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Pope Celebrates Mass In Glasgow At Start Of Historic U.K. Tour

Queen Elizabeth II meets with Pope Benedict XVI in a blustery Edinburgh.
Pope Benedict XVI has celebrated an open-air Mass in the Scottish city of Glasgow, attended by tens of thousands of people.

About 65,000 people cheered and waved flags as the pope arrived to organ music and hymns at Bellahouston Park.

"There are some who now seek to exclude religious belief from public discourse, to privatize it, or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty," the pope said. "Yet religion is in fact a guarantee of authentic liberty and respect leading us to look upon every person as a brother or a sister."

The pope said the "evangelization of culture was all the more important in our times."

The pontiff arrived in Edinburgh earlier in the day for the start of a historic four-day visit to the United Kingdom that he hopes will improve relations between Roman Catholics and Anglicans.

The pope was received by Queen Elizabeth II at Edinburgh's Holyrood Palace as a welcoming parade marched through the city.

"In recent times you have said that religions can never become vehicles of hatred, that never by invoking the name of God can evil and violence be justified," said the monarch. "Today, in this country, we stand united in that conviction. We hold that freedom to worship is at the core of our tolerant and democratic society."

In thanking the queen for the official invitation, the pope extended his own greetings to all the people of the United Kingdom, saying that he was holding out "the hand of friendship to each one."

"The Christian message has been an integral part of the language, thought, and culture of the people of this island for more than 1,000 years," said the pontiff. "Your forefathers' respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity, come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike."

Sex-Abuse Scandals

But the pope's visit is being overshadowed by sex-abuse scandals that have shaken confidence in the church and by protests against the pope's policies against homosexuality, abortion, and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.

Critics also are attacking the estimated $18 million cost to British taxpayers for the pope's visit, not including security -- at a time when Britain faces deep budget cuts.

Pope Benedict XVI addresses a crowd in the gardens at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.
Fresh controversy erupted overnight when Cardinal Walter Kasper -- the pope's senior adviser on the Vatican's relations with Britain -- resigned after telling a German news magazine that multiculturalism made the United Kingdom like a "Third World Country" with a "new and aggressive atheism."

Pope Benedict referred to that controversy in his first speech today -- urging Britain to maintain its respect for religious traditions and warning against "aggressive forms of secularism."

"Today's United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate," he said. "Let it not obscure the Christian foundations that underpin its freedoms."

The pontiff's four-day trip is the first official state visit to Britain ever by a pope -- and only the second papal visit since King Henry VIII established the Church of England in 1534 over of the Vatican's refusal to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

As a state visit, pope's itinerary comes with full ceremonial trappings that include a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II in Edinburgh, a speech at the 11th-century Westminster Hall, and a celebration of Evening Prayer at Westminster Abbey with the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams -- the spiritual leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans.

Monsignor Paul Watson, the director of a Catholic theology and education center near Birmingham called the Maryvale Institute, told RFE/RL that the pope's visit has important legal implications for relations between Britain and the Vatican.

"I suppose most Catholics don't think of it as a first [papal] visit, because we had the visit [in 1982] of John Paul II -- which was a pastoral visit rather than a state visit," Watson explained. "Nevertheless, I think Catholics are very excited by the forthcoming visit. As a state visit, of course, it represents the acknowledgement by our own country of the 'state' status, as it were, of the Vatican."

Birmingham Centerpiece

On September 19, the pope travels to Birmingham where he is to beatify the 19th century Cardinal John Henry Newman.

Watson considers the open-air beatification Mass in Birmingham's Cofton Park to be the centerpiece of the pope's visit.

"John Henry Newman, who was formerly an Anglican clergyman, in 1846 became a Roman Catholic," Watson said. "Actually, when he first became a Catholic, he lived in the very institute or building in which I work here in Birmingham. It was from here at Maryvale -- a name that Newman actually gave to this site -- that Newman founded the Birmingham Oratory and eventually moved from here into Birmingham. So it is exciting for us to have a saint here in Birmingham -- and particularly for us here at Maryvale."

Pope Benedict XVI presides over a Mass in Glasgow's Bellahouston Park.
Watson noted that the pope's visit also comes amid years of growth for the number of Catholics in Britain -- a result more from the immigration of Catholics than conversions within the U.K.

"It's certainly the case that the number of Catholic immigrants has increased the Catholic population in England," he told RFE/RL. "I suppose, at the same time, England -- like a number of other western European countries -- is experiencing a loss of practice among Catholics of their faith."

"Perhaps that has been somewhat reduced by the fact of the immigration of Catholics -- especially those from Poland," Watson said. "In one sense, it's a kind of a balancing effect. There has been a reduction of practice nationally but then there is a bit of an increase because of immigration."

Roman Catholic and Anglican leaders plan to highlight similarities between their churches after a year of heightened tensions.

In November, the pope introduced a new method to quickly bring into the Catholic Church disgruntled former Anglicans who oppose the likely ordination of women bishops in the United Kingdom.

Sex-Abuse Cloud

The archbishop of Canterbury contributed to tensions by saying publicly that the Catholic Church in Ireland was "losing all credibility" over child abuse scandals involving clergy. He later retracted those remarks.

But the church's credibility also has been damaged by a series of other child abuse scandals -- from covered-up sex-abuse cases in Boston to a report in Belgium this week revealing hundreds of victims' accounts of molestation by priests and laymen that led to at least 13 suicides.

The pontiff told journalists aboard his plane today as he traveled to Scotland that the revelations were "a shock" and "a great sadness," adding that he found it "difficult to understand how this perversion of the priestly ministry was possible."

"It is also a great sadness that the authorities of the church were not sufficiently vigilant and insufficiently quick and decisive in taking the necessary measures," he said.

Victims of child abuse by Catholic clergy and laymen have been protesting against Pope Benedict's visit. Some were particularly incensed by reports that the pope would meet privately with 10 abuse victims.

Sue Cox says the church took away her childhood 50 years ago when she was molested by a Catholic priest at the age of 10 and raped by the same priest three years later. The priest she accuses has since died. But his order -- the Sacred Heart Fathers -- recently paid her 25,000 pounds as an out-of-court compensation settlement to avoid litigation.

Now, Cox rejects the idea of meeting with Pope Benedict unless the pontiff is ready to hand over to secular authorities all information the Vatican holds on misbehaving priests.

"Why on Earth would abuse victims want to be part of this [public relations] stunt?" Cox asked. "I've no desire to meet [the pope], either in public or in private, unless he's got something to say. Saying 'sorry' is easy. It is offensive and it is inadequate. What he needs to do is make amends."

Chris Daly, a 45-year-old from Glasgow who says he was a victim of physical abuse by nuns during the 1970s, is calling on the pope to publicly acknowledge abuse by clergy.

Daly told a press conference on September 15 that many Catholics in Scotland who attend church are appalled at stories of abuse that have recently emerged and think the way the Catholic Church has dealt with the scandals has been terrible for victims.

"Instead of the church and the pope saying, 'We understand your pain. We understand your suffering and your anger,' the church is on the defensive," Daly said. "It's about the image of the church. It's not about survivors. It's not about compassion. It's not about care. It's not a Christ-like love coming from the church. We, the survivors, are seen as enemies of the church."

Daly also said he thinks attitudes toward the pope's visit this week are dramatically different than when Pope John Paul II arrived in Scotland in 1982. Daly said more victims of physical and sexual abuse are now are willing to speak out.

Watson told RFE/RL the abuse scandals have "rocked the church and shocked everybody -- creating a lot of difficulties and sadness" that he hopes the pope can help set right.

"It's an important moment in the church's life," Watson said. "In some ways, it is a difficult time -- with the various scandals, which obviously has an impact on the faith of all members of the church. I think we are looking to the visit as an opportunity for encouragement. At this moment of time in history, as it were, we need a bit of renewed confidence -- and renewed enthusiasm and energy. So we are looking forward to it as a time of grace and blessing."

with additional wire reporting

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Opposition Figure Musavi Calls For 'Free' Referendum In Iran, Drafting Of New Constitution

A photo of Mir Hossein Musavi and Zahra Rahnavard emerged on social media in 2019.

Iranian opposition figure Mir Hossein Musavi has called for a "free" referendum in Iran and the drafting of a new constitution. Musavi who has been under house arrest since 2011, made the call in a statement released on February 4 in which he said Iranians want fundamental change based on the slogan "Woman, life, freedom," which many have been chanting during recent antiestablishment protests. Musavi said the the three words are "the seeds of a bright future free of oppression, poverty, humiliation, and discrimination." Musavi, his wife, university professor Zahra Rahnavard, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi were put under house arrest in February 2011 for challenging Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the disputed 2009 presidential vote and criticizing human rights abuses. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.

Venezuela's Maduro, Iranian Diplomat Discuss Defense Against 'External Pressures'

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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the visiting Iranian foreign minister have discussed the need for "vigilance in defending their national interests against external pressures," according to a statement released on February 4. The Caracas visit by Foreign Minister Ossein Amir-Abdollahian underlined the strength of an alliance between two countries seen as outcasts by much of the international community, both of them subject to U.S. sanctions. Maduro received Abdollahian on the evening of February 3 in the Miraflores presidential palace after the Iranian minister arrived from Managua, Nicaragua. "I am sure that our relations will continue to strengthen for technological, industrial, scientific, and cultural exchanges that benefit both peoples," Maduro wrote on Twitter, calling the meeting "productive."

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WHO Report On Ukraine Health Emergency Sparks U.S.-Russia Dispute

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U.S. Weighs Sanctions For Chinese Companies Over Iran Surveillance Buildup

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Three Bulgarians Detained At Border With North Macedonia

A ceremony attended by state officials was conducted under strong police presence at Delchev's grave at the Church of Holy Salvation in Skopje on February 4.

North Macedonia's Interior Ministry has said that three Bulgarian citizens were detained on February 4 at the Deve Bair border crossing with Bulgaria for disturbing public order.

A group of Bulgarian citizens were waiting to enter North Macedonia on February 4 to pay their respects at the tomb of revolutionary Goce Delchev on the occasion of the 151st anniversary of his birth.

Delchev is claimed by both Skopje and Sofia as a hero in the fight for the liberation from the Ottoman Empire.

The ministry announced on February 4 that the three were detained for disturbing public order and peace.

The three Bulgarians, identified only as G.Z. (35), A.H. (50), and R.H. (54), "first behaved verbally impudently and inappropriately using most derogatory words and then tried to physically attack the police officers who took legal action, detaining the three while work is being done to completely clear up the case," the Interior Ministry said.

The ministry said that all border crossings between the two Balkan neighbors were forced to close for several hours because of a fault in the border-control system. Border traffic resumed after the fault was fixed, it said.

Earlier this week, the interior ministers of North Macedonia and Bulgaria met to discuss tensions between their two countries and measures aimed at preventing violence during Delchev's upcoming celebration.

Oliver Spasovski, interior minister of North Macedonia, and his Bulgarian counterpart, Ivan Demerdziev, met on January 30 in Skopje to reduce tensions between the two countries, vowing that "no incident" will be tolerated during the Fberuary 4 celebration in Skopje.

The announcement that a larger number of Bulgarian citizens will attend the celebration of the Delchev’s birth caused further concern.

A ceremony attended by state officials was conducted under strong police presence at Delchev's grave at the Church of Holy Salvation in Skopje on February 4.

Bilateral tensions were heightened earlier this month after the beating in Ohrid of Hristijan Pendikov, a man who identifies as Bulgarian and is an employee of one of the Bulgarian cultural clubs in North Macedonia that some Macedonians regard as provocative.

Following the incident, Bulgaria recalled its ambassador to Skopje.

Demerdziev said on January 30 that he and Spasovski reached an understanding that such incidents should not be allowed in the Republic of North Macedonia and he was assured that the case will be investigated fully and objectively.

Relations between the two neighbors have long been strained by deep cultural, historical, and linguistic differences that spilled into the open three years ago when Sofia invoked its veto power to stall North Macedonia's negotiations to join the European Union.

Sofia finally agreed to withdraw the veto last year.

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Ukraine, Russia Exchange Prisoners; Kyiv Recovers Bodies Of Foreign Humanitarian Volunteers

Ukraine's Andriy Yermak posted images of the prisoner exchange on February 4.

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The Russian Ministry of Defense reported the return of its 63 Russian soldiers in a statement on its Telegram channel. The statement said that among those released were persons belonging to a "sensitive category," without elaborating.

It added that the exchange was facilitated "thanks to the mediation of the leadership of the United Arab Emirates."

Ukrainian authorities, meanwhile, reported that 116 prisoners had returned home.

Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine's presidential office, wrote on Telegram that among them were "defenders of Mariupol, Kherson partisans, snipers from the Bakhmut area."

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Parry and Bagshaw, two volunteers who were helping with the evacuation of civilians and delivering humanitarian aid, were reported missing on January 7 in Donetsk.

They had last been seen the previous day on their way from Kramatorsk to Soledar, where heavy fighting had been under way between Ukrainian defenders and Russian forces.

Ukrainians Hold Memorial Service For Slain Foreign Aid Workers
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Soon after, the family of one of the two volunteers said that the men were killed during an attempt to carry out a humanitarian evacuation.

Yermak also published a short video purporting to show released Ukrainian prisoners traveling by bus and two photos of men holding Ukrainian flags in front of a bus.

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U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland (file photo)

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Zelenskiy Says Situation In Eastern Ukraine Getting More Difficult As Odesa Battles To Restore Power

Ukrainian soldier fire a mortar on the front line in Bakhmut.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned on February 4 that Russia was throwing more and more forces into battle and that the situation on the front lines in the eastern parts of the country was getting more severe.

"The occupier is throwing more and more of his forces into breaking down our defenses," Zelenskiy said in his nighty video address, adding that the situation was "very difficult" in Bakhmut, Vuhledar, Lyman, and other areas.

His warning came as Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko said that power had been restored to critical infrastructure in the southern port city of Odesa following an accident at a substation.

"Power to all critical infrastructure has been restored. The city will therefore have water and heat," Halushchenko said on Facebook.

"About one-third of the city's consumers now have lighting," he said, without offering more details.

Earlier, regional Governor Maksym Marchenko said a "serious" accident at a high-voltage substation had left a half-million households without power in Odesa, confirming earlier reports about an accident at a facility that was previously targeted in Russian strikes.

"A serious accident occurred at one of the energy facilities, which caused a fire," he said, adding that emergency measures were being taken.

Earlier, an air-raid alert for the whole of Ukraine was canceled without any reports of Russian shelling as Ukrainian defenders faced renewed attacks by Moscow's troops in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk over the past 24 hours.

The alert, which lasted for about two hours in the morning, was the third in two days. No massive Russian strikes on civilian and infrastructure targets were reported on February 3 either.

Amid warnings that a massive Russian offensive is in the making as Moscow's unprovoked invasion nears the one-year mark, the military said fighting had intensified in the Donbas.

"The enemy continues offensive operations in the Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Novopavlivka areas [of Donetsk], suffering heavy losses," Ukraine's General Staff said in its report.

Battles have been raging for months for the city of Bakhmut, where waves of Russian attackers are piling increasing pressure on the Ukrainian forces.

Witnesses have told RFE/RL that street fighting is under way in Bakhmut, with building-by-building combat on the outskirts of the city.

Zelenskiy said on February 3 that Ukrainian forces will continue their fight to hold on to Bakhmut. "Nobody will give away Bakhmut. We will fight for as long as we can. We consider Bakhmut our fortress," he said.

Zelenskiy's comments come after U.S. media reports saying the United States had advised Ukraine to withdraw from Bakhmut. U.S. officials quoted by Bloomberg said this would allow Kyiv to gather forces for a spring offensive.

The General Staff said on February 4 that the Ukrainian military also repelled Russian attacks in the Grekivka, Nevske, Kreminna, and Dibrova settlements in the Luhansk region.

Russian forces carried out 20 air strikes and three missile strikes, the military said, targeting civilian infrastructure of the Kharkiv and Mykolayiv regions, causing civilian casualties.

Zelenskiy said Ukrainian forces "have a chance" of beating back a looming Russian offensive if supplied with the right Western weapons.

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

"If weapon [supplies] are accelerated, specifically long-range weapons, not only will we not abandon Bakhmut but we will also begin to remove the [Russian] occupiers from the Donbas," he said.

Zelenskiy said European sanctions should aim to ensure Russia cannot rebuild its military capability.

On February 4, Zelenskiy said he discussed the "further expansion of capabilities" of Ukraine's military in a call with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Zelenskiy said he also thanked Sunak for the start of training of Ukrainian crews on Challenger 2 tanks.

"The prime minister said he was focused on ensuring the U.K.'s defensive military equipment reached the front line as quickly as possible," Sunak's office said in a readout of the call.

"Both leaders agreed that it was vital that international partners accelerated their assistance to Ukraine to help seize the opportunity to push Russian forces back," it added.

The United States on February 3 announced a fresh $2.2 billion package of military aid for Ukraine that will include rockets with a range twice the distance of the rockets Ukraine now has.

The Ground-Launched Small-Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) is included in the package announced by the Pentagon.

GLSDBs have a range roughly double that of the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) already supplied.

Kyiv is requesting more powerful modern weapons, including F-16 fighter jets, even after securing pledges from its Western allies to send tanks as its forces brace for an expected new Russian onslaught in the east.

Meanwhile, Portugal will send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said on February 4, without specifying how many will be shipped.

Costa added that Portugal is in talks with Germany to obtain parts needed for the repair of a number of inoperable Leopard tanks in Portugal's inventory.

"I know how many tanks will be (sent to Ukraine) but that will be announced at the appropriate time," Costa told the Lusa news agency during a trip to the Central African Republic.

The EU announced on February 3 that it is ramping up its military training mission for Ukraine, raising it from an initial target of 15,000 troops to up to 30,000.

With reporting by Reuters. dpa, and AFP

EU Agrees On Price Caps On Russian Refined Oil Products

Ambassadors for the 27 EU countries agreed on the European Commission proposal, which will apply from February 5. (file photo)

European Union countries agreed to set price caps on Russian refined oil products to limit Moscow's funds for its invasion of Ukraine, the EU said on February 3. EU diplomats said the price caps are $100 per barrel on products that trade at a premium to crude, principally diesel, and $45 per barrel for products that trade at a discount, such as fuel oil. Ambassadors for the 27 EU countries agreed on the European Commission proposal, which will apply from February 5. The price caps follow a $60 per barrel cap on Russian crude that the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations imposed on December 5. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

New U.S. Aid Package For Ukraine Includes Rockets With Longer Striking Range

U.S. Brigadier General Patrick Ryder (file photo)

A new package of U.S. military aid for Ukraine announced on February 3 includes rockets with a range twice the distance of the rockets Kyiv now has. The Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) is included in a $2.2 billion U.S. military aid package announced by the Pentagon. GLSDBs has a range roughly double that of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) already supplied. As part of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI), the United States “will be providing a Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb to Ukraine," Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told a news briefing at the Pentagon. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.

U.S. Targets Executives Of Iranian Drone Maker In Latest Sanctions Designation

Ali Reza Tangsiri, the IRGC's naval commander is among those sanctioned. (file photo)

The United States has imposed new sanctions on a previously designated Iranian drone maker, Paravar Pars, this time targeting the board of directors.

The U.S. Treasury Department said on February 3 that its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) had designated eight senior executives of Paravar Pars.

The drone maker was previously blacklisted by OFAC for making Shahed-series unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Treasury Department said in a news release.

"Iranian entities continue to produce UAVs for Iran's IRGC and military. More broadly, Iran is supplying UAVs for Russia's combat operations to target critical infrastructure in Ukraine," said Brian Nelson, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

“The United States will continue to aggressively target all elements of Iran’s UAV program,” added Nelson, who is the U.S. Treasury's top sanctions official, in the statement.

Among the eight individuals blacklisted are Paravar Pars’ managing director and CEO, Hossein Shamsabadi, and the company’s chairman, Ali Reza Tangsiri, who is also the commander of the IRGC Navy. Tangsiri, who the Treasury Department said has overseen the testing of UAVs and cruise missiles, was previously designated for U.S. sanctions in 2019.

The sanctions freeze any property held in U.S. jurisdictions by the eight individuals. People in the United States who engage in transactions with the individuals designated may themselves be exposed to sanctions, the Treasury Department said.

The department earlier his week put new trade restrictions on seven Iranian entities for producing drones that the Treasury Department said Russia has used to attack Ukraine.

In response, Iran's mission to the United Nations in New York said sanctions have no effect on Iran's drone production capacity because its drones are all produced domestically.

“This is a strong indication that the drones shot down in Ukraine and using parts made by Western countries don't belong to Iran," it said, according to Reuters.

Since Russia launched its war against Ukraine in February 2022, the United States and more than 30 other countries have sought to degrade Russia’s military and defense industrial base by restricting its access to defense needs.

With reporting by Reuters

Iranian Film Director Panahi 'Temporarily ' Released From Prison, Wife Says

Award-winning Iranian film director Jafar Panahi (file photo)

Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been temporarily released from prison days after going on a hunger strike to protest “the illegal and inhumane behavior" of Iran's judiciary and security apparatus, which have led a brutal and sometimes deadly crackdown on unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.

"Today, on the third day of Jafar Panahi's hunger strike; Mr. Panahi was temporarily released from Evin prison with the efforts of his family, respected lawyers, and representatives of the cinema," a statement on Panahi's wife's Instagram page said on February 3.

The post added that further details would follow from Panahi's legal team.

She gave no further details, but a photo of the couple in a car was attached to the post.

The U.S.-based US-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) also said on Twitter that Panahi had been released.

Panahi, 62, was arrested in July as the authorities cracked down on dissent in response to growing antiestablishment sentiment and near-daily protests over living conditions and graft across the Islamic republic.

Just days prior to his arrest, Panahi had joined a group of more than 300 Iranian filmmakers in publishing an open letter calling on the security forces to "lay down arms" in the face of public outrage over "corruption, theft, inefficiency, and repression" following the violent crackdown against those protesting a building collapse in May in the southwestern city of Abadan, which killed 41 people.

Those protests were overtaken by a wave of unrest following the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.

Since the start of daily protests that have rocked Iran since Amini's death, several Iranian filmmakers and prominent public figures have been summoned or arrested by the authorities, including the popular actress Taraneh Alidoosti.

Several high-profile actresses have taken pictures without a head scarf in defiant support of the protesters, whose demonstrations pose one of the biggest threats to the Islamic leadership since the revolution in 1979.

Panahi was awarded the Special Jury prize at the Venice International Film Festival in September for his latest film, released while he was in prison, No Bears.

The filmmaker has won a number of international awards for films critiquing modern Iran, including the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival for Taxi in 2015 and best screenplay at Cannes for his film Three Faces in 2018.

Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups.

Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

Ukraine's Security Service Exposes 'Large-Scale' Embezzlement Scheme

Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) said the Ukrainian Defense Ministry had lost more than $3 million as a result of the fraud.

Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) says it has uncovered a large-scale embezzlement scheme to siphon off public funds earmarked for the purchase of food for the military as it battles to repel Moscow's nearly yearlong invasion.

The SBU said in a statement posted on Telegram on February 3 that as a result of the fraud, the Defense Ministry incurred losses of more than 119.5 million hryvnyas ($3.24 million).

The findings are part of a scandal that broke on January 22 when allegations surfaced in local media that the ministry was overpaying suppliers for food for troops. The supplier has said a technical mistake was to blame and no extra money had actually changed hands. The ministry said the accusations were baseless.

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Eradicating endemic corruption is one of the chief requirements presented by the European Union to Kyiv as Ukraine is pressing Brussels to speed up its accession into the 27-member bloc even as it is fighting Russian troops that invaded on February 24 last year.

On the eve of a meeting between EU leaders and Ukrainian officials on February 3, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pledged "new steps" to continue "our fight against the internal enemy," a reference to the battle against graft. He did not give any details.

The SBU said in its statement explaining the scheme that officials from one ministry department made agreements with the heads of two commercial enterprises regarding the wholesale supply of food to locations where the military is deployed.

Funds from the ministry's budget were then transferred to the accounts of firms that "lacked a production base and technological equipment" to provide the relevant services.

"Instead of supplying the armed forces with the agreed quantities of food products, the participants in the fraudulent mechanism diverted the funds through a number of affiliated shadow companies," the statement said.

The SBU added that, based on evidence found, two heads of companies involved in the fraudulent scheme were notified of being suspected of "[illegal] appropriation, waste of property, or possession of [such property] through abuse of an official position."

It noted that SBU agents are still conducting an investigation to establish the involvement of Defense Ministry officials in any illegal activities.

"In addition, SBU officers exposed the commander of a military unit in the Kyiv region who embezzled almost 2.4 million hryvnyas ($68,000) allocated for military personnel's food," the statement said, adding that the commander had as accomplices four of his subordinates and businessmen who concealed the "kickbacks" through falsified documentation.

No names were given in the statement, which comes after a number of senior Ukrainian officials resigned or were fired beginning on January 24 as Zelenskiy vowed to eradicate corruption from his administration amid a high-profile graft scandal.

Ukraine Unveils Criminal Case Against Russia's Wagner Boss

Yevgeny Prigozhin attends the funeral outside St. Petersburg in December of Dmitry Menshikov, a prisoner who died fighting with Wagner in the war in Ukraine.

Ukraine has unveiled a criminal case against the boss of Russia's Wagner mercenary company and promised to track down and prosecute the company's fighters who try to flee abroad. Wagner, run by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, has recruited thousands of fighters, including convicts from Russian prisons, to wage war in Ukraine. "The Prosecutor-General's Office has served a notice of suspicion to the head of the private military company Wagner," Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin said in a statement on Facebook that did not identify Prigozhin by name. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Iranian Protesters Burn Government Propaganda Banners

A protester sets fire to a government banner in Isfahan.

Protesters in several Iranian cities, including the capital, Tehran, have set fire to government banners commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in a continued show of defiance amid unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.

Protesters in Tehran's Ekbatan neighborhood showed the depth of their anger toward the government's intrusion on their freedoms with chants from windows and rooftops of "Death to the dictator," a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Similar scenes were repeated in other neighborhoods of Tehran, as well as in other areas of the country.

Several videos published on social networks showed people setting fire to the government's propaganda banners for the 44th anniversary of the revolution that brought Iran's clerical rulers to power. The anniversary falls on February 11.

The unrest was 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 met 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

Germany Confirms Approval Of Leopard 1 Tank Deliveries To Ukraine

Dozens of German-made Leopard 1 tanks are seen in a hangar in Tournais, Belgium.

Germany has approved the export of Leopard 1 battle tanks to Ukraine from industry stocks, a government spokesperson said on February 3 at a regular news conference in Berlin. The spokesperson declined to comment on the number of tanks that would be exported. The Leopard 1s are not as advanced as Leopard 2s that Germany and other countries pledged last week, but could be delivered sooner. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Emaciated Iranian Activist Meysami Vows To Continue Hunger Strike

Farhad Meysami has been in prison since August 2018.

Farhad Meysami has vowed to continue his hunger strike until Iranian authorities stop executing protesters, release six political prisoners, and stop their harassment of women over the compulsory hijab rule despite photos on social media showing him in an emaciated condition amid growing fears over his state of health.

"I still stand by my three demands," Meysami, a doctor, said in a letter published on February 2 along with the photos that show him looking frail and sickly.

Meysami has been in prison since August 2018 after being sentenced to six years for supporting women protesting against the hijab law that forces them to cover their hair and bodies in public.

He was charged with "spreading propaganda against the system" and "gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security," as well as for "insulting Islamic sanctities," because the authorities said he denigrated the hijab.

Lawyer Mohammad Moghimi has warned that Meysami’s condition is worsening and that his life is in danger.

Last month, Moghimi said Meysami's weight had dropped to 52 kilograms and that he had been beaten by guards due to his resistance to being transferred to the criminal-prisoners ward.

Many on social media, including Reza Pahlavi, the exiled former crown prince of Iran and an opposition leader, have supported Meysami and demanded his release.

On Twitter on February 3, Pahlavi said that the thin body of Meysami, "is another symbol of the boundless cruelty of the Islamic regime."

Prominent Iranian oppositionist Hamed Esmaeilion said he holds the government responsible for Meysami's condition.

Meysami has held several hunger strikes during his incarceration and in most, his demands are related to social conditions in Iran and other activists and prisoners.

In May, Meysami went on a hunger strike to protest the possible execution of Ahmadreza Djalali, a Brussels university professor with dual Iranian-Swedish citizenship. He ended the hunger strike after 145 days.

He reportedly went on a hunger strike in August 2018 to protest the charges he faced and also the lack of access to a lawyer of his choosing. He reportedly was being held at the time in a medical clinic at Evin prison, where he was force-fed intravenously.

The news comes as Iran finds itself engulfed in 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.

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

NATO Calls On Russia To Fulfill Obligations Under Nuclear Arms-Reduction Treaty

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (file photo)

NATO called on Russia to fulfill its obligations under the nuclear reductions treaty START, it said in a statement on February 3. "We note with concern that Russia has failed to comply with legally-binding obligations, including on inspection and call on Russia to fulfill its obligations under the Treaty," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Pakistan 'Will Have To Agree' To IMF Conditions For Bailout, PM Says

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif (file photo)

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said on February 3 the government would have to agree to International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout conditions that are "beyond imagination." An IMF delegation landed in Pakistan on January 31 for last-ditch talks to revive vital financial aid that has stalled for months. Pakistan's economy is in dire straits, stricken by a balance-of-payments crisis as it attempts to service high levels of external debt, amid political chaos and deteriorating security.

CPJ Condemns Kyrgyz Threat To Block Media Outlet Kloop's Websites Over Article

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has condemned a warning by Kyrgyz authorities that threatens to block the websites of investigative journalist outlet Kloop if it does not take down an article over the controversy surrounding the cost of reconstructing public facilities destroyed in border clashes with Tajikistan last year.

"Kyrgyzstan authorities' attempt to censor Kloop, one of the country's most respected news outlets, once again shows the absurdity and arbitrariness of its false information law, which should never have been enacted," said Gulnoza Said, the CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator.

While Kyrgyzstan is known for having a vibrant and pluralistic media environment compared to its Central Asian neighbors, human rights groups have warned that the climate for free expression has deteriorated since President Sadyr Japarov first came to power in October 2020, especially with the approval of the Law on Protection from False Information, adopted in August 2021.

In late October, Kyrgyz authorities blocked the local-language websites of RFE/RL, known as Radio Azattyk, after it refused to take down a video about deadly clashes along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

In the case of Kloop, the Ministry Of Culture, Information, Sports, and Youth Policies objected to part of a January 20 report regarding allegations that the state Community Development and Investment Agency (ARIS) had inflated its construction costs.

On January 25, Kloop reported that ARIS denied the allegations, but the ministry sent a letter dated February 1 that demanded Kloop "immediately" remove or amend the January 25 article, as ARIS objected to the summary of its denial, the article's headline, and the mention of a government official who accused the agency of inflating its costs.

Failure to obey the demand would result in Kloop's websites being blocked for at least two months under the false-information law.

Kloop has denied the article contains any false information and has refused to take it down.

"Authorities should withdraw their threat to block Kloop's website, repeal the false information law, and cease their escalating repression of the independent press," the CPJ's Said added.

In the case of RFE/RL, the video in question was produced by Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America.

Kyrgyz officials have claimed that the authors of the video "predominantly" took the position of the Tajik side.

In response, RFE/RL President and Chief Executive Officer Jamie Fly said that the broadcaster "takes our commitment to balanced reporting seriously" and that after a review of the content in question, "no violation of our standards" was found.

Days after the blocking of the RFE/RL local websites, the government froze Radio Azattyk's bank account in Bishkek. Kyrgyz authorities have also suspended the accreditation of 11 RFE/RL correspondents at parliament.

RFE/RL has said it is "will pursue all available legal means to preserve our operations in the country."

Dozens of media organizations, domestic and international rights groups, Kyrgyz politicians, and lawmakers have urged the government to unblock Radio Azattyk's websites.

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