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Eurovision Plotters Sentenced in Baku, Experts Probe Cause of Riga Store Collapse

Plus, smoggy Krakow restricts coal stoves, and a donation from an unexpected source helps spiff up a historic Armenian monastery.

by Ioana Caloianu, Ky Krauthamer, Karlo Marinovic, and Alexander Silady 26 November 2013

1. Twenty-nine sentenced for planning terror spree in Baku


A court in Baku sentenced 29 people to long prison terms 25 November after finding them guilty of plotting terrorist attacks during the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest held in the Azerbaijani capital, AFP reports.


Three men, all Azerbaijani citizens, were jailed for life; most of the others received prison terms of from nine to 15 years. A total of 36 people have now been sentenced for planning a series of attacks during the May 2012 Eurovision contest, with targets including President Ilham Aliev, the hall hosting the event, hotels, police stations, and religious sites.


According to the AP, some of the defendants came from Dagestan, the center of an Islamic insurgency in the Russian North Caucasus.


baku_crystal350Crystal Hall, venue for the 2012 Eurovision finals.


The secular government of mostly Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan has said it is determined to stop Islamist threats. The latest convictions come two years after another group, allegedly connected to al Qaeda, received prison sentences, Reuters reports; and in 2007, authorities detained a group they said were Islamist militants planning a large-scale attack near the U.S. Embassy in Baku.


2. Experts seek cause of Riga supermarket disaster


Latvia’s Re&Re construction company will take full responsibility for the collapse of a Riga supermarket if it is found liable for the disaster, the Leta news agency reports, according to The Baltic Course.


Re&Re was installing a garden on the roof of a two-year-old supermarket when the roof caved in on the evening of 21 November, killing 54 people and sending dozens to hospitals. Rescuers ended the search for more victims 25 November.


Riga supermarket collapseAn overhead view of the Maxima store after the catastrophic roof collapse. Photo from a video by VideoMedia/YouTube


The company said it was conducting emergency checks on all sites where it is doing construction or restoration, including public office buildings, a concert hall, the National Museum of Art, apartment buildings, and a clinic.


Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs suspended six members of the city construction board who authorized documents for construction work on the supermarket in the Zolitude suburb, the Leta news agency reports.


Architects Journal writes that design flaws may have contributed to the disaster, although no official cause has been announced.


Some experts questioned the initial speculation that heavy building materials overstressed the roof, causing it to cave in. However, British architect Gordon Gibb said that might have been a contributing factor.


Gibb and Finnish engineer Toomas Kaljas said the main problem could have been inadequate design of the connectors that held together the building’s two-part roof trusses.


The store, part of the Latvian-owned Maxima chain, won the Latvian Building of the Year award in 2011, Architects Journal notes.


3. Concerns grow over Central Asian recruits to Syrian rebels


A video apparently showing Kazakh rebel fighters in Syria has Kazakhstani authorities wondering how to bring the men home, IWPR writes.


Posted on YouTube in October, the video shows men speaking in Kazakh about their reasons for joining the rebellion against the Syrian government. The video carried the symbol of a jihadist organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, IWPR writes.


Officials and experts cautioned against reading too much into the video. The deputy head of the National Security Committee, Nurgali Bilisbekov, said, “I assume this particular video was produced for propaganda purposes and was not made by our citizens,” and Almaty-based political analyst Zamir Karajanov said it was difficult to say if the footage was genuine.


The video also shows women and children with the men, which could complicate efforts to bring them home, according to Tolgonai Umbetalieva, director of the Central Asia Foundation for Democracy Development.


“First, there is less motivation for them to return. Second, they won’t need to worry about their families being left on their own with no money,” she said.


Authorities in other Central Asian countries are also concerned about what seems to be a slow but steady trickle of local Muslim recruits to Syrian rebel groups.


Kyrgyzstani security officials believe around 30 or 40 of their citizens are in Syria, Central Asia Online reported on 13 November.


Several experts told the U.S. Defense Department-sponsored news site that it would be a mistake to see these rebel recruits simply as driven by extremist ideology.


While the average daily income in Kyrgyzstan is about $2 or $2.50, Kyrgyzstani scholar of religion Vladimir Shkolny said, “In war zones, you can earn much more than that, much faster, if you're willing to risk your own skin. ... This is a huge incentive for many unemployed and poor Kyrgyz."


Kamoljon Kakhkhorov, an Uzbek expert on the Middle East, agreed, saying, "The militants go there for profit, not for ideology.”


Central Asian governments need to address economic and social problems that contribute to this situation, he said.


4. Krakow moves to clean up its sooty reputation


Legislators in the Malopolska region have voted in favor of a ban on most coal furnaces in Krakow, in an attempt to reduce air pollution in the city, Polskie Radio reports. The 25 November vote by the assembly of the southern Polish region, whose capital city is Krakow, bans home coal furnaces after 2018 but permits burning wood in fireplaces.


“Hundreds of people are dying each year because of air pollution,” said Wojciech Kozak, deputy marshal of Malopolska region. Half of the city's winter pollution comes from domestic stoves, according to Polskie Radio. Krakow already co-funds a program permitting residents to trade in their old stoves for cleaner-burning models.


A recent study by the European Environment Agency ranked Krakow’s air as the third-worst among European cities, measured by the level of dangerous particulate matter, which can contribute to a range of health problems. Krakow and four others of the 10 cities with the worst air quality were in the southern Polish industry and mining belt.


Due to its dependence on coal-burning power plants, Poland has resisted EU schemes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, on the grounds that renewable energy sources would drive up prices.


Krakow smog protestThis detail from a TVN news broadcast shows Krakow residents demanding cleaner air in October. Photo from a video by Jo savina/YouTube


5. Sharjah ruler funds repairs to historic Armenian monastery


Al QasimiSultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi
A once-dilapidated medieval Armenian Orthodox monastery has just undergone much-needed renovation work courtesy of an unlikely benefactor – an Arab sheikh.


The Haghartsin monastery complex, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of Yerevan, dates to the 10th century and includes three churches as well as rooms for the 250 monks who once lived there. Neither Arab and Turkish armies nor Soviet anti-religious campaigns managed to destroy the monastery, but it seemed likely to fall victim to the ravages of time.


That was until Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, visited Armenia in 2005 on a trip organized by Armenia’s then-president, Robert Kocharian, and Armenian businessmen in the Emirates, AFP reports. When the sheikh’s tour came to the crumbling monastery, considered a masterpiece of Armenian religious architecture, al-Qasimi was impressed by the spiritual character of the place and said “the word of God was heard” there, according to church candle seller Artak Sahakyan.


According to the Hayastan All Armenian Fund, al-Qasimi donated $1.7 million to the restoration in 2008. The repair work included refurbishment of the bell tower, installation of modern utilities, and repaving access roads.


“I cannot recall anything similar to this happening in our history, that some Arab sheikh, a Muslim, helped to restore and rescue an Armenian Christian church,” Armenian priest Aristakes Aivazyan told AFP.


“It is as if the with this generous gesture the sheikh is saying that we need to be tolerant of other religions, as in the end we all serve one God,” Aivazyan added.

Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Karlo Marinovic and Alexander Silady are TOL editorial interns.

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