DUMA GIVES FIRST NOD TO ELECTION MODIFICATIONS...
The Duma on 20 May approved in its first reading a series of amendments that would ban electoral blocs, add new restrictions to media coverage of election campaigns, and make it easier for the authorities to disqualify candidates or parties, Russian media reported. The amendments would also raise by a factor of 10 the amount of state funding for parties that poll at least 3 percent in national elections. Deputies also passed an amendment to the media law that would make journalists and media outlets liable for redistributing false information during election campaigns, even if they did so in good faith. They also establish the second Sunday in March as the date for all regional and municipal elections, with the second Sunday in October set aside as the date for by-elections. Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov said the amendments will not affect the 2007 Duma elections, which will be held on the first Sunday in December. Political consultant Aleksei Trubetskoi told "Kommersant-Vlast," No. 20, that the main beneficiaries of the changes will be "the Kremlin and its ruling group." "The electoral system is built in full correspondence with the logic of the authorities," Trubetskoi said. "For the sake of increasing the effectiveness of management, the Kremlin is striving to reduce as much as possible the distance between decision making and execution." RC
...AND DECIDES TO GO AFTER BAD LANGUAGE
Duma deputies on 20 May passed in its first reading a bill that would ban the use of profanity, slang, and foreign words in official settings, "The Moscow Times" reported on 23 May. The restrictions would apply to statements by officials, official documents, and advertising and the media. However, the measure does not include any penalties for violations. The law would ban the use of the term "speaker," for instance, because of its foreign origin. Some experts criticized the ban on foreign words, noting that the Russian word "magazin," or "store," would be allowed although it was originally borrowed from French, while the English word "shop" would be banned. RC
DUMA DEPUTY SEEKS DIRT ON FORMER PREMIER
On 20 May, Duma Deputy Aleksei Ostrovskii (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, LDPR) asked the Security Committee to ask the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Interior Ministry, and the Federal Security Service for information about possible illegal actions committed by Mikhail Kasyanov when he served as prime minister, "Vedomosti" reported on 23 May. Kasyanov made headlines last week with some sharp criticism of President Vladimir Putin and of the government of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 2005). Ostrovskii said on 20 May, "it would be good if the opposition lined up behind Kasyanov and marched in the direction of Matrosskaya Tishina," a notorious remand prison. Unnamed analysts told "Vedomosti" that Ostrovskii's request can be considered a warning by the Kremlin to Kasyanov. One source told the daily the Kremlin considers Kasyanov to be "enemy No. 1." RC
JUDGES READ KHODORKOVSKII VERDICT FOR SIXTH DAY
Judges at Moscow's Meshchanskii Raion Court on 23 May continued reading the verdict in the case of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii and his fellow defendants for the sixth day without issuing any definitive findings, Russian and international media reported. Interfax reported that National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov was prevented from entering the courtroom after security guards told him there was no room for him. Limonov told the news agency that he had been invited to observe the hearing by defense attorney Robert Amsterdam. RIA-Novosti reported that the space across the street from the courthouse where last week pro- and anti-Khodorkovskii demonstrations were held was occupied by municipal trucks on 23 May. The news agency estimated that about one-third of the 1,000-page verdict has been read so far. RC
INDIAN PRESIDENT BEGINS STATE VISIT
Indian President Abdul Kalam arrived in Moscow on 22 May, RIA-Novosti and other Russian media reported. On 23 May, Kalam was expected to visit the Sukhoi aviation-design bureau and the Academy of Sciences. On 24 May, he will visit the plant where the Bramos antiship missile, which was jointly designed by India and Russia, is being produced. On 25 May, he will be in St. Petersburg for talks with St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko. It is the first time that an Indian president has visited Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the news agency reported. RC
MUSCOVITES PROTEST RESTRICTIONS ON PRESS FREEDOM...
About 1,500 people gathered near the Ostankino television complex in Moscow on 22 May to protest restrictions on press freedoms, Russian and international media reported. The protest was organized by a coalition of opposition forces, including the Communist Party of Russia and Yabloko. Among those who addressed the crowd were Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii, Communist Party Deputy Chairman Ivan Melnikov, Our Choice leader Irina Khakamada, For a Worthy Life leader Sergei Glazev, and NBP leader Limonov, lenta.ru reported. Yavlinskii charged that "there is no freedom of speech in our country," Interfax reported. RC
...AS JOURNALISTS, POLITICIANS SAY CENSORSHIP IS THRIVING IN RUSSIA
Speaking on Ekho Moskvy on 21 May, journalist Savik Shuster, who used to host a popular program on NTV and who has begun working for Ukrainian television after being fired by NTV, said: "I can say that it's much easier to work in Ukraine." "There has not been any pressure or hassle over the program," Shuster said. "In principle, nothing is off-limits." Yabloko deputy head Sergei Mitrokhin said on the same broadcast that although the Soviet-era mechanisms of censorship have been dismantled, "we have other bodies, like the Press Ministry, which was set up just for this purpose. There are no equivalent bodies in free democratic countries." Former RTR journalist Yelena Masyuk said that she left RTR because of the restrictions on expression there. "It was impossible to work after the most recent State Duma elections and the presidential election last year," Masyuk said. She said that she once suggested 22 topics for stories to her manager, who approved only two of them. An informal survey taken during the program found that 96 percent of listeners believe that President Putin's recent order to give all political parties equal access to state television will be ignored (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2005). RC
DEFENSE MINISTER'S SON INVOLVED IN FATAL CAR ACCIDENT
Aleksandr Ivanov, the son of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, was charged on 20 May with running a red light in Moscow and killing a 60-year-old female pedestrian, RIA-Novosti and other Russian media reported. The news agency reported many top officials from the city's police and prosecutorial offices were seen at the scene of the accident. Caucasus Press claimed on 23 May the woman was an ethnic Georgian. Aleksandr Ivanov has been charged with reckless endangerment leading to a fatality, which is punishable with up to five years' imprisonment. In January, Ivanov, 24, was named a vice president at Gazprombank. RC
STATE TELEVISION HANDS OUT MILITARY DESIGN AWARDS
State-controlled Channel One television is one of the sponsors of the Pobeda (Victory) award for designers of military hardware, Channel One reported on 21 May. The station joined with the Academy of Sciences and the Defense Ministry in creating the award, and the first laureates were named on 20 May. "It is high time the prestige of the defense industry was raised so that it attracts young people and is not left with gray-haired experts only," said Oleg Mamalyga, designer of the Iskandr missile complex and a winner of the Pobeda award. Awards were presented in 12 categories, including aviation, shipbuilding, space technology, and munitions. Channel One commented that "at the end of the ceremony all the winners came on stage and proposed that the award be presented annually so that the public can learn to whom they owe their peace and tranquility." RC
SIBERIAN LEADER COMES UNDER FIRE FROM LOCAL POLITICIANS
The heads of 10 local political parties and public organizations on 21 May called for the resignation of Altai Krai President Mikhail Lapshin, ITAR-TASS reported. A statement by the heads of the local LDPR, the Union of Rightist Forces, Motherland, the Communist Party, and other organizations accused Lapshin of "the inadequate fulfillment of his duties." It accused him of "giving advantages to businessmen from other regions in construction, manufacturing, trade, and tourism and causing a growth in unemployment among the local population." The statement also accused Lapshin of corruption. RC
SAMARA PUBLISHER ASSAULTED
Dmitrii Suryaninov, general director of Media-Samara, was attacked and beaten by two unknown assailants using a baseball bat on 22 May outside his home, RIA-Novosti reported on 23 May. Suryaninov suffered a concussion and other injuries and is expected to be hospitalized for a week. Although police have refused to discuss possible motives for the attack, Suryaninov issued a statement saying that he believes it was retaliation for investigations of local business groups that were published in "Samarskoe obozrenie." Media-Samara is one of the largest media groups in the mid-Volga region and owns "Samarskoe obozrenie," "Samarskie izvestiya," "Ploshchad svobody" (Tolyatti), "Postscriptum" (Tolyatti), "Gorod-NSK 2000" (Novokuibyshevsk), three television stations, and two radio stations. RC
GOVERNMENT REVEALS PARTIAL STATISTICS ON HATE CRIMES
The Sova Center human rights organization on 23 May published on its website (http://xeno.sova-center.ru) figures it received from the research arm of the Prosecutor-General's Office on hate crimes in Russia. According to the provisional data, which reflects prosecutions rather than convictions, there were 17 cases involving 10 deaths in 2001 that were investigated under the charge of racially motivated murder. In 2004, there were 23 such cases involving 11 fatalities. In 2004, 11 people were convicted of fomenting ethnic, religious, or racial hatred, the most of any year since 1997. The Sova Center noted that the statistics included crimes related to Caucasian blood feuds as well as to the activities of skinheads and other extremists. RC
GOVERNMENT MINISTER ASSASSINATED IN DAGHESTAN
Daghestan's minister for nationality policy, information and external ties, Zagir Arukhov, was killed on the evening of 20 May when a bomb exploded at the entrance to an apartment building in Makhachkala, Caucasus Press and www.kavkazweb.net reported the following day. Arukhov's bodyguard died later of his injuries; four children were also hospitalized. Experts from the Russian Interior Ministry flew to Makhachkala on 21 May to investigate the killing. Arukhov's predecessor as minister, Magomedsalikh Gusaev, was killed two years ago by a bomb placed on the roof of his car (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 August 2003). LF
NORTH OSSETIAN LEGISLATURE ABOLISHES POST OF PRESIDENT
The parliament of the Republic of North Ossetia unanimously approved on 21 May in the third and final reading amendments to the republic's constitution that downgrade the title of its leader from president to head of the republic, Interfax and lenta.ru reported. Opening the debate, parliament speaker Teimuraz Mamsurov argued that Russia should have just one president, and that to have dozens of presidents in a single state does not make legal or political sense. The amendments will take effect as of 1 January 2006, just weeks before incumbent President Aleksandr Dzasokhov's second term expires. LF
KARACHAEVO-CHERKESSIA MURDER TRIAL TRANSFERRED TO STAVROPOL
The Supreme Court of the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia opened preliminary hearings on 20 May in the trial of 16 people accused in connection with the murder in October 2004 of seven shareholders in a local cement plant, Interfax reported. The court ruled that the trial should be transferred to Stavropol Krai on the grounds that the republic's police say they cannot guarantee the security of the defendants, who include Ali Kaitov, the former son-in-law of RKCh President Mustafa Batdyev. The discovery of the bodies of the seven murder victims triggered mass protests and demands for the resignation of Batdyev and the republic's government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 and 25 October and 9, 10 and 12 November 2004). The first hearing in Stavropol will take place on 14 June. LF
CHECHENS PROTEST ACQUITTAL OF RUSSIAN SERVICEMEN ON MURDER CHARGES
Chechens rallied in Grozny on 20 May to protest the acquittal the previous day by a Russian military court in Rostov-na-Donu of four Russian servicemen who killed six Chechen civilians in January 2002, Russian agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 2005). Participants at the rally adopted an appeal to the Russian government expressing "incomprehension" and "outrage" at the jurors' "callous" decision. Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov released a similar statement on 20 May protesting what he termed the court's "illegal" decision, Interfax reported. Alkhanov argued that the verdict will undermine Chechens' collective trust in Russian justice. LF
BELARUS EXTRADITES SUSPECTED CHECHEN HOSTAGE-TAKER
Belarus extradited Nurmagomed Khatuev, a suspected Chechen hostage-taker, to Russia on 20 May, Belapan reported, quoting the Prosecutor-General's Office. Khatuev is reportedly wanted by Russia in connection with the taking of hostages in Budennovsk in 1995 and in a Moscow theater in 2002. JM
INGUSHETIAN PROSECUTOR INVESTIGATES TORTURE OF DETAINEE
The republican prosecutor's office in Ingushetia has opened a criminal case in connection with injuries inflicted on Bekkhan Gireev in pretrial detention, ingushetiya.ru reported on 20 May. Ingushetian parliament deputy and opposition leader Musa Ozdoev claimed earlier this month that Gireev and other detainees have been subjected to torture, including having their fingernails pulled out or their kneecaps smashed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 May 2005). Gireev was arrested on suspicion of participating in an attempt to assassinate Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov; a medical examination undertaken in response to Ozdoev's allegations proved that he had indeed been tortured, and he has since been hospitalized. LF
ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT CHAIRMAN, JUSTICE MINISTER CROSS SWORDS
Parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian incurred the wrath of Justice Minister David Harutiunian on 20 May when the 20 deputies from Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir party boycotted a vote on the government's proposed amendments to the Armenian Administrative Code that toughen the penalties for infractions of traffic rules, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Baghdasarian argued during a debate on the planned amendments the previous day that they would only fuel corruption among traffic police; Harutiunian rejected that argument. The bad blood between the two men dates back to May 2004, when Baghdasarian publicly accused Harutiunian of misappropriating a $4.5-million loan from the World Bank designed to shore up Armenia's judiciary. Both Harutiunian and the World Bank denied that allegation. LF
ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SHEDS LIGHT ON KARABAKH TALKS...
In an interview broadcast late on 19 May on Armenian Public Television, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian sought to clarify statements by his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov concerning the talks four days earlier in Warsaw between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev, Interfax and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 20 May. Mammadyarov said on 16 May that Armenia "is ready" to liberate seven districts bordering on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that it currently controls (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 20 May 2005). Oskanian, however, effectively denied this, saying that any peace settlement should give Nagorno-Karabakh a common border with Armenia and that the unrecognized republic should not remain an enclave within Azerbaijan. Oskanian predicted a return to the "package" approach to resolving the conflict and identified the following four issues that need to be addressed in any such settlement: the final status of the unrecognized republic; the liberation of the occupied territories; the return to their homes of displaced persons and refugees; and security guarantees to preclude a future war. He said agreement has been reached on some of those elements, but serious disagreements remain concerning others, and that without clarifying the status issue it is "senseless" to discuss the other aspects. LF
...BUT AZERBAIJANI 'TAKE' DIFFERS
In a 20 May interview with the Trend news agency, Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov said "between seven and nine" components of a Karabakh settlement are currently under discussion, day.az reported on 21 May. He mentioned the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the seven occupied districts; the return of those territories; security guarantees; creating conditions for the local population to return, including the economic rehabilitation of the regions in question; and demining. Implicitly contradicting Oskanian, Azimov said agreement has been reached with Yerevan that "sensitive political issues," presumably meaning Karabakh's future status, "can be discussed at a later stage." LF
AZERBAIJANI POLICE BREAK UP OPPOSITION RALLY
Police in Baku resorted to arrests and violence on 21 May to prevent isolated groups of would-be participants in an opposition rally from convening at the designated venue, Turan and RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported. Turan estimated that police beat hundreds of would-be participants and detained at least 149. Several journalists attempting to cover the rally were assaulted and beaten. Police also forcibly dispersed some 100 opposition supporters who congregated outside the U.S. Embassy to request Washington's support for democracy in Azerbaijan, Turan reported. The Baku municipal authorities last week refused permission to stage the rally, organized by the Ugur (Success) opposition election bloc (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18, 19 and 20 May 2005), and on 20 May Baku Mayor Hajibala Abutalibov warned the organizers that police would take the necessary measures to prevent it. Ali Kerimli, chairman of the progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party which co-organized the rally, said on 21 May that the authorities' reaction showed that "the authorities are not ready to hold democratic elections but want to usurp power again." LF
AZERBAIJANI OFFICIAL DENIES BASES AGREEMENT SIGNED WITH U.S.
Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Ramiz Melikov denied on 21 May media reports that U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signed an agreement in Baku on 12 April on the deployment of small groups of U.S. troops and military aircraft at three locations in Azerbaijan, Interfax reported. Citing Stratfor, the online daily echo-az.com reported on 21 May that in line with that purported agreement the first U.S. forces will arrive in Azerbaijan within weeks, and that their presence will be "long-term." LF
GEORGIAN DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER RESIGNS
Giorgi Gomiashvili resigned on 21 May as deputy foreign minister after Georgian media published what he termed insulting comments about the parliament's failure the previous day to approve his nomination as ambassador to Switzerland, Caucasus Press reported. He termed that refusal part of a "relentless and vicious" campaign directed against the Georgian Foreign Ministry, and announced that he plans to establish a political party that "will fight to save our country." LF
GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES CONTROVERSIAL INCREASE IN BUDGET SPENDING
Parliament finally approved on 20 May by a vote of 118-10 amendments to the 2005 budget increasing expenditures by 86.8 million laris ($47.5 million), Caucasus Press reported. Several parliament committees had expressed reservations about those allocations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 May 2005). Of that sum, 46.8 million laris will be used to pay customs duty on arms purchased by the Defense Ministry, and 35 million laris for rebuilding homes and highways destroyed or damaged in last month's heavy flooding. The remaining 5 million laris will be used to pay compensation of 5,000 laris per family to those families who lost their homes and belongings in the floods. LF
LARGE ARMS CACHE DISCOVERED IN WESTERN GEORGIA
Police in Zugdidi, western Georgia, have uncovered a large cache of mainly Russian-made, brand-new weaponry, Caucasus Press reported on 20 May. The arms include antitank mines, antitank shells, grenade launchers, plastic explosives and detonators. LF
KAZAKH OPPOSITION DEMONSTRATES FOR PRESS FREEDOMS
Roughly 1,500 Kazakh opposition activists and supporters held a demonstration in Almaty on 22 May to protest the lack of press freedom in the country, Interfax reported. The opposition organizers said that the demonstration sought to highlight the need to develop independent and opposition press in order to strengthen democratization in Kazakhstan. The demonstrators also adopted a resolution demanding an end to the persecution of the media for criticizing the authorities, and stated that "the Prosecutor-General's Office and the law-enforcement bodies of the country must not protect corrupt bureaucracy but must defend the rights and the freedoms of citizens." The unsanctioned demonstration was organized by the public committee for the defense of freedom of speech and the journalists of the "Respublika" newspaper, which was recently closed by the Kazakh authorities. RG
CIS SECURITY MEETING CONVENES IN KAZAKHSTAN
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev presided over the opening of a top-level CIS meeting on security in Astana on 20 May, Asia-Plus and Khabar TV reported. The meeting focused on enhancing greater cooperation in counterterrorism operations and on bolstering "economic security" within the CIS. The summit adopted a resolution calling for the creation of a new database of terrorist suspects and reviewed efforts to improve coordinated operations "to trace and block channels for the illicit trade and transit of arms and ammunition in CIS countries and the illicit turnover of nuclear materials," according to ITAR-TASS and Interfax. Addressing the summit, Russian Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev argued that the recent unrest in Uzbekistan was linked to "instability in Afghanistan" and stressed that "despite measures being taken by the world community, the situation in Afghanistan remains unstable" and regional security continues to be threatened by "camps training international terrorists and significant or even large volumes of narcotics, including heroin," being produced in Afghanistan, Interfax reported. RG
KAZAKH OFFICIAL NOTES ECONOMIC GROWTH IN CENTRAL ASIA
Speaking at a news conference on 20 May at the close of a business forum in Dushanbe, Kazakh Deputy Trade and Industry Minister Bolat Smagulov noted that the level of economic growth in Central Asia "exceeds the economic indicators of Europe and China in many areas," Asia-Plus and the Avesta website reported. Smagulov added that the region's economic growth has been matched by a significant increase in foreign investment, and stated that the region's rise to "the economic level of Western countries is just a matter of time." Smagulov was in Dushanbe attending the fourth annual Central Asian economic and business forum, with participants from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. RG
NEW KYRGYZ ANTI-CORRUPTION CENTER OPENS
The acting mayor of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, Askarbek Salymbekov, announced on 21 May the opening of a new anticorruption center in Bishkek, Kyrgyz television reported. Salymbekov announced that the new center will investigate charges of corruption and will submit its findings to the Prosecutor-General's Office. The anticorruption center is designed to demonstrate a new transparency in the state's efforts to combat corruption and bribery in Kyrgyzstan. RG
KYRGYZ BORDER GUARDS RETURN MORE REFUGEES TO UZBEK AUTHORITIES
Kyrgyz border guards handed over a group of 84 refugees on 22 May to the Uzbek authorities, Interfax reported. The refugees were detained after illegally entering Kyrgyzstan by skirting official border-crossing posts. The incident follows an earlier handover of a smaller group of Uzbek refugees, and reflects recent statements by Kyrgyz officials that the Uzbek refugees currently held in temporary camps in Kyrgyzstan will be eventually returned to Uzbekistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2005). More than 500 Uzbek refugees have crossed the Kyrgyz border since the 13-14 May violence in Andijon. RG
TAJIK PRESIDENT PROMISES TO INCREASE EDUCATION SPENDING
Meeting in Dushanbe with representatives of several youth groups, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov promised on 22 May to increase state spending on education, ITAR-TASS reported. The Tajik president explained that as the country faces a projected 40-percent increase in the number of students, there is an urgent need for some 8,000 more secondary teachers. With the state budget allocating $83 million for education in 2005, a new special commission is to implement a strategic plan to oversee spending and investment in the education sector. President Rakhmonov also stressed that the Tajik government is committed to tackling unemployment, citing the 68-percent unemployment rate for youth. RG
TAJIK MEDIA GROUP REPORTS ON VIOLATIONS OF PRESS FREEDOMS
The Dushanbe-based National Association of Independent Media in Tajikistan (NAIMT) reported on 21 May that it has documented some 31 cases of violations of press freedoms for the last month alone, Asia-Plus reported. The report, covering the state of the media in Tajikistan in April 2005, compiled a series of incidents of state officials withholding information and denying access to journalists, and detailed "cases of journalists being directly threatened and insulted." RG
OPPOSITION TAJIK ISLAMIC PARTY OFFICIAL COMMENTS ON RECENT UNREST IN UZBEKISTAN
In a published interview, opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan Deputy Chairman Muhiddin Kabiri stated that the recent unrest in Uzbekistan was caused by internal social and economic problems and a lack of political freedom, Asia-Plus reported on 19 May. Kabiri criticized Russia for attempting to "link the Uzbek unrest to Islamic fundamentalists" and condemned "the West for relying on authoritarian regimes as guarantors of stability in Central Asia." Commenting on ways to stabilize the region, he added that "the legalization of the activities of Islamic political parties in any of the Central Asian countries would make it possible to reduce the influence of radical sentiment and the emergence of all kinds of extremist currents." RG
TURKMEN PRESIDENT DISMISSES DEPUTY PREMIER
During a cabinet meeting in Ashgabat on 20 May, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov dismissed the influential official responsible for the oil and gas sector, Turkmen TV reported. The dismissal of long-serving Deputy Prime Minster Yolly Gurbanmuradov immediately followed a report by Turkmen Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atadjanova charging him with "serious shortcomings" and the "misappropriation of over $60 million in state funds" while serving as the head of the State Bank for Foreign Economic Activities from 1993-2001. Atadjanova went on to charge that Gurbanmuradov was guilty of polygamy, noting that he has three wives, and of illegally using state funds to purchase a number of luxury homes to friends and relatives. Gurbanmuradov has been replaced by Guichnazar Tachnazarov, the head of state-run Turkmengaz. Niyazov has also issued a number of other dismissals within the cabinet, although the officials involved have yet to be named, according to Turkmen TV. RG
DEMONSTRATION HELD IN UZBEK BORDER TOWN...
A group of over 300 demonstrators staged a rally late on 21 May in the Uzbek border town of Karasu, Interfax reported. The demonstrators picketed the town hall in support of Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, the purported leader of the 13-14 May uprising that seized control of the town, fergana.ru reported. Although Uzbek security forces retook the town on 19 May and arrested as many as 60 local residents, there is widespread and open resentment among townspeople with little or no fear of the heavy security presence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 May 2005). RG
...BUT IS FORCIBLY DISPERSED BY UZBEK SECURITY TROOPS
After a demonstration in front of the administrative offices of the town of Karasu quickly grew overnight to include over 1,200 protestors, Uzbek security troops forcibly dispersed the demonstrators on 22 May, according to RIA-Novosti and Interfax. Another 500 local residents attempted to stage a similar demonstration on 21 May on the Kyrgyz side of the border town before being prevented by Kyrgyz border guards. Uzbek border guards also imposed new restrictions on travel between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz sides of Karasu and have completely banned journalists from entering the town, according to RFE/RL's Uzbek and Kyrgyz Services. RG
UZBEK SECURITY FORCES ARREST EIGHT UZBEKS ON SUSPICION OF TERRORISM
Uzbek security forces arrested a group of eight members of the unregistered Party of Businessmen and Farmers of Uzbekistan on 21 May in the town of Ohangaron outside of Tashkent, Interfax reported. According to the leader of the International Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, Marat Zohidov, the eight Uzbeks were reportedly arrested on charges of "suspicion of terrorism and extremism." RG
U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE URGES UZBEKISTAN TO AGREE TO INTERNATIONAL INQUIRY
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on the Uzbek authorities on 21 May to agree to an international inquiry into the recent unrest in the eastern city of Andijon, ITAR-TASS reported. Rice called on Uzbekistan "to respond positively to the international community's justified concerns" and warned that "Uzbekistan does not want to endure further isolation from the international community." Rice went on to reaffirm the link between U.S. aid and the human rights situation in Uzbekistan, and stressed that Washington withheld $11 million in aid to Tashkent last year after Uzbekistan failed to meet certification standards in the protection of human rights. The statement bolsters earlier calls by the British foreign secretary, the European Union and the United Nations for an independent investigation into the violent unrest of 13-14 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2005). RG
POLAND ADVISES BELARUS TO BACKTRACK ON MINORITY ORGANIZATION
Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld said on 20 May that Warsaw has given Minsk a chance to reverse its decision on a March congress of the Union of Poles in Belarus (ZPB), which was recently annulled by the Belarusian Justice Ministry, PAP reported. "We created a chance for Belarus to reverse its decision and restore the legally elected authorities of the ZPB. If the Belarusian court takes such a decision, then we shall consider the matter closed. If there is an escalation, it will only be to the detriment of Belarus," Rotfeld said. The controversy over the congress has led to a diplomatic row between Minsk and Warsaw and to reciprocal diplomatic expulsions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 2005). The Belarusian Justice Ministry confirmed on 20 May that it will stand by its ruling on the ZPB, demanding that the organization hold a repeat congress, Interfax reported. Meanwhile, the Warsaw-based "Zycie Warszawy" on 21 May published an alleged list of a dozen Belarusian citizens who will be barred from entering Poland in connection with the conflict around the ZPB congress. The list includes several ZPB activists who support the Belarusian authorities' position in the ZPB controversy and Belarusian Justice Minister Viktar Halavanau. JM
BELARUS EXTRADITES SUSPECTED CHECHEN HOSTAGE TAKER
Belarus extradited Nurmagomed Khatuyev, a suspected Chechen hostage taker, to Russia on 20 May, Belapan reported, quoting the Prosecutor-General's Office. Khatuyev is reportedly wanted by Russia in connection with the taking of hostages in Budennovsk in 1995 and in a Moscow theater in 2002. JM
BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION SET TO HOLD PLEBISCITE ON STREET RENAMING IN MINSK
The Permanent Council of Pro-Democracy Forces, which unites several major opposition groups and parties in Belarus, spoke on 18 May in favor of holding a local referendum in Minsk against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's recent decree ordering that Francishak Skaryna Avenue be renamed Independence Avenue and Pyotr Masherau Avenue take the name of Victors Avenue (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 May 2005), Belapan reported on 19 May. Under the Belarusian Constitution, signatures from no less than 10 percent of eligible voters residing in a given area are required to initiate a local referendum. According to the Central Election Commission, some 120,000 signatures need to be collected to initiate a referendum in the Belarusian capital. JM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT CONFIRMS 2006 ELECTION ALLIANCE WITH PREMIER, SPEAKER...
Viktor Yushchenko reiterated his intention on 22 May to form a coalition for the 2006 parliamentary election of the Our Ukraine People's Union, a party created earlier this year to form the political basis of his presidency, as well as the Fatherland Party led by Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, and People's Party headed by parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, Interfax reported. "I'm sure that the Orange Revolution and the values with which we came to Kyiv's Maydan [Independence Square] truly belong to these three political forces," Yushchenko said in Kaniv, at the grave of Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko. "I support with all my soul our union, our teamwork, our joint political activity for many years ahead," Tymoshenko added. JM
...AFTER REPORTEDLY ADVISING PRIME MINISTER TO RESIGN
The Kyiv-based "Zerkalo nedeli" weekly reported in its 21-27 May issue that during a meeting with Russian oil traders on 19 May, President Yushchenko proposed that Premier Tymoshenko tender her resignation over what he saw as her unsatisfactory management of the current fuel crisis in Ukraine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2005). The presidential website (http://www.president.gov.ua) on 21 May quoted Yushchenko as saying that he trusts Tymoshenko but it did not deny the reported resignation offer. "I trust the prime minister, my generally positive assessment of the government's work is unaltered. Only those doing nothing make no mistakes," Yushchenko asserted. He added that the fuel crisis in Ukraine has been resolved. A joint presidential and prime minister statement on the website said that the two leaders "are one team, whose work is oriented toward the fulfillment of a joint goal -- holding a systemic reform in Ukraine, oriented toward the democratization of society and improvement of people's lives." JM
UKRAINIAN OMBUDSMAN CONDEMNS REPORTED BEATING OF OPPOSITION LAWMAKERS
Ombudsman Nina Karpachova has protested against the reported beating of an unspecified number of lawmakers from the opposition Social Democratic Party-united (SDPU-o) by a riot-police unit in Uzhhorod on 20 May, Interfax reported on 22 May. "Applying force to people's deputies is an actual sign of a police state, in which human rights are grossly violated and no citizen can feel himself/herself protected," Karpachova said in a statement. According to what Karpachova was told by SDPU-o legislator Tamara Proshkuratova, who reportedly was a victim of the beating, the incident took place in a hospital ward when the legislators were visiting former Transcarpathian Oblast Governor Ivan Rizak, who was hospitalized after being charged with abuse of power and of driving a former rector of Uzhhorod University to commit suicide (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2005). Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun has dispatched his deputy, Oleksandr Medvedko, to Uzhhorod to investigate the beating charges. JM
SERBIAN PRESIDENT REJECTS KOSOVAR OFFER FOR TALKS
Serbian President Boris Tadic on 20 May rejected terms for talks offered by his Kosovar counterpart, Ibrahim Rugova, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 18 February and 20 May 2005). Tadic said in a statement that "representatives of the temporary institutions of Kosovo do not have the right to represent the province in international conferences, and such a meeting would set a dangerous precedent in international relations." Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica recently used a similar argument to turn down terms for talks offered by his Kosovar colleague, Bajram Kosumi. In related news, Kosumi on 21 May rejected an invitation by Soren Jessen-Petersen, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova, to attend the 27 May session of the UN Security Council on Kosova as an observer, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Kosumi stressed that he is a duly elected Kosovar official and insists on taking part in such meetings only as a full participant. PM
MACEDONIAN PREMIER ANNOUNCES PROGRAM TO REVIVE ECONOMY
Vlado Buckovski announced on 20 May a large-scale government program to revive the faltering economy, MIA news agency and "Utrinski vesnik" reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 July 2004). The plan calls for improving the investment climate to attract foreign investors, providing benefits for exporters, offering direct support for small and medium enterprises, and cutting red tape. Buckovski said the measures should result in an increased annual GDP growth of about 4-5 percent and the creation of some 60,000 new jobs by the end of 2006. "The improvement of the business climate will help us in the active search for specific foreign investors," Buckovski said, adding that German industry giant Siemens has already signed a memorandum on cooperation, while Russia's LUKoil announced that it will build a chain of gas stations in Macedonia. UB
LEADER OF CROATIA'S SERBIAN MINORITY FEARS POLITICAL SHUTOUT
Milorad Pupovac, a veteran political leader of Croatia's Serbian minority and deputy chairman of the Independent Democratic Serbian Party (SDSS), told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service on 19 May that some local Croatian political leaders are seeking to shut Serbs out of governing coalitions in the wake of recent local elections. He said this is true even of clearly multiethnic areas like Knin, where the SDSS won the single largest bloc of seats but where the local Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) seeks to form a coalition with smaller, hard-line Croatian parties. The broadcast suggested that such developments cast doubt on the commitment of Prime Minister Ivo Sanader (HDZ) to work with the SDSS. PM
BOSNIAN FOREIGN MINISTER CALLS FOR MORE SELF-RULE
Mladen Ivanic said in Belgrade on 22 May that the time has come for Bosnian institutions to administer the country in place of foreign ones, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. He stressed that foreign investors will not come to Bosnia-Herzegovina as long as foreign institutions control decision-making in some key aspects of the economy. Ivanic argued that Bosnia continues to grapple with basic questions regarding improving its standard of living, even though nearly 10 years have passed since the fighting ended (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 October 2004 and 25 March 2005). PM
CHISINAU PUBLICIZES UKRAINIAN PLAN FOR SETTLING TRANSDNIESTER CONFLICT...
Moldova's Ministry of Reintegration on 20 May made public Ukraine's plan for settling the conflict over the Transdniester separatist region, Infotag reported. The plan was discussed by representatives of Chisinau and Tiraspol, with the attendance of mediators from Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE, in Vinnytsya, Ukraine, last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 and 19 May 2005). The plan, within its timeframe of 18 months, essentially provides for passing a law by the Moldovan Parliament by August to define Transdniester's special status as an autonomous entity within the Republic of Moldova; holding early and democratic elections to the Transdniester legislature under international monitoring by November; and subsequently defining the spheres of competence and authority between central and autonomous government bodies. JM
...AND VOICES OPTIMISM OVER ITS PRACTICALITY
Moldovan Minister for Reintegration Vasile Sova has said that Ukraine's plan for resolving the Transdniester conflict is "an important [move] from theoretical discussions to practical steps," Infotag reported on 20 May. "We are embarking on an absolute new stage of the Transdniester conflict settlement, and all the chances to solve the problem exist with a due respect for the just interests of the Republic of Moldova and Transdniester residents," Sova told journalists. Sova also spoke in favor of involving the United States and the European Union in the negotiation process between Chisinau and Tiraspol. "We hope the United States and the European Union will join the work as soon as during the next round of consultations that may be held next month," Sova said. "Romania, along with Ukraine, may also play an essential role in the conflict settlement process," he added. JM
RUSSIA: A VERDICT AS LONG AS 'WAR AND PEACE'
After five days of reading the verdict in the case of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii and his fellow defendants, the judges of Moscow's Meshchanskii Raion court on 20 May were less than one-third of the way through the 1,000-page document. Moreover, they had not yet issued a single solid decision, although all observers agree that the language and tone of the verdict indicates the three defendants will almost certainly be convicted on all charges.
According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 19 May, the judges are reading between 20 and 40 pages of the verdict each day, cutting each day's session short after about three hours of reading. Lawyer Pavel Astakhov told "Moskovskie novosti," No. 19, that he has never known a court to produce such a long verdict or to read it so slowly. He said that in the embezzlement trial of Valentina Soloveva, the court read out its 860-page verdict in two days. In the case of Alfa-Bank's libel claim against the Kommersant publishing house, Astakhov said, the court extended its working day until 8 p.m. in order to read the entire verdict in one day. He declined to speculate on why the court in the Khodorkovskii case is taking so long to deliver its verdict, saying that the Moscow City Lawyers Collegium prohibits attorneys from commenting on cases in which they are not directly involved.
Defense lawyer Genrikh Padva told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 May, "I don't remember what the record is for reading a verdict in my experience, but I can say that the Meshchanskii Raion Court of Moscow has already broken it." Fellow defense lawyer Yurii Shmidt told Regnum on 20 May that the defense team now expects the reading of the verdict to last at least 10 more days.
When the court began reading the verdict on 16 May, almost no one expected that the process would take more than two days. Pro-Khodorkovskii demonstrators applied for a permit to hold a demonstration outside the court on 16 May from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. However, anti-Khodorkovskii protesters seemed more prescient, "Moskovskie novosti" reported. Two Moscow residents identified only as Sergei Basyukov and S.A. Michurin applied to hold a demonstration outside the courthouse each day from 16 May until 20 May from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.
Many media reports noted that the anti-Khodorkovskii protesters were particularly well organized, sporting professionally printed signs in Russian and English. "Nezavisimaya gazeta," which is controlled by former oligarch Boris Berezovskii, a dedicated foe of President Vladimir Putin, reported on 19 May that Committee-2008 press spokeswoman Marina Litvinovich had presented photographs of young men carrying stacks of anti-Khodorkovskii placards down a street adjacent to the Federal Security Service (FSB) building on Lubyanka Square. Litvinovich told the daily that she had seen the men emerge from a nearby cafe called Shield And Sword. FSB spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko told the daily that the FSB was not involved in organizing any public demonstrations.
Most analysts argued that the Kremlin is orchestrating the reading of the verdict, which was originally scheduled to be read on 27 April but was postponed without an official explanation until 16 May. Observers speculated that the purpose of the delay was to avoid having the trial overshadow the 9 May commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, which was marked in Moscow by celebrations involving more than 50 heads of state.
Among the reasons given by analysts for the slow reading of the verdict are that the Kremlin wants to create the appearance that the court has been meticulous in its consideration of the evidence. However, most observers agree that this argument is not working out; the fact that the court's verdict so far echoes word-for-word the prosecution's charges against the defendants has been seen by many as undermining faith in the independence of the court. "The fact that the announcement of the verdict is dragging on clearly shows that the Russian judicial system is highly politicized," political analyst Sergei Markov told Interfax on 20 May. "The people who have set up such a system are inflicting damage on Russia." Politika foundation head Vyacheslav Nikonov told the news agency that the fact that the Kremlin is so closely associated with the prosecution in this case means that "an acquittal would have been a blow to the authorities' legitimacy."
In addition, observers believe that the state media is using the time to swing public opinion away from sympathy for Khodorkovskii. Kremlin-connected political consultant Gleb Pavlovskii has been given particular prominence on state-controlled television, including a long interview on RTR's main analytical "Vesti-Podrobnosti" on 16 May. In that interview, Pavlovskii said that the oligarchs "tried to buy [Russia's] political system" and to "put themselves between the citizens and the state." "Then the state becomes private property," Pavlovskii said, "no longer the property of the citizenry. People couldn't go along with that. This is the moral problem that proved to be the undoing of Yukos." He further accused Yukos of waging a deliberate campaign to smear Russia's image abroad and domestically.
Pavlovskii concluded by saying that after the Yukos case there is "some real chance for liberalization of political and economic life in Russia." "The lesson of Yukos," he said, "is whether we want to be free in our country or not. If we want to be a democracy, we must have rule by the people. If the people want to have a credible government, they must have a state and they must strengthen it."
Analysts also argue that the purpose of dragging out the verdict is to reduce public interest in the case. By the end of the week, media were reporting that even most of the defense team and the defendants' relatives had stopped attending the hearings, as had many journalists. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 19 May that increasingly the words "I'm bored" and "nothing interesting" are dominating conversations at the courthouse and trial participants are most often asked, "How long are they going to read?" Some observers also note that the Russian media have been flooded with stories of rumors of the purportedly imminent dismissal of the government of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, which they argue is also a distraction tactic.
AFGHAN PRESIDENT IN UNITED STATES
Hamid Karzai arrived in Boston on 22 May as part of a four-day visit to the United States that will also take him to Washington and Omaha, international agencies reported. Karzai is to meet his U.S. counterpart, George W. Bush, on 23 May as well as other top U.S. officials and leaders from Congress. Karzai will also meet with Paul Wolfowitz, the new World Bank president. The Afghan leader will receive honorary doctorate degrees from Boston University -- where he delivered the commencement address on 22 May -- and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AT
KARZAI OUTLINES HIS AGENDA FOR TALKS IN WASHINGTON...
In a television address on 21 May, Karzai outlined the issues he will discuss with U.S. leadership, Afghanistan Television reported. Referring to a U.S. military report on the deaths of two Afghan prisoners while in custody at the U.S. military facility in Bagram, Karzai said that he was "saddened" by the report, describing the cases "as a totally inhuman act." Karzai said that he wants the United States to transfer custody of all Afghan prisoners, "whether they are in Bagram, Guantanamo Bay, or other places," to Afghanistan. Secondly, Karzai said that his government wants to "completely" ban operations in which U.S.-led coalition troops enter the homes of Afghans. If the United States wants to arrest someone then the Afghan government should be informed and it would "then take the appropriate measures," Karzai added. AT
...AND DESCRIBES PARTNERSHIP HE SEEKS
Responding to a question from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Karzai said that he wants the U.S. "to promise continuing economic cooperation and to reiterate its commitment to ensuring security and preventing the interference of other countries in Afghan affairs," Afghanistan Television reported. It is expected that Karzai will discuss the details of what he has been describing as a "strategic relationship" with Washington, which may include the basing of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That issue as well as the entry into private homes by U.S. troops were two of the subjects which demonstrators protested against in violent rallies which began on 11 May and spread to several other Afghan cities (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 17 May 2005). Karzai told CNN on 22 May that he was "angry" about the death of the two Afghan prisoners. "We want justice. We want the people responsible for this sort of brutal behavior punished and tried and made public," Karzai added. AT
U.S. MEMO CRITICIZED KARZAI ON COUNTERNARCOTICS EFFORTS...
A memorandum sent from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on 13 May faulted President Karzai for unwillingness "to assert strong leadership" of the counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan, "The New York Times" reported on 22 May. Although Karzai had been aware of the difficulties in implementing a ground eradication program in his country, he has "been unwilling" to show effective leadership "even in his own province of Kandahar," noted the memorandum, which was addressed to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. U.S. State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher defended Karzai, saying he is a "strong partner" of the United States and that Washington has "confidence in him." AT
...AS HE REJECTS CHARGES
President Karzai rejected the U.S. State Department memorandum leaked to "The New York Times" claiming he has not showed effective leadership in the fight against drugs in his country, CNN reported on 22 May. In an interview from Boston, Karzai turned the tables on the international community, asserting that where "international money and the creation of forces for the destruction of poppies was concerned, it [is] ineffective...delayed, and half-hearted." Afghanistan has done its job, now the international community "must do its job, period," Karzai said. AT
HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP CALLS FOR ACTION ON AFGHAN PRISONER-ABUSE CASES ...
In a news release on 20 May, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that U.S. forces were involved in "killings, torture, and other abuses" of Afghan prisoners before the Iraq war began in March 2003, however, these crimes have "not still been adequately investigated or prosecuted." HRW's statement added that "at least six detainees in U.S. custody in Afghanistan have been killed since 2002." The statement lists the six cases in its statement (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/05/20/afghan10992.htm). According to the news release, a previous investigation ordered by the U.S. government "had failed to uncover the scope of abuses" in Afghanistan. John Sifton, an Afghanistan researcher at HRW, called for the appointment of an independent prosecutor since the "U.S. military and CIA have shown that they cannot police themselves." The resurfacing of news about abuses of Afghan detainees in U.S. custody has come at the time when for the first time since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Afghans have expressed anti-U.S. sentiments. The news also complicates President Karzai's plans for establishing a strategic partnership with the United States. AT
...AND CALLS FOR MORE U.S. SUPPORT FOR KARZAI
In a news release on 23 May, HRW called on the United States to provide "concrete assistance" to President Karzai to improve the security situation in his country. Sifton said that during his trip to Washington, the Afghan leader "needs more than a handshake." Comparing Afghanistan to other post-conflict areas, Sifton said that the current troop levels in the country are "a fraction" of what exists elsewhere. He also complained about the shortage of human rights monitors and election observers for Afghanistan's upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for September. AT
SIX MEN TO CONTEST IRANIAN ELECTION...
The Guardians Council, which is tasked with vetting candidates for elected office in Iran, announced on 22 May that it has approved six men -- only one of whom is backed by the reformists -- to stand in the 17 June presidential election, Radio Farda and state television reported. They are Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadinejad; the supreme leader's adviser, Ali Ardeshir-Larijani; Expediency Council secretary Mohsen Rezai; former police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf; reformist former Parliament Speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi; and Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. A total of 1,010 candidates registered to run for president earlier in the month. Guardians Council spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham said on 21 May that the vetting body's choices are not final until the deadline of 24 May, state radio reported. BS
...PROMPTING REFORMIST OUTRAGE
An Interior Ministry official and reformist political figures reacted angrily to the Guardians Council announcement about candidates, Radio Farda reported on 22 May. Ali Shakurirad, who heads the election headquarters for Islamic Iran Participation Party candidate Mustafa Moin, said that his organization announced beforehand that if its candidate is not accepted it will boycott the election. Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, who heads Karrubi's election headquarters, said the Guardians Council's action is illegal. An Interior Ministry official identified only as Habibzadeh said that announcing the names publicly in this way is against the rules. The proper protocol is to inform the Interior Ministry, which in turn has 48 hours to inform the candidates. BS
ANTI-U.S. DEMONSTRATIONS IN IRAN OVER ALLEGED KORAN DESECRATION
Large anti-American demonstrations took place in Tehran and other Iranian cities on 20 May, according to state television. State radio reported that the demonstrations followed the Friday Prayers and reflected anger over the alleged desecration of the Koran by U.S. military personnel at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where Al-Qaeda suspects are detained. Tehran Friday Prayer leader Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani addressed the Koran desecration story in his 20 May sermon, state radio reported. He said, "as soon as 'Newsweek' published the story, the American [government] accused the magazine of tarnishing America's integrity. They have forced the magazine to change its story." He continued, "We know that the leaders of the White House are the enemies of the Koran and God. They are not sincere when they profess to be Christians." High-ranking clerics and other theologians protested on 18 May by closing their classes and holding rallies, state television reported. On the same day, 160 legislators condemned the alleged desecration, IRNA reported. They accused the U.S. and its allies of waging a crusade against the Islamic world. BS
TEHRAN REACTS TO KORAN STORY
A 17 May state radio commentary denounced Washington's reaction to the "Newsweek" story. "Interviews given by the White House spokesman, the answers given by the American State Department, and the stage-managed expressions of regret by 'Newsweek' magazine...cannot hide the crimes and offenses of Washington statesmen, especially so because prisoners who have been released from Guantanamo prison explicitly say that they witnessed repeated desecrations of the holy Koran." The commentary accused President George W. Bush of insulting the Koran to propound "hatred." The state-affiliated Islamic Information Dissemination Organization on 14 May condemned the U.S. military for desecrating the Koran and "The Washington Post" for publishing an insulting caricature of the issue. BS
FRIDAY PRAYER LEADER DENOUNCES U.S.
During his 20 May Friday Prayers sermon, Ayatollah Emami-Kashani also criticized the 19 May testimony of U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, given to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when he discussed human rights in Iran, Iran's support for terrorism, and Iran's nuclear program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 2005, and http://foreign.senate.gov/hearings/2005/hrg050519a1.html). Emami-Kashani said Iran will not return to the "imposed culture" and dependency on the U.S. of the prerevolutionary era. He said leaders in Tel Aviv and Washington are "Zionists." BS
IRAQ'S SUNNI ARABS ANNOUNCE POLITICAL BLOC...
More than 1,000 political, religious, and tribal Sunni leaders convened a conference in Baghdad on 21 May to establish a Sunni bloc that will seek a greater role in the country's political process, international media reported on the same day. Participants in the conference included representatives from the Muslim Scholars Association, the Iraqi Islamic Party, and former military leaders from the regime of Saddam Hussein. The National Dialogue Council, a Sunni group that led negotiations with the transition government over the assignment of ministerial posts, did not attend. Meanwhile, Shi'ite leaders welcomed the conference, saying it is a step towards establishing better relations between Sunni and Shi'ite parties. KR
...CLAIMING NOW IS THE RIGHT TIME TO PARTICIPATE...
"We believe that it is our duty at this particular time to take part in the political process to maintain Iraq's identity, unity, independence, sovereignty, and freedom," Sunni Waqf head Adnan al-Dulaymi told participants at the conference, Al-Jazeera television reported. Participants adopted a statement at the conference pledging to liberate Iraq from the occupation "by all legal means," washingtonpost.com reported on 22 May. Sunni tribal leader Latif al-Dulaymi stressed the urgency of the Sunni-Shi'ite crisis to delegates at the 21 May conference, saying: "I swear to God, if the government or someone does not take care of this and solve our problem, then we will all fight them. No one will stop us, and no one will blame us," the website reported. KR
...AS AL-SADR PLAYS MEDIATOR
Rebel Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr claimed responsibility in a 22 May interview with Al-Arabiyah television for helping ease escalating tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs. "After hearing the statements by Harith al-Dari (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2005), I did my best to nip the sedition in the bud," al-Sadr said, adding that al-Dari and Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim both agreed to allow al-Sadr to act as a mediator for the two groups. "A committee has been formed and it will soon contact the two sides and even other sides because the brothers in the Badr Organization will be contacted to prevent sedition," he explained. Al-Sadr told Al-Arabiyah that he has no intention of entering the political process himself, saying he prefers to have a popular post over a political post. He added that he will not participate in the drafting of the constitution, saying: "I said on other occasions that the Koran and the prophet's traditions are the constitution of Islam. I have nothing to do with the temporal laws they draft." KR
U.S., IRAQI FORCES LAUNCH RAIDS IN WESTERN BAGHDAD
U.S. and Iraqi forces launched raids in the Abu Ghurayb district of western Baghdad on 22 May in an effort to round up insurgents based there, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on the same day. The U.S. military reportedly dropped fliers in the area urging residents to remain inside their homes during the operation. The U.S. military said that some 285 suspected insurgents have been detained since the operation, dubbed Operation Squeeze Play, began, Reuters reported on 23 May. Insurgents in the capital killed Wa'il al-Rubay'i, an official with the State Ministry for National Security Affairs on 22 May, international media reported. Trade Ministry General Director Ali Musa Salman was also killed in the capital on 22 May, Al-Sharqiyah reported. According to Reuters, more than a dozen senior government officials have been killed in attacks in Baghdad in recent weeks. KR
ROMANIAN HOSTAGES RELEASED
The Romanian government confirmed on 22 May that three Romanian journalists kidnapped in Iraq on 28 March have been released, Bucharest's Pro TV reported on the same day. The three returned to Bucharest the following day. Romanian President Traian Basescu announced their release, telling journalists that the Romanian government did not pay a ransom for the hostages, nor did it make any compromises regarding its foreign policy. Romania has some 800 troops stationed in Iraq. Basescu said the operation to free the journalists was "executed 100 percent by the Romanian secret services." Romanian daily "Ziua" reported on 23 May that an arrest warrant has been issued for Muhammad Munaf, the guide and translator for the three journalists, who was also held captive in Baghdad. Munaf is reportedly suspected of taking part in the abductions (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 8 April 2005). KR