Saturday, August 29, 2015

Al-Jazeera Journalists Get Three Years In Prison In Decision Decried By Press Freedom Groups

Al-Jazeera journalists Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mahmoud (left) on trial in Cairo in March

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 29.08.2015 13:21


An Egyptian court has sentenced three Al-Jazeera English journalists to three years in prison.

The court issued the verdict on August 29 in the long-running trial criticized worldwide by press freedom advocates and human rights activists.

The three Al-Jazeera journalists -- Canadian national Mohammed Fahmy, Australian journalist Peter Greste, and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed -- were detained in December 2013 while working for the Doha-based network.

The three first were sentenced to prison before Egypt's highest court ordered a retrial on charges of them allegedly being part of the Muslim Brotherhood, which authorities have declared a terrorist organization, and airing falsified footage intended to damage national security.

Egypt deported Greste in February.

Fahmy and Mohammed, who had been released on bail, were present at the August 29 sentencing and taken away by police after the hearing.

Lawyers for the three journalists are expected to appeal the decision.

In the courtroom in Cairo on August 29, Judge Hassan Farid said the court has investigated the case fully and established that the three had broadcast false news, were not journalists, and operated without permits or licenses.

Three Egyptian students on trial alongside the journalists were also jailed for three years.

One of the three Al-Jazeera English journalists -- Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed -- will spend another six months behind bars for possessing a "bullet," according to Egypt's state news agency MENA.

Greste said he was "shocked" at the scale of the sentence, while Al-Jazeera English acting Director-General Mostefa Souag said the verdict "defies logic and common sense."

Canadian Minister of State for Consular Affairs Lynne Yelich said the court's decision "severely undermines confidence in the rule of law in Egypt."

Amnesty International also condemned it as well, calling the sentences the "death knell for freedom of expression in Egypt."

The three denied all charges and rights advocates said their arrest was part of a wider crackdown on free speech since the military overthrew President Muhammad Morsi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure, in mid-2013 following mass unrest.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP

Iran Executes Kurdish Activist Awaiting Appeal


Amnesty International says Iran has executed a Kurdish activist who was awaiting the outcome of a Supreme Court appeal.

The London-based group says Behrouz Alkhani, 30, was executed on August 26.

He was convicted in 2011 of having ties to the outlawed Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) and of being involved in the shooting of a public prosecutor in 2010.

Alkhani's brother, Peyman, confirmed to Reuters news agency that he was a PJAK member but said he never took up arms.

Amnesty called Alkhani's trial "grossly unfair" and said his execution was a "denigration" of both Iranian and international law.

Earlier this month, Iran executed another PJAK member, Sirvan Nezhavi. The group’s military wing retaliated by attacking a Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps base near the Iraqi border.

The Kurdish fighters said they killed 12 Iranian soldiers, while Iran only confirmed five deaths.

With reporting by Reuters

Trial Of Azerbaijani Journalist Ismayilova Postponed

Khadija Ismayilova

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

BAKU -- The trial of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova in Azerbaijan has been postponed until August 31.

On August 26, the judge announced her decision to delay the hearing after Ismayilova's lawyer, Fariz Namazli, requested a new trial, arguing that prosecutors had ignored documents proving his client’s innocence.

Last week, a state prosecutor requested a nine-year sentence for Ismayilova.

The request on August 21 came a day after the state's case against the 39-year-old Ismayilova was wrapped up during a closed-door hearing in Baku.

Ismayilova, an RFE/RL contributor who reported extensively on corruption in Azerbaijan, faces charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, and abuse of power.

She rejects the charges against her, saying they are politically motivated retaliation for her reporting.

Her arrest has sparked widespread condemnation by international human rights activists and Western governments.

Three Finalists Named For 2015 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize

Russian human rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva is among this year's nominees for the Vaclav Havel prize.


The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) announced on August 25 that human rights activists from Russia, Afghanistan, and the Balkans have been named as the finalists for the 2015 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize.
The finalists for the 60,000 euro ($66,000) prize are Lyudmila Alekseyeva, an 88-year-old campaigner for human rights in Russia, the Afghan nongovernmental organization Women For Afghan Women, and the Balkan regional Youth Initiative for Human Rights.

Alekseyeva is a veteran human rights defender who joined the Soviet dissident movement in the 1960s before going on to become a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

Forced to emigrate from Russia to the United States in 1977, she returned to her homeland in 1989 to continue her work and became the president of the International Helsinki Foundation.

She is widely praised for fighting against repression for half a century, from the Soviet era to the presidency of Vladimir Putin.

Women for Afghan Women is the largest shelter-providing nongovernmental group in Afghanistan.

The group works in 11 Afghan provinces to protect the rights of disenfranchised Afghan women and girls.

It has assisted young women who have suffered mutilation, torture, attempted murder, and rape.

In addition to running shelters for women, the group also operates family guidance centers, children support centers, and reintegration centers for women leaving prison.

The Youth Initiative for Human Rights works to reestablish bonds between young people with different ethnic and religious backgrounds in the Balkans.

Its goals include helping rights activists in isolated communities, encouraging dialogue on human rights, and working to rebuild mutual trust between communities in the Balkans.

The group has projects aimed at protecting the victims of human rights abuses.

It also promotes transitional justice -- a set of legal and social measures aimed at redressing the legacies of massive human rights abuses that were committed during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.

The three nominees have been invited to attend a ceremony at which the winner will be announced as PACE opens its autumn session on September 28 in Strasbourg, France.

PACE President Anne Basseur chairs the selection panel, which also includes six independent human rights experts.

Basseur said in Prague on August 25 that the panel was "deeply impressed by the courage and dedication of all three" shortlisted nominees, noting that they all work in "very difficult conditions."

Named after the late Czech President Vaclav Havel, the award is now in its third year.

It is sponsored by PACE, the Czech government, the Vaclav Havel Library in Prague, and the Charter 77 Foundation.
The 2014 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize was awarded to Azerbaijani human rights activist Anar Mammadli, who is serving a 5 ½ year prison sentence in Baku on corruption and tax evasion charges after criticizing Azerbaijan's 2013 presidential election.

The 2013 prize went to Belarusian human rights activist Ales Byalyatski.

Byalyatski spent nearly three years in a Belarusian prison on tax evasion charges before his unexpected early release in 2014.

International rights groups say the charges against Mammadli and Byalyatski were politically motivated.

UN Rights Body Denounces Executions In Iraq's Kurdish Region

The United Nation's human rights office has condemned the execution of a man and his two wives in Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region over the kidnapping and murder of two girls.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said on August 25 that Farhad Jaafar Mahmood, Khuncha Hassan Ismaeil, and Berivan Haider Karim were hanged on August 12 following convictions in April 2014.

The office said the executions were the first under the Kurdish regional government since an "informal moratorium" was set up there in 2008.

A spokesman for the Kurdish Higher Judicial Council, Omid Mohsen, said regional President Masud Barzani approved the decision. "It is an exceptional case," Mohsen added.

The UN human rights office says Iraq overall has executed more than 600 people since it reinstituted the death penalty in 2004.

Based on reporting by AFP and AP

Eight Russians Who Have Taken A Stand

Andrei Zubov, a historian and professor of philosophy at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Affairs (MGIMO), lost his job after likening President Vladimir Putin to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.


On August 25, 1968, eight Soviet citizens came out into Red Square to protest the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Under the banner "For your freedom and ours," the protesters were quickly arrested by the KGB and most suffered years of exile or imprisonment for their quixotic gesture. 

Now, 47 years later, some Russian citizens feel they are in a similar situation -- pushed by their consciences to protest policies that the overwhelming majority of Russians accept. Many of these dissenters -- Aleksei Navalny, Boris Nemtsov, Pussy Riot, Yevgenia Chirikova, and others -- are well known in the West. But there are many more that have received less attention.

In recognition of the eight 1968 Red Square protesters -- Larisa Bogoraz, Konstantin Babitsky, Tatyana Bayeva, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremlyuga, Viktor Fainberg, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, and Pavel Litvinov -- RFE/RL is highlighting eight of the lesser-known Russians who have risked their safety, their jobs, and their liberty to follow their consciences.

Andrei Zubov

Andrei Zubov, a professor of philosophy and noted political commentator, lost his job after likening President Vladimir Putin to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.

In March 2014, Zubov published a column in the daily Vedomosti comparing the deployment of Russian troops in Crimea to Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938-39. Russia, he warned, was on the verge of becoming a "political dictatorship." 

"I wanted to show Ukrainians that not everybody in Russia shares Putin's opinions, that there also is another Russia," he told RFE/RL at the time.

Zubov was swiftly dismissed from the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). The university later canceled the decision, which had sparked a scandal, but failed to renew his contract when it expired three months later.

He currently gives lectures and speeches in various institutions.

Aleksei Dymovsky

In November 2009, Russian police officer Aleksei Dymovsky posted a video on YouTube in which he passionately denounced police corruption and called on Putin to clean up law-enforcement agencies. 

He was fired and detained on fraud charges that were later dropped.

His gesture spurred dozens of similar video appeals from police officers, state prosecutors, and other government workers across Russia.

Dymovsky left his hometown of Novorossiisk, in southern Russia, and relocated to Moscow, where he is actively involved in opposition activities. He is the founder of White Ribbon, a nongovernmental group advocating police reform.

Sergei Baranov

Priest Sergei Baranov demonstratively left the Russian Orthodox Church in 2012 to protest the jailing of three members of the Pussy Riot collective who had performed a "punk protest" song criticizing Putin in Moscow's main cathedral.

The verdict against Pussy Riot, Baranov wrote in an open letter posted on his Facebook account, was "rendered at the direct instigation of the Russian Orthodox Church and the people who wrongly call themselves 'Orthodox citizens.'"

Fearing retaliation, he fled Russia and applied for political asylum in the Czech Republic, which he was granted in April 2013.

He dropped off the radar after telling RFE/RL in May 2013 that he planned to convert to the Greek Catholic Church.

Darya Polyudova

A lawyer and an activist with a local communist party in Krasnodar Krai, Darya Polyudova faces extremism charges and up to five years in prison for posting a photograph on social media of herself holding a sign reading, "Instead of war with Ukraine, revolution in Russia." 

In addition, she faces another similar charge for reposting on social media a post calling for Russians to "get rid of Putin and make a socialist revolution."

Darya PolyudovaDarya Polyudova
Darya Polyudova
Darya Polyudova

Defense lawyers, however, say that her troubles with the law really began in August 2014 when she participated in a "march for the federalization of the Kuban region," which the authorities have interpreted as "activity aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation."

She spent about six months in pretrial detention before being released in February after promising not to leave the region. In her case file, she is accused of "personal antipathy toward the current president" and "hatred for the present political regime in the Russian Federation."

On May 21, she was fired from her job as a lawyer for a local hospital. On June 2, she was hired by a private law firm, but their employment offer was withdrawn the next day -- she says, following pressure from the local Federal Security Service (FSB).

Her next court hearing is scheduled for August 26.

Vlad Kolesnikov

Moscow teenager Vlad Kolesnikov has taken a bold stand against Russia's interference in Ukraine, landing him in hot water.

After posting a string of critical comments on his Facebook page and wearing a pro-Ukraine T-shirt to school, Kolesnikov was assaulted by fellow students earlier this year.

His grandfather, a former KGB officer, then packed Kolesnikov off on a train to his father in the town of Zhigulyovsk, in the distant Samara region. His school quickly informed him that he had been removed from the rolls "at his own request."

Vlad KolesnikovVlad Kolesnikov
Vlad Kolesnikov
Vlad Kolesnikov

"I'm strong enough to smile, and I know at the bottom of my heart that I support the right cause," he wrote in an emotional post on June 11.

Kolesnikov's woes inspired an outpouring of sympathy on Facebook, where he currently has more than 3,000 followers.

He has since returned to Moscow and is battling what he described as attempts by police to prosecute him for allegedly smashing the windows of his grandfather's home -- an accusation he firmly denies.

He said police, together with former schoolteachers and local deputies, have questioned his best friend and asked him to testify against him.

Kolesnikov said he is considering fleeing Russia.

Aleksei Devotchenko

A well-known actor, Aleksei Devotchenko renounced his government awards and publicly called on cultural figures not to participate in events that support the Russian government and state companies.

In March 2010, Devotchenko published an open appeal to fellow artists and cultural figures with the provocative title Can We Do Anything?

Aleksei Devotchenko speaks at a rally in St. Petersburg in February 2011.Aleksei Devotchenko speaks at a rally in St. Petersburg in February 2011.
Aleksei Devotchenko speaks at a rally in St. Petersburg in February 2011.
Aleksei Devotchenko speaks at a rally in St. Petersburg in February 2011.

In it, Devotchenko criticized the "criminal, deeply depraved, and cynical regime" and urged artists not to lend any support to the government. Money from the government and state companies, he said, "does stink -- it smells of dank prison cells, of neglected hospitals and homeless shelters, of the acrid smoke of burnt-out architectural monuments and historical buildings and night clubs and homes for the elderly. It smells of the boots of the OMON riot police." 

In 2011, he rejected his state awards and in 2014 he signed a letter opposing the war in Ukraine.

In November 2014, he was found dead in his Moscow apartment, apparently having bled to death after injuring himself while drunk.

Pyotr Pavlensky

St. Petersburg artist Pyotr Pavlensky has made numerous bold gestures in opposition to Putin's government, including sewing his mouth shut to protest the incarceration of members of Pussy Riot, nailing his scrotum to Red Square to protest "the police state," and cutting off part of his ear to protest the political abuse of psychiatry in Russia.

Pavlensky, 29, has specialized in political performance art since at least 2012, when he appeared in a St. Petersburg church with his mouth sewn shut to support Pussy Riot. He was taken for psychiatric evaluation, but was declared sane and released.

Police detain Pyotr Pavlensky after he cut off part of his earlobe.
Police detain Pyotr Pavlensky after he cut off part of his earlobe.

The following year, Pavlensky was delivered naked except for a cocoon of barbed wire to the steps of St. Petersburg's Legislative Assembly. His intention was to protest Russian laws that "aren't aimed against criminals, but against the people."

In November 2013, a naked Pavlensky sat down in Red Square and drove a large nail through his scrotum into the pavement. "A naked artist, looking at his testicles nailed to the pavement is a metaphor for apathy, political indifference, and the fatalism of Russian society," he said in a public statement. (Video contains graphic content) 

In 2014, a court dismissed charges of hooliganism against Pavlensky and ordered him freed. He is currently under investigation for allegedly violating Russia's laws on political demonstrations and vandalism.

Aleksandr Byvshev

In April 2015, a district court in the Oryol Oblast village of Kromy convicted popular local secondary-school German teacher Aleksandr Byvshev, 42, of extremism for his poem To Ukrainian Patriots.

Written in March 2014, the poem sharply criticized Russia's annexation of Crimea, which was taking place at the time.

Aleksandr ByvshevAleksandr Byvshev
Aleksandr Byvshev
Aleksandr Byvshev

Byvshev lost his job for his "negative statements about the political decisions made by the highest leadership of the Russian Federation" and was sentenced to six months of labor. Byvshev is officially listed as "terrorist-extremist" No. 841 on the website of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service.

Byvshev said in a recent interview that a lawyer explained to him that if he had supported the Kremlin, he could have been as "extremist" as he wanted.

"He said: 'If for instance you had written 'Kill the Ukrainians; bomb Kyiv!' no one would have charged you with extremism. You would have been the main patriot of Kromy and of all of Russia,'" Byvshev said. "The worst thing is that he was right."

His case is currently under appeal and Byvshev says he will take it to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

Compiled by Claire Bigg and Robert Coalson

As In 1968, A Few Brave Russians Swim Against The Tide

Human rights activist Natalya Gorbanevskaya (4th from left) attends a memorial protest action on Red Square in Moscow on August 25, 2013, with the banner "For your freedom and ours."

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 26.08.2015 16:17

Robert Coalson

On August 25, 1968, eight Soviet citizens walked out onto Red Square in Moscow and unfurled banners denouncing the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. "For your freedom and ours," read the most iconic of the banners they held.

The eight -- Larisa Bogoraz, Konstantin Babitsky, Tatyana Bayeva, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremlyuga, Viktor Fainberg, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, and Pavel Litvinov -- were among the very few of the country's 250 million population who were willing to pay the stiff price for standing up to the government.

"We decided to say: 'No, the entire Soviet people does not support this. We are ashamed. We do not support the Soviet Union in this open act of aggression,'" says Litvinov, who spent five years in Siberian exile for his 1968 statement and was allowed to emigrate in 1974, eventually settling in the United States. "This was a matter of honor, a matter of personal shame, and to the present day I am proud that I was one of the first people in the country to say that."

ALSO READ: Eight Russians Who Have Taken A Stand

Just as it did 47 years ago, Russian society now faces a situation in which an overwhelming majority of the public supports a government that a small minority finds unconscionable. And members of that minority face social opprobrium and fearsome government sanction when they take the bold step of making their objections known.

Pavel LitvinovPavel Litvinov
Pavel Litvinov
Pavel Litvinov

Litvinov, 75, sees quite a few people in the Russia of President Vladimir Putin who can be considered heirs to the legacy established by Soviet-era dissidents like the 1968 Moscow protesters.

"A lot more people are speaking out today [than in 1968], despite the fact that the majority of the population clearly approves of Putin's policies," Litvinov tells RFE/RL. "Nonetheless, there is a certain percentage of people who are not afraid to say they oppose it."

Larisa BogorazLarisa Bogoraz
Larisa Bogoraz
Larisa Bogoraz

"Even though we know that 80 percent -- according to polls that are difficult to take at face value -- support the government, I think it is much more interesting that there are 10 or 15 or 20 percent -- it is hard to say how many -- who not only do not support it, but who, when the moment comes, are not afraid to say so," Litvinov says.

Following His 'Internal Constitution'

Konstantin BabitskyKonstantin Babitsky
Konstantin Babitsky
Konstantin Babitsky

Mikhas Kukobaka, 78, also spoke out against the 1968 Czechoslovakia invasion. He wrote a letter denouncing it, for which he was arrested in April 1970. In all he spent nearly 17 years in Soviet prisons and psychiatric facilities.​

"I really didn't consider what I did to be anything in particular," Kukobaka recollects. "I didn't even imagine that someday someone might be interested in what I'd done. I just acted according to my own understanding [of right and wrong]."

Kukobaka emphasizes that he has been guided throughout his life by what he calls his "internal constitution."

Vadim DelaunayVadim Delaunay
Vadim Delaunay
Vadim Delaunay

"Every person has their own constitution in their head," he says. "Maybe it is simpler to call it 'conscience.' It isn't a written constitution that is rewritten five times or is written for you by someone else. The real constitution is in a person's head. I live by that constitution."

Both Litvinov and Kukobaka stress that there was no single incident that turned them from devoted Soviet citizens to dissidents. Litvinov's journey began when he started meeting and talking to people who returned from the gulag camps after Josef Stalin's death in 1953. The infamous 1966 show trial of writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky also played a crucial role in his transformation, as it did for others who became dissidents.

Vladimir DremlyugaVladimir Dremlyuga
Vladimir Dremlyuga
Vladimir Dremlyuga

Kukobaka, an electrician by profession who remains proud of his working-class roots, also says the information that became available during the so-called Thaw under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev led to his political awakening.

"It happened to me amorphously, gradually," Kukobaka recalls. "Information just accumulated.... By 1967 or even 1966, I was already a committed enemy of the ruling regime."

Situation 'Bad, But Not Hopeless'

Viktor FainbergViktor Fainberg
Viktor Fainberg
Viktor Fainberg

Social processes move more rapidly these days, despite the Russian government's increasingly assertive attempts to control all public discussion.

"The government is now closing down all independent organizations like Memorial and the Sakharov Center, where people could go and talk about Russian history and its cultural achievements," Litvinov says, naming two prominent groups that have come under heavy pressure from the authorities. "The government is shutting all that down."

Natalya GorbanevskayaNatalya Gorbanevskaya
Natalya Gorbanevskaya
Natalya Gorbanevskaya

In addition, he notes, many potential change agents have opted to leave Russia in recent years -- a development he says is "really tragic." It remains to be seen how far the Russian government will go to prevent a politically potent opposition from developing.

"When the positive side will emerge and how much negative will have to be endured before that, it is hard to say," Litvinov says. "The situation is very bad, but it is not hopeless."

Kukobaka stresses that it does not really take a hero to do something as heroic as he did. "I am simply a person who lives according to his own convictions," he says. "That's all. I live in accord with my conscience."

Written by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Natalia Churikova and RFE/RL Washington correspondent Carl Schreck

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