President Robert Kocharian. He therefore sees no reason for his party's allies within that bloc to consider establishing an alternative opposition alignment. Demirchian dismissed discussions of possible new alliances as "wrong" and "artificial." He did not, however, mention by name the Republican Party of former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian, which since November has been negotiating the creation of an alternative, pro-Western opposition alliance (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 16 December 2004 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2004). LF

WHERE IS THE PRESIDENT OF AZERBAIJAN?
Azerbaijan's opposition media continued on 18 January to speculate about the whereabouts of President Ilham Aliyev, who departed on a previously unannounced vacation following a stormy meeting on 3 January of the National Security Council, according to Turan on 18 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2005). Some papers have suggested that Aliyev is abroad, either in London or Moscow; others claim he is undergoing medical treatment. On 17 January, the presidential press service reported that President Aliyev has sent a message to his Croatian counterpart, Stipe Mesic, congratulating him on his reelection, Turan reported. On 18 January, Turan quoted unnamed government officials as saying that the president will return to work "in the next few days." On 6 January, it was announced that President Aliyev will pay an official visit to Iran on 24-25 January. LF

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION, NGOS DISCUSS PROPOSED ELECTION LAW AMENDMENTS...
Representatives of opposition parties and NGOs participated in a broad discussion on 14 January of opposition proposals for amending Azerbaijan's election legislation in accordance with suggestions made by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, Azerbaijani media reported on 15 January. Opposition parliament deputy Gulamhuseyn Alibeyli (Azerbaijan Popular Front Party), head of the working group that drafted the proposed amendments, advocated expanding election commissions from 15 to 18 members, of whom nine would represent the ruling party and other pro-government parties and nine the opposition. He also argued that all NGOs should be entitled to field election monitors; at present those NGOs that receive funding from abroad are barred from doing so. LF

...THOUGH CHANGING IT MAY BE DIFFICULT
Alibeyli admitted that a nationwide referendum would be needed to achieve the proposed restoration of the mixed system under which some parliament deputies are elected in single-mandate constituencies and the remainder according to the party-list system. The proportional system representation was abolished as a result of a referendum on constitutional amendments held in August 2002 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 1 July 2002 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 August 2002), and most opposition parties support its restoration. But commentators have noted that the initiative to abolish the proportional system vote originated with the late President Heidar Aliyev, and it is unlikely that any member of the present leadership would risk the approbation that would undoubtedly follow any move that cast doubt on the wisdom of the late president's actions by calling for their reversal. LF

THREE AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PARTIES MULL ELECTION COOPERATION
The progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, the Musavat party, and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (ADP) have reached agreement in principle on the need to create a single bloc to participate in the parliamentary elections due in November, www.echo-az.com reported on 14 January (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 14 January 2005). ADP acting Secretary-General Akif Shahbazov said that the three parties will unveil a list three months before the ballot of the candidates they will field in individual constituencies. But ADP Supreme Council Chairwoman Zamina Dunyamalieva was quoted by the daily "Ekho" on 14 January as saying that her party is ready to conclude an alliance with any other opposition party or bloc that agrees to register ADP Chairman Rasul Guliev as a candidate. Guliev has lived in self-imposed exile in the U.S. since leaving Baku in 1996 after a major policy dispute with the late President Aliyev. LF

GEORGIA DENIES RUSSIAN CLAIMS OF CONTINUED CHECHEN PRESENCE IN PANKISI
Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili told journalists in Tbilisi on 17 January that allegations by the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi of a continued Chechen militant presence in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge are without foundation, rustavi2.com reported. She said there are neither terrorists nor militants in Pankisi, and she repeated that the Georgian authorities are prepared to conduct a joint search of the area. Zourabichvili further expressed concern that repeated Russian claims that Chechens have taken refuge in Pankisi are intended to serve as the rationale for conducting "preventive strikes" on Georgian territory. On 17 January, the Georgian Foreign Ministry appealed to the international community to deploy international observers to monitor Georgia's borders with Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Daghestan, ITAR-TASS reported. At the December meeting in Sofia of the OSCE Ministerial Council, Russia vetoed the extension of the mandate of the OSCE monitoring of those borders that began in 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2005). LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT DOWNPLAYS 'PACE' CRITICISMS
Mikheil Saakashvili said in Tbilisi on 17 January that he does not share the concern expressed by some opposition politicians with regard to criticism expressed in the most recent draft report on Georgia compiled by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the Caucasus Press reported. That draft report, circulated by the Caucasus Press on 17 December, praised the commitment of the new Georgian leadership in implementing sweeping reforms, but at the same time criticized constitutional amendments augmenting presidential powers. It further advocated revising the model of Adjara's autonomy to grant that region a greater say in selecting its leader, who is currently appointed by the Georgian president, and abolishing the existing "plea bargaining" system that enables some officials charged with corruption "to use the proceeds of their crimes to buy their way out of prison." LF

GEORGIAN ECONOMISTS END HUNGER STRIKE
Six Georgian economists have abandoned the hunger strike they began last week to protest the government's plans to sell several major enterprises to foreign investors, the Caucasus Press reported on 17 January. But they pledged to continue their efforts to prevent those privatizations, which they termed short-sighted. The six specifically expressed concern at the prospect that Russian companies might acquire Georgian assets, arguing that "Russian special services will use the privatized companies to cause political and economic destabilization and put political pressure on Georgia." And they accused Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and State Minister Kakha Bendukidze of promoting Russia's economic interests to the detriment of Georgia. LF

BANNED KAZAKH OPPOSITION PARTY LOSES APPEAL
An Almaty court on 17 January rejected an appeal by opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) to overturn a 6 January ruling to dissolve the party, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. After the initial ruling, opposition groups in Kazakhstan accused the authorities of attempting to stifle domestic dissent in response to recent events in Ukraine; international NGOs Human Rights Watch and Freedom House called on the Kazakh government to review the decision. Yevgeniy Zhovtis, who is representing DVK in court, said on 17 January that the party will appeal the latest decision, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. DK

KAZAKH PRESIDENT ORDERS INQUIRY INTO BORDER SHOOTING
President Nursultan Nazarbaev on 15 January ordered an investigation into an incident on 14 January that left one Uzbek citizen dead on the Kazakh-Uzbek border, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. A Kazakh Foreign Ministry press release on 14 January stated that an Uzbek citizen identified as Muhammadov was shot and killed by Kazakh border guards as they attempted to "thwart contraband activities." The press release noted that Kazakh border guards briefed their Uzbek colleagues on the incident and that the two sides were set to start a joint investigation on 15 January. DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT VISITS PAKISTAN
Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad on 17 January for talks focused on economic cooperation and trade ties, Pakistan's APP news agency reported. The two leaders also discussed a variety of regional issues, including the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Musharraf told journalists after the talks that he and his Kyrgyz counterpart have "decided to strengthen these bonds by improving the communication links between our two countries through Kashgar in China and on to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan," Pakistan TV 1 reported. President Akaev's two-day visit to Pakistan, his third, will continue on 18 January. DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER PREPARES TO RUN FOR PARLIAMENT DESPITE OPPOSITION PROTESTS
Bermet Akaeva, the daughter of President Askar Akaev, has submitted all necessary documents to run in 27 February parliamentary elections in Bishkek's University District, akipress.org reported on 17 January, citing a source in the Central Election Commission (CEC). Roza Otunbaeva, co-chairperson of the Ata-Jurt opposition movement, was recently barred from running in the same electoral district (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2005). On 17 January, Ata-Jurt released a statement saying, "Using state-controlled media that are subordinated exclusively to the interests of the [presidential] family, the president praises his daughter to the whole country and at the same time lambastes the opposition. Meanwhile, all of our attempts to call on the authorities simply to observe the laws the president has signed are viewed as ideological extremism," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The Kyrgyz NGO Civil Society Against Corruption had earlier accused the authorities of putting pressure on students in the University District to sign a petition in favor of Bermet Akaeva's candidacy, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 15 January. DK

KYRGYZSTAN EXTENDS DEATH PENALTY MORATORIUM
President Akaev has signed a decree extending Kyrgyzstan's moratorium on the death penalty until the end of 2005, Interfax reported on 15 January. The presidential press service told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on 16 January that Akaev has instructed the government to draw up legislation removing the death penalty from the country's Criminal Code. DK

TAJIK ELECTION COMMISSION BEGINS REGISTERING CANDIDATES
Tajikistan's Central Election Commission (CEC) has begun to register candidates for participation in 27 February parliamentary elections, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 17 January. Muhibullo Dodojonov, head of the CEC secretariat, told the news agency that the CEC has registered 21 party-slate candidates for the ruling People's Democratic Party, 15 for the Islamic Renaissance Party, nine for the Communist Party, seven for the Social-Democratic Party, and four each for the Socialist and Democratic Parties. Another 209 candidates have been nominated for races in single-mandate constituencies. The CEC will complete the registration process on 6 February. DK

TAJIKISTAN REGISTERS 10 PERCENT ECONOMIC GROWTH IN 2004
Tajik Economics Minister Hakim Soliev told a ministry meeting on 15 January that Tajikistan's GDP rose 10.3 percent in 2004, to total just over $2 billion, Avesta reported. Industrial output increased 14.4 percent, and unemployment recorded an 11-percent year-on-year drop as of 1 November 2004. Average wages rose 29.1 percent. Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov touted agreements with Russia that reduced the national debt by $300 million, lowering external debt per capita from $156 to $124, ITAR-TASS reported. Oqilov also praised Russian Aluminum's commitment to investing $2 billion in the Tajik economy over the next five years. DK

INVESTIGATION RULES OUT TORTURE IN DEATH OF UZBEK PRISONER...
Members of a working group that investigated the 2 January death of Salmandar Umarov, an Uzbek prisoner serving a 17-year sentence for membership in the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, told a press conference in Tashkent on 17 January that they found no evidence of torture, Interfax reported. The investigation commission included foreign experts and took place under the observation of U.S.-based NGO Freedom House. Mjusa Sever, director of Freedom House's Tashkent office, said that the investigation conformed to international standards. DK

...AMID OBJECTIONS FROM UZBEK RIGHTS ACTIVIST
Umarov's relatives did not, however, give permission for the body to be exhumed, the BBC's Uzbek Service reported. Surat Ikramov, chairman of Uzbekistan's Initiative Group of Human Rights Defenders, which initially publicized the allegations of torture in Umarov's death, told RFE/RL on 17 January, "This is an absolutely wrong conclusion and it goes absolutely against the law.... From the photograph of the body [the cause of his death] is obvious. His body was not exhumed. I don't know how the examination could provide a conclusion without exhumation. No one from independent rights groups was allowed be part of the investigating team." DK

ASIAN DEVELOPMENT BANK PRESENTS FEASIBILITY STUDY FOR TRANS-AFGHAN PIPELINE
Turkmenistan's government announced in a press release that the British company Penspen has completed a feasibility study of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline and presented it to the energy ministers of Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan, turkmenistan.ru reported on 17 January. The 1,680-kilometer pipeline, running from Turkmenistan to Fazilka, India on the Indian-Pakistani border, will cost $3.3 billion and have an annual transport capacity of 33 billion cubic meters of natural gas. According to the press release, the TAP steering committee will discuss the feasibility study at its next meeting in February in Islamabad, with construction tentatively scheduled to begin in 2006 if all legal hurdles are successfully cleared. DK

BELARUSIAN SOCIAL DEMOCRATS ELECT NEW LEADER AT DISPUTED CONVENTION
The Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Popular Assembly) (BSDP-NH) elected Anatol Lyaukovich as its chairman in Minsk on 15 January, Belapan reported. The convention was reportedly overshadowed by "an unprecedented row" following the legally challenged expulsion of the party's former leader, Mikalay Statkevich. The Justice Ministry sided with Statkevich's opponents and recognized his ouster as legitimate. Lyaukovich vowed to take steps to prevent the BSDP-NH from what he called "sliding into" autocratic rule, an accusation used by Statkevich's opponents to oust him from the party. Lyaukovich also promised to negotiate for the party's merger with other social democratic forces. Statkevich refused to recognize the convention, saying that the event had been orchestrated by the authorities. "The BSDP-NH believes that there was an imitation rather than a [true] convention, as the party's Central Committee had made no decision to call the convention and the overwhelming majority of district and city chapters had not nominated...delegates to the event," he told Belapan. JM

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION YOUTH GROUP ELECTS TWO LEADERS
Youth Front, an unregistered opposition group, elected Syarhey Bakhun and Zmitser Dashkevich as co-chairmen of the organization in Minsk on 16 January, Belapan reported. At its previous convention in May, Youth Front failed to elect a substitute for its former leader, Pavel Sevyarynets, as the gathering split into two groups. A discussion about the organization's strategy and tactics developed into a heated argument between Dashkevich-led advocates of street protests and Bakhun-led proponents of emphasis on international cooperation. The 16 January meeting decided that Bakhun will be responsible for Youth Front's international cooperation, while Dashkevich will take charge of organizing street protests. Meanwhile, Sevyarynets has vowed to work toward establishing a new political party named the Christian Democratic Party. JM

BELARUS POSTS 11 PERCENT GROWTH IN 2004
According to the Ministry of Statistics and Analysis, Belarus's gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 11 percent year-on-year in 2004, Belapan reported on 15 January. Industrial output rose by 15.6 percent and agricultural production by 12.9 percent. JM

UKRAINIAN SUPREME COURT MULLS LOSING PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE'S ELECTION COMPLAINT...
The Supreme Court on 17 January began examining the appeal by presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych against the official results of the 26 December presidential vote awarding victory to his rival, Viktor Yushchenko, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. The first day of the proceedings was devoted to procedural and formal matters. The Supreme Court rejected numerous motions by the Yanukovych side, including challenges against the judges, a request to postpone the hearing, and a motion to transfer the case to another court. By law, the Supreme Court has to make its ruling by 21 January. If it rejects Yanukovych's appeal and rules Yushchenko's victory legitimate, the election results announced by the Central Election Commission last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2005) must be published in official newspapers before Yushchenko can take his oath of office. JM

...AS WINNER'S INAUGURATION EXPECTED THIS WEEK
Parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn told journalists in Kyiv on 17 January that Yushchenko's inauguration as Ukraine's new president could take place on 21 January, Interfax reported. According to Lytvyn, everything connected with the Verkhovna Rada's role in the inauguration ceremony has been done. "We've already had a rehearsal, there won't be any delays," Lytvyn said in an apparent reference to Yushchenko's mock oath of office in parliament on 23 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 November 2004). Meanwhile, lawmaker Mykola Tomenko from Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc said on 17 January that the best day for Yushchenko's inauguration would be 22 January, the Day of Ukraine's Unity. JM

EU NOT TO CHANGE ACTION PLAN FOR UKRAINE
The European Commission is not going to modify its EU-Ukraine Action Plan within the EU's New Neighborhood Policy, "Ukrayinska pravda" reported on 18 January, quoting European Commission spokeswoman Francoise Le Bail. Le Bail was commenting on rumors that such a change might take place following last week's European Parliament vote calling on the EU authorities to give Ukraine "a clear European perspective, possibly leading to EU membership" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2005). Meanwhile, EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson has told Reuters that he wants to deepen trade and economic relations with Ukraine and grant it market-economy status once the country has showed a commitment to reforms. "In the short term, we are going to work fast to finalize agreements to give Ukraine textiles and steel access to the EU market from 2005," Mandelson said. JM

CROATIAN PRESIDENT REELECTED IN LANDSLIDE VOTE...
Croatian President Stipe Mesic won reelection with the backing of several center-left parties in a 16 January runoff poll against Deputy Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor of the governing Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2005). With nearly all the votes counted, Mesic took about 66 percent to Kosor's 34 percent. Announcing his victory, Mesic told reporters that "Croatian democracy has been confirmed," adding that national unity is now essential in pursuit of Croatia's main goals of joining the EU and improving the economy. Kosor called her own showing "respectable" in a race in which the incumbent had always enjoyed double-digit leads in the polls and had been widely expected to win outright in the first round on 2 January. Mesic's first term began in 2000 and ends on 15 February. He is generally credited with ending the authoritarian and nationalistic presidential style of his predecessor, Franjo Tudjman. Although his office is largely symbolic, the president can exercise great influence on foreign, defense, and security policy. Mesic is often considered to have played a central role in Croatia's refusal to send troops for Operation Iraqi Freedom. PM

...AS THE EU AGAIN PUTS CROATIA ON NOTICE ABOUT WAR CRIMES
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barosso, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, and EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told a Croatian delegation led by Prime Minister Sanader in Brussels on 17 January that Zagreb must improve its cooperation with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal and arrest fugitive former General Ante Gotovina, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The EU's current Luxembourg presidency must decide soon if Zagreb is sufficiently cooperating with the tribunal for Croatia's EU ascension talks, which are slated for 17 March, to go ahead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 24 September 2004). The Croatian government hopes to join the Brussels-based bloc by 2009 and denies that Gotovina is in the country. PM

HAGUE-BASED WAR CRIMES TRIBUNAL SENTENCES TWO BOSNIAN SERBS
On 17 January, judges at the Hague-based war crimes tribunal sentenced former Bosnian Serb commander Vidoje Blagojevic to 18 years in prison and his colleague Dragan Jokic to nine years for their respective roles in the July 1995 massacre of up to 8,000 mainly Muslim males at Srebrenica, international and regional media reported. The judges said in a statement that "the horrible crimes committed following the fall of Srebrenica are well known. These crimes were committed with a level of brutality and depravity not previously seen in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and are among the darkest days in modern European history." PM

FIRST INDICTEE VOLUNTARILY GOES FROM THE REPUBLIKA SRPSKA TO THE HAGUE
Bosnian Serb police officials announced in Banja Luka on 15 January that Savo Todorovic, who was a commander at the Foca prison camp from April 1992 to August 1993, recently surrendered to the Republika Srpska authorities voluntarily and is already in The Hague, where he faces 18 separate charges filed by the war crimes tribunal, international and regional media reported. He is the first indictee in the Republika Srpska to go to The Hague voluntarily in cooperation with the Bosnian Serb authorities, who have been criticized repeatedly by High Representative Paddy Ashdown and several officials of the tribunal for not having arrested a single indictee. On 17 January, Republika Srpska Interior Minister Darko Matijasevic said that his ministry is in contact with about "80 percent" of the families of indictees and expects that additional indictees will "soon" follow Todorovic's example (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 November, and 8, 16, and 17 December 2004, and 4 and 7 January 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 September and 22 October 2004). PM

MACEDONIAN PRESIDENT SAYS PROFESSIONAL ARMY TO BE LAUNCHED AHEAD OF SCHEDULE
Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski said after a meeting of the National Security Council on 17 January that the Macedonian Army might become a professional one as early as 2006, and not in 2007 as was originally planned, Makfax news agency reported. Crvenkovski also said the move will not create any security vacuum, "Dnevnik" reported. "On the contrary, [the reform] will promote the efficiency and effectiveness [of the army]," Crvenkovski said. UB

KOSOVA'S UN ADMINISTRATOR LEAVES BELGRADE EMPTY-HANDED...
Soren Jessen-Petersen, who heads the UN's civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), left Belgrade "empty-handed" after talking to Serbian President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, Reuters reported. Jessen-Petersen hoped to obtain information about the fate of 3,000 mainly ethnic Albanian civilians missing since the 1998-99 conflict but found that his hosts wanted to discuss only the lack of electric power in some Serbian enclaves, an issue that Jessen-Petersen called "politicized." The UN official also failed to persuade Kostunica to propose a date for the resumption of a Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue. Jessen-Petersen noted that he will soon propose a date himself. Rivals Tadic and Kostunica are each seeking to exploit the Kosova issue for political advantage (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2004 and 11 January 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 December 2004, and 13 August, 8 October, and 17 December 2004, and 7 January 2005). PM

...AS A SCANDAL UNFOLDS
Serbian Interior Ministry Inspector-General Vladimir Bozovic told Belgrade's private Radio B92 on 16 January that "in two months" he hopes to have results from an investigation into charges by human rights activist Natasa Kandic and the Belgrade NGO Humanitarian Law Center that police officials burned the bodies of hundreds of murdered Kosovar Albanians in Mackatica in May 1999. The NGO noted in a recent document that unnamed officials of the Security Information Agency (BIA) have already begun intimidating and "organizing acts of terror" against witnesses to the alleged burnings, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. PM

NATO COMMANDER SAYS REDEPLOYMENT TO ROMANIAN, BULGARIAN BASES COULD START THIS YEAR
Supreme Allied Commander Europe General James Jones said on 14 January in Casteau, Belgium, that U.S. troops might start moving from Germany to new "flexible" bases in Romania and Bulgaria this year, AP reported. Jones spoke with journalists after his recent visits to the two countries. He said the United States is looking at up to five facilities in each of the two states. Jones said in an interview on 17 January with the Bulgarian daily "Trud" that the first contingent of U.S. troops will be redeployed from Western Europe to Bulgaria this spring, when a large military exercise involving Bulgarian, Romanian, and U.S. troops will be held in Bulgaria, dpa reported. MS

ROMANIA APPROVES SENDING MORE TROOPS TO IRAQ
President Traian Basescu on 17 January approved the deployment of 100 more Romanian troops to Iraq to help protect UN staff during the 30 January elections in that country, Mediafax and Reuters reported. Basescu approved the deployment at the request of the country's Supreme Defense Council, but the government has yet to approve the deployment. A 1,500-strong Romanian military contingent is already serving in that country. MS

ROMANIAN PREMIER VISITS HUNGARY
On his first official visit abroad, Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu agreed with his Hungarian counterpart Ferenc Gyurcsany in Budapest on 17 January that their cabinets are to meet annually to discuss political and environmental problems, Mediafax and international news agencies reported. Popescu-Tariceanu said after the talks that the sides must "leave behind the stage" when relations were "dominated by [ethnic]-minority issues." Gyurcsany said the planned long-stay visas in Hungary would not be granted on ethnicity, but on the basis of "nationality," and any citizen of neighboring countries planning to stay in Hungary for extended periods would be eligible to apply. Popescu-Tariceanu said the uproar created by the screening of a documentary about the 1920 Trianon Treaty was "out of place," as was the initiative of the documentary's authors to screen it in Romania. He and Gyurcsany also agreed that Romania must respect European environmental standards in making a decision about the controversial Rosia-Montana gold- mining project (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 October 2004 and 10 and 11 January 2005). MS

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT ASKS COURT TO NULLIFY MINERS' PARDON
President Basescu and the Romanian government on 14 January asked the Bucharest Court of Appeals to nullify the pardon granted by former President Ion Iliescu to miners' leader Miron Cozma, Mediafax and AP reported. Iliescu revoked the pardon after protests from politicians and civil society representatives and Cozma was reimprisoned. The president's office and the government said the pardon was granted for political reasons and was in breach of the constitution. They also said the pardon violated the rights and freedoms of the victims of the miners' 1990, 1991, and 1999 rampages and undermined justice (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 21 December 2004). The former president described the request as "political harassment." Meanwhile, the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD) said on 14 January that it does not rule out initiating legal proceedings to "suspend" Basescu from office. The PSD said Basescu was behind a decision made last week by Democratic Party members to revoke the election of former Prime Ministers Adrian Nastase and Nicolae Vacaroiu as speakers of the two chambers of parliament. MS

COUNCIL OF EUROPE SECRETARY-GENERAL ENDS MOLDOVA VISIT
Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis on 17 January ended a three-day visit to Moldova, Infotag reported. During the visit, Davis met with President Vladimir Voronin, Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan, and leaders of opposition parties. Davis told journalists in Chisinau that the council will follow closely the 6 March parliamentary elections in Moldova and that it is highly important for Moldova to demonstrate that the ballot is free and democratic. Flux cited Davis as warning against harassment of the opposition by police ahead of the elections. On 16 January, Davis said on Moldovan Television that a "Ukraine-like scenario" need not and should not be replayed in Moldova. He said the situation in Moldova is totally different and, while elections always produce losers who resent their defeat, fair and free elections result in the democratic choice being acknowledged by those who lose. MS

MOLDOVA CURBS FOREIGN VISITS TO SEPARATIST REGION
In a note sent to foreign embassies in Chisinau, the Moldovan Foreign Ministry announced on 14 January that diplomats and representatives of foreign organizations in Moldova will have to receive permission from the ministry in order to visit the separatist Transdniester region in the future, Infotag reported. The ministry said the move was due to the "destabilizing actions" of the Tiraspol leadership. The pro-Russian Patria-Rodina opposition block described the measure as aimed at undermining Russia's role as a mediator in the conflict. MS

THREE CHALLENGES FOR THE CRIMEAN TATARS
The Crimean Tatars overwhelmingly backed the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine, but in the wake of that victory, they face three challenges to their national aspirations: first, the probability of increased Russian meddling on the peninsula, second, the likelihood of growing Islamic fundamentalism there, and third, the possibility of declining support by Western governments that now have a government in Kyiv they like.

The Crimean Tatars face increased Russian meddling in Crimea, some of it by the local Russian community but much of it clearly orchestrated by Moscow. Ethnic Russians -- who constitute the majority of the peninsula's population -- voted overwhelmingly against Viktor Yushchenko.

Some of the more extreme ethnic Russian opponents of the Orange Revolution there organized themselves as Cossack detachments to defend against what they said were Crimean Tatar threats, according to religare.ru, and others urged a vote to put Crimea under Russian control, mignews.com reported.

Even though the Ukrainian presidential election is now over and tempers may have cooled somewhat, Moscow's interests in maintaining its naval base there and in continuing to use Crimea as a counterweight to Kyiv make it likely that Russia will attempt to exacerbate problems there, a development that is likely to hurt rather than help the Crimean Tatars.

One reason for that conclusion involves the second challenge the Crimean Tatars now face, the growth of Islamic fundamentalism there and the ways in which the Russian authorities are seeking to exploit it through their media coverage of this trend.

The Crimean Tatars historically practice a very moderate form of Islam, but in the 1990s both domestic and foreign factors played a role in the appearance there of Wahhabism, and more recently followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir (See the abstract of the paper by Ernst Koudousov, "Wahhabism In The Crimea" at http://www.isorecea.org/abstracts.php and an article by Ya. Amelina at http://www.olmer2.newmail.ru/45_19.htm). Extreme poverty and a sense of hopelessness among many Crimean Tatars have contributed to the growing popularity of radical Islam, but so too have the activities of Muslim missionaries from the Arab world and Central Asia and of both the Russian and the Ukrainian governments, who at various points have shown themselves interested in splitting the Crimean Tatar national movement.

The number of Crimean Tatars involved in these two movements nonetheless remains very small -- no more than 300 Wahhabis and far fewer adepts of Hizb ut-Tahrir are to be found in Crimea -- and most of their leaders currently appear more interested in religious questions than in political action.

But their very existence, the intensive coverage they have received, and the possibility that these groups could threaten or somehow be used to threaten the Crimean Tatar movement have combined to prompt the Crimean Tatar leadership to distance itself from these groups and seek to limit their activities.

Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatars, has repeatedly said that his people have been grateful for almost any outside help they could get, but that they have discovered that some of it from the Middle East either came with strings attached or threatened to divide his people and therefore had to be rejected.

As a result, up to now, the impact of fundamentalist Islam in Crimea has been extremely limited, but Russian authors are increasingly playing up this threat both to frighten Kyiv and the West and possibly to justify continuing Russian involvement there.

One article in the Russian-language "Novyi Region-Krym" suggested that Crimea is following "the Kosovo scenario," a reference seconded by "Spetsnaz Rossii" and one more likely to have an impact on Western audiences than on a Ukrainian one.

And another article suggested by indirection how many in Moscow view the Crimean Tatar movement (http://www.edinenie.kiev.ua/Actual19/za/mina.htm). It warned that the new government in Kyiv should beware of trying to use the Crimean Tatars as a counterweight to Russian influence on the peninsula lest it embed a threat to its own existence.

There is also a third challenge confronting the Crimean Tatar movement, one with a precedent in this part of the world but not one that the Crimean Tatars have had to deal with before -- the possibility that Western governments will be less inclined to support the Crimean Tatars -- and may even actively oppose them -- now that there is a pro-Western government in Kyiv.

"Now that the West considers Yushchenko to be the champion of Ukrainian reform," Nadir Bekir, a member of the Crimean Tatar assembly, asked a European election monitor rhetorically (http://www.cafebabel.com/en/printversion.asp?T=T&ID=2969), "who will listen should he carry on the same policy of discrimination toward the Tatars?"

Indeed, Bekir suggested, many Western governments may now say to the Crimean Tatars something akin to what they said to the Ukrainians in Mikhail Gorbachev's time: "At least it's Yushchenko that you have now!" And the West will likely do so, he said, even if the new Ukrainian government does little or nothing to help the Crimean Tatars.

Should any such shift in policy happen -- and reports about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Crimea could certainly be used to justify it -- that by itself might lead to a further growth in Islamic fundamentalism there. And that, in turn, could of course make the Crimea a new international flashpoint, a development that would threaten everyone involved.

(Paul Goble, former publisher of "RFE/RL Newsline" and a longtime Soviet nationalities expert with the U.S. government, is currently a research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia.)

U.S. RELEASES TALIBAN PRISONERS...
Eighty-one suspected Taliban members held captive at the U.S. military base in Bagram were handed over to Afghan authorities on 16 January, Radio Afghanistan reported. Afghan Supreme Court Chief Justice Mawlawi Fazl Hadi Shinwari said that the release of the prisoners was part of the process to bring peace and stability to the country. In a separate report on 16 January, Radio Afghanistan added that President Hamid Karzai has expressed his satisfaction with the release of prisoners. Shinwari said that the prisoners will be provided with clothing and then will be sent home, Reuters reported on 16 January. U.S. authorities have promised to release more Afghan prisoners suspected of belonging to the ousted Taliban regime. Abdul Latif Hakimi, a neo-Taliban spokesman, told Reuters that the United States should release all Afghan prisoners held inside or outside of Afghanistan, who he claimed are "innocent people...[and] are not Taliban." The latest prisoner release is likely linked to the recent efforts of the Karzai government, backed by the United States, to promote reconciliation with most of the former Taliban members (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 3 July 2003 and 25 April, 25 October, 8 November, 8 and 17 December 2004). AT

...WHO COMPLAIN OF ABUSES DURING THEIR CAPTIVITY
Some of the 81 Afghan prisoners released from U.S. captivity on 16 January have complained of being abused while in custody, international news agencies reported. A 19-year-old prisoner named Shah Halim, who claimed that he was arrested "on the basis of wrong information," said that his captors poured water over him and beat him, Reuters reported on 16 January. Abdul Manan, 35, said that during the "interrogation" his captors were "torturing" him, but after "the interrogation period was over, everything was all right." Mohammad Osman said that he was first detained in a U.S. detention center in eastern Konar Province and was later moved to Bagram, north of Kabul, Pajhwak News Agency reported on 16 January. "In Konar, they forced us to stand in water or in the winter to stand in the rain and they beat us, but in Bagram they didn't beat us and they gave us loaves of bread," he added. Chief Justice Shinwari warned the released prisoners not to talk about their experiences while in detention, Reuters reported. AT

NEO-TALIBAN SPOKESMAN DENIES HOLDING DISCUSSIONS WITH KABUL
Mofti Latifollah Hakimi, in a 16 January telephone interview, denied the neo-Taliban have held negotiations with the Afghan government through Paktiya Province Governor Hajji Asadollah Wafa, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. According to Hakimi, the neo-Taliban "central council" held a meeting recently and decided against any negotiations with Karzai's government or the United States. The council instead issued an order to continue the "jihad" until the last U.S. soldier leaves Afghanistan, Hakimi added. Wafa traveled to Kabul with a delegation of tribal representatives from Paktiya to act as a mediator between Kabul and the neo-Taliban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2005). Commenting on Wafa's claims, Hakimi told AIP that he is "sure all these things are lies, and now the [Afghan] government wants to exploit tribal leaders." Hakimi added that former leader of the Taliban regime, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is still in charge of the insurgent Taliban, but the meetings of the council are mostly chaired by Mullah Obaidollah and Mullah Bradar. AT

SEVERAL AFGHAN MINISTERS RENOUNCE THEIR DUAL CITIZENSHIP
During a 17 January cabinet meeting, several members of Afghanistan's new cabinet renounced their dual citizenship in line with the constitutional requirement that ministers should only have Afghan citizenship, Afghanistan Television reported. President Karzai praised those members of his cabinet who renounced their foreign citizenships, adding that these individuals "who had immigrated to foreign countries because of the difficult conditions in the country...were at the service of Afghanistan." The ministers in question include Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, Information and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin, and Mines and Industries Minister Mohammad Sediq, who all hold U.S. citizenship; Economy Minister Mohammad Amin Frahang, Public Works Minister Sohrab Ali Safari, and Refugees Affairs Minister Azam Sadfar, who all hold German citizenship; and Communications Minister Amirzai Sangin, who holds Swedish citizenship. A number of other Afghan cabinet ministers also hold citizenships of other countries and it is not known from the report whether they had renounced their dual citizenships earlier or will do so at a later date. AT

IRAN DENIES FORCIBLY REPATRIATING AFGHANS
Deputy Interior Minister and Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs chief Ahmad Husseini on 17 January dismissed accusations that Iran is forcibly repatriating Afghan refugees, IRNA reported. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers said in Kabul on 15 January, "We think that the Iranian authorities have gone too far...we are not going to be instrumental in forced repatriation," AFP reported. If the forced repatriations continue, Lubbers said, the UNHCR will not renew its agreement with Iran and Afghanistan. Husseini said the UNHCR does not have the right to interfere in Iranian affairs, and he added that the UNHCR has not provided any funding "since last summer." He said that the repatriation of Afghan refugees has been suspended for three months because of the cold weather. Husseini said that since April 2002, 1.3 million Afghans have gone home. Also on 17 January, Yazd Province Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs chief Mohammad Kazem Sadeqi said 31,600 Afghan refugees have left the province since April 2002, IRNA reported. Another 27,000 Afghans still live there and are expected to go back to Afghanistan in the coming year, he said. BS

NOBEL PRIZE WINNER CRITICIZES IRAN'S USE OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
Shirin Ebadi, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, said on 17 January that solitary confinement should be banned and it is a form of "white torture" presumably meaning psychological torture, Radio Farda reported. Present at the press conference were national-religious activist Ezzatollah Sahabi, student leader Ali Afshari, and online journalist Hanif Mazrui, all of whom have been subjected to solitary confinement. Ebadi told Radio Farda that judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi should enforce his earlier ban on this practice. "Isn't it time we take a look at our prison system?" Ebadi asked. Judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimirad said on 17 January that solitary confinement does not occur in Iran, although it exists in other countries, ISNA reported. Karimirad said people are sometimes confined separately at the beginning of an investigation but only for "a limited time" and on a judge's orders. Solitary cells existed until Hashemi-Shahrudi ordered they be dismantled, Karimirad said, and the cells were "transformed into spacious suites with special facilities in case it was necessary for a person to spend a short time apart from other prisoners." BS

COURT SUMMONS FOR NOBEL PRIZE WINNER WAS A 'MISTAKE'
Tehran Province Justice Department official Hojatoleslam Abbasali Alizadeh said on 17 January that a court summons was issued to Ebadi accidentally, IRNA reported. The Revolutionary Court summoned Ebadi after a private complaint, but private complaints are not in the Revolutionary Court's jurisdiction. Alizadeh predicted that the judge would rescind the summons. BS

SYNTHETIC DRUGS SEIZED IN NORTHEAST IRAN
Mohammad Hadi Mokhber, a police officer in Torbat-i Jam, Khorasan Province, on 16 January announced the seizure of 5.1 kilograms of a synthetic drug called "crystal," IRNA reported. Mokhber said this substance is highly addictive. It is not clear if he is referring to crystal methamphetamine or to another substance. Police in Isfahan reported the increasing popularity of "crystal," IRNA reported on 21 November. "This narcotic is imported from Japan and its users are mainly well-to-do people," an unnamed police spokesman said. BS

PENTAGON DENIES OPERATING IN IRAN
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita on 17 January denied a report in "The New Yorker" that U.S. special-operations personnel are carrying out missions in Iran, Reuters reported. Seymour Hersh's "The Coming Wars," which appeared the previous day, asserts: "The Administration has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran at least since last summer. Much of the focus is on the accumulation of intelligence and targeting information on Iranian nuclear, chemical, and missile sites, both declared and suspected. The goal is to identify and isolate three dozen, and perhaps more, such targets that could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raids." Hersh also wrote: "The Pentagon's contingency plans for a broader invasion of Iran are also being updated." DiRita said that Iran's nuclear ambitions and terrorist activities should be treated more seriously than Hersh did. The article, DiRita said, was "so riddled with errors of fundamental fact that the credibility of his entire piece is destroyed." BS

IRAQI ARCHBISHOP KIDNAPPED IN MOSUL, THEN RELEASED
Militants kidnapped and later released Assyrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul Basile Georges Casmoussa at gunpoint outside his church in the northern Iraqi city on 17 January, international media reported. In Rome, chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls condemned the attack, saying: "The Holy See deplores this act of terrorism in the firmest manner and demands that the worthy pastor is swiftly freed unharmed to continue to carry out his ministry," Reuters reported. The news agency reported on 18 January that the hostage takers had demanded a $200,000 ransom for the archbishop's release; he was later released without any ransom being paid, according to the Misna Italian missionary agency. The details of Casmoussa's release are not yet clear. Iraq's Christian community in Mosul has been under attack for several months. The media has widely reported the routine kidnapping of Christian women and men. Many Christians reportedly began fleeing Iraq last year after militants targeted their communities and churches in a string of attacks (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 10 December 2004). KR

IRAQI BORDERS WILL BE CLOSED DURING ELECTION PERIOD
The Iraqi Independent Election Commission announced on 18 January that the country's international borders will be closed from 29 January until 31 January except for Muslims returning from the hajj in Saudi Arabia, AP reported. A nighttime curfew will also be in effect during that period, and Iraqis will be barred from traveling between provinces. Commission spokesman Farid Ayar answered citizens' questions about the election on a program aired on Al-Sharqiyah television on 15 January, saying that the vote count will take place in each governorate and the results sent to Baghdad. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters on 17 January that the world body has done "everything that we need to do" to make elections happen, UN News Center reported (http://www.un.org/news). He added that he told Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to do everything in his power to encourage Iraqis to go to the polls on 30 January. KR

CAR BOMB DETONATES OUTSIDE SCIRI HEADQUARTERS IN IRAQ
A suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle outside the Baghdad headquarters of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) on 18 January, international media reported. The bomber and three SCIRI security guards were killed in the attack and eight others wounded, Al-Jazeera reported. The satellite channel reported that the intended target of the attack was the office of interim Finance Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi, who is also a SCIRI member. KR

VOTER REGISTRATION BEGINS FOR IRAQI EXPATRIATES
Voter registration for expatriate Iraqis began on 17 January in 14 countries around the world, according to the International Organization for Migration's (IOM) "Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program" website (http://www.iraqocv.org). AP reported on 17 January that some Iraqis in Australia traveled for hundreds of kilometers to reach the nearest polling centers in Sydney and Melbourne. An estimated 80,000 Iraqis living in Australia are thought to be eligible to vote; election officials hope at least 50,000 will take part in the election, but turnout has reportedly been slow in the opening hours of registration. Another 80,000 Iraqis from Scandanavia are expected to register at polling centers in Sweden in the coming days. AP reported. About 45,000 Iraqis are eligible to vote in the Netherlands where polling stations are open in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Zwolle, dpa reported on 17 January. Expatriate voting will be held over a three-day period, from 28 to 30 January in the following countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Iran, Jordan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Detailed information about registration and voting procedures is available on the IOM website. KR

UN TO HELP IRAQ ESTABLISH NATIONAL CENTER FOR MISSING PERSONS
United Nations Special Representative Ashraf Qazi announced on 17 January that the UN human rights office has decided to support Iraqi efforts to establish a National Center for Missing and Disappeared Persons to help establish the fate of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who disappeared under the Hussein regime, the UN News Center (http://www.un.org/news) reported. "Such is the situation of missing persons and mass graves in Iraq, that the extent of the problem is still unknown," Qazi said in Jordan, calling the proliferation of mass graves in Iraq "an open sore" that affects not only Iraqis but the international community as well. "We need to focus on the past in order to solve outstanding cases, to acknowledge the pain of the families of the disappeared, of survivors," he said. KR

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