Highlights from our coverage region: Gulag historian found guilty; Hungarian editor sacked; hostage standoff in Ukraine; a corrupt politician in Romania; and Uzbekistan experiments with cannabis.

Sexual Abuse Charges Against Prominent Stalin-Era Historian Politically Motivated, Critics Say 

The guilty verdict in a sexual abuse case targeting Russian historian Yury Dmitriyev is likely connected to his research into a troubled era of Russian history, say human rights groups, Deutsche Welle reports. The three-and-a-half-year prison verdict for abusing his adopted daughter was announced today in a closed-door trial held at the Petrozavodsk City Court. The historian heads a local branch of Russian human rights group Memorial in the republic of Karelia in northwestern Russia. In addition to his examination of Stalin-era repression, he helped open the Sandarmokh memorial to victims murdered in 1937 and 1938 in Karelia. Memorial previously said this history “does not fit the state’s historical narrative,” according to The Moscow Times. Prominent writers, including Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich and novelist Jonathan Littell, submitted an appeal to the Council of Europe this year on behalf of Dmitriyev, whom they called “a bone in the authorities’ throat.” They wrote: “The Russian authorities are seeking to rewrite the history of Sandarmokh by slandering its discoverer and groundlessly accusing Dmitriyev of an outrageous crime.” 

Chief Editor at Hungarian Daily Critical of Government Sacked 

The dismissal of the editor in chief at Index.hu, a major Hungarian news site critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, adds to existing concerns about press freedom in the Central European country, Reuters reports. The staff at the publication said the dismissal of Szabolcs Dull was “unacceptable” and that they “cannot regard it as anything but an open attempt at pressure, which will lead to the end of independent editorial work.” Laszlo Bodolai, who heads the foundation that owns the website’s publisher, Index.hu Zrt., dismissed concerns about the editorial independence of Index.hu, and attributed Dull’s sacking to his inability to keep in check tensions arising from perceived attempts to influence the newsroom. “The political independence of Index is not at risk,” he said in a letter to staff. He did not name a successor for Dull. Last month, Index.hu published a barometer warning that its “staff and independence are in grave danger.” The statement accompanying the barometer said: “Index is under such external pressure that could spell out the end of our editorial staff as we know it. We are concerned that with the proposed organizational overhaul, we will lose those values that made Index.hu the biggest and most-read news site in Hungary.”

Index front 22.7.2020

Ukrainian Takes Hostages Over Joaquin Phoenix Film  

A hostage situation in the city of Lutsk in northwestern Ukraine ended after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy accepted the gunman’s request to post a recommendation about the 2005 animal rights film “Earthlings” narrated by Joaquin Phoenix, The Guardian writes. The hostage crisis, which began yesterday morning after Maksym Kryvosh seized a bus and demanded that dozens of government officials admit to being “terrorists.” Although the attacker threw explosives out of a bus window, and fired shots at a police drone, no one was hurt, and all 13 hostages were released later in the day, Euronews writes. According to Deputy Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko, the suspect has previous convictions for robbery, extortion, and fraud and had served time in prison. Zelenskiy, who later deleted the post endorsing the film, praised on Facebook “everyone who fought all day for the release” of the hostages.” He added “human life is the most important value … Terrorism has no place in our country,” Euronews reports. Also yesterday, the Ukrainian interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said that Earthlings was a good film, “and you don’t have to be so screwed up and cause such horror for the whole country – you can watch it without that,” as cited by The Guardian. 

Former Romanian Finance Minister Sentenced for Graft 

Darius Valcov was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in jail yesterday for bribe-taking and influence peddling in relation to awarding public works contracts, Reuters writes. A former minister during the Social Democratic Party (PSD)’s time in power, Valcov denied wrongdoing, and said that he planned to appeal the verdict. Valcov was convicted in 2018 of taking about $1.7 million in bribes and sentenced to eight years in prison, another sentence pending appeal. Both the current case and the 2018 conviction relate to accusations that Valcov took backhanders while serving as the mayor of Slatina, a city in southern Romania, from 2009 to 2013. In the 2018 case, prosecutors said artworks worth more than $500,000 and gold bars worth more than $100,000 were found in raids on the homes of Valcov and his associates. Valcov’s legal troubles were no impediment back then to former Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, who named him as her economic adviser in January 2018. The current case concerns three public contracts; the bribe Valcov received for each of them amounted to between 10 and 15 percent of the value of the contract, for a total of around 1 million euros for all three of them, Romanian daily Adevarul writes

Industrial Hemp Cultivation Returns to Uzbekistan 

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry announced this month that a French-Uzbek joint venture will begin cultivating industrial hemp in the Central Asian country’s northwest Khorezm region, according to Eurasianet. The announcement comes after the adoption of a law this spring allowing the commercial cultivation of hemp containing up to 0.2 percent of mind-altering tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, “for industrial purposes not related to the production or manufacture of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances,” which are still illegal. The low-THC variety of hemp is grown for its fibers, which can be used in a variety of ways, for instance to make ropes, paper, and textiles. Additionally, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry praised hemp for allegedly being more environmentally friendly than Uzbekistan’s staple crop, cotton, which needs a lot of water. Researchers who study fossil pollen from plants of the Cannabis genus arrived at the conclusion that the cannabis plant originated in the northeastern Tibetan plateau, from where it spread to the west, reaching Russia and Europe by about 6 million years ago, and to the east, arriving in eastern China by 1.2 million years ago, Science Alert magazine reported.

Compiled by Ioana Caloianu