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(Un)Civil Societies Report: April 28, 2006

28 April 2006, Volume 7, Number 7
ACTIVISTS CHALLENGE IAEA REPORT ON CONSEQUENCES. Greenpeace has sharply criticized a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the United Nations' nuclear watchdog -- claiming the 1986 nuclear catastrophe at Chornobyl (Chernobyl) will cause no more than 4,000 deaths worldwide. Like a number of environmental organizations, Greenpeace accuses the report of "whitewashing" Chornobyl's impact and claims that some 200,000 people in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus could already have died as a result of the accident.

Parishev, 20 kilometers east of Chornobyl, was once a bustling village of several hundred people. Now, only a dozen people remain. Speaking to RFE/RL one year ago, Halyna Yavchenko said the number of villagers in Parishev is shrinking and that people are dying one after the other. She complained of strong headaches and high blood pressure.

But she said she's not afraid to live in an abandoned village in the middle of a radioactive zone. If only the wild animals would leave her garden alone: "We are used to living here. But we are like wolves here. Last year, boars ate everything they could find."

Yavchenko is one of the many affected by the 1986 disaster, where a power surge triggered an explosion that emitted radiation across Europe. But experts disagree how severe the consequences of the disaster have been -- and how bad they still could be in the future.

A report released in September 2005 by the Chernobyl Forum,which comprises the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Development Program, said fewer than 50 deaths so far could be directly attributed to Chornobyl. The report claimed the disaster will cause no more than 4,000 deaths worldwide. It also found no profound negative health consequences to the rest of the population in surrounding areas.

These figures take into account only the people most exposed: those sent to "liquidate" the consequence of the explosion, and those who lived in nearby towns at the time of the accident.

The IAEA says its findings regarding the environmental impact of the blast are also "reassuring," with radiation levels mostly returning to normal.

The report claims that poverty, disease, and mental-health problems in the former Soviet Union actually pose a far greater health threat than radiation exposure.

But this verdict has been challenged by a number of organizations, including Greenpeace and associations of Chornobyl "liquidators."

Speaking at a press conference on April 18 in Kyiv, Bruno Rebelle, a program director for Greenpeace International, said the number of Chornobyl-related deaths is much higher: "The most recent published figures indicates that in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine alone, the accident resulted in an estimated 200,000 additional deaths between 1994 and 2000."

A recent Greenpeace report, which is partly based on research from the Russian and Belarusian Academies of Sciences, says that the incidence of cancer in Belarus jumped 40 percent between 1990 and 2000. And, according to the report, children born after 1986 have shown a 88.5-fold increase in thyroid cancers.

Speaking at a Greenpeace news conference in Moscow earlier this month, Lyudmilla Komogortseva, a deputy from the Bryansk Oblast -- Russia's region most affected by the accident -- said the incidence of cancer in her region is 10 to 15 percent higher than the national average.

"Today one can say with certainty that the Chornobyl catastrophe, even what is called low radiation doses, has a negative effect on the health of people living in the regions exposed to radioactive pollution," Komogortseva said.

Komogortseva lashed out at the Russian government for failing to pay compensation to the Bransk population for health damage and slashing ecological and health programs set up in the region after the disaster. Some experts and local residents are also concerned about the dangers of contaminated food.

Komogortseva said more than 50 percent of food products in the Bryansk region are contaminated, according to official figures from Russian veterinary sources. In addition, she said, local residents widely consume mushrooms, berries, and game from the forests, where most of the radiation is concentrated.

Speaking at the same press conference, Vladimir Chuprov, the chief nuclear expert at Greenpeace's Moscow chapter, said these food products continue to pose a serious health threat: "These food products -- mushrooms, berries, meat, dairy products -- reach the Moscow market, the St. Petersburg market, the central European part of Russia. Specialized organizations are known to withdraw hundreds of kilograms of these products from Moscow markets every year. The problem here is general, this radiation is spreading, and one should in no circumstances close one's eyes to this problem, like the IAEA and our opponents from Rosatom are trying to do."

The IAEA, however, dismisses such warnings. Didier Louvat, the head of the IAEA's waste safety section that helped coordinate the UN report on Chornobyl, told RFE/RL there was no evidence showing low radiation doses increased the risk of cancer.

"The Bryansk region was the Russian region most affected by the [radioactive] fallout. So the Bryansk region forests are certainly the most contaminated. If this can be related to any increase of cancer in the region, among the population, even the population consuming forest products? The WHO report clearly said no," Louvat said. "Twenty percent of the population -- the Russian population, the world population -- are going to die of cancer. There is no way to attribute this cancer to one specific cause."

Greenpeace believes the authors of the Chernobyl Forum report have an agenda.

Chuprov said the report is part of a campaign to present nuclear energy as a reliable and safe source of energy: "The question is politicized. There is a powerful lobby, and public opinion on Chornobyl is the last barrier against the construction of new [nuclear] reactors in Russia and in the world. This is part of a PR campaign aimed at eliminating social disapproval, because according to social polls, 78 percent of Russians are against the construction of nuclear plants in their region."

Russia's atomic energy agency, Rosatom, has announced plans to build 40 new nuclear reactors in the country by 2030.

(See RFE/RL's extensive coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster at

WOMEN STILL STRUGGLE FOR RIGHTS. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has ordered authorities to allow women to enter sports stadiums and attend national football games. Conservatives have deemed it un-Islamic for women to attend men's sporting events, and a ban has been in place since the establishment of the Islamic republic in 1979. But in a letter to the head of Iran's Physical Education Organization, Ahmadinejad wrote that women and families help bring "morality" and "chastity" to public venues. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari talked on April 24 with a prominent women's rights activist, Mahboubeh Abbass-Gholizadeh, about the reversal. She calls the decision the result of pressure by activists.

RFE/RL: You and many other women in Iran have been fighting for the right to enter stadiums and attend football matches. Your leg was actually broken last year when you and a group of activists tried to push your way into Tehran stadium. How do you feel today, now that President Ahmadinejad has ordered that women be allowed into stadiums?

Mahboubeh Abbass-Gholizadeh: Our reaction -- the reaction of many of those who have been involved in this campaign, and we've been talking about it -- is first of all [happiness]. We are all happy that the women's movement could successfully reach [at least] one of its least important demands. We consider this a victory for the women's movement. But this is happening at a time when there are many pressures with regard to [restrictions on] women's clothing. This achievement is for us a result of the efforts of our women and girls, especially since last year. It was necessary, but [it is] not enough.

RFE/RL: What are your other demands?

Abbass-Gholizadeh: Women should have access to all public places, and their rights should be [defended]. Under the current conditions -- in which a woman who wants to travel needs her husband's permission, in which academic places, universities, scientific locations, and recreational places like coffee shops are segregated -- women or young girls cannot easily gain access to public places. And this segregation shows that we cannot say that women and men use public places equally. Some places in Iran are generally designated "For Men Only." On the other hand, the emphasis that exists on women's clothing -- especially in recent days -- it all indicates cat-and-mouse policies with regard to women's demands. And we have many other demands -- from the right to [less strict limits on] clothing to the right of access to all public places.

RFE/RL: Does this small victory make you and other activists more determined and more active in seeking your demands and achieving equal rights?

Abbass-Gholizadeh: This is an achievement by the women's movement -- and not because the president is a democrat and, for example, gives importance to women's rights. The activities of women have made this possible. Our argument is not only limited to women entering stadiums, but we believe that women have the right to access public places that under the Islamic republic have become places solely for men. These are only our first steps. Our strategy is to achieve equal rights for all Iranian women.

RFE/RL: Do you know when President Ahmadinejad's order will be applied and women will be allowed to attend sports events?

Abbass-Gholizadeh: I think it will be applied during the first game that comes after [the issuing of] this order.

RFE/RL: And will you attend it, you and other activists?

Abbass-Gholizadeh: Definitely, all of us are planning to go and watch the game and demonstrate [our victory]. Before Mr. President issued this order, we were planning on creating some solidarity among Iranian women who live abroad -- especially because of the [FIFA] World Cup that will be held in Germany [in June-July]. We were busy working on a campaign so that Iranian women outside the country would represent women who are inside Iran and attend football matches in stadiums and chant slogans and have placards denouncing the violation of Iranian women's right to attend stadiums. But it appears that -- before people outside Iran could hear about the campaign -- the president was informed and issued this letter.

FORMER PROSECUTOR GETS NO MERCY FROM TURKMEN PRESIDENT. Gurbanbibi Atajanova, Turkmenistan's prosecutor-general for more than a decade, appeared on Turkmen state television on April 24 to confess to stealing property and taking bribes. The "Iron Lady" of Turkmenistan begged an unmoved President Saparmurat Niyazov for mercy. But Atajanova was not known for showing any mercy to the scores of Niyazov's political opponents who she prosecuted, and she may now become a victim of the same style of justice she practiced for so long.

For the people of Turkmenistan, former Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atajanova was one of the most feared officials in the country.

They were used to seeing her appear on state television to confront fallen officials with charges of illegal activities. In a typical appearance in August, she was on television to list the crimes committed by Saparmurat Valiev, the former head of the state oil company Turkmenneft.

"As of today, we have confiscated 21 houses belonging to Valiev and 20 foreign-made cars that he had," she said then. "We also seized personal funds totaling $9.5 million from eight safes he owned. We found an additional $1 million and 560 million manats and six illegally owned weapons."

But this time, the Turkmen nation saw a very different Atajanova on state television. The new prosecutor-general, Mukhammet Oshukov, took 15 minutes reading out the charges against Atajanova. Just a few weeks after she retired for "health reasons," she was suddenly answering questions from an unsympathetic President Niyazov.

Niyazov: "You've heard the charges against you. What can you say for yourself? About what you've done? You heard what was found."

Atajanova: "Great leader..."

Niyazov: "Speak louder!"

Atajanova: "I am guilty of many things. All that was said here [by Oshukov] I admit to. I cannot say anything. My great leader, I appeal to your people, our people, to all the workers. Forgive me! I am sorry! I have three daughters but no son. Save me! Don't take away my freedom. For the rest of my life I will live by your policies, follow your path, do your honest work. I'm ready to till the soil."

Atajanova put ministers, the heads of big business, and political opponents in prison for years. But her turn had come. Despite having praised her work just weeks ago -- when she retired at the age of 58 -- Niyazov did not spare her this time.

"Six months ago, doubts [about your performance] as prosecutor-general appeared," he said. "Several cases seemed to be dragging on. She violated justice many times. She had special investigators, four or five people. They were specially selected and they had orders to do things that are unimaginable to the mind. She started openly taking bribes."

Atajanova stands accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes; of having stolen money confiscated from former officials who she helped jail; and of having 25 cars, 36 homes, and thousands of sheep and cattle. Niyazov also said Atajanova took bribes early in her career when she worked in provincial prosecutors' offices.

Atajanova will not be the only person facing charges. Niyazov indicated that he already had information that the Interior Ministry, the judiciary, and the Prosecutor-General's Office were working together to enrich themselves at the state's expense.

Similarly, Atajanova's brother, Rasul, seems destined for prison. In December 2003, there were rumors that Rasul was caught trying to cross from Iran into Turkmenistan with a large amount of heroin. There were also rumors that Atajanova was involved. Prosecutors have now said publicly that Rasul did, indeed, try to smuggle some 16 kilograms of heroin into Turkmenistan.

Her sudden and dramatic fall from grace is also another reminder that the roots of corruption are deep in Turkmenistan and that no official, however Niyazov may seem to trust them today, is beyond the kind of justice Atajanova dispensed for years and now faces herself.

(Rozinazar Khoudaiberdiyev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

REFUGEE IMAM CALLS FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM. A prominent Uzbek dissident imam, Obidkhon (Qori) Nazarov, has broken eight years of silence in an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Alisher Sidikov on March 31. After receiving refugee status by the United Nations, Nazarov and five family members resettled in an undisclosed European country in mid-March. They had been living in hiding in Kazakhstan since 1998.

Nazarov's eldest son, Khusnitdin, disappeared in Tashkent in May 2004. The family claims the Uzbek security service abducted him and is keeping him in an effort to put pressure on his father.

Nazarov, who is 47 years old, left Tashkent for Kazakhstan after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of religious extremism and terrorism. The UN concluded that Nazarov was a victim of political persecution by the Uzbek authorities and needed to be protected. In the early 1990s, Nazarov became one of the most popular imams in Central Asia and had thousands of followers. Many believe this is the reason he was persecuted by Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government. Today, Nazarov is one of the leading figures supporting the secular opposition and democratic changes in Uzbekistan.

Nazarov: This is a very difficult and challenging time for Muslims in Uzbekistan -- the consequence of the government's wrong attitude toward Islam. There were many imams who the government pressured. Those who wished to remain independent faced strong persecution.

RFE/RL: What do the authorities want from clerics? Why do you think they want to arrest you?

Nazarov: There has not been a fair attitude toward Islam [on the part of the authorities] since the old times. People in power used to put their will over the wishes of the people. Now in Uzbekistan we see the same situation. They don't want to give broad opportunities to the people. While, in fact, Allah wants people to live freely and have lots of opportunities. [Officials] wanted to rule using communist methods. I told them that times are different and I didn't want to carry out their orders.

RFE/RL: You have been in hiding for eight years in Shymkent city [Kazakhstan] not far from the capital, Tashkent, though in a neighboring republic. Some say that the Uzbek government could have arrested you if they wanted to? What do you think about that?

Nazarov: It seems not to be true. The fact that we were hiding in Shymkent became known only recently to the security services of both countries. And that signalled to us that we must leave [Kazakhstan].

RFE/RL: But why didn't you contact the UN before so that they could take you out [of the country] much earlier?

Nazarov: First we went [from Tashkent] to Shymkent as we did not have any place to live. We continued to live there under God's protection, hoping that there would be freedom again in Uzbekistan so we could easily go back.

RFE/RL: The Uzbek government accused you of being a terrorist and the leader of Wahhabists in Uzbekistan. Are you a terrorist?

Nazarov: What we are preaching is in line with Allah's words and his prophet's interpretation. But those who do not want us accuse us in many ways. It is ridiculous but for the [Uzbek goverment], human rights defenders are the terrorists; journalists are the terrorists. In this situation one should never react when they call you the same as well. I do not support a change of government with arms. We believe things can get better through peaceful means.

RFE/RL: Do you want an Islamic state to be established in Uzbekistan?

Nazarov: Islam does not mean the establishment of an Islamic state. It is wrong to think that those who preach Islam preach the establishment of an Islamic state as well. We don't think about an Islamic state -- we just want those thousands of Muslims who want to pray freely or wear headscarves to exercise their freedom to do so. We want those thousands of Muslim prisoners of conscience who have been tortured there to be released. This is our wish. If there was freedom of religion in Uzbekistan it would be Muslims who would benefit from it. That also would be very suitable for Christians and other religions. We want a society where human rights are respected and freedom of religion is guaranteed.

RFE/RL: Do you support the Uzbek secular opposition which is calling for democratic changes?

Nazarov: We support democrats willing to rescue the Uzbek people from oppression, stand for their well-being, and help them. Islam teaches us to cooperate for the good and to stand against evil. So we support opposition that working on that common good aims.