New START Treaty Headed To Floor Of U.S. Senate
WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Senate committee has approved a major nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, moving one of President Barack Obama's top foreign policy goals closer to reality.
The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, as it's known, was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 16 by a 14-to-4 vote. It now must be voted on by the full Senate in order to come into force.
The final vote included three crucial "yes" votes by three Republican committee members, which bodes well for the treaty's chances when it comes before the U.S. Senate. A two-thirds majority -- or 67 votes -- is needed, which means eight Republicans will need to vote 'yes' on final passage.
The Senate is unlikely to take up the treaty between now and early October, when Congress breaks until after November's midterm elections.
Committee chairman John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts) called U.S. ratification of the treaty "a national security imperative." In addition to reducing Russian nuclear stockpiles, he said, the treaty will "redouble international support for [U.S.] nonproliferation efforts to counter the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue nations like Iran and North Korea."
Seeking Broad Support
The new START treaty was signed last April by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama and replaces the old START treaty, which expired last December.
The agreement commits each side to reducing their deployed nuclear weapons by some 30 percent, from 2,200 to 1,550. It also establishes new verification protocols so each side can, in the words of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, "trust, but verify" that the other side is adhering to the rules.
Russia's Duma has not yet voted on the treaty.
While there was never any doubt that the treaty would be approved by the Senate Foreign Relations committee, its appearance on the agenda was delayed while the White House sought the support of Republican senators.
With congressional elections just two months away, lawmakers are feeling deeply political and bipartisan cooperation on any legislation has become all but impossible.
In addition, some Republicans have questioned whether the new treaty's language would prevent the United States from developing a robust missile defense program. Doubts have also been raised about the strength of the verification measures.
Under President Barack Obama, the United States is moving ahead with plans for a missile defense program aimed at protecting U.S. forces and allies against threats from Iran's ballistic-missile defense program. Plans call for the deployment of ships with missile interceptors, and land-based defense systems in Eastern Europe.
Just before today's vote, the treaty won the critical support of committee Republican Bob Corker (Tennessee) who announced September 15 that his fears on missile defense had been allayed and he was satisfied that U.S. inspectors would be able to verify whether Russia was keeping up its end of the bargain.
"I feel far more comfortable with us having the ability to have 'boots on the ground' in Russia than [what] exists today, without that [ability]," he said.
Questions On Missile Defense
But Corker's colleague, Jim DeMint (Republican-Tennessee) was firm in his opposition to the treaty and offered an amendment he said would lessen the risk to U.S. national security. "There's nothing in the START treaty that provides for the defense of the people of the United States," he said. "The START treaty is based on the assumption of mutually assured destruction."
Before the standing-room-only hearing room, DeMint said it would be "dishonest of my colleagues ... to say that this allows us to develop a robust missile defense system that would protect the people of the United States, because we know that's not true."
That brought a sharp rebuttal from Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. "Are you suggesting that if we vote against your amendment, that we in some way are not defending this country and don't believe that we should defend this country against our enemies?" she asked. "Because if that's what you're suggesting, senator, then I personally resent that."
DeMint replied that he didn't mean any offense, but did believe that a vote against his amendment would be "a vote against a missile defense system capable of defending the people of the United States."
Kerry settled the disagreement by agreeing to include language that reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to missile defense.
It was the second time the chairman had had to fend off an attempt to derail proceedings by a Republican committee member.
Accusations Of Russian Cheating
Just moments into the hearing, Senator James Risch (Republican-Idaho) announced that a day earlier, on September 15, members of the U.S. intelligence community had revealed new information in a classified congressional briefing that he said raised doubts about whether debate on START should even continue.
"I would be remiss if I didn't report to members of this committee that yesterday, the intelligence community brought to us some very serious information that directly affects what we're doing here," he said.
Kerry responded sharply by telling Risch he was wrong to bring up the subject of classified security information in a public hearing. "It is inappropriate for us to have any discussion in open session of any of the substance of what was brought to the attention of some people in the course of the last few days," he said.
He added that he was aware of the information and had raised the issue personally with Vice President Joe Biden.
Kerry then shut down the line of debate by saying that the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that the new information "in no way alters their judgment ... about the substance of the treaty."
He added, "We would not have proceeded today" if their judgment had been otherwise.
But after the committee had voted and adjourned, Risch gave a brief interview to a reporter from "Foreign Policy," which reported that the new intelligence information "concerned Russian cheating on [previous] arms control agreements."
Asked whether that issue was already known and had been addressed by the White House during the drafting of the new treaty, the lawmaker said, "You haven't seen the stuff that I've seen."
*An earlier version of this article failed to note that the characterization of the undisclosed intelligence information was from "Foreign Policy," and not Senator Risch.
All Of The Latest News
Belarusian Lawmakers Approve Death Penalty For High Treason By Officials, Military
Amid fears that Russia plans new attacks along with the Belarusian military against Ukraine from Belarusian territory, Belarusian lawmakers approved in the first reading on December 7 a bill that envisages the death penalty for high treason committed by officials and military personnel. The bill also includes criminal prosecution for "spreading false information discrediting Belarusian armed forces." Russia adopted a similarly controversial law in March, days after it launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine in late February. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.
Russian Law Enforcement Officers Detain Man Suspected Of Opening Fire At Police
Police in Russia's Rostov region have apprehended a man suspected of opening fire with a machine gun at a group of police officers on December 6, wounding one of them. The region's governor, Vasily Golubev, said on Telegram on December 7 that the suspect was found in an abandoned building in the town of Novoshakhtinsk. Some media reports identified the man as Pavel Nikolin, a 38-year inmate of a penitentiary in Bashkortostan, who was recruited in prison to join the war in Ukraine but deserted with a machine gun. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.
Media Oulets Express Support For TV Dozhd After Latvia Pulls License
More than 60 media outlets and independent journalists broadcasting and writing in Russian, including those based in Latvia, have expressed support for the independent Russian television channel Dozhd (Rain) after Latvia's electronic media authority revoked its broadcasting license.
The Latvia-based Meduza news website published a letter of support for Dozhd hours after the chairman of Latvia's National Electronic Media Council (NEPLP), Ivars Abolins, announced the license revocation on December 6, saying the decision, which takes force on December 8, was made "in connection with the threat to national security and public order."
Meduza's letter of support to Dozhd TV adds that statements saying "these violations pose a 'national security threat' are unconvincing," and that the television channel's position against Russia's war in Ukraine is "obvious" as it is critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin's policies.
"[Dozhd's] significance in countering Russian state propaganda is colossal. Roaring about 'national security' conceals what is actually a heavy blow to free speech and ultimately to European security as well," the letter says.
Dozhd said in a statement on Twitter earlier that the move was "unfair and absurd," adding that while it will cease broadcasting on cable, its YouTube station will continue to operate.
NEPLP granted Dozhd a broadcast license in June after it was forced to suspend operations in Russia in March amid pressure linked to its coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
On December 2, Dozhd was fined 10,000 euros ($10,468) for using a map of Russia with Ukraine's Moscow-annexed Crimea on it and calling Russian armed forces invading Ukraine "our army."
On the same day, Latvia's state security service said it had launched an investigation in connection with statements "which raise suspicions about the assistance provided by this TV channel to the soldiers of the Russian occupation forces in Ukraine."
Dozhd anchor Aleksei Korostelyov on December 1 called on the Dozhd audience to write about cases of violations of Russian laws during the recent mobilization in Russia and about war crimes. In making the request, he said:
"We hope we also helped many military personnel, namely by assisting with equipment and bare necessities on the front line."
The security service said in a news release, "No provision of support to the aggressor Russia is justifiable," it said, adding that anyone helping the Russian forces was subject to criminal liability.
Moscow Court Postpones Verdict, Sentencing Of Opposition Politician Ilya Yashin
A Moscow court has postponed until December 9 its verdict and sentence in the case of opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who is charged with spreading false information about the Russian military amid its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The judge was scheduled to hand down a decision on December 7 but the court building was cleared after a bomb threat. Prosecutors seek nine years in prison for the outspoken Kremlin critic. The charge against Yashin stems from his YouTube posts about alleged crimes committed by the Russian military in the Ukrainian city of Bucha. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Putin Signs Decree Increasing Number Of Police Officers To 938,000 by 2025
Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree to increase the number of police officers in the country to 938,000 by 2025. According to the decree, dated December 5, the number of police in the country will be 922,000 next year, and 934,00 in 2024. After Moscow illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimea and threw support to pro-Russia separatists in 2014, the maximum number of the police personnel in the country was legally set at 894,000. Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands of Russians have been called up for military duty. To read the original story by RFE/RL's North.Realities, click here.
Belarus Plans 'Counterterrorism' Exercises Amid Concerns Of New Russian Attacks On Ukraine
The Belarusian Security Council says it plans to start a two-day program of moving military personnel and equipment on December 7 in "a counter-terrorism exercise." The announcement comes amid concerns that Russia may launch a new attack on Ukraine from Belarusian territory. Council officials told the BelTA state news agency that the move will include the transportation of vehicles and persons in unspecified parts of the country. To read the original story by BelTA, click here.
Russian Drones, Artillery Target Central Ukraine As Fighting Rages In East
Russian forces attacked several Ukrainian regions with kamikaze drones and heavy artillery, officials said on December 7, killing two people and wounding several others, as heavy fighting continued in the east a day after Moscow accused Kyiv of hitting an airfeld inside Russia.
In Kherson, Russian troops shelled the region 51 times the previous day, killing two people, Yaroslav Yanushevych, the head of the regional military administration, said on December 7.
Dnipropetrovsk Governor Valentyn Reznichenko said all Russian drones were destroyed by Ukrainian forces in the overnight attack.
"Military men from the East air command did a great job. We shot down all eight enemy drones that the enemy directed at the area,"Reznichenko wrote on Telegram.
He said Russian shelling targeted the Nikopol district and city, causing damage to gas pipelines, houses, and farm buildings, but no people were wounded.
"Nikopol suffered the most. Up to a dozen private houses, farm buildings, and gas pipelines were damaged in the city. Several shops, office buildings, and a college were destroyed by Russian shells," he said.
Russian troops also shelled two settlements in the Zaporizhzhya region, the head of the regional military administration, Oleksandr Starukh, said on December 7.
"Two houses were destroyed in one of the villages, and eight more were damaged. "We know about three wounded, including a 15-year-old girl," said Starukh.
In Washington, U.S. lawmakers agreed to provide Ukraine at least $800 million in additional security assistance next year, according to a defense policy bill unveiled on December 6.
WATCH: Soviet-era T-72 tanks are getting new optics, armor, and more at a Czech facility in Sternberk, thanks in part to the efforts of Ukrainian refugees working there.
The Fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, authorizes the additional spending for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, an increase of $500 million over President Joe Biden's request earlier this year.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on December 7 the United States "neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia" after another Russian airfield was set ablaze by a drone strike on December 6, a day after Russia had said two of its air bases, had been hit by drones.
Blinken added that it was important to understand what Ukrainians are living through every day with the "ongoing Russian aggression," accusing Russia of "weaponizing winter" through attacks on civilian infrastructure.
Officials in the Russian city of Kursk, around 90 kilometers north of the Ukraine border, released pictures of black smoke above an airfield, where the governor said an oil storage tank had gone up in flames.
While Ukraine did not directly claim responsibility for any of the three strikes -- one of which targeted a Russian military air base about 600 kilometers east of Ukraine in the Saratov region -- a senior Ukrainian official quoted on December 5 anonymously by The New York Times said the drones were launched from Ukrainian territory.
The official said at least two planes were destroyed at one of the Russian bases and several more were damaged.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said the air base in Saratov is Russia's only base fully equipped for the long-range bombers Russia has used in its campaign to damage Ukraine's energy grid that has plunged millions of Ukrainian homes into darkness and cold at the onset of winter.
“All this complicates their operation against Ukraine,” Arestovych said. “Yesterday, thanks to their 'unsuccessful smoking,' we achieved a very big result," he said, poking fun at an earlier claim by Russia that explosions at one of its bases had been caused by carelessness with cigarettes.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said very heavy battles were taking place in the Donetsk region, "and the price is very high."
"For us, the epicenter of hostilities today is the Donetsk region, and the enemy has concentrated most of its forces there,” she said.
It was the sixth time in memory that Russian forces had tried to push to the borders of the Donetsk region and failed, she added.
"We must understand that when we liberate the temporarily occupied territories, it is a victory. When we stand firm and don't let the enemy in, it's also a victory," Malyar emphasized.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine earlier reported that Russian troops were concentrating their main efforts on conducting offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiyivka areas of the Donetsk region.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
U.S. Lawmakers Authorize $800 Million More For Ukraine In Defense Bill
U.S. lawmakers agreed to provide Ukraine at least $800 million in additional security assistance next year and to boost Taiwan with billions in aid over the next several years, according to an $858 billion defense policy bill unveiled on December 6. The Fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, authorizes the additional spending for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, an increase of $500 million over President Joe Biden's request earlier this year. To read the original Reuters story, click here.
UN Aid Chief: Ukrainians Are Suffering 'Colossal' Torment
The UN humanitarian chief on December 6 decried the “colossal” torment Ukraine is suffering from Russia’s destruction of its infrastructure. That view was echoed by Western allies of Ukraine at a UN Security Council meeting but strongly opposed by Russia. Humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths outlined the toll of “widespread death, displacement, and suffering.” He said more than 14 million people have been displaced -- 7.8 million to Europe and 6.5 million still within the country -- and 17,023 civilians have been killed, including 419 children, though the UN human rights office believes “the real toll is far greater.” To read the original story from AP, click here.
Spirits Low After Russian Vodka Brand Auction Runs Dry
The spirits of shareholders of dismantled Russian oil company Yukos were low on December 6 after the top bid in an auction of several iconic vodka brands came up short. The financial holding company GML, the majority shareholder in Yukos before the Kremlin dismantled it in 2003, was hoping to sell the rights to Russian vodka brands Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya. Two bidders each placed a $250,000 deposit hoping to win the rights to use the trademarks in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. But GML reserved the right to reject the winning bids, and did so, deeming them as too low. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Iran Rebroadcasts 'Confessions,' Raising Fears Four Kurds May Have Been Executed
Iranian state television has aired for the second time the "confessions" of four Kurdish political prisoners -- admissions their families and supporters say were coerced -- raising fears that they may have been executed.
Pejman Fatehi, Vafa Azarbar, Mohsen Mazloum, and Hajir Faramarzi have been detained for four months and are thought to be part of a group of people who were identified by security police in November as allegedly being "Mossad-related agents."
On December 5, Javana Teymasi, the wife of Mohsen Mazloum, wrote in a tweet that she has no information about her husband's condition and that the rebroadcast of what she called his forced confession has added to her worries.
"We don't even know if their trial was held and if a verdict was issued or not. What is clear is that the link in their case is with the accusations of 'espionage,'" she wrote.
"Rebroadcasting forced confessions and raising these accusations has worried the families."
Iran’s Intelligence Ministry has previously identified the group as operatives from the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, but the party itself has denied the claim. It has said previously that several of its members have been arrested.
In early November, the judiciary of the Islamic republic announced the indictment of 10 people who were identified as "Mossad-related agents" and announced that four of them were accused of "corruption on earth" -- a charge that is punishable by death and often leveled in cases allegedly involving espionage or attempts to overthrow Iran's government.
Earlier this week, Iran executed four people it accused of working for Israel's Mossad intelligence agency.
The four were identified as Hossein Ordukhanzadeh, Shahin Imani Mahmudabadi, Milad Ashrafi, and Manuchehr Shahbandi. They were accused of receiving weapons and funds in the form of cryptocurrency from Mossad.
Israel, as is its policy, has not commented on the accusations.
Iran is currently in the throes of unrest as people take to the streets across the country to protest against the death on September 16 of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while she was detained by the notorious morality police for wearing a head scarf improperly.
Amini, who was taken into custody in Tehran, was from the Kurdish region of western Iran and many of the largest protests have taken there.
Police have met the unrest with deadly force.
The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters have been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.
The Oslo-based Iran Human Rights Organization says the number of executions in Iran this year exceeds 500.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Iranian Lawmaker Says Government Is Seeking Alternative Punishments For Hijab Violators
A member of the Iranian parliament has unveiled the government's plan for alternative punishments -- including financial ones -- to try and force women to wear a hijab in public despite massive protests across the country over the issue.
Hossein Jalali, a member of the Cultural Commission of the Iranian parliament, said that under the new plan, the actions of morality police would be curbed, allowing for less intrusive methods to be used for ensuring compliance.
"It is possible to notify nonhijab wearers in the form of a text message that they did not observe the hijab rule and that they must respect the law," Jalali said in an interview with Iranian media.
He added that after two warnings, the government would move to block the bank account of the offender as a way of punishing them. He did not explain how the government intends to recognize the identities of those who are supposedly in violation of the hijab law.
The issue has sparked massive protests across the country after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died while in police custody. She was detained by the morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab, or head scarf, improperly.
The government has responded to almost three months of unrest with deadly force as it tries to suppress one of the deepest challenges to the Islamic regime since the revolution in 1979.
Since the outbreak of the unrest, morality police have been less visible in cities. Still, their status is unclear since the country's chief prosecutor said over the weekend that the notorious force had been closed, only to then walk it back by saying it was a decision for the Interior Ministry, which has jurisdiction over the force.
On December 5, a spokesman for the morality police said that the mission of the police unit has ended and that new methods should be used to enforce the country's mandatory hijab law, but the ministry itself has not commented on the issue.
The hijab -- the head covering worn by Muslim women -- became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over the age of nine after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and Jalali said that there will be no backing away from the hijab and chastity plan laid out by the state.
"Moving away from the hijab means a retreat of the Islamic republic," Jalali added.
The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Iranian Sunni Cleric Says He Has Received Reports Of Sexual Assaults On Female Prisoners
Iran’s top Sunni cleric, a vocal critic of the government, says he has received reports of sexual assaults on female prisoners in Iranian prisons.
Molavi Abdolhamid wrote on his Twitter account on December 6 that the assaults on female prisoners were being committed with the intention of humiliating, suppressing, and obtaining forced confessions from them.
"If proven, the real corrupters on earth are the perpetrators of these crimes," Abdolhamid added, and asked the judiciary to punish these people severely.
"Corruption on Earth," is a common charge often leveled by Iran’s judiciary in cases involving attempts to overthrow the government.
Molavi Abdolhamid is regarded nationwide as a spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni Muslim population, who are a minority among the mainly Shi'ite population of Iran. He is the director of the main Sunni seminary in Iran and has been under pressure for his comments against the Islamic republic.
CNN first published an investigative report last month about the "sexual assault and rape" of some of the detainees from recent protests while they were being held in Iran's prisons. Citing the testimony of a number of released detainees or hospital sources, CNN said it has confirmed that young women and teenage boys and girls have been raped in prisons.
In response to the report, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the Iranian authorities' use of sexual violence as a tool for protest suppression.
Price said on November 23 that the United States “is disgusted by the reports and eyewitness accounts of protesters, including minors, being sexually assaulted while in the custody of law enforcement.”
Previously, in an open letter to Javaid Rehman, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Narges Mohammadi, a human rights activist imprisoned in the notorious Evin prison, called for a special investigation into the assault of detained women.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Top Official At Kazakh City's Thermal Power Plant Found Dead Amid Heating Crisis
A top official at a heating plant in Kazakhstan’s northern city of Ekibastuz, Sergei Vidlog, has been found dead as parts of the city have been left without heat since late November. Authorities said on December 6 that Vidlog's body was found in his car in a garage two days earlier. Last week, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev sacked the region's governor after experts described the situation in Ekibastuz, where temperatures have been minus 30 degrees Celsius for weeks, as "catastrophic." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Hungary Vetoes EU Aid For Ukraine; Bloc Delays Decision On Funds For Budapest
Hungary vetoed an 18 billion euro ($19 billion) EU loan for Ukraine and EU finance ministers delayed a decision on whether to unfreeze billions of euros in aid earmarked for Budapest. At a meeting in Brussels, Hungarian Finance Minister Mihaly Varga confirmed his government's opposition to supporting Ukraine with the loan. Locked in a tug-of-war with Hungary, the ministers decided to take off their agenda on December 6 any decision about 7.5 billion euros ($7.9 billion) in EU funds earmarked for Hungary, according to EU officials. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service story, click here.
Gas Explosion Kills At Least Eight In Siberia
A gas explosion has killed at least eight people and destroyed five apartments in a five-floor residential building in the Russian city of Nizhnevartovsk in Siberia. Local officials said on December 6 that teams continue search-and-rescue operations after the explosion, which took place two days earlier. Ten other apartments were also at least partially damaged in the blast. Gas explosions occur with some frequency in Russia due to aging pipelines and infrastructure, as well as lax safety standards. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.
Man In Military Uniform Opens Fire At Police In Russia's Rostov Region
A man in military dress opened fire with a machine gun at a group of police officers on December 6, wounding one of them, in the southwestern Russian region of Rostov, which borders Ukraine. The region's governor, Vasily Golubev, said on Telegram that the wounded officer was being treated in a hospital in the town of Novoshakhtinsk, where the incident took place. Law enforcement is working on locating the perpetrator, whom media described as a possible deserter from the war in Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Ukraine Says Embassies In Denmark, Romania Receive More 'Bloody Packages'
Ukrainian embassies in Denmark and Romania have received more "bloody packages," Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in an online interview on December 6 with the Ukrinform news agency. Last week, Ukrainian embassies and consulates in several European countries received "bloody packages" that contained animal eyes as Russia continues its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine launched in late February. To read the original story by Ukrinform, click here.
Zelenskiy Makes Lightning Trip To Ukraine's Donbas As Battle Rages
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has made a working trip to the Donetsk region and met with the Ukrainian troops close to hotly contested battle lines with Russia. The president's office said in a statement on its website that Zelenskiy made the December 6 visit to hand the soldiers state awards on Ukraine's Day of the Armed Forces. The statement said that Ukraine's east "today is the most difficult front." Russia has backed separatists in the region since 2014 and the region is the site of some of the heaviest fighting in Ukraine at the moment.
Russia Extradites Nephew Of Jailed Informal Leader Of Restive Tajik Region
DUSHANBE -- Russian authorities have extradited a nephew of Tolib Ayombekov, the jailed informal leader of Tajikistan's volatile Gorno-Badakhshan region.
Law enforcement sources in the Central Asian country told RFE/RL that Russian police arrested 33-year-old Qurbonjon Ayombekov on December 1 as he was trying to cross the Russian-Ukrainian border, and extradited him to Dushanbe days later.
Relatives told RFE/RL that Qurbonjon Ayombekov, who has resided in Russia since autumn 2021, decided to flee Russia for Ukraine after his uncle Tolib was handed a life sentence in November along with several other prominent Gorno-Badakhshan figures on charges of murder, hooliganism, robbery, drug and weapon smuggling, inciting hatred, organizing mass disorder, and creating a criminal group.
Also last month, Tolib Ayombekov's brother, Inoyatsho, was sentenced to 30 years in prison, while 16 years were added to the prison term of another brother, Okil, who in 2013 was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Also in November, another of Tolib Ayombekov’s nephews, Mamadamon Ayombekov, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Earlier in August, Tolib Ayombekov's three sons were handed lengthy prison terms.
Details of the charges and sentences are not clear as all the trials were held behind closed doors.
The crackdown on informal leaders and activists in Gorno-Badakhshan has been under way since May, when police violently dispersed protesters in the restive region.
Demonstrators in Gorno-Badakhshan had demanded a thorough investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional governor and mayor of the regional capital, Khorugh.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters was killed by police in May, prompting the authorities to launch a "counterterrorist operation."
Authorities violently dispersed the protesters, arresting dozens of them during and after the rallies.
Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades.
Darya Losik, Wife Of Jailed RFE/RL's Journalist, May Face Up To Seven Years In Prison
MINSK -- Darya Losik, the wife of jailed RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik, may face up to seven years in prison on a charge of facilitating extremist activity in Belarus.
The Prosecutor-General's Office said on December 6 that an investigation of the case against Darya Losik had been completed and sent to court, meaning that her trial is expected to start soon.
According to the statement, the charge against Darya Losik stems from an interview she gave to the Poland-based Belsat television channel that has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk. During the interview, she "positioned herself as the wife of a 'political prisoner,'" the statement said.
"She expressed her personal negative assessment of state organs involved in criminal prosecution and justice. She also said her husband had not committed any crimes and had been illegally convicted. She called on relatives of other convicts to follow her example," the Prosecutor-General's Office said in the statement.
Darya Losik was detained in October after police searched her home.
The United States has called for the immediate and unconditional release of Darya Losik, while RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has also demanded her immediate release and condemned her detainment.
Ihar Losik was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2021 on charges that remain unclear.
The husband of exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, as well as four other bloggers and opposition politicians and activists, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms along with Losik at the time.
Losik and other defendants have insisted that the case against them is politically motivated.
Separatist Leader In Ukraine's Donetsk Says Moscow, Kyiv To Exchange 60 Prisoners Each
The leader of the Kremlin-backed separatists in the occupied eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, says that Russia and Ukraine will each hand over 60 prisoners of war in the latest in a series of prisoner exchanges. Pushilin said in a post on Telegram on December 6 that the exchange will be conducted during the day. Ukrainian officials have yet to confirm the swap.
Iran Sentences Five To Death Over Killing Of Basij Paramilitary
Iran has sentenced to death five people over the killing of a member of the Basij paramilitary force during nationwide protests, the judiciary said on December 6. Another 11 people, including three children, were handed lengthy jail terms over the death of Ruhollah Ajamian, judiciary spokesman Massoud Setayeshi told a news conference, adding the sentences could be appealed. Prosecutors said Ajamian, 27, was stripped naked and killed by a group of mourners who had been paying tribute to a slain protester, Hadis Najafi, during ceremonies marking 40 days since her death.
EU, Western Balkans Nations Hold Summit In Tirana Amid Ukraine War
EU leaders and their Western Balkan counterparts worked to strengthen their partnership amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine as they met at a summit on December 6 in the Albanian capital, Tirana, where topics covered included migration, cybersecurity, and diplomatic ties.
In a written declaration released after the meeting, the EU “reconfirmed its full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans” and called for the acceleration of accession talks.
Brussels wanted to use the one-day gathering -- the first EU-Western Balkans summit to be held outside the European Union -- to tell leaders from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia to provide concrete signals, rather than just vague promises, that they will join that the 27-country bloc one day.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama jointly chaired the summit with European Council President Charles Michel, and thanked him and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for their support and determination to ensure membership talks with the Western Balkans did not “die in agony."
Von der Leyen warned that Russia and China are trying to exert influence in the Western Balkans against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
"Will autocracies and the law of the strongest prevail? Or will democracy and the rule of law prevail?" von der Leyen said as she arrived at the summit. "This wrangling is also noticeable in the Western Balkans -- Russia is trying to exert influence, China is trying to exert influence," asking whether the Western Balkans are "on the side of democracy - that is the European Union, your friend and partner" or want to take a different path.
The EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, has reiterated that stepping up the bloc's engagement with the six countries is more crucial than ever to maintaining Europe's security given Russia's war in Ukraine.
Tensions have also mounted in the Balkans since the start of the conflict and the EU wants to avoid other flashpoints close to its borders. Brussels is also wary of the battle to increase influence in the region by Moscow and Beijing.
"In the Western Balkans, several crises are looming, and partners feel the immediate damaging impact of Russia's aggression against Ukraine," Borrell said last month.
"The shock waves of this war are hitting the Western Balkans. To counter that, we are stepping up our engagement as the Western Balkans remain our geostrategic priority -- the closest and most important geostrategic priority."
The declaration adopted after the summit emphasizes the call for speeding up the accession process, while a separate paragraph is dedicated to the war in Ukraine.
In return for the EU's commitment to a "membership perspective" for the Western Balkans, the EU expects full solidarity from its Western Balkans partners and wants them fully aligned with its foreign policies, according to the declaration.
Five out of six Western Balkan countries back the EU's sanctions on Russia over its war on Ukraine, but Serbia is yet to endorse the punitive measures.
"On the issue of sanctions, we have a disagreement with Serbia," German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said after the meeting.
The attendance of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who claims he wants to take Serbia into the European Union but has cultivated ties with Russia, was uncertain until the day before the summit.
Vucic said after the summit that the talks were mostly devoted to energy but also covered Serbia's decision not to impose sanctions on Russia. Vucic said that it was "not natural" for Serbia to introduce sanctions against Russia.
He added that, after his initial hesitation about whether to attend, his decision to participate was a good one, and he had "the most open and honest conversation so far" with EU and Western Balkan officials. He said that Serbia did not agree with the declaration that was adopted at the close of the summit, but he personally had nothing against it.
With reporting by AP and dpa
Iran Arrests 12 With Alleged European Links: Report
Iran's Revolutionary Guards have arrested 12 alleged members of a European-linked group accused of planning acts of sabotage in the country, Tasnim news agency said. Iran has been rocked by more than two months of what it calls deadly "riots" that it says have been fomented by the United States, its allies, and foreign-based opposition groups. In a statement quoted by Tasnim, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Markazi Province, southwest of Tehran, said it had arrested "a network with 12 members with links abroad."
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