Plus, Russian lawmakers pass a tough new treason bill and a Czech-Japanese politician draws fire for his outspoken views on race relations.by Jeremy Druker, Joshua Boissevain, and Nino Tsintsadze 1 November 2012
Defying international criticism, the upper house of the Russian parliament easily passed a bill 31 October that widely expands the definition of high treason, Radio Free Europe reports. The bill, which saw only one senator abstain and all others present vote in favor, has already been approved by the lower house and should soon become law after receiving President Vladimir Putin’s signature.
According to the new law, high treason is now defined as espionage, disclosure of state secrets, or any other assistance provided not only to foreign states, but also to international organizations seen as working “against the security of Russia.”
The Russian opposition, as well as civil society and international organizations, have condemned the bill as an attack on the civil sector and another instrument of repression.
In an interview with Gazeta.Ru, human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov said any communication of the Kremlin’s political opponents with foreigners or international organizations, even the presentation of human rights reports at conferences, might now be regarded as a crime. In the view of the human rights and social activist Ella Pamfilova, the adoption of the law is “a continuation of the current feverish prohibitive legislative trends.”
Last week, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton released a statement criticizing the controversial bill and stating that the vague definition of treason might result in misuse of the bill. “The new law would expand the scope for prosecution of and reduce the burden of proof for charges of treason and espionage," the statement read.
Armenian state prosecutors got a particularly strong tongue lashing this week by the country’s president, Serzh Sargsyan. At a televised meeting 29 October with top representatives at the prosecutor-general's office, Sargsyan accused law enforcement officials of having ties to organized crime groups. He said state prosecutors and law enforcement officials routinely cover up crimes, forge documents, frame innocent people, and commit other crimes, according to a statement released by his press office.
“I cannot imagine a fouler or a more wicked deed [by] a person who works in a law enforcement establishment,” Sargsyan said.
Sargsyan’s harsh criticism of Prosecutor General Aghvan Hovsepian and his staff comes as the result of an inquiry conducted by the president’s staff, which included specific examples of crimes and cover-ups but was not made public, according to Radio Free Europe.
No one has been dismissed so far. Sargsyan only issued recommendations for cleaning up the office and said the issue would be revisited down the road. But following the meeting, Armenian Speaker of Parliament Hovik Abramian told RFE/RL on 31 October that he still expects to see serious repercussions and resignations within the prosecutor-general's office as a result of the probe.
The meeting comes as Armenia gears up for a presidential race scheduled for February, and some Armenian commentators have wondered if Sargsyan is using the issue of corruption as a political tool.
Serbian journalists say they are concerned that the government’s retreat from its pledge to decriminalize defamation signals a lack of will to defend press freedoms. Members of the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia, NUNS, protested the move on 30 October, saying it “reinforces repressive mechanisms against the media,” according to Balkan Insight.
Serbian officials announced last summer they were planning to strike the criminal penalties for defamation. But on 29 October, the head of the Justice Ministry working group for changes to the criminal code said such a move would not be made because it was not a condition for joining the EU. “All countries in the EU have the crime of libel and defamation in their criminal code, so the question is whether we are going to look to Moldova and Georgia, which erased the crime from the law, or to Germany and Italy," Balkan Insight quoted him as saying.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also voiced concern about the country’s commitment to protecting media freedom following two recent attacks on journalists. On 30 October, an unexploded bomb was found at the house of the parents of B92 journalist Tanja Jankovic, the organization said in a press release. Two weeks ago, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the home of the director of the tabloid newspaper, The Informer.
The presence of a freshly elected Czech-Japanese businessman in the Czech Senate is already causing unease among his peers and the media, the Czech daily Mlada fronta Dnes reports. Tomio Okamura easily won the runoff round of the elections held in mid-October, becoming a senator for the region of Zlin in southeastern Moravia.
Born to a Czech mother and Japanese father in Tokyo, the 40-year-old Okamura spent his childhood between Japan and Czechoslovakia. He later became a successful in the Czech tourism industry and a frequent figure in the media as the spokesman for an association of travel agencies. His popularity among the public also took a boost when he started to appear as a panel member on the reality show, Den D (a spinoff of the Dragon’s Den format, where would-be entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to investors).
Okamura has spoken about the difficulties of fitting in both in the Czech Republic and Japan and his experiences with racism and xenophobia. But he has also made statements over the years that have been interpreted as defending Czech extremists. In 2011 he seemed to defend the views of a banned neo-Nazi party in his blog, asking why the opinion that “Gypsies should found their own state and the Czech Republic should support their emigration” should be considered “extremist.”
In an opinion published 1 November in the print version of Mlada fronta, well-known journalist Barbara Tacheci writes that Okamura also distributed a pamphlet by mail calling for the “repatriation” of the Roma – supposedly successful in solving the Jewish question – because their integration into majority society was unacceptable. The author of that text was convicted of racial hatred in 2010.
Okamura’s fellow senators have tried to avoid commenting on their new colleague, but Mlada fronta reports that several feel uncomfortable with Okamura’s rhetoric and are weighing whether they want to sit with him in a new grouping called “The Club for the Renewal of Democracy,” which he has already joined. Okamura also recently announced that his success in the Senate elections emboldened him to run in January’s presidential vote.
Commissioned by the Kazakh Ministry of Culture, the trilogy, titled Way of the Leader, covers the long life of the strong-armed president, who has ruled Kazakhstan since it became independent in 1991. The first film, The Sky of My Childhood, was released in 2011, while the second and third are being filmed simultaneously at locations in Kazakhstan and around Eastern Europe. They are set to be screened in 2013.
In a review of the first film, Joshua First, an expert on Soviet-era film at the University of Mississippi, wrote, “The film draws extensively on the style and thematic elements of Soviet poetic cinema from the 1960s-70s, with its slow pacing and quiet tone, and its ethnographic focus on folklore, everyday life, kinship, and the landscape.”
The films’ director, Rustem Abdrashev, told Radio Free Europe that the trilogy, based on Nazarbaev’s memoirs, was not part of a cult of personality around the president, but rather “an attempt to reassess [the Soviet era], to tell a truth that, to be honest, wasn't very often told at the time.”
A scene in one of the films being shot now emphasizes Nazarbaev’s man of the people image. According to the Tengri News agency, the scene depicts an American journalist, looking at the young metallurgist Nazarbaev, and deciding that he is not a real worker but the son of party officials. To prove her wrong, the future head of Kazakhstan shows his calloused hands.
Another high-profile Central Asian film could also hit screens in the near future. Gulnara Karimova, the multi-talented daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, is said to be working on a screenplay set in sixth-century Central Asia. French actor Gerard Depardieu is being targeted to play a Christian monk in the movie, Radio Free Europe reports.