It turns out the rumors are true: Emomali Rakhmon of Tajikistan can boogie. (And maybe he likes a tipple.)
Videos that appeared online this week shows the Tajik strongman moving gracefully around a gilded ballroom, arms outstretched, wrists flicking, as he performs some fast-footed local dance moves.
In one video, the president belts out a duet (some might encourage him to stick to dancing) as the powerful Dushanbe mayor and potential rival Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloyev drifts in and out of the frame clapping his hands. In the background, Rakhmon’s eldest son stands stone-faced, hand over chest, with a veiled bride.
The videos were shot, says CA-news.org, in June 2009 at the wedding of Rustam Emomali, Rakhmon’s son and presumed heir. Coincidence, or perhaps not, this week YouTube was blocked again in Tajikistan. Users report the video-sharing site is down for the third time in the past year.
The head of Tajikistan’s Association of Internet Providers, Asomiddin Atoev, told RIA Novosti that the order to block the site came from the state communications agency. As is customary, the communications agency is not disclosing its reasoning. Over the past year the agency has regularly blocked YouTube and Facebook, as well as a host of critical news sites, often with enigmatic explanations: for example, claiming the site needs “prophylactic maintenance.” If the YouTube ban is indeed related the wedding videos, it is still unclear whether the move would have been ordered by Rakhmon himself or some over-cautious sycophants.
Behind closed doors, this week a Tajik court ruled in a controversial libel case. To no one’s surprise the plaintiff – the son of a high-ranking government official – won. That Tajikistan’s rich and powerful use courts to bully the media is nothing new, but, this time, the process has exposed Tajiks’ apparently widespread hatred for their country’s judiciary.
In 2010, Rustam Khukumov was sentenced to almost 10 years in a Russian prison, charged, along with three other Tajik nationals, with possessing nine kilos of heroin.
Khukumov is the son of the powerful head of Tajikistan’s railway boss, Amonullo Khukumov. The senior Khukumov is an ally and relative of the Tajik strongman, President Emomali Rakhmon (Khukumov is father-in-law to Rakhmon’s daughter). Could that have anything to do with why the Khukumov scion was released early, under murky circumstances, only a year into his jail term?
For asking that question, the weekly “Imruz News” now owes Khukumov over $10,500 in “moral damages,” a Dushanbe court ruled on February 25. The paper vows to appeal, which means more embarrassing attention on Khukumov.
Thousands of migrant workers, many from Central Asia and the Caucasus, are toiling in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi to help stage the most expensive Olympic Games in history. Many are abused and exploited, working in miserable conditions for little or no pay, Human Rights Watch said today.
Released a year before the games kick off, the 67-page report, entitled “Race to the Bottom: Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi,” documents gross violations of Russian and international law, as well as the Olympic spirit.
Tens of thousands of workers, including an estimated 16,000 workers from outside Russia, are helping prepare Sochi for the showcase games, which open next February 7. Human Rights Watch (HRW) focused on these migrant laborers because, compared with Russian workers, they are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Researchers interviewed 66 construction workers from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine.
Migrant workers said employers subjected them to a range of abuses and exploitation, including: failing to pay full wages, excessively delaying payment of wages, and in some cases failing to pay any wages at all; withholding identity documents, such as passports and work permits; failing to provide employment contracts, or failure to respect terms of a contract; and requiring excessive working hours and providing little time off. […] In several cases documented by Human Rights Watch, employers retaliated against foreign migrant workers who protested against abuses by denouncing them to the authorities, resulting in the workers’ expulsion from Russia.
Authorities and construction companies interviewed by HRW deny the allegations.
The head of Swedish-Finnish telecoms giant TeliaSonera, Lars Nyberg, has resigned after an auditor found the company was negligent when purchasing mobile licenses in graft-saturated Uzbekistan.
The 2007 deal was thrust into the spotlight in September, when Swedish journalists accused TeliaSonera of paying some 2.2 billion Kroner ($337 million) to a small, offshore company linked to President Islam Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova.
Mannheimer Swartling, which carried out the review for TeliaSonera, found no evidence of bribery or money laundering, but said “the suspicions of crime expressed in the media and by the Swedish Prosecution Authority cannot be dismissed by this investigation.”
Biörn Riese, a lawyer for Mannheimer Swartling, “notes that the transactions have been surrounded by so many remarkable circumstances that at least someone should have reacted to the lack of clarity regarding the local partner,” the firm said in a February 1 statement.
“If one carries out business in a corrupt country, one should quite simply be more thorough than TeliaSonera has been,” Riese said.
Last month documents surfaced showing TeliaSonera knew it was dealing with Karimova, who has been described in US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks as a “robber baron,” for the way she uses her father’s leverage to take over profitable businesses in Uzbekistan.
International pressure can affect the abysmal human rights situation in Uzbekistan, it turns out: After years of withering criticism, Tashkent is deploying fewer children into its cotton fields and relying increasingly on teenagers and adults – including public service workers threatened with loss of employment and loss of benefits such as pensions – Human Rights Watch says.
The “abuses persist,” however, in all of Uzbekistan’s provinces, says the New York-based watchdog in a report released late Friday night.
For the 2012 harvest, the Uzbek government forced over a million of its own citizens, children and adults – including its teachers, doctors, and nurses – to harvest cotton in abusive conditions on threat of punishment, Human Rights Watch found. The authorities harassed local activists and journalists who tried to report on the issue. In 2011, Uzbekistan was the world’s fifth largest exporter of cotton.
“The issue here is forced labor, plain and simple” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Forcing more older children and adults to work in the cotton fields to replace some younger children, does not change the fact that Uzbekistan is forcing a million of its people to labor in these fields involuntarily every year at harvest season.”
It is widely acknowledged that the Uzbek government has long relied on forced labor, including of children as young as nine, to pick cotton produced for export. In 2012, the burden was shifted somewhat to older children and adults, according to cotton workers, independent activists, and local rights groups across Uzbekistan who spoke with Human Rights Watch.
An Afghan airline is using passenger flights to deliver “bulk quantities of opium” to Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, according to U.S. officials cited in a January 24 Wall Street Journal report.
The Pentagon, which has blacklisted Kam Air from receiving military contracts, opened an investigation when the airline bid on a contract to service the U.S.-led coalition. "An organization such as Kam Air exposes itself when it bids on a U.S. contract," U.S. Army Maj.-Gen. Richard Longo, the commander of Task Force 2010, a coalition anticorruption unit, told the Wall Street Journal. "They are subject to scrutiny."
Kam Air, which is in talks to merge with state-run Ariana Afghan Airlines, denies the charges. The private airline operates four weekly flights between Kabul and Dushanbe.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime says approximately 30 percent of Afghan narcotics, including 90 tons of heroin, exit Afghanistan through Central Asia each year, mostly through Tajikistan. Tajik officials either lack the capacity to interdict the narcotics, or are complicit in the trade, according to Western officials in Dushanbe.
Those Western officials suspect the bulk of the onward trafficking begins at Tajikistan’s airports, usually on flights to Russia. The inbound smuggling, according to the Wall Street Journal report, is apparently happening right under the nose of airport officials, too.
Kam Air operates a fleet of some 16 planes, including Boeing 767 and 747 aircraft and Antonov cargo planes. The task force believes that domestic passenger routes have been used to ferry opium around the country, according to a U.S. official in Kabul. But the investigation is focused on Central Asia, the official said. "Kam Air is flying out bulk quantities of opium," the official said.
Had she known that true stories are sometimes more terrifying than fiction, the little girl may not have pleaded for a bedtime tale.
But in this short film, father yields and tells his daughter of “a rich and powerful man” in a “country far, far away” who grows wealthy off slave labor. Of course, the father is talking about Uzbekistan, and that man is President Islam Karimov: “Schoolchildren have to get on buses and ride for hours to the cotton fields. […] They must pick cotton. All day long. The bag must be filled.”
Teachers, doctors, nurses and children are forced to pick the president’s cotton, the father says. It is a terrifying story, indeed: the thorny plants, the police cordon, schools closed while the children sleep in barns and tents through summer heat and autumn snow. It sounds like a concentration camp.
As her father shuts off the lights, the little girl realizes she is part of this global supply chain: “But the blanket ... and my pajamas … do they also …” – “Yes, they too may come from Uzbekistan. Well, good night,” he says, not so reassuringly.
The video – which ends with the uncomfortable truth, “You most likely sleep in Uzbek cotton” – was released this week by the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and the Inkota Network. An accompanying article shames Western companies for continuing to purchase Uzbek cotton, companies such as H&M, which “have enormous power to end modern-day slavery,” but don’t.
Authorities in Tajikistan have ordered Internet service providers, again, to block access to Facebook, local news agencies report. The blocking orders (which this time also target the local service of Radio Liberty) have become so familiar in the past year that there’s little new to say. So let’s look at how the man in charge of Internet access has explained his thinking in recent months.
Last March, the head of the communications service, Beg Zukhurov, after denying any order to block Facebook, said his office had actually blocked the site for “prophylactic maintenance.”
Internet service providers have said they were ordered to block Facebook last weekend, along with three or four news portals, by the state communications service, after one of the portals published an article severely criticizing [President Emomali] Rakhmon and his government. When queried by news agency Asia-Plus, the head of the service, Beg Zukhurov, denied any order to block Facebook, but said the authors of offensive online content “defaming the honor and dignity of the Tajik authorities” should be made “answerable.” Tajikistan frequently uses libel cases and extremism charges to silence critical journalists.
In November, Zukhurov again flipped the switch and memorably called Facebook a “hotbed of slander” when he sought a meeting with the social network’s founder and chairman, Mark Zuckerberg.
"Does Facebook have an owner? Can he come to Tajikistan? I'd meet him during visiting hours. If he does not have time, I'd talk to his assistants,” the BBC’s Russian service quoted Zukhurov as saying. (Zukhurov's visiting hours are Saturday's from 10am to noon.)
The chief of Tajikistan’s communications agency says he has blocked Facebook access in the country because Internet users were begging him to shut that “hotbed of libel.” And he wants a few words with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Earlier Beg Zukhurov denied any blockade, saying he could log onto Facebook just fine and that perhaps some Internet providers were having technical problems. But on November 27 he admitted he gave the order: "Public figures have talked to me about this several times. I've had a lot of calls from outraged Tajik residents who ask me to shut down Facebook," RIA Novosti quotes Zukhurov as saying.
He added that a group of volunteer Internet monitors had described numerous violations (of what, it’s unclear). "Government heads are being insulted on the site and these statements are being made by fake users. Some people are clearly getting paid good money for this," RIA Novosti quoted him as saying.
In August, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) wrote to Zukhurov of its “profound concern” that he was creating a group of Internet monitors accountable to him and not the courts. “Such a system of control could lead to the wholesale blocking of online publications and websites. While we agree defamation should be penalized, it should be dealt with by the courts, where defendants can put their case and have the right of appeal,” RSF wrote.
The defendant in this case appears to be the social network’s founder and chairman, Mark Zuckerberg.
The Dushanbe mayor’s office is suing Tajikistan’s leading opposition figure for criticizing the city’s environmental record, Asia-Plus reports. The suit, demanding an apology, was filed early last week. According to a top environmental official, back in October Muhiddin Kabiri of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), who is a member of the national legislature, criticized city officials during a parliamentary meeting on pollution.
"Nobody pays attention to the felling of trees in the capital, which has become systematic," he said during the session. "Reinforced concrete buildings have replaced tree-lined walkways and small parks in Dushanbe, which is causing problems for the city's ecosystem."
Rapid development in central Dushanbe has indeed meant vast destruction, with historic buildings and established parks ploughed under to make space for shiny new palaces and empty office buildings. The city's main central park, for example, was, until a few years ago, a woodland haven in the center of town, with majestic oaks and conifers providing welcome shade on a hot summer’s day. In 2007 and 2008, most of the trees were felled, allowing drivers on Rudaki Avenue to see the president’s bloated new meeting complex, the Palace of the Nation.
Kabiri is not alone in criticizing the mayor’s office for such developments. But he and his party regularly suffer attacks that appear more political than substantive. The pace is likely to pick up as presidential elections approach next year. President Emomali Rakhmon is expected to run for yet another 7-year term. He’s been in power since 1992.