Azerbaijan defends freeing convicted killer as Armenians protest

Ramil Safarov had been sentenced to spend the rest of his days behind bars after killing an Armenian officer with an ax in Budapest, Hungary. But President Ilham Aliyev pardoned the convicted killer last week after Hungary agreed to return him to Azerbaijan

Ramil Safarov had been sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars after killing an Armenian officer with an ax in Budapest, Hungary. Instead he is back in his home country of Azerbaijan -- and free.

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev pardoned the convicted killer last week after Hungary agreed to return him to Azerbaijan, outraging Armenians in the midst of tense negotiations over a disputed territory once wracked by a bloody war and now occupied by Armenian forces.

Eight years ago, Safarov killed Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan with an ax while he slept, nearly decapitating him. The two were in Budapest for an English course sponsored by NATO. Safarov claimed that Margaryan had insulted him and the Azerbaijani flag.

The court found no evidence of such an insult, according to Amnesty International, which says Safarov stated he was sorry he had not had the opportunity to kill any Armenians earlier.

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Iran earthquakes death toll rises to 300; relief efforts criticized

TEHRAN — The death toll from twin earthquakes rose to 300, officials said Sunday, as rescue efforts in northwest Iran continued and more bodies were expected to be found.

But some witnesses complained that the government was not aiding the efforts of residents and private agencies to rescue possible victims of Saturday's tremors.

"From the first minutes in the aftermath ... the survivors rushed to unearth the dead and alive and injured and that rescue goes on," said a witness in one of the affected towns. "But official rescues halted or seem to have stopped, as there is no hope of any alive to be unearthed and the number of Red Crescent rescue team is not big enough and few of them are trained enough."

Air-rescue operations were suspended hours after the earthquakes, one of them measuring a magnitude 6.2, struck as night fell and helicopters were unable to fly in the dark in the mountainous region.

Much of the efforts now are said to be about providing food and shelter for the survivors.

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Azerbaijan faces critics as host of Eurovision singing contest


Street protests and clashes. Cyber attacks. Angry words from Iran.

This probably wasn’t the kickoff that Azerbaijan had hoped for as it hosts Eurovision, a glitzy singing contest this week that aims to pit the best crooners and chanteuses on the continent against one another, from Irish twins to singing Russian grannies. The flashy competition has put the former Soviet nation in headlines and on the lips of people across the world -- but not always in a flattering light.

Human rights groups have excoriated Azerbaijan for rounding up peaceful protesters, threatening journalists and illegally ejecting people from their homes in the run-up to the event. Activists have sought to turn the Eurovision spotlight onto abuses and repression in the oil-rich country.

“When else can we make noise? Eurovision is it –- at no other time would anyone pay attention to us,” one woman who was kicked out of her home in downtown Baku told the Financial Times.

Dozens of protesters were reportedly detained Monday after demanding an end to corruption. Amnesty International slammed the European Broadcasting Union for its “deathly silence” on the crackdown Tuesday as the semifinals began in Baku, complaining that it had promised to protect free expression.

Iran, meanwhile, pulled back its ambassador, blasting Azerbaijan for “violating all codes of good neighborly relations and principles of Islamic solidarity for the sake of Israel,” the Iranian Fars News Agency reported. Iran, which has accused Azerbaijan of sheltering Israeli spies, was apparently alluding to clerics' claims that a gay pride parade was planned during the final days of the singing contest.

The battle has also gone digital, with the Eurovision websites suffering cyber attacks over the last month, the Azeri-Press Agency reported. In one attack last month, hackers reportedly put up slogans against the singing contest and posted a photo of the slain journalist Rafig Tagi. Another website that publishes information about Eurovision was hacked last week over the supposed pride parade.

The country has tried to turn the focus back to the singing stars. An Azerbaijani presidential official fired back Monday at both Iran and the human rights groups, the Agence France-Presse reported, saying there was absolutely not going to be a gay pride parade and calling claims from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch “groundless.” Iran, he said, was just jealous of its success.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: The audience awaits the start of the first semifinal of the Eurovision Song Contest 2012 in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Tuesday. Credit: Joerg Carstensen / European Pressphoto Agency

Global military spending flattens as U.S. cuts back, Russia adds


The United States and much of Western Europe trimmed their military spending because of budget constraints, according to new data from by a Stockholm-based think tank.

The slight drop in the United States, the biggest military spender worldwide, helped break a 13-year trend of surging spending on armies around the world, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said in a new report. Global military spending was basically flat in 2011, growing only 0.3%.

“It seems likely that the rapid increases of the last decade are over for now,” the think tank wrote. It estimated that countries around the world spent $1.738 trillion on their militaries last year.

The drop in American military spending -- the first since 1998 -- was partly because of the long delays in crafting a budget as the Obama administration and Republican lawmakers clashed over cuts, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said in a report this week.

European countries tightening their belts in the name of austerity have also spent less on their militaries, with Greece, Spain, Italy and Ireland paring back over the last three years, it said.

Yet more is being spent on the military elsewhere. Russia increased its spending by 9.3%, putting it third in the world behind the U.S. and China. It expects to spend even more in the future, aspiring to replace weapons that date to the Soviet era.

China's growing military might has worried its neighbors and spurred the U.S. to pay more attention to Asia, though Chinese military technology still lags behind that of the U.S.

All in all, military spending was up in Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia and down in Latin America, North America and the rest of Europe, with worldwide spending staying all but level. Researchers warned that data for much of the Middle East were spotty, making them less reliable.

The new estimates included some striking findings about spending in specific countries:

-- Azerbaijan, wedged between Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran in the Caucasus region, increased its military budget by 89% in a single year, the biggest increase worldwide, the report found. The dramatic growth came in the middle of increasing warnings of renewed conflict with Armenia over a disputed territory.

-- The increase in African military spending can be chalked up entirely to Algeria, the report said. It spent 44% more than the year before, fueled by worries about the Libyan conflict spilling onto its territory.

-- Declining military spending in Latin America (down 3.3%) is largely due to Brazil cutting back on equipment and other discretionary purchases for its military, an attempt to reduce inflation.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: U.S. Marines participate in an annual military exercise in Pohang, South Korea, in March. Credit: Jeon Heon-Kyun / European Pressphoto Agency

Israel weighs Azerbaijan as gateway to Iran, Foreign Policy says

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz

REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- The latest in a series of reports that have contributed to the  speculation, hints and mostly confusion about a possible Israeli strike against Iran's controversial nuclear program came Thursday in Foreign Policy.

A feature titled "Israel's Secret Staging Ground" reported Israel has gained access to airbases in Azerbaijan, which shares a border with Iran. The information, and concerned conclusion that Israel is eyeing Azerbaijan as an access point to Iran, came from U.S. officials.

Though such reports commonly draw widespread attention and discussion in Israel, the Foreign Policy story was met with relative quiet. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz was the only official to comment on the report, sort of -- by way of a "no comment" and a joke that he hoped the treasury wouldn't have to start paying for airbases around the world.

Israel and Azerbaijan, as Foreign Policy notes, have increasingly tightened strategic and economic relations in recent years. But the subject is sensitive for both, given Azerbaijan's proximity to Iran.

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Eurovision spotlight puts Azerbaijan on defensive


It’s a kind of "European Idol" -- a flashy international contest to choose the best singer before the eyes of millions of television viewers. When Azerbaijan was chosen to host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, it had hoped that the glitzy competition would put a new shine on its image abroad.

Eurovision would let them show off "a modern, secular country that is proud of its roots," former government member Mikhail Jabbarov told Spiegel Magazine. Oil wealth has pumped new money into the nation. It boasts a stunningly high literacy rate.

Instead, the former Soviet nation is taking heat for alleged human rights abuses as the upcoming event focuses attention on the small country wedged between Iran and Russia.

Government crackdowns on dissent have been lamented by Amnesty International and other groups. Journalists have been abducted and threatened. The country was recently ranked 162nd out of 179 countries in media freedom by Reporters Without Borders.

"Azerbaijan will no doubt offer an opulent stage to voices from across Europe, but outside the concert hall, few critical voices are tolerated," Amnesty International program director John Dalhuisen said.

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