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(Un)Civil Societies Report: November 24, 2006

November 24, 2006, Volume 7, Number 17
ACTIVISTS CALL FOR AN END TO STONINGS. PRAGUE, October 25, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Women's rights activists in Iran have called on the head of the country's conservative judiciary and the parliament to end the stoning to death of convicted adulterers. Under pressure from the European Union, Iran was said to have introduced a moratorium on stonings in 2002. But activists accuse judges of perpetuating the practice.

Reports suggest that two people were stoned to death in May and at least eight women currently face stoning sentences.

Under Islamic laws as applied in Iran, the punishment for adultery is stoning. It is widely considered to be among the cruelest of punishments. Women are buried up to their chests in a pit; men are buried up to their waists. And their hands are tied behind their backs.

Then, as lawyer Elham Fahimi explains, they are struck with rocks until they die.

"They put them in a hole and they wrap them in a kafan [a white sheet used for burial] -- this is how it should be done, according to the law," Fahimi says. "Then they call on those who have not committed any crimes to come and throw stones."

Death by stoning is slow and painful. Islamic code prescribes that "the stone should not be so big as to kill the offender with one or two stones" and "nor should it be as small as pebbles."

The latest case of a judicially ordered stoning was reportedly carried in early May in a cemetery in the holy city of Mashhad in eastern Iran.

A woman, identified as Mahbubeh M., and a man, identified as Abbas H., had been convicted of committing adultery and murdering the woman's husband. Activists say that before the two were stoned to death, they were treated like "lifeless corpses." They were given final ablutions and then buried in a hole in the ground. Reports claim that more than 100 members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and Basij paramilitary forces participated in the stoning.

The case alarmed and outraged women's rights activists. Their investigations suggested that judges in several cities have continued to condemn people to death by stoning, despite the reported moratorium.

Women's rights activist Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh tells RFE/RL that one of the reasons new stonings are being ordered is because the moratorium was not enshrined in law.

"Since under our laws, judges are independent, one reason [for continued stonings] might be that with the new government [of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad] coming to power and the change in the political atmosphere, judges who are in favor of such sentences have become more active," Abbasgholizadeh says. "Therefore, we think stoning should be banned by law -- otherwise judges can issue such sentences as they desire."

Abbasgholizadeh says it is unclear how many stoning sentences have been issued and carried out in Iran since reports of the moratorium emerged four years ago.

"Currently they don't carry out stoning in public. I don't know [why], maybe because of public opinion or international pressure," Abbasgholizadeh says. "Now it seems that they do it in the prison courtyards by prisoners or prison guards [casting the stones]. I even know...a political prisoner who was detained three or four years ago and had seen from his cell that they brought a woman and forced other female detainees to stone her."

The head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, has not reacted publicly to the activists' calls for an end to stonings.

Parliamentarian Elham Aminzadeh was quoted by Iranian media as saying after a trip to Brussels in mid-October that stoning sentences are no longer being handed down in Iran. She said EU officials had asked about the resumption of the practice. Aminzadeh said they had referred to an Amnesty International statement and an Internet list, which she described as invalid.

Abbasgholizadeh dismisses Aminzadeh's claim and says rights activists have carefully documented stoning cases.

"We don't speak without proof," Abbasgholizadeh says. "This lady speaks in a way that shows she's denying stoning and saying that the judiciary has replaced it with other sentences. This means she's saying stoning should not exist. Our point is that as long as [a ban] doesn't become law, judges can [issue stoning sentences] and are doing it. So this lady, who is a legislator and opposes it, should make the ban a legal one."

On October 10, Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan called on Iran to abolish stoning "immediately and totally."

Activists have published the names of nine women and two men whom they claim have been sentenced to death by stoning.

One of them is Shamameh Malek Ghorbani, who was reportedly sentenced to stoning in June after relatives found a man in her home. Amnesty International reported that her brothers and husband murdered the man and also stabbed Ghorbani with a knife.

Fahimi, who is serving as Ghorbani's lawyer, tells RFE/RL the case is being reexamined by a higher court.

"She is in Orumyeh prison," Fahimi says. "Her crime is adultery, and she has been sentenced to stoning. I visited her while my colleague went to Qom to study her case, which is before the Qom supreme court. The sentence has most probably been overturned."

Reports suggest that the stoning sentence against another woman identified by Amnesty International, Ashraf Kalhori, has also been suspended.

But activists are determined to continue their efforts until the practice is rooted out of Iran.

Women's rights defenders say adultery cannot be considered as deserving of such harsh punishment. They are quick to add that "no crime deserves to be punished by stoning."

With officials largely silent on the issue except to deny that it occurs, it is unclear how many more Iranians might be stoned to death before authorities throughout the country are forced to agree. (Golnaz Esfandiari)

XENOPHOBIA RESOLUTION TARGETS ESTONIA, LATVIA. PRAGUE, November 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Russia presented a draft resolution to the UN General Assembly on November 7 decrying xenophobia and racism.

While the document does not accuse specific countries of fomenting such social phenomena within their borders, Russian media reports have indicated that the initiative is directed mainly at new EU members Estonia and Latvia.

Some observers see the move as an example of Russia attempting to pressure the two Baltic states, which have large ethnic-Russian populations, by creating divisions between old and new EU members.

James Owen of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit says Russia seems to be attempting to exploit differences between the new EU entrants and the original members of the bloc.

"The Russians clearly have this policy of trying to [create divisions]," Owen said. "They will cultivate good relations with Germany and seek to prevent Germany from being actively enlisted by, say, Poland or the Baltic states in the continuing tussles they have with Russia."

However, Owen also says that the EU is unlikely to get involved in Russia's dispute with the Baltic states unless Russia does "something silly" -- such as cutting their gas supplies.

Russia has long claimed that ethnic Russians -- who make up more than 25 percent of the populations of Estonia (25.6 percent) and Latvia (29 percent) -- are subjected to unfair treatment in the form of laws governing language and the establishment of Russian-language schools.

Individuals seeking citizenship in Estonia and Latvia are required to prove their aptitude in Estonian or Latvian, respectively, to acquire citizenship. The two states have also imposed restrictions on the establishment of schools whose curriculum is taught in a language other that officially sanctioned by the state.

Members of the Russian minority, many of whom are technically stateless citizens, argue that such legislation violates human rights norms.

Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says the Kremlin is taking advantage of the opportunity to counter accusations by the West that it is not doing enough to stem racism in Russia.

"I think that the aim of the resolution is to indicate that the problems caused by people who sympathize to fascism, who have pro- fascist attitudes, exist not only in Russia," Lipman said. "And this is true."

She notes that annual marches in Latvia and Estonia by veterans who fought on the side of Nazi Germany in World War II cause outrage in Russia. And she says that while it appears that Russian authorities are seeking to exploit such examples for political purposes, it is not an exclusively Russian way of tackling foreign-policy issues.

Lipman says Western states, too, often apply double standards in their foreign policy.

But Lipman also predicts that Russia's draft resolution will fail to create new divisions among the members of the European Union. She says the bloc will focus on issues it considers more pressing -- such as resolving debates over agricultural subsidies and the development of an EU constitution. (Valentinas Mite)

BRINGING TWO POLITICAL SYSTEMS 'CLOSER TOGETHER.' WASHINGTON, November 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Under Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union had "engineers of human souls," writers whose task it was to instill a staunch belief in the building of a glorious communist future.

What was once the Soviet Union is today a more pragmatic place, where moneyed elites have no truck with the glorious future but a deep-seated interest in the perpetuation of the status quo. The new engineers are "political technologists" -- and their task is to keep the cogs and gears of authoritarian "managed democracy" whirring from predictable election to predictable election behind a presentable public-relations facade.

It was somehow fitting that a visit to Uzbekistan by a group of Russia's most prominent specialists in political public relations should coincide with the first anniversary of a treaty that established a new alliance between the two countries.

The Russian delegation that visited Tashkent and Samarqand on November 13-16 included Gleb Pavlovsky, director of the Effective Politics Foundation; Modest Kolerov, head of a Kremlin department in charge of relations with the CIS; Yevgeny Kozhokin, director of the Strategic Studies Institute; Andranik Migranyan, chairman of the Commission on Issues of Globalization and National Development Strategy in the Public Chamber; Sergei Markov, director of the Institute for Political Studies; and other notables.

Most of the Russian visitors warranted a Kremlin-tinged description, from "Kremlin insider" (Pavlovsky) to "Kremlin official" (Kolerov) to "pro-Kremlin" (Kozhokin, Migranyan, Markov).

The substantive portion of the visit, which was organized by Pavlovsky's Effective Politics Foundation and Uzbekistan's Regional Policy Foundation, consisted of roundtable discussions in Tashkent and Samarqand.

A website run by Pavlovsky's Foundation,, enumerated the topics as (1) deepening the process of democratic, socioeconomic, and social and political reforms: the experience of Uzbekistan and Russia; (2) current condition and prospects for development of democratic institutions and processes: the experience of Uzbekistan and Russia; and (3) challenges and threats to the development of civil-society institutions and how to overcome them.

The visit and roundtables received extensive coverage in official and semi-official Uzbek media. In particular, one pro-government website,, provided numerous quotes from the discussions between the Russian experts and their Uzbek colleagues.

Western discourse on such topics frequently stresses civil society's watchdog role as a counterweight to the dangers of excessive state power. But the tone in Tashkent and Samarqand was somewhat different.

For example, quoted comments about civil society placed an odd emphasis on the importance of the state. One of the Russian visitors, Strategic Studies Institute head Kozhokin, noted "the state and civil society are parts of a single whole." Kozhokin then went on to say, "it is precisely strong state power that can create the conditions for constructing a market economy and the transition to a developed democratic system."

The state was also a looming presence in the discussion of democratic institutions. One participant in the roundtable on the "development of democratic institutions and processes" suggested that those processes "should first and foremost ensure the flourishing of the state, the creation of a reliable system for defending national interests, and the country's security."

National sovereignty and the menace of malign foreign influence were another leitmotif. noted that "particular stress was placed on the need not only to build civil society, but also to ensure an unshakable foundation of state independence." The Russia-based Regnum news agency reported that participants at one point stressed that "democracy cannot be brought in from the outside." explained that democracy is more local than universal.

Roundtable participants were said to have noted that "democracy assuredly has requirements and principles that are common to all." But they went on to add that, "nevertheless, democratic transformations in each country should take into account a people's mentality, history, traditions, and other specific elements that are inherent only to that society."

Participants suggested that pernicious foreign influence seemingly manifests itself not only in attempts to install democracy from without. Foreign media are a source of distortions. That was a conclusion implied by a discussion of "the necessity of objective coverage by foreign media of socioeconomic and social and political transformations in Uzbekistan, and the implementation of the latest foreign-policy initiatives of the country's leadership."

The message that emerged from the discussion as reported by was clear: The state must remain in firm control; democracy is whatever political system is described as democratic by an individual state in line with its officially recognized national traditions; outside involvement in internal affairs is unwelcome; and, finally, foreign media coverage that deviates from these postulates is not objective.

That message fits in perfectly with recent Uzbek government policy. Officials in Tashkent have touted state control, rejected Western models of democratic reform, evicted the majority of Western-funded NGOs, and used the government-controlled press to pillory foreign media coverage of Uzbekistan that calls attention to these phenomena.

Sending this message was not the only purpose of the Russian delegation's visit. Praise for Uzbekistan's leadership and the affirmation of Russian-Uzbek friendship were also present in abundance. As reported, the Russian experts described the success of Uzbekistan's reforms as a result of what they called "the optimal choice of strategy and tactics of democratic transformations."

The visiting chairman of the Commission on Issues of Globalization and National Development Strategy in Russia's Public Chamber (Andranik Migranyan) was more succinct. He stated bluntly that Uzbekistan is "on the right path," reported.

Meanwhile, Pavlovsky positively gushed that what he called Uzbekistan's "ongoing construction of stable social institutions forms a unique experience that can be applied not only in other states in the region, but on other continents."

On friendship, Kolerov, the head of the Kremlin's CIS department, stressed that Russia "will always stand beside Uzbekistan as it carries out its important political and state tasks," according to, a website run by independent Uzbek journalist Sergei Yezhkov.

All of these messages received approval at the highest level in Uzbekistan. On November 16, President Islam Karimov received Pavlovsky and the other members of the Russian delegation, the official news agency UzA reported. And it was Pavlovsky who delivered what may have been the most potent characterization of Uzbek-Russian partnership at the current juncture, reported. A key Kremlin adviser, Pavlovsky remarked that recent reforms in Uzbekistan "are bringing our political systems closer together." (Daniel Kimmage)

FILM PROJECT HIGHLIGHTS WOMEN'S ISSUES. NEW YORK, November 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Seven short documentary films have emerged from an ambitious project by the Open Society's Institute's Network Women's Program to focus attention on the plight of women in post-Soviet societies. The films confront some of the most acute gender problems in countries like Armenia, Georgia, Lithuania, Russia, Tajikistan, and Ukraine --strained transitional societies -- through the eyes of local directors.

The OSI's seven-film project is called "Gender Montage," and was produced by local filmmakers in cooperation with women's rights advocates and researchers. Some of the accounts are grippingly eloquent. The best of them transcend "in-your-face" moralizing to probe humanity under inhuman conditions.

In the Kyrgyz film "Elechek," Take Sairash is a woman who rejects her husband's polygamy. Spurned for a younger wife by a man with whom she has spent the best years of her life and whom she still dearly loves, Sairash refuses to accept the situation but finds it increasingly hard to fight. Scornful relatives, a judgmental community, inequitable divorce laws -- nothing seems to protect her.

Breaking the shackles of tradition and prejudice, Sairash eventually discovers herself and emerges as strong and independent -- capable of standing up for her own beliefs.

Nurgul Asylbekova, from the OSI's Women's Program for Kyrgyzstan, which produced "Elechek," tells RFE/RL that four in 10 Kyrgyz women who seek psychological counseling are affected by the stress of being sidelined as second or third wives. Sairash's case is not isolated, she says.

"Usually the first wives turn [to counseling], but also the second and even the third," Asylbekova says. "First wives are looking for advice on their property rights and psychological counseling. Young wives are also looking for advice because they are vulnerable in the property issues, they worry about children's rights, and so on. Why has this problem been resurrected? After [Kyrgyzstan] gained independence, women were sidelined on a massive scale everywhere. The industries [in which women worked] are in disarray -- women who were employed in the light industries and had some rights are now practically on the street. They have no social protection at all and no guaranteed social rights."

Asylbekova claims that such factors have led to a revival of a more patriarchal attitude in Kyrgyzstan -- regarding women as property, as objects of desire and pleasure, but also as a work force.

With no women in parliament, legislative help is probably far off. Prevailing "traditional" wisdom dictates that it is better for a woman to become a second or third wife than to remain out of wedlock.

Asylbekova says polygamy has become fashionable and has even led to heated competition among Kyrgyz men for multiple wives.

"New Penelope" is another documentary from Central Asia -- this time Tajikistan. Women whose husbands have left for Russia to work as migrant laborers evoke comparisons with the eponymous wife of the mythical Greek hero Odysseus, who waited patiently for him to return from war.

The men's absence places a heavy burden on these Tajik women, who must provide for themselves and their children until the men can send money home.

Sometimes the money never comes, forcing wives to enter polygamous marriages simply to feed themselves and their children. Marital bonds are tested and often break apart. But the wives at home and their husbands abroad face similar fates: grueling labor and abuse.

Zuhra Halimova, the executive director of OSI-Tajikistan, tells RFE/RL that the effects of thousands of Tajik men leaving to find migrant work can be seen within all layers of society, and in the film.

"It's actually talking about the generations of women: the mothers who are feeling sorry for their daughters, the wives who are waiting for their husbands and feeling sorry for them because they know that the conditions in which [their husbands] are living are not pleasant -- they had to leave and they also suffer," Halimova says. "And at the same time, [the film] provides an opportunity to actually look at human capacities in which the constraints in life due to the circumstances are making them act differently from the way they would usually be in their traditional context."

Halimova says that polygamy in Tajikistan is a result of class and economic diversification in the society. Those who can afford it take second or even third wives.

Armenia provides another of the OSI project's works, called "Women's Happiness Or Men's Dignity." This film examines the conflict between tradition and modernity through the lives of two women: One protagonist is a divorcee who as a struggling artist liberates herself and finds creative fulfillment; the other is a widow who dreams of happiness within a male-headed household.

Despite their places at opposite ends of the social spectrum, both women work hard and raise families as single mothers.

Armenuhi Tadevosyan, the Women's Program coordinator of OSI-Armenia, tells RFE/RL that the drive for modernity -- or as she calls it, "Europe-ization" -- of Armenia collides with tradition.

"The characters...have two extremes, and it is really the same in the society," Tadevosyan says. "There is polarization, and you can see two camps in the society -- for example, one that is following traditions, [and] the other one that is protesting. And sometimes it is very difficult to set up discussions between these two camps."

Although each of the seven films examines specific issues, there is a distinctive thread that unites them all: an increasing drift from what it is still described as "post-Soviet." Even the lingua franca of the former empire -- Russian -- has given way to local tongues.

But the each of these films' settings appears to be pursuing its own path of development 15 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union -- and they have fewer and fewer common strings. (Nikola Krastev)