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Newsline - December 27, 2005

At least 66 people were hospitalized and 78 others required medical attention after being poisoned by gas on 26 December in two home-improvement stores in St. Petersburg, Russian news agencies reported the same day. Homemade devices containing capsules of a gas identified as mercaptan were planted in three Maxidom stores, which sell home supplies. The gas was released in two of the stores, RIA-Novosti reported, citing the St. Petersburg branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB). Two suspicious boxes with wires sticking out of them were found in other shops belonging to the same chain in other districts of St. Petersburg, reported, citing an unidentified law-enforcement official. BW

St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko and other officials said on 26 December that the gas attacks in two city stores were not terrorist attacks, Russian media reported the same day. Matvienko also said that all those affected by the gas have been treated. "All the people who asked for medical assistance after being affected by the unknown substance dispersed in several trade centers in St. Petersburg were given medical aid and sent home," Matvienko said. RIA-Novosti quoted a statement from a local Interior Ministry official as saying the incidents were likely related to a commercial dispute. "Competition is the most probable version of the incidents," the statement said, adding that Maxidom's management recently received threatening letters. BW

A Russian Army officer has been detained in St. Petersburg on suspicion of passing classified information to Estonia, "Izvestiya" reported on 26 December. The unidentified suspect, who worked at a Russian defense company, gave parcels with top-secret documents to bus drivers on routes to Estonia, "Izvestiya" reported, citing the St. Petersburg branch of the FSB. Border guards discovered the parcels, labeled as a toy model of a MiG-23 fighter jet, which contained technical drawings for the shipbuilding industry. According to "Izvestiya," the suspect was hoping to be granted permanent Estonian residence. Two drivers, who worked for the Euroline bus company, have been banned from making any more trips to Russia. BW

Admiral Vladimir Masorin, commander of the Russian Navy, criticized Ukraine on 26 December over suggestions from some politicians that Kyiv could make unscheduled inspections of Russian Black Sea Fleet bases on Ukrainian territory, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. "The tone of such statements is unacceptable," Masorin said, according to a statement quoted by RIA-Novosti. "It seems that they are aimed at questioning the ratified agreements on the Black Sea Fleet and avoiding implementing them," Masorin added. "It is worrying that the current statements of some Ukrainian politicians about inventory checks are politically motivated and are often made without any knowledge of the subject in question. Such an interpretation of the issue is clearly destructive." BW

The Moscow City Court on 26 December upheld as valid an arrest warrant issued for Dmitrii Gololobov, a lawyer for the Yukos oil company, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. Gololobov, who is at large and is wanted on an international arrest warrant, is suspected of embezzling and laundering approximately $416.9 million. Gololobov's defense lawyers filed an appeal against the warrant that the court rejected. "The Basmannyi [Raion] Court's 30 November 2005 ruling to arrest Dmitrii Gololobov shall be left intact and the writ of appeal shall be rejected," the court said. BW

The Moscow Chamber of Attorneys has decided on 26 December not to disbar Albert Mkrtychev, a lawyer for imprisoned former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. Authorities at the Chita Oblast prison colony where Khodorkovskii is incarcerated pushed to have Mkrtychev disbarred after he visited his client at the colony on 15 November. Administrators at the colony alleged that the lawyer took unauthorized documents with him to the meeting with Khodorkovskii. "All the documents had been inspected by colony officers when the lawyer entered the colony and had not triggered objections at the time," Khodorkovskii's press office said in a statement. "He left the other documents at the prison checkpoint." BW

Moscow's Zamoskvoretskii Raion Court on 26 December ordered the Federal Corrections Service to prove the necessity of sending former Menatep chief Platon Lebedev to Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in western Siberia, RIA-Novosti reported the same day, citing an attorney for Lebedev. The court order came during a hearing of Lebedev's appeal to be transferred to a different location. "Lebedev was sent to Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug illegally," Lebedev's lawyer Yelena Liptser said. "The law says that convicts should serve sentences in the region where they lived or were convicted, or in a nearby region." Liptser added that authorities have failed to consider Lebedev's poor health, including chronic liver problems. Khodorkovskii's attorney Yurii Shmidt said his client intends to file a similar appeal. BW

Federation Council International Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov has suggested that the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has outlived its usefulness, "Nezavisimaya gazeta," reported on 26 December. "The CIS has passed away, but not because of colored revolutions. The organization was amorphous, without a common legislation or direction, but rather with a lot of declarations," Margelov said. Citing analysts, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" suggested that Margelov's comments were most likely more than his personal opinion since he usually sticks close to the Kremlin line. Margelov's statement came after Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk last week questioned the CIS's future. Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, said Tarasyuk's statement suited the Kremlin. "Russia should take Tarasyuk at his word and close down the CIS as soon as possible," Karaganov said. "The organization has long outlived its purpose." BW

Twelve Russian sailors, detained since October 2003, were allowed to leave Nigeria on 27 December and began their journey home, ITAR-TASS reported. According to the Russian Embassy in Nigeria, the sailors will fly to Moscow via London's Heathrow Airport and will arrive in Russia early in the morning on 28 December. The sailors were crew members of the oil tanker "African Pride," which sailed under the Panamanian flag but was owned by the Greek company Azora Service. In October 2003, Nigerian authorities detained the tanker on charges of illegal oil transportation. On 12 September 2005, they were released and allowed to stay on the territory of the Russian trade mission in Lagos. BW

According to preliminary returns, the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party is leading in legislative elections in Chelyabinsk Oblast, RIA-Novosti reported on 26 December. In the elections held the previous day, Unified Russia led with 52.2 percent of the vote. The Communist Party was in second place with 12.6 percent, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia was in third with 9 percent, and the Motherland (Rodina) bloc was in fourth with 6.9 percent. In the preliminary returns, Yabloko, the Union of Rightist Forces, and the Social Democratic Party of Russia all failed to clear the 5 percent barrier to win seats in the legislature. BW

Irkutsk Oblast Governor Aleksandr Tishanin on 26 December asked the oblast legislature to call a referendum on unification with Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. The two regions submitted a merger proposal to President Vladimir Putin in October, and it was approved in mid-December. Tishanin said the merger "is necessary" and is "in the interests of the region's population." According to ITAR-TASS, the referendum could be held as soon as 16 April 2006 and, if approved, the two regions could formally merge on 1 January 2008. The merger between Irkutsk Oblast and the Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug is part of a Kremlin-sponsored initiative to create larger administrative regions. BW

In a 25 December interview with Armenian Public Television, Vartan Oskanian said Russian official claims that the decision to double the price of Russian gas supplied to Armenia next year was made solely for economic reasons are untrue, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 26 December. Oskanian said that political factors also played a role in that decision, which he claimed has already had "negative political consequences" for both sides. On 23 December, Armenian parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian warned that the planned gas-price hike (from $56 to $110 per 1,000 cubic meters) may fuel anti-Russian sentiment in Armenia and lead to counterdemands that Russia pay for maintaining its military base in Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. On 22 December, ITAR-TASS quoted Armenian Fuel and Energy Minister Armen Movsesian as saying that he does not believe that Russia's demand is final, and that two or three further rounds of talks are needed that could result in a compromise, lower price. LF

In his keynote speech at a 22 December ceremony in Yerevan to mark the 115th anniversary of the founding of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), Hrant Markarian, who is de facto head of the HHD worldwide bureau, appealed to Armenian President Robert Kocharian to take decisive action to eradicate corruption, poverty, and other manifestations of "injustice" in Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Markarian went on to decry deepening "class differences" in Armenia, specifically between senior officials and wealthy oligarchs aligned with and protected by the government on the one hand, and the impoverished "unprotected majority" on the other. In an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service earlier on 22 December, Markarian acknowledged that the 27 November referendum on a package of draft constitutional amendments was not free and fair, but he denied that the HHD was in any way involved in rigging the outcome of that vote, claiming that the party was powerless to intervene to prevent such abuse. LF

Arkadii Ghukasian appointed his foreign relations adviser, Georgii Petrosian, on 26 December to the post of foreign minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Petrosian replaces Arman Melikian, who was named foreign minister one year ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2004). Ghukasian linked the appointment of Petrosian to the "existing political situation," apparently referring to expectations of an imminent major breakthrough in resolving the Karabakh conflict. Petrosian, a founding member of the Karabakh chapter of the HHD, headed the republic's government briefly in 1992. LF

Former Economic Development and Trade Minister Farkhad Aliyev, who was dismissed in mid-October and subsequently charged with plotting a coup d'etat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 October and 2 November 2005), was taken on 22 December to a Baku hospital suffering from low arterial blood pressure, but his condition has since stabilized and improved, reported on 27 December, citing National Security Ministry spokesman Arif Babaev. Babaev rejected as untrue press speculation that the deterioration in Aliyev's health was the result of torture, affirming that Azerbaijan's security agencies do not resort to torture. He claimed that Aliyev's illness was caused by exercising too strenuously. Aliyev's lawyer, Elton Guliev, told on 14 December that there is no concrete evidence to substantiate the charges against his client, who at least until that date refused to give any pretrial testimony. LF

The progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) will not participate either in the work of the parliament elected on 6 November or in the repeat vote in May 2006 in 10 constituencies where the outcome of the 6 November vote was invalidated, and reported on 27 December. In a statement released on 26 December, AHCP progressive-wing Chairman Ali Kerimli claimed that the Azadlyq opposition bloc of which his party is a member won 79 of the 125 parliamentary mandates; official returns gave Azadlyq only eight mandates, including three for the AHCP, but two of those AHCP deputies have already announced that they will not take up their mandates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November and 14 December 2005). On 24 December, members of the Sabirabad regional organization of the AHCP announced that they will launch a protest if Panakh Husein, an AHCP progressive-wing candidate who won election from a Sabirabad constituency, takes up his parliamentary mandate, reported on 26 December. LF

The Georgian Foreign Ministry issued a formal statement on 26 December rejecting as unfounded allegations by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Tbilisi has violated the May 2005 agreement on the closure of Russia's two remaining military bases in Georgia by refusing to issue visas for Russian servicemen deployed to Georgia to facilitate the closure, Caucasus Press reported. The Georgian statement claimed the issuing of visas is regulated by a separate document that Russia has not yet endorsed. ITAR-TASS said Lavrov's allegations were made during a 25 December interview with Russia's RTR television, while Caucasus Press said they appeared in a 26 December interview published in "Izvestiya." LF

Walter Kalin, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons, visited Georgia on 21-24 December and met with both Georgian and Abkhaz government officials and representatives of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government in exile, Caucasus Press reported on 24 December. In a statement at the end of his visit, Kalin said he was "shocked by the misery" in which many Georgians who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-93 war still live. He expressed satisfaction that some of the Georgians who fled Abkhazia's Gali Raion have been able to return, and called on both sides to finalize the draft joint declaration on the nonresumption of hostilities, noting that the ongoing low-level violence in Gali constitutes a deterrent to Georgians wishing to return there. Kalin also urged the Abkhaz authorities to give their consent to the deployment of UN civilian police in Gali (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 June and 7 November 2005) and to remove restrictions on the use of the Georgian language in Abkhaz schools. LF

Senior investigator Marat Kozhaev told a news conference in Almaty on 23 December that an investigation has concluded that the death of Kazakh opposition leader Zamanbek Nurkadilov was a suicide, Interfax-reported. Nurkadilov was found dead in his home in Almaty on 12 November with two gunshot wounds to the chest and one to the head (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 November 2005). Kozhaev said that all three shots were fired from Nukadilov's own gun and the two wounds to the chest were not fatal, leading investigators to rule the death a suicide. Nurkadilov's violent death in the lead-up to the 4 December presidential election sparked considerable speculation, with opposition figures and relatives of Nurkadilov dismissing earlier statements by government officials who claimed that the death was a suicide. DK

Asylbek Kydyshev, the head of a detention center in Bishkek, confirmed to on 26 December that Kyrgyz authorities deported Kazakh opposition activist Makhambet Abzhan to Kazakhstan on 23 December. Abzhan, a youth leader who urges the revolutionary overthrow of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, was detained in the Kyrgyz capital on 13 December at the apparent request of Kazakh authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 2005). Tursunbek Akun uulu, who chairs the human rights commission under Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, called Abzhan's extradition a violation of international norms by Kyrgyzstan. Arkadii Dubnov, a longtime observer of Central Asian politics who writes for Russia's "Vremya novostei," told Deutsche Welle that Kyrgyzstan, which is to some extent economically dependent on Kazakhstan, was likely under significant pressure from the Kazakh government to hand over Abzhan. DK

A bomb blast shook a conference hall in the regional administration building in Osh on 24 December, reported. The explosion caused considerable damage but no casualties. Citing the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry's press service, the news agency reported on 26 December that the blast resulted from the equivalent of 2-3 kilograms of TNT. "The explosion was organized by representatives of international terrorist organizations to remind their sponsors that they exist," Interior Minister Murat Sutalinov told Interfax on 26 December. Police have opened a criminal case under the articles "terrorism" and "sabotage" and are conducting an investigation, Kabar reported on 26 December. Law-enforcement bodies in Osh have been placed on heightened alert. DK

Said Abdullo Nuri, head of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), has told the newspaper "Millat" that his party plans to field a candidate in the country's November 2006 presidential election, Avesta reported on 24 December. Nuri declined to specify who the candidate might be. Nuri would not rule out either a single candidate representing an opposition coalition or a merger of the IRP and the ruling People's Democratic Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 November 2005). DK

Ukrainian Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov and Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov have reached an agreement on 2006 shipments of Turkmen gas to Ukraine, Interfax reported on 23 December. Kyiv's NTN Television reported that Ukraine would pay $60 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2006, an increase on the $44 paid for 2005 shipments, but other reports gave no price information and suggested that the final terms would be announced at a later date. "The volumes and price parameters have been decided in principle and on mutually advantageous terms, and the corresponding documents will now be prepared for signing," RFE/RL's Turkmen Service quoted Plachkov as saying on 22 December. DK

Interior Minister Zokir Almatov has resigned for health reasons, Uzbek Television First Channel reported on 23 December. President Islam Karimov issued a decree giving Almatov an award "for great services," Uzbek television reported. Almatov, who served as interior minister for over a decade, was replaced by Anvar Solihboev, who previously was first deputy head of the National Security Service (SNB) and most recently served as Uzbekistan's ambassador to Pakistan, RFE/RL reported. Russia's "Kommersant-Daily" noted that Solihboev's appointment points to the increasingly prominent role of SNB chief Rustam Inoyatov, whose protege was recently named defense minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 November 2005). Until recently, Almatov had been undergoing medical treatment in Germany but departed following calls from rights groups and Uzbek refugees that he be tried for crimes against humanity. DK

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said on 24 December that Uzbek trials of defendants accused of participating in 12-13 May violence in Andijon give cause for concern, AP reported. "These trials risk having produced unjust and unfounded convictions while the real perpetrators of atrocities remain unpunished," Arbour said. In a 26 December statement, the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office disputed Arbour's criticism, Regnum reported. The statement insisted that Uzbekistan has held to "international standards" in the trials and charged that Arbour's remarks "cast aspersions on Uzbekistan's law-enforcement system without sufficient basis for doing so." DK

Another 61 defendants have been convicted in connection with the violence in Andijon, RFE/RL reported on 23 December. Thirty-seven people were found guilty of murder and terrorism charges in two closed trials in Tashkent and Tashkent Province, reportedly receiving lengthy prison terms. In another closed trial, 19 soldiers and five police officers were sentenced to prison terms of up to three years for negligence. The latest trials bring the total number of people convicted in connection with the Andijon violence to more than 150. DK

Eight applicants filed requests with Belarus's Central Election Commission by the 23 December deadline to register their nomination groups for the 19 March 2006 presidential election, Belarusian media reported on 23 December. A nomination group, if registered, will have to collect no fewer than 100,000 voter signatures from 29 December to 27 January in order to place its candidate on the ballot. The presidential applicants are: incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka; Alyaksandr Milinkevich, a candidate proposed by the democratic opposition; Alyaksandr Kazulin, leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada); Valery Fralou, a member of the Chamber of Representatives in 2000-04; Zyanon Paznyak, self-exiled leader of the Conservative Christian Party; Syarhey Haydukevich, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party; Syarhey Skrabets, a former opposition lawmaker currently held in pretrial detention; and Alyaksandr Vaytovich, a former chairman of the upper house and former president of the National Academy of Sciences. The Central Election Commission is expected to decide on the registration of presidential nomination groups on 27 December. JM

The private weekly "Salidarnasts" (Solidarity) has been forced to suspend publication after the state-controlled distributors refused to sell the newspaper at kiosks and deliver it to subscribers, Belapan reported on 23 December. In November, the state-run company that operates the network of newspaper kiosks and newsstands in Minsk annulled a 2006 distribution contract that it signed with the weekly two months before. Several weeks earlier, Belarus's state postal service, Belposhta, deleted the weekly, along with 16 other independent periodicals, from its subscription catalogue for 2006. Editor Alyaksandr Starykevich said he doubts the weekly can resume publication as long as President Lukashenka is in office. "Salidarnasts" was founded in 1991 and had a print run of 5,400 copies. JM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said on Channel 5 on 27 December that Ukraine has the right to 15 percent of the Russian gas flowing in transit across its territory. "If 1,000 cubic meters of gas crosses the Ukrainian border, we have the right to take 150 cubic meters as payment for gas transit. This is a contract. This is a legal formula and our indisputable right," Yekhanurov said. Gazprom Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Medvedev said the previous day that Gazprom will stop gas supplies to Ukraine on 1 January at 10 a.m. if both sides fail to agree on a new gas price for 2006. "My forecast is that nothing will change after 1 January 2006," ITAR-TASS quoted Ukrainian Presidential Secretariat chief Oleh Rybachuk as saying on 26 December. "Private consumers, individuals, and communal services will feel no difference at all, while the interests of enterprises will be defended toughly, and the talks are conducted in this way," Rybachuk added. JM

Prime Minister Yekhanurov said in Kyiv on 23 December that his cabinet is drafting documents for possible appraisal of its gas-price dispute with Moscow by the Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, which is internationally recognized as a neutral venue for settling commercial disputes (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," 27 December 2005), Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. "I am asking for all necessary documents to be prepared in case of irresponsible statements, particularly those in written form," Yekhanurov said at a cabinet meeting. Earlier the same day, Russian gas giant Gazprom staged a televised rehearsal for switching off gas supplies to Ukraine. Naftohaz Ukrayiny chief Oleksandr Ivchenko said on 26 December that Ukraine's reserves of gas at underground storage facilities are sufficient to last the country through the winter but failed to mention any specific volumes. Ukraine has 13 underground storage facilities, whose capacity exceeds 30 billion cubic meters. JM

The pro-presidential Our Ukraine bloc has condemned the position taken by the Party of Regions and other opposition forces in the ongoing gas dispute with Russia and accused them of "betraying national interests," Interfax-Ukraine reported on 26 December. "We are surprised at the position taken by the Party of Ukraine [led by former Premier Viktor Yanukovych] that allows itself to be used as a means of pressure on the part of a foreign state and does not back Ukraine in its talks with Russia," Our Ukraine said in a statement. Our Ukraine also lambasted President Viktor Yushchenko's erstwhile ally, former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, for what it called her "antipatriotic rhetoric" in the gas row. "We refuse to believe that Yuliya Volodymyrivna's antipatriotic rhetoric has something to do with the dropping of legal proceedings initiated against her in Russia," the statement notes. Russian prosecutors said on 26 December that they have closed a bribery case against Tymoshenko because the statute of limitations has expired on the corruption charges against her. JM

Veton Surroi, a member of the Kosova negotiating team, said on 22 December that the province's existing borders will not be changed in the event of independence, Hina reported the same day. Surroi, who chairs the Committee on Ethnic Communities for Kosova's negotiating team at the province's UN-backed final-status talks, added that it would be natural for the current administrative border between Kosova and Serbia to become the international frontier. "Should internal lines be drawn within Kosova, the borders of this part of the Balkans would be brought into question," Surroi said. He was responding to Serbian proposals to partition Kosova into two entities and keep it inside Serbia. Talks on Kosova's final status are scheduled to begin in January. BW

Just one-third of the Serbs who fled Croatia during the 1991-95 war have returned, dpa reported on 27 December, citing a report by the Croatian refugee bureau. That report claimed that 118,000 of the estimated 350,000 Serbs who fled Croatia during the war have returned. The majority of those who left Croatia did so in 1995, after a self-proclaimed Serbian state in Croatia collapsed. According to the report, returnees are deterred by a number of factors including uncleared minefields in some areas, questions about their eligibility to receive state benefits, and the possibility of some being indicted for war crimes. BW

Croatian Deputy Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor and her Bosnian counterpart Barisa Colak signed an agreement in Zagreb on 23 December regulating the government benefits of Croatian veterans living in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hina reported the same day. Beginning in 2006, the Bosnian government will dramatically reduce benefits to members of the former ethnic Croat army in Bosnia (HVO), and Zagreb has agreed to make up the difference. According to the agreement, the Croatian government will disburse 40 million Kuna ($6.42 million) in 2006 to 800 families of HVO soldiers who were killed, went missing, or were imprisoned during the 1991-95 war. The benefits of disabled HVO veterans and their families will be specified in 2007 and 2008. The Croatian and Bosnian parliaments must ratify the agreement for it to come into force. BW

Defense Minister Zoran Stankovic said on 23 December that he does not know the identities of individuals who are helping war crimes fugitives evade capture, B92 radio reported the same day. Stankovic was responding to a statement by Serbian war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic the previous day claiming that the identities of Radovan Karadzic's and Ratko Mladic's presumed accomplices are known. "Competent military and civilian departments are working on the case, but I cannot tell you anything specific regarding Vukcevic's statement because I am not acquainted with what he had said exactly," Stankovic said. "I don't know who or what it applies to, only [that] anyone who makes such a statement will have to back it up with information. He must have some data that I hope he will make public soon." BW

The Serbian government announced on 23 December that it plans to coordinate the work of the relevant ministries and departments to facilitate improved cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), B92 reported the same day. The announcement came in response to a report to the United Nations by ICTY chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte severely criticizing Belgrade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 19 December 2005). The government also plans to set up a security council to better coordinate its work. "Some departments have to be coordinated, such as intelligence and counterintelligence services in the army and civilian intelligence services," Serbia's Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus said. "They have to be put under a single authority that will monitor them and assign them duties." BW

Moldova's parliament passed a series of legislative measures on 22 December designed to reduce human trafficking, Moldpres reported the same day. The amendments grant Moldovan authorities the right to deny entry into the country to individuals with suspected involvement in human trafficking. Lawmakers also passed changes to the country's administrative code stipulating that victims of trafficking will not be prosecuted for prostitution and will not be punished for entering or staying in the country illegally. BW

As the year comes to a close, human-rights observers, international organizations, and Iranian activists are expressing renewed concern about the human-rights situation in the Islamic republic. Tehran has reacted to international criticism dismissively and with counteraccusations. Indeed, at the most prominent platform for state-policy statements, the Tehran Friday prayers, preacher Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami said on 23 December, "we consider ourselves pioneers of human rights."

This kind of statement suggests that improvements in the country's human-rights situation will not be forthcoming. Moreover, the ultraconservative stance of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on cultural issues -- he recently banned broadcasts of Western music -- and his appointment of officials with security and intelligence backgrounds for Interior Ministry and provincial government positions suggests the human-rights situation in Iran will only worsen in the new year.

On 22 December Amnesty International called for an inquiry into the death one week earlier of Zabiullah Mahrami, a Baha'i who was imprisoned 10 years ago. Mahrami initially was sentenced to death for abandoning Islam, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison.

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli noted on 23 December that this incident is hardly unique. "The government of Iran is engaged in the systematic oppression of its citizens, including the persecution of individuals for religious, political, and other reasons," Ereli said, according to the department's website. "Members of the country's religious minorities -- including Sunni Muslims, Sufis, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians -- are frequently imprisoned, harassed, and intimidated based on their religious beliefs."

On 10 December, Iranian Human Rights Activists Groups in the European Union and North America, a coalition of 15 groups, issued a statement listing alleged rights abuses in Iran over the past seven months. The statement alleged that during this period Iran interrogated 254 students, 46 reporters, and bloggers; prosecuted 157 political and social activists; condemned 101 people to death; and ordered two women stoned. "Given the fact that the extensive, continuous, and planned violation of human rights encompasses all social institutions, writers, pressmen, workers, and can see this is not an isolated matter or the work of a few lawless people," Group member Hussein Mahutiha told RFE/RL's Radio Farda on 10 December.

Separately, Iranian activists marked International Human Rights Day on 10 December with demonstrations in Cologne, Germany, to mark and draw attention to the plight of detained dissidents in Iran, Radio Farda reported on 10 December. Two days later, EU foreign ministers issued a statement in Brussels regretting the state of human rights in Iran and affirmed a persistent interest in talking to Tehran about them, Radio Farda reported.

Abdolkarim Lahiji, vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, told Radio Farda on 12 December that Iran has responded to such statements in the past by asserting that the state of human rights in Iran is generally acceptable; that Western states -- including the United States -- have themselves violated rights, and that parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contradict Iran's state religion, Radio Farda reported.

The UN General Assembly issued a resolution on 16 December that referred to human-rights abuses in Iran and other countries. That resolution referred to the "continuing harassment, intimidation, and persecution of human-rights defenders, nongovernmental organizations, political opponents, religious dissenters, journalists, and students," and it noted "restrictions on freedoms of assembly, press and expression, [and] arbitrary arrests," as well as the rejection of candidates for elected office. The resolution called on Iran to end its persecution of human-rights activists, stop using torture, and cease executions of minors. The resolution on Iran, which was sponsored by Canada, was adopted by a vote of 75 in favor to 50 against, with 43 abstentions.

In a 15 December report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) described as "particularly troubling" the appointment of Iranian Minister of Intelligence and Security Gholam Hussein Mohseni-Ejei and Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi, Radio Farda reported.

Pur-Mohammadi allegedly served on a committee that gave orders for the execution of thousands of prisoners in the 1980s, an incident HRW described as a "crime against humanity." There also are suspicions that he was involved in ordering the murders of numerous dissidents in the late 1990s. Mohseni-Ejei is suspected of ordering the killing of at least one dissident, and in his position as prosecutor-general of the Special Court for the Clergy, he was connected with the trials of several reformist clerics. HRW called on the Iranian government to investigate the allegations against the two ministers, and it suggests they be relieved of their duties until the investigation is complete. Barring this, it continued, the legislature should hold a vote of no confidence in the two.

In interviews with Radio Farda the day the HRW report was released, Iranian human-rights specialists voiced differing opinions on the status of the two ministers and on the effectiveness of the HRW report. Ahmad Bashiri, a reformist lawyer in Tehran, said that although Mohseni-Ejei and Pur-Mohammadi held sensitive posts at the time of the serial murders (a common reference to the killings of dissidents in the late 1990s), there is insufficient evidence to prosecute them. However, Reza Moini of Reporters Without Borders told Radio Farda there is enough evidence available on the involvement of the two men in those murders. Hussein Davani, the brother of murdered journalist Piruz Davani, told Radio Farda his sibling was killed on the basis of a fatwa issued by Mohseni-Ejei.

The Office for Strengthening Unity student group on 11 December urged the Iranian government to respect the rights guaranteed by Iran's constitution and the Universal Declaration, which Iran's parliament has ratified, Radio Farda reported on 12 December. However, a number of student activists were jailed or otherwise punished in the days after this statement.

Abbas Hakimpur, a member of the central council of the Islamic Association of Students at Amir Kabir University, said on 25 December that the university's disciplinary committee suspended him for a term, ISNA reported. Hakimpur said he was not given a reason for the suspension.

Student activist Said Kalanaki has received a suspended prison sentence for membership of an illegal organization and for participating in illegal gatherings, ILNA reported on 21 December. The charges relate to his participation in 2003 rallies, and he has been free on bail since that time.

An Iranian court on 20 December sentenced Abdullah Momeni, former leader of the Office for Strengthening Unity, to five years in prison for undermining national security, Radio Farda reported. The sentence is described as "habs taziri," which means that the prison sentence must be served in full. Momeni was also barred from public affairs for five years. Momeni told Radio Farda on 20 December that he was tried in a closed hearing without a jury, and that the accusations against him were based on his pro-democracy activities and were therefore baseless. His activities, Momeni continued, had nothing to do with national security. Momeni said he protests these charges and believes the sentence will not deter the student movement from the promotion of democracy, human rights, and civil society.

The one-year prison sentence of Amir Hussein Balali, another student activist, was changed to a 10 million-rial ($1,100) fine, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 19 December, citing attorney Mohammad Sharif.

Journalist Akbar Ganji has been imprisoned since 2001, and his hunger strike earlier in the year elicited a great deal of international attention. Ganji ended his fast, but he remains in jail and is reportedly in solitary confinement.

Ganji's wife, Masumeh Shafii, sent a fax to ISNA on 25 December rejecting prison officials' claims that the family has not sought to see the prisoner. She said prisoners are legally entitled to weekly visits by relatives and their lawyer, telephone access, and periodic furloughs. Shafii said her husband has less than three months left on his sentence and questioned his being in solitary confinement. "We have had no news of Ganji for 37 days," Shafii said. "On the basis of what law is a prisoner who has been in jail for six years treated this way?" She added that Ganji remains in poor health.

Lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani was detained in July, and he has spent a great deal of time in solitary confinement. In late November, almost 200 jurists wrote to judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi to demand Soltani's release.

Soltani's wife, Masumeh Dehqan, told Radio Farda on 20 December that her husband is getting weaker every day. Dehqan told Radio Farda that she sees her husband every two weeks and last visited him on 19 December. She said his health is deteriorating. Dehqan said she has written to Hashemi-Shahrudi and expressed concern about her husband's well-being.

The official Iranian reaction to the accusations of human rights violations has followed a familiar pattern that includes denial, claims of cultural peculiarities, and counteraccusations. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on 18 December dismissed as "political" the UN General Assembly resolution passed two days earlier, ISNA reported. Assefi said the condemnation of human-rights abuses has become a "tool at the hands of certain countries," which means "nobody in the world pays any attention to such resolutions." He accused Canada, one of the resolution's sponsors, of its own rights abuses, including the "deplorable" state of its indigenous population. "Human rights are absolutely not respected in Canada, and we simply do not see...Canada as being in a position to comment on human rights," ISNA quoted him as saying.

Regarding the HRW report, Assefi described it as "vulgar and incoherent," ISNA reported. "I think Human Rights Watch watches over Western interests more than it does over human rights," Assefi said.

Guardians Council Abbas spokesman Ali Kadkhodai said on 24 December that the UN resolution's criticism of the council is unjustified and irrelevant, IRNA reported. Kadkhodai said the council's responsibilities are specified in the constitution and the input of "non-Iranian officials" will not have an impact. He ascribed different interpretations of human rights to cultural and religious differences. "I believe that UN officials and others should accept that when it comes to the human rights issue, there are deep differences among various cultures and religions," he said. "Unless such differences of opinions are examined and understood by UN commissioners and others, human rights will hardly be observed in any community in its present form."

Tehran's new Friday-prayer leader, Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami, addressed human-rights complaints in his 23 December sermon. He said Western countries' accusations against Iran are "really ridiculous" since these same countries face "popular rebellions" and employ "martial law," state radio reported. Khatami said the United States will never wash away the "stain" of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghurayb. "America talks of human rights while its own citizens are not secure," he continued. "All media have reported that [U.S. President George W.] Bush has ordered illegal tapping of all telephones." Khatami accused the West of using the human-rights issues for political ends and added, "we consider ourselves pioneers of human rights."

(Vahid Sepehri contributed to this article.)

Former communist intelligence chief Asadullah Sarwari went on trial in Kabul on 26 December for allegedly ordering the deaths of hundreds in Afghanistan in 1978, AP reported. Sarwari oversaw the intelligence service of Afghanistan's communist regime in 1978, when former Afghan communist ruler Nur Mohammad Taraki held power. Islamic guerrillas first arrested Sarwari in 1992, when they overran Kabul after Soviet troops backing the communist regime in Afghanistan withdrew. Sarwari fell into the hands of the anti-Taliban United Front (aka Northern Alliance) when the Taliban overran Kabul in 1996. Sarwari reportedly returned to a Kabul jail cell in 2001, when the United Front took control of the city with backing by U.S.-led international forces. Afghanistan's National Security Court unveiled its case against Sarwari on 26 December, playing a brief video showing documents that allegedly offer proof he ordered some 350 people killed. Sarwari, who has proclaimed his innocence and appeared without a lawyer, stood in the courtroom after the video played and asked the judge to grant him two weeks to prepare his defense. The timing of the case remains unclear, but Afghanistan has essentially been without a working legal system since before the Taliban took over large parts of the country in the 1990s. MR

Two Dutch peacekeepers suffered injuries on 26 December when their convoy hit a roadside bomb in Konduz Province, AFP reported. Neo-Taliban forces claimed responsibility for the attack, according to NATO spokeswoman Lieutenant Paola Gori. "At around 11:15 today, a two-vehicle ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] convoy has been involved in an explosion in Baghlan Province," Gori said. "There were four Dutch soldiers in the vehicle. Two have been slightly wounded." Area police chief General Mir Alam said the attack also wounded two civilians. Speaking to AFP by telephone, neo-Taliban spokesman Mohammad Anif said insurgents detonated the bomb. "We carried out the attack," Anif said. MR

Neo-Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah said some 200 insurgents are ready to undertake suicide attacks in Afghanistan, AP reported on 26 December. Dadullah said he was inside Afghanistan when he spoke in a rare interview with AP by telephone from an undisclosed location on 25 December. "More than 200 Taliban have registered themselves for suicide attacks with us, which shows that a Muslim can even sacrifice his life for the well-being of his faith," Dadullah said, a veteran fighter of Afghanistan who is missing a leg. "Our suicide attackers will continue jihad [holy war] until Americans and all of their Muslim and non-Muslim allies are pulled out of the country." Dadullah suggested that the neo-Taliban forces are working with Al-Qaeda fighters in waging an insurgency in Afghanistan. Dadullah said that about 10 percent of insurgents in Afghanistan are foreigners. "Both Taliban and Al-Qaeda have the same objectives," Dadullah said, adding that anyone supporting the United States and the new government in Kabul "will be dealt with." Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi said Dadullah is bluffing about the strength of insurgent forces. He said the insurgency is weakening, despite persistent guerrilla attacks in the country. "The Taliban are isolated," Azimi said. "They are using land mines and terror activities...or suicide attacks. These kind of operations show they are not strong and that they are weak." MR

Six neo-Taliban insurgents died on 24 December when land mines they were planting in southern Afghanistan exploded prematurely, the Afghan Islamic Press news agency reported. The explosion occurred near the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. "Last night, the Taliban were planting [land] mines in the Ashq Abad area of Maywand district on the main road between Kandahar and Herat," Kandahar security chief Abdol Malik was quoted by AIP as saying on 25 December. "The mines exploded and six Taliban were killed on the spot." Malik said security forces are searching the area for other insurgents. MR

Iranian government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham reiterated in Tehran on 26 December Iran's rejection of a Russian proposal to produce nuclear fuel for Iran in Russia but said Russia "can, like other countries, participate in Iran's peaceful nuclear activities within the framework of our declared principles," IRNA reported the same day. Elham said Iran's "firm position" is to enrich uranium inside Iran, with the provision of "objective guarantees to the international community" that such enrichment is "for peaceful purposes within the framework of international laws," IRNA reported. He said Iran considers fuel production a "commercial" endeavor and is "ready to accept foreign investment in these activities." The Russian Foreign Ministry said on 24 December that its embassy in Tehran had forwarded its enrichment proposals; but Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi denied on 25 December that Iran has received any concrete proposal, agencies reported. Assefi said Iran will "consider positively any...proposal that recognizes [its] rights and approves Iran's right to enrich uranium on Iranian soil," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 26 December. VS

Government spokesman Elham told journalists on 26 December that the government is neither eavesdropping nor recording Iranians' phone calls or text messages, contrary to stated concerns by some legislators, as such practices would be illegal, IRNA reported. The legislators were reacting to a Telecommunications Ministry statement that citizens' "short messages" are recorded and might "if necessary, be given to relevant officials with a judicial permit, confidentially," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 26 December. Telecommunications Minister Muhammad Suleimani previously said that officials investigating the recent crash of a military transport plane might be given recordings of the conversations of passengers on the plane (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 December 2005), according to "Aftab-i Yazd." Legislator Abdullah Husseini said on 25 December that "any eavesdropping or recording of...calls or messages is without a doubt [unconstitutional], and even if a judge permits [this], it has to be in specific cases and based on evidence," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. Elham said the government considers it its "legal and religious" duty to implement "in its entirety" the Iranian Constitution, which protects private conversations against "any violation," IRNA reported on 26 December. VS

Deputy Trade Minister Mehdi Ghazanfari told ISNA on 25 December that Iran must increase its bilateral and multilateral trade agreements with selected states, as it moves to adhere gradually to World Trade Organization (WTO) guidelines. He said Iranian diplomats talked to Trade Ministry representatives from 10 countries with which Iran wishes to enhance trade ties on the sidelines of the WTO summit in Hong Kong that concluded on 25 December. "Bilateral and multilateral pacts are the world today, so for our country to be present on the world stage, we need to move toward increasing such pacts," Ghazanfari said. A sitting on the sideline of the summit, he said, concluded that Iran currently has the "least number" of "multilateral, bilateral, and regional agreements," ISNA reported. Iranian envoys had "constructive talks" with envoys from Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iraq, and other states, he said. Iran, Ghazanfari added, must identify its "relative advantages" and exportable products, and needs a "national strategy" on joining the WTO, after which "we have to choose which industries we shall support." He urged changes to domestic laws to cut production costs. VS

Tehran bus drivers went on strike on 25 December to protest over wages and the recent arrest of 14 bus drivers' syndicate leaders, news agencies and Radio Farda reported on 25 December. Travelers were forced to take taxis or to hitch rides from passing motorists or even police cars as a result, Tehran traffic-police chief Hussein Sajedinia told Mehr on 25 December. Tehran-based journalist Arash Irani told Radio Farda on 26 December that the strike "paralyzed Tehran" by depriving it of about 1,000 buses. Bus drivers went back to work on 26 December, ISNA reported. Authorities had arrested syndicate leaders including Mansur Osanlu and Mansur Hayat-Gheibi, who was released on 24 December, Radio Farda reported (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 20 September and 26 October 2005). The strike followed a 24 December meeting of bus-company officials, driver representatives, and police that "had no tangible results," deputy syndicate head Ibrahim Madadi told Radio Farda on 25 December. He said four more syndicate leaders and an unspecified number of members were arrested on 25 December, although there was little violence with police, after some early scuffles. The Office for Strengthening Unity, a student group, the Association of Iran Writers, and workers from Iran Khodro, the state car manufacturer, issued statements to condemn the arrests, Radio Farda reported on 26 December. VS

Abdullah Roshan, the deputy governor of the Tehran province for security affairs, said on 26 December that Tehran and its environs must "be cleansed as soon as possible of the most visible drug addicts and vagabonds," adding that police have arrested more than 93,000 "addicts, traffickers, and people involved in drug sales and distribution" in the nine-month period from March 20, when the current Persian year began, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 27 December. Drug seizures in the greater Tehran area during that period included 700,000 ecstasy pills, 1,205 kilograms of hashish, and 557 kilograms of heroin, Roshan said, quoting Tehran police sources. He expressed concern that most drug deals take place in or around the capital and that most drugs coming from Iran's eastern provinces end up in the same area. Heroin use has increasingly given way to the use of crack, or "compressed heroin...which is far more destructive than heroin," "Aftab-i Yazd" quoted Roshan as saying. The price of crack has "also fallen sharply since the start of the year," Roshan said. VS

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan Regional Government President Mas'ud Barzani have sponsored meetings in recent days aimed at bringing rival political parties together under a unity government, according to RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI). Talabani and Barzani met with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Al-Sulaymaniyah on 26 December to discuss the convening of a summit meeting in that northern Iraqi city to bring together the leaders of electoral lists that won seats in the 15 December parliamentary elections, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. The news channel quoted sources as saying that Khalilzad has asked the two Kurdish leaders to help contain the current political crisis that emanated from allegations of election fraud (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 23 December 2005). Meanwhile, Talabani was scheduled to meet with Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim and Iraqi Accordance Front head Tariq al-Hashimi in Al-Sulaymaniyah on 27 December, Al-Arabiyah television reported. KR

Some 5,000 Iraqis demonstrated in Baghdad on 27 December to protest alleged fraud in the 15 December parliamentary voting, international media reported. Some 42 political parties and factions have now joined an alliance that has called for a repeat of the elections. The demonstration follows several days of smaller protests in a number of Iraqi cities. Meanwhile, Sunni political leaders have reportedly asked the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance to give Sunnis 10 of its parliamentary seats in an effort to defuse the situation, but the alliance rejected the demand, reported on 26 December. KR

Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has reportedly urged the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance to work with rival political parties to form a unity government, Iraqi media reported on 24 December. National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told reporters in Al-Najaf following a 24 December meeting with al-Sistani that the grand ayatollah called for calm and asked Iraqis not to resort to violence to resolve the current crisis. Al-Sistani urged members of the lists that won seats in the parliamentary voting to work with losing groups to form an inclusive government that represents the ethnic and sectarian spectrum. KR

The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) on 26 December released uncertified results of out-of-country voting in the recent parliamentary elections, RFI reported. IECI spokesman Farid Ayar said the combined results of the out-of-country voting show the Kurdistan Coalition won 36.56 percent of those votes, while the United Iraqi Alliance won 30.28 percent, the Iraqi National List 11.10 percent, and the Iraqi Accordance Front 4.85 percent; the remaining votes went to several smaller lists. Some 482,450 votes were cast in 14 countries. The Kurdistan Coalition swept all European countries in which voting was held except Denmark. The United Iraqi Alliance won pluralities in Lebanon, Canada, Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, and Iran. The Iraqi National List won the most votes in Jordan and Syria, while the Mesopotamia List won the most votes in the United States. KR

IECI spokesman Ayar continued to downplay allegations of impropriety lodged with the IECI, telling reporters that people naturally feel disappointed when their party does not perform well in an election, RFI reported. Regarding the IECI's investigation into allegations of voter fraud against some political parties, Ayar told reporters that one incident under investigation relates to the removal of 45 ballot boxes from a polling center to the home of one party leader after midnight on election day; the boxes were returned to the polling center in the morning. Ayar claimed the boxes remained sealed and were not open, but he said the IECI is still examining the incident. KR