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PostPosted: Fri Aug 25, 2017 4:05 pm 
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With Wikipedia blocked, Turkish students dread going back to school
By Shabtai Gold
25 August 2017

Istanbul (dpa) - As Turkey prepares to go back to school, some students and teachers are anxious about the government's blocking of Wikipedia, a tool that has become a go-to spot for information on the internet.

For students and researchers, even more than people looking to settle a bet or recall the name of an actor in a movie, the obstacles are serious. “Wikipedia used to be the major online information source for many students. We need the website to be reopened,” said Esra, a 20-year-old student.

Ayse, a high school teacher, said she has caught pupils trying to copy and paste their way to good grades, but still believes the ban on Wikipedia should come to an end. “At the end of the day, we live in the age of information,” she said.

Yaman Akdeniz of Bilgi University's law faculty in Istanbul has been appealing to the courts to get the block lifted, so far to no avail. “We of course learn to live without the platform but it is a significant deficit in terms of access to information as Wikipedia has always been a primary resource for quick access to facts and data for everyone,” he said, adding that the ban since April was political, not educational.

The site was blocked on a court ruling after a request from the government, citing a public order and safety law. Two English-language articles, including one on the Syrian civil war and Turkey’s involvement, appear to have angered the authorities.

More than 100,000 websites are blocked in Turkey, according to Freedom House, a US-based think-tank. Turkey is the leading country asking for Twitter to censor content on the social media site, with 19 per cent of demands met. Facebook also blocks some pages.

The non-profit organization behind Wikipedia does not generate its own content; rather, volunteer editors and writers create and update articles. There are better and worse articles on the site, some of which are flagged as being improperly sourced or lacking objectivity. Studies are being done to determine if Wikipedia, with more than 5 million articles in English alone, is reliable. A Harvard Business School study from 2014 found that some lengthy Wikipedia articles had a left-wing bias, but the more content is edited, those partisan views tend to be rinsed out.

Yasemin, a university student, said that for her the website is a useful platform to launch research projects. “We used Wikipedia to be able to check our ideas and compare them with what already exists,” she said. “I know it is not totally reliable, but you can check the sources and go to the original links.”

Turkey’s Ministry of Communications, which enforces the ban, and the Ministry of Education both declined to comment for this article. The ban also means that the Turkish-language Wikipedia, with more than 200,000 entries, is starting to stagnate. Meanwhile, articles published in other languages could end up having an anti-Turkish bias without contributions from the country's now-blocked editors, at a time when Turkey is becoming a more assertive regional power.

Yasemin sees the ban on Wikipedia within a wider context of Turkey’s current struggles with free speech in a time of political unrest. She notes journalists are in jail, news outlets are increasingly under pressure and there are court cases against people for “insulting” government officials. “Critical thinking is in decline in Turkey,” she said. It also leads to a feeling of being in a panopticon, she said, where one is watched all the time.

“The government wants students and citizens to receive only one-sided information and it wants the things it says to be accepted as correct,” said Baris Yarkadas, a member of parliament from the main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP). He noted that evolution has largely been dropped from the education curriculum, with the government saying such a subject would be better taught only at an undergraduate level. At the same time, there is more focus on religious studies. “Where fear rules, there is no science, there is no research,” Yarkadas said.

Source: dpa

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 25, 2017 7:51 pm 
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Independent news agency chief in Azerbaijan arrested
25 August 2017

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) -- A court in Azerbaijan on Friday jailed the head of an independent news agency pending an investigation on tax evasion charges, a move that the opposition denounced as an attack on freedom of speech in the ex-Soviet nation.

The court in Azerbaijan's capital of Baku put Turan news agency director Mehman Aliyev in prison for three months. He was arrested Thursday night. Tax authorities have accused Aliyev of failing to pay the equivalent of nearly $22,000 in taxes in 2014-2016.

His lawyer, Fuad Agayev, called the charges political, saying that Turan has fully paid all taxes. "The charges are absolutely unfounded and have no legal grounds," he said. Turan has denied the charges. It said its bank accounts have been blocked by authorities, forcing it to halt operations starting Sept. 1.

International rights groups have repeatedly criticized the oil-rich Caspian nation for cracking down on independent media and opposition activists. The opposition Musavat party and National Council movement criticized Aliyev's arrest as the latest attack on media freedom and called for his release.

"The tax agency has been used as a weapon against independent media," the National Council said. Azerbaijan's journalists association has appealed to the country's president to intervene in the case.

Source: AP

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PostPosted: Sun Aug 27, 2017 6:49 pm 
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Belarus opposition leader Statkevich jailed for 15 days
26 August 2017

MINSK, Belarus (AP) -- The wife of prominent Belarusian opposition figure Nikolai Statkevich says he has been sent to jail for 15 days after being seized by police in the capital.

Marina Adamovich said Statkevich, a former presidential candidate, was detained midday Saturday in the capital of Minsk. He had been sentenced in absentia about two weeks ago on charges of organizing a demonstration in July against the massive military exercises that are planned for next month with Russia.

Statkevich has repeatedly been jailed in connection with protests against the authoritarian government of President Alexander Lukashenko. He spent five years in prison for a demonstration against the 2010 presidential election results, in which Statkevich was a candidate.

Source: AP

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 05, 2017 7:40 am 
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Burundi committing crimes against humanity, says report
By ANDREW MELDRUM
4 September 2017

JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- Crimes against humanity are being committed in Burundi, according to a United Nations commission of inquiry.

Killings, torture, sexual violence, degrading treatment, enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests have been taking place since April 2015, according to the report published Monday. "We were struck by the scale and the brutality of the violations. We also noted a lack of will on the part of the Burundian authorities to fight against impunity and guarantee the independence of the judiciary. As a result, there is a strong likelihood that the perpetrators of these crimes will remain unpunished," said Fatsah Ouguergouz, president of the commission.

Burundi has been plagued by political violence since April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would seek a disputed third term. Nkurunziza won re-election despite widespread protests and Burundi has remained volatile. Alleged perpetrators of the violence include top officials in Burundi's National Intelligence Services and police force, military officials and members of the youth league of the ruling party, known as Imbonerakure, said the commission's report.

The harsh findings in the report have prompted human rights activists to urge the U.N. to take measures against Burundi's government. More than 500 witnesses were interviewed during the several months of investigations, including many Burundians living abroad as refugees and others still in Burundi, often at risk to their lives, said the report. "There is a climate of pervasive fear in Burundi. Victims have been threatened, even in exile. This meant that the commission had to be extremely careful to ensure that their testimonies could not be used to endanger them," said Françoise Hampson, from Britain, one of the three commission members.

Accounts from victims, their families and witnesses were rigorously checked and corroborated, said the report. "We continue to receive reliable, credible and consistent information confirming that these violations are still taking place in Burundi today. Some of these violations are occurring in a more clandestine manner, but they are still just as brutal," said commission president Ouguergouz, who is from Algeria.

Burundi's government, headed by President Pierre Nkurunziza, refused to cooperate with the commission of inquiry and did not allow its members to go to the country, said the report. "We deeply regret the Burundian government's lack of cooperation, which, among other things, made it difficult for us to document human rights abuses committed by armed opposition groups. This is all the more regrettable given that Burundi, as a member of the Human Rights Council, has an obligation to cooperate with mechanisms set up by the council," said commission member Reine Alapini Gansou, who is from Benin.

The commission urges Burundi's authorities to immediately stop serious human rights violations by state agents and Imbonerakure, over whom the state exercises control. The commission asked the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into the crimes committed in Burundi as soon as possible. The commission also asks the African Union to help find a lasting solution to Burundi's crisis, based on respect for human rights.

The critical report calls into question whether Burundi should have a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, whose next session begins Sept. 11. "Today, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry found that Burundi had committed crimes against humanity. Burundi's blatant refusal to cooperate with the commission shows its contempt of the Human Rights Council resolution creating the commission. Enough is enough," said John Fisher of Human Rights Watch, adding that the upcoming U.N. General Assembly should reconsider Burundi's membership in human rights body. "The situation in Burundi will not improve until there is an end to the impunity that lies at the heart of the crisis."

Source: AP

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 05, 2017 8:08 am 
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Cambodia paper is latest victim of intensifying crackdown
By TODD PITMAN
4 September 2017

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) -- When Cambodia's main opposition leader was arrested over the weekend in a surprise police raid, one of the country's last independent media outlets rushed reporters out in the middle of night to cover the story, just as it has done for nearly a quarter century.

But the English-language Cambodia's Daily's reportage about the arrest of Kem Sokha, who stands accused by the government of treason, was a tragic story in and of itself: it was to be the paper's last. On Monday the venerable broadsheet, which has helped pioneer press freedom and train generations of journalists since it was founded in 1993, appeared in newsstands for the last time - the latest victim of a determined push by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to silence critics in the run-up to 2018 elections.

The paper's owners said they were forced to close because of "extra-legal threats by the government," a reference to a $6 million tax bill they say authorities contrived with no audit and a single purpose - to shut them down. "It's terrible, it's frustrating," said Chhorn Chansy, who worked for a decade at the paper as a reporter and news editor. "We normally write about others. We can't believe that this happened to us."

During its 24-year-run, the Cambodia Daily served as a model for budding journalists, its stories offering a window into a growing nation that is still emerging from decades of conflict and genocide. About half the Daily's 30 editorial staff were Cambodian; the other half were foreigners drawn from around the world.

The paper, which included a Khmer-language section, acquired a reputation for hard-hitting investigations in a nation where such things were rare. It was also a consistent thorn in Hun Sen's side. Its final front-page headline, "Descent into Outright Dictatorship," ran above a story about Kem Sokha's arrest. Below the piece was another announcing Monday's edition would be its last.

Jodie DeJonge, the paper's American chief editor, called the closure a "blow against press freedom, a blow against allowing dissenting voices to be heard, a blow against democracy in Cambodia." "It's hard to imagine that after working for so hard for so long, these journalists just have to walk away," she said.

The Daily's fate is part of a much broader government crackdown on critics that has intensified dramatically in recent weeks and left many wondering where the nation is headed. It's also part of a major shift away from American influence, which has waned for years as Cambodia edges closer to China.

Last month, authorities expelled the Washington-based National Democratic Institute and ordered at least a dozen radio stations shut down for allegedly violating broadcasting agreements. Although Ouk Kimseng, an information ministry spokesman, said the government was simply enforcing the law, the stations appear to have been singled out because they gave air time to opposition politicians and to the U.S. government-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, which have also been accused by authorities of failing to pay taxes.

The stations were among only a few in the country considered independent, and their closure will have a profound impact on the ability of rural populations - which comprise a majority of the country - to obtain contrarian views. "How will the Cambodian people be able to evaluate or access real information?" asked Yi Chhorvorn, managing director of Mohanokor Radio, which was among those shuttered with little explanation.

Mu Sochua, a senior member of the opposition party, said the fate of the free press and the arrest of Kem Sokha are part of a government strategy aimed at clearing the stage for Hun Sen ahead of elections next year. "They think that any voice that is critical has to be eliminated - the media, independent analysts, human rights groups, trade unions, the opposition." But free speech, she said, is critical for Cambodia to grow. "This is not about winning or not winning. It's about giving democracy a chance."

Although Cambodia is nominally a democratic state, its institutions remain fragile and the rule of law weak. Hun Sen, one of the world's longest-serving rulers, has been in office since 1985 and has held tightly onto it since. Contentious elections in recent years, however, have seen an emboldened opposition slowly chip away at his party's strength.

When the Daily was founded 24 years ago by Bernard Krishner, a veteran American journalist now living in Tokyo, Cambodia's government, emerging from the chaos of years of war, was barely functioning.

DeJonge, who also worked for the Associated Press for more than 20 years, acknowledged the paper had not paid taxes for most of its existence, but it operated openly for years under the patronage of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, who stepped down from the throne in 2004. It has also run at a loss since at least 2008, so there were never going to be many taxes to pay. It is unclear how the government's tax bill was calculated. Authorities never visited the paper to conduct an audit and never allowed an appeal.

When Krishner's daughter, Deborah Krishner-Steele, registered the paper properly in April and began paying taxes for the first time, it may have given the government the opening it was looking for. On Monday, the tax department requested immigration authorities prevent her husband, Douglas Steele, from leaving without paying up.

DeJonge said the paper's targeting clearly indicated political motives; as many as 90 percent of Cambodian businesses are not tax-compliant, she said. "It's crushing that tomorrow we are not going to wake up and keep working," DeJonge said as dozens of reporters wearing blue-and-white T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Save Press Freedom" worked into the night Sunday on the paper's final edition.

A few had tears in their eyes. "Cambodia's democracy is dying in the darkness. Who is going to shine a light on that now?" DeJonge said. "We just don't know."

Associated Press writer Sopheng Cheang contributed to this report.
Source: AP

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 06, 2017 6:53 am 
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French journalists in court accused of defaming Azerbaijan
5 September 2017

PARIS (AP) -- Two French journalists accused by Azerbaijan's government of defamation for calling the country a "dictatorship" appeared for a hearing at a French court Tuesday, in an unusual case that activists call an effort to export censorship.

The case appears to be the first time a foreign government is pursuing journalists for defamation through a French court. The hearing came as multiple European news organizations published a joint investigation Tuesday alleging vast money laundering and corruption by Azerbaijan - including allegedly paying off European politicians for favorable treatment.

In Tuesday's hearing in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, journalists Elise Lucet and Laurent Richard stood accused of defamation over a 2015 investigative report for France-2 television. Fines for defamation usually run up to 12,000 euros ($14,292). Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders testified for the defense, as did an Azerbaijani journalist and Azerbaijani human rights activists living in exile.

Reporters Without Borders calls the lawsuit "an act of intimidation highlighting the Azerbaijani government's contempt for free speech. Not content with eradicating all pluralism at home, the regime is now targeting its critics abroad."

Oil-rich Azerbaijan's government has long faced criticism for alleged human rights abuses and suppression of dissent. Its president Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father as long-time leader and secured sweeping new powers in a recent referendum. Azerbaijan's independent Turan news agency suspended activities last month after its bank accounts were frozen and its director arrested on tax evasion charges that rights groups call trumped-up. The last opposition newspaper, Azadliq, stopped publishing after its financial director was arrested last year. Access to some opposition websites is blocked.

Reporters Without Borders said at least 16 journalists, bloggers and media workers are currently in custody in Azerbaijan in connection with providing news.

Azerbaijan has worked to raise its profile in the West in recent years, with a lavish national exhibit at the foot of the Eiffel Tower last year, a high-profile advertising campaign at the World Economic Forum in Davos and other big events. Aliyev has defended Azerbaijan's energy and security interests and has cast himself as a guarantor of stability for his small but wealthy country in a resource-rich region dominated by Russia.

Source: AP

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 06, 2017 7:16 am 
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Azerbaijani Laundromat shows how regime robs its people to feed itself
By Khadjiya Ismayilova
5 September 2017

Azerbaijan may not mean that much to you. In the west it is perhaps best known as a plucky winner of the Eurovision song contest, or maybe easy opponents in qualification for another international football tournament. It has oil, a Caspian Sea coastline and 10 million people.

But there is another side. Journalism is a crime in my country – the numbers say it all: 10 out of 158 political prisoners in Azerbaijan are journalists. The last remaining independent news agency, Turan, stopped work last week.

There is a high price for defiance. I was subjected to blackmail with intimate videos, filmed by secret services in my private home. I was jailed for a litany of trumped-up charges. I was not alone.

The Azerbaijani regime has a strong rationale for such oppression. The lack of independent media and civil society secures absolute impunity for corruption – a free hand for the elite to build their hotels and develop their mining interests. They don’t want to be questioned on where the wealth comes from and why the public money does not serve public interests.

Corruption paralyses education and healthcare while the country’s ruling family and their entourage enrich themselves at the expense of the ordinary people. Meanwhile, those who put activists in jail, oppress the people and paralyse civil society enjoy impunity for stealing people’s opportunity and freedoms. And they remain free and powerful enough to continue repression. They invest their money in democracies, where property rights are respected, unlike in Azerbaijan. They go to western countries and receive quality medical care – the quality denied to people in Azerbaijan. Their children receive education abroad, and enjoy other products of democracy – the same rights they deny ordinary Azerbaijanis.

The Azerbaijani Laundromat provides a tantalising glimpse into the way this kleptocracy works.

None of the corruption investigations done by me or my colleagues led to investigations by the government of Azerbaijan. Instead, journalists were punished – killed, like Elmar Huseynov; arrested, like me. Kidnapping and beating of journalists became routine in Azerbaijan.

And still, those who punish journalists for telling the truth and deprive them of basic freedoms are welcome in democracies, can freely travel, invest, have bank accounts, and transfer cash that’s been stolen from the state budget. Their hands are shaken by the leaders of countries whose organisations and partners are targeted and harassed in Azerbaijan.

So what is the point in telling the truth? The day I was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, I was asked this very question repeatedly. What is the point of what you are doing and suffering for, asked the court clerk. “No matter what you write, you can’t change anything,” said the prison guard. “Everything you do is right, but it is all in vain,” repeated my cellmate when I was looking for ways to smuggle stories from prison despite the risks. Well, prison is definitely not a meeting point of optimists.

The people of Azerbaijan, whose votes are stolen in elections, see no option for change and no effective support from international institutions. The rule by permanent dynasty seems like an inevitable reality of their life. With the president, who inherited power from his father and appointed his wife as vice-president, enabling her to replace him in his absence, the majority of Azerbaijanis see little possibility for change in the coming election year of 2018.

Elections in Azerbaijan have never met international standards. Observation missions by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have reported major falsifications in previous presidential and parliamentary vote counting. Nevertheless, Azerbaijani TV stations, serving as mouthpieces of the regime, show foreign politicians and members of western parliaments praising the level of democracy in Azerbaijan.

Even now, when prices for Azerbaijan’s main commodity – oil – fall, the government is spending huge amounts to corrupt European institutions and influence politicians, as the Laundromat revelations show. The regime is trying to ease criticism over human rights in order to secure billions of international loans for its mega projects, which will serve merely to prolong its own life.

Azerbaijanis are not naive. They understand that putting western politicians in service costs money. They also understand why the Azerbaijani regime is trying to block the truth inside and outside the country. But the government will fail in these attempts to silence everyone, as there is a truth-telling machine in every house – the empty refrigerator. Azerbaijanis understand quite well that the wealth of oligarchs we expose has been built at the expense of their empty fridges and the time will come when the anger of poverty will explode.

Khadjia Ismayilova is an Azerbaijani investigative journalist and member of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project

Source: Guardian UK

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 06, 2017 10:01 am 
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Azerbaijan 'operated secret $3bn secret slush fund'
5 September 2017

Azerbaijan's ruling elite operated a secret $2.8bn (£2.2bn) slush fund for two years to pay off European politicians and make luxury purchases, an investigation suggests.

The money was allegedly channelled through four UK-based opaque companies. People said to have been paid include European politicians who adopted a favourable attitude to the government. There is no suggestion that all the recipients were aware of the original source of the money, the report said.

The investigation into the alleged secret fund, nicknamed the Azerbaijani Laundromat, was carried out by a consortium of European newspapers and published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). The report alleges that there is evidence of a link between the fund and Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev. President Aliyev has denied any involvement or wrongdoing. "Attempts to link the president and his family are baseless, malicious and are of a provocative nature," the president's office said in a statement on Tuesday.

The statement accused financier George Soros, whose Open Society Institute supports the OCCRP report, of being a "fraud" and a "fake" and called for the report's findings to be "investigated".

What is Azerbaijani Laundromat?

According to the OCCRP, the scheme was used by Azerbaijan's ruling elite to launder funds through a series of shell companies in order to disguise their origin. It was allegedly used as a slush fund to pay people who served their interests. Azerbaijani Laundromat operated over a period of two years from 2012 to 2014, the OCCRP says.

The money was channelled through four opaque UK companies; two based in England and two in Scotland. These companies have since been dissolved, according to the report. The funds, managed by the UK companies, made their way to various countries including Germany, France, Turkey, Iran and Kazakhstan. The payments were sometimes repetitive, the report adds.

Where did the money come from?

The source of the funds is unclear, but the investigation alleges that there is "ample evidence of its connection to the family of President Ilham Aliyev". The OCCRP report says that the money appeared to originate in Azeri and Russian government circles. Some of the funds came directly from the Azerbaijani government, the investigation says.
History of intolerance

By Rayhan Demetrie, BBC News

In 2012, a Berlin-based think-tank, the European Stability Initiative, published a report titled Caviar Diplomacy: How Azerbaijan silenced the Council of Europe.

The report detailed efforts by Azeri officials to win the "hearts and minds" of the Council's members by giving luxurious gifts such as silk carpets, electronic gadgets, black caviar and money in exchange for supporting Azerbaijan. The 47-member council - not part of the European Union - monitors compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, and judges in Strasbourg enforce it.

In 2010 and 2013, Azerbaijan's allegedly rigged parliamentary and presidential elections were praised by members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). PACE members in 2013 voted down a human rights report criticising Azerbaijan.

Oil and caviar rich Azerbaijan is one of the world's most authoritarian nations, where dissent is not tolerated and most government critics are either in jail or have been forced to leave the country. The country's ministry of emergency situations, ministry of defence and intelligence service are said to have provided $9m to the scheme. A Russian arms exports agency, Rosoboronexport, provided $29m, according to OCCRP.

But almost half of the money, $1.4bn, came from private Baku-based company Baktelekom MMC, which bears no relation to the mobile phone giant Baktelecom. Offshore companies, usually registered in the UK with "proxy directors and shareholders", also allegedly contributed.
Where did the money go?

Much of the money is said to have been paid to European politicians, lobbyists, journalists and businessmen.

At the time the alleged scheme, the oil-rich ex-Soviet state was accused of systematic corruption, vote-rigging and abuses, including the jailing of opposition politicians, human rights activists and journalists. The OCCRP report says the money "bought silence". Recipients are said to include the family of Azerbaijan's Deputy Prime Minister, Yaqub Eyyubov, along with lobbyists tasked with tackling corruption in the country and members of parliament with links to businesses, such as pharmaceutical companies. Mr Eyyubov has not yet commented on the report's findings.

The funds, the investigation says, were also used by the political elite in the capital, Baku, to purchase luxury items including private education for well-connected Azeri families living abroad. "Over 13,000" banking transactions were leaked to the media, according to the report. They show that millions of dollars in accounts of companies and individuals across the world were spent at luxury car dealerships, football clubs, travel agencies and hospitals, it adds.

Who was involved?

One of Europe's leading banks, Danske Bank from Denmark, processed the payments to those companies via its branch office in Estonia. It admitted it had not done enough to spot suspicious transactions. At least three European politicians, a journalist and a number of businessmen who praised the government were said to be among the recipients of the Azerbaijani Laundromat money.

The four UK-based companies allegedly used to channel the funds were linked to anonymous tax haven entities based in the British Virgin Islands, Seychelles and Belize. According to the OCCRP report, the companies involved were: Polux Management and Hilux Services, which were set up in Glasgow; Metastar Invest in Birmingham; and LCM Alliance in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire.

The investigation suggests that because numerous payments were made to several "secretive shell companies" in the UK, the scheme's reach may have been much larger than is currently known.
Was it successful?

According to the OCCRP, the scheme seemed to have been successful in, for example, persuading the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe to vote against a report critical of Azerbaijan in 2013. The vote is currently under investigation and a report is expected by the end of the year.

Source: BBC News

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US sanctions to pile misery on moribund Venezuelan economy
By JOSHUA GOODMAN
29 August 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- A small army of red-shirted workers mop the linoleum floors as their supervisors, sitting under a giant portrait of Hugo Chavez, look on. By the meltdown standards of Venezuela's economy, the shelves around the workers at the state-run Bicentenario supermarket in eastern Caracas are brimming with staples like rice and pasta.

What's missing are the shoppers: They've been scared off by prices that double every few weeks while wages in the crisis-wracked nation remain stagnant. "I don't even look at my paycheck anymore because it just gets me depressed," said Norma Pena, a bank teller who earns a little more than Venezuela's minimum wage of around just $15 a month. She left the store with a single bag of black beans.

While President Nicolas Maduro celebrates having calmed Venezuela's streets after months of deadly protests, the country's imploding economy poses an ever more severe threat. And the misery is likely to get even worse due to financial sanctions imposed by the Trump administration in efforts to isolate Maduro for taking the country down an increasingly authoritarian path.

Even before the sanctions were announced, most Venezuelans were struggling like never before. Since 2014, the year after Maduro took office, the economy has shrunk 35 percent - more than the U.S. did during the Great Depression. A bevy of foreign airlines have pulled out of the country this year, oil production is at the lowest level in more than two decades and the government had to add three zeros to its bills as the value of its currency - the "strong bolivar" - plummeted.

But while daylong bread lines have eased, the newest scourge is the way galloping inflation has reached even the basic staples whose prices were long controlled by rigid price and currency restrictions. In recent months authorities have started allowing companies to import everything from canned food to new cars and letting them pass the dollar prices on to consumers at the black market exchange rate, where the greenback is worth 1,685 times more bolivars than it as at the strongest of three official exchange rates. In the past, merchants risked having goods seized, or their businesses shut down, if bolivar prices reflected the world market prices.

The result of the de-facto dollarization has been a devil's bargain: Shelves are fuller than Venezuela has seen for months, but with prices that are out of reach for the vast majority of poor Venezuelans. Inflation, which has been running in the triple digits for more than two years, hit a record last month and has risen to 650 percent over the past 12 months, according to an estimate by New York-based Torino Capital.

Venezuelans have made a grim joke of the process. The government once boasted of guaranteeing a "precio justo" - or "just price" - for goods. Buyers report there is now more on offer but only at a "precio susto" - a "scary price." That's not to say shortages have gone away. The Bicentenario supermarket hasn't seen any fish or meat in about a year, partly because the freezer section's cooling system broke and no spare parts can be found. Most shelves contain a single variety of any given product, much of it imported from China. Private supermarkets aren't much better stocked.

Pena says she scrapes by selling items - telephones, clothes, once even a washing machine - left behind by better-off clients who have abandoned Venezuela. If she and her husband didn't already own their home, they wouldn't have enough to feed their two daughters, she said. Even so, she's lost 6 kilograms (13 pounds) as a result of what's come to be known as the "Maduro diet." In the past year, 74 percent of the population has lost weight because of food scarcity, according to a recent study by three of Caracas' largest universities.

At the normally bustling outdoor Chacao market, poultry vendor Juan Dulcey said his middle-class clientele fell by half over the past month because he has had to double prices to make up for skyrocketing costs. A kilogram of boneless breasts costs around 27,300 bolivars per kilogram - about 10 percent of the current monthly minimum wage. "We used to have a lot of fun joking with customers, but now everyone seems very sad," Dulcey said.

The government accuses U.S. President Donald Trump and the opposition, which has backed the sanctions, of trying to oust Maduro through an "economic war." Former Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, leader of the pro-government constitutional assembly whose creation triggered the U.S. action, said Sunday that the "financial blockade" means Venezuela won't be able to pay for essential imports like food and medicine.

The Trump administration denies it is seeking to punish ordinary Venezuelans. The sanctions, enacted by executive order last week, prohibit American banks from providing new money to the government or state-run oil company PDVSA. They also bar PDVSA's U.S. subsidiary, Citgo, from sending dividends back to Venezuela. But they don't affect financing for most commercial trade, including the shipment of crude oil, of which the U.S. is the OPEC nation's biggest buyer.

Still, by depriving Maduro of badly needed hard currency, the sanctions make it more likely that Venezuela will stop payment on its debt, or reduce what few goods it still imports at the official rates. The government and PDVSA have around $4 billion in debt coming due before the end of the year but only $9.7 billion in foreign currency reserves, the vast majority in the form of gold ingots that are hard to exchange quickly for cash.

Worse, if Maduro doesn't yield to Trump's demand to disband the constitutional assembly and call elections, even tougher sanctions are likely to follow. To cope, Maduro says he will look to increase commercial ties with China and Russia, although it's not clear how generous its allies will be, given Venezuela's growing reputation as an international outlaw in the mold of Cuba, Syria and North Korea. "This could really reduce them to a barter economy and throw Venezuela back to the stone ages," said Russ Dallen, a managing partner at investment bank Caracas Capital Markets. "It's both fascinating and terrifying to watch."

Source: AP

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 07, 2017 12:26 am 
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2 dead as Mexico City bandits fight over right to rob bus
31 August 2017

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Armed thieves frequently board buses to rob passengers in Mexico City and its suburbs.

But the robberies hit a new high - or low - when three began to work over the same bus simultaneously and got into a gun fight among themselves. Two young men were robbing passengers in the back of the bus when they noticed an older thief robbing those up front. They opened fire on each other as horrified passengers watched.

The Mexico City prosecutor's office said Wednesday that the older robber died aboard the bus. A pistol was found next to his body. One of the younger bandits died of gunshot wounds at a hospital. The other was arrested.

Source: AP

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 09, 2017 1:23 pm 
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Rights group finds 'assembly line' of torture in Egypt
By MAGGIE MICHAEL
6 September 2017

CAIRO (AP) -- An international rights group says Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has given a "green light" to systematic torture inside detention facilities, allowing officers to act with "almost total impunity."

In a 63-page report released Wednesday, Human Rights Watch says el-Sissi, a U.S. ally who was warmly received at the White House earlier this year, is pursuing stability "at any cost," and has allowed the widespread torture of detainees despite it being outlawed by the Egyptian constitution.

El-Sissi "has effectively given police and National Security officers a green light to use torture whenever they please," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at the New York-based group. "Impunity for the systematic use of torture has left citizens with no hope for justice." The allegations, the group said, amount to crimes against humanity.

Egypt's Foreign Ministry slammed the report in a statement later on Wednesday, saying it's full of inaccuracies and undermines the sovereignty of the state and the role of its national institutions."

Most of the detainees are alleged supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood group, which rose to power after the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak but has been the target of a sweeping crackdown since the military overthrew Morsi in 2013.

Human Rights Watch says Egypt arrested or charged some 60,000 people in the two years after Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader who became Egypt's first freely elected president, was overthrown following a divisive year in power. Hundreds have gone missing in what appear to be forced disappearances, and hundreds of others have received preliminary death sentences.

Widespread torture in a perceived climate of impunity was one of the main grievances behind the uprising that toppled Mubarak. Stork warned that "allowing the security services to commit this heinous crime across the country invites another cycle of unrest."

President Donald Trump has hailed el-Sissi as an ally against terrorism, but last month the United States cut or delayed nearly $300 million in military and economic aid, part of an estimated $1.3 billion a year the U.S. has given Egypt since it made peace with Israel in 1979.

Based on interviews with 19 Egyptians detained as far back as 2013, the rights group documented abuses ranging from beatings to rape and sodomy. Human Rights Watch said local rights groups have documented dozens of deaths under torture in police custody. It said torture sessions are aimed at extracting confessions, collecting information or simply as punishment. Prosecutors, who are tasked with probing violations, create an "environment of almost total impunity" by either ignoring complaints of torture or threatening abuse themselves.

Human Rights Watch says it found identical methods of torture used in detention facilities across the country, an "assembly line of serious abuse." After a "welcoming party" of beatings, detainees are stripped naked, blindfolded and subjected to electrical shocks and various stress positions. In one position, known as the "grill," detainees are hung from a spit-like wooden pole placed atop two chairs.

Officers often move detainees from one room to the other, where different methods of torture are used, such as pulling out nails or electrocuting a detainee while dousing him with water, often until he passes out. Some detainees said they were placed inside a room dubbed the "fridge" and kept in extremely cold temperatures while wearing nothing but underwear. "All my nerves were shaking. I wasn't in control of them," Human Rights Watch quoted a detainee as saying, after an intense torture session that included shocking his genitals with electrical wires.

The researchers found five cases in which officers used torture to force detainees to read pre-written confessions, which were filmed and then posted on social media or shown on state TV. "I gave them the answers they wanted to hear because the electrocution was too much for me to bear," another detainee said.

The Interior Ministry in the past has denied allegations of systemic torture, blaming any abuses on individuals and saying they are held accountable. Several officers have been tried and convicted of torture, while others have been acquitted. Egypt has said enhanced security measures are needed to combat the Islamic State and other armed groups that have stepped up attacks since Morsi's ouster. El-Sissi declared a state of emergency in April after a series of deadly church bombings claimed by IS.

Citing national security, the government has shut down hundreds of websites, including many operated by independent journalists and rights groups. Judges have been referred to a disciplinary committee for helping prepare an anti-torture bill, and parliament, which is packed with el-Sissi loyalists, passed a law that would cripple the work of independent rights groups.

Source: AP

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 18, 2017 10:48 am 
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Uproar in Turkey over removing evolution from biology class
By ZEYNEP BILGINSOY
17 September 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) -- Students in Turkey are returning to school Monday where they will be taught evolution for the last time in their biology classes. Next fall, evolution and Charles Darwin will be scrapped from their textbooks.

Turkey has announced an overhaul of more than 170 topics in the country's school curriculum, including removing all direct references to evolution from high school biology classes. The upcoming changes have caused uproar, with critics calling them a reshaping of education along the conservative, Islam-oriented government's line. Opposition parties and unions have organized protests against the changes, demanding that Turkey provide a scientific, secular education for its students. Lawmakers have also opposed the new curriculum in parliament.

Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz said the new "value-based" program had simplified topics in "harmonization with students' development." He said evolutionary biology, which his ministry deemed was too advanced for high school, would still be taught in universities.

Evolution has been taught in 12th-grade biology classes in a chapter called "The Beginning of Life and Evolution." The unit will be replaced by "Living Beings and the Environment" in September 2018 where evolutionary mechanisms like adaptation, mutation and natural and artificial selection will be taught without a mention of evolution or Darwin. Yilmaz said students would learn the nature of being, including "evolution and other ontological opinions" in 11th-grade philosophy.

Other contentious changes include teaching about jihad or holy war in religion classes as the "love of homeland," and a lessened emphasis on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic who is revered by Turkey's secularists. Ataturk instituted the separation of state and religion, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party has challenged that strict split with a more religious approach. Students will also learn about the groups that Turkey is fighting: the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, the Islamic State group and the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Turkey's education system is already reeling from the trauma of the failed July 15, 2016 coup attempt - and the new scholastic program highlights that government victory as "a legendary, heroic story." More than 33,000 of the nation's teachers - about 4 percent - have been purged in a government crackdown after the coup, nearly 5,600 academics have been dismissed and some 880 schools shuttered for alleged links to terror groups. Many who lost their jobs say the government is using the failed coup as a way to silence its critics. Turkey blames Gulen for orchestrating the coup, which he denies.

The belief in creationism - that life originated and changed through divine creation - is widespread in Turkey. Many educators are worried because Turkish students are already globally ranked "below average" in science, mathematics and reading compared to their peers across the world, according the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Mehmet Somel, the head of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Society of Turkey, says Turkish students will be unable to understand even basic science if their studies make no direct reference to evolution. "We won't be able to produce good doctors, good scientists, when students graduate from high school with this level of ignorance," Somel said. Studying evolution allows future doctors to see the causal link between, for example, resistant strains of microbes and excessive antibiotic use, he said.

Cagri Mert Bakirci, a biologist who founded an online learning project called the "Tree of Evolution," calls the ministry's claim that evolution is too difficult for Turkish students an "insult" to them and their teachers. His volunteer project reaches nearly 8 million people each week over Facebook with videos and articles. "I can explain evolution in 10 seconds," he said. The two biologists say evolution was never adequately taught in Turkish public schools in the first place. But Somel says the mention of evolution in past programs at least meant that teachers could introduce the topic.

Orkide Kuleli, a retired pharmaceutical professional, said her 15-year-old daughter will now have to learn about Darwin by herself. She was worried, however, about a more insidious change that she says is taking place in Turkey's education system. "The goal is to transform society politically and ideologically rather than develop it through science," she said. "A generation that does not question is one that blindly obeys." Erdogan has repeatedly voiced his desire for a "devout generation." Previous changes to the education system have included an increase in public schools providing religious studies and more elective classes on Islam.

The new curriculum will be rolled out in steps and assessed. This year, students in first, fifth and ninth grades will use the updated program. Other classes, including the changed biology program, will be fully integrated next fall. The education minister has called the uproar on evolution "partisan," arguing that the new curriculum had been open to input. The head of Turkey's education board, Alpaslan Durmus, insisted it was "utterly ignorant" to say evolution has been scrapped when its mechanisms are still being taught.

Latif Selvi of the pro-government Educators Trade Union, which was involved in drafting the changes, also called the widespread criticism of the plan "ideologically motivated." "My opinion, based on an evaluation with evolutionary teachers, is that this change is positive," Selvi said.

Somel, the biologist, believes that self-censorship may be at work rather than a top-down decision to toss out evolution entirely. "There is serious fear in universities and in the ministry of education that one may be pushed out, and evolution has become one of those scary themes," he said. He said Turkish academics now avoid using the word evolution in project proposals even while studying evolutionary topics. This spring, the Museum of Natural History in the capital of Ankara put new stickers on posters changing the word "evolution" to "development."

Bakirci said hundreds of experts in Turkey would be willing to help the government improve the country's science education. "It's not too late to take a step back from this mistake," he warned.

Source: AP

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Opposition leader and Putin critic Alexei Navalny arrested in Moscow
29 September 2017

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who aims to unseat Vladimir Putin in presidential elections next year, was arrested ahead of a rally on Friday, raising the possibility of a month in jail.

In what is the latest attempt to thwart the 41-year-old Kremlin critic's campaign, Navalny was held in his building's entrance hall as he was leaving to get a train to Nizhny Novgorod, a provincial city. The rally had been due to start at 6 pm but Moscow police said Navalny was arrested "over multiple calls to participate in an unauthorised public event." Officers accused him of repeatedly violating a law on organising public meetings, which is punishable by up to 30 days in jail. The head of Navalny's campaign, Leonid Volkov, was detained in Nizhny Novgorod.

The opposition leader said he had not received any explanation for why he had been held for several hours. "I am sitting in a reception room and looking at a portrait of Putin," Navalny said on Twitter earlier. He urged his supporters to assemble anyway and also linked his detention with another -- bigger -- rally scheduled in Russia's second city of St Petersburg, Putin's hometown, on October 7, the Russian strongman's birthday.

Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader, has said he wants to stand for president next March, but the electoral authorities have said he is not eligible because he is serving a suspended sentence for fraud. Putin, who has led Russia since 1999, is widely expected to seek and win another six-year Kremlin term. The campaign has yet to officially open.

After Navalny declared his bid he was hit by a wave of legal obstacles and attacks and even had to travel to Spain for eye surgery after one assault left him almost blind in one eye. Navalny has been briefly imprisoned before. He was detained prior to arriving at his last two rallies in Moscow on March 26 and June 12, both of which were not authorised by the city. He served sentences of 15 days and 25 days for organising unauthorised protests.

Nizhny Novgorod authorities said they had refused Navalny permission to hold the rally but his supporters have vowed to go ahead anyway. "The Kremlin sees my meetings with the electorate as a huge threat and even an insult -- after all no one goes to their rallies without being paid," Navalny said. "They've said for a long time that the opposition has no support in the regions and now it hurts them to see our rallies." He called on his supporters to show up at the rally in Nizhny Novgorod. "Come for the sake of principle and as a sign of protest against the stupidity, senility and degradation that have overtaken our country," he wrote.

Undeterred by the seemingly predetermined outcome, Navalny has pressed ahead with his presidential bid and travelled around the country. Navalny has been gathering crowds of supporters across Russia, seeking to shift public attitudes and battle political ennui in places such as the Pacific port of Vladivostok and other cities.

Last week the Council of Europe's decision-making body, the Committee of Ministers, urged the Russian authorities to allow Navalny to stand for election despite his suspended sentence, saying he and his co-defendant, former business partner Pyotr Ofitserov, continue "to suffer the consequences of their arbitrary and unfair convictions." The Russian justice ministry accused the Council of Europe of putting political pressure on Moscow ahead of the elections.

Political observers say that the growing atmosphere of intolerance towards dissenters has prompted a surge in radical feeling in Russia as verbal threats from Kremlin supporters give way to physical attacks. Many have applauded Navalny -- whose ally Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015 --- for his decision to keep up the fight at a time when many have chosen to leave the country or stay quiet.

Source: AFP

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 12, 2017 9:16 pm 
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Hungary, Ukraine still at odds over Ukraine education law
By PABLO GORONDI
12 October 2017

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) -- Hungary will continue to withhold its support for Ukraine's further integration with the European Union as long as a new Ukrainian education law remains unchanged, Hungary's foreign minister said Thursday.

The education law passed last month specifies that Ukrainian will be the main language used in schools, rolling back the option for lessons to be taught in other languages. Ukraine has some 150,000 ethnic Hungarians, mostly in the country's west. "We consider the new Ukrainian education law a stab in the back of our country," Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said, speaking after a meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, Pavlo Klimkin.

Ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia, as Hungary calls western Ukraine, fear that the 71 Hungarian schools there could be at risk of having to close, Szijjarto said. He said relations between neighbors Hungary and Ukraine are "at their most difficult period" since Ukraine declared independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. Russia, Romania and Moldova have also expressed concerns about the new language law.

Klimkin said not knowing the native language made it hard for minorities to be successful in Ukraine. He said 75 percent of students in an area with a large Hungarian minority failed their high school exit exams. "Everyone needs the opportunity to fulfill themselves in their country of citizenship," Klimkin said. "But this is not possible without knowing the language." However, he said "not a single school" would be closed or "a single teacher" dismissed because of the new language requirement.

Klimkin said Hungary's move to grant Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine would not benefit those people. He also alleged that Russia was using the language issue to "manipulate" and "provoke" in Ukraine, including "directly and indirectly" in the Transcarpathia region.

In reply, Szijjarto said ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine "don't need any incitement from anyone to stand up for their own rights." "As long as the Hungarians of Transcarpathia ask us to fight on this issue and not back down, we will fight and not back down," Szijjarto said.

Source: AP

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