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Iran Nobel Winner Seeks End To Juvenile Executions

Shirin Ebadi
TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Eighteen-year-old Behnam Zare's last words on his way to be hanged were: "I want to be alive. I am full of remorse. Is there anyone to save me?"

The tape of his final phone call was replayed to journalists, rights activists, and tearful parents of those on death row in Iran at a conference to campaign for ending the execution of juvenile offenders.

Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her human rights work in Iran, said Zare was one of at least six juvenile offenders executed by Iran's judiciary since March.

Like the other six, he was held in a detention center until he was deemed old enough to be executed without attracting international criticism, she said.

Zare was arrested when 15 after a fight that ended in the death of a schoolmate. He was hanged in October after he turned 18.

"He called me before being executed. He was so scared and begged for help," she said after replaying Zare's last call at the conference, organized by Ebadi's Association for Defending Human Rights.

"A sorrow-filled story of children and juveniles' rights in Iran is a never-ending story," she said.

Sharia Law

Human rights groups and the European Union have criticized Iran for sentencing minors to death.

Since 2000, Iran has said it only carries out the death penalty when a prisoner reaches the age of 18 and rejects Western accusations of rights abuses, saying it is following Islamic Sharia law.

A judiciary official said in October that teenagers guilty of capital crimes would not face execution unless the crime was murder. In that case, under Sharia, a victim's family could demand death as retribution or agree to commute the sentence.

But death sentences have continued to be imposed on young offenders convicted of murder, rape, or drug smuggling, in direct contravention of the international Treaty on Civil and Political Rights, Ebadi said.

In Iran, men are deemed adults aged 15, girls at aged 9.

"Why should children face an adult penalty like the death sentence?" Ebadi said adding about 150 minors were on death row.

Since January 2005, Iran has been responsible for 26 of 32 known executions of juveniles offenders worldwide, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in October. It said Iran was one of only five countries to do so.

"In the past 18 years, 41 people have been executed for crimes they committed as a minor. Nine of them were under 18 [when executed]," rights activist Asiyeh Amini told the conference. "One of them was a girl."

Ebadi, who represents several young offenders on death row, said Iran had the highest rate of sentencing minors to death. She said the demand to end juvenile executions did not contradict Islamic Sharia law.

"Top Iranian clerics some 80 years ago banned juvenile execution in the country," she said, adding that 95 percent of juveniles were sentenced to death for murder.

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Russian Duma Approves Bill Raising Age Limit For Military Personnel To 65

Russia's State Duma approved the final of three readings on May 25.

MOSCOW -- Russian parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, has approved a bill that would raise the upper age limit for military personnel serving in the Russian Army on a contractual basis.

According to the bill, which had all three readings approved on May 25, men up to age 65 will now be eligible to serve in the army. The new limit also applies to foreign nationals wishing to serve in the army as well.

Current law allows Russian men up to 40 years of age and foreigners up to 30 to serve in the army.

The bill's authors, lawmakers Andrei Kartapolov and Andrei Krasov, said the raised limit would help attract new specialists with "required skills," namely medical personnel and engineers.

The bill was approved amid Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, launched on February 24.

Russia has met fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces, with many Western intelligence officials saying Moscow expected a quick end to the fighting. Instead, they say, its troops have suffered thousands of casualties as the war got bogged down.

Russia has not recently revealed a death toll for the invasion. On March 25, it said 1,351 of its soldiers had been killed in the fighting.

Russia Warns Moldova Over Ex-President As Supporters Protest Detention

Members of Moldova's Information and Security Service (SIS) escort former Moldovan President Igor Dodon (center) to a van after he was detained at his house in Chisinau on May 24.

Russia has warned Moldova again that it will "closely" follow the case of pro-Russian ex-President Igor Dodon, who was detained on suspicion of treason and corruption, as his supporters took to the streets to demand his release.

Moldovan prosecutors on May 24 searched Dodon's home, office, and cars, during which luxury goods, foreign currency, receipts, and other documents were found.

They later announced that Dodon had been arrested for 72 hours as part of a judicial investigation into suspected treason, corruption, illicit enrichment, and illegal party financing.

Dodon says he has done nothing wrong and blamed President Maia Sandu for wanting to distract people from the country's economic woes.

Dodon, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was president of Moldova from 2016 to 2020. He was defeated in November 2020 by Sandu, a U.S.-educated politician who ran on a ticket of closer relations with the West.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said that Dodon's detention was Moldova's "internal affair."

"At the same time, we would not like the current authorities to start settling scores with their former political rivals in the current situation," Rudenko told a news conference.

He said Russia would "closely monitor" the case to make sure that "all of Dodon's rights" are respected and that they comply with international standards.

It was the second day in a row that Moscow had cautioned Moldova about Dodon's treatment.

In Chisinau, dozens of members and sympathizers of Dodon's Party of Socialists, took to the streets on May 25 calling for his release and accusing the authorities of political persecution.

"Dear citizens, I want to assure you that for every element of interest to the prosecutors I have the necessary explanations that remove any suspicion of corruption or breaking the law," Dodon said in an online message.

"This politically motivated case is fabricated."

Sandwiched between Ukraine and EU and NATO-member Romania, Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has accepted hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees.

Chisinau has firmly backed Kyiv after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Moldova formally applied for European Union membership in March after Russia's unprovoked invasion.

With reporting AFP and AP

Kyrgyz Blogger Handed Suspended Sentence On Fraud Charge, Released From Custody

Kyrgyz blogger Gulzat Alymkulova, aka Gulzat Mamytbek (file photo)

BISHKEK -- Gulzat Alymkulova, a well-known Kyrgyz blogger known online as Gulzat Mamytbek, has been handed a suspended sentence on a fraud charge and released from custody.

The Birinchi Mai district court in Bishkek found Alymkulova guilty of fraud and handed her a five-year prison term with the sentence suspended for three years.

The sentence means the blogger will live under parole-like restrictions for three years. Any violations of the terms of her sentence and she could be forced to serve the five-year prison term.

Alymkulova was arrested on October 25, 2021, upon her return to Bishkek from a trip abroad.

City police officials said at the time that seven Bishkek residents had filed lawsuits, accusing her of collecting some $110,000 from them in 2020 and promising quick gains on the sum before disappearing without a trace.

Neither Alymkulova, who has written about sensitive social issues in her blog posts, nor her representatives have commented on her arrest and the charge against her.

Nike, Marks & Spencer Leave Russia Over War In Ukraine

Marks & Spencer said it was unable to import its goods to Russia because of the war in Ukraine. (file photo)

U.S. sports apparel giant Nike and venerable British multinational retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) say they are quitting the Russian market over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Nike said it would not extend its franchise agreement with Russia's Inventive Retail Group (IRG), the largest retailer of Nike products in the country.

IRG Chief Executive Officer Tikhon Smykov said in a letter to employees on May 25 that "after all the goods are sold, IRG will have to shut down all of its shops that are under the [Nike] name."

In early March, Nike suspended online sales in Russia, and several days later temporarily closed all of its shops in the country, including those operating on franchise agreements. Nike was active on the Russian market for 28 years.

M&S, which specializes in the sale of clothing, beauty, home products, and food, announced on May 25 that it would fully cease its operations in Russia after suspending them in early March.

M&S said it was unable to import its goods to Russia because of the war in Ukraine.

Dozens of major international companies from a broad range of sectors have exited Russia since it launched its war against Ukraine on February 24.

Within the past 10 days, Starbucks Corp and McDonald's also announced they were quitting Russia.

With reporting by Vedomosti

Moscow Offers Safe Passage Of Ukrainian Food Exports In Exchange For Easing Of Sanctions

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko (file photo)

A senior Russian government official says Moscow could allow vessels carrying food to leave Ukraine's Black Sea ports in return for the lifting of some sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian ports have been blocked since Russia launched its war against Ukraine on February 24, leaving more than 20 million tons of grain stuck in silos in the country.

Russia and Ukraine account for almost one-third of global wheat supplies. Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn and sunflower, and the blockage of its ports is contributing to a growing global food crisis.

"We have repeatedly stated on this point that a solution to the food problem requires a comprehensive approach, including the lifting of sanctions that have been imposed on Russian exports and financial transactions," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko was quoted as saying by Interfax.

"And it also requires the demining by the Ukrainian side of all ports where ships are anchored. Russia is ready to provide the necessary humanitarian passage, which it does every day."

Russia is in touch with the United Nations on the issue, Rudenko was quoted as saying by another news agency, RIA.

However, Rudenko was also quoted by Interfax as warning against any possible escort by Western ships of Ukraine's vessels carrying grain, saying that it would "seriously exacerbate the situation in the Black Sea."

Rudenko also denied reports in the Western media that Russian forces are stealing grain from Ukrainian ports.

"We completely reject this. We don't steal anything from anyone," he told reporters.

CNN previously published satellite photos allegedly confirming that Russia is exporting grain from Ukraine through Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Moscow illegally annexed in 2014.

Based on reporting by Reuters and Interfax

Bishkek Court Cancels $3.2 Billion Fine Imposed On Centerra Over Kumtor Mine

The Kumtor gold mine has been the target of financial and environmental disagreements for years. (file photo)

BISHKEK -- A court in Kyrgyzstan has canceled a lower court decision to fine Canadian company Centerra Gold 261.7 billion soms ($3.2 billion) for what were described as violations of environmental laws when it ran the Kumtor gold mine.

The Bishkek City Court did not explain its decision when handing it down late on May 24.

In May 2021, the Oktyabr (October) district court in Bishkek found the Canadian gold miner guilty of indulging in the illegal practice of placing waste rock on glaciers.

The court ruling followed the passing of a bill by the Central Asian nation's lawmakers that allowed the federal government to temporarily seize the Kumtor mine.

Last month, Kyrgyzstan took over the mine after President Sadyr Japarov's government reached an out-of-court settlement with Centerra Gold.

On April 4, Centerra made the agreement public, showing it received all of its common shares held by the state-owned company Kyrgyzaltyn, while Kyrgyzaltyn got a 100 percent stake in the company’s two Kyrgyz subsidiaries, Kumtor Gold Company CJSC and Kumtor Operating Company.

Kumtor had been the target of financial and environmental disagreements for years before turning into the subject of a control battle between the Kyrgyz state and Centerra Gold.

Japarov's government insisted that Centerra's operations endangered human lives and the environment, which the company denied.

In May 2021, the Canadian firm said it had "initiated binding arbitration to enforce its rights under long-standing investment agreements with the government."

Many Kyrgyz lawmakers have expressed concern about an alleged lack of transparency at Kumtor since the Kyrgyz government took control of the gold mine.

Kazakh Banks Tighten Process Of Payment Card Issuance To Russians

Banks in Kazakhstan have been inundated by requests from Russian citizens seeking to open bank accounts and obtain Mastercard and VISA credit cards after the global payment giants suspended operations in Russia. (file photo)

NUR-SULTAN -- Kazakh banks have started to tighten procedures for issuing payment cards to Russian citizens amid sanctions imposed on financial institutions across Russia over Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Since Russia launched its war against Ukraine on February 24, banks in Kazakhstan have been flooded by tens of thousands of Russian citizens seeking to open bank accounts and obtain Mastercard and VISA credit cards after the global payment giants suspended operations in Russia due to the sanctions, which have crippled international financial transactions in the country.

Because of the deluge of applications, some Kazakh banks have started requesting proof of permanent residence or work permits from Kazakh citizens for Russian citizens who want to set up accounts.

Media reports cited several bank officials as saying that the uncontrolled issuance of payment cards to Russian citizens may lead to Western sanctions against them.

Arlen Moldabekov, a top official at Kazakhstan’s central bank said on May 25 in a televised interview that, although local laws allow nonresidents to open accounts at Kazakh banks, financial institutions have the right to request such documents from potential clients.

"When issuing payment cards, our banks follow legal requirements, as well as internal regulations and the requirements of the banks' compliance control systems. They also comply with the regulations of the international payments systems, of which they are members, and whose cards they issue," Moldabekov said.

After VISA and Mastercard suspended their partnership with Russian banks in March, Russian citizens rushed in droves to Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics seeking payment cards, among other things, at banks.

Last week, the Interior Ministry in Nur-Sultan said that 34,960 Russian citizens had obtained Kazakh Individual Identification Numbers (INN) in the period between February 24 and May 17, while 606 Ukrainian nationals obtained Kazakh INNs during the same period.

An INN allows individuals to get social benefits and simplifies the process of opening bank accounts in Kazakhstan. One of Russia's most-popular singers, Lev Leshchenko, was seen earlier this month at a social services office in Kazakhstan where he obtained an INN.

Kazakhstan's Agency of Financial Control has said about 9.2 billion tenges ($21.5 million) belonging to Kazakh citizens have been frozen in the branches of several Russian banks in Kazakhstan due to the international sanctions.

With reporting by KTK

Closer Ties With EU Cannot Replace Full Membership, Moldovan PM Says

Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita (file photo)

Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita has welcomed moves to step up cooperation with the European Union, but says such initiatives cannot replace the actual process of joining the bloc.

Chisinau has pressed ahead with efforts to join the EU after Russia invaded Ukraine and launched a war that is threatening to spill over into Moldova.

"We welcome any mechanism for bringing us closer together, improving our cooperation, as long as this does not replace the path to membership," Gavrilita told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on May 25.

French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this month suggested that instead of offering full membership in the 27-member bloc, a parallel entity should be created that could appeal to aspiring countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova -- a "European political community" that would be open to democratic European nations adhering to the EU's core values.

But Gavrilita said that only full membership in the bloc would offer aspiring countries full benefits and a stable place in a value-shared community such as the EU.

"We strongly believe that membership in the European Union is actually what distributes this peace, stability, value-based prosperity, and we want to be part of the free world and of this EU family," she said.

With reporting by Reuters

Zelenskiy Says Europe Must Unify Fully Over Support For Ukraine In War Against Russia

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (file photo)

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says the West, and Europe in particular, must tighten ranks and bolster support for Ukraine in the face of Russia's unprovoked war.

Speaking at a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on May 25, the Ukrainian leader said he was grateful for the financial and military aid given to Kyiv since Russia launched its attack in late February, but said cracks in Europe's unity are limiting the war effort.

He also reiterated Kyiv's stance that Ukraine does not want to lose any territory to Russia in the war.

"Unity is about weapons. My question is, is there this unity in practice? I can't see it. Our huge advantage over Russia would be when we are truly united," Zelenskiy said via video link.

Zelenskiy specifically thanked the United States for its support while singling out Hungary, which has ardently opposed an EU-wide embargo on Russian oil imports, for stalling Europe's ability to ratchet up pressure on Moscow.

"We are on the European continent and we need the support of a united Europe.... Hungary is not as united as rest of the EU," Zelenskiy said.

Zelenskiy said he was ready for talks, though only with Russian President Vladimir Putin, if Moscow withdrew its troops to the areas Russia-backed separatists were in before the war began on February 24.

"Ukraine will fight until it has all its territory back," Zelenskiy said.

With reporting by dpa and AFP

British Government Approves Abramovich's $5.3 Billion Sale Of Chelsea Soccer Club

Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich (file photo)

The British government has granted a license allowing the $5.33 billion sale of the Chelsea soccer club by the sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich to a U.S. investment group.

U.K. Sports Minister Nadine Dorries said in a post on Twitter on May 24 that the government "is satisfied the proceeds of the sale will not benefit Roman Abramovich or other sanctioned individuals."

"Given the sanctions we placed on those linked to Putin and the bloody invasion of Ukraine, the long-term future of the club can only be secured under a new owner," she added.

After 19 years of ownership, Abramovich put the club up for sale in early March, weeks after Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine sparked waves of sanctions against Moscow, Russian oligarchs who benefitted from their relationships with President Vladimir Putin, and even on Putin's family members, among others.

The sale of the club, which had been operating under a government license after Abramovich's assets were frozen in March, to a consortium led by Los Angeles Dodgers baseball club co-owner Todd Boehly and backed by Clearlake Capital, had already been approved by owners of the Premier League.

All proceeds from the sale will be donated to charitable causes by Abramovich.

'All The Power Of The Russian Army': Moscow Throws Massive Resources Into Offensive, As Grain Exports Under Strain

A military vehicle is pictured in a grain field previously mined with explosives amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the Chernihiv region on May 24.

Russia continued to pour forces and equipment into its all-out offensive in eastern Ukraine, where it seeks to encircle Ukrainian troops in two cities, as Kyiv warned that the country is facing an existential battle that could determine its fate.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the situation in the Donbas is "extremely difficult" as Russia steps up its assault.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the major developments on Russia's invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians, and Western reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

"All the power of the Russian Army, which still remains in them, has been thrown into the attack,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly address on May 24.

Russian forces were advancing from three directions to encircle the easternmost sector of the Ukrainian-held Donbas pocket, with focus on the the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, located on the eastern and western banks of the Siverskiy Donets River.

"The enemy has focused its efforts on carrying out an offensive in order to encircle Lysychansk and Severodonetsk," said Serhiy Hayday, governor of Luhansk Province, where the two cities are located. Hayday said on May 25 that six civilians had been killed by Russian shelling in Severodonetsk the previous night.

Ukraine's military said it had repelled nine Russian attacks on May 24 in the Donbas, where Moscow's troops killed at least 14 civilians, using aircraft, rocket launchers, artillery, tanks, mortars, and missiles.

Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said on May 24 that battles being fought in eastern Ukraine could determine its future.

"Now we are observing the most active phase of the full-scale aggression which Russia unfolded against our country," Motuzyanyk told a televised briefing. "The situation on the [eastern] front is extremely difficult, because the fate of this country is perhaps being decided [there] right now."

Workers digging through the rubble of an apartment building in Mariupol, the Sea of Azov port city that was besieged and shelled relentlessly for months by Russian forces, found 200 decomposing bodies in the basement, Ukrainian authorities said on May 24.

Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the mayor, did not say when they were discovered, but the number of victims makes it one of the deadliest known attacks of the war.

Meanwhile, British intelligence warned that Russia's blockade of Ukraine's key port of Odesa has caused grain supply shortfalls that cannot be compensated by overland exports.

WATCH: Veronika from Ukraine's Donetsk Region lost her family in an attack on the high-rise residential building where she lived. Hit by shrapnel, she was left in a coma. Kira from Kharkiv was hit by shelling when she was walking in a park. Her friend was killed.

Aged 15 And 10, These Ukrainian Children Survived Horrific Russian Attacks
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The British Defense Ministry assessed in its daily bulletin on May 25 that as long as the threat of Russia's naval blockade keeps deterring access by commercial shipping to Ukrainian ports, "the resulting supply shortfalls will further increase the price of many staple products."

On May 24, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called for talks with Moscow on unlocking wheat exports trapped in Ukraine as a result of Russia's sea blockade.

"Russian warships in the Black Sea are blockading Ukrainian ships full of wheat and sunflower seeds," von der Leyen told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on May 24.

Russia is using food supplies as a weapon with global repercussions, just like it does in the energy sector, von der Leyen said.

The war and Western sanctions against Russia have sent the price of grain, cooking oil, fertilizer, and energy soaring.

Many countries, including some of the world's poorest, count on Russia and Ukraine, which together account for nearly one-third of the global wheat supply, for more than half of their wheat imports.

Zelenskiy said it will take time and “a lot of extraordinary efforts” for Ukrainians to break Russia's advantage in equipment and weapons, as he again called for Western countries to supply more heavy weapons.

Providing rocket-propelled grenades, tanks, anti-ship, and other weapons to Ukraine is the best investment to maintain stability in the world and prevent many "severe crises" that he said Russia is still planning.

Amid the fighting, two top Russian officials appeared to acknowledge that Moscow’s advance has been slower than expected, though they vowed the offensive would achieve its goals.

Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said the Russian government “is not chasing deadlines.” And Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told a meeting of a Russia-led security alliance of former Soviet states that Moscow is deliberately slowing down its offensive to allow residents of encircled cities to evacuate.

Russian officials also announced that Moscow’s forces had finished clearing mines from the waters off Mariupol and that a safe corridor will open on May 25 for the exit of as many as 70 foreign ships from Ukraine’s southern coast.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, CNN, and the BBC

Germany's Former Chancellor Says He Won't Join Board Of Russia's Gazprom

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will not accept a nomination to the board of Russian energy company Gazprom.

Schroeder said on May 24 on social media that he told Gazprom “some time ago” that he was not interested in the nomination.

Gazprom nominated Schroeder for a supervisory board position shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. The 78-year-old had been due to join Gazprom's supervisory board in June.

The longtime friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin has come under increasing international pressure to sever his ties with Russia's biggest energy companies since Moscow launched the invasion.

Within Germany, Schroeder, who was German chancellor from 1998 to 2005, has faced fierce criticism for years over his work for the companies.

Gazprom has a majority stake in the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany, which was halted by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in one of the West's first responses to the war in Ukraine.

Schroeder's announcement regarding Gazprom comes four days after his resignation from the board of directors of Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft.

German businessman Matthias Warnig also resigned from Rosneft on May 20.

Earlier this month, Schroder had his right to an office at the German parliament in Berlin removed. EU lawmakers separately called in a nonbinding resolution for sanctions against him if he refused to give up lucrative board seats at Russian companies.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, and Reuters

U.S. To End Russia's Ability To Pay Bondholders Through U.S. Banks

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen

The United States will not extend a waiver set to expire on May 25 that allows Russia to pay U.S. bondholders through U.S. banks.

The U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement it would not extend a license that allows Russia to make payments on its sovereign debt.

The waiver had allowed Moscow to keep paying interest and principal and avert default on its government debt.

While the license only applies to U.S. persons, a default would make it very challenging for Russia to make payments to other holders given the part U.S. financial institutions play in the global financial system and the complexity of such payment processes.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said last week that the United States was unlikely to extend the waiver, but added that if Russia is unable to make the payments and it defaults, it would not represent a significant change in Russia's situation because the country is already cut off from global capital markets.

Washington and its allies have imposed heavy sanctions on Russia for launching the invasion of Ukraine, including locking Russia out of the international borrowing markets. A default would mean it could not regain access to those markets until creditors are fully repaid and any legal cases stemming from the default are settled.

The Kremlin appears to have foreseen the likelihood that the United States would not allow Russia to keep paying on its bonds. The Russian Finance Ministry on May 20 prepaid two of the payments that were due this month.

The next payments Russia must make on its debts are due on June 23 and it has a 30-day grace period on those payments.

Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said last week that Moscow would service its external debt in rubles if the United States blocked other options and would not consider itself in default as it had the means to pay.

Russia has not defaulted on its international debts since the revolution in 1917, when the Russian Empire collapsed and the Soviet Union was created.

Since coming to power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it a priority to reduce Russia's foreign debt, which he felt cuffed the country geopolitically.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Orban Imposes New State Of Emergency In Hungary, Saying Ukraine War Poses 'Constant Danger'

“The world is on the brink of an economic crisis. Hungary must stay outside of this war and must protect the families' material security," Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Facebook.

BUDAPEST -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has imposed a new state of emergency in the country, citing the war in Ukraine, which he said “poses a threat to our physical security.”

Speaking in a video message posted on Facebook on May 24, Orban said no one can see an end to the war, which began three months ago when Russia invaded Ukraine.

“This war means a constant danger to Hungary. It poses a threat to our physical security. It threatens our economy and our families in terms of energy supplies and material security," Orban said.

The war and the sanctions imposed by the European Union have led to huge economic turbulence and drastic price increases, he said.

“The world is on the brink of an economic crisis. Hungary must stay outside of this war and must protect the families' material security," he added.

The state of emergency, which is to begin at midnight, enables the government “to react with all available instruments to protect Hungary and Hungarian families,” he said.

Hungary already is under a state of emergency that was declared because of COVID-19, but it is due to expire on May 31.

New rules that will be in effect under the change will be announced on May 25, Orban said.

Shortly before the announcement, the Hungarian parliament amended the constitution to allow for such a measure.

Orban's Fidesz party, which won reelection on April 3, commands a two-thirds majority in the chamber.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) denounced the declaration, saying the state of emergency "has become permanent."

The move gives Orban "more leeway than usual," allowing him to "restrict or simply suspend everybody's fundamental rights," TASZ said.

Orban, in power for 12 years, has been accused by his Western partners of abuses of power in his country, a member of both the European Union and NATO.

With reporting by AFP

Serbian Orthodox Church Recognizes Independence Of Orthodox Church In North Macedonia

A joint liturgy of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Macedonian Orthodox Church in Skopje May 24.

The head of Serbia's Orthodox Church recognized the independence of the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia, signaling an end to a religious dispute dating back more than 50 years.

Patriarch Porfirije, the leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church, announced the decision to recognize the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia during a joint liturgy on May 24 in Skopje.

“Brothers and sisters, we are here to bring you joy," Porfirije said. “God is one, his church is one, and our faith is one. That is why we are rejoicing today. A miracle is happening before us. We are part of that miracle.”

Believers at the joint service and around St. Clement of Ohrid Cathedral greeted the announcement with joy and thunderous applause.

The rift dates back to 1967 when the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia unilaterally announced its independence, or autocephaly, from the Serbian Church. At the time, the two predominantly Orthodox republics were part of Yugoslavia.

Serbian religious leaders condemned the move, and the breakaway church was not recognized by other Orthodox churches.

As he announced the reversal, Porfirije said the synod of Serbia's senior bishops unanimously accepted the change, and an official proclamation of the church's independence is being prepared. The proclamation will be followed by an invitation of acceptance to be sent to other Orthodox churches.

Porfirije expects that all local churches will accept the autocephaly status of the church, whose formal name is the Macedonian Orthodox Church-Ohrid Archbishopric.

Formal recognition of the autocephaly of the church is expected to be officially announced by Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians.

Bartholomew earlier this month acknowledged the Macedonian Orthodox Church as the Church of Ohrid, and the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate followed suit last week.

“We have been waiting to hear this news for a long time. This is the day,” said Archbishop Stefan, head of the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia, as he thanked Bartholomew and Porfirije for their support.

"Once again, we thank you, your holiness, and the members of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church on behalf of the monasticism and the faithful people of the Macedonian Orthodox Church-Ohrid Archbishopric," Archbishop Stefan said.

The news was widely seen in North Macedonia as a historic event, and after the end of the joint liturgy the bells in the cathedral in Skopje continued to ring.

"It is good news that we are finally together after so many years, and the patriarch himself says in Serbian that this is a miracle that happened to us, so we thank God," said Blagica Blazeska, according to RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.

Donco Domazetovski, another worshiper, said it was “a miracle above the miracles” that the church’s autocephaly was recognized and its priests have the right to preach everywhere and build unity.

With reporting by AP and dpa

Poll Shows Near Even Split Among Ukrainians Over Joining NATO

A poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) shows that 39 percent of Ukrainians believe that joining NATO would guarantee the nation's security, while 42 percent believe that in the current environment settling for security guarantees may be acceptable.

The KIIS poll asked 2,000 people whether it would be acceptable not to join the alliance if Ukraine instead received security guarantees from NATO countries.

The poll was conducted May 13-18 via computer-assisted telephone interviews based on a random sample of mobile telephone numbers throughout the country, except in Russian-occupied Crimea.

Nineteen percent of respondents had no opinion or did not agree with either of the options.

Russia has opposed Ukraine becoming a member of NATO and cited the potential of NATO expansion as one of its reasons for launching its invasion three months ago. Kyiv has been working on joining the alliance for years.

As Russia continues its unprovoked invasion, the possibility of Ukraine not joining NATO or postponing the process has been raised at talks between Kyiv and Moscow.

The poll also showed that the population's readiness to abandon the idea of joining NATO and instead obtaining security guarantees from NATO countries is supported by 35 percent of the population in the country's west, which has been less affected by the war, and 50 percent in Ukraine's eastern regions.

At the same time, people who strongly support Ukraine joining NATO is 46 percent in western regions of Ukraine and 25 percent in the country's east.

In Tit-For-Tat Move, Russia Sanctions 154 Members Of Britain's House Of Lords

William Hague, a former U.K. foreign minister, is on the list.

Russia says it is sanctioning 154 members of the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament, in retaliation for similar steps taken against Moscow's foreign envoys and lawmakers over the Kremlin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on May 24 that it had banned the British lawmakers -- including William Hague, a former foreign minister and leader of the Conservative Party in opposition -- from entering Russia.

In March, the British government imposed personal sanctions on "almost all the members" of the Russian parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, the Foreign Ministry said in justifying its move.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, the West slapped wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow, including the exclusion of several banks from the SWIFT messaging system, embargoes on Russian exports, restrictions on investments, asset freezes for government officials and their families, and travel bans for many senior officials.

Russia last month banned entry to 287 British MPs in another tit-for-tat move, saying it had chosen those who played "the most active part" in drawing up anti-Russian sanctions and contributed to "Russophobic hysteria."

The House of Lords has around 800 members.

Russian Court Issues Arrest Warrant For Food Blogger Over Posts On Ukraine War

Veronika Belotserkovskaya

A court in Moscow has issued an arrest warrant for a food blogger and magazine founder for allegedly "spreading fake news" about the Russian military.

The Basmanny district court announced its decision on May 24 to arrest Veronika Belotserkovskaya, who founded the St. Petersburg magazine and website Sobaka. Belotserkovskaya currently lives in France.

On March 16, Russia's Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against the Ukrainian-born Belotserkovskaya, who blogs under the name Belonika, for allegedly spreading false news about the Russian Army on her Instagram account, which has almost 950,000 subscribers.

She was accused of publishing several Instagram posts containing "deliberately false information about the armed forces of the Russian Federation's destruction of cities and civilians in Ukraine, including children, during a special military operation."

Some of the posts cited the coverage of the war by Western news agencies and media outlets.

Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has strictly limited access to information about the war in Ukraine launched by Russia on February 24 and directed media to describe events in Ukraine as a “special military operation” and not a war or an invasion.

On May 14, Russian authorities added Belotserkovskaya to the wanted list.

Following the opening of the criminal case against her in March, Belotserkovskaya transferred ownership of Sobaka to its employees.

PEN America Honors Jailed RFE/RL Journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko

Kateryna Yesypenko demonstrates with a poster featuring her husband's face near the pffice of the president in Kyiv in July 2021.

RFE/RL journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko, who is serving a lengthy prison term in Russia on espionage charges that he and his supporters reject, has been awarded the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, which is given to political prisoners.

Yesypenko, currently serving a six-year sentence in a Russian prison for his reporting in Russian-occupied Crimea, was presented with the award in absentia at the PEN America gala in New York on May 23.

Hollywood actor Michael Douglas presented the award to Yesypenko's wife, Kateryna, and daughter, Stefania.

Kateryna Yesypenko began her acceptance speech on behalf of her husband in English, but then switched to Ukrainian "because of the power of this language," which has gained global recognition because of its usage by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in speeches to world leaders over Russia's unprovoked war.

"My husband has been behind bars for 15 months now. And that is only and entirely because he is a journalist. Vladyslav knew that reporting from the Russian-occupied Crimea is dangerous, but he was confident that people deserve to know what is happening, know the truth.... And I fully support him in that," Kateryna Yesypenko said.

A court in Crimea sentenced Yesypenko in February, after a closed-door trial.

Yesypenko, a dual Russian-Ukrainian citizen who contributes to Crimea.Realities, was detained in Crimea in March 2021 on suspicion of collecting information for Ukrainian intelligence.

Before his arrest, he had worked in Crimea for five years reporting on the social and environmental situation in the region.

Yesypenko testified during a court hearing that the Russian authorities "want to discredit the work of freelance journalists who really want to show the things that really happen in Crimea."

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly called the judgment a "travesty" in a statement released after the sentence was announced.

"As a journalist doing nothing more than reporting the facts, he should never have been detained in the first place, much less put through the physical and mental torture that he has endured over the past 11 months," Fly said.

'Vladyslav needs to be returned home to his wife and daughter immediately."

Press-freedom advocates, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, along with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and the U.S. State Department, are among those who have called for Yesypenko's immediate release in the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing.

Moscow illegally annexed Crimea in early 2014 and weeks later threw its support behind separatists in Ukraine's east.

On February 24, Moscow launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. In recent weeks it has intensified its bombardment of areas in the east to tighten and expand its grip on the areas where the separatists have a stronghold.

Finnish, Swedish Envoys To Turkey To Discuss NATO Bids

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (file photo)

Envoys from Finland and Sweden are due to meet in Ankara on May 25 for talks with Turkish officials regarding the two countries' applications for membership in NATO, which Turkey opposes, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto has said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been vocal in his opposition to Sweden and Finland joining the military alliance, held phone calls with the leaders of the two countries on May 21 and discussed his concerns.

"We are sending our delegations to visit Ankara, actually both Sweden and Finland. This will happen tomorrow, so the dialogue is continuing," Haavisto said during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Erdogan has said he is against the accession of the two Nordic countries because of what he called their support for "terrorist organizations," a reference to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdish militia People's Defense Units (YPG) in Syria.

"We understand that Turkey has some of their own security concerns vis a vis terrorism.... We think that these issues can be settled. There might be also some issues that are not linked directly to Finland and Sweden but more to other NATO members," Haavisto said.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said on May 24 that he was confident the alliance will be able to welcome Sweden and Finland as members.

Stoltenberg told the World Economic Forum in Davos that Russian President Vladimir Putin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine had backfired, leading to a result opposite to what he had wanted.

"He wanted less NATO on his borders and launched a war. And now he is getting more NATO on his borders and more members," Stoltenberg said.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Russia Finally Releases Danish Jehovah's Witness Christensen

Dennis Christensen is escorted inside a courthouse following the verdict announcement in the town of Oryol in February 2019.

Danish Jehovah's Witness Dennis Christensen has been released from prison in Russia after serving a term he was handed on extremism charges that he and his supporters have denied.

The Jehovah's Witnesses' website said on May 24 that Christensen was released from a prison in the Oryol region after serving out his punishment.

Christensen was detained in May 2017 in the city of Oryol, some 320 kilometers south of Moscow, weeks after the Russian Supreme Court ruled to ban the religious group in the country, declaring it "an extremist organization."

In February 2019, Christensen was found guilty of organizing the activities of an extremist group and sentenced to six years in prison. His two years in pretrial detention counted as three years toward his sentence, putting his release date at May 24, 2022.

Several requests Christensen made for early release were denied, including one in 2020 that a court actually approved, only to then reverse itself and refuse to free him, saying it had decided he was a "malicious violator."

The news of Christensen's release comes a day after a court in the city of Prokopevsk sentenced 53-year-old Andrei Vlasov to seven years in prison after finding him guilty of the same charges Christensen was found guilty of.

Prosecutors had sought an 8 1/2-year prison term for Vlasov, who is also a Jehovah's Witness. His defense team said it will appeal the court ruling.

The probe against Vlasov was launched in July 2020 and he was placed under house arrest despite being legally disabled.

Since the faith was outlawed, many Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned in Russia.

According to the group, dozens of Jehovah's Witnesses have either been convicted of extremism or have been held in pretrial detention.

The United States has condemned Russia's ongoing crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious minorities it says are peaceful.

For decades, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.

The Christian group is known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, the rejection of military service, and its refusal to mark national and religious holidays or birthdays.

With reporting by Siberia.Realities

EU's Von Der Leyen Accuses Russia Of Weaponizing Food Supplies

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (file photo)

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says Russia is weaponizing food supplies as prices of grain, cooking oil, and other food commodities soar following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, one of the world's largest wheat producers.

"In Russian-occupied Ukraine, the Kremlin's army is confiscating grain stocks and machinery.... And Russian warships in the Black Sea are blockading Ukrainian ships full of wheat and sunflower seeds," von der Leyen said in an address at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on May 24.

"Russia is now hoarding its own food exports as a form of blackmail -- holding back supplies to increase global prices, or trading wheat in exchange for political support.... This is using hunger and grain to wield power."

She said that for some, this had brought back memories from "a dark past -- the times of the Soviets' crop seizures and the devastating famine of the 1930s," a reference to a famine that killed millions of Ukrainians.

Russia has blamed rising food prices and shortages on the West for imposing sanctions in response to the war.

The German government has accused Russia of blocking the possible shipment of some 20 million tons of grain from Ukraine, while Polish President Andrzej Duda told a panel at the WEF that the food shortages could trigger a wave of migrants from North Africa to Europe.

Von der Leyen said the way to combat Russia's moves to disrupt the food-supply chain was through global cooperation.

With reporting by Reuters and dpa

Navalny's Appeal Denied In Moscow, New Nine-Year Sentence Confirmed

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny appears via video link during a court hearing in Moscow on May 24.

MOSCOW -- A Moscow court has upheld a nine-year prison term for opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who is already behind bars for a previous conviction he and his supporters have called politically motivated.

Navalny took part in the May 24 hearing via a video link from a prison in the Vladimir region.

The Kremlin critic used his final statement in court to condemn the Russian authorities for launching the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and reiterated his previous statements that all of the charges against him are politically motivated.

"It's you, your system, and Putin who are traitors against the Russian people.... I am ready to sit in jail to prove that not everyone in Russia is like this," Navalny told the court.

"What Putin is doing is pointless.... One crazy thief has seized hold of Ukraine, and no one understands what he wants to do with it.... Your time will pass and you will burn in hell," he added.

Navalny was handed the sentence on March 22 after the court found him guilty of embezzlement and contempt charges that he and his supporters have repeatedly rejected as politically motivated.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reacted by saying that the denial of Navalny's appeal "is another example of the Kremlin's quest to suppress dissent and civil society."

The United States respects "the brave citizens of Russia who protest their government's brutal war and endemic corruption, despite threats, criminal charges, detentions and poisonings," he said on Twitter.

Separately on May 24, a different court in Moscow rejected another appeal filed by Navalny, this one against a January decision by the federal financial monitoring service, Rosfinmonitoring, to add him and 11 of his associates to its list of "terrorists and extremists," Navalny’s lawyer told the Interfax news agency.

The entries for Navalny and his associates in Rosfinmonitoring's registry on January 25 put them in the same ranks as right-wing nationalist groups and foreign terrorist organizations such as the Taliban and Islamic State.

Several of Navalny's associates were subsequently charged with establishing an extremist group. Many of them have fled the country amid pressure from the Russian authorities.

Navalny was arrested in January last year upon his arrival to Moscow from Germany, where he was treated for a poison attack with what European labs defined as a Soviet-style nerve agent.

He was then handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of an earlier parole because of his convalescence abroad. The original conviction is widely regarded as a trumped-up, politically motivated case.

Navalny has blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for his poisoning with a Novichok-style chemical substance. The Kremlin has denied any role in the attack.

International organizations consider Navalny a political prisoner.

The European Union, U.S. President Joe Biden, and other international officials have demanded Russia release the 45-year-old Kremlin-critic.

Navalny is currently serving his term in a prison in the town of Pokrov, some 200 kilometers east of Moscow. He is expected to be transferred to a stricter regime prison for the new conviction.

With reporting by Mediazona and Interfax

Ex-Moldovan President Dodon Detained After Home Searched By Anti-Corruption Police

Igor Dodon lost the presidential election in November 2020.

CHISINAU -- The former president of Moldova, Igor Dodon, has been detained by Moldovan authorities on corruption charges, the Prosecutor-General's Office said on May 24.

Senior anti-corruption prosecutor Elena Kazakov announced that Dodon was detained after searches of his home, office, and cars during which several luxury goods, foreign currency, receipts, and other documents were found.

Kazakov, speaking at a briefing, identified Dodon as the main subject of the investigation but said that "intermediaries" also were subjects of the probe.

The goods and money that prosecutors say were used to commit crimes exceed tens of millions of lei -- hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars -- and include real estate and vehicles, she said.

The documents found at Dodon’s home confirm real estate transactions that exceed 700,000 euros, Kazakov said, adding that two people have been detained for trying to hide evidence. One of them tried to destroy evidence by swallowing it, she said, without specifying what it was.

Moldovan media reported that the person was identified as the brother-in-law of the former head of state and that he allegedly swallowed a receipt.

Prosecutors said they found 600,000 lei in one of the locations subject to the search and that an envelope with the insignia of an unspecified party contained foreign currency of more than 17,000 euros and $1,000.

The Prosecutor-General's Office announced the search earlier on May 24, saying it was being conducted by anti-corruption authorities.

The Moldovan-Russian Business Union, headed by Dodon since its founding in February, was among the offices searched.

Late on May 24, Dodon declared his innocence and blamed pro-Western President Maia Sandu, who he said wanted to distract people from the country's economic woes.

"Dear citizens, I want to assure you that for every element of interest to the prosecutors I have the necessary explanations that remove any suspicion of corruption or breaking the law," Dodon said in an online message. "This politically motivated case is fabricated."

Dodon, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was president of Moldova from 2016-2020. He was defeated in November 2020 by Sandu, a U.S.-educated politician who ran on a ticket of closer relations with the West.

The Kremlin said it is "naturally alarmed that such a practice and persecution once again affects those who advocate the development of friendly relations with Russia for mutual benefit."

Spokesman Dmitry Peskov called on the Moldovan authorities to ensure Dodon's rights are respected.

At a news conference on the issue, members of Dodon's Party of Socialists said the actions were part of a "two-penny show" meant to distract the public's attention from poverty and social issues.

Vlad Batrincea, deputy chairman of the party, said he believed the actions of the investigators were a politically motivated move by authorities loyal to Sandu.

"This is a dangerous game. Those who go against the opposition want to provoke destabilization," Batrincea said at a briefing.

A representative of Sandu, who is currently in the United States to celebrate her 50th birthday, did not respond to a request for comment, according to Reuters.

Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, formally applied for European Union membership in March after Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Despite its lack of wealth and size, Moldova, which has a population of about 2.6 million people, has taken in more than 472,000 refugees from neighboring Ukraine.

With reporting by Reuters,, and

Russia Issues Arrest Warrant For Self-Exiled Journalist Naki

Maikl Naki

A court in Moscow has issued an arrest warrant for well-known journalist Maikl Naki, who is currently outside of Russia, accusing him of distributing false information about the Russian military as Moscow's war against Ukraine continues.

Naki reacted to the Basmanny district court's May 24 decision by saying on Twitter that the judge who announced the ruling, along with state investigators, "will face trials before me, I have no doubt about that."

Naki is a former journalist at the radio station Ekho Moskvy, which halted operations in March after the Prosecutor-General's Office said the broadcaster, known to be critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was distributing what authorities called information "calling for extremist activities, violence, and premeditated false information" about Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Media across the country have been instructed by the government that Russia's actions in Ukraine cannot be called a "war" or an "invasion," and should instead be referred to as a "special military operation."

Naki has his own YouTube channel with 726,000 subscribers. He uses it to regularly report about the war in Ukraine.

The founder of the Conflict Intelligence Team, Ruslan Leviyev, is a suspect in the same case. The Basmanny district court issued an arrest warrant for Leviyev on May 18.

Leviyev's team investigates armed conflicts in Ukraine and other parts of the world. Leviyev is a frequent guest on Naki's YouTube channel.

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