The World Today for April 26, 2018



On Defrost

For 27 years, Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov regularly jailed and tortured dissenters, threatened citizens with a mighty surveillance apparatus and stifled independent media – long after the shadow of the Iron Curtain had been dispelled in other former Soviet states.

After Karimov’s death in 2016, observers expected the repression to continue under heir apparent Shavkat Mirziyoyev. After all, he’d served 13 years under Karimov as prime minister, and the Economist dubbed his landslide presidential election in December 2016 a “sham.”

Instead, Mirziyoyev seems to be taking small but noteworthy steps to usher in a new era of liberalism and international engagement in Uzbekistan.

He has set about dismantling the powers of the state security apparatus, long harnessed by Karimov to silence enemies. He’s released long-detained political prisoners, removed tens of thousands from the security service’s “blacklist” and signed into law the agency’s new mission to protect human rights, the New York Times wrote.

He’s taking positive steps in foreign diplomacy as well, wrote the BBC. Previously a reclusive country hostile to foreign influence, Uzbekistan recently invited the media to an international summit on the peace process in Afghanistan. And this week Mirziyoyev announced plans to join in an $8 billion project to build a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India after meeting his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Tashkent Monday, Reuters reported.

The moves represent an attempt to re-engage with the international community and guarantee security within the region, while also luring much-needed foreign investment into the country, wrote the New York Review of Books.

Neighboring countries used to steer clear of Uzbekistan due to Karimov’s despotism, prompting a long-lasting feud with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon that affected peoples on both sides of the border seeking economic opportunities.

But in March, Mirziyoyev visited Tajikistan, marking the first state visit by an Uzbek leader since both countries gained independence following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. As a result, both countries have loosened border and visa restrictions and forged bilateral trade and agricultural agreements.

Still, human rights organizations caution against too much optimism: Mirziyoyev still wields totalitarian powers and regularly suppresses freedom of expression.

But in a region plagued by authoritarianism, any country set on defrost is a hopeful sign of warmer times to come.



Croque Monsieur Probe

It may or may not be possible to get an American grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, as former New York state chief judge Sol Wachtler once quipped. But what of the iconic Croque Monsieur?

This week French judge Serge Tournaire indicted billionaire tycoon Vincent Bollore in a corruption investigation related to his group’s businesses in two countries in Africa, Reuters quoted Groupe Bollore as saying in a statement Wednesday.

The decision means Bollore will now be formally treated as a suspect, but under French law, he will not be formally charged with a crime unless he is sent to trial. The move came after Bollore had been questioned for two days by French fraud police.

The probe concerns suspicions that Bollore’s Havas Worldwide communications business undercharged presidential candidates in Guinea and Togo in return for port contracts.

Groupe Bollore denies any wrongdoing.

Just as they call a ham sandwich by a different name, the French don’t generally use the term indictment, either – though Groupe Bollore did so in its press statement, Reuters noted.


Today’s Headline

A Turkish court convicted 13 employees of the country’s oldest independent newspaper of terrorism-related crimes on Wednesday as part of a continuing crackdown that followed a failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July 2016.

The defendants – journalists, managers and a lawyer employed by the Cumhuriyet newspaper — received sentences of two to seven years in prison, the New York Times reported. They will remain free while their cases are appealed.

The court also ordered the release of Akin Atalay, the executive chairman of the foundation that manages the newspaper, who was the only member of the group still behind bars following a months-long investigation.

Atalay and several others were acquitted of charges of misuse of authority but convicted of helping terrorist organizations.

They’re accused of helping supposed terrorist outfits, including that of the alleged mastermind of the coup attempt, Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, through telephone and internet contacts and the editorial direction of the newspaper.

Turkey’s post-coup attempt crackdown has shuttered 170 news media outlets, and about 160 journalists are currently behind bars.


Preparing for the Worst

It was English philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon who famously observed that sometimes the remedy is worse than the disease. But the Philippines is giving the phrase new meaning.

Most recently, the Southeast Asian country closed its most famous holiday island Boracay to tourists on Thursday for the sake of a six-month cleanup that began with military-style exercises by the coast guard and assault-rifle wielding police officers, Agence France-Presse reported.

The kicker? The government conceded there was no real threat, and an interior ministry official told AFP the security presence was “just part of preparing for the worst”.

President Rodrigo Duterte this month blamed tourism-related businesses for turning the resort into a “cesspool” by dumping raw sewage directly into the ocean. Most acknowledge that pollution and unchecked development are the real problems.

Many aren’t keen on the draconian response.

“It looks like we are at war,” AFP quoted grocery seller Jessica Gabay as saying. “Maybe the authorities are doing this to instill fear so people will follow the rules.”


Bluetooth’s Legacy

An amateur archaeologist and his 13-year-old apprentice thought they’d made yet another disappointing haul while hunting for treasures recently on the island of Rügen in northern Germany.

But a closer inspection revealed something much more dramatic.

After submitting what they believed to be a piece of aluminum to a local archaeological service, the pair learned from authorities that they’d discovered a Viking Age silver coin – a find that led experts to uncover a treasure trove belonging to Danish King Harald Gormsson, better known as Harry Bluetooth.

“This trove is the biggest single discovery of Bluetooth coins in the southern Baltic Sea region and is therefore of great significance,” archaeologist Michael Schirren told German national news agency DPA, according to Agence France-Presse.

Archaeologists uncovered several other pieces of jewelry at the site, including a charm of Thor’s hammer, and nearly 600 chipped coins. Over 100 of them were minted during Bluetooth’s reign, which lasted from around 958 to 986.

Researchers believe that the treasure might have been buried in the late 980s after a rebellion led by his son, Sven Gabelbart, forced Bluetooth to flee his kingdom for Pomerania in what’s now northern Germany.

Harald is known for unifying Denmark and abandoning Norse religion in favor of Christianity.

Less keen students of history, however, may recognize that his name has been co-opted for the Bluetooth technology in most smartphones and laptops – the symbol of which is created from two runes spelling out his initials.

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