Plus, a Kazakh journalist leaves jail, vowing to keep fighting, and Czech churches could finally recover property confiscated by communists.by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, and Varvara Lokteva 10 January 2012
1. Belarusians face new Internet controls, fines
Internet service providers and Internet cafes in Belarus are now required to keep records of users’ personal data, the time they spend online, and which websites they visit. The law, which took effect 6 January, also prohibits most government offices and schools from accessing several dozen websites. According to the Charter 97 opposition website, the blacklist has not been made public but includes pornography sites, “terrorist,” and “extremist” sites, as well as sites of groups linked to the opposition, including Charter 97, the pressure group Viasna, and several others.
Internet providers can be fined up to about $120 for allowing access to the blacklisted sites. Smaller fines can be levied for failure to keep records of customers’ Internet use.
Another provision in the law will force Belarusian companies to register under the .by domain in order to sell online in the country. The office of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in a 5 January statement denied allegations that this could be used to restrict access to foreign websites, BelaPAN reported (subscription required).
2. Kazakh editor free after serving time for publishing secret documents
Former Kazakh newspaper editor Ramazan Yesergepov says he will campaign for journalists’ rights after serving a jail term for publishing classified documents. Yesergepov was released 6 January after more than two years in prison.
Yesergepov was jailed in August 2009 over an article published by Alma-Ata Info, a weekly he founded and edited, Newskaz.ru reports. The article cited a letter by the head of the National Security Committee in the Zhambyl region that referred to the involvement of security officers in a tax-evasion case against a local company. Yesergepov was given a three-year sentence and banned from publishing for two years. Alma-Ata Info ceased publication after his arrest.
The journalist’s conviction evoked a wave of criticism by local and international human rights activists. While in prison Yesergepov was awarded Human Rights Watch's 2011 Hellman-Hammett Grant for writers who have been victims of political persecution and are in financial need. More than 40 writers from 24 countries received grants in 2011.
According to the news portal Today.kz, Yesergepov plans to address attacks on the press and other human rights issues as the head of a pressure group called Journalists in Danger.
3. Romanian government proposes mass privatization of health system
The most vociferous opposition to the idea came from Raed Arafat, a doctor who helped create the SMURD nationwide emergency service in the 1990s. Arafat resigned as deputy state secretary in the Health Ministry 10 January in a dispute with Basescu and health officials over the bill, Business Review reports. He said emergency services would be most affected by the blurred distinctions between the private and the public sectors.
Eugen Nicolaescu, a former minister of health, also opposes the bill. If adopted, he said, "people will receive fewer medical services. That will turn into a death sentence for a sizeable part of the Romanian population."
Romania ranks near the bottom in per-capita spending on health care, the Health Ministry says. The state insurer, FNUASS, has a 75 percent share of the medical insurance market.
4. Festering church restitution problem rocks Czech government
Czech governments have for years sought a politically acceptable way to settle accounts with Christian churches over their claims on thousands of buildings and extensive lands confiscated by communist authorities more than 60 years ago. Now the issue threatens the fragile stability of the center-right government after the junior coalition party said it would not vote for a proposed church restitution law unless stringent government cost-cutting measures were put in place.
Public Affairs, a new party that entered government in 2010 promising to fight corruption only to become mired in a series of bribery scandals, said 7 January it would propose to merge several ministries to free up funds for church restitution at a time of cutbacks throughout the budget. The idea was immediately rejected by the two other coalition parties, and on 9 January Prime Minister Petr Necas of the Civic Democrats threatened to sack Public Affairs ministers who voted against the restitution bill scheduled for discussion at an 11 January cabinet meeting, Public Affairs chairman Radek John said.
The restitution bill calls for the churches to receive 59 billion crowns (about $2.9 billion), plus adjustments for inflation, over 30 years beginning in 2013. The deal could see the churches being paid $4 billion to $5 billion in total. The Roman Catholic Church would be the largest single recipient. Churches would also be handed back 56 percent of confiscated properties.
On 9 January police recommended that charges be filed against Public Affairs founder Vit Barta for paying a bribe to a former party member and fellow parliamentary deputy, Jaroslav Skarka, the Czech Press Agency reported. Skarka set off the investigation when he accused Barta of bribery, but he could be charged with accepting the bribe because he allegedly spent part of the 170,000 crowns ($8,500) Barta gave him. Both Barta and John resigned from the cabinet as the scandal broke last spring.
5. Armenia’s former chief traffic cop says innocent of corruption charge
The former chief of the Armenian traffic police, Margar Ohanyan, pled not guilty 9 January to a charge of embezzling public funds.
Ohanyan was arrested in August in a case involving the alleged theft of more than 150 tons of fuel, worth about $400,000, meant for use by traffic police. Three other former police officers are also on trial.
Ohanyan’s defense attorney said his client maintained his innocence of the charge but as a matter of “honor and dignity” had decided to compensate the state for the loss of public funds after collecting money from family and friends. ArmeniaNow said the payment equaled about $500,000, while Radio Free Europe, in an article published 9 January, said as of December Ohanyan had raised more than $100,000.
The trial is set to resume 13 January.