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Italian, Bulgarian Top Contenders For EU's New Foreign-Policy Chief

Catherine Ashton's term ends in November.
Catherine Ashton's term ends in November.

BRUSSELS -- European Union heads of states will select a new EU foreign-policy chief on July 16, with Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini and the current Bulgarian commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, vying for the post.

Mogherini remains the favorite to succeed Catherine Ashton, whose term ends this year, but both Poland and the Baltic states are less than happy about the prospect of having the Italian head the European External Action Service (EEAS).

The 41-year old social democrat is considered to have too little foreign-policy experience, having been appointed to her current position only in February. More importantly, she is also seen as being pro-Russian, making her first foreign visit after Italy took over the EU Presidency in July to Moscow to visit President Vladimir Putin.

That the current left-wing government in Rome has slowed down the process of sanctioning Russia over the situation in Ukraine and pushed for the construction of Gazprom's South Stream pipeline, which circumvents Ukrainian territory, has also jangled some nerves among Kyiv's staunchest allies in the bloc.

The newish member states of Central and Eastern Europe have also argued that at least one of the three top positions in the EU -- the foreign-policy chief, the president of the Eeuropean Commission, and the president of the European Council -- should be an "Easterner."

Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski was for a long time touted as a possible successor to Ashton, but audio leaks in which he spoke badly of both the United States and the United Kingdom, plus his strong rhetoric on Russia, has made him fall from favor.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, boosted by an excellent result in the recent European elections, has lobbied hard for a top post for Italy and for Mogherini, despite the charge that she is a foreign-policy neophyte.

Having been involved in left-wing youth politics for a long time, she was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies in 2008 and reelected in 2013. She has served as a member of her country's delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and chaired its delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of NATO. She is also a fellow of the German Marshall Fund for the United States.

Consensus Decision

The decision has to be made by consensus but due to the horse-trading for other top EU posts, some of the big member states could give Mogherini the green light in the end.

France's socialist President Francois Hollande would back a fellow left-winger and is also hoping to get support from Rome when it comes to securing the important economic and monetary affairs commissioner post for his candidate.

The United Kingdom is not keen on the Italian but after opposing Jean-Claude Juncker as commission president, London hopes to mend fences in order to secure both a top portfolio and more sympathy from other EU member states when it comes to the possible future renegotiation of Britain's EU membership.

Germany is not likely to block Mogherini's nomination and even Poland can be won over if the next EU energy commissioner is Polish.

If Georgieva gets the post, she would become the first person in a top position at the EU to come from the former Warsaw Pact countries who joined the European club in 2004 and 2007.

The 60-year-old has been the EU commissioner responsible for international cooperation, humanitarian aid, and crisis response since 2010 and has coordinated Brussels' action in disaster-stricken areas such as flood-hit Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia earlier this year and in Pakistan after the floods in 2010.

Having started off as an environmental economist responsible for Europe and Central Asia for the World Bank in 1993, she worked herself up to be in charge of the Washington-based institution's environmental strategy and was then named the bank's director and resident representative in Russia, based in Moscow from 2004 to 2007.

Before leaving for Brussels, she had climbed all the way up to the position of vice president.

She was initially not the first choice to become Bulgaria's EU commissioner, but when the country's foreign minister, Rumiana Jeleva, was felled by the European Parliament for financial irregularities and questionable competence, the center-right GERB party, which was in power at the time, called on Georgieva for commissioner to avoid further humiliation.

Even though she is associated with GERB, she is considered to be more of a neutral technocrat than a political animal.

The EU foreign-policy chief-designate will be grilled by the European Parliament later in the autumn before taking up the position for an initial period of five years starting in November.

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5 European Allies Meet In Prague To Discuss Czech Munitions Drive, Air Defense For Ukraine

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala (file photo)
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala (file photo)

The leaders of five European NATO states reaffirmed their support for Ukraine on May 28 at a meeting in Prague where the main focus was a Czech plan to procure up to 800,000 artillery shells from countries outside the European Union and provide them to Ukraine.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said Ukraine can expect the first delivery of tens of thousands of 155-millimeter shells in the next few days.

Fiala hosted the working dinner attended by Polish President Andrzej Duda, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, and Latvian Prime Minister Evika Silina and said they would also meet with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal.

At a news conference ahead of the dinner, Fiala said the officials would discuss how their countries can help Ukraine "at this critical stage of its defense from Russian aggression." They also would discuss to what extent the existing initiatives to arm Ukraine are working and what more could be done beyond the Czech initiative and a German initiative on supplying air defenses.

Under the Czech initiative, Czech government officials and private companies have worked to source ammunition rounds from around the world. Fifteen EU and NATO states have pledged around €1.6 billion ($1.7 billion) to fund the project.

The leaders said in a joint statement after the meeting that with the current financing, they "expect to ensure the donation of half a million rounds of artillery ammunition before the end of the year."

They added that they would continue the initiative as long as needed.

Duda pledged to support the transport of the artillery shells and described the situation on the Ukrainian-Russian front as difficult. He said Russia has the initiative in the war and is preparing another major offensive, and artillery will play a key role in defense.

"We need it (the ammunition) at the front lines as soon as possible," said Shmyhal, who also spoke about the initiative to provide Ukraine with air defense systems to secure its skies.

“We need, [at] a minimum, seven Patriot systems and modern combat aircraft also as soon as possible,” he said.

Fiala also commented on Ukraine’s request to use weapons supplied by its Western allies against targets inside Russia.

“I see this as fully logical. Ukraine is a country that defends itself from Russian aggression. It needs to protect its territory and civilian population. Being a country under attack, it definitely has the full right to use all means for its defense."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and others have endorsed letting Ukraine use weapons on Russian targets, saying concerns that the use of Western weapons inside Russia would implicate the alliance in the war are unfounded.

With reporting by Reuters and dpa

Republika Srpska Withdraws 'Foreign Agent' Law From Assembly Agenda

The National Assembly of Republika Srpska (file photo)
The National Assembly of Republika Srpska (file photo)

The government of Republika Srpska has withdrawn a controversial proposed "foreign agent" law from the agenda of the National Assembly.

The move on May 28 came on the same day that lawmakers in Georgia overrode the president’s veto of similar legislation and then voted overwhelmingly to pass the bill despite mass protests against it in recent weeks.

The withdrawal of the bill in Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was announced by Deputy Prime Minister Milos Bukejlovic, who is also justice minister, without explanation.

The proposed "agents of foreign influence" bill is aimed at NGOs and other organizations that deal with political activities or that attempt to influence public opinion and those that "violate the integrity and constitution of the Republika Srpska."

The draft law calls for the surveillance of NGOs and other organizations funded from abroad and requires registration, financial reporting, and a ban on political activities.

It was included in the agenda at the beginning of the assembly session on May 22 despite a written request from 46 NGOs to deputies not to vote for the law. The NGOs expressed concern that under the draft law everyone "who fights for human rights and against corruption" would be attacked.

The government of Republika Srpska considered the foreign agent law proposal on May 22, but no details were announced afterward.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also warned last week that the bill contradicts the constitutions of Republika Srpska and Bosnia and the country's international obligations to respect human rights.

The law was announced in 2022 by Milorad Dodik, the pro-Russian president of Republika Srpska, who is also the leader of the largest party in parliament. Dodik is under sanctions imposed by the United States and Britain for his efforts to undermine the Dayton agreement that brought an end to the 1992-95 Bosnian War.

The draft law was referred to the National Assembly on March 28 just days before the legal deadline.

Research conducted by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty showed that the draft law is close to one that has been in effect in Russia for more than a decade.

The U.S. Embassy previously told RFE/RL that the draft law was "repressive and undemocratic” and, if implemented, would drastically violate the rights and freedoms of people living in Republika Srpska.

The Office of the High Representative (OHR) to Bosnia also asked for the withdrawal of the draft law from the parliamentary schedule, saying it aimed to scare civil society organizations into submission.

Zelenskiy To Attend D-Day Commemorations In Normandy, Says Macron

A general view of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial Colleville-sur-Mer, France. (file photo)
A general view of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial Colleville-sur-Mer, France. (file photo)

French President Emmanuel Macron said on May 28 that he will greet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy along with other world leaders in Normandy for the 80th anniversary commemorations of D-Day. U.S. President Joe Biden is also scheduled to attend this year’s commemorations of the landings, which led to the liberation of France and Europe from Nazi Germany’s occupation. Dozens of World War II veterans are expected to return to Normandy’s beaches for the ceremony. Macron said during a visit to Germany that he will elaborate on Paris’s support for Ukraine next week, when Zelenskiy visits for the D-Day events.

Iranian Court Sentences Journalist To 21 Years For 'Propaganda Against Regime'

Iranian journalist Zina Modares Gorji (file photo)
Iranian journalist Zina Modares Gorji (file photo)

The Islamic Revolutionary Court in Sanandaj, western Iran, has sentenced journalist Zina Modares Gorji to a combined 21 years in prison for her advocacy of women's rights.

The Kurdish human rights portal Kurdpa reported that Judge Mohammad Karami, handed down a split verdict in the case, with Gorji receiving 10 years for "forming an illegal group aimed at overthrowing the regime" and another 10 years for "collaborating with hostile groups and governments." Additionally, she was given one year for "propaganda against the regime."

Under Iranian law, the longest sentence in cases where multiple punishments are handed down is enforced, meaning she will spend 10 years in prison. However, the court also enforced a 10-year exile period after that.

Her supporters said the sentencing was officially communicated on May 23 and that her legal team has filed an appeal. Her lawyers have requested a retrial and are challenging what they view as an overly harsh and politically motivated verdict aimed at intimidating voices within the country.

The exile portion of the punishment, analysts said, shows how far Iranian authorities are going to stifle dissent in the wake of nationwide unrest over the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody for an alleged Islamic head scarf, or hijab, violation in September 2022.

Gorji was first detained during Amini-inspired protests.

After an initial 40-day detention period for "assembly and collusion against the system," Gorji was temporarily released on a bail.

She was rearrested in April 2023 and spent about a month in solitary confinement before being transferred to a general prison ward.

Last month Gorji said on Instagram that her bookstore in Sanandaj was forcibly closed for several days by local authorities for alleged noncompliance with mandatory hijab laws.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Spain Says Its Decision Not To Recognize Kosovo Unchanged After Deciding To Recognize Palestinian State

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said that recognizing a Palestine state was "an imperative to achieve peace." (file photo)
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said that recognizing a Palestine state was "an imperative to achieve peace." (file photo)

Spain's position on recognizing Kosovo’s independence from Serbia remains unchanged, the Spanish Foreign Ministry said May 28 after announcing Madrid’s decision to recognize a Palestinian state.

The ministry told RFE/RL that it viewed the two situations as very different.

"Recognition of the state of Palestine does not affect Israel's territorial integrity, as this territory has never been legally part of the state of Israel,” ministry spokeswoman Elena Aljarilla Cortezon said in response to an inquiry from RFE/RL.

“Spain's decision to recognize the state of Palestine aims to uphold international law, the principles of the UN Charter, and the resolutions of the UN Security Council," Aljarilla Cortezon said.

Spain joined Ireland and Norway on May 28 in formally recognizing a Palestinian state. Israel has slammed the decision as a "reward" for Hamas, which has been declared a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

More than 140 countries of the 193 in the UN General Assembly have now recognized Palestine as an independent state.

Spain, Ireland, and Norway said they believed their initiative has strong symbolic impact that is likely to encourage others to follow suit.

"Recognition of the state of Palestine is not only a matter of historical justice, with legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, but is also an imperative to achieve peace," Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on May 28.

"It is the only way to realize the solution we all recognize as the only possible one to achieve the future of peace -- a Palestinian state that coexists alongside the state of Israel in peace and security," Sanchez said.

Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. It has been recognized by more than 110 states, including many EU-member countries and the United States. Serbia, Russia, and China are among those that refuse to recognize it along with EU-member states Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania, and Slovakia.

The issue of the recognition of Kosovo by Spain in the light of it recognizing Palestine came up during a meeting of foreign ministers on May 27 in Brussels. Sources told RFE/RL that there was an open spat between Germany and Spain. While Germany was "very convincing" on Kosovo recognition, "Spain was defensive, arguing that Kosovo was not on the agenda."

Spain's former ambassador to Belgrade, Raul Bartolome Molina, said last year just before Madrid took over the presidency of the European Union that his country's position is not to recognize Kosovo's independence, while supporting EU efforts to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

“This position has not changed, nor will it change, and all our allies know it very well," Bartolome said on June 30, 2023.

Siberian Court Upholds 9-Year Prison Sentence Handed To Former Navalny Associate

Ksenia Fadeyeva (file photo)
Ksenia Fadeyeva (file photo)

A court in the Siberian city of Tomsk has rejected an appeal filed by Ksenia Fadeyeva, a former local lawmaker and the ex-head of late opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's regional team, over a nine-year prison term she was handed in December for extremism, a charge she and her supporters reject.

Judges Andrei Arkhipov, Ksenia Gerasimova, and Lyudmila Matyskina of the Tomsk City Court ruled on May 28 that Fadeyeva's sentence must be upheld as a lower court's decision to convict her of organizing the activities of an extremist group and participating in the activities of an NGO that violates "citizens' privacy and rights" was legally grounded.

The judges also concluded that the initial ruling by a lower court ordering Fadeyeva to pay 500,000 rubles ($5,535) fine also remains.

Fadeyeva's lawyers, meanwhile, have called for their client's immediate release, stressing that she had ended her involvement with Navalny's organization before it was labeled extremist in 2021.

During her trial last year, prosecutors asked the court to sentence Fadeyeva to 10 1/2 years in prison.

Fadeyeva was detained in December 2021. She was later released but barred from using the Internet and from communicating with others without the permission of investigators, She was also banned from attending public events.

She was then placed under house arrest and later put in a detention center for what investigators said was a violation of house arrest conditions.

After that, her trial, which started in mid-August, resumed behind closed doors.

In January 2022, Russian authorities added Fadeyeva and several other former leaders of Navalny's teams across the country to the list of extremists and terrorists.

Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and his other organizations were labeled extremist in August 2021 as part of a crackdown on civil society.

Since Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, several of Navalny's former associates have been charged with discrediting the Russian armed forces, distributing "fake" news about the military, and extremism.

Earlier in 2023, the former leaders of Navalny’s teams in the Republic of Bashkortostan and the region of Altai Krai -- Lilia Chanysheva and Vadim Ostanin -- were sentenced to 7 1/2 and 9 years in prison, respectively, on extremism charges, which they and their supporters call politically motivated.

In April, Chanysheva's prison term was extended by two years at the request of prosecutors.

Visa-Free Travel To China For Georgians Comes Into Force

The Chinese Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia (file photo)
The Chinese Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia (file photo)

A deal allowing Georgians to travel to China without visas for up to 30 days came into force on May 28, the Georgian Foreign Ministry said. In September, Georgia canceled the visa requirement for Chinese nationals visiting the South Caucasus nation after the two countries announced a decision to upgrade their bilateral ties to a strategic partnership. Tbilisi's move to enhance ties with Beijing coincided with rising tensions between China and both the United States and the European Union over what was seen as the Georgian government's ambivalence toward Russia in the face of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus, click here.

Former Deputy Chief Of Almaty City Police Detained In Torture Case

The arrest is reportedly linked to the beating and torture of Kyrgyz jazz musician Vikram Ruzakhunov in Kazakhstan. (file photo)
The arrest is reportedly linked to the beating and torture of Kyrgyz jazz musician Vikram Ruzakhunov in Kazakhstan. (file photo)

The Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office said on May 28 that the former deputy chief of the Almaty city police department, Berik Abilbekov, was detained as part of a case of torture during unprecedented anti-government protests in January 2022 that turned deadly after security forces opened fire.

While the office provided no details, the media outlet cited lawyer Rena Kerimova, who represents popular Kyrgyz jazz musician Vikram Ruzakhunov, as saying that Abilbekov's arrest was linked to the beating and torture of her client.

Ruzakhunov, who says he suffered a chest injury, broken ribs, a concussion, and multiple bruises while in Kazakh custody, visited Kazakhstan several times after Kazakh officials launched a probe into his beating in Almaty.

Ruzakhunov has said that four Kazakh police were detained in Almaty on suspicion of involvement in his beating.

Anti-government protests sparked by a fuel-price hike erupted in Kazakhstan in early January 2022. President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has publicly blamed what he said were “20,000 extremists” trained abroad for attacking Almaty during the unrest. He has not produced any evidence to back up the claim.

Ruzakhunov's situation was amplified when a Kazakh television channel showed a video in which he said he was recruited by an unspecified group to take part in the unrest for $200.

In the video, severe bruises can be seen on Ruzakhunov's face, which appear to back up his claims that he was forced to make the statement.

The video sparked protests in Kyrgyzstan, where Ruzakhunov was immediately recognized by his fans. He was freed several days after his arrest and allowed to go to Bishkek after the Kyrgyz government demanded his release.

Kazakh officials have said that six people were tortured to death after being arrested for taking part in the protests, and 238 people died during or after the unrest, which was violently dispersed by law enforcement and the armed forces.

The Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office has said 25 people were officially considered victims of torture as investigators used hot irons during their interrogations.

Human rights groups insist that the number of people killed during the unrest may be bigger, presenting proof that many peaceful demonstrators and persons who had nothing to do with the protesters were slain by police and military personnel following a "shoot-to-kill-without-warning" order issued by Toqaev.

After Ruzakhunov was released following the public outcry in Kyrgyzstan and returned from Kazakhstan to Bishkek, Kyrgyz authorities concluded that Kazakh police had inflicted severe injuries on Ruzakhunov's body during his illegal arrest.

Jailed Kyrgyz Activists Demand Medical Checkups Fearing TB Outbreak

Supporters demand the release of activists and politicians detained for protesting a Kyrgyz-Uzbek border deal. (file photo)
Supporters demand the release of activists and politicians detained for protesting a Kyrgyz-Uzbek border deal. (file photo)

Eight jailed Kyrgyz activists and politicians on trial for protesting a Kyrgyz-Uzbek border deal issued a statement on May 28 urging authorities to organize immediate medical checkups for them after at least two inmates in their detention center were diagnosed with tuberculosis. The eight men were arrested in 2022 along with 19 other people and charged with organizing mass disorder and plotting to seize power after they protested the deal that saw Kyrgyzstan hand over the territory of the Kempir-Abad reservoir to Uzbekistan. Nineteen of the group were later transferred to house arrest. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.


Belgium Pledges $1 Billion In Military Aid, 30 F-16s For Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo shake hands after signing a bilateral security agreement in Brussels on May 28.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo shake hands after signing a bilateral security agreement in Brussels on May 28.

Belgium will deliver 977 million euros ($1 billion) in military aid and 30 F-16 fighter jets for Ukraine under a 10-year bilateral security agreement signed by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo on May 28 in Brussels.

The agreement is the second of its kind signed by Zelenskiy in as many days as he continues a whirlwind tour to secure more military aid for Ukraine's outgunned and outmanned troops as they struggle to fend off a Russian offensive and relentless strikes on civilian targets in the northeastern region of Kharkiv.

"For the first time, such an agreement specifies the exact number of F-16 fighter jets -- 30 -- that will be delivered to Ukraine until 2028, with the first arriving already this year," Zelenskiy wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

De Croo said at a joint news conference that Brussels will do "everything possible" to deliver the first fighter jets by the end of the year.

Asked by RFE/RL to specify how many warplanes will be delivered this year, De Croo did not answer, saying just that efforts of the aircraft coalition for Ukraine were ongoing.

De Croo stressed that the planes are to be used only above the territory of Ukraine. "The security agreement stipulates that military equipment will be used by the armed forces of Ukraine and on the territory of Ukraine," he said.

The Belgian prime minister added that training was already under way for Ukrainian pilots on Belgian F-16s.

"Today, our planes are used to train new Ukrainian pilots. Our technical teams are used to provide technical support to keep aircraft in the air. Our teams are training Ukrainian technicians how to perform [technical support]," he said.

WATCH: Zelenskiy Visits Belgian Military Base As Brussels Pledges F16s

Zelenskiy Visits Belgian Military Base As Brussels Pledges F16s
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Zelenskiy, asked by RFE/RL about the progress of negotiations with partners on obtaining permission to strike targets on the territory of Russia, replied that he was "confident of a positive result both from some partners and from our production."

Ukraine has been frustrated by the lack of permission from some of its allies, mainly the United States and Germany, to hit military targets inside Russia with Western weapons systems.

The European Union's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, has backed Kyiv's request.

"According with the law of war, it is perfectly possible and there is no contradiction. I could retaliate or I could fight against the one who fights against me from his territory," Borrell told journalists ahead of a meeting with EU defense ministers.

"You have to balance the risk of escalation and the need for Ukrainians to defend," he said.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has also thrown his weight behind Ukraine's plea, saying concerns that the use of Western weapons inside Russia would implicate the alliance in the war are unfounded.

"Ukraine's use of weapons supplied by its Western allies against targets inside Russia would not make NATO and its members part of the conflict," Stoltenberg said in Brussels on May 28.

French President Emmanuel Macron added his voice, saying on May 28 that Kyiv should be allowed to "neutralize" Russian military bases from which Moscow troops have fired missiles into Ukraine.

"We think that we should allow them to neutralize military sites where missiles are fired," Macron said on a state visit to Germany.

He stressed, however, that Ukraine should not be allowed to hit other targets in Russia or civilian facilities.

But the White House on May 28 again rejected ending restrictions on Kyiv using U.S.-supplied arms to strike Russian territory.

"There's no change to our policy at this point. We don't encourage or enable the use of U.S.-supplied weapons to strike inside Russia," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told a briefing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned earlier on May 28 that hitting Russian soil with Western-supplied long-range weapons could set the war on a dangerous new path.

Speaking to reporters while on a trip to Uzbekistan, Putin said the use of such weapons would rely on Western intelligence data and imply the involvement of NATO military personnel.

“Representatives of countries that are NATO members, particularly in Europe, should be aware of what they are playing with,” Putin said, adding that “countries with small territory and dense populations” should be particularly careful.

With reporting by AP and AFP

Former Siberian Coal Mine Official Imprisoned Over Deadly 2021 Blast

A Russian Emergency Ministry rescue team at the Listvyazhnaya coal mine after a deadly blast in 2021
A Russian Emergency Ministry rescue team at the Listvyazhnaya coal mine after a deadly blast in 2021

A court in Russia's Siberian region of Kemerovo on May 28 sentenced the former chief engineer at a coal mine over an explosion in 2021 that killed 51 people. Anatoly Lobanov was convicted of giving false information regarding the mine's safety. The court had already handed sentences to several former employees of the mine and a technical safety service inspector ranging from parole-like sentences to up to six years in prison for safety violations, negligence, and bribery. Numerous inspections of the mine in 2021 revealed 914 violations and operations were stopped nine times. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Tatar Activist Gets Suspended Sentence Over Anti-War Stance

Anti-war activist Zulfia Sitdikova was convicted of rehabilitating Nazism and discrediting Russia's military.
Anti-war activist Zulfia Sitdikova was convicted of rehabilitating Nazism and discrediting Russia's military.

The Supreme Court in Russia's Tatarstan region on May 28 handed a suspended two-year prison sentence to anti-war activist Zulfia Sitdikova, who was convicted of rehabilitating Nazism and discrediting Russia's military. The charges stem from two public actions Sitdikova carried out in 2023 to protest against the war in Ukraine. In 2022, she was fined for wearing a hoodie with the words "No war" on it while attending a pro-Kremlin concert in Tatarstan's capital, Kazan. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service, click here.

Belarusian Entrepreneur Gets 9 Years In Prison Amid Crackdown

Artur Rolich
Artur Rolich

The Vyasna human rights center said on May 28 that the Minsk City Court sentenced Artur Rolich, the owner of a shop selling brand-name clothing and shoes, to nine years in prison on charges of financing terrorist and extremist activities and financially supporting an extremist group. The charges stem from Rolich's donations to various foundations assisting Belarusian citizens, including those who fled their homeland amid an ongoing crackdown on democratic institutions, free media, and dissent. The 39-year-old Rolich left Belarus in late July 2023. He was most likely arrested after he returned home.

Missing Ukrainian Journalist Turns Up In Russian Custody

Ukrainian journalist Victoria Roshchyna
Ukrainian journalist Victoria Roshchyna

Ukrainian journalist Viktoria Roshchyna, who went missing in the Russia-occupied part of Ukraine's southeastern Zaporizhzhya region last August, has turned up in Russian custody. The Russian Defense Ministry informed Roshchyna's father on May 28 that his daughter "was detained and is currently on the territory of the Russian Federation." No reason for her detention was given. Roshchyna covered Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine from its outset in February 2022. In March 2022, she was detained for 10 days by Russian authorities in the Russian-occupied city of Berdyansk. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.


Georgian Parliament Votes To Override Presidential Veto Of 'Foreign Agent' Law

Demonstrators protesting the "foreign agent" law crowd outside the parliament building in central Tbilisi on May 28.
Demonstrators protesting the "foreign agent" law crowd outside the parliament building in central Tbilisi on May 28.

TBILISI -- Georgian lawmakers approved an override of President Salome Zurabishvili's veto of the so-called "foreign agent" law, angering protesters gathered outside parliament and jeopardizing the country's drive toward the European Union.

The ruling Georgian Dream party, as expected, pushed through the override on May 28. It's alliance with the Democratic Georgia party holds 84 of the chamber's 150 seats. A simple majority of 76 votes was needed to cancel Zurabishvili's veto.

Lawmakers then voted 84-4 to pass the bill. Most opposition deputies had walked out of the chamber ahead of the vote.

The approval came despite last-minute appeals from the European Union and several member states to Georgian lawmakers not to override the veto of a law frequently referred to as the "Russian law" because of its resemblance to legislation introduced by the Kremlin to silence opposition and free speech.

The law now goes back to Zurabishvili to be signed. If she refuses, the speaker of parliament, Georgian Dream member Shalva Papuashvili, can sign the law and publish it.

Hundreds of mostly young protesters chanting "No Russian law!" and "Slaves!" while waving Georgian and EU flags massed peacefully at the back entrance of the legislature amid a heavy presence of riot police. Further protests were expected later in the day.

Zurabishvili told the crowd not to let the 84 parliamentarians who voted for bill have the final say.

The 84 deputies who voted for the law are "nobody compared to those who are here today -- the new Georgia, the Georgia of the future," she said, encouraging demonstrators to save their anger and energy for nationwide elections in October.

"We must now do everything we can to prepare for October 26, which will be our answer to today. Are you angry today? Get angry, but let's get down to business," she said, calling for a campaign to collect signatures for a referendum.

A referendum isn’t possible, however, because it would have to be held across all Georgian territory, and currently 20 percent is occupied by Russia. A plebiscite would be possible, but it’s not binding.

The law requires civil society and media organizations that receive more than 20 percent of funding from foreign sources to submit to oversight that could encompass sanctions for as-yet-undefined criminal offenses.

Critics have said the legislation was introduced by Georgian Dream, founded by Russia-friendly Georgian tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, in order to cement the party's grip on power ahead of elections later this year seen as crucial for Georgia's Euro-Atlantic path.

Georgian Dream has insisted that it remains committed to joining Western institutions and the law was only meant to increase transparency on NGO funding.

Georgia's civil society has for years sought to move the country away from the influence of Russia, which still maintains thousands of troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway Georgian regions that Moscow recognized as independent states following a five-day war with Tbilisi in 2008.

Both the United States and the European Union have warned Georgian Dream that ignoring criticism and cracking down violently on protesters will have negative consequences.

After the party pushed the bill through, a U.S. State Department spokesman said the United States condemns the parliament's decision and told reporters that Georgian Dream's actions and anti-Western rhetoric threaten the country's democratic trajectory.

The European Union said it "deeply regrets" the decision to override Zurabishvili's veto.

"The EU has stressed repeatedly that the law adopted by the Georgian Parliament goes against EU core principles and values. Its enactment leads to a backsliding on at least three out of the nine steps (on disinformation; on polarization; on fundamental rights and involvement of Civil Society Organizations) set out in the Commission's recommendation for candidate status endorsed by EU leaders and will negatively impact Georgia's EU path," the statement said.

"We urge the Georgian authorities to reverse this trend and to return firmly on the EU path. There is still time to change the dynamics -- but a strong commitment by the governing authorities is needed," the statement said.

It also said its member states "are considering all options to react to these developments."

Georgia obtained the coveted status of EU candidate country in December, but it has yet to start actual accession talks, which could last for years. There had been hope such talks could start later this year, but Brussels has warned that the "foreign agent" law could endanger the path toward Europe.

Parliament speakers from seven EU member countries -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, France, Netherlands, and Poland -- on May 27 issued a joint statement calling on the Georgian lawmakers to scrap the legislation.

The statement addressed to Papuashvili says recent developments in Georgia are "disturbing" and the Georgian government's actions contradict the values and principles that Georgia undertook to respect.

"The spirit and content of the Law on Foreign Transparency adopted by the Parliament of Georgia are incompatible with European norms and values. The law as it stands seeks to silence media and civil society organizations that play a vital role in a democratic society and are instrumental in helping Georgia on its path to the EU," the statement said.

Georgia Marks Independence Day Amid Protests Over 'Foreign Agent' Law
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"We urge you to withdraw this law and engage in a meaningful and inclusive dialogue with organized civil society and citizens. We also urge you to respect the fundamental values by upholding the rights of people to assembly and discontinue the use of violence and intimidation against peaceful demonstrators."

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on May 27 that the bloc had started weighing options should Georgia enact the law. He said a decision will be made next month.

Georgian Ombudsman Levan Ioseliani also warned on May 27 that the law needs changes to limit the damage it will bring to civil society.

Lawyer For Family Of Executed Iranian Protester Sentenced To 6 Years In Prison

Lawyer Amir Hossein Koohkan represents the family of Mohammad Mahdi Karmi, who was executed during nationwide protests.
Lawyer Amir Hossein Koohkan represents the family of Mohammad Mahdi Karmi, who was executed during nationwide protests.

The Islamic Revolutionary Court of Karaj has sentenced Amir Hossein Koohkan, a defense lawyer for the family of Mohammad Mehdi Karami, who was executed during protests over the death of Mahsa Amini that rocked Iran in 2022, to six years in prison.

Koohkan faced several charges, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), including assembly and collusion and propaganda against the regime.

Koohkan's arrest comes after he was summoned by the Karaj Intelligence Department last year. He was detained at the time and held until he was granted a conditional release in December.

The charges come shortly after the sentencing of Mashallah Karami, Mohammad Mehdi Karami’s father, to six years in prison on charges of endangering national security and propaganda against the regime.

The cases highlight a pressure campaign, rights groups say, the government is using against those connected to protest movements in Iran.

Mohammad Mehdi Karami was one of nine individuals executed by the Islamic republic in relation to the protests of 2022, which saw widespread unrest over government policies that protesters said curbed basic human rights and intruded too deeply in the lives of most Iranians.

His execution in January 2023, which was tied to the alleged murder of a Basij militia member during the nationwide upheaval, drew international condemnation.

The cases of Koohkan and Karami underscore the concern among Iranian authorities of the possibility of a new wave of unrest.

Following the death of Amini in September 2022, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets nationwide to protest. The 22-year-old died under mysterious circumstances while she was in police custody for an alleged head-scarf violation.

A clampdown by security forces against protesters has resulted in the deaths of approximately 600 demonstrators, as reported by human rights groups, and thousands of arrests.

The Iranian judiciary has also executed several protesters, further inflaming public outcry against the regime's harsh tactics.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Iranian Authorities Ratchet Up Crackdown On Critics After Raisi's Death

Factory owner Ali Reyhani Kajvar was reportedly detained and charged with "propaganda against the system and insulting Ebrahim Raisi" for his online posts regarding Raisi's death.
Factory owner Ali Reyhani Kajvar was reportedly detained and charged with "propaganda against the system and insulting Ebrahim Raisi" for his online posts regarding Raisi's death.

Rights groups say Iranian authorities have intensified their crackdown on posts made by social media users following the death of President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash on May 19.

Raisi, who along with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and several others died in the helicopter crash in a mountainous region in northwestern Iran, had been accused of serving as a prosecutor for an "execution committee" that sent thousands of political prisoners and regime opponents to their deaths in the late 1980s.

He is often referred to by critics as "Ayatollah Execution" or "Ayatollah Massacre" due to his alleged role in mass executions during 1988.

The crash was mocked by many users of Persian-language social networks. In turn, Iranian security and judicial agencies have responded vigorously to the online activities of citizens and media activists.

The Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran highlighted an example of the crackdown with a report saying that factory owner Ali Reyhani Kajvar was detained and charged with "propaganda against the system and insulting Ebrahim Raisi" for his online posts regarding Raisi's death.

It was not clear which comments the charges referred to.

Similarly, human rights media outlets said Akbar Yousefi, a resident of Malekan in East Azerbaijan Province, is said to have been arrested on charges related to his social media commentary on the crash.

Others have been charged, rights groups say, for "spreading lies and insulting the sanctity of service martyrs," for their comments on Raisi’s death.

Reza Babarnejad, whose brother was a casualty in the Women, Life, Freedom protests that followed the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody for an alleged head scarf violation, was also arrested for his reactions to the incident.

Others say they have been warned by authorities for their online activities.

The Judiciary Information Center of Kerman province announced that 254 individuals received telephone warnings for posting "offensive" content, while eight people faced judicial summons.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Russia To Build 'Vital' Nuclear Power Plant In Uzbekistan

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) signed several agreements in Tashkent with Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyoev on May 27.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) signed several agreements in Tashkent with Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyoev on May 27.

Russia and Uzbekistan have signed an agreement for Moscow to build a small nuclear power plant in the Central Asian country.

The agreement was one of several deals signed on May 27 in Tashkent between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Uzbek counterpart, Shavkat Mirziyoev.

The Uzbek leader hailed the project as "vital" in a statement released by his press service after the talks, noting that Uzbekistan had "its own large reserves of uranium."

Meanwhile, Putin vowed to "do everything in order to work effectively" on Uzbekistan’s nuclear energy market.

If the agreement is enacted, the nuclear plant will become the first in Central Asia, further cementing Russia's influence in the region.

Putin said Russia would inject $400 million into a joint investment fund of $500 million to finance projects in Uzbekistan.

Mirziyoev also said Tashkent was interested in buying more oil and gas from Russia, a reversal of decades-long practice where Moscow imported hydrocarbons from Central Asia.

The Russian president pledged to increase gas deliveries to Uzbekistan.

Putin and Mirziyoev also discussed migration, with the Russian leader reassuring the Uzbek president that his government would ensure good working conditions and provide social protection for migrant workers from Uzbekistan.

Putin arrived in Tashkent on May 26 and was greeted at the airport by Mirziyoev.

International investigations have identified Uzbekistan as one of the main entry points into Russia for goods that are subject to sanctions. Putin has traveled sparingly since he launched Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Putin's trip to Uzbekistan is his third foreign trip since being inaugurated for a fifth presidential term earlier this month.

He previously traveled to China, where he welcomed China’s proposals for talks to end the war in Ukraine.

Putin later traveled to Belarus, an ally where Russia has deployed tactical nuclear weapons.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Iran's Stockpile Of Enriched Uranium Continues To Increase, Says UN Nuclear Watchdog

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi (left) holds a news conference in Tehran with Iran's nuclear energy chief, Mohammad Eslami, on May 7.
IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi (left) holds a news conference in Tehran with Iran's nuclear energy chief, Mohammad Eslami, on May 7.

Iran has further increased its stockpile of uranium enriched to near weapons-grade levels, according to a confidential May 27 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran's stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent purity is now 142.1 kilograms -- an increase of 20.6 kilograms since the watchdog's last report in February. The IAEA also said that the deaths of Iran's president and foreign minister in a helicopter crash on May 19 have forced a pause in the UN nuclear watchdog's talks with Tehran over improving cooperation.

EU's Borrell 'Horrified' At Israeli Strikes That Killed 45 In Rafah

Palestinians gather at the site of an Israeli strike on a camp for internally displaced people in Rafah on May 27.
Palestinians gather at the site of an Israeli strike on a camp for internally displaced people in Rafah on May 27.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has decried the latest Israeli air strikes on the southern Gaza city of Rafah that killed at least 45 Palestinians, including children and people living in tents after being forced from their homes.

Speaking after a meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers on May 27, Borrell said that he condemned the attack "in the strongest terms."

"It proves that there is no safe place in Gaza. You can imagine how horrified we all are of these attacks," he said.

The strikes occurred late on May 26, when Israeli forces hitting what they called a Hamas -- designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the EU -- installation, killing two senior members of the group.

The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza said around half of the dead were women, children and older adults.

Israeli Prime MInister Benjamin Netanyahu said the strikes were "a tragic mistake," which comes amid mounting criticism of Israel for its war against Hamas, which was sparked by a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 that killed more than 1,200 people, mainly civilians.

EU foreign ministers were meeting in Brussels and agreed in principle to press ahead with the reopening of the EU border mission in Rafah, which has not been operational since 2007, when Hamas seized full control of the territory.

When the mission was first deployed, it consisted of roughly 70 personnel monitoring crossings at the border between Gaza and Egypt with Borrell noting that the mission could "play a useful role to get people in and out of Gaza."

It is, however, unlikely that the mission will be fully operational before the hostilities in Gaza end and Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian authorities have given their green light to it.

The Rafah crossing is the main entry point between Gaza and Egypt for aid but has been closed since Israeli forces took control of it earlier this month.

EU foreign ministers agreed on May 27 to immediately start preparations to relaunch the border mission.

There was also broad agreement to work toward an EU-sponsored international conference on how to implement a two-state solution, which according to Brussels can be merged with a previous call by the bloc to host an international peace conference.

The ministers also found consensus on calling for a so-called EU-Israel association council to discuss the situation in Gaza and to the need to respect human rights. The association council, which last met in 2022, is the formal political avenue between the EU and the Israeli government.

The meeting in Brussels comes shortly after several international developments in recent days relating to the conflict.

Last week, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) overwhelmingly ordered Israel to halt its Rafah offensive, while the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced recently that he was seeking the arrest of the Netanyahu, his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, and three Hamas leaders.

Meanwhile, EU member states Ireland and Spain announced last week that they will recognize a Palestinian state as of May 28.

Borrell noted that the EU wants Israel to implement the ICJ ruling, as "all members of the United Nations have an obligation to comply with its decision."

He also urged Jerusalem to unblock funds for the Palestinian Authorities and to allow UNWRA to operate in the Palestinian territories.

The call comes amid reports that the Israeli Knesset is preparing a vote to brand the UN body providing aid for Palestinian refugees "a terrorist organization."

7 Soldiers Killed In Clashes With Pakistani Taliban

A Pakistani soldier stands guard near the border with Afghanistan. (file photo)
A Pakistani soldier stands guard near the border with Afghanistan. (file photo)

Seven Pakistani soldiers, including an army captain, were killed in separate clashes with the Pakistani Taliban on May 26 and 27, according to the military's media wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations. It added that 23 Taliban fighters were killed in the clashes. A captain and a soldier were killed in an operation near Peshawar on May 26, during which six militants were shot dead. The next day, five Pakistani soldiers and seven militants were killed in clashes in the Bara region of the Khyber district. There were no military casualties in a third operation on May 27 near South Waziristan district, but 10 Taliban fighters were killed. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, click here.

Zelenskiy Sees 'No Faith' In Putin As EU Mulls Russia Peace Talks

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said multiple rounds of Ukraine-Russia peace talks failed to yield results. (file photo)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said multiple rounds of Ukraine-Russia peace talks failed to yield results. (file photo)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said he does not trust Putin amid reports that the European Union plans to organize peace talks with Russia.

Bloomberg on May 27 reported that the bloc is working on organizing a meeting in Saudi Arabia later this year with Russia's participation.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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The meeting would come after a June 15-16 Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland, where representatives of dozens of countries -- but not Russia -- are expected to attend.

"There is no faith in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin," Zelenskiy said during a press conference in Spain, where he signed a bilateral security deal with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez worth 1 billion euros on May 27.

The Ukrainian president said his country had held around 200 rounds of talks with the Kremlin, many of which were held long before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

"There were no results; the occupied territories remained occupied," Zelenskiy told reporters.

He said 90 countries had agreed to attend the summit near the city of Lucerne in Switzerland next month.

In a video message on May 26, Zelenskiy urged world leaders, particularly U.S. President Joe Biden, to "show leadership in advancing the peace" and attend the gathering.

However, Bloomberg said Biden will skip the gathering to attend a fundraiser for his presidential campaign, while Brazil and China are planning to organize their own initiative and will send junior officials.

Russia has not been invited to the Ukrainian-organized summit. Zelenskiy has said Russia's participation risked disrupting the summit.

Moscow has dismissed the significance of the summit in Switzerland, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying in April that peace talks without Russia "make no sense."

Similarly, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has said decisions regarding the war in Ukraine that "ignore Russia's position" are "detached from reality."

EU Puts Sanctions On Russian Officials For Persecuting Opposition

European Union foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions on 19 Russian officials and Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) over their involvement in the persecution of opposition politicians and activists. The decision, agreed in Brussels on May 27, targets investigators, prosecutors, and judges who were involved in politically motivated cases against a number of dissidents, including Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny, who died in February while serving a lengthy prison term in an Arctic prison, Memorial human rights center co-Chairman Oleg Orlov, and activist Aleksandra Skochilenko, who was imprisoned for her opposition to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

HRW: Lawyers In Belarus Under 'Unprecedented Pressure' Since 2020

Human Rights Watch said on May 27 that lawyers in Belarus have been under "unprecedented" pressure since mass unrest followed the official results of a 2020 presidential election that handed authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka victory. The report said more than 140 Belarusian lawyers have lost their licenses in politically motivated moves since the vote, while at least 23 lawyers have been arrested in what appears to be an attempt to force them to drop clients facing politically motivated charges. At least six Belarusian lawyers are currently serving politically motivated prison terms of between six and 10 years, the report said. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

Former Kyrgyz Customs Official Matraimov's Brother To Face Trial Soon

(Left to right) The Matraimov brothers: Raimbek, Ruslan, Tilek, and Islambek
(Left to right) The Matraimov brothers: Raimbek, Ruslan, Tilek, and Islambek

OSH, Kyrgyzstan -- The Osh regional court in Kyrgyzstan's south told RFE/RL on May 27 that it had registered a criminal case against Tilek Matraimov, a brother of Raimbek Matraimov, the former deputy chief of Kyrgyzstan’s Customs Service who was at the center of a high-profile corruption scandal involving the funneling of close to $1 billion out of the country.

Tilek Matraimov, the ex-governor of the Kara-Suu district, was charged with abuse of office, his lawyer Mamat Shaiev said.

Tilek Matraimov and his brothers -- Raimbek, Ruslan, and Islambek -- were extradited to Kyrgyzstan in March from Azerbaijan, where they were in hiding.

Raimbek Matraimov, the most notorious of the brothers, was charged with money laundering and the abduction and illegal incarceration of unnamed individuals as part of the 2020-21 corruption scandal.

In February 2021, a Bishkek court ordered pretrial custody for Matraimov in connection with the corruption charges. He received a mitigated sentence that involved fines amounting to just a few thousand dollars but no jail time.

The court justified the move by saying that Matraimov had paid back around $24 million that disappeared through corruption schemes that he oversaw.

In November last year, the chairman of the state security service, Kamchybek Tashiev, accused Matraimov and crime boss Kamchy Kolbaev (aka Kamchybek Asanbek), who was added by Washington to a list of major global drug-trafficking suspects in 2011, of "forming a mafia in Kyrgyzstan."

Matraimov left Kyrgyzstan in October after Kolbaev was killed in a special security operation in Bishkek. In January, the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry said Matraimov was added to the wanted list of Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security.

In 2019, an investigation by RFE/RL, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and Kloop implicated Matraimov in a corruption scheme involving the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan.

Also in March, a court in neighboring Uzbekistan sentenced late Kolbaev's close associate, influential Uzbek crime boss Salim Abduvaliev, to six years in prison on charges of illegal possession and transportation of arms and explosives.

Abduvaliev is believed to have ties with top Uzbek officials and leaders of the so-called Brothers' Circle, a Eurasian drug-trafficking network that included Kolbaev.

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