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Ukrainian journalist Kristina Berdynskykh was among the foreign journalists briefly detained on March 24.

A Belarusian human rights group says that about 130 activists who have protested against an unemployment tax have been jailed for up to 15 days and will be unable to participate in fresh rallies on March 25.

The Minsk-based organization Vyasna (Spring) said on March 24 that the jail sentences will keep these arrested away from annual Dzen Voly (Freedom Day) rallies in the capital and other cities. It said more trials were under way or pending.

The annual rallies mark the anniversary of the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic, which existed for less than a year in 1918.

This year, it comes amid a wave of protests over legislation imposing a tax on jobless people. The demonstrations have continued despite President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's announcement earlier this month that the collection of the tax would be suspended for a year.

Activists say the authorities are jailing protesters on false grounds because they fear the March 25 rallies will draw large crowds.

Meanwhile, Belarus's KGB security service said late on March 23 that the number of people detained in a separate case in which detainees are accused of planning armed unrest had reached 26.

Lukashenka said on March 21 that some 20 armed militants -- who he said were trained in camps in Belarus, Ukraine and "most likely" Lithuania and Poland -- had been apprehended on suspicion of planning "armed provocations" nationwide.

Activists and opposition groups in Belarus, as well as officials of Ukraine and Lithuania, rejected Lukashenka's statement, saying it was groundless.

Journalists Detained

Ahead of the planned march, plainclothes security officers rounded up more than 10 people -- including local and foreign journalists -- at the Minsk office of the opposition Green Party.

Activists there had been collecting aid for relatives of those swept up in the wave of recent detentions.

The detained journalists included Halina Abakunchyk, a reporter with RFE/RL's Belarus Service, British journalist Gulliver Cragg of France 24, and Ukrainian journalist Kristina Berdynskykh of the Kyiv weekly Novoye Vremya.

Berdynskykh said on Facebook later on March 24 that the journalists had been released but that 10 other detainees remained at a local police station.

Cragg said on Twitter that he was released from police custody after 90 minutes and given an "apology."

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dzmitry Mironchyk told RFE/RL that the ministry was aware of the journalists' detentions and was investigating the matter.

Amnesty International on March 24 called on Belarusian authorities to "ensure that rallies planned in the capital, Minsk, and elsewhere on Freedom Day, March 25, are allowed to go ahead unhindered by excessive use of police force or arbitrary detentions of peaceful protesters such as those witnessed in recent weeks."

"Belarusian authorities must honor their international obligations and finally come to recognize peaceful protest as a fundamental right. In practice this means refraining from banning public rallies, using force against peaceful protesters or otherwise persecuting them," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's director for Europe and Central Asia.

"Public officials must stop depicting dissenters as a 'fifth column,' and instead ensure the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly for all."

Organizers of the Freedom Day march told RFE/RL that Minsk city authorities informed them that they were allowed to hold a gathering in Peoples' Friendship Park, which is on Minsk's outskirts, but not in the center.

The activists said that by law, the authorities were obligated to respond to their plan for a rally five days before the event, but that they stalled until March 24.

Organizers said they would stick to their original plan and march through central Minsk on March 25.

With reporting by BelTA
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his wife, Mehriban, who was recently name the country's first vice president

BAKU -- An RFE/RL investigation has shown that more than two dozen companies with ties to the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev or to other government officials do not appear on the Azerbaijani Tax Ministry's public registry. At least one of those companies appears to have been removed from the registry in recent weeks.

The revelation comes just days after the Council of Europe's anticorruption body -- the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) -- issued a report chastising Baku for failing to make "any progress" on implementing a mandatory mechanism under which public officials must disclose their assets.

"The absence of any meaningful development...casts doubt on the political will to enact an effective system of assets disclosure," GRECO said on March 17.

At least 29 companies featured in previous investigations into the assets of public officials, or their subsidiaries, do not appear on the government's mandatory tax registry. Ten of the missing companies are subsidiaries of the Pasha Holding group.

According to the 2013 Consolidated Financial Report of Pasha Holding subsidiary Pasha Bank and the registry information of Pasha Bank's branch in Georgia, the ultimate shareholders of Pasha Holding are: President Aliyev's daughters, Leyla and Arzu; and Arif Pashayev, the father of first lady Mehriban Aliyeva, who was recently also named the country's first vice president.

One Pasha Holding subsidiary, Pasha Development, appeared in the Tax Ministry's registry as recently as August (below) but has since been removed.

Neither Pasha Holding nor the Azerbaijani Tax Ministry responded to requests by RFE/RL for comment. The Pasha Holding website emphasizes the company's commitment to "transparency," saying it aspires to be "a representation of best corporate practice, trust, continuity, and respect for all our stakeholders: our country, shareholders, clients, and partners."

"Azerbaijan is the only nonoffshore haven that hides ownership of its companies," said Akram Hasanov, managing partner of the Akram Hasanov & Partners law firm in Baku. "The information required by the registry has legal importance. This information is essential in contracts and other types of legal communications, including judicial communications."

Before 2012, the ministry's registry required each company to list its name, tax identification number, date of incorporation, legal address, director(s), and owner(s). But following investigations into the undeclared assets of public figures, the law was changed in 2012 so that companies were no longer required to reveal their owners.

Leyla Aliyeva (center) with her sister Arzu (left) and first lady Mehriban Aliyeva
Leyla Aliyeva (center) with her sister Arzu (left) and first lady Mehriban Aliyeva

In past investigations, RFE/RL and other media have used information in the registry to establish links between companies or between listed companies and individuals. For instance, the legal address listed for the firm Ador Ltd. matches the address where both of Aliyev's daughters are registered to vote. The Tax Ministry's registry also identifies a company’s directors, which enables investigators to establish a personal connection between a listed director and a public official.

Information about a company's founding date can also be important. In the past, companies were found to have been created just days before being granted a significant government contract.

"The existence of the public registry with basic information that is available to citizens is important, allowing them to find out about providers of services and goods and other companies that they might interact with," said Natig Jafarli, an economist and executive director of the opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) movement.

Azerbaijan officials are abusing power given to them by the people to hide the fact that they are using public money for their own benefit."
-- Miranda Patrucic, investigative reporter, OCCRP

"Unfortunately, the information available to citizens is not complete," Jafarli added. "The registries of other countries provide more information, including ownership, financial records, tax history, and so on. Unfortunately, Azerbaijanis lack access to full information on companies, even those that are awarded public contracts."

Also missing from the tax registry are Gilan Ltd. and several of its subsidiaries. According to a 2013 audit report of Gilan subsidiary AFB Bank, the company is controlled by two entities registered in the United Arab Emirates that are owned by Tale and Nijat Heydarov, sons of Azerbaijani Emergency Situations Minister Kamaladdin Heydarov.

Another absent firm is the construction company Azenco Group. That company won a lucrative state contract to build a new arena for the Eurovision Song Contest 2012 in Baku. An RFE/RL investigation that year revealed Azenco was controlled through a series of offshore shell companies by Mehriban, Leyla, and Arzu Aliyeva.

Azerbaijan is ranked 123rd of 176 countries in the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index issued by Transparency International (TI). According to a 2015 TI report, corruption in Azerbaijan is "endemic and deeply institutionalized -- permeating all spheres of public life, with entrenched political patronage networks and widespread conflicts of interest closely connected to the political elite." It notes that the country's "asset-declaration law is rendered effectively meaningless by the fact that declaration forms to be filled in by public officials have yet to be developed."

Earlier this month, Azerbaijan announced it was quitting the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a voluntary group of energy- and mineral-producing countries aimed at boosting transparency.

Baku exited the project after being suspended at EITI's March meeting "because the country lacks an enabling environment for civil society."

Asked about the companies missing from the tax registry, Miranda Patrucic, an investigative reporter with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), said they were indicative of a systemic problem.

"Azerbaijan officials are abusing power given to them by the people to hide the fact that they are using public money for their own benefit," Patrucic said. "They have made business records secret to avoid public scrutiny and embarrassment from revealing the true level of their greed and corruption.

"Such things only happen in dictatorships," she said.

RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report

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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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