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Russia-Tajikistan conflict over convicted pilot goes into high gear

November 15, 2011, 17:08 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

The conflict between Russia and Tajikistan, which flared up after the conviction of a Russian pilot on trumped-up charges (Moscow is pretty certain about that) - Tajikistan initiated another criminal case, this time against the management of the company that owned the plane. In the meantime, Russia launched a campaign to expel illegal Tajik migrants. Officials say that it is not linked with the pilot’s sentencing, but few believe this. Meanwhile, the chief sanitary doctor of Russia has joined the anti-Tajik campaign.

Experts and human rights activists see the campaign as politically motivated. They have warned that it could cause damage to Russia.

On Friday, it became known that Tajikistan has launched a criminal case against the management of the company Rolkan Investmens Ltd., whose pilots, Russia's Vladimir Sadovnichy and Estonia’s citizen Alexei Rudenko, were convicted in early November. The company’s chief executive, Sergei Poluyanov, faces the same charges as the convicted pilots. The case was initiated in absentia, the prosecutors issued an arrest warrant, and Poluyanov was put on the international wanted list.

A court in the city of Kurgan-Tube on November 8 sentenced two pilots to 8.5 years in prison, finding them guilty of violating the border, smuggling, and violation of international flights rules. The pilots, who were returning from Afghanistan to Russia via Tajikistan on March 12, were forced to land at the airport of Kurgan-Tube, in the South, although the permission had been refused. The pilots claim that they had obtained permission in verbal form and were too close to the Tajik airport to turn back, because they feared they did not have enough fuel. The disassembled aircraft engine that was on board of one the aircraft and was interpreted as a smuggling item for the government of Tajikistan, according to the pilots, was a spare part, not intended for sale in Tajikistan.

Experts who have offered their comments on the sudden harshness of the Tajik judiciary put forward various suggestions. Some claim that in this way Tajikistan avenged on Russia "for past insults", or simply tried to lay hands on two transport aircraft that it would like to have. The network periodical Life News, referring to sources in the presidential family’s inner circle, argued that the pilots were pawns in a game for securing the release from a Russian prison a close relative of President Emomali Rakhmon. As the newspaper notes, six months before the arrest of the pilots in Tajikistan a court near Moscow court sentenced a brother of Rakhmon’s son-in-law to 9.5 years in a penitentiary. Rustam Khukumov and his three accomplices had kept nine kilograms of heroin.

Whatever the case, the Russian embassy in the course of the trial, according to the convicts and their lawyers, in fact, did nothing to alleviate their plight. The lawyers claim that they had repeatedly tried to draw the Russian authorities into settling the affair, but these requests were ignored. However, immediately after the severe sentence Moscow made it its position clear.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promised a "balanced" or "asymmetrical" response to Tajikistan’s sentencing of Vladimir Sadovnichy. On Monday, he made it clear that Moscow would seek full acquittal of the pilots and called on the Tajik authorities once again to reconsider their case. "Such events cannot but affect the relationship between the two states, if the states cannot hear each other,” he said. “I very much hope that our Tajik friends will hear us." He added that the legal aspects of the case against the pilots were "questionable."

Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin on the same day summoned the Tajik ambassador to express “serious concern” about the future of the pilots. At the same time Moscow began to more actively deport illegal Tajik immigrants.

In the center of Moscow, at market places and construction sites more than 300 citizens of Tajikistan have been detained as a result of massive identity checks. The Federal Migration Service has said that was ready to deport 297 people. The detention center Severny (Northern), where illegal migrants are accommodated, told the newspaper Kommersant "the immigrants have long numbered hundreds and no one counts them in earnest."

Inspections and raids have begun in other regions of Russia. In particular, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta the leader of the Islamic Revival Party (IRP), Mukhiddin Kabiri, said that Tajik citizens were being detained in St. Petersburg, and there were rumors they would soon start in Siberia.

Although President Medvedev had described the deportation of Tajiks as "coincidental", many people associate these actions with the conviction of the Russian pilot. The more so, since the chief sanitary doctor, Gennady Onishchenko, known for his politically motivated medical advice, came up with a call on Monday for banning migrants from Tajikistan from employment in Russia "for medical reasons."

Onishchenko, who at different times banned Georgian and Moldovan wines and brandy from Trans-Dniestria during the periods of worsening in relations with the leaders of these countries and territories, said that since November 2010 188 Tajik citizens with HIV, tuberculosis and syphilis had entered Russia. "Almost every fifth foreigner of those deported this year on medical grounds was a citizen of Tajikistan," said Onishchenko. However, he assured that there was no political background behind his statements.

In response, the media immediately accused Onishchenko of being biased. First of all, the officials of his department did make an emphasis on ill-fated Tajiks. They stated the following: infectious diseases are most common among the citizens of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia and Kazakhstan, writes Moskovsky Komsomolets.

Human rights activists and experts claim that the authorities’ "asymmetrical response" does little credit to Russia.

The director of the information and analysis center Sova, Alexander Verkhovsky, who is quoted by Novyie Izvestia, hopes that the nationalists will not interpret the on-going campaign and, in particular, recent statements by Onishchenko, as a guideline to follow.

The editor-in-chief of the news agency Fergana, Daniil Kislov, in an interview to the periodical described Onishchenko’s call "a kind of return populism."

"At first the authorities of Tajikistan messed things up, and then Moscow disgraced itself,” he said. “Letting off steam at the expense of disenfranchised migrants who have come to Russia in search of their daily bread is a shamefully mean act."

Meanwhile, Moscow has demonstrated official optimism. Russia’s ambassador to Tajikistan, Yuri Popov, is optimistic about the future of the pilots Sadovnichy and Rudenko. He made a statement to this effect on Monday night at the Dushanbe airport after returning from Moscow, where he had been summoned for consultations.

"I have had consultations with officials at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to understand the algorithm of our further action in respect of the situation involving pilots and preventing an aggravation of bilateral relations," said Popov.

As he dwelt on the details of his meeting with Tajik President Rakhmon on the eve of his departure to Moscow, the ambassador said that "there was a general understanding and desire to find a way out of this situation as quickly as possible in the spirit of strategic partnership between our countries."

MOSCOW, November 15 (Itar-Tass)