07 September 2015, 09:00

Week in the Caucasus: review of main events of August 31-September 6

Start of new school year in Southern Russia and some regions of Southern Caucasus; commemoration of victims of 2004 Beslan terror act; conviction of journalist Khadija Ismayilova in Baku; earthquake in Azerbaijan, which damaged old buildings; aggravation of situation in the Karabakh conflict zone; completion of trial in Rostov-on-Don on case of Gagiev's grouping, – see the review of these and other events in the Caucasus during the week of August 31 to September 6, 2015, prepared by the "Caucasian Knot".

Start of new school year in Southern Russia, and some regions of Southern Caucasus

On September 1 – the Day of Knowledge, Russian schools celebrated the start of the new school year. New schools opened in Southern Russia; and the authorities noted an increase of first-graders against last year. Some problematic issues were also voiced out on the holiday. For example, in Dagestan, local residents complained about high costs in preparation for the Day of Knowledge, noting that sending a first-grader to school cost about 14,000 roubles for the child's parents. In Grozny, celebrations on the start of the school year were held under reinforced security measures against rumours of a possible attack of militants; and some parents decided not to let their children to school on September 1, fearing for their lives.

On September 1, educational establishments opened their doors in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In Georgia, the school year will begin on September 14; and in Azerbaijan – on September 15.

Mourning events for victims of the terror act held in Beslan

This year marks the 11th anniversary of the capture of School No. 1 in the city of Beslan in North Ossetia, where on September 1-3, 2004, militants held 1128 hostages. The terror act resulted in 334 casualties, including 186 children; 810 persons were wounded. Last week, North Ossetia hosted mourning events for the victims. In total, about 5000 persons came to commemorate the casualties and victims of the Beslan tragedy. The committee "Mothers of Beslan" has stated that even today, 11 years after the terror act, its victims urgently need help. The committee has noted that Russian authorities ignore its demands and refuse to conduct a fair investigation into the tragedy. The members of the public organization "Voice of Beslan" believe that the authorities are attempting to conceal information about the real circumstances of the tragedy.

Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova sentenced to 7.5 years in prison

On September 1, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes convicted Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist of the Azerbaijani Bureau of Radio Liberty, and sentenced her to 7.5 years of deprivation of freedom. The journalist, who became famous for her investigations of corruption in the highest echelons of power in Azerbaijan, was found guilty of illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, misappropriation, embezzlement and abuse of office. At the same time, the court acquitted Ismayilova under the article of "incitement to suicide" of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan.

The verdict, which will be challenged by the defence, has caused serious criticism. As stated by the independent human rights organization "Article 19", the criminal prosecution and the harsh verdict to the journalist of Radio Liberty in Azerbaijan were aimed solely at restricting criticism of the authorities. The Helsinki Commission of the US Congress has treated the sentence to Ismayilova as a "punishment for her journalistic work." The verdict to Khadija Ismayilova is a sign of the difficult situation with independent journalists in Azerbaijan, said Federica Mogherini, the head of EU diplomacy, and Johannes Hahn, a member of the European Commission on Neighbourhood Policy. Officials of the Council of Europe and OSCE demanded to release Ismayilova. However, the official Baku has rejected the criticism – the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has treated as unacceptable any interference in the work of the court and attempts to politicize Khadija Ismayilova's verdict, said Khikmet Gadjiev, the spokesman of the MFA.

Earthquake in Azerbaijan damages old buildings

On September 4, at 9:49 a.m. local time, the north-western part of the country, near the city of Oguz, was struck by an earthquake, the magnitude of which, according to the Republic's Centre of the Seismological Service under the National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan, was 5.9 points. A woman died during the earthquake: according to the General Prosecutor's Office (GPO), when trying to start an electric motor installed in a narrow canal for irrigating her orchard, she was shocked by electric current, fell into the canal and died. The Office has noted that so far the connection of her death with the earthquake was not established. There were no other victims; and information then arrived from the Oguz and Sheki Districts about cracks in old buildings.

The damaged buildings include private houses, schools and kindergartens. The local residents, whose houses were severely damaged, received tents from rescuers. The authorities began collecting information with the aim to further help people. The earthquake was felt in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. There were no destructions and casualties in Armenia, while in Nagorno-Karabakh, ten families from the city of Shushi reported to the authorities about cracks in the walls of their houses.

Over ten victims of Karabakh conflict within a week

Last week, the situation escalated in the area of the Karabakh conflict. Almost every day, the parties in conflict accuse each other of shelling. After September 1, the data has been received from the area of the conflict about at least four casualties and eleven wounded persons, among whom there were eight civilians.

At night on September 5, a soldier of the Defence Army perished in a military unit in the north of Nagorno-Karabakh; and on September 4, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) of Nagorno-Karabakh reported the death of two soldiers; and the MoD of Armenia said about the shelling of border villages in the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, which wounded one soldier and three local residents. On September 3, in the Tavush Region of Armenia, a soldier of the Armenian Army was lost; and on September 2 two civilians were injured. On September 1, two Armenian servicemen were wounded in the same region; and in the Azerbaijani pre-border village of Gapanly, during the wedding ceremony, a shell explosion wounded two elderly women and a three-year-old girl.

Court in Rostov-on-Don sentences on the case of Gagiev's grouping

On September 2, the North-Caucasian Military District Court in Rostov-on-Don completed the trial in the case of six residents of North Ossetia, accused of involvement in a criminal grouping headed by Aslan Gagiev, which committed, according to investigators, 40 killings in North Ossetia, Moscow and Moscow region. By combination of crimes, the court sentenced Valery Pliev to 18 years; Arthur Tibilov – to 22 years; Chermen Sugarov – to 20 years; Tamerlan Kozyrev – to 17 years; and Azamat Sidakov – to 16 years – all in a high-security colony; and Oleg Khamitsev was sentenced to life imprisonment in a special-regime colony. The convicts' advocates intend to appeal against the verdict. According to their version, the court disregarded the facts that their clients had rendered help the victims of the terror act in Beslan, and had not been convicted earlier.

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