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Newsline - August 16, 2007

Vladimir Putin said on August 16 at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, that SCO member states should increase cooperation on security matters, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported (see below and "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6, 7, and 10, 2007, and "Central Asia: SCO To Hold Largest Military Exercises To Date,", August 8, 2007). Putin stressed that "strengthening the security of the SCO countries remains a key task, and first of all this [requires] neutralizing terrorist threats, separatism, and extremism. In this regard, the expansion of consolidation and joint action [among SCO countries] in the sphere of antiterrorism is of fundamental significance." Putin also called for "broader cooperation in the energy sector. I am convinced that energy dialogue, integration of our national energy concepts, and the creation of an energy club will set out the priorities for further cooperation." He argued that "Russia, like the other [SCO] states, advocates strengthening the multipolar international system, which ensures equal security and development opportunities for all countries. We are convinced that security in an increasingly globalized world must be unified, and that all attempts to tackle global and regional problems 'on one's own' have no future." The SCO has been dubbed "a club of dictatorships" and "a rival to NATO." "The Moscow Times" on August 16 noted that China blocked Russian attempts for the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) to co-host the ongoing SCO joint exercises, called Peace Mission 2007. The paper added that "currently coincidental Russian-Chinese security agendas could easily diverge. Russia-friendly Kazakhstan did not allow Chinese troops to travel across its territory [to participate in Peace Mission], adding thousands of kilometers to their journey. The SCO must soon also face the question of whether or not to make full members of current observers India, Pakistan, and Iran." PM

Aleksei Fyodorov, who is a top executive of the state-run United Aircraft Company (OAK), told leading Russian aircraft-manufacturing officials in Moscow on August 15 that OAK plans to build 4,500 aircraft of several different types at a cost of $250 billion by 2025 as part of efforts to revive Russia's aircraft industry, news agencies reported. He stressed that "Russia must become one of the global leaders in aircraft making.... Modernization of civilian aircraft industries is our No. 1 priority." The meeting was meant as a curtain-raiser to the upcoming Moscow International Air Show (MAKS). OAK also continues to seek a strong foreign partnership to modernize Russia's moribund aerospace industry, which London's "The Times" once described as a "glorious junkyard" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2006, and March 5 and June 21, 2007). PM

Danish Minister of Science, Technology, and Development Helge Sander was quoted by on August 15 as saying that Russia's recent planting of a titanium flag on the seabed at the North Pole was a "stunt...[and a] summer joke" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 13, 2007). He stressed that the well-publicized exercise "isn't connected with the otherwise serious work they do in collecting data from the North Pole." Sander noted that "the rules for claiming an area are laid down by the UN. Before we can claim an area outside the 200-mile [coastal] radius, we need to collect the necessary data." Referring to the dispute in the Arctic between Denmark (through Greenland), Russia, Norway, the United States, and Canada, Sander said that any "data [must] be presented to the UN's ridge commission. The final decision, on where borders between two countries should be, is taken bilaterally between the countries, based on the commission's recommendations." He noted that Denmark plans to file an Arctic claim by 2014. PM

The government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is negotiating with Rosoboroneksport, the Kremlin's arms trader, for the purchase of about 5,000 modernized Dragunov sniper rifles, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on August 16. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs David Kramer was quoted by the daily as saying that "sales like this, and other sales of military equipment and arms to Venezuela, don't seem consistent with Venezuela's needs. [The sale] does raise questions about [the weapons'] ultimate use. We're not sure what their purpose would be." The daily noted that special training is required to use the Dragunovs effectively. The paper added that the weapons are ideally suited to urban guerrilla warfare, such as that currently taking place in Iraq. Chavez has emerged in recent years as a well-publicized customer for the Russian arms industry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 28 and 29, 2007). PM

Moscow's Cheremushkin District Court ruled on August 15 that Denis Kvasov, who is the former head of MediaServices, which owned a music download website (, is not guilty of breaching copyright, news agencies reported. Western entertainment companies EMI, NBC Universal, and Time Warner had asked for the trial. The site offered downloads at far cheaper than market prices. Presiding Judge Yekaterina Sharapova ruled that the prosecution did not prove that Kvasov violated copyright laws during his tenure at MediaServices from 2003-05. She added that she wanted to draw "particular attention to the sloppy job done by the prosecutors in presenting and analyzing the facts." "The Moscow Times" reported on August 16 that antipiracy lobbyists for the international recording industry plan to appeal the verdict. Two additional cases against the site are expected to come up for trial soon. Britain's "Financial Times" wrote on August 16 that Sharapova's verdict is "likely to raise new questions in the West about Russia's commitment to fighting piracy.... Russia reached a bilateral agreement last year on its entry to the [World Trade Organization] WTO in part after it agreed to do more to crack down on piracy." PM

Soviet-era composer Tikhon Khrennikov died on August 14 in Moscow at the age of 94, news agencies reported. He was born into a family of horse traders in the central Russian town of Yelets in Lipetsk Oblast in 1913. Khrennikov was best-known not so much for his music but for his political role as head of the Union of Soviet Composers from 1948-91. From 1941-76 he headed the Central Theater of the Red Army. He won the Stalin Prize in 1942 for his composition "Song of Moscow" from the popular film "Swineherd and Shepherd." Controversy surrounded Khrennikov, who at various times denounced both Dmitry Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev as decadent. In a 1948 speech attacking the alleged "formalism" of the two men, Khrennikov said: "Enough of these symphonic diaries, these pseudo-philosophic symphonies hiding behind their allegedly profound thoughts and tedious self-analysis.... Armed with clear party directives, we will stop all manifestations of formalism and popular decadence." Khrennikov later claimed that he sought to protect both men, whom he nominated for a Stalin Prize in 1950. Khrennikov served for many years as a member of the CPSU Central Committee and the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. He will be buried in Yelets. PM

In a telephone call to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service late on August 14, a man claiming to be the deputy commander of the Chechen militant group Riyadus Salikhiin claimed the group was responsible for the attack the previous day on the Neva Express train bound from St. Petersburg to Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 14 and 15, 2007). The caller claimed the group perpetrated the bombing in retaliation for the sufferings Russia has inflicted on the Chechen people. Riyadus Salikhiin was created in 2002 by radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev and has claimed responsibility for several terrorist attacks, including the Beslan school hostage-taking in September 2004, a bomb attack in the Chechen village of Znamenskoye in July 2005, and the killing one year ago of the Buinaksk district prosecutor in Daghestan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 22, 2006). LF

For the past three years, beginning in 2004, more people have come to settle permanently in Armenia than have emigrated, Gagik Yeghanian, who heads the Armenian government's Department for Migration and Refugee Affairs, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on August 15. That marks a reversal of a trend that got under way in 1992 following the collapse of the USSR: in October 2006, Yeghanian told RFE/RL that he estimates that between 900,000 and 1 million people, or between one-quarter and one-third of the 1989 population of 3.28 million, left the country since 1992 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 31, 2006). LF

Salman-haji Musayev, Azerbaijan's second most senior Muslim cleric, has rejected as untrue media reports that police in the northern districts of Zakatala and Balaken have forcibly shaved off the beards of practicing Muslims believed to be wahhabis, the online daily reported on August 16. The head of the press service of the Board of Muslims of the Caucasus similarly denied media reports that a local official in Zakatala has ordered believers to pray only twice a day, rather than five times a day. Azerbaijan's chief Muslim cleric, Sheikh-ul-Islam Allakhshukur Pashazade, recently expressed clear dissatisfaction that the government authorities do not take a tougher stance against "Wahhabis." He said that the "Wahhabis," especially the congregation of the Abu Bakr Mosque in Baku, enjoy special privileges that are not extended to any other religious group (see "Azerbaijan: Why is 'Alternative' Islam Gaining Strength?", August 10, 2007). Meanwhile, a local official in Zakatala told the website on August 15 that there is no truth to Azerbaijani media reports that Avars living in Zakatala and Balaken are lobbying for the creation of an autonomous region. The online daily published on August 9 what it claimed is the coat of arms of that autonomous territory. Avars account for some 23 percent of the population in both Zakatala and Balaken. LF

The group of international experts investigating the August 6 incident in which an aircraft jettisoned or dropped a missile on a Georgian village west of Tbilisi has confirmed Georgian radar and air-traffic control records showing that the aircraft in question entered Georgian airspace from Russia, Caucasus Press and reported on August 15 and 16, respectively (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 8, 9, and 13, 2007). The experts did not, however, identify the aircraft type or origin; the Georgian authorities claim it was a Russian SU-24. Also on August 15, Georgian Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania discussed the missile incident with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The UN Security Council declined on August 9 to discuss the incident until more details become available. Meanwhile, some 25 Russian experts are on their way to Tbilisi to participate in the investigation. LF

Russian Ambassador to Tbilisi Vyacheslav Kovalenko was summoned on August 15 to the Georgian Foreign Ministry, where he was handed a formal protest note deploring the decree signed on August 14 by Russian President Vladimir Putin bestowing awards on several teachers in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, including Education Minister Alla Djioyeva, and reported. Tbilisi reportedly objected specifically to the formulation "Republic of South Ossetia." On August 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Ossetians should live together "as one nation," regardless of where the border between North and South Ossetia is drawn, Interfax reported. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Davit Bakradze told journalists in Tbilisi on August 15 that he cannot comprehend how Lavrov could have made such a statement, Caucasus Press reported. LF

After visiting the Avchala penal colony for young offenders on August 15 and talking to inmates and their parents, Elena Tevdoradze, who chairs the Georgian parliament's Human Rights Committee, told journalists that she considers the facility's staff responsible for the violence that erupted during the night of August 12-13, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15, 2007). Tevdoradze said that after an inmate hit a prison officer, the management summoned a special police unit, whereupon inmates "panicked," and some slashed their wrists. She said the authorities' claim that the violence was triggered by a fight among inmates is not true. Some 100 young offenders have since been transferred from Avchala to Rustavi prison. LF

Since August 10, dozens of Georgian media outlets have been forced to vacate the premises they have rented for years in a state-owned building in central Tbilisi that is to be publicly auctioned, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and reported on August 16. They include the successors to the Soviet-era Communist Party dailies "Zarya vostoka" and "Komunisti," the radio station Hit-FM, the opposition television station Kavkasiya, and the Azeri-language weekly "Gyurjistan." On August 14, the Georgian government offered Kavkasiya the use of alternative premises rent-free for a period of six months, Caucasus Press reported, but Kavkasiya Director-General Nino Djangirashvili rejected that offer as constituting an "exclusive right" that was not extended to other companies similarly affected. LF

French-born former Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili told Caucasus Press on August 15 she has been informed by Georgia's Central Election Commission in response to her query that she is not eligible to participate in next year's presidential election. She said she plans to challenge that ruling in the Constitutional Court. Zourabichvili, who made her career within the French diplomatic service, was granted Georgian citizenship in 2004 after President Mikheil Saakashvili appointed her foreign minister. She was forced to resign from that post in late 2005, and subsequently established an opposition party named Georgia's Path. Under the Georgian election law, presidential candidates must have been born in Georgia or have lived there for a minimum of 15 years prior to the election, with the exception of persons from other former Soviet republics who settled permanently in Georgia after the collapse of the USSR. LF

A statement issued by a regional prosecutor's office in southern Kazakhstan on August 15 announced that security forces successfully prevented several planned terrorist attacks by an unnamed Islamic group, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. The announcement by the Shymkent regional officials explained that a series a terrorist attacks were timed to coincide with the visit to the region by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in April. The failed attacks involved several additional targets, including the regional headquarters of the National Security Committee (KNB) in Shymkent. At least 13 suspected terrorists were said to be in custody, with some "Kazakh nationals" arrested in the Karaganda and Atyrau districts, and according to regional police official Khibratulla Doskaliev, are considered to be members of the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir extremist group, Interfax reported. Doskaliev also said that police are still searching for another dozen suspects. It is unclear when exactly the arrests were made, however. RG

The Kazakhstan Today news agency announced on August 15 that it will resume operations after being shut down by the Kazakh authorities for two months, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Now under new ownership, the agency was closed by government order as part of a larger crackdown on all media holdings once owned by Rakhat Aliev, the former son-in-law of President Nazarbaev, who faces outstanding criminal charges in Kazakhstan. Aliev has been charged with several serious crimes, ranging from kidnapping and murder to corruption and money laundering (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 6, 13, and 19, 2007). He remains in Vienna, where he once served as the Kazakh ambassador, after an Austrian court recently turned down Kazakhstan's formal extradition request (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 9, 2007). RG

After his arrival in Bishkek to attend the opening of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin was welcomed on August 15 by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress reported. They discussed a range of issues, including regional security and bilateral relations, before Putin suddenly announced that Russia intends to invest $2 billion in new projects in Kyrgyzstan. RG

In a joint appeal, the head of the Kyrgyz human-rights center Citizens against Corruption, Tolekan Ismailova, and the director of the Uzbek nongovernmental organization (NGO) Mothers against the Death Penalty and Torture, Tamara Chikunova, urged on August 15 participants of the SCO summit in Bishkek to abolish capital punishment in their countries, AKIpress reported. The appeal called on the delegates to place the "key issue" of the use of the death penalty on the summit agenda, arguing that the summit participants should "consider" that "the observance of this right -- the right to life -- guarantees security and development for everybody in every country and contributes to the peacemaking potential of the SCO member states." Ismailova and Chikunova also welcomed initiatives by Kyrgyz President Bakiev and Uzbek President Islam Karimov to adopt laws to completely abolish the death penalty as crucial steps toward the "humanization and liberalization" of those countries' criminal-justice systems. RG

Belarusian border guards on August 15 refused to allow Polish Senate Deputy Speaker Krzysztof Putra to enter the country, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Putra, along with Romuald Lanczkowki from the Senate chancellery, was traveling to Hrodna to attend Polish Army Day celebrations held by an organization of Belarusian Poles that is not recognized by the Belarusian government. Later the same day, Belarusian border guards also turned away Donald Tusk, leader of Poland's opposition party Civic Platform, and his fellow party member Robert Tyszkiewicz. "We welcome any visits by official Polish representatives to our country if they have constructive intentions, but trips for the purpose of political profiteering or for exploiting the Polish minority in Belarus in order to gain additional dividends in the internal political arena of Poland are not met and will not be met with our understanding," Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Vanshyna said. "In each state, there is a list of persons whose presence on the territory of the state is unwelcome. Such a list exists in Belarus as well," she added. JM

The Belarusian National Bank has made public its monetary policy guidelines for 2008, in which it sets out plans to peg the exchange rate of the Belarusian ruble to the U.S. dollar instead of the Russian ruble as it does now, Belapan reported on August 15. Belarus's central bank said it believes that maintaining the ruble's steady exchange rate against the U.S. dollar is the most efficient monetary policy tool for curbing domestic inflation, prompted by the considerable share of U.S. cash in the domestic exchange market and households' foreign-currency savings, as well as the high share of the U.S. dollar in foreign-trade transactions. Andrei Nechaev, a former Russian economy minister, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station on August 15 that Belarus and Russia "can kiss goodbye" plans for the introduction of a single currency if Minsk drops the Belarusian ruble's peg to the Russian currency. Meanwhile, former Belarusian National Bank head Stanislau Bahdankevich told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that the U.S. dollar remains the de facto main indicator for the national bank in shaping its current exchange policy. Pegging the Belarusian ruble to the U.S. dollar "seems to be a right step if seen from the position of Belarus's sovereignty and independence," Bahdankevich noted. "But it is a fallacious step from an economic point of view. It is necessary [for Belarus] to orient itself toward its main economic partners -- Russia, the European Union, and the United States." JM

The Central Election Commission (TsVK) on August 15 voted unanimously to register the electoral list of the opposition Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT), Ukrainian media reported. The registration followed a court decision ordering the TsVK to reconsider its earlier refusal to register the BYuT election list for the early polls on September 30 because of the bloc's failure to supply its candidates' full addresses (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15, 2007). BYuT representative Petro Krupko on August 15 expressed thanks to "the Lord God for enlightening the TsVK members" in order to make them register the bloc. "I am inspired by the fact that God is present within the TsVK," TsVK Chairman Volodymyr Shapoval responded to Krupko's comments. JM

Yuriy Lutsenko, a leader of the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense election bloc, told journalists in Kyiv on August 15 that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's proposal to abolish the legal immunity enjoyed by lawmakers and other high-ranking government officials was a "political trick" ahead of the September 30 early polls (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15, 2007), Interfax-Ukraine reported. "We do not trust the [Yanukovych-led] Party of Regions and consider this declaration to be opportunistic," Lutsenko said. "Mr. Yanukovych had a parliamentary majority for 378 days and took no decision on abolishing parliamentary immunity, while now, 46 days before the elections, he proposes to call an extraordinary session of the nonexistent parliament in order to buy people off," he added. Lutsenko announced that neither the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc nor the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc intend to participate in a potential special parliamentary session proposed by Yanukovych. Meanwhile the same day, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party expressed support for Yanukovych's idea of a special parliamentary debate on immunity. JM

Two Serbian ministers have in recent days accused NATO of seeking to create a puppet state in Kosova. Interior Minister Dragan Jocic said on August 12 that "the most important thing in the new talks on Kosovo's status is for the United States to give up the project of creating a NATO state in the territory of Serbia," a statement that was followed on August 14 by an accusation by Education Minister Zoran Loncar that NATO is using "problems with the ethnic-Albanian population in Kosovo" in 1999 to "try and create its first military puppet state." Loncar warned that "Serbia will never allow NATO to create a quasi-state on its territory." Like Jocic, Loncar claimed that a UN proposal to grant Kosova supervised independence "grants NATO direct authority and gives it limitless power in a reputedly independent state." Serbia's minister for Kosova, Slobodan Samardzic, struck the same note on August 15, calling on NATO and the United States to abandon their project to transform Kosova into a "satellite state." Jocic, Loncar, and Samardzic all belong to the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), which is headed by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. Similar views have previously been voiced by an adviser to Kostunica, Aleksandar Simic. The Serbian government, which includes two other parties, has yet to clarify the implications for Serbia's relationship with NATO. Serbia has joined the alliance's Partnership for Peace, the first step towards possible membership, but ongoing talks on the status of Kosova have strengthened Serbia's ties with Russia, which supports Serbia's position in the talks and opposes NATO's continued expansion. However, the head of the Serbian Army, Lieutenant General Zdravko Ponos, in early July said that cooperation with both NATO and Russia is "not mutually exclusive." Asked by the daily "Blic" whether there is a battle over whether Serbia should move closer to NATO or turn toward Russia, Ponos said Serbia's decision to join the Partnership for Peace is not "something that is inevitably moving us from one side to the other. Russia is also in the Partnership for Peace. To be more precise, Russia and NATO also have a special cooperation program." AG

The leading Serbian Orthodox cleric in Kosova said on August 15 that he would prefer "imposed" independence for Kosova rather than a partition of the contested Serbian province. "Everything that is imposed is temporary, but when something is agreed upon, then that it is permanent," Bishop Artemije told the daily "Dnevnik." "Imposed independence would be looked at as a form of occupation, and every occupation of a territory lasts a period of time and ends," Artemije continued. Artimije repeated the Serbian Orthodox Church's view that Serbia cannot "disown" Kosova under any conditions or at any price. "And we must support this idea for 1,000, 2,000 years, if necessary. They are offering us entrance into the European Union. But, what good will that do when the EU is the one that is ripping apart our national identity?" Artemije asked. The bishop also predicted that current talks will produce no agreement. "[Ethnic] Albanians have a clear signal that independence is guaranteed, so they will accept nothing less than independence, and in such conditions the negotiations are doomed in advance to fail," he said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 13, 14, and 15, 2007). AG

A Kosovar Serbian political leader, Momcilo Trajkovic of the Serbian Resistance Movement, has said that he would prefer Kosova to become an independent state than to be partitioned. In an interview with the daily "Dnevnik," Trajkovic said that "supervised independence gives Serbia a chance that some day, when it becomes strong, in the EU, it may restore its influence over the province." Trajkovic argued that the international community's latest initiative to mediate talks on the future of Kosova "is actually a design to maintain the standstill in the stances of Belgrade and Pristina in order to state in December that there was no other option but supervised independence." Trajkovic supported accusations made by DSS leaders, saying, "America's stubborn insistence on an independent Kosovo actually leads to a puppet state that will be able to survive only if NATO is there." However, he said the DSS is behaving "like a kid who throws a stone at his neighbor's house and then hides behind his bigger brother," an apparent reference to Russia, which prevented a UN vote on independence for Kosova. "It must be clear that a compromise between Belgrade and Pristina will not overcome the crisis in Kosovo-Metohija, but rather a compromise between Moscow and Washington. We must, then, be judicious and help Russia find the best path for agreement with the Americans." The Serbian Resistance Movement was formed in opposition to Slobodan Milosevic, who, as president of Yugoslavia, sent troops into Kosova in 1998-99. Its prominence in Kosovar Serb politics has been eclipsed by the relatively moderate Serbian List for Kosovo-Metohija, headed by Oliver Ivanovic, and the more hard-line Serbian National Council of Kosovo-Metohija, which is led by Milan Ivanovic. AG

Montenegro is donating surplus weapons and ammunition to the Afghan National Army to help it fight terrorism, the government announced on August 14. The consignment includes 1,500 rifles and 100 machine guns, as well as ammunition. "The decision is in accord with the orientation of the government, using UN and Euro-Atlantic integration systems, to support the peace and stability in the world and to raise the general level of security by fighting against terrorism and ending of military conflicts," the Montenegrin Defense Ministry said in a statement carried by the news agency Mina. Montenegro, which has no troops in Afghanistan, is currently cutting troop levels and reducing its stock of weaponry as part of a reform effort intended to prepare for NATO membership. AG

NATO will shortly allow Bosnia-Herzegovina privileged access to confidential information, the daily "Dnevni avaz" reported on August 14, citing Bosnian Security Ministry Secretary Bakir Dautbasic. Dautbasic said a senior NATO official, Thomas McKeever, will visit Sarajevo next week to give the alliance's formal approval for Bosnia's government to read documents labeled "confidential," "internal confidential," and "secret." However, "top secret" information will remain unavailable. Dautbasic said Bosnia will be the first country in the region to be given this right. The first countries in the region to gain membership of the alliance are expected to be Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia. A decision is predicted at a summit in April 2008. The Bosnian government hopes NATO will invite Bosnia to join in 2009. AG

Bosnia-Herzegovina's war-crimes court has increased the sentence passed on a convicted war criminal from five to 14 years, local media reported on August 14. Boban Simsic, a Bosnian Serb, was sentenced in July 2006 to five years in prison after multiple convictions for rape and crimes against humanity. An appeals court on August 14 cleared him on one of the seven charges for which he was jailed, but increased his overall sentence, in part on the basis of new evidence. The court found that Simsic "participated in killings, enforced disappearance, and torture of detainees. He also aided in the coercing of girls and young women to sexual intercourse." He was also deemed an accomplice in a murder in which a Bosnian Serb soldier beheaded a Muslim captive. The crimes were committed in eastern Bosnia after Bosnian Serb troops overran the town of Visegrad. AG

In Iran, two ministers of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government responsible for various sectors of the economy stepped down on August 12. Some observers see the departures of Industry and Mines Minister Alireza Tahmasebi and Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh as part of an effort to give Ahmadinejad greater control over policy-making in two key areas.

Whether they were resignations or thinly veiled dismissals is unclear. Departing Oil Minister Vaziri-Hamaneh was made a presidential adviser on oil and gas. No new post was announced for outgoing Industries and Mines Minister Tahmasebi.

Also on August 12, the president appointed caretaker ministers. He named Ali Akbar Mehrabian, an official charged with the implementation of gasoline-rationing plans, as the acting industries and mines minister. He picked Gholamhussein Nozari, a deputy oil minister and head of the National Iranian Oil Company, to be acting oil minister.

There has been much speculation over the departures. AP suggested that both ministers had resisted some of the president's intended changes at their ministries -- including personnel changes or appointments that included presidential allies or confidants.

Several commentators posited a link between Vaziri-Hamaneh's dismissal and the president's frequent promises to uncover and root out a purported "oil mafia" -- officials or state-affiliated businessmen who have allegedly used their connections to earn fortunes on the sidelines of grand oil-sector deals. AP quoted Tehran-based observer Said Shariati as saying on August 13 that Vaziri-Hamaneh's removal may have been a response to the unpopularity of recent gasoline rationing.

Reuters noted on August 13 that the Oil Ministry was also accused of agreeing to provide natural gas to Pakistan and India through the "Peace Pipeline" project at a disadvantageously low price. Vaziri-Hamaneh recently rejected claims by parliamentarians that Iranian negotiators had agreed to sell gas at a 30 percent discount. He said there has been no agreement on price, so no discount could have been given. The daily "Etemad" cited regional gas sales as a possible factor in Vaziri-Hamaneh removal. The same paper on August 13 observed that Vaziri-Hamaneh had also failed in the past two years to attract investment from major international oil companies.

Reuters quoted an unnamed Oil Ministry official as saying that, in the end, Vaziri-Hamaneh simply never enjoyed presidential favor -- he was appointed as a safe and technocratic choice in 2005, after parliament rejected three initial Ahmadinejad nominees as unfit for what is seen as a technical and specialist ministry. The daily "Etemad" suggested that Ahmadinejad would like to appoint a closer ally to help him eliminate what he's referred to as the "oil mafia" and to be seen to put oil money on people's "dinner tables." It quoted a deputy head of the parliament's Energy Committee, Hossein Afarideh, as saying that Vaziri-Hamaneh was "never approved by the government." He added that he "expected [Vaziri-Hamaneh] to be removed much sooner than this."

The outgoing industry and mines minister, Alireza Tahmasebi, has faced more concrete problems. Tehran-based economist Said Lailaz wrote in "Etemad" on August 13 that figures provided in recent years by the Iranian Central Bank hinted at weak -- and declining -- industrial output. Lailaz wrote that the growth in the Persian year to March 2007 of the value of industrial output was the lowest in seven years despite significant state investment each of the past two years. Lailaz forecast continuing industrial decline, leading him to conclude that "for the first time since the [Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88], the engine of Iran's economy, the industrial sector, has effectively broken down."

Lailaz did not lay the blame solely on Tahmasebi; on the contrary, he pointed to what he described as "contradictory" government policies. He said the government apparently preferred to pour money into its own job-making schemes, rather than into existing industrial enterprises. Lailaz also argued that industry was hurt by the government's tampering with tariffs, and by its liberalization of some imports while the prices of some domestically made goods were fixed. Moreover, he noted the inflationary effect of the spending of billions of petrodollars inside the country.

Lailaz wrote that Tahmasebi might, of course, have objected, or resisted government moves, or resigned earlier. One foreign-based website that covers events in Iran,, observed on August 13 that Tahmasebi had been reluctant in the past two years to cite figures for the industrial and mining sectors, and was inclined to blame problems on a "mischievous" press.

The ministerial removals were criticized on August 13 by centrist politician and Expediency Council member Mohammad Hashemi. Hashemi said that it was illogical to disrupt the public administration and undermine two key economic ministries halfway through the presidential term (2005-09). He warned that cabinet-level changes could destabilize the ministries, prompting job-security concerns among ministry staff members. It is notable that Hashemi -- a brother of Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani -- used to run state television and radio.

President Ahmadinejad has made no secret of his desire for a number of changes in the government structure. He has effectively abolished the state budgeting and economic-planning body, and merged it with the presidency. He has also called for changes in the banking system, and recently fixed interest rates against the advice of bankers and economic bodies like the Money and Credit Council. His finance minister, Davud Danesh-Jafari, has stated the government's intention to merge numerous state councils and committees -- like the Money and Credit Council -- into four or five councils. Alireza Tahmasebi had dismissed as rumor reports of a planned merger of the Trade and Industry ministries, "Hamshahri" reported on August 7.

The aim of such changes is ostensibly to make the state economic and decision-making apparatus a more malleable -- and more efficient -- instrument in the hands of an executive branch that is determined to control key aspects of the economy in order to serve certain social and political goals.

The administration's envisaged changes might be extended to other ministries. Ahmadinejad on August 12 told officials in Tehran that the Foreign Ministry requires a different structure to better implement key foreign-policy principles. Ahmadinejad explained the change as part of a broader effort to "change in step with [Iran's] global responsibility." He said that goal included the spread of what he described as justice and "kindness" around the world, and changing "the structure of international relations in the interests of nations," "Hamshahri" reported on August 13.

Ahmadinejad has repeatedly demonstrated that he does not avoid radical moves out of any fear of subsequent criticism. The daily "Aftab-i Yazd" has pointed out in several recent editorials that parliament has frequently criticized the president but -- in the end -- voted for many or most of his initiatives. So Ahmadinejad might have come to see such criticism for what it is: talk. He might thus proceed with further changes and reappointments intended to further strengthen his radical government.

U.S.-led forces on August 15 launched a major offensive targeting "hundreds of foreign fighters" associated with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan, AP reported. Ground troops supported by air strikes sought out foreign fighters using dug-in fighting positions in the mountainous Tora Bora region of Nangarhar Province, coalition spokeswoman Vanessa Bowman said in a statement released by the Pentagon. The remote and rocky terrain provides an ideal environment for insurgents to conceal training sites and support bases from which to launch attacks against innocent civilians in the area and farther afield, Bowman said. The coalition said it has taken care in choosing its targets for air strikes in light of widespread criticism over rising civilian casualties from foreign military operations in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3, 2007). JC

Afghanistan's lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, on August 15 approved the United Nations convention against corruption, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Mohammad Sarwar, secretary of the parliamentary Committee on Justice, Administrative Reforms, and Administrative Corruption, told Pajhwak that the approval allows Afghanistan to become an official member of the international convention, which aims to halt practices such as embezzlement, bribery, and abuse of authority by all government officials, including foreign staff. The convention was brought to the parliament floor on August 13 for discussion and thorough review before approval to ensure it does not violate the national constitution. Wolesi Jirga lawmaker Maulvi Attaullah Ludin said the international community is assisting Afghanistan through the convention by helping it to curb pervasive illegal practices within the government. JC

Ignoring threats from influential government officials, Afghan Attorney-General Abdul Jabbar Sabit on August 15 ordered the arrest of a senior Interior Ministry official on charges of "large-scale embezzlement," Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Sakhi Ahmad Bayani, director of administrative affairs at the Interior Ministry, is accused of embezzling around 1 million Afghanis ($20,000). Sabit said Bayani was managing a five-person team charged with distributing 5 million Afghanis in bonuses to Afghan police officers, but he allegedly only gave out 4 million. Sabit said he has also detained the Zabul Province police chief and five policemen for allegedly receiving some of the embezzled money. Five other ministry staffers are similarly under investigation. Sabit told reporters that "influential" people, including parliament members, threatened him and tried to intimidate him into not taking action against Bayani, who has gone into hiding since his arrest was ordered. JC

Two German police officers and a Foreign Ministry official were killed on August 15 when a roadside blast struck their convoy outside of Kabul, AP reported. A fourth officer was wounded and was receiving treatment at a military base in Kabul. The two-vehicle convoy was traveling on an unpaved road about 10 kilometers southeast of Kabul when the blast occurred, in what German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble described as an "underhanded attack." Schaeuble said in a statement that the officers were deployed to Afghanistan to protect the German Embassy and were traveling "in a particularly well-protected vehicle" en route to a training session. Amir Mohammad, a local police officer, said the explosion was caused by a land mine, but AFP reported that the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in a telephone call. JC

A British national and former marine working for a private security company in Afghanistan was fatally shot in Kabul on August 15, AFP reported. Richard Adamson was a senior manager with the London-based ArmorGroup International, which provides staff to protect diplomatic missions, including the British Embassy, and reconstruction personnel in Kabul and southern Helmand Province. Spokespeople for the Foreign Office and ArmorGroup confirmed the death. Police detained two Afghan men, also employees of ArmorGroup, as suspects in the shooting, AP quoted Interior Ministry spokesman Zemari Bashary as saying. ArmorGroup is the largest security agency in Afghanistan, with approximately 1,200 staff in the country, many of whom are former military personnel. JC

Judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi told the press in Tehran on August 15 that the judiciary hopes to finalize within three months a corrected Penal Code to replace the current one, which has been in place for 16 years on an experimental basis, IRNA reported. The code, called the Islamic Penalties Law, was recently renewed for a year to give the judiciary time to draft a definitive law, and Jamshidi said he hopes parliament will approve the law within this time, so "the Islamic Penalties Law becomes a permanent law." He also said the judiciary is drafting a directive to better implement the law on respecting legitimate liberties and safeguarding citizens' rights, by which he probably meant a law passed in May 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 6 and 17, 2004). Jamshidi said the judiciary has sent out 191 inspectors in the past three months to see how the law is being implemented across the country, and that 419 police stations, judiciary offices, and detention centers were inspected. He said the judiciary has received 248 complaints about alleged abuses nationwide in the past three months. VS

The father of one of three students detained in a Tehran jail has said they confessed to charges made against them "to escape torture," Radio Farda reported on August 14. The father of Ahmad Qassaban, one of three charged with publishing sacrilegious journals in Tehran's Amir Kabir University in March, said, "these students have confessed to escape torture." It was not immediately clear from the reported remarks if the confessions were to avoid torture or prevent further torture. Qassaban, Majid Tavakkoli, and Ehsan Mansuri were arrested over 100 days ago, Radio Farda reported. Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, their lawyer, told Radio Farda that Iran's laws do not recognize the validity of confessions extracted under duress. "Torture is not just harming and harassing...solitary confinement is essentially torture. Lack of access to...a lawyer or relatives or a physician [constitutes] torture," he said. Dadkhah said these claims did not square with those made by Tehran deputy chief prosecutor Hasan Haddad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15, 2007), and the detainees must be allowed to tell a public court "the facts," without "any use of force or threats," to clarify who "is telling the truth." VS

Abbas Kabi, a member of the Guardians Council and its central supervisory board for parliamentary elections set for March, told the Mehr news agency on August 14 that people who promote "secularism and liberal democracy" should not expect to be approved as candidates. The Guardians Council has to approve the legal eligibility of aspiring candidates, and reformists have often complained that it is very strict and biased against liberal, reformist, or independent candidates. The council denies those allegations and says it abides by the law. Kabi said would-be candidates who have been rejected in previous polls would probably be rejected again, though they have a right to apply again to run or defend their past records. The council would decide on the basis of new documents showing prospective candidates' eligibility to be members of parliament. The Guardians Council has argued that aspirants must prove their loyalty to religion and the system, and thus their eligibility, and rejected the argument of some critics that aspirants should be allowed to run as candidates unless there is specific evidence to prove their unsuitability. Kabi said rejected applicants are not "offenders," so the argument that they are innocent until proven guilty is not valid in this context. Kabi assured "the parties and groups active within the revolutionary family" that the Guardians Council will abide by the law in examining candidacies. VS

Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad-Najjar told a gathering in Tehran of Iranian defense attaches on August 14 that the United States has mobilized political, security, and economic instruments and propaganda to sow discord among Islamic states, "Kayhan" reported. But he said a costly failure in Iraq has provoked the displeasure of U.S. domestic opinion, led to the "new Middle East plan being filed away," and "to people around the world hating them more every day." Israel's July 2006 "defeat" after weeks of air strikes on Lebanon showed weapons are "ineffective" against "the courage of a people with faith and courage," he said. Israel bombed Lebanon for over a month from July 12, 2006, in a bid to destroy the Hizballah militia. VS

Members of the Basij militia affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps met in Tehran on August 15 with Hizballah envoy Abdullah Safiuddin to congratulate his organization on what Iran has described as Hizballah's victory over Israel in 2006. A man called Dr. Chinigarzadeh, the head of the Basij militia in Iranian embassies and ministries, congratulated Safiuddin on Hizballah's increasingly "coherent" activities, and said the 2006 war yielded defeats for both Israel and the United States. Safiuddin said Hizballah are "pupils" of Iran's late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He said Israel is "finished" after its army's "defeat," and its "mission" is over. "Israel is without a doubt dead after this war and has become a corpse. But America's oxygen runs through it, and if America were to leave the region...Israel will die." VS

Mahmud Salarkia, a deputy chief prosecutor of Tehran, said on August 14 that the Tehran chief prosecutor's office has asked the Tehran provincial penal court to hand out death sentences for 17 "well-known Tehran thugs" or louts, "Kayhan" reported on August 15. This may be a reference to people arrested in a police public morality and security drive that began last spring and lasted intermittently for some months. Salarkia said they committed "numerous acts of wickedness." He added that penal courts in Tehran Province are processing their cases and will formally charge them. VS

Iraq's two main Kurdish and Shi'ite political parties signed an agreement on August 15 for the formation of a moderates' front in the Iraqi parliament without the participation of Sunni Arab political parties, AP reported the same day. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani announced the agreement along with Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani and Shi'ite Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Talabani and al-Maliki said the three-page agreement signed by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party ensures the groups a majority in the 275-member parliament. Al-Maliki called the agreement a first step toward ending the political stagnation that has gripped the country for months. He said he expects pending legislation to be pushed through parliament once it returns from its summer holiday break in September. He said he regretted the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party's refusal to join the grouping, but that the door will remain open to all Sunni Arabs to take part in the political process. Sunni cabinet ministers from the Iraqi Accordance Front, a bloc to which the Islamic Party belongs, have been boycotting the cabinet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2007). KR

Dr. Kifah Muhammad, director of the Sinjar Hospital, told regional Arab media on August 15 that the death toll in the bombing of Yezidi villages around Sinjar has risen to 500, with another 375 injured (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15, 2007). Meanwhile, Kurdistan regional government Heath Minister Abd al-Rahman Yunis told Al-Jazeera television on August 15 that "no less than 205" people were killed in the attacks, and another 240 were wounded. "It is hard to determine the real number of casualties due to the difficulty in recovering bodies from under the rubble," he noted, adding that the number of wounded people at hospitals across the region also made it difficult to get a precise tally on the number of victims. Yunis added that the Kurdistan regional government and the Iraqi Red Crescent have begun to deliver relief supplies, food, and medicine to the villages. KR

Yezidi leader Anwar Mu'awiyah al-Umawi has accused the Iraqi government and Iran of responsibility for the August 15 attacks. He told Al-Sharqiyah television in an August 15 interview from Germany: "We received direct reports from informed sources in the area that the Iraqi government played a role [in the attacks]. Gangs affiliated with Iran are known to carry out such attacks. We should not forget that Iraq is not only under U.S. occupation. Iraq is under both U.S. and Iranian occupation. These operations are meant to harm the Iraqis rather than a certain sect." Al-Umawi said his people have no one to turn to for support. "Iraq is now run by the traitors, while patriotic Iraqi figures, prominent leaders, and secular trends are abroad. So, who is there to complain to? Shall we complain to the Iranians, who are the enemies of Iraq? Shall we complain to the Americans, who are occupying the country? We have only God to complain to." KR

The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council blamed "criminal gangs" for the Sinjar attack in an August 16 press release posted to the Shi'ite party's website. Though it did not accuse any party of carrying out the attack, the party's statement implied that Sunni Arabs are to blame. The statement called on Iraqi tribes and "popular forces" to work with Iraqi security services to "rid the Iraqi people of their killers." In an August 15 statement, President Talabani called the bombings another episode of genocide carried out by "takfiri" (Muslims who consider other Muslims to be infidels) terrorists against all segments of the Iraqi people, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Kurdistan regional President Barzani accused the intelligence agencies of unidentified regional countries of carrying out the attacks, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Meanwhile, the Sunni Arab Muslim Scholars Association said it holds the Iraqi government and coalition forces responsible for the attacks. The statement also implied Iran was behind the bombings. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the bombings a "horrific crime," and stressed "the urgent need for all Iraqi leaders, regardless of their political or religious affiliations, to work together to protect civilian lives and to dedicate themselves towards a meaningful dialogue aimed at ending the violence and achieving lasting national reconciliation," according to a UN press release. The U.S. military has said the bombings bore the hallmark of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. KR

Iraqi Army personnel and U.S. Special Forces detained a former leader of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army in an August 14 raid in Al-Najaf, according to an August 15 coalition press release. The unidentified former Al-Mahdi army commander has been operating an independent cell of more than 150 Shi'ite extremists, according to the press release. The cell is accused of attacks against coalition and Iraqi forces, including the August 2006 battle in Al-Diwaniyah (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2006). A separate August 15 press release said U.S. and Iraqi forces detained four suspected members of the Al-Mahdi Army in Baghdad on August 14, including the commander of a Shi'ite extremist brigade numbering more than 150 insurgents who "conduct improvised-explosive-device (IED) and indirect-fire attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces in the area." The statement said the brigade commander and his team buy and sell weapons in Al-Sadr City and transport them to the Al-Hurriyah neighborhood of Baghdad. The commander also allegedly directs the extrajudicial killing of civilians and government employees opposed to the militia. The cell developed an "extensive and complex system to use cell phones and laptops to detonate IEDs in order to ambush and kill" Iraqi and U.S. forces, the statement added. KR