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Putin Orders Flood Inquiry, Trouble at The Hague?

Plus, 13 are convicted in a gruesome Kazakhstani prisoner abuse case, and Russia cuts the oil flow to Belarus.

by S. Adam Cardais, Vladimir Matan, and Sintija Treimane 30 August 2013

1. After surveying flood damage, Putin calls for investigation


Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an inquiry into the local response to flooding in several far eastern regions this month after visiting the devastation 29 August, Reuters reports.


"There are some people who doubt that officials, including those in charge of hydro-energy facilities, acted strictly in line with the relevant guidelines and current legislation," Putin told officials in Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border. "The actions of all officials must be thoroughly investigated and analyzed, and [the results] reported to me."

russia flood 350Officials of RusHydro, which operates this dam on the Zeya river, have been accused of not releasing water quickly enough to avoid flooding. Photo by the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry.


Weeks of heavy rain in Russia's far east this month caused the country's worst floods in 120 years and nearly $1 billion in damages. Houses remain partly submerged, streets are under water, and thousands have been displaced following evacuations, according to Reuters. No deaths have been reported.


Through the inquiry, Reuters suggests, Putin aims to rally his largely rural base by showing voters he stands with them. Last year, anti-Putin protests erupted in Moscow and other large cities after widespread fraud allegations in the December 2011 parliamentary elections.


RIA Novosti reports that Putin met with agricultural leaders 29 August, as farmers were hard hit by the floods. He discussed assistance options and said in a statement that "our challenge now is to minimize losses."


Officials suspected of incompetence could face criminal prosecution. This month four officials from southern Russian were convicted of criminal negligence for their response to floods last year that killed more than 170 people, Reuters reports.


2. Hague judge removed for bias, casting shadow over earlier convictions


Frederik Harhoff
In an unprecedented move, the UN war crimes tribunal at The Hague has removed a judge from a trial for bias, potentially jeopardizing earlier convictions, Balkan Insight reports.


Frederik Harhoff was removed following a motion by Serbian war crimes defendant Vojislav Seselj that he had demonstrated "strong inclinations … to convict accused persons of Serbian ethnicity." In a letter leaked earlier this year, Harhoff criticized the court's recent high-profile acquittals of Serbian and Croatian wartime commanders.


In its 28 August ruling, the court said the release of Harhoff's letter means "an unacceptable appearance of bias exists," the Associated Press reports.


While a new judge should be assigned under court bylaws, it remains unclear how the removal will affect Seselj's trial because all the evidence has been presented, with a verdict expected 30 October, Balkan Insight points out. A Hague spokeswoman contacted by the news agency would not say whether the proceedings would be delayed.


Vojislav Seselj
In a blog post, Dov Jacobs, an assistant professor of international law at Leiden University in Holland, wondered whether Seselj would receive a retrial and, more broadly, how the decision might affect earlier verdicts. For instance, lawyers for a convicted former Serbian security officer whose case is being heard on appeal have already requested the Harhoff letter be submitted as new evidence, Jacobs notes.


Founder of the Serbian Radical Party and a former member of parliament, Seselj stands accused of using hate-filled speeches to encourage Serbs to commit atrocities against non-Serbs in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia from 1991 to 1994. He surrendered to the tribunal in 2003.


3. Kazakhstani guards, penal officials convicted of beating, crucifying inmate


A Kazakh court has convicted 13 prison guards and top officials of torturing an inmate to death in a case that spotlights what human rights groups call among the world's most abusive penal systems, Radio Free Europe reports.


On 29 August, a military court sentenced a high-ranking official and two deputies at a labor camp in the city of Zheqazghan to six years in prison. It slapped two other guards with five years in prison, while eight more received suspended sentences.


The court said the men beat a prisoner for hours before crucifying him on a metal fence. The inmate died from his injuries.


In the first half of 2013 alone, human rights groups have received more than 200 reports of prisoner mistreatment in Kazakhstan, the BBC reported this month in a video story on abuse at Stalinist-era gulag camps used as prisons there today. In July, Amnesty International detailed widespread reports of torture and other rights violations against Kazakh prisoners, including beatings, suffocation, and threats against relatives.


4. Russia to cut Belarus’ oil supply


Russia’s pipeline company has reduced the oil supply to Belarus by 25 percent following the arrest of a Russian executive in Minsk earlier this week, Reuters reports.


Transneft informed suppliers 28 August that it would be reducing the oil supply to neighboring Belarus by 400,000 tons in September. The company cited maintenance as a reason for the cuts, according to Reuters, but the announcement came two days after Vladislav Baumgertner, the chairman of Russian potash company Uralkali, was arrested in Minsk, Bloomberg writes.


Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said the supply cuts could continue for months, Reuters reports, citing Russian media.


Minsk was angered after Uralkali dissolved a joint Russia-Belarus venture, Belarusian Potash Co (BPC) in July. BPC was the leading player in the world potash market, according to Reuters. Uralkali said it pulled out because the Belarus partner broke the conditions of the pact, Bloomberg writes.


Baumgertner faces charges of abuse of power. Belarusian prosecutors are considering bringing charges against Uralkali’s top shareholder, Kremlin-backed tycoon Suleiman Kerimov, Reuters writes.


Russia is Belarus’ top economic partner and relies heavily on its bigger neighbor for support, as its relationship with the United States and EU is strained by criticism of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s authoritarian regime.


5. Kosovo cracks down on counterfeiters


Following in the footsteps of other Balkan countries, Kosovo has started an aggressive drive to end the sales of counterfeit goods and stop piracy, Southeast European Times reports.


Since adopting a zero-tolerance policy two weeks ago, authorities have confiscated thousands of illegal compact discs and DVDs, the website reports.


The director of the office for copyrights, Valon Kashtanjeva, said most of the confiscated materials – movies, software, and music – are assumed to be counterfeit because their copyright owners are abroad and no one in Kosovo has the rights to sell them.


One supervising inspector on the country's new anti-counterfeiting task force said border checks will be stepped up. "In this regard every imported product that lacks appropriate legal documentation will be seized and legal action will be taken against those who are trying to put these products on the domestic market," Ruzhdi Shehu told SETimes.


In addition to open-air markets, the authorities have put websites and bookstores in their sights.


Experts say stopping piracy could increase tax revenues and make the region more interesting for foreign investors. SETimes reported in January that 87 million euros' ($116 million) worth of pirated software had been sold in Serbia in 2011.

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Vladimir Matan and Sintija Treimane are TOL editorial interns.
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