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Newsline - February 6, 2007


RUSSIA REMAINS OPPOSED TO RATIFYING EU ENERGY CHARTER
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Moscow on February 5 with EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency, international media reported. Lavrov stressed that there is no need to create any "supranational organizations" to deal with energy issues. He added that Russia does not reject the principles of the EU's Energy Charter but is actually "fulfilling them." Russia has repeatedly refused to ratify the charter, which Moscow signed in 1994, and whose Transit Protocol would require Russia to open up access to its pipelines (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2007). Lavrov argued on February 5 that "our [energy] partnership with the European Union will be firmly based on energy-security agreements reached at the [Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries] summit in St. Petersburg" in July 2006. He added that "we also noted during our talks today that some of the transit countries that created problems in energy resources supply from Russia to Europe are members of the Energy Charter Treaty, so members of this treaty can certainly use methods provided in it to discipline those transit countries." Ukraine is a member, while Belarus has signed the document but not ratified it. PM

RUSSIA EQUIVOCATES OVER KOSOVA
Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote on February 6 that Lavrov avoided taking a stand on February 5 on the plan for the future of Kosova presented recently by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari. The paper noted that Lavrov said that the matter is for the Serbs and Albanians to decide themselves. The daily suggested on February 5 that Russian leaders know that they will lose any room to maneuver on Kosova and related issues if they indeed veto Ahtisaari's proposal, as they previously threatened to do, and hence are now trying to take a less clearly pro-Serbian position than before. PM

RUSSIA PLANS NEW PIPELINE TO BYPASS BELARUS
In the latest installment of the energy row between Russia and Belarus, Semyon Vainshtok, who heads the pipeline monopoly Transneft, said on February 5 that his company has decided to build a new branch oil pipeline from Unecha near the Belarusian border via Velikie Luki to Primorsk near the Finnish border, the daily "Kommersant" reported. The proposed pipeline will have a capacity of 50 million metric tons annually and would cost up to $2.5 million. It is not clear how long it will take to build this extension of the Baltic Pipeline System, which will be about 1,000 kilometers long. PM

OLIGARCH'S LAWYER CALLS NEW CHARGES RIDICULOUS
Yury Schmidt, who is a lawyer for imprisoned former Yukos oil major CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, said in Chita on February 5 that his client is ready to prove that all the new money-laundering charges brought against him earlier that day are false, Interfax reported. Schmidt added, however, that his client set the preconditions that he be transferred from the remote Chita Oblast near the Chinese border to Moscow, and that "the violation of his rights must stop" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). Referring to the new charges that Khodorkovsky embezzled up to $25 billion, Schmidt argued that "it is impossible to describe the accusations as an absurdity; that would be too mild. The accusations are absurd because stealing that sum of money is not possible, not for anyone, anytime, anywhere. It looks more like a company profit," news.ru reported. Similar charges were brought several hours earlier against Platon Lebedev, who is a former Menatep Group head and business partner of Khodorkovsky's. Schmidt suggested that the authorities want the two men out of the way so that the Kremlin and its loyalists can take over what is left of the once-mighty Yukos. Schmidt argued that "there are still some assets that have not yet been reached by the dirty thieving hands [that have already acquired much of Yukos]. The aim of this new case against Khodorkovsky is probably to get a hold of those assets and take everything -- although Khodorkovsky [himself] doesn't own anything anymore." If convicted of the new charges, each man could face an additional 15 years in prison. PM

MEDIA QUESTION RATIONALE FOR NEW CHARGES
Imprisoned oligarch Khodorkovsky himself suggested recently that the authorities want to keep him out of the way for the 2007 parliamentary vote and the 2008 presidential election, "Moskovsky komsomolets" noted on February 6. Some other media have suggested that the Kremlin believes that the oligarch still has huge hidden reserves of cash and would be more than willing to donate money to candidates opposed to President Vladimir Putin and the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party. Khodorkovsky has repeatedly denied having any political ambitions. The daily "Komsomolskaya pravda" wrote on February 6 that the authorities also have their sights on Leonid Nevzlin, a former Yukos shareholder who fled to Israel. Some pro-Kremlin media and officials have sought to link him to the November 2006 killing of former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko in London. Some other media suspect that this is a ruse aimed at securing the extradition of a wealthy opponent of the authorities. In his marathon February 1 press conference, Putin suggested that the Litvinenko case might be linked to "oligarchs on the run," but did not identify such individuals, except to say that they are living in unnamed West European countries or in the Middle East (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 29, 2006, and February 1, 2007). PM

U.S. SAYS CHARGES AGAINST OLIGARCH RAISE QUESTIONS ABOUT RUSSIA
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on February 5 that the new charges filed against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, and "the dismantlement of Yukos raise serious questions about the rule of law in Russia," news agencies reported. He added that the two imprisoned men "would have been eligible to apply for parole this year, having served half of their terms. These new charges would likely preclude their early release." McCormack noted that "many of the actions in the case against Khodorkovsky and Yukos have raised serious concerns about the independence of courts, sanctity of contracts and property rights, and the lack of a predictable tax regime. The conduct of Russian authorities in the Khodorkovsky-Yukos affair has eroded Russia's reputation and confidence in Russian legal and judicial institutions. Such actions as this and other cases raise questions about Russia's commitment to the responsibilities which all democratic, free-market-economy countries embrace." PM

PROMINENT EXILE SAYS HE IS WILLING TO TALK TO RUSSIAN POLICE
Self-exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky was quoted by the BBC in London on February 5 as saying that he is willing to meet with Russian investigators dealing with the murder of his friend Litvinenko if it will help solve the case (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2006). Berezovsky added that Litvinenko told him he believed that another former Russian security agent, Andrei Lugovoi, was involved in the killing. Litvinenko also reportedly accused President Putin of being behind the murder. Russian investigators want to question Berezovsky, while British police have asked to speak to Lugovoi, who is in Moscow. Neither side has granted permission for the other to conduct an interrogation on its territory of the witness in question. Some pro-Kremlin Russian officials and media have suggested that Berezovsky masterminded Litvinenko's killing in an effort to discredit the Kremlin. On December 11, the BBC quoted Litvinenko's friend Aleksandr Goldfarb as saying that he spoke to Berezovsky, London-based Chechen Republic Ichkeria Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev, and Litvinenko's widow, Maria, and that "none of them trust a Russian investigation." Goldfarb added that the three "will only talk to the Russians in London if the British request that they do it, or to help the British get access to witnesses" in Russia. He added that any meeting must not take place in the Russian Embassy, must be held with British police protection, and must take place only after the Russian officials have been "screened for any kind of possible poisoning." It is not clear if Berezovsky still stands by these preconditions. PM

U.S. COMPUTER GIANT TURNS DOWN FORMER SOVIET LEADER'S REQUEST
The U.S. computer firm Microsoft on February 5 rebuffed an appeal by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for its chairman, Bill Gates, to intervene in a Russian court case against a schoolteacher charged with software piracy, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on February 6. Gorbachev wrote Gates in an open letter recently that Aleksandr Ponosov, who is a schoolteacher in the Urals, "has dedicated his life to the education of children and receives a modest salary that does not bear comparison with the salaries of even regular staff in your company. [He] is threatened with detention in Siberian prison camps" for up to five years if convicted. Gorbachev called on Gates to "show indulgence" and drop the charges. In response, Microsoft said in a statement on February 5 that "Mr. Ponosov's case is a criminal case and as such was initiated and investigated by the public prosecutor's office in Russia. We are sure that the Russian courts will make a fair decision." The statement added, "We do respect the Russian government's position on the importance of protecting intellectual property rights." The case has drawn widespread attention in the Russian media. President Putin alluded to it in his February 1 marathon press conference, when he said that "to grab someone for buying a computer somewhere and start threatening him with prison is...simply ridiculous. The law recognizes the concept of someone who purchased the product in good faith." Putin suggested that the prosecutors should turn their attention instead to those who produce and sell pirated software (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30 and February 1, 2007). Pirated software is widely available in Russia for a tiny fraction of the price of the original, which is beyond the budgets of most ordinary Russians. PM

STANDOFF BETWEEN PRO-MOSCOW CHECHEN LEADERS INTENSIFIES
Acting on instructions from pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov, the Chechen prosecutor-general is investigating the legality of the confiscation and destruction by the Chechen Nationalities Policy, Information, and Press Ministry of the entire print-run of the newspaper "Daymokhk" for January 20, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on February 5 quoting an unnamed Chechen law-enforcement official. That issue of "Daymokhk," which is Chechnya's sole Chechen-language newspaper, reproduced several congratulatory telegrams sent to Alkhanov to mark his 50th birthday. Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov is acknowledged to wield far greater authority than Alkhanov, his nominal superior, although he has repeatedly denied aspiring to succeed Alkhanov as republic head. The Chechen resistance website chechenpress.org on February 3 quoted Kadyrov as having openly accused Alkhanov of being behind the death of his father, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, and as threatening to kill both Alkhanov and his son. Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov died in a terrorist bombing three years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2004). LF

KABARDINO-BALKAR PARLIAMENT EXPRESSES SUPPORT FOR SOUTH OSSETIA
In an appeal addressed to the Russian State Duma, the parliament of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic has expressed "serious concern" at the rise in tensions between Georgia and its unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, which it blames on Georgia's violation of earlier agreements and its deployment of heavy weaponry along the border with South Ossetia, regnum.ru reported on February 5. The statement affirms support for the Duma's declaration of October 4, 2006 condemning the "anti-Russian and antidemocratic policies of the Georgian authorities." It calls on the Duma to condemn Georgia's recent actions; to take all appropriate measures to preserve stability in the Caucasus; to protect those Ossetian residents of South Ossetia who have acquired Russian passports; and to formally acknowledge the right of the Ossetian people to self-determination. LF

FORMER AZERBAIJANI ARMY COMMANDER REARRESTED
Former Colonel Elkhan Guseynov has been arrested on charges of accepting a bribe, insulting and mistreating a serviceman, and abuse of power, day.az reported on February 5. Guseynov was first arrested in late 2006 on charges of having driven a conscript to suicide, according to day.az on January 13, but successfully appealed against the Baku Military Court's ruling that he be remanded in pretrial detention for two months. A second serviceman from Guseynov's unit, Vusal Garadjayev, was taken prisoner in December by Armenian forces but later released (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). A second military commander, Arzu Ibragimov, faces criminal charges of illegally selling gasoline allocated for the use of his unit, day.az reported on February 6. Military psychologist Azad Isa-Zade was quoted on February 6 by day.az as saying that some conscripts deliberately risk being taken prisoner to escape the harsh conditions under which they serve, and that in order to prevent such cases, the Defense Ministry has warned conscripts that returned prisoners of war risk charges of treason. LF

VETERAN GEORGIAN OPPOSITIONIST DETAINED, RELEASED
Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, who heads the opposition party Imedi (Hope) and a charitable organization named after fugitive former Security Minister Igor Giorgadze, was detained on February 5 on the Armenian-Georgian border on her return to Tbilisi from Moscow via Yerevan, Georgian media reported. During a search of the car in which Sarishvili-Chanturia was traveling with three companions, customs police found some $58,900, 7,200 rubles ($263), 25 euros ($32), and 8,000 drams ($18), together with some gold jewelry, regnum.ru reported. On her release eight hours later, Sarishvili-Chanturia told journalists that the total sum found turned out to be marginally higher than the 120,000 laris ($69,808) that four people are entitled to bring into Georgia because she and her companions miscalculated exchange rates. Georgian parliament Defense and Security Committee Chairman Givi Targamadze accused Sarishvili-Chanturia of planning to use the money to finance subversive activities in Georgia, regnum.ru and Caucasus Press reported. Twelve associates of Giorgadze were arrested in September 2006 and have been charged with plotting a coup d'etat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7, 2006). LF

CZECH COMPANY ACQUIRES GEORGIAN POWER STATIONS, DISTRIBUTION NETWORKS
The Georgian government and the Czech company Energy Pro signed an agreement in Tbilisi on February 5 under which Energy Pro paid $427 million for six hydroelectric power stations and two energy distribution networks, Caucasus Press reported. Of that sum, $120 million will go towards the cost of building a new hydroelectric power station with a capacity of 100 megawatts, and the remainder will fund repairs to the existing energy infrastructure. LF

U.S. DIPLOMAT WARNS OF SANCTIONS FOR IRANIAN PIPELINE PROJECTS
Steven Mann, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, said in Astana on February 5 that the United States could impose sanctions on companies involved in pipeline projects to or through Iran, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Mann said, "With respect to U.S. policy and our legislation, we are against building any pipelines to Iran or through its territory." He continued, "The United States may impose sanctions on companies carrying out such projects." Mann is in Kazakhstan as part of a delegation led by Daniel Sullivan, assistant secretary of state for economic, energy, and business affairs, Khabar reported. Sullivan met with Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin in Astana on February 5 to discuss the development of Kazakh-U.S. coopertaion and the diversification of Kazakhstan's oil and gas export routes. DK

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT APPROVES NEW GOVERNMENT STRUCTURE
Kyrgyz lawmakers approved a new government structure on February 6, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The approved plan includes a total of 14 ministries, including two new ones -- the Industry, Energy, and Fuel Resources Ministry, and the Economy and Trade Ministry. The plan also includes two deputy prime ministers, five state committees, including a National Security Committee, and 11 state agencies. Prime Minister Azim Isabekov wanted to have three deputy prime ministers and a Presidium, but deputies objected to both suggestions and they were removed from the proposal. Following the vote, Isabekov told lawmakers: "You gave me a lot of good proposals during our consultations and the debates of parliamentary committees. You were open and explicit during the debates. Now I would like to thank you for your support." The vote came after several days of discussions and follows the confirmation of Isabekov as prime minister on January 29. Isabekov withdrew the initial government restructuring proposal after objections from lawmakers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 2007). Isabekov is now expected to begin making nominations for ministerial positions in his government. PB

TAJIK PRESIDENT VISITS EGYPT
Imomali Rakhmonov met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on February 5 to discuss bilateral relations and recent events in Central Asia and the Middle East, the Egyptian state news agency MENA reported. Rakhmonov and Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif signed four cooperation agreements and two memorandums of understanding, the Tajik presidential website (http://www.president.tj) reported. Rakhmonov also met with Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi, the imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque, MENA reported. The two urged cooperation among Islamic states, with Rakhmonov inviting Tantawi to visit Tajikistan and Tantawi voicing a willingness to assist Tajikistan with its educational needs. DK

UZBEKISTAN PREPARES FOR AUCTION OF FORMER U.S. JOINT VENTURE
Uzbek authorities have scheduled an auction for March 2 to sell a gold-mining joint venture previously managed by U.S.-based Newmont Mining, Reuters reported on February 5. Newmont is pursuing international arbitration after an Uzbek court declared the Zarafshan-Newmont joint venture bankrupt in the wake of a $49 million tax claim (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 3, 2006). Previous auctions on December 18 and January 18 failed to draw any bidders. The starting price for the joint venture will be $139.1 million, with only legal entities licensed to mine precious metals in Uzbekistan allowed to take part, "Delo" reported. The report noted that two state companies and the Uzbek-British joint venture Amantaytau Goldfields have such licenses. Reuters quoted an anonymous source "close to the deal" as saying that the auction is a formality to allow the state to take control of Newmont's assets in the country. DK

BELARUS INCREASES OIL TRANSIT FEES FOR RUSSIA BY ONE-THIRD
The Belarusian Economy Ministry's website on February 5 published a government resolution increasing tariffs for Russian oil transit via Belarusian pipelines to Europe as of February 15. The increase in the tariffs, which have been unchanged since 1996, will raise the transit price for oil bound for Germany and Poland to $3.5 from $2.6 per ton of oil, or by 34.6 percent. Tariffs to Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine will rise to $1.5 from $1.14 per ton of oil, or by 31.6 percent. The ministry said the latest fees are based on the rates charged by Russian pipeline monopoly Transneft on Russian soil. JM

MINSK PLANS TO BRING NUCLEAR POWER PLANT ON STREAM IN 2014
Belarusian Power Engineering Minister Alyaksandr Azyarets told journalists in Minsk on February 5 that the government is planning to build a nuclear power plant, Belapan reported. The plant will initially have two nuclear reactors with the power of 1 megawatt each. The first reactor is to be brought on stream in 2014, the second in 2016. According to Azyarets, these two reactors will substitute for the consumption of 5 billion cubic meters of gas per year. National Academy of Sciences Chairman Mikhail Myasnikovich said at the same news conference that in accordance with a new energy-security concept, gas consumption is to be reduced to some 50 percent of the total use of energy resources in the country by 2020. During a government conference in December, Myasnikovich disclosed that the most likely location of the nuclear plant is at Chavusy in Mahilyou Oblast, some 100 kilometers from Belarus's border with Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2006). JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT NOMINATES NEW FOREIGN MINISTER...
President Viktor Yushchenko on February 5 submitted a motion to the Verkhovna Rada to appoint Oleksandr Ohryzko as the country's new foreign minister, Interfax-Ukraine reported. First Deputy Foreign Minister Ohryzko was appointed acting foreign minister after Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk tendered his resignation on January 30 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2007). Ohryzko, 50, has been in the diplomatic service in low-key posts since 1978. In 1999-2004, he served as Ukraine's ambassador to Austria. In February 2005, he was appointed first deputy foreign minister under Tarasyk. JM

...AND CHALLENGES LAW ON CABINET IN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT
President Yushchenko told journalists on February 5 that he is appealing to the Constitutional Court to rule that the law on the cabinet enacted last week despite his two vetoes is unconstitutional (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 2007), Interfax-Ukraine reported. Yushchenko's announcement followed his meeting earlier the same day with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Moroz, and opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko, where he tried to forge a compromise on the controversial cabinet law but apparently failed. JM

SERBIAN PRESIDENT WANTS KOSOVA TALKS DELAYED...
The office of Serbian President Boris Tadic has confirmed that he will ask for talks on the future of Kosova to be delayed when he meets a U.S. envoy on February 6, AP reported the same day. The UN's special envoy for the final status talks on the UN-administered Serbian province, Martti Ahtisaari, has called for Serbian and Kosovar representatives to meet with him on February 13 to discuss the settlement he outlined for Kosova on February 2 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). Tadic will ask for a delay of about 10 days when he meets the U.S. envoy, Frank Wisner, AP reported without giving a reason for the request. Tadic ended a day of meetings with leaders of Serbia's political parties on February 6 by calling for a team of negotiators to attend the talks, but no agreement was reached on the composition of the team, with many officials calling for representatives for the talks to be chosen by the new parliament, local media reported. Serbia is currently without a parliament and a government following elections on January 21. Serbia's leaders, including Tadic, are almost uniformly opposed to Ahtisaari's plan, condemning it as offering independence to a region seen as integral to Serbia's identity. Ahtisaari told the "Financial Times" in an interview published by the British daily on February 6 that "If somebody asks for more time, I ask them: 'Will it make any difference to your views?'" He added that in his view, more time would make little difference. AG

...WHILE ENVOY WARNS UN SECURITY COUNCIL IT MUST ACT...
Ahtisaari warned on February 5 that violence could return to Kosova if the UN Security Council is unwilling to impose a solution, "The Guardian" reported on February 6. "If the international community wants to solve the situation, it has to be courageous enough to decide [Kosova's] status, because the parties can't do it," Ahtisaari told the British newspaper. The UN envoy warned that if Belgrade and Prishtina fail to agree on the province's future and the Security Council then fails to impose a solution on the sides, the security situation in Kosova will worsen, possibly leading to a withdrawal of NATO troops. "If I was advising my government I would say to pull out" in such circumstances, Ahtisaari added. The leader of the radical Kosovar Albanian movement Self-Determination (Vetevendosje) warned on February 3 of a "new war" unless independence is won within a year, the Kosovar Albanian paper "Koha ditore" reported on February 4. There have been similar warnings of violence by ethnic Serbian leaders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 2007). AG

...AMID SIGNS THAT RUSSIA MAY BE CHANGING ITS STANCE
In his February 6 interview with the "Financial Times," Ahtisaari described as "encouraging" the fact that the six members of the Contact Group addressing the status of Kosova -- Russia, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy -- all agree that the status of Kosova should be discussed by the UN Security Council. "There may be nuances, but it's encouraging that they are acting together," he said. Russia has long opposed the imposition of a solution on Serbia. However, the strength of Russia's support for Serbia may be weakening, according to the Serbian newspaper "Blic" on February 5, which quoted Serbian government sources as saying Russian officials have warned Kostunica that "if Serbia rejects everything, Russia will not support it, on the grounds that it is not being constructive." In a February 5 report, Reuters quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying, "President Vladimir Putin has never said he would use Moscow's veto at the Security Council over Kosovo." In an interview published by the German weekly "Der Spiegel" on February 3, Lavrov said that "every attempt to submit those proposals in the Security Council will be in vain and counterproductive" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). Ahtisaari told the "Financial Times" that Russia's argument that independence for Kosova would set a precedent for other separatist disputes is "a good debating point, but that's as far as it goes," and added that "the Security Council would decide whether it was a precedent." AG

KOSOVAR PREMIER PREDICTS KOSOVAR SERBS WILL NOT BREAK AWAY
Prime Minister Agim Ceku has predicted that ethnic Serbs in Kosova will not follow the example of Serbs in Croatia in 1990 by trying to break away should Kosova gain independence, Croatia's "Vecernji list" reported on February 6. In an interview with "Vecernji list," Ceku said he does not expect ethnic Serbs to block roads with trees and seek to secede, as they did when Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. "International forces will remain here to guarantee Kosova's territorial integrity and they will not allow the freedom of movement to be hindered," he said. AG

WORLD BANK, MACEDONIA ACT TO PREVENT BIRD FLU
Macedonia on February 5 confirmed that it has imposed a ban on the import of British poultry goods following the discovery of bird flu at a British poultry farm, the Makfax news agency reported the same day. A number of countries recently imposed restrictions on Hungarian poultry following a confirmed outbreak of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, which can be deadly for humans (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2007). Separately, the World Bank announced on February 5 that it has granted Kosova $3 million to prevent the spread of bird flu in the province, AP reported the same day. "It is critical that Kosovo's young institutions are provided assistance to scale up their capacity to prevent, identify, contain, and eradicate avian influenza," a World Bank official in Kosova, Kanthan Shankar, said. The World Bank rates the risk of bird flu in Kosova as high, since most households in Kosova's largely rural population keep poultry. AG

AFGHAN MEDIA LAW COMES UNDER SCRUTINY
The prospects for advancement and freedom in Afghanistan's media sector are perhaps closer now than at any other time in the country's history.

Since the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001, the dissemination of information has become steadily easier and its purveyors more professional. But signs have recently emerged of efforts within both the executive branch and the legislature, the National Assembly, to curtail the activities of the media under pretexts of national security or religion and culture.

Much discussion is emanating from the National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council), which is due to review the Mass Media Law that President Hamid Karzai decreed shortly before the legislature came into existence in 2005.

In January 2004, a Constitutional Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) approved a new constitution for Afghanistan. That document declares that "freedom of expression is inviolable...[and] every Afghan has the right to express his thought through speech, writing, illustration, or other means, while observing the provisions" of the constitution. The same article (Article 34) further gives every Afghan the "right to print or publish topics without prior submission to the state authorities in accordance with the law." The constitution also stipulates that directives related to the media "will be regulated by the law."

Freedom of expression is further strengthened by Article 7, which obliges the state to abide by international conventions to which Afghanistan is a signatory, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But the freedoms enshrined in Afghanistan's Islamic constitution are also guided by Article 3, which stipulates that "in Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."

The 2004 constitution calls for the mass media to be regulated through legislation. Consecutive administrations -- first the Interim Authority in February 2002 and then the Transitional Administration in March 2004 -- approved temporary media guidelines before Karzai decreed a new media law just days before the Afghan National Assembly was inaugurated in December 2005.

The new draft media law coming under consideration, however, contains problematic clauses, and there are indications that the Wolesi Jirga could try to make the law more restrictive. Viewed in that light, the current law seems like a positive first step, facilitating Afghanistan's transition to democracy.

The Wolesi Jirga is essentially reviewing the 2005 media law as part of the process of changing it from a presidential decree into a law. Within the lower house, matters related to the media fall under the purview of the Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission. Virtually all of that commission's proposed modifications of the existing media law are of a restrictive nature.

The proposed preamble to the bill emphasizes the role of religion by recalling Article 3 of the constitution, which stipulates that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." In a seemingly redundant statement, the proposed preamble then states that the media law must conform to the Afghan Constitution and the "international covenants" that the country has signed.

While the 2005 media law was intended to cover all mass media, the proposed amended law states that the media law "is the first legislative step related to radio and television and supporting independent media in the reconstruction process of Afghanistan...but it does not cover all related matters." It adds that other areas -- such as electronic commerce, intellectual property (copyright), and "access to information held by the public authorities" require "separate laws to be construed in harmony with the [media law]."

Article 11 of the bill calls for the formation of a High Council on Media to "keep track" of incomes and expenditures of the mass media, ensuring they are "overt and transparent." The Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission's recommendation on the composition of the High Council on Media is still in flux, but so far the names include members of the Wolesi Jirga, a representative of the Ministry of Justice, a mullah from the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, and the head of the Journalism Faculty of Kabul University. There are no recommendations for the inclusion of members of civil society, nor does it include a representative of the media industry itself. If Afghanistan's media sector is to develop democratically -- while respecting the country's constitution -- media professionals and media lawyers should be included on the High Council on Media.

The Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission's proposed Article 33 is on the "dissemination of prohibited material." In the current law, this article comprises four categories: the dissemination of materials "contrary to Islam or insulting to other religions," "insulting or accusative matters concerning individuals," contrary to the Afghan Constitution or Afghan criminal codes, and exposing the identities of victims of violence. The new bill adds four additional restrictions covering "material jeopardizing the stability, national security, and territorial integrity of Afghanistan"; "material providing false information which might inflame public opinion"; "publicity and promotion of any other religion other than Islam"; and "material that might damage the physical well-being or psychological and moral security of people, especially children and young people."

Most of these restrictions -- including those listed in the original media law -- contravene provisions of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, given the supremacy of Afghanistan's religious beliefs over other laws -- as clearly stated in that country's constitution -- an argument can be made that restrictions in the media law should either be limited to what is enumerated in the constitution or, if listed separately, defined precisely to prevent future abuse. The draft media law -- particularly in the additional restrictions proposed by the Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission -- contains vague terms such as "insult" and clauses open to different interpretations, such as "information which might inflame public opinion," that demand clarification or deletion.

The bill also contains proposals for the creation of "independent" commissions to oversee complaints against Afghanistan's state-owned radio and television stations and against the official Bakhtar news agency. But ensuring the independence of these commissions arguably demands that they not be included in the media law. Their creation and funding belongs in the arena of open and public debate within the National Assembly, and commission members deserve to be allowed to vote on their commissions' internal hierarchies.

Afghanistan has taken strides forward in the past four-plus years in the realm of media freedom. The current challenge is to avoid basking in what has been achieved and instead to enact laws and regulations that bolster the safeguards enshrined in the Afghan Constitution. At the same time, there is an obligation to list clearly the constitutional restrictions on the media.

To demonstrate real progress, the media law that the Wolesi Jirga's Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission proposes should do more than simply protect existing freedoms and create space for a professional and self-regulating media. It should also protect basic media freedoms against unwarranted encroachment by any future executive.

The members of the Religious and Cultural Affairs Commission -- and in fact all of their colleagues in the lower house -- are faced with a historic responsibility. They can increase the country's vulnerability to the arbitrary exercise of power, or they can pave the way toward a more inclusive, tolerant, and democratic society that is mindful of the country's religious and cultural values.

AFGHAN GOVERNMENT WARNS TALIBAN TO LEAVE SOUTHERN TOWN...
The Afghan government issued warnings to Taliban fighters on February 5 to evacuate the town of Musa Qala in Helmand Province as soon as possible, Kabul-based Tolo Television reported. Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said leaflets were dropped from aircraft advising the Taliban to withdraw or face an assault by Afghan forces. Militants occupied the center of the district of Musa Qala on February 2 in what NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) claimed was a breach of an agreement between ISAF and elders in Musa Qala in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2006, and February 2 and 6, 2007). Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta told reporters in Kabul on February 4 that he is "happy this suspicious agreement [in Musa Qala] is broken," AFP reported on February 5. AT

...WHERE 'SENIOR' TALIBAN COMMANDER WAS KILLED
Mullah Abdul Ghafur, the man who reportedly led the Taliban assault on Musa Qala, was killed in an ISAF aerial attack on February 4, London's "The Times" reported on February 5. Squadron Leader Dave Marsh, speaking for ISAF troops in southern Afghanistan, called Abdul Ghafur a "key Taliban leader" and said he was responsible for leading a band of more than 200 fighters who overran the government offices in Musa Qala on February 2. Hajji Na'im Khan, a member of Helmand's Provincial Council, called Abdul Ghafur "a very strong and influential guy in the area." Apparently it was Abdul Ghafur who decided to attack the center of Musa Qala after his brother, Mullah Ebrahim, was killed in an ISAF air strike nearby. ISAF has claimed the air strike in question was outside the area covered by the Musa Qala agreement. Qari Mohammad Yusof, speaking for the Taliban, denied that any Taliban fighters were killed in the air strike of February 4, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. AT

BODY OF KIDNAPPED POLICE OFFICER FOUND IN SOUTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN
The body of a police officer abducted from his home by gunmen on January 31 was found in the Zormat district of Paktiya Province on February 5, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The officer's brother was injured during the assault on their home. No one has claimed responsibility for the killing. AT

KABUL DAILY ATTACKS TALENT SHOW, AFGHAN MINISTRY
In an editorial on February 5, the "Cheragh" daily deplored a recent talent show that aired on Tolo Television and the reluctance of Afghan authorities to stop such broadcasts. "Afghanistan is suffering from a lack of identity,... however, Islamic tenets and values constitute the core" of the country's identity. The editorial lamented that Afghan government agencies avoid challenging assaults on the country's Islamic identity "simply to avoid upsetting their foreign friends." The editorial targeted a talent show called "The Afghan Star," writing that those behind the program "have no bad intentions," but the "glaring absence of coordination and understanding of the authorities at the Ministry of Information and Culture whose minister [Abdul Karim Khorram] had promised to ensure that all television programs conform to Islamic teachings has diverted the main course of this program and has allowed invisible hands to air un-Islamic shows based on other belief systems." According to "Cheragh," opponents who have portrayed the post-Taliban system in Afghanistan as "un-Islamic and pro-Western" will use programs like "The Afghan Star" -- which includes dancing -- as "an effective tool to recruit [more] fighters." "Cheragh" is financed from the conservative ranks of the Afghan National Assembly. AT

PAKISTANI PRESIDENT VISITS IRAN
General Pervez Musharraf arrived in Tehran on February 4 for a one-day visit in which he met with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, agencies reported. Iranian government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham told ISNA in Tehran on February 6 that the visit involved "routine" consultations "in the framework of regional cooperation," and that Musharraf had not conveyed a specific message. On February 5, Ayatollah Khamenei stressed the importance of Muslim unity in his meeting with Musharraf, and denounced "the enemies of the Islamic people" for plotting to divide Muslims, ISNA reported. "Israel has so far been the main factor for division among the Muslim people, and it will pursue the same policy from now on." Musharraf said the aim of his visit is to consolidate ties with Iran and discuss regional affairs, Mehr reported on February 5. He expressed satisfaction that Iran and Pakistan have agreed on a price for gas to flow through the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, and said he hopes work on it will begin soon, Mehr reported. Musharraf left Tehran on February 5. VS

IRANIAN GOVERNMENT DEPLORES UNJUST WORLD
Iranian government spokesman Elham said in Tehran on February 5 that the world is marked by "unfair" international relations, and stressed Iran will not forego its right to a peaceful nuclear program, Fars news agency reported. "Today, arrogant powers" distinguish between "the free world and the quarantined world. In the free part of the world, the superpowers recognize no limits, but in the quarantined part -- where most weak and especially Muslim states live -- there is no right to life," he told a seminar in the Atomic Energy Organization. He said there is resistance to any "new legal system" allowing states to pursue "peaceful goals." Iran, he said, suspended sensitive nuclear activities to reassure Western states about its nuclear program, but the result was "restrictions." He said that making charges -- presumably against Iran -- based on "perceptions, illusions, and inner motives" would take "the world back to the...[Spanish] inquisition," and Iran must "maintain its course...because one cannot give in to forcefulness and forego our evident rights." A country that submits to such demands, he said, "will face subsequent illegitimate demands." VS

IRANIAN DOCTORS FEAR NEW FLU STRAIN
Doctors fear that a potent strain of flu that has killed some people may have entered Iran from Iraq and Saudi Arabia and could be related to bird flu, Radio Farda reported on February 2, citing the Fars news agency and Iraj Khosronia, a doctor. Some elderly, children, and patients with respiratory difficulties have already died from the new strain, Radio Farda reported. Khosronia told Fars "the disease that has recently spread...may be...said to be a new form of human flu." But Abdulreza Esteqamati, an official from the Health Ministry's Center for Disease Management, said such flu infections are normal in winter, Radio Farda reported. He said infections of "this type of flu" have increased with increasing pilgrimage traffic to Iraq and Saudi Arabia, prompting speculation that the flu strain originates there. But he said there are no tests to support this. Khosronia said there have been unconfirmed reports of numerous birds dying at poultry farms in Karaj and Shahr-i Rey, near Tehran, Radio Farda reported. VS

CONSERVATIVE IRANIAN DAILY SHUT DOWN
The daily "Siasat-i Ruz" was reportedly closed temporarily on February 3, apparently for publishing content that may have been offensive to Sunnis. Alaeddin Zohurian, the head of the Culture Ministry's domestic press and agency department, told ISNA on February 3 that "our understanding" of the problem is that it was a "technical and printing mistake but, due to the importance of the matter, we decided when the [press] supervisory board met...today to close the paper and send its dossier to judicial officials." The mistake may have been an omission in a January 27 item concerning the origins of the ongoing Shi'a-Sunni rift that could have confused and offended some readers, Radio Farda reported on February 3, citing the daily's editor, Mohammad Mehdi Shirmohammadi, and Fars. Meanwhile, the dossier of Ali Farahbakhsh, a journalist accused of spying, was sent to a Tehran Revolutionary Court office on February 4, ILNA reported, citing his lawyer Mahmud Alizadeh-Tabatabai (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2007). Tabatabai said Farahbakhsh may go to court in "about a month." VS

IRAQI SHI'ITE LEADER MEETS WITH IRANIAN LEADERS
Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was in Tehran on February 5 and met there with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani, Iranian agencies reported. Khamenei told him that Iranian policy is "to support the Iraqi government," and he said the unity of all Iraqis will remove the need for the continued presence in Iraq of foreign troops, Fars reported. "The presence of occupiers...is one of the main reasons for insecurity" in Iraq, he said. Hakim said after meeting with Larijani that Iran-U.S. talks on Iraq "are undoubtedly very important and Iraqi authorities want this." He said "political haggling" between Iran and the United States "will benefit the entire region," IRNA reported. Hakim said Iraqi authorities are engaged in "very extensive activity" to assure the release of Iranians arrested by U.S. forces in Irbil on January 11. Hakim also met with Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi on February 4. Ayatollah Shahrudi said "the Americans must release Iranian diplomatic forces as soon as possible without any excuses," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on February 5. VS

IRAQI VICE PRESIDENT CALLS ON U.S. TO ACCELERATE SECURITY PLAN
Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi on February 5 called on the United States to speed up its deployment of troops to Baghdad in order to put an end to the recent spate of attacks, the BBC reported the same day. Al-Hashimi said the troop surge is vitally important, as past security operations in Baghdad failed because of too few troops. He warned that if the troop surge does not materialize soon, the security situation in Iraq could deteriorate further. Al-Hashimi also blamed the recent attacks on Iran, arguing that the recent bombings were so large that a government must have been involved. Meanwhile, U.S. military adviser Colonel Douglass Heckman announced on February 5 that the joint Iraqi-U.S. Baghdad operations command center has officially opened in preparation for the massive Baghdad security operation, international media reported the same day. "It's going to be an operation unlike anything this city has seen. It's a multiple-order magnitude of difference...a couple hundred percent," Heckman said. U.S. Colonel Chip Lewis said, "It'll be a steadily increasing amount of pressure brought to bear on the insurgents and the militias and the criminals." The Iraqi government said it will announce guidelines for the new plan in the coming days. SS

TWO AIDES TO IRAQI RADICAL SHI'ITE CLERIC KILLED
Iraqi and U.S. forces killed a local official of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's organization near the town of Ba'qubah on February 4, international media reported the same day. Iraqi and U.S. officials identified Khadim al-Hamdani as a "rogue leader" in al-Sadr's militia, the Imam al-Mahdi Army. Although al-Hamdani was not mentioned by name, a U.S. military statement said it was suspected that he "facilitated and directed numerous kidnappings, assassinations, and other violence targeting Iraqi civilians and Iraqi police." An official in al-Sadr's political office, Abd al-Mahdi al-Mirti, called al-Hamdani's killing an "assassination." Also, on February 4, a local aide to al-Sadr was killed in western Al-Basrah, "Al-Azzam" reported the same day. Iraqi police sources said Sheikh Khalil al-Maliki, a local leader of al-Sadr's political movement, was shot dead by unknown gunmen. SS

SYRIAN PRESIDENT SAYS DAMASCUS CAN HELP END IRAQI VIOLENCE
During an interview on U.S.-based ABC television on February 5, Syrian President Bashir al-Assad said his country can play a key role in trying to end the violence in Iraq. "We are not the only player, not the single player. But we are the main player in this issue," he said. "Our role is going to be through supporting the different parties inside Iraq with support of the other parties like America, and any other country in the world. That's how we can stop the violence." Al-Assad said the United States may have missed its opportunity to bring about peace in Iraq without conferring with Iraq's neighbors. "First of all, the problem in Iraq is political," he said. "And talking to Syria by definition means talking to all the other parties inside Iraq and outside of Iraq." On February 3, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh accused Syria of not doing enough to prevent Sunni insurgents from crossing into Iraq. He claimed that half of all attacks in Baghdad are committed by insurgents coming from Syria (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). SS

U.S. MILITARY ADMITS TO MISTAKE IN AIR STRIKE
The United States acknowledged on February 5 that it erred during an air strike in the town of Al-Mahmudiyah on January 30, thereby causing the deaths of two civilians belonging to one family, Reuters reported the same day. A small group of U.S. officers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Morschauser and accompanied by an Iraqi officer, offered their condolences to the family of the victims. U.S. officers called the killing a "tragic mistake" and offered the family $2,500 for each victim. "I wish I could roll the clock back five or six days and start again," Morschauser said. A U.S. military statement released on January 31 said two "insurgents" out of a four-man group were killed as they were trying to plant a roadside bomb in the town of Al-Mahmudiyah. The U.S. admission of error is rare, but Iraqis believe wrongful killings of civilians by U.S. forces happen frequently and generally go unnoticed. SS

IRAQI SUNNI GROUP CALLS ON GOVERNMENT TO RESIGN
The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association released a statement on its website on February 5 condemning the recent spate of attacks and called on the Iraqi government to resign over its inability to quell the violence. "The Muslim Scholars Association condemns these horrendous crimes and their like, while asserting that the government is no longer capable of upholding security," the statement said. "The injured Iraqi people are pessimistic about the future of the government; therefore, it should step down." SS

KUWAITI EMIR CALLS FOR DIALOGUE TO END IRAQI STRIFE
During a meeting with Iraqi Vice President al-Hashimi on February 5 in Kuwait City, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah urged Iraqis to resolve their differences through dialogue, KUNA reported the same day. "Sheikh al-Sabah wished the language of dialogue to prevail among the Iraqi people for the sake of...resolving all problems that threaten Iraq's security and stability," said a statement from al-Sabah's office. For his part, al-Hashimi thanked Kuwait for its contributions to Iraq, saying the Kuwaiti people have always supported their Iraqi brothers. SS

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