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Lithuania Backs Ukrainian Protester’s Torture Claim, Russia Arrests Olympic Critics

Plus, Kazakhstan says Pentagon-funded lab will be used for peaceful research only, and the Czech president invites an unlikely pair to Prague.

by Sarah Fluck, Aliona Kachkan, and Ky Krauthamer 5 February 2014

1. Ukrainian activist likely tortured, Lithuania says


Ukrainian activist Dmytro Bulatov "has clear signs of long-term torture and cruel treatment on his body,” the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry said 4 February, AFP reports.


Bulatov 100Dmytro Bulatov
Bulatov, 35, traveled to Vilnius 2 February after a Ukrainian court allowed him to leave the country for medical treatment. He claims he was kidnapped 22 January and tortured for eight days in punishment for his role in the “AutoMaidan,” a traveling anti-government protest by drivers.


He organized a protest at President Viktor Yanukovych’s country residence “and has been targeted by police,” AFP writes.


Bulatov’s claim that his captors spoke with Russian accents is one of several similar allegations circulating among protesters, Radio Free Europe reports. Last week two journalists from Tatarstan covering the protests said they were beaten by men speaking “pure” Russian.


Russian journalist and security expert Andrei Soldatov told RFE it is too early to say if such reports are true and notes that many native Ukrainians and migrants speak Russian as a first language.


Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry called on the EU to demand a “thorough and independent investigation into [Bulatov’s] and other related offenses, and take steps to punish the perpetrators,” AFP reports.


Two other Ukrainian activists are undergoing medical treatment in Lithuania, the Lithuania Tribune reports.


2. More critics of Sochi Olympics held


Two Russian environmental activists have been detained separately in Krasnodar region, site of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.


Yevgeny Vitishko, a critic of environmental damage caused by Olympic construction, was held 3 February in Tuapse, near Sochi, Reuters writes, citing the Ecological Watch on the North Caucasus pressure group.


He is accused of theft and swearing in public at a bus stop, Ecological Watch on the North Caucasus writes. He was sentenced to 15 days’ administrative detention 3 February, Amnesty International writes.


“Vitishko's name has now become synonymous with harassment of civil society activists in the run-up to Sochi Games. Vitishko and his friends have been trying to expose environmental violations during the preparation of the Sochi Olympics. For this they are being punished,” Amnesty’s Denis Krivosheev said.


A court was also due to hear Vitishko’s appeal of a three-year sentence for violating a previous suspended sentence in connection with an environmental protest in 2012, Amnesty writes.


Amnesty International says a second Ecological Watch member, Igor Kharchenko, was rearrested 4 February in the regional capital, Krasnodar, because his car was allegedly involved in a crime. He and five other activists were briefly detained the previous day. They then abandoned their plan to present a report in Sochi on environmental damage connected with Olympic construction.


Kharchenko was sentenced to five days in jail and denied the services of a defense lawyer, Ecological Watch reports.


3. Kazakhstan’s U.S.-funded disease lab to open in 2015


Contrary to some claims otherwise, a Pentagon-funded disease-research laboratory under construction in Almaty will not be used to develop biological weapons, the facility’s director said.


Bakhyt Atshabar, the director of the Kazakh Scientific Center of Quarantine and Zoonotic Diseases, told Tengri News the Central Reference Laboratory will be used to study dangerous infectious diseases such as plague, cholera, and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.


He was responding to what Tengri News said was speculation, fueled by former Deputy Defense Minister Amirbek Togusov, that the lab could be used for research on banned biological weapons.


"Any lab, especially one with such a technical base, always has a dual purpose – both military and civil,” he told Tengri News in January. 

Russia made similar claims about a biomedical lab in Georgia last year, with one official arguing that it was controlled by the U.S. Navy. Richard Norland, the American ambassador to Georgia, defended the lab as “a Georgian facility” under local management.


The Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency is funding Kazakhstan’s $100 million facility and some of its initial operations after its scheduled September 2015 opening, according to a 2013 story by the International Reporting Project.


Beyond its main mission, the Pentagon hopes the lab can reduce the risk of “rogue” scientists selling their knowledge to terrorists by employing them for civilian research in a state-of-the-art facility, according to the article.


Speaking days after a deadly case of plague in Kyrgyzstan in August, Atshabar said he hoped the lab would develop into a regional training facility to deal with human and animal infections.


"Cholera is also one of the major problems in our region, mostly with our numerous southern neighbors,” he said. 


4. Czech president under fire for invites to Uzbekistani and Ukrainian leaders


Milo%u0161 Zeman during a presidential election debate organized by Czech Radio.Milos Zeman
Czech President Milos Zeman might do well to consult the classic self-help guide How to Win Friends and Influence People.


After taking flak for his official invitation to one of the world’s most reviled leaders, Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, Zeman is now trying to justify an invitation to embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.


Prague Mayor Tomas Hudecek said 4 February the city would not officially welcome the Ukrainian leader during his April visit, the Czech Press Agency (CTK) reports.


"I can see no reason why Prague should participate in the visit under the present circumstances," Hudecek said, according to CTK.


Prague City Hall instead will donate the equivalent of $25,000 through a local charity to help injured protesters in Ukraine, CTK writes.


Hundreds of Czechs, including celebrities and politicians, have signed a petition calling on Zeman to cancel the visit, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.


Zeman’s spokesman, Jiri Ovcacek, said there were no plans to revoke Yanukovych’s invitation, Bloomberg Businessweek writes, citing the Czech daily Mlada fronta Dnes. Ovcacek said Zeman invited Yanukovych to Prague during the Czech president’s October visit to Ukraine.


“We prefer dialogue, meaning dialogue with all parties,” Ovcacek said.


While Ukraine is a near neighbor, the invitation to Karimov seems less understandable given the limited ties between Prague and Tashkent and the country’s reputation as one of the world’s worst abusers of human rights.


Karimov is due to arrive for a two-day stay in Prague 21 February. The trip is reciprocal, according to Ovcacek, noting that Zeman’s predecessor, Vaclav Klaus, visited Tashkent in 2004, CTK reports.


Zeman’s office said the two men’s talks would include visa matters, Uzbekistani students at Czech universities, and trade.


Karimov has been to the EU only twice in recent years, CTK writes, citing the Hospodarske noviny newspaper: to Latvia in 2013 and to EU headquarters in Brussels in 2011.


Exiled Uzbekistani activists are planning protests in Prague against Karimov’s visit, reports.


5. Media rumors behind forint’s recent tumble, central bank claims


“False” rumors may have fueled the forint’s sharp fall last week, Hungary’s central bank said 4 February as it announced a probe into the matter, AFP reports.


The forint swung back and forth before ending the day at a two-year low against the euro 29 January, evidently in reaction to Economy Minister Gyorgy Matolcsy’s hint of further rate cuts, AFP reports.


In addition to Matolcsy’s comment, the central bank said "Rumors cited by the media on January 29 that Hungary could not pay its debts on foreign currency bonds were false ... and negatively affected the exchange rate,” AFP writes.


"The goal of the probe is to find out whether the rumors fit the definition of (illegal) market manipulation," the bank said in a statement.


In recent years the central bank has levied fines on brokerages, investors, and the Bloomberg news agency for tampering with the financial markets, The Wall Street Journal writes.


The forint tumbled along with a handful of other emerging-market currencies last week. It and some of the other biggest losers, including the Russian ruble, have since recovered slightly, Reuters reports.

Sarah Fluck and Aliona Kachkan are TOL editorial interns. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL.
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