Saturday, May 28, 2016


Kazakh Land Law Protesters Face Criminal Charges

Hundreds of Kazakh activists have been detained this month in connection with planned legislation on the privatization of agricultural land. The proposed law has since been shelved.

Kazakh authorities say individuals recently arrested for taking part or calling for unsanctioned mass protests are facing charges of inciting ethnic discord and of attempting to seize power by force. 

The Prosecutor-General's Office made the announcement on May 27, after hundreds of activists were detained ahead of nationwide protests against new legislation on the privatization of agricultural land planned for May 21. 

Many activists have been released, but a number of them were fined or sent to prison for 10-15 days. Others were sent to pretrial detention as criminal charges against them are pending. 

On May 5, President Nursultan Nazarbaev imposed a moratorium on the implementation of the controversial law until 2017, but critics of the legislation pledged to continue the protest movement afterward. 

Based on reporting by nur.kz and Kazinform
 

Russia Jails Two Ukrainians Convicted Of Fighting With Chechen Separatists

Ukrainian citizens Mykola Karpyuk (right) and Stanislav Klyh (left) in a defendants' cage in a court in Grozny.

RFE/RL's Russian Service and RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

GROZNY, Russia -- A court in Russia's North Caucasus region of Chechnya has sentenced two Ukrainian citizens to lengthy prison terms after they were found guilty of fighting alongside Chechen separatists in the 1990s.

Chechnya's Supreme Court on May 26 sentenced Mykola Karpyuk to 22 years and Stanislav Klykh to 20 years in prison. 

On May 19, a jury found both men guilty of participating in the activities of a militant group, including murder and attempted murder.

Investigators said they were members of the group known as the Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian National Self-Defense (UNA-UNSO) and arrived in Chechnya in 1994 to fight alongside Chechen separatists against Russia's federal forces, leading to the killing of dozens of Russian soldiers.

UNA-UNSO has been officially branded as extremist and banned in Russia. 

The Moscow-based Memorial human rights center has recognized Karpyuk and Klykh as political prisoners.
 


Russian Artist Pavlensky To Give Award To 'Primorye Guerrillas'

Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky is facing criminal charges for setting fire to a door of the Federal Security Service's (FSB) headquarters in Moscow in November.

RFE/RL's Russian Service

Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky says he plans to give the money he'll receive from his Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent to a group of men jailed for a series of attacks against police.

Pavlensky, who is in pretrial detention in Russia, could not attend the award ceremony in Oslo on May 25.

His friend Oksana Shalygina, who received the award on his behalf, read out a statement in which he announced that he will give his prize money to the so-called Primorye Guerrillas.

The group carried out attacks against police in Russia's Far East in 2010 in which two officers were killed. Six members of the group were later sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

Pavlensky is facing criminal charges for setting fire to a door of the Federal Security Service's (FSB) headquarters in Moscow in November.

He has staged a series of political protest performances that have included nailing his scrotum to Red Square.

Pavlensky says his performances draw attention to the indifference of many Russians to widespread FSB control.

The other laureates of the 2016 Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent are Iranian cartoonist Atena Farghadani and Uzbek photojournalist Umida Akhmedova, who is also an RFE/RL contributor.

The prize winners will share 350,000 Norwegian crowns ($42,000).


Ekho Moskvy Chief Alleges Censorship In Cancellation Of Putin Critic's Show

Ekho Moskvy Editor in Chief Aleksei Venediktov (left) has pointed the finger at the radio station's general director, Yekaterina Pavlova (right).

RFE/RL

The editor in chief of Ekho Moskvy radio, one of Russia's most prominent independent-minded media outlets, says a popular talk show hosted by a searing Kremlin critic has been pulled off the air due to censorship by the station's management.

The comments by Aleksei Venediktov come amid mounting concerns that the authorities are stepping up efforts to curtail hard-hitting investigative reporting and dissenting voices anywhere in the Russian media.

He announced on May 25 that a politically themed talk show hosted by Yevgenia Albats, a prominent journalist who is also editor of a weekly magazine that has investigated President Vladimir Putin's friends and family, had been taken off the air. 

"I can confirm that the Yevgenia Albats' program has not been on Ekho Moskvy since May 1 due to the absence of a contract between the host and the general director."

Venediktov later said in a series of Tweets and interviews with Russian websites that Albats had refused to sign a contract with the station's general manager due to restrictions that included preapproval of all the questions she would be able to ask.

"I am furious," he told the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.

Ekho Moskvy's broadcasts and web reports are widely followed in Moscow and a handful of other large cities. Under Venediktov, who is well-connected among Russia's ruling elite, the station has largely managed to maintain its independence, despite being owned by state-run energy giant Gazprom.

In an interview later in the day with Open Russia, an opposition website founded by once-jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Venediktov criticized the station manager.

"Under Ekho Moskvy's charter, it is the editor in chief exclusively who is responsible for editorial policy. All restrictions and additions to the rights and obligations of the journalists are my business, not that of the general director," he said.

Venediktov, who is a towering figure among Russia's journalism circles, did not immediately respond to a message from RFE/RL seeking further comment.

It wasn't immediately clear what prompted the conflict between Albats, a veteran journalist who is fiercely critical of Putin, and the station's general manager, Yekaterina Pavlova. Albats' magazine, The New Times, has published several investigations into corruption among government officials and the personal lives of Putin's daughters.

Albats, meanwhile, told Open Russia that the contract limited what questions she could ask, and suggested that Venediktov was not doing enough to support her position.

"I think that he has enough authority at Ekho Moskvy so that a contract could be signed that doesn't violate Russian laws on mass media, that don't violate the authority of the editor-in-chief, that don't end up contradicting the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which forbids censorship," she told the site.

Pavlova, who did not appear to make any public statement, could not be immediately reached for comment.

In a story on its own website, Ekho Moskvy said this was at least the second time in recent years that Pavlova has pressured one of its on-air journalists.

Russian media outlets have been repeatedly squeezed since Vladimir Putin first assumed the presidency in 2000.

Early in his first term, Putin oversaw the shuttering of leading independent national television channel NTV, which was taken over by Gazprom. Legislation passed by the State Duma in 2014 restricted foreign ownership of media outlets, affecting some of the country's most respected publications.

Other independent outlets have also come under pressure. The RBC media group, which has published investigative stories that linked Putin's daughter to a government-backed development project, saw its top editors resign en masse earlier this month after disputes with the company's management.

The resignations were widely seen as the result of pressure from the authorities, who had conducted a series of tax and other investigations into the company, which was bought in 2010 by billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov.


Azerbaijan's Other Political Prisoners

Prominent critical voices currently imprisoned include Ilqar Mammadov, the leader of the Republican Alternative (REAL) movement who remains in jail despite a ruling by the European Court for Human Rights that his arrest was politically motivated.

RFE/RL

The release of RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova from an Azerbaijani prison has drawn applause from Western officials and international rights groups. But it also highlighted the plight of numerous other activists and journalists widely considered political prisoners who remain behind bars in the oil-rich former Soviet republic.

"This is a positive signal that can be replicated in other cases," Giacomo Fassina, a spokesman for European Parliament President Martin Schulz, told RFE/RL following Ismayilova's release on May 25.

Dozens of journalists, opposition activists, and other critics of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev remain behind bars in cases they and their supporters call retribution for their political activities. The U.S.-based group Freedom House says there are still more than 80 political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

Their arrests and prosecutions have come amid a broad clampdown on dissent in Azerbaijan over the past three years that has been condemned by Western governments and prominent rights watchdog groups.

At least five journalists considered victims of politically motivated prosecutions remain jailed on a range of charges, including alleged hooliganism and drug-related offenses, according to media-freedom groups and Western officials.

The office of Dunja Mijatovic, representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), urged Baku in a May 25 statement to "release all remaining members of the media and bloggers still in prison today in Azerbaijan, including Seymur Hazi, Nijat [Nicat] Aliyev, Abdul Abilov, Rashad Ramazanov and Araz Guliyev."

Numerous political activists remain imprisoned as well, including several from the opposition Popular Front Party and the civic youth movement N!DA.

EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini's office said Ismayilova's release "marks a further step in progress toward Azerbaijan's compliance with its international commitments," and called for "the release and rehabilitation of all those currently imprisoned or under restriction of movement in Azerbaijan on political grounds."

Aliyev has demonstrated a willingness to heed calls for the release of those seen as political prisoners -- a label Baku has vehemently rejected.

Prior to the decision by Azerbaijan's Supreme Court to reduce Ismayilova's punishment to a suspended sentence, he issued a snap presidential pardon of 14 of these prisoners, including members of the N!DA civic youth group and human rights activist Rasul Cafarov.

But other N!DA activists remain in custody, including Bayram Mammadov, who earlier this month was charged with drug possession and placed in pretrial detention. Fellow N!DA member Giyasaddin Ibrahim, who was detained together with Mammadov, faces similar charges.

They were purportedly involved in writing graffiti on a statue of former President Heidar Aliyev in Baku ahead of Flower Day on May 10, which celebrates the late leader. Other N!DA members have previously been charged with drug possession.

The numerous Popular Party activists who remain jailed include the party's deputy chairman, Fuad Qahramanli, who was arrested in Baku in December. His lawyer said he was charged with publicly calling for the overthrow of the government and inciting ethnic, religious, and social hatred.

Other prominent critical voices currently imprisoned include Ilqar Mammadov, the leader of the Republican Alternative (REAL) movement who remains in jail despite a ruling by the European Court for Human Rights that his arrest was politically motivated.

Ismayilova's release came just three days before Azerbaijan celebrates its annual Republic Day with a mass amnesty, proposed by the country's first lady, that anticipates the release of some 3,500 prisoners convicted of minor crimes.

It remains unclear, however, whether those who are considered political prisoners might be freed, given the criminal nature of the offenses they have been charged with or convicted of.

The prisoners and their supporters say the criminal charges are trumped-up.


RFE/RL Journalist Ismayilova Released From Custody

Khadija Ismayilova (left) talks to reporters upon her release from prison on May 25.

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 25.05.2016 18:43

RFE/RL

RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova has walked free from an Azerbaijani prison and vowed to keep on working after the Supreme Court reduced her 7 1/2-year prison sentence to a suspended term of 3 1/2 years. 
 
The court made the decision on May 25 after hearing an appeal by the journalist. Ismayilova was not in the courtroom when the ruling was issued, but was released from custody a short time later. 

"Greetings! I am out of prison," Ismayilova said on Facebook. "Thank you all for your support. I am strong and full of energy. I will continue my work as a journalist."

Ismayilova was detained in December 2014 and sentenced in September 2015 on charges that have been widely seen as retaliation for her award-winning reporting linking the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to corruption. 

Her imprisonment had elicited international condemnation against the Aliyev government and Western governments and press-freedom groups had repeatedly called for her release. 

"This is a great day for Khadija, and for all journalists and for free speech everywhere," RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic said. "We are overjoyed for Khadija and her family and can't wait for her to get back to work."

The Baku court reversed Ismayilova's convictions on charges of misappropriation of property and abuse of position, but upheld her convictions for illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion.

WATCH: Khadija Ismayilova speaks after her release. 

RFE/RL Journalist Released From Azerbaijani Prisoni
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May 25, 2016
RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova has been released from prison in Azerbaijan after serving around 18 months -- her conviction was widely seen as politically motivated. (RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service)

Western governments and rights groups welcomed news of her release, and urged Baku to free other journalists and government critics widely seen as political prisoners.

"We view this as a positive step, and we encourage the Azerbaijani government to drop the remaining charges against her," the U.S. State Department said.

"As Azerbaijan continues to expand freedom of expression and space for civic and political participation, this will only continue to strengthen the country of Azerbaijan and our bilateral relationship."

The office of European Union foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini said Ismayilova's release "marks a further step in progress toward Azerbaijan's compliance with its international commitments," and called for "the release and rehabilitation of all those currently imprisoned or under restriction of movement in Azerbaijan on political grounds."

READ MORE: Azerbaijan's Other Political Prisoners


The Baku court's decision was "truly great news," U.S. Undersecretary of State for  Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Rick Stengel said on Twitter.

Dunja Mijatovic, representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), issued a statement calling Ismayilova's release "a very positive step."

"Unfortunately, Ismayilova's sentence has only been suspended, and I call on the authorities to drop all charges against her and release the remaining imprisoned journalists," Mijatovic wrote.

Petras Austrevicius, a Lithuanian member of the European Parliament and a member of its Foreign Affairs Committee, welcomed the development in comments to RFE/RL.

"I think this is an achievement of those who stood behind and requested her release because [Ismayilova] is a human rights defender," Austrevicius said. "She is a symbol of democratic society and I hope this tendency will continue in Azerbaijan and all political detainees or prisoners will be released sooner or later."

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a press release that the decision was "cause for celebration, but does not erase the rank injustice of her imprisonment for a year and a half on retaliatory charges."

John Lansing, the chief executive officer and director of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, called on Baku to halt the "harassment, surveillance, and intimidation that she suffered before her detainment." The Broadcasting Board of Governors oversees all U.S. civilian international broadcasting, including RFE/RL.

Lansing said Azerbaijani authorities should allow RFE/RL’s Baku bureau to reopen, and to stop investigations of other journalists who worked at the RFE/RL bureau before the government "unjustly" shut it down in December 2014. And he said Baku should lift travel restrictions on Ismayilova, which had been in place since 2014. 

PHOTO GALLERY: Khadija Ismayilova is released. 

  • Khadija Ismayilova (left) is greeted by her mother, Elmira, after being released on May 25.
  • "Greetings! I am out of prison," Ismayilova said on Facebook. "Thank you all for your support. I am strong and full of energy. I will continue my work as a journalist."
  • Ismayilova was detained in December 2014 and sentenced in September 2015 on charges that have been widely seen as retaliation for her award-winning reporting linking the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to corruption. 
  • Her imprisonment had elicited international condemnation against the Aliyev government and Western governments and press-freedom groups had repeatedly called for her release.
  • The Baku court reversed Ismayilova's convictions on charges of misappropriation of property and abuse of position, but upheld her convictions for illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion.
  • Ismayilova is greeted by Intigam Aliyev, a human rights lawyer released from prison on March 28 after his 7 1/2-year sentence was commuted.
  • Western governments and rights groups welcomed news of her release, and urged Baku to free other journalists and government critics widely seen as political prisoners.
  • Ismayilova relaxes with her family and friends.
  • Khadija sits with her mother, Elmira.
  • Ismayilova, 39, has been hailed for her investigative work, and received wide accolades including the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.
  • The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a press release that the decision was "cause for celebration, but does not erase the rank injustice of her imprisonment for a year and a half on retaliatory charges."

Ismayilova's supporters had sought to take her case to the European Court for Human Rights, and enlisted renowned human rights lawyer Amal Clooney in that effort. 

Her release, Clooney said, was "a victory for all journalists who dare to speak truth to power."

"Khadija is a talented journalist who was instrumental in exposing corruption in her country," she said. 

"Khadija deserves full acknowledgment of her innocence and should be allowed to resume her work as a journalist without further harassment by the government," Clooney said. 

Ismayilova, 39, has been hailed for her investigative work, and received wide accolades including the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. Her mother, Elmira, accepted the prize on Ismayilova’s behalf earlier this month and read an acceptance speech penned by her daughter.
 
"Humanity suffers when journalists are silenced," she said in the acceptance speech. "This is why some people believe that the killing of journalists constitutes a crime against humanity. As you gather here tonight, I ask you not to laud my work or my courage, but to dedicate yourself to the work each one of you can do on behalf of press freedom and justice."
 
The former Soviet republic has been ruled by the Aliyev family -- first Heidar, and then his son and current president, Ilham -- since shortly after the Soviet collapse. In recent years, authorities have tightened the screws on independent media, civil society groups and opposition politicians. 

Freedom House, the U.S.-government-funded rights organization, has ranked Azerbaijan 189th out of 199 countries in its 2016 press survey. Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 163rd out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index. 
 
Freedom House says there are still more than 80 political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

ALSO READ: The Reporting That Jailed Khadija
 

"We are delighted that Khadija is finally free after spending 537 days unjustly jailed," said Rebecca Vincent, an activist with the Sport for Rights coalition, which has been lobbying for Ismayilova’s release. "On the occasion of her release, we echo Khadija's call that we should focus not only on her case, but call for the releases of all political prisoners."

European Parliament President Martin Schulz's spokesman, Giacomo Fassina, told RFE/RL that the EU hopes "this is a positive signal that can be replicated in other cases."
 
Ismayilova has won other international honors before and after her imprisonment, including the PEN American Center's 2015 Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, the National Press Club's 2015 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award, and the 2012 International Women's Media Foundation's Courage in Journalism award.

Amnesty International designated her as a "prisoner of conscience."
 
Ismayilova will turn 40 on May 27. Sport for Rights, an international coalition of activists, plans to hold rallies in 40 cities around the world on that date to call for Ismayilova’s full acquittal and for the release of Azerbaijan’s other political prisoners.

Speaking before the Supreme Court ruling in Baku, Ismayilova’s mother told RFE/RL she was optimistic her daughter would be released.
 
"Somehow, I am full of hope," Elmira Ismayilova said.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service; Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak, APA, and AFP

Tatar Activist Reported Missing In Russia-Annexed Crimea

Crimean Desk, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

Crimean Tatar activist Ervin Ibragimov has gone missing, his colleagues says.

Nariman Celal, deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatars' self-governing body, the Mejlis, told RFE/RL on May 25 that Ibragimov disappeared overnight. 

Ibragimov’s relatives have not been able to locate him. 

Crimea’s Russia-controlled authorities have not given any official statements regarding the activist’s fate.

Ibragimov is a former Bakhchisarai city council deputy and a member of the executive committee of the World's Congress of the Crimean Tatars.

Several Crimean Tatars went missing after Russia forcibly annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in March 2014. Some of them were later found dead.

The majority of the Crimean Tatars, the peninsula's indigenous Turkic speaking people, have openly protested the annexation.

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