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Reports: Eight Killed In Baghdad Car Bomb

Eight people were reported killed when a car bomb exploded near a liquor store in southwest Baghdad today.

Reports say the blast in the al-Shurta al-Rabaa area also injured 20 people. There has been a decline of violence in Iraq in past years, but low level attacks continue.

Five people were killed on April 28 when suicide bombers attacked police checkpoints in the south of the capital.

compiled from agency reports

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Cyberpartisans Hack Belarusian Fertilizer Plant, Demand Release Of Political Prisoners

The Hrodna Azot plant in the Homel region (file photo)
The Hrodna Azot plant in the Homel region (file photo)

A group known as Cyberpartisans says it hacked into the computers and security systems of a major Belarusian state-run producer of nitrogen compounds and fertilizers and is demanding the release of workers who were arrested during protests against the disputed 2020 presidential election.

The Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election.

The group claimed that it took control of all internal e-mail accounts of the Hrodna Azot plant in the region of Homel as well as hundreds of computers, servers belonging to the facility, and the security system and security cameras in the plant’s buildings. In addition, the plant's heating center stopped functioning due to the cyberattack.

The hackers say they will undo their work in exchange for the release of all the workers of the facility incarcerated for participating in the 2020 protests against the official results of the presidential poll that named authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka the winner. The hackers also demand 75 other political prisoners with medical conditions be released.

Hrodna Azot's website has not been accessible since April 17.

An employee of the plant told RFE/RL on April 18 on condition of anonymity that "there was a big buzz at the plant” the day before.

"People have been discussing that. Everybody knows what happened and who did it. But I do not know to what extent the attack affected the work," the employee said.

Official representatives of Hrodna Azot refused to comment and hung up the phone when RFE/RL correspondents called to request comment.

Yulyana Shametavets of the Cyberpartisans group told RFE/RL on April 18 that the cyberattack had been prepared for several months.

"The attack was huge enough and may have affected not only documentation and networks but the production of outputs as well," Shametavets said, adding that the attack revealed the weakness of the electronic systems used by industrial facilities in Belarus.

An unspecified number of the facility's workers were arrested during and after the 2020 rallies and many were later handed lengthy prison terms.

In February 2023, a court in the Homel region sentenced 10 activists of the Rabochy rukh (Workers' Movement) consisting of workers of Hrodna Azot on charges of high treason and creation of an extremist group. The Rabochy rukh movement was created in 2020 amid nationwide protests against the disputed reelection of Lukashenka.

Alyaksandr Kapshul and Uladzimer Zhurauka were sentenced to 15 years in prison each then; Syarhey Shelest, Andrey Paheryla, and Alyaksandr Hashnikau to 14 years in prison each; Syarhey Dzyuba, Ihar Mints, Valyantsin Tseranevich, and Syarhey Shametska to 12 years in prison each; and Hanna Ablab, the only woman in the group, to 11 years in prison.

Kapshul was also convicted of illegal use of a firearm, while Shelest, Zhurauka, and Paheryla were additionally found guilty of slander.

All members of the group, which went on trial in November 2023, pleaded not guilty at the time.

The movement tried to organize strikes at Hrodna Azot and another factory, Belarusian Steel Works (BMZ), also located in the southeastern Homel region.

Investigators claim the activists collected sensitive information and passed it to representatives and organizations of foreign countries, including the United States and Lithuania.

Lukashenka, 69, has tightened his grip on the country since the August 2020 election by arresting -- sometimes violently -- tens of thousands of people. Fearing for their safety, most opposition members have fled the country.

The West has refused to recognize the results of the election and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader. Many countries have imposed several rounds of sanctions against his regime in response to the suppression of dissent in the country.

Republika Srpska Parliament Adopts Report Denying Srebrenica Genocide

The president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik: Genocide “did not happen.”
The president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik: Genocide “did not happen.”

The parliament of Bosnia-Herzegovina's ethnic Serbian entity on April 18 adopted a report stating that the killing of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica during the Bosnian War did not constitute genocide, contravening the rulings of international courts. Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik told parliament that genocide “did not happen,” adding that “such a qualification must be dismissed." The step came as Serbia and Republika Srpska campaign against a resolution to commemorate the Srebrenica genocide that is being debated in the United Nations.

Sister Of Iranian Protest Victim Detained By Tehran's Morality Police

School students wearing the compulsory hijab
School students wearing the compulsory hijab

The sister of Nika Shakarmi, a victim of the Women, Life, Freedom movement protests, has been detained by Tehran's morality police for failing to adhere to the Iran's mandatory hijab law.

Aida Shakarmi, a university student, was arrested in the Iranian capital on April 17 and remains in custody, her father said on Instagram.

Nika Shakarmi, a 16-year-old from Khorramabad residing in Tehran, was killed by security forces during nationwide protests that broke out following the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police for an alleged hijab offense.

Nika Shakarmi was missing for eight days after being chased by security officers during a protest before her body was discovered. Authorities attributed her death to a fall from a height, a claim her family disputes.

The Shakarmi family has faced continuous threats and harassment from security forces since as they actively pursued justice for their daughter.

The report of Aida Shakarmi's detention comes amid a new crackdown on women for not adhering to the hijab law. Enforcement intensified after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a directive during the recent Eid al-Fitr prayer sermon to step up measures against what he called "religious norm-breaking" within Iranian society.

Khamenei also emphasized the mandatory hijab law as a "definite religious decree," underscoring the obligation of all to adhere to this law the same as other legal decrees.

The resurgence of the morality police has sparked increased tensions and confrontations across various cities.

The hijab became compulsory for women and girls over the age of 9 in 1981, two years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The move triggered protests that were swiftly crushed by the new authorities. Many women have flouted the rule over the years and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.

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

4 Pakistani Customs Officials Killed After Gunmen Ambush Vehicle

Unidentified gunmen ambushed a vehicle carrying officials from the customs department in northwestern Pakistan on April 18, killing four of them before fleeing the scene, police said. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in a district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province bordering Afghanistan, local police official Nasir Khan said. The motive behind the attack wasn't immediately clear. Pakistan has witnessed a surge in violence mostly blamed on the Pakistani Taliban, who are known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Russian-American Fined For Supporting Navalny's Foundation

Ilya Startsev (file photo)
Ilya Startsev (file photo)

The Memorial human rights groups says that a court in Russia's western city of Oryol ordered Russian-American citizen Ilya Startsev to pay 400,000 rubles ($4,240) on a charge of financing an extremist group. The court on April 17 found Startsev guilty of sending 7,000 rubles ($74) to the late opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). Startsev, who was arrested in early September 2023, was immediately released from custody after the court announced its decision. The FBK and Navalny's other groups and organizations were labeled extremist in 2021. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Russian Prosecutors Appeal Suspended Sentence For Ex-Memorial Chief

Aleksandr Chernyshev (file photo)
Aleksandr Chernyshev (file photo)

Prosecutors in the Russian city of Perm on April 18 appealed a local court decision to hand a three-year suspended prison term to Aleksandr Chernyshov, the ex-chief of the Center of Historic Memory, the successor entity of the Memorial human rights group. Prosecutors say Chernyshov should serve the sentence in prison instead of it being suspended. Chernyshov was found guilty of "attempting to smuggle cultural artifacts" in early April. He was arrested in May 2023 and accused of attempting to transfer Memorial's archives to Germany. The authorities ordered Memorial's archives to be transferred to Moscow after the group was liquidated in February 2022. To see the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

U.S. Announces New Sanctions On Iran In Response To Attack On Israel

An Iranian Shahed drone (file photo)
An Iranian Shahed drone (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- The United States has announced new sanctions on Iran targeting its drone production capabilities after its attack on Israel, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement on April 18.

The sanctions designate 16 individuals and two entities enabling Iran’s drone production, including engine types that power Iran’s Shahed drones, which were used in the April 13 attack.

“These actors work on behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), its UAV production arm, Kimia Part Sivan Company (KIPAS), and other Iranian manufacturers of UAVs and UAV engines,” the Treasury Department’s statement said.

The department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is also designating five companies in multiple jurisdictions providing component materials for steel production to Iran’s Khuzestan Steel Company (KSC), one of Iran’s largest steel producers, or purchasing KSC’s finished steel products.

Also targeted were three subsidiaries of Iranian automaker Bahman Group, which OFAC said had materially supported Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

In addition, the U.S. Commerce Department is imposing new controls to restrict Iran’s access to technologies, such as basic commercial grade microelectronics.

U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States and its allies had helped Israel beat back the April 13 missile and drone strike and were now holding Iran accountable with the new sanctions and export controls.

“The sanctions target leaders and entities connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran’s Defense Ministry, and the Iranian government’s missile and drone program that enabled this brazen assault," Biden said in a statement. "And our allies and partners have or will issue additional sanctions and measures to restrict Iran’s destabilizing military programs."

He added that the Group of Seven (G7) leaders are committed to acting together to increase economic pressure on Tehran.

Finance ministers and central bank governors of the G7 industrial democracies on April 17 said they would "ensure close coordination of any future measure to diminish Iran's ability to acquire, produce, or transfer weapons to support destabilizing regional activities."

The Treasury Department’s statement noted that Britain is imposing sanctions targeting several Iranian military organizations, individuals, and entities involved in Iran’s drone and ballistic missile industries.

Britain said these sanctions included the General Staff of the Armed Forces and the IRGC Navy.

Tehran says it carried out the April 13 attack in retaliation for a presumed Israeli strike on April 1 on the Iranian Embassy compound in Damascus that killed two generals and several others.

With reporting by Reuters

EU Set To Provide Nonlethal Assistance To Armenia

A preliminary agreement has been reached in Brussels on providing nonlethal assistance to Armenia from the European Peace Facility (EPF), according to a diplomatic document obtained by RFE/RL.

The document, obtained on April 17 from diplomatic sources in Brussels, shows that the European Union plans to allocate 10 million euros ($10.6 million) to Armenia under the EPF as part of an assistance measure that will last 30 months from the date of the adoption of the decision.

According to the document, the assistance measure will finance setting up a mobile field camp for a battalion-size unit, including a medical treatment facility and other relevant services.

“The objective of the assistance measure is to contribute to strengthening the Armed Forces of the Republic of Armenia’s capabilities to enhance national security, stability, and resilience in the defense sector,” the document says.

The assistance also aims to allow Armenian forces to enhance operational effectiveness and accelerate compliance with EU standards and interoperability, thereby better protecting civilians in crises and emergencies, it adds.

The EPF was established in 2021 to provide funds for the purchase of nonlethal weapons or capabilities to promote peace, prevent conflict, and strengthen international security around the world. EU membership is not a prerequisite for applying to receive EPF funding.

Details about the EPF agreement come as Armenia turns away from Russia for security assistance. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in February spoke about “freezing” Armenia's membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led regional security grouping that Pashinian criticized for its “failure to respond to the security challenges” facing Armenia.

In an interview with RFE/RL earlier this month, Peter Stano, spokesman for the EU’s Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, confirmed that discussions on possible support to Armenia under the EPF were ongoing but said that security policy is a “strictly member state-controlled area where any decision needs to be agreed by unanimity of all the member states.”

The draft agreement seen by RFE/RL is expected to be submitted for final approval in the coming weeks.

Armenia first submitted an application for funding from the EPF in 2023, and it earned the backing of then-French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, who said during a visit to Armenia last October that she had personally appealed to the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy on this issue.

Among other countries that have received assistance from the EPF in previous years are Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, all of which are seeking membership in the European Union. A number of African countries also have tapped into EPF funding.

With reporting by Heghine Buniatyan

Bashkir Activist Alsynov Loses Appeal Against Four-Year Prison Term

Fail Alsynov talks to supporters outside the courtroom in January.
Fail Alsynov talks to supporters outside the courtroom in January.

The Supreme Court of Russia's Baskortostan region on April 18 rejected the appeal filed by Bashkir activist Fail Alsynov against a four-year prison sentence he was handed in January on a charge of inciting hatred that he and his supporters call politically motivated. Thousands of Alsynov's supporters rallied in protest before and after his sentence was handed down in mid-January and clashed with police. Police used tear gas, stun grenades, and batons to disperse the protesters. Alsynov is known for his open criticism of Bashkortostan's Kremlin-backed head, Radiy Khabirov, and his government. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service, click here.

Russian Hypersonic-Flight Expert Gets 7 Years On Treason Charge

Aleksandr Kuranov is escorted to a hearing at Moscow's Lefortovo district court in August 2021.
Aleksandr Kuranov is escorted to a hearing at Moscow's Lefortovo district court in August 2021.

A court in St. Petersburg on April 18 sentenced Aleksandr Kuranov, the former head of an institute researching hypersonic flight, to seven years in prison on a charge of high treason. The 76-year-old former chief of the Hypersonic Systems Research Center in Russia's second-largest city was arrested in August 2021 after investigators accused him of passing classified materials to a foreigner. Several Russian scientists and officials have been charged with treason in recent years after being accused of passing sensitive material to foreign countries. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Taliban Pulls 2 TV Channels For 'Violating Islamic Values'

Rights monitors warn that the Taliban authorities have been cracking down on media freedoms since their return to power in 2021 as they enforce an austere vision of Islamist rule.
Rights monitors warn that the Taliban authorities have been cracking down on media freedoms since their return to power in 2021 as they enforce an austere vision of Islamist rule.

Two Afghan television channels have been taken off the airwaves for "violations against Islamic and national values," a spokesman for the Taliban-led government said on April 18. Rights monitors warn that the Taliban authorities have been cracking down on media freedoms since their return to power in 2021 as they enforce an austere vision of Islamist rule. Culture Ministry spokesman Khubaib Ghufran said the Barya and Noor TV channels had been suspended on April 16 for failing to abide by "journalistic principles." "They had programs creating confusion among the public and their owners are abroad," he told AFP. "The media violation commission suspended their operations."

Updated

German Foreign Minister Says G7 Needs 'Response' To Iran's Unprecedented Attack

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock addresses journalists in Tel Aviv on April 17.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock addresses journalists in Tel Aviv on April 17.

The G7 must respond to Iran's attack on Israel, Germany's foreign minister said on April 18, adding that measures were being discussed with her counterparts at a meeting in Italy.

"We are also discussing further measures here at the G7, because of course there must be a response to this unprecedented incident," Annalena Baerbock said from the island of Capri.

She added however that "there must be no further escalation in the region; that would be fatal for its people."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on April 18 painted a dark picture of the situation in the Middle East, warning that spiraling tensions over the war in Gaza and Iran's attack on Israel could devolve into a "full-scale regional conflict."

Guterres said Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip had created a "humanitarian hellscape" for civilians trapped there.

"The Middle East is on a precipice. Recent days have seen a perilous escalation," Guterres told a high-level Security Council meeting.

He said one miscalculation or miscommunication “could lead to the unthinkable --- a full-scale regional conflict.”

Iranian Journalist Arrested After Recounting Assault By Morality Police

Iran's so-called morality police arrest a woman over an alleged head-scarf violation. (Illustrative photo)
Iran's so-called morality police arrest a woman over an alleged head-scarf violation. (Illustrative photo)

Iranian journalist Dina Ghalibaf was arrested after she published a personal narrative about her previous detention by Iran’s morality police for not adhering to the mandatory hijab law.

Ghalibaf, a journalist and student of political science at Tehran’s Beheshti University, disclosed details of her arrest by law enforcement on April 15 for defying the compulsory hijab law, including that she was sexually assaulted during her detention. She was subsequently re-arrested by intelligence forces and taken to an undisclosed location.


Reports indicate that Ghalibaf was arrested at her residence. No information available on her whereabouts has been made available.

Ghalibaf's arrest coincides with the reimplementation of Iran’s Plan Noor initiative, under which the morality police have resumed operations and are strictly enforcing dress codes. This has led to several incidents of violence against women challenging the compulsory hijab, documented through numerous accounts, including Ghalibaf's.

According to Ghalibaf, during her initial detention, she was forcibly moved and subjected to electric shocks while handcuffed. She says a law enforcement officer also sexually assaulted her.

Following the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, who died while detained by the morality police, and the subsequent nationwide protests it sparked, the presence of morality police vehicles in cities had noticeably decreased. Instead, the Islamic Republic employed individuals referred to as "hijab guards."

The new crackdown on women for not adhering to the hijab intensified after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a directive during the recent Eid al-Fitr prayer sermon to step up enforcement measures against what he called "religious norm-breaking" within Iranian society.

Khamenei also emphasized the mandatory hijab law as a "definite religious decree," underscoring the obligation of all to adhere to this the same as other legal decrees.

The resurgence of the morality police has sparked increased tensions and confrontations across various cities.

The hijab became compulsory for women and girls over the age of 9 in 1981, two years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The move triggered protests that were swiftly crushed by the new authorities. Many women have flouted the rule over the years and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.

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

Two Arrested In Germany For Planning Sabotage In Favor Of Russia

Training of the Ukrainian military at the Grafenwehr base in the German state of Bavaria (illustrative photo)
Training of the Ukrainian military at the Grafenwehr base in the German state of Bavaria (illustrative photo)

Two men with dual German-Russian citizenship have been arrested in Germany for allegedly plotting acts of sabotage aimed at undermining military support for Ukraine, the German prosecutor's office reported on April 18. One suspect, identified as Dieter S., had been discussing possible actions with a person connected to Russian intelligence since October 2023, the prosecutor's office said in a statement. Dieter S. was ready to carry out attacks on military facilities, including U.S. ones, in Germany. German media reported the Grafenwehr military base in Bavaria, where Ukrainian soldiers are trained to use U.S. Abrams tanks, was among the likely targets. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Updated

'Send Them To Ukraine': EU's Borrell Urges Europeans To Donate Air Defense Systems

A rescuer works with a sniffer dog at the site of a destroyed building during a deadly Russian missile strike in Chernihiv on April 17.
A rescuer works with a sniffer dog at the site of a destroyed building during a deadly Russian missile strike in Chernihiv on April 17.

The European Union's foreign policy chief called on EU member states to give Ukraine more air defense systems as the embattled country grapples with increasingly intense Russian air strikes on its infrastructure while its stocks of weapons and ammunition dwindle as critical U.S. aid remains stuck in Congress.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"We have Patriots (U.S. air defense systems). We have anti-missile systems. We have to take them [out] from our barracks where they are just in case and send them to Ukraine where the war is raging," Josep Borrell told the media on the sidelines of a meeting of the Group of Seven (G7) foreign ministers on the Italian island of Capri, where Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine is topping the agenda.

The United States has been by far the main provider of military assistance to Ukraine since the start of Russia's invasion in February 2022.

But a desperately needed $62 billion military aid package for Ukraine remains blocked in the U.S. House of Representatives amid opposition from hard-liners in the Republican party who want to tie domestic policy issues such as immigration to a decision on foreign aid.

The House is expected to vote on April 20 on new military aid, including the long-delayed package for Ukraine.

"We cannot only rely on the U.S. We have to take our [own] responsibility and stop saying, 'Oh, the U.S. will do it'," Borrell said, adding, however, that he regretted "internal politics" in the United States was delaying the critical aid package.

Without more air defenses, "the electricity system of Ukraine will be destroyed. And no country can fight without having electricity at home, in the factories, online, for everything," Borrell added.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who was invited to attend the Capri meeting, thanked Germany for providing Ukraine with a Patriot battery, while urging Congress to approve the package.

“We will work here at the ministerial level to make other allies deliver air defense systems to Ukraine. Because it’s of fundamental importance," Kuleba said after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Kuleba pointed to the Russian missile strike on Ukraine's historic city of Chernihiv that killed at least 18 people on April 17 as evidence of his country's urgent need for military assistance.


"This is a matter of death and life for thousands of people, and in a broader sense, it's a matter of Ukraine's survival in this struggle against a much stronger enemy," he said.

The G7 meeting is also being attended by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Earlier on April 18, Ukraine shot down all 13 drones launched by Russia at its territory. The Ukrainian Air Force said most of the drones were launched at infrastructure targets in the western region of Ivano-Frankivsk. Russian news agency RIA Novosti claimed the drones struck Ukrainian military installations in Ivano-Frankivsk, but the mayor of the regional capital of Ivano-Frankivsk, Ruslan Martinskiv, told RFE/RL that only civilian infrastructure had been targeted.

Martsinkiv said debris from the drones caused a fire which was put out.

But a Russian missile attack on an infrastructure facility in the Dnipro region on April 18 causes substantial damage, regional administration head Serhiy Lysak said on Telegram.

"Two fires are still raging. We are clarifying the information," Lysak wrote.

Meanwhile, Andriy Yusov, spokesman for Ukraine's Main Intelligence Directorate at the Defense Ministry, has confirmed to RFE/RL reports of a "successful" attack by Ukrainian armed forces on a military airfield in the city of Dzhankoy in Ukraine's Russian-occupied Crimea.

Yusov told RFE/RL on April 18 that the attack, conducted a day earlier, destroyed Russia's launchers of anti-missile and anti-aircraft defense systems, radar systems, and damaged some planes.

Social media channels reported powerful explosions in the area of the airfield early on April 17, but the reports had not been verified.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Social Media Platform X Pledges To Work With Pakistan Amid Service Disruption

The Pakistani government shut down the social media platform X in the country two months ago, citing threats to national security.
The Pakistani government shut down the social media platform X in the country two months ago, citing threats to national security.

Social media platform X, formerly Twitter, has pledged to work with Pakistan's government "to understand its concerns" after authorities said an ongoing two-month shutdown of the site in the country was based on national security threats. "We continue to work with the Pakistani Government to understand their concerns," X's Global Government Affairs team said in a post late on April 17. It was the company's first public comments on the move since the site was disrupted on February 17, when jailed former prime minister Imran Khan's party called for nationwide protests against general elections they say were rigged.

Updated

After 6 Months In Russian Detention, RFE/RL Journalist Still Making Sense Of It All

Jailed journalist Alsu Kurmasheva (file photo)
Jailed journalist Alsu Kurmasheva (file photo)

For some 25 years, Alsu Kurmasheva worked as a journalist at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tatar-Bashkir Service. Then, six months ago, as she says, "in an instant, it turned into a crime."

That instant came exactly on October 18 when Kurmasheva, a Russian-U.S. dual citizen, was arrested in Kazan and charged with failing to register as a "foreign agent" under a punitive Russian law that targets journalists, civil society activists, and others.

Later, she was charged with spreading falsehoods about the Russian military and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

RFE/RL and the U.S. government say the charges are a reprisal for her work as a journalist for RFE/RL. She had traveled to Russia to visit and care for her elderly mother and was initially detained while waiting for her return flight on June 2 at Kazan airport, where her passports were confiscated.

U.S. Journalist Detained In Russia Defiantly Insists She Will Walk Free
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"On October 18 last year, I was imprisoned on charges that still don’t make sense inside my head," she wrote in a recent message published by a Tatar-language monthly in Kazan.

Kurmasheva, who lives in Prague with her husband, Pavel Butorin, who is also a journalist for RFE/RL in Prague, and their two daughters, ages 12 and 15, described her prison conditions as poor and said her health has deteriorated as she has been unable to access treatment.

Alsu writes that "some illnesses have intensified," but medication and regular exercise "give me the strength to hold on and endure the pain."

"She's being held in inhumane conditions for the mere fact of being an American," Butorin said. "I want the Russian government to explain to me and my children why exactly Alsu is being held hostage. She's not an opposition politician. She's not an activist. She's not a criminal. Her detention is wrongful. She doesn't belong in jail."

Minimal Health Care, No Room To Move: Jailed RFE/RL Journalist Describes Russian Prison
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Many critics and rights groups say the so-called "foreign agent" law is used by the Kremlin to crack down on any dissent.

Moscow has also been accused of detaining Americans to use as bargaining chips to exchange for Russians jailed in the United States.

"Russian authorities are conducting a deplorable criminal campaign against the wrongfully detained Alsu Kurmasheva," according to RFE/RL President Stephen Capus.

Journalism watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) added that as health issues continue to worsen for Kurmasheva "due to the deplorable conditions of the Russian prison system, her rights as a U.S. citizen are constantly denied by the authorities."

"The refusal to grant her access to U.S. consular assistance is a blatant violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR). RSF urges the U.S. government to step up its efforts to get her released," Jeanne Cavelier, head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said in a statement marking the six months Kurmasheva has been detained.

Another U.S. journalist, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, has been held in detention since March 2023 on spying charges both he and the newspaper vehemently deny, saying the 32-year-old was merely doing his job as an accredited reporter when he was arrested.

In February, 23 countries nominated Kurmasheva for the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano 2024 World Press Freedom Prize.

The prize, created in 1997, is an annual award that honors a person or a group of people who make an "outstanding" contribution to the defense and promotion of press freedom across the globe despite the "danger and persecution" they face.

For Kurmasheva, awards are something she has little time to focus on.

Instead, her goal, she says, is simple: "My greatest wish is to come out of here alive and well."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service
Updated

Senior Kosovar Police Officer Still In Serbian Custody

Deputy police commander Dejan Jankovic, a Kosovo Serb, has been held since the morning of April 17 "without any explanation," the ministry said in a statement.
Deputy police commander Dejan Jankovic, a Kosovo Serb, has been held since the morning of April 17 "without any explanation," the ministry said in a statement.

Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti said a deputy chief of the Kosovo Police remains in Serbian custody after being detained by Serbian police at the border, a move some Kosovar officials said was retaliation for the country being recommended for membership in the Council of Europe, a top European human rights body.

Four other police officers who were detained together with deputy police commander Dejan Jankovic on April 17 have been released, Kurti said on April 18 at a government meeting in Pristina.

Ten off-duty Kosovar police officers, both ethnic Albanians and Serbs, were detained by Serbian authorities while returning to Kosovo. Five of them were released the same day.

"The deputy police chief continues to be held in a prison in Serbia," Kurti said, referring to Jankovic.

After being detained at the Jarinje border crossing in northern Kosovo, Jankovic -- who comes from the municipality of Strpce -- was sent for interrogation to the southwestern Serbian city of Raska.

Serbia's Interior Ministry confirmed to Serbian news agency Tanjug that the officers were detained on April 17 during border checks, but did not say why Jankovic remained in custody.

The U.S. State Department is aware of the situation and monitoring it closely, a spokesperson told RFE/RL in an e-mail, urging all parties involved to avoid any actions that could jeopardize regional security and stability.

The spokesperson also warned that arbitrary or unduly lengthy detentions, especially if they target Kosovar police officers, "will be seen as escalatory actions detrimental to peace and stability."

As already noted by the European Union, the spokesperson said delays like those that recently took place represent a violation of an agreement on freedom of movement reached as part of the EU-facilitated dialogue on normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. The agreement provides clear parameters for the entry and exit of Kosovar citizens to and from Serbia, the spokesperson said.

The detentions came after at least six buses from Kosovo were earlier stopped for hours by Serbian police at a border crossing with Croatia and Hungary, according to passengers, before being allowed to continue.

Serbia said the delays were caused by additional security measures at the border, but that Kosovar citizens' movement has not been restricted.

The tightening of border controls by Serbia came shortly after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) recommended on April 16 that Kosovo be invited to become a member of the Council of Europe, a European human rights body.

Kurti was quick to link the Kosovar police officers' detentions with the decision by PACE.

"The mass arrests, detentions, and ill-treatment of [Kosovar] travelers occurred immediately after the favorable vote in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe," Kurti told the government meeting.

Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani said the stopping of buses was a retaliatory measure by Belgrade, and directly accused Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic of ordering the move.

"Serbia is retaliating against Kosovar citizens, one day after PACE's CoE vote, by holding many hostage at border crossings, intimidating, confiscating docs & depriving them of food," Osmani wrote on X, formerly Twitter, adding, "One man is responsible for this: Vucic."

Kosovo's Foreign Ministry also said in a statement that Serbia had stopped the buses as a "a sign of retaliation against the PACE's support for Kosovo's membership in the organization."

Kosovo, a mainly ethnic Albanian former province of Serbia, declared independence from Belgrade in 2008 after fighting a guerrilla war in 1998-99 that ended with NATO's bombing of Serbia. Kosovo's independence has been recognized neither by Belgrade nor by its traditional ally, Russia, or China.

With reporting by Reuters

U.S. House To Vote On Ukraine, Israel Aid Despite Hard-Line Objections

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson gives a weekly press conference from Capitol Hill on April 16.
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson gives a weekly press conference from Capitol Hill on April 16.

The U.S. House of Representatives will have its long-awaited vote on aid for Ukraine, Israel, and the Indo-Pacific as soon as this weekend, Republican Speaker Mike Johnson said, paving the way for its possible passage despite fierce objections from the right wing of his conference. The House Appropriations Committee unveiled legislation providing more than $95 billion in security assistance, including $60.84 billion to address the conflict in Ukraine, of which $23.2 billion would be used to replenish U.S. weapons, stocks, and facilities. The Israel bill totals $26.38 billion, some of which will cover the cost of U.S. military operations responding to recent attacks.

U.S. Envoy On Ukraine's Economic Recovery Says Reconstruction Process Already Under Way

Penny Pritzker said it’s important to start now because a functioning Ukrainian economy is key both to its war effort and to achieving its Euro-Atlantic goals.
Penny Pritzker said it’s important to start now because a functioning Ukrainian economy is key both to its war effort and to achieving its Euro-Atlantic goals.

WASHINGTON -- The United States and Ukraine’s other partners have already started working on Ukraine’s economic recovery even as Kyiv focuses on defending itself because both Kyiv and its partners know that "part of Putin’s war strategy is to try and destroy Ukraine’s economy,” said the U.S. special envoy for Ukraine’s economic recovery.

Penny Pritzker, a former U.S. commerce secretary who was appointed to the post by President Joe Biden, told a briefing in Washington on April 17 that she and other partners have been working with Ukrainians and Kyiv’s allies in both the public and private sectors to strengthen the economic environment to enable private sector investment.

She said it’s important to start now because a functioning Ukrainian economy is key both to its war effort and to achieving its Euro-Atlantic goals.

“In order to defeat [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, it is not only going to take a sustained commitment from governments but also increased private sector engagement like a business advisory council to be more agile and responsive to the complex and rapidly changing environment in Ukraine,” said Pritzker, who served as commerce secretary from 2013 to 2017.

Among the work already complete is the creation of a Multi-Donor Coordination Platform (MDCP) that last week held its first steering committee meeting in Kyiv since Russia launched its full-scale invasion, she said, saying the group is a testament to what the international donor community can do when it collaborates.

The MDCP is on track to launch a business advisory council at the Ukraine Recovery Conference in June. The conference, which will be hosted by Germany and held in Berlin, will be an opportunity for Ukrainians to showcase their progress on various reforms.

It also will provide an opportunity for partner countries to highlight the support they have available and for the private sector to showcase what it can bring to the table, she said.

The conference “has the potential to be an important moment in both envisioning and bringing to reality some of the future ideas about Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction,” Pritzker told reporters.

Pritzker also noted that the Ukrainian economy “just like its military remains alive active and resilient.” The country’s GDP is expected to grow at around 4 percent in 2024 after 5 percent growth last year, and state revenue increased 25 percent in January 2024 over the same month the previous year, she said.

Last year Ukraine saw investment increase by 17 percent, with more than 37,000 new businesses registered -- more than half founded by women, she added.

“Such results do not just happen. They are the result of close collaboration and partnership across governments, international financial institutions, NGOs, the private sector, and more,” she said.

As a sign of the progress thus far, Pritzker said a $156 million deal was announced last week in Kyiv to provide 40 diesel locomotives for Ukraine’s national railway in what she said was the first such deal since the invasion.

Pritzker said she has made two trips to Ukraine in the past two weeks and knows how dire the situation is as it struggles to defend itself with supplies of air defense munitions and artillery shells dwindling. She joined a chorus of Biden administration officials who are calling for the U.S. Congress to pass a multi-billion dollar aid package that has been held back in the House of Representatives by a small group of Republicans.

“Let me be clear: 784 days into Russia’s full-scale invasion, the House must act to provide the crucial security, economic, and humanitarian lifeline that Ukraine needs and they must act now,” she said. “The American people support Ukraine and we cannot abandoned them in their time of need.”

Iranian Political Prisoners Launch Hunger Strike Over Wave Of Executions

Inmates at Iran's in Ghezel Hesar prisone have been holding regular protests against exeuctions since February 29. (file photo)
Inmates at Iran's in Ghezel Hesar prisone have been holding regular protests against exeuctions since February 29. (file photo)

A group of Iranian political prisoners around the country have launched a hunger strike to protest a wave of death sentences that could push Iran's execution rate even higher, human rights activists reported.

The hunger strike, which includes prisoners at the notorious Evin and Ghezel Hesar prisons, coincides with the 12th consecutive week of the "No to Execution Tuesdays" campaign, which has been ongoing in Iranian prisons to protest against the regime's use of the death penalty.

Sources within the prisons said that in recent days the government has quietly executed a large number of nonpolitical prisoners across the country as Iranians focus on rising tensions with Israel after Tehran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Iran's sworn enemy in an unprecedented attack on Israeli soil.

The sources added that many inmates also have been moved to solitary confinement in Ghezel Hesar and other prisons, a sign more executions could be carried out soon in what the protesting prisoners describe as a "new wave of repression and intimidation by the judicial and security apparatus."

Prisoners in Ghezel Hesar have been actively protesting through the "No to Execution Tuesdays Strike" campaign since February 29, aiming to draw attention to the widespread executions.

The campaign has gained momentum, with inmates from prisons such as Evin, Khorramabad, Karaj Central, Khoy, Naghadeh, Mashhad, and Saqqez joining in support.

The rate of executions in Iran has been rising sharply, particularly in the wake of the widespread protests following the September 2022 death of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was being held for an alleged head-scarf violation.

Two weeks ago, Amnesty International highlighted that at least 853 executions were carried out in Iran in 2023, marking a 48 percent increase from the previous year. The organization attributes this rise to the government's strategy of instilling fear among the populace against regime opposition.

In response to these ongoing issues, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva renewed its special rapporteur's mandate on Iranian affairs on April 4, 2023.

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

Turkmenistan Opens Section Of Ashgabat-Turkmenabat Highway

Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhamedov (left) attended the opening ceremony for the new highway section on April 17.
Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhamedov (left) attended the opening ceremony for the new highway section on April 17.

Turkmenistan has opened a section of the Ashgabat-Turkmenabat highway linking the cities of Tejen and Mary in southeastern Turkmenistan. President Serdar Berdymukhammedov attended the ceremony on April 17 to open the highway, which officials hope will cut journey times and boost trade between Asia and Europe. "The construction of this highway is further evidence of the revival of the Great Silk Road," Berdymukhamedov said, referring to the trade route that crossed Central Asia for centuries. Construction of the 600-kilometer-long Ashgabat-Turkmenabat highway began in 2019. The Tejen-Mary section, which is 109 kilometers long, was the second section to be opened. To read the full story on RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, click here.

Head Of Anti-Graft Agency In Montenegro Arrested On Suspicion Of Abuse Of Office

Jelena Perovic, the director of Montenegro's Anti-Corruption Agency, is escorted by investigators in Podgorica on April 17.
Jelena Perovic, the director of Montenegro's Anti-Corruption Agency, is escorted by investigators in Podgorica on April 17.

The director of Montenegro’s Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) has been arrested after a search of the ACA's offices and vehicles in Podgorica in the latest in a series of measures aimed at curtailing graft and abuse of public office at the highest levels of the Montenegrin justice system.

Jelena Perovic was escorted out of the ACA building in handcuffs as the searches were taking place on April 17, according to an RFE/RL reporter who was at the scene. She was taken to the Special Police Team building for questioning.

The search was ordered by the Special State Prosecutor's Office, which announced that Perovic is suspected of abuse of office over a prolonged period starting last year. The office said police officers also searched her apartment and "other premises."

There was no official confirmation that charges had been filed. Her lawyer, Nikola Martinovic, said that her arrest was in connection with her alleged misuse of a state car.

Perovic has been accused by parties in the Montenegrin ruling coalition of failing to be transparent in her work, taking selective action in checking the assets of public officials, and protecting some officials, including former President Milo Djukanovic.

In addition, she has been accused of giving herself and some employees pay increases in violation of the law.

The nongovernmental Network for the Affirmation of the NGO Sector, which goes by the acronym MANS, announced that it has made criminal complaints to Montenegrin authorities, including the Prosecutor-General's Office, seeking charges against Perovic for abuse of office, including using an official vehicle for private purposes.

Perovic has denied the allegations. She was questioned by the police in February but there were no grounds for suspecting that she committed any crime, ACA said at the time.

Perovic, who was appointed ACA director in July 2020, said the agency is the target of nonstop political attacks and claimed that the work of the ACA is in line with the law and conducted without bias.

Perovic is the third current or former government official arrest in the last four days as Montenegro forges ahead in its fight against corruption and organized crime.

The other two were former chief special prosecutor Milivoje Katnic and former deputy police director Zoran Lazovic, who were arrested on April 14.

The Special State Prosecutor's Office said the two are charged with forming and participating in a criminal organization and abuse of office. A Montenegro court on April 16 ordered them held in pretrial detention for up to 30 days.

In its latest report on Montenegro, the European Comission said the Balkan country had made only limited progress in preventing corruption.

The results achieved by the ACA improved in quantitative terms, but added that the ACA’s "independence, accountability, impartiality, and proactiveness should be further ensured.“

Indictments were previously brought against the former president of the Supreme Court, Vesna Medenica; former police directors Veselin Veljovic and Slavko Stojanovic; deputy police director Dejan Kneževic special prosecutor Sasa Cadjenovic; and others.

With reporting by Milos Rudovic
Updated

Reporters Without Borders Calls TikTok Blocking In Kyrgyzstan 'Arbitrary'

(file photo)
(file photo)

Journalism watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it is concerned over a decision by Kyrgyz authorities to block the TikTok video-sharing platform in the Central Asian nation as of April 18.

In a statement issued on X, formerly Twitter, RSF accused Kyrgyz authorities of restricting the right to accessing information online "under the pretext of protecting minors."

"RFS calls on the [Kyrgyz] government to lift this arbitrary blocking and define a clear legal framework to regulate platforms," the statement said.

Media reports in Kyrgyzstan quoted several Internet providers as saying they received an instruction letter from the Digital Development Ministry of mandating the restriction of access to TikTok as of April 18.

The ministry confirmed the reports saying the move was made at the request of the State Committee for National Security (UKMK) that claimed information shared by TikTok "violated" Kyrgyzstan's law on the prevention of physical and emotional damage to the health of children.

Kyrgyzstan used to be the most open nation in Central Asia with vibrant independent media and social society institutions. Since current President Sadyr Japarov took over a nation that once was called "an island of democracy in Central Asia," the situation has worsened with independent journalists being arrested and restrictive bills being adopted.

In early April, Japarov signed into law the bill of "foreign representatives" that many in the country and abroad criticized as a replica of Russia’s repressive law on "foreign agents" that Moscow has used for years to muzzle dissent and free press.

The reports about Kyrgyzstan's move to block TikTok came one day after Russia’s Association of Professional Social Media and Messenger Users (APPSIM) called on the Roskomnadzor media watchdog to block TikTok as well.

The APPSIM asked Roskomnadzor to check if TikTok complies with Russia's 2019 law on localizing users’ data.

According to APPSIM, TikTok's blocking in Russia will increase the number of subscribers to Russian social media platforms by 30 million people.

With reporting by TASS

Memorial Human Rights Group Recognizes Imprisoned Bashkir Anti-War Activist As Political Prisoner

Activist Ramila Saitova (file photo)
Activist Ramila Saitova (file photo)

The Memorial human rights group has recognized activist Ramila Saitova (aka Galim) from Russia’s Republic of Bashkortostan, who was sentenced in December to five years in prison for her online post protesting Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, as a political prisoner. Saitova was arrested in May 2023 and charged with "public calls for actions aimed against the country's security." Saitova rejected the charge, which stemmed from her online video address to men mobilized in Bashkortostan, calling on them "to be brave and openly say 'I do not want to kill.'" To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

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