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Plus, no early release for a Serbian war crimes defendant, and a meningitis outbreak in Armenia?by S. Adam Cardais, Ioana Caloianu, and Madeleine Stern 11 July 2014
1. Report sheds light on torture and kidnappings in Ukraine’s conflict
A new Amnesty International report, Abductions and Torture in Eastern Ukraine, documents the extent of kidnappings, violence, and torture taking place in Ukraine’s eastern regions over the past three months. Although there is no reliable estimate of the number of victims, “the bulk of the abductions are being perpetrated by armed separatists, with the victims often subjected to stomach-turning beatings and torture,” while pro-Kyiv forces are responsible for a “smaller number of abuses,” according to Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, Denis Krivosheev.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry reported almost 500 abductions between April and June, while the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission put the figure at 222, according to Amnesty International. The current report is based on information from “ad hoc self-help groups,” as well as testimonials from victims of abduction, many of whom were subjected to torture.
The report cites the case of Hanna, a pro-Ukrainian activist who said she was held in custody in Donetsk for six days before a prisoner exchange. She told Amnesty International she had been beaten and stabbed while being interrogated by her kidnappers.
While Hanna had been abducted apparently for political reasons, another pro-Ukrainian activist who had also been beaten, as well electrocuted, in custody was kidnapped and detained until his father paid a $60,000 ransom.
In February, before the separatist violence, Lithuanian authorities confirmed cases of torture and ill-treatment of Ukrainian activists previously held in police custody who had come to the Baltic country to seek treatment.
In the city of Mariupol, such human rights violations are happening in a “vacuum of authority and security, with fear of reprisals, abduction, and torture permeating amongst the people,” Krivosheev said.
2. Russia charges Ukrainian military officer in journalists’ deaths
A 33-year-old captured Ukrainian Air Force pilot has become a pawn in the Ukraine-Russia crisis.
On 9 July, Russian prosecutors said they had charged Lieutenant Nadiya Savchenko in connection with the deaths of two Russian journalists from state-owned media who were killed 17 June by a mortar attack on a separatist checkpoint outside Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, Radio Free Europe reports. On 10 July, a Russian court said she would be held in pretrial detention until 30 August.
Savchenko’s capture is a matter of some debate. Kyiv says she was snatched by rebels in eastern Ukraine and “illegally transferred” to Russia in violation of international law. Moscow says Savchenko was detained in Russia.
According to a separate RFE article, Savchenko was abducted 18 June in a suburb of Luhansk. She was last seen in a video released the following day, evidently unharmed in the custody of pro-Russia separatists.
Savchenko is one of the first Ukrainian women to train as an Air Force pilot. She denies targeting the journalists, according to RFE.
Human rights activists say Savchenko’s case is different from the charges Russian authorities have recently leveled against Ukrainian officials in absentia.
This “isn’t propaganda anymore but reality and a threatening one,” Russian activist Valery Borshchev told RFE. “Of course, there are no grounds for abducting her and taking her to another country. It is basically just kidnapping. …”
The case has sparked a media war, the BBC reports. On Ukrainian social media, the hashtag #SaveOurGirl has generated more than 15,000 tweets, while Russian tabloids have dubbed Savchenko everything from “Satan’s daughter” to a “killing machine in a skirt.”
3. Serbian Radical Party head to remain behind bars, The Hague says
Despite speculation that he would be released due to poor health, Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj will remain in custody pending a verdict in his war crimes trial, Balkan Insight reports.
On 10 July, the UN war crimes tribunal at The Hague effectively denied Seselj “provisional release.” While the defense slammed the ruling, Seselj appeared to be his own worst enemy.
Seselj told the court that, if released, he would not remain on house arrest as required. He vowed to return to politics, hold rallies, and publicly criticize The Hague tribunal, according to Balkan Insight.
On 4 July, the court offered Seselj three days to change his tune, but the deadline passed without a word from the defendant.
The defense had requested Seselj’s release because his health is failing after 11 years in custody. Seselj surrendered in 2003, but the trial didn’t begin until 2007 due to several failed hunger strikes. Last year, Seselj was diagnosed with cancer.
The ruling is the most recent development in a tumultuous trial. Initially slated for October 2013, the verdict was postponed after a judge was dismissed for bias – unprecedented at The Hague. Last month, the court rejected Seselj’s request for a retrial, and it’s unclear when a verdict will be handed down because the new judge is still getting up to speed on the case.
Founder of the nationalist Serbian Radical Party and a former member of parliament, Seselj is charged with nine counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for atrocities in Croatia and Bosnia from 1991 to 1993.
4. Armenia moves against meningitis outbreak – perhaps too aggressively
Though denying an epidemic in the capital Yerevan, Armenian authorities are taking steps to prevent a meningitis outbreak, even as many question whether they’re overreacting, ArmeniaNow.com reports.
Already this year, 90 cases of meningitis have been reported, or 30 more than in 2013, according to the Health Ministry. And some kindergartens are under temporary quarantine.
Gayane Sahakyan, head of the Health Ministry’s immunization program, said hospitals and schools are stepping up efforts to prevent the spread of the potentially life-threatening disease. If two cases are reported at the same kindergarten, inspections are carried out and, in some cases, parents are asked to keep their children home.
But the municipality of Yerevan says the government might be causing a panic for no reason, according to ArmeniaNow.com. Even some parents say the government is over reacting.
“I don’t understand why they make all parents keep their children at home?” says a parent whose child attends a kindergarten under 10-day quarantine. “Let only the sick children stay at home, as working parents do not know what to do.”
5. Uzbekistan residents line up for Russian citizenship
Statistics are sketchy in Uzbekistan, but anecdotal evidence suggests many people there are taking advantage of a newly eased path to Russian citizenship, EurasiaNet.org reports.
Surveying a long line outside the Russian Embassy in Tashkent, a reporter found many Uzbekistanis who want to work in Russia or “stateless people from other former Soviet republics who have been trying for years, and failing, to obtain Uzbek citizenship,” according to the website.
In April, Russia passed a law offering citizenship to those who live or have lived on the territory of the former Soviet Union or parts of the former Russian Empire that are within Russia’s present borders. To qualify, applicants be fluent in Russian and renounce their current citizenship.
Although the language requirement could be a hurdle, some residents of Uzbekistan, many of whom travel to Russia as undocumented migrant laborers, have been keen to take advantage of the new law, EurasiaNet.org reports.
Migrant workers in Russia are frequently subject to document inspections by the police and face arrest, fines, or deportation if their documents are not in order. Many hope that Russian citizenship will help them avoid police harassment, according to EurasiaNet.org.
Russia’s Federal Migration Service counted about 2.6 million migrants from Uzbekistan in the country as of 2 July, but that is only those registered.
The new citizenship policy has also been popular in other former Soviet countries, where governments worry about a possible “citizenship drain,” EurasiaNet.org reported in April. The government of Azerbaijan said it would “respond in kind” if Russia’s new citizenship policy results in demographic problems for Azerbaijan, and a Georgian official reminded his country’s would-be Russians that they would have to give up their Georgian passports.
“Some South Caucasus residents already hold two passports, often illegally, to simplify crossing into Russia. Apart from migrant workers, some senior citizens also seek Russian citizenship in order to receive a state pension that is much higher in Russia than in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia,” EurasiaNet.org wrote.