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Russia Demands Changed Mandate For OSCE In Georgia

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: "The mandate cannot function."
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe can only patrol in Georgia next year if their mandate is changed to take account of Moscow's concerns, Russia's foreign minister has said.

The OSCE said it would start shutting down its mission in Georgia on January 1 after Russia refused to extend the existing mandate because of a dispute over the status of South Ossetia, a Moscow-backed separatist region of Georgia.

"The mandate cannot function, either in the practical or the legal sense," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

He told a news conference that Russia had submitted a draft for a new mandate to the OSCE, Europe's main democracy and human rights watchdog, and it was now up to the organization's other members to approve it.

"It is not down to us," he said.

Western states say OSCE monitors patrolling Georgia's conflict zone with South Ossetia can provide early warning of a new flare-up in hostilities, and investigate allegations of rights abuses against ethnic Georgians.

Their mandate expires on December 31. Russia's proposals for a new mandate have stalled because Moscow says it must acknowledge that South Ossetia is an independent state -- a status that only Russia and Nicaragua have recognized.

Compelled To Act

Russia launched a counterattack on land, sea, and air after Tbilisi's forces tried in August to retake South Ossetia, a strip of land in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains that threw off Georgian rule in the early 1990s.

Moscow said it was compelled to act to protect civilians in South Ossetia from Georgian aggression. Western states said the Russian response, which included sending troops to within a few kilometers of Tbilisi, was disproportionate.

A small force of unarmed military observers from the OSCE and a larger European Union observer contingent were deployed to Georgia to monitor observance of a cease-fire agreement.

Neither group has been allowed into South Ossetia -- a lack of access which Western diplomats say leaves the outside world in the dark about what is happening inside the region.

Georgia forces are in an armed standoff on the de facto border with South Ossetia, and analysts say a new flare-up of fighting is a real possibility.

Human rights groups say South Ossetian militias, with the complicity of Russian forces, have been systematically destroying ethnic Georgian villages and harassing the few ethnic Georgians who remain. Moscow and the separatist authorities deny playing any part in abuses.

Lavrov was speaking after talks with Sergei Shamba, separatist foreign minister of a second Georgian breakaway region, Abkhazia, which Moscow has recognized as an independent state.

Lavrov said Russia had agreed to represent Abkhazia's interests in foreign countries and in international organizations.

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Uzbekistan Says Missiles Fired From Afghanistan Damaged Houses

UZBEKISTAN -- Uzbek soldiers guard a checkpoint, two kilometres from "Friendship Bridge" over the Amu Darya River, which separates Uzbekistan and Afghanistan near Termez. (file photo)

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry has said that five missiles fired on July 5 from Afghanistan at a city in southeastern Uzbekistan caused no injuries but slightly damaged four homes.

The missiles landed in Termez, a city on the Amu Darya River in the Surxandaryo region.

The ministry said that Uzbek authorities were attempting to clarify the cause of the incident with the Afghan side.

There has been no official comment on reports that Uzbek fighter planes took off after the incident. Nor has there been official comment on a video purporting to show one of the damaged houses.

The shelling was unrelated to unrest in the Central Asian country that left 18 people dead in the restive autonomous region of Karakalpakstan. The Prosecutor-General's Office said on July 4 that the people were killed during unrest over the weekend.

Protests broke out last week after changes initiated by President Shavkat Mirziyoev were proposed to the constitution, including the removal of language that guaranteed the right of Karakalpakstan to seek independence should citizens choose to do so in a referendum.

Mirziyoev has since backed off the plans and said the language would not be removed from the constitution.

North Macedonia Has 'Historic Opportunity,' EU's Michel Says Amid Protests

European Council President Charles Michel (left) shakes hands with Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski at a joint press conference in Skopje on July 5.

SKOPJE -- European Council President Charles Michel has urged North Macedonia to back a French-proposed compromise on ending a dispute with neighboring Bulgaria that has blocked the country's bid to join the European Union.

Michel told a news conference in Skopje on July 5 that long-delayed talks to admit North Macedonia into the EU could begin immediately if it accepted the proposal.

"Together we are on the verge of a possible breakthrough in your country's EU accession process," Michel said, speaking alongside Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski.

Michel said the country had a "historic opportunity" to agree to the beginning of negotiations and again become a "champion of enlargement."

Kovachevski reiterated his support for the "balanced proposal," adding that "our aim is to start membership talks."

French President Emmanuel Macron announced the proposal last week, saying he believed a compromise agreement was near.

But the center-right VMRO-DPMNE opposition party and other right-wing opponents reject the French plan, saying it concedes too much to Bulgaria in the dispute over history, language, identity, and culture.

VMRO-DPMNE has attacked the French proposal as a "legalization of the assimilation of the Macedonian people," accusing Kovachevski's government of accepting "humiliations and distortions of identity."

North Macedonia's president, Stevo Pendarovski, and the government have backed the proposed deal, which calls for the country to acknowledge in its constitution the existence of an ethnic Bulgarian minority. It would also provide for regular reviews on how the bilateral dispute is being addressed.

Violent protests against the proposal erupted over the weekend in Skopje, and a new protest against the proposal was planned for later on July 5.

Compromise To Unblock North Macedonia's EU Bid Sparks Protests
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Thousands of people protested against the proposal for a third night in Skopje on July 4. Some of the protesters threw paper towels, plastic bottles, water balloons, and eggs at government buildings in the capital.

Police prevented the crowd from forcing their way into government offices.

Bulgaria, which has already formally accepted the French proposal, insists that North Macedonia formally recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots, acknowledge a Bulgarian minority, and quash "hate speech" against Bulgaria.

North Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership for 17 years. Bulgaria has been able to block the start of accession talks because unanimity is required under EU rules.

Before Bulgaria raised its objections, North Macedonia settled a decades-old dispute with Greece, another EU member, by adding the word "north" to its name. Greece had complained that the name Macedonia implied claims on its own territory, history, and cultural heritage.

The dispute with Bulgaria has also stalled the progress of Albania toward EU membership because the bloc has tied its accession talks to those of North Macedonia.

With reporting by AP and dpa

International Ice Hockey Upholds Ban On Russia, Belarus Amid Calls For Sports Suspension

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and IIHF President Rene Fasel attend the opening ceremony of the Night Hockey League in Sochi in May 2021.

The disciplinary board of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has dismissed the appeals of Russia and Belarus against the IIHF's decision to ban them from competition over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

The board's decision on July 5 came the same day that 35 allies of Ukraine called for the sports governing bodies of Russia and Belarus to be suspended from international sport federations.

The IIHF board said in a statement on July 5 that it agreed that the decision of the IIHF Council on February 28 "was not a sanction but was a safety policy."

The board also said the policy was not discriminatory and was proportionate.

The IIHF's decision to suspend all Russian and Belarusian national teams and clubs from participation in international competitions was announced four days after Russian troops went into Ukraine.

The IIHF said at the time that the policy was to ensure the safety of players, fans, and other tournament participants.

"The independent board supported our view that it would have been an unacceptable safety risk to either host the [world junior championship] and [world championship] in Russia or to have the Russian and Belarusian teams currently participating in IIHF competitions," IIHF President Luc Tardif said.

Russia and Belarus could still take the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Neither Russia nor Belarus played at the men's world championship in May, which host nation Finland won.

Russia was also stripped of the right to host next year's men's world championship, which was to be played in St. Petersburg.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement that it and several other allies of Ukraine, including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, called for the suspension of Russian and Belarusian sports governing bodies.

The statement said sports organizations should also consider suspending the broadcast of competitions into Russia and Belarus.

The joint statement reaffirmed a statement issued on March 8 saying Russia and Belarus should be barred from hosting international sporting events and its athletes subjected to other restrictions.

The July 5 statement said that in cases where sports organizations permit athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete, it should be made clear that they are not representing the Russian or Belarusian states. The use of Russian and Belarusian flags, emblems, and anthems should be prohibited.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a number of sporting bodies have banned athletes representing Russia and Belarus, which has not sent troops but has backed Russia's military aggression. Among the most notable was FIFA, which suspended Russian and Belarusian national teams and clubs from international soccer.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Jailed Iranian Activist Says He Will 'Never' Ask For Pardon

Zartosht Ahmadi Ragheb (file photo)

Jailed Iranian civil activist Zartosht Ahmadi Ragheb has said in a message that he rejected a proposal by prison officials to seek a pardon.

In a message published online on July 4, Ragheb, who is imprisoned in Rajaeeshahr prison, west of Tehran, said that a delegation from the prosecutor's office visited him twice last week and asked him if he wanted to apply for a pardon. "Never," he said he replied.

Ragheb is a former employee of the fire department who has been arrested several times due to his peaceful activism.

He is also one of the 14 civil and political activists who published a statement in June 2018 demanding the resignation of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and asking for fundamental change of the constitution.

Ragheb, who has been in prison for the past four months, underwent stomach surgery in June and was returned to prison despite not completing his treatment.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Schools, Government Offices Shut Down In Several Iranian Cities Over Air Pollution

Government offices and educational centers have been shut down in parts of Iran due to high levels of pollution, state media report.

Authorities decided to close offices and educational centers in 16 cities in Isfahan Province, which is home to around 5 million people, the semiofficial Mehr news agency reported on July 5.

The Air Pollution Emergency Task Force in Yazd Province also announced late on July 4 that "due to the prediction of dust stability by the General Meteorology Department," all offices and educational activities in this province will be closed on July 5.

At the same time, the director-general of environment of the southern province of Khuzestan also said in an interview, "All offices of Khuzestan Province were closed on July 5, due to the severe dust phenomenon."

On July 4, following the intensification of air pollution, the offices, schools, and universities of Tehran and Alborz provinces, the offices of four cities in Khuzestan Province, as well as educational, sports, and production activities in Isfahan Province were closed.

Climate change, the increasing frequency of droughts, improper management of water and soil resources, deforestation, and theunscientific exploitation of agricultural lands are the most important factors of soil erosion and the occurrence of dust storms in Iran.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

U.S. Envoy Says Iran Added Demands In Nuclear Talks

U.S. special envoy for Iran Robert Malley (file photo)

U.S. special envoy for Iran Robert Malley says Iran has added demands unrelated to discussions on its nuclear program during the latest talks in Doha aimed at breaking an impasse in negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

"They have, including in Doha, added demands that I think anyone looking at this would be viewed as having nothing to do with the nuclear deal, things that they've wanted in the past," he said in an interview with National Public Radio.

"The discussion that really needs to take place right now is not so much between us and Iran, although we're prepared to have that. It's between Iran and itself. They need to come to a conclusion about whether they are now prepared to come back into compliance with the deal," Malley added.

He said that there was a proposal on the table for a timeline by which Iran could come back into compliance with the nuclear deal and Washington could ease sanctions on Tehran.

Two days of indirect negotiations between Iran and the United States ended in Qatar on June 29 after failing to make significant progress.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to limits on its controversial nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. But the arrangement began to fall apart in 2018 when then- U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal.

Washington subsequently reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, while Tehran gradually backed away from some of the commitments in the deal.

Iran has been engaged for more than a year in negotiations in Vienna with Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China directly -- and the United States indirectly -- to revive the deal.

Negotiators were reportedly close to a new agreement in March, but the talks abruptly stalled in April, with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for failing to make the necessary political decisions to settle remaining issues.

With reporting by Reuters

Iran Shuts Three Cafes In Qom Over Unveiled Women

Women in Iran must wear a hijab that covers the head and neck while concealing their hair.

Authorities in Iran have closed three coffee shops in the central city of Qom because female customers were not wearing their head scarves, local media report.

"Three coffee shops were closed in Qom due to numerous violations, including women's lack of veils and other issues," said a July 4 statement by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps published in the newspaper Hamshari.

"The owners of the cafes were summoned by police before legal action was taken," the statement added.

The holy Shi'ite city of Qom is home to dozens of religious seminaries and senior clerics.

Under Islamic law enforced in Iran since the 1979 revolution, women must wear a hijab that covers the head and neck while concealing their hair.

Many have pushed the boundaries over the years by allowing their head coverings to slide back and reveal more hair, especially in Tehran and other major cities.

Recently, the government has reportedly renewed its crackdown on women who are deemed insufficiently veiled.

Based on reporting by AFP and Hamshahri

Ukraine, Allies Adopt Principles For Reconstruction

Swiss President Ignazio Cassis (left) and Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal shake hands at the closing plenary of the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Lugano, Switzerland, on July 5.

Dozens of countries have committed to support Ukraine through what is expected to be a long and expensive recovery, and agreed on the need for broad reforms to boost transparency and battle corruption.

Wrapping up a two-day conference in the southern Swiss city of Lugano on July 5, leaders from some 40 countries signed on to the Lugano Declaration, laying out a set of principles for rebuilding Ukraine.

Signatories, including the United States, Britain, France, and Japan, condemned Russia's military aggression against Ukraine "in the strongest terms" and urged Moscow to withdraw its troops without delay.

Swiss President Iganzio Cassis, who co-hosted the conference with Ukraine, hailed the declaration as a "key first step on the long road of Ukraine's recovery."

"Our work prepares for the time after the war even as the war is still raging," he told the closing ceremony.

"This should give the people in Ukraine hope and the certainty that they are not alone."

The signatories welcomed commitments to provide political, financial, and technical support and launched the "Lugano principles" to guide the reconstruction effort, which Kyiv says could cost up to $750 billion.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on July 5 that the declaration was "definitely the start of our long-distance" process.

"We have to make everything that was destroyed better than it was," he said.

Scott Miller, the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, urged allies of Ukraine to help not only with longer-term rebuilding but also with more immediate needs.

“While we recognize the importance of preparing for Ukraine’s future, all of us must also deliver on our commitments to provide Ukraine its immediate and urgent needs," he said.

Many attendees pointed out that rebuilding efforts were likely to take many years. Some called for support for Ukraine along the lines of the U.S. Marshall Plan for Europe after World War II.

The Lugano principles stress that "the recovery process has to contribute to accelerating, deepening, broadening, and achieving Ukraine's reform efforts and resilience in line with Ukraine's European path."

"The recovery process has to be transparent and accountable to the people of Ukraine," the document says.

It also calls for the recovery process to be "inclusive and ensure gender equality," and for Ukraine to be rebuilt in a "sustainable manner."

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Ukrainian Mathematician Becomes Second Woman To Receive Prestigious Fields Medal

Maryna Viazovska (left) was awarded for her work in sphere packing -- a problem first posed by German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler nearly 400 years ago.

Four mathematicians have been awarded prestigious Fields medals, including Ukrainian Maryna Viazovska, the International Mathematical Union jury said on July 5.

Viazovska is only the second woman to win the prize, considered the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for mathematics.

She accepted the award at a ceremony in Helsinki as war raged in her home country.

The other winners were French mathematician Hugo Duminil-Copin of the University of Geneva; Korean-American mathematician June Huh of Princeton; and British mathematician James Maynard of the University of Oxford.

The Fields Medal is awarded every four years to mathematicians under 40.

Maryam Mirzakhani , an Iranian-born professor at Stanford University, was the first woman to receive the prize for her work in 2014. She died of breast cancer in 2017.

Viazovska has been a professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland since 2017.

She was awarded for her work in sphere packing -- a problem first posed by German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler nearly 400 years ago.

The International Congress of Mathematicians, where the prize is awarded, was initially scheduled to be held in the Russian city of St. Petersburg -- and opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Earlier this year, hundreds of mathematicians signed an open letter protesting the choice of the host city. After Moscow invaded Ukraine in late February, the event was moved to the Finnish capital.

With reporting by AFP, AP and The New York Times

NATO Launches Ratification Process For Swedish, Finnish Membership

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (center), Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (left) and Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde hold a joint press conference after signing the countries' accession protocols at NATO headquarters in Brussels on July 5.

The 30 NATO allies have signed off on the accession protocols for Sweden and Finland, sending the membership bids of the two countries to the alliance capitals for legislative approval, in a historic step brought on by Russia's unprovoked war in Ukraine.

"This is a good day for Finland and Sweden and a good day for NATO," alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in a joint press statement with the Swedish and Finnish foreign ministers on July 5.

"With 32 nations around the table, we will be even stronger and our people will be even safer as we face the biggest security crisis in decades," he added.

The historic shifts by Sweden and Finland came in the face of Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine in February and other aggressive moves by the Kremlin in the region. Public opinion in the Nordic countries quickly turned in favor of NATO membership following the invasion.

Every alliance member has different legislative challenges and procedures to deal with, and it could take several more months for the two to become official members.

"I look forward to a swift ratification process," Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said.

"Thank you for your support! Now the process of ratification by each of the allies begins," Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said on Twitter.

Ankara initially said it would veto their bids, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accusing them of providing havens for Kurdish militants operating in Turkey and for promoting what he called "terrorism."

Following negotiations, Erdogan said he would drop his objections but indicated he could still block their membership bids if they failed to follow through on promises, some of which were undisclosed.

Based on reporting by AFP and AP

Civilians Urged To Evacuate Eastern Ukrainian City After Deadly Russian Artillery Strikes

A regional official said at least two people were killed and seven wounded in Slovyansk as a result of the shelling on July 5.

The head of the Donetsk regional military administration has urged civilians to evacuate the eastern Ukrainian town of Slovyansk after an artillery strike hit the central market.

Pavlo Kyrylenko said at least two people were killed and seven wounded as a result of the shelling on July 5. He posted a video on social media showing smoke rising from a commercial area and photos of firefighters dousing flames.

"The Russians are again purposefully hitting places where civilians are gathered. This is pure terrorism. The terrorist state must be brought to justice," Kyrylenko wrote on Telegram.

The attacks on Slovyansk come after Ukrainian forces on July 5 took up new defensive lines in Donetsk, where they still control major cities, after withdrawing from Lysychansk.

The withdrawal prompted Russia to claim full control of the eastern Luhansk region, although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed to regain the lost ground.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 4 declared that Russian forces should continue to advance throughout the Donetsk region "as has happened in Luhansk."

An intelligence report from the British Defense Ministry on July 5 said the battle for the Donbas "has been characterized by slow rates of advance" and Russia's heavy use of artillery, leveling towns and cities in the process.

"The fighting in Donetsk Oblast will almost certainly continue in this manner,” the intelligence report said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke by phone with Zelenskiy on July 5, telling him he believes Ukraine can retake territory recently captured by Russia.

Johnson reiterated Britain's commitment to helping Kyiv defend itself and rebuild, and Zelenskiy thanked him for a further 100 million pounds ($119 million) in support.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said the prime minister also updated Zelenskiy on the latest U.K. military equipment, including 10 self-propelled artillery systems, which would be arriving in the coming days and weeks.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said on July 5 that the first group of Ukrainian soldiers had recently arrived in Britain as part of a program to train up to 10,000 new Ukrainian recruits.

Wallace said the weekslong courses, based on Britain's basic soldier training, includes weapons training, battlefield first aid, patrol tactics, and training on the law of armed conflict.

Zelenskiy said earlier Kyiv's armed forces were undeterred in their efforts to "break" Moscow's will to pursue the war against his country hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military to continue its offensive.

Zelenskiy said in his nightly video message on July 4 that despite Ukraine's withdrawal from Lysychansk, which enabled Russia to claim full control of the eastern Luhansk region, its troops continued to fight.

"We need to break them," he said. "It is a difficult task. It requires time and superhuman efforts. But we have no alternative."

Ukraine's military said it withdrew from the bombed-out city of Lysychansk late on July 3 to save the lives of its soldiers, while Zelenskiy vowed to retake the city "thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons."

"This is the last victory for Russia on Ukrainian territory," Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskiy, said in a video posted online.

Arestovych said that besides the battle for Donetsk, Ukraine was hoping to launch counteroffensives in the south of the country.

"Taking the cities in the east meant that 60 percent of Russian forces are now concentrated in the east and it is difficult for them to be redirected to the south," he said.

"And there are no more forces that can be brought in from Russia. They paid a big price for Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk," he said.

Early on July 5, Russian rockets hit the southern city of Mykolayiv, on the main highway between Kherson and Odesa, Mayor Oleksandr Senkevych said.

With reporting by Reuters and dpa

Belgian Detained In Iran As Brussels Mulls Controversial Prisoner-Swap Treaty With Tehran

Iranian opposition activists protest with a poster depicting Iranian official Asadollah Assadi in Brussels in October 2018.

Iran has been holding a Belgian man for the past four months on "espionage" charges, Belgium's justice minister has said, as the country considers a controversial treaty with Tehran.

The man was seized in Iran on February 24 and has been in "illegal" detention since, Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne told Belgian lawmakers without identifying him. Some reports suggested that Iran had arrested an former NGO worker.

Quickenborne said officials from Belgium's embassy in Tehran had twice visited the jailed man to give all possible assistance, and that his family had earlier on July 5 made public his detention.

"I cannot say more, at the express request of the family," the minister said.

His comments came as Belgium's parliament is set to debate whether to ratify a proposed treaty with Iran that could allow an Iranian diplomat serving a 20-year sentence for plotting a bomb attack outside Paris to be sent back to Tehran.

The treaty has been criticized by opposition lawmakers and lawyers for a dissident Iranian group, who say it would pave the way for Assadollah Assadi, convicted of terror charges and sentenced in February 2021, to be repatriated.

The treaty's text "is tailored to Assadi", opposition deputy Georges Dallemagne said.

Assadi was found guilty of attempted terrorism after a plot to bomb a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exiled opposition group, near Paris in June 2018. The NCRI is the political wing of the exiled Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO or MEK), an exiled opposition group that is seeking to overthrow the Islamic republic.

Dallemagne predicted the Belgian government would present any release of Assadi as a "humanitarian operation," a trade for a Swedish-Iranian academic, Ahmadreza Djalali, who is being held in Iran under sentence of death.

Djalali was accused of providing information to Israel to help it assassinate several senior nuclear scientists. He taught at a Brussels university. However, it is not clear if he would be covered by the treaty as he doesn't have Belgian nationality.

Amnesty International said in May that Iranian authorities were using Djalili as a hostage "to pervert the course of justice in Sweden and Belgium."

The London-based rights group suggested that Iran's threat to execute Djalali was tied to the trial in Stockholm of Hamid Nouri, a former prison official, who is accused of having a role in the mass execution and torture of political prisoners at an Iranian prison in the 1980s. Amnesty also said that Iran wants the release of Assadi.

Contacted by AFP, a spokesman for Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne said, "there is no connection with Djalali's case.”

He added that the minister would "explain his point of view" to parliament on July 5. The spokesman declined to give further details.

A copy of the treaty obtained by AFP showed it was signed on March 11 by the Belgian Justice Ministry and the Iranian ambassador to Belgium. It says that "the best way" to boost cooperation with Iran in justice matters was to allow convicts to serve out their sentences in their home countries. It also allows that each jurisdiction grant amnesty to the returned convicts or commute their sentences.

"This is an erosion of the legal system," opposition lawmaker Michael Freilich said. "Iran has made clear publicly that they don't see Assadi as a terrorist, but as a diplomat. He will be freed as soon as he steps foot on Iranian soil."

Debate on the treaty was to start on July 5, with the full parliament to vote whether to adopt it later in the week.

With reporting by AFP and Politico

Protesters Rally In Skopje For Third Night Against Compromise With Bulgaria

Compromise To Unblock North Macedonia's EU Bid Sparks Protests
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SKOPJE -- Thousands of people protested for the third night in North Macedonia's capital against a French proposal that seeks to end a dispute with Bulgaria that is blocking Skopje's bid to join the European Union.

Some of the protesters in the July 4 rally threw paper towels, plastic bottles, water balloons, and eggs at government buildings in the capital. Some hung flowers on police shields.

Demonstrators say the proposal "Bulgarianizes" the country and does not recognize the Macedonian language and history.

The protests, backed by the center-right VMRO-DPMNE opposition party, came after French President Emmanuel Macron said he believed a compromise was near over the long-standing dispute to end Bulgaria's veto of North Macedonia's EU membership.

Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski said the French proposal was a "solid base for building a responsible and statesmanlike stance on the possibility that opens up to our country."

However, VMRO-DPMNE and other right-wing opponents demand the government reject the plan, saying it concedes too much to Bulgaria in a dispute over history, language, identity, and culture.

Bulgaria, which has been an EU member since 2007, had insisted that North Macedonia formally recognize that its language had Bulgarian roots, acknowledge in its constitution a Bulgarian minority, and renounce what it said was "hate speech" against Bulgaria.

North Macedonia has said its identity and language aren’t open for discussion.

The French proposal would have Skopje include ethnic Bulgarians in its constitution "on an equal footing with other peoples" and change history textbook, among other items, some not yet publicly disclosed.

North Macedonia's government is expected in the next few days to present the proposal to parliament.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, is scheduled to visit Skopje on July 5 to offer support for the French proposal as a compromise between Skopje and Sofia.

Britain To Slap New Sanctions On Belarus For Aiding Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson views destroyed Russian military equipment during a June 17 visit to Ukraine.

The British governments says it will introduce a new round of economic, trade, and transport sanctions on Belarus and the regime of authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

In a statement on July 4, the British Foreign Office said the package of sanctions "extends some of the significant measures made against Russia to Belarus."

It said the new sanctions will be formally announced and take effect on July 5.

Western governments have imposed financial sanctions on Russia to punish it for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Belarus is not a direct participant in the war, but it has provided logistical aid to Russian troops, many of whom crossed the border into Ukraine from Belarus, leading the West to also impose sanctions on Minsk.

The statement said the British government will also restrict "Belarus's access to the U.K.'s world-class financial services sector -- banning more Belarusian companies from issuing debt and securities in London."

"The Belarus regime has actively facilitated [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's invasion, letting Russia use its territory to pincer Ukraine -- launching troops and missiles from their border and flying Russian jets through their airspace," the statement said.

Lukashenka "has also openly supported the Kremlin's narrative, claiming that Kyiv was 'provoking Russia' in order to justify Putin's bloody invasion."

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while plagued by a series of scandals at home, has taken a leading role among Western states in hitting Russia and Belarus with sanctions following the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine.

The Crisis In Belarus

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

The Foreign Office said the new action built on the "wide-ranging measures" the government had imposed on Minsk, including a 35 percent increase on tariffs on a range of goods originating from Belarus.

It has also placed sanctions on Lukashenka and senior government officials "for their continued human rights violations and undermining of democracy."

Lukashenka, 67 years old and in power since 1994, has tightened his grip on the country since the 2020 election by arresting -- sometimes violently -- tens of thousands of people. Fearing for their safety, most opposition members have been forced to flee 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.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Belarus Service

Germany Suspends Funds For Bosnian Serb Entity’s Infrastructure Projects Over Leaders’ Policies

Pro-Russia Serb leader Milorad Dodik, pictured in May, triggered sanctions against him from London and Washington after saying late last year that Republika Srpska, the ethnic-Serb entity, would pull out of the Western Balkan nation’s joint military, top judiciary body, and tax administration.

Germany has suspended 120 million euros ($125 million) worth of infrastructure projects in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Serb entity over its leaders' secessionist policies, the international peace envoy said.

Christian Schmidt told Bosnian regional N1 television on July 4 that he could not rule out that Germany could follow the United States and Britain by imposing sanctions against those seen as destabilizing Bosnia.

"Nobody should feel safe in this regard," Schmidt said without naming anyone specifically. Schmidt, a German politician, assumed the role of high commissioner in August 2021.

Pro-Russia Serb leader Milorad Dodik sparked Bosnia's worst political crisis since the end of its 1990s war and triggered sanctions against him from London and Washington after saying late last year that Republika Srpska, the ethnic-Serb entity, would pull out of the Western Balkan nation’s joint military, top judiciary body, and tax administration.

The Republika Srpska parliament in December voted to start work on a nonbinding motion meant to pave the way for secession.

In June, Dodik said the war in Ukraine has forced Bosnian Serb nationalists to delay the plans to pull their region out of Bosnia-Herzegovina's national institutions.

Dodik serves as the Serb member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, which also includes a Bosniak Muslim and an ethnic Croatian member.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is still governed under the terms of a 1995 peace treaty known as the Dayton accords that divided the country into a Bosniak and Croat federation and a majority-Serb

Based on reporting by Reuters

Tehran ‘Temporarily’ Cuts Off Access To Country’s Banking System To Iranians Abroad

In 2021, an attack on the electronic-transaction system used to distribute subsidized fuel paralyzed more than 4,000 gasoline stations across the country.

Iranian authorities have “temporarily cut off” access to the country’s banking system for Iranians abroad to “prevent cyberattacks,” Iranian state news agency IRNA reported.

IRNA said on July 4 that "the restrictions were applied on the recommendation of the competent authorities and in order to deal with cyber threats."

The news agency did not specify the "competent authorities" but added that the action "only concerns a limited number of banks that have the most connections abroad to banking systems, including online banking and mobile banking applications."

Iran has faced a number of cyberattacks in recent years. It has also faced accusations that it has orchestrated cyberattacks on rival nations, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.

On June 27, one of Iran's biggest steel companies was forced to halt its operations until further notice after being targeted by a cyberattack.

The Khuzestan Steel Company said in a statement that experts had determined the firm was unable to continue production due to technical problems following cyberattacks.

In 2021, an attack on the electronic-transaction system used to distribute subsidized fuel paralyzed more than 4,000 gasoline stations across the country and resulted in long lines of angry motorists unable to use their government-issued smart cards.

Iran was also targeted about a decade ago by the Stuxnet computer worm, which is widely believed to have been engineered by the United States and Israel to sabotage the country’s nuclear program.

Iran, Russia, Turkey Considering Plan To Jointly Manufacture Automobiles

A worker at the PCMA Rus car-assembly plant in Russia's Kaluga region in 2019 in what was initially a joint project by PSA Peugeot Citroen and Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.

Industry officials from Iran, Russia, and Turkey are considering a joint program to design and manufacture automobiles in view of disruptions caused by Western sanctions, Iranian state media reported.

"There is a great possibility of tripartite cooperation between car manufacturers and suppliers of the three countries," said Mohammadreza Najafi-Manesh, the head of Iran's Auto Parts Manufacturers Association, according to the IRNA news agency.

"These three countries can capture a large market for their products," Najafi-Manesh said.

Najafi-Manesh said the idea was first floated by Turkey and that Russia was "interested."

Western nations have slapped financial sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

The United States also reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran in 2018 after Washington pulled out of a deal with world powers on Iran's nuclear program.

Many Western car manufacturers launched projects in Russia to assemble cars over the past two decades, but most pulled out after the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine in February.

Based on reporting by AFP, IRNA, and The Tehran Times

U.S. General, Russia Expert, Assumes NATO Supreme Command In Europe

U.S. Army General Christopher Cavoli (far right) pictured with former chief of Ukrainian Armed Forces Viktor Muzhenko (left) and then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (center) observing military exercises in Ukraine in 2018.

U.S. Army General Christopher Cavoli -- who speaks Russian and has a master’s degree from Yale in Russian studies -- has taken over as NATO's new supreme allied commander in Europe (SACEUR) at a ceremony in Mons, Belgium.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in his ceremony speech on July 4 that Cavoli assumes command amid "the return of brutal conflict to Europe."

He replaces retiring U.S. General Tod Wolters as the SACEUR commander.

Stoltenberg highlighted Cavoli's role in overseeing the recent buildup of U.S. troop deployments to Europe in reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The general will be primarily responsible for the planning and implementation of military measures designed to defend the Western alliance and deter Russia.

Cavoli was born in Germany and has lived much of his life on U.S. military bases. He joined the U.S. Army in 1987 and has served in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Along with Russian, he also speaks French and Italian.

He will assume a role first taken by Dwight Eisenhower, who was appointed SACEUR in 1950 before becoming U.S. president in 1953.

Based on reporting by dpa and Stars & Stripes

Wimbledon Organizers Appeal Fine Over Ban On Russian, Belarusian Tennis Players

The ban meant that players such as top-ranked male Daniil Medvedev and two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka would not be allowed to compete in this year's tennis championship at Wimbledon.

The All England Club -- organizer of the Wimbledon tennis tournament -- is appealing a fine imposed by the WTA women’s tour for its banning of Russian and Belarusian players from the famed event in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

All England Club CEO Sally Bolton said on July 4 that the club appealed its WTA fine, reportedly at $250,000.

The WTA reportedly also fined the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) -- the British federation for the sport -- $750,000, and a source familiar with the matter said the LTA has also appealed the fine.

The LTA did not allow players from Russia or Belarus to take part in grass-court tune-up events last month in three cities.

Bolton said the All England Club is waiting to hear from the ATP men’s tour on whether it will also fine the tournament over the ban.

The All England Club announced in April that, following guidance from the British government, players from Russia and Belarus would not be allowed to compete at Wimbledon this year.

That decision meant that players such as top-ranked male Daniil Medvedev and two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka would not be allowed to compete.

“It was an incredibly difficult and challenging decision to make. It was not one we took lightly,” Bolton said.

The WTA and ATP called the move discriminatory and took the unprecedented step of declaring they would not award rankings points to any players at the Grand Slam tournament, which is scheduled to end on July 10.

Based on reporting by AP, Reuters, and dpa

Pope Denies Resignation Rumors, Says Hopes To Visit Kyiv, Moscow Soon

Pope Francis sits for an interview with Reuters at the Vatican on July 2.

Pope Francis dismissed rumors that he plans to resign anytime soon and said he hopes to visit Kyiv and Moscow in the near future.

In an interview with Reuters published on July 4, Francis also told Reuters that it “never entered my mind” to announce a planned retirement at the end of the summer, although he reiterated that he could step down some day in the way that Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI did in 2013.

The pontiff had planned to visit Congo and South Sudan this week but had to cancel the trip because doctors said he needed more therapy on an injured knee.

He said he was still scheduled to travel to Canada on July 24-30 and said he hoped to visit Russia and Ukraine sometime thereafter.

Following the remarks, Ukraine renewed its invitation for Francis to visit Ukraine and urged the pontiff to continue praying for the Ukrainian people.

"It is time to deepen connections with those who sincerely desire it,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko said.

“We renew the invitation to Pope Francis to visit our country and urge you to continue praying for the Ukrainian people.”

Based on reporting by Reuters and AP

Turkey Holding Russian-Flagged Ship As Grain Cargo Investigated

The Russian-flagged cargo ship Zhibek Zholy is seen off the coast of the Black Sea port of Karasu, Turkey, on July 3.

A Turkish official and the port-operating company on July 4 confirmed that authorities had stopped a Russian-flagged cargo ship and are investigating claims by Ukraine that it was carrying stolen grain.

"Upon request, the ship named Zhibek Zholy was halted off Karasu," a senior official told Reuters. "The allegations are being investigated thoroughly. It is not written on the grain who it belongs to."

On July 3, Vasyl Bodnar, Ukraine's ambassador to Turkey, said the Zhibek Zholy was being detained by Turkish customs authorities.

Ukraine had asked Ankara to detain it, accusing Moscow of stealing grain from the territories that Russian forces have seized since their invasion began on February 24. Kyiv said the ship set off from Berdyansk, a Ukrainian port occupied by Russian forces.

The Kremlin has denied that Russia has stolen any Ukrainian grain.

Custom officials at the Turkish Black Sea port of Karasu had for now denied passage to the vessel, an employee of the IC Ictas port company told dpa.

Why Resuming Ukrainian Grain Shipments Won’t Be Easy
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0:00 0:03:49 0:00 said the 140-meter general cargo vessel was sailing under the Russian flag. It showed the ship late on July 1 anchored about 1 kilometer off Karasu.

On June 30, Evgeny Balitsky, head of the Moscow-appointed administration in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya region, said on Telegram that the ship had left the Berdyansk port and was headed for "friendly countries."

He said the ship was loaded with 7,000 tons of grain, but he did not specify which countries were considered friendly nor did he give any details on the origins of the grain.

Bodnar said investigators would meet in Turkey on July 4 to determine the ship's fate and that Ukraine was seeking return of the grain.

Ukraine has accused Russia of stealing its grain during the invasion and blockading its ports to keep grain from leaving the country, which has helped contribute to a global food shortage.

Moscow has denied taking Ukrainian grain, but satellite images and GPS data have been used to back up the allegations that Russia has been transporting grain out of Ukraine through the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.

Grain is one of Ukraine's main industries. Exports totaled $12.2 billion last year and accounted for nearly one-fifth of the country's exports. Ukraine's Black Sea ports, including Berdyansk, handled about 6 million tons of grains and other crops each month before the war.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, Reuters, dpa, AFP, and AP

Union Warns Over Deteriorating Health Of Jailed Activists On Hunger Strike In Iran

The union said in a statement issued over the weekend that on the 20th day of his hunger strike, Shahabi had short contact with his family but they could not even ask about his health

The Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company Workers' Union has warned that the health condition of jailed labor activists Reza Shahabi and Hasan Saeedi is deteriorating due to their refusal to eat.

The union said in a statement issued over the weekend that on the 20th day of his hunger strike, Shahabi had short contact with his family but they could not even ask about his health. According to the family, Reza Shahabi's weak voice was indicative of his physical weakness.

The union added that Shahabi's interrogator has insisted on telling his family that he can still speak.

According to this statement, Saeedi passed the 10th day of his hunger strike in the solitary cell of Evin Prison on July 2.

The union wrote that Saeedi has lost a lot of weight and is not in good physical condition, and yet, he is under interrogation.

Shahabi, a member of the board of directors of the Tehran Bus Workers' Union, has been on a hunger strike since June 13 to protest against his continued detention.

Shahabi was arrested at his home on May 10 by Intelligence Ministry officers shortly after publicly calling on the authorities to investigate death threats against him and his family.

On May 17, state television alleged Shahabi and other labor activists had met with two French nationals -- 37-year-old Cecile Kohler and her 69-year-old partner, Jacques Paris -- who have been detained and accused of seeking to foment unrest in Iran.

The allegations come as the security forces try to suppress antigovernment protests in cities across the country against skyrocketing inflation and the government's recent decision to cut some subsidies. Reports say at least five demonstrators have died in the protests.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Sweden, Finland Hold NATO Talks Ahead Of Formal Summit On Accession Protocols

Swedish and Finnish leaders meeting with NATO officials and members on June 28.

Sweden and Finland are holding talks with NATO officials in Brussels on starting the formal process to join the Western military alliance -- a move that would mark a dramatic departure from the Nordic countries’ long-standing policies of nonalignment on military matters.

The July 4 talks are being led by Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde and Finnish counterpart Pekka Haavisto and follow an agreement with NATO member Turkey last week that led to Ankara dropping its objections to their membership.

On July 5, ambassadors from NATO's 30 member states are expected to sign the accession protocols for Sweden and Finland. It is then likely to take a few months before their memberships are ratified by all alliance members.

The historic shifts by Sweden and Finland came in the face of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine in February and other aggressive moves by the Kremlin in the region. Public opinion in the Nordic countries quickly turned in favor of NATO membership following the invasion.

Ankara initially said it would veto their membership, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accusing them of providing havens for Kurdish militants operating in Turkey and for promoting what he called “terrorism.”

Following negotiations, Erdogan said he would drop his objections but indicated he could still block their membership bids if they failed to follow through on promises, some of which were undisclosed.

Based on reporting by AFP

Activist Warns About The Spread Of Tuberculosis At Iran’s Qarchak Prison

According to activists, Qarchak Prison currently holds 1,500 prisoners, but officially it only has a capacity for 1,200.

Iranian activist and former political prisoner Atena Daemi says that about 40 people in Ward 6 of Qarchak Prison, south of Tehran, are suspected of having tuberculosis.

Writing on Twitter, Daemi added that about 100 prisoners are kept in this ward and that the prisoners suspected of having tuberculosis have been tested. Daemi, who spent five years in prison over her activism, maintains contact with prisoners.

On June 27, Daemi published a post on her Instagram page and wrote that a prisoner in the women's ward of Qarchak Prison was infected with tuberculosis and the prison authorities were not paying attention to her condition.

"After the protest of the prisoners, this person had been taken to quarantine for a few days. But she was returned to the prison again, and after that at least three other people in this prison were infected with tuberculosis," Daemi added.

According to human rights activists, Qarchak Prison currently holds about 1,500 prisoners. Before becoming a prison for women, the site was a poultry farm and then a drug-rehab camp for men, and according to the official announcement of the prison authorities, it only has a capacity of 1,200 prisoners.

Activists and political prisoners have warned repeatedly about the poor hygiene at Qarchak Prison and what they describe as a lack of attention to the health of the prisoners.

Last year, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders warned of the “appalling conditions” at Qarchak Prison and called for an immediate reaction from the Office of the UN High Commission for Human Rights and the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Russia Says It Will Respond in Kind To Bulgaria After Diplomatic Expulsions

The Russian Embassy in Sofia. Bulgaria said on June 28 that 70 Russian diplomats had been working against Sofia's interests. (file photo)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on July 4 that Moscow would respond in kind to Bulgaria's expulsion of 70 Russian diplomats.

Russia's Ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova said last week she would ask Moscow to close its embassy in Sofia over the expulsions.

Bulgaria said on June 28 that the Russian diplomats had been working against Sofia's interests. They were given until July 3 to leave the country.

The expulsion, which has severely strained diplomatic ties, is the greatest ever number of Russian diplomats expelled by Bulgaria, which has European Union and NATO membership. Bulgaria has strongly backed Western sanctions against Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.

European countries have expelled hundreds of Russian diplomatic staff since Moscow launched its unprovoked war against Ukraine on February 24. Russia has reciprocated by sending home diplomats from numerous EU countries.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AP

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