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Afghanistan's Karzai Defends Cabinet Nominees

WATCH: Jan Alekozai of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan talks about why so much attention is being paid to Karzai's new cabinet, and what is so surprising about the proposed lineup.

(RFE/RL) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has defended his new choice of ministers after facing criticism by some legislators.

Speaking at a joint press conference with visiting Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme in Kabul, Karzai said all members of his cabinet will be accountable for anything relating to corruption.

"We fully assure that all the new ministers and those who were with us in the past will be accountable for anything relating to corruption or any other issue," Karzai said.

"And I will be accountable to the people of Afghanistan in preventing and addressing the issues. We have tried our best to have a cabinet that can work and achieve the goals we want for Afghanistan."

Karzai also said the new government is representative of all ethnic groups in the country, saying: "We have tried to ensure the cabinet is a mirror of Afghanistan's people."

On December 19, Karzai formally presented to parliament a list of nominees for Karzai's new cabinet. The 23 nominees must be approved by lawmakers before they can take office.

Karzai, who was reelected in an August 20 vote marred by fraud, has been facing intense Western pressure to cleanse his government of corruption and mismanagement.

Leterme, whose country contributes more than 500 troops to the international military forces in Afghanistan, reaffirmed Belgium's military and aid commitments.

He also said that "a continuous strife towards good governance and tackling corruption" was an important issue that the international community wanted to see in the country.

NATO Praise

Earlier, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed Karzai's nominations and said the Afghan people deserve a government characterized by "integrity and professionalism."

Karzai's proposed lineup keeps most of the top ministers favored by the West, including Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar, and Finance Minister Hazarat Omar Zakhelwal.

The ministers of mines and of the hajj, both accused of embezzling large sums of donor money, are not among the nominees.

One former warlord accused of human rights abuses, Energy and Water Minister Ismail Khan, is included in the list.

The cabinet nominations sparked criticism by some legislators, who accused Karzai of failing to bring reform to his administration in his first major test of his pledge to change course.

They complained that the president was keeping ministers who had performed badly and that he was appointing new faces who would be more loyal to the warlords and regional power-brokers than to the government.

Foreign Minister Rangin Spanta lost his job, although no replacement was announced.

Karzai today said he was "pressing” Spanta to retain his position until a London conference on Afghanistan scheduled for January 28 is held.

Only one woman, the minister of women's affairs, Husn Banu Ghazanfar, was nominated.

But Karzai said he plans to form a new Literacy Ministry that would be headed by a woman. He said he also plans to appoint women to a number of deputy minister positions.

Karzai also defended the mayor of Kabul, who this month was sentenced to four years in prison for corruption, saying he felt responsibility to defend someone who is "clean and honest."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report

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EU Formally Approves Plan To Use Russia's Frozen Assets For Ukraine

(file photo)
(file photo)

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

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imprisoned Kremlin Critic Kara-Murza Loses Another Appeal In Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the incidents.

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

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

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

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

With reporting by Mediazona

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian Scientist Gets 14 Years In Prison On Treason Charge

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

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

Pakistani Students Continue To Leave Kyrgyzstan Following Mob Attacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belarusian Activist Not Released After Serving Prison Term For Second Time

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

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

Chinese Foreign Minister Reiterates Beijing's Support For Kazakh Independence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reporting by Xinhua and Tengrinews

Pakistanis Warned To Stay Indoors Ahead Of New Heat Wave

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

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

Poland Arrests 9 Suspected Russia-Linked Saboteurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'More Complicated Cases'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran Starts Funeral Ceremonies For President, Foreign Minister

Iranians attend the funeral procession of President Ebrahim Raisi in Rabriz on May 21.
Iranians attend the funeral procession of President Ebrahim Raisi in Rabriz on May 21.

Several funeral ceremonies are taking place in Iran on May 21 to mark the deaths of President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and others in a helicopter crash, as five days of mourning were announced by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In Tabriz, the capital of Iran's northwestern province of East Azerbaijan where the crash occurred on May 19, thousands of people turned out for a funeral procession in memory of those killed.

Meanwhile, the IRNA state-run news agency posted the first footage purportedly showing the coffins of Raisi and Amir-Abdollahianon on X, formerly Twitter.

Several other funeral ceremonies for Raisi have been scheduled by Iranian authorities. A funeral ceremony is scheduled for the afternoon in the city of Qom. Other ceremonies are to be held in Tehran and Birjand on May 22 and 23, when Raisi will be buried at the Imam Reza Shrine in the holy city of Mashhad, Iranian media reported.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Iranian government said the helicopter was one of three flying in a convoy, and the other two reportedly landed safely in Tabriz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

German Foreign Minister Baerbock In Kyiv On Unannounced Visit

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

On a visit that had not been announced beforehand for security reasons, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock arrived in Kyiv in the morning on May 21 in a show of support for Ukraine. The German minister called for more international support for Ukraine's air defenses in view of the current Russian offensive. This is Baerbock's seventh trip to Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion in February 2022.

Fresh Russian Strike On Kharkiv Causes Casualties And Damage

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

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

Kosovo Shuts Branches Of Serbian Banks Over Currency Dispute

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

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

Russian Man Fined For 'Discrediting Military' With Dyed Hair

A Moscow court on May 20 fined Stanislav Netyosov 50,000 rubles ($550) on a charge of discrediting the Russian military after dying his hair blue and yellow, which police considered support for Ukraine due to its national flag of the same colors. Netyosov was charged in late April after he came to a police station to file a complaint saying he was attacked the previous evening by unknown assailants who beat him and stole his telephone. Netyosov said police fingerprinted him and handed him a summons to a military recruitment center, saying they would "teach him to kiss his native land in the military trenches." To read the original story by Current Time, click here.


Ukrainian Forces Holding Out In Vovchansk As U.S. Vows To Keep Aid Flowing

A woman cries as police officers inspect the site of the Russian missile attack that hit a recreation area, killing five people, including a pregnant woman, on the outskirts of Kharkiv on May 19.
A woman cries as police officers inspect the site of the Russian missile attack that hit a recreation area, killing five people, including a pregnant woman, on the outskirts of Kharkiv on May 19.

Russian forces maintained their relentless assault on Ukraine’s Kharkiv region on May 20 -- including a massive drone attack on the city itself -- but local officials said the outgunned Ukrainian troops still held about 60 percent of the border town of Vovchansk, the focal point of Moscow’s drive over recent weeks.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"The enemy continues to try to drive the armed forces of Ukraine out of Vovchansk," Roman Semenukha, deputy head of the regional military administration, said on national television.

"The town is about 60 percent controlled by the armed forces of Ukraine, [but] the assaults have not stopped.”

Semenukha said the Russians were concentrating their efforts on Vovchansk and Lyptsi, another area settlement with some 4,500 prewar residents.

Ukraine earlier said it had downed all 29 Shahed-type kamikaze drones launched by Russia against Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in the early hours of May 20.

Elsewhere, Ukraine’s military also said Russia had launched an Iskandar-M ballistic missile but did not say whether it had been intercepted.

Russian troops began shelling border settlements in the Kharkiv region on May 10 and launched a ground offensive in the area of Vovchansk. On May 16, Russian units appeared to have entered Vovchansk, about 5 kilometers from the border, and the site of the fiercest fighting in the north.

The capture of Vovchansk -- with a prewar population of about 17,500 -- would mark Russia’s most important advance since the offensive began in the Kharkiv region as the Kremlin looks to stretch Ukraine’s forces in the northeast.

Kremlin-installed leader Leonid Pasechnik on May 20 said Ukrainian shelling had hit a fuel depot and ignited a blaze in the town of Dovzhansk in the occupied Luhansk region.

It was at least the third time in the past month that Ukrainian shelling had reportedly hit a Russian-held fuel depot.

Battlefield claims cannot immediately be verified.

Meanwhile, the United States offered new words of support for Kyiv, urging other allies to maintain deliveries of weapons to aid in Ukraine’s defense.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and some 50 defense chiefs from around the world were meeting on May 20 to coordinate additional deliveries of military aid to Ukraine.

“We're meeting in a moment of challenge,” Austin said as he vowed to keep U.S. weapons flowing “week after week.”

However, in an interview published by Reuters on May 20, Zelenskiy complained that Western allies are taking too long to make key decisions on additional military support.

"Every decision to which we, then later everyone together, comes to is late by around one year," he said.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Putin Appoints Top Auditor To Senior Defense Ministry Post

Oleg Salvelyev has been appointed deputy defense minister by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Oleg Salvelyev has been appointed deputy defense minister by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 20 appointed Oleg Savelyev, the former minister on Crimean affairs, to the post of deputy defense minister less than 10 days after he replaced longtime ally Sergei Shoigu as defense chief. Former First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov succeeded Shoigu. Both Savelyev and Belousov are politicians known as specializing in economic matters. The 58-year-old Savelyev also served as deputy minister for economic development and as the auditor at the Audit Chamber, a parliamentary group that serves as a financial watchdog.

Archbishop Behind Armenian Protests Evades Roadblock, Visits Flock In Border Village

Archbishop Bagrat Galstanian visited the Armenian border village of Kirants on May 20.
Archbishop Bagrat Galstanian visited the Armenian border village of Kirants on May 20.

KIRANTS, Armenia -- Archbishop Bagrat Galstanian, who has emerged as the leader of Armenia’s border protests in recent weeks, traveled to the village of Kirants on May 20, exchanging embraces with residents of one of the settlements behind the massive protests against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s government.

The outspoken head of the Tavush Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church had traveled to his home area after it was again cordoned off by police to allow the finalization of a controversial demarcation deal with Azerbaijan.

The archbishop demanded access to his flock inside the village upon encountering the police roadblock.

He engaged in a brief altercation with a plainclothes police officer overseeing the operation before appearing in the village for a short period.

Galstanian told RFE/RL he had entered the village of some 330 people using a “direct route,” but did not elaborate.

He complained that the police roadblocks were preventing needed food supplies from entering the village.

The archbishop was later seen getting into a car along with other people, including the plainclothes police officer he had earlier faced off with, and being driven off, presumably out of the village.

Protesters led by the charismatic cleric have been opposed to what they call “unilateral territorial concessions” to Azerbaijan as they demand Pashinian’s resignation over his security policies.

Rallies against the government have been held for weeks in Yerevan and elsewhere in protest against the border deal.

Under the border demarcation deal with Baku, Armenia cedes control of four villages that were part of Azerbaijan during the Soviet era but which have been controlled by Armenia since the 1990s.

The United States and the European Union have hailed the deal, but the Pashinian government has been accused by opposition politicians of giving up territory to Azerbaijan with no guarantees.

Pashinian has said the unilateral concessions are necessary to prevent Azerbaijani military aggression against Armenia. The Armenian opposition maintains he is encouraging Baku to demand more territory from Armenia and to use force for that purpose.

Galstanian and his supporters in early May began marching to Yerevan from Kirants in the northern Tavush Province to try to scuttle the handover of border areas adjacent to the village and nearby Tavush communities.

The decision was announced two days after police cracked down on Kirants protesters who tried to stop authorities from clearing an adjacent area of land mines and make other preparations for its handover to Azerbaijan. The police presence in and around the village remained strong after the crackdown.

Galstanian has raised the possibility of seeking Pashinian’s impeachment, but with parliament controlled by Pashinian's Civil Contract party and senior lawmakers representing it insisting that neither they nor any of their pro-government colleagues will back such a motion, it remains unclear whether a vote will ever take place.

Iranian Nobel Laureate Ebadi Says Raisi's Death Means He Will Evade Justice

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi (file photo)
Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi (file photo)

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi has said that the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was regrettable because he will evade justice for his alleged crimes.

Raisi, who died in a May 19 helicopter crash in northwestern Iran, has been accused of serving as a prosecutor on an "execution committee" that sent thousands of political prisoners and regime opponents to their deaths in the late 1980s.

His presidency, which began in 2021, is also infamous for its stricter enforcement of Iran's draconian hijab law and brutal crackdown on mass demonstrations for women's rights.

"If we haven't forgotten, which tragically is not easily forgotten, there was the painful incident of the mass execution of political prisoners by the execution committee," Ebadi said of Raisi in a May 20 interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "The people of Iran had hoped to see him brought to justice, to witness how he would struggle and plead for his own exoneration. He did not deserve such an easy death."

The rights watchdog Amnesty International has said that at least 4,500 people were executed in the mass killing ordered by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1988 for "waging war against God."

The leftist Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization, which was accused of treachery for its role in carrying out an invasion deep into Iranian territory after a cease-fire ended the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, says that up to 30,000 people were executed.

Many of the victims were buried in secret.

During a court trial in Stockholm in 2022 in which a former prison guard for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps faced testimony from hundreds of survivors and their relatives, Raisi was named as belonging to the three-member execution committee that determined the fate of prisoners.

Ebadi, 76, was a prominent human rights lawyer for years in Iran before she was forced into exile in 2009. From her home in Britain, she has continued to criticize the Iranian authorities for their crackdown on virtually any form of dissent.

WATCH: A new presidential election must be held within 50 days following the death of President Ebrahim Raisi, and one analyst says the candidates permitted to run -- be they ultraconservatives or more conciliatory figures who are better able to connect with the public -- will reveal the regime's political priorities.

Iran At Crossroads After President Killed In Helicopter Crash
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Ebadi said that some in the foreign media expressed surprise that some Iranians were celebrating Raisi's death, including by lighting fireworks and dancing in videos shared on social media.

"Are people truly this happy about the death of one person?" Ebadi said she was asked. "Regrettably, I told them that [hard-liners'] actions had made their deaths a cause for celebration."

WATCH: Raisi's death led to official mourning in Iran -- but other Iranians celebrated the passing of a man who oversaw a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.

Ebadi said that now that the 63-year-old Raisi is dead, it is unlikely he will posthumously face prosecution.

"Generally, and legally, once a person passes away, any criminal actions they committed are no longer prosecuted," Ebadi said. "However, they will remain in people's memories and be recorded in history, particularly in the annals of human rights."

Court Rejects Kyrgyz Politician's Appeal Against Cancellation Of His Mandate

Adakhan Madumarov (file photo)
Adakhan Madumarov (file photo)

A Bishkek court on May 20 rejected the appeal of Adakhan Madumarov, the leader of the United Kyrgyzstan opposition party, against a decision by election authorities to annul his parliamentary mandate over his fraud conviction. Two weeks earlier, another court rejected Madumarov's appeal against his conviction. In March, Madumarov was convicted of financial fraud and ignoring Kyrgyzstan's interests while signing a Kyrgyz-Tajik border deal in 2009 when he led the country's Security Council. The court did not sentence Madumarov due to the statute of limitations. Madumarov has called the accusations “ungrounded.” To read the original story on RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, click here.

YouTube Blocks 4 Videos At Russia's Request

(file photo)
(file photo)

The YouTube online video-sharing platform has blocked four videos after a request from Russia's Roskomnadzor media watchdog, Agentsvo Telegram channel reported on May 20. Videos of the channels -- Dozor v Volgograde, Shkola prizyvnika, OVD-Info, and an unspecified independent online media outlet -- contained information about ways to evade mobilization to the war in Ukraine and avoid military recruitment. Roskomnadzor reportedly claimed that the videos in question violated Russia's law on information. According to OVD-Info's spokesman Dmitry Anisimov, it is the first case where YouTube has blocked videos at Russia’s request and not because of violations of the platform's terms of service. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Trial Of Theater Director Berkovich, Playwright Petriichuk Starts In Moscow

Playwright Svetlana Petriichuk (left) and theater director Yevgenia Berkovich (file photo)
Playwright Svetlana Petriichuk (left) and theater director Yevgenia Berkovich (file photo)

A military court in Moscow has started the trial of theater director Yevgenia Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriichuk, who are charged with justifying terrorism. The two women reiterated their innocence as the trial began on May 20. They were arrested in May 2023 following a production of the play Finist -- The Brave Falcon. The play is about Russian women who married Muslim men and moved to Syria. The play, first performed in December 2022, won Russia's Golden Mask national theater award. If convicted, the women face up to five years in prison each. To read the original story by RFE/RL, click here.

Appeal By Woman Imprisoned For Killing Pro-Kremlin Blogger Rejected

Daria Trepova at court in St.Petersburg, Russia, earlier this year.
Daria Trepova at court in St.Petersburg, Russia, earlier this year.

A military appeals court in St. Petersburg on May 20 rejected a motion filed by Darya Trepova against the 27-year prison term she was handed in January after she was found guilty for her role in the killing of prominent pro-Kremlin blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, a fervent proponent of Russia's war in Ukraine.

Trepova was convicted of helping carry out "a terrorist act with an organized group that caused intentional death."

While Trepova filed an appeal against the sentence, prosecutors countered by asking the court of appeals to extend Trepova's sentence by one year.

The court decision on May 20 leaves the 27-year prison sentence in place with no change.

Trepova, who pleaded not guilty to the terrorism charge but entered a guilty plea to a charge of document forgery, was arrested after an explosion in a restaurant in St. Petersburg in April 2023, which killed Tatarsky, whose real name was Maksim Fomin. The blast wounded 52 other people.

Tatarsky was talking to people who had previously attended a meeting with him when a woman presented him with a box containing a small bust of him that blew up, killing him, according the Russian media reports.

Trepova, 27, admitted giving Tatarsky the box, but said at the trial that she did not know there was an explosive device inside.

Trepova's co-defendant, Dmitry Kasintsev, in whose apartment Trepova was detained, was sentenced to one year and nine months in a general regime correctional colony.

Kasintsev pleaded guilty to the charge of failing to report a crime, but rejected the charge of covering up a crime.

In May last year, Russia's Interior Ministry issued an arrest warrant for Ukrainian citizen Yuriy Denisov, saying that he was suspected of organizing the deadly attack.

Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said at the time that Denisov and Trepova had decided to assassinate Tatarsky.

The Ukrainian-born Tatarsky was known for his support of Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine launched in February 2022 and Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region.

Georgian Parliament Set To Overrule Presidential Veto On 'Foreign Agent' Law

Georgian parliamentary Speaker Shalva Papuashvili (file photo).
Georgian parliamentary Speaker Shalva Papuashvili (file photo).

TBILISI -- Georgian parliamentary Speaker Shalva Papuashvili said lawmakers, as expected, will overrule President Salome Zurabishvili's veto of the so-called "foreign agent" bill targeting media and NGOs that are funded by foreign governments.

Papuashvili said on May 20 that he expects parliament, where his ruling Georgian Dream party has the numbers, will overrule the veto at a session next week.

Zurabishvili vetoed the controversial bill on May 18 following weeks of mass protests by Georgians who see the legislation as a way for the government to stifle civil society -- a similar law in Russia has been used to crack down on dissent -- and believe it endangers the country's path toward EU integration.

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze said on May 20 that Zurabishvili's move to veto the bill is "blocking room for a healthy discussion" of the legislation in question.

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

U.S. media reports on May 19 said that U.S. Congressman Joe Wilson, who represents South Carolina, is working on a bill that would impose sanctions, including visa bans on Georgian government officials responsible for pushing through the foreign agent bill.

Zurabishvili said she considered the law "unacceptable" and "inconsistent" with the country's EU path. She has also warned that the legislation endangers the very existence of the Georgian state.

Zurabishvili also said the Georgian Dream party, together with several opposition members of parliament, turned a deaf ear to the tens of thousands of Georgians who took to the streets to oppose any shift away from a pro-Western course back toward Russia.

The "Law On Transparency Of Foreign Influence," the bill's full name, has been condemned by the United States, the European Union, and rights watchdogs, and prompted weeks of unrest, which was often quelled through violent means by authorities.

Opponents have pointed to the similarity to legislation used by President Vladimir Putin to crush dissent in Russia and stifle independent institutions, prompting Georgians to refer to the measure as "the Russian law."

Slovak PM Fico 'Stable,' But Will Not Be Moved To Bratislava Yet

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico (file photo)
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico (file photo)

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico's condition is stable and he is improving, doctors treating him said on May 20, as he recovers from being hit by four bullets in an assassination attempt last week. "After today's medical board meeting, the patient's condition is stable," the hospital in the central Slovak city of Banska Bystrica said in a statement. Deputy Prime Minister Robert Kalinak said on May 19 that Fico's condition was still too serious for him to be moved to a hospital in the capital, Bratislava. Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok said an investigation team had been set up to look into whether the suspect had acted alone.

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