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Europe, U.S. Weigh More Russia Sanctions, UN Urges Belarus to End Executions

Plus, military suicides continue to alarm in Azerbaijan and the U.S. sends more troops to reassure Poland and the Baltics.

by Ioana Caloianu, Barbara Frye, Annabel Lau, Piers Lawson, and Lily Sieradzki 28 April 2014

1. Amid stepped-up tension, West mulls increased sanctions on Russia

 

European Union countries are considering another round of sanctions against Russia following the recent escalation of aggression in eastern Ukraine, the BBC reports.

 

The EU sanctions will consist of travel bans and asset freezes targeting 15 powerful Russian figures. The United States is also set to step up sanctions, likely against high- technology exports to Russian defense firms, according to Deutsche Welle.

 

Russia was ousted from the G7 group of large economies, formerly known as the G8, after its invasion of Crimea in March.

 

Referring to a 17 April agreement reached in Geneva that would have separatists leave government buildings they have occupied in eastern Ukraine, a G7 press release stated: “[Russia] has not publicly supported the accord, nor condemned the acts of pro-[Russian] separatists seeking to destabilize Ukraine, nor called on armed militants to leave peacefully the government buildings they've occupied and put down their arms.”

 

Last week, pro-Russian gunmen took foreign observers captive in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk.

 

The hostages, who work for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, were presented to the media at a 27 April press conference, the BBC reports.

 

One Swedish observer was released that night due for medical reasons.

 

According to preliminary reports, around 30 pro-Russian separatists took over government buildings in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kostyantynivka early 28 April, Deutsche Welle writes.

 

U.S. President Barack Obama called for greater coordination with the EU on sanctions, telling reporters in Malaysia that “we’re going to be in a stronger position to deter Mr. Putin when he sees that … the United States and Europe [are] unified,” Reuters reports.

 

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in the coming days there will be “an expansion of existing sanctions, measures against individuals or entities in Russia,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

 

“Already we have seen more than $60 billion of capital flight out of Russia so far this year, and serious falls in the Russian stock market,” Hague said.

 

“So no one should underestimate the impact on Russia and Russia’s own interests of continued escalation of this crisis.”

 

2. End capital punishment, UN urges Belarus

 

The UN is pressing Belarus to abandon the death penalty after the reported execution of Pavel Sialiun, who was convicted of murder in June.

 

Belarus is the only country in Europe to still use capital punishment.

 

Dzmitry Kanavalau and Uladzislau Kavaliou listen to testimony during their trial on charges of bombing the Minsk subway. They were later executed in a highly controversial case. Photo courtesy of Belapan.

 

Miklos Haraszti, the UN’s rapporteur for human rights in Belarus,* complained that there had been no notification when Sialiun was executed, even to his mother, according to the UN’s press service.

 

Sialiun’s death came to light only when his lawyer showed up at prison in mid-April to meet with him, according to EuroBelarus, a consortium of civil society groups working to strengthen ties between Belarus and the rest of Europe. The group’s website says he was executed despite the fact that a complaint on his behalf is pending before the UN’s Human Rights Committee, on which Belarus was bound to wait for a resolution before killing Sialiun.

 

“Information on death sentences remains limited for relatives and the general public and there is a lack of transparency about persons held on death row, and an inadequate procedure for appeals,” Haraszti said in a press release. “Annual statistics on the use of the death penalty are not available, nor are the names of most of those who have been already executed.”

 

In a notorious case, Belarus executed two young men in March 2012 who had been convicted of bombing the Minsk subway a year earlier, killing 15 people. Their trial was widely seen as flawed and their sentencing raised objections in Belarus and throughout Europe. The mother of one of the men said she had received notification of his death, but relatives of those executed are not told where the bodies are buried, the Associated Press reported at the time.

 

3. Suicide rate in Azerbaijan’s military again on the agenda

 

Some media are raising red flags about the high suicide rate among soldiers in the army of Azerbaijan, warning it is eroding society’s trust in the military, Panorama.am, an Armenian website, reports.

 

Nine soldiers took their lives from January to April this year, the most within a four-month period since monitoring began in 2003, according to Panorama.am, citing the Azerbaijani newspaper Zerkalo.

 

While reports of military suicides abound in the media of Azerbaijan, the reasons why they happen are not so clear.

 

Military and prison authorities often conceal the circumstances surrounding suicides, and criminal investigations are rarely launched, according to participants in a panel discussion on suicide held in Azerbaijan in February, the Contact website reports.

 

"Suicides happen often in the family and the army because of sexual exploitation. But it is hidden,” human rights activist Aytekin Imranova said, according to Contact.

 

Nineteen soldiers were officially deemed to have killed themselves in 2012, and 16 in 2013, Contact reports, although there are many more non-combat deaths in the ranks annually.

 

According to the Doktrina Center in Baku, a military-research resource for journalists, 647 members of the Azerbaijani army died from 2003 through 2012, 472 of them in non-combat situations.

 

“Suicides, careless use of weapons or [soldiers] using weapons to shoot each other, and death by illness are at the top in our statistics,” Jasur Sumerinli, Doktrina’s director, said last year. “The suicides and shootings occur because the moral and psychological conditions in the army are intense.”

 

The center has called on the military to publish more information on how soldiers die, to improve service members’ living conditions and pay, to inform soldiers of their rights, and to switch from the draft to a volunteer army, according to Panorama.am.

 

4. U.S. troops head to Poland, Baltic countries

 

The United States sent troops to Lithuania 26 April as part of a contingent of 600 who are heading to Poland and the Baltic countries in response to the Ukraine crisis, Voice of Russia reports.

 

The troops are there for month-long military exercises intended to reassure its NATO allies that they will be protected from possible Russian aggression, according to VOR.

 

"If there's a message to Moscow, it is the same exact message that we take our obligations very, very seriously on the continent of Europe," said Rear Admiral John Kirby, a top Defense Department spokesman, VOR reports.

 

Officials of the countries involved worried that Russia’s annexation of Crimea could cause instability in their region.

 

Raimonds Vejoni
About one-fourth of Latvia’s population are ethnic Russians, Reuters notes. Moscow has vowed to defend the interests of ethnic Russians wherever they live.

 

"We see it very clearly in Ukraine's case, where they have acted and are still trying to escalate the situation in different ways. … They are trying to increase negative sentiment in society through certain specially trained, professional provocateurs," Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis told Reuters. 

 

"Memories of Soviet times are still alive here, nobody wants those times to return,” he said, according to Reuters. “The NATO presence is essential to dispel these concerns.”

 

The Pentagon has said it does not intend to send a permanent contingent to the region, but troops will maintain a “persistent rotational presence” until the end of this year, Voice of Russia writes.

 

5. ‘Radical’ Islamic text prompts raid, arrests in Prague

 

One man is facing up to 10 years in prison and several others are facing expulsion from the Czech Republic in connection with the Czech translation and publication of a book promoting a radical version of Islam, The Czech Press Agency (CTK) reports.

 

Police raided two centers of the Islamic Foundation on 25 and 26 April and questioned about 20 people in connection with the book, according to CTK.

 

Although officials haven not revealed the name of the book in order to avoid giving it publicity, a spokesman for the police’s organized crime unit said it contains racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic material.

 

Czech law prohibits incitement to hatred based on characteristics including race, ethnicity, and religion.

 

CTK speculates that the book could be The Fundamental of Tawheed by Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, which is accused of spreading similar views and which prompted a former Czech Muslim to file a complaint with the authorities.

 

In recent years Philips – an Islamic preacher in Qatar - has been banned from travelling to the UK, Germany, and Australia because of his hard-line views, which include an apparent justification of suicide bombings and arguing that there is no such thing as rape in marriage.

 

The police raid in Prague disrupted Friday prayers, prompting officials from the Indonesian Embassy in the Czech Republic – who were present at the Islamic Foundation’s mosque at the time – to file a complaint with the Czech Foreign Ministry.

 

In October 2011, a debate planned by students from Prague's University of Economics was banned at the last moment because of the makeup of the panel, which was allegedly composed of harsh critics of Islam.

Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Annabel Lau and Lily Sieradzki are TOL editorial interns. Piers Lawson is a TOL contributing editor.

*Editor's Note: This version corrects the description of Miklos Haraszti's work for the UN.

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