Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Jailed Azerbaijani Journalist Ismayilova Allowed To See Relatives

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

BAKU -- Khadija Ismayilova, a jailed Azerbaijani investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor, has been allowed to see relatives for the first time since her arrest in early December.

Ismayilova’s sister Sabina Rahimova said March 25 that she had seen Khadija on March 24 in a Baku detention center and talked to her through a glass window.

Rahimova's daughter was also present.

Rahimova said that her sister's spirits were high and that Ismayilova asked her to pass on greetings to friends, colleagues, and other relatives. 

Ismayilova, 38, was arrested on December 5 and ordered held in pretrial detention on suspicion of inciting an attempted suicide. 

She denies wrongdoing and says her arrest was politically motivated retribution from the authorities for her investigative journalism.

Ismayilova’s detention has been widely condemned by international rights groups as part of a persistent campaign by President Ilham Aliyev's government to intimidate and silence independent activists and journalists.

Russian Court Fines Sakharov Center Under 'Foreign Agent' Law


A Russian court has fined the Sakharov Center human rights organization for failing to register under a "foreign agent" law.

The fine by the Moscow court was for 300,000 rubles ($5,100) for the center named after Nobel Prize-winning Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

The organization said in a statement posted on its website on March 23 that it would appeal the decision.

The controversial law, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2012, forces NGOs that receive foreign funding and carry out political activities to register as an "organization performing the functions of a foreign agent."

The Sakharov Center's director, Sergei Lukashevsky, said the court case was "absurd."

He added that the group had received foreign funding but denied that it did any political work.

Lukashevsky said its activities were "educational" and informed people while also promoting "public discussion."

Moscow's Sakharov Center was where thousands of people came to pay their final respects to slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov before he was buried earlier this month.

With reporting by AFP

HRW Calls On EU Leaders To Raise Rights Concerns With Kyrgyz President


A human rights group says the leaders of the European Union, France, Germany, and Switzerland should raise “pressing” human rights concerns with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev, who is due to visit European capitals from March 22 for talks with senior officials. 

In a statement issued to coincide with the visit, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said European leaders should seek firm promises to reject two bills before the Kyrgyzstan parliament that are against human rights. 

HRW said one is a ”blatantly discriminatory” antigay “propaganda” bill and the other a “foreign agents” bill that would limit the ability of human rights and other nongovernmental groups to continue their work.

The rights organization also said that EU leaders should press Atambaev to release immediately imprisoned rights defender Azimjon Askarov.

HRW researcher Mihra Rittman said European leaders should speak out about the rights concerns and urge Atambaev to call a halt to human rights abuses in his country.

EU Criticizes Belarus Over Death Sentence


The European Union has sharply criticized Belarus, the only European country that applies capital punishment, for sentencing a man to death.

In its statement issued on March 19, the EU said that a court in the southeastern city of Homel sentenced Syarhey Ivanou to death the previous day.

Ivanou was convicted of murder and rape.

The EU expressed its "deepest sympathy of the victim of these crimes."

"Nevertheless, the European Union opposes capital punishment in all cases as it cannot be justified under any circumstances. The death penalty is a cruel and inhuman punishment, which fails to act as a deterrent and represents an unacceptable denial of human dignity and integrity," it said.

The EU said that Ivanou's "right to appeal must be fully guaranteed."

The last reported execution of a convict in Belarus took place in April 2014.

Rights activists said the man, who was convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, was executed before the UN Committee on Human Rights examined his appeal. 

Chechen Man Faces Trial For Feeding Alleged Militant

The gate of a prison in northern Chechnya (file photo)

RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service

GROZNY, Russia -- A man accused of buying food for a militant in Russia's Chechnya region faces trial on charges of acting as an accomplice to armed outlaws.

The regional prosecutor's office said on March 19 that investigators had wrapped up their case against Vizir Zaurbekov, a resident of the Shatoi district in southern Chechnya, and sent it to court for consideration.

Zaurbekov was arrested in January. His prosecution comes amid what rights groups say is increasing pressure from Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov's government on relatives and others accused of giving aid or shelter to Islamist insurgents and other militants in the North Caucasus region.

The case against another Chechen man accused of feeding a militant was reportedly sent to court in January, and a third man in the region was sentenced to one year in prison in September for providing a militant with food.

In December, after 14 policemen were killed in some of the deadliest fighting in Chechnya in years, Kadyrov said relatives of militants who kill people would be banished from the southern Russian region and their homes razed.

Several houses were subsequently torched, raising concerns among rights activists in Russia and abroad.

The European Union then called for a "measured response" from Kadyrov's government to maintain order in Chechnya.

Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini, said in a statement in December that Kadyrov's order to expel the relatives of militants from Chechnya and demolish their homes "will only exacerbate tensions."

In his annual extended Q&A session with Russian and international journalists on December 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin said regarding the situation in Chechnya that everything there, as elsewhere in the Russian Federation, must be implemented in accordance with Russian law. 

Putin added though that as far as he personally knows Kadyrov, the Chechen leader "never leaves his comrades-in-arms in trouble," focusing on the 14 Chechen police officers killed in the terrorist attack.

In January, lawmakers from Chechnya's regional parliament proposed national legislation for Russia that would formally impose criminal accountability upon relatives of militants who commit acts of terrorism.

The bill proposed an extension of criminal accountability to parents and close relatives of convicted terrorists if a court finds they provided "assistance" to militants in "any form."

The status of that bill, how far it has progressed in the process toward becoming a law, is unclear.

With reporting by Kavkaz-uzel.ru

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

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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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