Azerbaijan Moves Toward Extending President Aliyev's Term
The Constitutional Court on December 24 ruled to allow a referendum in which the possibility of unlimited presidential terms would be put to the public.
The chairman of the Constitutional Court, Farhad Abdullayev, said there were no legal obstacles to parliament agreeing to sanction a referendum that would approve or reject the constitutional change. "The draft referendum act proposing amendments to the Constitution received from parliament does not contradict the people's will in the Constitution and the foundations of the state. It can be put to a referendum," he said.
Meanwhile, police broke up a demonstration by opposition activists protesting the planned referendum in front of the constitutional court. Police detained nine protesters as the group chanted “No to monarchy.” The authorities blocked all entrances to the courthouse, and groups of opposition activists heading to the rally were forced onto buses and diverted to the village of Lokbatan outside Baku.
The proposed constitutional amendment has been widely criticized by opposition parties.
But Ali Kerimli, the leader of the opposition Popular Front Party, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that it is likely to be approved in the upcoming referendum. “Previous elections were falsified, and all levels of the election commissions are under the control of the government. I think that the upcoming plebiscite will be falsified as well,” Kerimli said.
Aliyev, who succeed his father Heydar in 2003, won a second five-year term in October in elections boycotted by the opposition and deemed neither free nor fair by international observers.
The current constitution limits Aliyev's rule to two consecutive terms. His mandate expires in 2013.
Last week, the parliament overwhelmingly backed the proposal to lift a ban on a third presidential term, potentially extending four decades of dynastic rule in the oil-rich state.
The proposed constitutional change by the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party has passed through the parliamentary commissions, general parliament vote, and constitution court’s approval in less than ten days with no public debate on the issue.
Law professor Erkin Gadirli, who is also an outspoken civic activist, says the move by the ruling party was unexpected. Aliyev himself has never commented on the issue even after the constitutional change was proposed in parliament.
Gadirli says the proposed amendment contradicts the fundamental nature of the Azerbaijani republic. “Taking into account the circumstances of the society, the lack of political freedoms, the lack of a legitimate process of elections, and the lack of free media and a free market -- if you take them altogether, removing the constitutional clause which limits the number of presidential terms would actually eventually lead to some sort of monarchy-like state,” Gadirli said.
Political analyst Ilgar Mammadov said the people of Azerbaijan are not likely to speak up against the changes, despite what he called widespread public dissatisfaction with the constitutional amendments.
Mammadov says he expects the parliament, dominated by pro-government parties, to meet in the coming days to decide when to call the referendum.
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report
Ukraine's UN Envoy Slams Ex-Pink Floyd Musician's Comments To Security Council
Comments made by Roger Waters, co-founder of the rock band Pink Floyd, were denounced by Ukraine on February 8 after the British musician told the UN Security Council that Russia's invasion of its neighbor was "not unprovoked."
Moscow's UN ambassador invited Waters, 79, to address a Security Council meeting to discuss the delivery of weapons to Ukraine.
Waters has previously sparked controversy with his stance on the war and by saying the West should stop providing arms to Kyiv.
The former Pink Floyd bassist told the Security Council that the invasion of Ukraine was illegal and he condemned it “in the strongest possible terms." But he implied that Kyiv was to blame as well.
"Also the Russian invasion of Ukraine was not unprovoked. So I also condemn the provocateurs in the strongest possible terms," he said, addressing the council via a video link.
"The only sensible course of action today is to call for an immediate cease fire in Ukraine," Waters added.
Ukrainian Ambassador to the UN Serhiy Kyslytsya responded by referencing the lyrics of one of Pink Floyd's most famous songs, Another Brick in the Wall, released in 1979.
"How sad for his former fans to see him accepting the role of just a brick in the wall, a wall of Russian disinformation and propaganda," Kyslytsya said.
The ambassador also referenced the giant inflatable pink pig that featured in many of the rock band's shows, saying he was surprised Waters had not arranged to have it floating in the Security Council chamber.
"What could it have been this time Mr. Waters? Pigs with swastikas and the hammer and sickle?" Kyslytsya said during the discussion.
Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the UN Richard Mills acknowledged Waters' "impressive credentials as a recording artist," but said his qualifications to speak on arms control or European security issues were "less evident."
Albanian UN Ambassador Ferit Hoxha told the council Waters was “lucky to be in New York,” where he could speak his mind, “including about the Russian aggression and how wrong that is.” He said if he had been in Russia, “with what he said, he might have been in custody by now."
Waters sparked backlash in September when he wrote an open letter saying the West should stop providing arms to Kyiv, accusing President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of allowing "extreme nationalism" in Ukraine, and urging him to "put an end to this deadly war."
He was subsequently declared persona non grata by the Polish city of Krakow and his concerts were scrapped there.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Death Toll Raised To Eight In Explosion Of Russian Residential Building
The death toll in a gas explosion in a residential building in Russia's western Tula region has risen to eight. Emergency Department officials in the town of Yefremov said on February 8 that rescue teams had found three more bodies under the rubble. After the blast on February 7, rescue teams discovered the first five victims at the site. The authorities say rescue work continues. Gas explosions frequently occur across the former Soviet Union due to aging pipelines and infrastructure, as well as lax safety standards. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Russia Sanctions Another 77 U.S. Nationals, Including Relatives Of Top Officials
The Russian Foreign Ministry said on February 8 that it had imposed sanctions on 77 more U.S. nationals, including the governors of several U.S. states and some of their relatives. Others targeted also included the children of senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer as well as of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The announcement comes a week after Washington imposed sanctions on 22 individuals and entities in several countries that the U.S. Treasury Department said were involved in evading previously announced sanctions targeting Russia’s defense industry over Moscow's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Belarusian Court Sends Two Activists To Prison On Terrorism Charges
The Homel regional court in southeastern Belarus has sentenced two activists, Syarhey Plyahskun and Yury Selvich, to 16 and 14 years in prison, respectively, on multiple charges, including terrorism, extremism, and sabotage. The two men were arrested in March 2022 on suspicion of planning to damage railways in the region to disrupt the movement of Russian military equipment to the ongoing war in Ukraine via Belarus. Investigators say the two men allegedly purchased components to make Molotov cocktails and explosives to implement the plan. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.
Minsk Court Sentences Polish-Belarusian Activist Poczobut To Eight Years In Prison
MINSK -- A court in Minsk has sentenced a leader of the Polish-Belarusian community, noted journalist Andrzej Poczobut, to eight years in prison for criticizing Belarus's authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and his regime.
The Hrodna regional court in the country's west sentenced the 49-year-old activist and journalist on February 8 on charges of public calls for actions directed at harming the country's national security, distributing materials containing such calls, and inciting hatred.
The trial was held behind closed doors.
Poczobut, who is a correspondent for the respected Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, was arrested in March 2021 amid rising tensions between Minsk and Warsaw following the brutal suppression of mass protests against Lukashenka after he claimed a landslide victory in a 2020 presidential election.
The Belarusian opposition claimed the election was rigged in favor of Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994.
Relations between Poland and Belarus worsened further after a migrant crisis on their shared border at the end of 2021, which Warsaw blamed on Minsk, and after Lukashenka allowed Moscow to use its territory as a launching pad for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The European Union, the United States, and other countries have imposed sanctions against Lukashenka's regime following the crackdown on protesters.
The Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) rights group has included Poczobut on its list of 1,440 political prisoners in Belarus, and Poland has demanded his release.
Poland, along with most of Europe and many other countries around the world, has criticized Lukashenka, and has provided sanctuary for Belarusian opposition leaders and activists.
Kazakh Court Rejects Jailed Dissident’s Appeal Of Decision To Deny Early Release
QONAEV, Kazakhstan -- The Almaty regional court in southern Kazakhstan has rejected an appeal filed by noted dissident Ermek Narymbaev (aka Narymbai) against a lower court's refusal to grant him an early release.
Narymbaev's lawyer, Zhanar Balghabaeva, told RFE/RL on February 8 that the court was unable to clearly explain its decision in the courtroom and expressed hope that proper justification would be shown in the court's written decision, which has yet to reach her client.
The Qonaev city court near Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, ruled on December 14 that Narymbaev did not deserve an early release on parole due to a violation of internal regulations allegedly committed by the activist at the penal colony where he is incarcerated.
Narymbaev has been jailed several times for his political views and is known as a staunch critic of the tightly controlled former Soviet republic's government.
He fled Kazakhstan in 2016 for Ukraine after receiving death threats from unknown individuals. Narymbaev said at the time that the threats were masterminded by Kazakh authorities in a bid to intimidate him.
He returned to Kazakhstan in February 2022 after unprecedented anti-government rallies shook the Central Asian nation the month before, leaving at least 238 people dead.
He was arrested upon his arrival in Almaty and sent to prison for 30 months to serve the remainder of a previous suspended prison term he was given in 2015 on a charge of inciting hatred, which he called politically motivated.
In October and November, Narymbaev held a hunger strike for 54 days to protest against his incarceration. He also demanded democratic reforms from the government. He lost 41 kilograms during the hunger strike.
Iranian Protester, Focus Of Torture Reports, Released After Four Months
Iranian protester Armita Abbasi, who media reports said was tortured and raped while in detention after being identified as a "leader" of protests sparked by the death of a young woman while in policy custody for an alleged head scarf violation, has been released from prison.
"We experienced a very difficult time, but now I am extremely happy," Abbasi’s father wrote in a social media post along with a video of his 20-year-old daughter next to him.
Armita Abbasi’s lawyer, Shahla Orouji, said last week that a court accused her client of “propaganda against the Islamic republic” and “gathering and conspiring to commit a crime against national security.”
Abbasi was arrested on October 10 in her hometown of Karaj, west of the Iranian capital, nearly a month into the nationwide protests triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody in September.
The Iranian government claimed she was “the leader of the riots” and that police discovered “10 Molotov cocktails” in her apartment.
In November, CNN published an investigative report about the sexual assault and rape of some of the detainees from recent protests, including Abbasi, while they were being held in prisons across Iran.
A source told CNN that Abbasi was rushed to the Imam Ali hospital in Karaj on October 17, accompanied by plainclothes officers while “her head had been shaved and she was shaking violently.”
“In the accounts, the medical staff attending to her spoke of the horror they felt when they saw evidence of brutal rape,” CNN added.
Neither Abassi, her family, nor her lawyer have publicly commented on the report.
Earlier in January, Abbasi and 14 other Iranian women incarcerated in the Kachoui prison near Tehran reportedly went on a hunger strike to protest the conditions of their imprisonment and the lack of medical attention at the facility.
At that time, her mother wrote on her Instagram account that, because of her daughter’s hunger strike, prison authorities were no longer allowing her to call her family. She also said the court did not accept the lawyer representing her daughter.
Since Amini's death, Iranians have flooded into the streets across the country to protest against a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls making unprecedented shows of support in the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said that, as of January 29, at least 527 people had been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Prominent Iranian Figures To Discuss The Future Of The Democracy Movement In Their Country
Eight prominent Iranian opposition figures have announced they will meet this week at Georgetown University to discuss the future of the country's pro-democracy movement amid a wave of protests following the September 16 death of a young woman while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.
Rights activist Masih Alinejad, the exiled former crown prince of Iran Reza Pahlavi, the spokesman for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims Hamed Esmaeilion, and rights activist Nazanin Boniadi will be present at the February 10 meeting.
Four others, including Nobel laureate lawyer Shirin Ebadi, renowned Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, leader of the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan Abdullah Mohtadi and former captain of Iran’s national soccer team Ali Karimi will join the meeting online.
According to the announcement published by Washington, D.C.-based Georgetown University, the eight are going to sit together in a meeting called “The Future of Iran’s Democracy Movement.”
The meeting comes amid months of pressure from Iranian opposition politicians and protesters, who have demanded that the Islamic republic's leadership step down.
Iranian social media users welcomed news of the meeting, with many calling for the leaders to form an alliance to unify forces battling to change the system.
The news comes amid nationwide protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. The 22-year-old died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious "morality police" for "improperly" wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf, or hijab.
Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country. The authorities have responded to the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.
Officials, who have blamed the West for the demonstrations, have vowed to crack down even harder on protesters, with the judiciary leading the way after the unrest entered a fourth month.
The protests pose the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Uzbek Authorities Detain Man Suspected Of Organizing Illegal Migration To The U.S.
Uzbekistan's State Security Service (DXX) said on February 7 that its department in the southeastern region of Samarkand had arrested a 27-year-old resident of the city of Bukhara on a charge of organizing illegal immigration to the United States via Mexico and the European Union. The DXX did not disclose the suspect's identity, saying he was caught while receiving $3,000 in cash, the fifth part of a requested fee from a client. Uzbek authorities said in December that they arrested two men on similar charges. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.
MH17 Investigators Close Probe Despite 'Strong Indications' Of Putin's Involvement
International investigators say there are "strong indications" that Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally involved in the 2014 downing of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine, parts of which were controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, but that a lack of concrete evidence meant they were putting an end to their eight-year probe into the tragedy.
The Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was blown out of the sky on July 17, 2014, amid a conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian armed forces. All 298 people on board the airliner died in the crash. The victims came from more than a dozen countries, although more than two-thirds of them were Dutch citizens.
Russia has denied any involvement in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17).
Even though the probe resulted in some convictions, prosecutor Digna van Boetzelaer told journalists in The Hague on February 8 that the investigation "has now reached its limit.”
“There are strong indications that the Russian president decided on supplying the Buk [missile system] to the [Russia-backed] separatists. This is the conclusion of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) in its investigation into those responsible in the Russian Federation for the downing of flight MH17 with a Buk missile” van Boetzelaer said.
During the news conference, the investigators backed up the claim by playing a recording of a telephone call from an adviser who appears to make a thinly veiled reference to Putin, saying a delay in sending the weapons used was "because there is only one who makes a decision...,the person who is currently at a summit in France."
"Although a lot of new information has been discovered about various people involved, the evidence is at the moment not concrete enough to lead to new prosecutions," van Boetzelaer added.
In November last year, a Dutch court convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison two Russians and one pro-Moscow Ukrainian separatist for their role in the shooting down of the passenger plane. They had been tried in absentia
The three men convicted were former Russian intelligence agents Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov) and Sergei Dubinsky, and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian separatist leader. All three are believed to be currently in Russia.
The court concluded that the three men had helped to arrange the transport into Ukraine of the Russian military Buk missile system that was used to shoot down the plane.
The fourth defendant, Russian Oleg Pulatov, the only suspect represented by defense lawyers at the trial, was acquitted due to a lack of evidence.
Russia called the trial "scandalous" and said the court's ruling was "politically motivated," insisting that the court was under "unprecedented pressure" from Dutch politicians, prosecutors, and media.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said after the decision to end the investigation into the incident was announced that the news was a "bitter disappointment." He added that the Dutch government would continue to call for Russia to be held to account for the "tragedy."
Well-Known Kyrgyz Political Activist Nazarbek Nyshanov Detained
The well-known Kyrgyz political activist and government critic Nazarbek Nyshanov has been detained on a charge of making public calls to forcibly seize power, the State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said on February 8. According to the UKMK, Nyshanov was detained two days earlier. Nyshanov's representatives and relatives have yet to comment on the statement. Nyshanov is known for his criticism of the current and previous governments, as well as for his political ambitions and attempts to get registered as a candidate for presidential elections since 2005. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.
Georgian Officials Detain Man Suspected Of Bank Robbery, Hostage-Taking
TBILISI -- Georgia's Interior Ministry says its officers have detained a man suspected of an attempted bank robbery in October 2020 that turned into a hostage-taking situation.
In a statement on February 8, the ministry said the suspect, Badri Esebua, born in 1988, was apprehended early in the morning as he tried to cross the administrative boundary of Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.
Esebua is accused of illegal arms possession, terrorism, and hostage-taking and may face up to 15 years in prison if convicted, the statement said.
On October 21, 2020, a masked gunman wearing military fatigues took 43 people hostage at a branch of the Bank of Georgia in the western city of Zugdidi.
He initially released 24 of the hostages and then, after an almost 12-hour standoff with police that stretched into the evening, he left the bank premises with four persons, including three hostages and the head of the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti Police Department, Avtandil Galdava, who had been acting as a negotiator. He also reportedly demanded $500,000 and a guarantee to leave the area safely.
The four were released later, while the suspect escaped with an unknown amount of cash and remained at large until his arrest on February 8.
In December 2020, police arrested Esebua’s brother for the illegal purchase and possession of firearms and ammunition. He was found guilty and sentenced by a court to four years in prison in July 2021.
U.S. To Lift Sanctions On Russian Sberbank's Former Subsidiary In Kazakhstan
The U.S. Treasury Department plans to lift sanctions imposed on the former Russian Sberbank subsidiary in Kazakhstan, Bereke Bank. The U.S. Treasury Department said on February 7 that it will lift the sanctions on March 6. Kazakhstan's state-owned Baiterek financial holding group bought the Sberbank's Kazakh subsidiary in August 2022. The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the subsidiary in February 2022 in response to Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Kazakh Website Editor Receives Box Containing Meat And Photos Of Her Children
ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- The chief editor of the Ulysmedia.kz news website in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, says she received a box from unknown people that contained a hunk of meat and pictures of her children, a parcel she called a new attempt "to intimidate" her and her staff.
Samal Ibraeva told RFE/RL that the box was delivered to the website's office on February 8. She linked the box's delivery to the professional activities of her team, which she said has been the target of other intimidation attempts.
On January 18, Ulysmedia.kz had to suspend its operations following a hacking attack. Ibraeva said at the time that the attack was most likely linked to the website's work, adding that it had faced several previous similar attacks.
The incident comes at a time when the independent press in Kazakhstan is coming under pressure.
The Almaty-based Adil Soz (A Just Word) group, which monitors journalists' rights, said earlier that there have been at least five attacks against journalists in the Central Asian nation since January 1.
The subjects of the attacks, including Ulysmedia.kz, have been writing and reporting about Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the first anniversary of the violent dispersal of anti-government protests in Kazakhstan that turned into mass unrest that left at least 238 people, including 19 law enforcement officers, dead.
On January 20, presidential spokesman Ruslan Zheldibai said President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, who has initiated a series of changes since last year's deadly protests aimed at creating what he calls a "new Kazakhstan," has ordered law enforcement to investigate each attack against journalists.
Ibraeva said to RFE/RL on February 8 that, despite the presidential order to investigate the attacks, it remains unclear who is behind the assaults.
International human rights watchdogs and the embassies of several Western nations have urged Kazakh authorities to investigate the attacks.
Kazakh Court Convicts Five Dead Men Killed During 2022 Anti-Government Unrest
A court in Kazakhstan's southern city of Taraz has posthumously convicted five men who were shot dead during unprecedented anti-government protests in January 2022. The five were convicted of illegal weapons possession and taking part in mass unrest. The men's relatives protested near the courtroom after the verdicts were announced, saying that their loved ones were victims of police and security officers who opened fire on protesters following a presidential order "to shoot to kill without warning." At least 238 people, including 19 law enforcement officers, were killed across Kazakhstan during the protests. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Estonian Intelligence Service Warns Of 'Security Risks' From Russia
The Estonian intelligence service said in its annual report on February 8 that Russia remains capable of exerting “credible military pressure” in the Baltic region, presenting a medium- and long-term security risk. Although the Russian military is currently engaged in its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, “Russia’s belligerence and foreign policy ambitions have significantly increased security risks for Estonia,” the report stated. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Russian Prosecutor Seeks 23 Years In Prison For Former Khabarovsk Governor Sergei Furgal
The prosecutor at the high-profile murder trial of Sergei Furgal, the former governor of the Far Eastern Khabarovsk Krai region whose arrest in 2020 caused months-long protests in the region, has asked a Moscow court to sentence the politician to 23 years in prison.
The prosecutor on February 8 also asked the Lyubertsy City Court, which held the trial in the building of the Moscow regional court, to sentence Furgal's three co-defendants -- Marat Kadyrov, Andrei Palei, and Andrei Karepov -- to 10 1/2, five, and 17 years in prison, respectively.
On February 2, a jury found Furgal guilty of attempted murder and of ordering two killings in 2004 and 2005. The prosecutor claimed that decisions to commit the murders were driven by the commercial interests of Furgal and his accomplices. Investigators said Kadyrov was the actual perpetrator of the crime.
Furgal has stressed his innocence several times in court. He and his supporters insist that the case against him is politically motivated.
In his closing remarks, the ex-governor noted that 100 witnesses were brought forward by the defense but that only two were interrogated, while the rest were not admitted. In addition, he alleged the investigation hid material evidence.
Furgal, a member of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, was elected in 2018 in a runoff that he won handily against the region’s longtime incumbent from the Kremlin-backed ruling United Russia party.
His arrest on July 9, 2020, sparked mass protests in Khabarovsk Krai's capital, Khabarovsk, and several other towns and cities in the region.
The protests were held almost daily for many months, highlighting growing discontent in the Far East over what demonstrators see as Moscow-dominated policies that often neglect their views and interests.
With reporting by Meduza and TASS
Russian Police Launch Probe Into Alleged Fraud At Shelter Where Mutilated Dogs Found
Police in Russia's southwestern city of Astrakhan have launched a probe into alleged financial fraud after investigating the operations of an animal shelter where some 60 dogs were found dead and mutilated in December. The Investigative Committee said on February 7 that the shelter is suspected of embezzling 28 million rubles ($392,000) allocated by the authorities to catch stray dogs, provide them with medical assistance, and find homes for them. No names were mentioned. The shelter is owned by the wife of a former Astrakhan city lawmaker, Andrei Nevlyudov. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Self-Exiled Pussy Riot Member Charged With Discrediting Russian Armed Forces
MOSCOW -- Moscow municipal lawmaker Lyusya Shtein, who is also a member of the Pussy Riot protest group, has been charged in absentia with discrediting the Russian armed forces.
Media reports in Russia quoted sources as saying that the case launched against Shtein is linked to her online posts last March about Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Shtein told Meduza on February 7 that she learned about the probe against her from those media reports, adding that neither she nor her lawyer had been officially informed about the case.
In May, the Interior Ministry added Shtein to its wanted list for violating a parole-like sentence she was handed in August 2021 for violating coronavirus safety precautions by calling on people to protest against the detention of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.
The outspoken critic of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine left Russia in April after her apartment door was marked with a Z-shaped sticker inscribed with the slogan: "Collaborator. Do Not Sell Motherland," in an apparent attempt to intimidate her.
Many Russian military vehicles and tanks have been marked with the letter Z during the ongoing invasion, with the insignia becoming an increasingly ubiquitous symbol of support for the war, for the military, for the Kremlin’s policies, and most of all for President Vladimir Putin.
Shtein's partner and a founding member of Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina, also fled Russia last year after a Moscow court changed the remainder of her one-year parole-like sentence to real prison time, saying she had violated the terms of her punishment.
Shtein, Alyokhina, and other members of the protest group were sentenced to up 15 days in jail several times in 2021-22 over taking part in protest actions and unsanctioned rallies.
Pussy Riot came to prominence after three of its members were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for a stunt in which they burst into Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral and sang a "punk prayer" against Putin, who was prime minister at the time and campaigning for his subsequent return to the Kremlin.
Alyokhina and bandmate Nadezhda Tolokonnikova had almost completed serving their two-year prison sentences when they were freed in December 2013 under an amnesty. The two have dismissed the move as a propaganda stunt by Putin to improve his image ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics that were held in the Russian resort city of Sochi.
With reporting by RIA Novosti and Meduza
Russian Officer Who Brandished Alleged Ukrainian Skull Dies Of Gunshot Wound
Russian Army officer Igor Mangushev, who gained prominence last year for speaking on stage holding what he said was the skull of a Ukrainian soldier while calling for the death of "as many Ukrainian soldiers as necessary," has died in a hospital after sustaining a gunshot wound to his head.
Mangushev's associate, Akim Apachev, said on February 8 that the anti-Ukraine propagandist had been in a coma since being shot on February 4 at a checkpoint near the town of Kadiyivka in a part of Ukraine's Luhansk region, which is controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
It remains unclear who shot Mangushev and why. Some media reports say he was shot at close proximity.
Last August, a video showing Mangushev holding the skull of what he said was a Ukrainian soldier at a concert circulated around the Internet and sparked an outcry in Ukraine.
Mangushev said in the video that the skull belonged to a Ukrainian soldier who had been killed during Russia's invasion of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. He added that Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February 2022, was fighting against "the idea of Ukraine as an anti-Russia state," adding that "all who support that idea must be eliminated."
It has not been independently verified whether the skull actually belonged to a Ukrainian soldier.
After the video appeared on the Internet, Kyiv turned to the United Nations, asking it to condemn the video.
Mangushev positioned himself as a Russian military officer, a political strategist, and an associate of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-linked founder and leader of the Wagner private mercenary group.
Media reports also said that Mangushev was a co-founder of another mercenary group called ENOT (United People's Communal Fellowships) that was involved in Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and military operations in Ukraine’s east and Syria.
With reporting by RIA Novosti and Kommersant
Fire Breaks Out At Russian Oil Refinery Near Ukrainian Border
A fire broke out on February 8 at an oil refinery in Russia's southern Rostov region near the border with Ukraine, state media reported. The fire was extinguished around an hour later, Interfax news agency reported, adding that the small refinery belonged to a company called Resource LLC. It cited the Emergency Service as saying that, according to preliminary information, the blaze was caused by a "violation of technological process." Novoshakhtinsk is about 9 kilometers from the Ukrainian border amid Russia's invasion of that country. Another refinery in Novoshakhtinsk was struck by two drones last June. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Security Forces Raid Hideout Of Pakistani Taliban; 12 Militants Reported Killed
Security forces acting on intelligence raided a hideout of Pakistani Taliban insurgents along the border with Afghanistan, triggering an intense shootout that left 12 militants dead, the country’s military said on February 8. The predawn raid came amid soaring tensions in Pakistan and in the aftermath of a mosque bombing last week that killed 101 people in Peshawar. Pakistani officials blamed the blast on the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, which denied involvement. The Pakistani Taliban has a strong presence in Lakki Marwat, where they have launched multiple attacks in recent months. To read the original story from AP, click here.
Russia To Seek Arbitration With U.S. Over Visas For UN Diplomats
Moscow says it will pursue arbitration after accusing the United States of failing to issue visas to Russian delegates to the United Nations. Russia’s Foreign Ministry also accused Washington of restricting the movements of Russian diplomats in the United States. “The U.S. is raising doubts about the validity of its right to retain its status as host state for the UN headquarters,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Pyotr Ilichyov told Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency. A U.S. State Department spokesperson in September responded to similar complaints by saying the United States takes its obligations seriously. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Ukraine's Zelenskiy Appeals For Fighter Jets In Surprise Trip Abroad
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 8 made a strong appeal to Western allies to provide his country with fighter jets to combat Russian forces during a visit to the United Kingdom and France on his second known trip abroad since Moscow's unprovoked invasion of his country one year ago.
"I appeal to you and the world, with simple and yet most important words -- combat aircraft for Ukraine, wings for freedom," Zelenskiy said, speaking in a historic address to the British Parliament.
"We know freedom will win, we know Russia will lose," he told lawmakers.
"The United Kingdom is marching with us towards the most... important victory of our lifetime. It will be a victory over the very idea of the war."
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said later at a joint news conference that "nothing is off the table" in terms of military aid for Ukraine.
Fighter jets for Ukraine were "part of the conversation," Sunak added.
After speaking to Parliament, Zelenskiy met with King Charles III and then accompanied Sunak on an inspection of Ukrainian soldiers training in southwest England to operate British Challenger 2 tanks, which Sunak said will be deployed in Ukraine next month.
Thanking Sunak for help from the United Kingdom, Zelenskiy also appealed for long-range missiles, saying that unless Ukraine gets them or fighter jets, "there will be stagnation" and Russians will move into Ukrainian territory.
Earlier, Britain announced an immediate surge of military equipment to Ukraine to help it fend off Russian attacks and pledged to train its pilots to ensure they are able to fly NATO-standard fighters in the future, a government statement said.
But a spokesperson for Sunak told reporters no decision had been made on supplying Ukraine with combat aircraft.
Zelenskiy arrived later on February 8 in France for a late dinner meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Macron said ahead of the meeting in Paris that France is "determined to help Ukraine to victory and the reestablishment of its legitimate rights," adding France would "continue the efforts" to deliver arms to Kyiv.
Zelenskiy urged France and Germany not to hesitate in shipping weapons, saying they have the "potential to be game changers" in the course of the war.
"The sooner we get heavy long-range weapons and our pilots get modern planes...the quicker this Russian aggression will end," he said.
For months, Kyiv has been urging the West to increase its military support, including the possibility of providing fighter jets.
The United States, Britain, Germany, and other Western allies recently relented and approved sending hundreds of battle tanks, armored vehicles, and other heavy weaponry to Ukraine amid expectations that Russia is gearing up for a new major offensive, possibly as early as this month.
Washington has so far also rejected supplying any F-16 warplanes to Ukraine, but some allies, such as Poland, have said they could be open to the idea.
Britain also announced additional sanctions targeting individuals and companies that “are profiting from the Kremlin’s war machine.” The sanctions targeted Russian drone manufacturer CST; RT-Komplekt, a Russian producer of helicopter parts; and software developer Topaz.
“These new sanctions accelerate the economic pressure on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, undermining his war machine to help Ukraine prevail,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said.
Oil executive Nikolai Yegorov and Sergei Rudnov, owner of the pro-Kremlin Regnum news agency, were also targeted.
In all, over 1,300 individuals and entities have been sanctioned by Britain over the invasion of Ukraine.
Zelenskiy’s visit to Britain and France is his first since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. He visited the United States and addressed Congress in December. According to some reports, Zelenskiy might attend a European Union summit this week in Brussels.
Scholz said leaders at the summit on February 9 would send a strong signal of solidarity with Kyiv.
"I am taking a clear message to Brussels: Ukraine belongs to the European family," said Scholz in Paris on February 8.
Zelenskiy’s trip came hours after U.S. President Joe Biden, in his annual State of the Union address to Congress on February 7, pledged U.S. support for Ukraine’s war against invading Russia for “as long as it takes.”
In a post on Twitter, Zelenskiy thanked Biden for his “powerful words of support.”
“Our values are the same, our common goal is victory,” Zelenskiy wrote.
Fierce fighting in the eastern part of Ukraine has spurred Kyiv to ask its allies for heavy weaponry given Russia's size and equipment advantage. Longer range weapons would allow Ukraine to push back harder than it has up to now, officials say.
On February 7, Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark pledged to provide more than 100 Leopard 1 battle tanks. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said 20 to 25 of the tanks would arrive by summer, about 80 by the end of the year, and at least 100 more in 2024. The three countries also promised to provide necessary training and support for the tanks.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, Ukrainian lawmaker Roman Kostenko, head of the parliament’s National Security Committee, said Russia was planning a new offensive in the eastern Donbas region and possibly in another “diversionary” area.
“The enemy is preparing an offensive,” Kostenko said. “Whether he will be able to attack or not remains to be seen.”
Russian forces carried out air strikes in the city of Kharkiv during the night, the head of the regional administration, Oleh Synyehubov, said. The strikes targeted an industrial area of the city and ignited a large fire. No casualties were reported.
Russian military officials said the strike targeted a “workshop” for upgrading drones.
With reporting by Reuters
Biden Calls Russia's 'Murderous Assault' Against Ukraine A 'Test For The Ages,' Says U.S. Will Stand With Kyiv
WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States is united in its support for Ukraine as it opposes the "murderous assault" of Russia's invasion and that Washington will stand with Ukraine "as long as it takes."
Speaking during his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, Biden said his government united NATO, built a global coalition, and stood against the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"We stood with the Ukrainian people," he said, as Kyiv's ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, looked on from the gallery.
"She represents not just her nation, but the courage of her people," Biden said.
The United States and other NATO allies have provided billions of dollars in military aid, including air-defense systems, to bolster Ukrainian forces. U.S. and European Union sanctions have also sought to impose a financial cost on Russia.
Biden noted that his address to lawmakers last year came days after Putin launched what Biden called a "brutal attack against Ukraine" and a test for the world.
"I spoke from this chamber one year ago, just days after Vladimir Putin unleashed his brutal attack against Ukraine -- a murderous assault, evoking images of the death and destruction Europe suffered in World War II," Biden said. "Putin's invasion has been a test for the ages, a test for America, a test for the world."
"Would we stand for the most basic of principles? Would we stand for sovereignty? Would we stand for the right of people to live free from tyranny? Would we stand for the defense of democracy?" Biden asked. "One year later, we know the answer: Yes, we would, and we did. We did."
WATCH: The Russian invasion of Ukraine evokes "images of the death and destruction Europe suffered in World War II," U.S. President Joe Biden said.
Biden called Putin's invasion a test for America that showed it would stand for the defense of democracy.
"Such a defense matters to us because it keeps the peace and prevents open season for would-be aggressors to threaten our security and prosperity," he said.
Some Republicans have been skeptical of military aid to Ukraine, but that was not the case when Republicans in the chamber, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, appeared to strongly support Biden's remarks.
"I have to say, I saw a lot more support coming from the Republican side of the aisle when he was speaking about Ukraine, particularly at the moment when he said, 'We are in it as long as it takes,'" Elizabeth Shackelford of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs told VOA.
"This is something that we have heard the Republican Party push back on specifically, saying that there wasn't a blank check for Ukraine," she added.
Late last year, Congress passed a spending bill that included $45 billion for Ukraine and NATO allies, which many House Republicans, including McCarthy, opposed.
Biden said the United States faces serious challenges around the world, but that in the past two years, democracies have become stronger while autocracies have grown weaker.
He did not mention Iran or Afghanistan in his remarks. Republicans have criticized his administration for trying to revive a nuclear deal with Tehran, as well as what they argued was a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Days after a Chinese surveillance balloon drifted across American airspace, leading to the cancellation of a high-profile trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Biden outlined where he sees the relationship with Beijing now.
The president said he remains open to working with China "where it can advance American interests and benefit the world."
"But make no mistake about it," he said. "As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country, and we did."
Some Republicans criticized Biden for not ordering the balloon shot down earlier as it traversed the country.
Biden argued that his administration had changed the narrative about how "the People's Republic of China is increasing its power and America was failing in the world."
"Not anymore," he said. "We made clear and I made clear in my personal conversations which have been many with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict."
With reporting by Cindy Saine of VOA
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