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Monday 12 August 2019

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Valery Kostenok

A Moscow court has remanded a member of the Yabloko opposition party to pretrial custody for two months on "mass unrest" charges following a unauthorized July 27 rally in the capital where police used violence against protesters and detained almost 1,400 people.

The Basmanny district court ordered 20-year-old Valery Kostenok's detention until October 11 for throwing two plastic bottles at security forces during the demonstration, which was attended by several thousand Russians to protest against officials who didn't register several independent and opposition candidates on the ballot for a September 8 vote to the Moscow municipal legislature.

Kostenok has admitted his guilt.

Kostenok, who collected signatures as a volunteer in favor of Moscow City Duma candidate Kirill Goncharov, became the 14th person charged in the criminal investigation authorities opened on July 31 into the protest.

Also arrested and given a six-day prison sentence was Olga Guseva, a deputy of opposition leader Aleskei Navalny's campaign office, the rights group OVD-Info reported. She was charged in St. Petersburg, one of the 40 cities where rallies took place nationwide on August 10 for free and fair elections.

The rallies on August 10 rally were the fourth successive weekend demonstration in Russia.

The criminal probe into the July 27 demonstration was opened based on three articles of Russia's Criminal Code -- on organizing mass unrest, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison; on participating in such unrest, which can be punished with up to eight years in prison; and on calling for unrest -- up to two years in prison.

The court rejected the request by Kostenok's lawyer that his client be placed under house arrest after investigators said he could go into hiding or establish contact with other defendants.

Kostenok’s lawyer, Gadzhi Aliyeva, said she would appeal the ruling.

With reporting by Current Time, Interfax, and TASS
The recent disappearance of Turkmenistan's authoritarian president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, gave some leading comedians an opportunity to riff on his many eccentricities.

Before his sudden reemergence at the Caspian Economic Forum this week, speculation had recently been swirling in Turkmenistan after the country's strongman president disappeared from public view for more than a month.

Considering that Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov regularly dominates the airwaves in the tightly controlled state, his abrupt absence did not go unnoticed, prompting speculation that he was in poor health or even dead.

This obviously posed a problem for the Turkmen authorities, who have spent years cultivating an elaborate cult of personality aimed at boosting the totalitarian leader's power and prestige.

Turkmenistan's Singer, Race-Car Driver, Jockey, Autocrat
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When ubiquitous dictators suddenly evaporate into thin air, it can have a destabilizing effect on their regimes.

Perhaps hoping to avoid the crippling uncertainty that gripped the Soviet Union immediately following the demise of Stalin or the rampant rumors that accompanied the long-drawn-out announcement of Islam Karimov's death in neighboring Uzbekistan in 2016, the Turkmen authorities went into overdrive to assure the populace, and the world at large, that their glorious leader was alive and well.

This all culminated in state TV broadcasting an August 4 highlights package showing a 35-minute montage of clips of what Turkmenistan's all-singing, all-dancing president had been doing on his "holidays," including riding a bicycle, firing an automatic weapon in combat gear, bowling with astonishing accuracy, riding a horse, working on a new book, composing a new song, and driving an SUV through the desert to the Gates of Hell -- a perpetually burning crater that resulted from a Soviet attempt to flare gas there in the early 1970s.

Not surprisingly, such blatant silly-dictator antics have been gleefully seized upon by many detractors, including the U.S.-based satirists Trevor Noah and John Oliver.

In a five-minute segment on The Daily Show, Noah used the opportunity to reprise some of the video "highlights" of Berdymukhammedov's bizarre reign, including the South African comedian's own personal favorite, which shows the Turkmen leader rocking out with his grandson.

Last Week Tonight's John Oliver went even further, devoting a full 20-minute segment to documenting the sheer "weirdness" of the Berdymukhammedov regime.

Among other things, Oliver took great delight in dissecting the Turkmen president's fascination with horses, which RFE/RL has also covered in the past.

The British-born comic paid particular attention to the time when Berdymukhammedov had an embarrassing fall while riding a beloved steed, a story that the Turkmen authorities did their best to try and bury.

Besides mining the subject for laughs, however, both also made sure to draw attention to the dark side of life in Turkmenistan, particularly its abysmal human rights record.

According to its latest World Report, Human Rights Watch singled out the country for particular criticism, calling it "one of the world's most isolated and oppressively governed" states, where "all forms of religious and political expression not approved by the government are brutally punished."

With this in mind, Oliver also took the time to take a swipe at Guinness World Records for actually sending verifiers to validate what he described as Berdymukhammedov's "bizarre obsession" with setting global firsts (something he shares with some Central Asian counterparts).

John Oliver repeatedly cited RFE/RL reporting in his Berdymukhammedov segment.
John Oliver repeatedly cited RFE/RL reporting in his Berdymukhammedov segment.

In Oliver's view, enabling Berdymukhammedov to register such Turkmen records as having "the most buildings with marble cladding" or the "world's largest indoor Ferris wheel" only serves to "reinforce a cult of personality and confer a sense of legitimacy on a global stage."

Typically, Oliver was to have one last laugh at the Turkmen leader's expense, however.

Taking a leaf out of Berdymukhammedov's book, the Last Week Tonight ended the show by attempting to break another record, making what Oliver described as the "world's largest marbled cake" -- a 55-square-meter confectionery decorated with a huge picture of the Turkmen president infamously falling off his horse.

It's probably safe to assume that this is probably not a record achievement Turkmen state TV is going to be trumpeting anytime soon.

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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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