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Moldovan President Vows To Repel 'Coup' After Protests Turn Violent

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CHISINAU (RFE/RL) -- A political standoff continues between disgruntled opposition leaders and the Moldovan government following multiparty talks convened when antigovernment street protests turned violent in the capital.

But police appeared to have regained control overnight of the presidential and parliamentary offices adjacent to a major square in downtown Chisinau where much of the unrest was centered. Security forces in riot gear were standing guard outside both buildings at daybreak.

Russia's RIA news agency quotes the Interior Ministry as saying police have detained 193 protesters in Chisinau, including eight underaged people, and charged them with looting, hooliganism, robbery, and criminal attacks.

Demonstrators say they plan to continue the protests for a third day despite tough language from President Vladimir Voronin, whose Communist Party's apparent election victory over the weekend set off demonstrations by critics who claimed the vote was tainted.

Voronin said in a televised address late on April 7 that the events "cannot be described as anything other than a coup d'etat." He accused opposition leaders of having "embarked on the path of violent seizure of power" and vowed to "resolutely defend the state against the leaders of the pogrom."

Voronin's harsh characterization of the day's events followed statements from opposition sources and the country's election supervisor rejecting rumors that a possible deal was struck clearing the way for a recount of ballots from the April 5 elections.

Ransacking of the presidential offices in central Chisinau on April 7.
Reuters had reported that three main opposition leaders met with Voronin and Prime Minister Zinaida Greceanii in response to the violence. Several agencies then suggested both sides agreed that the ballots would be counted again.

But the chairman of the country's national election commission, Iurie Ciocan, told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service that reports that attributed to him the news of a breakthrough and a recount were incorrect.

Indeed, Vlad Filat, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, told Reuters on April 8 that election officials have refused the recount request, saying "they have broken off the agreement we reached with Voronin."

Filat said he expects "some very serious repression" by the authorities now. "I am not ruling out arrests both of political leaders and participants," he said.

Violent Turn Of Events

Clashes between police and some of the more than 10,000 protesters who came out for the second day of antigovernment demonstrations on April 7 included the storming and ransacking of the offices of the president and of the parliamentary building across the street.

At a cabinet meeting earlier in the day, Voronin reportedly warned organizers of antigovernment protests in the capital that turned violent and accompanied the storming of government buildings to end the "bacchanalia," and he said "challenging the election is no more than a pretext," according to Interfax The president went on to say that "this operation has been well-prepared, well-thought-out, and it looks like it's also been well-financed.

A fire burns outside parliament after individuals forced their way into the building on April 7.
One day after an estimated 8,000 people turned out on April 6 for protests against preliminary results from the weekend elections, upwards of 10,000 people hit the streets of Chisinau to protest the ruling Communist Party's apparent election victory.

Demonstrators attacked riot police with cobblestones and bricks, prompting security forces to use batons and water cannon to stem their advance. A fire engine was turned upside down and destroyed by demonstrators.

Crowds eventually forced their way into the presidential and parliamentary buildings, inflicting considerable damage as they carried furniture and office equipment outside.

Reports suggest that dozens of police and civilians have been treated for injuries. One woman is reported to have died in the violence.

Some members of the opposition have called for scrapping the April 5 legislative elections, in which the ruling Communists' declared victory with more than half the vote, and are demanding that a fresh poll be held.

If preliminary vote tallies held, Voronin's Communists would hold 61 seats in the 101-seat parliament, exactly the number needed to elect a new president to replace him. Voronin, who is serving his second term, is not allowed to run again under Moldova's constitution.

Motives Unclear

Demonstrators initially poured into the building that houses the president's offices, and later broke into the parliament building across the street through broken windows and proceeded to heap furniture and office equipment on a bonfire outside.

Street fighting in downtown Chisinau on April 7
Chisinau Mayor Dorin Chirtoaca told reporters soon after the mayhem broke out that violence was provoked by provocateurs infiltrated among the largely peaceful protesters.

"Thousands of young people have broken the ground floor windows and those on the first and second floor, and entered the auxiliary rooms," RFE/RL correspondent Iulian Ciocan said to describe the scene shortly after midday. "They set something on fire, and there is thick smoke coming out of some windows. Police tried to stop them on the presidency's steps but were pushed back inside where they started using water cannon against the protesters."

Ciocan described the situation as "rather uncertain," with no clear organizers behind the protests that turned violent and even less idea of "exactly what they want."

Gheorghe Ciobanu, the director of a Chisinau emergency hospital, was shown on Romanian television saying that his facility had treated 40 people, including three who appeared to have been injured by some sort of explosion.

International Concern

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana urged protesters to avoid violence, but called on authorities to let peaceful demonstrations go ahead.

Moldova is among six invitees of a new EU outreach program for ex-Soviet neighbors, called the Eastern Partnership. The European Union is expected to formally invite Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine to join the initiative at a Prague summit on May 7.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin was quoted as saying Moscow was following the situation "with concern."

President Voronin waves to supporters during voting on April 5.
The Romanian Foreign Ministry has also said it is worried by the events next door in Moldova.

Monitors from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) said in a preliminary report on April 6 that the elections took place in an "overall pluralistic environment." But the ODIHR noted that "further improvements are required to ensure an electoral process free from undue administrative interference and to increase public confidence."

Among the shortcomings, the ODIHR cited alleged intimidation of voters and candidates, bias in the state-dominated media, and hurdles that included an electoral threshold and a ban on preelection alliances.

with reporting by RFE/RL's Moldovan Service in Chisinau, RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc in Prague, and additional Reuters and other wire reports. Video of April 7 protests by Chisinau bureau chief Vasile Botnaru

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Iran Sentences Dissident Rapper To Death

Iranian protest singer Toomaj Salehi (file photo)
Iranian protest singer Toomaj Salehi (file photo)

Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi, detained during the nationwide protests of 2022, has been sentenced to death in what activists called "a new low" in Tehran's crackdown on dissent.

The charges against Salehi also include aiding in rebellion, assembly and conspiracy, propaganda against the regime, and inciting chaos -- all offenses classified under corruption on earth, as per Article 286 of the Criminal Code. Surprisingly, the court also imposed additional penalties, including a two-year travel ban and a prohibition on engaging in artistic activities.

Amir Raisian, Salehi’s attorney, said on April 24 that the Isfahan Revolutionary Court issued the sentence for a new charge of "corruption on earth" while refusing to acknowledge a prior Supreme Court ruling that might have mitigated the case.

Raisian criticized the judgment saying that, given its legal inconsistencies, his client would launch an appeal.

"The primary court's verdict has clear legal contradictions, particularly ignoring the Supreme Court's guidance which had advised reducing the charge count and considering a pardon," Raisian said in an interview with Tehran-based Shargh newspaper.

Since unrest rattled the country following the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022 while in police custody for a supposed head scarf violation, Iranian authorities have launched a crackdown on even the slightest hint of dissent.

Thousands have been detained, hundreds have died, and there have been credible reports of torture, including by Salehi.

Still, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) said Salehi's death sentence "underscores the glaring unlawfulness and injustice of the Islamic republic's judicial system, which has been weaponized and used as a tool by the state security forces to crush dissent and perpetuate political repression."
"This grotesque manipulation of the judicial process aims to silence dissent. Toomaj’s imprisonment stems from his vocal advocacy against state oppression. It is imperative that supporters of free speech and dissent unite to demand his immediate release,” said CHRI Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi.

Raisian noted that the same court previously acquitted Salehi of other serious allegations, such as disturbing public order and insulting leadership, due to insufficient evidence.

Salehi, 33, was initially arrested in October 2022 after making public statements in support of the protests, which had erupted the previous month following Amini's death.

He spent much of his pretrial detention in solitary confinement and was subsequently sentenced to more than six years in prison but released after the Supreme Court, on appeal, found "flaws in the original sentence." His case was sent back to a lower court for reexamination and possible retrial.

He was released on bail in November after spending over a year in prison, including 252 days in solitary confinement, but rearrested two weeks later after publicly talking about his alleged torture in prison in a video.

Raisian said reports in local media about a possible pardon or sentence reduction citing Salehi's youth were false. The court, he said, only requested leniency from the pardon commission, which does not impact the execution sentence.

Salehi gained prominence for lyrics that rail against corruption, widespread poverty, executions, and the killing of protesters in Iran.

His songs also point to a widening gap between ordinary Iranians and the country's leadership, accusing the authorities of "suffocating" the people without regard for their well-being.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Kazakh Foreign Minister, U.K. Foreign Secretary Hold Talks In Astana

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron (left) and his Kazakh, counterpart, Murat Nurtileu meet in Astana on April 24
British Foreign Secretary David Cameron (left) and his Kazakh, counterpart, Murat Nurtileu meet in Astana on April 24

Kazakh Foreign Minister Murat Nurtileu and visiting British Foreign Secretary David Cameron held talks on April 24 in Astana, focusing on bilateral ties, regional security, cooperation, and the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry said. Nurtileu said his country supports a “peaceful solution to the conflict in Ukraine.” An agreement on strategic partnership and cooperation between the two nations was signed during the talks. Earlier this week, Cameron also held talks with top officials in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. He is also scheduled to visit Mongolia during his ongoing diplomatic tour. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

On Genocide Remembrance Day, Armenians Told To 'Overcome Trauma' Of 1915 Mass Killings

People march on April 24 to the Tsitsernakaberd memorial in Yerevan to commemorate the Armenian genocide.
People march on April 24 to the Tsitsernakaberd memorial in Yerevan to commemorate the Armenian genocide.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian urged Armenians to “overcome the trauma” of the massacre of their ethnic kin by Ottoman Turks more than a century ago and stop yearning for their “lost homeland” as they marked the anniversary of the Armenian genocide on April 24.

Pashinian said the enduring trauma prevents many Armenians from objectively assessing international affairs and challenges facing Armenia.

“Maybe this is also a reason why we get new shocks, reliving the trauma of the Armenian genocide as a legacy and as a tradition,” he said in a statement as tens of thousands of people marched to the Tsitsernakaberd memorial in Yerevan to commemorate the genocide.

The daylong procession followed a wreath-laying ceremony at the hilltop memorial led by Pashinian, Parliament Speaker Alen Simonian, and President Vahagn Khachaturian. Catholicos Garegin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, who has increasingly been at odds with Pashinian’s government, was again excluded from the ceremony.

The genocide began on April 24, 1915 with mass arrests of Armenian intellectuals and activists in Constantinople, now Istanbul. An estimated 1.5 million Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire were massacred or died from starvation in the following months and years. About three dozen nations, including Russia, France, Germany, and the United States, have recognized it as genocide.

Pashinian’s statement came amid Yerevan’s ongoing rapprochement with Ankara. Armenia recently said Yerevan seeks full normalization of relations with Ankara, including the opening of their border and the establishment of diplomatic ties. Their strained relationship stems from their differences over whether the killings were a genocide, a distinction Turkey has vehemently rejected.

Pashinian’s choice of words could risk more opposition allegations that he is helping Turkey deny that the 1915 events were genocide. He frequently used the Armenian phrase Meds Yeghern (Great Crime) in reference to the events of 1915 and did not condemn the regime of the so-called Young Turks that ruled the Ottoman Empire during World War I. He said instead that Ottoman Armenians “became victims of geopolitical intrigues and false promises.”

The commemoration of the genocide “should symbolize not the lost homeland but the found and real homeland, the Republic of Armenia, whose competitive, legitimate, thoughtful and creative policies can preclude a repeat [of the genocide,]” Pashinian said.

Armenians should speak the phrase “never again” only to themselves, not as an accusation but as a point of view that puts Armenians “in charge of our own destiny,” he added.

Earlier this month, a senior Armenian pro-government lawmaker allied with Pashinian, Andranik Kocharian, called for “verifying” the number of the genocide victims, saying Pashinian wants to “make the entire list of compatriots subjected to genocide more objective.”

The remarks sparked uproar from Armenian government critics, civil society figures, and genocide scholars. They accused Kocharian of echoing the Turkish narrative that the number of Armenians who died was lower than the 1.5 million estimated and that the cause was not a premediated Ottoman government policy.

Kocharian said the following day that it was his personal opinion rather than the Pashinian government’s position and denied casting doubt on the Armenian genocide. Opposition leaders dismissed the explanation, continuing to accuse Pashinian of planning another far-reaching concession to Ankara.

Pashinian’s wife, Anna Hakobian, was jeered by several dozen people when she visited the Tsitsernakaberd memorial later on April 24. The hecklers, who apparently included opposition supporters, chanted “Genocidal Nikol!” and “Nikol the Turk!” as Hakobian and one of her daughters surrounded by bodyguards laid flowers by the memorial’s eternal flame.

With Conflicts Raging In Ukraine, Middle East, Amnesty Warns Rights Under Threat

A Ukrainian serviceman smokes sitting on a bench as a local resident clears debris near a building damaged in a Russian air raid on the town of Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine. (file photo)
A Ukrainian serviceman smokes sitting on a bench as a local resident clears debris near a building damaged in a Russian air raid on the town of Orikhiv in the Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine. (file photo)

Rights watchdog Amnesty International has warned that world order is under threat amid a wave of international rule breaking, deepening global inequality, superpower rivalries, and accelerating climate change.

The group said in its annual report on the state of global human rights, released on April 24, that the world is "reaping a harvest of terrifying consequences" from the pressures of escalating conflict and "a near breakdown" of international law, with advances in artificial intelligence likely to exacerbate the situation.

Amnesty said its report "presents a stark assessment of the betrayal of human rights principles by today’s leaders and institutions," and that in the face of multiplying conflicts, "the actions of many powerful states have further damaged the credibility of multilateralism and undermined the global rules-based order first established in 1945."

"Alongside Russia's ongoing aggression against Ukraine, the growing number of armed conflicts, and massive human rights violations witnessed, for example, in Sudan, Ethiopia and [Burma] – the global rule-based order is at risk of decimation," said Amnesty Secretary General Agnes Callamard.

The report noted that the war in Ukraine, launched by neighboring Russia in February 2022, was another key contributor to the decline in the global human rights situation.

Amnesty called out indiscriminate attacks by Russian forces "on populated areas and civilian energy and grain export infrastructure."

"Both Russian and Ukrainian forces used cluster munitions despite their inherently indiscriminate nature and lasting risks for civilians," the report reads.

The report pointedly criticizes the United States for its "brazen use" of its veto power to "paralyze" the UN Security Council for months as it tried to mediate a halt in fighting between Israel and Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by Washington and the European Union, in the Gaza Strip.

It also slams the "grotesque double standards" of European countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany, given their "well-founded protestations" about war crimes by Russia and Hamas, while they simultaneously bolster the actions of Israeli and U.S. authorities in this conflict.

The violence erupted after Hamas launched an attack on Israel on October 7 that killed some 1,200 people, mostly citizens, while around 240 others were taken back to Gaza as hostages. Since then, an Israeli offensive aimed at neutralizing Hamas has killed almost 35,000 people, according to the Hamas-led Health Ministry in Gaza.

“The confounding failure of the international community to protect thousands of civilians -- a horrifically high percentage of them children -- from being killed in the occupied Gaza Strip makes patently clear that the very institutions set up to protect civilians and uphold human rights are no longer fit for purpose. What we saw in 2023 confirms that many powerful states are abandoning the founding values of humanity and universality enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Callamard said.

Arson Attacks Reported In Kazakh Town After Alleged Rape Of Teen Girl

Law enforcement beefed up security measures in Kazakhstan’s southern town of Zaghambar on April 24 amid a series of crimes feared to be part of ethnic violence. Local police say a teenage boy suspected of sexually assaulting a teenage girl was detained. Media reports say police also launched a probe into arson attacks on two private cars and several households belonging to the suspects’ relatives. The town has been cordoned by police and access to the Internet was blocked in the area. Some 4,000 of the 5,400 residents of Zaghambar are ethnic Uzbeks. Similar situations in the past have caused ethnic conflicts in the Central Asian nation. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, click here.


Biden Signs Ukraine Aid Package, Says Weapons Shipments To Start In Coming Hours

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks after signing a foreign aid bill at the White House in Washington, on April 24.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks after signing a foreign aid bill at the White House in Washington, on April 24.

U.S. President Joe Biden has signed a long-delayed military aid package hours after it was passed by the Senate, saying U.S. military aid will begin flowing again to Ukraine in the next few hours.

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.

"America is going to send Ukraine the supplies they need to keep them in the fight," Biden said, speaking from the White House after signing the aid bill on April 24. Biden said the package showed that the United States and its allies fully support Ukraine in its battle against invading Russian forces and that the approval was important to show "we stand up against Putin," a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"In the next few hours we will begin sending air defense munitions, for artillery, for rocket systems, and armored vehicles," Biden said. "I’m making sure the shipments start right away."

The State Department confirmed later on April 24 that the United States sent long-range missile systems known as ATACMS to Ukraine for use inside its territory and the weapons arrived in the country this month. State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters that the ATACMS, short for Army Tactical Missile System, were sent at Biden's direction.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked Biden for authorizing the desperately needed military aid that had stalled in Congress since late last year.

"No matter what anyone says, we are getting the support we need to continue to protect lives from Russian attacks," Zelenskiy said on X. "Over the past few days, we have already been actively working with our American friends on all levels to include the exact types of weapons that our warriors require in this package."

Biden said that the package was "literally an investment not only in Ukrainian security but in Europe’s security, in our own security." He said that if Congress had not stepped up and passed the aid to Ukraine, it would have sent the wrong signal to NATO, which he said the United States has worked to unify, strengthen, and expand since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.

"Imagine instead if we had failed…to step up now and to support Ukraine. All those gains would have begun to unravel. The cohesion of NATO would have been weakened. And our national security would have been undermined without any question," the president said.

Biden spoke from the White House after the U.S. Senate easily approved a package of bills late on April 23. The legislation had stalled in the House of Representatives for months, but House Republican leaders decided last week to bring the measures up for a vote, and they passed on April 20, sending it to the Senate.

The bills provide $61 billion for Ukraine, $26 billion for Israel, and $8.12 billion "to counter communist China" in the Indo-Pacific. The fourth bill includes a potential ban on the social media app TikTok, measures for the transfer of seized Russian assets to Ukraine, and new sanctions on Iran.

During debate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York) had urged his Senate colleagues to pass the legislation as Kyiv struggles to hold its territory amid a shortage of weapons and ammunition caused in large part by the delay in U.S. aid.

"This is an is an inflection point in history. Western democracy perhaps faced its greatest threat since the end of the Cold War," Schumer said.

Schumer told a news conference after the aid to Ukraine passed that it was "one of the most important measures Congress has passed in a very long time to protect American security and the security of Western democracy."

Many of the no votes against the bill came from Republicans, most of whom are allied with former President Donald Trump. The Republicans said they oppose the bill in part because it doesn't include any U.S. security matters, particularly to strengthen the U.S.-Mexico border.

Zelenskiy said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that he was grateful to the United States Senate for approving the aid.

"I equally appreciate President Biden's support and look forward to the bill being signed soon and the next military aid package matching the resoluteness that I always see in our negotiations. Ukraine's long-range capabilities, artillery, and air defense are critical tools for restoring just peace sooner," he added.

In the face of an expected wave of weaponry from U.S. and Ukraine's other allies, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said his forces would expand their aerial bombardment of Ukraine to include storage bases that house Western-supplied weapons.

An intense Russian missile and drone strikes campaign on Ukrainian cities has taken a large toll in human lives and has caused huge damage to the country's already battered energy infrastructure after more than two years of war.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Pardoned Georgian Activist Vows To Continue Protesting Law On Foreign Agents

Lazare Grigoriadis was released from prison on April 24 after being pardoned by President Salome Zurabishvili. (file photo)
Lazare Grigoriadis was released from prison on April 24 after being pardoned by President Salome Zurabishvili. (file photo)

Georgian activist Lazare Grigoriadis said after he was released from prison on April 24 due to presidential clemency that he will continue to protest Georgia's controversial bill on "foreign agents," which many say is a replica of a similar Russian law used to muzzle dissent in that country. Grigoriadis was sentenced to nine years in prison on April 12 over taking part in protests against the bill in March last year, when he threw two Molotov cocktails at police, according to investigators. The 22-year-old activist said right after his release that he would join ongoing protests against the bill later the same day. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Georgian Service, click here.

Another Former Wagner Fighter Imprisoned For Crime In Russia

The number of crimes in Russia committed by former Wagner recruits and other ex-military personnel has been on rise since early 2023. (file photo)
The number of crimes in Russia committed by former Wagner recruits and other ex-military personnel has been on rise since early 2023. (file photo)

A court in Russia's Kirov region sentenced a former fighter with the Wagner mercenary group on April 24 for murdering and raping a woman. Ivan Rossomakhin returned to his native village in March 2023 after taking part in Moscow's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. He was recruited by the Wagner group in 2022 from a penitentiary where he was serving a 14-year prison term for murder. He was pardoned after serving for Russia in Ukraine. The number of crimes in Russia committed by former Wagner recruits and other former ex-military personnel has been on rise since early 2023. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

Russian Anti-War Activist Loses Appeal Against Conviction

Russian anti0war activist Svetlana Marina (file photo)
Russian anti0war activist Svetlana Marina (file photo)

A Russian court on April 24 rejected an appeal filed by anti-war activist Svetlana Marina against a "forced labor" sentence she was handed last month on a charge of discrediting the Russian armed forces. The charge stemmed from Marina’s online post last year where she called pro-Kremlin blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, who was killed in a blast in a restaurant after an explosive device in a gift handed to him detonated, "a murderer." Marina was sentenced to 18 months of work at a facility to be designated by the authorities. A portion of her salary will be deducted and given to the State Treasury. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

North Macedonia Votes For President With Eyes On EU Membership

A woman votes during the presidential election in Skopje, North Macedonia, on April 24.
A woman votes during the presidential election in Skopje, North Macedonia, on April 24.

SKOPJE -- Presidential elections are under way in North Macedonia as its 2.3 million people become increasingly anxious to see their tiny Balkan country finally join the European Union after nearly two decades of unfulfilled expectations.

Seven candidates are competing in the race on April 24, but the two favorites are incumbent Stevo Pendarovski of the Social Democratic Union (SDSM) and Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE.

According to the latest poll by the Center for Political Research and Communications, Siljanovska-Davkova, who is 70, has a 3.6 point lead over the 61-year-old Pendarovski, whose SDSM has been in power since 2017. With neither candidate expected to get more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, a runoff round is widely expected.

The two faced off in the last election as well, with Pendarovski winning.

By 9 a.m. local time, turnout was some 4 percent, and the voting was proceeding in an orderly and relaxed manner in the capital, Skopje, according to election officials.

"It's super organized, everything works," Zlatko, a voter who asked not to give their last name, told RFE/RL. "I wish the citizens a successful come out and cast your vote for Macedonia."

The runoff, to be held in two weeks, would coincide with a parliamentary election and would need turnout of at least 40 percent of the 1.8 million registered voters to be valid.

The main topics of the campaign have been accession into the 27-member EU, the fight against corruption, consolidating the rule of law, and alleviating poverty.

A candidate since 2005, Skopje opened EU membership talks only in 2022 after years of opposition from Greece and Bulgaria.

The dispute with Greece was settled in 2017, when the country agreed to change its name from Macedonia to North Macedonia, subsequently becoming a member of NATO in March 2020.

However, Bulgaria has continued to block more consistent EU membership talks with Skopje unless it amends its constitution to mention a Bulgarian minority in the preamble -- a highly contentious issue because of the overlapping histories and cultures of Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

Such a constitutional amendment would need a two-thirds majority in parliament, which so far has been not possible in the face of opposition from the VMRO-DPMNE.

Among the other five candidates are law professor Biljana Vankovska from leftist party Levica and two ethnic Albanians, Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani and Arben Taravari. Approximately a quarter of North Macedonia's population is ethnic Albanian.

Polls will close at 7 p.m. local time.

No exit polls have been ordered and the first results are expected early on April 25.

The elections at 3,480 polling stations are being monitored by some 320 international observers.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and dpa

Relatives Demand Open Trial For Kyrgyz Group That Protested Border Deal

Relatives of some of those arrested for protesting a border deal with Uzbekistan rally in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek on April 24, 2024.
Relatives of some of those arrested for protesting a border deal with Uzbekistan rally in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek on April 24, 2024.

Dozens of relatives of 27 members of a Kyrgyz group that is on trial for protesting a border deal rallied in Bishkek on April 24, demanding the trial be open and nine defendants held in pretrial detention be released. The defendants were arrested in 2022 and charged with organizing mass disorders and plotting to seize power after they protested the deal that saw Kyrgyzstan hand over the territory of the Kempir-Abad reservoir to Uzbekistan. The trial is being held behind closed doors as materials of the case were tagged as classified. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

8 Members Of Tajik Opposition Group Detained In Italy

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon visits Italy on April 22.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon visits Italy on April 22.

Activists from the Tajik opposition movement Group 24 said on April 24 that police in Italy detained the movement's eight members a day earlier. According to the Group 24, Tajik opposition activists from the EU countries gathered in Rome to take part in a rally challenging policies of the Tajik President Emomali Rahmon during his ongoing official visit to Italy. Rahmon has been criticized by international human rights groups for years over his disregard for independent media, religious freedoms, civil society, and political pluralism. In March 2015, Group 24's founder, Umarali Quvatov, was assassinated in Istanbul, Turkey. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here.

Russian Court Orders Seizure Of JPMorgan Chase Funds In VTB Lawsuit

JPMorgan Chase building in New York City (file photo)
JPMorgan Chase building in New York City (file photo)

A Russian court has ordered the seizure of funds in JPMorgan Chase bank accounts in Russia, court filings showed on April 24, in a lawsuit filed by state-owned bank VTB as it seeks to regain funds blocked abroad. JP Morgan Chase last week sued VTB in New York to halt its efforts to recover $439.5 million from an account that was blocked after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and VTB was hit with sanctions. JPMorgan Chase declined to comment on the Russian court's interim measures. VTB also did not immediately comment.

UK's Sunak To Discuss European Security, Ukraine With Scholz In Berlin

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (file photo)
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (file photo)

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will talk defense and security with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on April 24 when the British leader makes his first trip to Berlin since becoming taking office 18 months ago. Discussions are expected to focus on Ukraine, defense spending levels, and a push by Germany to bolster NATO's air defenses in Europe amid Russia's relentless missile strikes on Ukraine. "At this dangerous moment for the world, the U.K. and Germany are standing side by side to preserve security and prosperity at home and across our continent," said Sunak, hailing "a new chapter" in the countries' relationship.

Orthodox Priest Suspended After Presiding At Navalny's Funeral

Relatives and supporters bid farewell to opposition leader Aleksei Navalny at a Moscow church on March 1.
Relatives and supporters bid farewell to opposition leader Aleksei Navalny at a Moscow church on March 1.

Russian priest Dmitry Safronov has been suspended for three years and demoted after he oversaw a farewell ceremony at the funeral of outspoken Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny last month. Patriarch Kirill's decree on the move appeared on the website of the Moscow City Diocese on April 23 but it gave no explanation. Safronov also officiated a religious ceremony at the traditional Orthodox ceremony marking the 40th day of Navalny's death. He also was among priests who signed a petition demanding Navalny’s body be handed to his family after the politician died in an Arctic prison in February. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.


Ukraine's SBU Hit Oil Facilities in Russia's Smolensk, Says Source

Eyewitnesses reported a fire at an oil refinery in Smolensk on April 24.
Eyewitnesses reported a fire at an oil refinery in Smolensk on April 24.

Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) carried out drone strikes early on April 24 that set fire to oil-storage facilities in Russia's Smolensk region, a source familiar with the issue has told RFE/RL.

Drones hit two fuel and lubricant storage depots in the settlements of Yartsevo and Rozdorove in the Smolensk region, causing major fires and prompting the evacuation of employees, the source said.

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"26,000 cubic meters of Russian fuel were stored in these depots. After powerful explosions, a large-scale fire started at the facilities and forced the evacuation of personnel," RFE/RL's source said.

The SBU considers the logistics facilities that supply the Russian Army with fuel to be legitimate military targets, the source added.

Earlier on April 24, Smolensk Governor Vasily Anokhin reported that Ukrainian drones struck fuel and energy facilities in his region, setting them on fire.

"Our region is again under attack by Ukrainian UAVs," Anokhin wrote, adding that there were no casualties and that the fires were being put out by emergency workers in the Smolensk and Yartsevo districts.

Separately, eyewitnesses reported fires at the Smolensk and Yartsevo oil refineries. The Astra Telegram channel published a video filmed by eyewitnesses purporting to show a large fire at one refinery.

Confronted with an increasing lack of air defense systems, weapons, and ammunition as Western aid dries up, Kyiv has increasingly resorted to air and naval drone strikes deep inside Russian territory, targeting both military installations and critical oil-refining capabilities.

The strikes are part of an effort to cut fuel supplies to the Russian military and also cut export revenues that Moscow uses to fund the war.

Earlier this month, the Istories website said Ukrainian drones might have destroyed 15 percent of Russia's oil refinery facilities, while the Russian statistics service said that by the end of last month, the country's gasoline production had decreased by 14.3 percent and diesel production had reduced by seven percent.

According to British intelligence, as of March 23, Russia lost at least 10 percent of its oil refinery capacity due to drone strikes.

London believes the strikes are causing financial losses for Russia by affecting its domestic fuel market.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Detained On Suspicion Of Corruption

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov (file photo)
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov (file photo)

Russian law enforcement officials have detained Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov on suspicion of taking a bribe, the Investigative Committee said on April 23.

The committee announced the arrest of Ivanov on Telegram but provided no further details.

The 49-year-old was the subject of an investigation published in December 2022 by Aleksei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).

It said that Ivanov oversaw and profited from construction projects in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which was largely destroyed by Russian forces in the first months of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The investigation showed that Ivanov and his wife, Svetlana, spent more than 1 million euros ($1.07 million) on vacations, renting villas and yachts, jewelry, and clothes. It also showed that the personal bills of Ivanov’s wife were paid by a company engaged in the restoration of Mariupol.

According to the FBK, which has been banned in Russia for alleged extremism, the minister divorced his wife to allow her to bypass EU sanctions.

"Today is a good day," said Maria Pevchikh, the head of investigations at the foundation, in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

"The person involved in our investigation was detained on suspicion of bribery. We talked about the glamorous and luxurious life of Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov back at the end of 2022."

Ivanov was appointed deputy defense minister by presidential decree in May 2016.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a report on Ivanov's detention had been presented to President Vladimir Putin, according to Russian news agencies.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had been informed in advance of his detention, he said.

Ivanov's duties included overseeing housing for troops and the construction and overhaul of ministry facilities. Ivanov has been designated for sanctions by United States, the European Union, Britain, and Canada.

Forbes magazine listed Ivanov as one of the wealthiest men in Russia's security structures.

With reporting by AFP

Latest U.S. Sanctions On Iran Target Four People, Two Companies Suspected Of Hacking

The hackers targeted companies and entities on behalf of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Cyber-Electronic Command, the Treasury said.
The hackers targeted companies and entities on behalf of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Cyber-Electronic Command, the Treasury said.

The United States on April 23 imposed more sanctions against Iran, designating four people and two companies that the U.S. Treasury Department said were "involved in malicious cyber-activity" on behalf of the country's military.

"These actors targeted more than a dozen U.S. companies and government entities through cyberoperations, including spear phishing and malware attacks," on behalf of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Cyber-Electronic Command (IRGC-CEC), the Treasury Department said in a statement.

In addition to the sanctions, the U.S. Justice Department and FBI unsealed an indictment against the four individuals for their alleged roles in cyberactivity targeting U.S. entities.

The defendants are accused of engaging in a coordinated hacking campaign originating in Iran that targeted more than a dozen American companies and the U.S. Treasury and State departments, Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. The activity started in about 2016 and continued through about April 2021, the Justice Department said.

The Treasury Department said Iranian cyber-actors "continue to target the United States using a wide range of malicious cyber-activity, from conducting ransomware attacks against critical infrastructure to conducting spear phishing and other social-engineering campaigns against individuals, companies, and government entities."

It said the IRGC-CEC was one of the Iranian government organizations behind the malicious cyber-activity and worked through a series of front companies to target the United States and several other countries.

Much of the Iranian public is not aware that some companies in Iran such as Mehrsam Andisheh Saz Nik, one of the two companies designated for sanctions on April 23, are used as front companies to support the IRGC-CEC, the department said.

"The Iranian public should be aware that the IRGC-CEC uses private companies and their employees to achieve illegal goals," it added.

The sanctions freeze any assets the entities and individuals have in U.S. jurisdiction and generally bar Americans from dealing with them.

Writers, Artists Demand Iran Release Cartoonist Arrested For Trying To Hang Picture

Atena Farghadani (file photo)
Atena Farghadani (file photo)

PEN America, along with a group of organizations that support cartoonists and artists, has condemned the violent arrest of Atena Farghadani, an Iranian cartoonist currently being held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison for attempting to hang one of her drawings on a wall near the presidential palace.

Farghadani's lawyer, Mohammad Moghimi, said she was violently arrested on April 12 by intelligence officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and sustained facial injuries that were visible during her arrest.

Moghimi said in a post on social media that Farghadani refused bail in protest against her violent arrest and was initially transferred to Qarchak prison, only to be moved to Evin prison due to the refusal of Qarchak to accept her because of her injuries.

A statement issued jointly on April 22 by PEN America, Cartooning for Peace, Cartoonists Rights, and the Freedom Cartoonists Foundation expressed outrage over the treatment of Farghadani by Iranian authorities, noting her work in support of human rights and democratic values.

"We call on the Iranian authorities to immediately and permanently cease their deliberate and brutal campaign against artistic freedom, and artists like Farghadani, and for the charges against her to be dropped immediately," Julie Trebault, managing director of Artists at Risk Connection, said in the statement.

The Iranian Cartoonist Arrested For Her Art
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The groups highlighted Farghadani's courage in upholding democratic values under "severe repression" and called for her "unconditional and immediate release."

At a recent United Nations Human Rights Council meeting, PEN America joined an international coalition that urged the extension of a mandate of a commission that is investigating human rights abuses in Iran, underscoring ongoing concerns about the suppression of free expression in the country.

In 2022, the association reported that Iran was responsible for imprisoning over one-third of all female writers jailed worldwide, emphasizing the systemic suppression of women's voices amid their struggle for full human rights.

Farghadani was previously detained in 2015 and served 18 months on various charges including "propaganda against the regime."

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Five Suspects Named In Deadly Attack On Police In Russia's Karachai-Cherkessia

The regional Investigative Committee added the five men to its wanted list. (file photo)
The regional Investigative Committee added the five men to its wanted list. (file photo)

Authorities in Russia's North Caucasus region of Karachai-Cherkessia on April 23 identified five men suspected of opening fire on a police patrol a day earlier, killing two officers and wounding another. Ruslan Semyonov, Vladimir Averyanov, Kazbek Dzhazayev, Akhmat Elkanov, and Ruslan Elkanov were added to the wanted list, the regional Investigative Committee said. The committee said earlier that it launched an investigation into "a deadly attack against law enforcement officers and illegal firearms possession." The assailants managed to take a pistol, an AK-47, and ammunition from the officers during the attack. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

Sister Of Iranian Teen Killed In Anti-Government Protests Released From Prison

Aida Shakarami (file photo)
Aida Shakarami (file photo)

The sister of a 16-year-old killed in 2022 in anti-government protests has been freed from an Iranian jail. Aida Shakarami, sister of Nika Shakarami, was released on April 23 after about a week of detention for violating Iran’s hijab law. Shakarami was arrested by the morality police during the government's attempt to reimpose the compulsory head scarf. Nasrin Shakarami, the mother of Nika and Aida, said the judge in the case had insulted and threatened her daughter, including accusations of promoting corruption and prostitution. Pictures of Aida Shakarami on social media after her release showed her without a hijab. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.

U.S. Journalist Gershkovich's Appeal Against Russian Detention Denied

Evan Gershkovich stands inside the defendants' cage during a hearing on the extension of his pretrial detention at the Moscow City Court on March 26.
Evan Gershkovich stands inside the defendants' cage during a hearing on the extension of his pretrial detention at the Moscow City Court on March 26.

A Moscow court on April 23 rejected an appeal by jailed U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich against the extension of his pretrial detention until June 30.

The judge in the case said a ruling on March 26, which extended Gershkovich's pretrial detention until June 30, "should be left unchanged."

The Wall Street Journal reporter, who has spent more than a year behind bars on espionage charges, has lost multiple appeals seeking to end his pretrial detention.

The 32-year-old U.S. citizen was arrested in late March 2023 in Yekaterinburg while on a reporting trip.

Russian authorities have not provided any evidence to support the espionage charges, which The Wall Street Journal and the U.S. government have vehemently rejected. They say Gershkovich was merely doing his job as an accredited reporter when he was arrested.

U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy said in March after Gershkovich's detention was extended that his case "is about using American citizens as pawns to achieve political ends."

The U.S. State Department said in December that Moscow rejected a significant offer it made to secure the release of Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, another American imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges.

Another U.S. citizen currently held by Russian authorities is Alsu Kurmasheva, an RFE/RL journalist who was arrested in Kazan in October 2023 and charged with failing to register as a "foreign agent" and spreading falsehoods about the Russian military.

Prior to her arrest, Kurmasheva, who faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted, had her passport confiscated following a visit to care for her elderly mother. RFE/RL and the U.S. government say the charges against her are reprisals for her work.

Russian officials have kept mum about any talks to win the release of the Americans. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has repeatedly said that while "certain contacts" on swaps continue, "they must be carried out in absolute silence."

Russia is believed to be seeking the release of Vadim Krasikov, who was given a life sentence in Germany in 2021 for the killing of Zelimkhan "Tornike" Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen descent who had fought Russian troops in Chechnya and later claimed asylum in Germany.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, asked in February about releasing Gershkovich, appeared to refer to Krasikov by pointing to a man imprisoned by a U.S. ally for "liquidating a bandit" who had allegedly killed Russian soldiers during separatist fighting in Chechnya.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP

No Russian Fencers At Paris Olympics, European Fencing Says

Russia's fencers last year rejected the format set out by the International Olympic Committee to come back to international competition, raising the possibility they would boycott Olympic qualifying events. (file photo)
Russia's fencers last year rejected the format set out by the International Olympic Committee to come back to international competition, raising the possibility they would boycott Olympic qualifying events. (file photo)

No fencers from Russia or Belarus will take part in the Paris Olympics after those eligible under a neutral banner did not enter European qualifiers, according to the European Fencing Confederation (EFC). "There are unfortunately no Russian or Belarusian athletes," EFC President Giorgio Scarso told reporters on April 23. "The reason for their absence is not known, there was no official declaration of letter to explain it," Scarso added. Russia's fencers last year rejected the format set out by the International Olympic Committee to come back to international competition, raising the possibility they would boycott Olympic qualifying events.

RFE/RL, Kazakh Foreign Ministry Reach Agreement On Accreditation

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan in Astana
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan in Astana

ASTANA -- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has reached agreement with the Kazakh Foreign Ministry over the accreditation of dozens of its journalists in the Central Asian country amid fears the government was trying to stifle independent media.

Details of the agreement, reached on April 23, were not immediately available.

"We welcome the agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," RFE/RL President Stephen Capus said in response to the deal.

"Throughout this process, all we have wanted was for our journalists to be able to continue their vital work in Kazakhstan safely, without compromise. We remain committed to serving our audiences with independent, trusted reporting and I am confident that this agreement will enable us to do just that."

In January 2023, the ministry denied accreditation to 36 journalists of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Radio Azattyq. Some of the correspondents had not been able to extend their accreditation since late 2022.

The situation around the accreditation of RFE/RL correspondents turned into a hot topic in January after a group of Kazakh lawmakers approved a draft bill that would allow the tightly controlled former Soviet republic's authorities to refuse accreditation to foreign media outlets and their reporters on grounds of national security.

According to the draft legislation, the Foreign Ministry could refuse accreditation to foreign media outlets and their reporters "in case of a threat to the national security of the Republic of Kazakhstan."

The bill states that any activities of foreign media and their journalists without accreditation are banned, and the decision to suspend the activities of foreign media in the country can be made by the ministry without a court ruling.

In accordance with current legislation, the Foreign Ministry must make decisions on accreditation within two months of receiving an application. In case of refusal, the ministry must provide an explanation for its decision.

Ukraine Restricts Consular Services For Conscription-Age Men Living Abroad

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (file photo)
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (file photo)

Ukraine has moved to restrict consular services at its diplomatic missions for men of conscription age (18-60) who live abroad as Kyiv tries to increase troop levels in its fight to repel invading Russian forces.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on April 23 that he ordered the restrictions because "staying abroad does not relieve a citizen of his or her duties to the Homeland."

"As it looks like now, a man of conscription age goes abroad and shows his state that he does not care about its survival. He then comes back and wants to receive services from this state. It does not work this way. Our country is at war," Kuleba wrote.

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Kuleba added that he will clarify in the coming days the process of legally obtaining consular services in Ukraine's foreign diplomatic missions by men of conscription age as the law on mobilization signed by President Zelenskiy last week will come into force.

According to the law that Zelenskiy signed on April 16, all men between 18 and 60 years of age must update their draft data with military conscription centers across the country.

Though lawmakers watered down some amendments to draft dodging, the law does allow for the punishment of those convicted of avoiding service.

An unknown number of Ukrainian men fled the country after Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 despite Kyiv's move to ban men of conscription age from leaving the country.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian men working abroad as migrant laborers have also not returned to Ukraine as Russia continues its full-scale aggression against its neighbor.

"The obligation to update one's documents with the conscription centers existed even before the new law on mobilization was passed. If anyone believes that while one person is fighting far away at the frontline and risking his or her life for this state, another can stay abroad and receive services from this state, well, this is not how it works," Kuleba added.

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