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Newsline - October 19, 2006

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Iran and a variety of issues related to the Middle East on October 18, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 17, 2006). Olmert said that heading the agenda was "everything connected to the Iranian problem, which bothers everyone." He hailed Putin and recalled the promise Putin made last year that Russia's relations in the Middle East will no longer be one-sided. For his part, Putin said the relations between the two countries are based on mutual trust. He added that "in recent years, relations between the Russian Federation and Israel have acquired an entirely new quality.... We have fundamentally changed our attitude to our compatriots -- we think of them as our compatriots -- who moved to Israel for permanent residence from Russia and the former republics of the Soviet Union." Olmert's hosts also included Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said that Iran poses no immediate threat. Israel is pushing for sanctions against Iran over Tehran's nuclear programs while Russia opposes the move. Olmert argued that "if the leader of such a country as Iran openly states that he wants to destroy our country, we have no choice but to prepare for a response." For his part, Putin said that "the situation requires all parties to show responsibility and restraint. Only a just and comprehensive settlement accepted by all peoples in the region can be reliable and long-lasting." PM

The daily "Kommersant" wrote on October 18 that cooperation between Russia and Israel has become sufficiently strong that Prime Minister Olmert will not need to seek "painful compromises" from his hosts but will just work to "smooth away some rough edges." The paper called the trip "pleasant in all respects" and noted that some Israeli media declared the trip a success before it had even started. Olmert told the daily "Izvestia" of October 19 that "Russia is a great power, which is becoming even more influential in international affairs." He added that President "Putin is one of today's most interesting and outstanding world leaders." Olmert stressed that, "on behalf of Israel, I'd like to thank Russia and other CIS countries for the Jews who have come to us from there. These people, who make up about 20 percent of our population, were hardened and well-educated in their countries of origin. They arrived ready for life in Israel. This [huge] wave of immigration certainly caused a revolution in Israel." He noted that his own "father, Mordechai Olmert, was born in Samara and could quote [the writers Aleksandr] Pushkin and [Anton] Chekhov from memory. My mother came from Odesa. We were all raised in an atmosphere of Russian culture." Also on October 19, "Kommersant" reported of the Putin-Olmert meeting that "after the press was ushered out, and [Putin] apparently thought the microphones had been turned off," he told Olmert: "Say hi to your President [Moshe Katsav]. He turned out to be quite a powerful person! Raped 10 women! We're all amazed. We all envy him!" and "The Jerusalem Post" noted slightly different versions of Putin's remarks that did not, however, differ in substance. PM

In preparation for Germany's assumption of the rotating chairmanships of both the EU presidency and the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized countries in 2007, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU-CSU) is preparing a position paper on German and European foreign policy that differs from the one being put forward by the Social Democrats (SPD), who are her coalition partners and control the Foreign Ministry, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on October 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 11, and 12, 2006). The CDU-CSU says that "German interests" require the implementation of the proposed EU constitution and the conclusion of a "trans-Atlantic partnership agreement" with the United States. The party stresses that the relationship with Washington is of "vital importance" for Germany and the EU, adding that "it has been learned from the Iraq crisis [of 2002-03] that any attempt to make Europe into a counterweight to America will lead to a split in Europe." The CDU-CSU favors a mutually beneficial "strategic partnership" with Russia based on "the universal values of the Council of Europe" and taking note of the interests of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Political and economic relations with Russia, including energy, must also include "an open and critical dialogue" on democracy, the media, and civil society, as well as on Russian policies in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. By contrast, the SPD position paper says that "Russia is welcome in Europe," calls for "strong links with Russia," and does not deal with human rights. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (SPD), who once called President Putin an "impeccable democrat" and brought German-U.S. relations to their lowest point since World War II, now heads the stockholders' oversight body for the planned Russo-German North European Gas Pipeline. PM

Dmitry Fotyanov, a 31-year-old mayoral candidate for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party in the October 22 runoff vote, was killed with shots fired from a Kalashnikov in Dalnegorsk in Primorsky Krai on October 19, reported. He was traveling from one election meeting to another when the unknown killer or killers struck. About the same time, a car with two Kalashnikovs and silencers inside was blown up next to the offices of the local newspaper "Trudovoye delo." Federal and regional officials later arrived in Dalnegorsk to take part in the investigation. Following the slaying, a spontaneous meeting of citizens called on the authorities to "restore order" in the city, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. There is speculation that the murder might be related to the election, but this is not yet clear. Election officials said that the runoff election will go ahead, with the third-place candidate from the October 8 first round moving up to take Fotyanov's place. The second round will now pit Aleksandr Terebilov, who is acting mayor, against Vladimir Voinov, who belongs to Unified Russia and polled only 6 percent in the first round. Fotyanov briefly served as mayor from October 2005 to February 2006, when the regional court annulled his mandate on the grounds that he had bought votes to get elected. Terebilov's bodyguard was killed on October 18. PM

The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry on October 19 formally criticized the recent acquittals in St. Petersburg of five Russians accused of stabbing a Vietnamese student to death there in October 2004, news agencies reported. Hanoi demanded the perpetrators be punished. The ministry stressed that the guilty must be punished according to Russian law and in the public interest. A note to this effect was sent to the Russian Embassy in Hanoi. PM

Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of the Natural Resources Ministry's Federal Service for the Oversight of Natural Resources (Rosprirodnadzor), said in Moscow on October 18 that criminal police arrived at his department's offices earlier that day and began confiscating numerous documents dealing with a variety of issues, Russian media reported. He noted that "financial documents regarding business trips taken by our staff members are in fact being confiscated from our accounts department now.... [Investigators] have the right to do it. The only thing that upsets us that it concerns those staff members who took part in our most recent [environmental] inspections." Media speculation centered on the possibility that the move might be related to Rosprirodnadzor's objections this year, ostensibly on environmental grounds, to several important energy projects. Those include the blocking of the Sakhalin-2 gas production-sharing agreement (PSA) with Royal Dutch Shell and Japan's Mitsui and Mitsubishi, and, more recently, the raising of threats to cancel drilling contracts for LUKoil in the Komi Republic and elsewhere (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 22 and October 17, 2006). In those cases, Rosprirodnadzor was widely regarded as acting on behalf of the Kremlin, which seeks to strengthen the role of state monopolies in the energy sector. Mitvol said on October 18 that the officers' unannounced visit was "not normal" and acknowledged he is worried that his campaign might be under threat. "I am scared," he said. His boss, Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev, is currently on a visit to Sakhalin. PM

During a brief visit to Yerevan, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Julie Finley met on October 18 with senior Armenian officials to discuss the upcoming parliamentary elections and the state of political reform and democratization, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Mediamax reported. Finley met with several officials during her visit to Yerevan, including Justice Minister David Harutiunian, Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian, Deputy Foreign Minister Arman Kirakosian, and the chairman of the Central Election Commission, Garegin Azarian. After meeting with several civil society representatives campaigning for political reform in the country, Finley said that "I am assuming that I am in a country that has decided it wants to be a true democracy" and stressed that the upcoming parliamentary elections mark an important step for the development of Armenian democracy. She added that while Armenian officials assured her that they "will do their best" to ensure that the May 2007 parliamentary elections are free and fair, they need to allow the OSCE to monitor the complete electoral process. Finley also expressed dismay at not being able to meet with President Robert Kocharian. "I am very, very disappointed I did not have even a brief meeting" with Kocharian, she said, noting that "usually in my travels I do meet with the head of state." RG

Azerbaijan officially marked on October 18 the 15th anniversary of its independence from the former Soviet Union, Turan reported. The Azerbaijani parliament's declaration of independence was adopted on October 18, 1991, and established the Republic of Azerbaijan as the formal successor to the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan, which existed from 1918-20. RG

The Paris-based media group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a statement on October 18 urging the Azerbaijani government to not implement a recent decision to ban the broadcasts of several main Western radio programs, Turan reported. Azerbaijan's National Council for Television and Radio issued a ban on October 13 preventing local radio stations from rebroadcasting the BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe programs. The Reporters Without Borders' statement criticized the ban, which is to be effective at the beginning of next year, as a move "targeted at international media whose independence the Azerbaijani government seems to fear." The Azerbaijani authorities dismissed the criticism, arguing that the move was directed only at local stations that do not have the required licenses to allow them to rebroadcast the programs. RG

A statement released by the office of Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General Eldar Ahmedov announced on October 18 the removal of a lawyer defending former Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev, according to Turan. The announcement stated that defense lawyer Adil Ismailov was removed "for brutally violating the norms of advocate ethics and legal procedure," but did not list the specific "violations" reportedly committed by Ismailov. Farhad Aliyev was arrested in 2005 and charged with financing an attempt to overthrow the Azerbaijani government. RG

The European Court for Human Rights agreed on October 18 to hear the case of former Azerbaijani Economic Development Minister Aliyev, Turan reported. The decision follows from the consideration of an appeal filed by Aliyev's lawyers that contended that the case against Aliyev was motivated purely by political considerations and argued that the criminal case against the former minister was routinely violating his civil liberties. RG

A group of several plainclothes policemen arrested Azerbaijani opposition activist Ali Ismayilov on October 18 in his Baku home, according to Turan. Ismayilov, the leader of the opposition Yokh (No) youth movement, was subsequently released after being interrogated for several hours about his organization's "foreign contacts" and funding sources. Ismayilov later told reporters that he was recently summoned to the Baku police department and warned not to hold a planned rally set for October 18 and charged the Azerbaijani authorities with timing his arrest in order to disrupt that rally. RG

The Azerbaijani Court of Appeals ruled on October 17 to uphold the previous sentence by the Nasimi District court imposed on Sahin Agabayli, the editor of the opposition "Milli Yol" newspaper, according to Turan. Agabayli was sentenced to one year in prison in August after his conviction for criminal libel and "insulting the honor and dignity" of parliamentarian Arif Rahimzada. RG

In a unanimous vote, the Abkhaz parliament adopted an official appeal on October 18 to the Russian president and Russian parliament seeking formal Russian recognition as an independent state, ITAR-TASS and Rustavi-2 television reported. The appeal also called for the establishment of "associate relations between Russia and Abkhazia" and argued that Abkhazia meets all necessary preconditions for recognition and "possesses all the necessary features and attributes of a sovereign state recognized by the international community," meeting "all the criteria of a democratic, law-governed welfare state based on representative democracy and the separation of powers." Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh noted that recognition of Abkhazia is "extremely difficult" but called on Russia to consider "the close relations between Russia and Abkhazia" and pledged that Abkhazia "intends first of all to build associate relations with the Russian Federation with the latter serving as a guarantor for the preservation of our independent statehood," according to the ApsnyPress. The move follows a recent call by Bagapsh for a new closer, associative relationship with Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 17, 2006). RG

In response to the Abkhaz parliament's adoption of an official appeal seeking Russian recognition of independence, Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze denounced the move on October 18 and reaffirmed that "Abkhazia will always remain part of Georgia," Rustavi-2 reported. She further warned that if Russia recognizes Abkhaz independence, it "will make it much easier for us," as Russia will show its "true colors," according to Georgian Public Television. RG

Expressing concern over ongoing Russian naval exercises in the Black Sea, Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Mamuka Kudava called on October 18 for Russia to refrain from "a show of force," arguing that Moscow was engaged in a new attempt to intimidate Georgia and criticized the exercise as "an obvious provocation" designed to bolster Russia's "economic blockade" of Georgia, Caucasus Press and Imedi television reported. The Russian Navy has been holding maneuvers near Georgian territorial waters off the port of Poti for almost two weeks. Kudava formally briefed the Georgian cabinet on October 18 on the situation and warned that Russian naval activity will have negative consequences on Georgia's trade and economic interests and asserted that the Russian naval exercises "will restrict the operation of Georgia's Black Sea ports of Batumi, Poti, and Supsa." RG

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried met on October 18 in Tbilisi with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, and other senior Georgian leaders, according to Caucasus Press and Rustavi-2. During the meeting with parliament speaker Burdjanadze, Fried discussed the recent Georgian-Russian confrontation and was presented with a Georgian report detailing the "ethnic persecution" of Georgians living in Russia. Fried noted that "Georgia is in a difficult situation today," but said that "we are supporting Georgia in its stage-by-stage advancement toward European and Euro-Atlantic institutions." He further stated that "the pressure put on Georgians in Russia is very alarming." RG

In comments to reporters following a cabinet meeting, Georgian Prime Minister Noghaideli welcomed on October 18 the statement by the European Union released the previous day calling for an end of Russian sanctions on Georgia, Rustavi-2 reported. He noted that the adoption of the statement by the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council was "very important" and argued that "it means that the European Union will not leave such events without attention," Caucasus Press reported. The statement, adopted on October 17, reiterated "the European Union's grave concern at the recent escalation of tension in Georgia-Russian Federation relations" and called "upon both sides to reopen normal diplomatic dialogue in order to work toward a normalization of relations." It also expressed "grave concern at the measures adopted by the Russian Federation against Georgia" and "willingness to work with Georgia and the Russian Federation to facilitate mutual confidence building and contribute to a peaceful resolution of the crisis." RG

The Russian Federal Space Agency handed over control on October 18 of the KazSat-1 communications satellite and its ground-based control station to Kazakhstan, RFE/RL and Interfax reported. The satellite, intended for television broadcasting, fixed satellite communication and data transmission, will serve Central Asia, the Caucasus, and central Russia, including the Moscow region. According to a statement posted on the website of Roskosmos, Russia's state space agency, the transfer was completed on October 17. The Russian-built KazSat-1 is Kazakhstan's first-ever geostationary communications satellite and was put into orbit on June 18 in a Russian launch. The Russian state-owned Khrunichev space-research center, which built KazSat-1, won a tender last month to develop a second Kazakh communications satellite, KazSat-2, that is expected to cost twice as mush as KazSat-1 and is due to be launched in 2009. RG

In comments in a newspaper interview, Kazakh Defense Minister General Mukhtar Altynbayev announced on October 18 that Kazakh soldiers will receive a 30 percent pay increase beginning in January, Interfax reported. Altynbayev explained that "we are on the threshold of a new phase in the army's modernization" and noted that in addition to the pay rise, problems with military housing and family benefits are "being gradually resolved." He added that defense reforms aimed at transforming the Kazakh armed forces into a professional, modern force are being accelerated and noted that the first stage in this process is the training of the junior command staff, or "professional sergeants." RG

A Kyrgyz court in the southern city of Osh handed down death sentences on October 18 for three purported Islamic militants, including one Uzbek national, after their conviction for carrying out armed raids along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The court also sentenced two other defendants to 10-year prison terms, and a sixth defendant -- a woman, Dilnozahon Nishanbaeva -- received a three-year prison sentence but will begin serving her sentence in 2014 to give her time to raise her young child. The six defendants are believed to be members of the outlawed Islamist groups Hizb ut-Tahrir and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and were found guilty of raiding Kyrgyz and Tajik border posts in May in attacks that left several Kyrgyz and Tajik soldiers dead, according to the Kyrgyz news agency website. RG

A leader of the Kyrgyz opposition Forum of Young Kyrgyz Politicians group, Elegiya Musayeva, announced on October 18 that several of the group's activists were arrested by police in Bishkek for distributing placards calling on people to attend an opposition rally, reported. The Kyrgyz opposition is planning to hold a public rally in Bishkek on November 2 to demand the resignation of President Kurmanbek Bakiev. RG

The CIS Interparliamentary Assembly issued a statement in Dushanbe on October 18 reporting that its monitoring of the Tajik presidential election campaign has found "no serious violations," Asia-Plus reported. The statement added that "this stage of the election campaign, including the registration of candidates for president of Tajikistan, has been carried out in compliance with legislation in force." Speaking at a news conference in Dushanbe the previous day, Russian Ambassador Ramazan Abdulatipov also heralded the presidential election set for November 6 as "another stage in the democratic development of Tajikistan" and cited Tajikistan as having the "most open political system" in Central Asia. Abdulatipov also pledged that "the Russian side [is] ready, if it receives a relevant request from Tajikistan, to provide any support in setting up polling stations" in Russia to allow Tajik citizens residing in Russia to vote. RG

The head of the Tajik Central Election Commission, Muhibullo Dodojonov, announced on October 17 that the deadline for the accreditation of international observers for November's presidential election has been extended, Avesta reported. The registration process for international observers was originally set to close on October 17, officially 20 days before the balloting, but the commission's decision extends the process through election day, recognizing that not all international organizations were able to submit their lists of short-term observers. Dodojonov explained that the decision stems from a request by "representatives of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights" to extend the accreditation deadline." More than 260 international observers have been formally registered to monitor Tajikistan's November 6 presidential election, and more than 12,000 representatives from civil society are also expected to monitor the poll. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, whom many observers expect to win outright, has called on Tajik authorities to ensure that all candidates enjoy equal conditions for campaigning (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2006). RG

In a statement, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) appealed on October 17 to Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov to extend his traditional pardon to jailed human rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, RFE/RL reported. A Turkmen court sentenced each man in August to seven years in prison on charges that human rights groups have criticized as exaggerated. A third defendant, RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova, received a six-year sentence but died in custody within days of her sentencing under dubious circumstances. The statement noted that the RSF is concerned about the health of Amanklychev and Khajiev and called on Niyazov to show "clemency." More than 10,000 inmates in Turkmenistan are expected to be set free this week under a presidential pardon that traditionally marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and may include eight individuals convicted of involvement in an alleged plot to kill Niyazov four years ago. RG

Alyaksandr Kazulin, the imprisoned leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), told his spouse on October 17 that he had informed the administration of his correctional facility about his plans to go on an open-ended hunger strike on October 20, Belapan reported on October 18. Kazulin, a former opposition presidential candidate, is serving his 5 1/2-year prison term near the city of Vitsebsk in northern Belarus. In July he was found guilty of hooliganism and the organization of group actions disturbing the public peace (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 14, 2006). Kazulin's wife told journalists that her husband will consider dropping the hunger-strike plans if the Belarusian situation is put on the agenda of the UN Security Council or "some steps are evidence that the international community will devote its attention to Belarus." JM

Andrei Sharonov, Russia's deputy economic development and trade minister, has confirmed that the ministry imposed some restrictions on imports from Belarus this year, Belapan reported on October 18, citing RIA Novosti. Sharonov said in the State Duma on October 18 that his ministry decided to ban local administrations and state-owned companies from buying some Belarusian goods with funds out of the national budget in response to the Belarusian authorities' similar move. In a press release on October 16, the ministry denied that it had made such a step (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 17, 2006). Sharonov explained that Russia's regulations governing state purchases allow foreign suppliers to operate in the Russian market on an equal footing with domestic companies provided that their countries do not restrict Russian goods. JM

During an official visit to Minsk, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed on October 18 several new bilateral agreements with Belarus, according to Turan. During a meeting with the head of the Belarus state military-industrial committee, Mikalay Azamatau, Aliyev expressed particular interest in expanding cooperation and gaining technical assistance from Belarus in the area of military industrial production and technological research with military applications. Additional bilateral accords are also signed during the visit, including new agreements on economic cooperation, transportation, and education. RG

Roman Bezsmertnyy, leader of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine parliamentary caucus, told journalists on October 19 that the five ministers belonging to the Our Ukraine quota in Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's cabinet have tendered their resignations, Ukrainian media reported. He specified that the resignations were submitted to the Verkhovna Rada by Justice Minister Roman Zvarych, Family and Sports Minister Yuriy Pavlenko, Culture Minister Ihor Likhovyy, Health Minister Yuriy Polyachenko, and Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko. The first four ministers were attending the news conference with Bezsmertnyy and confirmed that they are going to step down. Bezsmertnyy noted that Lutsenko will hold a separate news conference to announce his resignation. On October 17, Bezsmertnyy officially announced that Our Ukraine is going into opposition over its disagreement with policies pursued by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 17, 2006). JM

Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko said on October 18 that he and Defense Minister Borys Tarasyuk will remain in Prime Minister Yanukovych's cabinet, Ukrainian media reported. Hrytsenko was speaking shortly after Yushchenko's meeting with the ministers delegated to the government by Our Ukraine and appointed by him personally. Under the Ukrainian Constitution amended in December 2004, the president is obliged to appoint the defense and foreign ministers. "The two ministers appointed by the president are working and will continue to work. There will be no resignations," Hrytsenko said. JM

Martti Ahtisaari has rejected a proposal from the European Union to postpone a final-status resolution on Kosova until next year, B92 reported on October 18. Adding that only the Contact Group -- Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United States -- can set deadlines, Ahtisaari said he plans to present his proposal to the UN Security Council in December as scheduled. Serbia has been pushing for a decision to be delayed until after it holds general elections, most likely in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006). EU officials have also suggested postponing the Kosova decision. But Ahtisaari said it is still unclear when Serbia will hold elections. "I have no need to start guessing about deadlines," he said. "There were talks that the elections would be held in March, July, October of next year. I am just focused on getting my part of the job done." Ahtisaari's comments appear to contradict an earlier statement that postponement is possible (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2006). BW

Former Serbia and Montenegro Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic said on October 18 that there is virtually no chance for Belgrade and Prishtina to reach consensus on Kosova and that an imposed solution is likely, B92 reported the same day. Svilanovic, now an official with the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, added that he expects Ahtisaari to propose a solution by the end of the year -- but that it would not be officially made public until after Serbia's elections. "The plan is this: allowing Serbia to adopt its then hold elections, then form a government and then talk about Kosovo. That plan has been accepted," Svilanovic said. BW

Opposition is mounting to Serbian President Boris Tadic's proposal to hold simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections, B92 reported on October 18. Tadic said on October 5 that presidential and parliamentary elections should be held by the end of this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 6, 2006). But the daily "Blic" reported that the government has told Tadic that a presidential election is not likely to be held before February. Tomislav Nikolic, deputy leader of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), said, meanwhile, that he is opposed to a two-round presidential election, B92 reported. "You know, elections are the first round, when candidates receive what the people mean to give them. After that, political calculations start, and we have the country's president elected in the second round," Nikolic said. "Whoever wins the most votes in the first round has in fact won, but someone else can get to be the president." Political analyst Djorde Vukadinovic said that Tadic would be all but unbeatable in a second-round runoff. "At this moment, Boris Tadic would beat anyone," he told B92. BW

Amnesty International has called on Montenegro to open an investigation into allegations that police tortured jailed ethnic Albanians, AP reported on October 18. Five out of 14 ethnic Albanians arrested last month have complained of "ill-treatment, in some cases amounting to torture" according to a statement posted on Amnesty International's U.S. website on October 17. "The allegations include reports of repeated beatings, including with the intention of forcing a confession, using hands, fists, feet, sticks and on one occasion, a computer cable," the statement said. "Beatings were allegedly conducted by both individual and groups of police the antiterrorist police...and by police escorting the men to court," it added. The ethnic Albanians were arrested on September 9 on suspicion that they planned to disrupt Montenegro's general elections, which took place the next day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2006). Three of those arrested are U.S. citizens, but it is unclear whether they were among those making the torture allegations. BW

A top German official has asked Macedonia to be patient and have understanding for the EU's internal politics as Skopje seeks membership, Makfax reported on October 17. According to the Macedonian Foreign Ministry, the German Bundestag's Foreign Policy Committee Chairman Ruprecht Polenz told Macedonian Foreign Minister Antonio Miloshoski that "Germany has no dilemma as to the European perspective of Macedonia, however, he asked for understanding of the EU's position that internal institutional reform of the union has to be completed in order to enable the admission of new members." Miloshoski was in Germany to address the Bundestag's Foreign Policy Committee. During an official visit to Berlin on October 16, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said Macedonia seeks to join NATO by 2009 and the EU by 2013 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 17, 2006). BW

Talks aimed at persuading Moldova and Transdniester to resume negotiations began in Odesa, Ukraine, on October 18, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. On the previous day, officials from Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) began consultations on how to return the two sides to the negotiating table. "Yesterday, the mediators and observers discussed ways of encouraging the parties to begin full-scale negotiations," Russia's special envoy Vasily Nesterushkin said on October 18. "No unambiguous opinions exist [about] how that can be done. Everything will now depend on the...separate meetings with the representatives of the conflicting parties. There is hope, but a very cautious one, the parties will agree to some sensible solutions on the basis of a draft transit protocol," he added. BW

Moldova has called for international inspections of Russian ammunitions depots in the separatist Transdniester region, ITAR-TASS reported on October 16. A statement from Moldova's Reintegration Ministry said that Chisinau "will persist with diplomatic and political efforts in the framework of the OSCE to ensure effective international monitoring of the storage and withdrawal of military property from the Moldovan territory." The statement dismissed earlier claims by General Boris Sergeyev, the commander of the Russian forces in Transdniester, that inspections were carried out by the Russian Defense Ministry. "Despite the persistent effort by the OSCE, Russian depots in the Dniester region are barred to international inspection," the statement said. BW

Speaker Boris Gryzlov has announced that the State Duma is set to consider the first reading of a new bill that would push the bulk of Russia's gambling halls into four Las Vegas-style "colonies."

Gryzlov, reacting to President Vladimir Putin's initiative and subsequent suggestion that his gambling bill be approved as soon as possible and without obstruction, on 17 October predicted that the Duma would overwhelmingly approve the measure. The third and final reading, Gryzlov predicted, could come as soon as November.

During the course of an October 4 meeting with the heads of Duma factions in which he outlined the lower house of parliament's top priorities, Putin pulled no punches in criticizing the country's gambling industry. Equating Russia's gaming addiction with the serious "material and moral damage" inflicted by alcoholism, Putin said severe measures were in order.

To this end, he presented the lawmakers with his new bill. It calls for the federal government to reimpose state regulation over gambling, and to sweep small-time casinos and slot machines from the streets of Russian cities.

Instead, the gambling industry would be concentrated by 2009 into four regional gaming colonies -- two in European Russia, one in Siberia, and one in the Far East. His bill, however, does make a provision for another type of gaming zone that would allow regional and municipal authorities to oversee smaller gambling centers on their territory, albeit under very restricted and specific conditions.

Many observers linked the timing of Putin's initiative to Russia's political crisis with Georgia. This argument followed on the shuttering of four large casinos in Moscow with ties to ethnic Georgians.

But a more likely scenario is that Putin merely saw the opportunity to use the Georgian crisis to his advantage. In regaining state oversight of the gambling sector, he could take control one of the most rapidly growing and problematic sectors of the Russian economy. In addition, the Kremlin could also benefit by using the growing antigambling movement as a populist platform ahead of the 2007-08 parliamentary elections.

Gambling in Russia was relatively underdeveloped in the 1990s, when the country was making the transition to a market economy and the majority of its citizens were too poor to take an interest in games of chance. But the situation changed radically by 2002, as rising oil revenues began to trickle down to ordinary Russians. This phenomenon coincided with the state's relinquishing of control over gambling to the State Sports and Tourism Committee and to regional and municipal governments.

In anticipation of huge tax revenues, local authorities issued gambling licenses very liberally and ushered in a period of exponential growth. Some estimates have placed the number of slot machines in Russia today at 400,000 or even 500,000, compared to 70,000 one-armed bandits in 2003. Combined, the major U.S. gambling centers of Las Vegas and Atlantic City have only about 280,000.

Slot machines are everywhere in Russia -- they are a common sight in railroad stations, grocery stores, clinics, at bus stops, and community centers. As for more traditional settings, Russia's 5,000 casinos are more than double the number found in the United States.

Moscow accounts for the lion's share of the country's $6 billion gambling business, boasting 56 casinos and 5,000 slot halls with some 56,000 slot machines. Another 9,000 slot machines can be found on the streets. In the wake of Putin's initiative, Mayor Yury Luzhkov publicly touted Moscow's plans to have just 540 casinos and gambling centers in operation by the end of the year.

Gambling is also pervasive in the provinces. Channel One television reported on October 8 that there are more than 2,000 gambling centers in Vologda Oblast's Cherepovets -- a city of just 300,000. On a smaller scale, Volga Oblast's Krasnoye has 10 slot halls to serve its 9,000 residents.

The rise in gambling has led to a rise in problems associated with it. According to the "Face of Russia 2006" published by the Moscow City Duma, the city had nearly 330,000 gambling "addicts." Russian sociologists have decried the effect on unemployed teenagers, students, and pensioners who gamble away what little money they have. In this connection, some Duma deputies have gone so far to suggest that "addicts" be identified and registered, and their assets frozen.

Also evident is the political leverage the industry has gained. Close ties to organized crime, powerful lobbies, and strong media influence helped foil municipal authorities' dreams of seeing high returns from tax revenues.

As public uproar over what was increasingly seen as a national gambling epidemic gained momentum, the Duma in March passed in the first reading a bill aimed at regulating the industry. However, gambling advocates effectively stonewalled the effort by introducing more than 500 amendments and arguing that such strict regulation would push gambling underground. The resistance was so strong that presidential intervention was eventually requested, leading to Putin's new bill on October 4.

Within a week, the Duma rejected the earlier legislation and was focusing on ironing out the details of the new bill. Potentially contentious are passages regarding the establishment of gambling zones. The legislation leaves open the possibility for some gambling to be conducted within cities or regions that are approved for municipal zones. The four large federal zones, according to the bill, should be created in uninhabited and undeveloped areas.

The first stage of the president's initiative would shut all gaming centers with fewer than 50 registered slot machines, 10 gaming tables, or 600 million rubles ($23 million) in capital by July 2007. Those that passed the first cut would then be allowed to operate until January 1, 2009, at which time they would have to move their business to the four designated federal zones or, possibly, to the select municipal zones approved by the federal government and regional administrations.

The four federal zones are to be built by 2009 on federal land and with private funding. Their exact location supposedly is to be kept secret -- Liberal Democratic Party of Russia co-Chairman Vladimir Zhirnovsky has warned that massive lobbing and corruption would disrupt the effort should the names of the locations be disclosed.

However, Duma Speaker Gryzlov revealed that Vladivostok is in the running for a federal zone during a visit to the city on October 7. He said that the Far East gambling center should attract gamblers from Southeast Asia. "Our neighbors, the Japanese and Chinese, are excitable people, let them come and play here."

Khabarovsk, where Chinese tourists are already ambling across the border to try their luck at the gaming table, is seen as a Siberian front-runner.

Fully aware of the pending legislation, the South African gaming group Sun International announced on October 10 that it was putting the finishing touches on a multibillion-dollar joint venture with Russia's Belaya Dacha Group to build a massive entertainment complex outside Moscow that would include casinos, hotels, a convention center, sport facilities, and a world-class golf course.

And it is no secret that the Kremlin favors a southern site that can attract tourists from the Middle East. Sochi would presumably be the front-runner for the second European federal zone, but that would dash the hopes of Russia's Kaliningrad exclave, which depends on the much-needed revenue it currently receives from gambling and which could theoretically attract gamblers from Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

Meanwhile, the president of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, has touted the republic's location just hours by air from Turkey, Israel, and numerous Arab states, where gambling is prohibited.

Observers note that Putin's bill also contains severe restrictions on other forms of gambling -- including via the Internet and by mobile phone. They also warn that the reforms could hand over the gambling sector's assets directly to the Kremlin. Thus, despite the president's wish for a rubber stamp from the Duma, the legislation will likely encounter strong resistance from powerful players intent on preserving the status quo.

Italian Foreign Undersecretary Gianni Vernetti has rejected a demand by Italian photojournalist Gabriele Torsello's captors to hand over an Afghan national who emigrated to Italy amid calls for his execution over his conversion to Christianity, Rai Radio reported on October 18. Torsello's unidentified kidnappers have threatened to kill their hostage by October 21 if Italy does not hand over Abdul Rahman (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," April 3, 2006). "There is international law, on top of ethics," Vernetti told Rai Radio. "Obviously, for us this demand is unacceptable." Torsello was kidnapped while traveling between the Helmand and Kandahar provinces in southern Afghanistan on October 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2006); Abdul Rahman was granted political asylum in March, after the Afghan Supreme Court concluded he was mentally unfit for trial. AT

Reporters Without Borders and the U.K.-based National Union of Journalists on October 18 appealed for an "active campaign, especially by Italian journalists," to win Torsello's release, a press statement by the two organizations stated. "A journalist is neither a spy nor a bargaining chip," the statement said, calling on Afghan and Italian authorities "to do everything to help bring about his release." The neo-Taliban have said that they are not holding Torsello, but another group referring to itself as "the Taliban" issued the demand for an exchange for Christian convert Rahman (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006). Many groups that are engaged in criminality or local political rivalries have used the term "Taliban" to identify themselves or blame their illegal acts on the Taliban. AT

The committee in charge of religious, cultural, and educational affairs in the Afghan National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) plans to draft a new media law, Kabul-based Tolu Television reported on October 18. Committee Chairman Mohammad Mohaqeq said the committee is currently working on a new law would that would "prevent the occurrence of an ideological crisis" in Afghan society and "bind the private and state-run media to respect [Afghan] customs, culture, and religion." The current law on mass media was decreed by President Hamid Karzai in December 2005 -- just days before the inauguration of the National Assembly (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," May 7, 2006). Media freedom has been among the most visible achievements in post-Taliban Afghanistan, but conservative circles have tried on numerous occasions to curtail such freedoms, often in the name of religion. AT

Based on President Karzai's approval of a proposal by the Afghan Supreme Court, a judge in Kabul's Ninth District has been suspended over suspected corruption, the official Radio Afghanistan reported on October 18. The judge -- identified as Mohammad Daud, son of Mohammad Faruq -- has been charged with accepting bribes. AT

EU foreign ministers stated in Luxemburg on October 17 that they feel obliged to support incremental UN sanctions on Iran for its refusal to curb its nuclear activities in line with Western demands, agencies reported on October 17 and 18. Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, immediately reacted to the move and said the EU would lose, not Iran. Iran and the EU have been talking for months as the EU has sought to persuade Iran to abandon nuclear fuel-making activities -- which can also be used to make nuclear bombs -- in return for economic incentives. In rejecting this deal, Iran "leaves us no choice but to take the Security Council route," Reuters quoted French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy as saying. He proposed "gradual, reversible measures proportionate to Iranian actions." EU officials have said they are not ruling out the resumption of talks. But Larijani said in Tehran on October 18 that a UN Security Council resolution against Iran would radicalize the situation and jeopardize Iranian cooperation, Reuters reported. He said the "carrot-and-stick policy is a failed policy." He told Mehr "if they want flexibility, real and effective flexibility will never come out of talks under pressure." VS

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said in Tehran on October 18 that the EU foreign ministers' statement announcing Europe's decision to back sanctions is unrealistic, and any move to undermine the "effectiveness" of "responsible bodies" like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would hamper the resolution of the dispute, IRNA reported. He said Iran will defend its rights using "legal and political channels," and has no doubt it is on the "right path" and has an "evident right to utilize nuclear energy for peaceful purposes." Separately, the head of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, told ISNA on October 18 that the EU statement and Iran's comparison with "other countries" is "unacceptable and unjust," and shows Europe is "submitting" to "political pressure" by the United States. He said Iran is presently ready for more talks on its dossier, but if this is "taken toward sanctions," inspections of Iranian installations by IAEA inspectors "will no longer be a possibility," ISNA reported. VS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with top-grade students in Tehran on October 17 and told them that while restlessness is a part of student life, "politicization" is "not approved" among student formations, ISNA reported. "Politicization and political games are not approved, but an inclination for politics and to win the power of political understanding and analysis is a...necessity among students and universities," he said. He urged student formations "relying on Islam and Islamic teachings" not to "weaken" each other. Clearly, he said, "the enemy is investing on some student currents, and America and Israel's espionage services are even ready to help student formations affiliated with the masses and left-wing currents, whose presence is now meaningless with the collapse" of communist states. Western enemies, he said, are trying "by all possible means and under various names like royalists and others" to harm "genuine student currents," ISNA reported. VS

Former student Ahmad Batebi has returned to prison after a short leave, his father told RFE/RL's Radio Farda on October 17, adding that his son is unwell and "wasting away" in prison. Batebi was jailed for participating in 1999 student demonstrations in Tehran. His father said rights groups have done nothing to win his release, and the judiciary has told the family that Batebi must remain in prison for 15 years. "Our lives have been destroyed and my son is wasting away...we are stuck in a place where accountable," he said. Separately, a court in Zanjan, northwestern Iran, sentenced former student Reza Abbasi to a year's imprisonment for allegedly insulting Supreme Leader Khamenei, Radio Farda reported on October 17. Activist Abdullah Momeni told the broadcaster that Abbasi has been detained since late June on a temporary arrest warrant for taking part in demonstrations by Iranian Azeri-speakers (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," May 29 2006). A Tehran court has also fined former Yazd University student Mohammad Reza Rahimi for insulting state officials and ordered that he be given 30 lashes for insulting a Yazd University security guard when he was a student there, ISNA reported on October 17. VS

Hundreds of gunmen marched through the streets of Al-Ramadi on October 18, announcing that the western city will be part of the newly declared Islamic state announced by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Mujahedin Shura Council on October 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006), international media reported. Witnesses said they saw gunmen dressed in white marching through the city while mosque loudspeakers broadcast statements by the Mujahedin Shura Council. A field commander calling himself Abu Harith told Reuters that fighters in the city have pledged their allegiance to Sheikh Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic state, and vowed to fight the Americans. "We have announced the Islamic state. Al-Ramadi is part of it. Our state will comprise all the Sunni governorates of Iraq," Harith said. The Sunni governorates are comprised of Baghdad, Al-Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Salah Al-Din, Ninawah, and parts of Babil and Wasit. SS

Iraqi lawmakers announced plans on October 18 to form a national human rights commission with the assistance of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), AFP reported the same day. The announcement came during a press conference after a UNAMI-sponsored workshop in Amman, Jordan, attended by Iraqi legislators from various political parties. Plans for the nine-member commission will be submitted to parliament no later than early November, and its mandate will be to list and identify human rights violations, including those blamed on coalition forces. Legislator Harith Muhi al-Din al-Ubaydi of the Iraqi National Accord party said that the commission will help "restore the rights of the Iraqi people so that they can feel truly free and in a democratic country." The head of the UNAMI's human rights office, Gianni Magazzeni, stressed that "full realization of human rights are important factors for the stability of Iraq." SS

Sheikh Mazin al-Sa'idi, a senior aide to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was released by U.S. forces on October 18 at the request of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, international media reported the same day. U.S. forces detained al-Sa'idi during a raid on his house in the Baghdad neighborhood of Shula on October 17. Earlier, U.S. military officials indicated that the alleged leader of a cell accused of carrying out sectarian attacks in east Baghdad was arrested, an apparent reference to al-Sa'idi, the BBC reported. The United States has urged al-Maliki to rein in the militias, who are blamed for much of the sectarian violence gripping Iraq, and al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, has been widely accused of being involved in such attacks. Asked about al-Sa'idi's release, al-Maliki, with al-Sadr at his side at a news conference in the holy city of Al-Najaf, said, "We are trying to find political solutions for all crises and that will terminate all detentions and all tension so that things go back to normal." SS

Prime Minister al-Maliki consulted separately with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and radical cleric al-Sadr in the holy city of Al-Najaf to discuss the current security situation and the issue of federalism, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on October 18. During a news conference, al-Maliki stressed that the Iraqi people should be the ones to make decisions on federalism. In an apparent shift, al-Sadr concurred with al-Maliki. "The Iraqi people should have the final say about federalism or any other issue. If the Iraqi people approve on the issue of federalism, let it be," he said. Al-Sadr previously opposed federalism, warning that it would lead to the breakup of Iraq. SS