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Obama Says He Wants Iran Sanctions 'In Weeks'

U.S. President Barack Obama said the door is still open for Iran to choose negotiation over sanctions.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama says he wants to see a tough new round of sanctions against Iran taken up by the UN Security Council "within weeks."

Speaking on March 30 at a joint White House press conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Obama said he and the French leader were "united" in their determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

"My hope is that we are going to get this done this spring. So I'm not interested in waiting months for a sanctions regime to be in place, I'm interested in seeing that regime in place in weeks," Obama said.

Sarkozy said that "the time has come to take decisions" on Iran and he vowed to work with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to "make all necessary efforts to make sure that Europe as a whole engages in the sanctions regime."

G8 Urges Pressure

Earlier in the day, at a meeting of the Group of Eight (G8) in Quebec, foreign ministers of the world's leading industrialized nations issued a communique that urged the international community to take "appropriate and strong steps" to show its resolve over Iran's nuclear program.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the group -- which includes the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia -- "Tehran must halt its nuclear enrichment activities and engage in peaceful dialogue."

The latest fears over Iran's nuclear ambitions were raised in February, when the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said it believed Iran may be trying to develop a missile with nuclear capabilities.

Tehran denies that its nuclear program is aimed at developing atomic weapons.

Obama said Iran's nuclear ambitions "have enormous implications for the safety and the security" of the Mideast, and warned that a regional conflict "could have a huge destabilizing effect in terms of the world economy at a time when it's just coming out of a very deep recession."

But even as he signaled that sanctions were imminent, he left the door open for Iran to change its mind and sit down at the negotiating table.

"The long term consequences of a nuclear armed Iran are unacceptable," he said. "And so, Nicolas [Sarkozy], myself, and others agree that we have engaged, the door remains open if the Iranians choose to walk through it."

He added, "In the interim, we are going to move forcefully on a UN sanctions regime."

Beijing Shift?

The latest U.S.-drafted sanctions proposal would expand an existing UN blacklist to include members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and firms controlled by it.

U.S. diplomats have engaged diplomatically for months with leaders from the Middle East to the Far East in their drive to make the case that the hand Obama reached out to Tehran last year has been met only with a clenched fist.

Washington has pressed Russia and China especially hard, since both countries have traditionally opposed tough sanctions on Iran and both hold veto power in the UN Security Council.

Moscow has shown signs of coming around to the U.S. position and now Beijing appears to have shifted its position slightly.

On March 30, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that his government opposed Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. But he stopped short of backing new sanctions, saying only that China hoped "that all sides will make substantive efforts and demonstrate flexibility over the Iran nuclear issue."

China's huge appetite for Iranian oil is seen as one of the biggest reasons it is reluctant to punish Tehran. Obama acknowledged as much when he said, "there are a lot of countries around the world that, regardless of Iran's offenses, are thinking that their commercial interests are more important to them than these long-term geopolitical interests."

At the G8 meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "China will be involved" as the Security Council prepares a sanctions package. She also expressed optimism that the council would be able to reach a consensus.

In Washington, her boss didn't sound as sure when he acknowledged that there isn't yet across-the-board agreement in the international community, adding, "That's something that we have to work on."

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Putin, Xi Will Attend G20 Summit In November, Indonesia Says

Russian President Vladimir Putin (foreground) and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2018.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping plan to attend the G20 summit on the Indonesian island of Bali on November 15-16, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on August 19.

Widodo also said that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy haS been invited, even though Ukraine is not a G20 member. He has reportedly confirmed he would attend either in person or virtually.

Xi has not traveled internationally since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, he made his first trip away from mainland China when he traveled to Hong Kong.

Jakarta has faced Western pressure to exclude Putin because of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. However, Indonesia has sought to maintain a neutral stance, and Widodo has visited both Kyiv and Moscow this year.

The G20 summit also comes at a time of high tension between China and the United States over the status of Taiwan and Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

Explosions Reported In Ukraine's Russian-Occupied Crimea Region

A crater from Russian shelling is seen in the settlement of Zatoka near the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa on August 18.

At least four explosions were reported in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea overnight near the Belbek military airport outside the port city of Sevastopol, according to local sources.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

The Russian-imposed administrator of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev, wrote on Telegram late on August 18 that anti-aircraft defenses had shot down a Ukrainian drone. He added that the explosions had not caused any damage.

The same day, a Russian official in the Crimean city of Kerch said that air defenses had been activated there. Kerch is located on the far eastern tip of Crimea and is the terminus of the Crimean Bridge (also called the Kerch Strait Bridge), a high-profile Russian-built road and rail link between the occupied Ukrainian region and the Russian mainland.

The official said: “There is no danger to the city or the bridge.”

Video clips apparently showing the anti-aircraft fire in Kerch appeared on social media.

The Crimean Bridge was completed in May 2018 and built at a cost of some $4 billion. It was a significant prestige project intended to bolster Moscow’s claims on Crimea and was inaugurated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian military targets in Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014, have been rocked by blasts in recent days. A Russian ammunition depot in northern Crimea exploded on August 16, in an incident Russian authorities have attributed to “sabotage.”

The same day, an electrical substation in the Dzhankoy district of the Black Sea peninsula exploded, although the cause of that blast remains unknown.

On August 9, the Saky Air Base was struck by explosions that destroyed at least nine military aircraft, including Su-30SM fighters and Su-24M bombers.

Ukrainian officials have avoided publicly claiming responsibility for the explosions, but an unnamed senior Ukrainian official was quoted in The New York Times as saying an elite Ukrainian military unit operating behind enemy lines was carrying out at least some of the attacks.

On July 31, the Russian Navy Day celebrations in Sevastopol were canceled after a drone strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet injured six people.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Relatives Of Kazakhs Jailed For Taking Part In January Unrest Demand Retrials, Justice

Bayan Shyrynbekova (right), whose husband Alibek Imanbekov (left) was sentenced to six years in prison on a charge of stealing firearms from a store in Almaty during the unrest, says he had to sign a written confession after he was "beaten and tortured" by investigators.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Relatives of Kazakh citizens who were handed lengthy prison terms on charges of taking part in mass disorder and stealing firearms during unprecedented anti-government protests in January that left at least 238 people dead have demanded their release or a retrial.

Close family members, including mothers and wives, made their demands at a press conference held in Almaty on August 18 that was attended by Rysbek Sarsenbaiuly, a member of the Public Commission investigating the January unrest.

Kazakhstan's Prosecutor-General's Office has said that more than 10,000 people were arrested following the January bloodshed, and more than 5,300 individuals were charged. To date, 834 people have been sentenced to various prison terms in quick trials.

Sarsenbaiuly said the investigations were poorly conducted with violations of law, adding that many suspects were severely beaten and tortured while in custody.

Bayan Shyrynbekova, whose husband was sentenced last month to six years in prison on a charge of stealing two firearms from a store in Almaty during the unrest, told the press conference that her husband had to sign a written confession after he was "beaten and tortured" by investigators.

Gulfaria Tangirbergenova said that her son was sentenced in May to five years in prison on a charge of stealing firearms as well.

Tangirbergenova denied that her son had stolen a firearm, saying he found a rifle on the ground during the unrest. She also said her son was severely beaten while in custody and she demanded that he be retried.

Several other speakers at the press conference shared similar ordeals about their close relatives.

A day earlier, the Kazakh Bureau on Human Rights and the Rule of Law issued a statement claiming that 71 percent of the people arrested during and after the January unrest were tortured while in custody.

Meanwhile, on August 16, Eldos Qilymzhanov, a top official with the Prosecutor-General's Office, said six individuals who were detained during the riots had died as a result of “illegal methods of interrogation by law enforcement structures.”

He said that 15 law enforcement officers were under investigation for those deaths.

Qilymzhanov said his office has concluded that 238 people were killed during and after the unrest. However, Kazakh human rights groups claim they have evidence showing that this number is much higher.

The unrest led to the removal of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his relatives from Kazakh politics. Some relatives have been stripped of their posts, lost influential positions at companies, or have even been arrested on corruption charges.

Kazakh authorities have rejected calls by Kazakh and global human rights groups for an international probe into the events in January.


Zelenskiy Says Ukraine, UN Agree On Parameters For Atomic Watchdog's Mission To Nuclear Plant

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (center) and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attend a joint press conference in Lviv on August 18.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says he agreed to the parameters of an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission to the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant at talks with the UN secretary-general and Turkey's leader.

Zelenskiy told a news conference on August 18 after the talks in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv that Russia should immediately withdraw its forces and stop shelling from the nuclear facility in southern Ukraine.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

As the Ukrainian leader held talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Kyiv and Moscow accused each other of planning to stage a "provocation" at the plant in the Zaporizhzhya region, the largest in Europe.

Fears have mounted of the risk of a Chernobyl-style nuclear disaster as Kyiv and Moscow have blamed each other for shelling the Russian-controlled facility, prompting calls for an IAEA mission to the plant.

"We agreed with the secretary general the conditions of a possible mission by the IAEA to the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant, in a legal way, via territory free from occupiers," Zelenskiy told reporters.

"Russia should immediately and unconditionally withdraw its forces from the territory of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, as well as stop any provocations and shelling," he said.

Guterres said he was "gravely concerned" about the situation at the plant and said it had to be demilitarized, adding: "We must tell it like it is -- any potential damage to Zaporizhzhya is suicide.”

Erdogan told the press conference that he was “worried” about the safety of the nuclear plant and is seeking to “find a solution” to end the war.

Erdogan, who has major geopolitical rivalries with the Kremlin but maintains a close working relationship with President Vladimir Putin, met with the Russian leader less than two weeks ago in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman called the plan to demilitarize the zone around the plant "unacceptable," saying it would make the plant even more vulnerable to attack.

Russia doesn't deny it has troops located at the plant but has disputed claims that it has shelled the area. Instead, Moscow blames Ukrainian forces for firing artillery shells in the area, which officials in Kyiv deny.

Grain Exports

The Turkish leader along with Guterres were key brokers of a deal inked in Istanbul last month allowing the resumption of grain exports from Ukraine after Russia's invasion blocked essential global supplies.

Ahead of the press conference with Zelenskiy, Ukraine's port authority announced that the 25th cargo ship under the deal had departed for Egypt carrying 33,000 tons of grain.

Ukraine and Russia are two of the world's biggest grain exporters and the halt in exports saw grain prices soar and fears rise of global food shortages, particularly in poor countries already experiencing shortfalls.

Guterres said during the meeting with reporters that the sides hoped to intensify efforts to bolster operations at three southern Ukrainian ports designated for exports under the deal.

"We will do our best to scale up our operations to face...the coming winter," the UN chief said, hailing the deal that saw a safe corridor established for cargo ships to exit Black Sea ports.

Guterres will visit a Ukrainian port tomorrow.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Iranian Political Prisoner Mehdipour Reportedly Beaten Again In Prison

Khadija Mehdipour (file photo)

Human right activists say Khadijeh Mehdipour, a political prisoner being held in Ilam prison in western Iran, has been beaten again by inmates who are serving time for violent crimes.

The Hengaw Human Rights Organization says Mehdipour, who is in prison without being segregated from dangerous prisoners, was beaten by violent criminals at the instigation of the prison authorities and even forced to sleep in the prison library.

Some human rights sources, including the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), say Mehdipour has been handed new charges while in prison for "insulting Islamic sanctities." Because of this, she has been banned from making phone calls with her family for a month, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Earlier in February, Mehdipour was also attacked and beaten by a number of prisoners accused of violent crimes, which resulted in an injury to her eye.

The Iranian Prisons Organization announced at the time that the reason for the "conflict" was for Mehdipour voicing "obscenities and insults" about Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei, the current leader of Iran, and Qasem Soleimani, the former commander of the Quds Force who was killed by the United States in 2020.

Reports of political prisoners being held alongside dangerous criminals in prisons across Iran are not uncommon.

Mehdipour was arrested in October 2021 for her activities posted on social media and sentenced to 20 months in prison by the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Ilam for "propaganda against the regime, insulting the founder of the Islamic republic and insulting its leadership."

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

Jailed Contributor To RFE/RL's Russian Service Starts Hunger Strike Over Arrest

Russian journalist Yelena Shukayeva (file photo)

Jailed Russian journalist Yelena Shukayeva, who contributes to RFE/RL's Russian Service and several other independent media outlets, has started a hunger strike to protest a 14-day jail sentence handed to her in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg on August 17 for reposting jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's investigative materials online.

The OVD-Info human rights group said on August 18 that Shukayeva revealed that her hunger strike is "a protest against police arbitrariness, the distortion of common sense, and the pandering of judges to any fantasies the police have."

Shukayeva was sentenced to 14 days in jail after a court in Yekaterinburg found her guilty of propagating and publicly displaying symbols of an extremist organization.

Russia last year declared Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation "extremist" and banned the use of any symbols tied to the group as part of a widening crackdown on dissent.

Also on August 17, police in the capital of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan, Kazan, searched the homes of seven journalists contributing to programs of RFE/RL's Russian and Tatar-Bashkir Services, as well as Idel.Realities, an online project that covers news and events in the Volga-Urals region.

Pro-Kremlin website Tatar-Inform reported that the searches were linked to the journalists' articles covering Russia's ongoing invasion against Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin signed a law in March that calls for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about its war in Ukraine.

The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of "deliberately false information" about the Russian Army that leads to "serious consequences" is 15 years in prison.

It also makes it illegal "to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia" or "for discrediting such use" with a possible penalty of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calls for sanctions against Russia.

RFE/RL's President and CEO Jamie Fly has condemned Shukayeva's sentencing and the searches of the journalists' homes.


American Investor Known For Russian Nightclub, Pro-Ukrainian Stances Found Dead In Washington

Dan Rapoport opened a swanky nightclub in downtown Moscow called Soho Rooms, which became the go-to location for Moscow’s elite, Russian and foreign alike. (file photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- An American stockbroker who made a fortune in the Russian market in the 1990s and 2000s and later co-founded a posh Moscow nightclub before leaving the country died after being found lying on a sidewalk in Washington, police said.

Police said they were investigating the death of Dan Rapoport, 52, who was found outside an apartment building in a northwestern district of the U.S. capital, but there were no immediate indications of foul play.

A preliminary police report said officers responded to a report of a “jumper” on the evening of August 14, and the man, later identified as Rapoport, was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was declared dead.

The police report said officers found $2,620 in cash on Rapoport when they discovered his body on the sidewalk, along with headphones, a cracked cell phone, a Florida driver’s license, and other items. He was wearing flip-flops.

Brianna Burch, a police spokesperson, told RFE/RL that there did not appear to be anyone with Rapoport at the time and there were no listed witnesses. She said she did not have information to suggest he left a suicide note.

It wasn’t clear whether Rapoport was living in the apartment building. He had recently moved back to Washington after spending several years working in finance in Ukraine.

A police spokeswoman referred further questions from RFE/RL to the city’s medical examiner’s offices. An official with that office confirmed that an autopsy was pending, but had no other information.

The FBI did not immediately respond to queries about whether it was involved in the investigation.

Rapoport's wife, Alonya, a native of Ukraine, did not immediately respond to a Facebook message, but she confirmed his death in a Facebook post.

Go-To Location

A native of Latvia and a fluent Russian speaker, Rapoport emigrated with his family to the United States in 1980. After graduation from a U.S. university, he moved to Russia in the early 1990s as a wave of privatizations swept across the country.

The sale of former state-owned companies created a booming stock market, minting a new generation of millionaires, Russian and foreign.

Rapoport was respected within Russian financial circles, where he worked for more than a decade at a local brokerage called CenterInvest, making his way up to managing partner. He claimed his clients included some of the nation's wealthiest tycoons.

In 2007, he opened a swanky nightclub in downtown Moscow called Soho Rooms, which became the go-to location for Moscow’s elite, Russian and foreign alike.

In 2012, he left Russia and returned to the United States, saying the stock brokerage industry that had made him a fortune "had died" as commission fees shrunk with improvements in technology.

But in a media interview prior to his departure, he also criticized the direction Russia had taken and expressed support for Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny, who was jailed last year.

"Our flight to Washington is in 12 hours. It's sad to leave Russia, but for thoughtful people, living here has become unbearable and disgusting," Rapoport wrote on his Facebook page on June 13, 2012.

He moved to Washington, where he said his parents lived, and set up a company called Rapoport Capital to advise and assist technology start-ups as well as venture capital funds on fundraising options.

The company’s website said it was registered in Washington, D.C., though public records say the company was registered in St. Petersburg, Florida, in February 2022.

An e-mail sent to the company’s website was not immediately responded to.

In 2016, four years after leaving Russia, Rapaport set up an office in Kyiv and opened a private equity fund. In social media posts, he was a vocal supporter of Ukraine, and an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Rapoport gained a degree of publicity in January 2017, after The New York Times reported that the daughter and son-in-law of newly elected President Donald Trump had purchased a mansion owned by him and his first wife. The mansion was located in an exclusive neighborhood of the U.S. capital.

Later that same month, Raporport's co-founder of the Soho Rooms nightclub, Sergei Tkachenko, was found dead outside a Moscow building. Investigators said Tkachenko's body was found on a building awning “with injuries typical of a fall from a great height.”

In 2018, the open-source investigative organization Bellingcat reported that Rapoport had been the creator of a fictional persona named David Jewberg, who was frequently quoted in Ukrainian media as a senior Pentagon analyst.

Todd Prince reported from Washington, D.C. Mike Eckel reported from Prague.

Russian-Controlled Supreme Court Of Crimea Trims Sentence For Jailed RFE/RL Writer

Journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko was detained in Crimea in March 2021. (file photo)

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine -- The Moscow-controlled Supreme Court of Russian-annexed Crimea has shortened the prison term of RFE/RL freelance correspondent Vladyslav Yesypenko by one year to five years.

Yesypenko's wife, Kateryna Yesypenko, told RFE/RL on August 18 that the decision to fine her husband 110,000 rubles ($1,810) remains in effect.

"We will continue to appeal the verdict. Because of the decision by the court of appeals, we now have a very good chance. In half-a-year, we can request an early release. If the sentence remained six years in prison, the time for early release would be in one year," Kateryna Yesypenko said, adding that her husband was present at the hearing and looked well.

Yesypenko, a dual Russian-Ukrainian citizen who contributes to RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities project, was sentenced in Crimea in February after a closed-door trial.

He was detained in Crimea in March 2021 for allegedly collecting information for Ukrainian intelligence. Before the arrest, he had worked in Crimea for five years reporting on social and environmental issues on the peninsula.

Yesypenko testified during a court hearing that the Russian authorities "want to discredit the work of freelance journalists who really want to show the things that really happen in Crimea."

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has called the judgment a “travesty” of justice.

Press freedom advocates, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, along with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and the U.S. State Department, are among those who have called for Yesypenko’s immediate release in the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing.

In May, Yesypenko was awarded the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award in the United States, which is given to honor writers who are political prisoners.

Moscow illegally annexed Crimea in early 2014 and weeks later threw its support behind pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's east.

On February 24, Moscow launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. In recent weeks it has intensified its bombardment of areas in the east to tighten and expand its grip on areas where the separatists have a stronghold.

Russia Calls UN Proposal To Demilitarize Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Plant 'Unacceptable'

The Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant -- Europe's largest -- has repeatedly come under fire in recent weeks, sparking fears of a nuclear disaster.

Moscow has rejected a proposal by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to demilitarize the area around the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine.

During a press briefing on August 18, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev said the proposals were "unacceptable."

The Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant was captured by Russia in March, shortly after it launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The plant -- Europe's largest -- has repeatedly come under fire in recent weeks, sparking fears of a nuclear disaster.

Guterres and the international community have expressed deep concern over the risk of disaster at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant amid reports of fighting in its vicinity in the past week. Both Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of shelling the plant.

The United Nations has also offered to help facilitate a visit by its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to Zaporizhzhya, but Moscow has dismissed the idea of a mission traveling through Kyiv despite vowing it would do all it could to help ensure IAEA access to the plant.

Based on reporting by Reuters

Moscow Reportedly Moves Three Warplanes With Hypersonic Missiles To Kaliningrad Exclave

The fighter jets are equipped with Kinzhal missiles, which have a range of up 2,000 kilometers and fly at 10 times the speed of sound.

The Russian Defense Ministry has deployed three MiG-31E warplanes equipped with Kinzhal hypersonic missiles to the far western Kaliningrad exclave, according to Russian media.

The ministry was quoted as saying by the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti on August 18 that the aircraft would be on round-the-clock duty.

Russia has long boasted about its arsenal of Kinzhals, which have a range of up to 2,000 kilometers, and fly 10 times the speed of sound.

Kaliningrad, a Russian region located between NATO members Poland and Lithuania, became a flashpoint in June after Vilnius imposed restrictions on Russian goods traveling across its territory to the exclave, arguing it was applying sanctions imposed by the European Union after Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Earlier on August 18, Finland's Defense Ministry said that two Russian MiG-31 jets were suspected of violating its airspace near the city of Porvoo, on the Gulf of Finland 150 kilometers from Russia.

Based on reporting by Interfax and RIA Novosti

Tajik Blogger Detained In Moscow; Relatives Fear His Extradition To Dushanbe

Maqsud Ghayosov

A Tajik activist and blogger who is a native of the Central Asian nation's restive Gorno-Badakhshan region (GBAO) has reportedly been arrested in Moscow and may be extradited to Tajikistan, where rights activists say he faces illegal incarceration and arbitrary prosecution.

Relatives and friends of Maqsud Ghayosov told RFE/RL on August 18 that the blogger was detained in Moscow a day earlier. It is not known where Ghayosov is being kept as Moscow police have not commented on his arrest.

According to the relatives, Ghayosov's arrest may be linked to his online blogging activities that intensified earlier this year in the wake of mass protests in Gorno-Badakhshan that were violently dispersed by the authorities.

Ghayosov's satirical Instagram blog, Bobingi, has more than 47,000 subscribers. He also has taken part in various social events in Gorno-Badakhshan in the past.

At least three natives of Gorno-Badakhshan have gone missing in Russia in recent weeks. Two of them appeared in Tajikistan as the government continues to track activists from the restive region after the deadly protests.

In April, an informal leader of Gorno-Badakhshan youth in Russia, Amriddin Alovatshoev, was sentenced in Dushanbe to 18 years in prison after he was convicted of hostage-taking, illegally depriving others of their freedom, and "other crimes," charges his relatives call trumped-up.

Alovatshoev was arrested in Russia in January and disappeared before later showing up in custody in Tajikistan.

Deep tensions between the Tajik government and residents of volatile Gorno-Badakhshan have simmered since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million, where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades.

The latest crackdown on activists in Gorno-Badakhshan followed protests initially sparked by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Khorugh Mayor Rizo Nazarzoda.

The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting the authorities to launch what they called a "counterterrorism operation."

The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.

Russian Billionaire Deripaska Sues Navalny Over Report About Lavrov Links

Oleg Deripaska, known for his close ties with President Vladimir Putin, is among the Russian oligarchs who have been hit by Western sanctions over the Kremlin's unprovoked war in Ukraine. (file photo)

Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska has filed a lawsuit against jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, his team, and several foreign entities over an investigative report they produced about alleged corruption links between the tycoon and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Navalny wrote on Telegram on August 17 that Deripaska demanded the removal of the investigation from the Internet and an official refuting of the investigation's conclusion that he makes payments to Lavrov on a regular basis and financially supports his "second family."

The investigation, called Yachts, Bribes, and A Mistress. What Minister Lavrov Hides, was issued last fall.

Deripaska is also demanding Navalny remove from the Internet a photo of him and Lavrov taken in Japan, and all mentions about his alleged ties with Paul Manafort, who chaired former U.S. President Donald Trump's presidential campaign in 2016.

Deripaska, who has been known for his close ties with President Vladimir Putin, is among the Russian oligarchs who have been hit by Western sanctions over the Kremlin's unprovoked war in Ukraine.

"I once again call on the United States, European Union, and Great Britain to impose really effective sanctions against these thieves and war enablers that would not allow them to escape [the sanctions] through basic tricks," Navalny's Telegram post said.

Navalny associate Maria Pevchikh said Deripaska also demanded Navalny's team record a video statement saying that the investigation "does not reflect reality," warning that each day such a video statement is delayed will cost her and her colleague Georgy Alburov 50,000 rubles ($882).

Deripaska's lawsuit also targets The Insider investigative group, DMG Media company, which owns The Daily Mail newspaper in the United Kingdom, and the United States-based Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, which issues the Newlines information digest.

EU's Borrell Calls For 'Flexibility' As Kosovo-Serbia Talks Begin In Brussels

Kosovo's Albin Kurti (left) and Serbia's Aleksandar Vucic will meet again under EU auspices.

The European Union's top diplomat has opened high-level crisis talks between the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia in Brussels with an appeal to both sides to show flexibility.

European Union mediators hope the talks will de-escalate growing tensions in the Balkans and reduce the increasingly war-mongering rhetoric coming from both sides.

"Recent tensions in the north of Kosovo have demonstrated yet again that it is time to move forward towards full normalization," Josep Borrell wrote on Twitter on August 18.

Hoping for progress, Borrell called on both Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti "to be open and flexible to find common ground."

Kosovo is a former province of Serbia, which has refused to recognize the country's 2008 declaration of independence.

The two sides have engaged in the EU-led dialogue since 2011, aiming to reach a comprehensive and legally binding agreement on the normalization of relations.

But tensions resurfaced late last month when Pristina declared that Serbian identity documents and vehicle license plates would no longer be valid on Kosovo territory.

Serbs, who live mostly in northern Kosovo, reacted with fury, putting up roadblocks and firing their guns into the air and in the direction of Kosovo police officers. No one was injured.

Kurti postponed the implementation of the measure for a month, to September 1, after apparent pressure from the West.

Before meeting with Borrell, Vucic and Kurti held separate meetings with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on August 17 to discuss the recent tensions.

Stoltenberg told the two that the alliance's peacekeeping troops are ready to step in if tensions escalate further.

"While the situation on the ground has improved, it is the responsibility of all parties -- particularly officials from Belgrade and Pristina -- to prevent escalation again," Stoltenberg told a news conference.

"I call on all sides to show restraint and to avoid the violence. NATO continues to monitor closely the situation on the ground. Our KFOR peacekeeping mission remains focused on its UN mandate. Should stability be jeopardized KFOR stands ready to intervene," he said.

With reporting by dpa

Estonia Repels Massive Cyberattack Linked To Removal Of Soviet Memorial

Workers remove a Soviet T-34 tank installed as a monument in Narva, Estonia, on August 16.

Estonia says it was targeted by "the most extensive cyberattacks since 2007" shortly after removing a Soviet-era monument in a region with a sizeable ethnic Russian majority.

Russian hacker group Killnet claimed responsibility for the attack, saying on its Telegram account on August 17 that it had blocked access to more than 200 state and private Estonian institutions, including an online citizen-identification system.

Killnet said it acted after a Soviet Tu-34 tank was removed from public display in the town of Narva to a museum on August 16.

"Yesterday, Estonia was subject to the most extensive cyber attacks it has faced since 2007," Luukas Ilves, undersecretary for digital transformation at Estonia's Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, tweeted on August 18.

However, Ilves said the denial-of-service attacks were "ineffective" and went "largely unnoticed" by the general population.

"With some brief and minor exceptions, websites remained fully available throughout the day," he added. "E-Estonia is up and running," Ilves wrote, using a moniker that the Baltic country, seen as a pioneer of digitization in Europe, has adopted.

Estonia's roughly 1.3 million citizens can complete almost all administrative procedures over the Internet.

Based on reporting by Reuters and dpa

Russian Paratrooper Who Condemned War In Ukraine Flees Country

Pavel Filatyev said that after his book was published, he changed his address several times to avoid possible arrest.

A Russian paratrooper who condemned his country's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine after taking part in the war has fled Russia.

France-based human rights activist Vladimir Osechkin said on August 17 that he and his team helped Pavel Filatyev to "urgently" leave Russia.

Filatyev took part in Russia's attack on Ukraine in February and March. He later wrote a book titled ZOV (A Call) in Russian. The title was written in Latin script to highlight the letters "Z" and "V."

Russian military vehicles in Ukraine are marked with those letters, which have become symbols promoted by Russian state media and other Kremlin supporters as patriotic emblems expressing support for the military and the invasion.

Before leaving Russia, Filatyev gave an interview to The Guardian saying that after his book was published, he changed his address several times to avoid possible arrest.

Filatyev also said that he was not aware of whether a criminal case has been launched against him.

President Vladimir Putin in March signed a law that calls for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations, as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about the war in Ukraine it launched in late February.

The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of "deliberately false information" about the Russian military that leads to "serious consequences" is 15 years in prison.

It also makes it illegal "to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia" or "for discrediting such use" with a possible penalty of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calling for sanctions against Russia.

Earlier this week, another Russian soldier, Daniil Frolkin of the 64th Motorized Rifle Brigade from the Far Eastern Khabarovsk region, publicly confessed that Russian troops took part in robberies, looting, and murders of civilians in Ukraine under orders from their supervisors.

He also confessed that he killed a Ukrainian civilian, Ruslan Yaremchuk, in the village of Andriyivka.

With reporting by Meduza

Ukraine Says Kherson Attack Repelled, Kharkiv Hit By Deadly Russian Bombing

Ukrainian rescuers put out a fire at a residential hall after a rocket hit the Saltivka residential area in Kharkiv on August 17.

Ukraine's military says that its forces have beaten back a Russian attack in the southern region of Kherson, while shelling by Moscow's forces in the northeastern city of Kharkiv killed seven people and wounded 16.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called the Kharkiv shelling, which hit a dormitory, "vile and cynical."

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"Pain for Kharkiv. Rocket attack.... On the dormitory.... The building was completely destroyed," Zelenskiy wrote on Telegram. "A vile and cynical attack on civilians that has no justification and demonstrates the powerlessness of the aggressor. We will not forgive, we will take revenge."

In southern Ukraine, Kyiv's forces repelled an attempted advance by Russian forces near the town of Bilohirka, northeast of Kherson, Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said.

The southern district of the Operational Command of the Ukrainian armed forces said its forces killed 29 "occupiers" and destroyed artillery, armored vehicles, and a military supply depot.

The claims could not be independently confirmed.

"Russian forces have achieved only minimal advances, and in some cases we have advanced, since last month," Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in a video message. "What we are seeing is a 'strategic deadlock.'"

Meanwhile, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency on August 17 quoted sources as saying the commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Igor Osipov, had been replaced with a new commander, Viktor Sokolov.

The move, if confirmed, would mark one of the most prominent dismissals of a Russian military official so far in the almost six-month war.

Russia's Black Sea Fleet has suffered several humiliations since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, including the sinking in April of its flagship, the Moskva, a missile cruiser, with Neptune missiles.

Most recently, military bases and ammunition depots in the past week in the Russian-occupied region of Crimea were hit by explosions over the past week.

Britain's Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin on August 18 that the altogether poor performance of Russian forces since the start of the invasion could be at least partially caused by the commanders' failure to enforce low-level battle discipline.

British intelligence pointed to the Russian forces' lack of training in properly fitting and maintaining tank armor -- a deficiency first noticed during the first Chechen War of 1994 -- as likely the main reason for Moscow's heavy losses in tanks and armored vehicles.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Half of Russian Flight Dispatchers On Forced Leave As Sanctions Clobber Travel

Half of Russia's flight dispatchers have been put on forced leave as Western sanctions batter the country's travel industry, a labor union official says.

Sergei Kovalyov, the president of Russia's Federal Trade Union of Air Traffic Controllers, made the statement in a complaint sent to the Prosecutor-General's Office earlier this week, Russian media reported.

Russia has about 30,000 flight dispatchers, suggesting 15,000 have been put on leave.

Russia's aviation industry -- highly dependent on Western technology and Western routes -- has been among the hardest hit by sweeping sanctions triggered by Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

The United States and its allies have banned the sale of planes and plane parts to Russia, while the EU has banned Russia from using its airspace.

Russia has a tradition of cutting hours rather than firing employees to reduce labor costs during an economic crisis.

Forced leave can last from days to months, with workers receiving two-thirds of their base salary, according to Russian law.

About 135,000 Russian workers were on forced leave, Labor Minister Anton Kotyakov said in June.

Many of them are from Russia’s auto industry, which had come to nearly a standstill in May due to sanctions.

Russian Sought By U.S. Over 'Ryuk' Ransomware Extradited From Netherlands

The United States has over the past decade extradited dozens of Russian citizens accused of cybercrimes

A Russian national sought by U.S. prosecutors for allegedly laundering cryptocurrency tied to a notorious ransomware gang has been extradited to the United States from the Netherlands.

Denis Dubnikov, 29, a Russian citizen, made his initial appearance in federal court in Portland on August 17, the Justice Department said in a statement.

A five-day jury trial is scheduled to begin on October 4.

U.S. prosecutors accuse Dubnikov and his co-conspirators of laundering the proceeds of ransomware attacks on individuals and organizations throughout the United States and abroad.

Dubnikov and his accomplices allegedly laundered $400,000 in ransom payments from victims of Ryuk, a ransomware gang believed to have extracted $70 million from individuals and companies around the world, including the United States.

Dubnikov, who owns small crypto exchanges in Russia, was detained in the Netherlands in November after he was denied entry into Mexico and put on a plane back to the EU country and U.S. ally.

A lawyer representing him at the time said he did not know the source of the money that the United States alleges came from ransomware payments.

Dubnikov's arrest has been called one of U.S. law enforcement's first potential blows to the Ryuk ransomware gang, which is suspected of being behind a rash of cyberattacks on U.S. health-care organizations.

The attacks forced delays in potentially life-saving treatments for cancer and other patients.

In October 2020, the FBI and other U.S. agencies warned that Ryuk presented an "imminent" threat to U.S. health-care institutions. The Wall Street Journal said the Ryuk gang took in more than $100 million in ransom payments last year.

In a ransomware attack, a criminal encrypts files on a target computer network and demands payment in cryptocurrency to unlock them. In the health-care industry, where time is often critical, such delays can result in deadly outcomes.

Dubnikov's extradition comes amid high-level talks between Moscow and Washington about a prisoner swap.

The Biden administration said in July it was ready to carry out a prisoner swap with the Kremlin to free a few Americans held in jail in Russia, including women's basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.

In an interview with RFE/RL in early August, Arkady Bukh, a New York-based lawyer who has represented hundreds of Russian-speaking foreigners, said that Dubnikov could potentially be part of the prisoner swap.

Bukh said at the time that he expected Dubnikov to be extradited to the United States in August.

New COVID Cases In Russia Hit Five-Month High

Russian officials have recommended residents wear masks and get another vaccine shot.

Russia registered more than 33,000 new cases of COVID-19 on August 17, a five-month high.

The number of new cases has risen for the past seven weeks, prompting officials to recommend residents wear masks and get another vaccine shot.

The number of new hospitalizations on August 17 stood at more than 3,100.

According to official Russian statistics, 383,00 citizens have died from COVID-19 since the disease began to rapidly spread around the globe in 2020.

Independent demography experts estimate the Russian death total at four times the official figure.

UN's Guterres Arrives In Ukraine For Meeting With Zelenskiy, Erdogan

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks to the media during a visit to Kyiv in April.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has arrived in Lviv in western Ukraine, where he will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Guterres on August 18 will discuss the security situation at a Russian-occupied nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhya and possible paths to end the Kremlin's nearly six-month invasion of Ukraine.

The UN chief will visit a Ukrainian Black Sea port on August 19 that has recently resumed exports of grain following a halt caused by Russia's invasion.

Guterres and the international community have expressed deep concern over the risk of disaster at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, Europe's largest, amid reports of shelling and other dangers in the past week.

The United Nations has offered to help facilitate a visit by its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to Zaporizhzhya, but Moscow has dismissed a mission traveling through Kyiv despite vowing it would do all it could to help ensure IAEA access to the plant.

Zelenskiy earlier on August 16 accused Russia of "nuclear terrorism" in its actions, while Moscow says Ukrainian troops are responsible for artillery fire near the facility.

Erdogan has repeatedly sought a role for his NATO-member state to mediate in the conflict, and Ankara was crucial to a recent deal that allowed for the restart of grain and fertilizer exports from three of Ukraine's Black Sea ports.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Guterres on August 20 will visit the joint coordination center in Istanbul that oversees the seaborne shipments.

The center is staffed by Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and UN officials.

The first ship to have left Ukraine under the multilateral deal two weeks ago was said by a shipping source and satellite data to have docked early on August 16 in the Syrian port of Tartus.

The ship, the Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni, departed Ukraine on August 1 and didn't unload in Lebanon as scheduled, but went dark before appearing in Tartus.

Russia is a key ally who has helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad weather a brutal civil war and has a small naval facility at Tartus.

A UN-chartered ship loaded with 23,000 tons of Ukrainian grain, meanwhile, set sail on August 16 from a Black Sea port for Ethiopia, the first shipment of its kind in a program to assist countries facing famine, according to Ukraine's Infrastructure Ministry.

With reporting by Reuters

Russian Prosecutors Seek 15 Years In Prison For Crimean Tatar Leader, Activists

Asan Akhtemov (left) and Nariman Dzhelal (file photo)

Russian prosecutors have asked a court in Russian-occupied Crimea to convict and sentence Crimean Tatar leader Nariman Dzhelyal and two activists, brothers Asan and Akhtem Akhmetov, to 15 years in prison each.

Dzhelyal's lawyer, Nikolai Polozov, said on August 17 that the prosecutors also asked Crimea's Supreme Court to impose hefty fines on each of the defendants and order them to serve the first three years of their sentences in a maximum-security prison.

Dzhelyal and his co-defendants were arrested in early September 2021 on suspicion of involvement in an attack on a gas pipeline.

Ukraine has called the charges against the activists fabricated while the United States has called for Russia to release them.

Dzhelyal is deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatar's self-governing assembly, the Mejlis, which was banned in Crimea after Russia annexed it from Ukraine in 2014.

The arrest of Dzhelyal and his colleagues immediately sparked a protest outside the Crimean office of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), which ended with the detention of more than 50 people.

Russian news agency Interfax in September reported that the criminal investigation against Dzhelyal relates to a gas pipeline that was damaged on August 23 in a village near Crimea's capital, Simferopol.

Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzheppar said at the time that the detention of the men was Moscow's "revenge" for Dzhelyal's participation in a Kyiv conference that month dedicated to the "de-occupation" of Crimea.

The event had been decried by Moscow as "anti-Russian."

Armenia Mourns Victims Of Yerevan Market Explosion As Search For Survivors Continues

Emergency workers are focusing all their efforts on finding any survivors under the debris.

YEREVAN -- Armenia is mourning the victims of the Surmalu market explosion in Yerevan that claimed at least sixteen lives on August 14, as rescue works continue to search for missing people.

The government has declared August 17 and 18 days of national mourning for the victims. The cause of the blast is still being investigated.

Deputy Emergency Situations Minister Artush Grigorian said on August 17 that workers were focusing all their efforts on finding any survivors under the debris.

Of the 16 bodies so far recovered, 15 have been identified. Two people are considered missing, but ministry officials believe that the unidentified person found dead might be one of them.

Emergency Situations Minister Armen Pambukhchian said earlier that he "almost" ruled out terrorism as a cause of the incident.

A blast and subsequent fire at Surmalu sent a towering cloud of smoke over the Armenian capital on August 14, videos shared on social media showed.

The explosion was in an area where fireworks and other pyrotechnics are stored.

Russian Energy Export Revenue To Rise By 'Almost $100 Billion' This Year

The jump in revenues, if it materializes, will help shore up Russia's economy in the face of sweeping Western sanctions that are crippling some of its industries.

Russia forecasts energy export revenues to rise this year by nearly $100 billion as higher commodity prices offset a decrease in volumes, Reuters reports, citing government documents.

Russia's Economy Ministry now expects energy export revenue to reach $338 billion in 2022, up more than a third from $244 billion last year.

The jump in revenues, if it materializes, will help shore up Russia's economy in the face of sweeping Western sanctions that are crippling some of its industries.

Greater export revenues will enable President Vladimir Putin to raise wages and pensions at a time when the Russian economy has fallen into recession and inflation is eroding living standards.

Energy exports account for about half of Russia's federal budget revenues.

The Economy Ministry forecasts the average natural-gas export price will more than double this year to $730 per 1,000 cubic meters, before gradually falling until the end of 2025, according to the documents seen by Reuters.

Russia's gas exports will decline by about 15 percent this year amid deteriorating relations between Brussels and Moscow over the war in Ukraine.

The EU has declared its intention to slash its dependence on imports of gas from Russia, which for years had been the biggest supplier of the fuel to the bloc, to protest its invasion of Ukraine.

The decrease in flows to the EU will be only partially offset by increased exports to China.

The Economy Ministry expects energy export earnings of $256 billion next year -- still higher than in 2021 -- as oil and gas prices ease from near-record levels.

Overall, Russia's economy is holding up better than initially expected in the face of sanctions, as the surge in energy revenue gives the government more firepower to support struggling sectors.

The ministry now expects Russia's economy to contract just 4.2 percent this year and real wages to fall only 2.8 percent.

The ministry earlier warned that the economy could contract by as much as 12 percent this year, which would have been the steepest drop in nearly three decades.

NATO Forces 'Ready' If Kosovo-Serbia Tensions Boil Over

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left) and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg arrive for a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on August 17.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the alliance's peacekeeping troops are ready to step in if tensions between Kosovo and Serbia rise as the two Balkan neighbors prepare for further European Union-facilitated talks to normalize relations.

"While the situation on the ground has improved, it is the responsibility of all parties -- particularly officials from Belgrade and Pristina -- to prevent escalation again," Stoltenberg told a joint news conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Brussels on August 17, the eve of a new round of talks between the two countries.

"I call on all sides to show restraint and to avoid violence. NATO continues to monitor closely the situation on the ground. Our KFOR peacekeeping mission remains focused on its UN mandate. Should stability be jeopardized, KFOR stands ready to intervene," he said.

Kosovo and Serbia have engaged in the EU-led dialogue since 2011, aiming to reach a comprehensive and legally binding agreement on the normalization of relations.

Vucic said he expected "difficult" talks with his Kosovar counterpart, Albin Kurti, as the two "do not agree almost on anything."

"We have our history, which is not an easy one, which is not a simple one. But we do want to strengthen further cooperation both for...NATO and we want to avoid any kind of possibility of escalation or conflict," Vucic said.

In June, the two sides agreed to adopt a road map for the implementation of energy agreements within the EU-led dialogue.

Moscow's invasion of Ukraine has added to calls to bring not only Kosovo and Serbia, but also Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina closer to the EU through full membership or some alternative.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Serbia doesn't recognize it as independent, while most EU countries do.

Normalizing bilateral relations is seen as crucial to both countries bids to join the bloc.

EU leaders stopped short of offering a concrete timetable for membership to the six Western Balkans candidates at a summit in Slovenia in October, only reiterating the bloc's "commitment to the enlargement process."

Sentences Of Iranian Activists Seeking To Sue Government Over COVID Response Confirmed

Mehdi Mahmudian (left to right), Arash Keykhosro, and Mostafa Nili

An appeals court in Tehran has confirmed the prison sentences of three outspoken campaigners who wanted to sue government officials for allegedly mismanaging the coronavirus crisis and hampering the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.

One of the activists, Mostafa Nili, said the Court of Appeal of Tehran Province on August 16 confirmed the sentences they were appealing before the group, who are known in Iran as the "health defenders," could file their legal challenge against the government and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over their response to the pandemic in Iran, which had the Middle East's deadliest outbreak.

He added that the court also confirmed the sentence of four years in prison and two years of deprivation of media activity for Mehdi Mahmudian, and for Arash Keykhosro, who was sentenced to two years in prison and banned for one year from advocacy and media activities.

Mohammad Reza Faghihi had his six-month prison sentence confirmed, while Maryam Afrafaraz's 95-day jail term was also confirmed.

The five were arrested in August 2021 by security officers for refusing to sign a letter pledging they would not sue Khamenei or other officials over the pandemic response.

They were subsequently convicted of colluding to commit crimes against national security at a trial held behind closed doors in Tehran. They were appealing those convictions.

Many Iranians are angry at the chaotic response of officials to the pandemic. The government was widely accused of hiding the real numbers of hospitalizations and deaths.

There was also criticism over the delayed rollout of vaccines and Khamenei's ban on the import of vaccines from the United States and Britain, which was seen as a political move.

According to data from Johns Hopkins university, just over 143,000 Iranians have died from COVID-19, though many analysts say the real numbers are many times higher.

Critics have said that the mismanagement of the pandemic and the slow vaccination rollout led to thousands of preventable deaths in Iran.

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

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