Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Aliyev Decree Frees Three Azerbaijani Activists, Many Still Jailed

Basir Suleymanli (second from right), who heads an election-monitoring NGO, after his release from prison under President Ilham Aliyev's clemency decree on March 19.

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

BAKU -- Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has pardoned more than 100 inmates ahead of Norouz, the New Year holiday, including three who were seen by government opponents and rights activists as political prisoners.

Rights groups welcomed the releases but said many Azerbaijanis remain behind bars on false charges, and urged Western governments to step up pressure on the former Soviet republic to set them free.

Human Rights Watch said the pardons "signal no fundamental change in the government’s campaign to lock up and silence independent critical voices."

Amnesty International called the decree a "little gesture to appease critics" in the run-up to the 2015 European Games, which Azerbaijan will host in June.

Inmates released under a clemency decree signed by Aliyev on March 18 included Orxan Eyyubzade, a prominent blogger, Basir Suleymanli, a leader of an election-monitoring NGO, and activist Anar Qasimli.

Eyyubzade was arrested in May for taking part in an unsanctioned rally in Baku and was serving a two-year sentence for resisting police.

Suleymanli, who was deputy director of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center in Baku, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison after being convicted of tax evasion and related offenses -- crimes he said he did not commit.

Qasimli was jailed several years ago for protesting against a hijab ban at schools in Azerbaijan, a predominantly Muslim country whose government sees expressions of faith as a potential challenge to secular rule.

Aliyev, who succeeded his long-ruling father as president of the oil-producing Caspian Sea state in 2003, has shrugged off mounting pressure from rights groups and Western governments to halt what critics say is a systematic clampdown on dissent.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that many inmates should never have been jailed and that dozens of activists, journalists, and others who have challenged the government remain behind bars.

Aliyev's decree "is incredibly happy news for all of those pardoned and their families, but there is little else to celebrate," New York-based HRW said in a statement on March 18.

The pardons "signal no fundamental change in the government’s campaign to lock up and silence independent critical voices," it said.

Suleymanli and Ayyubzade "never should have been imprisoned in the first place," HRW added.

It said that two days before the decree was issued, an activist with the opposition party Musavat, Sirac Karimli, was sentenced to six years on "trumped-up" drug-possession charges.

Anar Mammadli, the chief of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, received the same sentence as Suleymanli and remains in prison.

Among others behind bars, HRW cited Leyla Yunus, a prominent human rights activist whose husband is also jailed; Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor; human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev; and Rasul Jafarov, a youth activist who planned a Sport for Rights campaign ahead of the European Games.

HRW called on the European Union, the United States, the European Olympic committees, and other "key partners of Azerbaijan to "urgently press the authorities to immediately and unconditionally free everyone still behind bars on bogus charges."

In a statement on March 19, Amnesty International said that if Aliyev's government "is really serious about human rights, it will release all the prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally."

"Arrests of critics of the government on politically motivated charges must stop," it said.

Russian Rights Center Fined Under 'Foreign Agent' Law

A Moscow court has fined a prominent Russian human rights advocacy group for refusal to register as a "foreign agent" under a law Kremlin critics say is putting a chill on civil society.

The court ruled on March 18 that the organization For Human Rights violated the law and must pay a 300,000-ruble ($4,850) fine. 

The 2012 legislation requires all nongovernmental organizations that receiving money from abroad and are deemed to engage in political activity to register as foreign agents. 

The leader of For Human Rights, veteran rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, said he will appeal the ruling.

He said his group will continue to oppose the requirement that NGOs register as foreign agents.

Russian and international human rights organizations say the law is part of a Kremlin campaign to silence independent voices during President Vladimir Putin's third term. 

They say the government uses it to impose pressure on NGOs.

Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax

Three Kazakh Police Officers Sentenced For Torture

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

AQTOBE, Kazakhstan -- Three Kazakh police officers have been convicted and sentenced to prison for torturing a suspect in a rare ruling in the Central Asian state.

After convicting the three defendants at a trial on March 17, a court in the northwestern city of Aqtobe sentenced two of them to three years in prison apiece for torturing a man suspected of stealing a piece of jewelry.

The third defendant received a suspended three-year sentence, meaning he will not be sent to prison.

Activists have criticized Kazakhstan over its human rights record under President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has been in power since the Soviet era and appears certain to win a new five-year term in an early election set for April 26.

Rights groups have said torture is a widespread practice among police and in penitentiaries, but prosecutions are rare in the tightly controlled, energy-rich country of 17 million.

International human rights watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused the Kazakh authorities of falling short of keeping their promise to the United Nations in 2010 "to totally eliminate all vestiges of torture."

The rights groups' reports for 2013 and 2014 said that cases of torture by law enforcement officers and investigators were reported across Kazakhstan and that instances of forced confinement to psychiatric clinics, a measure imposed on dissidents in the Soviet era, were also reported.

Kazakh authorities often brush aside such criticism or deny torture accusations, but there have been some recent cases in which police have been prosecuted on suspicion of torture.

In January 2013, a court in the northern region of Qostanai set a precedent for Kazakhs and other Central Asians seeking redress for police torture by upholding a decision to award compensation to a man who was tortured by the police in 2007.

In November 2013, two police officers in the northern Aqmola region were sentenced to three years in jail for torture.

In July 2014, a court in the western city of Atyrau sentenced three police officers to prison terms of between one and two years for torturing a suspect.

Last month, two police officers in the northern city of Pavlodar were sentenced to one year in jail each for torturing a suspect.

With reporting by Tengrinews

Pakistan Hangs 12 For 'Heinous Crimes'

Relatives and volunteers move the body of a convicted militant from the banned Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) from the central jail in Karachi to an ambulance after he was executed in early February, more than a month after Pakistan's unofficial moratorium on capital punishment was lifted.

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 17.03.2015 14:51


Pakistan has hanged 12 convicts, the largest number of people executed on the same day since an unofficial moratorium on capital punishment was lifted in December.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said the men put to death on March 17 included not only "terrorists" but convicted murderers and others who committed "heinous crimes."

Prison officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said eight of the convicts were hanged in Punjab Province, while the other two were hanged in the southern city of Karachi.

In Punjab, three murder convicts were executed from the central town of Jhang, two from Rawalpindi near the capital, one from Multan, one from Faisalabad, and one from Gujranwala.

Two other planned executions for March 17 have been stayed by courts due to compromises with the victims' families.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lifted a de facto moratorium on capital punishment on December 17, a day after Pakistani Taliban gunmen attacked a school and killed more than 150 people, most of them children.

Twenty-seven people have been hanged since then, most of them convicted as militants involved in terrorist crimes.

However, last week it emerged that officials have quietly widened the policy to include all prisoners on death row whose appeals have been rejected.

Human rights group Amnesty International estimates that Pakistan has more than 8,000 prisoners on death row, most of whom have exhausted the appeals process.

Rights campaigners have been highly critical of the death penalty, citing problematic convictions in Pakistan's criminal justice system, which they say is riddled with widespread police torture and unfair trials.

The European Union has also raised the issue of capital punishment with Pakistan's authorities -- in particular, the case of one man who was condemned to death as a teenager.

Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, the head of the EU delegation to Pakistan, said on March 17 that "executing a person who committed a crime when he was underage is in violation of international law."

"We do not believe that the death penalty is a deterrent,” he added. “We are furthermore concerned with possible miscarriages of justice."

The EU granted Pakistan the much coveted GSP+ (generalized system of preferences) status in 2014, giving Islamabad access to highly favorable trade tariffs, conditional on Pakistan enacting certain commitments on human rights.

With reporting by Reuters and Geo TV

Russian Rights Official Not Allowed To See Nemtsov Killing Suspects


The head of the Russian presidential human rights council says he has not been allowed to visit detained suspects in the killing of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. 

Mikhail Fedotov told Interfax news agency on March 16 that he and his colleague Kirill Kabanov were not allowed to visit the five suspects on March 13.

He added that there was no official document from investigators explaining the prohibition.

On March 11, Andrei Babushkin, also a member of the presidential human rights council, was questioned by Russian investigators after visiting three of the suspects held in a Moscow pretrial detention jail.

Babushkin said after the visit there were signs that one of the suspects, Zaur Dadayev, had been tortured into making a confession.

He quoted officers from Russia’s Investigative Committee as telling him that he may no longer visit suspects in the case because he is a witness.

Nemtsov was gunned down near the Kremlin on February 27. 

With reporting by Interfax

UN Envoy Says Human Rights Deteriorated In Iran

The UN rights investigator on Iran has hailed "some limited improvements" in the country since the 2013 election of President Hassan Rohani but warned "the overall situation has worsened."

The UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, spoke to reporters in Geneva on March 16 before presenting his latest report on the human rights situation in Iran to the UN Human Rights Council.

He said more than 200 people have been executed in Iran so far this year after 753 known executions last year, which was the highest annual figure since 2002.

Shaheed said Iran has also introduced a number of laws putting pressure on dissidents, rights activists, and journalists.

But the UN expert expressed hope a possible resolution of Iran’s nuclear dispute with the international community will improve the human rights situation.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

Russian Bill Would Bar Foreigners From Protests

A Russian ruling-party lawmaker has drafted a bill that would prohibit foreigners from participating in public protests and other demonstrations.

United Russia member Yevgeny Fyodorov said on March 12 that the draft law has been presented to the State Duma, the lower parliament house, for discussions.

Fyodorov said the proposal is aimed "to prevent provocations during mass political rallies and subsequent civil unrest."

More than 400 people were detained after violence erupted at a protest on the eve of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration to a third term in May 2012.

Several people have been tried and imprisoned over the violence at the rally on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square, which the government and protesters blame on one another.

Investigators claimed that the protest was orchestrated by a Georgian politician. 

Since then, Russia has tightened regulations for protests and increased punishment for violations, part of what rights activists say is a methodical clampdown on dissent.

Based on reporting by RIA and Moskovsky Komsomolets

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