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Violence Mars Kosovo Poll, Baku Targets Civil Society Groups

Plus, students breathe new life into Bulgarian protests and Kazakhstan releases a crusading lawyer from a psychiatric hospital.

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, and Karlo Marinovic 4 November 2013

1. Attack forces polling places in Mitrovica to shut down

 

Violence and low turnout marred local elections in Kosovo that had been closely watched as ethnic Serbs there decided whether to take part.

 

A group of masked men broke into a polling station in the northern, Serb-dominated half of the city of Mitrovica, the BBC reports.

 

“They started smashing ballot boxes, throwing ballot papers around, insulting members of the election commission, and one older woman was seriously injured because one of the attackers hit her with a chair,” mayoral candidate Krstimir Pantic told the BBC.

 

As a result, a foreign technical assistance crew withdrew from the three polling stations in the area and voting was stopped.

 

In other parts of northern Kosovo with Serb majorities, Serbs opposed to participation in the election “stood outside polling stations … screaming abuse at voters and filming them,” Al Jazeera reports.

 

The elections for mayors and local councils were a flashpoint for ethnic tensions, as some Serbs said taking part was tantamount to recognizing the legitimacy of Kosovo as a state. The government of Serbia, however, urged Serbs in Kosovo to vote.

 

Turnout was low across Kosovo – in the teens in most municipalities, according to the Central Election Commission. Participation stood at 13.65 percent in northern Mitrovica, with about 93 percent of polling stations reporting. Ironically, it was even lower – 9.18 percent – in the ethnic-Albanian part of the city.

 

Some analysts told Al Jazeera that given the violence and disruptions, the voting in northern Mitrovica could not be considered valid.

 

2. Baku puts the screws to election watchdog

 

Police raided an independent Azerbaijani election monitoring organization last week as part of a crackdown on civil society and the media, the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety said in a statement.

 

The institute says police spent five hours at the Baku office of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center and seized computers and documents. The government says it has launched an investigation into “irregularities” at the center.

 

The center “enraged the government by reporting irregularities surrounding … Azerbaijan’s election,” according to the reporters organization.

 

In the 9 October presidential election, incumbent Ilham Aliev was returned to power with about 85 percent of the vote. Western observers called the balloting “seriously flawed,” citing major problems with vote counting, voter and press intimidation, and restrictions on the rights of opposition candidates to assemble and use national television. Those observers said they witnessed ballot stuffing and fraud at some polling places.

 

The reporters group also notes that an independent newspaper that reported on electoral fraud, Azadliq, has had its bank accounts frozen and might have to close. It is facing six-digit fines for defamation, and its publishing house has threatened to stop the presses unless it receives payment of a 20,000 manat ($25,000) debt from the newspaper, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

“Less than a month after the presidential vote, independent media outlets and human right[s] defenders are still facing unprecedented levels of repression and harassment and the number of prosecutions is on the increase,” the reporters group said.

 

3. Bulgarian students re-energize anti-government protests

 

Bulgarian students are breathing new life into the anti-government protests that have been going on in Sofia since June, according to Euronews. For more than a week, universities in the city have been occupied by students hoping to shake their countrymen out of the apathy that plagues civic life in Bulgaria.

 

The students have specifically called for the government to resign but more broadly want a “long-term awakening of the Bulgarian society and mainly – student society,” protester Nikolay Dyulgerov told Euronews in an email.

 

They have blocked downtown traffic, chanting “Wake up,” “Red scum,” and “Resign.”

 

Bulgaria’s Socialist prime minister, Plamen Oresharski, dismissed the protesters, calling their demands “typical political ones.” He said he was disappointed the demonstrators did did not focus on education.

 

“I expected a different kind of protest demands from the students – a professional one, about education, because education is not in excellent shape,” Oresharski said, according to Euronews.

 

He said he has agreed to meet with the students, but nothing has been nailed down so far.

 

In June, the government’s appointment of controversial media mogul Delyan Peevski to lead the State Agency for National Security sparked nationwide protests, which also called for the resignation of the Socialist-led government. The protests regained momentum in October, after a court decision allowed Peevski to retain his seat in parliament.

 

The Sofia Globe reports that a poll conducted by Alpha Research shows that 60 percent of Bulgarians support the students’ demands for the resignation of the government, new elections, and social reforms.

 

4. Anti-corruption lawyer freed in Kazakhstan

 

A lawyer in Kazakhstan who was forcibly committed to a psychiatric institution in August has been released, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

Zinaida Mukhortova
Zinaida Mukhortova, 56, was taken to a hospital in eastern Kazakhstan early in the morning of 9 August after “four police officers, one doctor, two nurses, and two medical staffers” broke in her apartment door, Front Line Defenders, a human rights watchdog, reported at the time. The group says Mukhortova has “denounced cases of corruption” and provided free legal advice to local people.

 

The attorney, who has been in forced psychiatric care before, told RFE that her treatment is politically motivated. Her first time in detention was in February 2010, “after she wrote a letter to the president of Kazakhstan to complain about interference by a member of parliament in a civil case in which she was involved,” according to Human Rights Watch.

 

During that detention Mukhortova was diagnosed after a prison psychiatric exam as suffering from a delusional disorder, according to Front Line Defenders, but her sanity was “certified” by an independent expert, whose findings

a court has refused to allow into her file.

 

Mukhortova told RFE that the official assessment of her mental health has not been wrapped up.

 

5. Estonian to travel around the world in Bond-like vehicle

 

An Estonian mechanical engineer has set off on a journey around the world in an amphibious vehicle, AFP reports.

 

Mait Nilson
Mait Nilson left Estonia's capital, Tallinn, on 2 November to travel for nine months in a Toyota Land Cruiser, called Amphibear, that has been outfitted to also serve as a boat.

 

"My life's dream has been to build an amphibious car and circumnavigate the globe,” Nilson, owner of a small stainless steel fastener business, wrote on the project’s website, www.amphibear.com. “I'm over 40 years old, and I decided it is time to fulfill my life's dream. So I designed and built Amphibear."

 

The 60,000-kilometer (37,000-mile) trek will cover 26 countries in Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

 

Amphibear measures 10 meters (33 feet) long and 2.5 meters wide. It can travel as fast as 110 kilometers per hour as a conventional car or up to 120 nautical miles per day when two side attachments are deployed, making it resemble a catamaran.

 

Something like a catamaran. Photo from www.amphibear.com.

 

The Amphibear website says the vehicle’s great advantage is reduced wind drag, putting it at a lower risk of capsizing in wind than a regular catamaran, but its higher center of gravity is a disadvantage during water travel.

 

The journey's first water challenge will be the Strait of Gibraltar, followed by a river crossing in Senegal, and then crossing the Atlantic Ocean to reach Brazil.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Karlo Marinovic is a TOL editorial intern.
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