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Newsline - May 16, 2005

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov expressed a shared concern on 14 May about the possible regional fallout of the current instability in eastern Uzbekistan and especially Andijon (see Uzbek items below), NTV reported, citing the Russian presidential press service. The two leaders spoke by telephone, and Karimov reportedly discussed the measures his government is taking to restore order, NTV reported. They agreed to consult with each other as the situation develops. Vladimir Zakharov, deputy head of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- which comprises Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- said in Shanghai on 14 May that the organization is "carefully monitoring the situation," RTR reported. Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov (Unified Russia) said the same day that the Russian lower house is deeply concerned over developments in Uzbekistan and hopes the country's leadership in Tashkent "gains control of the situation," RTR reported. He suggested that the situation lies within the purview of criminal justice, adding, "We hope the organizers of the unrest are punished." VY

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Vienna on 15 May that while his information about the Uzbek unrest is incomplete, it is "undeniable" that "outside extremist forces" from Afghanistan, including the neo-Taliban, are involved, ITAR-TASS reported. Lavrov urged a "most careful investigation to determine who organized this group of people and instructed them to create such a situation in Uzbekistan," the news agency reported. Lavrov also said he supports the use of force to suppress the protests: "No state can tolerate the tearing down of the national flag, the seizure of weapons, and the occupation of government offices. Any self-respecting state should disrupt such attempts and provide for the country's security." He added that Moscow has no plans to intervene in any way in Uzbekistan. VY

Judge Irina Kolesnikova of Moscow's Meshchanskii Raion Court on 16 May began reading the verdict in the case of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii, Menatep Chairman Platon Lebedev, and Volna General Director Andrei Krainov, pronouncing the defendants guilty on four charges of embezzlement and tax evasion stemming from the 1998 privatization of a 20 percent stake in the Apatit fertilizer plant, Russian and international media reported. The reading of the complete verdict in the 22-month trial is expected to take two days or longer, and Kolesnikova declared a recess in the hearing until 17 May after reading the court's findings for about three hours. During the reading, Kolesnikova repeatedly referred to a "criminal group" headed by Khodorkovskii, leading defense lawyers and human rights activists to speculate that she will sentence the defendants to 10 years' imprisonment each, as prosecutors requested during the trial. The court has yet to announce its verdict on three remaining charges, after which sentencing will be scheduled. RC

The chief spokeswoman for the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office, Nataliya Veshnyakova, said on 13 May that her office is preparing new indictments against former Yukos CEO Khodorkovskii, Russian media reported. Both Khodorkovskii and Menatep Chairman Platon Lebedev will be accused of laundering "several billion dollars" and might be indicted for the "illegal diversion of Yukos assets [to] the accounts of charity organizations in the provinces," Veshnyakova said. Khodorkovskii lawyer Anton Drel said his client believes the new charges are necessary to keep him in jail in the event that he is acquitted in the fraud and tax-evasion trial. Meanwhile, the Moscow Arbitration Court ruled in favor of former Yukos subsidiary Yuganskneftegaz, which was acquired by state-owned Rosneft in a state-mandated auction and is seeking some 62 billion rubles ($2.7 billion) in debt from its former parent company. VY

Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin announced on 13 May that Moscow has agreed with the so-called Paris Club of debtors on an accelerated schedule to repay some $15 billion in debt owed to members of that grouping, RBK and other Russian media reported. The figure represents roughly one-third of Russia's outstanding debt to Paris Club members. Kudrin said the move will save his country as much as $6 billion in interest and is the largest early repayment in the Paris Club's history. He added that Russia hopes to make similar payments in the future. "Komsomolskaya pravda" of 13 May noted that Russia's foreign debt will still amount to about $80 billion, even after this deal. VY

Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov said in Moscow on 13 May that leftists and national-patriotic parties are united in three major areas: the organization of joint protests against government policies; pushing for a national referendum to challenge the Kremlin's current course; and the creation of a "government of national interests," reported. Zyuganov said the political opposition now has a "general democratic character" in the forces of the national-patriots, leftists, democrats, and "nationally oriented business," reported. Speaking at the same news conference, Motherland leader Dmitrii Rogozin said his party's struggle for power can be characterized as "national liberation." Rogozin added that Russia's current political system could be described as an "early stage of dictatorship or a kind of authoritarianism." VY

More than 50,000 people participated in a Moscow rally to honor World War II veterans on 15 May that was organized by the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, Russian media reported. "We will take the baton in the battle for the independence of our motherland," Nashi leader Vasilii Yakemenko told the approximately 1,000 veterans who attended the rally. "We will never hand our country over to anyone." Yakemenko added that "our generation will fight for Russia's independence in classrooms, factories, and offices, in business and the economy," RBK-TV reported. State-owned RTR reported that Nashi activists traveled from 30 regions of Russia to participate in the rally. Interfax reported on 14 May that Mikhail Obozov, the head of the anti-Putin youth group Walking Without Putin, was detained at a Nashi rally in St. Petersburg for setting fire to a Nashi T-shirt and shouting anti-Nashi slogans. He faces unspecified administrative sanctions, according to the news agency. RC

A few dozen protesters held an unsanctioned rally in downtown Moscow on 14 May to protest the government's inaction in coping with the AIDS crisis, REN-TV reported. Some demonstrators handcuffed themselves to the building of the Health and Social Development Ministry, and about 20 were detained by police. RC

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov last week signed an order on the privatization of state-controlled printing facilities, "Vedomosti" reported on 16 May. Under the order, the Culture and Mass Communications Ministry, Rospechat, and the Economic Development Ministry have three months to prepare a list of enterprises to be privatized. According to the daily, many media-sector analysts believe that many of the enterprises will be closed after privatization as many of them -- particularly those in Moscow and St. Petersburg's Lenizdat -- are more valuable for the land they occupy than as businesses. Many provincial printing houses, weighed down with years of debts and with clienteles of small newspapers unable to pay market rates, will have a difficult time attracting any interest from investors. According to the daily, state-owned printing companies produce just 8 percent of the books printed in Russia each year, although in many cities they are the main or sole newspaper-printing facilities. RC

The Federal Print and Mass Communications Agency on 12 May released a report on the state of the periodical-press market in Russia, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 13 May. According to the report, the sector is one of the "most promising" in the Russian economy and has been developing steadily in recent years. According to the daily, this growth has been facilitated by liberal media laws, the rapid growth of the advertising market, and increased domestic and foreign investment. "The mass-media market is a complex one," agency Director Mikhail Seslavinskii said. "It has not yet taken shape as a transparent market, but it is developing successfully and dynamically." According to the report, there are 46,000 registered periodicals in Russia, although only about half of them appear regularly. Overall readership of periodicals continues to decline, "even for the best-known newspapers and magazines." More than 8.5 billion newspapers were printed in Russia in 2004, while the total print run for magazines was about 600 million. RC

Rafael Akopov, head of Prof-Media, the publishing arm of oligarch Vladimir Potanin's Interros, was quoted in the report as saying that "the newspaper market in Russia is highly deformed and does not have the prerequisites for market development," "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 13 May. Akopov said that up to 90 percent of all Russian newspapers are subsidized by state organs or private investors. In Moscow alone, he said, there are about 130 free newspapers, most of them subsidized by raion-level government structures. The state-owned daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" editorialized that the World Newspaper Congress to be held in Moscow next month "is a real boost to Russia's image in the area of freedom of the press and obvious recognition of the fact that our country has joined the ranks of countries with solid traditions of a democratic press." RC

Just days after Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev told the State Duma that unspecified foreign intelligence services are using "nontraditional" methods including the financing of nongovernmental organizations to foment unrest in CIS countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2005), NTV on 15 May aired a documentary about the imperial German government's support of Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik party and its role in the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Historian Iosif Linder, who hosted the documentary, said that Lenin and the German General Staff "had common interests and worked together, although Lenin was not a spy in the traditional sense." He said the Bolsheviks received about 37 million prerevolutionary Russian rubles from the German government. RC

Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov does not believe the next mayor should be directly elected, "Vremya novostei" reported on 16 May. In April, Yabloko submitted to the City Duma a resolution calling for the restoration of the direct election of the heads of Moscow and St. Petersburg, which, as federation subjects, now have their executive-branch heads appointed by the president and confirmed by the local legislatures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 May 2005). "Candidates for the post of mayor of Moscow, like those to head other subjects of the federation, must be proposed by the president of Russia and confirmed by the local legislature," Luzhkov was quoted as saying. "I supported and still support the president in this decision." The daily reported that the city legislature had been scheduled to discuss the Yabloko resolution on 18 May but that the measure has been withdrawn "for technical reasons." RC

Russians are marrying less often and getting fewer divorces, "Vremya novostei" reported on 16 May, citing the Federal Statistics Agency. Last year, 630,000 marriages were registered in Russia, compared to 800,000 in 2003 and 850,000 in 2002. Last year, 979,700 divorces were granted, compared to 1.09 million in 2003. The daily reported that the number of children born out of wedlock continues to increase, now accounting for some 30 percent of all births. On average, Russian women have 1.3 children. RC

The Penza Oblast legislature on 14 May confirmed oblast Governor Vasilii Bochkarev for a third term, ITAR-TASS reported. His inauguration is scheduled for 26 May. RC

In a 13 May press release (, the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya (ACPC), which is co-chaired by former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, has called on slain Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's designated successor Abdul-Khalim Sadullaev to continue Maskhadov's "constructive" policy of seeking to end the war with Russia through peace talks. The press release further calls on Western leaders and organizations, including the Council of Europe, to express their commitment to reaching a lasting peace in Chechnya. Sadullaev, however, in a statement posted on 15 May on, pointed out that Moscow responded to Maskhadov's most recent peace initiative by killing him. For that reason, Sadullaev continued, until Europe responds seriously to Maskhadov's proposals for resolving the conflict peacefully, the Chechen resistance will continue its strategy of trying to force Russia to sign a peace agreement. At the same time, Sadullaev reaffirmed his readiness for political dialogue with Moscow. He further called attention to what he termed the Kremlin's "terrorist activity" with regard to Georgia and affirmed Chechens' "complete support for the fraternal Georgian people in their battle" against Russia's terrorist activities and imperial ambitions. Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov dismissed the ACPC initiative on 14 May as a futile attempt to bestow legitimacy on Sadullaev, Interfax reported. LF

Police and security forces surrounded an apartment building in Cherkesk, the capital of the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, on 14 May where a group of six suspected Chechen militants, two of them women, had taken refuge, reported. The troops stormed the building later on 14 May after failing to persuade the militants to surrender. All six militants died in the attack; local police tentatively identified them as members of an armed formation subordinate to Achimez Gochiaev, who is wanted for his imputed role in several Moscow apartment building bombings in the late summer of 1999. LF

Maskhadov's running mate in the January 1997 Chechen presidential election, Vakha Arsanov, has been tentatively identified as one of four gunmen killed in a special operation in Grozny during the night of 14-15 May, ITAR-TASS reported. Reports of Arsanov's capture in January were never definitively confirmed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 January and 15 February 2005). LF

Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev met in Warsaw on 15 May on the sidelines of a Council of Europe summit to discuss approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict, Turan and ITAR-TASS reported on 16 May. The two presidents met for a total of three hours, at first with the French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group and then one-on-one. Aliyev told journalists after the meeting that the two sides have a mutual agreement not to divulge details of the talks, and that "Azerbaijani's position remains unchanged." LF

The Armenian military released on 13 May an Azerbaijani serviceman who entered Armenian territory after leaving his unit in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. On 11 May, Azerbaijan handed over to Armenia one civilian and one servicemen who had separately unintentionally crossed into Azerbaijani territory and been apprehended, Noyan Tapan reported on 12 May. LF

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Vyacheslav Seidov condemned on 12 May as "inappropriate" and "blackmail" Georgian parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze's statement earlier that day that the legislature will pressure the Georgian government to act on the parliament's March resolution calling for declaring illegal Russia's two remaining military bases in Georgia if an agreement is not reached by mid-May on closing them by 1 January, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2005). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov similarly affirmed on 12 May that Russia will not cave in to Georgian "blackmail." On 13 May, the Russian State Duma passed by a vote of 412 in favor with two abstentions a statement addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin urging him to break off diplomatic relations with Georgia if Tbilisi unilaterally imposes the threatened restrictions on the functioning of the Russian bases, Russian media reported. That statement argued that Russia has the right to take "even tougher measures" to protect the lives of its citizens and to ensure the security of its military bases. Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin similarly warned on 14 May that Russia might respond to the Georgian "ultimatum" with unspecified "tough measures," ITAR-TASS reported. LF

Georgian presidential spokesman Gela Charkviaini told the independent television station Rustavi-2 on 14 May that the Georgian authorities will not impose immediately the restrictions on the Russian bases in Georgia called for in the parliament's March resolution, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported. He said a moratorium on doing so is needed to allow negotiations with Moscow on the time frame for the closure of the bases to continue but added that an agreement must be reached "within a reasonable, normal period of time." LF

Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili told journalists in Tbilisi on 13 May that the Georgian side has received from Moscow a new amended proposal, which she described as "interesting," for resolving the impasse over the timetable for closing the Russian bases, Caucasus Press and Russian agencies reported. In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said the amended proposal takes into account agreements reached during talks in Moscow on 6 May between Zourabichvili and her Russian counterpart Lavrov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May 2005). On 15 May, Georgian Minister for European Integration Giorgi Baramidze said the new proposals are not totally acceptable for Georgia but are an improvement on Russia's earlier conditions, ITAR-TASS reported. On 16 May, Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili similarly said Tbilisi does not want to exacerbate relations with Russia and is hoping to reach a negotiated agreement on the timetable for the Russian withdrawal. Tbilisi wants the Russian bases closed by 1 January 2008, while Russian Defense Ministry officials say the process will take a minimum of four years to complete. LF

The various Georgian parliamentary committees began on 12 May discussing the proposed allocation of additional budget revenues, Caucasus Press reported. The Defense Ministry is slated to receive an additional 44.6 million laris ($24.5 million), while 20 million laris is to be spent on repairing damage inflicted by last month's widespread flooding (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 April 2005). The parliamentary Human Rights Committee endorsed the planned increases on 12 May, and a joint session of the Defense and Security, Ecology and Regional Economy Committees did likewise the following day. But the Legal Affairs and Agrarian Committees rejected the proposal on 13 May, calling for a more detailed breakdown of planned additional spending, Caucasus Press reported. Deputy Koba Guntsadze (New Conservatives) alleged on 12 May that Defense Minister Okruashvili is accountable to no one for expenditures within his ministry, according to "Rezonansi" on 13 May as cited by Caucasus Press. The Defense Ministry's budget for 2005 was set at 119 million laris last October, a sum that then Defense Minister Baramidze rejected as inadequate. LF

Senior Georgian and Abkhaz government officials met on 12 May in Gali for talks under UN auspices on security in the conflict zone along the River Inguri, which forms the internal border between the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported. The two sides agreed to set up a joint monitoring group to assess the situation in Gali, to provide each other with sample police identification documents and to inform the UN Observer Mission and the CIS peacekeeping force regularly on how many of their police are in the area. The Abkhaz rejected a proposal to launch joint patrols, and agreed to the creation of a UN Human Rights office in Gali only on condition that its opening be postponed for an undetermined period. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava was quoted on 13 May by the daily "24 saati" as saying that the Abkhaz will not agree to any proposals without first consulting with Moscow, and such tactics preclude making any progress toward resolving the conflict. LF

South Ossetian police detained two OSCE observers in the conflict zone on 12 May and held them for questioning for several hours before releasing them, Caucasus Press reported. According to a statement released two days later by the Foreign Ministry of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, the two observers were traveling without an escort, had not informed the Joint Peacekeeping Force of their planned itinerary, and were shooting video footage of the conflict zone. OSCE Chairman in Office Dmitrij Rupel expressed "deep concern" on 12 May at what he termed a "serious violation of existing agreements." Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Khaindrava likewsie condemned the incident on 13 May as outrageous, Caucasus Press reported. LF

In an interview published on 12 May in the "Georgian Tmes" and summarized by Interfax and Caucasus Press, former Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze claimed that "authoritarian" policies espoused by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili will plunge Georgia into destitution and disaster. Abashidze has lived in Moscow since he was forced to step down one year ago following a wave of popular protest encouraged by the Georgian leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 6 May 2004). LF

The lower house of the Kazakh parliament voted on 12 May to adopt stricter antiterror legislation, ITAR-TASS reported. The legislation, a set of amendments to 11 existing national security laws, imposes heavier penalties for "extremist and terrorist activities," including "terrorist financing," and introduces more restrictive measures governing the activities and formal registration of religious organizations and political parties. One of the most significant amendments criminalizes the financing of political parties by foreign nationals. The move follows the adoption in February of a set of laws aimed at countering "extremism." RG

Kyrgyz presidential representative Almanbet Matubraimov said on 15 May that several hundred Uzbek refugees remain on the Uzbek side of the border with Kyrgyzstan in an effort to enter the country, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and the Khabar news agency reported. Kyrgyz Border Service Commander Myrzakan Subanov said Kyrgyz border guards have begun processing the several hundred Uzbeks who have already crossed the border amid the unrest there (see items below), ITAR-TASS reported. Although the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border was closed on 13 May, it was reopened on 15 May once a sufficient number of border guards was deployed to police the Kyrgyz border crossing points. Kyrgyz officials have also established a temporary camp to house the Uzbeks and have provided medical assistance to many, including four Uzbeks who arrived in the region with gunshot wounds. RG

Some six hundred Uzbek refugees entered Kyrgyzstan on 14 May seeking refuge from the violence in Uzbekistan, ITAR-TASS reported. Representatives of international organizations including the Red Cross, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the OSCE arrived in Kyrgyzstan's Jalal-Abad region on 15 May to help manage the sudden influx of Uzbeks and to provide immediate humanitarian aid, including food and medicine, Interfax reported. RG

Acting Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev claimed on 14 May that "Islamic forces" are responsible for the violence in neighboring Uzbekistan, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Bakiev accused "the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb ut-Tahrir" of responsibility for events in Andijon (see items below). RG

Acting Kyrgyz President and Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev announced on 14 May that he will run in the forthcoming presidential election, Akipress and ITAR-TASS reported. Bakiev said his decision followed an agreement with Feliks Kulov, who recently withdrew his prospective candidacy under the Ar-Namys (Dignity) party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 May 2005). According to the terms of the purported agreement, Kulov pledged not to oppose Bakiev for the presidency in return for assuming the post of prime minister in a future Bakiev government for the sake of "stability," Kabar news agency reported. Kulov, a popular political figure who was widely seen as a leading contender for the presidency, was released from jail during the March 2005 upheaval that resulted in the overthrow of former President Askar Akaev. A total of 16 presidential candidates have been registered by the Central Election Commission, although all candidates must meet the constitutional requirement of proficiency in the Kyrgyz language and be subject to an official examination by the Commission of the State Language, Kyrgyzinfo reported. RG

The leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Rahmatullo Zoirov, said on 14 May that while developments in neighboring Uzbekistan represent a "chain reaction" originating in Kyrgyzstan, the situation in Uzbekistan is significantly different and will have no real effect on Tajikistan, the Avesta website ( Zoirov added that unlike in the south Kyrgyz city of Osh, the recent unrest in Uzbekistan is "of a family nature." "There were a number of currents in Osh [where the Kyrgyz protests gained momentum], including Islamic and secular factors," Zoirov said. RG

An unnamed Russian Border Guard official announced on 12 May that Tajik guards would assume control on 16 May of a second 96-kilometer segment of the strategic 232-kilometer section of the Afghan-Tajik border, Asia-Plus reported. The Tajik guards are receiving $25 million in assistance from the international community to bolster counternarcotics enforcement along the border. The transfer of border security began in April as part of a bilateral agreement reached during the October 2004 visit to Tajikistan by Russian President Vladimir Putin. RG

U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Richard Hoagland commented on 12 May on the course of bilateral relations in a meeting with the Tajik Academy of Sciences in Dushanbe, Asia-Plus reported. Hoagland cited progress in economic reform, including improvements in transparency, farm debt relief, and anticorruption efforts. He added that the United States is conducting a $400,000 feasibility study of the Tajik hydroelectric sector and seeks to foster regional trade through the construction of a new bridge spanning the Panj River to link Tajikistan with Afghanistan. The $30 million bridge project should link Dushanbe with Kabul and provide Tajikistan with greater access to Pakistani ports. Hoagland also confirmed that a new U.S. Embassy will be opened in Dushanbe by the end of 2005. RG

Citing eyewitness accounts, news agencies reported on 14-16 May that hundreds were killed in Andijon after government forces opened fire on protestors there on 13 May. Gulbahor Turaeva, who heads a doctors' and patients' rights organization, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on 15 May that she saw more than 500 dead bodies at School 15 in Andijon. Eyewitnesses told Reuters the same day that they saw "hundreds of bodies" at School 15. "They shot at us like rabbits," a teenager told the news agency. A doctor in Andijon told AP that 500 bodies were laid out in the school, with relatives arriving to identify them. The doctor put the number of wounded on 13 May at 2,000. Andijon-based human rights activists Muzaffarmirzo Ikhokov and Saidjahon Zaynobiddinov told that they saw many bodies loaded onto trucks and removed from the city center after the violence on 13 May. "Kommersant-Daily" correspondent Mikhail Zygar reported on 16 May that he saw 50 bodies in the city center on 15 May, numerous cars transporting other bodies, and heavily armed police throughout the city. Several eyewitnesses told him that the death toll exceeded 1,000 and that the authorities had removed hundreds of bodies in trucks and buried them in mass graves. The protest in the city center on 13 May began after supporters of local businessmen accused of religious extremism attacked a military garrison and prison and seized the regional-administration building (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2005). DK

President Islam Karimov told a news conference in Tashkent on 14 May that an offshoot of the banned extremist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir was responsible for the violence in Andijon on 13 May, Uzbek Television reported and Interfax reported. He said that 10 people were killed, including "military, police, and innocent people," adding, "There are far more killed on their side" -- presumably among purported rebels -- "than the other." Karimov also said that the rebels made phone calls to "masters" in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. He stressed that he did not give any order to fire on demonstrators, saying the rebels turned to violence after talks with them broke down. Karimov said he had offered the rebels safe passage out of the city if they were willing to lay down their arms. In a reference to recent events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, Karimov warned against "the attempts by certain countries to propagate democracy in Central Asia," saying a "third force" could exploit such actions, RIA-Novosti reported. "This force," Karimov said, "is radical Islam." DK

Police in the Uzbek city of Andijon detained correspondents working for the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR),, AP, and AFP on 14 May and told them that they should leave the city because their security could not be guaranteed, reported. A crew for Russia's RenTV reported on 14 May that police in the city prevented them from filming. A correspondent for Russia's "Izvestiya" told on 15 May that Uzbek authorities were preventing Russian journalists from traveling from Tashkent to Andijon. The BBC also reported on 15 May that Uzbek authorities had expelled journalists from Andijon. A reporter for RFE/RL's Tajik Service who was in Andijon on 14 May confirmed that police ordered foreign journalists, including RFE/RL correspondents, out of the city, saying that they could not guarantee their safety. Information within the country was controlled as well. Arena, a media watchdog group in Uzbekistan, reported that beginning on 13 May, access to news channels such as CNN and the BBC was cut off in Uzbekistan, and the news segments of Russian-language channels were replaced with music videos. Many Internet sites providing information on events in Andijon were also blocked, Arena reported. DK

Several thousand residents of Karasu, a town on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border, stormed the mayor's office in the Uzbek section of the town on 14 May and took the mayor hostage, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Residents also rebuilt a bridge linking the Uzbek and Kyrgyz parts of the town that Uzbek authorities had demolished two years ago. DK

Andijon residents who fled toward Kyrgyzstan told correspondents for London-based IWPR on 14 May that Uzbek border guards fired on them, killing several refugees. "On the way [to Kyrgyzstan] we were ambushed by Uzbek soldiers who shot at us, killing five people," Matluba Dodobaeva told IWPR. "We had to hide in a Kyrgyz village, where a local resident helped us evade the Uzbek soldiers." The report put the number of refugees in the group at 1,000. Interfax also quoted unidentified refugees as saying that Uzbek border guards fired on them as they crossed into Kyrgyzstan, killing four refugees. DK

Armed individuals fleeing from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan clashed with Uzbek soldiers in the village of Tefektosh, in Uzbekistan's Andijon Province, on 15 May, AP reported on 15 May. One villager told the news agency that eight soldiers were killed. The report could not be independently verified. DK

In a 15 May statement made public on the British Foreign Office's website (, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw sharply criticized the Uzbek authorities' handling of 13 May unrest in Andijon. "I am extremely concerned by reports that Uzbek troops opened fire on demonstrators in Andizhan [Andijon]," Straw said. "I totally condemn these actions and I urge the Uzbek authorities to show restraint in dealing with the situation and look for a way to resolve it peacefully." He added, "The U.K. has consistently made clear to the authorities in Uzbekistan that the repression of dissent and discontent is wrong and they urgently need to deal with patent failings in respect of human and civil rights." Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry responded quickly, expressing surprise that Straw, "being thousands of kilometers away from Andijon, is so well-informed about the details of the clash in this city," Interfax reported. The statement continued, "How does Straw know that troops 'opened fire on demonstrators,' when this never actually happened." The ministry concluded, "It wouldn't harm Mr. Straw to analyze everything that happened before making such bold statements." DK

A guard at the Israeli Embassy in Tashkent shot and killed an Uzbek citizen on 13 May, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Svetlana Ortiqova, a spokesperson for the Prosecutor-General's Office, later identified the individual as Georgii Aleksandrov, a homeless Russian. No explosives were found on the man, and Ortiqova said that an investigation of the incident is under way. DK

Syarhey Skrabets, a member of the dissident Respublika group in Belarus's Chamber of Representatives from 2000-2004, was arrested in Minsk on 15 May by men who introduced themselves as officers of a department for combating organized crime, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported, quoting Skrabets's wife. Skrabets is reportedly suspected of giving a $30,000 bribe to an official in Brest, southwestern Belarus. Skrabets was transferred from Minsk to Brest on the same day, and searches were conducted in both his and his parents' apartment. Belarusian Television reported on 17 April that Belarus's law-enforcement agencies have detained a Lithuanian citizen who reportedly delivered $200,000 to finance Skrabets's political activities. Skrabets later commented to Belapan that the report was stage-managed by the KGB to embroil him into a trumped-up criminal case. In October 2004, Skrabets asked Moscow for asylum, arguing that he was threatened with imprisonment for opposing Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime. The Russian presidential administration has reportedly denied political asylum to him, saying that Russia does not offer asylum to citizens of countries with which it has no border or visa controls. JM

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington on 13 May that Russian Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev's charges the previous day that the West intends to allocate $5 million through nongovernmental organizations to finance a revolution in Belarus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2005) are "completely false," an RFE/RL correspondent reported. "Our election aid in Belarus and elsewhere is for civic participation in the election process, balanced media coverage, nonpartisan political party training, election monitoring, and election administration," Boucher noted. "These programs are nonpartisan, they are transparent, they are peaceful in nature and we'll conduct them in Belarus in order to support efforts to build civil society and democracy." JM

Belarusian KGB chief Stsyapan Sukharenka said on Belarusian Television on 13 May that the West has already provided $5 million "for a coup in Belarus" and is going to spend as much as $50 million to oust President Lukashenka. "Under the cover of various international workshops, conferences and the like, they [the West] are training so-called colored revolutionaries from among the radical Belarusian opposition," Sukharenka said. "Moreover, we have information that on the territory of adjoining countries they are creating bases to train militants who will then be used in violent actions of disobedience toward law-enforcement agencies and for destabilizing the situation in society." JM

The U.S. Congress has passed a bill appropriating $5 million to be spent on developing democracy in Belarus in 2005, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 13 May. Under the bill, the U.S. State Department will spend $2.5 million to back political parties and the other half to sponsor independent media and nongovernmental organizations in Belarus. JM

Yuliya Tymoshenko told journalists in Kyiv on 15 May that the government is taking measures to settle a fuel crisis that she said was provoked in Ukraine by Russian oil companies, Interfax reported. "Some countries were not exactly pleased with the outcome of the Ukrainian [presidential] election. Prices [for fuel] from Russia have been raised by 30 percent over the past month," Tymoshenko said. The previous day, Tymoshenko charged that Russian oil companies deliberately cut oil supplies to Ukraine to create the crisis. "Russia is forcing us to search for nonconventional ways, because they've completely suspended oil pumping for five days, though we have all the necessary agreements [for pumping to continue]," she added. Meanwhile, ITAR-TASS on 14 May quoted press services of the Russian oil companies Tatneft, LUKoil, and TNK-BT as saying that Kyiv's accusations of recent disruptions in their oil supplies to Ukraine are unfounded. JM

First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh on 14 May blamed the current problems in the Ukrainian fuel market on new methods of market regulation and urged the government and businessmen to discuss ways of settling the crisis, Interfax reported. "Unfortunately, current methods cannot improve the situation. The results are very alarming, we face fuel shortages and a decreasing quality of fuel," Kinakh said. Parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn on 15 May commented on the economic situation in Ukraine in general, and the fuel crisis in particular, saying the government cannot "resolve the situation by way of pressure or some administrative decisions." JM

Viktor Yushchenko told a conference on local self-government and administration in Kyiv on 14 May that he is going to replace all heads of the raion administrations as well as make serious changes in the personnel of other state bodies at the local level, Interfax reported. "Every single leader of the raion administrations will be replaced. I won't leave any figure -- be it in Kyiv, Crimea, or any other part of Ukraine. The structures that have discredited themselves require special attention in the new personnel policy -- it concerns the tax administration, where serious changes will take place, it [also] concerns the police." JM

According to a recent poll conducted by the Kyiv International Sociology Institute, 50.8 percent of respondents said the performance of President Yushchenko during his first 100 days was "generally positive," "Zerkalo nedeli" reported on 14 May. Of those polled, 30.5 percent said their attitude to Yushchenko is "partly positive and partly negative," while 16.2 percent said they disapprove of his performance. More than 2,000 people throughout Ukraine were surveyed for the poll, which was taken after 3 May, Yushchenko's 100th day in office. JM

Kosova's Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi told Deutsche Welle's Albanian Service on 14 May that he is willing to meet with Serbian leaders outside the region, (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 April and 2 May 2005). The Kosovar authorities have previously ruled out substantial political negotiations with Belgrade but are willing to continue sporadic discussions about practical issues. The Kosovars want political talks to take place outside Serbia or Kosova to stress that Kosova's future is an international issue. The Serbian authorities have recently pressed for political discussions in order to gain influence over Kosova's affairs, which the elected authorities in Prishtina maintain Serbia forfeited by its behavior in the 1998-99 conflict. In response to Kosumi's latest interview, Srdjan Djuric, who is a spokesman for Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, said in Belgrade on 15 May that Kostunica is willing to meet Kosumi in the Kosovar town of Prizren on 24 May, Prishtina dailies reported. But Daut Dauti, who is Kosumi's spokesman, responded that any meeting "will not take place at the time and place" proposed by Djuric. Some Kosovar media suggested on 16 May that that some sort of meeting between Belgrade and Prishtina leaders is likely in the near future, adding that the session is likely to have political impact even if it involves little more than polite talk. PM

London's "Financial Times" of 16 May quoted Kosova's President Ibrahim Rugova as saying that he is drafting a constitution for an independent Kosova. "We are drafting our own constitution, as is our right, and in due time it will be presented to the parliament, which will either vote on it or send it for a referendum," the president said. He called the document as "a constitution for a democratic state drawing on Kosova's historical traditions, [Thomas] Jefferson, the unifying principle of independence, and other European constitutions." The London-based daily concluded that Rugova is "considering a unilateral split from Serbia, in case the United Nations, [United States], and [the EU] fail to achieve a diplomatic settlement this year over [Kosova's]...political status." Prime Minister Kosumi told the daily that he agrees with Rugova's moves, adding that he opposes any gradual transition to independence. "The transitional phase, if it goes [on for a longer period of time], is a danger to the transition [to stability] of the entire region," Kosumi stressed (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 December 2004, and 15 April and 6 May 2005). PM

Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski said on 13 May that demarcation of the border between Macedonia and neighboring Kosova should not wait until the final status of Kosova is determined, "Dnevnik" reported. "For us, it is irrelevant who will be our partner in the border demarcation," Buckovski said. "It is a technical, and not a political question and there are no differences over the border with Kosovo. However, it leads to an absurd [situation] if someone wants to make a problem out of a question that can be easily resolved," he added. Elsewhere, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski said unspecified "radical structures" could try to destabilize the situation in Macedonia and the whole region if demarcation is delayed until the final status issue is resolved (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January, 2 February, and 13 May 2005). The reactions of the Macedonian leadership came in response to a statement made by Remi Dourlot, who is a spokesman for the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK). Dourlot said on 13 May that the demarcation cannot take place before the final status of Kosova is decided because neither the Kosovar institutions nor UNMIK have the mandate to enter negotiations on the border demarcation, MIA news agencly reported. UB

EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana told Montenegrin journalists on 15 May that Brussels will closely monitor any Montenegrin referendum on independence, which the government wants to hold by 2006, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported from Podgorica. "Separation [from Serbia] is an crucial decision which could cause divisions [in society], so it must be made carefully." He stressed that the legal requirements for a valid turnout, the minimum majority for a valid vote, determining who has the right to vote, and the wording of the referendum question are all of vital importance (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 11 February 2005). The joint state of Serbia and Montenegro came into being in early 2003 as a result of strong EU pressure. Wags have dubbed the state "Solania" after its primary architect. PM

The European Union is offering 2 million euros ($2.5 million) to reform the public health-care sector in Moldova until October 2007 under a project announced in Chisinau on 13 May, BASA and Flux reported. The project provides technical assistance to the Moldovan Health Ministry in improving its management of health services and developing health-care policies at both the national and local levels. JM

Violence erupted on Friday, 13 May, in the Uzbek city of Andijon in the densely populated Ferghana Valley, as police opened fire on demonstrators after a day of unrest. Yet even as Uzbek President Islam Karimov eliminated any doubts about his willingness to use force to crush threats to his rule, he raised the frightening prospect of spiraling retaliatory violence in Central Asia's most populous country.

The unrest in Andijon, a city of 300,000, unfolded against the backdrop of the trial of 23 prominent local businessmen on charges of involvement in an Islamic extremist group. Forum 18, a Norway-based organization that covers issues of religious freedom, reported in February, when the trial began, that the men denied any extremist involvement and insisted that they had merely tried to integrate Islamic ethical principles into their business practices.

But prosecutors alleged that the men were members of a group called Akramiya, named after its founder, Akram Yuldoshev. According to a 5 April article on by Saidjahon Zaynabitdinov, head of the Andijon-based human rights group Appelyatsiya, Yuldoshev was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir from 1986-88. Hizb ut-Tahrir, which espouses the establishment of a caliphate throughout Central Asia and the implementation of Islamic law, officially eschews violence, but its radical aims, virulently anti-Jewish and anti-American rhetoric, and conspiratorial structure have led many to define it as an extremist organization. It is banned in all Central Asian countries except Kazakhstan.

Yuldoshev left Hizb ut-Tahrir, according to Zaynabitdinov, as a result of unspecified differences of opinion. Yuldoshev went on to write a pamphlet in 1992 called "The Path to Faith," which Zaynabitdinov has translated into Russian and made available on the Internet ( The text deals primarily with ethical issues and does not contain any overtly political passages. But Yuldoshev fell afoul of the Uzbek authorities in the 1990s, and in 1999 he was sentenced to 17 years in prison for involvement in a series of bombings in Tashkent in February 1999, Forum 18 reported. For their part, the businessmen on trial have said that they were influenced by Yuldoshev's thoughts on Islamic ethics, but denied the existence of a group called Akramiya, terming it a fabrication of overzealous prosecutors.

Human rights activists in Andijon told RFE/RL on 11 May that the defendants in the Akramiya case may have fallen victim to local rivals who coveted their business assets. Melissa Hooper, an American lawyer in Tashkent who has worked with the defense in the trial, told "The New York Times" on 14 May, "This is more about [the businessmen] acquiring economic clout, and perhaps refusing to pay off the local authorities, than about any religious beliefs." Andrei Grozin, the head of the Central Asia and Kazakhstan Department of the Institute of CIS Countries, told "Rossiiskaya gazeta" in a 14 May interview that the trial was simply an attempt to "take away the business of several entrepreneurs under a clearly trumped-up pretext."

As the trial drew to a close, peaceful protests by up to 4,000 relatives and supporters of the businessmen took place in Andijon on 10-11 May. Then, on the night of 12 May, events in the city suddenly spun out of control.

Because there were few reporters in Andijon when the unrest erupted, the picture of what happened there on 12-13 May is incomplete. But the overall outlines, along with many corroborating details, are clear in the numerous reports filed from Andijon by correspondents for the BBC,, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), and Reuters. The following condensed account is based on those reports.

At around midnight on 12 May, a group of approximately 100 relatives and supporters of the accused businessmen attacked a military garrison and a prison in Andijon, seizing weapons and freeing up to 4,000 prisoners, including the Akramiya defendants. They went on to seize the regional-administration building in Andijon, where a protest meeting soon drew thousands of residents to the city's center.

As these events unfolded, President Karimov arrived in Andijon from Tashkent to direct personally his government's actions, as official news agency UzA later reported. Special forces and army units took up positions. Negotiations began but led nowhere. Sharipjon Shakirov, who had served a four-year prison term for membership in Akramiya, told RFE/RL from the regional-administration building in Andijon on 13 May that the protesters' only demand was that the authorities release "people who were imprisoned on slander, including Akram Yuldoshev." Shakirov, 30, was shot and killed later in the day.

In the early evening, government forces opened fire on the demonstrators and stormed the occupied building. Correspondents for IWPR and described horrific scenes, as guns mounted on armored personnel carriers fired at the terrified crowds. Evening brought heavy rain, uneasy calm, and uncertainty over the fate of the armed insurgents in the regional-administration building. Reports of sporadic gunfire continued through morning, until finally reported on 14 May that insurgents had left the building accompanied by soldiers.

The only official report on casualties, issued before the escalation in early evening, listed nine dead and 34 wounded. But Reuters, the BBC, and all reported that dozens of protesters had been killed. The BBC later said that some Andijon residents put the possible death toll in the hundreds, a claim that was also backed by what Andijon residents were telling RFE/RL correspondents in the besieged city.'s correspondent reported that he personally counted 30 bodies heaped on the ground outside a movie theater. He quoted eyewitnesses as saying that "hundreds of unarmed peaceful residents were struck by automatic-weapons fire. At first, they shot them from machine guns mounted on their vehicles, and then soldiers followed on foot mercilessly finishing off the wounded, including women and children."

Official news agency UzA's report on the events of 13 May began as follows: "In connection with the events that took place, Uzbek President Islam Karimov arrived in the city of Andijon early on the morning of 13 May. The head of state, after studying the situation from all sides, gave concrete instructions and directions to the appropriate organizations and agencies to end the situation. In the evening, President Islam Karimov returned to Tashkent." The report went on to lay the blame on "gangsters, hiding behind women, children, and other hostages they took, [who] refused a compromise resolution of the conflict." It provided no information on casualties.

In 1982, Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad ended a confrontation in the city of Hama between his government and the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood by turning his army loose on the city. Thousands were killed. The brutal crackdown evoked a muted international response, for its purported target was an Islamic extremist group, and al-Assad, having established a fearsome reputation for himself at home, ruled undisturbed until his death in 2000.

Though the scale of 13 May's events in Andijon does not match the slaughter in Hama, the logic behind President Karimov's actions appears similar -- to crack the whip and cow any would-be challengers.

The purported peril of religious extremism is a key plank in this strategy, and Karimov has consistently sought to justify his tough policies with the need to defend Uzbekistan from an imminent Islamist threat. But the evidence does not seem to support such a view of the bloodshed in Andijon. For one, the "Islamist" link to the Akramiya defendants is tenuous, relying on Akram Yuldoshev's onetime membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir. More importantly, none of the statements attributed to protesters in credible reports conformed to Islamist models in form or content. In fact, several reports noted that protesters focused on such pressing economic issues as poverty and unemployment, taking pains to distance themselves from any hint of religious extremism. Finally, as Shakirov confirmed to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service before being killed, the insurgents appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to act as a mediator, an unlikely choice for committed Islamists.

But at the core of the Hama strategy lies a different variety of extremism -- extreme force to demonstrate the utter futility of resistance. The result is a political arena in which force becomes the ultimate arbiter of disputes. And since this force must eventually be administered in the form of violent actions, it not only leaves losses in its wake, but also brings with it the possibility of equally violent reactions.

In a televised interview in Kabul on 14 May, Hamid Karzai said that foreign hands were behind the student-led riots in his country that began 10 May and became violent, claiming up to 14 lives by 13 May, Afghanistan Television reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 13 May 2005). "Students of medical and engineering faculties of Pakistani and Iranian universities attend classes and continue their lessons as usual, but Afghan university and school students are taken out of their classes and provoked to stage demonstrations" to destroy lives and property in Afghanistan, he said. Karzai asked why there were no demonstrations in Islamic universities in other countries, naming institutions in Pakistan, Iran and Egypt. Responding to a question from RFE/RL, Karzai said that at the moment he could not say "which foreign or internal elements were involved" in the demonstrations, however he said an investigation is under way and his government will inform the Afghans of the results. "We have 30 years for experience and know what happened to Afghanistan. We understand who is Afghanistan's friend and who is not," Karzai added. AT

In his 14 May interview, Karzai said that despite the violent demonstrations, Afghanistan would continue to pursue a "strategic partnership" with the United States, Afghanistan Television reported. Referring to the demands of the demonstrators that Afghanistan should not allow the United States to establish military bases in the country, which is reportedly part of the "strategic partnership," Karzai said that Kabul is "seeking partnership with America and Europe because," it alone "cannot fight the tricks and interference which are hidden or otherwise in" Afghanistan. According to Karzai, a partnership with the United States means that "Afghanistan will become strong and stronger." Those who oppose such partnership "are enemies" of Afghanistan, he added. Without naming any particular country, Karzai said that his government knows "who is scared of the strategic treaty with America." When pressed by a reporter to name the foreign elements who were allegedly behind the demonstrations, Karzai responded, by saying that it was "too early to disclose" that information. AT

The U.S.-based "Newsweek" magazine whose 9 May report alleging the desecration of the Koran at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, triggered the deadly demonstrations in Afghanistan, admits that some mistakes were made, Reuters reported on 15 May. "Newsweek" editor Mark Whitaker said the original U.S. government source giving the information about a copy of the Koran being flushed down the toilet, "couldn't be certain about the reading of the alleged...incident in the report" that the magazine published. Whitaker regretted that "Newsweek" "got any part of" its story wrong and extended the magazine's sympathies to the victims of violence sparked by the report. AT

Speaking to RFE/RL on 16 May regarding the admission by "Newsweek" that it had made a mistake in its report that sparked the demonstrations in Afghanistan, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Lotfullah Mashal said that his government is "really angry that the principles of journalism" were not followed by the magazine. Mashal said that it is correct for the magazine to admit its mistake, "but it is totally regrettable that the journalistic standard has been [so low] that this very sensitive issue has been dealt with irresponsibly." Afghans on the street, however, were less convinced, Reuters reported on 16 May. Hafizullah Torab, a journalist in the eastern city of Jalalabad, which saw the worst of the riots, said that the admission of a mistake by "Newsweek" is "unacceptable." Another resident of Jalalabad, Sayyed Elyas Sedaqat, speculated that the U.S. government has "put pressure on the magazine." A Kabul University student said that if "Newsweek" was in the wrong then "it should be banned." AT

Iran has postponed its stated bid to resume sensitive uranium-enrichment related activities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9-13 May 2005) and will discuss its nuclear program with EU ministers in the coming days, agencies reported on 15 May. A breakdown in talks might land Iran's dossier at the UN Security Council, which could impose sanctions for violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). But Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hassan Rohani told Mehr news agency on 15 May that "we cannot continue talks with Europe without [restarting] some of our activities." Iran will talk "because we favor talks in principle, and have no problem postponing the start of our activities for a few days," Mehr reported. Rohani stressed that Iran's decision to resume some activities "stands." The foreign ministers from Great Britain, France, and Germany who are representing the EU are to meet Iranian diplomats in Europe "in the coming days," AFP reported on 15 May. In Tehran on 15 May, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said the talks are the EU's "last chance," and he dismissed threats of UN sanctions as "worn out and useless," ISNA reported. He said there is no "legal reason" for a Security Council referral, ISNA added. VS

Iran's parliament voted on 15 May to approve a bill for "attaining peaceful nuclear technology," news agencies reported the same day. The single-clause bill urges the government to act "within the framework of the [NPT] and international laws," and use domestic and foreign means to assure the country's access to "peaceful nuclear technology, including the provision of the fuel cycle for 20,000 megawatts of nuclear electricity," ISNA reported. The government must also ensure that the International Atomic Energy Agency fulfills its obligations to Iran as an NPT signatory, ISNA stated. The bill becomes law once approved by the Guardians Council, which verifies that bills are constitutional. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Rohani said in Tehran on 15 May that "anything ratified in [parliament]...and ultimately approved by the Guardians the government will implement it," Mehr reported the same day. He described the bill as reflecting "our national will," as all Iranians want "the implementation of [Iran's] legal rights." VS

Iran's Supreme Court has dismissed espionage charges against pollster and reformist journalist Abbas Abdi, who was jailed in 2003 after being convicted of selling state secrets to the United States, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 14 May (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 February 2003). Abdi was acquitted -- of charges of engaging in propaganda against Iran and selling confidential information to an enemy state -- because the court found the United States is not legally an enemy despite poor bilateral relations, the daily cited Abdi's lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, as saying on 13 May. He said on 14 May that if the sentencing judge is shown to have erred or broken the law in the case, the judiciary must compensate Abdi and his family for "numerous problems and hardships" they have suffered in the past 30 months, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 15 May. Separately, the lawyer for Abdi's colleague, Hussein Qazian, said on 14 May that he, too, should have his case processed, as he was jailed on the same charges, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 15 May. Mohammad Sharif said there "is no legal justification" for the legal limbo affecting Qazian, who remains in jail, the daily reported. VS

Saleh Nikbakht told IRNA on 13 May that another client, writer Emadeddin Baqi, will not go to jail for unspecified charges because the Tehran chief prosecutor has taken his dossier from the revolutionary court handling his case (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2005). Saleh said the prosecutor will examine his dossier to consider reducing a one-year jail sentence given to Baqi, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 14 May. A Tehran court has given another journalist, Abbas Kakavand, a 273-day suspended jail sentence, applicable for two years, for "publishing false reports, calumny, and for antistate propaganda," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 14 May, citing ISNA. Kakavand told ISNA on 13 May that he does not accept the charges but will not appeal. Kakavand wrote formerly for the conservative daily "Resalat," but then wrote articles critical of prominent conservatives following the February 2004 parliamentary elections, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. Those elections yielded a conservative victory, but thousands of hopefuls were barred from running. VS

A reported 1,110 people registered to run in the 17 June presidential polls in five days of registration that ended on 14 May, Radio Farda reported on 15 May, seemingly to the dismay of a member of the Guardians Council, which must verify the eligibility of those hopefuls. The candidates include prominent politicians, but also 81 jobless aspirants, 19 teenagers, and 250 without a secondary school diploma, Radio Farda cited Guardians Council spokesman Gholamhussein Elham as saying in Tehran on 13 May. He wondered if the registration process was a source of "amusement" to some Iranians, Radio Farda reported. In the last presidential elections, the Guardians Council ruled that 10 of 814 registered aspirants, but no women, could run as candidates, Radio Farda reported. Prominent Iranians who have registered include Mehdi Karrubi, the speaker of the last parliament; Ali Larijani, a former head of state television and radio; Ebrahim Yazdi, a former foreign minister turned dissident; and former police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 15 May. VS

A group of more than 500 critics/dissidents have signed a letter saying they will not vote in the June polls, as they will not be free or serve the people's wishes, Radio Farda reported on 15 May. It cited one signatory, Abbas Amir-Entezam, as saying that "most" Iranians have opposed elections since the 1979 revolution, except the 1997 presidential polls, when they believed, "mistakenly of course," that elected President Mohammad Khatami "could do something." He said that "as far as I know, and can see and speak to people," most Iranians are also opposed to the upcoming election. Separately, Deputy Interior Minister Morteza Moballeq said in the northeastern town of Gunbad-i Kavus on 13 May that officials are concerned that certain "sections of society" might not vote in the polls, Radio Farda reported on 15 May. He blamed voter disenchantment on the Guardians Council's "conduct" in the last parliamentary and municipal elections when the council barred many people from running as candidates. While Iranians have a "civic right" not to vote, a boycott would disserve Iran's political system, Moballeq said. VS

Condoleezza Rice paid a surprise visit to Iraq on 15 May to discuss ways to counter the country's escalating insurgency, international news agencies reported the same day. Rice and transitional Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari discussed speeding up the training of Iraqi forces to take on greater security duties, Reuters reported. "We are fighting a very tough set of terrorists who are, it seems, determined to stop the progress of the Iraqi people." Rice, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Iraq since a new government was installed, also praised al-Ja'fari and his cabinet. "We were impressed with your leadership of this democratically elected government and we know that you will be a strong leader," AFP quoted Rice as saying. Rice arrived in Arbil in northern Iraq to meet with Kurdish leader Mas'ud Barzani before moving on to Baghdad. BW

Rice also urged patience in the drafting of Iraq's new constitution and stressed the importance of involving Sunnis in the process, Reuters reported on 15 May. "Things do not happen overnight," Rice said. "We have become very impatient people. Iraq is emerging from a long national nightmare of tyranny into freedom." The new constitution, to be drafted by al-Ja'fari's government and the transitional National Assembly by 15 August, will be the basis for elections in December. Al-Ja'fari, a Shi'ite, said he wants the drafting of the constitution to be "an inclusive process" involving Sunnis. "We will try to find ways to have a bigger Sunni participation," he said. Rice also stressed the importance of including Sunnis. "If there is to be a united Iraq in the future, then Sunnis have to be included in the processes going forward and just as they've been included in this government," Rice said, according to CNN. BW

At least 46 corpses of men who were shot dead, beheaded or had their throats cut, have been discovered across Iraq, international news agencies reported on 15 and 16 May. Thirteen bodies were found in the capital's impoverished Shi'ite district of Al-Sadr City, AFP reported, citing security and medical sources. An additional eight bodies -- in their underwear, blindfolded, and with their hands tied -- were found in the nearby Al-Sha'b neighborhood. Four more corpses were found a few miles away. Another 11 bodies, four of them beheaded, were discovered in the town of Al-Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad, and the Defense Ministry said that 10 soldiers, all with their throats cut, had been found close to the flashpoint town of Al-Ramadi, west of Baghdad. BW

A roadside bomb on the outskirts of Ba'qubah killed at least five Iraqi soldiers and injured at least seven soldiers and three civilians on 16 May, dpa reported the same day. The explosion occurred when an army patrol was passing through a village outside Ba'qubah, approximately 33 miles (55 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad. In other insurgency-related violence, three members of a Kuwaiti television crew were shot dead on a highway south of Baghdad, dpa reported, quoting an Iraqi army spokesman. The three men -- two journalists and a driver -- were returning to Baghdad from the Shi'ite holy city of Kerbala when they were ambushed near the towns of Mahmudiya and Latafiya in the lawless area known as the "triangle of death," Reuters reported. BW

Insurgents have freed the governor of Iraq's rebellious Al-Anbar Province after kidnapping him last week, Reuters reported on 15 May, citing an unidentified Interior Ministry official. Militants loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al-Qaeda affiliated insurgent leader in Iraq, had abducted Raja Nawaf and four of his bodyguards on 10 May on the road from the town of Qaim near the Syrian border to the rebel stronghold of Ramadi. The abduction followed a dispute with the governor's tribe, Reuters reported, citing Nawaf's relatives. BW

Saddam Hussein's government granted Kremlin officials millions of dollars in oil rights under the oil-for-food program in an effort to lift UN sanctions, Reuters reported on 16 May, citing a U.S. Senate report. The report traces transactions to the Russian Presidential Council, headed by former Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin, and to shell companies including Haverhill Trading Ltd. in Cyprus, Russian oil firms including Rosneft, and the Houston-based Bayoil Inc., whose executives were indicted by federal prosecutors last month. The Senate report was based on interviews with Iraqi officials, including former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, and former Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan. It quotes Ramadan as saying that oil allocations were "compensation for support" in helping to lift sanctions, Reuters reported. Another beneficiary was Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. The Russian allocations had been disclosed in a CIA report in October, but the Senate report contains more documents and details (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 October 2004). BW