(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Weekly news wrap

An anti-personnel mine blast claimed the life of a man on the Tajik-Uzbek border in the Asht district of the northern Tajik province of Soghd on Sunday, the Tajik Asia-Plus news agency reported on Monday, citing the Tajik Border Protection Committee.

The explosion took place in the area between the district's villages of Punuk and Sarvak, killing Makhzum Quziyev, a 37-year-old resident of Punuk. The recent incident brought the number of mine victims in Tajikistan to 57 since Uzbekistan began planting land mines on its borders with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2000.

Staying in that country, the US ambassador to Tajikistan, Richard Hoagland, said on Tuesday that he was "optimistic" about the future of democracy in the mountainous Central Asian country, adding that the country had a multiparty system that included the only legal Islamic party in the region. However, he urged the Tajik parliament to adopt amendments to the law on elections and revise a package of laws on the media, the Russian ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

On Wednesday, Hoagland said that the corruption and a lack of rule of law were the main barriers in attracting foreign investment to Tajikistan. He noted that two companies were looking to build five-star hotels in the Tajik capital Dushanbe - the only Central Asian capital without such a hotel - but were put off after being asked for large bribes by officials. Corruption is widespread across the impoverished nation.

Going to Kazakhstan, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on Monday expressed support for the US-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that will carry Caspian Sea oil via Azerbaijan and Georgia to Western consumers. Nazarbayev said after talks with visiting Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev that the project was important for Kazakhstan as an alternative (route) to export energy resources. Kazakhstan hopes to use the pipeline for its own oil exports, which are expected to rise with the development of new oil fields in its section of the energy-rich Caspian Sea. In 2003, Kazakhstan transported 3 million mt of oil via Azerbaijan.

On Thursday, the Kazakhstan Today news agency reported that the situation with freedom of speech in the largest Central Asian nation remained poor, according to a recent study by the Adil Soz Foundation, a local NGO dealing with press freedom. Nine assaults on journalists and members of their families were registered in 2003, with mostly reporters of regional publications suffering from beatings and threats.

The report maintained that 21 cases of prosecution against journalists were registered in 2003, with nine of them based on the libel article. Fifty two state officials, 42 legal entities and 41 citizens brought lawsuits against media outlets. The foundation noted that the real number of violations could be more.

Going to neighbouring Uzbekistan, the press service of the Uzbek Foreign Ministry said on Monday that during a recent meeting of the joint Uzbek-Kazakh demarcation commission in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, the government delegations approved a plan for conducting demarcation work. The meeting agreed that border posts, examples of which had been approved by the governments in the past, would be put up as part of demarcation of the Uzbek-Kazakh state border in early April. The current frontiers in Central Asia were drawn by the Soviet leadership on the map without considering many local peculiarities and in some places the border runs through villages and even houses, making the issue of border demarcation complicated and a possible source of tensions.

Also in Uzbekistan, the AP reported on Monday that the authorities released an opposition activist pending his trial on charges of illegal possession of weapons and drugs. Muidinjon Kurbanov, a member of the unregistered opposition Birlik party was arrested earlier last month but was released on 27 February after he promised not to leave his home province of Jizzak in central Uzbekistan, said Vasilya Inoyatova, the Birlik secretary-general. She accused police of forcing Kurbanov to confess by threatening to rape his wife in front of him if he refused.

Kurbanov's arrest sparked concerns that his party was being portrayed as a terrorist group to prevent it from running in this year's parliamentary elections. No opposition parties are formally recognised in Uzbekistan, and they will not be able to participate the December elections if they are not registered by 26 April.

Over 8,890 drug-related crimes were detected in Uzbekistan in 2003, Kamol Dusmetov, the director of the Uzbek national drug control agency said on Wednesday, describing it as a two percent growth compared to 2002. The number of heroin addicts is also rising in Central Asia as traffic in processed drugs increases from neighbouring Afghanistan, causing a drastic jump in HIV infections, UN drug control officials in the region said while presenting an annual report by the International Narcotics Control Board [INCB], an independent UN body monitoring the global drug situation.

Only 1 mt of drugs were seized in Uzbekistan last year, said Dusmetov, adding that the number of HIV infections had doubled since 2002 to 3,596, with more than half of them drug addicts. The number of registered addicts in Uzbekistan has increased by six percent within last two years to 21,800, a majority of whom are heroin users, he maintained. However, the actual numbers are likely to be far higher, given the stigma attached to the disease and drug addiction.

Meanwhile, the AP said on Monday that Kyrgyzstan was seen by terrorists as a preferred sanctuary due to loose border controls and widespread corruption, based on interrogating records of Azizbek Karimov, a convicted member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), labeled a terrorist group by the US government.

"Kyrgyzstan has the most favourable conditions to carry out terrorist attacks and for former members of the IMU to settle down," he said in court documents. Karimov was sentenced to capital punishment last month in neighbouring Uzbekistan for involvement in two Kyrgyz bombings that killed eight people in 2002 and 2003. The IMU was blamed for a series of incursions and kidnappings in Central Asia from 1999-2001.

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