Sunday, February 07, 2016

Video MEPs Condemn Russia's 'Unprecedented' Abuses Against Crimean Tatars

Video Shows Raid On Crimean Tatar Businessi
February 04, 2016
This activist video shows a Russian police raid on the Simferopol headquarters of SimSitiTrans, a business owned by the father of Crimean Tatar activist Lenur Islyamov. Masked men, dressed in black and carrying assault rifles, refuse to answer any questions or present any ID.
WATCH: This activist video shows a Russian police raid on the Simferopol headquarters of SimSitiTrans, a business owned by the father of Crimean Tatar activist Lenur Islyamov. Masked men carrying assault rifles refuse to answer any questions or present any ID.
Robert Coalson and Crimean Desk, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

The European Parliament in Strasbourg has overwhelmingly adopted a resolution condemning Russia for its treatment of the Crimean Tatar population in the Ukrainian region of Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014.

"I think it is fitting and adequate that this parliament comes together in a joint resolution to highlight the human rights situation in the occupied Crimean territories," MEP Reinhard Butikofer, of Germany's Green Party, told RFE/RL on February 4. "In particular, the Crimean Tatars have been persecuted from the very beginning of the Russian invasion.”

The resolution "strongly condemns the unprecedented levels of human rights abuses perpetuated against Crimean residents, most notably Crimean Tatars, who do not follow the imposed rule of the so-called local authorities." It also calls on Russia to grant international institutions and human rights monitors "unimpeded access" to the region.
Crimean Tatars, who were deported en masse from Crimea by the Soviet authorities in 1944 and only allowed to begin returning home in the late 1980s, number about 240,000 on the Black Sea peninsula and comprise about 10 percent of its population. 

The overwhelming majority of Crimean Tatars have refused to recognize Russia's annexation of the region, which followed a military occupation and a referendum deemed illegitimate by 100 countries in a UN vote. 
Tensions have been particularly high since last autumn, when Crimean Tatar-led activists on the mainland side of the administrative line between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine blocked cargo transport to the peninsula. Unknown activists also repeatedly sabotaged power pylons supplying electricity to Crimea, causing widespread outages.
Crimean Tatar activists said they were determined to draw attention to human rights violations on the peninsula and the disappearances of Crimean Tatars who they say have been abducted by Russian security forces. 
Under pressure from the activists, the Ukrainian government made the trade blockade official in November.
In recent days, the Russia-installed authorities in Crimea have stepped up their pressure even more.
In the early morning hours of February 2, men identifying themselves as officials of Russia's Federal Migration Service knocked on Elzara Abdulzhelilova's door in the Crimean city of Feodosia for a "passport check."

Mustafa DzhemilevMustafa Dzhemilev
Mustafa Dzhemilev
Mustafa Dzhemilev

Abdulzhelilova is the daughter of longtime Crimean Tatar national leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, a deputy in the Ukrainian parliament who Russian authorities have barred from entering Crimea for five years.
She told RFE/RL that the officials wanted to take her son, Erol, away "for a talk," but that they left after her lawyers advised her by telephone that they did not have the authority to do so.
"In our view, they did not have a legal basis for carrying out these actions," Nariman Dzhelyal, deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatar executive body, the Mejlis, told RFE/RL. "One of the officers reportedly said as he was leaving that they'll 'find another way' to get to the relatives of Mustafa Dzhemilev."
In January, Dzhemilev's wife, Safinar, was summoned to the prosecutor's office for questioning.
Dzhemilev's son, Khaiser Dzhemilev, is serving a 3 1/2 year prison term in Russia on a conviction stemming from the shooting death of a friend in 2013. Mustafa Dzhemilev maintains his son's innocence and says he is being held by Moscow "as a hostage."
The same day, Crimean Tatar authorities reported "mass searches" of homes in the Dzhankoy district of Crimea. Those searches followed similar actions by police on January 28 in the Lenin district. On January 29, police raided the Islamic cultural center in Simferopol, the Crimean capital.
Agents of Russia's Federal Security Service have carried out raids at the homes of several Mejlis members since the beginning of the year.
On February 1, police raided the Simferopol headquarters of the company SimSitiTrans, which is owned by the father of the vice president of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars, Lenur Islyamov. Islyamov coordinated the cargo blockade against the peninsula and served as the spokesman for the activists.
"This pressure has been going on now for two years," Islyamov told RFE/RL. "It is moving from a 'soft' scenario to a harsh one. Under various pretexts, they want to take away everything that I have. They understand that they can't get to me, so they are going after my weak spots."
Islyamov, the owner of Crimea's Crimean Tatar-language ATR television station, has been the object of an arrest warrant in Crimea since November. ATR was forced to stop broadcasting in Crimea in April 2015.
"Let them take everything they want," he added. "Let them take away all our homes and property. I don't care. We will get it back. When we are able to come back, we will get everything back. This only makes us stronger."

Based on reporting by RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak and the Crimean Desk of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

Video Belarusian Activists Urge EU Pressure Ahead Of Decision On Sanctions

Activist Urges EU To Keep Political Pressure On Belarusi
February 03, 2016
Belarusian human rights activist Ales Byalyatski has called on the European Union to maintain political pressure on Belarus's authoritarian regime. In Brussels on February 3, the former political prisoner told EU officials that the situation inside the country has not improved since economic sanctions were suspended following the release of political prisoners last August. Speaking to Gregory Zhygalov of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Byalyatski said Belrusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has given no indication he's open to serious democratic reforms.
WATCH: Belarusian human rights activist Ales Byalyatski has called on the European Union to maintain political pressure on Belarus's authoritarian regime. On a visit to Brussels on February 3, the former political prisoner told E.U. officials that the situation inside the country has not improved since economic sanctions were suspended following the release of political prisoners last August. Speaking to Gregory Zhygalov of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Byalyatski said Belrusian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has given no indication he's open to serious democratic reforms.

BRUSSELS -- A leading Belarusian opposition activist says the European Union must continue to pressure the ex-Soviet country's authoritarian president over his record on human rights and civil liberties despite a thaw between Minsk and Brussels.

Ales Byalyatski, who spent nearly three years in prison following a tax-evasion conviction his supporters call politically motivated, said in a February 3 interview that he hopes the current rapprochement between the EU and the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will yield more than lip service.

"We expect from the European Union political pressure on Belarusian authorities with the aim of finally expanding the space for democracy and human rights in Belarus," he told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

Byalyatski and Belarusian media freedom activist Zhanna Litvina spoke to RFE/RL in Brussels, where they were lobbying EU officials ahead of the bloc's upcoming decision whether to lift sanctions against Minsk.

In late October, the EU temporarily suspended its sanctions against 170 Belarusian officials and three companies it had introduced several years ago in the wake of a crackdown against democratic and civil institutions in Belarus.

That suspension is set to expire on February 29, after which the sanctions could be lifted altogether. All 28 EU member states would have to agree to prolong the sanctions in order to keep them in place.

The independent Belarusian news agency Belapan quoted a spokesperson for the EU's Foreign Affairs Council as saying that foreign ministers would discuss Belarus on February 15.

In suspending the sanctions in October, the EU said the move was made in response to the release of "all Belarusian political prisoners" on August 22 and "in the context of improving EU-Belarus relations," adding that it will "continue to closely monitor the situation of democracy and human rights in Belarus."

Byalyatski, who was honored by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe with its annual Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize in 2013, said the united view of Belarusian rights groups was that since Lukashenka's release of the prisoners, "no other changes in Belarus are happening."

"We are only hearing beautiful words from Belarusian diplomats about their readiness for cooperation [with the West]," he said. "Indeed, they have finally started communicating with European officials. Nevertheless, we are witnessing no actions in Belarus itself to improve the standing of democracy."

Litvina said there had been no improvements in press freedoms, and that the situation could only improve if the government relaxed its monopoly on the media.

Lukashenka has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994 and won a fifth term in October in an election that Western monitors determined was neither free nor fair. He has repeatedly dismissed international criticism of his authoritarian rule and his government's rights record.

Litvina said EU officials should also pay close attention to the country's parliamentary elections in September. She called the vote a chance for the Belarusian government and the entire society to hold a real campaign for change according to generally accepted rules of conduct.

"Belarus needs to reject the very principle of vote fixing for the benefit of one person or a number of people. Democratic principles and mechanisms need to be put to work in Belarus," she said.

Lukashenka's role in facilitating the February 2015 deal in Minsk to bring a cease-fire between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has also improved his government's relations with the West.

Lukashenka has rebuffed Russian pressure to recognize Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, a land grab that triggered waves of Western sanctions against Moscow.

Byalyatski said, however, that this was a small departure from Lukashenka's Moscow-oriented foreign policy during his 22-year reign.

The Belarusian president is "at the very core a post-Soviet dictator," Byalyatski said, who feels "more at home in the dictators club" with Russian President Vladimir Putin and "all those Central Asian tsars."

"European democratic society is completely alien to him," he said. "For someone who has spent 22 years watching the outside world through the glass of his presidential limo, it is probably very hard for him to understand what democracy is really all about."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and Belapan

Opposition Activist Jailed In Azerbaijan

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

BABEK, Azerbaijan -- A court in Azerbaijan's Naxcivan exclave has sentenced an opposition activist to eight years in jail.

The Babek district court on February 3 found Zeynalabdin Bagirzade, a member of Azerbaijan's Popular Front party (AXCP), guilty of violent resistance to authorities. He had been arrested in November.

Taking into account that Bagirzade was serving a 2012 conditional sentence for fraud, the court sentenced Bagirzade to eight years in jail.

Bagirzade's brother, Yasar Bagirsoy, who is the chairman of the AXCP's branch in the region, said that the case was politically motivated.

The oil-rich former Soviet republic has faced harsh criticism for jailing independent reporters, human rights activists, and civil-society advocates.

With reporting by Turan

U.S. Lawmaker Urges Aliyev To Free Azerbaijani Journalist Ismayilova

Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova


WASHINGTON -- A senior U.S. lawmaker has urged Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev to release imprisoned investigative reporter and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova and other journalists, warning that their continued detention "will harm relations between our two countries."

U.S. Representative Ed Royce, a Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a January 28 letter to Aliyev that Azerbaijan's continued closure of RFE/RL's Baku bureau is damaging bilateral relations.

"I urge you to release Ismayilova, as well as other journalists imprisoned on dubious charges, and allow RFE/RL's Baku bureau to resume operations," Royce wrote.

Ismayilova was sentenced in September 2015 to 7 1/2 years in prison on charges widely viewed as retaliation for investigative reports linking Aliyev's family to massive business and real estate holdings. 

Her imprisonment has been denounced by Western officials and international rights groups.

In December 2014, Azerbaijani prosecutors raided RFE/RL's Baku bureau -- seizing computers, hard drives, and other equipment before sealing off the premises.

RFE/RL closed its still-sealed Baku bureau in May but continues to broadcast to Azerbaijan from its headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic.

Transsexual In Bashkortostan Stabbed To Death

A Russian transsexual has been reportedly stabbed to death in Ufa, the capital of the Russian republic of Bashkortostan.

Russian reports cite Anzhela Likina's relatives and law enforcement officials as saying that she was attacked on February 1.

Likina, who was officially a male named Oleg Vorobyov, became well-known across Russia in 2014 after an online video went viral showing police officers stopping Likina for a traffic violation and then being shocked by her male name on the driver license.

Reports say that a boyfriend of Likina's former wife has been detained in the alleged attack.

Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community have faced problems in Russia and other ex-Soviet republics for years.

Russia has been harshly criticized for its gay-rights record, including a vaguely worded law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors that many critics say has led to discrimination and attacks against the LGBT community.

Based on reporting by and

U.S. Sanctions Five More On ‘Magnitsky List' Of Alleged Rights Abusers

Former Deputy Interior Minister Aleksei Anichin is on the updated blacklist.

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 01.02.2016 20:51

Mike Eckel and Carl Schreck

WASHINGTON -- The United States has added five more Russians to its so-called “Magnitsky List,” which sanctions alleged human rights abusers that have been linked to the death of whistle-blowing Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and other violations.

The Treasury Department released the additional names on February 1, bringing to 39 the total number of people publicly sanctioned under the congressional legislation.

One new name on the blacklist is Aleksei Anichin, a deputy interior minister linked to Magnitsky’s death who was later fired from his post by then-President Dmitry Medvedev.

Another is Boris Kibis, an outside investigator who concluded that Magnitsky had not been tortured or mistreated.

Another on the updated list is Pavel Lapshov, the head of the Interior Ministry’s investigative department who asserted publicly that Magnitsky’s employer, Hermitage Capital Management, was behind the tax fraud he had uncovered. Lapshov later appeared to recant that assertion.

At the time the law was passed in 2012, Moscow and Washington were trying to reset relations that had been poisoned by Russia’s 2008 war in Georgia and other international disagreements.

The Magnitsky List was met with bitter denunciations by Russia and marked the beginning of a spiral that has sent bilateral ties to lows not seen since the Cold War.

Moscow issued its own blacklist of U.S. officials it claims have been complicit in rights abuses.

Magnitsky was working as a tax lawyer for Hermitage, a Western-owned portfolio investment company with major holdings in Russia, when he discovered an audacious and highly complex $230 million fraud scheme involving shell companies and bogus tax refunds.

He was later arrested by Russian law enforcement, charged with similar fraud charges, and jailed in a notorious Moscow prison.

His supporters said he was tortured and denied medical treatment, leading to his death in 2009, a finding supported by a presidentially appointed human rights council.

A Moscow court tried Magnitsky posthumously in 2013 and found him guilty on tax evasion charges.

Most of those on the list either are tied to the tax fraud that Magnitsky uncovered or to the prison where he was held. Some already had been blacklisted by the European Union under a similar sanctions list.

The 2012 law provides for a public list of sanctioned individuals, as well as a classified list that reportedly includes Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Russia's restive Chechnya region.

Rights groups have long accused Kadyrov of abuses that include torture and extrajudicial killings.

The Obama administration also has sanctioned a wide range of senior Russian government and military officials for their role in Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and the Kremlin's support for pro-Russian separatists that are fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine.

Kadyrov Posts Video Showing Ex-PM, Antigovernment Activist In Crosshairs

The Instagram post shows former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and antigovernment activist Vladimir Kara-Murza entering a Strasbourg building and was filtered to appear as if the men are being viewed through the scope of a rifle.

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 01.02.2016 20:35

Anna Shamanska

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov posted a surveillance-style video depicting a former Russian prime minister-turned-opposition leader and a Kremlin gadfly in crosshairs. 

The clip, on the Moscow-backed strongman's Instagram account, came against a backdrop of alarming political violence associated with Russia, including a U.K. public inquiry concluding that the murder by radioactive poisoning in London of a former Russian spy was "probably approved" by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the assassination nearly a year ago of strident Putin foe and Yeltsin-era Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. 

The appearance in the video of the ailing antigovernment activist Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. was particularly poignant, since he has alleged he was poisoned and nearly died over his political activities last year.

It also follows weeks of public attacks and implicit threats on social and other media by Kadyrov and his allies against Russian opposition leaders and journalists.

International rights groups have warned of past instances of violence after such "menacing rhetoric."

The video that emerged on January 31 showed former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov (2000-04) and Kara-Murza entering a Strasbourg building and was filtered to appear as if the men are being viewed through the scope of a rifle.

​The text accompanying the clip read: "'Kasyanov has come to Strasbourg to get money for the Russian opposition'. 💰💰💰💰 WHOEVER DOESN'T GET IT, WILL! ☝."

The first sentence was a headline taken from the Internet news website LifeNews, which published the video -- sans the filter -- on January 26. The second was a slogan associated with a purported action-movie project in which Kadyrov plays the main part:

Kasyanov and Kara-Murza were in Strasbourg to participate in a session of the Council of Europe, of which Russia has been a member since 1996. 

LifeNews claimed the video, shot from afar, shows the men approaching La Vignette Robertsau restaurant, where Russian oppositionists allegedly met with representatives from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.

Kadyrov recently called for Russian opposition activists to be treated "as enemies of the people, as traitors" -- language that rights activists have associated with Soviet history's show trials, executions, and banishment to the notorious gulag prison system.

The Chechen leader frequently plays the role of attack dog against Kremlin critics, leveling outrageous accusations and using rhetoric regarded as too bellicose for many politicians, even on the notoriously coarse Russian political landscape.

But he has also been accused of ordering or even carrying out atrocities against rights activists or journalists.

A lawyer for the slain Nemtsov has suggested the defendants in that continuing case are scapegoats "in order to deflect attention from Kadyrov's inner circle."

Kara-Murza claimed via social media that Kadyrov had used essentially the same phrase, "Whoever didn't get it, will," on May 25, one day before the activist fell suddenly ill from what he claims was poisoning.

Kasyanov said he regards Kadyrov's post as a death threat.

"I believe that this is a direct murder threat of a statesman, as described in the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. I will consult lawyers and, most likely, appeal to law enforcement based on this [article]," he told Interfax agency after the video was released.

Kasyanov said he expects a reaction from President Vladimir Putin, who is "the guarantor of the country's constitution."

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he would look into the post but added that social media generally does not concern the Kremlin.

"We are not following Kadyrov's Instagram," Peskov said, according to RBK. "In general, we don't follow Instagram."

Instagram eventually removed the video, after calls that it contravened its own guidelines. Instagram spokeswoman Marni Tomljanovic confirmed to RFE/RL that the company removed Kadyrov's post because it violated Instagram's community guidelines.

Instagram's community guidelines state that it removes "content that contains credible threats or hate speech, content that targets private individuals to degrade or shame them, personal information meant to blackmail or harass someone, and repeated unwanted messages." 

In a later post on his Instagram page, Kadyrov lashed out at the social-media site.

“How about that vaunted American freedom of speech! You can write anything you want, but don’t touch the dogs of America, the friends of the Secretary of State and Congress. You know perfectly well what I’m talking about.” 

Some chided Instagram before their decision:

Others suggested the blame lies squarely at the top of Russia's official structures.

"Kadyrov threatens terrorist attacks," opposition leader Aleskei Navalny tweeted. "And you can't say that this is not sanctioned by Putin anymore." 

"Not a bit embarrassed by his [alleged] role in the murder of Nemtsov, Kadyrov openly offers Putin his services in the further physical liquidation of the undesirable," wrote Russian political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky. 

Kadyrov often portrays himself as a defender of Islam, and he regularly shares excerpts from the Koran and stories about his children studying the Islamic holy book.

"Somebody send me a quote from the Koran where it says that you can share photos of people in a rifle scope on Instagram. The page and the line in a direct message please," one person tweeted. 

But many others didn't share Kasyanov's unease, claiming that both sides can play the Internet meme game.

"It's OK for a Russian opposition activist to publish a fake photo of Putin in a coffin, but a fake photo of Kasyanov in a scope is bad," one user tweeted, referencing speculation during the Russian president's mysterious 10-day disappearance in 2015.

Others also interpreted the published video as a joke, but one of a different sort.

"[Doesn't] Kasyanov allow himself to blame Kadyrov for Nemtsov's death? Without evidence, based on personal feelings. So Kadyrov joked about it," tweeted Russian lawyer Violetta Volkova. 

"Optical scope may also be used to surveil the terrain and calculate distances to objects, for instance," wrote Maria Katasonova, an aide to Russian deputy Yevgeny Fyodorov. 

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.

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