Thursday, July 02, 2015

Iranian Hard-Liners Protest Women's Presence In Sports Stadiums

In the past, women in Iran had been allowed to attend some male volleyball and basketball games. Last year, however, they were banned from entering sports stadium to watch men's volleyball. (file photo)

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian hard-liners demonstrated in front of the Sports Ministry in Tehran on June 17 to protest the possible presence of women in sports stadiums.
The protest followed reports that a limited number of Iranian women could be allowed to attend two upcoming international male volleyball matches, including one on June 19.
Iranian women are currently banned from entering stadiums to watch male sporting events. But earlier this month, Iran's vice president for women and family affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, told the Associated Press news agency that the ban will be partially lifted and that women will be allowed into stadiums to watch sports such as men's volleyball, basketball, and tennis. 
Molaverdi's announcement followed criticism by the international soccer and volleyball officials -- as well as women's rights advocates -- that angered hard-liners who vowed to fight the initiative.
Amid the controversy, Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli was quoted by domestic media as saying that there are no new "instructions" regarding the presence of women in sports stadiums. 
Iran's official news agency, IRNA, reported that demonstrators at the June 17 protest in Tehran said allowing women to watch male sporting events is against Islam and that those behind such moves should be put on trial.
Iran's reformist Shargh daily reported on Twitter that some of the protesters called for Molaverdi to be sacked. 

The group of protesters, which IRNA said numbered less than 100, later held prayers in front of the Sports Ministry. 

The controversy highlights the power struggle in Iran between the government of self-proclaimed moderate President Hassan Rohani, who favors fewer social restrictions, and powerful hard-liners who oppose any kind of relaxation of strict social and political rules in the Islamic republic.
In the past, women in Iran had been allowed to attend some male volleyball and basketball games. Last year, however, they were banned from entering sports stadium to watch men's volleyball.
Authorities in Tehran used force to disperse women's rights activists who staged a June 2014 protest against the ban. One of the protesters, Iranian-British activist Ghoncheh Ghavami, was arrested and later sentenced to a year in prison.
Ghavami was released on bail after spending five months in jail. In April, an appeals court dropped the charges against her.
Iranian women's rights advocates have for years campaigned for allowing women to attend all male sporting events, including soccer, which is immensely popular in Iran.
Hard-liners have argued that women's presence at male sporting events is inappropriate because of the athletes' uniforms and the crude language common in the stadiums.

Activists Ask Facebook For Protection Against Pro-Kremlin Attacks

Dmitry Volchek

On June 4, Ukrainian journalist and activist Andriy Kapustin posted on Facebook a selfie with former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who's now governor of Ukraine's Odesa region.

"I'm interested to see if once again the bots from Olgino will once again file fresh complaints that this is pornography," he wrote in the post, referring to the St. Petersburg suburb where a notorious pro-Kremlin troll factory has been documented. 

And, sure enough, that is exactly what happened. Kapustin's Facebook account was briefly blocked pending an investigation into complaints of pornography. 

Kapustin's story is far from unique. Over the last nine months or so, dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of Russians and Ukrainians have had their Facebook accounts temporarily suspended over spurious accusations made by pro-Kremlin users upset by the political views they have expressed.

Until quite recently, in fact, there was even a Facebook page called Bots From Olgino, where supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin bragged about their censorship successes.

Russian journalist and blogger Ostap Karmodi has had enough. He initiated a petition on asking Facebook to unblock "all Russian and Ukrainian user accounts which were blocked during the last several weeks" and to stop blocking accounts "until a new moderation system, designed to withstand paid troll attacks and prevent misuse to achieve political aims, is put in place."

About 11,500 people have signed the petition, including many notables such as Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, novelist Boris Akunin, poet Veronika Dolina, and longtime rights activist Pavel Litvinov.

"The mass blocking inside the Russian and Ukrainian segments of Facebook started in the fall of 2014," Karmodi told RFE/RL's Russian Service in a written interview. "But since April or May of this year, the number of cases has grown significantly."

"Several Ukrainians report that they are blocked within hours of having an earlier ban lifted," Karmodi added. "If they can't find an excuse in any new posts, the trolls go looking for grounds to complain in posts from last year or the year before."

Facebook Response

The list of accounts that have been targeted and then blocked by Facebook is long: Ukrainian artists Oleksandr Roitburd, Ukrainian politician Borislav Bereza, Russian journalist Anton Krasovsky, Russian businessman and blogger Slava Rabinovich, Ukrainian poet Andriy Bondar, Russian activist Sergei Parkhomenko, and many others.

Russian blogger and photographer Rustem Adagamov had his account blocked in May after Facebook received complaints he was promoting fascism by posting a photograph of Nazi-era Christmas decorations that he took at a museum in Norway.

"I know perfectly well where the hundreds of complaints about my Facebook account are coming from," Adagamov told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "I am constantly getting notices about such complaints, some of them quite absurd. Certain structures that receive financing in order to combat dissent in the Russian-language Internet are looking for ways [to] affect people they don't like. And Facebook is really helping them in this."

On June 8, Facebook published a response to Karmodi's petition in which it defended its systems for responding to complaints and denied that large numbers of complaints influence its decisions.

"It doesn't matter if something is reported once or 100 times, we only remove content that goes against [our] standards," the response states. It says that with 1.4 billion users, a "small number" of mistakes have happened but that Facebook has mechanisms in place for correcting errors.

A few days later, the organizers of the petition answered Facebook, saying the company's response indicates it doesn't "understand the gravity of the problem." They direct Facebook to a June 2 New York Times Magazine article about the Ogino troll factory and assert, "We have good reasons to believe that your moderation system is being exploited by people paid from the same sources and using similar methods."

Although generally the blocked accounts are quickly restored, activists argue that the bans are significant -- which is why the pro-Kremlin Internet activists seek them. They annoy and distract their targets and could lead to self-censorship. They often block access to information at the very moment when a story is unfolding and getting the most attention.

"Tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian bloggers no longer feel safe on Facebook," Karmodi told RFE/RL. "They know that they are potential targets for trolls and that their accounts can be blocked at any moment."

Last week, RFE/RL reported on Russian teenager Vlad Kolesnikov, who had been kicked out of school and rejected by relatives over his opposition to Russia's aggression in Ukraine. Completely isolated in the real world, Kolesnikov told RFE/RL he was buoyed by the massive outpouring of support he received via Facebook. 

His account was temporarily blocked as soon as the story was published.

"In the virtual war, the Kremlin's team is winning for now," Karmodi said, "and, either intentionally or through thoughtlessness, Facebook's administration is fighting on their side."

Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague

Video U2 Demands Freedom For Azerbaijani Political Prisoners

Rock Star Bono Speaks Out For Political Prisoners In Azerbaijani
June 16, 2015
Rock singer and political activist Bono spoke out against rights abuses in Azerbaijan during a concert with his band U2 in Montreal on June 13. Bono named six Azerbaijanis who he said "are locked behind bars for the crime of expressing their opinion" -- Khadija Ismayilova, Emin Huseynov, Anar Mammadli, Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, and Intigam Aliyev. The singer made the statement at the request of the Sport For Rights campaign, an initiative launched to raise the issue of Azerbaijan's rights abuses as it hosts the European Games in Baku. (Video courtesy of the Sport For Rights campaign)
WATCH: Rock Star Bono Speaks Out For Political Prisoners In Azerbaijan
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

Irish rock band U2 is demanding freedom for political prisoners in Azerbaijan, using the stage of its current North American concert tour to call attention to activists and journalists imprisoned by Azerbaijani authorities for speaking up about human rights.

Lead singer Bono made impassioned appeals at U2's June 12 and 13 concerts in Montreal's Bell Centre arena during the performance of the song Pride (In The Name Of Love).

Bono named Emin Huseynov, RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova, Anar Mammadli, Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, and Intigam Aliyev while their photos were displayed on a massive projection screen above the audiences of more than 21,000 each.

Probably unbeknownst to the band, Huseynov had quietly been shuttled out of Azerbaijan just an hour before the June 12 appeal, hitching a ride with Switzerland's foreign minister when the latter departed after the opening ceremony of the inaugural European Games in Baku. The 35-year-old head of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety had been sheltered at the Swiss Embassy since August after Azerbaijani authorities targeted him with criminal charges that were widely seen as specious, and Swiss authorities said his departure from the country was the subject of months of quiet negotiations.

Huseynov now reportedly has three months to decide if he will seek asylum in Switzerland.

But the other five remain in Azerbaijani jails, either on convictions or in lengthy pretrial custody.

On June 12, Bono told the crowd that "free speech and expression are the building blocks of freedom."

As the audience sang along, he said, "Now we will sing tonight to Azerbaijan. Come on, you can hear us," then told the crowd, "Sing for Emin, Khadija, Anar, Rasul, Intigam -- for the right to speech and to speak truth to power."

On June 13, Bono told the crowd: "Blessed are the freedom makers. Sing for Amnesty. ... Six friends of ours who tonight are locked behind bars for the crime of expressing their opinion. Sing. Sing for Amnesty. Sing for Emin, Khadija, Rasul, Intigam, Anar, and Leyla. Sing. Sing a message of love from a city of love, Montreal. Sing.

"And a message to [Azerbaijani] President [Ilham] Aliyev. And that message is this, sir: If anything happens to one of our friends, we will hold you responsible!"

The band's official website described Bono's speech about the jailed Azerbaijani activists and journalists as "one of the biggest moments" of the June 13 concert.

U2's official website also noted that human rights activists from Amnesty International have been banned from attending the European Games that opened in Baku on June 12.

Bono's appeal was made at the request of Sport For Rights, an international coalition of nongovernmental organizations that promote human rights.

Sport For Rights coordinator Rebecca Vincent said the coalition is "thrilled that Bono spoke out on behalf of our jailed colleagues in Azerbaijan, including Sport For Rights founder Rasul Jafarov."

Vincent said "the world knows what is really taking place" in Azerbaijan and "will not keep silent."

UN Chief Brings Rights Message To Central Asia, Few Hear It

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon honors the memory of those killed in Kyrgyzstan's Osh region in 2010 -- one of the few things Uzbek media reported.

Bruce Pannier

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made a five-day, five-country tour through Central Asia last week. There was a long list of topics for Ban to bring up as he made his way through Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan but the big question for many was whether he would press the region's governments on human rights issues.

To the secretary-general's credit, he did. And he picked Turkmenistan -- the country with, arguably, the worst rights record of the five -- as the venue to deliver his most blistering criticisms.

The problem is, almost no one in Turkmenistan, or in Central Asia, heard the message.

Addressing a group of students in Ashgabat on June 13, Ban said, "I have heard concerns about the deterioration of some aspects of human rights -- a shrinking of democratic space."

He continued: "There may not be protests on the streets. But the denial of free expression leads to a brewing underneath and ultimately a breeding ground for extremist ideologies."

"The failure to respect human rights, build accountable institutions, promote political participation, and ensure opportunity for all creates gaps," Ban said. "The wider the gaps, the greater the openings for violent extremists. I see this phenomenon on the rise in the region and it troubles me greatly."

At a briefing with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Ban reportedly asked for concrete steps to improve Turkmenistan's rights record and specifically requested independent observers be allowed to visit prisons.

Ban also mentioned the need to "move toward media pluralism, freedom of expression and access to information, including through social media," saying, "A robust civil society is crucial for national development."

The UN chief called on Turkmenistan's government "to strengthen its partnership with nascent civil society in Turkmenistan."

Selectively Deaf

These were good words, though any Turkmen citizen delivering such a public oratory would likely be quickly hustled to jail. It should also be noted that few citizens in Turkmenistan have access to the Internet and Turkmenistan does not really have anything that resembles a genuine civil society,

But Ban said exactly what rights activists were hoping to hear while he was in Central Asia. The problem is, the secretary-general's speech was not broadcast live and his message was definitely lost in local media coverage.

Turkmen state media reported on Ban's visit, saying that Turkmenistan was working with the UN to improve democratic institutions and gender equality, and to alleviate the effects of climate change. Berdymukhammedov was shown discussing Afghanistan and "reliable and stable transit of energy resources to world markets" with Ban, the latter topic being a perennial in Berdymukhammedov's meetings with almost every international figure.

The situation was similar in Uzbekistan. Ban met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and urged Karimov to stop using forced labor in cotton fields and improve the treatment and conditions of prisoners.

Uzbek media focused on Karimov discussing the security situation in Afghanistan, "the growing radicalization, conflicts, violence," and the problems of the shrinking Aral Sea with Ban.

Curiously, Uzbek TV's First Channel reported that Karimov spoke with Ban about the secretary-general's brief visit to Osh, Kyrgyzstan, during the fifth anniversary of ethnic violence there between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. The report showed Karimov agreeing with comments Ban made in Osh that "the resolution of this problem has still not been finished. There has been no investigation and no serious consequences not only for those who committed this carnage, but also for those who ordered it. They should have been punished."

No mention of Andijon there, however.

A statement posted on the Uzbek government's website said Ban praised Uzbekistan for "ensuring the rule of law and protecting human rights, safeguarding motherhood and childhood, improving the education system."

Ban is far from being the first foreign dignitary to carry a critical message to Central Asia about failures to respect rights only to have state media selectively report a trip full of praise for governmental policies. But the UN secretary-general's recent trip does underscore once more the difficulty heads of state and leaders of international organizations have in getting their message to the people of Central Asia.

Azerbaijan Media Print Falsified Version Of Jailed Journalist's Appeal

"It is the latest incident in many years of attacks against Khadija, and shows that they still fear what she has to say, even from behind bars," says one international rights activist.

Robert Coalson

Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova has written several open letters since she was jailed without trial in Baku in December 2014. But none of them has gotten any notice in Azerbaijan's state-controlled mass media. That is, until now.

Ismayilova, who is a contributor to RFE/RL, published a letter in The New York Times on June 11 to mark the opening in Baku of the first-ever European Games.

Two days later, state news media in Azerbaijan were distributing what purported to be the same letter in both comically broken English and Azeri, even mimicking the same headline of the original.

But the version printed in Baku differs wildly from Ismayilova's original.

"Azerbaijan's best and brightest have been locked up, tucked away for the European Games," Ismayilova wrote in The New York Times. "They didn't want you to see or hear us and our inconvenient truths."

That passage has been reproduced in Azerbaijan as: "Azerbaijan's worst and most villain (sic) have been locked up, tucked away for the European Games. They didn't want to see our crimes or hear our inconvenient lies."

In her original letter, Ismayilova calls on supporters to "keep fighting for human rights," while the Baku version urges them to "keep fighting for strengthening the fifth colon (sic)," apparently an attempt to label rights activists in the authoritarian country as fifth columnists.

In fact, the entire letter as published in the Azerbaijani media is a mirror-image paraphrase of the original, giving each sentence its opposite meaning. The letter has been distributed under Ismayilova's name and photograph with no indication that it has been manipulated or is satirical.

The falsified version of Ismayilova's letter first appeared on June 13 in Azeri and English on the website of the pro-government SIA news agency. It purports to be the same as the letter that appeared in The New York Times.

The same day, it was republished by the Kaspi news agency. One of Kaspi's founders is Sona Veliyeva, wife of Ali Hasanov, who heads the department of social and political issues within Azerbaijan's presidential administration. Hasanov and his wife were the subjects of one of Ismayilova's investigations

Other pro-government media in Azerbaijan have also run the false version.

"The false translation of Khadija's letter being circulated by the pro-government press in Azerbaijan is appalling, even by the low standards of the media outlets involved," Rebecca Vincent, a rights activist and coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign that is seeking to "draw attention to the repression, corruption, and censorship" behind Baku's hosting of the European Games, told RFE/RL in a written comment.

"It is the latest incident in many years of attacks against Khadija, and shows that they still fear what she has to say, even from behind bars."

The government of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has come under harsh criticism for its human rights record. Rights groups say some 100 political prisoners are being held in Azerbaijan and that many more activists and journalists face harassment and travel bans.

Ismayilova faces charges of tax evasion and being "an illegal entrepreneur," accusations that her supporters say are retaliation for her investigative reports into corruption by Aliyev and members of his family.

In the closing words of her letter in The New York Times, Ismayilova writes: "Don't call just for my freedom; call for the release of all political prisoners. Stand up for freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. Stand up for human rights."

The state media of Azerbaijan have "translated" this as: "Don't call just for my freedom; call for the release of all traitors. Stand up for 'freedom of abuse' in Azerbaijan. Stand up for traitors, national betrayers, 'Armenians' more than Armenians."

Amnesty Urges Stronger Action To Help Refugees

Amnesty International is urging world leaders to overhaul refugee policies and create a comprehensive global strategy to deal with the crisis.

The human rights watchdog issued a report on June 15 suggesting that world leaders have abandoned millions of refugees to "an unbearable existence" and left thousands more to die by failing to provide basic human protections.

The report estimates that 4 million people have fled Syria, with most living in poor conditions in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Amnesty says these countries are struggling to cope with the influx.

Salil Shetty, the group's secretary-general, described the refugee crisis as one of the defining challenges of the 21st century, "but the response of the international community has been a shameful failure."

Shetty is urging states to share responsibility internationally.

Based on reporting by AP and

UN Chief Warns Central Asia Over Crackdowns On Human Rights

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, on June 11


UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said crackdowns on human rights in Central Asia could backfire by encouraging extremism.

Ban spoke on June 13 to students at an international university in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, as he wrapped up a five-day regional tour.

Ban said he was impressed by Central Asia’s economic growth since his last visit five years ago, but added that he had "heard concerns about the deterioration of some aspects of human rights, a shrinking of democratic space."

He said crackdowns on rights could be triggered by "perceived security threats -- in particular, rising concerns about terrorism and violent extremism."

But he warned that governments may use such threats "as a pretext to clamp down on civil society, minorities, and human rights defenders."

"Curbing freedoms may create an illusion of stability in the short run,” he also said.

The UN chef said the failure to respect human rights, promote participation in politics, and create equal opportunities "creates gaps.”

“The wider the gaps, the greater the openings for violent extremists," he added.

"I see this phenomenon on the rise in the region and it troubles me greatly," he said, adding that "democracy in Central Asia can work."

At a briefing with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Ban called for steps to improve Turkmenistan’s rights record, including allowing independent observers to visit prisons.

He also urged Ashgabat to "move toward media pluralism, freedom of expression, and access to information.”

"In every corner of the world, a robust civil society is crucial for national development,” Ban said. “I urge the government to strengthen its partnership with the nascent civil society in Turkmenistan."

Ban traveled to Turkmenistan after visiting Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

On June 12 in Tashkent, he urged Uzbek President Islam Karimov to stop using forced labor in cotton fields and to improve the treatment of prisoners.

And on June 11, Ban urged Kyrgyzstan to hold an impartial investigation into ethnic clashes that killed more than 400 people in June 2010.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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