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Duma Leader Snubs Council of Europe, Jailed Belarusian Activist Freed

Plus, Innocence of Muslims protests in Eastern Europe, and Azeris jailed in Jewish school murder plot. by S. Adam Cardais and Joshua Boissevain 28 September 2012

1. Leader cites Russophobia in European lawmaker meeting withdrawal


Sergei Naryshkin
Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament and a member of the ruling United Russia party, said he will not attend next week's session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a human rights body, Reuters reports. Naryshkin was scheduled to speak there.


"[A]s the session's opening was nearing we felt that key strategic proposals of mine would not be heard by a number of leaders of the Parliamentary Assembly and a number of Russophobic delegations," Naryshkin said on Russian television, Reuters reports.


He was referring to Europe's increasingly pitched criticism of Moscow's human rights record, including the August conviction and imprisonment of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot for performing an opposition song in a Moscow cathedral. Earlier this month, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Moscow had been "chipping away" at human rights and civil liberties since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in May, Reuters reports.


Brussels and groups like Human Rights Watch have also slammed Putin's United Russia for pursuing a regressive legislative agenda in the past months.


At the upcoming assembly, European lawmakers are to vote on a resolution that urges Russian reforms on rule of law and human rights, while calling for Pussy Riot's release, Radio Free Europe reports. The rest of the Russian delegation will attend the meeting.


2. Minsk grants imprisoned opposition figure clemency


Syarhey Kavalenka
After seeking clemency, Belarusian opposition leader Syarhey Kavalenka was freed from prison 26 September, Radio Free Europe reports. His health had deteriorated due to a lengthy hunger strike.


Family members said Kavalenka and his wife had reached their hometown of Vitebsk. His mother told RFE that the activist sought a pardon after guards put him in solitary confinement, among other pressures.


Sentenced in February, the 37-year-old was serving 25 months for violating his parole for a past conviction for displaying the banned Belarusian national flag, charges he denies, RFE reports.


Government crackdowns on protests after the 2010 reelection of Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka have severely undermined the opposition, which organized a boycott of parliamentary elections this month.


3. Anger flares over anti-Muslim film in the Caucasus, Ukraine


Protests have erupted in Russia's North Caucasus and Crimea over the Innocence of Muslims, a short film on YouTube that has sparked outrage in the Arab world for portraying Muhammad negatively, RIA Novosti reports.


An unnamed prosecutor in the North Caucasus reported the protests to RIA Novosti without specifying the location or time. He did say they could spark fresh violence in the unstable region.


In the Crimean capital of Simferopol, some 700 Muslims gathered 27 September to protest the video. The demonstration was peaceful despite being organized by a regional group with suspected extremist ties, RIA Novosti reports.


Next week a Moscow court will consider a request by a Russian prosecutor to ban the Innocence of Muslims because it is extremist. In the majority-Muslim republic of Chechnya, several Internet providers have blocked YouTube access, according to RIA Novosti.


4. Three Azeris convicted of plotting to kill Jewish teachers


Three Azerbaijani men have been sentenced to prison for a plot to kill teachers at a Jewish school in Baku, Radio Free Europe reports. The court gave the ringleader 14 years, while the two other defendants received 13 and eight-year sentences.


Investigators said the group received money and weapons from Iran, Bloomberg reports. The ringleader reportedly confessed that the attack was in reprisal for Israel's suspected role in the assassination of a scientist working on Iran's nuclear program, according to RFE. Israel believes Tehran is developing a nuclear weapon, which the Iranians deny.


Relations between Tehran and Baku have frayed this year. Iran distrusts what it sees as closer relations between Azerbaijan and Israel. While Baku says it arrested Iranian spies on its soil in March.


5. Macedonian politician media moguls forced to choose


Macedonian media moguls involved in politics have until 30 September to decide whether they want to give up their political seat or their TV or radio station, and at least a few have put off the choice until the last minute, according to Balkan Insight.


Macedonian law forbids politicians and their immediate families from owning broadcast media. The deadline is the result of a ruling five months ago by the country’s Broadcasting Council that the country’s major broadcasting outlets get their ownership in line with the law or risk losing their licenses.


Of the country’s three big broadcasters, Sitel TV, Kanal 77 Radio, and Kanal 5 TV, only Sitel has announced its intentions. Legislator and leader of the Socialist Party, Ljubisav Ivanov-Zingo, plans to step down so that his son can continue as head of the station. Boris Stojmenov, a legislator and head of the VMRO-Macedonian Party is expected to announce 28 September whether he will give up his seat or his family will sell the company, Balkan Insight reports.


Earlier this week, the Broadcasting Council rejected a proposal by Goran Gavrilov, the owner of Kanal 77 Radio and brother of a lawmaker from the opposition Social Democrats, to transfer his ownership to his son and his wife, reports.


The decision to drive a wedge between the media and politics is part of Macedonia’s efforts to meet the standards for EU accession. Earlier this summer, the country moved to decriminalize defamation. Many journalists, however, were critical of the move, saying it didn’t go far enough to protect them as they could still be on the hook for severe fines if found guilty.

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Joshua Boissevain is a TOL editorial assistant.
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