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Western Nations, Institutions Praise Kyrgyz Referendum, As Russia Expresses Doubts

Members of a local electoral commission empty a ballot box at a polling station in Bishkek on June 27.
The United States, United Nations, European Union, and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have all praised Kyrgyzstan for having conducted a peaceful constitutional referendum.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley praised “the peaceful conduct of ordinary citizens who voted without incident.” He added that the White House hoped the referendum is the first step toward peace and stability after what has been a volatile few months.

"The United States calls on the provincial government and all of the citizens of Kyrgyzstan to use this opportunity to advance the process of reconciliation and accountability to ensure future interethnic harmony and move Kyrgyzstan forward on a path to security, stability, democracy, and prosperity for all citizens of the republic,” he said.

Voters in Osh use a mobile ballot box during the June 27 referendum.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the outcome of the referendum demonstrates that the Kyrgyz people are aspiring for peace and stability after weeks of violence and disorder.

"The adoption of a new constitution is an important step towards promoting the rule of law and establishing a legitimate, democratically elected government," Ban said. "The United Nations will continue to support Kyrgyzstan and its people as they prepare for parliamentary elections later this year."

The UN has provided technical support to the referendum process and constitutional reform. It will continue to advise the government on constitutional reform, building of democratic institutions, and organization of the general election planned for the fall of this year.

Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the June 27 vote marks an "important step toward a re-establishment of the constitutional order and democratic process" in the country.

The OSCE praised Kyrgyzstan for holding a "largely transparent" referendum on a new constitution.

Kyrgyz officials say some 90 percent of participants approved the constitution, paving the way for the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia and allowing parliamentary elections planned for October.

According to election officials, nearly 70 percent of 2.7 million eligible voters took part in the referendum, only two weeks after deadly ethnic violence in southern provinces killed at least 270 people and forced some 400,000 – mostly ethnic Uzbeks -- from their homes.

In a statement on June 28, the OSCE noted the challenging circumstances, including what it called the "pervasive atmosphere of fear and intimidation in parts of the south," which may have kept some potential voters home.

The OSCE and local observers also noted some shortcomings during the process, including incorrect ballot counting. In some polling stations, voters were not checked to prevent possible cases of multiple voting, observers say.

The OSCE's Boris Frlec in Bishkek: "The provisional government and other authorities should be commended..."
But the OSCE said "efforts were made to enfranchise internally displaced voters who often had no identification papers."

"Considering the extremely difficult environment in which this referendum took place, only weeks after the violence in Osh and Jalal-Abad," said Boris Frlec, the head of the observer team from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, "the provisional government and other authorities should be commended for organizing a remarkable, peaceful process."

The referendum also gave legitimacy to the interim government, which came to power in April in the aftermath of public protests that toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Roza Otunbaeva, the head of the interim government, outlined her intentions at a news conference shortly after polls closed.

"After a very modest inauguration ceremony, I will be granted presidential powers according to the constitution of 2007," she said. "Then I will begin forming a new government -- a government that will not be called provisional, but it will be a technical government. In English, they say 'a caretaker government.'"

The new constitution considerably reduces presidential powers, the first move of its kind in Central Asia, a region notorious for autocratic presidents.

Roza Otunbaeva: "In English, they say 'a caretaker government.'"
Otunbaeva said voters had chosen to put an end to the era of "authoritarian rule by one family under two previous presidents" -- a reference to Bakiev and his predecessor Askar Akaev, both overthrown by public uprisings amid widespread allegations of corruption and nepotism.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, however, expressed doubts about the viability of the political system that would be ushered in under the new constitution.

"I don't really understand how a parliamentary republic would work in Kyrgyzstan," he said. "Will this not lead to a chain of endless problems, to reshuffles in parliament, to certain political groups gaining power, to uncontrollable shifts of power from one person to another, and, finally, will this not help extremist-minded forces come to power?"

In a separate statement, Russia's Foreign Ministry offered measured praise for the vote, expressing hope that the referendum will "facilitate political stability" in Kyrgyzstan.

Neighboring Tajikistan welcomed Kyrgyzstan's referendum results, with the Foreign Ministry saying Dushanbe would work with any government the people of Kyrgyzstan choose for themselves.

Other neighboring Central Asian states have yet to give official reactions to the Kyrgyz referendum.

Final results of the referendum will be available later in the week.

written by Farangis Najibullah, with agency reports

Kyrgyz Crisis Coverage

Clashes In Kyrgyzstan

Full RFE/RL coverage of the ethnically charged violence that has shaken southern Kyrgyzstan since June 10. More

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Russian Lawmaker Calls For Ban On ICC Activity In Russia

Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (file photo)

The pro-Kremlin speaker of the lower house of Russia's parliament has called for his country to ban the activities of the International Criminal Court (ICC) after it issued an arrest warrant on possible war crimes for President Vladimir Putin. Vyacheslav Volodin posted on Telegram on March 25 that Russia should adopt a law criminalizing any "support or assistance" to the ICC. Earlier this month, the ICC issued a warrant for Putin, accusing him of illegally deporting hundreds of Ukrainian children to Russia. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Nordic Countries Combine Air Defenses To Counter Russian Threat

An F-16CM fighter jet takes off from Kallax Airport outside Lulea in northern Sweden.

Military officials in four Nordic countries have announced the creation of a unified air-defense force to counter the perceived threat from Russia. Air-force commanders from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden on March 24 said their forces would be integrated to operate jointly on the basis of NATO standards. Danish Air Force commander Major General Jan Dam told Reuters the move was a result of Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The countries have about 400 modern jet fighters either in service or on order. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

UN Rights Official Concerned Over Summary Executions Of POWs By Both Russia, Ukraine

The head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, Matilda Bogner, said at a press conference in Kyiv on March 24 that her organization had recently recorded killings by both sides.

The United Nations has expressed deep concerned over what it says were summary executions of prisoners of war (POWs) by both Russian and Ukrainian forces on the battlefield.

The head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, Matilda Bogner, said at a press conference in Kyiv on March 24 that her organization had recently recorded killings by both sides.

"We are deeply concerned about...summary execution of up to 25 Russian prisoners of war and persons [out of action because of injury] by the Ukrainian armed forces, which we have documented," Bogner said.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"This was often perpetrated immediately upon capture on the battlefield," she said.

"While we are aware of ongoing investigations by Ukraine authorities into five cases involving 22 victims, we are not aware of any prosecution of the perpetrators," she added.

Almost half of the 229 Russian prisoners of war interviewed by members of the mission claimed torture or ill-treatment, according to Bogner.

Bogner also expressed deep concern over the alleged executions of 15 Ukrainian prisoners by Russian armed forces after their capture. She said the Wagner mercenary group was responsible for 11 of those killings.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry reacted to the report by thanking the UN mission for documenting violations of international law by Russia in the course of its aggression against Ukraine.

"At the same time, we consider it unacceptable to place responsibility on the victim of aggression. According to the UN Charter, Ukraine has the right to self-defense," the ministry said.

Kyiv expects that the UN mission "will avoid any steps that could be interpreted as equating the victim and the aggressor," the ministry said.

Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian parliament's commissioner for human rights, said Ukraine adhered to the Geneva Conventions, the international law regarding the treatment of prisoners of war.

With reporting by AFP

Biden: U.S. Does Not Seek Conflict With Iran But Will 'Forcefully' Protect Americans In Syria

U.S. President Joe Biden (file photo)

U.S. President Joe Biden has said the United States does not seek conflict with Iran but will respond to protect its personnel in Syria and elsewhere.

The United States is prepared "to act forcefully to protect our people. That's exactly what happened last night," Biden said after he ordered a retaliatory air strike on sites in Syria used by groups affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Biden, who spoke to reporters during a visit to Ottawa, Canada, ordered the air strike after a U.S. contractor was killed and six other Americans were injured in an attack on March 23 blamed on groups affiliated with Iran in northeast Syria.

The deadly attack by a kamikaze drone struck a maintenance facility on a base of the U.S.-led coalition near Hasakeh in northeastern Syria, the Pentagon said.

The United States has maintained about 900 troops in posts across northeastern Syria to keep pressure on groups affiliated with the Islamic State group and to support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against the Syrian government.

The Pentagon said two F-15 fighters launched the retaliatory attack early on March 24. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the attack killed 11 pro-Iranian fighters -- six at a weapons depot in Deir el-Zour city and five others at military posts near two towns.

Two Syrian opposition activist groups later on March 24 reported a new wave of air strikes in eastern Syria against positions of Iran-backed militias.

The new wave of air strikes came after rockets were fired at a Conoco gas plant that has a base housing U.S. troops. It was not immediately clear if U.S. warplanes carried out the attack.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in the Pentagon statement that the U.S. intelligence community had determined the drone that killed the U.S. contractor was of Iranian origin but offered no evidence to support the claim.

The statement said its retaliatory "precision" strikes were intended to protect and defend U.S. personnel and were "proportionate and deliberate" and intended to limit the risk of escalation and minimize casualties.

"As President Biden has made clear, we will take all necessary measures to defend our people and will always respond at a time and place of our choosing," Austin said. "No group will strike our troops with impunity."

With reporting by AP and AFP

Ukraine Says No Letup On Bakhmut Front Despite Claims Russian Offensive Stalling

A destroyed Ukrainian tank remains on the side of the road near the frontline town of Kreminna in the eastern Luhansk region on March 24.

Fierce fighting continues near the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, with Russia launching dozens of attacks over the last 24 hours, Ukraine's military said in a March 25 briefing.

The Ukrainian General Staff said there had been 59 clashes along the Bakhmut front in the areas of Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, Maryinka, and Shaktarsk, the same areas that have seen intense fighting over the last several weeks.

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 counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Ukraine's military says it has seen no letup in Russian operations in the Bakhmut area, despite claims by some analysts that Moscow's monthslong offensive is weakening.

On March 24, Ukrainian commander in chief updated a British military leader on the ongoing battle for Bakhmut, advising him that while the fighting was "difficult," Ukrainian forces had been able to stabilize the situation.

Valeriy Zaluzhniy spoke with Admiral Tony Radakin, Britain's chief of the Defense Staff, informing him about the operational situation along the entire front line.

"The Bakhmut direction is the most difficult. Thanks to the titanic efforts of the defense forces, it is possible to stabilize the situation," Zaluzhniy said.

The claims could not be independently verified.

The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War wrote that "the wider Russian spring offensive appears to be culminating" and that "Russian military command will need to commit a significant number of forces to the front line to...launch renewed offensive operations."

Ukrainian forces carried out air strikes against Russian positions in the area and reportedly downed a Russian Mi-24 military helicopter.

The statements could not be independently verified.

He added that he and Radakin also discussed strengthening Ukrainian air defense, and the parties "agreed to develop cooperation and maintain communication."

The Territorial Defense Force in the southern Kherson region reported on March 25 that there had been numerous attacks and shelling incidents in the area over the previous 24 hours.

Some of the shelling struck residential areas, the statement said, and two civilians were killed.

The Kherson city council on March 24 advised residents living close to the Dnieper River to leave for "safer areas."

"Due to constant attacks, it is impossible to ensure stable heat and water supplies there," the council wrote on Telegram. "The best option to protect yourself and your loved ones is to evacuate to safer areas."

Officials said they had arranged free bus transportation form Kherson to the Black Sea port city of Odesa and that 59 civilians had been evacuated on March 24.

Right-Wing Serbian Parties Protest Agreement With Kosovo On Anniversary Of NATO Bombing Campaign

Banners saying "No to capitulation," "Serbia remembers," and "Resignation to Vucic" were unfurled in front of the government's headquarters.

Supporters of four right-wing Serbian opposition parliamentary parties on March 24 demonstrated in Belgrade, blocking traffic and demanding the government reject a plan agreed last weekend by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti on the process of normalizing relations between their two countries.

Protesters also called for Vucic's resignation and early elections.

Banners saying "No to capitulation," "Serbia remembers," and "Resignation to Vucic" were unfurled in front of the government's headquarters. Some of the protesters wore T-shirts sporting the letter Z, a symbol used by Russian forces in their invasion of Ukraine.

"The government of the Republic of Serbia and Vucic do not have a mandate to negotiate the handover of Kosovo," Nikola Dragicevic of the right-wing Zavetnici party said in addressing the media in front of the government building.

The protest started symbolically at 12:44 p.m. UN Resolution 1244, passed by the Security Council in June 1999, authorized the deployment of an international civilian and military presence whose mission was to provide a transitional administration in Kosovo and oversee the development of democratic institutions.

The date of the protest -- March 24 -- was also the 24th anniversary of the start of a 78-day NATO bombing campaign that drove Serbian forces out of Kosovo.

The right-wing parliamentary parties that took part in the protest maintain close ties with Russia, and their representatives traveled to Moscow in recent months.

The parties have 28 out of 250 deputies in parliament. Representatives of the group consider the EU and U.S.-backed agreement between Vucic and Kurti an ultimatum for recognition of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.

The plan envisages normalization of relations without formal recognition. It calls for Serbia to no longer block Kosovo's participation in international organizations, while Kosovo would allow the formation of the Community of Municipalities with a Serbian majority in Kosovo.

At a meeting in Ohrid, North Macedonia, on March 18, Vucic and Kurti agreed on ways to implement the deal. Although Vucic and Kurti did not sign any documents in Ohrid, European mediators expect the parties to implement all articles of the agreement.

The United States and most EU countries recognize Kosovo’s independence, but Belgrade, Russia, and China do not. Serbia still claims Kosovo as its territory.

With reporting by Mila Djurdjevic

EU Task Force Chief Acknowledges Difficulty Of Seizing Russian Assets In Legal Manner

The Dilbar, the fourth-longest yacht in the world, is the property of Russian oligarch Alicher Ousmanov.

EU plans to seize Russian assets following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine are unprecedented and tricky, the chief of the EU task force said on March 24. From oligarchs' yachts to the Russian central bank's foreign reserves, there is a mountain of wealth to be had, but seizing it in a legal manner is easier said than done, Swedish diplomat Anders Ahnlid told AFP in an interview in Stockholm. "Nothing is simple" when it comes to finding and seizing the massive sums, which are to be diverted to pay for Ukraine's reconstruction, Ahnlid said, but Europe plans to be "innovative." To read the original story by AFP, click here.

Russia-China Partnership Has Limits, EU's Borrell Says

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell

China's partnership with Russia has limits, despite rhetoric to the contrary, and Europe should welcome any attempts by Beijing to distance itself from Moscow's war in Ukraine, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. Borrell's remarks follow a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who declared a "no limits" partnership in February 2022, just days before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Borrell said that while China had forged close economic and diplomatic ties with Russia, it had not formed a military alliance and had not supplied arms to help Russia with its war in Ukraine. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Iranian Activist Sentenced To 18 Years After Calls For Khamenei's Resignation

Activist Fatemeh Sepehri

Iran's judiciary has confirmed an 18-year prison sentence for activist Fatemeh Sepehri, an outspoken critic of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after calling on him to resign.

In February, Asghar Sepehri, Sepehri's brother, wrote on Twitter that his sister had informed him during a phone call from prison that the Islamic Revolutionary Court had handed her the sentence.

He said the sentence includes 10 years for propaganda activities against the Islamic republic, five years for cooperation with hostile governments, two years for insulting the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, and one year for gathering and conspiring against national security.

On March 23, Dostali Makki, Fateme Sepehari's lawyer, said the sentence had been confirmed by the court and that the sentence would be implemented.

Makki added that the court did not accept his representation of Sepehri, thus keeping them from appealing the initial verdict.

According to the laws of the Islamic republic, if a convict is sentenced to several prison sentences in one case, the longest prison sentence will be implemented. In this case, Sepehri must spend the next 10 years in prison.

Sepehri is one of 14 activists in Iran who have publicly called for Khamenei to step down. She has been arrested and interrogated several times in recent years.

She and the other activists have also called for a new political system within the framework of a new constitution that would secure dignity and equal rights for women.

Criticism of Khamenei, who has the last say on almost every decision in Iran, is considered a red line in Iran, and his critics often land in prison, where political prisoners are routinely held in solitary confinement and subjected to various forms of torture.

Sepehri was arrested by security forces on September 21, at the beginning of nationwide protests in Iran over the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was taken into custody by Iran's morality police for allegedly violating the country's hijab law. She died while in detention.

Since the unrest erupted, lawmakers and security officials have threatened harsher and harsher treatment for protesters and anyone expressing dissent.

Human rights groups say the crackdown has left more than 500 people dead and hundreds more injured. Several people have been executed.

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

Iranian Women Arrested After Altercation With Hijab Enforcer

The three women were visiting a tourist site in the city of Yazd on March 21. (file photo)

Three Iranian women have been arrested after arguing with another woman who was attempting to enforce rules on wearing a head scarf in the central city of Yazd.

According to a report published by the Asr Iran news website, the three women were visiting a tourist site in the city of Yazd on March 21, the first day of the Iranian New Year, when another woman warned them to observe the country's hijab law.

A physical fight ensued. Police intervened to break up the fight and arrested the three women, who were accused of not observing the hijab law. The woman who gave the warning and instigated the conflict was not arrested.

Such acts of civil disobedience have increased in Iran, where the country's Hijab and Chastity Law requires women and girls over the age of 9 to wear a head scarf in public.

In recent weeks, officials have warned women to respect the hijab law and have threatened to punish violators. The authorities have also shut down businesses, restaurants, cafes, and in some cases pharmacies due to the failure of owners or managers to observe Islamic laws and hijab rules.

Judiciary chief Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei warned on March 6 that women who violate the hijab rule will be punished, saying that removing the head scarf shows “enmity towards the establishment and its values.”

Since the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody after allegedly breaking the hijab law, Iranians have flooded into the streets across the country to protest against a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls putting up unprecedented shows of support in what is considered one of the biggest threats to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

In response, the authorities have launched a brutal crackdown on dissent, detaining thousands and handing down stiff sentences, including the death penalty, to protesters.

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

Russian Interior Ministry Adds Self-Exiled Former Putin Speechwriter To Wanted List

Abbas Gallyamov

The Russian Interior Ministry has added to its wanted list a self-exiled former speechwriter of Vladimir Putin, Abbas Gallyamov, known for his analyses of political and social developments in Russia and the Kremlin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine and interviews he has given to multiple media outlets, including RFE/RL.

Mediazona on March 24 said it found the official notice identifying Gallyamov as wanted on the ministry’s website. The notice apparently was posted a day after RFE/RL published an extensive interview with Gallyamov.

Gallyamov, who is currently residing in Israel, told the Mozhem Obyasnit (We Can Explain) Telegram channel that most likely he is wanted on a charge of discrediting Russia's armed forces involved in Kremlin's full-scale aggression against Ukraine. As an independent political observer, he often shares his views and opinions on YouTube, Facebook, and other online platforms.

In the recent interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Gallyamov suggested that the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine may lead to a revolution in Russia.

He also reflected on his time as a member of Putin's speechwriting team after Putin became prime minister in 2008. He said that, at that time, nobody could have predicted "that Russia would turn into some kind of fascist state, as it is now."

Gallyamov told Mozhem Obyasnit that he had not received any official orders or subpoenas related to the notice that he has been added to the Russian Interior Ministry's wanted list.

Discrediting the Russian armed forces became a crime under a new law adopted after Russia sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022.

Gallyamov said the charge is being used "against anyone who refuses to amplify the Kremlin's playbook and tries to conduct an objective, impartial analysis of what's going on.”

Adding him to the wanted list is a signal to others who criticize the government or the war, he told the AP.

“It's not an attempt to get to me -- it is impossible. It's a message for the rest,” he said. “As in, ‘Don’t criticize, don't think that your independent view of what's happening will remain unpunished.'”

Gallyamov told Mozhem Obyasnit that "tons of probes” have been launched by Russian authorities, even against people who were never part of the official system in Russia.

Russian authorities “are concerned about those who tell the truth based on logic that contradicts the [Kremlin's] official line," Gallyamov said, stressing that by adding him to the wanted list, Russian authorities "made a good advertisement" for him.

The Russian Justice Ministry last month added Gallyamov to its registry of "foreign agents," saying that he has distributed “materials compiled by foreign agents, expressed ideas against the special military operation in Ukraine, participated as an expert, and responded on information platforms presented by foreign entities."

Gallyamov, 50, worked as a speechwriter for Putin from 2008-10. He was a deputy chief in the administration of Rustem Khamitov, the president of Russia's Republic of Bashkortostan from 2010-14.

With reporting by AP and Mediazona

New U.S. Sanctions Target Individuals, Entities, Assets In Belarus, Including Lukashenka's Jet

The U.S. Treasury Department has blocked a Boeing 737 that it says has been used by Belarus's authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka (second from right) and his family for official business and personal trips.

The U.S. Treasury Department on March 24 issued new Belarus-related sanctions against nine individuals and three entities in response to an ongoing crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy movement and civil society.

The sanctions announcement by the department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) identified as blocked a Boeing 737 that the Treasury Department said has been used by authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his family for official business and personal trips, including to international locations.

The OFAC singled out two other entities for sanctions -- the Belarusian Automobile Plant (BelAZ) and the Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ) -- saying both plants threatened employees "who took part in strikes and peaceful protests in the aftermath of the fraudulent August 2020 presidential election."

Protest participants were intimidated and then laid off at MAZ and were threatened with layoffs at BelAZ, according to the Treasury Department.

BelAZ is one of the largest manufacturers of large trucks and dump trucks in the world, according to the Treasury Department, and Lukashenka has described it as a “Belarusian brand” and “part of the national legacy.”

Both BelAZ and MAZ, one of the biggest automotive manufacturers in Belarus and a significant source of revenue for the Lukashenka regime, were designated for being owned or controlled by the Belarusian government. They were previously designated by the European Union and Canada.

OFAC also blacklisted BelAZ’s director, Sergei Nikiforovich, and MAZ’s director, Valery Ivankovich, citing their roles as officials of the Belarusian government.

“The authoritarian Lukashenka regime relies on state-owned enterprises and key officials to generate substantial revenue that enables oppressive acts against the Belarusian people,” Brian Nelson, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in the Treasury Department's statement announcing the sanctions. “We remain committed to imposing costs on the Lukashenka regime for its suppression of democracy and support for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war of choice.”

The OFAC also blacklisted seven recently appointed members of the Belarusian Central Election Commission (CEC), which is already under sanctions.

The department said the CEC “played a role in barring opposition candidates, denying access to poll observers, and certifying inaccurate vote tallies.”

OFAC previously designated senior members of the CEC in the wake of the August 2020 presidential election, which Lukashenka claimed he won, while opposition politicians and activists say the vote was rigged. The action on March 24 adds members of the commission who joined since the election.

The sanctions freeze any property held in U.S. jurisdiction by the individuals and entities. In addition, people in the United States who engage in transactions with those designated may themselves be exposed to sanctions, the Treasury Department said.

The State Department on March 24 concurrently announced visa restrictions on an additional 14 individuals, including regime officials “involved in policies to threaten and intimidate brave Belarusians exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms at great personal cost.”

The United States will continue to impose “costs” on the Belarusian regime and on people who support it “for their repression of the people of Belarus, and the regime’s ongoing support for Russia’s unprovoked and illegal war against Ukraine,” the State Department statement said.

Siberian Journalist Imprisoned For Anti-War Stance Says She Was Beaten While In Custody

Human rights watchdogs have demanded the immediate release of Maria Ponomarenko, saying the psychiatric evaluation of criminal suspects does not include any injections.

Siberian journalist Maria Ponomarenko, who was sentenced to six years in prison last month on a charge of discrediting Russia’s armed forces involved in Moscow ongoing invasion of Ukraine, says she was beaten while in custody.

Telegram channel RusNews carried Ponomarenko's handwritten letter on March 24, in which the journalist wrote that after she was transferred to a detention center in the city of Biisk, guards took away some of her belongings and food that her mother had brought and ordered her to take her clothes off, which she refused to do before having what she described as a nervous breakdown.

According to Ponomarenko, the guards then called medical personnel from a local psychiatric clinic, who arrived and then began to beat her, hitting her in the back and head before slamming her body on a desk and a bench. She added she was punched several times and that the attacks continued even once she was inside an ambulance.

Ponomarenko wrote that she was kept in a psychiatric clinic for three days, where she was also intimidated and even beaten by a nurse named Maxim for drinking her cocoa too slowly.

Ponomarenko's lawyer, Dmitry Shitov, told RFE/RL that his client is now back in a detention center in Biisk, adding that he learned about Ponomarenko's ordeal a day earlier.

Ponomarenko, a mother of two young children, was arrested in St. Petersburg in April 2022 and later transferred to her native city of Barnaul in Siberia, where she worked for the RusNews website.

The charge against her stemmed from her online posts about an attack by Russian military jets against a theater in the Ukrainian port of Mariupol that killed hundreds of civilians, including children.

Ponomarenko said in July that while in pretrial detention she was forcibly taken to a psychiatric clinic where she was ordered to undergo a "psychiatric evaluation" and forcibly injected with unknown substances when she demanded her personal belongings or hygiene items.

Human rights watchdogs demanded the immediate release of Ponomarenko, saying the psychiatric evaluation of criminal suspects does not include any injections.

Bishkek Court Orders Check Of Language In Video That Sparked Blockage Of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Websites

The hearing in Bishkek's Lenin District Court on March 24.

BISHKEK -- Bishkek's Lenin District Court has ordered an examination of the language used in a video the government cited when it halted the operations of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, saying it contains elements of inciting ethnic hatred and war propaganda, an allegation the broadcaster has rejected.

Judge Cholpon Karimbaeva on March 24 agreed to a request by the prosecutor to check if the video, produced by Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America and aired on September 16, 2022, uses language that "predominantly" took the position of the Tajik side.

RFE/RL President and Chief Executive Officer Jamie Fly has said the broadcaster "takes our commitment to balanced reporting seriously" and that after a review of the content in question, "no violation of our standards" was found.

Karimbaeva ruled the hearing will resume after the examination of the video is completed.

RFE/RL lawyers objected to the request, saying the Culture Ministry should have undertaken such an examination before blocking the websites and that ordering one -- even though no criminal case has been initiated in the case -- is against the law.

According to the ministry, the request was made after the service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, refused to take down the video, which focused on clashes last year along a disputed segment of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

The authorities have said the decision was based on the Law on Protection from False Information, legislation that drew widespread criticism when it was adopted in August 2021.

Radio Azattyk's bank account in Bishkek also was frozen; in November, Kyrgyz authorities suspended the parliamentary accreditations of 11 RFE/RL correspondents.

The Kyrgyz government's decision has been criticized by domestic and international human rights watchdogs, Kyrgyz politicians, celebrities, intellectuals, journalists, lawmakers, and rights activists, who have called for the government to repeal it.

Earlier this month, Bishkek's Administrative Court rejected an appeal launched by RFE/RL that sought to have the October move to block the sites overturned. The court did not explain the reasoning behind its ruling.

Russian Opposition Leader Navalny Placed In Punitive Solitary Confinement Again

Aleksei Navalny appears in court on a video feed from prison in October 2022.

Imprisoned Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has been placed in a punitive solitary confinement cell for the 12th time since mid-August, his Telegram channel said on March 24. This time, Navalny was sent to solitary confinement for 15 days for "wrongly identifying himself" to a guard. Navalny has called his sentences to solitary confinement "politically motivated." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Ukraine Freezes Assets Under Name Of Wife Of Pro-Russian Politician Medvedchuk

Oksana Marchenko (file photo)

KYIV -- A court in Ukraine has frozen the assets of Oksana Marchenko, the wife of pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk.

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said on March 24 that the assets, estimated at 440 million hryvnyas ($11.9 million), are related to a 6.8 percent stake Marchenko owns in the Dniprospetstal steelworks in the city of Zaporizhzhya.

"The freezing of these assets will prevent their re-registration under other fake names and will allow them to be transferred for our state's needs," the SBU statement said.

Last month, another court ruling froze and impounded assets and property in Ukraine held by Marchenko with an estimated value of 5.6 billion hryvnyas ($152.5 million). The court said Marchenko used some of her companies and businesses under her name "to carry out sabotage against Ukraine."

Marchenko's husband, Viktor Medvedchuk, is a longtime Ukrainian political fixture and reportedly a godfather to Russian President Vladimir Putin's daughter.

Medvedchuk was one of Ukraine's wealthiest individuals, with a fortune estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, including energy assets in Russia.

Ukraine placed sanctions on Medvedchuk in February 2021, freezing his assets, and took three television stations it said belonged to him off the air for promoting Russian propaganda.

He was arrested in 2021 on charges of treason and terrorism financing and later placed under house arrest on bail.

Shortly after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, Medvedchuk escaped house arrest, but was rearrested in April while trying to flee to Russia.

In June, a court in Ukraine banned the Medvedchuk-led pro-Russian Opposition Platform -- For Life (OPZZh) political party.

In September, Ukrainian authorities handed the 68-year-old politician over to Russia in a prisoner exchange.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has since stripped Medvedchuk and three other pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians of their Ukrainian citizenship.

Prigozhin Rejects Report Wagner To Shift Attention Away From Ukraine

Yevgeny Prigozhin has called the Bakhmut offensive a "meat grinder" and has clashed with Russian military officials over ammunition supplies while reportedly taking heavy casualties, depleting his forces.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the owner of the mercenary group Wagner, has rejected a report saying he plans to scale back his military operations in Ukraine and instead concentrate on Africa, where Wagner was previously involved in local conflicts and businesses.

Responding to a March 23 report by Bloomberg, which cited its sources saying ammunition and personnel shortages had prompted Prigozhin to reconsider Wagner's role in Ukraine, the man known as "Putin's chef" said in a post on Telegram. " I do not know what Bloomberg is reporting about."

"Apparently, they know better than myself what we will do further. As long as we are needed by our nation, we will fight on the territory of Ukraine," he added.

For several months, Russia and Ukraine have been locked in intense trench warfare along a front line of more than 120 kilometers in Ukraine's Donbas region, including the cities of Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Maryinka.

Prigozhin has called the Bakhmut offensive a "meat grinder" and has clashed with Russian military officials over ammunition supplies while reportedly taking heavy casualties, depleting his forces.

The Bloomberg report said that Russia's top military officials consider Prigozhin a threat and discontinued his practice of recruiting inmates from Russian penitentiaries to reinforce his ranks. It also said some officials see Wagner as an incapable group that has been unable to take Bakhmut.

Prigozhin himself in recent days has issued pessimistic statements warning of a likely Ukrainian counterassault.

Bloomberg said there had been no confirmation of Wagner forces being transferred to Africa, though it noted that online advertisements for potential Wagner contractors offer six-month tours of duty in Ukraine or for 9-14 months in Africa.

Prigozhin became known as "Putin's chef" because of his company's catering operations for the Russian leader.

Members of the Wagner mercenary group, thousands of whom were recruited from correctional institutions across Russia, have been actively involved in Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine launched in February last year.

Several countries have declared Wagner a terrorist organization.

Estonia Expels Russian Diplomat For 'Spreading Propaganda' In Favor Of Moscow's Military Actions

The Russian Embassy in Tallinn

Estonia has declared a staff member of Russia's Embassy in Tallinn persona non grata for "directly and actively undermining Estonia's security and constitutional order, spreading propaganda that justifies Russia's military action and causing divisions in Estonian society," the Baltic country's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on March 24. The unnamed diplomat must leave Estonia by March 29, the statement said. Estonia is one of the most outspoken supporters of Ukraine in the face of Russia's unprovoked aggression.

Updated

South Korean Crypto Fugitive Charged With Forgery In Montenegro

Do Kwon is escorted to a court in Podgorica on March 24.

Montenegro has charged South Korean citizen Do Kwon, the former CEO and co-founder of cryptocurrency company Terraform Labs, with forgery after police confirmed his identity and that of another South Korean, Chang Joon, who was also charged.

Do Kwon and his business partner Hon Chang Joon were questioned on March 24 by the Basic State Prosecutor's Office in Podgorica, the Montenegrin Interior Ministry said. They were detained a day earlier while trying to flee to Dubai with falsified documents, according to the ministry.

Do Kwon's lawyer, Branko Andjelic, told AFP that his client denied possessing any false documents.

The Basic Court in Podgorica announced later on March 24 that the two men were taken into custody because they are considered a flight risk.

"The suspects were detained due to circumstances that indicate a risk of escape, as they are foreign nationals with a residential address in Singapore, and their identities cannot be established beyond doubt," the Basic Court said in a statement.

The suspects can be detained for a maximum of 30 days, the court said.

Montenegrin authorities said on March 23 that Do Kwon and a companion had used "falsified travel documents from Costa Rica" during passport control for a flight to Dubai. Inspection of their luggage revealed travel documents from Belgium and South Korea. Interpol checks showed the Belgian documents were forged, the ministry added.

Do Kwon is suspected in the loss of investments worth more than $40 billion, Interior Minister Filip Adzic said.

Do Kwon is wanted by the United States, South Korea, and Singapore for what the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) called "orchestrating a multibillion-dollar crypto-asset securities fraud."

"We allege that Terraform and Do Kwon failed to provide the public with full, fair, and truthful disclosure as required for a host of crypto-asset securities, most notably for Luna and Terra USD," SEC Chairman Gary Gensler said in a statement in February.

RFE/RL has sent an inquiry to U.S. authorities about whether they will seek the two South Koreans' extradition.

Terra USD was a crypto-asset security referred to as an "algorithmic stablecoin" that supposedly maintained its peg to the U.S. dollar by being interchangeable with Luna, another of Kwon's crypto-asset securities, the SEC said.

"We also allege that [Terraform and Kwon] committed fraud by repeating false and misleading statements to build trust before causing devastating losses for investors," he added.

An arrest warrant was issued by South Korea in September 2022 after Terraform Labs and its cryptocurrency crashed in May.

The arrest warrants named several people linked to the Terra USD and Luna cryptocurrencies, the BBC reported.

South Korean prosecutors previously asked Interpol to issue a red notice for Kwon, saying he refused to cooperate with their probe into the crash.

Many investors lost their life savings when Luna and Terra USD collapsed, falling to a value of near zero. The fallout from the collapse of Terraform Labs also affected the wider cryptocurrency market.

With reporting by AFP

Hearing Into Appeal By U.S. Investor Calvey Of Russian Embezzlement Conviction Postponed

Michael Calvey (left) and Philippe Delpal attend a court hearing in Moscow in October 2019.

The Moscow City Court has postponed a hearing into appeals filed by U.S. investor Michael Calvey and his associate, French national Philippe Delpal, against their 2021 convictions on embezzlement charges that they reject.

The court was initially scheduled to start the hearing on March 24, but has now moved it to April 21 for unspecified reasons.

Russian news agencies cited the businessmen's lawyers as confirming earlier reports that Calvey and Delpal are currently in the United States and France, respectively.

According to the lawyers, their clients are ready to be present at the hearings into their appeals if they obtain Russian visas.

Calvey, Delpal, and five Russian businesspeople were handed suspended prison terms in August 2021 and ordered not to leave Russia without permission.

Calvey was handed a 5 1/2-year suspended prison term, while Delpal received 4 1/2-year suspended prison term. Other defendants also received suspended prison terms. All have maintained their innocence.

In January 2022, a court lifted the ban on leaving Russia, after which Calvey and Delpal immediately returned to their homelands.

Calvey, the founder of the Russian-focused private equity group Baring Vostok, and his associates were charged in 2019 with defrauding Vostochny Bank of 2.5 billion rubles ($32.7 million).

Baring Vostok was once a major shareholder in Vostochny Bank. The defendants claimed the case was aimed at pressuring Baring Vostok as part of a business dispute over control of Vostochny Bank.

The case has rattled the investment community and prompted several prominent officials and businesspeople to voice concerns about the treatment of the executives.

Baring Vostok is one of the largest and oldest private-equity firms operating in Russia. It was founded in the early 1990s and manages more than $3.7 billion in assets.

The company was an early major investor in Yandex, Russia's dominant search engine.

With reporting by Interfax, RIA Novosti, and TASS

FSB Officer Who Sought Asylum In Kazakhstan Jailed In Siberia

Mikhail Zhilin and Yekaterina Zhilina

A court in the Siberian city of Barnaul has sentenced an officer with Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) who was deported from Kazakhstan, where he unsuccessfully sought political asylum, to 6 1/2 years in prison.

The Second Eastern Military District Court said on March 24 that Mikhail Zhilin was sentenced after he was found guilty of desertion and illegal border crossing. The court also stripped Zhilin of his military rank of major.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military mobilization to support Russia's armed forces involved in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine in September, Zhilin sent his family to Kazakhstan.

The 36-year-old FSB officer followed afterward, having to cross the border illegally after hiking through forests because as an FSB officer he was not allowed to leave the country and did not have a passport.

He sought political asylum in Kazakhstan, but his request was denied. After Russia put him on the international wanted list, Kazakh authorities arrested him and deported him to Russia in late December.

Human rights groups have challenged Kazakhstan's decision, as Zhilin officially asked for political asylum within 24 hours after entering the country, which, according to Kazakh law, absolved him of responsibility for illegally crossing the border. Kazakh law also does not allow the return of asylum seekers to the country they fled from.

Zhilin was a shift supervisor in the special communications and information department of the FSB in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk and was responsible for Putin's communications with regions in the Siberian Federal District.

He was detained on September 26 by border guards in the Kazakh region of Abai as Astana followed through on its statement that it would extradite Russians wanted for evading mobilization if they were put on the international wanted list at home.

Zhilin's wife, Yekaterina Zhilina, told RFE/RL in January that she and the couple's children were currently in France, where she has applied for political asylum.

Thousands of Russian citizens fled the country following the September mobilization for Kazakhstan, Armenia, Georgia, Mongolia, and other neighboring countries.

Migrants From Afghanistan, Pakistan Found In Truck In Serbia

Serbia lies at the heart of the so-called Balkan land route that refugees and migrants use to try to reach Western Europe. (illustrative photo)

Serbia's customs authorities said on March 24 they discovered nine migrants hiding among aluminum rolls in a truck headed to Poland from Greece. Customs officers on Serbia's border with North Macedonia spotted the migrants on March 22 during a scan that showed human silhouettes in the back of the truck, a statement said. The migrants were young men from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, the statement added. Serbia lies at the heart of the so-called Balkan land route that refugees and migrants use to try to reach Western Europe and start new lives there. To read the original story by AP, click here.

OSCE To Examine Human Rights Situation In Belarus

Belarus's authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, was declared the winner of an August 2020 presidential election despite allegations of widespread voter fraud.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will establish an expert mission to examine the human rights situation in Belarus after a request by the United States and 37 other countries, the U.S. State Department said on March 23. "The expert mission will have a mandate to assess Belarus's adherence to its OSCE commitments and how the Lukashenka regime's actions may have adversely affected Belarus's civil society, press freedoms, the rule of law, and the ability of democratic processes and institutions to function," State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said in a statement.

Russian Blogger Varlamov, Human Rights Lawyer Chikov Listed As 'Foreign Agents'

Pavel Chikov (file photo)

Russia's Justice Ministry has added blogger Ilya Varlamov and lawyer Pavel Chikov of the Agora legal defense organization to the "foreign agents" registry. The ministry said Varlamov and Chikov disseminated "inaccurate information about decisions made by public authorities and their policies." It said Varlamov received "support from foreign sources" while Chikov is accused of "participation in the creation and distribution of materials of foreign agents." The initial law listed as a "foreign agent" anyone who received financial assistance from abroad, but it was amended in December to include anyone who is "under foreign influence." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Updated

Russian Strike Hits Civilian Shelter As Fighting Rages In Eastern Ukraine

Rockets launched from Russia's Belgorod region streak across the sky at dawn in Kharkiv, Ukraine, early on March 24.

A Russian strike on the town of Kostyantynivka in the eastern region of Donetsk killed at least five people on March 24, Ukraine's emergency service reported, as an air-raid alert was declared in several regions overnight while heavy fighting continued in and around the eastern city of Bakhmut.

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 counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

A missile fired from an S-300 antiaircraft system hit a local so-called "invincibility point" -- a humanitarian support center -- in Kostyantynivka, the Prosecutor General's Office reported, killing five people.

Of those, at least three of them were women taking shelter at a "invincibility point" set up to provide a place with basic services such as electricity, water, and heating for those displaced by the fighting in the region.

Moscow has repeatedly denied targeting civilians since the start of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, despite air attacks often hitting hospitals, residential buildings, schools, and other civilian infrastructure.

In a key report released on March 24, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that it had recorded 5,987 civilian casualties in Ukraine, with 1,605 people killed and 4,382 wounded over a period of six months through the end of January.

Russia also launched a drone attack overnight on the city of Kryviy Rih in Ukraine's south-central region of Dnipropetrovsk, the region's governor said on March 24.

Five Iranian-made drones were launched on Kryviy Rih at night but there were no casualties, Serhiy Lysak said on Telegram, adding that one Shahed drone and several Russian missiles were downed.

In the east, Russian forces pressed on with their offensive, launching 79 assaults on Bakhmut and the surrounding areas over the past 24 hours, despite some reports of signs of exhaustion among Moscow's troops, Ukraine's General Staff said in its morning summary on March 24.

Most of Russia's assaults targeted Bakhmut, the largely destroyed city in the Donetsk region that has been the epicenter of Moscow's efforts for months.

The enemy continued to launch unsuccessful attacks in other areas of Donetsk -- Lyman, Avdiyivka, Maryinka, and Shakhtarsk, the General Staff said, adding that fighting was also under way in parts of the Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions.

General Oleksandr Syrskiy, commander of Ukraine's ground forces, said on March 23 that the Russians' relentless push in Bakhmut was beginning to take its toll on their strength, and that the Ukrainians were preparing to take advantage of their enemy's perceived weakness "very soon."

But Serhiy Cherevatiy, a spokesman for the Eastern Group of Ukraine's forces, cautioned that Bakhmut was still seeing intense combat.


On March 23, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy implored European leaders to speed up and increase the supply of weapons, including long-range missiles and fighter jets.

Zelenskiy, who earlier in the day, visited the Kherson region, said delays in the delivery of long-range missiles and fighter jets could extend the war.

"Time is of the essence. Not just months and weeks, but days. The sooner we act together, the more lives we save," Zelenskiy said.

"If Europe hesitates, the evil may have time to regroup and prepare itself for years of war," he added, speaking in a video address on March 23 to European leaders that he recorded as he traveled by train to Kherson, which was recaptured by Kyiv in November.

Speaking at a press conference after the meeting, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said any new sanctions against Russia would mostly crack down on evasion of previously imposed sanctions.

She also said the EU would work with other organizations to find Ukrainian children deported to Russia and press for their return.

"It is a horrible reminder of the darkest times of our history...to deport children. This is a war crime," she said.

WATCH: Zaporizhzhya was one of several Ukrainian cities attacked on March 22 in Russia's latest wave of air strikes on the country. Several residential buildings were destroyed in the city, resulting in more than 30 casualties. Residents are said to have rushed in to a destroyed building to bring elderly people to safety.

'The Shock Wave Hit Us All': Residents Recall Deadly Russian Air Strikes In Zaporizhzhya
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The International Criminal Court last week issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, a Russian children's rights official, for the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children.

Zelenskiy also welcomed the endorsement by EU foreign and defense ministers of a plan for sending Ukraine 1 million rounds of artillery ammunition within the next 12 months.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is now deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council, said in an interview on March 24 with Russian news agencies that Moscow's troops may have to capture Kyiv or Lviv to destroy the Ukrainian state, which he referred to as "this infection."

He said that while Russia did not want a direct war with NATO, any Ukrainian move to liberate its Crimea region, illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014, would give Russia a green light to use "absolutely any weapon" in retaliation, including "those provided for by the basic doctrine of nuclear deterrence."

Medvedev, once seen as a moderate politician, has used increasingly inflammatory rhetoric since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

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