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Newsline - December 21, 2007

President Vladimir Putin told state security services on December 20 to respect citizens' rights, Reuters and AP reported. "All the actions of the security organs should be strictly grounded in the norms and letter of the law and correspond to the aims of the dynamic, progressive development of our society," Putin said in televised remarks to state security officers at a gathering marking "Chekist Day," as their professional holiday is informally known. "People should live and work calmly, be sure they can implement their plans," Putin said, "and be sure their property and businesses are protected. This is the main criterion for public faith in your work." Putin's remarks may have been "a nod to concerns the heirs to the Soviet KGB have become too powerful under his rule," Reuters commented. According to the news agency, Putin's decision to endorse First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to succeed him as president suggests he is trying to distance himself from the "siloviki" he has put into key posts since coming to power. Reuters quoted former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who now heads the opposition Russian Popular Democratic Union, as saying it is "absolutely clear" that Putin realizes the siloviki have accumulated a dangerous amount of power. "This is why...he has not chosen his technical successor from the KGB," Kasyanov told the news agency. JB

"The Guardian" reported on December 21 that rival clans inside the Kremlin are "embroiled in a struggle" for the control of billions of dollars in assets belonging to Russian state-run corporations as President Putin "prepares to transfer power to his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, in May." According to the British newspaper, Putin's associates, who have become "multimillionaires" through the wave of "re-nationalizations" carried out by the Kremlin, are facing the problem of how to protect their fortunes, most of which are located in the West, "from any future administration that may seek to reclaim them." In an interview with "The Guardian," analyst Stanislav Belkovsky expanded on claims he first made in "Die Welt" last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2007), now stating that Putin "effectively" controls 37 percent of Surgutneftegaz, 4.5 percent of Gapzrom, and "at least 75 percent" of Gunvor, the Swiss-based oil trader founded by a friend of Putin's, Gennady Timchenko. Asked by "The Guardian" how much Putin is worth, Belkovsky said "at least $40 billion," adding he suspects "there are some businesses I know nothing about" and that the real total may be "much more." Belkovsky said Putin is likely the "beneficiary owner" of stakes held through "a nontransparent scheme of successive ownership of offshore companies and funds," the final points of which are Zug, Switzerland -- where Gunvor is based -- and Liechtenstein. Belkovsky told "The Guardian" he is confident of his assessment of Putin's hidden wealth. "It's not a secret among the elites," he said. "But please pay attention that Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] has never sued me." Meanwhile, "Vedomosti" reported on December 21 that Putin may replace Medvedev as the chairman of Gazprom's board of directors once Medvedev becomes president and Putin becomes prime minister. Medvedev said on December 20 that he will resign as the gas monopoly's board chairman if he wins the March 2008 presidential election, RIA Novosti reported. JB

"Kommersant" reported on December 21 that the Prosecutor-General's Office has postponed until spring 2008 its major investigation of the Investigative Committee, the body created in September that is formally part of the Prosecutor-General's Office but has broad independence. The probe reportedly was focused on possible procedural violations in the registration of investigations, accusations that some suspects have been held illegally and the committee's personnel policies, including the appointment of Federal Security Service (FSB) officers to many senior posts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). According to "Kommersant," the postponement of the investigation is an apparent victory for Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin in an ongoing tug-of-war with Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika, who earlier this month forced the Investigative Committee to drop a second criminal case against Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak. Storchak was arrested on November 15 in connection with an alleged attempt to steal $43.4 million from the federal budget. The arrest was widely interpreted as an attack on Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19 and December 17, 2007). "Kommersant" reported that the probe into the Investigative Committee is likely to be dropped altogether and that the official who initiated it, Deputy Prosecutor-General Viktor Grin, is likely to be demoted to his previous job as deputy prosecutor-general for the Siberian Federal District. Many observers see the tug-of-war between the Prosecutor-General's Office and the Investigative Committee as part of a broader power struggle inside the security establishment and the Kremlin. JB

First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev announced on December 20 that Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Sobyanin will head his presidential campaign, "The Moscow Times" reported on December 21. Speaking after submitting documents with the Central Election Commission (TsIK), Medvedev also promised the election will be fair and said his candidacy was not President Vladimir Putin's idea. Union of Rightist (SPS) Forces co-founder Boris Nemtsov, also submitted his documents to the TsIK on December 20. reported on December 21 that only Medvedev, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov are full-fledged candidates thus far, since their candidacies were put forward by parties with representation in the State Duma. Candidates of parties not represented in the Duma -- including Nemtsov; former Prime Minister Kasyanov, who heads the Russian Popular Democratic Union; and Andrei Bogdanov, who heads the Democratic Party of Russia -- must run as independents and thus are required to collect 2 million signatures supporting their candidacies. On December 19, Russia's Constitutional Court refused to consider an appeal from supporters of Vladimir Bukovsky, the Soviet-era dissident who wants to run for president, against a ban on presidential candidates holding dual nationality, RIA Novosti reported. Bukovsky has British and Russian citizenship. Another independent candidate, Oleg Shenin, one of the plotters of the failed August 1991 hard-line coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, failed to provide the TsIK with the necessary documentation concerning his current place of employment, reported on December 21. According to the website, both Bukovsky and Shein have four more days to try and resolve their problems. JB

President Putin, Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev, and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan signed an agreement in Moscow on December 20 on building a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Russia via Kazakhstan, circumventing the Caspian Sea, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10 and November 21, 2007; "Western Officials Converge On Turkmenistan,", November 14, 2007; and "Central Asia: A Watershed In EU Human Rights Policy?", November 20, 2007). Putin said "the creation of this new energy artery will enable us to supply large quantities of gas to our [European] partners and will be a new, serious contribution by our countries to strengthening energy security in Europe." Russian Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko said the pipeline will be completed by the end of 2010 and will transport 20 billion cubic meters of gas per year. The project deals a blow to plans by the EU, supported by the United States, to bring Central Asian gas to Europe via a pipeline running under the Caspian to Azerbaijan that would link up with the existing Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas-export pipeline and thereby eliminate the powerful Russian middleman. Putin has argued that any Caspian pipeline projects must be approved by all five Caspian Sea countries, and he and Iranian leaders have warned outside powers to stay out. U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman said on November 20 that he "is not convinced" Turkmenistan will fully support the pipeline project backed by the EU and United States. The daily "Kommersant" wrote on December 20 that countries like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are fully aware of the clout that their huge hydrocarbon reserves give them and are likely to play the major powers off against each other. The paper suggested that the latest agreement with Russia is just one move in a broader game. The "International Herald Tribune" noted on December 21 that Russia has been forced to "seek new and expensive suppliers, mostly in Central Asia, to fulfill its export contracts in Europe" and meet the demands of the rapidly expanding domestic market because of its failure to develop its own gas infrastructure. PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told "Vremya novostei" of December 21 that only the UN can achieve a political settlement in Kosova and that any unilateral declaration of independence will be illegal. He stressed that "if NATO and the EU now state, after ignoring all legitimate legal mechanisms that exist in the UN, that they will decide on how to divide Serbia, how to bite Kosovo off from it, and how to prevent Serbs who live in Kosovo from expressing their opinion on the issue, they will put themselves above international law." He called this a "very dangerous game." He did not specify which dangers are involved. Lavrov charged that the Kosova issue marks the first time that Western countries have in effect said they are no longer interested in the UN and will resolve complex issues outside it. He stressed that Russia will veto any move in the UN to grant Kosova independence without Serbia's agreement. Deutsche Welle noted on December 21 that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been at pains to find out from Moscow what it wants in return for cooperation on a host of issues. The broadcast added that some German experts have concluded that Russia is interested only in obstruction. PM

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on December 20 that Russia might ban all fishing by Japanese boats in waters that Moscow considers Russian unless the Japanese authorities take action to prevent fishing by boats not listed in bilateral agreements, reported. The statement stressed that Tokyo must quickly "take effective measures in deeds and not in words." News agencies said it was the toughest Russian statement over fishing issues in disputed waters in a long time. Russian authorities recently seized four Japanese fishing boats off Kunashiri Island, which Russia has held since 1945 but which Japan claims as part of its Northern Territories. The captain of one of the boats has been released on medical grounds. Japan is negotiating for the release of the remaining 10 crew members. The Russian authorities said the four vessels "are not on the list Japan annually submits to Russia for fishing near the South Kuriles under intergovernmental agreements." The Japanese fishing industry charges that Russian patrol ships have for months been harassing or seizing Japanese boats that fished in disputed waters without incident for years. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 18, 2006, and August 7 and December 14, 2007). PM

U.S. President George W. Bush told a Washington press conference that President Putin is a "consequential leader" and that is why "Time" magazine named him "Person of the Year" for 2007, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20, 2007). "I presume they put him on there because he was a consequential leader," Bush said. "And the fundamental question is, consequential to what end? What will the country look like 10 years from now? My hope, of course, is that Russia is a country that understands there needs to be checks and balances, free and fair elections and a vibrant press." Bush noted that he has not spoken to Putin about his becoming prime minister in 2008, adding that "I think we better just watch and see." Bush argued that "what will be interesting next year is how the Russian president carries on his business--the new Russian president. We'll be together probably a couple of times next year and it will be interesting to see how foreign policy is conducted and what the role of President Putin may be." PM

Polish and Russian authorities signed a memorandum in Kaliningrad on December 19 formally ending a two-year Russian ban on Polish meat imports, news agencies reported. The move is part of a series of confidence-building measures undertaken by Warsaw and Moscow since the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk took office in November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2007). Tusk recently suggested that Poland might lift its veto on EU-Russia talks on a new partnership agreement if Russia rescinds its ban on Polish meat shipments. Russia prohibited Polish meat imports ostensibly for health reasons, but the Polish authorities felt all along that move was a form of political intimidation. It is not clear when meat shipments will actually resume. PM

Israel and Russia have agreed to take the necessary steps to drop mutual visa requirements for their citizens, AFP reported from Jerusalem on December 20. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arie Mekel said the measure will come into force "as of next summer." Mekel added that the two countries agreed on the change earlier this week during a visit to Moscow by an Israeli consular delegation. He added that the foreign ministries are expected to sign the official agreement in January. The move still needs the approval of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government. Moscow has long supported visa-free travel between Russia and Israel, where a huge number of former Soviet citizens live. The Israeli Tourism Ministry expects that the lifting of visa requirements could boost the number of Russian tourists visiting Israel from 80,000 to 300,000 annually. PM

The British government is working to enact legislation that will reassure the Russian authorities that paintings sent to Britain for a loan exhibition will indeed be returned and not impounded in connection with any court case against the Russian government, the BBC reported on December 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20, 2007). The British Embassy in Moscow said that sufficient assurances have already been given, adding that "cultural relations between Britain and Russia are of tremendous importance. In this regard, we will be bringing forward the enactment of new legislation already in process. We expect this legislation to be passed when parliament reconvenes in early January, in good time for the exhibition to open." Officials at the Pushkin State Fine Arts Museum said in Moscow on December 19 that the Russian authorities cancelled a showing in London of the exhibition "From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925," which is currently in Duesseldorf. Museum officials said the British authorities failed to provide sufficient guarantees that all the works will be returned to Russia and not impounded in response to claims by individuals who say that the Russian government owes them money or by descendants of the original owners of the paintings in question. British media noted that the Russian move is further evidence of deteriorating bilateral relations in the continuing row over the 2006 London murder of former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko. The Russian authorities recently said the British Council must close all of its offices outside Moscow as of January 1. On December 20, Hermitage Museum Director Mikhail Piotrovsky warned against "excessive politicization" of the paintings issue and stressed that the exhibition might still go ahead, Interfax reported. He said that "we have always had good relations with Great Britain and it is necessary to maintain them without forgetting that there exists legislation that it is necessary to observe. Everything will be fine. We have a month. We are holding talks with the heirs of the [former] owners of the cultural properties currently belonging to Russia and kept in Russian museums." But a spokesman for the federal cultural agency Roskultura told Interfax in Moscow on December 21 that the proposed British legislation does not appear to go far enough to meet Russia's concerns. The spokesman added that the Russian authorities reserve the right to make the final decision regarding the exhibition. PM

Following a meeting of its senior leadership, the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), a junior partner in the governing coalition, announced on December 20 its official endorsement of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's candidacy in the country's approaching presidential elections, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. The founder of the party, businessman Gagik Tsarukian, explained that the party decided to support Sarkisian "and work for his victory" in accordance with a power-sharing agreement signed with the latter's Republican Party (HHK) following last May's parliamentary elections. Addressing the party leaders, Prime Minister Sarkisian welcomed the party's support and hailed it as an "honor." He also referred to himself as "the most popular" of the presidential candidates and vowed that the authorities will ensure that the February 19 election meets democratic standards. RG

Giorgi Zhvania, a senior campaign aide to wealthy Georgia businessman and presidential candidate Badri Patarkatsishvili announced on December 20 that the candidate will personally fund the country's state budget if elected president in the January 5 presidential election, Kavkas Press reported. In comments after his return to Georgia from Israel, where Patarkatsishvili is reportedly staying, Zhvania said that, if elected, Patarkatsishvili would "transfer" $943 million dollars into the state budget "as a grant," adding that the practice of "transferring private resources to the state budget as a grant is a normal and civilized step." He also said Patarkatsishvili intends to spend the money on "resolving various social problems." The campaign chief also said he "urged" Patarkatsishvili to not return to Georgia and to "use television and radio stations to conduct his campaign" instead, arguing that "we are sure he will be arrested." RG

According to the latest poll by the weekly "Georgian Times" newspaper, former President Mikheil Saakashvili holds a new "convincing lead" in the presidential campaign, Kavkas Press reported on December 20. The public-opinion survey, conducted through a telephone poll of 1,370 respondents in the capital Tbilisi, gave Saakashvili some 41 percent of vote, reflecting a sharp rise from a favorable rating of 20 percent only two weeks earlier. The survey also reported that opposition candidates Levan Gachechiladze and Badri Patarkatsishvili came in second and third, with 15 and 13.5 percent, respectively. They were followed by Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili with 11.6 percent, New Right party leader Davit Gamqrelidze with 10.2 percent, Party of the Future leader Gia Maisashvili with 0.9 percent, and Imedi party leader Irina Sarishvili with 0.15 percent. RG

Georgian Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili announced on December 20 that the CEC plans to use video cameras to monitor voting in some 1,100 polling stations during the January 5 presidential election, according to Rustavi-2 TV. Tarkhnishvili explained that he monitoring is an attempt to "help expose any violations" during the vote and will "have two functions: one is preventive, to make people refrain from any indecent behavior and, second, if anything happens, it can be used as additional evidence." RG

In a report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch on December 20, the Georgian government was criticized for using "excessive force" in last month's violent move by Georgian police to disperse opposition rallies and for shutting down a popular pro-opposition television station, AFP reported. According to Holly Carter, the rights group's Europe and Central Asia director, the Georgian government had "crossed the line" during the November 7 police crackdown. In a separate report released on earlier in the week, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) also accused the Georgian authorities of pursuing an "increasingly authoritarian course." Both Human Rights Watch and the ICG called on Western governments to press Georgia for democratic reform. RG

A Kyrgyz district court in Bishkek on December 20 imposed brief prison sentences on several Kyrgyz human-rights activists for participating in a rally earlier that day protesting the December 16 parliamentary election results, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. According to a lawyer for the activists, Syrtpay Jaichybekov, six of the protesters were sentenced to seven days in jail and another five received five-day sentences, while five others were fined and set free. The Bishkek police recently broke up a similar rally and arrested some 20 demonstrators along with prominent activist Tolekan Ismailova and a journalist covering the event (see RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2007). The opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party leaders also announced on December 20 plans for a nationwide protest action on December 24, while supporters of several other opposition parties have prepared for a protest rally on December 21 in different parts of the country. RG

In an announcement from Bishkek on December 20, Kyrgyz Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairperson Klara Kabilova stated the country's main opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party failed to win any seats in the December 16 elections for a new parliament, according to Kabar and ITAR-TASS. The CEC said that although the opposition Ata-Meken party finished second, garnering about 8.3 percent of the vote, it failed to win any seats because it failed to surpass a 0.5 percent regional threshold to enter the parliament. The CEC added that Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev's Ak-Jol Eldik (Best Path Popular) Party won 71 seats in the new 90-seat unicameral parliament. The CEC went on to report that the opposition Social Democratic Party secured 11 seats and the pro-government Communist Party of Kyrgyzstan won eight seats. Most notably, the CEC seemingly retracted its announcement the previous day, which failed to note the Ata-Meten party's failure to enter parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20, 2007). The CEC also declined to clarify the recent Supreme Court ruling that overturned the controversial regulation requiring political parties to surpass a 0.5 percent threshold in each of the country's seven provinces and two largest cities in order to win representation in parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2007). Instead, Kabilova merely said the Supreme Court only modified "some provisions" of the electoral code pertaining to the vote count and argued that the 0.5 percent regional threshold remains in place. RG

A district court in Mahilyou on December 20 sentenced Youth Front activist Artur Finkevich to 18 months in a correctional institution for violating the internal regulations of the correctional facility in which he was already serving a two-year term for spraying political graffiti, Belapan reported. Finkevich was arrested on January 30, 2006, and sentenced to "restricted freedom" in a correctional facility for "malicious hooliganism" in May 2006. In October 2007, authorities brought new charges against Finkevich, accusing him of misconduct and violating the internal regulations of the correctional facility. The prosecutor demanded a two-year term for Finkevich, claiming that after receiving two warnings Finkevich continued breaking the regulations with no mitigating circumstances. Finkevich himself partially admitted his guilt and asked the court to sentence him to six months in prison, the minimum possible penalty under article with which he was charged, and to take into consideration his difficult family situation and poor health as mitigating circumstances. If Finkevich had not faced new charges he would have been released 10 days ago. Between February 1 and May 10, 2006, he was held in a pretrial detention center -- each day spent in a jail by a person sentenced to restricted freedom is counted twice. AM

A district court in Minsk on December 20 ordered the publisher of the independent "Novy Chas" newspaper to pay 50 million rubles ($23,225) and journalist Alyaksandr Tamkovich to pay 1 million rubles in damages to Mikalay Charhinets, a lawmaker of the upper chamber of Belarusian legislature, Belapan reported. Charhinets, who heads the standing Committee on International Affairs and National Security in the Council of the Republic, accused "Novy Chas" of running a story on September 24 that insulted his honor and dignity. Charhinets initially demanded 500 million rubles from the publisher and 100 million rubles from the journalist, but revised his claims to 50 million and 5 million, respectively, after Tamkovich sent a letter to him expressing regret over the politician's reaction. Alyaksey Karol, editor in chief of "Novy Chas," described the suit as politically motivated and aimed at the closure of the newspaper. AM

Ukrainian Premier Yulia Tymoshenko on December 20 told Inter Channel television that her government will fulfill all election pledges. "We do not surrender any of our pledges. We are fully responsible for each word, each election pledge," Tymoshenko said. She explained that the first government meeting on December 19 focused on the compensation within two years of depreciated deposits at the savings bank of the former Soviet Union -- one of the leading slogans of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc during the election campaign. "We will find a solution," Tymoshenko said, adding that "every further day will be dedicated to the fulfillment of our obligations." Tymoshenko also said she will not allow anyone "to ruin the unity of Ukraine's president, government, and the democratic coalition in the Verkhovna Rada." AM

The opposition Party of Regions issued on December 20 a statement protesting what it described as "purges" among civil servants, UNIAN reported. "Hardly had the ink dried on the appointments of new ministers when the authorities began staff purges," the statement reads. The Party of Regions believes that "professionals who conscientiously work in favor of Ukraine" are being sacked for political reasons. In particular, Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the Party of Regions, accused the Interior Ministry of politically motivated sackings. Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, who earlier promised not to introduce radical changes, said he will not tolerate 12 deputy ministers, adding that during his previous terms in office there were six deputies. AM

Macedonia wasted 2007 in two critical areas, its bids for membership of NATO and of the EU, President Branko Crvenkovski told parliament on December 19, local media reported. "Our goals this year were to obtain a date for starting EU accession talks and to implement all criteria, which would allow us to receive a NATO invitation. Today, shortly before the end of this year, we have to acknowledge that the objectives we targeted have not been fulfilled," Crvenkovski said in his annual end-of-year address to the assembly. According to local media reports, he attributed much of the blame to political tensions, which, he said, had slowed reform and tarnished Macedonia's reputation. "We need to profoundly correct our policies and conduct," Crvenkovski said. Early in the year, the EU warned Macedonia that it was regressing, not progressing, and ethnic-Albanian parties boycotted parliament for 16 weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22 and 29, 2007). The news did not improve as the year progressed, with ethnic-Albanian parties clashing physically in parliament and the EU's annual progress report concluding that Brussels should not open membership talks with Skopje in 2008" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, October 31, and November 7, 2007). As the year draws to a close it is also unclear whether NATO leaders will next April invite Macedonia to join the alliance and whether, if they do, Greece would veto the invitation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2007). AG

Looking toward 2008, President Crvenkovski warned that Macedonia must not "produce new issues that could cause inter-ethnic tension" because of the likelihood of instability in the region following a decision on the future of neighboring Kosova. On the subject of Kosova, Crvenkovski said Macedonia wants to maintain good ties with both Belgrade and Prishtina, and stated that "we cannot, nor do we wish to be an arbiter in respect of Kosova's future." Macedonia supports the plan for "supervised independence" for Kosova drawn up by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, has warned of the destabilizing effects of maintaining the status quo and of a partition, and has called for its own borders with Kosova to be settled. The prospects for faster progress toward the EU in 2008 were boosted earlier this month by cross-party agreements on a range of reforms. The bills should go before parliament in January. AG

A former member of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) was allowed to walk free on December 20 after a Serbian court concluded there was too little evidence to bring charges of rape, torture, and forced expulsion against him. Sinan Morina always denied the charges, claiming that he was in Albania at the time of the crimes, in July 1998, and not -- as prosecutors claimed -- fighting near the village of Opterusa with a Kosovar Albanian force from the Orahovac area. Morina was arrested in Montenegro in December 2006, charged this July, and put on trial in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 19, 2007). In July, Serbia's chief war-crimes prosecutor said 160 Kosovar Albanians are under investigation for war crimes. Three others were jailed in 2000 for crimes committed near Opterusa. A Serbian court jailed another Kosovar Albanian, Anton Lekaj, for 13 years in October 2006 for the murder of four Roma, as well as a number of other crimes. AG

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has placed Rasim Delic under house arrest for breaching the terms of the home leave it had granted the former chief of the Bosnian Muslims' wartime army. The ICTY had allowed Delic to return to Bosnia for a month, between December 11 and January 11, while his case was in recess, but it ruled that within days of his return he had ignored restrictions by meeting with and discussing his case with the Bosnian Muslims' president, Haris Silajdzic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, September 10 and 11, and October 18, 2007). The two men continue to insist that Silajdzic merely inquired about Delic's health and about his family (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2007). Delic will now not be allowed out of his home in Visoko, roughly 30 kilometers north of Sarajevo, until he returns to The Hague. Delic has been on trial since July for allegedly failing to prevent his troops from raping, torturing, and murdering ethnic Croats and Serbs. AG

War criminals sentenced by the ICTY may now serve out their sentences in Portugal, the UN news service announced after Portugal joined 12 other countries in agreeing to house prisoners. The others are Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Ukraine, which signed an agreement in August. The ICTY will accept its last cases in 2008 and will hear the last appeals in 2010, but many of those it has convicted will remain in prison far beyond that date. The ICTY's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, in July backed the idea of allowing convicted war criminals to serve out their terms in the Balkans (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9, 2007). AG

Nine of Bosnia-Herzegovina's foremost film directors called on December 19 for the capture and trial of the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leaders. The declaration argues that the arrest of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic is a vital precondition for the reforms needed if Bosnia is to join the EU and NATO. Among their number was Danis Tanovic, whose film "No Man's Land" won an Oscar in 2001, and Jasmila Zbanic, whose film "Grbavica" won the Berlin film festival's Golden Bear award. The work of all the directors addresses the civil war and its legacy, Reuters reported. The capture of Mladic remains a precondition for the formal adoption of a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8 and December 17, 2007). There is no similar formal precondition for Bosnia, whose SAA, which was agreed in principle on December 4, also needs to be adopted formally (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2007). The chief prosecutor of the ICTY, Carla Del Ponte, believes Mladic is in Serbia, but says Karadzic may be in Bosnia, Montenegro, or Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). Bosnia's second most senior official, the U.S. diplomat Raffi Gregorian, said on December 17 that he believes both men are in Serbia and could be arrested with "just one phone call" from Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2007). Belgrade has called on Gregorian to forward any evidence to back his assertion. AG

Iraq's Kurdistan regional parliament passed a controversial press law on December 11 that purports to be one of the freest in the region but in fact imposes steep fines on journalists that publish material critical of the government or Kurdish officials.

Criticism quickly mounted based on doubts about the commitment of the regional government and the journalists' syndicate to protecting reporters' rights, as well as local instances of violence or intimidation targeting journalists. Those objections appear to be increasing pressure on regional President Mas'ud Barzani to return the bill to parliament instead of signing it into law.

News website "Kurdish Aspect" reported that journalists can be fined up to 10 million Iraqi dinars ($8,250) and newspapers can be fined up to 20 million dinars for articles that are seen to create instability, spread fear and intimidation, encourage terror, provoke religious belief of any sects, or insult slogans, symbols, or personalities. "Kurdish Aspect" also reported that the law allows for the imprisonment of journalists, as well as the closing of newspapers for up to six months and the seizing of copies in circulation.

Kurdish officials had claimed during consideration of the bill that it would prevent the jailing of journalists that was allowed under a Saddam Hussein-era law.

The bill was drafted by the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate, which says journalists will no longer need government permission to publish newspapers. Instead, media outlets will only need to register with the syndicate. Critics say the syndicate is too closely aligned with the regional government and is run by members of the two leading parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). "I believe if the [syndicate] is there to protect my rights as a journalist and defend me, then they are almost nonexistent, because they mainly represent political parties in the region," Rahman Gharib, a correspondent for the independent weekly "Hawlati," told IPS News in January.

Indeed, the Kurdistan regional government has not been kind to journalists in recent years. "If we look at the court cases against writers and journalists in recent weeks and months, we see that none of the verdicts has been in favor of a journalist or writer," Sarwat Ali wrote in the independent newspaper "Awene" on May 30, 2006. "On the contrary, in all the cases, the officials have been the heroes.... This is a new trend in the officials' fights against writers and the continuation of the police...preventing people from holding pens."

Kurdish intellectual and Austrian citizen Kamal Sayyid Qadir was jailed by the KDP in 2005 for Internet articles he wrote criticizing Barzani's regional administration. Qadir was sentenced to 30 years in prison for "defamation of the Kurdish leadership" before a new trial in March 2006 reduced his sentence to 18 months. A week later, regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani pardoned Qadir. But it is difficult to say whether Qadir would have received a retrial, let alone a pardon, had there not been intense publicity surrounding his case.

Independent newspapers like "Hawlati" have been targeted by the Kurdish authorities for articles critical of the regime. Two "Hawlati" editors got six-month prison terms in 2006 for allegedly defaming PUK leader Umar Fattah. As in Qadir's case, the sentences would likely have been much harsher had there not been an intense international media campaign in their support.

Reporters have complained in the past of discriminatory treatment, including confiscations or violence, that they say more politically connected journalists were spared. Several journalists said they were beaten, arrested, and had their equipment confiscated in March 2006 following a government crackdown on demonstrators who violently interrupted a ceremony marking the 18th anniversary of the Hussein regime's chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabjah. Journalists caught up in the melee reported being beaten by both security forces and demonstrators. Journalists working for independent Kurdish media accused security forces of destroying or confiscating their cameras and video recorders, claiming that party-owned media were spared such treatment and implying that the PUK and KDP would prevent their own press from broadcasting footage of the incident. The Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate supported a demand by the authorities that journalists cooperate with an investigation into the incident by turning over any notes, photographs, and footage taken at the demonstration.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a November 5 report that its representatives had discussed the draft press law with several Kurdish officials and representatives of the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate during a two-week fact-finding mission to Iraq. The CPJ noted the draft law that it saw was "minimally restrictive when compared with draconian media laws that prevail throughout the Middle East." The draft it received did not call for the detention or imprisonment of journalists. The organization warned, however, that the draft outlined "a host of vague prohibitions." Referring to Article 7, which calls for fining newspapers that do not provide corrections for publishing "untrue information," the CPJ said, "It is unclear who would decide what constitutes incorrect news." It also suggested that, given the tenuous financial situation of independent newspapers in the region, the law could be exploited by pro-party judges to close down newspapers critical of the ruling parties.

The CPJ also expressed concern over the rising number of physical attacks on journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as arbitrary detention of reporters by security forces and the use of the region's courts to harass journalists. Several journalists have reported being abducted and beaten by men wearing military-style uniforms, which suggests the abductors could have been members of the Asayish security service. "[Kurdistan regional government] officials should publicly condemn these reprehensible attacks and launch serious inquiries to bring the perpetrators to justice. The failure to do so would suggest that Iraqi Kurdish officials condone such attacks," the CPJ said.

Critics note that journalists can still be jailed under the region's counterterrorism law, which says anyone who intentionally publishes or broadcasts news or statements that create fear or intimidation or threatens the government can be jailed for up to 15 years in prison. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) said in October that "Hawlati" will face charges under the antiterrorism law for "intimidating the public," based on a September report that Al-Qaeda was becoming active in the region.

Kurdistan regional President Barzani must sign the law before it can take effect. Official sources from within the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate told RFE/RL on December 13 that the syndicate had sent an official request to Barzani asking him to return the draft press law to parliament. The PUK's central information office also reportedly asked for an emergency meeting with Barzani and the Journalists Syndicate to revise the law. Meanwhile, the editors-in-chief of the independent newspapers "Awene," "Hawlati," and "Rozhnama" called on journalists to hold a demonstration against the law on December 14.

U.S. President George W. Bush said at a news conference on December 20 that some NATO countries might get tired of Afghanistan and think of leaving, showing concern over the future of NATO's unity and commitment to combat the ongoing Taliban insurgency, international media reported. Bush said the Canadians, the British, the Dutch, the Danes, and the Australians who are in Afghanistan are "brave souls" who are putting their lives on the line. He applauded their contribution and stressed, "they're working side by side with the Afghan forces and the U.S. forces to deal the Taliban a blow, and I've only got praise for them." Some countries, including France and Germany, have come under pressure to deploy troops to parts of Afghanistan that are relatively peaceful. Over all, Bush said people in Afghanistan feeling better about their future and the country has demonstrated progress on various fronts, adding Afghanistan "is a society that is evolving." MM

Canadian and Afghan media reported on December 20 that pressure is mounting on Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government to consider more diplomacy rather than counterinsurgency in Afghanistan after three years of mission focus on fighting the Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan. Louis Delvoie, Canada's former high commissioner to Pakistan in the early 1990s and an expert on the region, was quoted as saying, "Much of the diplomacy seems to be focused on developing relations with other NATO countries as opposed to bringing the Afghan government along in certain directions, which might make it more congenial to its own population and might make it more congenial to neighboring Pakistan, among others." The criticism comes as an independent panel, headed by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, reviews the future of Canada's military commitment and prepares recommendations early in 2008. The conservative majority made it clear in their fall throne speech they'd like to see Canada's mission extended until 2011, while opposition parties are demanding that the mission end as scheduled by January 2009. MM

In an interview with the "Le Monde" newspaper on December 20, French Defense Minister Herve Morin described the security situation as deteriorating in parts of Afghanistan and observed that international efforts won't help unless the Afghan Army and justice system are strengthened. Morin expressed France's readiness to commit more troops in Afghanistan, if NATO review calls for new forces, but added "the question of reinforcing the French forces in Afghanistan could only be raised in the framework of a global review about NATO action in this country." French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered more troops sent to Afghanistan this past summer to train the Afghan Army. He is said to be planning a trip in the coming weeks to Afghanistan, where France currently has some 2,000 soldiers mostly operating in more stable Kabul and northern provinces. MM

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer said on December 19 that Japan will have to decide whether it wants to be part of the international effort to combat terrorism or not, Pakistan-based "Frontier Post" reported. "It would be a real tragedy if somehow Japan tried to opt out of the war on terror," the ambassador told reporters at his Tokyo residence. "It's just an issue that requires a unified international community to make any headway against," he said. Japan has refueled warships from the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan since 2001, but withdrew the mission in November when the opposition blocked its extension. Japan's ruling party is pushing new legislation in the parliament to extend its naval mission in the Indian Ocean, although the new bill prevents Japan from supporting ships directly related to the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. Under the new bill, Japan would be limited to refueling ships used in monitoring and inspecting vessels suspected of links to terrorism or arms smuggling. MM

Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Tehran's mayor and one of Iran's prominent conservatives, criticized government management on December 19 and dismissed the efficacy of gasoline restrictions imposed by the government to cut traffic and pollution, Radio Farda reported, citing Iran press reports. Qalibaf told a Tehran transport seminar "we are wrong if we think people's problems are solved through mockery and insults." He said he was ridiculed when he warned that the restrictions, imposed in June, would not reduce heavy traffic in Tehran. His criticized unnamed officials more generally, saying they were "betraying" public confidence by approving a decision in one position and a contradictory decision in another position. It was not immediately clear if he was referring to Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who was Tehran mayor before becoming president in 2005. Qalibaf called for "moral justice" rather than the social and economic justice the government has repeatedly promised, and blamed bad management for continuing poverty in Iran in spite of rising oil prices, "Etemad" reported on December 20. Radio Farda observed that while he did not name officials, his remarks are seen as another of several recent criticisms by politicians directed at the president and economic policies. Some parliamentarians have suggested Ahmadinejad should be called to parliament to answer questions on the economy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2007). VS

Expediency Council chairman and former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told students in Khorramabad in western Iran on December 18 that the Expediency Council is trying discreetly to resolve "problems" with the implementation of privatisation policies, called Article 44 policies after the relevant constitutional article, ISNA reported. Rafsanjani said the council, which resolves political and state-policy disputes, is trying to resolve problems discreetly to avoid "psychological warfare" that he said could damage the Iranian polity. Asked by one student why he was not stating his support for the Ahmadinejad government, he said the Expediency Council's support for this and other governments depends on the work it does to resolve problems. "We do not try and catch people out or make a show of our work. We try and resolve issues secretly," he said. He added that those who give publicity to issues like financial corruption were just trying to attract attention. President Ahmadinejad has repeatedly denounced corruption and unspecified "mafias" in Iran in his speeches, and several times accused the governments of his predecessors Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami of having been tainted with corruption. Rafsanjani told a political gathering in Khorramabad on December 19 he hopes the "social atmosphere" and absence of "narrow-mindedness" will permit a variety political currents to compete in parliamentary elections in March 2008, ISNA reported. VS

The intelligence department of the southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province has said it killed four "terrorist" chiefs belonging to a local Sunni gang known as Jundullah, in a shoot-out on December 13 in the Iranshahr district (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2007), Radio Farda reported on December 20, citing Iran reports. Police initially said they had killed 12 "terrorists." The gang is believed to be responsible for several bombings and acts of violence in the region. The broadcaster cited the daily "Kayhan" as reporting that four security agents or police officers were also killed in the gun battle. The provincial intelligence department named the four prominent gangsters killed as: Hussein Shanbehzehi, described as the group's "operations chief"; Yusef Rigi; Mirmuhammad Mirbaluchzehi; and Abdulsamad Rigi. The department also reported the confiscation of weapons, ammunition, six remote-control bombing devices, an RGP-7 rocket launcher, and grenades, among other material taken after the shoot-out, Radio Farda reported. VS

Iran hanged four of seven convicts earlier sentenced to death on December 19, while three are to wait while relatives of their victims consider whether to pardon them, "Iran" reported on December 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20, 2007). Those hanged were two men convicted of killings during robberies; a man called Qasem Yaqubi, convicted of abusing 19 teenage boys in Tehran; and a woman called Zahra who had poisoned her husband, "Iran" reported. Tehran police separately arrested 49 "louts" in a coordinated operation in Tehran on December 17-18, "Kayhan" reported on December 20. They are suspected of various offences, including extortion, harassing family groups or women on the streets, and of generally disruptive and intimidating behavior in certain districts. Police located the "louts" following telephone calls from the public. The swoop is part of ongoing police operations to boost security in the capital. Local residents reportedly cheered police and shouted "God is great" as some of the louts were arrested. The greater Tehran police chief Ahmad Reza Radan said such operations would continue until street violence and intimidation were "uprooted," "Kayhan" reported. VS

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, told his followers during a speech commemorating the Eid Al-Adha religious holiday on December 21 that awakening councils should be under the control of the Iraqi government, Reuters reported. U.S. forces in recent months have helped arm the Sunni awakening councils, which consist of volunteer neighborhood-security forces. The United States also pays a small monthly salary to the Sunni volunteers. Shi'ite leaders have complained that the Sunni security forces be disarmed and placed under government control. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has been slow to integrate Sunnis into the Shi'ite controlled Interior and Defense establishments. "It is necessary that these awakening [councils] should be an arm of the government in chasing criminals and terrorists but not a substitute for it," al-Hakim told his followers. "Weapons should only be in the hands of the government." The Shi'ite leader also proposed that security patrols be religiously mixed wherever possible. KR

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani has appointed Brigadier General Fadil Raddam Qazim to succeed Qays al-Ma'muri as Babil police commander, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on December 20. The latter was assassinated in a roadside-bomb attack some two weeks ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 10, 2007). Qazim was also appointed to the rank of major general. Meanwhile, the website Aswat Al-Iraq reported on December 20 that Babil Governor Salim al-Musallamawi has alleged Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki knows the parties responsible for al-Ma'muri's assassination, but refuses to reveal the killers' identities. The governor further alleged that al-Maliki has instructed people not to identify the killers, apparently for political reasons, although the men confessed to the crime. KR

Haidar al-Ghazi, head of the Martyr Al-Sadr office in Dhi Qar Governorate, said Al-Nasiriyah security forces raided the home of a militiaman loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, wounding him and killing his father, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on December 20. Al-Sadr's followers have claimed in recent weeks that rival Shi'ite militiamen working under the cover of legitimate security forces have targeted Sadrists in attacks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 9, 2007). Al-Ghazi said the militiaman, who was not identified, and his father were later obstructed by an Iraqi police checkpoint while en route to the hospital. Police also arrested several people who were escorting the two men to the hospital. Al-Ghazi contended the father died as a result of the delay. KR