Kazakhstan Poster Depicting Two Men Kissing: The Horror, The Horror

The advertising firm Havas Worldwide has been fined $1,700 for producing a poster which featured a kiss between Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and Kazakh composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbayuly. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that on August 25th, “about 20 activists filed a lawsuit…against the advertising agency that created it, saying it ‘insulted both Kazakhs and Russians,'” and a descendant of Kurmangazy also threatened to sue.

Photo credits to Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan
The horror, the horror. Photo credits to Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan

The ad, which is posted on their Facebook page, and is the featured image for this article, was meant to promote Studio 69, a gay club located on an intersection of two streets named for the men. The image itself parodies a real picture of former Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev kissing East German leader Erich Honecker as a fraternal greeting in East Berlin in 1979.

I ship it. #breznecker #honnev #i'llstopnow Credits to Corbis Corporation, Wikipedia.
I ship it. #breznecker #honnev #i’llstopnow
Credits to Corbis Corporation, Wikipedia.

That picture was then immortalized in 1990 on the Berlin Wall in the form of a mural, which bears the legend, “Господи! Помоги мне выжить среди этой смертной любви,” or, “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love.”

The mural in 1991. Credits to Joachim F. Thurn and Wikipedia.
The mural in 1991. Credits to Joachim F. Thurn and Wikipedia.

The advertising firm eventually made a statement on their Facebook page: “Acknowledging the invaluable cultural contribution of the great Russian poet and the great Kazakh composer, we officially announce that this poster will not be printed, posted or published in paid media.” It is still available to view online.

Kazakhstan decriminalized homosexuality in 1998 (and at this point I’d like to remind everyone that the US didn’t manage to do that nationwide until the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision) but anti-gay sentiment is still prevalent. Dauren Babamuratov, a leader of the nationalist “Bolashak” party, is attempting to gain support for a law against “gay propaganda,” similar to the situation in Russia.

“We have stooped so low that LGBTs no longer hide their orientation,” Babamuratov said. He added that LGBT people could be identified by “degeneratism” within their DNA. His party’s movement to enact anti-gay laws has gained some support, including the Secretary of the People’s Communist Party.

This is a video from January created by Human Rights Watch, discussing the systemic discrimination that gay and bisexual men face within Kazakhstan today.

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Iran to Hang Woman Who Allegedly Killed Assaulter

Reyhaneh Jabbari, an Iranian woman who allegedly killed the man who attempted to assault her, may be executed as soon as tomorrow. According to Amnesty International, Iranian authorities confirmed that Jabbari “will be hanged tomorrow morning at a prison west of Tehran.” Jabbari was arrested in 2007 for the murder of Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi. Sarbandi, who had worked for Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, allegedly attempted to sexually abuse Jabbari, who admits to stabbing him once in the back, though says she was not the one who killed him. In 2009, Jabbari was sentenced to death under the qesas, or “retribution-in-kind” law, essentially a sharia-based law which demands a death for a death.

While in prison, Jabbari has written about how she was coerced into giving a false confession by means of mental and physical torture.

As soon as I arrived at the Police Headquarters three large men were waiting for me in a small room. As soon as I entered, they handcuffed me to a chair and made me sit on the floor… They took turns screaming, “You think you are smart? People more important than you have been broken here. You insect, who do you think you are? Answer every question loudly…

I could feel something on my back and my skin swelling getting ripped. I felt a burning sensation and screamed until my ears hurt from the sound of my own screams. I did not hear the lash of the whip. I do not know if they were beating me with a whip, a rope or a piece of wood. I never learned what those three monsters were burning me with. I could only hear myself screaming. With my hands tied higher than my body to the chair, the pain and burning made my arms numb…

Winter was cold this year; it coincided with the prison’s heating system breaking down. In our ward, all you could hear was chattering teeth, coughing, sneezing…. The chattering teeth reminded me of 2007, when I was 19, in solitary confinement, with wounds all over my body, and shaking from anxiety and fear … I was questioned mostly by two men whose names I never found out. They would dictate [my confession] and I would write. Once they took me somewhere for interrogation where I saw a 14 or 15 year old girl hanging from the ceiling from her wrists. The girl was pale, her lips were cracked. She was whimpering.

[In another room,] the interrogator sat across from me and said that today or tomorrow they would go get my little sister… He referred to her by name: Badook. “It is her turn,” he said. “She is frail, thin … How long do you think she will last hanging like that one?” He began telling me in detail what he was going to do in front of me to my little sister … I started crying and begged him not to do such a thing. He said he had no alternative. I asked him what I could do to stop him from hurting my sister. He said: “It is very simple. Just confess that you bought the knife before the murder”. … So I wrote that I had bought the knife beforehand, signed the paper and breathed a sigh of relief.

According to Islamic law, executions like this can be carried out or suspended at the behest of the dead person’s family. Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, a spokesman for the judiciary, said “there was a lot of this type of guessing that suggested that the sentence may not be carried out if the people (next of kin of the man killed) agreed.” However, an agreement of this sort has not been reached.

This is a video made by the Universal Tolerance Organization about Jabbari’s arrest:

Iran has some of the harshest death penalty laws in the world. According to International Business Times, “The country’s penal code says minors can be subjected to a death sentence after they have reached puberty which, as stipulated by Sharia law and as specified in the 1991 Civil Code, is 15 lunar years for boys and 9 lunar years for girls (one lunar year can be between 354 to 365 days long). Crimes punishable with a death sentence include cursing the Prophet, drug offences, murder, adultery, incest, rape, fornication, drinking alcohol, sodomy, homosexual sex, ‘being at enmity with God’ (mohareb), and ‘corruption on earth’ (mofsed fil arz).”

Executions have actually increased under President Hassan Rouhani, who has been heralded as a moderate reformer. However, he has limited influence over the decisions of the Judiciary.

International appeals for Jabbari’s life have been effective in the past–she was originally set to be executed in April of this year, but petitions for her reprieve led authorities to postpone her execution. Hopefully, similar efforts will be effective again.

UPDATED: Sept. 30th, 2014

BBC News is reporting today that Jabbari’s execution has been postponed for ten days, perhaps due to a social media campaign on her behalf. This may give her family time to further appeal for a reprieve from Sarbandi’s family.

IOC Resolution on Anti-Gay Bias

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has added an anti-discrimination clause to the contract which all future hosts of the Olympic Games must sign, beginning in 2022. The move comes after outrage at this year’s Sochi Winter Olympics over Russia’s anti-gay laws. Massive campaigns by organizations like All Out, as well as calls for change from human rights organizations and advocates around the world, put a great deal of pressure on the IOC to pass a resolution banning countries with discriminatory policies from hosting.

The new clause requires that host countries:

“…conduct all activities in a manner which promotes and enhances the fundamental principles and values of Olympism, in particular the prohibition of any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise, as well as the development of the Olympic Movement.”

The three finalists for the 2022 Games are Almaty, Kazakhstan; Oslo, Norway, and Beijing. Oslo may still drop out, as the bid faces significant public and political opposition. If so, the only two places left to host the Winter Olympics both have terrible human rights records, which may lead to another Sochi-esque situation.

This anti-discrimination clause may put more pressure on FIFA, which, as you may recall, has decided to host its 2022 World Cup in Qatar. FIFA president Sepp Blatter, when discussing Qatar’s ban on homosexuality, said that “[gay fans attending the tournament] should refrain from any sexual activities.”

Blatter looking particularly Darth Vader-y. Credits to Reuters, BBC.
Blatter looking particularly Darth Vader-y. Credits to Reuters, BBC.

UPDATED: October 6th, 2014

I found a much better ending video than the one I’d originally had. Norway has now dropped out of the running for the 2022 Olympics, and this is John Oliver’s glorious response. Unfortunately, embedding is disabled on this video, so you’ll have to click on this comparatively inelegant URL instead: http://youtu.be/QrKf-fAekds

Azerbaijan Cracks Down on Critics and NGOs

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a collective of NGOs, resource industry corporations and governments whose primary goal is to fight corruption, has sent representatives to Azerbaijan in order to investigate a recent government crackdown on NGOs, journalists, and human rights activists. If their investigation bears fruit, EITI may suspend Azerbaijan’s membership. They plan to decide on a course of action by October 15th.

This is Azerbaijan. Yeah, it's in a pretty tense area. Credits to How Stuff Works.
This is Azerbaijan. Yeah, it’s in a pretty tense area. Credits to How Stuff Works.

According to HRW, Azerbaijan has been using repressive laws to regulate and silence NGOs, including some fellow members of EITI. A number of leading human rights activists have also been imprisoned, including reporter Seymour Khaziyev, activist Leyla Yunus and her husband, historian Arif Yunus, lawyer Intigam Aliyev, and Human Rights Club head Rasul Jafarov. The whereabouts of Emin Huseynov, who ran the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, have been unknown since his office was searched and sealed by Azerbaijani authorities.

The crackdown has been in effect since the 2013 presidential elections, but the situation has gotten much worse over the course of the past year. Current President Ilham Aliyev was relected last October for a third term, though rumors of election fraud were widespread. Azerbaijan is ranked 160th out of 180 countries on the 2014 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, down four places since last year, and 126th of 175 countries on “Transparency International’s Visualizing the Corruption Perceptions Index 2014.” For comparison, Transparency International ranks the US as 17th and Iran as 136th.

Credits to Transparency International.
Credits to Transparency International.

On September 20th, 2014, the oil company BP (one of the founders of EITI) and the government of Azerbaijan held a ceremony in honor of the groundbreaking for a new stage of an oil pipeline project.  “This is a great day for Azerbaijan and a great day for energy,” Bob Dudley, the Group Chief Executive for BP, said. “What has been achieved here since 1994 is extraordinary. And for that I want to pay tribute to President Aliyev, his government and SOCAR. Together we have showed what partnership can deliver.” BP later told HRW that they welcomed the EITI investigation in Azerbaijan.

And here is the cheering up video that I now so desperately require. I can only preface this by saying that Noel Fielding is a genius, and one of my favorite comedians of all time. Just…accept the majesty of this performance for what it is. Oh, and the man at the end is his comedy partner, Julian Barratt.

Insulting the King 2: Because It’s Not Just Illegal in Bahrain

Somyot Prueksakasemsuk received some very unwelcome news yesterday. His appeal of his 2013 sentence to ten years in prison was rejected. Now, what crime could he have possibly committed that would merit such a prison term? In the United States, that could be for public corruption, fraud, attempted murder–any number of crimes. There are often even shorter terms for sexual assault and manslaughter. So what heinous crime did Mr. Prueksakasemsuk commit?

Prueksakasemsuk, a magazine editor, allegedly published two articles under a pseudonym which contained material that was defamatory toward the royal family of Thailand. Oh, yes. Still a thing, and not just in Bahrain.

Under Thailand’s lese majeste law, also known as Article 112, “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” Prueksakasemsuk is a supporter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and after Thaksin was deposed in a 2006 coup, Prueksakasemsuk became a member of the “Red Shirt” movement which demonstrated against the new Prime Minister, and is an advocate of free speech. The two articles were published in his magazine, Voice of Taksin, in 2010, and he has been detained or in prison since 2011.

HRW alleges that the articles in question weren’t even written by Mr. Prueksakasemsuk, but rather by “Jit Pollachan, the pseudonym of Jakrapob Penkair, the exiled former spokesman of Thaksin. “Some suspect that his arrest may have had less to do with the publication of these article, and more to do with the editor’s vocal opposition to Article 112.

Unrest in Thailand following the most recent coup has led to even tighter enforcement of censorship laws. For example, four peaceful protesters were recently tried and convicted by a military court for violating the ban on public gatherings.

In light of the recent deaths of Steven Sotloff and James Foley, it is time to recognize something which we don’t talk about enough, and which this excellent New York Times article discusses in more depth. Journalists are heroes. They shed light on horrors and injustices all around the world. In their pursuit of the truth, they often put their own careers and lives at stake. As a result, we trust them to give us the information on which we base so many of our decisions, from what restaurants are safe to eat at to what countries are safe to visit to what leader we can trust to rule our country.  Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are the cornerstone of a free society.

But since I feel uncomfortable ending on that oddly sincere note, here’s an entirely unrelated video that just makes me smile.

“Happy” Dancers in Iran Sentenced to Flogging

Seven people have been sentenced to 91 lashes each and six month (for six of the defendants) to one year (for one of the defendants) prison terms for filming a video of themselves dancing to Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy.” The sentence is suspended for three years, meaning that, as long as none of them is convicted of a crime during that period of time, they will not have to serve their sentence. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights, the seven people (six performers and the director) were charged with “‘participation in producing a vulgar video clip’ and conducting ‘illicit relations,'” and the woman who received the one year suspended sentence was charged for illegal possession of alcohol.

The video, which depicts three men and three unveiled women dancing together and separately on the rooftops of Tehran, has been viewed over a million times on YouTube. In the credits at the end of the video, a statement reads, “‘Happy’ was an excuse to be happy. We enjoyed every second of making it.'” In an interview with the news site Iran Wire, Neda Motameni, one of the performers in the video, said that “we wanted to tell the world that the Iranian capital is full of lively young people and change the harsh and rough image that the world sees on the news.” When filming in public, “We were really afraid,” Motameni said. “Whenever somebody looked out of a window or someone passed by, we ducked behind a door to make sure we were not seen.” According to her, when they showed the finished project to their parents, “they praised us for coming up with a new idea…[but] they were afraid that something would happen to us, considering the present situation.”

Soon after they were charged, some of the arrested young men and women were made to appear on state television and “repent,” claiming that they were tricked into making the video. Iranian Police Chief Hossein Sajedinia described the video as “vulgar,” and claimed that it “hurt public chastity.”

Following their May arrest, Pharrell Williams tweeted his disapproval of their treatment:

Far more consequentially, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has made no secret of his disapproval towards the actions of the Iranian Police Force. In May, his official Twitter account released this:

In a speech the day before this tweet was written, Rouhani said, “We ought to see [the Internet] as an opportunity. We must recognise our citizens’ right to connect to the World Wide Web…. Why are we so shaky? Why have we cowered in a corner, grabbing onto a shield and a wooden sword, lest we take a bullet in this culture war? Even if there is an onslaught, which there is, the way to face it is via modern means, not passive and cowardly methods.”

In Iran, judiciary actions are frequently at odds with government policy. Rouhani’s words about the Internet are also radically different from the attitude displayed by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad played a major role in restricting web access, especially following the successful efforts of the Green Movement in publicizing and organizing the protests in Iran following the 2009 elections using social media. Though Rouhani has attempted what reforms he can, most control over social media and censorship resides with the conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the agency he created to supervise it, the Supreme Council of Virtual Space.

To be perfectly honest, “Happy” on its own has started to annoy me because it’s so hopelessly overplayed on the radio, but when you watch joyful young men and women dancing to it, the song takes on a whole different dimension. In her interview with Iran Wire, Motameni said, “We want to tell the world that Iran is a better place than what they think it is. Despite all the pressures and limitations, young people are joyful and want to make the situation better. They know how to have fun, like the rest of the world.” I think that about sums up why this video is so amazing. Freedom of expression is a beautiful thing.

South Africa:

Harajuku, Japan:

Paris, France:

Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.:

Tatooine (okay, fine, it was filmed in Tunisia):

Israel Attempts to Force Out “Infiltrators”

51,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who fled from their home countries to Israel have been subjected to unfair coercive laws which threaten life-long detention, unless the migrants decide to leave, Human Rights Watch said today. Thousands of these African nationals came to Israel seeking sanctuary, and upon return to their countries, could face extremely harsh punishment. “Israel is obliged not to return a person to her/his country of origin if her/his life or freedom would be at risk,” Walpurga Englbrecht, representative to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Tel Aviv, wrote to Al-Jazeera. “The same applies to transfer to third countries if there is the danger that the person would be refouled to her/his country of origin from there.”

There has been a rapid influx of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa to Israel, and anti-migrant sentiment is growing. Problems with the standard of living in cities with large African populations are often blamed on them. Israel has attempted to deal with the problem by either deporting or detaining African nationals who refuse to leave the country. These policies have been somewhat effective in encouraging the migrants to leave. According to the report published by Human Rights Watch, “by the end of June 2014, at least 6,400 Sudanese and at least 367 Eritreans had officially left Israel for their home countries.” Officials say that those who have left have done so of their own free will.

In May 2012, Benjamin Netanyahu said that the immigrants represent “a threat to the social fabric of society, our national security, our national identity … and … our existence as a Jewish and democratic state.” A month later he announced plans to “deter, detain and deport illegal migrants” following growing unrest over the large population of African migrants. Interior Minister Eli Yishai was quoted as saying, “the infiltrators, along with the Palestinians, will quickly bring us to the end of the Zionist dream…. We don’t need to import more problems from Africa.”

According to HRW, “under 2012 and 2013 amendments to Israel’s 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law authorizing indefinite detention, Israel has detained up to 3,000 at any given time” and tens of thousands more who live in Israel’s large cities face the threat of detention daily. In late 2013, the Holot “Residency Center” was established, with a capacity of 3,000 and plans to expand, and requires the migrants within its walls to sign in three times daily and remain within at night. It is a detention center in every sense–except in the sense where Israel refuses to call it that. Especially when compared to their status in other countries, it is near impossible to gain recognition as a refugee in Israel, and so far only two migrants from Eritrea, and none from the Sudan, have managed it. Complex laws make it difficult for immigrants to get work or provide food for their families.

Has Israel forgotten? In a nation of immigrants, how can the government or the people justify this kind of behavior? Now, quoting verses from the Old Testament is not usually how I win arguments, but seeing as it’s Israel, how about this one? “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21) Or this one? “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34) When Leviticus has a more human rights-friendly take on an issue than your country does, that’s probably a good time to do some self-reflection.

An editorial in the Jerusalem Post decries Israel’s behavior toward asylum seeks as “a downright desecration of the name of God,” or “Hilul Hashem,”–not a term used lightly. The author writes that it has become clear that “the time has come for Israel to change its policy toward African asylum seekers – for the sake of the asylum seekers, for the sake of Israel, the Jewish people, human rights, and for the sake of heaven.” His argument concludes:

“To me, the abuse of African asylum seekers – people who have come to this country to save their own lives – in the name of Judaism and the Jewish state is the greatest Hilul Hashem of all. As Jews we are taught we must love the stranger because we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. We must not mistreat a runaway slave for we were once runaway slaves. Yes, I understand that Israel may not have the capacity to absorb every refugee from Africa who wishes to enter, but Israel now has a fence and virtually none are arriving. And Israel, a country of over seven million Jews, has the ability and the moral and Jewish obligation to grant temporary asylum to the 48,000 strangers that are already living in our midst, or at the very least to process their claims. That is what it means to be a Jewish state.”

I could talk now about my feelings toward Israel in general, but I’d rather not get into it, because the whole thing would just turn into a ten-entry series of me ranting while trying really hard not to make anyone angry. Also, I’ve studied Israel and Palestine too much for my own happiness, and any more of it right now is going to make my brain explode. So instead, here is a video of a dog teaching a puppy to go down the stairs. Definitely my favorite video on the Internet.

NO, I’M NOT CRYING. YOU’RE CRYING. But seriously, if you guys like this Good News-style ending, I might make it a regular thing.

On another note, I’m trying to keep these entries a little shorter (at least for now) because right now they’re about the same length as the articles I write for the school newspaper, and are beginning to consume my life. So, I’m very proud of the quality of my earlier entries, but hopefully there will be good, too, and less brain-explode-y for me.