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Britain Condemns Ahmadinejad Christmas Broadcast

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad
The British government has condemned the airing of a televised Christmas address by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Britain's Foreign Office said the decision by Britain's Channel 4 would cause "international offence."

In the address, Ahmadinejad, speaking in Farsi with English subtitles, congratulates Britons on the birth of Jesus Christ, describing him as "the standard bearer of justice, of love for our fellow human beings, of the fight against tyranny, discrimination, and injustice."

He also said that if Jesus Christ were alive today, he would oppose bullying "expansionist powers," as well as warmongers, occupiers, and terrorists across the world.

British Jewish organizations and Israel's ambassador to London expressed outrage over the broadcast, citing Ahmadinejad's hostility to Israel, Iran's human rights abuses, and alleged Iranian support for terrorism.

British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that Channel 4 had handed President Ahmadinejad a propaganda
victory.

"It's giving him a prime-time television slot in which he is posed as a defender of justice and peace while ignoring his own human rights abuses. We know that his regime executes children, journalists, Sunni Muslims, gay people, and political and ethnic dissidents," Tatchell said.

The Channel 4 broadcast is seen as an alternative to Queen Elizabeth II's traditional annual address to the Commonwealth.

The station had invited Ahmadinejad to speak.

With agency reports


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Kyrgyz Anti-War Activist Ordered To Pay Fine On Hatred Charge

Ondurush Toktonasyrov appears in court on June 19.
Ondurush Toktonasyrov appears in court on June 19.

A Bishkek court on June 19 ordered anti-war activist Ondurush Toktonasyrov to pay a 100,000-som ($1,140) fine after being convicted on a charge of inciting hatred online. Prosecutors had sought three years in prison for the activist. Toktonasyrov said he will appeal the ruling, calling it politically motivated. The 65-year-old activist is known for publicly raising social and political issues for years. After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he condemned Moscow's aggression on social media. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Former Moscow Municipal Lawmaker Transferred To House Arrest

Ketevan Kharaidze is awaiting a court decision on her appeal of the sentence that she insists is linked to her decision in 2022 to run for the State Duma, the Russian parliament's lower chamber.
Ketevan Kharaidze is awaiting a court decision on her appeal of the sentence that she insists is linked to her decision in 2022 to run for the State Duma, the Russian parliament's lower chamber.

A Moscow court on June 19 ordered the transfer to house arrest of former municipal lawmaker Ketevan Kharaidze, who was sentenced in 2022 to four years in prison on extortion charges that she rejects as politically motivated. Kharaidze is awaiting a court decision on her appeal of the sentence that she insists is linked to her decision in 2022 to run for the State Duma, the Russian parliament's lower chamber. In September 2022, Kharaidze took part in the election of the municipal council of Moscow Tver district while in custody and was reelected. After her conviction in December 2022, her mandate was revoked. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus, click here.

Russian Drone Barrage Further Decimates Ukraine's Energy Infrastructure

The Energy Ministry said on June 19 that a power facility in central Ukraine was hit in the attacks, with "some equipment damaged." (file photo)
The Energy Ministry said on June 19 that a power facility in central Ukraine was hit in the attacks, with "some equipment damaged." (file photo)

A barrage of Russian drone attacks overnight further damaged Ukraine's already decimated energy infrastructure. The Energy Ministry said on June 19 that a power facility in central Ukraine was hit in the attacks, with "some equipment damaged." The report comes a day after officials said Ukrainians should expect rolling blackouts because of damage to power facilities. Ukraine has been importing record amounts of power recently to make up for the shortfall caused by Russia's targeting of energy infrastructure. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Updated

U.S. Soldier Jailed In Russia On Theft, Threat Charges

U.S. Army Sergeant Gordon Black, who was detained on suspicion of theft, appears in court in the Far East city of Vladivostok on June 6.
U.S. Army Sergeant Gordon Black, who was detained on suspicion of theft, appears in court in the Far East city of Vladivostok on June 6.

A court in the Russian Far East has convicted and sentenced a U.S. Army sergeant who reportedly broke military rules to travel to Russia with his Russian girlfriend in May to three years and nine months in prison for allegedly attacking and threatening her amid accusations Moscow is using trumped-up charges to detain foreigners to use as currency in prisoner exchanges.

The soldier, 32-year-old Gordon Black, had pleaded not guilty in the Pervomaisky district court in Vladivostok to the charges but acknowledged hitting the woman, Aleksandra Vashchuk, after he said she drunkenly attacked him and tried to prevent him from leaving the apartment they were sharing.

Russian prosecutors had requested a nearly five-year sentence for Black.

He was also ordered to pay Vashchuk 10,000 rubles ($115) in a related civil case.

Black's lawyer said his client maintains his innocence and will appeal the verdict.

U.S. authorities have said Black traveled to Russia via China from South Korea -- where he had been assigned before heading back home to Texas -- without informing his superiors.

Around the time of Black's arrest in early May, Russian authorities reported detaining another U.S. citizen, identified as William Russell Nycum, on what they called "petty hooliganism" and alcohol charges in a separate case.

The detentions have fueled suspicions that Russian authorities are targeting Americans for use in possible prisoner swaps as Moscow and Washington over the war in Ukraine and other international security issues.

Russia has other U.S. citizens that Washington insists are being held unfairly or on dubious grounds in its jails, including RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, and ex-Marine Paul Whelan.

Russia's Foreign Ministry insists the cases involving Black and Nycum are not political.

A State Department advisory from September urges Americans to avoid travel to Russia due to "the singling out of U.S. citizens for detention by Russian government security officials."

The State Department said in December that Moscow rejected a significant offer it made to secure the release of Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, another American imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges.

Russian officials have kept mum for the most part about any talks to win the release of the Americans. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has repeatedly said that while "certain contacts" on swaps continue, "they must be carried out in absolute silence."

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in an interview with the state news agency TASS on June 19 that Moscow was waiting for Washington to respond to its proposals on possible prisoner swaps.

"I am not authorized to go into details, but let’s put it this way: according to diplomatic protocols, there is a notion of 'the ball being in somebody’s court.' In this situation, the ball is on the U.S.'s side; we are expecting a response from them to those ideas that were conveyed to them," Ryabov said.

Russia is believed to be seeking the release of Vadim Krasikov, who was given a life sentence in Germany in 2021 for the killing of Zelimkhan "Tornike" Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen descent who had fought Russian troops in Chechnya and later claimed asylum in Germany.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, asked in February about releasing Gershkovich, appeared to refer to Krasikov by pointing to a man imprisoned by a U.S. ally for "liquidating a bandit" who had allegedly killed Russian soldiers during separatist fighting in Chechnya.

Updated

North Korea's Kim Vows 'Full Support' To Russia At Anti-Western Summit

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un pose for a photo after the official welcome ceremony in Pyongyang on June 19.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un pose for a photo after the official welcome ceremony in Pyongyang on June 19.

Visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed gratitude for Pyongyang's "unwavering support" at the start of a summit with North Korea's Kim Jong Un that began with a red-carpet welcome on June 19 as the two fiercely anti-Western leaders sought ways to boost cooperation.

The Russian president's first visit in 24 years to the secretive one-party state is being closely watched for signs of a new strategic alliance as Moscow wages its prolonged war in Ukraine and both countries grapple with Western sanctions punishing aggression or, in Pyongyang's case, rogue nuclear and other weapons programs.

"We highly appreciate your consistent and unwavering support for Russian policy, including in the Ukrainian direction," Putin told Kim at the start of their talks, according to Russian media.

State television showed Kim and Putin shaking hands and repeatedly hugging on the Russian leader's predawn arrival at Pyongyang airport before a joint limousine motorcade snaked them through the capital decorated with Russian flags and pictures of Putin.

Official North Korean media said the men shared their "pent-up inmost thoughts" during the ride.

Hours later, the men met at an official welcome ceremony on a main square before beginning their bilateral talks.

Kim called the North Korea-Russia relationship a "fiery friendship."

He also pledged his country's "full support and solidarity to the Russian government, army, and people in carrying out the special military operation in Ukraine to protect sovereignty, security interests, and territorial integrity." He did not elaborate.

Moscow has banned the term "war" for what it terms a "special military operation" in reference to its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine or the occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea alongside support for armed separatism in eastern Ukraine that began in 2014.

Multiple votes in the United Nations have expressed support for Ukrainian territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, including Crimea and four eastern regions that abut Russia.

Before arriving, Putin said he appreciated North Korea’s firm support of his military actions in Ukraine, according to an op-ed piece that appeared in North Korean state media on June 18.

Their countries will continue to "resolutely oppose" what Putin described as Western ambitions "to hinder the establishment of a multipolar world order based on justice, mutual respect for sovereignty, considering each other's interests."

The United States and its allies have accused North Korea of supplying Russia with arms, including ballistic missiles to use in Ukraine, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a joint press briefing with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington on June 18 that Russia's war in Ukraine was being propped up by North Korea, China, and Iran.

NATO countries are also "concerned about the potential support that Russia provides to North Korea when it comes to supporting their missile and nuclear programs," Stoltenberg said.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby warned that "there could be some reciprocity here that could affect security on the Korean Peninsula." While this has not yet "come to fruition," Kirby said, Washington is "certainly going to be watching that very, very closely."

Top Russian officials including Deputy Prime Minister Denis Mantrurov, Defense Minister Andrei Belousov, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are said to be accompanying Putin on the trip.

Putin foreign-policy adviser Yury Ushakov suggested document signings during the visit could include an agreement on a comprehensive strategic partnership.

North Korea is one of just a few countries in the world that has openly supported Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and recognizes Moscow's forcible annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Putin's only other official visit to North Korea came at the start of his presidency, in 2000.

Putin will travel on to Vietnam for talks that are expected to be focused on trade.

The United States, which has spent years strengthening ties and accelerating trade with Vietnam, criticized Putin's planned visit.

A U.S. Embassy spokesperson in Vietnam said "no country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalize his atrocities."

With reporting by Reuters

Russian Law On 'Undesirable Organizations' Violates Rights Convention, European Court Says

European Court of Human Rights (file photo)
European Court of Human Rights (file photo)

The European Court of Human Rights on June 18 ruled unanimously that Russia violated the European Convention on Human Rights when it labeled several foreign organizations operating in Russia as "undesirable" and when it prosecuted Russians for being involved with those organizations.

The court said in a statement on June 18 that the "undesirable" designation was a violation of the convention's article on freedom of assembly and freedom of association with regard to four applicants based outside Russia -- the Free Russia Foundation in Washington, the Ukrainian World Congress in Toronto, the Association of Schools of Political Studies of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and the Spolecnost Svobody Informace in Prague.

The unanimous decision by a seven-member panel of judges from Andorra, the Netherlands, Cyprus, Albania, Greece, Switzerland, and Bulgaria also determined that there had been a violation of the convention's article on freedom of expression and the article on freedom of assembly and association with respect to "all applicants who had been convicted for their involvement with 'undesirable organizations.'"

The court said that the decision was handed down in a case filed by the Andrey Rylkov Foundation and others against Russia concerning the designation of the four foreign organizations as "undesirable" and the prosecution of individuals for engaging in activities with other organizations that had likewise been declared "undesirable."

The court held that the law, signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2015, "had not been formulated with sufficient precision to enable the applicant organizations to foresee that their otherwise lawful actions would result in their designation as 'undesirable' and a prohibition on their activities in Russia," the statement said.

The four organizations based outside Russia were designated as "undesirable," while the other applicants were convicted for having been involved with organizations that had received a similar designation.

The four organizations complained that that two criteria used to designate them as undesirable had been "unforeseeable" and had "impinged on their freedoms of expression and association." The remaining applicants complained of their convictions for involvement with "undesirable" organizations.

The 2015 change in Russian law introduced a new power for the prosecutor-general to designate any non-Russian entity or NGO as an "undesirable organization" when it has been determined that the organization undermined "the foundations of the Russian constitutional order, defense capabilities, or national security of Russia."

The law gave the authority to maintain a register of "undesirable organizations" to the Justice Ministry, which as of April 2024 listed more than 150, including RFE/RL, according to the judgement.

The law, widely condemned in the West, had legal and practical consequences resulting in a ban on the operations in Russia of designated organizations.

The designation imposed severe restriction on an organization, including bans on having offices or carrying out projects in Russia, using Russian bank accounts, disseminating content through the media, and on the public accessing their websites from within Russia.

Human Rights Watch said in 2017 that the Russian government was using the "draconian and deliberately vague law" to target Russians it claimed were linked to "undesirable" foreign organizations.

In addition to the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, the other Russian organizations convicted of involvement with "undesirable organizations" are the Ekologicheskaya Vakhta Po Severnomo Kavkazu, Akoo Molodyye Zhurnalisty Altaya, and a number of other Russian nationals.

Scores Hospitalized With Botulism Symptoms In Russia; 3 Arrested

Improperly canned, preserved, or fermented foods are common sources. (file photo)
Improperly canned, preserved, or fermented foods are common sources. (file photo)

Russian authorities detained three people on June 18 in connection with a suspected botulism outbreak, a move that comes as 169 people have been hospitalized thus far with the rare disease, most of whom are from Moscow. Officials link the outbreak to ready-to-eat salads made by popular delivery service Kukhnya Na Rayone. Foodborne botulism is a rare illness that can cause paralysis, breathing difficulties, and sometimes death. Improperly canned, preserved, or fermented foods are common sources. Kukhnya Na Rayone suspended operations over the weekend, saying in an online statement that it no longer offered the salad, which had canned beans in it, and would inspect other food it makes as well.

Russian Journalist Kevorkova's Detention On Terror Charge Extended

Nadezhda Kevorkova (file photo)
Nadezhda Kevorkova (file photo)

A Moscow court on June 18 extended pretrial detention for Russian journalist Nadezhda Kevorkova until at least August 6. Kevorkova was arrested last month on a charge of "justifying terrorism." The 65-year-old journalist reiterated her innocence. Her lawyers requested her transfer to house arrest. The charges against Kevorkova stem from two posts on Telegram in 2018 and 2021. Kevorkova is known for focusing on conflicts in the Caucasus and the Middle East and on Muslims' rights in Russia and abroad. Kevorkova's former husband, Maksim Shevchenko, is a well-known political observer and politician. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Dissident Yashin Moved To Harsher Russian Prison Regime

Ilya Yashin (file photo)
Ilya Yashin (file photo)

Outspoken Kremlin critic Ilya Yashin, serving 8 1/2 years in prison for openly condemning Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has been transferred to a punitive cell unit (PKT) in a prison in the western Smolensk region, his Telegram channel said on June 18. Placement in the PKT is considered the harshest type of incarceration in Russian prisons. Unlike regular parts of prisons where inmates can move around, work, and visit a library or prayer rooms, the PKT limits those incarcerated to serve time in their cell, and they are isolated from the rest of the facility. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Updated

China, Iran, North Korea 'Countries Of Concern' For Russia Support, Blinken Says

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (left) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrive for a news conference at the State Department in Washington on June 18.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (left) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrive for a news conference at the State Department in Washington on June 18.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described China, Iran, and North Korea as "countries of concern" for their involvement in Russia's war economy at a June 18 joint press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Stoltenberg said Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine "demonstrates and confirms the very close alliance between Russia and authoritarian states like North Korea, but also China and Iran."

Blinken condemned North Korea and Iran for supplying munitions to Russia.

He also called on China to stop supporting the Russian defense-industrial base. Blinken said China "can't on the one hand say it wants better relations with Europe while at the same time funding the biggest security threat since the Cold War."

Blinken said that China provided 70 percent of Russia's machine tools and 90 percent of microelectronics.

China's support has enabled Russia to keep its defense industrial base going -- "to keep the war machine going.... So that has to stop," Blinken said.

Blinken said China “can’t on the one hand say it wants better relations with Europe while eat the same time fueling the biggest security threat since the Cold War. This is what’s keeping the war going.”

If China really means it, "it will stop fueling the war machine."

Stoltenberg used the same language, reiterating a statement at the Wilson Center on June 17, saying: "China cannot have it both ways. This has to stop."

He again called for China to face "consequences" if it keeps backing Russia. It is "too early to say" what kind of consequences China should face for supporting Russia, Stoltenberg said, but added that China "cannot continue to have normal trade relationships with Europe."

"Unless China changes its behavior, it has to be addressed," Stoltenberg said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lin Jian said in response to Stoltenberg's comments that NATO should "reflect on itself, rather than attack China."

Lin blamed NATO for Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine and said the "relevant parties" should "stop deflecting the blame and sowing discord."

Blinken and Stoltenberg referred to security as global and emphasized the importance of strengthening Indo-Pacific partnerships at the upcoming NATO summit, scheduled to take place in Washington on July 9-11.

Blinken echoed the words of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and said, "What's happening in Ukraine today may well be happening in East Asia tomorrow."

Stoltenberg and Blinken also mentioned Russian President Vladimir Putin's June 17-18 visit to North Korea, the first such visit from a Russian head of state in 24 years.

Blinken condemned North Korea for providing "significant munitions to Russia for use in Ukraine."

Stoltenberg said NATO was "concerned about the potential support that Russia provides to North Korea when it comes to supporting their missile and nuclear programs."

Sweden Summons Russian Envoy Over Alleged Airspace Violation

A Swedish Gripen jet (file photo)
A Swedish Gripen jet (file photo)

The Swedish Foreign Ministry said on June 18 that it had summoned Russia's ambassador after a Russian SU-24 bomber allegedly violated its airspace near the Baltic Sea island of Gotland. The ministry said it summoned the ambassador to "express its stance against Russia's violation of Swedish airspace that took place on Friday, June 14." Sweden said on June 15 that the Russian aircraft violated its airspace east of Gotland's southern tip. The Swedish air combat command warned the Russian aircraft with a verbal call, Sweden's armed forces said. "When this was not heeded and the aircraft did not deviate from its route, it was dismissed from Swedish airspace by two JAS-39 Gripens," it said. Russia has yet to respond to the allegations.

Activists Condemn Iran-Sweden Prisoner Swap Of Convicted War Criminal Nouri

Hamid Nouri (file photo)
Hamid Nouri (file photo)

International human rights groups and activists have strongly condemned a prisoner exchange between Sweden and Iran that involved Hamid Nouri, a former Iranian prison official convicted in the Nordic country of crimes against humanity.

Nouri, who was exchanged on June 15 for Swedish nationals Johan Floderus and Saeid Azizi, returned to Iran using his alias "Hamid Abbasi," a name linked to the executions of political prisoners in 1988.

Upon his arrival in Tehran, Nouri was met with a mixed reception, a reflection on his controversial past and the contentious nature of the swap.

Floderus is a Swedish EU diplomat held in captivity for two years in Iran on espionage charges that he, the EU, and Stockholm said were fabricated. Azizi was arrested in Iran last November on what Sweden has called "wrongful grounds."

"The Swedish government has thrown dirt into the face of justice in the world by handing over a 'criminal' to the Islamic republic," said Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, noting Nouri's conviction for gross violations of international humanitarian laws.

"This disgrace and scandal will never be forgotten," Ebadi added.

Swedish prosecutors originally detained Nouri in 2019, basing their case on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows for the prosecution of severe crimes irrespective of location.

After a detailed and lengthy trial, Nouri was sentenced in May 2022 to life imprisonment for his role in the massacre of political prisoners during the summer of 1988.

Iran has arrested dozens of foreign and dual nationals in recent years on espionage charges that they and their governments say are groundless. Critics say Tehran uses such arbitrary detentions as part of hostage diplomacy to extract concessions from Western countries, which Tehran denies.

"The Islamic republic will take more innocent foreign and dual nationals hostage, repress people at home, and terrorize those abroad," actress and activist Nazanin Boniadi said.

"The international community needs a new approach. One that deters, not appeases the regime."

Esmat Vatanparast, who lost 11 members of her extended family during the 1988 mass executions -- including her two daughters and three brothers -- told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that "my heart broke today, tears came to my eyes, but I remain hopeful for the people of Iran" after hearing of the exchange.

The exchange was also criticized for failing to include Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian-Swedish researcher who has been imprisoned in Iran since 2016.

Vida Mehrannia, Djalali's wife, expressed her dismay, announcing plans to protest in front of the Swedish Foreign Ministry against the exchange, which she labeled "shameful."

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

U.S. Announces New Sanctions On Bosnian Serb Leader Dodik

Milorad Dodik (file photo)
Milorad Dodik (file photo)

The United States on June 18 tightened sanctions targeting Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik and his family, taking aim at a network of individuals and firms it accuses of raising money for him. The Treasury Department said in a statement that it was placing sanctions on two individuals and seven entities that provided Dodik with "major sources of revenue." The Treasury Department said Dodik used his official position to direct government contracts to private companies that he oversees along with his son, Igor. Brian Nelson, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the United States "condemns Dodik's continued efforts to erode the institutions that have ensured peace and stability for Bosnia-Herzegovina and the region."

Ukrainian Prosecutor Says Russian Troops Beheaded Ukrainian Soldier

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin (file photo)
Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin (file photo)

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin said on June 18 that Russian troops beheaded a Ukrainian soldier in the eastern Donetsk region. Kostin said the Ukrainian military spotted the soldier's head on a damaged armored car during aerial reconnaissance. Ukrainian law enforcement officers opened an investigation to establish the facts of the case, Kostin said. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recorded six cases of extrajudicial executions of Ukrainian prisoners of war between February and July 2023. Ukraine and Russia have accused each other's militaries of battlefield misconduct tantamount to war crimes. To read the original story on RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Prosecutors Seek 14 Years In Prison For Mother Of Tajik Ex-Police Officer Serving Life For Banker's Murder

Sojida Saidmurodova (left) and Dilshod Saidmurovod (combo photo)
Sojida Saidmurodova (left) and Dilshod Saidmurovod (combo photo)

Prosecutors have asked a court in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, to convict and sentence to 14 years in prison on corruption charges Sojida Saidmurodova, the mother of former top police officer Dilshod Saidmurodov, who is serving life in prison for kidnapping and killing a banker last year.

A relative of the 65-year-old Saidmurodova told RFE/RL on June 18 that the woman was arrested in September and charged with financial fraud, illegally obtaining a parcel of land, the illegal construction of property, forgery, and obstruction of justice.

In March, Tajikistan's Supreme Court sentenced her son, who used to work at the Interior Ministry directorate dealing with organized crime, and four other men to life in prison in the high-profile case of the abduction and murder of one of the Central Asian country's wealthiest bankers, Shohrat Ismatulloev.

Another 10 defendants were sentenced to prison terms of between one year and eight years for their involvement in Ismatulloev's abduction and murder.

Ismatulloev, the deputy chairman of Orienbank, one of the country's leading banks, was abducted in June 2023. His body was found later in August.

One of the alleged abductors was identified as Rustam Ashurov, who died in a hospital in Moldova in July 2023 after local police wounded him during a shoot-out in which he killed two security officers at Chisinau International Airport.

Moldovan authorities said at the time that Ashurov worked at the Tajik Interior Ministry for seven years but was fired for unspecified criminal activities.

Investigators said the kidnappers were looking to extort money from the banker and tortured him brutally before he died.

Orienbank is the largest private financial institution in the authoritarian Central Asian country and has been linked to the family of President Emomali Rahmon, several sources have told RFE/RL.

Israel Drops Visa Requirement For Kosovo Passport Holders

Israeli Interior Minister Moshe Arbel (left) and Kosovar Foreign Minister Donika Gervalla-Schwarz attend the signing ceremony in Pristina on June 18.
Israeli Interior Minister Moshe Arbel (left) and Kosovar Foreign Minister Donika Gervalla-Schwarz attend the signing ceremony in Pristina on June 18.

Israel has signed an agreement waiving the visa requirement for citizens of Kosovo, making it the 50th country to allow free entry to citizens of the partially recognized former Serbian province. The agreement was signed by Israeli Interior Minister Moshe Arbel and Kosovar Foreign Affairs and Diaspora Minister Donika Gervalla-Schwarz in Pristina on June 18. Arbel met earlier in the day with Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti. Serbia, Russia, China, and a handful of EU member states still don't recognize the independence that Kosovo declared in 2008. Israel and Kosovo formalized diplomatic relations in 2021. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kosovo Service, click here.

Russia Buying Spies To Make Up For Expelled Diplomats, Germany Says

(photo illustration)
(photo illustration)

Russia has turned increasingly to blackmail and financial incentives to hire Germans to spy for it after the blow dealt to its intelligence services by Europe's expulsion of some 600 Russian diplomats, Germany's domestic security service said. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) said Russian intelligence services were spending big to recruit agents in Germany despite Western attempts to limit their operations since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. "Russia is working hard to compensate for the German government's reduction in the number of Russian agents in Germany," BfV chief Thomas Haldenwang told a news conference. Two German citizens who were charged last August with high treason for spying for Russia had each been paid an estimated 400,000 euros ($428,560) for their services, the BfV said. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Updated

Kazakh Opposition Activist Shot In Kyiv

Aidos Sadyqov (file photo)
Aidos Sadyqov (file photo)

Kazakh opposition activist and journalist Aidos Sadyqov was shot in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, on June 18 by an unknown assailant.

The activist's wife, Natalya Sadyqova, said on Facebook that "the attempted murder of her husband" took place near his house in Kyiv.

She did not give any further details. She was with her husband but was unharmed in the attack.

Kazakh Opposition Journalist Shot In Kyiv
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Ukraine's National Police said an unknown person shot a man in a parked vehicle and fled the scene, but gave no further details.

The Prosecutor-General's Office said it had started investigating the "attempted murder of a journalist, a citizen of Kazakhstan," adding that the victim was hospitalized in "serious condition." It did not name Sadyqov.

Kazakhstan-based human rights defender Inga Imanbai wrote on Facebook that she spoke to Natalya Sadyqova, who told her that her husband was currently in intensive care following surgery.

Sadyqova told journalists later in Kyiv that she was confident that the attack was linked to the work she and her husband have done as journalists.

"I want everyone to understand one thing. The attack is directly related to our journalistic activities," Sadyqova said, adding that earlier in the day she and her husband posted new material on their Base channel on YouTube in which they criticized Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev for his pro-Russian policies.

Sadyqov used to lead a branch of the opposition Azat Social Democratic Party in his native Aqtobe region in Kazakhstan's northwest until 2010.

He later headed a group that was a major force to create a union defending the rights of Kazakh workers at the Chinese-owned CNPC-Aktobemunaygaz oil company.

In 2014, Kazakh authorities launched a case against Natalya Sadyqova, who worked as a journalist for the independent Respublika newspaper at the time, accusing her of slander.

The couple then fled Kazakhstan and have resided in Kyiv since. They obtained political asylum in Ukraine. In 2016, the Kazakh authorities shut down Respublika.

While in Ukraine, the couple launched the Base YouTube channel in Kazakh and Russian, which has frequently examined corruption in Kazakhstan.

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Sadyqovs' YouTube channel carried materials criticizing Moscow's aggression and accusing the Kazakh government of pro-Russian policies.

In October 2023, Kazakhstan added Aidos Sadyqov and his wife to its wanted list, accusing them of "inciting hatred." Sadyqov told RFE/RL at the time that the charge was politically motivated.

Finnish Law To Halt Migrants At Russia Border Makes Progress In Parliament

Finnish hunter soldiers attend training with Swedish units as part of NATO's Nordic Response exercise in Hetta, Finland, in March.
Finnish hunter soldiers attend training with Swedish units as part of NATO's Nordic Response exercise in Hetta, Finland, in March.

A Finnish government proposal to temporarily reject asylum seekers arriving at the country's border with Russia could be accepted by parliament if some amendments are made, an influential committee of legislators said on June 18. The announcement by the chair of the Finnish parliament's constitutional committee paves the way for the controversial proposal to be approved in a plenary vote at a later time. The government in May presented legislation allowing border guards to prevent migrants arriving across the long, forested border with Russia from seeking asylum, despite admitting the law would be in conflict with human rights commitments. Finland believes Moscow is promoting the crossings in retaliation for Helsinki joining NATO. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Russian Professor Convicted Of Espionage In Estonia

Vyacheslav Morozov
Vyacheslav Morozov

An Estonian court has convicted a Russian citizen and former professor at the University of Tartu of carrying out activities against that Baltic state and sentenced him to six years and three months in prison, Estonian media reported on June 18. Prosecutors accused Vyacheslav Morozov of gathering information on security, defense, and internal subjects as well as related individuals and infrastructure. The director of Estonia's Internal Security Service (ISS), Margo Palloson, told ERR that Morozov had given information to Russian special services on a regular basis before his arrest in January. ERR said Morozov established ties with the University of Tartu in 2010 and before then had worked with St. Petersburg State University. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Tatarstan's Supreme Court Rejects Appeal By Imprisoned RFE/RL Journalist Alsu Kurmasheva

RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan on May 31.
RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan on May 31.

The Supreme Court of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan has rejected an appeal by RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva against a decision to extend her pretrial detention.

Judge Rizvan Yusupov on June 18 upheld last month's decision by the Soviet district court in Tatarstan's capital, Kazan, to extend her pretrial detention until at least August 5.

Kurmasheva, a Prague-based journalist with RFE/RL who holds dual U.S. and Russian citizenships, has been held in Russian custody since October 18, 2023, on a charge of violating the so-called "foreign agent" law and distributing false information about Russia's military, a charge that could lead to a 10-year prison sentence. She, her employer, and her supporters reject the charges.

During the last hearing on May 31, Kurmasheva said that her health had deteriorated and that she needs surgery. She also said that the last time she heard the voices of her two daughters was in October 2023.

Kurmasheva, who has worked for RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service for some 25 years, left the Czech capital in mid-May 2023 because of a family emergency in her native Tatarstan.

She was briefly detained while waiting for her return flight on June 2, 2023, at the Kazan airport, where both of her passports and phone were confiscated. After five months waiting for a decision in her case, Kurmasheva was fined 10,000 rubles ($112) for failing to register her U.S. passport with Russian authorities.

Unable to leave Russia without her travel documents, Kurmasheva was detained again in October and this time charged with failure to register as a "foreign agent." Two months later, she was charged with spreading falsehoods about the Russian military.

The U.S. government and RFE/RL say the charges are punishment for Kurmasheva's work as a journalist for RFE/RL.

On June 17, U.S. State department spokesman Mathew Miller reiterated previous statements by senior U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, that called on Russia to immediately release Kurmasheva.

He did not, however, elaborate on why Washington has yet to designate Kurmasheva as "wrongfully detained," a designation that would raise the profile of the case against Kurmasheva, effectively labeling it as politically motivated. Two other U.S. citizens held by Russia -- Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan -- have been designated as wrongfully detained.

"We believe that she should be released," Miller said when asked about recognizing Kurmasheva as "wrongfully detained." "I can’t speak to a formal determination at this time. But we’ve been pretty clear about the status of her case and what we think about it."

Miller also expressed concern over Russia's decision to try Gershkovich for alleged espionage in a closed trial, emphasizing that U.S. Embassy representatives will still try to attend the court hearing scheduled for later this month.

Miller said attending was a "high priority for us" but that "ultimately we’re going to try to bring [Gershkovich] home and we’re going to try to bring [fellow detained American] Paul Whelan home, and that continues to be our overriding goal."

Russian authorities have not provided any evidence to support the espionage charges against 32-year-old Gershkovich, which The Wall Street Journal and the U.S. government have vehemently rejected. He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Russian officials said this week that Gershkovich's espionage trial in a court in Yekaterinburg would take place behind closed doors beginning on June 26. Gershkovich was initially arrested during a reporting trip to that Urals city in March 2023.

U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich looks out from inside a defendants' cage before a hearing at the Moscow City Court on February 20.
U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich looks out from inside a defendants' cage before a hearing at the Moscow City Court on February 20.

"We will try to attend the trial, as we try to attend the trial of any American citizens who are detained in Russia. But ultimately, I don’t have an answer for you yet whether that’s going to be possible," Miller said.

"Charges against him are completely bogus, as we have made clear, and we believe the Russian government knows that they are completely bogus. That said, we’re going to continue to try to bring him home," he added.

Analysts and Western officials accuse Russia of targeting U.S. citizens for detention for potential use in prisoner exchanges or for other geopolitical purposes.

Russia is believed to be seeking the release of Vadim Krasikov, who is serving a life sentence in Germany for the 2019 killing of Zelimkhan "Tornike" Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen descent who had fought Russian troops in Chechnya and later claimed asylum in Germany.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, asked in February about releasing Gershkovich, appeared to refer to Krasikov by pointing to a man imprisoned by a U.S. ally for "liquidating a bandit" who had allegedly killed Russian soldiers in Chechnya.

With reporting by Current Time

Jailed Kazakh Activist Launches Hunger Strike

Aidar Syzdyqov
Aidar Syzdyqov

Kazakh opposition activist Aidar Syzdyqov, who was arrested in May on a charge of "selling illegal drugs," launched a hunger strike four days ago, his wife, Aigul Toqpaeva, said on June 18. Syzdyqov has said the case against him is politically motivated. The charges against Syzdyqov were based on a statement by a person who claims he had put money on Syzdyqov's debit card for drugs he allegedly received from him. Syzdyqov has noted that all of his payment cards were blocked after a court in Astana handed him a parole-like three-year sentence in 2021 over links with a banned opposition movement. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

France Hails Deal To Provide Armenia With Howitzers As 'New Important Milestone'

Armenian Defense Minister Suren Papikian (left) and French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu (right) in a photo released in conjunction with the CAESAR announcement on June 18.
Armenian Defense Minister Suren Papikian (left) and French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu (right) in a photo released in conjunction with the CAESAR announcement on June 18.

French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu said his country has signed a deal to provide CAESAR self-propelled howitzers to Armenia, a move that's likely to further raise anger in Azerbaijan and Russia toward France.

The contract comes as Yerevan edges closer to the West through military and other ties and further from traditional ally Russia, following Armenia's defeat last year by Caucasus archfoe Azerbaijan to retake Nagorno-Karabakh and other areas internationally recognized as Azerbaijani but controlled for decades by ethnic Armenians.

Lecornu announced the CAESAR deal on June 18 after a meeting in Paris with Armenian Defense Minister Suren Papikian, hailing it as a "new important milestone."

He said Paris "continue[s] to strengthen our defense relationship" with Armenia.

The CAESAR is a self-propelled 155-millimeter, 52-caliber cannon whose range with advanced projectiles exceeds 50 kilometers.

It has been used extensively in the ongoing war in Ukraine against invading Russian forces and is compatible with NATO-standard ammunition.

Since Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian took over six years ago, Armenia has gradually shifted its diplomatic and military efforts away from Russia and toward the West.

At the same time, Yerevan has accused longtime power broker Moscow and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (SCTO) of offering little help to keep Azerbaijan at bay. The CSTO is an alliance of six ex-Soviet states -- Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

In a sign of rising tensions, Russia last month recalled its ambassador to Armenia for consultations without explanation after Pashinian accused two unnamed CSTO members of helping Azerbaijan prepare for a brief but intense offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020.

Russia has worked closely with Belarus in its war on Ukraine, including by staging invasion operations from Belarusian territory.

A week ago, Pashinian said Armenia would formally quit the CSTO, whose members "are not fulfilling their contractual obligations but are planning a war against us with Azerbaijan."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused Pashinian’s administration of "leading things to the collapse of Russian-Armenian relations" at the behest of the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pashinian discussed the worsening rift when they met in Moscow on May 8 after a Eurasian Economic Union summit.

Armenia and France signed agreements on increased cooperation in military supplies last fall, about a month after an Azerbaijani offensive retook its remaining lands around Nagorno-Karabakh from ethnic Armenian forces supported by Yerevan.

In December, the French Senate urged Armenia to accelerate its familiarity with howitzers as quickly as possible.

Siberian Blogger Detained Hours Before Putin Visit

Yakutsk
Yakutsk

Police in Russia's Siberian Republic of Sakha-Yakutia detained local blogger Pyotr Shepelev on June 18, just hours before a visit to the regional capital, Yakutsk, by President Vladimir Putin. It is unclear why the blogger, who is known for raising social and economic issues faced by the remote region, was detained. He was taking the trash from his apartment when security officers took him into custody. Earlier on June 18, Shepelev wrote on Telegram that two people appeared to be surveying his apartment block, suggesting that it was linked to Putin's visit. The president arrived in Yakutsk on June 18 before flying on to North Korea and Vietnam. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Russian Court Sentences Ukrainian Lawmaker Honcharenko In Absentia

Oleksiy Honcharenko
Oleksiy Honcharenko

A military court in Moscow on June 18 sentenced Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksiy Honcharenko in absentia to 10 years in prison. The court found Honcharenko guilty of justifying terrorism, inciting hatred with the threat of violence, and the distribution of false information about Russia's military. It remains unclear what the lawmaker did to warrant the charges. Honcharenko wrote on Telegram in late April that he had learned about the probe launched against him in Russia, adding that "it is a pleasure to be the first [Ukrainian] MP to be tried in the Russian Federation for alleged war crimes" as "not everyone has such an honorable status." To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

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