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Newsline - July 13, 2007

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Russian television on July 12 that Britain is "politicizing" the controversy over Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the prime suspect in the 2006 London poisoning death of former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11 and 12, 2007). Lavrov said that "it has always seemed to me, and the British side has confirmed this, that this very case should be handled as a criminal case, and that it is necessary to regard it accordingly." He added, however, that "if what the British media have written is confirmed, namely that the British Foreign Ministry is handling this [matter], then it appears that this is now a political case. We don't want to handle this as a political case. We want this to be resolved on the basis of legal procedures." Lavrov argued that "the decision of the Russian side has been made on the basis of our Constitution and in full conformity with our rights and obligations under the European convention." In Brussels, a spokeswoman for the European Commission said on July 12 that the EU does not expect its relations with Russia to be harmed by the Lugovoi affair, RFE/RL reported. She added that Britain "is free to decide what [it] intends to do. However, Russia is and remains a strategic partner for us. [Lugovoi's extradition] is rather a legal question, a dispute between Russia and the [United Kingdom] on a legal basis, so we just assume that this is not going to have political repercussions." The Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" wrote on July 13 that "Britain is treating Russia like an enemy" and may be preparing to expel some Russian diplomats. The paper asked rhetorically, "has London considered the potential consequences of such a move?" The daily suggested that "it seems that [Britain's new Prime Minister] Gordon Brown has decided to establish himself as a tough, resolute politician...and now he's decided to teach Moscow a lesson." PM

An unspecified number of young men belonging to the nationalist youth movement Nasha Strana (Our Country) staged a rally near the U.S. Consulate in Vladivostok on July 12, Interfax reported. The men chanted anti-American slogans to protest U.S. plans to set up an missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The youths also performed a skit depicting opposition leader and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov as a U.S. pawn. A protester complained that Washington is funding the Russian opposition to "promote democratic values.... We believe the United States violates Russia's sovereignty by doing this." Nasha Strana is no stranger to anti-American, anti-Japanese, and Russian nationalist demonstrations in cities and towns in the Russian Far East (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 18 and 23, 2006). In Moscow, the nationalist "RBC Daily" wrote on July 12 that "according to President [George W.] Bush, the United States has almost doubled funding for democracy projects throughout the world [in 2007]. Experts point out that official Washington is so generous in 'advancing democracy' because this is how it promotes U.S. national interests worldwide." PM

A court in Sao Paolo issued an arrest warrant on July 12 for Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who is a staunch political opponent of President Vladimir Putin and lives in voluntary exile in London, international media reported. The Brazilian charges stem from alleged money laundering connected to a Brazilian soccer team. The court said on July 12 that Interpol will be asked to carry out the overseas arrests of Berezovsky and several of the soccer team's directors. Brazilian authorities say Berezovsky is an investor in Media Sports Investments, an international fund of investors that runs the Corinthians soccer team. Both the team and the fund have denied any wrongdoing. Berezovsky has resisted repeated Russian attempts to have him extradited from Britain (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3, 2007). A Russian court is currently trying him in absentia on embezzlement charges, which he says are politically motivated and aimed at diverting attention from the Litvinenko murder case. Interfax reported on July 13 that a "well-informed source in Moscow" said that the Brazilian warrant "is the first step. Several other countries with claims to the businessman could take similar measures." PM

The daily "Vedomosti" reported on July 12 that Russia will shut down two early-warning radar stations based in Ukraine, citing an unnamed official in the Defense Ministry. The two sites are located on the Crimean Peninsula and in the west Ukrainian border town Mukachevo. The unnamed official said that the sites are outdated and will be replaced by more modern ones on Russian territory. Moscow pays Kyiv $1.5 million in rent each year to operate the sites under a contract that will expire at the end of 2007. PM

Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller said in Moscow on July 12 that the state-run monopoly has chosen the French oil company Total to help develop the vast Shtokman gas field in the Russian part of the Barents Sea above the Arctic Circle, Russian and international media reported. The deal was formally signed on July 13, Interfax reported. Total will receive 25 percent of a company set up to develop the project's first phase, but will not own underground assets. Gazprom will maintain 51 percent of the management company and 100 percent of the company that controls the license for the project. The daily "Kommersant" wrote on July 13 that the deal is the result of improved Franco-Russian relations since the recent inauguration of President Nicolas Sarkozy. The "International Herald Tribune" noted on July 13 that the agreement "is a sign of the willingness of oil companies to continue to work in Russia in spite of the risks of nationalization" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 25, 2007). The Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" wrote on July 12, however, that "Europe is building an iron curtain against Russian capital." The paper argued that "relations between the European Union and Russian investors are coming to resemble armed combat. The European Parliament will [soon] make it illegal for foreign companies to buy up gas or electricity enterprises in Europe. The main objective here is to keep out Gazprom and other Russian corporations." PM

In Moscow on July 12, the state-run oil company Rosneft paid almost $230 million for some licenses to develop an unspecified number of eastern Siberian oil fields, international media reported. The licenses were among the few remaining assets of the once-mighty Yukos oil company, which the state is selling off in order to repay what the authorities say are Yukos's debts to the state stemming from tax-evasion charges. The hounding and destruction of Yukos are widely regarded as politically motivated and aimed at its former CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is serving an eight-year sentence in a Siberian prison colony. PM

Following the unexplained, massive cyber-attacks on Estonia in May, the Estonian authorities have accused Russia of being reluctant to mount a serious search for the hackers involved, the daily "Novye izvestia" reported on July 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7 and 15, 2007). The paper suggested that the Russian authorities are using similar cyber-warfare attacks to manipulate or shut down some opposition websites in order to better control the flow of information and opinions within Russia. The daily pointed out that "the FSB Academy has a Cryptography, Communications, and Informatics Institute to train high-level specialists. They might also be described as hackers, in a way." The paper quoted a computer spokesman for opposition leader Kasparov as saying that their website was recently attacked simultaneously from 120,000 different computers around the world in a pattern reminiscent of that used against Estonia. PM

Chaim Benyakov, who heads a Moscow-based Jewish charity, was quoted by Reuters on July 12 as saying that unidentified vandals recently painted a swastika on a fence in front of the charity's office and drew "offensive drawings around the Star of David." He said that "we believe that anti-Semitism is present in Russia and expect from the Russian authorities a completely unequivocal condemnation of these things and for them to combat it." The news agency noted that his charity is part of the international Jewish Agency for Israel, also known as Sokhnut, which promotes Israel among Jewish communities abroad. PM

General Andrei Alekseyev, who heads the Moscow railway police, said that he wants to restore Soviet-era legislation to enable police to jail homeless people and beggars across Russia, Reuters reported on July 12. His spokeswoman argued that "in the [Soviet] past, such people could be jailed for up to a year or be ordered to do forced labor. Now we have no such system, we have no place for isolating these tramps." She added that Alekseyev wants "to protect normal people from having to [deal with] these human beings, if you can so call them." The news agency quoted several human rights activists as saying that the proposal amounts to an attempt to return to the "totalitarian past." Maksim Yegorov, who heads the St. Petersburg charity Nochlezhka (Shelter), charged that the authorities want "to put an end to a problem they cannot resolve in a humane way." He noted that "a total of 4.5 million homeless roam in Russia. Outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, there are no shelters, no free baths, literally nothing." Yegorov added that the homeless "die in huge numbers. Police do not give a damn, and every spring dead bodies emerge from under the snow." PM

In a statement posted on July 13 on the Chechen website, the fighters of the Kabardino-Balkaria sector of the Caucasus Front warned tourists against vacationing in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, where they risk becoming "involuntary participants" in the struggle between the republic's authorities and Islam. The statement stresses that "we are not fighting civilians," but argues that the financial proceeds from tourism benefit the republic's authorities who, they claimed, spend that money on encouraging drug dealing and prostitution, and on opening night clubs, strip clubs, and factories that produce alcoholic beverages, with the aim of alienating the population from Islam and spreading moral degradation. LF

Participants at a roundtable discussion in Makhachkala on July 12 expressed their concern at the "lamentable" situation with regard to the teaching of the republic's various languages in schools, reported. They noted that although the republic's constitution affirms that all ethnic groups are equal, it designates as a "state language" only the languages of the 14 titular nationalities (Avars, Aguls, Azeris, Dargins, Kumyks, Laks, Lezgins, Nogais, Rutuls, Tabasarans, Tats, Tsakhurs, Chechens, and Russians). But in fact Russian, which is taught even in kindergartens, has usurped the role of state language and a means of communication between other ethnic groups, while the languages of the smaller ethnic groups are in danger of dying out. Radio broadcasting in languages other than Russian has been phased out in recent years, while television broadcasting has been drastically reduced. The participants contrasted the situation in Daghestan, where even senior high-school students spend only four hours per week studying their native language, literature, and history, with that in Kabardino-Balkaria, where the comparable figure is 36 hours, and they appealed to Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev to take immediate measures to protect all the republic's languages. LF

Residents of the village of Chermen in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion who launched a protest on July 8 over the disappearance the previous day of two elderly Ingush men (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9 and 11, 2007) have addressed an open letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Council of Europe High Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammerberg, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbor, reported on July 13. The villagers requested that the international community intervene on behalf of the Ingush to put an end to the abductions of Ingush in North Ossetia and expedite the return to their abandoned homes in Prigorodny Raion of Ingush forced to flee during the fighting of October-November 1992. They further protest the resettlement by the North Ossetian authorities in homes abandoned by the Ingush of Ossetian refugees from the conflict in Georgia's unrecognized breakaway republic of South Ossetia. On July 13, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky expressed concern over the unending series of disappearances of Ingush in North Ossetia, and he called on both the republican and the federal authorities to take urgent steps to locate the missing men, reported. LF

Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky has written to North Ossetian President Taymuraz Mamsurov arguing that in light of criticism expressed by presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak at a Russian government session on June 28, the North Ossetian government should resign, reported on July 12. Mamsurov dismissed the entire cabinet in August 2006 in light of what he termed its "disappointing" track record, but then appointed only a new prime minister, Nikolai Khlyntsov, while all but one remaining cabinet ministers retained their posts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 30 and September 7 and 15, 2006). LF

Former Prime Minister (1990-91) and National Democratic Union (AZhM) Chairman Vazgen Manukian told journalists in Yerevan on July 12 that he plans to participate in next year's presidential election and hopes various opposition forces will close ranks to back him as the sole challenger to the candidate representing the authorities, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He warned that the opposition will suffer yet another election defeat if it fails to unite. In the 1996 presidential election, Manukian secured the support of several opposition parties, and the ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement was constrained to resort to falsification to secure the reelection of incumbent President Levon Ter-Petrossian (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," December 29, 1998). But Manukian failed to win the same level of support in either the preterm presidential election in 1998 or the following ballot in 2003. The AZhM boycotted the May 12 parliamentary election on the grounds that winning only a handful of mandates would not enable it to bring about radical change in the country. LF

Four more journalists from the opposition newspapers "Gyundelik Azerbaycan" and "Realny Azerbaijan" were summoned on July 12 to the National Security Ministry for questioning in connection with the terrorism charges brought against the papers' founder and chief editor, Einulla Fatullayev, reported. The four are Famil Jafarli, Ainur Elgyunesh, Jeihun Nagi and Nemat Guseinli. Six journalists from "Gyundelik Azerbaycan" were summoned to the ministry for questioning last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9, 2007). Meanwhile two of the 18 journalists from "Gyundelik Azerbaycan" who last month applied to two foreign embassies in Baku requesting political asylum have withdrawn those requests, the paper's editor Uzeir Jafararov was quoted by as saying on July 12. LF

Georgian police on July 12 detained two journalists from the Rossia television channel in the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia on the grounds that they entered Georgian territory without a valid visa, Caucasus Press reported. They were taken to the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, and then to Tbilisi where they were handed over to the Russian Consulate. LF

In a statement released on July 12 after a meeting of the Kazakh Central Election Commission in Astana, commission member Tatyana Okhlopkova said the accreditation process has begun for foreign observers who will monitor the preterm August 18 elections to the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, according to Kazakhstan Today. Okhlopkova said the commission decided to grant official accreditation to eight observers from the CIS and another 18 from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). A press release circulated on July 11 by the Kazakh Embassy in Poland said the ODIHR is also expected to deploy a larger team of 400 short-term election observers, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Kazakhstan submitted a formal request to the OSCE late last month to send an ODIHR observer mission to monitor the election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 2, 2007). The smooth conduct of the election is seen as a crucial prerequisite for the Kazakh bid to assume the rotating OSCE chairmanship in 2009. RG

Kyrgyz customs officers on July 12 seized a truck transporting some $38,500 worth of contraband alkaline metal from Tajikistan bound for Kazakhstan, AKIpress reported. The seizure, at the customs terminal in the town of Kyzyl-Kiya in southern Batken district, triggered an alert by the Kyrgyz Emergency Situations Ministry, which has focused on tightening security at the country's border crossing points over the past two months. Customs police arrested two Tajik truck drivers and impounded the cargo pending a more detailed inspection. RG

Toygonbek Kalmatov said on July 12 that the Kyrgyz State Agency for Religious Affairs which he heads is drafting five new pieces of legislation that will tighten control over the activities of religious organizations in Kyrgyzstan, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. Kalmatov claimed that the new legislation is necessary to combat the illegal activities of some "500 religious organizations" currently operating in the country without official registration. Kalmatov was appointed to the state religious post at the beginning of the year, after previously serving as the minister for international integration and cooperation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2005, and February 7, 2007). RG

A Tajik district court in Dushanbe on July 12 ruled to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a Tajik student challenging the constitutionality of a state ban on wearing Islamic head scarves in schools and universities, according to RFE/RL's Tajik Service. The case, brought by 20-year-old university student Davlatmoh Ismoilova, was the first legal challenge to the Tajik ban that was imposed earlier this year (see "Tajikistan: Court Rejects Student Challenge Of Head-Scarf Ban," RFE/RL, July 12, 2007). Ismoilova vowed to appeal the dismissal of the case. RG

Speaking on July 12 at a seminar in Dushanbe on human trafficking, Tajik National Security Council Secretary Abdurahmon Azizov criticized several government ministries for failing to adequately combat human trafficking, the Avesta website reported. Azizov, who also serves as the chairman of the Tajik government's special commission against human trafficking, stressed that "the problem of human trafficking is real in our society, and it will exist no matter how strongly we ignore it," adding that "this problem must be resolved jointly, by involving all the ministries and departments." The seminar discussed a new draft law on providing support and aid centers for victims of human trafficking, and noted that over the past two years, several Tajik citizens have returned to the country from the United Arab Emirates to face criminal trafficking charges. Privately run aid centers for trafficking victims currently operate in the Tajik cities of Dushanbe and Khujand and have provided assistance to over 100 victims. RG

In a letter to the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights claimed that a number of EU countries are restricting Turkmen citizens' freedom of movement, RFE/RL reported on July 12. The leader of the human rights group, Farid Tuhbatullin, noted that despite recent improvements in human rights in Turkmenistan, including the right "to leave the state," several "European countries are creating considerable obstacles to the freedom of movement for Turkmen citizens." Tuhbatullin added that the German Consulate in Ashgabat, which handles EU visas for Turkmen citizens, has consistently refused to issue visas to NGO representatives and relatives of refugees seeking to travel to Germany. RG

In a statement issued in Tashkent on July 12, the Uzbek presidential press service announced that pensions and public sector wages will be increased by 25 percent as of August 1, Interfax reported. The move will be matched by a similar one-quarter increase in social benefits and student grants. Public sector wages were increased by some 20 percent last November. RG

Belarus and Venezuela intend to begin joint oil production this year, Belapan reported, citing the Belarusian Security Council's press service. The matter is on the agenda of an official Belarusian delegation's visit to Venezuela that began on July 9 and will continue until July 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 2007). Belarus and Venezuela have reportedly set up a joint enterprise called VenBelnafta aimed at drilling several mature Venezuelan fields with modern technology. According to the Security Council, the Belarusian delegation will also discuss the possibility of setting up an "investment fund" to finance joint projects. Venezuela is to contribute $500 million to the fund, the council's press service said, but did not disclose how much Belarus would provide. AM

Andrey Dynko, the editor in chief of the private Belarusian weekly "Nasha Niva," has described the authorities' intention to introduce new spelling and punctuation standards for the Belarusian language as politicized ignorance, Belapan reported on July 12. Dynko also said that the introduction of uniform spelling could be undertaken as "the result of joint efforts by linguists and the Belarusian-speaking community." The Belarusian language has two norms of spelling in use. One, called "the classical" or "tarashkevitsa" (derived from Branislau Tarashkevich, the name of the codifier), is mostly used by the publications associated with the independence movement in Belarus. The second norm arose as a result of the 1933 reform aimed at making Belarusian more similar to Russian. The latter is sanctioned for public use in present-day Belarus. The lower chamber of the Belarusian legislature is currently working on drafting further improvements to the official spelling norm. AM

The European Parliament on July 12 adopted by an overwhelming majority a report on offering Ukraine a perspective for future membership of the EU, Ukrainian media reported. Ukrainian EU membership is not foreseeable in the "near future," Michal Kaminski, who presented the report, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, "but we want to send a clear signal to Ukrainian society: the European Parliament does not intend to close the door to Ukrainians." The nonbinding report contains a proposal that the negotiations with Ukraine should result in the signing of an association agreement, giving Kyiv a clear perspective for membership. The European Commission on July 12 voiced its opposition to doing so, saying it did not want to "prejudge" future relations. In spite of their support for Ukraine's European aspirations, parliamentarians stipulated that Ukraine should continue its reforms, fight corruption, and increase the level of political culture. AM

The political council of the pro-presidential People's Union Our Ukraine Party on July 12 appointed Oleh Humenyuk as the new head of the party's central executive committee, Interfax reported. Humenyuk replaced Roman Bezsmertnyy, who handed in his resignation and asked not to be included on Our Ukraine's election list in the forthcoming elections. Prior to his appointment, Humenyuk headed the party's Ternopil regional branch and was a member of the Our Ukraine caucus in the Verkhovna Rada. AM

Bernard Kouchner, the new French foreign minister and a former head of the UN Mission in Kosova, on July 12 urged Serbian leaders to accept a UN draft resolution that would give Serbia and Kosova 120 days to search for agreement on the status of Kosova. The resolution differs from a previous draft in one key area: failure to reach a deal would not automatically trigger the adoption of a UN proposal that would grant Kosova supervised independence. However, Kouchner said that, in his view, independence "remains the only option" for Kosova, AP reported. France has been instrumental in pushing for the reopening of time-limited talks. EU leaders have been at pains to decouple the issue of Kosova's status from Serbia's bid for EU membership, but Kouchner said that Serbia's prospects for EU membership will be in doubt until "Kosovo is resolved peacefully," adding that "it is not possible to enter the EU with an ethnic conflict." France's growing prominence in diplomatic efforts to find a solution for Kosova was underscored on July 12 by Christina Gallach, a spokesperson for EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana. "Solana would like the French to be in the front line on this issue," Reuters quoted Gallach as saying. Gallach also said that the EU believes France could also help in relations with Russia. Kosovar papers on July 12 reported that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on July 11 discussed Kosova. The Kremlin's press office reported that the discussion was initiated by Sarkozy, the Serbian news agency Tanjug reported on July 12. AG

The author of the contentious UN proposal recommending independence for Kosova, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, on July 12 suggested that Russia's opposition to statehood for Kosova may damage its interests more than it advances them, AFP reported. After Serbia, Russia is the most vociferous opponent to the UN-administered Serbian province becoming a state. "Russia is not...strengthening its international position, but on the contrary weakening it," Ahtisaari told the Finnish daily "Laensi-Savo," AFP reported. "It's too small an issue for Russia to be able to underline its power by itself," Ahtisaari said, but he continued that Russia "can now cause real problems for the United Nations, if the Security Council can't come to a clear end solution on this issue. If this would come to pass, it would be in every respect difficult to control the situation," he warned. Ahtisaari warned against delaying a decision, saying that "unrest in Kosovo will just increase." AG

The United Nations has suspended the use of rubber bullets in peacekeeping missions around the world, AP reported on July 12, citing a document it obtained. The decision appears to have resulted from the deaths of two Kosovar Albanians that were caused by rubber bullets. The bullets were subsequently found to be "at least" 12 years out of date (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 2007). The ban is temporary "pending the completion" of a review of the use of rubber bullets, a UN spokesman told AP. The UN currently has 100,000 peacekeepers deployed across the globe, roughly 16,000 of whom are serving in Kosova. AG

Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on July 10 to discuss issues ranging from Macedonia's bid to join NATO to judicial reform. An official press release by the Macedonian government cited by local media said that Milososki won Washington's assurance that it supports for Macedonia's NATO aspirations. Macedonia hopes to secure an invitation to join the alliance in April 2008. Milososki said that Rice emphasized the need for judicial reform, greater cooperation between the Macedonian majority and the ethnic-Albanian minority, and for stronger efforts to counter corruption and crime. Other issues reportedly discussed included the status of Kosova and the dispute between Macedonia and Greece about Macedonia's name. Macedonia is emerging tentatively from a period of heightened ethnic tension during which two ethnic-Albanian parties boycotted parliament, and the government and opposition are currently involved in talks about judicial reform. Discontent over pay in the judiciary on June 27 prompted 2,700 court employees to stage a three-day strike. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski recently appointed as an adviser Monica Macovei, a former Romanian justice minister known for her anticorruption efforts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, 2007). AG

Appeal-court judges in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on July 11 reversed a decision that envisaged the transfer of the case against a wartime leader of a Bosnian Serb militia, Milan Lukic, to Sarajevo, Reuters and Tanjug reported. The appeals court justified its decision on the seriousness of the charges against Lukic. AG

The government of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is increasingly impatient with what it sees as a front of unjustified criticism in the media. It has impugned critics as motivated by either domestic political grudges or the discreet machinations of foreign powers.

The sum of reports in recent days gives the impression of a government exasperated by -- but intent on defending itself against -- malevolent verbal attacks from various quarters.

Culture Minister Mohammad Saffar-Herandi on July 8 accused unspecified newspapers and other media of mounting a "creeping" coup against the Ahmadinejad government.

His warning came amid reports that Iranian intelligence had caught a number of spies in western Iran, and with tensions high over at least four Iranian-Americans who are facing subversion and related charges.

The reformist daily "Aftab-i Yazd" observed on July 9 that there have been many more denunciations of critics by officials recently than expressions of sympathy with ordinary Iranians facing difficult economic conditions.

Minister Saffar-Herandi's charge is not unprecedented -- officials have accused unspecified opponents of conspiracies, spying, or large-scale corruption before. It appears to be a response to public expressions of dissatisfaction by politicians and prominent public figures regarding the government's economic and public-administration performance since it took office in 2005.

The minister is furthermore not the only official to denounce perceived subversion or hostility. Fars News Agency reported on July 7 that presidential press aide Mohammad Jafar Behdad said Ahmadinejad's office would not sit quietly much longer as a "political and economic" gang spread "poison" and "black and unhealthy propaganda" against his government and pursued what it called "daily plots."

Prominent Tehran-based journalist and press activist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin told Radio Farda on July 8 that governments habitually seek to blame someone "outside their own circle" for their failures, and the press in Iran seems the most accessible target. Some observers might wonder where such overly critical -- never mind "subversive" -- press is, given the number of newspapers shut down by the judiciary during and since the reformist administration of then-President Mohammad Khatami in the late 1990s.

Most recently, the judiciary withdrew the publishing license for one reformist daily, "Mosharekat," that reflected the views of the reformist Participation Front and had been suspended for several years. It also suspended another daily, "Ham Mihan," that was run by a former Tehran mayor with ties to ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and had been banned once before.

Judiciary authorities have also blocked the website for the labor-affiliated news agency ILNA. The agency had faced unspecified pressures for its coverage of student and labor unrest in recent months, according to Radio Farda on July 8. An unnamed judiciary official was quoted as saying the agency received many complaints and the website was blocked to prevent "the repetition of offenses," ISNA reported on July 11.

Activist journalist Shamsolvaezin observed that the government could defend itself through various sympathetic media outlets. He said such outlets include IRNA news agency and "Iran" newspaper, which reflect the executive branch's views while reporting news; right-wing dailies like "Kayhan" and "Resalat;" and state television and radio, a generally conservative state institution. Shamsolvaezin argued that there are no "independent" media, as government officials cite, but at best "semi-independent" media that are "themselves subject to suppression, threats, closure, or self-censorship." Shamsolvaezin said that the government cannot tolerate even these outlets, arguably underscoring its own ineffectiveness.

Right-wing journalist Abbas Salimi-Namin disputed Shamsolvaezin's view in remarks published in the daily "Etemad" on July 10. Salimi-Namin said he thinks the government is lashing out precisely because it "is very weak in terms of media backing and use of media instruments," adding that such "weakness may be the reason why [the government] takes such a harsh view of press criticisms."

Salimi-Namin said some reformist papers have been consistently "unfair" in their criticisms of the Ahmadinejad government and that their reporting suggests a refusal to recognize Iran's elected government. He cited examples of such hostility -- reformist dailies like "Ham Mihan" and "Sharq" publishing similar-looking headlines some days, hinting that "clearly the two work in coordination." Why, Salimi-Namin asked, have such dailies not given credit to the Ahmadinejad government's foreign-policy achievements, such as improved ties in Latin America, which he called "beneficial" for Iran?

Saffar-Herandi's remarks provoked reactions from legislators. Mohammad Ali Moqnian, a member of the parliamentary Social Affairs Committee, urged the media to stand together in the face of "the pressure of some groups," ISNA reported on July 9. He warned that "pressure and powerful groups" are threatening the press, which they regard as endangering their interests.

A member of the legislature's Culture Committee identified on July 9 by ISNA only as Soruri, said with some optimism that the government should "pave the way for a reduction of pressures on the media" in the run-up to parliamentary elections. The daily "Aftab-i Yazd" observed on July 9 that officials are so busy denouncing domestic enemies and previous administrations that they seemed to be overlooking topics it said were of greater concern to Iranians and Muslims. The paper said such matters include the recent reported mistreatment of Iranian pilgrims in Saudi Arabia and the knighthood bestowed on Salman Rushdie.

Salimi-Namin told "Etemad" that he thinks the ministerial accusation points to government exaggeration of the scope and significance of press criticisms. He said it is unacceptable for a culture minister to use such terms regarding the press, and advised the government to increase its tolerance threshold ahead of parliamentary polls, set for March, which he predicted would be lively.

Iran's present government has shown its fondness for bombastic and provocative remarks, for which it garners considerable attention. Its minister of culture is -- alongside Ahmadinejad and the government's chief spokesman, Gholahussein Elham -- one of its more outspoken members. His accusations might not herald any new round of press restrictions, however, if only because such restrictions seem to exist on an ongoing basis and began before the arrival of the Ahmadinejad administration. But they may represent both an effort to justify government hostility to domestic critics -- who are presented as assailants, not dissidents -- and be part of moves that reformists fear are intended to discredit their forces enough to assure their disqualification before parliamentary elections.

Under such circumstances, this recent verbal attack could be regarded as part of the government's own creeping coup against future electoral rivals.

Canadian Minister of International Cooperation Josee Verner said on July 12 that Canada is extending $8 million to Afghanistan to establish a national legal aid program and other projects promoting justice and rule of law, CanWest News Service reported. Verner said in a statement that the funding will help broaden legal and judicial reform in Afghanistan "to reach the most disadvantaged, including women." The program will be implemented by the International Criminal Defense Attorney's Association and the organizations CANADEM and Rights & Democracy, which together will receive around $5 million for projects specifically aimed at improving the status of women in Afghan society. $2.9 million of the funding will help expand existing legal-aid services into a nationalized, Afghan-operated legal provider, the statement said. Some of the funding will also support the Afghan Ministry of Justice in its efforts to develop a national policy on legal aid. JC

In a ceremony in Kabul on July 11, the Rome-based International Development Law Organization (IDLO) signed an agreement with Afghanistan's Ministry of Commerce and Industries to train its officials on relevant legal matters, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The training program was agreed upon and signed by Afghan Deputy Minister Ziauddin Zia and IDLO head Geralyn Busnardo. Busnardo said that IDLO aims to reduce poverty by ensuring the implementation of the rule of law in Afghanistan. The Italian government has given 6 million euros ($8.3 million) for the project, he added. IDLO is an intergovernmental development body headquartered in Rome, with a program office in Kabul. JC

U.S.-led coalition soldiers battled suspected Taliban militants across southern Afghanistan on July 12, leaving 36 rebels and one NATO soldier dead, AP reported. In Helmand Province, militants hiding out in a compound in Gereshk district attacked coalition and Afghan troops, Afghan National Army Major General Muhiddin Ghori said. Twenty militants were killed after coalition forces called in airstrikes on the compound. In Sangrin district, Afghan police fought killed five insurgents, and one policeman was killed and another wounded after running over a mine during the clash, according to a coalition statement. A U.S.-Afghan patrol called in air strikes after being ambushed in nearby Oruzgan Province, killing around 11 militants, said the statement. On July 11, a roadside bomb killed six Afghan policemen (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 2007). JC

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on July 11 told members of the Guardians Council -- the body that supervises and verifies all stages of Iran's elections -- to consider only the law in its decisions, not "matters of expediency," ISNA reported. He told the senior clerics and constitutional jurists on the council that they are the guarantors of the "religious and Islamic" nature of Iran's political system. The council must also confirm all bills as constitutional before they can become law, and Khamenei said its opinions have "equal weight in credibility" to the constitution itself. He said candidacy for elected offices in Iran is no trivial matter, and "one cannot entrust the nation's fate to anybody without regard for their conduct, morals, ideas, knowledge, and competencies." The council must approve electoral aspirants, and critics have accused it of being too strict, with a bias in favor of conservative candidates. Khamenei stressed that candidates should not serve in parliament if they do not believe strongly in the Islamic principles of Iran's government, and if their "attachment to the country's problems are less than their attachment to the best interests of foreigners." He urged the Guardians Council and electoral supervision bodies appointed by it to fulfill their duties without regard for the "provocations" of critics. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in Tehran on July 11 that Iran will stand firm on its nuclear "rights," even if it slows down the installation of centrifuges at its nuclear facilities, Radio Farda reported, citing IRNA. Ahmadinejad spoke as talks began between Iranian diplomats and members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on an "action plan" to clarify aspects of Iran's contested nuclear program. His comments followed a statement by IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei on July 9 that Iran has apparently slowed the installation of centrifuges at its Natanz plant. The centrifuges are used to enrich uranium, a process Iran claims is strictly intended for peaceful fuel production, but which could, Western powers warn, be used to produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel. Ahmadinejad told the press that the pace of the installation of centrifuges is an "executive" matter and "nobody should expect us to abandon our rights," "Iran" reported on July 12. He said, "we shall continue in line with the set program." VS

Legislator and head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Alaeddin Borujerdi said in Tehran on July 11 that Iran is talking to IAEA officials as part of its ongoing efforts to dispel concerns over its program, and has already cooperated in answering a long list of questions on its nuclear program, "Iran" reported on July 12. He referred to reports, which he cited as appearing in "The Washington Post," on the creation of tunnels around Natanz, and said such reports are an example of efforts to "create new problems" every time Iran is working well with IAEA authorities and there is a "reduction of pressures on Iran." Another committee member, Mahmud Mohammadi, said on July 11 that the talks in Tehran were a "golden opportunity" for the IAEA to enhance its credibility, and that the IAEA should not think Iran is negotiating because of political pressures, "Iran" reported. He urged the IAEA to make sure any "technical cooperation" or information Iran might provide during its talks on July 11 and 12 would not become not the subject of "political exploitation by America and some of the people in the agency." VS

Iran's judiciary has referred the detention or kidnapping on July 10 of prominent union leader Mansur Osanlu to a Tehran criminal investigations department, Radio Farda reported on July 12, citing another member of the Tehran bus drivers' union, Ibrahim Madadi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 2007). Osanlu's relatives complained to the judiciary about his detention by unidentified individuals, and the judiciary responded that it did not issue an arrest or detention warrant for Osanlu, Madadi told Radio Farda on July 11. He said judiciary officials have no idea where Osanlu is. Madadi quoted witnesses to Osanlu's abduction as saying the kidnappers or agents claimed to be police, but produced no arrest warrant when they seized Osanlu. VS

More than 420 politicians, social and cultural figures, and academics in Iran have signed an open letter condemning the arrest of students and other activists in Tehran on July 9, and denounced their detentions as a government attempt to intimidate the public and "bring about the collapse of student groups," Radio Farda reported on July 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10 and 12, 2007). The arrests, the letter stated, came after months of growing pressure on trade unionists, feminists, and journalists. The letter said the government's forceful response to student activities violates Iran's constitution and international rights conventions that Iran has signed. Separately, unspecified student groups have published the names of recently arrested students and graduates, in response to a claim by judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi that they were not actually students. The students groups claimed that the only non-academic detainee was the porter at the building where some of the arrests were made, adding that it was not clear why he was being detained. VS

Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Mohammad Reza Baqeri said in Tehran on July 10 that there is no second round of Iran-U.S. talks on Iraq on the agenda for now, and Iran is not waiting for "any request from Washington for a second round," "Etemad-i Melli" reported the next day. He told reporters that while Iran "does not need the Americans," it would respond to a formal request for a second round of talks, with the goal of helping Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 31, 2007.) He also said that Iran does not need to initiate talks with Egypt, a country with which Iran has had troubled relations since the 1979 revolution. "If they feel there is a need, we can talk. We have no need," he said. VS

U.S. forces clashed with what the U.S. military called an "Iranian-backed militia" in the Baghdad neighborhood of Al-Amin on July 12, leaving 19 people dead and more than 20 wounded, international media reported. The clashes erupted when U.S. forces conducted a predawn raid to arrest two militia members suspected of carrying out a series of kidnappings and bombings. The U.S. military said the militia is part of a "special group" linked to the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, and backed by the Quds Force, a branch of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards Corps. The United States has repeatedly accused Iran of training and supporting Shi'ite militias in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3, 2007). It was not known if the gunmen were part of a rogue group or still under al-Sadr's control. KUNA reported a different version of events, quoting Dr. Chasib Latif, an official at the Iraqi Health Ministry, as saying U.S. forces bombarded the Al-Amin neighborhood, killing 15 civilians and wounding more than 20, including several women and children. The report did not mention whether any militiamen clashed with the U.S. forces. SS

An Iraqi Interior Ministry official said on July 12 that several guards working at a bank in Baghdad stole $282 million, making it the largest bank heist in Iraqi history, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. "Three guards working at Dar al-Salam Bank on Al-Sa'dun Street in central Baghdad managed to steal $282 million before running away," the official said. The official confirmed that the money was all in U.S. dollars, not in Iraqi dinars. He did not indicate whether the guards were affiliated with any specific group. However, "The New York Times" reported that several Iraqi officials believe that the perpetrators might have links to militias, because it would otherwise be difficult for them to avoid searches at the many checkpoints in Baghdad. U.S. and some Iraqi officials contend that some Iraqi police units are still infiltrated by militants. SS

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced on July 12 that it will double its appeal for funds from the international community to help displaced Iraqis, international media reported. The UNHCR's director for the Middle East and North Africa, Radhouane Nouicer, said the agency will seek $123 million this year for its work in Iraq, up from last year's appeal for $60 million. The United States immediately offered $19 million on top of $18 million already granted to the UNHCR. Most of the funds will be used to provide shelter, food, health care, education, and other emergency services for Iraqis who have fled to neighboring countries. "Massive displacement of Iraqis externally and internally continues unabated, causing a great deal of suffering and uncertainty," Nouicer said. Jordan and Syria are thought to have taken in an estimated 2 million Iraqi refugees, while another 2 million are estimated to be displaced internally. In an appeal to international donors, the UNHCR warned, "at least one in seven Iraqis is uprooted, with 2,000 more estimated to be fleeing their homes daily." SS

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Kurdish rebels from the Party of Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) on July 12 exchanged fire along two border posts in the Pishdar region of Al-Sulaymaniyah Governorate, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan website reported. Bashir Husayn Ahmad, the commissioner of the Pishdar administrative district, said the clashes occurred at the Bawazi and Ashkana border crossings. He added that there were no immediate reports of casualties, but he expressed concern for the 1,000 families that live in the area. "Since we are keen on protecting the lives of the citizens, we have informed the higher authorities of the risks caused by the continuing military operations and shelling in the area. The damage caused by the clashes is not known yet," Ahmad said. PJAK is an anti-Iranian rebel group with close links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). SS

An Iraqi court on July 11 sentenced Mish'an al-Juburi, a former Sunni Arab lawmaker, and his son to 15 years in prison after convicting them on corruption charges, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Al-Juburi and his son, Yazin, were found guilty of embezzling millions of dollars in funds that were earmarked for protecting Iraq's oil industry. Both men were sentenced in absentia after apparently fleeing to Syria. Al-Juburi is also suspected of running the pro-Ba'athist, pro-insurgent television channel Al-Zawra from Syria. SS

The U.S. military said in a statement on July 12 that coalition forces arrested 19 Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters in central and northern Iraq during operations on July 11 and 12. Among those captured was an Al-Qaeda in Iraq operative who was suspected of being a bomb-making expert. "Intelligence reports indicate he is connected to Al-Qaeda in Iraq senior leaders and had been considered for a terrorist leadership position abroad," the statement said. In addition, U.S. forces seized an Al-Qaeda in Iraq cell leader in Mosul suspected of being involved in attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces. "We are not just whittling away at the Al-Qaeda organization, but cracking their command network," U.S. military spokesman Major Marc Young said. "We will continue to target terrorists and their organizations so the Iraqi people can move forward and build their own country." SS