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Newsline - April 17, 2008

President Vladimir Putin began two days of talks with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in Tripoli on April 16, news agencies reported. The discussions took place in a tent outside the ruins of Qaddafi's former home, which U.S. aircraft destroyed in 1986 in response to a Libyan-sponsored terrorist bombing. On April 16, Qaddafi told his guests, who included President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, that "we support the idea of building an organization of gas-producing countries." Some Russian officials have periodically raised the idea of setting up such a grouping, a possibility that other Russian officials reject (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, October 31, and November 14 and 25, 2006, and January 22 and February 19, 2007). Several Western and Russian commentators noted on April 16 and 17 that Qaddafi seeks closer ties with Russia to balance his growing links to Western countries, such as France. Reuters on April 16 quoted Alexander Kliment of Eurasia Group consultants as saying that for Libya, "Russia plays the role of a foil to the United States, which remains the major power." The daily "Kommersant" noted on April 17 that an unnamed "Kremlin source" said that during Putin's visit several agreements will be signed aimed at consolidating and expanding the basis for bilateral cooperation, particularly in the energy field (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, 2008). The paper commented that "Russian companies are interested in implementing big joint projects in Libya, which include oil and gas, power engineering, and transport infrastructure, the source said, giving Gazprom and Tatneft as examples. These two companies are developing six fields in Libya and want to expand long-term cooperation." On April 17, Putin will travel to Sardinia, where he will be the first foreign leader to meet with Italian Prime Minister-designate Silvio Berlusconi following his recent parliamentary election victory. PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview published on April 17 in "Komsomolskaya pravda" that "neither Russia nor China want or need military alliances. Strategic partners as we are, we are interested in the stability and security of the adjacent region. In fact, all our documents emphasize that we are not friends against anyone else" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31 and April 9, 2008, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007, and March 12, 2008). Asked if Russia wants to increase the membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in response to any eastward expansion by NATO, Lavrov replied that "India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan are observers in [the SCO]. Forms of their actual participation in activities of the structure are under discussion." He suggested that NATO wants new members in the east because the alliance might want to set up "a new global alliance, something with the nucleus composed of the Western countries. This could be [intended to] replace the UN itself. Or else its expansion epitomizes the old way of thinking, one that may have been [understandable] in the days of a global confrontation but is clearly archaic nowadays. They mark territory in order to absorb it afterwards. Or at least to consider it their own." Lavrov repeated Moscow's position on possible NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. He claimed that some unnamed NATO leaders learned of Ukraine's close historical and cultural ties with Russia only when President Putin "clearly explained" the matter to them at the recent Bucharest meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7 and 8, 2008). Lavrov said that Putin told NATO leaders "that every third citizen of Ukraine is an ethnic Russian, that we share a common history and culture. He gave a brief account of Georgia's [history] and the relations between the Georgians, Abkhaz, Ossetians, and Russians. All of that was a revelation for very many Western partners." PM

Semyon Vainshtok, the former head of the state-controlled pipeline monopoly Transneft who was named last year to head Olympstroi, the state company set up to organize the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007), has been replaced as Olympstroi head by Sochi Mayor Viktor Kolodyazhny. ITAR-TASS reported on April 17 that Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachyov told an extraordinary session of the Sochi legislature that Kolodyazhny resigned as mayor "to transfer to a responsible job at Olympstroi," and he formally introduced Vladimir Afanesenkov, who will serve as acting Sochi mayor. Prior to the new appointment, Afanesenkov was deputy head of the Krasnodar Krai administration for preparing Sochi for the Winter Olympic Games. In introducing Afanesenkov as acting mayor, Tkachenko called him "a decent and hard-working person," adding that "the regional administration and the former Sochi mayor are counting on him." Commenting on the shake-up at Olympstroi, noted that in March, Vainshtok calculated that preparations for the Olympics in Sochi would cost three times more than initial estimates. According to the website, 316 billion rubles (more than $13.4 billion) are needed just to build new transportation infrastructure. Still, Vainshtok left Transneft to take over at Olympstroi last autumn during a period of difficulties for Transneft connected to the construction of the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline, thereby "sacrificing himself...for the Olympics," reported. This, according to the website, makes Vainshtok's latest resignation look "doubly strange," given that there had been no public criticism of his performance as Olympstroi head. JB

Following the lead of the Kremlin and Russian White House, which is the main government office complex in Moscow, the State Duma has moved to limit journalists' access to its offices, "RBK Daily" reported on April 17. While the paper did not provide details of the new restrictions, it reported that the "Duma majority" -- meaning the Unified Russia party -- is copying restrictions imposed by the Kremlin administration that were recently extended to the White House. Under the new rules, journalists will only be allowed into the White House for official events and will be limited in their movements to the fifth-floor press center (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7, 2007). "Experts connect the toughening of the regulations to the fact that Vladimir Putin is returning to the government and his services are introducing the format of control over information flows approved in the Kremlin," "RBK Daily" wrote, adding that an "analogous" press regime is now being introduced in the State Duma. The paper noted that State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov once stated that the Duma "is not a place for discussion." "RBK Daily" quoted comments made by Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky during a Duma plenary session, in which he protested to Unified Russia and the party's "apparatus" over the restrictions on the Duma press corps and also accused Unified Russia of limiting the participation of deputies from minority factions in Duma discussions. JB

Moscow's Savelovsky Court on April 16 began hearings in a suit brought by Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion and United Civic Front leader, against the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi. Kasparov is charging that leaflets distributed by Nashi calling him "an American citizen" were defamatory and is demanding 30 million rubles (more than $1.27 million) in compensation. Nashi claims it had nothing to do with the leaflets. "Kommersant" reported on April 17 that the court began its session on April 16 with an examination of a response from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to a court inquiry in which the embassy indicated that Kasparov does not have U.S. citizenship. The newspaper reported that the court then gave Kasparov one day to provide evidence that Nashi was involved in preparing and disseminating the leaflets. Kasparov aide Marina Litvinovich told "Kommersant" that they have the necessary evidence -- including the testimony of witnesses who received such leaflets from people dressed in Nashi jackets and media reports in which Nashi press secretary Kristina Potupchik admitted that the leaflets had been prepared by the group. JB

President Putin has tasked the Russian government with "regulating relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia" and with providing economic, social, and other assistance to those unrecognized republics, the majority of the population of which hold Russian passports, according to a statement posted on April 16 on the Russian Foreign Ministry website. The statement stressed that the measures should not be construed as a sign that Russia seeks a confrontation with Georgia, and do not constitute a violation of international law, and noted that the recent UN Security Council resolution extending the mandate of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia stressed the need for expediting Abkhazia's economic development. The statement made no specific mention of any plans to open Russian government representations in either republic, although the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on April 14 predicted that Putin would issue orders to do so. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer issued a statement later on April 16 expressing profound concern at Russia's "plans to establish legal links" with the two republics, reported. Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, similarly expressed concern and affirmed the EU's support for Georgia's territorial integrity. Speaking in Tbilisi on April 16, Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze described the Russian move as "an attempt to legalize the annexation" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Senior Russian Defense Ministry official Lieutenant General Vladimir Shamanov, who in 1999-2000 commanded the western group of Russian forces fighting in Chechnya, denied on April 16 that the reported armed clash two days earlier in the town of Gudermes, east of Grozny, between members of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's bodyguard and of the Vostok Batallion affiliated with the Russian Defense Ministry's 42nd Motorized Rifle Division ever took place, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15 and 16, 2008). He said the two sides simply engaged in "saber-rattling," but that there was no shooting and no casualties. Chechen human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev, who is a close ally of Kadyrov, and Public Chamber Chairman Said-Emin Djabrailov issued a statement on April 16 condemning the "incident" and calling for those Vostok members responsible to be punished for their previous crimes. Meanwhile, some residents of Gudermes, fearing further clashes, have fled the town, which the human rights watchdog Memorial described on April 16 as "frozen in tense anticipation," reported. LF

In an April 16 interview with Ekho Moskvy, Ingushetian businessman and opposition activist Magomed Khazbiyev announced that at the mass meeting provisionally scheduled for May, the opposition will demand the release of arrested oppositionists Magomed Yevloyev and Maksharip Aushev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14 and 15, 2008), and also the resignation of the present leadership headed by President Murat Zyazikov and the return of Zyazikov's highly respected predecessor, Ruslan Aushev, the websites and reported. Khazbiyev denied that controversial former LUKoil Deputy Chairman Musa Keligov is behind the ongoing wave of popular protest in Ingushetia. Also on April 16, the separatist Chechen website reported that Ruslan Aushev, a former Afghan war hero, harshly criticized both Zyazikov and Russia's policy in the North Caucasus during a recent roundtable discussion at Moscow State University. LF

Tigran Torosian, who is a member of President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on April 16 that, judging by their behavior, former President and defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian and the opposition force he heads have no interest in accepting Sarkisian's offer of dialogue. Sarkisian said last month he is ready for talks with Ter-Petrossian on condition the latter acknowledges his election as president on February 19 as legitimate, which Ter-Petrossian refuses to do, claiming he was the rightful winner of the election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). Ter-Petrossian spokesman Arman Musinian on April 16 rejected Torosian's allegation, saying the authorities "have not taken a single step" toward dialogue. Visiting Yerevan in late March, a delegation from the Council of Europe's Ago Group advocated measures for defusing the postelection tensions, including an unconditional dialogue between the authorities and the opposition parties that support Ter-Petrossian and the immediate release of dozens of Ter-Petrossian supporters taken into custody following violent clashes with police in Yerevan during the night of March 1-2 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 1, 2008). LF

Mikael Harutiunian, who was appointed defense minister in April 2007 following Serzh Sarkisian's appointment as prime minister, has been named an adviser to Sarkisian in the latter's capacity as president, Noyan Tapan reported on April 16. Two days earlier, Sarkisian named Armed Forces Chief of General Staff Colonel General Seyran Ohanian as defense minister in the new cabinet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, 2008); Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Yury Khachaturov was named to succeed Ohanian as chief of General Staff. Also on April 16, Sarkisian reappointed the outgoing ministers of justice, sport and youth affairs, and agriculture -- Gevorg Danielian (HHK), Armen Grigorian (Prosperous Armenia), and David Lokian (Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun), respectively -- to serve in the same capacity in the new coalition government headed by former Central Bank Chairman Tigran Sarkisian (no relation to the president), Noyan Tapan reported. LF

Georgia has withdrawn its 180-man peacekeeping detachment from Kosova as announced and will redeploy those servicemen to Afghanistan, Caucasus Press reported on April 17 quoting Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia. The detachment has served in Kosova since October 1999 under a Turkish battalion. Azerbaijan's parliament voted last month to recall its peacekeeping contingent from Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2008). LF

Georgia's National Bank raised its base interest rate on April 16 from 11 to 12 percent after annual inflation reached 12.3 percent, Caucasus Press and reported. According to legislation passed by the parliament in mid-March, in the event that annual inflation exceeds 12 percent, the parliament must decide whether to ask the president to dismiss the National Bank head or whether the government shares the blame for failing to keep inflation under the maximum envisaged figure, Caucasus Press reported on March 15. LF

At a press conference in Astana, the head of the Kazakh Financial Police department in Astana, Abzal Karimov, reported on April 16 on the course of the criminal corruption case against the head of the state railway company, Zhaksybek Kuleleev, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Karimov said that the case against the railway chief is nearing completion and is expected to be formally submitted to a court in the coming weeks. Kuleleev, in pretrial detention since his arrest, was charged on April 1 with accepting a $100,000 bribe in a police investigation that also resulted in the arrest of his deputy, Nurabai Zhanai, for extorting a 295,000-tenge (about $2,460) bribe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7, 2008). RG

The bilateral Kazakh-Kyrgyz intergovernmental economic and trade commission convened on April 16 in Astana for its seventh regular meeting, AKIpress reported. The participants discussed ways to expand trade and economic relations, as well as measures to deepen scientific and technical and cultural cooperation. Both sides also reviewed plans for greater cooperation in the areas of water and energy resources, agriculture, the development of transport and communications, and trade, and studied the preparatory work of the Kyrgyz-Kazakh investment fund. Kyrgyz Industry, Energy and Fuel Resources Minister Saparbek Balkibekov was approved as the Kyrgyz co-chairman of the commission, joining Kazakh Deputy Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Duysenbai Turganov. RG

Citing the Kyrgyz newspaper "Novoye Russkoye slovo," the website reported on April 16 that an unidentified U.S. citizen was recently arrested in Florida for reportedly selling arms from Kyrgyzstan. According to the report, the man was attempting to sell over 40 Kyrgyz advanced weapons systems, including military helicopters and combat aircraft, to buyers through the Internet. The U.S. authorities charged the man with agreeing to sell 10 Kyrgyz helicopters to unnamed buyers in Zimbabwe for $750,000 each. RG

Clashes broke out on April 14 between Kyrgyz soldiers and local residents in the northeastern Issyk-Kul region, the website reported. The clashes in the village of Tamgam erupted when a special counterterrorism unit arrived in the village in an attempt to end a demonstration by local residents against their forced eviction from a local Kyrgyz military compound. RG

A group of more than 100 Kyrgyz truck drivers on April 16 staged a protest in the Karatai village along the main Osh-Irkeshtam road in the Osh region, threatening to disrupt traffic and shut the road, AKIpress reported. The truckers said that they were protesting the growing Chinese "presence" in the Kyrgyz trucking industry. The nearby city of Kara-Suu, located near the Uzbek border, has the largest wholesale market of cheap imported Chinese goods in Central Asia and is a regular stop for Chinese truck drivers. RG

A district court in Minsk on April 16 began the trial of 10 youth activists charged with causing public disorder during an unsanctioned demonstration of market vendors in Minsk on January 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2008), RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. The defendants are Andrey Kim, Mikhail Pashkevich, Ales Bondar, Uladzimir Syarheyeu, Artsyom Dubski, Ales Straltsou, Andrey Charnyshou, Anton Koypish, Mikhail Kryvau, and Tatsyana Tsishkevich. The trial of another four activists on the same charge was postponed to a later date after it turned out that they had not yet studied the case materials. All the 10 defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges. Kim is additionally accused of hitting a police officer during another demonstration of market vendors staged on January 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2008). He has been held in custody since that demonstration. JM

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko told journalists in Strasbourg on April 16 that she wants Ukraine to undergo a constitutional reform in order to become a parliamentary republic, Ukrainian media reported. "We must untangle the functions of the executive powers and make Ukraine a traditional parliamentary republic, which is typical of European countries," Interfax-Ukraine quoted her as saying. Tymoshenko also said that reforming the judiciary and instituting public control over the authorities must become the two other key aspects of the constitutional reform, which she said could be successfully completed by the end of 2008. Speaking to a session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg the same day, Tymoshenko stressed that Ukraine is determined to conduct all the necessary reforms in order to gain membership of the European Union. She also reiterated that Ukraine can join NATO only after a national referendum. JM

The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) has demanded that Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko cancel all the legal acts "blocking" the work of the coalition government, Interfax-Ukraine reported on April 16, quoting BYuT parliamentary caucus leader Ivan Kyrylenko. In particular, Kyrylenko said that Yushchenko and "his entourage" have blocked "all the anticorruption programs" of the cabinet. "The tone that the BYuT deems it acceptable to use in its assessments of the work of the Ukrainian president is impermissible for civilized politicians in general," the pro-presidential People's Union-Our Ukraine party said in a statement later the same day. "Accusing the president of suspending individual orders by the government is something that cannot stand up to any criticism. The acts that are being referred to, first of all, are illegal and, second, no approval has been sought for them from the coalition partners," the statement added. The BYuT leads the current government in coalition with the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc, of which the People's Union-Our Ukraine party is a component. JM

Veton Elshani, who is a spokesman for Kosova's police, said in Prishtina on April 16 that police have identified 21 unnamed Serbs, including some local political leaders, in connection with the riots in northern Kosova that followed Kosova's declaration of independence on February 17, AP reported. NATO and the UN said that the riots, which led to the death of one Ukrainian policeman, were orchestrated, presumably by Belgrade. Serbian Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac said recently that Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Slobodan Samardzic, who is minister for Kosova, "coordinated and led" the riots without informing the rest of the cabinet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 25, and 26, March 19, and April 1 and 16, 2008). Elshani said on April 16 that Kosovar police gave their evidence against the 21 suspects to an unnamed international prosecutor, who has the authority to file charges against them, including charges of terrorism or of violating Kosova's constitutional order. Elshani said that only those suspects against whom charges are eventually filed will be publicly identified, adding that ongoing investigations could lead to more people being classified as suspects. Milan Ivanovic, who is a local Kosovar Serbian leader, said that the police statement is an attempt by a "fake NATO state," which is Belgrade's term for independent Kosova, at "frightening Serbs." PM

Kosova's former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, who founded the Alliance for the Future of Kosova, said in Prishtina on April 15 that ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia should vote in the May 11 Serbian elections, reported. Haradinaj stressed that Serbia's Albanians, most of whom live in the Presevo Valley region, can improve their standard of living and make their voice heard in Serbian politics only by casting their ballots and participating in the political process. PM

Tajik authorities have taken the independent Imruz (Today) radio station off the air, citing "technical problems."

Since it began broadcasting last summer, Imruz had become the most popular FM station in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, and the surrounding area. Among the locals, Imruz was known as a "serious radio station." It broadcast news and reports focusing on Tajikistan's political and social sphere, as well as music.

The radio's bosses and editors have been reluctant to talk to the media since the decision was made on April 8. "The motives are still unclear," says Rustami Joni, the head of radio Imruz. "I don't think the decision [to stop the radio] has anything to do with the Tajik government."

Joni added that a few days before the radio's closure "officials" were checking the content of the radio station's reports from early April, but he stopped short of saying who "the officials" were.

Unlike many other local radio stations, Imruz did not avoid criticizing the country's political scene. All politicians, including opposition leaders and critics of the government, have had access to the station. One of its recent guests was Rahmatullo Zoirov, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party and an outspoken critic of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.

Fearing pressure and reprisals, most local media outlets in Tajikistan try to avoid direct criticism of the government and top officials, and decide to self-censor their work.

A few days before being shut down, Imruz reported on a planned public protest in the eastern city of Khorog, saying that the local people were increasingly dissatisfied with their low and often unpaid wages, as well as with the growing food prices.

The same day, the radio station aired a commentary on the country's high unemployment -- one of the biggest problems in Tajikistan -- and the plight of Tajik migrant laborers in Russia. The commentary made a gloomy prediction, saying that in the next few years half of Tajikistan's population will become seasonal workers in Russia. The radio station also covered Tajikistan's admission that it lied to the International Monetary Fund, which has demanded the return of $46 million in loans.

Independent journalist Rajabi Mirzo says that so far only Russian-language media in Tajikistan would dare to take such a critical tone. "Tajik-language media have much more influence and impact in Tajikistan and therefore they could become more dangerous [for the government]," Mirzo says. "Radio Imruz was the first local FM station to broadcast its programs entirely in the Tajik language. It focused on subjects that so far have only been covered by Russian-language radios. So it wasn't acceptable for many people [in the government]."

Criticizing Rahmon's government is a rare occurrence among Tajik media. Those who have dared to do so have been penalized. Almost all independent publications that have been critical of the government or the president, including the dailies "Ruzi nav," "Odamu olam," and "Nirui sukhan" have been shut down in recent years. Even the BBC was removed from the FM band more than two years ago.

Many Tajiks say the authorities should focus on solving the country's social and economic problems instead of shutting down media outlets that criticize the current situation.

It remains unclear when Imruz will get permission to broadcast again. Some people predict it will come back on the air, but that it will be much more cautious after getting what amounts to a rebuke from the government.

It is not the first time that Imruz has been taken off the air. It was shut down in February but was back on the air less than three days later.

Imruz's listeners have one more reason to hope that their favorite FM station will return to the airways soon. The radio indirectly belongs to the Tajik president's influential and wealthy brother-in-law, Hasan Sadulloev. Sadulloev is the head of Orien Bank, one of the biggest in the country, which owns Imruz as a part of its so-called media-holding group.

The closure of Imruz shows that even some of the closest people to President Rahmon must exercise caution when it comes to criticizing his government's policies or problems in the country.

(Farangis Najibullah is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague. RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)

The spokesman of the opposition United National Front, Sayed Hussain Sancharaki, said in an interview that contacts have taken place between the party's leaders and the Taliban and other antigovernment groups in hopes of putting an end to the rising violence in Afghanistan, AP reported on April 16. Sancharaki said former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who is now a member of parliament, and Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who is President Hamid Karzai's security adviser, were among those attending the meeting. "There's no doubt that some inside the Taliban are not willing to negotiate, but there are some Taliban who are interested in solving problems through talks," Rabbani said. "We in the National Front and I myself believe the solution for the political process in Afghanistan will happen through negotiations." Rabbani and Sancharaki refused to give the names of the militants who attended the meeting, except to say they are "important people." U.S. Ambassador William Wood has said Washington supports talks with militants who will lay down their arms and recognize the Afghan Constitution, though it does not support talks with Al-Qaeda fighters. AT

NATO announced on April 16 that two of its soldiers were killed and two others wounded in an explosion in the southern province of Kandahar, while in a separate clash five Taliban militants and a policeman were killed, AP reported on April 16. NATO did not reveal the nationalities of the soldiers. In Zabul Province, militants ambushed a police convoy and killed a policeman, and the subsequent firefight left five militants dead, police commander General Abdul Raziq Khan said. Meanwhile, militants abducted and beheaded two Afghans working at a U.S. military base in the eastern Konar Province, provincial police chief Abdul Jalal Jalal said. Militants regularly target people working for U.S. and other foreign forces. AT

Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, a young Afghan journalist who was condemned to death in January for distributing feminist criticism of Islam, was granted an appeal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24 and 31, and February 5, 2008), according to one of the international organizations monitoring his case, Bloomberg reported on April 16. Kambakhsh was transferred from a prison in Balkh, northern Afghanistan, to Kabul, according to Jean Mackenzie, program director in Afghanistan for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and government officials have said that he will be released. According to Mackenzie, international protests were a key factor in inducing regional religious and secular authorities to hand him over. She added that protests in several Afghan cities organized by the banned Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, made local citizens aware of the case. "It's entirely possible that if things continue this way, Afghan society will not look that different from the way if was under the Taliban," Mackenzie said. AT

Indian serials are very popular and no ban has been imposed on their telecast despite "suggestions" that certain restrictions be imposed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4 and 16, 2008), Afghan Communications and Information Technology Minister Amrzai Sangin said on April 16, PTI reported. "In Afghanistan, there are 12 television channels. All of them are showing different Hindi serials. They are also dubbed in local languages," he told reporters on the sidelines of a conference on "Connecting Rural Communities Asia Forum 2008" in Kerala, India. Sangin recently suggested that there should be more local content in the programs being telecast. The discussions are still going on, but no decision on a ban has been made, Sangin concluded. AT

Speaking on April 16 to a crowd in Qom, south of Tehran, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad apologized to Iranians over economic conditions and said the Finance Ministry and Central Bank have not carried out the government's instructions, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Ahmadinejad also repeated his characteristic denunciations of unspecified corrupt groups or persons allegedly working against the public good or set policies. He said that "we believed that when the problem was identified" and the ministry and bank were ordered to take appropriate measures, "they would take steps to resolve the problem, but unfortunately they did not do their duty and the situation continued as it is." Ahmadinejad said the Central Bank and ministry's shortcomings have allowed "that corrupt bank to do its work." He said unnamed people in Iran have planned to take control of the country's money and oil, and to provoke 70-80 percent inflation and have this blamed on "the people's servants," ISNA reported. Legislators have in recent days complained about persistent inflation and the strain rising prices are putting on Iranians. Ahmadinejad recently decided to replace Finance Minister Davud Danesh-Jafari (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7 and 16, 2008). Ahmadinejad told the crowd he believes cronyism and unfair practices in the customs, registrations, taxation, and banking sectors of the state apparatus, as well as monopolies and inadequate supervision of government agencies, are causes of "injustice and discrimination" in Iran. He said the "there are people who can export or import goods and have formed powerful cartels. These cartels are so important they can even have items ratified in decision-making centers," ISNA reported. Some observers have in recent months said that the government's own decision to reduce tariffs on certain items such as rice or sugar have helped enrich a small number of importers with alleged links to the government, and threatened domestic agriculture. VS

Hossein Samsami is to become Iran's acting finance minister on April 19, following the dismissal of Finance Minister Danesh-Jafari (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2008), ISNA reported. Samsami is the secretary of the cabinet's economic committee, and has a doctorate in economics from Tehran's Shahid Beheshti University, where he is a lecturer at the economics faculty, ISNA reported. VS

The Supreme National Security Council announced on April 16 that an explosion in a prayer hall on April 12 in the southern city of Shiraz was an accident, not a terrorist attack (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, 2008). The council said that investigations showed the explosion during a sermon in the Seyed al-Shohada prayer hall was of war materiel on display or being stored in part of the building, and explosives had not been brought in, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. The explosion killed 12 people and injured over 200. VS

An appeals court in Tehran has confirmed convictions for three Tehran students accused of insulting officials and religion, and sentenced them to imprisonment, Radio Farda reported on April 15, citing judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamishidi. He said the court overturned the earlier acquittal of the three students from Tehran's Amir Kabir University and sentenced Majid Tavakkoli to 30 months in jail, Ahmad Qassaban to 26 months, and Ehsan Mansuri to 22 months, on charges of engaging in propaganda against the state, insulting religion, and "publishing false material." The three were arrested following the publication in March 2007 of material in university journals they helped run, though they immediately denounced the published items as forgeries intended to discredit them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 7, 2008). They claimed they were tortured in custody to confess to crimes they did not commit. Their earlier acquittal was apparently challenged by judicial authorities. Amir Kabir University student and activist Nariman Mostafavi expressed amazement at the sentence, and told Radio Farda on April 15 that the acquittal initially gave students hope that the judicial system is impartial and independent of the dominant "political current." He wondered aloud how the appeals court could have accepted as evidence the testimonies or statements of the three students when they insisted these were obtained under duress and refused to repeat them at later stages of the investigation. Mostafavi said the students no longer have confidence in the impartiality of state institutions. VS

Iran's northwestern West Azerbaijan Province signed a cooperation agreement on April 16 with the Irbil Governorate in Iraqi Kurdistan intended to ease cross-border travel and the transit of legal goods and to fight illegal trafficking, ISNA reported. The agreement was signed at the Tamarchin customs complex on the border by West Azerbaijan Governor Rahim Qorbani and Irbil Governor Nawjad Hadi Mawlud. Separately, a delegation led by the Iranian deputy interior minister for security and police affairs, Abbas Mohtaj, met with Turkish Interior Ministry officials in Ankara on April 14-16, mainly to discuss the finalization of a bilateral security agreement, ISNA reported. The meeting was within the framework of the 12th session of their joint high security commission, reported; issues discussed included terrorism, organized crime, extradition of suspects or convicts, and the border between the two states, ISNA reported. VS

On the eve of Army Day, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with senior army officers in Tehran on April 16 and urged them to maintain the army's defensive readiness, ISNA reported. He praised the army's increasing self-sufficiency and sense of innovation in recent years. Khamenei separately appointed Hojatoleslam Ahmad Miremadi the same day as the congregational prayer leader for the southwestern city of Khorramabad in the Luristan Province and his representative in the province, ISNA reported. VS

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters in Brussels on March 16 that the EU is close to reaching agreement with Iraq on energy cooperation, international media reported. According to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who arrived in Brussels for talks with the EU on a variety of reconstruction issues, Iraq "needs the friendly EU to take steps toward the activation and implementation" of reconstruction projects across the country. Al-Maliki has declared 2008 the year of reconstruction, but so far has had little success in enticing foreign investors to take up projects. Barroso said he expects an agreement to be reached "within weeks," "The negotiations are going very well...there are already very concrete details now," he added. The EU is hoping Baghdad will provide natural gas through a pipeline it will begin constructing in 2009. The 3,300-kilometer Nabucco pipeline will run from the Caspian Sea through Turkey and the Balkan states to Austria. The pipeline is expected to reduce European dependency on Russia, which currently supplies the EU with 25 percent of its gas needs. KR

The Iraqi government announced replacements for the army's commander of military operations in Al-Basrah, General Muhan al-Furayji, and the city's police chief, Major General Abd al-Jalil Khalaf. Military spokesmen downplayed the move, saying the two men were on temporary assignment in Al-Basrah. Their three-month assignments have been renewed once already, and it was time to find permanent replacements, one military spokesman told Al-Sharqiyah television. Meanwhile, Defense Ministry spokesman Sami al-Askari told Al-Iraqiyah television that al-Furayji will remain in Al-Basrah as a commander. Al-Askari described al-Furayji as a senior adviser at the ministry whose post is higher than the post of Al-Basrah operations commander. In March, clashes between coalition-backed government forces and militiamen affiliated with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr left more than 600 dead. Some 1,300 police officers and soldiers refused to fight and have since been fired, and while the government claims the operation, which is continuing, was a success, some observers have said the security forces performed poorly. Major General Mahmud Jawad will replace al-Furayji, while Major General Adil Dahhan will replace Khalaf. KR

Deputy parliament speaker Khalid al-Atiyah told reporters in Al-Najaf on April 16 that Iraq's senior ayatollahs want the government to allow all political parties to take part in the upcoming governorate elections. Prime Minister al-Maliki announced last week that he will not allow members of the so-called Al-Sadr Trend to take part in the October elections unless the cleric's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, disarms. Al-Atiyah said he met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as well as Ayatollahs Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim, Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, and Bashir al-Najafi. "The religious authority clerics recommended the necessity of holding fair and transparent elections ensuring the participation of all political forces and in good security conditions," al-Atiyah said, according to the "Aswat al-Iraq" website. KR

Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organization, the former armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on April 16 that the Al-Mahdi Army must disarm if al-Sadr supporters want to compete in elections. "Over the past five years, there has not been any party carrying weapons illegally except the Al-Mahdi Army," al-Amiri contended. Asked about the status of the Badr militia, he said: "Some of them enlisted in the security forces...and others retired or turned to working civilian establishments. We do not have any military force at all." He insisted that the government is not trying to punish the Sadrists, but mocked al-Sadr's request that Iraq's senior ayatollahs rule on whether the militia should disband or not. "They did not consult the religious leadership when they formed the Al-Mahdi Army," he said, asking why al-Sadr would ask for the clergy's opinion now. "Anyone who wants to join the political process must respect the laws and the constitution. It is not possible to participate in the political process on the one hand and take up arms against the government and threaten the security and political process on the other" hand, al-Amiri said. KR