Archive for December 1, 2013

Published 02 September 2013

The oil-rich Azerbaijan has intensified a crackdown on activists and journalists to stifle criticism of long-term leader Ilham Aliyev before presidential elections in October, campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today (2 September).

In the past 18 months, authorities in the South Caucasus nation have arrested dozens, dispersed anti-government rallies and adopted laws curbing freedom of speech and assembly, the organization said in a report.

Azeri authorities could not be immediately reached for comment, but Baku has repeatedly denied abusing human rights in the past.

“Prosecuting people who criticize the authorities and report on issues of public interest is a cynical and transparent attempt to stifle government critics,” HRW researcher Giorgi Gogia said.

The European Union and other bodies in June accused the ex-Soviet state of tightening curbs on free expression by making defamation over the internet a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment.

“Trumped-up” charges

HRW said authorities had in particular targeted youth activists critical of the authorities on social networks.

Several members of opposition youth movement NIDA were arrested earlier this year accused of plans to instigate violence during protests, and a number of journalists and rights workers were detained on fake charges, it said.

“The authorities have used a range of trumped-up criminal charges, including narcotics and weapons possession, hooliganism, incitement, and treason to lock up these critics.”

According to the report, Azeri authorities have also increased fines for unsanctioned protests by up to 100 times and expanded from 15 to 60 the maximum prison term for public order misdemeanors often used to jail protesters.

Western powers are generally critical of Azeri human rights violations, the report said, but the reported abuse has not had a major impact on their relations with Baku.

“That is perhaps due to Azerbaijan’s geostrategic importance and hydrocarbon resources,” HRW said.

The mainly Muslim Caspian Sea nation, ruled by Ilham Aliyev since he succeeded his father in 2003, has been courted by Western powers because of its role as an alternative to Russia in supplying oil and gas to Europe.

Aliyev, 51, is almost certain to win the upcoming October polls in a tightly controlled political system, despite mounting opposition from Azeris tired of his rule.

Vote monitoring groups have previously criticized the democratic credential of ballots in the country over the past decade.

Source: EurActiv.

October 30, 2013

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey has opened an underwater railway tunnel linking Europe and Asia, and the two sides of Istanbul, realizing a plan initially proposed by an Ottoman sultan about 150 years ago.

The Marmaray tunnel runs under the Bosporus, the strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and divides Istanbul between Asia and Europe. The tunnel is 13.6 kilometers (8.5 miles) long, including an underwater stretch of 1.4 kilometers (4,593 feet).

It is among a number of large infrastructure projects under the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that have helped boost the economy but also have provoked a backlash of public protest.

“I wish from God that the Marmaray that we are inaugurating will be a benefit to our Istanbul, to our country, to all of humanity,” Erdogan said at the opening ceremony. Officials hope that with up to 1.5 million passengers a day, the tunnel will ease some of Istanbul’s chronic traffic, particularly over the two bridges linking the two sides of the city. A more distant dream is that the tunnel may become part of a new train route for rail travel between Western Europe and China.

The underwater portion of the tunnel wasn’t dug, but was dropped in sections to the sea bottom — the immersed-tube method used around the world. Turkish officials say that at more than 55 meters (180 feet) deep, it is the world’s deepest railway tunnel of its type.

Started in 2005 and scheduled to be completed in four years, the project was delayed by important archaeological finds, including a 4th century Byzantine port, as builders began digging under the city.

Rejecting any fears that the tunnel could be vulnerable to earthquakes in a region of high seismic activity, Turkish Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim said that it is designed to withstand a massive 9.0 magnitude quake. He calls it “the safest place in Istanbul.”

The tube sections are joined by flexible joints that can withstand shocks. Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid is said to have proposed the idea of a tunnel under the Bosporus about a century and a half ago. One of his successors, Abdulhamid, had architects submit proposals in 1891, but the plans were not carried out.

The tunnel is just one of Erdogan’s large-scale plans. They include a separate tunnel being built under the Bosporus for passenger cars, a third bridge over the strait, the world’s biggest airport, and a massive canal that would bypass the Bosporus.

The projects have provoked charges that the government is plunging ahead with city-changing plans without sufficient public consultation. The concern fueled protests that swept Turkey in June. Tuesday’s ceremony on the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic was attended by Erdogan and other officials, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose country was heavily involved in the construction and financing of the railway tunnel project.

Japan’s Seikan tunnel linking the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido is the world’s deepest, getting 140 meters (460 feet) below the seabed and 240 meters (790 feet) below sea level. The Channel Tunnel linking Britain and France is as much as 75 meters (250 feet) below sea level.

23 October 2013

Turkey has donated $850,000 in aid to Palestine to reduce the energy needs of the Gaza Strip and is preparing to send 10 tons of flour to Gaza for Palestinians in a bid to support its ally, which has been under a blockade since 2007.

According to a statement released by the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday, Turkey sent financial aid to the Palestinian government to supply energy to hospitals and sewage plants in the Gaza Strip under a Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA) initiative. The Foreign Ministry statement says that UN agencies in Palestine will help with the delivery of fuel to institutions that are in urgent need of energy.

The statement also notes that the Prime Ministry’s Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) will send 10 tons of flour to the Gaza Strip; the shipment is expected to be sent out in November.

Pointing out that Turkey has conducted other projects for Palestine, including supplying medicine and medical equipment, the Foreign Ministry’s announcement reiterated that Turkey stands by Palestine, its brother and friend, and is determined to continue its support to the country, which is facing occupation and a blockade.

Last week, Khaled Mashaal, leader of Hamas — which rules Gaza — met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara.

Turkey is one of the staunchest supporters of the Palestinian efforts for statehood. It helped the Palestinians in their lobbying attempts to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s observer status at the United Nations from “entity” to “non-member state.” It also regularly sends humanitarian aid to the country. In one such effort, one part of a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, the Mavi Marmara, was raided by Israeli commandos, resulting in the deaths of eight Turks and one Turkish-American in 2010.

Erdoğan, Palestine’s Abbas talk Mideast peace process

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Turkey’s prime minister on Tuesday to discuss the Middle East peace process with Israel, Prime Ministry sources said.

The private Cihan news agency reported that Abbas first told Erdoğan he is pleased with the release of two Turkish pilots kidnapped in Lebanon.

Sources said Abbas briefed Erdoğan on the latest developments in the Middle East peace process.

The leaders also agreed to be in touch with respect to regional developments. It was not clear if the officials talked about national reconciliation between Fatah, the party of Abbas, which rules the West Bank, and Hamas.

Source: Today’s Zaman.

Ankara (AFP)
Oct 02, 2013

Turkey on Wednesday defended its decision to enter talks with China to acquire its first long-range anti-missile system, in spite of protests from its ally Washington.

It also made clear that no deal had yet been finalized.

“The Chinese gave us the best price,” Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz told Vatan newspaper, explaining that the system’s Chinese manufacturer had agreed to a co-production deal with Turkey.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Gumrukcu said talks were to begin with the Chinese company, but made it clear that the selection process was still ongoing.

“The process has not yet been finalized,” he said.

In an official statement last week, Turkey said it has “decided to begin talks with the CPMIEC company of the People’s Republic of China for the joint production of the systems and its missiles in Turkey”.

China Precision Machinery Export-Import Corp (CPMIEC) beat out competition from a US partnership of Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, Russia’s Rosoboronexport, and the Italian-French consortium Eurosamrs in the tender.

The original contract was worth a reported $4 billion dollars, but the Chinese bid reportedly came in at a much lower $3 billion according to Turkish media.

The United States reacted with alarm to news that Ankara had chosen the Chinese firm, slapped with US sanctions for delivering arms to Iran and Syria, to build the air defense and anti-missile system.

“We had asked for joint production and a technology transfer,” the Turkish minister said. “If other countries cannot guarantee us that, then we will turn to ones that can.”

NATO member Turkey is a key regional ally to the United States, and currently has US-built Patriot missile systems deployed on its border to deter incoming attacks from Syria.

Turkey wants to build its own long-range air defense and anti-missile architecture to counter both enemy aircraft and missiles.

NATO has also raised concerns over possible compatibility issues between the Chinese-made system and others used within the alliance.

Yilmaz dismissed its concerns, saying: “There is no problem on that front.”

The foreign ministry confirmed that Turkey had been in talks with NATO over the past few days, with Gumrukcu saying that the exchange of views with NATO allies was “only natural.”

Source: Space War.

September 16, 2013

ISTANBUL (AP) — A Turkish fighter jet shot down a Syrian military helicopter on Monday after it entered Turkish airspace and ignored repeated warnings to leave, an official said.

The helicopter strayed 2 kilometers (more than 1 mile) into Turkish airspace, but crashed inside Syria after being hit by missiles fired from the jet, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, told reporters in Ankara.

Arinc said he did not have any information on the fate of the Syrian pilots, but Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said rebel fighters captured one of the pilots, while the fate of the other one was unclear.

The incident is bound to ramp up tension on an already volatile border. Turkey has been at odds with the Syrian government since early in the country’s civil war and has backed the Syrian rebels, while advocating international intervention in the conflict.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking in Paris after meetings about Syria with his counterparts from other countries, said Monday’s encounter should send a message. “Nobody will dare to violate Turkey’s borders in any way again,” he said, according to Anatolia, the Turkish state-run news agency. “The necessary measures have been taken.”

Arinc noted that the Turkish military had put its forces on a higher state of alert and changed the rules for engaging with the Syrian military along the border because of “‘constant harassment fire from the other side.”

He also noted that a Turkish jet was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft over the Mediterranean in June 2012. Turkey says it was hit in international airspace, but Syria insisted it was flying low inside Syrian airspace.

Shells from the Syrian conflict have occasionally rained down on the Turkish side of the border, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned Damascus that his country would not tolerate any violation of the border by Syrian forces.

AP correspondent Ryan Lucas contributed from Beirut.

September 13, 2013

ISTANBUL (AP) — When demonstrators rocked Turkey in June, their message was clear: an increasingly authoritarian government needed to learn to listen to dissenters and compromise. But a new round of protests set off by the death of a man in a tense border region with Syria appears more complex, sectarian and volatile.

The latest street unrest shows the grievances that prompted tens of thousands to protest Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in June have not faded. And his government has been hurt by those protests — for instance, losing the chance last week to host the 2020 Summer Olympics partly due to Turkey’s damaged international image.

But this round of demonstrations was sparked far from Istanbul and in a very different way — the death of 22-year-old Ahmet Atakan, killed under disputed circumstances during a protest Sunday in the southern city of Antakya.

Thousands of protesters in Istanbul, Ankara and Antakya, many chanting Atakan’s name, have clashed with police every night since then. Young, liberal protesters, the focus of the June demonstrations, have joined, but the epicenter of this week’s protests has shifted to Antakya and has been swelled by grievances of minority groups.

The galvanizing factors seem to be anger at Erdogan and a call for greater civil liberties. “The government has sought to divide us, but has succeeded in bringing a lot of different people to the same cause,” says Oyku Akman, 21, a student at the Middle East Technical University, who has participated in both rounds of demonstrations.

The June protests were larger, but she said the latest demonstrations have taken on a harder edge, as protesters have been launching fireworks and throwing projectiles to provoke police tear gas and water cannon. They are also increasingly using burning barricades.

Atakan, the face of the protests, came from a family of Alevis, a Shiite sect that comprises Turkey’s largest religious minority in the mostly Sunni country. Shunned as heretics by many Turks, Alevis have long-standing grievances about discrimination and religious freedom. To complicate matters, they are close to Syrian Alawites, and tend to back the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad, an Alawite. A big part of their current grievances is Erdogan’s strong stance against Assad.

In an interview with The Associated Press this week, Zafer Atakan outlined his brother Ahmet’s grievances, blaming Erdogan’s AKP party for egging on outside powers to intervene in Syria. “Ahmet’s aim was to stop AKP’s fascism and the imperialist interventions all over the world,” he said.

Meanwhile, the armed wing of the Kurdish PKK rebels, noting Atakan’s death, has called for followers to join the demonstrations this week. The call comes as the group is suspending a pullout from Turkey as part of talks with the Turkish government about ending a nearly three-decade conflict that has cost thousands of lives. The government says it is preparing a package of democratic reforms to meet some of the Kurdish demands.

Protesters say the police have continued the aggressive tactics that turned a local Istanbul protest in late May against the government’s plan to demolish a city park into a national expression of dissent.

But the government has changed one tactic: Instead of having Erdogan intervene directly with blunt comments praising the police and deriding protesters, so far he has remained silent on the latest protests, which have also received relatively little attention in the Turkish press.

Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for the Turkish daily Millyet, says she expects the protests to continue. “The current situation is not sustainable,” she says. “Turkey is either going to get more democratic or more authoritarian.”

Mehmet Guzel contributed to this report from Antakya, Turkey.