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Malaysia Censoring ‘No Fire Zone,’ An Attack On Art – Index On Censorship

Index on Censorship (IoC) has highlighted five cases of artistes attacked in 2013 for their performances as an infringement on their freedom of expression. However, while four of the five cases are of intolerant governments and militants groups trying to silence critical voices of performers in their own countries, one instance is different.
Lena Hendry is a programme officer for the non-profit KOMAS in Kuala Lampur Malaysia, but could be imprisoned and fined if found guilty by the Malaysian courts for the private screening of No Fire Zone, a documentary on the massacre of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka during the final few months of the civil war ending in May 2009.

The other four cases highlighted by IoC are: Weld El 15 (aka Yaacoub) the Tunisian rapper arrested and sentenced for two years for posting an online song ‘Police are Dogs’ and later released on a six-month suspended sentence;  Kazakh poet Aaron Atabek sentenced to 18 years in prison for protesting the demolition of a shanty town and later put in solitary confinement for smuggling out poetry of protest while in detention; death threats by Islamic militants on 12,000 singers and musicians in Mali that has put them out of work, closed theatres and forced some to flee overseas; 19 actors in the city of El Kef in Tunisia assaulted by Salafi militants and later arrested by the police on charges of indecency that carries a sentence of six months incarceration.
This blog featured in previous posts the cases of Lena Hendry and Weld El 15.
However, the Weld El 15 case posted was not on his arrest for his online song ‘Police are Dogs’ but for another conviction in September for a concert performance in Hammemet with fellow-rapper Klay BBJ (aka Ahamed Ben Ahamed).
Lena Hendry was arrested by Malaysian police. On July 3, a private screening before an invited audience of No Fire Zone was co-organised by Pusat KOMAS, the Malaysian human rights NGO and KL & Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall Civil Right Committee. Before the event the organisers received a fax from the Sri Lankan High Commission in Kuala Lampur asking it not be screened and accusing the organisers of supporting terrorism, said a Malaysian news website FMT.
The screening was disrupted midway by Malaysian officials of the home ministry and the police. Although they were persuaded to let the film continue, all members of the audience leaving the hall had their identity papers scrutinised. KOMAS, says in a press release, “This is a clear abuse of power as it was not necessary for them to harass the audience who had just come to watch the movie.”
Although Hendry was told to appear in court on August 6, the hearing was postponed to September 19.  On the 19th Hendry was charged under Film Censorship Act but it unclear whether others were too.  “[to] ridiculously proceed with this travesty of justice by the charging of Lena Hendry is evident of the KDN and the AG Chambers’ bully tactics and total disregard of universal human rights principles and worse of all, the Malaysian Constitution,” reported MSN.
Meanwhile in the Tunisian case, Weld El 15 was in hiding and did not appear in court in September when his fellow-performer Klay BBJ, first sentenced for 21 months in jail was given a reduced six-month sentence on appeal. The sentence was not overturned in appeal.
Following the sentence, BBC quoting AFP said that Klay told court, “‘[o]ur songs criticise the current situation in Tunisia and the government, no more and no less. I am among the rappers most critical of the government and that is why [the authorities] are after me.'”
IoC drawing attention to these five cases said, “Art is one of the most prominent forms of freedom of expression, allowing people to express their thoughts through song, dance, prose and theatre. It is not uncommon across the world for performers to be attacked as a form of censorship, ultimately silencing what they are trying to say.”

Using Interpol to Crackdown on Journalists, Activists

Dodojon Atovulloyev (Photo courtesy RSF)

As they grow increasingly intolerant of dissent, two Central Asian countries have used Interpol to track down and deport dissident activists, including journalists, who fearing reprisals by their governments, have sought refuge overseas. On August 20, Tajik authorities asked the Georgia to deport well-known journalist Dodojon Atovulloyev, while in the past year Kazakhstan has used Interpol to arrest opposition political figures from Poland, Spain and the Czech Republic. 
Many countries involved in crackdowns are part of the European Union, while Interpol is headquartered in Lyons, France.
Atovulloyev, who was held at Tbilisi airport from August 20 was however allowed to fly back to Germany next day where he has refugee status, said the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF).
“The Georgian interior ministry said he was detained by airport border guards… at Interpol’s request,” RSF said.

RSF described Atovulloyev as an opponent of President Emomali Rakhmon’s government and the editor of Charogi Ruz (Daylight), independent Tajikistan’s only privately-owned newspaper. He had fled Tajikistan in 1993 after receiving death threats.
Interestingly, the Atovulloyev’s persecution in the region is seemingly not limited to Interpol holding him at Tbilisi airport. He was also denied entry into Russia in July, where Charogi Ruz is now produced RSF said.
While expressing relief the Georgian government had not extradited Atovulloyev to Tajikistan, RSF said “The Tajik government has for years been using all kinds of means to get its hands on this journalist. The arrest warrant that it apparently sent to Interpol is just its latest scheme.”
The Rakhmon regime’s targeting of critics does not stop with Atovulloyev. RSF’s statement continues, “Persecution of the government’s opponents in exile has been growing in the run-up to presidential elections scheduled for November. Umarali Quvvatov was briefly detained in Dubai last December. Former Prime Minister Abdumalik Abdullajanov was arrested in Kiev in February, while Atovulloyev survived a murder attempt in Moscow in January 2012. However there was no reference that Interpol was used for the detentions.
Meanwhile, EUobserver in an article voiced concern that Kazakhstan was using Interpol, “to wage a political vendetta in the heart of the EU.” It said that Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was using the international law enforcement organisation to crackdown on his country’s dissidents that had fled the regime’s persecution.
EUobserver said that following clashes in December 2011 that had left 17 people dead, Nazarbayev had ramped up stifling opposition to his regime. He had declared Alga, an opposition party “extremist” and jailed its leader Vladimir Kozlov.
“In recent months, his administration has also used Interpol to pursue dissidents in European Union countries. To some extent, the Interpol requests are a form of PR: they try to give credibility to Kazakhstan’s claims that opposition activists are criminals,” writes Anna Koj in the EUobserver.
Koj writes that on June 12, Muratbek Ketebayev, an opposition member, was detained by the Polish police on an alert by Interpol. Ketebayev is charged by Kazakh government of spreading “social hatred.” On July 25, a Spanish court agreed to extradite Alexandr Pavlov, arrested on the basis of an Interpol ‘red notice’ after Kazakhstan accused him of fraud. Mukhtar Ablyazov, a leading opposition figure, was detained by French police near Cannes on July 31 on the basis of an Interpol notice filed by Ukraine. Tatiana Paraskevich, detained in May 2012 on the basis of an Interpol alert, is fighting extradition from the Czech Republic to Ukraine.  EUobserver said Nazarbayev uses Russia and Ukraine which are friendly countries to crackdown on its dissidents living overseas.
Tajikistan is 123rd and Kazakhstan 160th in RSF’s Press Freedom Index.

Kharlamov’s House Arrest In Kazkhstan Should Only Increase Vigilance

Alexander Kharlamov (Courtesy RSF)

Kazakh journalist Alexander Kharlamov, who has been detained from March this year allegedly for “inciting religious hatred,” was placed under house arrest yesterday. While this is certainly welcome news for any person detained under Kazakhstan’s signature method of confining dissidents – keeping them in psychiatric hospitals – it is also a ruse whereby the regime wards off international scrutiny, while effectively keeping dissent in check. 
Kharlamov was arrested on March 14 and detained in a psychiatric clinic for several weeks before his trail began on July 19 for “inciting religious hatred” in his blogs, a charge that can jail him for seven years. While he is indicted for ‘spreading atheist ideas’ and ‘displaying a negative attitude towards religion,’ RSF said the charges were “trumped up” in retaliation for Kharlamov’s denunciation of corrupt local authorities and the judicial system.
In its statement September 5, RSFsaid, “Kharlamov’s ordeal has dragged on for too long. After six months in pre-trial detention, including several weeks in a psychiatric clinic against his will, no hard evidence has been produced to support the grave accusations made against him. We hope that, after the additional investigation requested by the prosecution, the judicial authorities will recognize that the charges were trumped-up and will compensate him…”

Lukpan Akhmedyarov (Courtesy RSF)

The Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism has kept track of fast-eroding media freedom in Kazakhstan, which ranks 160th of 179 countries in RSF’s Press Freedom Index. The winner of last year’s award was the Kazakh journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov. Akhmedyarov was stabbed, shot and bludgeoned by assailants in April 2012 for exposing corruption and abuse of power.
Both Akhmedyarov in his interviews as well as RSFin its observations expressed scepticism that his assailants would be apprehended. However, there was a distinct change in the latter part of 2012. Four persons were arrested, charged with attempted murder. Akhmedyarov later told RSF “he had every reason to trust the new investigation.” They were eventually convicted in July 11 this year and sentenced to jail terms between 11 and 15 years.
However, Muzaffar Suleymanov, Committee to Protect Journalists‘ Europe and Central Asia researcher said in a statement released soon after their conviction, “Authorities deserve credit for bringing the assailants to justice, but their work is not done. The people who plotted this vicious assault must be apprehended and prosecuted.
“Akhmedyarov told Uralskaya Nedelya in an April interview that he believed regional authorities had ordered the attack. ‘The probe against masterminds is ongoing, and I hope that we will learn the overall picture of the crime,'” said the CPJ.
But interestingly there has been no resolution of the investigation of the regional authorities or the masterminds of the crime. And as long as they remain free, the culture of impunity in Kazakhstan will not be broken and violence against the independent media will continue.
Kazakhstan is notorious for detaining dissidents in psychiatric clinics. Human Rights Watch in a statement on August 16, voiced outrage about Zinaida Mukhortova, a lawyer who had been imprisoned by Kazakh authorities from February 2010, including “at least twice in psychiatric hospitals.” Mukhortova had written to the president complaining of political interference in a case in which she was involved.
“Each and every minute Zinaida Mukhortova is kept unlawfully locked up in a psychiatric hospital, her fundamental rights are being gravely violated,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should free Mukhortova immediately.”
“In a video interview posted online in November 2011 by Andrei Tsukanov, a civil society activist in Kazakhstan, Mukhortova stated that she was ill-treated by the hospital staff: ‘They gave me two pills – I didn’t know what the pills were – without even checking my reaction to these pills… and when I refused [to swallow them], they beat me and… tied my legs and hands to the bed,'” HRW says.
Writing an op-ed in the August 15 issue of the Moscow Times, Katrina Lantos Swett and Zuhidi Jasser of the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom said, “While during the Soviet era, the false diagnosis of psychiatric illness was used against many who shared their belief in God, today the psychiatric profession is once again being hijacked â€” this time to persecute and falsely label those who reject a belief in a deity. For example, Alexander Kharlamov, an atheist writer in Kazakhstan, has been held against his will and forced to undergo psychiatric examination.”
An interesting pattern emerges in countries like Kazakhstan, which is only different from other authoritarian countries in the details. When repression continues for long periods at an elevated degree, even small gestures that reduce the level of terror on the public and civil society is construed as acts of great benevolence and charity. The arrest of the small fry in the Akhmedyarov case and placing Kharlamov under house arrest are such. But all autocratic regimes see to it that the ‘gesture’ does not change the basic rules of the game – which is that dissent remains unheard.
These ‘gestures’ mean also serve to persuade the international community, including human rights monitors and media watchdogs to drop their guard believing that things would soon return to normal, or that the worst of the suffering and discomfort for the victim is past. But that is exactly what autocratic regimes want: that the heat is off them. Once that happens they can continue to torment the victim without attracting attention to the issue.  It is continued vigilance that HRW, USCIRF and RSF have to ensure.