Iraq Sees First Western Tour Group Since Saddam's Fall
The group of eight holidaymakers -- five Britons, two Americans, and a Canadian -- arrived on March 8 and toured Iraq's landmark historic sites, including the Biblical city of Babylon, fabled home to the Hanging Gardens.
Their three-week trip was organized by a British adventure-tour operator, ministry spokesman Abd al-Zahra al-Telagani said, but he declined to name the company.
"This is the first group since the regime's fall," he said. "We expect these tourists will convey a positive message to their citizens back home that the situation in Iraq is good."
Their itinerary included the Castle of Irbil -- a relic of the medieval Ottoman empire in Iraq's northern Kurdish region -- as well as the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, in Mosul, a dangerous city still crawling with Sunni Arab insurgents.
They visited the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest sites of Shi'ite Islam, whose devastation in a bomb attack in 2006 unleashed a wave of sectarian violence that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war.
In the south, the tourists saw the holy Shi'ite shrines of Karbala and Najaf, which are already popular with religious pilgrims from Iran, and the southern oil-hub Basra.
They will finish up this weekend with a visit to the Iraqi National Museum. The building was reopened last month for the first time since looters pillaged it after the U.S.-led invasion.
Iraq, part of a region known as the cradle of civilization, has countless archaeological and religious sites, but decades of war have shut the doors to foreign tourist groups.
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Tajik Blogger Detained In Moscow; Relatives Fear His Extradition To Dushanbe
A Tajik activist and blogger who is a native of the Central Asian nation's restive Gorno-Badakhshan region (GBAO) has reportedly been arrested in Moscow and may be extradited to Tajikistan, where rights activists say he faces illegal incarceration and arbitrary prosecution.
Relatives and friends of Maqsud Ghayosov told RFE/RL on August 18 that the blogger was detained in Moscow a day earlier. It is not known where Ghayosov is being kept as Moscow police have not commented on his arrest.
According to the relatives, Ghayosov's arrest may be linked to his online blogging activities that intensified earlier this year in the wake of mass protests in Gorno-Badakhshan that were violently dispersed by the authorities.
Ghayosov's satirical Instagram blog, Bobingi, has more than 47,000 subscribers. He also has taken part in various social events in Gorno-Badakhshan in the past.
At least three natives of Gorno-Badakhshan have gone missing in Russia in recent weeks. Two of them appeared in Tajikistan as the government continues to track activists from the restive region after the deadly protests.
In April, an informal leader of Gorno-Badakhshan youth in Russia, Amriddin Alovatshoev, was sentenced in Dushanbe to 18 years in prison after he was convicted of hostage-taking, illegally depriving others of their freedom, and "other crimes," charges his relatives call trumped-up.
Alovatshoev was arrested in Russia in January and disappeared before later showing up in custody in Tajikistan.
Deep tensions between the Tajik government and residents of volatile Gorno-Badakhshan have simmered since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million, where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades.
The latest crackdown on activists in Gorno-Badakhshan followed protests initially sparked by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Khorugh Mayor Rizo Nazarzoda.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting the authorities to launch what they called a "counterterrorism operation."
The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.
Russian Billionaire Deripaska Sues Navalny Over Report About Lavrov Links
Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska has filed a lawsuit against jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, his team, and several foreign entities over an investigative report they produced about alleged corruption links between the tycoon and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Navalny wrote on Telegram on August 17 that Deripaska demanded the removal of the investigation from the Internet and an official refuting of the investigation's conclusion that he makes payments to Lavrov on a regular basis and financially supports his "second family."
The investigation, called Yachts, Bribes, and A Mistress. What Minister Lavrov Hides, was issued last fall.
Deripaska is also demanding Navalny remove from the Internet a photo of him and Lavrov taken in Japan, and all mentions about his alleged ties with Paul Manafort, who chaired former U.S. President Donald Trump's presidential campaign in 2016.
Deripaska, who has been known for his close ties with President Vladimir Putin, is among the Russian oligarchs who have been hit by Western sanctions over the Kremlin's unprovoked war in Ukraine.
"I once again call on the United States, European Union, and Great Britain to impose really effective sanctions against these thieves and war enablers that would not allow them to escape [the sanctions] through basic tricks," Navalny's Telegram post said.
Navalny associate Maria Pevchikh said Deripaska also demanded Navalny's team record a video statement saying that the investigation "does not reflect reality," warning that each day such a video statement is delayed will cost her and her colleague Georgy Alburov 50,000 rubles ($882).
Deripaska's lawsuit also targets The Insider investigative group, DMG Media company, which owns The Daily Mail newspaper in the United Kingdom, and the United States-based Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, which issues the Newlines information digest.
EU's Borrell Calls For 'Flexibility' As Kosovo-Serbia Talks Begin In Brussels
The European Union's top diplomat has opened high-level crisis talks between the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia in Brussels with an appeal to both sides to show flexibility.
European Union mediators hope the talks will de-escalate growing tensions in the Balkans and reduce the increasingly war-mongering rhetoric coming from both sides.
"Recent tensions in the north of Kosovo have demonstrated yet again that it is time to move forward towards full normalization," Josep Borrell wrote on Twitter on August 18.
Hoping for progress, Borrell called on both Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti "to be open and flexible to find common ground."
Kosovo is a former province of Serbia, which has refused to recognize the country's 2008 declaration of independence.
The two sides have engaged in the EU-led dialogue since 2011, aiming to reach a comprehensive and legally binding agreement on the normalization of relations.
But tensions resurfaced late last month when Pristina declared that Serbian identity documents and vehicle license plates would no longer be valid on Kosovo territory.
Serbs, who live mostly in northern Kosovo, reacted with fury, putting up roadblocks and firing their guns into the air and in the direction of Kosovo police officers. No one was injured.
Kurti postponed the implementation of the measure for a month, to September 1, after apparent pressure from the West.
Before meeting with Borrell, Vucic and Kurti held separate meetings with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on August 17 to discuss the recent tensions.
Stoltenberg told the two that the alliance's peacekeeping troops are ready to step in if tensions escalate further.
"While the situation on the ground has improved, it is the responsibility of all parties -- particularly officials from Belgrade and Pristina -- to prevent escalation again," Stoltenberg told a news conference.
"I call on all sides to show restraint and to avoid the violence. NATO continues to monitor closely the situation on the ground. Our KFOR peacekeeping mission remains focused on its UN mandate. Should stability be jeopardized KFOR stands ready to intervene," he said.
With reporting by dpa
Estonia Repels Massive Cyberattack Linked To Removal Of Soviet Memorial
Estonia says it was targeted by "the most extensive cyberattacks since 2007" shortly after removing a Soviet-era monument in a region with a sizeable ethnic Russian majority.
Russian hacker group Killnet claimed responsibility for the attack, saying on its Telegram account on August 17 that it had blocked access to more than 200 state and private Estonian institutions, including an online citizen-identification system.
Killnet said it acted after a Soviet Tu-34 tank was removed from public display in the town of Narva to a museum on August 16.
"Yesterday, Estonia was subject to the most extensive cyber attacks it has faced since 2007," Luukas Ilves, undersecretary for digital transformation at Estonia's Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, tweeted on August 18.
However, Ilves said the denial-of-service attacks were "ineffective" and went "largely unnoticed" by the general population.
"With some brief and minor exceptions, websites remained fully available throughout the day," he added. "E-Estonia is up and running," Ilves wrote, using a moniker that the Baltic country, seen as a pioneer of digitization in Europe, has adopted.
Estonia's roughly 1.3 million citizens can complete almost all administrative procedures over the Internet.
Based on reporting by Reuters and dpa
Russian Paratrooper Who Condemned War In Ukraine Flees Country
A Russian paratrooper who condemned his country's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine after taking part in the war has fled Russia.
France-based human rights activist Vladimir Osechkin said on August 17 that he and his team helped Pavel Filatyev to "urgently" leave Russia.
Filatyev took part in Russia's attack on Ukraine in February and March. He later wrote a book titled ZOV (A Call) in Russian. The title was written in Latin script to highlight the letters "Z" and "V."
Russian military vehicles in Ukraine are marked with those letters, which have become symbols promoted by Russian state media and other Kremlin supporters as patriotic emblems expressing support for the military and the invasion.
Before leaving Russia, Filatyev gave an interview to The Guardian saying that after his book was published, he changed his address several times to avoid possible arrest.
Filatyev also said that he was not aware of whether a criminal case has been launched against him.
President Vladimir Putin in March signed a law that calls for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations, as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about the war in Ukraine it launched in late February.
The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of "deliberately false information" about the Russian military that leads to "serious consequences" is 15 years in prison.
It also makes it illegal "to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia" or "for discrediting such use" with a possible penalty of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calling for sanctions against Russia.
Earlier this week, another Russian soldier, Daniil Frolkin of the 64th Motorized Rifle Brigade from the Far Eastern Khabarovsk region, publicly confessed that Russian troops took part in robberies, looting, and murders of civilians in Ukraine under orders from their supervisors.
He also confessed that he killed a Ukrainian civilian, Ruslan Yaremchuk, in the village of Andriyivka.
With reporting by Meduza
Ukraine Says Kherson Attack Repelled, Kharkiv Hit By Deadly Russian Bombing
Ukraine's military says that its forces have beaten back a Russian attack in the southern region of Kherson, while shelling by Moscow's forces in the northeastern city of Kharkiv killed seven people and wounded 16.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called the Kharkiv shelling, which hit a dormitory, "vile and cynical."
"Pain for Kharkiv. Rocket attack.... On the dormitory.... The building was completely destroyed," Zelenskiy wrote on Telegram. "A vile and cynical attack on civilians that has no justification and demonstrates the powerlessness of the aggressor. We will not forgive, we will take revenge."
In southern Ukraine, Kyiv's forces repelled an attempted advance by Russian forces near the town of Bilohirka, northeast of Kherson, Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said.
The southern district of the Operational Command of the Ukrainian armed forces said its forces killed 29 "occupiers" and destroyed artillery, armored vehicles, and a military supply depot.
The claims could not be independently confirmed.
"Russian forces have achieved only minimal advances, and in some cases we have advanced, since last month," Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in a video message. "What we are seeing is a 'strategic deadlock.'"
Meanwhile, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency on August 17 quoted sources as saying the commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Igor Osipov, had been replaced with a new commander, Viktor Sokolov.
The move, if confirmed, would mark one of the most prominent dismissals of a Russian military official so far in the almost six-month war.
Russia's Black Sea Fleet has suffered several humiliations since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, including the sinking in April of its flagship, the Moskva, a missile cruiser, with Neptune missiles.
Most recently, military bases and ammunition depots in the past week in the Russian-occupied region of Crimea were hit by explosions over the past week.
Britain's Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin on August 18 that the altogether poor performance of Russian forces since the start of the invasion could be at least partially caused by the commanders' failure to enforce low-level battle discipline.
British intelligence pointed to the Russian forces' lack of training in properly fitting and maintaining tank armor -- a deficiency first noticed during the first Chechen War of 1994 -- as likely the main reason for Moscow's heavy losses in tanks and armored vehicles.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Half of Russian Flight Dispatchers On Forced Leave As Sanctions Clobber Travel
Half of Russia's flight dispatchers have been put on forced leave as Western sanctions batter the country's travel industry, a labor union official says.
Sergei Kovalyov, the president of Russia's Federal Trade Union of Air Traffic Controllers, made the statement in a complaint sent to the Prosecutor-General's Office earlier this week, Russian media reported.
Russia has about 30,000 flight dispatchers, suggesting 15,000 have been put on leave.
Russia's aviation industry -- highly dependent on Western technology and Western routes -- has been among the hardest hit by sweeping sanctions triggered by Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
The United States and its allies have banned the sale of planes and plane parts to Russia, while the EU has banned Russia from using its airspace.
Russia has a tradition of cutting hours rather than firing employees to reduce labor costs during an economic crisis.
Forced leave can last from days to months, with workers receiving two-thirds of their base salary, according to Russian law.
About 135,000 Russian workers were on forced leave, Labor Minister Anton Kotyakov said in June.
Many of them are from Russia’s auto industry, which had come to nearly a standstill in May due to sanctions.
Russian Sought By U.S. Over 'Ryuk' Ransomware Extradited From Netherlands
A Russian national sought by U.S. prosecutors for allegedly laundering cryptocurrency tied to a notorious ransomware gang has been extradited to the United States from the Netherlands.
Denis Dubnikov, 29, a Russian citizen, made his initial appearance in federal court in Portland on August 17, the Justice Department said in a statement.
A five-day jury trial is scheduled to begin on October 4.
U.S. prosecutors accuse Dubnikov and his co-conspirators of laundering the proceeds of ransomware attacks on individuals and organizations throughout the United States and abroad.
Dubnikov and his accomplices allegedly laundered $400,000 in ransom payments from victims of Ryuk, a ransomware gang believed to have extracted $70 million from individuals and companies around the world, including the United States.
Dubnikov, who owns small crypto exchanges in Russia, was detained in the Netherlands in November after he was denied entry into Mexico and put on a plane back to the EU country and U.S. ally.
A lawyer representing him at the time said he did not know the source of the money that the United States alleges came from ransomware payments.
Dubnikov's arrest has been called one of U.S. law enforcement's first potential blows to the Ryuk ransomware gang, which is suspected of being behind a rash of cyberattacks on U.S. health-care organizations.
The attacks forced delays in potentially life-saving treatments for cancer and other patients.
In October 2020, the FBI and other U.S. agencies warned that Ryuk presented an "imminent" threat to U.S. health-care institutions. The Wall Street Journal said the Ryuk gang took in more than $100 million in ransom payments last year.
In a ransomware attack, a criminal encrypts files on a target computer network and demands payment in cryptocurrency to unlock them. In the health-care industry, where time is often critical, such delays can result in deadly outcomes.
Dubnikov's extradition comes amid high-level talks between Moscow and Washington about a prisoner swap.
The Biden administration said in July it was ready to carry out a prisoner swap with the Kremlin to free a few Americans held in jail in Russia, including women's basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.
In an interview with RFE/RL in early August, Arkady Bukh, a New York-based lawyer who has represented hundreds of Russian-speaking foreigners, said that Dubnikov could potentially be part of the prisoner swap.
Bukh said at the time that he expected Dubnikov to be extradited to the United States in August.
New COVID Cases In Russia Hit Five-Month High
Russia registered more than 33,000 new cases of COVID-19 on August 17, a five-month high.
The number of new cases has risen for the past seven weeks, prompting officials to recommend residents wear masks and get another vaccine shot.
The number of new hospitalizations on August 17 stood at more than 3,100.
According to official Russian statistics, 383,00 citizens have died from COVID-19 since the disease began to rapidly spread around the globe in 2020.
Independent demography experts estimate the Russian death total at four times the official figure.
UN's Guterres Arrives In Ukraine For Meeting With Zelenskiy, Erdogan
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has arrived in Lviv in western Ukraine, where he will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Guterres on August 18 will discuss the security situation at a Russian-occupied nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhya and possible paths to end the Kremlin's nearly six-month invasion of Ukraine.
The UN chief will visit a Ukrainian Black Sea port on August 19 that has recently resumed exports of grain following a halt caused by Russia's invasion.
Guterres and the international community have expressed deep concern over the risk of disaster at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, Europe's largest, amid reports of shelling and other dangers in the past week.
The United Nations has offered to help facilitate a visit by its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to Zaporizhzhya, but Moscow has dismissed a mission traveling through Kyiv despite vowing it would do all it could to help ensure IAEA access to the plant.
Zelenskiy earlier on August 16 accused Russia of "nuclear terrorism" in its actions, while Moscow says Ukrainian troops are responsible for artillery fire near the facility.
Erdogan has repeatedly sought a role for his NATO-member state to mediate in the conflict, and Ankara was crucial to a recent deal that allowed for the restart of grain and fertilizer exports from three of Ukraine's Black Sea ports.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Guterres on August 20 will visit the joint coordination center in Istanbul that oversees the seaborne shipments.
The center is staffed by Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and UN officials.
The first ship to have left Ukraine under the multilateral deal two weeks ago was said by a shipping source and satellite data to have docked early on August 16 in the Syrian port of Tartus.
The ship, the Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni, departed Ukraine on August 1 and didn't unload in Lebanon as scheduled, but went dark before appearing in Tartus.
Russia is a key ally who has helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad weather a brutal civil war and has a small naval facility at Tartus.
A UN-chartered ship loaded with 23,000 tons of Ukrainian grain, meanwhile, set sail on August 16 from a Black Sea port for Ethiopia, the first shipment of its kind in a program to assist countries facing famine, according to Ukraine's Infrastructure Ministry.
With reporting by Reuters
Russian Prosecutors Seek 15 Years In Prison For Crimean Tatar Leader, Activists
Russian prosecutors have asked a court in Russian-occupied Crimea to convict and sentence Crimean Tatar leader Nariman Dzhelyal and two activists, brothers Asan and Akhtem Akhmetov, to 15 years in prison each.
Dzhelyal's lawyer, Nikolai Polozov, said on August 17 that the prosecutors also asked Crimea's Supreme Court to impose hefty fines on each of the defendants and order them to serve the first three years of their sentences in a maximum-security prison.
Dzhelyal and his co-defendants were arrested in early September 2021 on suspicion of involvement in an attack on a gas pipeline.
Ukraine has called the charges against the activists fabricated while the United States has called for Russia to release them.
Dzhelyal is deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatar's self-governing assembly, the Mejlis, which was banned in Crimea after Russia annexed it from Ukraine in 2014.
The arrest of Dzhelyal and his colleagues immediately sparked a protest outside the Crimean office of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), which ended with the detention of more than 50 people.
Russian news agency Interfax in September reported that the criminal investigation against Dzhelyal relates to a gas pipeline that was damaged on August 23 in a village near Crimea's capital, Simferopol.
Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzheppar said at the time that the detention of the men was Moscow's "revenge" for Dzhelyal's participation in a Kyiv conference that month dedicated to the "de-occupation" of Crimea.
The event had been decried by Moscow as "anti-Russian."
Armenia Mourns Victims Of Yerevan Market Explosion As Search For Survivors Continues
YEREVAN -- Armenia is mourning the victims of the Surmalu market explosion in Yerevan that claimed at least sixteen lives on August 14, as rescue works continue to search for missing people.
The government has declared August 17 and 18 days of national mourning for the victims. The cause of the blast is still being investigated.
Deputy Emergency Situations Minister Artush Grigorian said on August 17 that workers were focusing all their efforts on finding any survivors under the debris.
Of the 16 bodies so far recovered, 15 have been identified. Two people are considered missing, but ministry officials believe that the unidentified person found dead might be one of them.
Emergency Situations Minister Armen Pambukhchian said earlier that he "almost" ruled out terrorism as a cause of the incident.
A blast and subsequent fire at Surmalu sent a towering cloud of smoke over the Armenian capital on August 14, videos shared on social media showed.
The explosion was in an area where fireworks and other pyrotechnics are stored.
Russian Energy Export Revenue To Rise By 'Almost $100 Billion' This Year
Russia forecasts energy export revenues to rise this year by nearly $100 billion as higher commodity prices offset a decrease in volumes, Reuters reports, citing government documents.
Russia's Economy Ministry now expects energy export revenue to reach $338 billion in 2022, up more than a third from $244 billion last year.
The jump in revenues, if it materializes, will help shore up Russia's economy in the face of sweeping Western sanctions that are crippling some of its industries.
Greater export revenues will enable President Vladimir Putin to raise wages and pensions at a time when the Russian economy has fallen into recession and inflation is eroding living standards.
Energy exports account for about half of Russia's federal budget revenues.
The Economy Ministry forecasts the average natural-gas export price will more than double this year to $730 per 1,000 cubic meters, before gradually falling until the end of 2025, according to the documents seen by Reuters.
Russia's gas exports will decline by about 15 percent this year amid deteriorating relations between Brussels and Moscow over the war in Ukraine.
The EU has declared its intention to slash its dependence on imports of gas from Russia, which for years had been the biggest supplier of the fuel to the bloc, to protest its invasion of Ukraine.
The decrease in flows to the EU will be only partially offset by increased exports to China.
The Economy Ministry expects energy export earnings of $256 billion next year -- still higher than in 2021 -- as oil and gas prices ease from near-record levels.
Overall, Russia's economy is holding up better than initially expected in the face of sanctions, as the surge in energy revenue gives the government more firepower to support struggling sectors.
The ministry now expects Russia's economy to contract just 4.2 percent this year and real wages to fall only 2.8 percent.
The ministry earlier warned that the economy could contract by as much as 12 percent this year, which would have been the steepest drop in nearly three decades.
NATO Forces 'Ready' If Kosovo-Serbia Tensions Boil Over
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the alliance's peacekeeping troops are ready to step in if tensions between Kosovo and Serbia rise as the two Balkan neighbors prepare for further European Union-facilitated talks to normalize relations.
"While the situation on the ground has improved, it is the responsibility of all parties -- particularly officials from Belgrade and Pristina -- to prevent escalation again," Stoltenberg told a joint news conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Brussels on August 17, the eve of a new round of talks between the two countries.
"I call on all sides to show restraint and to avoid violence. NATO continues to monitor closely the situation on the ground. Our KFOR peacekeeping mission remains focused on its UN mandate. Should stability be jeopardized, KFOR stands ready to intervene," he said.
Kosovo and Serbia have engaged in the EU-led dialogue since 2011, aiming to reach a comprehensive and legally binding agreement on the normalization of relations.
Vucic said he expected "difficult" talks with his Kosovar counterpart, Albin Kurti, as the two "do not agree almost on anything."
"We have our history, which is not an easy one, which is not a simple one. But we do want to strengthen further cooperation both for...NATO and we want to avoid any kind of possibility of escalation or conflict," Vucic said.
In June, the two sides agreed to adopt a road map for the implementation of energy agreements within the EU-led dialogue.
Moscow's invasion of Ukraine has added to calls to bring not only Kosovo and Serbia, but also Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina closer to the EU through full membership or some alternative.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Serbia doesn't recognize it as independent, while most EU countries do.
Normalizing bilateral relations is seen as crucial to both countries bids to join the bloc.
EU leaders stopped short of offering a concrete timetable for membership to the six Western Balkans candidates at a summit in Slovenia in October, only reiterating the bloc's "commitment to the enlargement process."
Sentences Of Iranian Activists Seeking To Sue Government Over COVID Response Confirmed
An appeals court in Tehran has confirmed the prison sentences of three outspoken campaigners who wanted to sue government officials for allegedly mismanaging the coronavirus crisis and hampering the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.
One of the activists, Mostafa Nili, said the Court of Appeal of Tehran Province on August 16 confirmed the sentences they were appealing before the group, who are known in Iran as the "health defenders," could file their legal challenge against the government and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over their response to the pandemic in Iran, which had the Middle East's deadliest outbreak.
He added that the court also confirmed the sentence of four years in prison and two years of deprivation of media activity for Mehdi Mahmudian, and for Arash Keykhosro, who was sentenced to two years in prison and banned for one year from advocacy and media activities.
Mohammad Reza Faghihi had his six-month prison sentence confirmed, while Maryam Afrafaraz's 95-day jail term was also confirmed.
The five were arrested in August 2021 by security officers for refusing to sign a letter pledging they would not sue Khamenei or other officials over the pandemic response.
They were subsequently convicted of colluding to commit crimes against national security at a trial held behind closed doors in Tehran. They were appealing those convictions.
Many Iranians are angry at the chaotic response of officials to the pandemic. The government was widely accused of hiding the real numbers of hospitalizations and deaths.
There was also criticism over the delayed rollout of vaccines and Khamenei's ban on the import of vaccines from the United States and Britain, which was seen as a political move.
According to data from Johns Hopkins university, just over 143,000 Iranians have died from COVID-19, though many analysts say the real numbers are many times higher.
Critics have said that the mismanagement of the pandemic and the slow vaccination rollout led to thousands of preventable deaths in Iran.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
NATO Chief Urges Russia To Allow IAEA Inspectors Into Ukrainian Nuclear Plant
The head of NATO has urgently called on Russia to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant amid rising safety concerns at the facility due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Stoltenberg also told journalists in Brussels on August 17 that Russia should immediately withdraw all of its troops from the plant, which Russian forces captured in March.
Russia's seizure of the plant "poses a serious threat to the safety and the security of this facility (and) raises the risks of a nuclear accident or incident," he said.
"It is urgent to allow the inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency and to ensure the withdrawal of all Russian forces," he added.
Kyiv has insisted that Russian troops are using Europe's largest nuclear plant as a military base, including storing dangerous weapons and shelling in the area.
On August 14, 42 countries condemned Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and said the presence of Russian military forces at Zaporizhzhya was preventing authorities from maintaining nuclear- and radiation-safety obligations.
Exhausted Ukrainian workers at the plant have complained of being held at gunpoint, and the plant's operator, Enerhoatom, has said Russia is preparing a risky maneuver to divert Zaporizhzhya's energy production to a Russian-controlled grid.
Russia doesn't deny it has troops located at the plant but has disputed claims it has shelled the area. Instead, Moscow blames Ukrainian forces for firing artillery shells in the area, which officials in Kyiv deny.
With reporting by AFP
Russian Police Search Homes Of Journalists Contributing To RFE/RL Programs
Russian police have searched the homes of several journalists contributing to programs of RFE/RL's Russian Service and Idel.Realities, an online project that covers news and events in the Volga-Urals region.
On August 17, police in the capital of Russia's Tatarstan region, Kazan, searched the home of sociologist Iskander Yasaveyev, who is a columnist for the Idel.Realities online project.
Yasaveyev's lawyer, Rim Sabirov, said police took his client to the Investigative Committee for questioning. According to Sabirov, the law enforcement officers confiscated all the mobile phones belonging to Yasaveyev's family members.
At this point it remains unclear why exactly Yasaveyev, who is known for his open stance against Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, was detained for questioning.
Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin website Tatar-Inform reported on August 17 that police searched the homes of seven other local journalists who work as freelancers or contribute to RFE/RL's Russian and Tatar-Bashkir services, as well as to Idel.Realities.
Only one of the journalists targeted was identified: Marina Yudkevich, who is also a columnist for Idel.Realities.
According to Tatar-Inform, the searches were linked to the journalists' articles covering Russia's ongoing aggression against Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin in March signed a law that calls for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about its war in Ukraine.
The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of "deliberately false information" about the Russian military that leads to "serious consequences" is 15 years in prison.
It also makes it illegal "to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia" or "for discrediting such use" with a penalty possible of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calls for sanctions against Russia.
Multiple websites of RFE/RL, the BBC, and other independent media outlets have been blocked over what Russian regulators claim is erroneous reporting.
Separately, on August 17, a contributor in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg to RFE/RL's Russian Service and several other independent media outlets, Yelena Shukayeva, was sentenced to 14 days in jail on charges of propaganda and public demonstration of extremist groups' symbols.
Shutayeva's lawyer, Roman Kachanov, said the charges against his client stemmed from her reposting materials prepared by jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's team.
Russia last year declared Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation "extremist" and banned the use of any symbols tied to the group as part of a widening crackdown on the oppositons.
With reporting by JustMedia, Tatar-Inform, and OVD-Inform
Video Of Iranian Activists Protesting Woman's Arrest Over Hijab Goes Viral
A video posted online by a group of Iranian female activists in support of a woman arrested for protesting mandatory head-scarf rules has gone viral just days after she appeared on television making a "confession" they allege was made under duress.
In the video published by on social media on August 16, the activists recite a piece of poetry titled The Confession, written by an anonymous user who uses the moniker "Darya."
The poem is addressed to Sepideh Rashno, a 28-year-old writer and artist who was arrested on June 15 after a video of her arguing with another woman who was enforcing rules on head scarfs on a bus in Tehran was posted online.
Iranian authorities have not provided any information about Rashno's case, nor her state of health since she was taken into custody.
The poem says Rashno remains in the country's memory and praises her "beauty, courage, and pride."
Rashno was riding the bus without wearing the mandatory hijab. The other woman took a video of her and threatened to send it to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
After she disappeared for several days, Iranian state television aired a "confession" by Rashno in a video report on July 30 where she appeared to be in a poor physical state.
The Iranian Human Rights Activists News Agency, the media outlet for Human Rights Activists in Iran, alleged on August 5 that Rashno had been beaten before she confessed on air to breaking the country's hijab law.
The group cited eyewitnesses who said Rashno appeared to move slowly and was hospitalized immediately after the video of her admitting her guilt was recorded.
Mooniter, the pseudonym of one of the female activists who participated in the video to support Rashno, said the poem was aimed at "raising the voices of women like Sepideh" and "women and people who have been taken hostage in Iran."
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Turkmen Activists Beaten At Istanbul Consulate Trying To Deliver Letter To President
Five Turkmen rights activists say they were attacked on the grounds of the Turkmen Consulate in Istanbul as they tried to hand in a letter addressed to President Serdar Berdymukhammedov to protest the human rights situation in the extremely isolated and tightly controlled Central Asian state.
The Turkmen Helsinki Human Rights Foundation (THF) said on August 16 that the activists, two women and three men, accompanied with their Turkish lawyer, Gulden Sonmez, came to the consulate that day and told the security that they had come to deliver a letter from exiled Turkmen rights activists to the president.
After being allowed to enter the consulate grounds, they say they were attacked by six men, identifying one of the attackers as consulate employee Merdan Mustakov.
Two of the activists, Dursoltan Taganova and Atamurat Saparov, who sustained serious head injuries during the confrontation, were taken to the police.
Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive countries in the world. Serdar Berdymukhammedov took over the former Soviet republic in March after his authoritarian father, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, ruled the country with an iron fist from 2006.
Last year, dozens of Turkmen activists residing abroad held protests in Turkey, the United States, and the European Union calling on the international community to pay more attention to the situation regarding human rights and civil freedoms in Turkmenistan.
China Says It Will Send Troops To Russia For Joint Military Drills
Beijing says it will send a contingent of troops to Russia to attend joint military drills involving several other countries, including India, Belarus, Mongolia, and Tajikistan.
The Chinese Defense Ministry said on August 17 that participation in the joint exercises is "unrelated to the current international and regional situation," an apparent reference to Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
The drills are part of an ongoing bilateral annual cooperation agreement, the statement said. Similar Russian-led joint exercises involving China have taken place in recent years.
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"The aim is to deepen pragmatic and friendly cooperation with the armies of participating countries, enhance the level of strategic collaboration among the participating parties, and strengthen the ability to respond to various security threats," the statement said.
China is among a number of countries that have avoided imposing sanctions in response to Russia's war in Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Chinese counterpart last month that he did not accept China’s claims that it is neutral in the Ukraine conflict and said Washington was "concerned about [China’s] alignment with Russia.”
With reporting by Reuters
Iran Says It's Ready To Implement 'Immediate' Prisoner Swap Agreement With U.S.
Tehran says it is ready to implement a prisoner swap with the United States and urged President Joe Biden to "act" and "remove obstacles" to making progress on the subject.
Tehran has long sought the return of more than a dozen Iranians currently held in the United States, while Washington has been seeking the release of several Iranian-American dual nationals, including businessman Siamak Namazi, who was arrested in October 2015.
"We are ready to swap prisoners with Washington.... The U.S. must release jailed Iranian citizens without any conditions," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani told journalists on August 17.
Kanaani's comments come a day after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that Namazi had now spent 2,500 days "wrongfully detained" in Iran.
"We are determined to secure his freedom and ensure all Americans who have been wrongfully detained by Iran, including his father, Baquer, can return home," Blinken wrote.
In response, human rights lawyer Jared Genser shared a letter from Namazi calling on the Biden administration to "match up claims that rescuing us is a priority with effective action."
Talk of a prisoner swap also comes amid lengthy negotiations between Iran and global powers to revive the 2015 nuclear pact. Former President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the United States out of the deal.
Washington has been participating indirectly in the talks.
With reporting by IRNA and Fars
Kazakh Rights Groups Call Government's List Of Unrest Victims 'Insufficient'
NUR-SULTAN -- Human rights activists in Kazakhstan have slammed a government list of men and women killed during and after anti-government protests in January, calling it "insufficient."
The unregistered Qaharman (Hero) human rights group said in a statement on August 17 that the list, released by the government a day earlier, showed only last names and initials of the victims.
The group demanded that detailed information on each victim be made public, including first and patronymic names, ages, exact times of death, causes and exact places of death, and the circumstances when the deaths occurred.
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The group also called on Kazakh citizens who lost people in the unrest but did not see those victims on the list to contact it immediately.
Bakhytzhan Toreghozhina, a leading member of the Almaty-based human rights group Ar, Rukh, Khaq (Dignity, Spirit, Truth), said the list provided by the Prosecutor-General's Office was incomplete.
"For example, during the unrest in Almaty, a 22-year-old citizen of Israel, Levon Kogeashvili, who resided in Kazakhstan for several years, was killed. But his name is not in the list. Why? We have our own list with all necessary details, such as names, ages, and cities where they were killed. We will make our list public in the coming days," Toreghozhina said.
On August 16, Kazakh authorities raised the death toll from the unrest to 238, adding six more people who died in police custody to the original tally.
Thousands were detained during and after the protests, which erupted when a peaceful demonstration in a western district over a fuel-price hike led to nationwide anti-government protests that were violently dispersed by law enforcement and the military.
President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev blamed the unrest on "20,000 terrorists" from abroad, a claim for which authorities provided no evidence. Russia briefly sent troops to help protect key government facilities.
In June, prosecutors said the overall death toll stood at 232. Deputy Prosecutor-General Aset Shyndaliev also said at the time that six people had been tortured to death after being arrested for taking part in the January protests.
He also said that an unspecified number of security officers had been arrested in connection with the alleged torture.
Eldos Qilymzhanov, a top official with the Prosecutor-General's Office, said on August 16 that six individuals who were detained during the riots had died as a result of “illegal methods of interrogation by law enforcement structures,” adding that 15 law enforcement officers were under investigation.
The Prosecutor-General's Office said earlier that 25 people were officially considered victims of torture and had been subjected to hot irons used by investigators during interrogations.
Human rights groups have said the number of killed demonstrators was much higher than any of the various figures provided by officials. The groups have provided evidence that peaceful demonstrators and people who had nothing to do with the protests were among those killed by law enforcement and military personnel.
The unrest led to the removal of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his relatives from Kazakh politics. Some relatives have been stripped of their posts, lost influential positions at companies, or even been arrested on corruption charges.
Kazakh authorities have rejected calls by Kazakh and global human rights groups for an international probe.
UN Envoy Says China Employing Forced Labor, Possible 'Enslavement' In Xinjiang
China's coercing of Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities into forced labor in agriculture and manufacturing in Xinjiang could amount to "enslavement as a crime against humanity," an independent UN expert has concluded.
Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group mainly originating from and culturally affiliated with the Central and East Asian regions.
Their treatment by Chinese officials in Xinjiang Province, where Uyghurs have been forced into a network of detention camps, has been labeled genocide by the United States, while the UN has accused Chinese authorities of unlawfully arresting and mistreating Uyghurs and using them for forced labor.
According to the U.S. State Department, as many as 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and members of Xinjiang's other indigenous ethnic groups have been taken to detention centers in the western Chinese region.
WATCH: Sairagul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh from China, was sent to work as a teacher in one of the country's so-called "reeducation camps." Human rights researchers say more than 1 million detainees, mostly Muslims, have been imprisoned in the camps. In 2018, Sauytbay escaped to Kazakhstan, then Sweden, and began recounting shocking stories of torture and oppression at the camp in China's Xinjiang region. Her efforts to reveal the conditions there have won her international recognition.
China denies that the facilities are internment camps, saying they are necessary to curb terrorism, separatism, and religious radicalism. But people who have fled the province say that thousands are undergoing "political indoctrination" at facilities known officially as reeducation camps.
The report, released late on August 16 by the UN special rapporteur on modern slavery, Tomoya Obokata, pointed to two "distinct state-mandated systems" in China in which forced labor has occurred.
One is a vocational skills education and training center system in which minorities are detained and subject to work placements, while another involves attempts to reduce poverty through labor transfer, in which rural workers are moved into "secondary or tertiary work."
"While these programs may create employment opportunities for minorities and enhance their incomes...the special rapporteur considers that indicators of forced labor pointing to the involuntary nature of work rendered by affected communities have been present in many cases," the report said.
The nature and extent of powers exercised over the workers -- including excessive surveillance and abusive living and working conditions -- could "amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity, meriting a further independent analysis," it said.
Obokata said a similar labor transfer system exists in Tibet, where the "program has shifted mainly farmers, herders, and other rural workers into low-skilled and low-paid employment."
In May, the United Nation's human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, made a rare six-day visit to China that took her to Xinjiang.
Bachelet's trip was criticized by Washington and major rights groups for "whitewashing" Beijing's "atrocities," with critics calling for her resignation.
Bachelet is due to publish a report detailing her visit before she steps down at the end of the month when her term expires.
With reporting by AFP
Russia Pounds Kharkiv Region With Fresh Air And Artillery Strikes
Russian forces pounded civilian settlements in the Kharkiv area while attempting to advance in the eastern Donetsk region, Ukraine's military said on August 17, as Russia blamed sabotage for explosions at one of its military bases in Moscow-annexed Crimea amid hints by Kyiv that it was responsible for the incident.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Russian forces carried out air and artillery strikes near Stariy Saltiv and Mospanove in the Kharkiv region, adding that the Russians were conducting an offensive near Lebyazhe and Bazaliyivka, where the fighting continues.
In Donetsk, Russian troops attempted to advance near Bohorodychne but had to retreat, the General Staff reported, adding that fighting continued near Mazanivka and Novodmytrivka.
Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on August 17 that two civilians were killed and seven wounded in shelling by Russian forces in the last 24 hours in the region.
In Moscow, the Defense Ministry said a Russian ammunition storage unit in occupied Crimea exploded on August 16, wounding at least two people and prompting the evacuation of thousands of nearby residents.
The ministry blamed the blast on sabotage, in a rare admission that armed groups loyal to Ukraine are damaging military logistics and supply lines on territory it controls.
Ukrainian officials avoided publicly or directly claiming responsibility for the incidents, but some appeared to suggest that Kyiv was involved.
Crimea was captured and annexed by Russia in 2014 and is still internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory, but Moscow has threatened severe reprisals for any attacks on the peninsula.
After the blasts, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in his nightly address on August 16, called on Ukrainians living in the occupied territories to stay away from the military facilities of the Russian Army located in Crimea.
"Every day and every night we see new reports of explosions in the territory temporarily occupied by the invaders," Zelenskiy said, without admitting direct responsibility for the blasts. He said the explosions could have various causes, including incompetence.
"But they all mean the same thing -- the destruction of the occupiers' logistics, their ammunition, military and other equipment, and command posts saves the lives of our people," he said.
Britain's Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence report that while the cause of the blasts remains unclear, it is "highly likely" that the incidents are causing increasing concerns among Russian commanders about the apparent deterioration of the security situation in occupied Crimea, which functions as a rear base for the occupation of Ukraine.
Mykhaylo Podolyak, another top Zelenskiy aide, said in a post on Twitter that the latest blasts were a reminder that the "Crimea occupied by Russians is about warehouses, explosions, and a high risk of death for invaders and thieves."
"What is stolen does not bring prosperity," Podolyak later told Ukrainian television.
The incidents came roughly a week after a series of unexplained explosions tore through Russia’s Saky air base, in a western district of Crimea, destroying a number of Russian warplanes.
There's been no confirmation as to what caused those explosions, though satellite imagery showed extensive destruction at the base.
The Dzhankoy district is about 50 kilometers from the Russian-occupied region of Kherson in southern Ukraine.
With reporting by Crimea.Realities and AP
Kazakhs Mourn Veteran Opposition Politician Baltash Tursymbaev
ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Family, friends, colleagues, opposition activists, public figures, and journalists paid their respects on August 16 to Baltash Tursymbaev following the death of the longtime Kazakh government critic.
Tursymbaev died on August 14 at the age of 75 from a heart attack.
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and former President Nursultan Nazarbaev sent written condolences to Tursymbaev's relatives.
After oil-rich Kazakhstan gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian-born Tursymbaev served in various senior posts, including as a deputy prime minister, agriculture minister, regional governor, Security Council secretary, and an ambassador to Turkey.
In 1999, Tursymbaev joined the opposition and had since harshly criticized the country's first postindependence president, Nazarbaev, and his successor, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev.
In recent months, Tursymbaev was demanding from the authorities a thorough investigation into the violent dispersal of mass anti-governments protests in the country in 2020 that left 238 people dead, including some from torture.
Rights groups insist the official death toll is vastly underreported.
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Kherson Clampdown: Russian Authorities Going Door-To-Door, Mandating Russian Passports, Official Says6
Russians Blame 'Sabotage' For Blasts At Crimean Ammo Depot; Kyiv Hints At Role7
No Cash, No Medicine: Evacuees From Ukraine's South Recount Life Under Russian Control8
'Escalation?...The Russians Have Already Escalated': Former Estonian Spy Chief On Why The West Should Continue To Support Ukraine9
'Final Stage Putin' And The War In Ukraine10
Estonia Removes Soviet WWII Memorial In Border City