Friday, January 30, 2015

Azerbaijan Concerned About Human Rights -- In The United States

Police officers point their weapons at demonstrators protesting the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 18.

Azerbaijani lawmakers have decided to take a good hard look at the issue of human rights -- in the United States.

With Baku facing mounting international criticism over its rights record, Azerbaijan's parliament held hearings on January 15 to probe issues including U.S. race relations, anti-Muslim bigotry, and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

“There is a race problem in the U.S.,” Trend News Agency quoted lawmaker Zahid Oruj as saying, adding that the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president "hasn’t eliminated the racial discrimination in the United States."

Another lawmaker, Azay Guliyev, asked why U.S. think tanks are criticizing Azerbaijan given that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility is still open, according to press reports. He also raised the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American, by a police officer.

The parliamentary hearing appeared to be an exercise in so-called "whataboutism," the Soviet-era rhetorical tactic of responding to criticism about rights abuses by citing real or imagined abuses committed by the West. 

Guliyev said the hearing was held because of U.S. criticism leveled at Azerbaijan. 

"We decided to hold these hearings and study the situation of human rights in the United States in an effort to find out on what grounds they are making such statements about Azerbaijan," he said.

Khadija Ismayilova
Khadija Ismayilova

Azerbaijan has come under international criticism for a wide range of human rights abuses, including the arrest of journalists and activists and the closure of numerous NGOs. The most recent criticism came after the detention and imprisonment of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova on December 5.

On January 13, Representative Dana Rohrabacher (Republican-California) called on Azerbaijan to release Ismayilova and criticized the December 26 raid and closure of RFE/RL's Baku bureau. 

In recent months, Azerbaijani authorities have also closed down a number of NGOs, including the Baku branches of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX).
According to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC), there are 98 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, including 13 journalists and bloggers. 

The NHC awarded its 2014 Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award to Azerbaijan's political prisoners.

-- Luke Johnson

Forbidden By Fatwa: Yoga, Mars, And Divorce-By-Text

A Turkish tattoo artist gets to work on the arm of a young Turk who has already a Turkish flag tattooed on his bicep -- something Turkey's top Islamic body says he should remove.

A rare snowstorm hit parts of Saudi Arabia late last week, prompting many to build snowmen and, in a regional twist, snow camels. But after photographs of their frosty creations emerged on social-media sites, cleric Sheikh Muhammad Salih al-Munajjid issued a fatwa against this form of winter frolicking.

"It is not permitted to make a statue out of snow, even by way of play and fun," he said on a religious website, arguing that it is permissible only to build inanimate objects out of snow. 

The fatwa was among numerous Islamic religious rulings that have been issued on highly specific activities ranging from exercise to interstellar journeys.

Mars Embargo
If you buy a one-way ticket to Mars, you are in violation of Islamic law, according to the United Arab Emirates' religious watchdog, the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments. "It is not permissible to travel to Mars and never to return if there is no life on Mars. The chances of dying are higher than living," it said in a statement last year. The fatwa was issued after the Dutch nonprofit organization Mars One said it wanted to build a human settlement on the planet by 2025.

Muslims who have tattoos that can't be removed should repent, according to Turkey's top Islamic body. The Religious Affairs Directorate said on January 8 that tattoos should be erased, if possible. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July warned an 18-year-old soccer player with a wrist tattoo that his body art could give him skin cancer.

Malaysia's National Fatwa Council told the country's Muslims in 2008 not to do yoga because of its origins in Hinduism. The council chairman announced the fatwa by claiming that chanting in yoga could "destroy the faith of a Muslim." The council has also banned Halloween, Valentine's Day, and death metal.

Cycling While Female
An Indian cleric issued a 2010 ruling prohibiting females older than 13 from riding bicycles. Mufti Arshad Faruqui said that when a "grown-up girl goes cycling outside her house," it results in them exposing their bodies. He added that it was "harmful for their body structure." Other clerics denounced the ruling, and Maulana Yasoob Abbas, general secretary of the All India Shi'a Muslim Personal Law Board, said that some muftis seem intent on "becoming laughingstocks."

Divorcing one's spouse by text is arguably a lousy way to break the news. But it's also against Islamic law, according to Tajikistan's Council of Ulema. So-called "SMS-Divorce" has become a troubling trend for many in Tajikistan, where wives have been divorced by their husbands working as migrant laborers in Russia with text messages and phone calls. Dubai's Department of Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities ruled that a divorce text sent in anger is invalid, while in other cases, a text containing the word "divorce" is valid.

Mickey Mouse
Saudi cleric Munajjid, who issued the snowmen fatwa, appeared to issue a ruling against Mickey Mouse in 2008. "The Telegraph" quoted him as saying, "Mickey Mouse has become an awesome character, even though according to Islamic law, Mickey Mouse should be killed in all cases." He later tried to clarify that he was not calling for Mickey to be killed but was issuing a ruling on "harmful rodents and mice."

Eating Sea Otters
Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate ruled in March 2014 that kangaroos and grasshoppers are "halal," or acceptable to eat under Islamic law. But the fatwa said that Islam bans eating "badgers, martens, weasels, beavers, and sea otters" because the animals are "wild and carnivorous."

Women Drivers
Women have not been banned from driving in Saudi Arabia by law, but by a fatwa dating back to the early 1990s. Women have tried to challenge the ban by posting pictures and videos online of themselves driving. Saudi woman Manal al-Sherif was arrested and jailed last year after uploading a video of herself driving but was released after 10 days and promising not to do it again.

Breastfeeding Men At Work
A scholar of the words of the Prophet Muhammad issued a 2007 fatwa that allowed women to breastfeed their male co-workers. Dr. Izzat Atiya, chairman of the Department of Hadith at Egypt's Al-Azhar University, ruled that if a woman fed her male co-worker "directly from her breast" at least five times daily, it would allow men and women to be alone at work. Women could take off their veils in the presence of men they were breastfeeding, he said. He later retracted the ruling amid a widespread outcry in Egypt and elsewhere, saying it had been a "bad interpretation of a particular case."

-- Luke Johnson

Pro-Kremlin Daily Calls Out Officials For Spending New Year's Abroad

Pskov Governor Andrei Turchak was one of the Russian officials singled out for criticism by a pro-Kremlin daily.

MOSCOW – Who were the unpatriotic Russian bureaucrats who dared spend the New Year's holidays away from the motherland? And who were the stalwarts of Russian statehood who spent their holidays on Russian soil?

The pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia on January 14 attempted to get to the bottom of this thorny issue in an article that seemed to yearn for Russian isolationism.   

The article by journalists Natalya Bashlikova and Anastasia Kashevarova, titled Bureaucrats Abandoned The Motherland For The New Year Holidays, praised those officials who stayed home for the winter break.

"The majority of governors, parliamentarians, and federal bureaucrats spent the holidays in Russia, taking heed of the unofficial directive of the federal center to abstain from travel abroad during a period of economic difficulties and international sanctions," Bashlikova and Kashevarova wrote. 

They lauded those "who spent their New Year's in Russia working," including Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Aleksandr Tkachev, governor of Krasnodar Krai. 

But the article swiftly moved on to naming and shaming the officials who didn’t.

Pskov Oblast Governor Andrei Turchak, for example, had the gall to visit the resort town of St. Moritz in Switzerland, as did Ildar Gabdrakhmanov, deputy governor of the Moscow Oblast. Rustam Minnikhanov, leader of Russia's Tatarstan Republic, meanwhile, saw in the New Year in the United Arab Emirates. Leonid Markelov, head of the Mari El Republic, had the audacity to take his family to Italy.

The authors also chided Konstantin Dobrynin, a Federation Council member from Arkhangelsk, for posting photographs of himself at a "warm coastal resort."

And Mikhail Prokhorov, founder of the Right Cause party, the article noted, spent the holidays at his chalet in Courchevel in the French Alps.

The article in the staunchly pro-Kremlin daily was oddly similar to opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's habit of exposing Russian officials' luxury real estate holdings in the West.

The Izvestia article also drew attention to Aleksandr Sidyakin, a lawmaker for the United Russia party, who it alleged was on holiday in the Andes in South America.

But news broke later in the day on January 14 that Sidyakin and another United Russia lawmaker, Oleg Savchenko, had traveled to fly the Russian flag from one of the mountain range's treacherous icy peaks. 

According to media reports, the two had not been in contact with their base camp for 24 hours, spurring fears that they had run into trouble. 

After several hours, however, the pair subsequently turned out to be safe.

Nikolai Bulayev, first deputy head of the United Russia faction, criticized those taking holidays outside Russia. 

"I personally don’t remember the last time I was abroad," Bulayev told "Izvestia. 

"I spent the New Year's holidays at home in Ryazan Oblast: I met with voters, opened a kindergarten, visited a school, and even went hunting. I just don’t like being abroad."

-- Tom Balmforth

Russia's 'Nazi' Postal Uniforms Create Internet Buzz

Russian postal officials are not amused by the jokes making the rounds online about their uniforms. This week, Russian-language bloggers were having fun comparing the uniforms -- black with silver finish on the lapels, shoulder insignia, and hats -- to those of Nazi SS officers. The meme was particularly popular among Ukrainian boggers and social media users.

“At the request of the veterans of the Russian Post, I would like to underline the insulting nature of comparing the attire of postal workers with the Nazi uniform,” Vadim Nosov, director of the post office’s media projects department, told RIA Novosti.

The meme was set off by staff photographs of senior managers in Kemerovo and Arkhangelsk oblasts on the Russian Post's official website.

“I almost did a 'sieg heil' when I saw the new post office uniform," Aram Gertman, a blogger from Moscow, tweeted

Alex Terra, a Facebook user from Kyiv, posted a picture of a Nazi SS officer with a photo of Yevgenya Zhilina, director of Kemerovo Oblast's postal service, apparently photoshopped on the wall behind him.


The caption reads:

“Excuse me, are you a Nazi?”

“What are you talking about? I work for Russian Post.”

Zhilina’s photograph on the Russian Post website has since been changed, although bloggers have saved a screen grab of the original. 

Nosov said the the photos making the rounds on social media are "fake." He added that "the uniform of managing postal workers is a dark blue color, while branch workers have a slightly lighter shade. The uniform on the photographs circulated on the Internet was simply colored in black."

The press service of the Russian Post, meanwhile, argues that there is nothing wrong with the uniform and that the online derision hinged on a single bad photograph published on the Russian Post website. 

They also said the uniform is not “new.” Manufacturing of the uniform design was actually terminated in 2013. 

"It was introduced in 2011 for the general director, his deputy, and the managers of the directive," the press service told the tabloid Argumenty i Fakty. “Then it was abolished. They left it only for the general director and his deputy for branch development."

-- Tom Balmforth

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Paper Called Out For 'Disappearing' Merkel, Other Women From Paris Rally

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) waves while taking part with French President Francois Hollande (center) in a rally in Paris on January 11.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish newspaper has evoked criticism for its tampering to edit Germany's chancellor and other female leaders out of a photograph from the recent Paris demonstration for unity.

The leaders were attending a massive display of French and international solidarity on January 11, following horrific attacks by Islamist radicals on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, French police, and a Jewish deli that killed 17 people.

Media commentators and readers on social media pounced on the ultra-Orthodox publication HaMevaser's bit of censorship after it was initially called out by Walla.

They have described the photoshopping -- to crop or wipe out images of Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini, and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo standing alongside male counterparts from France, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Ukraine, among others -- as an "embarrassing" and even "stupid" move.

The image of the January 11 Paris unity rally as shown by ultra-Orthodox Jewish website HaMevaserThe image of the January 11 Paris unity rally as shown by ultra-Orthodox Jewish website HaMevaser

It is not unprecedented for an ultraconservative Jewish publication like HaMevaser -- which was founded by Knesset lawmaker Meir Porush -- to avoid showing women for reasons of "modesty."

A newspaper run by ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York called Di Tzeitung was chastened after it rubbed out then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from a White House situation-room photo from the moments around the U.S. mission to kill Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011. It later apologized.

And HaMevaser's editors might well have chosen a different photo from Paris, but for the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

On Twitter, commenter Federico Gnech noted it's commonplace for Haredi Jews to avoid photos of women:

But the excuse generally cited for such edits -- religiously inspired "modesty" on behalf of women -- is especially awkward in the current context. Western media are particularly sensitive to perceived religious divisions in the wake of the French terror attacks. And while vowing to better guard against extremist violence, France has rushed to emphasize its multicultural and egalitarian credentials.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz added its voice to the ranks of HaMevaser's critics:

Keeping women out of the public eye is nothing new in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world....

[But] every so often, there is an incident that is so infuriating and shocking it deserves to be called out – like denying the fact that in the wider world, beyond the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, women do stand on the world stage and shape events.

That's the message sent by a carefully photoshopped and edited picture of Sunday’s solidarity march by world leaders in Paris following the murders at Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher kosher market.

The photograph appeared in the ultra-Orthodox paper “HaMevaser” (The Announcer) – founded by United Torah Judaism's Meir Porush, a member of Knesset, no less – and transformed the line of world leaders, in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel was front and center, into a line of men.

A writer for Mediaite picked up on the story and detailed all of HaMevaser's redactions. They appeared to include: erasing Merkel completely from the front row of the image; rubbing out all of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo except her gloved hand; cropping out the EU's Mogherini completely; and blurring to indistinguishability the face of Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga.

A response emerged in the form of a meme on January 13:

-- Andy Heil

The Week Ahead: January 12-18

January 15-16: U.S. President Obama hosts British Prime Minister David Cameron at the White House.

The Week Ahead is a detailed listing of key events of the coming week affecting RFE/RL's broadcast region.
Now on Twitter! Daily updates at @The_Week_Ahead.

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MONDAY, January 12:
EU: European Parliament Plenary Session opens in Strasbourg (to January 15).
Georgia/Estonia: Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas visits Tbilisi (to January 13).
Ukraine: The foreign ministers of Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France meet in Berlin for talks on the crisis in Ukraine. 
U.S./AzerbaijanThe National Endowment for Democracy (NED) hosts a discussion titled "The Crackdown on Independent Voices in Azerbaijan."
U.S./Pakistan: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits Islamabad.
WEDNESDAY, January 14:
Iran/U.S.: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meet in Geneva ahead of a fresh round of negotiations between Iran and six world powers.
Russia: Moscow hosts an international conference Gaidar Forum 2015 (to January 16).​
Serbia/Kosovo: Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic is scheduled to visit Kosovo.
THURSDAY, January 15:
EU/Georgia: EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn visits Tbilisi (to January 16).​
EU/Ukraine: European Parliament holds a vote on the situation in Ukraine.
UK/Ukraine: Chatham House in London hosts a discussion titled "Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands."

UK/U.S.: British Prime Minister David Cameron visits Washington, meets with U.S. President Barack Obama (to January 16).
U.S./FranceU.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Paris for talks with French officials on countering extremist violence (to January 16).
FRIDAY, January 16:
UK/U.S.U.S. President Obama hosts British Prime Minister David Cameron at the White House to discuss a range of issues including Iran, ISIL, Ebola, and Russia’s actions in Ukraine. 
SUNDAY, January 18:

Bad Logic: Russian Ban On Transsexual Drivers Defies Road-Safety Stats

A map of European traffic-death rates (see infographic below)

In the wake of Russia's decision to disqualify transsexual and transgender people from holding driving licenses, activists have gone out of their way to explain that sexual orientation has no bearing on one's driving ability.

They have called on Moscow to cancel the ban, which also targets anyone deemed to suffer from sexual "disorders" -- including fetishism, voyeurism, and "wearing clothes of the opposite sex in order to experience temporarily membership of the opposite sex."

Such pleas are likely to fall on deaf ears in the Kremlin, which has overseen a tough crackdown on sexual minorities.

There is, needless to say, no evidence linking transgender people, crossdressers, or homosexuals with reckless driving.

Quite on the contrary, road-safety statistics show that the countries most tolerant of sexual minorities also have some of the world's safest roads.

INFOGRAPHIC: European traffic deaths (click for interactive map)

The opposite is also true: Russia, with its stringent laws against "nontraditional sexual relations," and other gay-unfriendly countries in the post-Soviet space have the highest traffic-related death rates in Europe.

About 19 per 100,000 people die on Russian roads each year. In Sweden, a country that allows same-sex marriage in church, this figure drops to three -- a shocking disparity, especially considering that Swedes own twice as many cars per capita as Russians.

A myriad different factors naturally come into play here, and the correlation between sexual tolerance and road safety is a flawed one. Just as flawed as the notion that sexual minorities should be banned from the roads.

-- Claire Bigg

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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