France Starts Roma Expulsion
France has begun to return hundreds of Roma rounded up as part of a clampdown on members of the community living illegally in the country.
Seventy-nine Romanian Roma, who agreed to return home voluntarily -- in exchange for 300 euros ($385) for adults and 100 euros for minors -- were repatriated today on flights to Bucharest, Romania's capital, chartered by the French government.
The flights are the first since French President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a controversial crackdown on Romany and traveler communities earlier this summer.
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux on August 17 announced that around 700 Roma would be flown back to both Romania and Bulgaria "before the end of the month."
The minister also said police had dismantled 51 illegal camps of Roma, Gypsy, and traveler minorities over the past three weeks. "In our country, one cannot in an illicit manner an area, a space, an apartment, or a building. These operations are continuing every day," Hortefeux said.
In the wake of clashes between Roma and police in the city of Grenoble late last month, Sarkozy ordered the dismantling of 300 illegal camps as part of a broader campaign against crime. The government has given itself three months to remove these camps.
Sarkozy said the camps were sources of trafficking, child exploitation, and prostitution.
But critics accuse Sarkozy of using the crime crackdown to shift attention away from his flagging ratings, which have slid to record lows amid high unemployment, unpopular pension-reform plans, and scandals that have touched members of his government.
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a Lyon deputy mayor and the Socialist Party's national secretary in charge of social issues, denounced what she called a "masquerade."
"Mr. Sarkozy and his government tried to build a smoke screen to make the French people forget about [these issues]. This smoke screen is, as usual, immigration, insecurity, delinquency -- the three magic words of this government,” Vallaud-Belkacem told RFE/RL.
Vallaud-Belkacem said the government's announcements amounted to stigmatization, by singling out one segment of the population as scapegoats for rising insecurity in France.
Malik Salemkour, vice president of the nongovernmental organization Human Rights League, told RFE/RL that the policy was "ethnic, stigmatizing, [and] shameful."
"It specifically targets Roma -- Romanian and Bulgarian nationals for the majority -- of which there are only about 15,000 on [French] territory. It's a sinister staging because we are expelling European nationals who can come back [to France] after a few days -- and that is actually the case. These people are willing to live here in France," Salemkour said.
Certainly, some Roma interviewed by Reuters said they would return to France if expelled.
Rodica Novakovich, who is one of some 70 Roma now living in a sports hall near Paris since they were evicted from their camp, said that "the minute I find money, I will return to France. I want to come back here for the children. Here, I can feed the children, I can take care of them here. There are many French people who take care of the kids.
"It's not like Romania. In Romania, if you ask for a glass of water, it's impossible. In France there are some shops that even give you free food," Novakovich said.
Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007. Under transitional arrangements, their nationals can enter France without particular formalities and stay there for three months without justifying any activity.
Sarkozy's security crackdown is causing concern even within his own right-wing majority, with UMP lawmaker Jean-Pierre Grand comparing French police tactics to those used in Nazi-occupied France.
The government's campaign has also drawn concern abroad.
On August 18, Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi warned against expelling the Roma "collectively" based on ethnic criteria. In an interview with the Romanian service of Radio France International, the minister also expressed worry about the risk of "xenophobic reactions" amid the economic crisis.
Meanwhile, the European Commission ensured it would monitor the situation in France "very attentively" to make sure EU rules on freedom of movement and freedom of establishment are being respected.
But Immigration Minister Eric Besson this week insisted that the Roma were leaving "on a voluntary basis."
He also said the flights were part of regular procedures of returning foreigners who are not in France legally to their country of origin, adding that today's would be the 25th of this year to Romania and Bulgaria.
According to his ministry, 44 such flights were organized in 2009, and 10,000 Romanians and Bulgarians were sent back to the two countries.
Living predominantly on the margins of society, the Romany community suffers discrimination throughout Europe. Rights groups say its members are often denied their rights to housing, employment, health care, and education, and are victims of racist attacks, and police ill-treatment.
Ciprian Necula works for Romano Butiq, a Romanian NGO working with traditional Romany manufacturers. He told RFE/RL's Moldova Service that the Romany community in Romania is still awaiting the benefits from the country's entry in the EU:
"EU money for Roma started coming to Romania in 2001. I have a friend, a sociologist, Gelu Dominic who made a calculation: how much money was spent in Romania on cows per capita compared to how much was spent on Roma per capita. They spent 10 times more on cows then on Roma," Necula said.
Lucian Stefanescu, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Moldova Service in Bucharest, contributed to this report
Russian Strikes Hit Kyiv, Other Cities As Polish PM Sparks Confusion Over Weapons Supplies To Ukraine
Ally Poland dealt a blow to Ukraine and its president's urgent appeals for greater international support to beat back Russian forces when Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki hinted that Warsaw was "already no longer supplying arms to Ukraine."
Meanwhile, reports of casualties from suspected Russian bombardments across six regions of Ukraine on September 21 underscored the ongoing toll of Russia's 18-month-old invasion.
Morawiecki prompted confusion late on September 20 when he said in response to a Polsat News interviewer's question about a budding diplomatic dispute over Ukrainian grain exports that NATO member Poland, which has been among Kyiv's staunchest allies in the war, was instead "equipping ourselves with the most modern weapons."
The Polish government had already summoned Kyiv's ambassador to register its "strong protest" after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy used a UN speech during his current U.S. diplomatic swing to muster more support to suggest some allies were only pretending to arm and back his country.
Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski reportedly said Zelenskiy's comments "alleging that some EU countries feigned solidarity while indirectly supporting Russia" were an "inappropriate" way to resolve disputes.
Along with Hungary and Slovakia, Poland last week announced restrictions on grain imports after the European Commission declined to extend a ban on such goods amid a flood of Ukrainian food exports amid Russia's blockade on Ukrainian ports.
It was unclear whether Morawiecki's threatened cut-off of weapons supplies to Ukraine over the grain dispute was official policy, and international agencies were seeking clarification from the Polish government.
But the timing is awkward for Zelenskiy and the Ukrainians.
Zelenskiy on September 19 delivered his first in-person speech to the UN General Assembly since the invasion began and the next day appeared before the UN Security Council lamenting "criminal" Russia's veto-wielding seat on the council.
His statements are part of an extended U.S. visit that could prove crucial in Kyiv's ongoing efforts to rally international support for its defense against its much larger post-Soviet neighbor.
Zelenskiy is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden and congressional and other leaders on September 21.
Back in Ukraine, officials said early on September 21 that air-raid alerts sounded across the country at around 4 a.m. local time as a wave of early morning Russian missile and drone attacks targeted a number of cities.
Hours later, Ukraine's power-grid operator reported electricity cuts in five regions of the country, saying the Russian attacks had damaged infrastructure.
Casualties were reported in population centers including the capital, Kyiv, and Cherkasy and Kherson.
WATCH: Capitalizing on "any gaps in the enemy's defense," Ukrainian troops tell RFE/RL they are slowly but steadily reclaiming ground in their counteroffensive to Russia's invasion.
Kyiv's local military administration said it had shot down more than 20 airborne targets and that debris from several missiles had fallen on the city.
Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko said seven people suffered injuries in the Darnytsya neighborhood, but none was life-threatening.
Ten people were injured by fragments from a Russian rocket in the central Ukrainian city of Cherkasy, the Interior Ministry said.
Two people were killed and five more injured when Russian forces struck a dormitory building in Kherson, a southern city that lies on the Dnieper River near the Black Sea, local officials there said.
Russia said it shot down 19 drones in Crimea in what appeared to be another barrage of airborne attacks on the Russian-occupied peninsula.
The Russian Defense Ministry said explosions rang out in some areas overnight as unmanned drones attacked in the northern, western, and central parts of Crimea. It did not report any casualties.
Ukrainian forces have appeared to step up their drone and missile strikes in recent months in annexed Crimea, which also hosts Russia's Black Sea naval fleet.
RFE/RL cannot independently confirm claims by either side in areas of heavy fighting.
With reporting by dpa, PAP, Reuters, and The Washington Post
Romania Soccer Association Sanctioned Over 'Serbia' Chants In Kosovo Match
UEFA has sanctioned the Romanian soccer federation (FRF) over pro-Serbia chanting by supporters during a Euro 2024 qualifier against Kosovo last week, European soccer's governing body said. The September 12 match in Bucharest was suspended for 50 minutes after some home fans chanted "Serbia, Serbia" and held up a banner saying "Kosovo is Serbia." Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and won recognition from more than 100 countries, but not from Romania. UEFA fined the FRF 40,000 euros ($42,540) and ordered Romania's next home game, a Euro qualifier against Andorra on October 15 in Bucharest, to be played without fans. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Poland No Longer Arming Ukraine, Says PM Morawiecki
Poland says it will no longer arm Ukraine and will instead focus on its own defense, as the two allies clashed at a key moment in Kyiv's fightback against invasion by Russia. In a mounting row over grain exports from Ukraine, Poland summoned the Ukrainian ambassador on September 20 to protest remarks at the UN by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The Ukrainian leader said some countries were only pretending to support his nation. Asked about the dispute, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said, "We are no longer transferring weapons to Ukraine, because we are now arming Poland with more modern weapons."
Azerbaijani, Nagorno-Karabakh Sides Begin Tense Meeting On 'Integration' As Cease-Fire Appears To Hold
Representatives of Azerbaijan and the ethnic Armenian leadership of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh have begun "reintegration" talks in the western Azerbaijani city of Yevlax on September 21 as Baku seeks to consolidate gains from a 24-hour military offensive that dramatically shifted political calculations in the Caucasus.
But reports of gunfire 100 kilometers away in the de facto capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, highlighted lingering tensions as the potentially historic negotiations got under way.
The talks follow Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's boast to his oil- and gas-rich nation of 10 million after a Russian-brokered cease-fire halted intense fighting on September 20 that he said had "restored its sovereignty."
Aliyev praised the lightning operation to dislodge the territory's de facto leadership nearly three years after another offensive retook many areas controlled for decades by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support, saying, "In just one day, Azerbaijan fulfilled all the tasks set as part of local anti-terrorist measures."
The talks on the Azerbaijani side are being led by lawmaker Ramin Mammadov, whom Aliyev appointed in March to be in charge of relations with ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
WATCH: Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh say they have agreed to a Russian-brokered cease-fire after Azerbaijan launched a fresh offensive in the region. Under the terms of the deal, ethnic Armenians said they had agreed to discuss the region's reintegration into Azerbaijan.
The delegation for the breakaway leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory internationally recognized as Azerbaijani that Armenians call Artsakh, includes a member of the territory's de facto parliament in Stepanakert, Davit Melkumian, and Artsakh Security Council member Sergey Martirosian. But it has not issued an official list of participants.
Russian peacekeepers, whom the Kremlin says are mediating the talks, were accompanying the ethnic Armenian delegation on its arrival at the venue.
An RFE/RL correspondent was not allowed into the meeting as it got under way.
Multiple reports of gunfire, meanwhile, trickled in from Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh's biggest city.
One resident told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that they heard gunfire in the city and were considering options to leave after leaving a shelter to spend the night at home. They said many other residents were back in shelters.
Reuters also quoted two sources as saying they heard gunfire.
Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leaders were forced to acquiesce to Baku's terms for the cease-fire as more numerous and better-supplied Azerbaijani forces armed with artillery and drones quickly tallied victories after the surprise offensive began on September 19, with Russian peacekeepers seemingly unprepared or unwilling to act.
A rights ombudsman for Nagorno-Karabakh, Gegham Stepanian, has said that at least 200 people were killed and about twice as many wounded during the fighting, including children.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian appeared to have been caught off guard by the Azerbaijani offensive, and he has since emphasized that his government was not involved in shaping the terms of the cease-fire. But he welcomed the end of intense fighting.
Thousands of ethnic Armenians converged on the airport of Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto capital, Stepanakert, on September 20 seeking protection and possible transport to Armenia amid uncertainty over the fighting and the cease-fire that was proffered by Russian peacekeepers on distinctly Azerbaijani terms.
Russia has said that its peacekeepers have "taken in" about 5,000 Karabakh residents.
The White House has expressed concern about a possible humanitarian and refugee crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh and placed the blame on Baku for the situation.
"We're obviously still watching very, very closely the worsening humanitarian situation inside Nagorno-Karabakh," White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
Azerbaijani leaders vowed to allow “safe passage" to Armenia for the separatist forces of the region as part of the agreement to halt fighting, putting a halt to the long struggle for ethnic Armenians seeking independence or attachment to Armenia for the territory.
"Safe passage to appropriate assembly points will also be provided by the Azerbaijani side," Aliyev adviser Hajiyev told reporters. "All the actions on the ground are coordinated with Russian peacekeepers."
The European Union called on Aliyev to protect the rights of ethnic-Armenians in region and “to ensure full cease-fire and safe, dignified treatment by Azerbaijan of Karabakh Armenians.”
“Their human rights and security need to be ensured. Access needed for immediate humanitarian assistance," EU chief Charles Michel said he told the Aliyev in a phone call.
Authorities in Armenia accused Baku of attempting ethnic cleansing with their actions in Karabakh.
Separately, the Russian Defense Ministry said late on September 20 that an unknown number of its peacekeepers had been killed when the vehicle they were in was fired upon in the region. Details remained scarce in the incident.
The quickly changing situation is a blow to Armenians who have made control of Nagorno-Karabakh a nationalist priority since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Yerevan saw a second successive night of antigovernment protests after the cease-fire.
As part of the truce, Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto leadership said that "issues raised by the Azerbaijani side on reintegration, ensuring the rights and security of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh...will be discussed at a meeting between representatives of the local Armenian population and the central authorities of the Republic of Azerbaijan."
In addition to a suspension of fighting and some sort of integration effort, the cease-fire proposal reportedly includes a commitment for a pullout of any "remaining units of the armed forces of Armenia," the withdrawal and destruction of any heavy military equipment from the territory, and the disbandment of the so-called Artsakh Defense Army established by ethnic Armenians in the early 1990s at an early phase of the conflict.
The UN Security Council's rotating Albanian chairmanship scheduled an emergency meeting for September 21 to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting.
After weeks of bloody skirmishes and one day after an aid shipment was finally allowed into the area, Azerbaijan launched the major escalation on September 19 with the breakaway region already teetering on the brink of a humanitarian crisis after being essentially blockaded for more than eight months despite international calls for Baku to allow food and other shipments.
The shelling started shortly after Azerbaijan blamed what it called "Armenian sabotage groups" for two separate explosions that killed at least four military personnel and two civilians in areas of Nagorno-Karabakh that are under the control of Russian peacekeepers.
Those peacekeepers are in place since a cease-fire that ended six weeks of fighting in 2020 in which Azerbaijan recaptured much of the territory and seven surrounding districts controlled since the 1990s by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support.
Iran's President Says U.S. Should Ease Sanctions To Demonstrate It Wants To Return To Nuclear Deal
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi said on September 20 that relations with the United States can move forward if the Biden administration demonstrates it wants to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, and a first step should be easing sanctions. He told a news conference that the Americans have reached out through several channels “saying they wish to have a dialogue, but we do believe that it must be accompanied by action.” “So talk alone is not going to do it,” Raisi said. But action on sanctions can be “a solid foundation for continuing” discussions. The Iranian leader added: “We have not left the table of negotiations.” To read the original story by AP, click here.
U.S. Lawmakers Call For Kremlin Critic Kara-Murza To Be Designated 'Wrongfully Detained'
U.S. lawmakers on September 21 called on the Biden administration to formally designate jailed Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza, a U.S. permanent resident, as "wrongfully detained" in hopes it will help secure his release. A Moscow court in April jailed Kara-Murza, 42, for 25 years, the harshest sentence of its kind since Russia invaded Ukraine. He was convicted of treason and other offences in a trial he said was politically motivated. U.S. officials have condemned his detention as politically motivated and called for his release, but a formal designation of wrongful detention would mobilize U.S. government resources and involve the presidential envoy for hostage affairs in the case. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
U.S. Urges Kosovo, Serbia To 'Fully Implement' Obligations After Talks Fail
PRISTINA -- The United States expects both Kosovo and Serbia to “fully implement” all of their obligations and commitments to normalized relations and mutual recognition.
Speaking to RFE/RL in an interview a week after EU-mediated talks between Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Brussels, U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Jeffrey Hovenier warned both countries risk losing opportunities to progress in their goal of joining the bloc if compromises aren’t found.
“You have to give a little and get a little,” he said in the interview on September 20 in the capital, Pristina.
Serbia refuses to recognize its former province's 2008 declaration of independence, and tensions between ethnic Serbs and Kosovar institutions spilled over into violence against NATO peacekeepers in May after locals boycotted local elections in four mostly Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo.
Kurti and Vucic met on September 14 for talks in Brussels, which went nowhere according to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
He said Kurti was "not ready to move forward" with setting up an association of Serb-majority municipalities that would give Serbs living in Kosovo's north more autonomy, a goal approved by Pristina a decade ago under the EU-sponsored Ohrid agreement with Belgrade.
Hovenier said parallel steps could be taken by both Pristina and Belgrade to ensure progress toward the goal of mutual recognition, but that the association of municipalities is key for getting the process moving forward.
"We could spend a lot of time on who does what, when exactly and in what order. But let's be honest, at the end of the day both things need to happen. Kosovo has got to start moving forward with the association," he said.
“That has to be among the very first steps…. There's an urgency to this. We also do look to Serbia to fulfill its commitments under the Ohrid Agreement,” Hovenier added.
In a statement on September 19, the EU diplomatic service complained about a "lack of progress from both parties in de-escalating tensions in the north of Kosovo."
It called out Pristina for expropriations, evictions, and using special forces for routine policing, while it blamed Belgrade for "blocking the energy roadmap" and other actions.
The statement came a day after Kurti accused Miroslav Lajcak, the EU's special envoy for dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, of "taking a position" against Kosovo.
Hovenier said Lajcak “enjoys strong confidence” from Washington and he hopes the government of Kosovo will work with the designated representatives of the EU to achieve their strategic goals.
“The United States supports normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, which is what the Ohrid agreement is supposed to do, as a really important step toward our longer-term goal of mutual recognition,” he said.
“But we think this is what is achievable right now. And it needs to happen, because without it, Kosovo's path toward Europe is constrained.”
Mahsa Amini, Activists From Afghanistan, Georgia Nominated For EU's Sakharov Prize
Mahsa Amini and the women of Iran were nominated for this year's Sakharov Prize, the European Union’s top rights prize, the EU Parliament said on September 20. Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died in Iran last year while in custody for an alleged hijab infraction, was nominated by the parliament’s three largest blocs, making her the favorite to be chosen for the award in December. Afghan education activists Marzia Amiri, Parasto Hakim, and Matiullah Wesa were nominated, as were the "pro-European people of Georgia" and Nino Lomjaria, former public defender of Georgia. The award will be presented in December.
International Envoy Urges Bosnia To Ban War Criminals From Holding Office
The international high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina urged the country’s authorities to ban the election, appointment, and employment in the public sector of people convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. In a statement released on September 20, Christian Schmidt called on authorities to include data on those convicted by international tribunals in the criminal records. Currently, there is no register of individuals convicted of war crimes in Bosnia and the information is not included in the criminal records of the country, torn by a civil war in the 1990s. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.
Kazakhstan Publishes List Of Those Allegedly Receiving Support From Abroad
Kazakh authorities on September 20 published a list of individuals and organizations that they say "receive financial and other types of support from foreign countries, international organizations, foreigners, and stateless persons." Several noted bloggers and journalists, as well as the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in Kazakhstan; the Kazakh Youth Information Service; the Internews international nonprofit association office; the Kazakh Bureau of Human Rights; the Adil Soz (Just Word) center for monitoring journalists' rights; and other persons and entities were included on the list. The list was created in accordance with 2022 amendments to the Taxation Code that allow publishing of the registers of people and organizations receiving support from abroad. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Moscow Court Sentences Crimean Tatar Journalist To Six Years In Prison In Absentia
The Second Western District Military Court in Moscow on September 20 sentenced staunch Kremlin critic Ayder Muzhdabayev to six years in prison in absentia on a charge of public calls for terrorist actions. The court also banned the Crimean Tatar journalist from administering websites for four years. Muzhdabayev, 51, is a deputy director of the ATR Crimean Tatar television channel in Ukraine. He co-authored the report Putin.War that was published after the assassination of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov in 2015. Muzhdabayev moved to Ukraine from Russia in 2015 and received Ukrainian citizenship in 2016. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Bulgarian Farmers Reach Deal To Halt Protest Against Food Imports From Ukraine
SOFIA -- Bulgarian farmers, who have protested for days against food imports from Ukraine, said they are ending their demonstration after reaching an agreement with the government over agricultural imports from neighboring Ukraine.
The agreement, reached late on September 19, provides for a temporary ban on the import of sunflower seeds from Ukraine as well as the introduction of quotas on grain imports from Ukraine.
Though some said the deal does not solve all of the issues on the table, most of the farmers, who had gathered with their tractors outside Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, said they approved of the draft text of an agreement that was later signed by representatives of the protesters and the government on September 20.
“We have no more work here today,” Iliya Prodanov, chairman of the National Association of Grain Producers, told the protesters.
After that, the farmers left their meeting point near Sofia.
The farmers started their protest on September 18 following a decision by the Bulgarian parliament to lift a ban on Ukrainian grain imports, which they said would trigger an influx as Kyiv looks for routes to export after a deal with Russia to allow cargo ships to safely use the Black Sea despite the Russia-launched war in Ukraine collapsed.
Earlier this year, a flood of grain drove down prices for local growers and sparked the call for a ban on a number of food products from Ukraine.
Last week, the farmersrefused to negotiate with the government, prompting Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov to say that “they had started behaving like terrorists.”
Negotiations between the farmers and the government found a “common approach” to meet most of the demands, paving the way for a deal, producers said.
As part of the agreement, the government said it would negotiate with the European Commission and the government in Kyiv for quotas on Ukrainian grain imports in an attempt to avoid an oversaturation of the Bulgarian market.
The farmers also will receive an additional 150 million leva ($82 million) in subsidies until October 6 due to the negative impact of the war in Ukraine. The government will also allocate additional 63 million leva ($35 million) for agricultural subsidies for 2023.
In May, Bulgaria was among five EU countries that imposed a ban on grain imports from Ukraine, citing the need to protect local agricultural sectors.
But a subsequent change in government has resulted in a shift in Bulgaria’s position. Denkov’s government, which took office in June, said the ban had deprived the budget of tax revenue and led to higher food prices.
Bulgaria’s parliament approved on September 14 a decision to lift the ban on Ukrainian grain imports in a move welcomed by Ukraine.
A day later, the European Commission decided not to renew the overall ban on Ukrainian food heading to the five member countries. Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have since unilaterally imposed their own blockades, while Ukraine said it would file a complaint at the World Trade Organization against them.
Ukrainian Lawmakers Approve Amended Bill On Asset Declarations
Ukrainian lawmaker Yaroslav Zheleznyak wrote on Telegram on September 20 that parliament passed an amended bill on asset declarations after a previous text passed by the Verkhovna Rada in early September was vetoed by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The veto came amid a struggle by the Ukrainian government to clamp down on corruption and assure allies that it’s committed to fighting graft. The original approved bill included a loophole that would keep the disclosures closed to the public for one year. Zelenskiy said such declarations should be public “immediately, not in a year.”
Poland Summons Ukraine's Ambassador After Zelenskiy's Comments At UN
Poland's Foreign Ministry summoned Ukraine's ambassador following comments made by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the United Nations General Assembly over discontent in some European countries over grain imports, which he said was helping Russia. Warsaw conveyed its "strong protest against the statements made by President V. Zelenskiy at the UN General Assembly yesterday, alleging that some EU countries feigned solidarity while indirectly supporting Russia," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on September 20, adding Poland has provided "unprecedented assistance" to Ukraine and its citizens during Russia's invasion. To read the Polish Foreign Ministry's statement, click here.
Tajik Sergeant Gets Five Years In Prison For Shaving Letters On Young Recruits' Heads
A military court in Tajikistan has sentenced a sergeant to five years in prison for shaving letters on the heads of nine newly recruited soldiers to spell the word Konibodom -- the name of a city in the country's north. According to official documents obtained by RFE/RL, the military court in the city of Khujand sentenced Muhriddin Islomov on September 18 after finding him guilty of abuse of power. A picture, which appeared on the Internet in June showing Islomov alongside the nine conscripts standing with their heads bowed exposing the shaved letters, sparked a public outcry in Tajikistan. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here.
Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's Trial Resumes In Tbilisi
TBILISI -- The Tbilisi City Court on September 20 resumed the trial of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on a charge of violently dispersing an anti-government rally in November 2007, which he and his supporters have reject as politically motivated.
An emaciated Saakashvili joined the trial via a videolink from a Tbilisi hospital, greeting "all in Georgia" and saying "I am still weak, but my spirit is high, because it belongs to the entire Georgian people."
Former members of Saakashvili's government, Vano Merabishvili, Zurab Adeishvili, David Kezerashvili, and Gigi Ugulava, are also defendants in the case.
Saakashvili, who was Georgia’s president from 2004 to 2013, is serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power, a charge that he and his supporters say was politically motivated.
He was separately charged with illegally crossing the border in October 2021, when he returned to Georgia from self-imposed exile.
Family members and his lawyers have warned for months that Saakashvili’s health condition has been deteriorating even as he has been receiving medical treatment in a private clinic in Tbilisi since May last year.
Saakashvili's medical team has said his health has worsened since he went to prison in October 2021 and staged repeated hunger strikes to protest against his incarceration.
Saakashvili's legal team has also asserted that he was "poisoned" with heavy metals while in custody.
Since the 55-year-old politician’s arrest in 2021, several mass rallies have been held by his supporters and opposition activists, demanding his immediate release.
Saakashvili is a Ukrainian citizen and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in early July that Russia was killing Saakashvili, using the Georgian authorities as their proxy. He also instructed his country's Foreign Ministry to summon the Georgian ambassador and convey his protest.
The European Union has also expressed concerns over Saakashvili’s deteriorated health.
Ukraine's Allies Make Legal Arguments At Top UN Court In Support Of Kyiv's Case Against Russia
Ukraine’s international allies filed into the United Nations’ top court on September 20 to support Kyiv’s case against Russia that alleges Moscow twisted the genocide convention to manufacture a pretext for its invasion last year. An unprecedented 32 states were making brief legal arguments to the 16-judge panel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is holding hearings into Moscow’s assertions that the World Court does not have jurisdiction and should throw out Ukraine's case. Kyiv filed its case two days after Russia invaded Ukraine. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Russian Military Plane Crashes, Two Pilots Survive After Ejecting
The Russian Defense Ministry said on September 20 one of its Su-34 military planes crashed during a training flight in the Voronezh region bordering with Ukraine. Two pilots of the aircraft survived after they ejected. The ministry cited a possible technical malfunction as the crash's cause. Last week, another Russian military jet, an Su-24, crashed in the Volgograd region that borders western Kazakhstan, killing two pilots. Last month, another crew was killed after am Su-30 military plane crashed in Russia's far western Kaliningrad exclave. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Ukrainian First Lady's Apartment In Occupied Crimea To Be Sold At Auction
Russian-installed authorities in Ukraine's Moscow-annexed Crimea will put an apartment that belongs to Ukraine's first lady, Olena Zelenska, up for auction. The price of the apartment in the resort city of Yalta was preliminary assessed at 23.9 million rubles ($247,600). The Russian-imposed speaker of Crimea’s de facto parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, said on September 20 that several other pieces of real estate "belonging to foreigners who committed unfriendly actions towards Russia" will be sold as well. The Russian-installed governor of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, said earlier that money obtained from the sales of "Ukrainian businessmen’s properties" will be used to finance Russia's invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.
UN Experts Warn That Lukashenka Decree Puts Belarusians Abroad At Risk
UN experts warned on September 20 that a presidential decree in Belarus ordering its consulates to stop issuing passports puts hundreds of thousands of Belarusians abroad at risk, especially those living in exile. Belarusian authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka issued a decree earlier in September saying that Belarusians living abroad can only get a new passport or renew an old one in Belarus. The UN experts warned that emigres would be exposed to the high risk of persecution in Belarus. They said Lukashenka’s decree is part of “a deliberate policy to punish Belarusian exiles,” including human rights defenders, journalists, and members of the opposition.
UN Records Torture And Deaths Of Detainees In Taliban Custody
The United Nations said it had documented hundreds of cases of torture and other "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" committed by the Taliban de facto authorities in Afghanistan during the arrest and subsequent detention of individuals.
In a report issued on September 20, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said it had documented more than 1,600 cases of human rights violations -- nearly half of which comprised acts of “torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” -- committed by the de facto authorities in Afghanistan during arrests and detentions, and the deaths of 18 individuals while in custody. The report covers the period from January 2022 until the end of July 2023, with cases found across 29 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
“The personal accounts of beatings, electric shocks, water torture, and numerous other forms of cruel and degrading treatment, along with threats made against individuals and their families, are harrowing. Torture is forbidden in all circumstances,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said in a statement issued with the report.
“This report suggests that torture is also used as a tool -- in lieu of effective investigations. I urge all concerned de facto authorities to put in place concrete measures to halt these abuses and hold perpetrators accountable,” he added.
In a response published with the report, the Taliban-led Foreign Ministry questioned UNAMA’s data and said it had taken steps to improve the human rights situation of detainees.
Since ousting the Western-backed Afghan government and taking over the country in August 2021, the hard-line Taliban has failed to live up to promises of moderation and has instead severely restricted people's freedoms, waged a harsh crackdown on dissent, and reintroduced the militants' brutal form of justice.
Around one in 10 of the violations were against women, the report said. Journalists and civil society members accounted for nearly a quarter of the victims of the violations.
UNAMA considers the extent of torture and other forms of ill-treatment “widely under-reported” and says that the figures presented in the report represent “only a snapshot” of the full scale of human rights violations across Afghanistan.
The report also said that violations of due process guarantees, including the denial of access to lawyers, “are the norm.”
The Taliban claimed the number of reported violations was not accurate, especially the number of journalists or civil society advocates affected. It added that the authorities have taken steps to improve the human rights situation of detainees, and that Islamic law, or Shari'a, prohibits torture.
With reporting by AP and Reuters
Blast Caused By Gas Leak Kills At Least Three In Residential Building In Moscow Region
At least three people were killed after an explosion caused by a gas leak ripped through a nine-story apartment block in the city of Balashikha near Moscow, local officials said on September 20. The explosion destroyed three levels of the building. At least two people remain under the debris. When rescuers tried to free them from under the debris on the third floor, a concrete slab fell from the fifth level and injured three firefighters. Gas explosions occur frequently in Russia due to aging pipes and infrastructure, as well as lax safety standards. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Biden Stresses Central Asian Nations' Integrity After 'Historic' Meeting With Regional Leaders
U.S. President Joe Biden emphasized the "territorial integrity" of five Central Asian nations -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- after meeting with the countries' leaders in New York late on September 19 amid the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
Biden called the meeting "historic" as the leader of the United States met with what has been dubbed the C5+1 -- Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Turkment President Serdar Berdymukhammedov, and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev.
Biden added that the five former Soviet republics, which Russia considers its backyard, and the United States had a "shared commitment to sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity."
"These principles matter more than ever, in my view...I genuinely believe the world is safer when we stand together," Biden said,
The U.S. president also said that the United States and the five Central Asian nations "are taking our cooperation to new heights," stressing that efforts would include strengthened counterterrorism cooperation and increased U.S. security funding in the region, new business connections with the U.S. private sector, and a C5+1 Critical Minerals Dialogue to develop Central Asia’s vast mineral wealth and advance the security of critical minerals such as those needed for the high-tech industry.
In his speech to the UNGA delivered earlier in the day, Biden warned that Moscow's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine launched in February last year could undermine the international principles of the countries' sovereignty.
Ahead of the C5+1 summit, rights watchdogs had urged Biden to use the meeting to emphasize human rights.
All five Central Asian nations have a documented history of credible, serious allegations of human rights abuses, including crackdowns on opposition politicians, independent journalists, civil society, and other democratic institutions.
The White House readout of the meeting said Biden “welcomed his counterparts' views on how our nations can work together to further strengthen the Central Asian nations' sovereignty, resilience, and prosperity while also advancing human rights through our C5+1 partnership.”
"President Biden advocated for continued support of civil society and women’s economic empowerment activities and encouraged a new C5+1 focus on mainstreaming disability rights across all sectors," the readout said.
With reporting by VOA and AP
Iranian Deputies Vote To Toughen Penalties For Women Flouting Dress Code
Iran's parliament has unveiled the text of a contentious hijab and chastity bill aimed at confronting, detaining, and penalizing women who fail to observe the compulsory dress code amid a fierce debate over the rules, which have drawn criticism both inside the country and abroad.
The bill was approved by 152 deputies -- 34 voted against and seven abstained -- on September 20, just four days after the first anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini while the 22-year-old was in custody for an alleged hijab infraction.
The legislation empowers three intelligence agencies -- the Ministry of Intelligence, the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization, and the Intelligence Organization of the Judiciary -- along with police, the Basij paramilitary forces, and the Command of Enjoining Good and Forbidding Wrong to take action against women who break the rules.
The legislation, which is being implemented on a three-year trial basis, also touches on the need for broader gender segregation in universities, administrative centers, educational institutions, parks, and tourist locations, and even in hospital treatment sections. It proposes severe penalties, including imprisonment up to 10 years and fines for women who defy the mandatory hijab law.
A United Nations fact-finding mission said in a statement last week that the law will "expose women and girls to increased risks of violence, harassment, and arbitrary detention."
According to Article 50 of the bill, anyone who appears in public places or streets in a state of nudity or seminudity, or with a dress that is considered as too revealing, will be immediately apprehended by officers and handed over to the judiciary. Those arrested will face imprisonment or a fine, and if the offense is repeated, the imprisonment or fine will be increased.
The bill also stipulates that anyone who is judged to have insulted the hijab, promoted nudity, immodesty, or an improper hijab, or performs any behavior that promotes them will be sentenced to a fine and, at the discretion of the judicial authority, a ban on leaving the country and a ban on public activity on the Internet for six months to two years.
The bill also prohibits commissioning work or advertising from individuals or legal entities that promote non-hijab values in their activities inside or outside the country, or in any media, including social media.
The hijab became compulsory for women and girls over the age of 9 in 1981, two years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The move triggered protests that were swiftly crushed by the new authorities. Many women have flouted the rule over the years and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.
The death of Amini released a wave of anger that has presented the Islamic regime with its biggest challenge since the revolution.
The Women, Life, Freedom protests and civil disobedience against the compulsory hijab have swept the country, involving tens of thousands of Iranians, many of whom were already upset over the country's deteriorating living standards. Campaigns were also launched against the discriminatory law, although many have been pressured by the state and forced to leave the country.
The protests have also been buffeted by the participation of celebrities, sports stars, and well-known rights activists, prompting a special mention of such luminaries in the legislation.
In the face of the unrest, some religious and government figures have repeatedly advocated for a tougher stance by the government against offenders, even going as far as encouraging a "fire-at-will" approach against noncompliant women.
While the protests have shown some signs of waning, resistance to the hijab is likely to increase, analysts say, as it is seen now as a symbol of the state's repression of women and the deadly crackdown on society.
Russia-Iran Ties Have Reached New Level, Says Russian Defense Minister
Relations between Russia and Iran have reached a new level despite opposition from much of the Western world, Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on September 20 during a visit to Tehran. "We are aiming at an entire range of planned activities, despite opposition from the United States and its Western allies," the Interfax news agency cited Shoigu as saying. "Sanctions pressure on Russia and Iran shows its futility, while Russian-Iranian interaction is reaching a new level."
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