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(Un)Civil Societies Report: January 7, 2005

7 January 2005, Volume 6, Number 1
SOROS FOUNDATION SAYS KAZAKHSTAN TAX EVASION CASE IS POLITICALLY MOTIVATED. U.S. billionaire and philanthropist George Soros is widely credited with having aided the successful opposition movements in both Georgia and Ukraine through the work of his Open Society Institute (OSI), which promotes civil society and democratic institutions.

It is a fact that appears not to have been lost on post-Soviet leaders in Central Asia.

On 27 December, one day after Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko's victory in the presidential runoff, authorities in Almaty launched a criminal case against the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan for tax evasion.

Kazakh officials said the reasons behind the criminal case are simply financial and legal. The foundation described the move as a deliberate attempt to force it out of the country.

"A criminal case against this humanitarian organization has been initiated for tax evasion," said Ruslan Tleulin, a spokesman for Kazakhstan's financial police. "They have to pay all taxes [since 2002]. The foundation could face financial penalties or its activities could be suspended. But this is for the court to decide."

The foundation released a statement saying it has been operating in full compliance with Kazakh law, including tax laws.

The Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan seeks to promote democratic reforms in Kazakhstan. It provides grants to nongovernmental projects in the areas of policymaking, arts, culture, education, and health care.

Oleg Katsiev, of the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan, charged that the criminal case is politically motivated.

"They want to control [the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan] -- control it through this way, at least," Katsiev said.

Yevgenii Zhovtis, the head of Kazakhstan's International Bureau on Human Rights and the Rule of Law, agreed: "I believe that for the last six months, there has been politicization. [It started] after well-known events in Georgia that were connected with Soros and after Mr. Soros's statements that Central Asia should also change and follow the path of Georgia and Ukraine, where the old system was destroyed and the regimes changed."

Zhovtis said the Kazakh government has grown impatient with what it sees as the foundation's interference in the political affairs of post-Soviet countries. He said he believes the fate of the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan might follow that of Soros's Open Society Institute (OSI) in Uzbekistan.

Shortly after the so-called "rose revolution" brought opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili to power in Georgia in late 2003 and early 2004, Uzbek authorities amended the law and required all nongovernmental organizations to reregister. Subsequently, the Uzbek branch of the OSI was forced to close. The Uzbek Justice Ministry alleged that the OSI was funding educational materials that sought to "discredit" government policies.

In a parliamentary session in the spring, Uzbek President Islam Karimov accused Soros of being behind the "rose revolution" in Georgia and said he had similar plans to change the regime in Uzbekistan.

"The main goal [of the OSI] was to select from among the young, talented Uzbek intelligentsia those who could become a supportive force for them, to fool and brainwash them against the constitutional order," Karimov said.

Karimov also spoke about Soros himself: "I don't want to say anything about Soros. Maybe he is a respected person. I've never met him -- unlike [Kyrgyz President Askar] Akaev, who meets Soros once every three months. Akaev and I are not alike at all. We have different opinions."

Despite Karimov's sarcastic remarks, Akaev seems no less critical of what he has called "foreign-funded" revolutions. On 25 December, he vowed that Kyrgyzstan would not follow the path of Georgia and Ukraine.

"Is it really possible that we would sacrifice all these achievements in the economy, the achievements of our nation, in order to fulfill the interests of the 'international Internationalism' [presumably a reference to Western political groups] -- of those who want to carry out 'a tulip revolution' in Kyrgyzstan? I think we have to strive for a consensus in the country," Akaev said.

Kyrgyzstan, as well as Tajikistan, are set to hold parliamentary polls on 27 February. Uzbekistan held parliamentary polls on 26 December.

In Tajikistan, state-controlled media have campaigned against OSI-Tajikistan, accusing it of corruption and nepotism.

The Soros Foundation does not operate in Turkmenistan, but assists local NGOs with grants. Civil society is still in an embryonic state there. Ashgabat officials allow the activity of only a few civic groups, who have nothing to do with politics.

In the fall, the Uzbek Justice Ministry shut down Internews, an international media organization, saying it had failed to register its logo and to fully inform the ministry about its activities.

Jeremy Druker is the executive editor of Transitions Online, an Internet publication based in Prague that covers nations in transition and which is partly funded by the OSI.

"These organizations have successfully pushed for more open societies. And the authorities still prefer closed societies and prefer to have control over virtually all parts of society," Druker said. "So, it's very hard to see any kind of accommodation, because the two goals are diametrically opposite."

Druker said he believes Washington's largely passive reaction to the closure of the OSI in Uzbekistan caused a "domino effect" in other Central Asian countries.

"The authorities in one country have seen that authorities in another country have succeeded and have, unfortunately, learned the lesson that you can get away with it. Also in Uzbekistan, you can see that -- the NGOs were closed, the U.S. cut some funding, but a lot of funding was still going there, and Uzbekistan is still seen as being a strategic ally in the war on terror. So I'm sure that kind of mentality spreads across the region," Druker said. "And there is also the fear that something eventually -- it's not going to happen this year or next year but something eventually could happen as what happened in Georgia or Ukraine. [The authorities] know that [Soros] has had a role there, as did other NGOs like Freedom House and Internews."

Druker said he fears Freedom House -- a U.S.-based organization that tracks the progress of political rights and civil liberties across the world -- might become the next to face closure in Uzbekistan.

A Freedom House representative in Tashkent who spoke on condition of anonymity conceded that the danger exists and said the organization is trying to keep a low profile. (Gulnoza Saidazimova)

WIVES OF RELIGIOUS AND POLITICAL PRISONERS IN UZBEKISTAN FACE CHALLENGES WITH STRENGTH. Uzbek President Islam Karimov tolerates only state-sponsored Islam and has cracked down on unauthorized religious or political activity. While an estimated 6,000 religious and political prisoners serve time, their mothers, wives, and daughters are often left behind, forced to survive in hard economic conditions. But Uzbek human right activists say these women possess a strong spirit and are more active in defending the rights of the prisoners than their male relatives.

Fifty-seven-year old Saida's three sons are in prison in Uzbekistan after having been convicted of religious extremism and attempting to overthrow the government.

Two of her sons were detained after a string of deadly bomb explosions in the Uzbek capital in February 1999 that were blamed on Islamic extremists. They were eventually sentenced to 17 years each. Her third son was detained several days after a series of explosions in Tashkent and Bukhara last spring killed some 50 people. He was convicted of the same crimes.

Saida lives in Tashkent with her daughters-in-law and two grandchildren and maintains that her sons are innocent. She said that, with her sons in prison, the four women have trouble making ends meet.

"My three daughters-in-law are jobless. One of them bakes cakes and sells them," Saida said. "The others help neighbors clean their houses and gets paid for it. I am retired myself. My pension is very small -- only 17,000 soms [$17] a month. But they give me only half of my pension. The other half goes for utilities, which I can't afford to pay otherwise."

Saida visits her sons in prison regularly, but the trip is difficult and costly. Two of her sons are in prison in Qarshi, in southern Uzbekistan. It takes eight hours to travel from Tashkent to Qarshi by bus. Then it may take another eight hours before she and her daughters-in-law are allowed to see the men. Relatives of religious and political prisoners in Uzbekistan routinely have to wait longer to see their loved ones than the relatives of other prisoners and are restricted in the amount of food and clothing they can pass along.

The worst thing, Saida said, was when her eldest son disappeared last spring. She said she went to the police and the prosecutor's office, but was given no information on his whereabouts. Only three weeks later, Saida said, did she learn he had been detained.

Surat Ikramov, who heads the nongovernmental organization Center for Human Rights Initiative, said this is nothing unusual for Uzbekistan.

"First of all, it is the Internal Affairs Ministry, the police and the Prosecutor's Office who violate human rights," Ikramov said. "[According to law], when they detain someone, they must inform the detainee's mother or other family member within two to three hours. Then a suspect can be held in detention for 72 hours while the case is studied. If the suspicions seem sound, the prosecutor's office sanctions arrest."

Ikramov said that the women left behind by such detentions face particular challenges. One of the problems, he said, is that women like Saida are often unaware of their rights. Another problem is the stigma that is often attached to them, both by having family members in prison and because of their religious practices.

Saida and her daughters-in-law wear the hijab, the Muslim headscarf. This is part of the reason why they have trouble finding work. Ikramov said that Uzbek officials and many employers have negative attitudes toward traditional Muslim women.

Aza Sharipova never wore a hijab but said that she, too, felt stigmatized. In 2003, her son Ruslan was convicted of homosexuality and the sexual abuse of minors. International right groups, such as Human Rights Watch, say the case was politically motivated and that Ruslan was imprisoned for his independent journalistic activities. "Granny, they imprisoned Daddy. What are they going to do to us?"

Sharipov was eventually released and received political asylum in the United States earlier this year.

Sharipova recalled the detention of her son: "I experienced such stress that I had to consult a psychotherapist afterward," Sharipova said. "It was awful when I went to the GUVD [the Internal Affairs department where Ruslan was being held]. Ruslan had a fever. They refused to give him medicine. I was so stressed because I was not allowed to give him food or anything else."

Ikramov said that, despite the obstacles, it is the women of Uzbekistan who fight most passionately for the rights of their imprisoned relatives.

"In 99 percent of cases, the mothers or wives [of convicts] seek our help," Ikramov said. "There are almost no fathers or brothers [who do so]. I believe it is because of the fear they have. I asked several men about this, and they openly admitted they were scared. They think officials will be less cruel toward women than men."

In Uzbekistan, women have also been more active in campaigning against the death penalty. Tamara Chikunova is a founder of the nongovernmental organization Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture. She started her campaign after her son Dmitrii was executed in 2000.

As he has done in the past, Karimov earlier this month declared a prisoner amnesty in honor of Constitution Day (8 December). He announced his decision at a session of parliament in Tashkent.

"With today's decision, we are releasing 5,040 people from jail," Karimov said. "In general, the decree will also affect 8,000 to 9,000 people [who will have their sentences reduced]."

The amnesty applied mostly to people convicted of minor crimes, however, and Saida's sons were not among the 9,000. The amnesty never includes members of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, who have been accused of unconstitutional activities.

"An amnesty has been announced three times since [my sons] were imprisoned," Saida said. "But they were never granted it. I contacted the Internal Affairs Ministry. [They] said the crime was too serious and that my sons must ask the president's pardon. How can they beg pardon for something they didn't commit?"

Saida said that the hardest thing for her is to answer her grandchildren's questions about the future.

"The kids are growing up with negative feelings toward the government," Saida said. "They ask me why their fathers are in prison. The other day, my 4-year-old grandson asked me: 'Granny, they imprisoned daddy. What are they going to do to us?' I said, 'They are not going to do anything to you.' And he said: 'I don't want to be imprisoned.'"

It has been five years since Saida's two sons were imprisoned. There are 12 years left on their sentences. Saida said she fears she might not live long enough to see their release. (Gulnoza Saidazimova)

BELARUSIAN COURT SENTENCES OPPOSITIONIST TO FIVE YEARS FOR THEFT. A district court in Minsk on 30 December sentenced opposition politician Mikhail Marynich to five years in prison after finding him guilty of stealing computers and other office equipment belonging to the U.S. Embassy, Belarusian and international news agencies reported. Marynich told the court that the case against him was "fabricated by the KGB following an order from the authorities," arguing that the equipment had been provided free of charge by the U.S. Embassy in Minsk to the Dzelavaya Initsyyatyva (Business Initiative) association, of which he was chairman. The U.S. Embassy did not report the computers stolen, and a U.S. State Department statement presented to the court said the embassy had no claims against Marynich. According to Marynich, the sentence is intended to prevent him from participating in the 2006 presidential election. Marynich's lawyers have announced that they will appeal the verdict. Marynich was minister of foreign economic relations (1994-98) and afterward became Belarusian ambassador to Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. In mid-2001, Marynich resigned his ambassadorial post to challenge Lukashenka in that fall's presidential election (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 4 January 2005). ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2005)

UN HUMAN RIGHTS RAPPORTEUR DENIED BELARUSIAN VISA. Adrian Severin, the UN Commission on Human Rights' special rapporteur on Belarus, has been denied a Belarusian visa, Belapan reported on 25 December, citing Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Savinykh. Severin was appointed rapporteur on Belarus in July, three months after the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution blasting Belarus's human rights record (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 April 2004). He planned to arrive in Belarus in December to prepare a report to be presented this spring to the commission. "[The Belarusian Foreign Ministry] fully rejects the accusations mentioned in that UN resolution on the situation in Belarus and can accept neither the form nor the content of the resolution itself," Savinykh said of the visa denial. "Belarus [is] not going to cooperate with the [UN] special rapporteur" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2004).

BELARUSIAN INDEPENDENT POLLSTER FEARS CLOSURE The Minsk-based Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) has received its ninth warning in the past three months from the Justice Ministry, Belapan reported on 24 December, citing NISEPI Director Aleh Manayeu. The ministry noted in its latest warning that the Minsk-based newspaper "Narodnaya volya" failed to indicate in a recent article citing a recent NISEPI survey that the pollster is a nongovernmental organization, and ordered NISEPI to demand that the paper print a correction. "It is evident that the reason for sending [this warning] is far-fetched," Manayeu commented. "This once again testifies to the fact that the Justice Ministry has no grounds for closing NISEPI but has been tasked with doing this." While the Justice Ministry has not announced any plans regarding NISEPI, the fact that the Justice Ministry may instigate court proceedings to ban an organization if it has received two official warnings within a year has many analysts speculating that NISEPI's days may be numbered. NISEPI was founded in 1992 as the first nongovernmental think tank and polling agency in Belarus ("RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2004).

PROTESTANT GROUP LEADER IN BELARUS FINED FOR UNAUTHORIZED GATHERING. A district court in Minsk on 29 December fined Vasil Yurevich, the leader of an unregistered New Life Church community affiliated with the Association of Full Gospel Christians, 3.6 million Belarusian rubles ($1,670) for holding an unauthorized gathering of community members in the Belarusian capital in November, Belapan reported ("RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2004).

TEHRAN STUDENTS STAGE SIT-IN. An unspecified number of students at Shahid Rajai University in Tehran have staged a sit-in, ILNA reported on 20 December. They are objecting to the 2 1/2-year suspension of Majid Ashrafzadeh, political secretary of the university's Islamic Student Association. ILNA reported on 19 December that Ashrafzadeh was suspended for publishing and directing the play "Dipar," and the charges against him include spreading rumors against the system and officials, promoting apostasy, propagating for groups, and causing tension and rioting at the university. The students at the sit-in demanded a meeting with the vice chancellor for student affairs but he did not meet with them ("RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2004).

LABOR UNREST OCCURS UP AND DOWN IRAN. The employees of a textile factory in Gilan Province have not received their wages for seven months and are threatening to march from the provincial capital of Rasht to the capital city of Tehran, Radio Farda reported on 19 December. The factory workers have complained to the local House of Labor. In the city of Khomein, workers at the Nakh-e Talai (Golden Thread) factory have not worked for almost four weeks because of unpaid wages, Radio Farda reported. There is no electricity at the factory and it is not operating. Isa Kamali, a House of Labor official in the southern city of Bushehr, cited cases in which workers there have not been paid for months, Radio Farda reported. He said this is an especially risky situation in the Asaluyeh area, where there are more than 50,000 Iranian and foreign workers, because this affects national security and the oil sector ("RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2004).

IMPRISONED STUDENT'S CASE COMES UP FOR REVIEW. The case of a young student whose image personified the Iranian student demonstrations of July 1999 in the international media comes up for review on 20 December, according to the man's attorney. A photograph of Ahmad Batebi waving a bloody shirt was published by major international media, and Batebi has been in prison for more than five years since the 1999 tumult. Batebi's attorney, Khalil Bahramian, told Radio Farda on 19 December that after much effort he had the opportunity to read his client's file and he sees absolutely no reason for his continuing imprisonment. Batebi is charged with acting against national security, the lawyer said, but in fact he was helping emergency crews tend to the injured from clashes between students and hard-line vigilantes who stormed the Tehran University campus. The 15-year sentence against Batebi is groundless and he should be released immediately, Bahramian claimed. Bahramian also told Radio Farda that he has received a court summons. He is unaware of the reason for the summons, he said ("RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2004).

KAZAKH DEMOCRACY COMMISSION GETS DOWN TO WORK. A working group in Kazakhstan's National Commission on Issues of Democracy and Civil Society began drafting a political-reform program on 22 December, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Gani Kasymov, leader of the Patriots' Party and head of the group, described the working group's aim as "gathering proposals from all political forces in Kazakhstan." Kazbek Kazkenov, a member of the ruling Otan party, said that two issues are crucial for political reform: the role and functions of the president as head of state, and the role of parliament. Kasymov noted that both the authorities and society need the commission in light of recent events in Ukraine. He said: "The main thing is not to allow so much tension. I'm convinced that Kazakh society couldn't weather such a standoff, since we are influenced by several negative factors, including the intersecting interests of major powers, territorial problems, and ethnic issues" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2004).

POLL SAYS KAZAKHS DON'T EXPECT REPEAT OF UKRAINE EVENTS. A poll conducted on 5-13 December among 2,480 respondents in 17 major Kazakh cities by the National Association of Sociologists and Political Scientists found that a slim majority support President Nursultan Nazarbaev and few expect a repeat of the events in Ukraine when Kazakhstan holds a presidential election in 2006, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 20 December. When asked who they would vote for if a presidential election was held today, 50.6 percent of respondents named Nazarbaev. Asked whether a "Ukrainian situation" is possible in Kazakhstan, only 16.4 percent replied "I think so," with 43.3 percent saying "I don't think so," and 40.1 percent finding the question difficult to answer. U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan John Ordway seemed to agree, telling a news conference on 20 December that a "Ukraine scenario" in Kazakhstan is "a rather far-fetched comparison," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported ("RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2004).

KAZAKH OPPOSITION PARTY CALLS FOR CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE. In a statement published in "Respublika" on 17 December, the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party called for "civil disobedience" to "remove the family clan that has usurped power." Asserting that "2004 parliamentary elections killed the last hope for the possibility of political reforms in the country," the statement lambasted "the ruling clan headed by President [Nursultan] Nazarbaev" for persecuting the opposition with "unconstitutional and illegitimate methods." Dubbing the president and parliament "illegitimate," the opposition party stated: "In our activities we will proceed from how human rights and freedoms are understood in free countries, not from decisions made by thievish governors and corrupt courts. We view these authorities as antistate, and we are ready only for talks on their removal from power without resorting to any violence, and on their being pardoned for the crimes they have committed" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2004).

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT WARNS AGAINST GEORGIAN, UKRAINIAN-STYLE 'REVOLUTIONS.' Askar Akaev warned on 27 December that the authorities will not tolerate any actions in the coming elections that might provoke confrontation, Interfax reported. Akaev specifically warned against any actions by "forces whose goal is to repeat these Georgian- and Ukrainian-style revolutions using Western financial organizations' money." Referring to the political transitions in Georgia and Ukraine, Akaev further added that "those who mastermind and orchestrate these 'Orange and Rose' revolutions" are in the West. His comments follow a similar warning 10 days earlier arguing that the coming elections may be threatened by new threats posed by "religious and political extremism" that is "merging with international terrorism" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2004). Kyrgyzstan is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in February, to be followed by a presidential election in October ("RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2004).

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION OBJECTS TO PRESIDENT'S WARNINGS. The People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan held a news conference in Bishkek on 20 December with the participation of legislators Azimbek Nazarov and Ismail Isakov, former Education Minister Ishengul Boljurova, and Zamira Sydykova, editor in chief of the newspaper "Respublica," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Speakers disputed President Askar Akaev's 17 December contention that 2005 parliamentary and presidential elections are likely to cause rising tension (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2004). The People's Movement said in a statement that the president's remarks were "precautionary brainwashing of people about large-scale repression being prepared in Kyrgyzstan under the pretext of the fight against terrorism and religious and political extremism," Kyrgyzinfo reported. Participants rejected official criticism of a "Georgian" or "Ukrainian" scenario, describing events there as peaceful protests against falsified elections, reported. "We do not rule out the possibility of this kind of scenario for Kyrgyzstan, but we are not going to organize it," Boljurova and Sydykova said ("RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2004).

POLICE OPERATION IN MACEDONIA TRIGGERS STUDENT PROTEST. One ethnic Albanian was killed and two people, including one policeman, were wounded in Tetovo on 25 December during a sting operation that led to the capture of an alleged strongman and resulted in student protests, the private A1 TV reported. A shootout reportedly erupted when Macedonian police tried to arrest four ethnic Albanians during an operation targeting Lirim Jakupi (aka the Nazi), who is allegedly one of the leaders of an Albanian armed group that has at times controlled the village of Kondovo outside Skopje (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 December 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 10 December 2004). Jakupi was reportedly wounded in the shootout but managed to escape to neighboring Kosova, where he was arrested by UNMIK police later the same day. One policeman also sustained gunshot wounds, while one ethnic Albanian was killed and the other two were arrested. In response to the police operation, Albanian students of the University of Tetovo blocked the Skopje-Tetovo highway on 27 December, demanding that the two arrested Albanians -- who studied at the university's medical faculty together with Jakupi -- be released, RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters reported ("RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2004).

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT HAILS ANNIVERSARY OF GAGAUZ-YERI AUTONOMOUS REGION. Vladimir Voronin said in Chisinau on 22 December that by setting up the Gagauz-Yeri Autonomous Republic 10 years earlier, the country demonstrated that it is capable of respecting the human rights of all ethnic groups on its territory, Infotag reported. He said the autonomous region's special status should serve as an example for resolving interethnic conflicts. Voronin praised the audacity of his predecessors, Mircea Snegur and Petru Lucinschi (who attended the ceremony), for having promoted autonomy as a solution. Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, who also attended, was decorated by Voronin with the Order of the Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2004).

RFE/RL HONOREES FOLLOW ACTIVIST'S EXAMPLE OVER ROMANIAN AWARDS... Following the recent example set up by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, 15 current and former RFE/RL journalists announced on 17 December their personal decisions to return state honors and diplomas to outgoing President Iliescu to protest Iliescu's decoration of the Greater Romania Party's ultranationalist Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor, Mediafax and the dailies "Adevarul" and "Evenimentul zilei" reported. (Editor's note: RFE/RL journalists were singled out for honors by the Romanian state following that country's transformation to democracy that began in 1989.) "The club of people who receive state decorations should be a select one," the journalists said in an open letter to the president. "If we accepted being part of it [after Iliescu decorated Tudor and former Greater Romania Senator Gheorghe Buzatu], we would be going against the principles we stood up for at RFE, an institution insulted by Tudor, a notorious representative of xenophobia and anti-Semitism" and "distort[ing] the real significance of Romanian history," which they said does not justify Buzatu's "admiration of Marshal Ion Antonescu." On 18 December, Romanian-born U.S. historian Randolph Braham also returned a state distinction received last month to Iliescu. Braham said he was "perplexed and disturbed to learn that you have recently bestowed similar high honors on individuals who have, in the course of the years, besmirched the good name of Romania by their venomous anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denying campaigns" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 20 December 2004).

...WHILE NATIONALIST HONOREE JOINS THE FRAY... Former Senator Gheorge Buzatu said on 19 December that he is returning his state honor to President Iliescu to protest the latter's having decorated Elie Wiesel in 2003, Mediafax and AFP reported. Buzatu said he would have declined the order for faithful service from the start had he known Iliescu had honored the renowned Jewish and minority-rights activist. Buzatu claimed that Wiesel said during a 2003 visit to his country of birth that "Romania killed, killed, killed" its Jews and said Wiesel is "simplistically splitting" Romanians into "those who negate the Holocaust and those who do not." Wiesel has authored more than 40 books and been honored by the French and U.S. governments for his activism ("RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2004).

...AS ILIESCU APPEARS TO BACKPEDAL AGAIN. Buzatu's offer might have represented an attempt to preempt a reversal by President Iliescu, Romanian media reported on 20 December. Returning from Brussels on 17 December, President Iliescu hinted at a reversal over the mounting scandal accompanying the state honor bestowed on nationalist politician Tudor. Iliescu called that move and his pardon of miners' leader and antigovernment activist Miron Cozma "road accidents." Iliescu revoked his pardon of the Cozma on 17 December after domestic and international outcry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2004). ("RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2004).

GROUP CALLS FOR REFERENDUM ON CONSCRIPTION DEFERRALS. The Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers intends to initiate a national referendum on the issue of government proposals to curtail sharply the practice of granting deferrals for military conscription, Interfax and other Russian media reported on 2 January, citing union Executive Secretary Valentina Melnikova. Defense Minister Ivanov announced on 29 December that the government plans to end deferrals, saying that Russia now has "24 or 25" legal reasons for postponing service and that the number increased dramatically in the late 1990s. Ivanov said the end of deferrals is connected with the government's plan to reduce the military-service period to one year. Our Choice leader Irina Khakamada told Ekho Moskvy on 3 January that she supports the referendum initiative, but added that the authorities will use any pretext to prevent it from being conducted. She said the only way to fight for continued deferments is "to take to the streets" since "the authorities have adopted a law under which, obviously, no referendum will be deemed legal" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2005).

HUMAN RIGHTS TSAR CALLS FOR RESIGNATION OF BASHKIR INTERIOR MINISTER. Human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin on 29 December criticized police in Bashkortostan, stating that officers had subjected "500 to 1,000 people" to reprisals from 10 to 14 December after three police officers were beaten in Blagoveshchensk, Interfax reported. He said that police raided several city neighborhoods and that more than 500 people were detained and "exposed to physical actions" at local police stations. Lukin said that he met on 29 December with Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev to discuss the matter after his letter to Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov went unanswered. According to Regnum on 29 December, Lukin has called for the resignation of Bashkir Interior Minister Rafail Divaev. RIA-Novosti reported that Nurgaliev told journalists, "We are preparing a normative document on cultured and polite relations of Interior Ministry personnel toward citizens" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2004).

NEW DRAFT TERRORISM BILL WOULD ENCROACH ON CIVIL LIBERTIES. The State Duma passed in its first reading on 17 December a bill on combating terrorism that would impose restrictions on certain freedoms and give the special services expanded powers in the event of a terrorist alert or when a special operation is being carried out, NTV reported. The vote was 385 in favor and 47 against, according to RosBalt. According to NTV, under the bill the prime minister is granted extra powers to declare a state of terrorist danger, while governors will be able to do the same in the regions. The heads of the special services can impose quarantines and curfews, order telephone taps, and ban demonstrations, rallies, and rock concerts. Duma Deputy Speaker Sergei Baburin (Motherland) said the bill contains a lot of discrepancies that should be removed before the second reading, "Izvestiya" reported on 17 December. According to Interfax, in a state of emergency, the mass media would have to check its materials about a terrorist attack with operational headquarters and would not have access to the zone of a counterterrorism operation. According to "Izvestiya," a number of articles in the law as it is currently written violate the constitution ("RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2004).

UN CONDEMNS TURKMENISTAN's RIGHTS ABUSES. The UN General Assembly passed a resolution on 20 December calling on Turkmenistan to end human rights abuses, RFE/RL reported the next day. The resolution called for the release of prisoners of conscience and an end to restrictions on civil freedoms in Turkmenistan. Sponsored by the United States and the European Union, among others, the resolution passed with 69 for, 47 against, and 63 abstentions ("RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2004).

UZBEK HUMAN-RIGHTS GROUPS SPOTLIGHT ALLEGED TORTURE DEATH. Two Uzbek human-rights groups issued a statement on 3 January to call attention to the case of an Uzbek man whose family members allege was tortured to death by authorities, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. The independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan and the Ezgulik human rights group revealed the possible torture death of Samandar Umarov, a prisoner who had been serving a 17-year sentence for belonging to the outlawed Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Uzbek officials have promised an official investigation into the circumstances of the prisoner's death ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2005).