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Central Asia Report: December 22, 2005

22 December 2005, Volume 5, Number 48

WEEK AT A GLANCE (12-18 December). The 988-kilometer Atasu-Alashankou oil pipeline linking China and Kazakhstan went into operation. The pipeline, which will have an initial annual capacity of 10 million tons, is now filling with oil, with the first deliveries to China to take place in mid-2006. The opposition bloc For a Just Kazakhstan and supporters of the bloc's former presidential candidate, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, filed more than 1,000 lawsuits alleging violations in the country's 4 December presidential election, which saw President Nursultan Nazarbaev reelected with more than 90 percent of the vote. And press watchdog Reporters Without Borders publicly condemned the Kazakh government's decision to shut down the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's .kz website, which had been dedicated to the antics of Cohen's "Kazakh journalist" character, Borat.

Even as Kyrgyzstan's parliament was setting up a commission to examine the attempted takeover of the independent television channel Pyramid, a new round of corporate raiding appeared to be starting. Russia's Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) announced the $150 million purchase of a controlling stake in leading Kyrgyz cell operator Bitel. Days later, representatives of Rezerspetsmet, reportedly affiliated with MTS rival Alfa Group, seized control of Bitel's offices, claiming that a Kyrgyz Supreme Court decision affirmed their status as rightful owners. The company's 470,000 customers, 90 percent of the country's mobile-phone users, lost service for several hours in the scuffle, and MTS vowed that it would fight to regain control of a company it says it acquired legally. Elsewhere, reports said that President Kurmanbek Bakiev would like the United States to increase lease payments on the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan from $2 million to $200 million.

Tajik journalist Jumaboy Tolibov was finally freed, two months after the Supreme Court had originally ordered his release. The journalist, who received a two-year prison term in July for drunkenness and abuse of office, said that he was victimized for revealing government corruption. His release stalled when the Prosecutor-General's Office appealed the Supreme Court's decision, a move that was condemned by media watchdog groups.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov oversaw yet another shakeup of his country's frequently reshuffled energy sector, as Atamurat Berdiev, pleading inexperience, asked to be dismissed from the posts of deputy prime minister and oil and gas minister. His replacement was Gurbanmurat Ataev, who had been first deputy minister. Niyazov set 2006 natural-gas-production targets at 70 billion cubic meters, with over 50 billion cubic meters earmarked for export. Finally, the mercurial president gave ministers six months to master English well enough to conduct negotiations without a translator.

In Uzbekistan, 10 policemen, two prison medics, five prison guards, and 19 soldiers went on trial for negligence and other alleged crimes in connection with violence in Andijon on 12-13 May. Nodira Hidoyatova, the coordinator of the opposition Sunshine Coalition, was arrested in Tashkent airport as she arrived from Russia. She reportedly faces tax-evasion charges. The Foreign Ministry denied RFE/RL's Tashkent bureau an extension of its accreditation for allegedly employing unaccredited stringers. RFE/RL President Jeff Trimble called the move an "unwarranted action by Uzbek authorities [that] further erodes the already dismal state of free speech in Uzbekistan..." And Human Rights Watch announced that a group of survivors of torture and 12-13 May violence in Andijon filed a case in Germany against Uzbek Interior Minister Zokir Almatov, reportedly undergoing cancer treatment in Hanover. The victims asked German prosecutors to charge Almatov with torture, torture as a crime against humanity, and the Andijon massacre as a crime against humanity.

GERMAN LAWSUIT SEEKS TO BRING UZBEK INTERIOR MINISTER TO JUSTICE FOR RIGHTS ABUSES. Uzbek Interior Minister Zokir Almatov has left Germany after a lawsuit was filed against him there for human rights abuses tied to the brutal crackdown in Andijon in May. Almatov had been undergoing medical treatment in Germany. But Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Almatov and 11 others accused of rights abuses in Uzbekistan can still be brought to justice.

In an interview with RFE/RL on 21 December, Wolfgang Kaleck, a human rights lawyer based in Germany, said Almatov was last seen in Dubai several days ago. Kaleck is working on the Almatov case with HRW.

HRW and eight Uzbeks who say they were victims of torture and the Andijon crackdown have filed suit in Germany against Almatov and 11 other Uzbek officials. The suit alleges that the 12 committed individual acts of torture and crimes against humanity.

HRW says the suit is based on a provision in German law adopted in 2002 that allows Germany to prosecute foreign officials for serious crimes, irrespective of where they are committed. A German indictment could be followed by an international arrest warrant, and Almatov's eventual extradition to Germany.

Kaleck said German authorities can launch an investigation into the Almatov case, even if he is not in Germany. "What Germany can do and what Germany must do is begin with the investigation, collect evidence, especially collect testimonies of all these refugees from the Andijon massacre, collect evidence of those official persons who did important research work during the last years on the system of torture in Uzbekistan, and then the Germans have to decide whether they are going to have a trial here in Germany or somewhere else. And then Germany can look for Almatov with an international arrest warrant," he said.

Kaleck said Almatov's physical presence will be needed during courtroom hearings, however.

Almatov tops a list of 12 Uzbek officials who have been barred from traveling in the European Union after what the bloc called the "indiscriminate and disproportionate" use of force in Andijon.

Troops under Almatov's command waged a bloody crackdown on antigovernment protesters in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon on 13 May. Rights groups say hundreds of unarmed civilians, including women and children, were killed. Uzbek officials say 187 people died, mostly foreign-paid Islamist insurgents and Uzbek security forces.

Almatov was granted a German visa in November, a few days before the EU's sanctions were imposed. But German Foreign Ministry spokesman Michael Iber said the EU entry ban includes exceptions for humanitarian reasons. Almatov reportedly underwent a life-saving cancer operation in a neurological clinic in Hanover.

Spokesman Mahmud Bobonazarov for the Uzbek Embassy in Berlin said the embassy had no information about Almatov's arrival in or departure from Germany.

In a statement, Holly Cartner, HRW's Europe and Central Asia director, said the evidence against Almatov is overwhelming. She said the "victims of the bloody crackdown in Andijon suffered horribly at Almatov's hands. They deserve justice, and he should not get away with it just because he leaves Germany."

Another prominent rights watchdog, Amnesty International, has said Germany is bound by international law to examine allegations of systematic torture leveled at the Uzbek authorities and, if necessary, to issue an arrest warrant for Almatov. Almatov, Amnesty said, "could be one of the officials who are responsible for these crimes."

The German Federal Prosecutor's Office told RFE/RL that the Almatov case is under consideration.

Lotte Leicht, HRW's EU director, said the organization has collected an "enormous pool of evidence" that the Uzbek Interior Ministry has been directly involved in torture.

"This is the evidence we have gathered over the years of our research in Uzbekistan -- both evidence of torture, evidence of uncorrected torture, evidence of meetings we have had with government officials from Uzbekistan when torture cases have been raised with them, evidence that this kind of meetings didn't result in any kind of positive procedures from Uzbek authorities' side," Leicht said. "But it's not just our own evidence. We're also listing the pool of evidence that is also available from international monitors, including the UN special rapporteur on torture."

The UN's special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, has joined the appeals. In a statement issued in Geneva on 16 December, Nowak called on the German government to open a criminal inquiry against Almatov.

Nowak's predecessor, Theo van Boven, visited Uzbekistan in late 2001 and concluded that torture was "systematic" in the country's prisons and detention facilities.

Aaron Rhodes, head of the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), told RFE/RL that the international community must put pressure on Tashkent. "If European governments are serious about using all of their possibilities, they could initiate a criminal investigation and prosecute Mr. Almatov," he said. "And this is something that the IHF would support."

An expert on international law at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, Hans Koechler, said there is no precedent for such a prominent foreign national being tried in Germany. "There have been precedents in other countries, but as far as I know not in Germany," he said. "And the matter is also political in a certain sense because the [German] official who finally decides on whether a case will be investigated and a person will be prosecuted or not is [the German federal prosecutor]. And there may also be certain political considerations when the foreign relations between Germany and other states are concerned."

On 11 December, following weeks of uncertainty, Uzbekistan allowed German troops to remain at a military base in Termez, in southern Uzbekistan. U.S. troops were evicted from another Uzbek air base at Karshi-Khanabad last month, and NATO was asked to stop overflights. Those moves followed U.S.-led Western criticism of the Andijon crackdown. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova, with contributions from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. Originally published on 21 December.)