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France's Kouchner Cites Threat From Senior Iran Clerics

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (file photo)
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (file photo)
PARIS (Reuters) -- High-ranking clerics are undermining Iran's government from within, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has said.

A huge majority of "very high-ranking Shi'ites" disagreed with the government and contested its religious values, he said.

Iranian authorities have been unable to stop a protest movement, set off by the disputed June re-election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, despite intensifying their crackdown after eight people were killed during protests on Dec. 27.

"We can all see that the regime is under threat from people who are very determined, Iranians, some of them very religious, from the Shi'ite hierarchy," Kouchner said on RTL radio.

"Yes, the regime is under threat from internal opposition and I don't know what it could lead to," he said.

Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi said on January 1 that his country was in serious crisis and called for reforms, saying he was ready to die for the protest movement.

Asked whether he hoped the Iranian government would be overthrown, Kouchner said, "It's not for me to wish for that or not. For our part, we continue to talk to the Iranians."

France is one of several Western countries at loggerheads with Ahmadinejad's government over Iran's nuclear program.

Kouchner expressed frustration with what he described as Iran's latest "diplomatic pirouette" and said it was "unfortunately not possible" to talk seriously with Tehran about its nuclear development.

Iran rebuffed a Western deadline of December 31, 2009, to accept an enrichment fuel deal aimed at calming international fears it is trying to build nuclear weapons. Iran denies this.

Kouchner noted that the deadline had now expired but did not say what he would do next.

The United States and its allies are weighing focused sanctions against the Iranian leadership rather than broad-based penalties that they fear would harm the protest movement, officials and diplomats say.

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Imprisoned Kremlin Critic Ilya Yashin Placed In Solitary Confinement

Ilya Yashin
Ilya Yashin

Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who is serving an 8 1/2-year prison term for his criticism of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, has been placed in solitary confinement, just ahead of a scheduled visit by his parents. Yashin said on his Telegram channel on May 22 that the prison administration sent him to solitary for 15 days on May 17 for "a delay in leaving his barracks after a wakeup command in the morning." Yashin says the move was intentional to disrupt his three-day stay with his parents on the penitentiary's premises. The visit was scheduled for May 20. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Ukraine Repels Fresh Wave Of Russian Drone Strikes

Ukrainian soldiers patrol an area heavily damaged by Russian military strikes in the town of Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhya region on May 20.
Ukrainian soldiers patrol an area heavily damaged by Russian military strikes in the town of Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhya region on May 20.

Ukrainian air defenses shot down all 24 drones launched by Russia at targets on Ukraine's territory early on May 22, Ukraine's Air Force said in a statement. "The drones were destroyed over the Mykolayiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya, Donetsk, Sumy, and Odesa regions," the Air Force command said. Separately, the Sumy city council said power lines and water pipes were damaged by falling drone debris and that the power supply to the city was disrupted. It said work was already under way to restore water and electricity to the city's inhabitants. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service click here.

Crowds Gather In Tehran For Funeral Ceremonies Of Raisi, Others Killed In Helicopter Crash

Mourners attend the funeral for victims of the helicopter crash that killed Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and others, in Tehran on May 22.
Mourners attend the funeral for victims of the helicopter crash that killed Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and others, in Tehran on May 22.

Crowds gathered in Tehran on May 22 to attend funeral ceremonies for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and other officials killed in a helicopter crash on May 19.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who declared a five-day mourning period, presided over the ceremonies, which started at Tehran University in downtown Tehran, where thousands gathered holding portraits of Raisi.

“Oh, Allah, we didn’t see anything but good from him,” Khamenei said about Raisi. Crowds reached out to touch the coffins, with Iran's acting president, First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, standing nearby.

The caskets of Raisi and the other victims of the crash arrived in a procession with an honor guard in Tehran on May 21. They were draped in Iranian flags with pictures of the deceased on them, while on Raisi's coffin a black turban was placed to mark his alleged direct descendance from Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

Besides Iran's top leaders, including the chiefs of the paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, several foreign dignitaries attended, including Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and a delegation from Afghanistan's Taliban rulers led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi.

Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, was also seen in live footage as attending. Iran has armed and supported Hamas during the ongoing war with Israel in Gaza. Sheikh Naim Qassem, the deputy leader of Hizballah, Iran's Lebanese proxy, was also present.

Chants of "Death to Israel!” were reportedly heard from the crowds.

Funeral ceremonies started on May 21 with tens of thousands of mourners in attendance in the city of Tabriz, the capital of Iran's northwestern province of East Azerbaijan where the crash occurred, and the Shi'ite clerical center of Qom.

A presidential election to determine Raisi's successor was announced for June 28. The election is to be organized by a council consisting of the speaker of parliament, the head of the judiciary, and the first vice president.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Baqeri Kani was appointed acting foreign minister, Iranian state media reported.

Communication was lost in poor weather while the helicopter was on its way back to Tabriz after Raisi attended the joint inauguration of a dam with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, on their common border.

WATCH: A woman who lost 11 relatives in executions in 1988 told RFE/RL that she was celebrating Raisi's death. Raisi was accused of being on a "death committee" that ordered mass executions at the time.

As Raisi Funeral Ceremonies Begin, Mother Of Executed Iranians Celebrates
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"The United States expresses its official condolences for the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, and other members of their delegation in a helicopter crash in northwest Iran," the State Department said in a statement. "As Iran selects a new president, we reaffirm our support for the Iranian people and their struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms."

The White House, nevertheless, had harsh words for Raisi.

U.S. national-security spokesman John Kirby told reporters that "no question, this was a man who had a lot of blood on his hands" for supporting extremist groups in the Middle East.

U.S. Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson said Raisi's rule was "barbaric" and marked by "terror, danger, and oppression."

Raisi was elected president in 2021 and had tightened many restrictions on Iranians through the enforcement of morality laws and a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests spurred by the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly violating the Islamic dress code on head scarves.

Thousands of people, including protesters, journalists, lawyers, athletes, and artists have been arrested and at least 500 people have been killed in Iran's brutal crackdown on the protests.

Raisi also pushed hard in nuclear talks with world powers while also allowing the country to markedly increase its uranium enrichment program.

With reporting by AP and AFP

Moldova Becomes First Nation To Sign Security, Defense Pact With EU

Moldovan Prime Minister Dorin Recean (left) shakes hands with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell after a signing ceremony in Brussels on May 21.
Moldovan Prime Minister Dorin Recean (left) shakes hands with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell after a signing ceremony in Brussels on May 21.

Moldova has signed a security and defense partnership with the European Union, the first country to ink such a pact, according to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. "This partnership will strengthen the country's resilience. It will allow for a joint approach to security challenges, make our engagement more effective, and explore new areas of cooperation," Borrell said. Moldova, led by pro-Western President Maia Sandu, has expressed hopes of joining the EU and has strongly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moldova’s Transdniester region, a mainly Russian-speaking sliver of land on the eastern bank of the Dniester River, declared independence in 1990. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Moldovan Service, click here.

Council Of Europe Commission Denounces Georgia's 'Foreign Agent' Law

Salome Kurasbediani, a member of the Georgian Dream party, rejected the Venice Commission's report on May 21.
Salome Kurasbediani, a member of the Georgian Dream party, rejected the Venice Commission's report on May 21.

TBILISI -- The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe said it "strongly recommends" that authorities in Georgia abandon efforts to introduce planned "foreign agent" legislation that has been condemned in the West and led to massive street protests in the South Caucasus nation.

"The Venice Commission strongly recommends repealing the law in its current form, as its fundamental flaws will involve significant negative consequences for the freedoms of association and expression, the right to privacy, the right to participate in public affairs as well as the prohibition of discrimination," its said in its "urgent opinion" published on May 21.

The commission, at the request of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, undertook to assess the Georgia legislation, which critics say is similar to laws used in Russia to silence independent media and civil society groups.

It said it "regrets that the Georgian parliament did not wait for its opinion before adopting the law, despite the calls by the president of the Parliamentary Assembly and by the secretary-general of the Council of Europe."

The ruling Georgian Dream party, which has pushed the legislation through parliament, quickly rejected the commission’s report.

"We find many unsubstantiated and conflicting legal reasonings as well as a number of gross distortions of facts [in the conclusions], which further encourages the radicalization of specific groups," Georgian Dream member Salome Kurasbediani told a briefing.

"Obviously, all this undermines the credibility of the institution and the values it should serve," she said.

The so-called foreign agent legislation -- formally the Law On Transparency Of Foreign Influence -- has been condemned by the United States, the European Union, and rights watchdogs and prompted weeks of protests that were repeatedly cracked down on violently by authorities.

The law would require media and NGOs to register as "pursuing the interests of a foreign power" if they receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad.

Opponents have pointed to similar legislation used by President Vladimir Putin to crush dissent in Russia and stifle independent institutions, prompting Georgians to refer to the measure as "the Russian law" and see it as endangering the country's path toward EU integration.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, who has increasingly feuded with the ruling Georgian Dream party since it endorsed her candidacy in 2018, has vetoed the bill.

However, Georgian Dream's parliamentary majority will allow it to easily override the presidential veto.

Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili said lawmakers, as expected, will override the veto in the upcoming week.

During the crackdown on protesters, dozens of people have been arrested, with many reporting beatings at the hands of security forces or roving bands of thugs.

The government, which claims the law is necessary to ensure transparency in social matters, has denied that demonstrators have been beaten.

An American And A Russian Confront Georgia's Violent Crackdown On Protests
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Bryan Bingham, 53, who says he is a tourist from the United States, told RFE/RL he was detained by security forces at a demonstration on May 13. He claims he was beaten by beaten by police wearing black masks.

"It happened very quickly," he said in an interview conducted three days later. "They pulled me through the police and dropped me on the ground."

"They beat me. And somebody punched my face."

"They quit beating me, but there were some Georgians that quickly arrived and they were being beaten badly," he said.

A pro-government media channel reported that Bingham came to Georgia to create "unrest," a claim he denies.

"How ridiculous," he said. "I came here to go backpacking, to meet some Georgian people."

Director Mohammad Rasoulof, Who Fled Iran, Will Attend Cannes

Film director Mohammad Rasoulof, who fled Iran, is expected to attend the Cannes Film Festival.
Film director Mohammad Rasoulof, who fled Iran, is expected to attend the Cannes Film Festival.

Film director Mohammad Rasoulof, who made a dramatic on-foot escape from Iran, will attend the Cannes Film Festival for the premiere of his new movie, organizers told AFP on May 21. The award-winning director will be on the French Cote d'Azur on May 24 when The Seed Of The Sacred Fig competes for the top prize Palme d'Or, festival director Thierry Fremaux said. An outspoken critic of the Iranian government, Rasoulof served two terms in Iranian jails over previous films and had his passport revoked in 2017. His new film tells the story of a judge's struggles amid political unrest in Tehran. He had come under pressure from the Iranian government to withdraw it from Cannes before the festival opened.

Chechnya's Kadyrov Replaces Sanctioned Prime Minister, Names Relative By Marriage To Post

Muslim Khuchiyev
Muslim Khuchiyev

Ramzan Kadyrov, the authoritarian ruler of Russia's North Caucasus region of Chechnya, on May 21 said the region's prime minister, Muslim Khuchiyev, had resigned to take to another, unspecified job. Kadyrov named Highways Minister Isa Tumkhadzhiyev as acting prime minister. Tumkhadzhiyev is married to a relative of Kadyrov. Last week, close Kadyrov associate Magomed Daudov resigned as speaker of the Chechen parliament after serving in the post for nine years. Both Khuchiyev and Daudov are under U.S. and British sanctions over their alleged roles in mass violations of human rights in Chechnya. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

Russia Begins Drills Of Tactical Nuclear Weapons Near Ukrainian Border

 A Russian Iskander-K missile is launched during a military exercise in Russia. (file photo)
A Russian Iskander-K missile is launched during a military exercise in Russia. (file photo)

Russian has begun the "first stage" of exercises in the Southern Military District to increase the readiness of tactical nuclear forces near the Ukrainian border, the Defense Ministry said on May 21. The ministry said the "exercise is aimed at maintaining the readiness of personnel and equipment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons combat units to respond to and unconditionally ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian state." Plans for the drills were announced on May 6. The West has accused President Vladimir Putin of "saber-rattling" and undertaking a "continuation of Russia's irresponsible behavior." To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Russian Service, click here.

U.S., EU Criticize Kosovo's 'Uncoordinated' Moves In Serb Areas

Residents and police scuffle outside a Serbian-run bank in North Mitrovica on May 21, when Kosovar police closed six such institutions.
Residents and police scuffle outside a Serbian-run bank in North Mitrovica on May 21, when Kosovar police closed six such institutions.

PRISTINA -- EU and U.S. officials have expressed mounting concern at uncoordinated actions by Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti's government that threaten to further raise tensions with ethnic minority Serbs in the north of that Balkan country.

Speaking to reporters in Pristina on May 21, visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Nicole Chulick urged Kosovo to "listen to the advice of its closest partners" as the partly recognized former Serbian province seeks to join Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Chulick said she had expressed concerns in meetings with Kurti and with Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani about a long-promised association of Serbian municipalities for dialogue with Pristina and a recent ban on the use of the Serbian dinar, which has remained in widespread use in four Serbian-dominated areas of northern Kosovo.

Kosovar police a day earlier forcibly closed and cordoned off six branches of Serbian banks operating in the region as a currency lifeline for tens of thousands of Serbs.

Pristina said the operation was aimed at establishing "order and legality."

The State Department had previously said in response to a question from RFE/RL's Balkan Service that the action had not been coordinated with Kosovo's international partners.

"Monday's operation proves again that Kosovo authorities prioritize unilateral and uncoordinated actions rather than cooperation with its friends and allies," EU spokesman Peter Stano said in a May 21 statement.

He said the seizures "without prior notice or coordination" just a few days after the last internationally mediated meeting aimed at establishing functioning Serbia-Kosovo relations "is escalatory and goes against the spirit of normalization and it undermines Kosovo's good faith in achieving normalization of relations."

Serbian and Kosovar officials have met seven times in Brussels in the span of just a few months to break the impasse over the currency ban and its effect on financial assistance from Serbia to Kosovar Serbs who make up a majority in 10 of Kosovo's 38 municipalities.

Many Kosovar Serbs don't recognize Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia and continue to receive social and other payments from Belgrade and conduct cash transactions in dinars.

Kosovo's Central Bank imposed a strict prohibition in February against use of the dinar outside of designated financial institutions, sparking an immediate outcry from Serbs and Belgrade and compounding EU and U.S. frustrations at unilateral moves by Pristina that could further destabilize a fractious region.

Pristina regards as illegal the parallel structures that Serbia encourages in health care, education, and other aspects of life in northern Kosovo.

"Knowing also the responsibilities that the Central Bank of Kosovo has, we have constantly expressed our concerns about the manner of implementation [of the dinar ban]," Chulick said at her Pristina press conference. "We have not felt that it has taken into consideration how it will affect the communities, especially the Serbian community. So, we are observing the situation and we are concerned."

A previous Kosovar government pledged as early as 2013 to establish an Association of Serb Majority Municipalities.

"Kosovo must continue to work on these issues, address them, and move forward again," Chulick said.

The EU spokesman echoed the U.S. linkage between progress in talks and the establishment of an entity to represent minority Serbs in Kosovo.

"The status of all Serbia-supported structures and services is foreseen to be resolved in the EU-facilitated Dialogue, in connection with the establishment of the Association/Community of Serb-Majority municipalities," Stano said.

Kosovar police said the operation followed reports from financial monitors including the central bank, and included Kosovar tax authorities.

The United States and the European Union have repeatedly expressed frustration with actions by Kurti's government, including the forcible seating of ethnic Albanian mayors in four majority-Serbian municipalities after boycotted elections in the north last year that sparked violent protests, injuring dozens of NATO KFOR peacekeepers.

KFOR vehicles were visible in areas where the Kosovar police were raiding the Serbian banks.

But KFOR said on May 21 that its personnel "were not involved in the conduct of these operations."

Ex-Russian Army Commander Who Once Criticized Top Brass Arrested On Fraud Charges

Ivan Popov
Ivan Popov

The former commander of Russia’s 58th Army -- who had once complained about his forces' lack of support from Moscow -- has been arrested on fraud charges, state-run TASS news agency reported.

TASS, citing unidentified law enforcement officials, on May 21 said a military court had ordered that Major General Ivan Popov be detained for two months amid ongoing actions against current and former military leaders.

Interfax quoted Popov’s lawyer, Sergei Buinovsky, as saying the general has claimed his innocence and has appealed against the detention.

Popov was fired as commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army in Ukraine's occupied Zaporizhzhya region in July after complaining to top officials that his forces were not receiving the proper weapons and reconnaissance systems and that they were not being sufficiently rotated.

The Dva Mayora and Grey Zone Telegram channels reported that the case against Popov is linked to the alleged embezzlement of 100 million rubles ($1.1 million) allocated for military needs in parts of the Zaporizhzhya region.

The reports about Popov's arrest come less than a week after investigators arrested Lieutenant General Yury Kuznetsov, who headed the personnel directorate of Russia's Defense Ministry, in an alleged corruption case.

Kuznetsov’s arrest on May 14 came just two days after President Vladimir Putin relieved his close ally Sergei Shoigu of his duties as defense minister.

In late April, police detained Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov on bribe-taking charges and a court later sent him to pretrial detention for at least two months.

Putin replaced Shoigu with former First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov, 65, a politician who specializes in economic matters. The move is seen as part of a strategy to make the armed forces more streamlined with Russia's invasion of Ukraine now in its third year.

On May 20, Putin appointed Oleg Savelyev, the former minister on Crimean affairs, to the post of deputy defense minister.

The 58-year-old Savelyev also served as deputy minister for economic development and as the auditor at the Audit Chamber, a parliamentary group that serves as a financial watchdog.

With reporting by Reuters
Updated

EU Approves Use Of Frozen Russian Assets For Ukraine As Zelenskiy Claims 'Tangible' Results

(file photo)
(file photo)

The European Union has given official approval for the use of proceeds from frozen assets of the Russian central bank to beef up the defense of Ukraine, the European Council announced on May 21, a move that could see as much as 3 billion euros ($3.23 billion) diverted to Kyiv's military this year.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The news comes as Ukraine continues to urge its Western allies to ramp up and accelerate military aid for its troops , who are struggling to stave off an offensive in the east by the much more numerous and better armed Russian forces.

It also comes as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on May 21 insisted that Ukrainian troops in the Kharkiv region were fighting back with “tangible” results against Russian forces amid reports of fierce battles and territorial setbacks in the northeast.

"In the Kharkiv region, our forces are destroying the occupier, the results are tangible," Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address while acknowledging that the situation in some areas was "extremely difficult at the moment."

Battlefield claims could not immediately be verified.

The EU decision was announced in Brussels by the Belgian government, which currently holds the 27-member bloc's rotating presidency.

"The European Council has confirmed its agreement to use windfall profits from Russia’s immobilized assets to support #Ukraine’s military self-defense and reconstruction in the context of the Russian aggression," it said on X, formerly Twitter.

Some 210 billion euros ($225 billion) of assets belonging to Russia's central bank were frozen by the EU following Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 -- an amount estimated to generate interest of some 3 billion euros ($3.23 billion) annually.

Some 90 percent of the proceeds would be placed in the European Peace Facility fund used by most EU members to obtain reimbursement for military equipment delivered to Ukraine.

Separately, Reuters reported, quoting an unnamed source, that Germany -- the bloc's largest economy -- plans to increase its military aid for Ukraine by another 3.8 billion euros ($4.13 billion) this year, confirming a report by the German newspaper Bild.

The news came as German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock traveled to Kyiv for a previously unannounced trip -- her seventh since the start of Russia's invasion.

Barbock called for more international support for Ukraine's air defenses in view of the current Russian offensive.

At the end of last month, Germany delivered Ukraine a fresh package of military aid, including weapons and ammunition.

Meanwhile, regional officials reported that four people were wounded and a transport infrastructure facility was damaged in a series of drone strikes on Ukraine's northeastern city of Kharkiv early on May 21.

Meanwhile, regional officials reported that four people were wounded and a transport infrastructure facility was damaged in a series of drone strikes on Ukraine's northeastern city of Kharkiv early on May 21, regional officials reported.

“Regarding the morning attack, the target was a transport infrastructure facility,” Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov wrote on Telegram.

Governor Oleh Synyehubov also said on Telegram that an infrastructure facility had been damaged, and added that debris from fallen drones damaged several private houses in Ukraine's second-largest city.

Earlier on May 21, a general air raid alert was declared for the whole territory of Ukraine.

With reporting by AFP

Imprisoned Kremlin Critic Kara-Murza Loses Another Appeal In Court

Vladimir Kara-Murza (file photo)
Vladimir Kara-Murza (file photo)

The Moscow City Court on May 21 rejected an appeal filed by imprisoned Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza against a lower court's refusal to consider his lawsuit against Russia's Investigative Committee for failing to fully investigate his suspected poisoning.

“I am absolutely not surprised that nobody will investigate attempted murders of opposition politicians in current Russia, including the murders of [Kremlin-critics] Boris Nemtsov and Aleksei Navalny,” Kara-Murza said after the ruling.

Kara-Murza suddenly fell deathly ill on two separate occasions in Moscow -- in 2015 and 2017-- with symptoms consistent with poisoning.

Tissue samples smuggled from Russia to the United States by his relatives were turned over to the FBI, which investigated the case as one of "intentional poisoning."

U.S. government laboratories also conducted extensive tests on the samples, but documents released by the Justice Department suggest they were unable to reach a conclusive finding.

Kara-Murza's lawyer sent requests to the Investigative Committee to investigate both of the poisonings, but those requests were denied.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the incidents.

Moscow's Zamoskvorechye district court rejected Kara-Murza's inaction lawsuit against the Investigative Committee in February this year.

Kara-Murza, 42, who holds Russian and British passports, was initially arrested in April 2022 after returning to Russia from abroad and charged with disobeying a police officer.

He was later charged with discrediting the Russian military, a charge stemming from Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine and a Kremlin push to stamp out criticism of the subject. He was later additionally charged with treason over remarks he made in speeches outside Russia that criticized Kremlin policies.

In April last year, Kara-Murza was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He and his supporters reject the charges as politically motivated.

With reporting by Mediazona

Iranian-Danish Director Of The Apprentice Offers To Screen Movie For Trump

Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi (file photo)
Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi (file photo)

Donald Trump’s reelection campaign has called The Apprentice, a film about the former U.S. president in the 1980s, “pure fiction” and vowed legal action following its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

But Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi is offering to privately screen the film for Trump.

Following its premiere on May 19 in Cannes, Steven Cheung, Trump's campaign spokesperson, said the Trump team will be filing a lawsuit “to address the blatantly false assertions from these pretend filmmakers."

Abbasi said he "would offer to go and meet [Trump] wherever he wants and talk about the context of the movie, have a screening and have a chat afterwards, if that’s interesting to anyone at the Trump campaign.”

Russian Scientist Gets 14 Years In Prison On Treason Charge

Anatoly Maslov in court on May 21
Anatoly Maslov in court on May 21

A court in St. Petersburg sentenced Russian physicist Anatoly Maslov on May 21 to 14 years in prison for treason. The 77-year-old expert in the field of fluid gas and a professor at the Aerohydrodynamics Department at Novosibirsk State Technical University was arrested in 2022 on suspicion of passing classified information to a foreign country. Maslov rejects the charge. At least 12 scientists have been arrested in Russia on treason charges since 2018, mostly for activities considered a normal part of scientific work, such as publishing papers internationally, collaborating with colleagues from other countries, and attending international conferences. To read the original story by RFE/RL's North.Realities, click here.

Pakistani Students Continue To Leave Kyrgyzstan Following Mob Attacks

Pakistani students wait to leave Kyrgyzstan at Manas international airport in Bishkek on May 21.
Pakistani students wait to leave Kyrgyzstan at Manas international airport in Bishkek on May 21.

BISHKEK -- Pakistani students are continuing to leave Kyrgyzstan following last weekend's violent mob attacks targeting university students from the South Asian nation who were studying in Bishkek.

Eight charter flights from Bishkek to the Pakistani cities of Islamabad, Lahore, and Peshawar took hundreds more students from the Central Asian nation's capital on May 21.

A day earlier, Kyrgyz officials confirmed that about 1,200 Pakistani students had left the country after the May 18 violence, which was triggered by the appearance on social media of a video purportedly showing a group of "people of Asian appearance" harassing foreign students on the night of May 13.

The group then pursued the students to their dormitory, where at least one foreigner was assaulted by several men and dragged along the floor.

Kyrgyzstan’s Health Ministry said on May 20 that more than 40 people were injured during the violence, some of whom were taken to hospital.

As Foreign Student Exodus Continues, Officials Fear Kyrgyzstan's Reputation Is On The Line
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On May 21, Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry said Pakistani Foreign Minister Muhammad Ishaq Dar, who is currently attending a gathering of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s foreign ministers in neighboring Kazakhstan, will visit Kyrgyzstan and meet with Kyrgyz officials to discuss the situation faced by Pakistani students in Bishkek.

The Interior Ministry said on May 21 that police detained a fourth Kyrgyz man suspected of being involved in the initial attack on foreign students. The ministry said earlier that four foreign nationals had also been detained on hooliganism charges.

The Kyrgyz government has vowed to pursue those responsible for the violence and rejected what it said were "insinuations aimed at inciting intolerance toward foreign students."

Still, it appeared to lay the blame for the violence on illegal migrants, saying authorities had been taking "decisive measures to suppress illegal migration and expel undesirable persons from Kyrgyzstan."

Just three days before the violence, Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security detained 28 Pakistani nationals for "working illegally" in a sewing shop in Bishkek.

The same day, Bishkek city police shut down delivery services conducted by more than 400 foreign students, mostly from Pakistan, on motorcycles and scooters, citing traffic safety concerns.

Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said on May 21 that six Pakistani nationals were detained overnight while trying to illegally enter Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan.

Belarusian Activist Not Released After Serving Prison Term For Second Time

Palina Sharenda-Panasyuk (file photo)
Palina Sharenda-Panasyuk (file photo)

Belarusian activist Palina Sharenda-Panasyuk, who was expected to be released from prison on May 21 after serving 3 years and 5 months, remains in custody and may face an additional unspecified charge, her husband, Andrey Sharenda, told RFE/RL. No reason has been given for the extended detention. Sharenda-Panasyuk, an activist for the European Belarus movement, was initially arrested in 2021 and sentenced to two years in prison for insulting authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka and allegedly assaulting a police officer. She was scheduled to be released in August 2023 but instead she was charged with "violating her penitentiary's internal regulations" and her prison term was extended until May 21, 2024. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

Chinese Foreign Minister Reiterates Beijing's Support For Kazakh Independence

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Astana on May 20.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Astana on May 20.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has reiterated Beijing's readiness to "firmly support Kazakhstan's efforts to defend its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity."

Speaking after a meeting with Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev in Astana on May 20, Wang echoed several similar statements made by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in recent years for China's backing of its neighbor to the northeast.

"China will support a series of strategies for development and important measures initiated by [the Kazakh] President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, oppose with resolve against any external forces that are trying to interfere in the internal affairs of that country," Wang said.

Since Moscow launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, many in Kazakhstan and elsewhere have considered statements from Chinese leaders regarding Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations to be a message to Russia, where in recent months, many pro-Kremlin politicians and political observers have hinted that Kazakhstan is a takeover target for Moscow.

Toqaev, in his turn, praised Chinese-Kazakh ties, emphasizing that his country's giant neighbor "will remain Kazakhstan's reliable partner."

"China's diplomacy plays an important role in the world's policies. The future of Kazakh-Chinese relations is significant," Toqaev said during his talks with Wang.

The Kazakh presidential press service said that Toqaev also held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on May 20.

Foreign ministers from member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- China, India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- arrived for a meeting in the Kazakh capital this week.

It was announced at the foreign ministers' gathering held on May 21 that the leaders of the SCO's member states will convene again in Astana on July 3-4.

With reporting by Xinhua and Tengrinews

Pakistanis Warned To Stay Indoors Ahead Of New Heat Wave

People cooling off on a sweltering afternoon in Lahore on May 19.
People cooling off on a sweltering afternoon in Lahore on May 19.

Authorities in Pakistan on May 21 urged people to stay indoors as the country is hit by an extreme heat wave that threatens to bring dangerously high temperatures and yet another round of glacial-driven floods. Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, is shutting all schools for a week because of the heat, affecting an estimated 18 million students. Zaheer Ahmed Babar, a senior official at the Pakistan Meteorological Department, said temperatures could reach up to 6 degrees Celsius above the monthly average. This week, the temperature could rise above 40 degrees Celsius in many parts of the country, Babar said.

Poland Arrests 9 Suspected Russia-Linked Saboteurs

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk (file photo)
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk (file photo)

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said in a televised interview on May 20 that his country's authorities had arrested nine people suspected of saboteur activities under the supervision of Russian secret services. According to Tusk, the suspects, who are citizens of Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland, planned acts of sabotage in Poland and Lithuania. Tusk called the situation "very serious," adding that similar saboteur actions were planned by Russian secret services in Latvia and Sweden. Polish President Andrzej Duda said earlier that several recent serious fires in the country may have been caused by arson attacks. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

ICC Warrant Request Is Attempt To Deny Israel The Right To Defend Itself, Says Defense Minister

 Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (file photo)
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (file photo)

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has accused the the International Criminal Court (ICC) of trying to deny Israel the right to self defense after the court's chief prosecutor announced he is seeking arrest warrants for Israeli leaders, including Gallant and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as senior figures in Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

"The attempt by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, to reverse the creation [of Israel] will not succeed -- the parallel of the prosecutor between the terrorist organization Hamas and the State of Israel is despicable and disgusting," Gallant said in a social media post on May 20, adding that any attempt "to deny the State of Israel the right to self-defense and to free its hostages must be rejected out of hand."

ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan said on May 19 that he has "reasonable grounds" to believe Netanyahu, Gallant, and three Hamas leaders -- Yehya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif, and Ismail Haniyeh -- are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Khan specifically noted the “starvations of civilians as a method of warfare,” “willfully causing great suffering,” “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population,” and “other inhumane acts” as the grounds for the warrants.

The three Hamas leaders were accused of responsibility for “extermination,” “taking hostages,” “rape and other acts of sexual violence,” “torture,” and “other inhumane acts.”

The court’s three pretrial judges will determine whether there is sufficient evidence to issue warrants.

ICC spokesman Fadi Al-Abdallah told RFE/RL in an e-mail that the ICC judges "will issue their decision in due course" but did not offer a specific time frame.

The latest conflict, which has consumed the Gaza Strip where some 2.3 million Palestinians live, was sparked by a cross-border raid Hamas carried out on October 7 that killed some 1,200 people, mainly Israeli civilians, including children. In addition, Hamas took about 240 Israeli hostages back to Gaza, many of whom are still being held.

In response, Israel has launched a withering war against Hamas that has seen the devastating destruction of much of Gaza -- including the deaths of at least 35,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-led Health Ministry -- and the breakout of a massive humanitarian crisis in the tiny coastal area.

Israel has denied committing war crimes during the seven-month-old conflict.

The ICC decision has launched a wave of strong reactions around the world, both for and against the prosecutor's controversial move.

France and Belgium released statements late on May 20 supporting the ICC decision, with the French Foreign Ministry saying it "supports the International Criminal Court, its independence, and the fight against impunity in all situations.”

"Crimes committed in Gaza must be prosecuted at the highest level, regardless of the perpetrators," Belgium's Foreign Affairs Minister Hadja Lahbib said.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden condemned the court’s bid to issue arrest warrants for Israeli leaders as an "outrageous" action.

"And let me be clear: Whatever this prosecutor might imply, there is no equivalence -- none -- between Israel and Hamas," Biden said in a statement.

'More Complicated Cases'

David Bosco, a professor at Indiana University-Bloomington and an expert on the ICC, told RFE/RL that “one thing that's important to note is that over the years that the ICC has been operating, the judges and the prosecutor do not always agree.

“So it's not a foregone conclusion that the prosecutor will get all the arrest warrants that he wants, or for the precise charges that he wants.

“I think the arrest warrants for Hamas are probably more straightforward in the sense that you have...the October 7 attack that seemed to be aimed primarily at civilians,” he said.

“With Israel,” he added, “you've got a more complicated situation involving humanitarian aid and whether Israel has been allowing enough humanitarian aid in and has it actually been trying to use starvation as a weapon?

“Those are somewhat more complicated cases, I would say, from a legal perspective,” he said.

Israel is not a member of the ICC, and, even if the warrants are issued, it is unclear whether Netanyahu and Gallant would face prosecution. But Khan’s announcement does increase international pressure against Israel over its conduct of the conflict.

The Rome Statute, a 1998 treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, has been signed by 124 countries.

Sinwar and Dief are believed to be in Gaza, while Haniyeh is reportedly based in Qatar.

"The Hamas movement strongly condemns the attempts of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to equate the victim with the executioner by issuing arrest warrants against a number of Palestinian resistance leaders," the group said in a statement on May 20.

Updated

Iranian President's Casket Arrives In Tehran As New Crash Details Emerge

Mourners try to touch the flag-draped caskets of President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and Raisi's chief bodyguard, Mehdi Mousavi, during a funeral ceremony in the city of Tabriz, Iran, on May 21.
Mourners try to touch the flag-draped caskets of President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and Raisi's chief bodyguard, Mehdi Mousavi, during a funeral ceremony in the city of Tabriz, Iran, on May 21.

The caskets of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and others killed in a May 19 helicopter crash arrived in a procession with an honor guard in Tehran on May 21 ahead of a planned journey to the holy city of Qom, where additional services were scheduled for later in the day as part of a five-day mourning period declared by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Several funeral ceremonies were taking place in Iran on May 21 to mark the deaths of Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and others in the helicopter crash that occurred in northern Iran near the city of Tabriz, the capital of Iran's northwestern province of East Azerbaijan.

Following their journey to Qom, the caskets are to return late on May 21 to Tehran, where a funeral service is scheduled for May 22 presided over by Khamenei and with a procession set to follow. Ceremonies are also being held in Birjand on May 23, when Raisi will be buried at the Imam Reza Shrine in the holy city of Mashhad, Iranian media reported.

The IRNA state-run news agency posted the first footage purportedly showing the caskets of Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian on X, formerly Twitter.

State television later showed large crowds gathering in Qom ahead of services there.

Khamenei also named First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber as interim president. Iranian law stipulates that if the president dies, power is transferred to the first vice president.

A presidential election to determine Raisi's successor was announced for June 28. The election, which has to be held within 50 days, is to be organized by a council consisting of the speaker of parliament, the head of the judiciary, and the first vice president.

Iran's interim president, Mohammad Mokhber (right), leads a cabinet meeting in Tehran on May 20.
Iran's interim president, Mohammad Mokhber (right), leads a cabinet meeting in Tehran on May 20.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Baqeri Kani was appointed acting foreign minister, Iranian state media reported.

After Iranian state television said on May 20 that the helicopter had crashed due to poor weather conditions, search-and-rescue teams found the bodies of Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian at the site of the crash in northwest Iran.

Communication was lost while the helicopter was on its way back to Tabriz after Raisi attended the joint inauguration of a dam with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, on their common border.

On May 21, an official on another helicopter disclosed additional details of events on the day of the crash, according to a report by dpa.

Gholam Hossein Esmaili, the presidential chief of staff, told state television that upon the helicopters' departure, "the weather was cloudless, completely clear, and bright."

But he said clouds quickly emerged and that the pilot of the presidential helicopter -- flying in the center of the three-aircraft convoy -- ordered the copters to fly at a higher altitude.

Shortly afterward, the pilot of the helicopter Esmaili was traveling in realized that the Raisi craft was no longer with the others and was thought to have made an emergency landing.

The two other helicopters in the convoy circled for several minutes over the area before landing near a copper mine because of the poor conditions.

The Iranian government said the other two helicopters eventually landed safely in Tabriz.

Iran's state-run IRNA news agency said that all eight people aboard the Bell 212 helicopter purchased by Iran in the early 2000s were killed. Besides Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian, the governor of East Azerbaijan Province, a senior cleric from Tabriz, a Revolutionary Guards official, and three crew members were killed, according to IRNA.

The bodies from the helicopter that crashed were severely burned but not beyond recognition, according to the head of Iran's Crisis Management Organization, Mohammad Hassan Nami. He said DNA tests were not needed to confirm the identities of those killed in the crash.

Iran At Crossroads After President Killed In Helicopter Crash
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He added that Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Al-e Hashem, who served as Khamenei's representative in East Azerbaijan Province, survived the crash initially and remained alive for about an hour before he died.

Nami said that, during that time, Al-e Hashem had made contact with Raisi's chief of staff by phone. He did not reveal any further details.

Meanwhile, Washington said for the first time that Tehran had asked for U.S. help in the helicopter incident but that it was unable to provide assistance, mainly due to logistical reasons.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller did not specify how the request was made or the nature of it. The United States and Iran do not have diplomatic relations.

Foreign governments on May 20 issued expressions of condolence and solidarity. Lebanon announced three days of mourning to honor Raisi. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian were both "true, reliable friends of our country."

Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, issued a statement of condolence and thanked Raisi for his "tireless efforts in solidarity" with the Palestinian people.

The United States -- a bitter rival of Iran that had imposed financial sanctions on Raisi when he was head of Iran's judiciary in 2019 -- also offered its condolences.

"The United States expresses its official condolences for the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, and other members of their delegation in a helicopter crash in northwest Iran," the State Department said in a statement.

"As Iran selects a new president, we reaffirm our support for the Iranian people and their struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms."

The White House, nevertheless, had harsh words for Raisi, saying he had "blood on his hands" for supporting extremist groups in the Middle East.

U.S. national-security spokesman John Kirby told reporters that "no question, this was a man who had a lot of blood on his hands."

U.S. Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson said Raisi's rule was "barbaric" and marked by "terror, danger, and oppression."

"In these fateful days, we pray for stability in the Middle East, for Iranian leaders who will seek to live at peace with their neighbors and the West, and for the day when the flag of freedom will be raised in Iran," Johnsonwrote on X.

European Council President Charles Michel issued a statement of "sincere condolences," adding "our thoughts go to the families."

Some activists criticized the EU for assisting in the rescue operation of a leader who has been accused of overseeing major human rights abuses.

But EU Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic defended the move on May 20, saying that, by providing satellite mapping services to Tehran, Brussels was acting "upon request for facilitating a search and rescue operation" and was not "an act of political support to any regime or establishment."

"It is simply an expression of the most basic humanity," he added in a post on X.

Raisi was elected president in 2021 and had since tightened many restrictions on Iranians through the enforcement of morality laws and a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests spurred by the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly violating the Islamic dress code on head scarves.

Thousands of people, including protesters, journalists, lawyers, athletes, and artists have been arrested and at least 500 people have been killed in Iran's brutal crackdown on the protests.

Raisi also pushed hard in nuclear talks with world powers while also allowing the country to markedly increase its uranium enrichment program.

With reporting by Reuters and dpa
Updated

In Kyiv, Top German Diplomat Urges Allies To Protect Ukraine's Skies

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (file photo)
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (file photo)

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock arrived in Kyiv on May 21 and made a plea for more international support to protect the country's skies from Russian air strikes. "To protect Ukraine from the hail of Russian missiles and drones, it urgently needs more air defense," she said at the start of her seventh visit to Ukraine since all-out war erupted in February 2022. Her trip had not been announced for security reasons. During a visit to one of Ukraine's largest power stations, which was destroyed by Russia last month, Baerbock accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of targeted terror against civilians.

Fresh Russian Strike On Kharkiv Causes Casualties And Damage

Debris from falling drones also damaged several private houses in Ukraine's second-largest city. (file photo)
Debris from falling drones also damaged several private houses in Ukraine's second-largest city. (file photo)

Four people were wounded and a transport infrastructure facility was damaged in a series of drone strikes on Ukraine's northeastern city of Kharkiv early on May 21, regional officials reported. “Regarding the morning attack, the target was a transport infrastructure facility,” Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov wrote on Telegram. Governor Oleh Synyehubov also said on Telegram that an infrastructure facility had been damaged, and added that debris from fallen drones damaged several private houses in Ukraine's second-largest city. Earlier a general air-raid alert was declared for the whole territory of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Kosovo Shuts Branches Of Serbian Banks Over Currency Dispute

Kosovar police shut down a branch office of the Postal Saving Bank of Serbia in Zvecan on May 20.
Kosovar police shut down a branch office of the Postal Saving Bank of Serbia in Zvecan on May 20.

Authorities in Kosovo shut down five branches of the Postal Saving Bank of Serbia and one of the National Bank of Serbia that were operating in four northern Kosovar municipalities. Authorities said the branches in North Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok, and Leposavic were operating illegally. The institutions were used by ethnic Serbs to receive salaries from Serbia and conducted payments in Serbian dinars, authorities said. The Serbian dinar was banned by Kosovo at the beginning of the year. Officials in Serbia condemned the action. Serbia and Kosovo, a former province of Serbia before declaring independence, are bitterly divided over a number of issues, especially in the northeast near their border. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Balkan Service, click here.

Russian Man Fined For 'Discrediting Military' With Dyed Hair

A Moscow court on May 20 fined Stanislav Netyosov 30,000 rubles ($330) on a charge of discrediting the Russian military after dying his hair blue and yellow, which police considered support for Ukraine due to its national flag of the same colors. Netyosov was charged in late April after he came to a police station to file a complaint saying he was attacked the previous evening by unknown assailants who beat him and stole his telephone. Netyosov said police fingerprinted him and handed him a summons to a military recruitment center, saying they would "teach him to kiss his native land in the military trenches." To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

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