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(Un)Civil Societies Report: May 18, 2006

18 May 2006, Volume 7, Number 8
KURDISH ADMINISTRATION SCRUTINIZED ON RIGHTS. The parliament of Iraq's Kurdish region unanimously approved the 42-member cabinet of the Kurdish region government on May 7, installing the first post-Saddam Hussein unified Kurdish administration. While reunification has been hailed as a step forward for the region's two major parties -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which fought a bitter civil war in the 1990s -- the new government faces tough demands from its electorate.

Iraqi Kurds have become increasingly vocal in their demands in recent months for free speech and press rights, greater administrative transparency, and an end to corruption. They have also called on the KDP, led by Mas'ud Barzani, and the PUK, led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, to allow for greater political pluralism.

Facing Some Daunting Tasks

The new government's response to such issues will demonstrate whether the Kurdish autonomous region is, as its leaders bill it, an model of democracy and stability for the rest of Iraq to emulate or, as its detractors claim, a region whose two main parties have entrenched their hold on power.

One of the most urgent issues facing the unified government is the demand for free speech and press, particularly following a crackdown by both parties on demonstrators, intellectuals, and journalists over the past seven months. Kurdish intellectual Kamal Sayyid Qadir, who holds Austrian citizenship, was jailed by the KDP last year for articles he wrote criticizing Kurdish Region President Mas'ud Barzani's administration. He was sentenced in December to 30 years in prison for "defamation of the Kurdish leadership."

That sentence was thrown out and Qadir was sentenced at a new trial in March to 18 months in prison. One week later, regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani pardoned Qadir. It is unlikely however, that Qadir would have received a retrial, let alone a pardon, had there not been intense publicity surrounding his case. For their part, Kurdish officials claimed that they were required to arrest Qadir according to an outdated Iraqi law, which they vowed to amend.

The Halabjah Case

Qadir's case is just one of a number of cases brought against writers and journalists this year. In addition, several journalists said they were beaten, arrested, and had their equipment confiscated on March 16 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. Those working for independent Kurdish media outlets said security forces destroyed or confiscated their cameras and video recorders. The journalists claimed no similar action was taken against party-owned media, implying that the PUK and KDP would prevent their own press from broadcasting footage of the incident. Other journalists said their equipment and film were confiscated at checkpoints outside the town.

A day after the Halabjah incident, PUK security forces arrested Hawez Hawezi, a high-school teacher and journalist working for "Hawlati," on charges that his writings had criticized the two parties. Citing corruption and cronyism within both administrations, Hawezi called on officials to step down in a March 15 article in "Hawlati."

Defamation Problems

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a March 22 press release that Hawezi was released on bail on March 19 after appearing before an investigating judge. "The judge told the journalist he faced unspecified defamation charges," the organization reported.

Hawezi was rearrested in late April after publicly complaining of his treatment while in detention, Reuters reported on May 2.

Asos Hardi, the former editor in chief of "Hawlati," and the weekly's current editor in chief, Twana Osman, were given six-month suspended sentences and fined 75,000 dinars ($50) on May 2 for defaming then-PUK Prime Minister Omar Fatah. The two were charged after the newspaper reported that Fatah ordered two telephone-company workers fired for cutting his home phone line. The court determined that the regional communications minister, not the governor, had ordered the two workers fired.

"Hawlati" Managing Editor Peshwaz Faizulla told the Committee to Protect Journalists that both editors were forced to sign a statement saying that they would not commit defamation again, the organization reported on May 2.

According to some reports, a bill is under discussion by the Kurdistan legislature that would restrict freedom of press even further.

Critics of the KDP and PUK have said they expect little to change as long as opposition to the parties remains weak. Apart from the growing criticism of the few independent media outlets that exist in the region, there has been little organized opposition.

Including Minority Parties

One exception is the Kurdistan Islamic Union, which withdrew from the Kurdistan Coalition ahead of December's legislative elections, citing dominance of the KDP and PUK over Kurdish region politics, as well as corruption in the Kurdish Regional Government. The union was subsequently attacked in seven Kurdish towns by what the authorities deemed a "mob of youths." The union, meanwhile, contended that the KDP had orchestrated the attacks. Despite the attacks, the party walked away with five seats in the 275-seat Iraqi National Assembly, and in January vowed to cooperate with the KDP and PUK to promote Kurdish interests.

Leaders from minority parties criticized the KDP and PUK in January of planning to divide ministerial posts between the two sides, claiming the parties had an agreement in place to solidify their control over the Kurdish region. In the end, seven of the 42 ministers named were from minority parties. However, only two of the seven were given portfolios.

When parliament convened last week to hold a vote of confidence in the cabinet, lawmakers were asked to vote in open session for the cabinet. Although 52 parliamentarians objected, calling for vote by secret ballot, their request was denied, "Jamawar" reported on May 8. The newspaper also criticized the parties for appointing only three female ministers.


"Jamawar" further reported that the names of the ministers were not announced prior to the vote of confidence being taken. Parliamentarian Tavgah Muhammad Ali claimed that only a "few members" of the parliament had seen the list of ministers. Moreover, the ministers' qualifications were not made public, Ali claimed. "This government is the result of a political consensus," he said. "It is not a government whose ministers have been selected on a technocratic basis."

In addition to overcoming the demands of an increasingly frustrated electorate, the KDP and PUK face the additional challenge of merging four other ministries: Justice, Peshmerga Affairs, Interior, and Finance. Before this can be accomplished, the two parties will need to overcome the distrust that has plagued relations for more than a decade

Kurdish region legislator Karim Bahri told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) on May 8 that the assembly's Legislative Committee is drafting legislation that would clear the way for those ministries to merge. In reality, it could be years before they are united.

"It is natural that technical and legal complications occur, in addition to other issues that have still to be resolved between the [Irbil and Al-Sulaymaniyah] administrations [of the KDP and PUK]," Bahri said. "It will need some more time before we are able to unify these four ministries -- to form the legal, technical, and organizational aspects." He added that it would be two or three months before the other ministries begin functioning. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IMAM EXTENDS WELCOME TO HIZB UT-TAHRIR. Kyrgyz imam Rafiq Qori Kamoluddin is an exception among the Muslim prayer leaders of Central Asia. In a region where many states ban the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, Kamoluddin allows its members to pray at his mosque. He is by most accounts the only imam in Central Asia to be so bold.

Hizb ut-Tahrir's outspoken advocacy of the overthrow of secular governments to create an Islamic caliphate has won it few friends among Central Asian governments. The group insists it seeks change through peaceful means.

But thousands of its supporters are jailed in Uzbekistan, and hundreds more are incarcerated in Tajikistan. A small but growing number of Hizb ut-Tahrir followers are imprisoned in Kazakhstan. The charges often stem from alleged plans to overthrow those respective governments.

The group is not outlawed in Kyrgyzstan, but there are many who argue that it should be.

A Call For Inclusion

Kamoluddin acknowledges that many of the Hizb ut-Tahrir praying at his mosque come from Uzbekistan, whose hard-line government regards them as enemies of the state.

"It is true that at our mosque, compared with other mosques, many Hizb ut-Tahrir members come to pray," Kamoluddin said. "That information is correct. It is also true that in Kyrgyzstan, [Hizb ut-Tahrir] first appeared in Kara-Suu."

Kara-Suu is a divided town that straddles a river on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. It served briefly as a gateway for Uzbeks fleeing the violent crackdown in nearby Andijon one year ago, and has since blossomed into a bustling throughway for cross-border trade.

Kamoluddin says that the bans imposed on Hizb ut-Tahrir in the rest of Central Asia should not exclude its followers from worshipping in Kyrgyzstan -- at his or any other mosque. "According to democratic principles, we don't have the right to turn them out," Kamoluddin said. "And even in [terms of] religious understanding, we don't have the right to throw them out because even our Prophet never did this. There were people with misguided faiths during the time of the Prophet. He knew them all, knew their names, but he never turned them away. On the contrary, he prayed for them."

Inclusion, But No Recruiting

Kamoluddin is quick to say that he does not support Hizb ut-Tahrir's ideology, and has no interest in joining. But he is sympathetic to their plight as fervent Muslims. "Firstly, I am not a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir," he said. "I don't read their literature, and don't want to [read it]. There have been offers made to my family -- to my sons and daughters -- from Hizb ut-Tahrir, but I strictly forbid them [from joining]. But I also do not support the view that Hizb ut-Tahrir are terrorists, enemies of the government, or enemies of the people. And to those who say they aren't Muslims -- they are Muslims. They are a particular group, but they want Islam and they serve Islam."

"You don't need to battle Hizb ut-Tahrir with this kind of material provocation," he added. "Instead, you need to gather scholars and religious leaders and start an intellectual discussion. In front of the people, [for instance] on television, [Hizb ut-Tahrir] should have been told, 'Your mistakes are this and this.'"

The imam insists that while he allows Hizb ut-Tahrir members to pray in his mosque, he does not allow them to use their presence as a recruiting opportunity.

"If any Hizb ut-Tahrir member brings even one leaflet and gives it to even one person to read -- that would be propaganda," he said.

As Kamoluddin returns to his demanding schedule of meetings with the faithful, he notes that he has voiced his opinions on allowing Hizb ut-Tahrir to pray to Kyrgyzstan's government and religious leaders. And -- at least for now -- he says they are satisfied with his explanation. (Bruce Pannier)

NGO FINDS ABUSE OF DISABLED CHILDREN. In a new report, the U.S.-based rights group Mental Disability Rights International (MDRI) accuses Romania of hiding children with mental disabilities in adult psychiatric facilities, under what the group describes as "atrocious" conditions.

During an 18-month probe, which ended in February, MDRI says it found children near death, tied to cribs with open wounds, and covered in excrement.

MDRI Executive Director Eric Rosenthal said the conditions in which the children were living in the psychiatric facilities in Romania were the worst he's seen anywhere in the world. And he says the treatment of the children witnessed by MDRI members constituted a violation of international human rights law.

MDRI Associate Director Laurie Ahern was one of those who visited the Romanian facilities. "The most prominent one, probably the most obviously horrific conditions, that was June '05 in [the southeast town of] Braila, where we found children in just horrendous conditions, and some near death," she said.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service, Ahern said MDRI worked with the UN children's agency, UNICEF, to get these children transferred to other facilities. "These children were starving to death when we found them," she said. "They are better in the sense that these children are now being fed, and they're gaining weight."

Permanently Institutionalized

But she added that "what isn't better, at least when we spoke to the staff at the new institutions that they were at, is that these children will most likely be kept in institutions. There is a belief there that because a child has a disability, it seems that they can't live in a maternal or foster-care program, and it seems like these children will be kept in institutions. At least that's what we're told."

Ahern said all of the children she saw were capable of living in the community, going to schools, staying with their families, or being adopted.

At one psychiatric facility in Timisoara, she said, 65 babies and infants were being looked after by only three staff members. "All they can do is feed them and change their diapers," Ahern continued. "That's the only thing they can do. So there were 65 babies, and there was this eerie silence. There was no noise. There was no crying. There were no babies cooing.

"And you could see as you looked at the babies -- from the younger ones up to the older ones -- by the time we went into the room with the 2-year-olds, who had been laying in cribs for two years, without anyone touching them or picking them up, other than to put a bottle in their mouth and change a diaper, these children were rocking back and forth, they were banging their heads, they were chewing their fingers," she said. "And this is a sign of neglect."

Ahern said such conditions breed further emotional and physical disabilities.

Bringing In Brussels

MDRI is urging the European Union to take action. The bloc is expected to announce soon whether Romania has completed necessary reforms, including on human rights, to qualify for membership next year.

An emaciated child, starving and near death, at the adult psychiatric facility in Braila (MDRI)After intense international criticism, Romania began a sweeping overhaul of its orphanage system in the 1990s, reforms that have won praise from the EU. But MDRI says disabled children are left out of the new system.

Romanian health officials acknowledge problems, but deny widespread neglect. "In Romania, we have 502 institutions for children. Out of these, as I said, only 23 house more than 150 children," said Bogdan Panait, a junior minister and president of the National Agency for Child Protection in Romania.

"Around 300 are small 'family-type' institutions," he added. "Conditions in all the [Romanian] institutions are very good. Many of them, the vast majority of them, respect European standards."

Panait said Romania has made "major progress" concerning children's rights. He told AP that some of the most serious shortcomings should be resolved by the end of the year.

In a statement, the government of Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu has promised to investigate the MDRI report.

SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS TO ANDIJON'S QUESTIONS. Eyewitnesses of the bloodshed in Andijon suggested, at a European Parliament roundtable, that a rivalry between ruling clans helped transform a nonreligious, pro-democracy demonstration into a bloodbath.

Just as there is uncertainty about how many people died when Uzbek forces broke up demonstrations in Andijon, there is little certainty about what exactly happened before and during the crackdown and about the nature of unrest.

This gap in knowledge was one of the reasons why, on May 11, the European Parliament marked last year's bloody events in eastern Uzbekistan with a roundtable. It was a discussion that brought together a number of people who attended the demonstrations in Andijon and witnessed the subsequent bloodshed.

One of them, the journalist Galima Bukharbaeva, recalls that a convoy of armored personnel carriers (APCs) entered Andijon's central Bobur Square five hours into a massive demonstration and "without warning, the soldiers in the APCs opened fire on the crowd. I was able to escape from the square after the third attack by APCs. Those APCs did not stop. They were moving slowly on the square and shooting. They were killing one row of protesters after another."

The crackdown followed weeks of public protests against the trial of 23 local businessmen. The Uzbek government claimed that the bloodshed was the work of Islamic terrorists seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate in Uzbekistan, but that is an assertion that Bukharbaeva dismisses as bogus.

"I said -- and it is my position, I have no doubts about it -- that it was a pro-democratic uprising of the city triggered by unfair trial of well-known and influential businessmen in Andijon," she told RFE/RL. Bukharbaeva's take on the events was supported by other roundtable participants.

In the view of the Europe director for Human Rights Watch, Lotte Leicht, their accounts warrant the crackdown being described as a massacre and genocide against the Uzbek people.

The Violence Before The Crackdown

The crackdown was not the only violence that Andijon saw in those few, ultimately fateful days. Prior to the arrival of thousands of government troops, unidentified attackers had -- on the night of May 12-13 -- seized a police station, a military garrison, and the prison in which the 23 businessmen were locked up.

These events have been seized on by the Uzbek government as evidence that it faced an insurgency in Andijon.

However, some participants at the roundtable believe the Uzbek authorities -- or one part of it -- orchestrated the violence that preceded the crackdown, Vitaly Volkov, a Central Asia program correspondent for the German news agency Deutche Welle, called the attack on the prison a "provocation."

"Information we acquired from the sources in the Uzbek SNB," the secret service, indicates that "the crowd that came to the prison was led by officers of the local SNB who used to oversee institutions such as prisons," Volkov told RFE/RL. Approached by their former supervisors, the prison guards had simply opened the prison gates.

Volkov believes the SNB then staged an assault in order to compromise the Interior Ministry. There is, he argues, a longstanding rivalry between the SNB and the Interior Ministry, whose heads represent two influential clans competing for political power in the country.

Several police officers and prison guards were sentenced to prison last year in cases heard behind closed doors. In addition, Uzbek President Islam Karimov dismissed Interior Minister Zakirjon Almatov, ostensibly on health grounds. It was Almatov who negotiated with protesters after they seized the regional administration building (hokimiyat), just before the government forces entered Bobur Square on May 13.

Journalist Bukharbaeva concedes that some of the people who attacked the prison were probably among those who seized the administration building the next day. However, she too believes they had taken part in the initial attack at the instigation of the SNB.

"When we interviewed people in the hokimiyat on May 13, they admitted that had participated in the attack of the police station and the military garrison, had obtained weapons there, and were also present during the prison assault," she says. "They didn't tell us that they had been encouraged to do so by law-enforcement agencies. But when we interviewed them two days earlier, on May 11 -- and we have audio -- they said the special services had been trying to convince them to start violence earlier."

The Role Of Religion

Uzbek authorities claim that the attackers were Islamic terrorists trained abroad, and that they, along with the protesters, shouted Islamic slogans.

That account is, however, challenged by German freelance reporter Marcus Bensmann, who monitored the trials of the 23 businessmen and witnessed the shootings on May 13. "I didn't see any trained mujahedin that day. And I didn't [hear] any outcry of 'Allahu Akbar' ['God is Great'] demanding an Islamic state," he said.

No independent probe has ever been held to determine what happened on the night of May 12-13. Calls for an independent report were raised once again at the roundtable by a number of prominent nongovernmental organizations, the International Crisis Group (ICG), Human Rights Watch, and the Open Society Institute.

Rights activists also called on Europe to take more action, by imposing a visa ban on President Karimov and his family, the country's prosecutor-general, and justice minister and freezing the assets of top Uzbek officials.

The European Union introduced an arms embargo and last autumn barred 12 top security officials from entering its 25 member states.

Muhammad Solih, the exiled leader of the unregistered Uzbek Erk (Freedom) democratic party, welcomed the roundtable, saying this was just the first of a series of Andijon-related events to be organized by the European Parliament and that this dialogue will help define Europe's future position toward Karimov's regime.

"I am absolutely sure that no dialogue is possible with the current regime," Solih said. "So what can be done? Pressure should be strengthened."

"It is Karimov who has isolated Uzbekistan," Solih said. "Despite everything, the European Parliament is saying it wants a dialogue."

Uzbek Embassy officials were invited to the event and were included on the list of speakers, alongside eyewitnesses, human rights groups, European officials, and members of the Uzbek opposition. However, no Uzbek officials showed up. (Gulnoza Saidazimova)

ANDIJON ANNIVERSARY: To read RFE/RL's extensive coverage of the first anniversary of the Andijon bloodshed, see