Iraq Declares Victory As U.S. Troops Leave Cities
As part of a security pact signed between Baghdad and Washington last year, U.S. combat forces must leave urban centers by June 30 and the entire force that invaded Iraq in 2003 must be gone by 2012.
"It is a great victory for Iraqis that we are taking the first step toward ending the foreign presence in Iraq," Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told a conference of leaders from the ethnic-Turkish Turkoman community.
"I, and you, are sure that many don't want us to succeed and celebrate this victory. They are getting themselves ready to move in the dark to destabilize the situation, but we will be ready for them, God willing."
A series of devastating bomb attacks in April cast doubt on the ability of Iraqi security forces to take over from U.S. troops in protecting the population from mainly Sunni Islamist insurgents, including Al-Qaeda, and other violent groups.
But the bloodshed fell back again significantly in May, and June has also seen few large-scale attacks.
It is not clear if that is due to the efforts of Iraqi police and soldiers, or if it means that insurgent groups, beaten back over the past two years in most of Iraq, now lack the organization and support to keep up the momentum for long.
The sectarian bloodshed and insurgency unleashed by the invasion peaked in 2006-07, but volatile and ethnically mixed cities like Mosul and Baquba remain dangerous. Baghdad also continues to see a steady stream of bombings and shootings.
"Don't lose heart if a breach of security occurs here or there," Maliki said, reiterating a warning that insurgents were likely to try to take advantage of the U.S. pullback to launch more attacks.
Analysts warn there may also be a spike in violence ahead of parliamentary elections next January.
Maliki, a Shi'ite Muslim, called for national unity among Iraq's fractured groups but took the opportunity to take a stab at Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein and formed the core of the resistance to the U.S. invasion.
Many Sunnis mistrust Maliki and fear the prime minister is not overly interested in giving a fair slice of power to Sunnis, who repressed Iraq's majority Shi'a under Saddam.
"Those who spoke of the need to resist the occupation are today talking about the opposite, that the [foreign] forces should stay," Maliki said, referring to Sunni fears that without a U.S. presence they will be left unprotected.
"It is impossible for the multinational forces to stay. If we speak of keeping the foreign forces here, it means we have no confidence in ourselves, in our unity, in our brotherhood, and in the competence of our forces."
- By dpa
Armenia, Turkey To Partially Reopen Land Border
Armenia and Turkey plan to permanently open border crossings between the two countries for the first time in three decades, Armenian officials announced on March 24. The land border will initially open only for diplomats and citizens of third countries until the beginning of the tourist season, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan said. There is already direct air traffic between Armenia and Turkey. Turkey unilaterally closed the land border in 1993 in support of Azerbaijan. The border closure has caused serious economic problems for Armenia, which continues to fight a bloody conflict with Azerbaijan over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia Claims Azerbaijan Violated Cease-Fire With Armenia
The Russian Defense Ministry accused Azerbaijan of violating a Moscow-brokered cease-fire agreement by allowing its troops to cross over a set demarcation line. Presidents of the three countries in November 2020 signed a cease-fire agreement to end a war between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku and Yerevan have for decades been locked in conflict over the region. On March 25, Azerbaijan stated it had taken control of some roads in the region to prevent Armenian forces from digging a trench. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, click here. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, click here.
UN Nuclear Watchdog Chief To Visit Ukraine's Russian-Held Zaporizhzhya Plant
KYIV – The United Nations nuclear watchdog has said Director-General Rafael Grossi will travel next week to the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, which was seized by Russian forces shortly after they invaded Ukraine.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a statement on March 25 that Grossi will "assess firsthand the serious nuclear safety and security situation at the facility and underline the urgent need to protect it during the ongoing military conflict in the country."
Grossi in the past has expressed concerns that the world was becoming complacent about the dangers posed at the Zaporizhzhya site, which has been the scene of heavy fighting and shelling since the Russian takeover last year.
Next week's visit will be the second for Grossi, who will cross the front lines of the war into Russian-held territory to reach the plant. He first traveled there in September 2022.
IAEA inspectors have been stationed at the plant in cooperation with Russian and Ukrainian forces.
"I've decided to travel again to the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant to see for myself how the situation has evolved since September and to talk to those operating the facility in these unprecedented and very difficult circumstances," Grossi said.
"I remain determined to continue doing everything in my power to help reduce the risk of a nuclear accident during the tragic war in Ukraine,” Grossi added, noting that the situation at the site "is still precarious" despite the IAEA presence.
He said his visit to Ukraine was also aimed at ensuring that the regular rotation of IAEA experts to and from the site is maintained and improved, "following the very challenging circumstances faced by the experts during the previous rotation in February which had been delayed by almost a month."
The IAEA said Grossi will be accompanied by a group of IAEA experts, the seventh such rotating team to visit the site.
Grossi is also leading negotiations with Iran concerning details of Tehran's promise to allow additional monitoring and provide further information on its nuclear program, which it claims is for civilian purposes.
Hungary: Criticism Makes It Hard To Cooperate With West
The West's steady criticism of Hungary on democratic and cultural issues makes the country's right-wing government reluctant to offer support on practical matters, specifically NATO's buildup against Russia, Hungary’s foreign minister said. In an AP interview, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto also said his country had not voted on whether to allow Finland and Sweden to join NATO because Hungarian lawmakers are sick of those countries' critiques of Hungarian domestic affairs. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Putin Says Russia Will Station Tactical Nuclear Weapons In Belarus
Russian President Vladimir Putin says Moscow has reached agreement to station tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of close ally Belarus, which borders both Russia and Ukraine.
Russia's state-run TASS news agency on March 25 quoted Putin as claiming there was "nothing unusual" about the move and that it did not violate existing nuclear nonproliferation treaties.
"We agreed with [Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr] Lukashenka that we would place tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus without violating the nonproliferation regime," TASS quoted the Russian leader as saying.
"There is nothing unusual here either: firstly, the United States has been doing this for decades. They have long deployed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allied countries," he said. "We agreed that we will do the same.”
Putin added that Russia was building a storage facility in Belarus and that Moscow would not be transferring control of the weapons to Minsk authorities.
The White House later said it was aware of Putin’s announcement and was monitoring the situation. It said it did not see any immediate reason to adjust its nuclear stance nor any indications Russia is preparing to use such weapons.
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is a landmark pact aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, signed by more than 190 countries and entered into force in 1970.
Putin on March 25 also threatened to deploy depleted uranium ammunition to its military fighting in Ukraine if the West sent such munitions to Kyiv. A British official recently suggested London might do so.
"Russia, of course, has what it needs to answer. Without exaggeration, we have hundreds of thousands of such shells. We have not used them yet," Putin told Russian television.
Militaries use depleted uranium munitions for their armor-piercing capability in battles against tanks and armored vehicles.
With reporting by TASS, Reuters, and AFP
Rain, Floods Kill At Least Three In Afghanistan
The Taliban rulers of Afghanistan say rain and floods over the past two days have killed at least three people and injured at least seven. Spokesman Shafiullah Rahimi said in a video message on March 25 that the floods destroyed 756 houses in Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar, Balkh, Farah, Zabul, Faryab, Uruzgan, and Nuristan provinces. The Taliban rulers have been struggling to deal with natural disasters, including earthquakes, along with a deadly Islamic State insurgency since seizing power in August 2021. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.
Iran-Backed Fighters On Alert In East Syria After U.S. Strikes, Activists Say
Iran-backed fighters were on alert in eastern Syria on March 25, a day after U.S. forces launched retaliatory air strikes on sites in the war-torn country, opposition activists said. The air strikes came after a suspected Iranian-made drone killed a U.S. contractor and wounded six other Americans on March 23. The situation was calm following a day in which rockets were fired at bases housing U.S. troops in eastern Syria. The rockets came after U.S. air strikes on three different areas in Syria's eastern province of Deir el-Zour, opposition activists said. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Defiant Belarusian Opposition Marks Freedom Day As Western Leaders Vow Continued Support
The Belarusian opposition -- bolstered by vows of support from Western leaders -- marked the country's Freedom Day on March 25 by declaring continued resistance to authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, with one exiled leader saying that citizens had not "given up on the dream" of a free country.
The day marks the 105th anniversary of the 1918 declaration of an independent Belarus and is traditionally celebrated by the Belarusian opposition, many of whom have fled into exile or been imprisoned by Lukashenka's regime, which the West has condemned for its ongoing crackdown on the pro-democracy movement and civil society.
Opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who now lives in Lithuania, issued a video statement noting that Belarusians had not "given up on the dream" of "a free Belarus."
"The trials of the past years have shown how intertwined our past is with the present and the future," she said. “This is the holiday of our will to freedom and independence, dear Belarusians.”
The Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
A court in Minsk on March 6 sentenced Tsikhanouskaya in absentia to 15 years in prison on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government, creating and leading an extremist group, inciting hatred, and harming national security -- allegations widely considered in the West to be politically motivated.
Events marking Belarusian Freedom Day were planned in several countries, including Ukraine, Georgia, the Czech Republic, Germany, and the United States.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell reasserted the bloc's "commitment to support the Belarusian people," adding that "under extreme circumstances," Belarusians were standing up for their "rights and freedoms."
The U.S. State Department said in a statement that "Despite the Lukashenka regime's complicity in Russia's war against Ukraine, brave Belarusians continue to stand up for an independent, stable, and democratic future for Belarus."
"In the face of the Lukashenka regime's brutal and systemic crackdown on all sectors of Belarusian society, the Belarusian democratic movement and civil society still courageously push forward for a free Belarus."
The comments came a day after the U.S. Treasury Department issued new Belarus-related sanctions against nine individuals and three entities in response to the crackdown on the country's pro-democracy movement.
The sanctions announcement by the department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) identified as being blocked a Boeing 737 that the Treasury Department said had been used by Lukashenka and his family for official business and personal trips, including to international locations.
Tension and protests intensified in Belarus following the 2020 presidential election.
Syarhey Tsikhanouski -- the husband of Tsikhanouskaya and a popular video blogger -- announced his candidacy in the election to challenge Lukashenka.
However, he was disqualified by the authorities, arrested, and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Tsikhanouskaya then mounted her own campaign.
Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory in a vote that has not been recognized by the opposition and Western countries, who say he had the results rigged in his favor and that the real winner was Tsikhanouskaya.
Recruiting Convicts For Ukraine War Has 'Reduced Crime In Russia'
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-connected businessman who controls the Wagner mercenary group, has defended the firm’s practice of recruiting convicts to fight in Ukraine. In a statement published by Prigozhin's press service, he said more than 5,000 convicts had been pardoned and returned to civilian life after serving six months in combat. According to Prigozhin, less than 1 percent committed another crime within one month of returning to Russia, which he claimed was significantly lower than the typical recidivism rate. "We reduced crime in Russia by a factor of 10," Prigozhin claimed. None of Prigozhin's claims could be independently verified. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Chechnya's Kadyrov Decorated For Defending Human Rights
The controversial head of Russia's Chechnya region, Ramzan Kadyrov, has been decorated as an "honored human rights defender of the Chechen Republic." He was cited for "outstanding services in the defense of the constitutional rights and liberties of the citizenry," according to Russian state media on March 24. Kadyrov, who has ruled Chechnya since 2007, has been widely accused of mass rights abuses, including torture, abductions, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, the assassination of political enemies, and the persecution of homosexuals. Kadyrov has more than 30 high state honors. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Russian Lawmaker Calls For Ban On ICC Activity In Russia
The pro-Kremlin speaker of the lower house of Russia's parliament has called for his country to ban the activities of the International Criminal Court (ICC) after it issued an arrest warrant on possible war crimes for President Vladimir Putin. Vyacheslav Volodin posted on Telegram on March 25 that Russia should adopt a law criminalizing any "support or assistance" to the ICC. Earlier this month, the ICC issued a warrant for Putin, accusing him of illegally deporting hundreds of Ukrainian children to Russia. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Nordic Countries Combine Air Defenses To Counter Russian Threat
Military officials in four Nordic countries have announced the creation of a unified air-defense force to counter the perceived threat from Russia. Air-force commanders from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden on March 24 said their forces would be integrated to operate jointly on the basis of NATO standards. Danish Air Force commander Major General Jan Dam told Reuters the move was a result of Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The countries have about 400 modern jet fighters either in service or on order. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
UN Rights Official Concerned Over Summary Executions Of POWs By Both Russia, Ukraine
The United Nations has expressed deep concerned over what it says were summary executions of prisoners of war (POWs) by both Russian and Ukrainian forces on the battlefield.
The head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, Matilda Bogner, said at a press conference in Kyiv on March 24 that her organization had recently recorded killings by both sides.
"We are deeply concerned about...summary execution of up to 25 Russian prisoners of war and persons [out of action because of injury] by the Ukrainian armed forces, which we have documented," Bogner said.
Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine
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"This was often perpetrated immediately upon capture on the battlefield," she said.
"While we are aware of ongoing investigations by Ukraine authorities into five cases involving 22 victims, we are not aware of any prosecution of the perpetrators," she added.
Almost half of the 229 Russian prisoners of war interviewed by members of the mission claimed torture or ill-treatment, according to Bogner.
Bogner also expressed deep concern over the alleged executions of 15 Ukrainian prisoners by Russian armed forces after their capture. She said the Wagner mercenary group was responsible for 11 of those killings.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry reacted to the report by thanking the UN mission for documenting violations of international law by Russia in the course of its aggression against Ukraine.
"At the same time, we consider it unacceptable to place responsibility on the victim of aggression. According to the UN Charter, Ukraine has the right to self-defense," the ministry said.
Kyiv expects that the UN mission "will avoid any steps that could be interpreted as equating the victim and the aggressor," the ministry said.
Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian parliament's commissioner for human rights, said Ukraine adhered to the Geneva Conventions, the international law regarding the treatment of prisoners of war.
With reporting by AFP
Biden: U.S. Does Not Seek Conflict With Iran But Will 'Forcefully' Protect Americans In Syria
U.S. President Joe Biden has said the United States does not seek conflict with Iran but will respond to protect its personnel in Syria and elsewhere.
The United States is prepared "to act forcefully to protect our people. That's exactly what happened last night," Biden said after he ordered a retaliatory air strike on sites in Syria used by groups affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Biden, who spoke to reporters during a visit to Ottawa, Canada, ordered the air strike after a U.S. contractor was killed and six other Americans were injured in an attack on March 23 blamed on groups affiliated with Iran in northeast Syria.
The deadly attack by a kamikaze drone struck a maintenance facility on a base of the U.S.-led coalition near Hasakeh in northeastern Syria, the Pentagon said.
The United States has maintained about 900 troops in posts across northeastern Syria to keep pressure on groups affiliated with the Islamic State group and to support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against the Syrian government.
The Pentagon said two F-15 fighters launched the retaliatory attack early on March 24. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the attack killed 11 pro-Iranian fighters -- six at a weapons depot in Deir el-Zour city and five others at military posts near two towns.
Two Syrian opposition activist groups later on March 24 reported a new wave of air strikes in eastern Syria against positions of Iran-backed militias.
The new wave of air strikes came after rockets were fired at a Conoco gas plant that has a base housing U.S. troops. It was not immediately clear if U.S. warplanes carried out the attack.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in the Pentagon statement that the U.S. intelligence community had determined the drone that killed the U.S. contractor was of Iranian origin but offered no evidence to support the claim.
The statement said its retaliatory "precision" strikes were intended to protect and defend U.S. personnel and were "proportionate and deliberate" and intended to limit the risk of escalation and minimize casualties.
"As President Biden has made clear, we will take all necessary measures to defend our people and will always respond at a time and place of our choosing," Austin said. "No group will strike our troops with impunity."
With reporting by AP and AFP
Ukraine Says No Letup On Bakhmut Front Despite Claims Russian Offensive Stalling
Fierce fighting continues near the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, with Russia launching dozens of attacks over the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said in a March 25 briefing.
The Ukrainian General Staff said there had been 59 clashes along the Bakhmut front in the areas of Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, Maryinka, and Shaktarsk, the same areas that have seen intense fighting over the last several weeks.
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Ukraine's military says it has seen no letup in Russian operations in the Bakhmut area, despite claims by some analysts that Moscow's monthslong offensive is weakening.
On March 24, Ukrainian commander in chief updated a British military leader on the ongoing battle for Bakhmut, advising him that while the fighting was "difficult," Ukrainian forces had been able to stabilize the situation.
Valeriy Zaluzhniy spoke with Admiral Tony Radakin, Britain's chief of the Defense Staff, informing him about the operational situation along the entire front line.
"The Bakhmut direction is the most difficult. Thanks to the titanic efforts of the defense forces, it is possible to stabilize the situation," Zaluzhniy said.
The claims could not be independently verified.
The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War wrote that "the wider Russian spring offensive appears to be culminating" and that "Russian military command will need to commit a significant number of forces to the front line to...launch renewed offensive operations."
Ukrainian forces carried out air strikes against Russian positions in the area and reportedly downed a Russian Mi-24 military helicopter.
The statements could not be independently verified.
He added that he and Radakin also discussed strengthening Ukrainian air defense, and the parties "agreed to develop cooperation and maintain communication."
In an interview with Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his country was waiting for "ammunition from our partners" before launching any major offensives.
"Ukraine cannot send its brave defenders into a counteroffensive without sufficient weapons," he said.
In southern Ukraine, the Territorial Defense Force in the Kherson region reported on March 25 that there had been numerous attacks and shelling incidents in the area over the previous 24 hours.
Some of the shelling struck residential areas, the statement said, and two civilians were killed.
The Kherson city council on March 24 advised residents living close to the Dnieper River to leave for "safer areas."
"Due to constant attacks, it is impossible to ensure stable heat and water supplies there," the council wrote on Telegram. "The best option to protect yourself and your loved ones is to evacuate to safer areas."
Officials said they had arranged free bus transportation form Kherson to the Black Sea port city of Odesa and that 59 civilians had been evacuated on March 24.
Right-Wing Serbian Parties Protest Agreement With Kosovo On Anniversary Of NATO Bombing Campaign
Supporters of four right-wing Serbian opposition parliamentary parties on March 24 demonstrated in Belgrade, blocking traffic and demanding the government reject a plan agreed last weekend by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti on the process of normalizing relations between their two countries.
Protesters also called for Vucic's resignation and early elections.
Banners saying "No to capitulation," "Serbia remembers," and "Resignation to Vucic" were unfurled in front of the government's headquarters. Some of the protesters wore T-shirts sporting the letter Z, a symbol used by Russian forces in their invasion of Ukraine.
"The government of the Republic of Serbia and Vucic do not have a mandate to negotiate the handover of Kosovo," Nikola Dragicevic of the right-wing Zavetnici party said in addressing the media in front of the government building.
The protest started symbolically at 12:44 p.m. UN Resolution 1244, passed by the Security Council in June 1999, authorized the deployment of an international civilian and military presence whose mission was to provide a transitional administration in Kosovo and oversee the development of democratic institutions.
The date of the protest -- March 24 -- was also the 24th anniversary of the start of a 78-day NATO bombing campaign that drove Serbian forces out of Kosovo.
The right-wing parliamentary parties that took part in the protest maintain close ties with Russia, and their representatives traveled to Moscow in recent months.
The parties have 28 out of 250 deputies in parliament. Representatives of the group consider the EU and U.S.-backed agreement between Vucic and Kurti an ultimatum for recognition of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.
The plan envisages normalization of relations without formal recognition. It calls for Serbia to no longer block Kosovo's participation in international organizations, while Kosovo would allow the formation of the Community of Municipalities with a Serbian majority in Kosovo.
At a meeting in Ohrid, North Macedonia, on March 18, Vucic and Kurti agreed on ways to implement the deal. Although Vucic and Kurti did not sign any documents in Ohrid, European mediators expect the parties to implement all articles of the agreement.
The United States and most EU countries recognize Kosovo’s independence, but Belgrade, Russia, and China do not. Serbia still claims Kosovo as its territory.
With reporting by Mila Djurdjevic
- By AFP
EU Task Force Chief Acknowledges Difficulty Of Seizing Russian Assets In Legal Manner
EU plans to seize Russian assets following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine are unprecedented and tricky, the chief of the EU task force said on March 24. From oligarchs' yachts to the Russian central bank's foreign reserves, there is a mountain of wealth to be had, but seizing it in a legal manner is easier said than done, Swedish diplomat Anders Ahnlid told AFP in an interview in Stockholm. "Nothing is simple" when it comes to finding and seizing the massive sums, which are to be diverted to pay for Ukraine's reconstruction, Ahnlid said, but Europe plans to be "innovative." To read the original story by AFP, click here.
Russia-China Partnership Has Limits, EU's Borrell Says
China's partnership with Russia has limits, despite rhetoric to the contrary, and Europe should welcome any attempts by Beijing to distance itself from Moscow's war in Ukraine, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. Borrell's remarks follow a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who declared a "no limits" partnership in February 2022, just days before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Borrell said that while China had forged close economic and diplomatic ties with Russia, it had not formed a military alliance and had not supplied arms to help Russia with its war in Ukraine. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Iranian Activist Sentenced To 18 Years After Calls For Khamenei's Resignation
Iran's judiciary has confirmed an 18-year prison sentence for activist Fatemeh Sepehri, an outspoken critic of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after calling on him to resign.
In February, Asghar Sepehri, Sepehri's brother, wrote on Twitter that his sister had informed him during a phone call from prison that the Islamic Revolutionary Court had handed her the sentence.
He said the sentence includes 10 years for propaganda activities against the Islamic republic, five years for cooperation with hostile governments, two years for insulting the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, and one year for gathering and conspiring against national security.
On March 23, Dostali Makki, Fateme Sepehari's lawyer, said the sentence had been confirmed by the court and that the sentence would be implemented.
Makki added that the court did not accept his representation of Sepehri, thus keeping them from appealing the initial verdict.
According to the laws of the Islamic republic, if a convict is sentenced to several prison sentences in one case, the longest prison sentence will be implemented. In this case, Sepehri must spend the next 10 years in prison.
Sepehri is one of 14 activists in Iran who have publicly called for Khamenei to step down. She has been arrested and interrogated several times in recent years.
She and the other activists have also called for a new political system within the framework of a new constitution that would secure dignity and equal rights for women.
Criticism of Khamenei, who has the last say on almost every decision in Iran, is considered a red line in Iran, and his critics often land in prison, where political prisoners are routinely held in solitary confinement and subjected to various forms of torture.
Sepehri was arrested by security forces on September 21, at the beginning of nationwide protests in Iran over the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was taken into custody by Iran's morality police for allegedly violating the country's hijab law. She died while in detention.
Since the unrest erupted, lawmakers and security officials have threatened harsher and harsher treatment for protesters and anyone expressing dissent.
Human rights groups say the crackdown has left more than 500 people dead and hundreds more injured. Several people have been executed.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Iranian Women Arrested After Altercation With Hijab Enforcer
Three Iranian women have been arrested after arguing with another woman who was attempting to enforce rules on wearing a head scarf in the central city of Yazd.
According to a report published by the Asr Iran news website, the three women were visiting a tourist site in the city of Yazd on March 21, the first day of the Iranian New Year, when another woman warned them to observe the country's hijab law.
A physical fight ensued. Police intervened to break up the fight and arrested the three women, who were accused of not observing the hijab law. The woman who gave the warning and instigated the conflict was not arrested.
Such acts of civil disobedience have increased in Iran, where the country's Hijab and Chastity Law requires women and girls over the age of 9 to wear a head scarf in public.
In recent weeks, officials have warned women to respect the hijab law and have threatened to punish violators. The authorities have also shut down businesses, restaurants, cafes, and in some cases pharmacies due to the failure of owners or managers to observe Islamic laws and hijab rules.
Judiciary chief Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei warned on March 6 that women who violate the hijab rule will be punished, saying that removing the head scarf shows “enmity towards the establishment and its values.”
Since the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody after allegedly breaking the hijab law, Iranians have flooded into the streets across the country to protest against a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls putting up unprecedented shows of support in what is considered one of the biggest threats to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
In response, the authorities have launched a brutal crackdown on dissent, detaining thousands and handing down stiff sentences, including the death penalty, to protesters.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
- By Current Time
Russian Interior Ministry Adds Self-Exiled Former Putin Speechwriter To Wanted List
The Russian Interior Ministry has added to its wanted list a self-exiled former speechwriter of Vladimir Putin, Abbas Gallyamov, known for his analyses of political and social developments in Russia and the Kremlin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine and interviews he has given to multiple media outlets, including RFE/RL.
Mediazona on March 24 said it found the official notice identifying Gallyamov as wanted on the ministry’s website. The notice apparently was posted a day after RFE/RL published an extensive interview with Gallyamov.
Gallyamov, who is currently residing in Israel, told the Mozhem Obyasnit (We Can Explain) Telegram channel that most likely he is wanted on a charge of discrediting Russia's armed forces involved in Kremlin's full-scale aggression against Ukraine. As an independent political observer, he often shares his views and opinions on YouTube, Facebook, and other online platforms.
In the recent interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Gallyamov suggested that the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine may lead to a revolution in Russia.
He also reflected on his time as a member of Putin's speechwriting team after Putin became prime minister in 2008. He said that, at that time, nobody could have predicted "that Russia would turn into some kind of fascist state, as it is now."
Gallyamov told Mozhem Obyasnit that he had not received any official orders or subpoenas related to the notice that he has been added to the Russian Interior Ministry's wanted list.
Discrediting the Russian armed forces became a crime under a new law adopted after Russia sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022.
Gallyamov said the charge is being used "against anyone who refuses to amplify the Kremlin's playbook and tries to conduct an objective, impartial analysis of what's going on.”
Adding him to the wanted list is a signal to others who criticize the government or the war, he told the AP.
“It's not an attempt to get to me -- it is impossible. It's a message for the rest,” he said. “As in, ‘Don’t criticize, don't think that your independent view of what's happening will remain unpunished.'”
Gallyamov told Mozhem Obyasnit that "tons of probes” have been launched by Russian authorities, even against people who were never part of the official system in Russia.
Russian authorities “are concerned about those who tell the truth based on logic that contradicts the [Kremlin's] official line," Gallyamov said, stressing that by adding him to the wanted list, Russian authorities "made a good advertisement" for him.
The Russian Justice Ministry last month added Gallyamov to its registry of "foreign agents," saying that he has distributed “materials compiled by foreign agents, expressed ideas against the special military operation in Ukraine, participated as an expert, and responded on information platforms presented by foreign entities."
Gallyamov, 50, worked as a speechwriter for Putin from 2008-10. He was a deputy chief in the administration of Rustem Khamitov, the president of Russia's Republic of Bashkortostan from 2010-14.
With reporting by AP and Mediazona
New U.S. Sanctions Target Individuals, Entities, Assets In Belarus, Including Lukashenka's Jet
The U.S. Treasury Department on March 24 issued new Belarus-related sanctions against nine individuals and three entities in response to an ongoing crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy movement and civil society.
The sanctions announcement by the department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) identified as blocked a Boeing 737 that the Treasury Department said has been used by authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his family for official business and personal trips, including to international locations.
The OFAC singled out two other entities for sanctions -- the Belarusian Automobile Plant (BelAZ) and the Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ) -- saying both plants threatened employees "who took part in strikes and peaceful protests in the aftermath of the fraudulent August 2020 presidential election."
Protest participants were intimidated and then laid off at MAZ and were threatened with layoffs at BelAZ, according to the Treasury Department.
BelAZ is one of the largest manufacturers of large trucks and dump trucks in the world, according to the Treasury Department, and Lukashenka has described it as a “Belarusian brand” and “part of the national legacy.”
Both BelAZ and MAZ, one of the biggest automotive manufacturers in Belarus and a significant source of revenue for the Lukashenka regime, were designated for being owned or controlled by the Belarusian government. They were previously designated by the European Union and Canada.
OFAC also blacklisted BelAZ’s director, Sergei Nikiforovich, and MAZ’s director, Valery Ivankovich, citing their roles as officials of the Belarusian government.
“The authoritarian Lukashenka regime relies on state-owned enterprises and key officials to generate substantial revenue that enables oppressive acts against the Belarusian people,” Brian Nelson, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in the Treasury Department's statement announcing the sanctions. “We remain committed to imposing costs on the Lukashenka regime for its suppression of democracy and support for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war of choice.”
The OFAC also blacklisted seven recently appointed members of the Belarusian Central Election Commission (CEC), which is already under sanctions.
The department said the CEC “played a role in barring opposition candidates, denying access to poll observers, and certifying inaccurate vote tallies.”
OFAC previously designated senior members of the CEC in the wake of the August 2020 presidential election, which Lukashenka claimed he won, while opposition politicians and activists say the vote was rigged. The action on March 24 adds members of the commission who joined since the election.
The sanctions freeze any property held in U.S. jurisdiction by the individuals and entities. In addition, people in the United States who engage in transactions with those designated may themselves be exposed to sanctions, the Treasury Department said.
The State Department on March 24 concurrently announced visa restrictions on an additional 14 individuals, including regime officials “involved in policies to threaten and intimidate brave Belarusians exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms at great personal cost.”
The United States will continue to impose “costs” on the Belarusian regime and on people who support it “for their repression of the people of Belarus, and the regime’s ongoing support for Russia’s unprovoked and illegal war against Ukraine,” the State Department statement said.
Siberian Journalist Imprisoned For Anti-War Stance Says She Was Beaten While In Custody
Siberian journalist Maria Ponomarenko, who was sentenced to six years in prison last month on a charge of discrediting Russia’s armed forces involved in Moscow ongoing invasion of Ukraine, says she was beaten while in custody.
Telegram channel RusNews carried Ponomarenko's handwritten letter on March 24, in which the journalist wrote that after she was transferred to a detention center in the city of Biisk, guards took away some of her belongings and food that her mother had brought and ordered her to take her clothes off, which she refused to do before having what she described as a nervous breakdown.
According to Ponomarenko, the guards then called medical personnel from a local psychiatric clinic, who arrived and then began to beat her, hitting her in the back and head before slamming her body on a desk and a bench. She added she was punched several times and that the attacks continued even once she was inside an ambulance.
Ponomarenko wrote that she was kept in a psychiatric clinic for three days, where she was also intimidated and even beaten by a nurse named Maxim for drinking her cocoa too slowly.
Ponomarenko's lawyer, Dmitry Shitov, told RFE/RL that his client is now back in a detention center in Biisk, adding that he learned about Ponomarenko's ordeal a day earlier.
Ponomarenko, a mother of two young children, was arrested in St. Petersburg in April 2022 and later transferred to her native city of Barnaul in Siberia, where she worked for the RusNews website.
The charge against her stemmed from her online posts about an attack by Russian military jets against a theater in the Ukrainian port of Mariupol that killed hundreds of civilians, including children.
Ponomarenko said in July that while in pretrial detention she was forcibly taken to a psychiatric clinic where she was ordered to undergo a "psychiatric evaluation" and forcibly injected with unknown substances when she demanded her personal belongings or hygiene items.
Human rights watchdogs demanded the immediate release of Ponomarenko, saying the psychiatric evaluation of criminal suspects does not include any injections.
Bishkek Court Orders Check Of Language In Video That Sparked Blockage Of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Websites
BISHKEK -- Bishkek's Lenin District Court has ordered an examination of the language used in a video the government cited when it halted the operations of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, saying it contains elements of inciting ethnic hatred and war propaganda, an allegation the broadcaster has rejected.
Judge Cholpon Karimbaeva on March 24 agreed to a request by the prosecutor to check if the video, produced by Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America and aired on September 16, 2022, uses language that "predominantly" took the position of the Tajik side.
RFE/RL President and Chief Executive Officer Jamie Fly has said the broadcaster "takes our commitment to balanced reporting seriously" and that after a review of the content in question, "no violation of our standards" was found.
Karimbaeva ruled the hearing will resume after the examination of the video is completed.
RFE/RL lawyers objected to the request, saying the Culture Ministry should have undertaken such an examination before blocking the websites and that ordering one -- even though no criminal case has been initiated in the case -- is against the law.
According to the ministry, the request was made after the service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, refused to take down the video, which focused on clashes last year along a disputed segment of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.
The authorities have said the decision was based on the Law on Protection from False Information, legislation that drew widespread criticism when it was adopted in August 2021.
Radio Azattyk's bank account in Bishkek also was frozen; in November, Kyrgyz authorities suspended the parliamentary accreditations of 11 RFE/RL correspondents.
The Kyrgyz government's decision has been criticized by domestic and international human rights watchdogs, Kyrgyz politicians, celebrities, intellectuals, journalists, lawmakers, and rights activists, who have called for the government to repeal it.
Earlier this month, Bishkek's Administrative Court rejected an appeal launched by RFE/RL that sought to have the October move to block the sites overturned. The court did not explain the reasoning behind its ruling.
Russian Opposition Leader Navalny Placed In Punitive Solitary Confinement Again
Imprisoned Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has been placed in a punitive solitary confinement cell for the 12th time since mid-August, his Telegram channel said on March 24. This time, Navalny was sent to solitary confinement for 15 days for "wrongly identifying himself" to a guard. Navalny has called his sentences to solitary confinement "politically motivated." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
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