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Georgia Offers Amnesty to Collect Illegal Surveillance Tapes, Baku Hits Back at RFE

Plus, Tajikistan gets funds to adapt to climate change and feminists clash with Kyiv police during Orthodox religious holiday.

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, Vladimir Matan, and Molly Jane Zuckerman 29 July 2013

1. Tbilisi hopes amnesty will help round up sleazy recordings

 

In an effort to vacuum up the tens of thousands of illegal, secret recordings made by its security services over the last several years, the Georgian government is preparing to offer an amnesty to people who made or possess the tapes as long as they turn them in, Civil.ge reports.

 

The Interior Ministry estimates there are about 24,000 such recordings floating around, the website reports. “A small portion” of those involve recordings of people’s private activities, “mainly of a sexual nature,” according to Civil.ge. The rest “are recordings of meetings and conversations of politicians, journalists, civil society representatives, and other figures, as well as videos showing torture scenes.”

 

Most of the tapes are housed at the Interior Ministry, but members of the security services could have kept some or made copies of others, so it is impossible to know how many exist.

 

The current government, which took over after elections in October, accuses its predecessor of using the recordings as ammunition against its critics, but some of those secret tapes – of abuse of prison inmates – helped lead to the previous government’s defeat in the elections.

 

Georgian officials have been trying to determine whether to destroy the recordings as quickly as possible or to keep some in case they are needed in prosecutions of those who made them and do not pursue amnesty.

 

Thomas Hammarberg, the EU’s adviser to Georgia on legal and human-rights issues, has recommended the recordings be destroyed after a rapid review by an existing commission that includes civil society representatives. Members of the commission could testify in court trials, if necessary, to the existence of the evidence once it has been destroyed, he suggested in a July 20 report.

 

2. Azerbaijani presidential aide defends apartments for journalists

 

Stung by a recent report by Radio Free Europe on its allocation of apartments to journalists, the government of Azerbaijan has issued a long rebuttal via News.az, a government-friendly news site.

 

RFE marked the opening of the residential building last week by noting that independent journalists are often attacked for doing their job and some are imprisoned on grounds widely views as political. It quoted a journalism professor in Baku as saying, “How can you criticize the government if you receive an apartment from them? This is why I think it is better to quit than to look for arguments to justify the receiving of apartments from the government.”

 

Elnur Aslanov
In reply, Elnur Aslanov, an aide to President Ilham Aliev, told News.az that the apartments were built in response to complaints from the National Press Council about living standards for journalists. He said the units were just one example of government largesse for various groups, including new homes for refugees.

 

Aslanov said that “there is no state censorship, no media restrictions, and with more than 50 political parties Azerbaijani citizens have the opportunity to participate in the political life of the country.”

 

Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.-based pro-democracy group, rates the media in Azerbaijan as Not Free – its lowest ranking – and begins its most recent annual report on press freedom in the country thusly:

 

“Conditions for freedom of expression in Azerbaijan remain dire, as authorities continue to imprison journalists and bloggers who express dissenting opinions. Violence against journalists has not abated, and the media are harassed with impunity. Although the 2000 Law on Mass Media guarantees freedom of speech and access to information, these rights are not protected in practice.”

 

Azerbaijan will hold a presidential election in October. In its report on the previous presidential vote in 2008, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s observer mission concluded that the election “was characterized by a lack of robust competition, a lack of vibrant political discourse, and a restrictive media environment, and thus did not reflect some of the principles necessary for a meaningful and pluralistic democratic election. Regrettably, some opposition parties decided not to participate in the election, citing longstanding obstacles to equal treatment and equal opportunities to convey their views, thus further limiting the scope for a credible choice for the electorate.”

 

3. Tajikistan gets funds to defend against climate change

 

Tajikistan will get nearly $22 million to combat the ravages of climate change in the Panj River basin on its southern border with Afghanistan, Asia-Plus reports.

 

The agricultural area, home to about 1.27 million people, has recently seen extreme weather and landslides that have led to the loss of crops and even some deaths, the news agency writes.

 

 

Residents of Tajikistan's Panj River valley are about to get help in coping with the effects of climate change. Photo by Paul/flickr.

 

The project, due for completion in 2019, seeks to improve local communities’ ability to cope with the weather disasters that come with climate change, according to a grant report by the Asian Development Bank. It will focus on flood protection, early warning systems, climate change adaptation, and refurbishment of irrigation systems and drinking water supplies for 59 villages. The money is being provided by the Strategic Climate fund, an international effort funded by donor countries, with the government of Tajikistan and several micro lenders kicking in an additional $1.5 million.

 

Klaus Gerhaeusser, director general of the Asian Development Bank’s Central and West Asia department, said, “Tajikistan is a small greenhouse gas producer and yet among the most vulnerable to climate change,” Asia-Plus writes.

 

4. FEMEN activists, police offer differing accounts of clashes during religious holiday

 

Several activists and a journalist were arrested in Kyiv during a celebration of the medieval conversion to Christianity of the Slavs of Eastern Europe, the Kyiv Post reports.

 

Three members of the feminist group FEMEN, which is known for staging topless protests, were walking in Kyiv with a photographer and refused police officers’ request to cover up, the Post writes, citing a report by Interfax. They were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and the photographer was detained for allegedly “disobeying law enforcement officials.”

 

FEMEN says the group was “severely beaten and kidnapped.”

 

This weekend’s protest action took place as Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church were in Kyiv to celebrate the Baptism of Kyivan Rus, a medieval empire that occupied parts of modern-day Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. RFE writes that Orthodox Christian churches across the three countries chimed their bells for 15 minutes at noon on 28 July as a mark of their common religious heritage.

 

The episode follows a pattern of violence against FEMEN activists in the days prior to the celebrations. On 24 July, a male FEMEN member who was beaten blamed security services who he said wanted to prevent him and his fellow activists from staging a protest, according to Radio Free Europe. Anna Hutsol, the organization’s leader, was also assaulted and had her dog stolen on 27 July, AFP writes

 

FEMEN drew the ire of Orthodox leaders last year after one activist chopped down a wooden cross in protest against the prison sentences given to three members of the Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot.

 

5. Anti-gay protesters egg activists and dignitaries in Vilnius

 

Lithuania’s second gay pride parade, held on 27 July, was overshadowed by protesters clashing with the police in Vilnius and throwing eggs at marchers and the dignitaries who were there to support them, the Associated Press reports.

 

Several hundred activists faced off against hundreds of protesters, some of whom tried to charge a stage set up for the event in the capital, AP reports. The protesters were led by a member of Lithuania’s parliament. Twenty-eight were detained by the police, according to AP.

 

 

In addition to the marchers, protesters hit another member of parliament and a visiting Swedish cabinet minister with eggs, the news agency writes.

 

Giedre Purvaneckiene, the lawmaker hit with eggs, said the violence “shows that we [in Lithuania] need to march until eggs aren’t thrown anymore and people can march freely and without fear,” according to AP.

 

Predominantly Catholic Lithuania, which is in the first month of its six-month EU presidency, is struggling with issues of tolerance, nationalism, and conservatism.

 

Gay rights are particularly vulnerable in former Soviet states. Earlier this year gay-rights rallies turned violent in Russia and Georgia. In Tbilisi anti-gay protesters threw rocks at activists, and in St. Petersburg demonstrators threw smoke bombs.

 

Ukraine held its first gay pride 25 May despite a court ban and the presence of angry protesters.

Barbara Frye is TOL’s managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Vladimir Matan and Molly Jane Zuckerman are TOL editorial interns.
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