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Ashton in Central Asia, Minsk Shutters Another Critic

Plus, Czech top brass plead on behalf of jailed ‘spies’ and the Russians who get a kick out of poisoning stray dogs.

by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, and Joshua Boissevain 27 November 2012

1. Belarus shutters office of leading human rights center


Ales Byalyatski
Belarusian authorities evicted one of the country’s best-known human rights organizations from its office in Minsk 26 November, according to Radio Free Europe. Police sealed up the headquarters of the Vyasna (Spring) Human Rights Center and seized furniture and equipment from the office, which was located in the apartment of its imprisoned chairman, Ales Byalyatski.


Last week, authorities told Vyasna workers to vacate the offices, which the organization has used for 12 years. The order stems from Byalyatski’s 2011 conviction for tax evasion related to bank accounts he held in Poland and Lithuania. He is serving a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence. Byalyatski argued that the money was donated to Vyasna by foreign groups and was exempt from taxation.



Amnesty International called the eviction a violation of the country’s human rights obligations.  Deputy Director David Diaz-Jogeix said in a statement, “The Belarusian Constitution guarantees everyone the right to freedom of association, yet every day we see the rights to freedom of association, assembly, and expression violated in Belarus.”


The same day as the eviction, Charter 97 reported that Byalyatski is being held in isolation in a penal colony in central Belarus.


2. Ashton coy on specifics of Central Asia trip


Catherine Ashton
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, will meet the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries in Bishkek today at the start of her visit to the region.


Ashton earlier met Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev. Her agenda includes a visit to Uzbekistan tomorrow, followed by stops in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, Radio Free Europe reports.


Little information has emerged about the particulars of Ashton’s trip. The European Council in June restated its long-term priorities for dealings with the region, topped by human rights, the rule of law, and good governance along with trade, investment, and energy.


However, interviewed by RFE last week, Ashton tiptoed around issues of human rights and the authoritarian nature of several Central Asian regimes. Asked if she would raise questions of human rights with regional leaders, she replied, “It's always part of my dialogue. And it's done in a way that it enables us to talk about what that means in practice.” Engagement is usually much more effective than isolation, she added.


3. Czech president, premier intervene on behalf of accused spies


About 150 people demonstrated in front of the Greek Embassy in Prague 26 November to call for the release of two Czech video game developers accused of spying, according to the Czech Press Agency.


Martin Pezlar and Ivan Buchta, both employees of a company that writes software for video games, Bohemia Interactive, were arrested 9 September on the Greek island of Lemnos for allegedly taking photographs of a military area in violation of Greek law. They are charged with espionage and could face prison terms of five to 20 years if convicted, the agency writes.


Bohemia Interactive is developing a military game set on Lemnos. However, Pezlar and Buchta say they were on holiday at the time of their arrest.


After an intervention by President Vaclav Klaus on the men’s behalf, Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas brought up the case with his Greek counterpart, Antonis Samaras, during last week’s EU summit in Brussels. Necas said Samaras promised to look into the matter.


In a similar case, three Czech tourists who took photos of military installations in Zambia were released in January after being held for nearly three months on espionage charges. In that incident as well, Klaus wrote to his Zambian counterpart, saying the three men had not intended any harm.


4. Russian vigilantes declare war on stray dogs


Russian animal rights activists and dog owners have been complaining about groups of “dog hunters” taking extreme measures against the country’s stray dogs, Agence France Presse writes. Operating in several major Russian cities such as Moscow and Yekaterinburg, the network aims to eliminate the packs of feral dogs that roam the streets.


More than 13,000 people are bitten by dogs every year in Moscow alone, and almost 400 people died in Russia from 2000 to 2010 after being attacked by dogs, AFP writes. Animal rights activists say 1,300 Moscow dogs have been killed by “dog hunters” in the last three years.


Their tactics, which include the use of air guns and the spreading of poisoned bait in parks, have also raised the ire of dog owners whose pets have been poisoned. Dog hunter groups have responded by putting up signs in Moscow parks saying dogs must be muzzled and on leads at all times. The signs are accompanied by photos of children attacked by stray dogs and the warning "if you do not respect these rules, your dogs will die too."


The news agency quoted one dog hunter’s complaint about the lack of governmental solutions for the problem of stray dogs, saying that he would prefer for dogs to be captured and taken to shelters, where they would be put down if nobody adopted them.


However, one female dog hunter interviewed by a local news website in St. Petersburg said she enjoyed killing pet dogs as well as strays, the BBC reports.


Dealing with stray dogs has also proved a headache for authorities in other countries, such as Bulgaria, where an elderly Sofia man died after a mauling by dogs in April. In Romania, the Constitutional Court struck down a law allowing local authorities to euthanize stray dogs in January.


5. Poverty, fraud combine to keep Armenian orphanages full


Only a handful of children have returned to their families in the six years since Armenia began a program to reduce the number of children institutionalized because their families cannot afford their upkeep, reports.


Four-fifths of the 5,000 children living in orphanages, boarding schools, and other children’s institutions in Armenia have at least one living parent, according to a UNICEF study. Yet, in 2011 only 56 children were returned to their families, and 267 new residents entered institutions.


The government initiative to encourage foster parenting has had even less success, writes: only 21 families have agreed to become foster parents since 2006, according to officials, who say the program is underfinanced.


The financial interests of orphanage managers, as well as outright fraud, may be at fault. A state competition commission recently found serious misuse of funds in children’s homes during a recent audit. Food is often purchased at twice the market price, the commission chairman said, according to


Armenia, like Georgia and Moldova, sees foster care as a partial solution to the problem of “poverty orphans.” However, the claims for the foster-care system are exaggerated in the case of Armenia, as are the accusations of mismanagement at orphanages, according to George S. Yacoubian, Jr., president of the U.S.-based Society for Orphaned Armenian Relief, which sponsors several orphanages.


In an August letter to the Armenian Weekly, Yacoubian said, “there is no empirical evidence to suggest that foster care in Armenia would provide any advantages over the current orphanage system. Moreover, the short- and long-term problems are so potentially crippling that the foster care proposal does not even merit serious discussion.”


Yacoubian called for more government and private funding to improve supervision and provide better conditions at orphanages.

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor for TOLIoana Caloianu and Joshua Boissevain are TOL editorial assistants.
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