Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Iran Warns Bahrain Over Top Shi'ite Cleric

Bahraini protesters hold up posters of Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Isa Qassem during an antigovernment demonstration in 2013.

A senior Iranian military figure has warned Bahrain's government of armed struggle after the Sunni-ruled kingdom's most prominent Shi’ite cleric was stripped of his citizenship.

In a June 20 statement, Bahrain's Interior Ministry accused Ayatollah Isa Qassem of using his position to "serve foreign interests" -- an apparent reference to Shi’ite Iran -- and promote "sectarianism and violence."

After the decision was announced, reports say thousands of Qassem's supporters gathered outside his house in the village of Diraz to show their support for the cleric, who has backed protests led by Bahrain's Shi’ite majority for greater civil and political rights.

In a statement carried by Iran's semiofficial Fars news agency, the commander of the country's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Qasem Soleimani, warned Bahrain's government that it faces "dire repercussions" for its action against Qassem.

Soleimani said the response may include "armed resistance” and the "overthrow"of the ruling dynasty.

In a statement published by the Tasnim news agency, Iran's Foreign Ministry urged the Bahraini government "not to burn all the bridges that connect the government to the people" and "to hold serious national talks to end the current crisis."

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s Shi'ite militant group Hizballah warned that the move against the cleric would have "grave consequences" and called on Bahrainis to "express their indignation."

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United States was "alarmed" by Bahrain's decision to revoke Qassem's citizenship, saying it is "unaware of any credible evidence to support this action."

Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.

Based on reporting by Fars, Reuters, and AP

Pakistani Man Arrested For Blasphemy After Selling Shoes With Hindu Symbol

Pakistani police have arrested a man under the majority-Muslim country's strict blasphemy laws for selling shoes with a sacred Hindu symbol.

District Police Chief Farrukh Ali said the shopkeeper, Jahanzaib Khaskhili, was arrested on June 20 in the southern town of Tando Adam.

Ali said the shoes, emblazoned with a symbol for the sacred Hindu syllable Om, were confiscated.

If convicted, the shopkeeper faces a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.

Leaders of the Hindu community, including Punjabi Sikhs who worship the symbol itself as a deity, called for the shopkeeper to be arrested under Pakistan’s blasphemy legislation.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are usually enforced against people accused of making derogatory remarks about Islam or willfully desecrating the Koran.

Critics have said the laws are unfairly applied and often used to settle personal scores.

Based on reporting by Reuters and BBC


Kazakh Activist Announces Hunger Strike Over Land Reforms

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- The head of a nongovernmental organization in Kazahstan that helps with the legal defense of jailed journalists has started a hunger strike to protest the government's controversial land reform program.

Ramazan Esergepov, president of Journalists in Trouble, announced his hunger strike in Almaty on June 20.

Esergepov is calling on the government to make "clear explanations" about its postponed agricultural land privatization plan.

He also wants authorities to release information about activists jailed for protesting the plan.

In April and May, thousands across Kazakhstan protested against a land privatization plan that had been scheduled to begin on July 1.

The protests led the government to delay implementation of the plan until 2017.

But hundreds of protesters were arrested.

Many were released later but several remain in pre-trial detention on charges of inciting social discord. 

Kyrgyz Activists Protest Bill Banning Foreign Media Ownership

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

BISHKEK -- A group of civil rights activists rallied in front of the Kyrgyz parliament building to protest a proposal to ban foreign individuals and organizations from owning and establishing media outlets in the country.

About a dozen activists held placards on June 16 saying: "Lawmaker, hands off Radio Azattyk!" which is a reference to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

The rally was held as lawmakers began discussion of a June 10 proposal by a group of parliament members to introduce the amendments to the mass-media law.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, which has a bureau in Bishkek, has been a major independent source of information in the Central Asian country for decades and is also broadcast by the country's main state broadcaster.

Well-known civil rights activist Rita Karasartova said at the rally that "the hastily proposed bill's major goal is to curb the flow of independent and timely information in Kyrgyzstan."

"Radio Azattyk has been the only source of trustworthy information that civil rights activists could refer to when there were obstacles at state-controlled media platforms," Karasartova said.

Kyrgyz lawmakers decided to postpone debate on the bill until next week.

Video Gay Couple In Moscow Face Prosecution Over 'Love' Tribute To Orlando Victims

A screen grab of two men being arrested outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow after they placed a sign at a makeshift shrine to the victims of a mass shooting in a gay nightclub in Florida.

Diana Munasipova and Claire Bigg

A gay couple has unexpectedly landed in hot water with Russian authorities after attempting to pay tribute to the victims of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. 

Feliks Glyukman and Islam Abdullabekov were detained by police when they showed up at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on June 13 with flowers, candles, and a large sign saying "Love wins."

If charged, they face up to 10 days behind bars and a minimum fine of 20,000 rubles ($303) for allegedly holding an unsanctioned picket. 

"I think it’s a disgrace, to put it mildly," Glyukman, a 24-year-old art critic, told RFE/RL.

Glyukman said he and Abdullabekov, a 21-year-old social-media manager, came to the makeshift memorial outside the embassy to express their condolences, not rally for gay rights. 

"We took our placard out of a bag and walked up to the memorial, we wanted to put it on the ground along with flowers and candles," he said. "But when we put the placard down a police officer came up, picked it up, and tried to return it to me. One of his colleagues, a young woman, joined him. When we refused to leave, they grabbed us by the arm and took us to their vehicle."

Footage of the detention captured by correspondent from RFE/RL’s Russian Service shows the young men getting into a police car. 

WATCH: Men Arrested In Moscow After Orlando Tribute

Men Arrested While Paying Respects To Orlando Victims In Moscowi
June 15, 2016
Two men were arrested while laying a placard declaring "Love Wins," to pay their respects to the victims of the Orlando mass shooting, at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Russia has strict laws against "promoting" homosexuality. The men later said they'd been accused of breaking protest laws. The incident occured as RFE/RL's Russian Service was interviewing a mourner during a live stream.

Glyukman said they were then taken to a police station, questioned, and locked up. He said police officers made several references to their sexual orientation and accused them of holding a picket without official permission. 

They were released three hours later after their lawyer, Sergei Panchenko, intervened. 

Panchenko said their detention was illegal and dismissed the accusations leveled against the pair as unfounded. "There was no picket, no rally, no protest," he said. "They didn’t exhibit this sign, they didn’t brandish it or stand with it. They just came and laid it on the ground."

Mumin Shakirov, one of the RFE/RL journalists who witnessed the incident, said police had been under persistent pressure from several antigay activists to remove LGBT symbols from the memorial.

"Before this, the atmosphere was already tense due to presence of [Russian] Orthodox activists," he said. "There were three of them, they were demanding that the rainbow flag that lay among the flowers be removed."

Although Glyukman and Abdullabekov have not been charged under the so-called gay "propaganda" law, their detention has raised suspicion that police sought to preempt a potential protest by members of Russia's beleaguered lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. 

A controversial law signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2013 bans the dissemination of "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors. Activists say its adoption has sparked a rise in violence and harassment of LGBT people across the country.

"These actions do not simply target citizens, they directly target the LGBT community," Panchenko said. "We hope that authorities will close this shameful case."

Along with expressions of grief, the Orlando shooting has also generated a barrage of homophobic comments in Russia.

On June 12, a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at the Pulse nightclub in the Florida city in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

The Breaking Of A Tajik Defense Lawyer

Lawyer Ishoq Tabarov had lost about 20 kilograms in the final turbulent months of his life.

Bruce Pannier

Ishoq Tabarov was known for defending Tajiks who most needed defending. He was a rare lawyer for Tajikistan, one who would take cases representing opposition figures, people who some would say had already been marked for exclusion from society by the authorities.

Tabarov died during the evening of June 12, officially of a heart attack. But there is a big difference between a heart attack and a broken heart, and some feel it was the latter that actually led to Tabarov's death on his 61st birthday.

Tabarov defended many people who -- to put it mildly -- were not viewed kindly by the Tajik government. Tabarov's best-known client was Zayd Saidov, once a successful businessman and someone who enjoyed good connections with the government.

In April of 2013, the year of Tajikistan's last presidential election, Saidov declared his intention to create a new political party: Tojikistoni Nau, or New Tajikistan. The next month, Saidov faced a series of charges ranging from financial wrongdoing to sexual assault and polygamy. Government opponents had faced charges before, but in Saidov's case the charges were numerous and covered a wide array of violations.

His case was really hopeless from the start, but Tabarov and fellow defense lawyers Shukhrat Kudratov and Fakhriddin Zokirov agreed to defend Saidov. Saidov's defense team repeatedly pointed to procedural violations and flimsy evidence during the trial process. Tabarov even showed that evidence used by prosecutors to substantiate a rape charge was fake; but to no avail. In December 2013, Saidov was found guilty of financial fraud, polygamy, and sexual relations with a minor and sentenced to 26 years in prison.

Losing the case was only the start of the problems.

Anticorruption police arrested Zokirov in March 2014 and kept him in detention until November 2014, when he was amnestied. However, he was arrested again on extortion charges in August and released in November after paying an approximately $2,000 fine.

Fellow defense lawyer Kudratov, who is also the deputy leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, was arrested on bribery charges in July 2014. He was found guilty of that charge and fraud at a trial in January 2015 and sentenced to nine years in jail, which was later reduced on appeal to three years and eight months.

Tabarov wondered if he was next to be arrested. In fact, he wasn't that lucky.

Instead, Tabarov's oldest son, 27-year-old Firuz, was arrested in July. Ishoq Tabarov said his son was tortured into making a confession in pretrial detention. Firuz Tabarov was found guilty on February 11 of serious crimes, including extremism and facilitating mercenary fighters, and sentenced to 13 1/2 years in prison.

In March, another son, Daler Tabarov, was arrested on charges of failing to report a crime. On June 2, just 10 days before his father died, Daler was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail.

'It Broke Him Completely'

Ishoq Tabarov's wife, Zuhro Sherova, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, that in recent months her husband had trouble breathing and had lost about 20 kilograms. "He worried a lot about the arrest and imprisonment of our son Firuz, and when they sent our second son Daler to prison, it broke him [Ishoq] completely," Sherova said.

Members of Tabarov's family said the cause of his death is not clear, despite reports that he died of a heart attack.

Steve Swerdlow, Central Asian researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), has been tireless in trying to help and highlight the cases of opposition figures, activists, and others who have encountered legal and other entanglements, not only in Tajikistan but throughout Central Asia.

He has been keeping a close eye on the Tabarov family's problems. He told Qishloq Ovozi, "While the exact circumstances of Mr. Tabarov's death are not yet fully known, Human Rights Watch is aware of the terrible moral and psychological toll he had been under for many months due to the politically-motivated attacks on his family and the imprisonment of both of his sons in a matter of months."

Tabarov also lived long enough to see other attorneys put on trial who were known for defending government opponents and rights activists.

HRW, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and Amnesty International have released statements questioning the legal processes against Buzurgmehr Yorov, Nuriddin Makhamov, and others. 

And before Tabarov died, he witnessed Tajik authorities starting work to disbar attorneys who defended perceived enemies and nuisances of the state through the introduction of a new mandatory test for all lawyers. Some Tajik attorneys and international rights organizations have noted the new test contains many questions that have nothing to do with the law but all the same can lead to a suspension of licenses to practice law if not answered correctly.

Based on material from RFE/RL's Tajik Service

Iranian Daily Targeted Over Article Critical Of Tehran Detention Facility

The daily Ghanoon (file photo)


An Iranian newspaper is facing legal action over an article critical of detention conditions at a penitentiary facility in Tehran, with a senior prosecutor blaming such writings for public feelings of "hopelessness."

The June 11 piece, titled Damned 24 Hours, was based on the experience of a detainee who claimed his brief time in quarantine there was a "nightmare."

The reason for his detention was not clear from the report.

Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi has dismissed the daily Ghanoon article as a "lie" and said the paper's editor in chief will be prosecuted following a complaint by the country's prison authorities.

Speaking on June 14, Dolatabadi said there have been many such "negative headlines and articles" that create "hopelessness" and "worry" among citizens.

Ghanoon said detainees at the facility, located south of the capital, are only granted access to nonpotable water of "poor quality" for two hours per day.

The article also quoted the unnamed detainee as saying that he and other prisoners were insulted by guards at the facility and that his coat was cut to pieces before it and his other clothes and shoes were dumped in a garbage can.

He said he was freed at night without his belongings, including his keys, watch, and money.

"The prisoner is left on his own in the dark desert without any money while wearing a pair of plastic slippers, hoping that a passing car might pick him up out of mercy," he was quoted by Ghanoon as saying.

Iranian media routinely face tough state censorship and the threat of closure by state authorities. 

Ghanoon was temporarily banned in 2014 over a news report about the release from custody over possible corruption charges against a former member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and manager of a soccer club. Judiciary authorities claimed the report was "false."

About This Blog

"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.

Journalists In Trouble

RFE/RL journalists take risks, face threats, and make sacrifices every day in an effort to gather the news. Our "Journalists In Trouble" page recognizes their courage and conviction, and documents the high price that many have paid simply for doing their jobs. More