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Rice Lectures Lavrov On Georgia Moves

NEW YORK (Reuters) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has told Moscow's foreign minister that Russia's incursion into Georgia last month was a big mistake and had harmed its reputation internationally.

In a tense but polite encounter -- their first since the Georgia crisis -- Rice had a "thorough exchange" with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, said the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European affairs, Daniel Fried.

"The disagreements were quite clear," said Fried, who attended the meeting with Rice at her New York hotel. "But there was not shouting, table-pounding histrionics. The two ministers are professionals," he added.

Fried said Rice also told Lavrov that Russia's recognition of the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was a mistake, "quite a serious one."

"[Rice said] Russia did not enjoy any significant international support and Russia had created grave difficulties for itself," Fried added.

Fried said Lavrov responded with "known Russian positions" to Rice's strong criticism.

Speaking later to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Lavrov made clear Moscow did not feel isolated in the least but indicated a chill in relations with Washington, particularly over its missile-defense plans.

"The feeling of hostile policies is indeed something we feel sometimes," Lavrov said.

Rice and Lavrov had only spoken three times since the Georgia crisis and their relations have been testy in the past, particularly over imposing sanctions against Iran.

Iran Tensions

Russia boycotted talks by major powers planned for September 25 at which a fourth round of sanctions against Iran was to be discussed to get Tehran to give up its nuclear work. Russia opposes more sanctions.

The Bush administration has sought to play down the significance of the Russian decision to scrap the ministerial meeting on Iran and Rice said the timing was not right.

Lavrov complained the United States could not block Russian attendance at meetings by the Group of Eight industrial nations, "that are important for the entire world," and then demand cooperation from Russia in areas it cared about.

"You can't have it both ways," Lavrov told the Council on Foreign Relations.

Fried said both ministers agreed there should be a ministerial meeting to discuss Iran at some later stage but that no date or place had been set. Lavrov was less firm and said experts should meet "down the road."

Lavrov said he and Rice did not discuss sanctions against Iran and declined to say whether or not Russia would eventually support a fourth sanctions resolution. They did discuss both Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs, he added.

"We believe that in both cases our overriding goals have not changed. We want to resolve peacefully both situations," he said. "We will continue our discussions on both issues."

Rice has presided over a steady deterioration of U.S. ties with Moscow. She led international condemnation of Russia's decision to send troops to Georgia to stop Tbilisi's attempt to retake the pro-Russian, separatist region of South Ossetia.

She antagonized Russia last week with a speech, telling the West to resist Russian "bullying," and accusing Moscow of becoming increasingly authoritarian and aggressive.

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Russian University Student Expelled For Commemorating Writer Killed By Soviet Regime

Viktor Novogorsky (file photo)

A university in Russia's Mari El region has expelled Viktor Novogorsky, an activist of the Mari Ushem (Union Of Mari People) organization, after he took part in a commemoration of the founder of the Mari people's literature, Sergei Chavain, who was executed by Josef Stalin's regime in 1937.

Novogorsky wrote on the VK social network on March 22 that the Mari State University in the republic's capital, Yoshkar-Ola, justified its decision to expel him as due to his "underperformance."

However, Novogorsky insists that his performance at the university was very high, as borne out in the school registry that shows his academic progress.

Novogorsky also posted an official letter from the Mari Ushem organization addressed to Russia's Higher Education Ministry and Mari El education officials, asking them to intervene in the situation and make the university reconsider the decision to expel him.

"We are confident that Viktor Novogorsky was expelled over his social activities and statements he placed on his social network accounts. Neither his articles, nor his statements contain anything that would contradict Russian laws and norms laid out in the Criminal or Administrative codes," the letter says, and demands the immediate cancellation of the university's decision to expel Novogorsky.

In November 2022, Novogorsky and another Mari activist, Kyrlya Lyzhin, held an action to commemorate Chavain by laying flowers under his bust in Yoshkar-Ola, visiting the memorial of victims of political repressions, and standing next to Chavain's monument for one hour.

In recent years, Mari Ushem activist have complained that the authorities were trying to restrict the practice of the Mari people's ancient religion, and attempts to preserve their culture and Finnish-Uralic language.

Tensions over languages in Russian regions with large populations of indigenous ethnic groups have increased since 2017, when President Vladimir Putin said children in those regions must not be forced to learn languages that are not their mother tongues, and ordered prosecutors to determine whether that was taking place.

That led officials to abolish mandatory indigenous-language classes in the regions.

The move caused an outcry in ethnic republics and regions where local languages have official status alongside Russian.

Around 52 percent of the 700,000 residents of the Mari El region in the Volga Federal Territory are ethnic Mari. Their traditional religion is based on worshipping forces of nature.

U.K. Inquiry Vows To Get To Bottom Of Afghan Extrajudicial Killings Allegations

The chair of a public inquiry examining "extremely serious" allegations that British armed forces carried out dozens of extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan said on March 22 that any soldiers who had broken the law should face investigation. The independent inquiry was ordered by Britain's Defense Ministry in December 2022 after a BBC TV documentary reported that soldiers from the elite Special Air Service (SAS) had killed 54 people in suspicious circumstances. It also came after two families, who accuse the SAS of killing their relatives in 2011 and 2012, began legal action to demand judicial reviews of their cases. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Kazakh Journalist Jailed After Expressing Plans To Hold Rally Against Election Results

Duman Mukhammedkarim speaks to a reporter in Almaty in October 2022.

Kazakh journalist Duman Mukhammedkarim was handed a 25-day jail term on March 21 after he announced his plan to hold a rally to protest the official results of parliamentary and local elections held over the weekend. Mukhammedkarim's lawyer, Ghalym Nurpeiisov, said his client was jailed on a charge of violating the laws on mass gatherings. The ruling Amanat party won a majority in the general elections on March 19. International observers said the polls showed some progress over previous votes, while several opposition politicians claimed that the balloting was unfair. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Citizen Journalist Jailed In Russian-Occupied Crimea Starts Hunger Strike

Iryna Danylovych chaired the Crimean branch of the Russian Alliance of Doctors union. (file photo)

A citizen journalist and nurse, Iryna Danylovych, who was sentenced last year to seven years in prison by the Russian-installed authorities in Ukraine's Crimea, launched a hunger strike on March 22 to back her demands for medical assistance. Danylovych insists that she suffered a minor stroke while in custody and her requests for medical attention have been ignored by the detention center's warden and guards. Danylovych was sentenced on a charge of illegally fabricating an explosive device, which she denies. She has reported on issues faced by medical personnel in Russian-occupied Crimea. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.

Man In Germany Fined For T-Shirt Supporting Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

A gift shop in central Moscow sells T-shirts including ones bearing the letter "Z," a tactical insignia of Russian troops in Ukraine.

A German court has fined a man for wearing a T-shirt with the letter "Z" -- a sign of support for Russia's war against Ukraine -- stenciled on it. The 49-year-old naturalized German citizen, who moved from Russia to Germany in 1992, was ordered to pay 1,500 euros ($1,612). The man pleaded guilty and apologized for wearing the T-shirt in question. Russian military vehicles in Ukraine are marked with "Z" and "V" letters, and the symbols have been promoted by Russian state media and other Kremlin supporters as patriotic emblems expressing support for the invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Academics Commemorate Jailed Tatar Scientist Miftakhov On 30th Birthday

Azat Miftakhov attends a court hearing in Moscow in January 2021.

A group of mathematicians from universities in the United States, Europe, Japan, and Russia has commemorated the 30th birthday of jailed Tatar scientist Azat Miftakhov, his fifth while incarcerated on charges he rejects, with a raft of messages and renewed calls for his freedom.

The group on March 21 posted dozens of photos and messages on a website set up to bring attention to Miftakhov's case, which has widely been rejected as politically motivated.

Moscow's Golovinsky district court sentenced Miftakhov, who was then a postgraduate mathematics student at Moscow State University, to six years in prison in January 2021 after finding him guilty of involvement in an arson attack on the ruling United Russia party's office in Moscow in 2018.

Miftakhov has vehemently denied the charges while his lawyers say he is being persecuted for his anarchist beliefs and support for political prisoners.

The group of academics wishing Miftakhov well includes professors, teachers, and postgraduate and graduate students from Harvard University, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the French Academy of Science at Sorbonne University, the Max-Planck-Institut in Germany, the University of Tokyo, and Moscow State University.

RFE/RL correspondents reported that leaflets congratulating Miftakhov on his birthday and reminding people about his case were distributed in several Russian cities including Saratov, Perm, Rostov-on-Don, Yekaterinburg, and Novosibirsk.

Miftakhov was arrested in early 2019 and accused of helping make an improvised bomb found in the city of Balashikha near Moscow.

He was released several days after the initial charge failed to hold, but was rearrested immediately and charged with being involved in the attack on an office of the United Russia political party in January 2018.

The Public Monitoring Commission, a human rights group, has said that Miftakhov's body bore the signs of torture, which the mathematician claimed were the result of investigators unsuccessfully attempting to force him to confess to the bomb-making charge.

A prominent Russian human rights organization, Memorial, recognized Miftakhov a political prisoner at the time, while 2,500 mathematicians from fifteen countries then signed a letter urging the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) to assist in Miftakhov's release.

Former Local Russian Chief Investigator Jailed For 20 Years In Murder Plot

Mikhail Muzrayev in 2014

A Russian court on March 22 sentenced the former chief of the Investigative Committee directorate in Volgograd, Mikhail Muzrayev, to 20 years in prison on a charge of organizing the attempted assassination of the regional governor, Andrei Bocharov, in 2016. The court also deprived the 64-year-old Muzrayev, who pleaded not guilty, of the rank of lieutenant general and state honors he was awarded. Muzrayev led the Investigative Committee directorate in Volgograd from 2007 to 2018. In 2019 he was appointed an adviser to Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin. Bocharov survived an arson attack in November 2016. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Xi Ends Moscow Visit Touted As Opening 'New Era' Of Russian-Chinese Cooperation

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a reception in Moscow on March 21.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has left Russia, wrapping up a three-day visit during which he and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a series of documents on "strategic cooperation" between Beijing and Moscow.

Xi's visit was his first to Russia in four years and came amid Moscow's deepening international isolation over its invasion of Ukraine.

Putin described as "successful and constructive" talks at the Kremlin, while Xi said one of the agreements signed by the two authoritarian leaders brings ties into a "new era" of cooperation.

"We signed a statement on deepening the strategic partnership and bilateral ties which are entering a new era," Xi said following talks with Putin on March 21 intended to cement the "no limits" partnership the two leaders announced just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

On the war in Ukraine, Xi said Beijing backed a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.

"We are guided by the principles of the United Nations...and promote a peaceful settlement" of fighting in Ukraine, Xi said. "We are always for peace and dialogue," he added, reiterating China's "neutral position" on Ukraine.

Western countries have dismissed a Chinese peace proposal -- a 12-point paper calling for a de-escalation and eventual cease-fire in Ukraine -- because it echoes Russian talking points.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby dismissed Xi's mediation efforts, saying China does not have an impartial position on the war.

Kirby also told reporters at the White House that nothing that came out of the Xi-Putin meeting indicated the war would end soon.

Kirby said it was clear to see during the meeting that Putin hopes to obtain lethal weapons from China.

"You can see in what Mr. Putin is doing...that he's having resource difficulties" and is trying to overcome them, Kirby said.

Kirby added that one reason the United States opposes a cease-fire at this time is because it would give Putin time to make up for the resource shortfall.

There is no evidence China has agreed to provide lethal weapons to Russia, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier on March 21 in Brussels. Western countries have warned China that it risks punishing economic sanctions if it sends lethal weapons to Russia.

During the visit, Xi paid tribute to the "constructive talks" he held with Putin, referring to an expansion of trade and economic cooperation with Russia, including the export of more Chinese electronic goods.

Putin said that additional gas deliveries to China had been agreed, and that the two countries planned to expand their transport links by building roads and bridges.

A joint statement said the burgeoning partnership between the two countries had reached its highest level ever, but the statement said it was not directed against any other country and did not constitute a "military-political alliance."

Relations between Russia and China "do not constitute a bloc, do not have a confrontational nature and are not directed against third countries," the joint statement said.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Zelenskiy Visits Front Line In East As Moscow Launches Another Wave Of Strikes

Rescuers work at the scene after an apartment building was damaged by a Russian missile strike in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, on March 22.

Ukraine has been targeted by another wave of Russian air strikes that killed several people, prompting President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to accuse Moscow of "bestial cruelty" against civilians as heavy fighting continued in the eastern Donetsk region for control of the city of Bakhmut.

Two Russian missiles hit a high-rise building in Zaporizhzhya, the capital of the southern region by the same name, around noon, the regional military administration said, adding that the strike had "no military purpose."

At least 18 people, including two children, were wounded in the strike, it said, adding that the toll was not yet final.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Zelenskiy posted a video on Telegram purporting to show the moment of the strike on the apartment building in Zaporizhzhya captured by a CCTV camera.

"Russia is shelling the city with bestial savagery. Residential areas where ordinary people and children live are being fired at. The terrorist state seeks to destroy our cities, our state, our people," Zelenskiy wrote in the message accompanying the video depicting a powerful blast hitting a high-rise building.

Earlier on March 22, an air-raid alert that lasted for several hours was declared around midnight in Kyiv and a number of regions.

The Kyiv city military administration said three people were killed and seven were wounded in an overnight attack that partially destroyed a high school and two dormitories in the region.

Ukraine's military General Staff said in its daily report that Russia launched another massive air strike with Iranian-made drones.

"According to preliminary information, 16 out of 21 drones launched by the enemy were destroyed by our defenders," it said, adding that the threat of air strikes remained high across the country.

In the northern Zhytomyr region, a drone attack damaged an infrastructure facility, the head of the regional military administration Vitaliy Bunechko said on Telegram.

"Three enemy drones were shot down by air-defense units," Bunechko said, adding that there were no casualties.

An explosion was reported in the western Ukrainian city of Khmelnytskiy during the alert.

Zelenskiy on March 22 visited Bakhmut, the city that has been the epicenter of months of intense fighting that has caused heavy losses to both sides.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy talks to Ukrainian soldiers near Bakhmut on March 22.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy talks to Ukrainian soldiers near Bakhmut on March 22.

Zelenskiy presented decorations to the defenders of Bakhmut, and was briefed on the operational situation on the front line, his press service said.

"I have the honor to be here today, in the east of our country, in the Donbas, and to reward our heroes, thank them, and shake their hands. Thank you for protecting the state, its sovereignty, and the east of Ukraine," Zelenskiy was quoted as saying.

Earlier, the General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces had repelled 114 attacks over the past 24 hours on the eastern front.

In Sevastopol, in the Russian-occupied Crimea, the Moscow-installed authorities announced the suspension of ferry transportation in the area of the Black Sea port where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is headquartered.

Earlier, Sevastopol Governor Mikhail Razvozhayev said the city air defenses had repelled an attack by Ukrainian drones.

The information could not be independently verified and Ukraine has not commented on the alleged incident.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

IMF Staff Reaches Agreement With Ukraine For $15.6 Billion Program

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on March 21 it reached a staff-level agreement with Ukraine for a four-year financing package worth about $15.6 billion, offering the country needed funds as it continues its battle against Russia's invasion. The agreement, which must still be ratified by the IMF's board, follows months of negotiations between IMF staff and Ukrainian authorities. The board is expected to discuss approval in the coming weeks. The IMF said the agreement is expected to help unleash large-scale financing for Ukraine from international donors and partners. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

EU Envoy Says Agreement Reached By Leaders Of Kosovo, Serbia Is Turning Point On Road To Normalization

EU envoys Josep Borrell (left) and Miroslav Lajcak arrive for meetings as part of the talks in Ohrid on March 18.

Miroslav Lajcak, the European Union's special representative for the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, believes that an agreement reached over the weekend between Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti represents a turning point in the process of normalization of relations.

Both sides now must implement all articles of the agreement on the road to normalization of relations, Lajcak said on March 21 in a joint interview with RFE/RL and Euronews Serbia.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced on March 18 that the two sides had reached agreement on ways to implement the EU-backed deal.

Borrell made the announcement after talks with Vucic and Kurti in Ohrid, North Macedonia, noting that the implementing commitments from both sides are preconditions for their integration into the EU.

The agreement envisages that Belgrade will not recognize Kosovo under international law but will take note of its statehood and recognize Kosovo's passports and custom documents.

Kosovo is a former Serbian province with an ethnic Albanian majority. Even though Kosovo declared independence in 2008, Serbia still claims it as its territory.

One of the sticking points has been the formation of the Community of Municipalities with a Serbian majority in Kosovo.

Kosovo has an obligation to immediately start implementing the agreement related to the community, Lajcak said, while Article 4 of the agreement states that Serbia will not oppose Kosovo's membership in any international organization.

Lajcak called the agreement "an important milestone," but admitted in the interview that the EU had a more ambitious plan that included the signing of an agreement and a draft annex with clear timeframes and tasks.

"It is no secret here that we, as mediators, initially prepared a more detailed implementation annex with a sequence of steps and clear deadlines," Lajcak said.

But it was not possible for the leaders to agree on every point, and Vucic refused to sign the document, citing constitutional restrictions, he said.

"After several hours of negotiations, the parties managed to agree on 12 of the 18 points, but it was impossible to bridge the differences on the remaining six," he said. "We tried in many, many ways to bridge these differences, but it was clear that we were not going to succeed. And that's why we presented a new annex that was more general."

In the end, they agreed that the document would be formalized through Borrell's statement. This means that it is binding, official, and formal, "and all speculations about whether or not it is valid and binding are meaningless," Lajcak said.

Lajcak said there will soon be a meeting of the chief negotiators of Serbia and Kosovo in order to start work on the implementation of provisions of the agreement.

Lajcak also explained that the Joint Oversight Committee is the platform where matters related to implementation will be monitored and evaluated, and it will be established as agreed within 30 days. It's too early to discuss the composition of the committee, he said, but representatives of Kosovo, Serbia, and the EU will be part of it.

Mediators will report to EU member states once a month on progress and will continue to cooperate very closely with the United States, he said.

Lajcak expressed optimism about the future, saying the negotiations had been focused on a positive agenda for the last several months.

"I really believe that with this agreement, with the new platform and the things that need to be done in coordination with partners, we have to move forward, not backward," he said.

But he also stressed that neither side should take any unilateral action that could destabilize the atmosphere and the normalization process.


Earthquake Kills At Least 13 In Pakistan, Afghanistan

Rescue workers attend to an earthquake victim at a hospital in Swat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province on March 22.

A 6.5-magnitude earthquake with an epicenter in the northeastern Afghan region of Hindukush has killed at least 13 people and injured dozens in Pakistan and Afghanistan, authorities and local officials say.

Taimur Ali Mashal, spokesman for the Natural Disaster Management Agency (PDMA) in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that nine people had died and at least 47 injured in the province bordering Afghanistan.

Rescuer Bilal Faizi told RFE/RL that the temblor caused material damage in 10 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkwa.

The quake was felt in several large Pakistani cities, including the capital, Islamabad, as well as Peshawar, Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Quetta.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said he ordered disaster-management agencies to remain on alert.

In Kabul, Sharafat Zaman, a spokesman for the Taliban-led Ministry of Public Health, said the quake struck several Afghan provinces, killing four people, including one child, and injuring 70.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that the Ministry of Public Health had ordered all health facilities to be on high alert.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the epicenter was located 40 kilometers south-southeast of Jurm in Afghanistan's mountainous Hindukush region, close to the border with Pakistan and Tajikistan.

The temblor was felt as far as New Delhi in India as well as Tajikistan, local media reported.

The mountainous Hindukush region, where the Arabian, Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, is prone to violent earthquakes. In 2005, a 7.6-magnitude tremor killed thousands of people in Pakistan and Kashmir.

In June 2022, more than 1,000 people were killed by 5.9-magnitude earthquake in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

With reporting by AP and dpa

'I Have Never Felt That Much Hate,' Says Belarusian Tennis Player Sabalenka

Belarusian tennis player Aryna Sabalenka (file photo)

World No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus says she has faced "hate" in the women's tennis tour locker room but hopes tensions with Ukrainian players will ease. Sabalenka lost to Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan in the final at Indian Wells, California, on March 19. Asked on March 21 about her recent comments on "tensions" between Ukrainian players and those from Russia and Belarus, she said, "It was really, really tough for me because I've never faced that much hate in the locker room."

U.S. Announces Sanctions Aimed At Iranian Network Used To Purchase Drone Parts

The U.S. Treasury Department announced the new sanctions on March 21. (file photo)

The United States has imposed new sanctions on Iranian firms and individuals accused of procuring equipment used to make drones.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) coordinated with the FBI to designate four entities and three people in Iran and Turkey for allegedly buying equipment to be used for Iran’s drone and weapons programs.

“Iran’s well-documented proliferation of [drones] and conventional weapons to its proxies continues to undermine both regional security and global stability,” Brian Nelson, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a news release issued on March 21.

“The United States will continue to expose foreign procurement networks in any jurisdiction that supports Iran’s military industrial complex," he said.

Among those blacklisted in the new round of sanctions are the Iran-based Defense Technology and Science Research Center (DTSRC), its procurement firm Farazan Industrial Engineering, and two other firms along with the companies’ purchasing agents.

The Treasury Department said this procurement network operates on behalf of Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), which oversees several firms involved in drone and ballistic missile development.

U.S. defense officials say Iran is supplying Russia with drones, which have been used on civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine as the Kremlin presses its invasion.

The action follows OFAC’s designations on March 9 of a network based in China in connection with Iran’s drone procurement efforts, as well as several previous OFAC actions targeting Iran’s UAV manufacturers and their executives since September 2022.

The individuals named are Amanallah Paidar, who has served as a commercial manager and procurement agent for the DTSRC; Murat Bukey, a procurement agent who has supported Paidar and his DTSRC-related procurement; and Asghar Mahmoudi, who has facilitated the supply of items, including marine electronics, to Paidar and the DTSRC, according to the OFAC.

Bukey attempted to provide European-origin engines with drone and surface-to-air missile applications to Paidar and Farazan Industrial Engineering, OFAC said, adding that he separately sold more than 100 European-origin drone engines and related accessories worth more than $1 million to companies that likely shipped the items to Iran.

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

With reporting by AP

Protests In Western Iran Met With Force Despite New Year Holiday

People attend a protest on the Persian New Year holiday in western Iran on March 20.

Fresh anti-government protests in several Kurdish cities in western Iran, held as the country celebrates the Persian New Year holiday, have been met with violence from security forces.

Reports published on social media show that in the western cities of Iran, including Mahabad, Oshnavieh, Bukan, Piranshahr, Saqez, Sanandaj, and Dehgolan, people took to the streets on March 20 with several of the gatherings encountering attacks by government forces.

According to local sources, including the website of the Hengaw human rights group, people in the western Iranian city of Saqez gathered at the grave of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in police custody last September -- an event that sparked months of protests across the country.

Those who gathered to protest chanted anti-government slogans, as well as "The martyr will never die."

Meanwhile, protesters in Tehran's Ekbatan neighborhood and elsewhere in the capital chanted "Death to the dictator," a reference to the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, from windows and rooftops as the Persian New Year began.

Amini's death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests that authorities have met with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.

Officials, who have blamed -- without providing evidence -- the West for the demonstrations, have vowed to crack down even harder on protesters, with the judiciary leading the way after the unrest entered a fourth month.

The protests pose the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

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

Court In Italy Approves Decision To Extradite Son Of Russian Region's Governor To U.S.

Artyom Uss (file photo)

A court of appeals in the Italian city of Milan has approved a motion to extradite Artyom Uss, the son of the governor of Russia's Krasnoyarsk region, to the United States, where he may face up to 30 years in prison on charges of sanctions evasion and money laundering.

The La Repubblica newspaper reported on March 21 that the 41-year-old Uss had been placed under house arrest near Milan.

Uss was arrested in October at the request of the United States. Shortly after he was detained at Milan's Malpensa airport, a court in Moscow issued an arrest warrant for Uss, accusing him of money laundering. The move appeared aimed at heading off his extradition to the United States.

Uss asked to be handed over to the Russian authorities in January.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said in October that another suspect in the case against Uss, Yury Orekhov, was arrested in Germany.

A 12-count indictment was unsealed on October 19 in a federal court in Brooklyn, New York, charging the two men along with three other Russian nationals -- Svetlana Kuzurgasheva, Timofei Telegin, and Sergei Tulyakov.

In addition, two Venezuelan nationals -- Juan Fernando Serrano Ponce and Juan Carlos Soto -- were charged with brokering illicit oil deals for a Venezuelan energy company.

According to the statement, Uss and Orekhov owned Nord-Deutsche Industrieanlagenbau GmbH (NDA GmbH), which bought U.S. military technologies and dual-use technologies, including semiconductors and microchips that are used in military jets, missile systems, modern ammunition, radars, and satellites. Kuzurgasheva served as the company's executive director.

The items bought in the United States by the company in question were then passed on to Russian companies -- Radioavtomatika, Radioexport, and Abtronix -- owned by Telegin and Tulyakov.

The U.S. Attorney General's Office said the items were discovered in Russian military vehicles and in equipment captured by Ukrainian forces during Russia's ongoing full-scale aggression against Ukraine.

According to the indictment papers, Uss and Orekhov also used NDA GmbH to illegally smuggle hundreds of millions of tons of oil from Venezuela to companies in China and Russia, including one that might be linked to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who is under U.S. and European Union sanctions over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Aleksandr Uss, Artyom's father, has served as the governor of Krasnoyarsk since 2018.

Ukrainian Refugees To Attend Euro 2024 Qualifier At Wembley

More than 5,000 Ukraine supporters are expected to be at the game in London on March 26. (file photo)

The Football Association has invited more than 1,000 Ukrainian refugees and their host families to attend England's Euro 2024 qualifier against Ukraine at Wembley on March 26. There are around 117,000 Ukrainian refugees in the United Kingdom, many of them housed with people who volunteered to open up their homes to those fleeing the conflict. There are expected to be 4,200 Ukraine supporters among the sell-out crowd, in addition to those invited from the scheme.


Jailed Belarusian RFE/RL Journalist Losik May Be In Solitary Confinement

Belarusian journalist Ihar Losik (file photo)

Jailed RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik may still be in solitary confinement, sources told RFE/RL's Belarus Service, following a rights-group report that he had been taken to hospital after cutting himself with a sharp instrument to protest against orders given to him by prison guards.

The Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) human rights center quoted sources on March 20 as saying Losik had been taken to a prison medical facility after being found with "cuts to his hands and neck" while on a hunger strike in punitive solitary confinement.

Prison officials have not commented on the situation, and Losik's family and lawyer have said they are trying to get information on his status as they have not been able to communicate with him for weeks.

RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly reiterated his call for Losik's release.

“I am deeply disturbed by reports of Ihar’s medical condition and brutal treatment in detention. I am heartbroken for his parents, who cannot even visit their son,” Fly said in a statement. “Ihar has already endured 1,000 days away from his young daughter, and should be released immediately.”

Sources close to penitentiary services told RFE/RL on March 21 that Losik cut his hand and neck to protest an order to clean his barracks. According to the sources, the incident took place on March 15 and since the wounds were not serious, Losik may still be in solitary confinement at correctional camp No. 1 in the city of Navapolatsk in the country's northeast.

RFE/RL journalist Aleh Hruzdzilovich, who has served time in Belarusian correctional facilities, told RFE/RL that, in general, inmates clean their premises and the places they live themselves.

But in situations when guards order a cleaning of the premises, especially restrooms, inmates sometimes choose to disobey such orders, or even inflict bodily harm on themselves, to protest against carrying out the task.

"To follow such an order automatically places an inmate among prisoners who have a so-called 'lower status'," Hruzdzilovich said.

Losik was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2021 on a number of indictments, including "organizing mass riots, incitement to social hatred," and several other charges that remain unclear.

He has maintained his innocence and says all the charges against him are politically motivated.

In January, Losik's wife, Darya Losik, was sentenced to two years in prison on a charge of facilitating extremist activity. The charge stemmed from her interview with the Poland-based Belsat television channel that has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk.

On March 21, the Belarusian Supreme Court rejected her appeal against the sentence.

The couple's 4-year-old daughter, Paulina, is currently in the custody of Darya Losik's parents.

The United States has called for the immediate and unconditional release of Ihar and Darya Losik.

Seven Out Of 30 Allies Met NATO Military Spending Target In 2022, Says Stoltenberg

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (file photo)

Seven out of 30 allies met NATO's military spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2022, one country less than in 2021 before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the alliance's chief, Jens Stoltenberg, said on March 21, urging allies to boost defense investment more quickly. Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels that the alliance originally had expected two more countries to meet the goal. "But because GDP has increased more than expected for a couple of allies, two allies that we expected to be at 2 percent are now slightly below 2 percent," he said.

U.S. Speeds Up Abrams Tank Delivery To Ukraine War Zone

U.S. officials said the decision was made to send the older M1A1 version of the Abrams tank to Ukraine as they will be easier for Ukrainian forces to learn to use and maintain. (file photo)

The Pentagon is speeding up its delivery of Abrams tanks to Ukraine, opting to send a refurbished older model that can be ready faster, with the aim of getting the 70-ton battle powerhouses to the war zone in eight to 10 months, U.S. officials told the Associated Press. The original plan was to send Ukraine 31 of the newer M1A2 Abrams, which could have taken a year or two to build and ship. But officials said the decision was made to send the older M1A1 version, which can be taken from U.S. Army stocks and will be easier for Ukrainian forces to learn to use and maintain as they fight Russia's invasion. The officials spoke on March 21 on the condition of anonymity because the plan has not yet been publicly announced. To read the original report by AP, click here.

Moscow Resident Gets Jail Time For Ukrainian Symbol On His Phone

The Azov Regiment, once a far-right group and now one of the most prominent Ukrainian military formations fighting against Russia in eastern Ukraine, was labeled as a "terrorist" organization in Russia in August 2022. (file photo)

A Moscow court said on March 21 it has sentenced local resident Yury Samoilov to 14 days in jail for having an image of the shoulder sleeve insignia of Ukraine's Azov Regiment as a screensaver on his smartphone. Samoilov was found guilty of distributing extremist materials. The Azov Regiment, once a far-right group and now one of the most prominent Ukrainian military formations fighting against Russia in eastern Ukraine, was labeled as a "terrorist" organization in Russia in August 2022. Samoilov was charged after a fellow passenger on a subway train reported him to police. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Rights Groups Call On Belarus To Halt Extradition Of Tajik Opposition Activist

Nizomiddin Nasriddinov was detained at Dushanbe's request while entering Belarus from Lithuania in January. Nasriddinov is wanted in Tajikistan on the charge of calling for extremist actions which the right groups call ungrounded.

Human Rights Watch and several other groups have urged Belarus on March 21 not to extradite Tajik opposition activist Nizomiddin Nasriddinov, saying he "would be at serious risk of arbitrary detention and torture on the basis of his political beliefs." Nasriddinov was detained at Dushanbe's request while entering Belarus from Lithuania in January. Nasriddinov is wanted in Tajikistan on the charge of calling for extremist actions which the right groups call ungrounded. Nasriddinov has refugee status in Germany. Dozens of opposition figures, journalists, and rights activists have been handed lengthy prison terms in Tajikistan in recent years. To read a joint statement from the rights groups, click here.

Belarusian Supreme Court Rejects Darya Losik's Appeal Against Her Two-Year Prison Term

A court sentenced Darya Losik after finding her guilty of facilitating extremist activity. The charge stemmed from her interview with the Poland-based Belsat television channel, which has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk. (file photo)

The Supreme Court of Belarus has rejected an appeal filed by Darya Losik, the wife of jailed RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik, against a two-year prison term she was handed in January for giving an interview to an independent media outlet.

The court took little time in handing down its ruling announcing it shortly after the start of the hearing on March 21. No details of the ruling were immediately available.

A court in the western city of Brest sentenced Losik after finding her guilty of facilitating extremist activity. The charge stemmed from her interview with the Poland-based Belsat television channel, which has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk.

Losik's husband was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2021 on several charges, including organizing mass riots, incitement to social hatred, and several other charges that remain unclear.

He has maintained his innocence and calls all charges against him politically motivated.

On March 20, the Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) rights group said Ihar Losik had been taken to a prison medical facility after being found with "cuts to his hands and neck," while being kept in a punitive solitary confinement.

Vyasna described the incident as an "attempted suicide," though it was not clear how Losik was injured, to what extent, or when the incident occurred.

The Supreme Court of Belarus on March 21 also rejected an appeal filed by military expert Yahor Lyabyadok against a five-year prison term he was handed in late December for giving an interview to an unspecified independent media outlet.

The cases highlight the harsh crackdown by the regime of authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka against any dissent since an August 2020 presidential election, which he claims he won, while opposition politicians and activists say the vote was rigged.

The 68-year-old, who has been in power since 1994, has directed a campaign to arrest tens of thousands of people.

He has refused to negotiate with the opposition, and many of its leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country.

The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and the crackdown.

Russian Foreign Ministry Summons Canadian Diplomat Over FM Melanie Joly's Comments

Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly, shown meeting with Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on February 14, said Canada's goal is "definitely" to "weaken Russia's ability to launch very difficult attacks against Ukraine."

Russia's Foreign Ministry on March 21 summoned Minister Counsellor Brian Ebel of the Canadian Embassy in Moscow over Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly's recent statements regarding her country's efforts against Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The ministry called Joly's opinions "another Russophobic move...that will have the most serious repercussions for the bilateral relations." On March 10, Joly said Canada's goal is "definitely" to "weaken Russia's ability to launch very difficult attacks against Ukraine," calling to ensure that President Vladimir Putin and his associates are "held to account" for the full-scale aggression against Ukraine.

UNICEF Warns That Millions In Pakistan Still Lack Safe Water Following Floods

A man swims in floodwaters while heading for higher ground during the monsoon season in Charsadda, Pakistan, on August 27, 2022.

The United Nations children's agency UNICEF says that six months after catastrophic floods struck Pakistan, more than 10 million people, including children, living in flood-affected areas still have no access to safe drinking water.

UNICEF said in a statement on March 21 that the lack of clean water is forcing many families with no alternative but to drink and use "potentially disease-ridden water."

The prolonged lack of access to safe drinking water and sewage systems, along with the continued proximity of vulnerable families to bodies of stagnant water, are contributing to the widespread outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dengue, and malaria, UNICEF said, adding that unsafe water and poor sanitation are key underlying causes of malnutrition.

"Safe drinking water is not a privilege, it is a basic human right," said UNICEF's representative in Pakistan, Abdullah Fadil.

“Yet, every day, millions of girls and boys in Pakistan are fighting a losing battle against preventable waterborne diseases and the consequential malnutrition."

Last summer unprecedented monsoon rains and the flooding they sparked caused more than 1,500 deaths across Pakistan, including more than 550 children.

Many roads and bridges were washed away or are badly damaged by the disaster, leaving thousands of families with little access to food, safe water, and medicines.

In January donors pledged more than $9 billion to help Pakistan recover and rebuild following the devastating floods, which environmentalists and scientists blamed on climate change.

But the funds have been slow to come, with UNICEF saying in its statement that its current appeal of $173.5 million to provide life-saving support to women and children affected by the floods remains less than 50 percent funded.

"It is imperative that the voices and the needs of children in Pakistan are prioritized at all costs and that children are placed at the heart of all post-flood recovery and resilience plans," said Fadil.

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