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Russia, Poland Feed Controversy Over World War II

European leaders at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II at Westerplatte Monument in Gdansk on September 1.
Solemn ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II began before dawn on the Westerplatte peninsula near Gdansk, in northern Poland, where a German battleship fired the first shots of the war on a small Polish military outpost on September 1, 1939.

Leaders from former allied and opponent states across Europe took part in the ceremonies, which set off renewed disagreement over the war's causes, with Russia accusing the West of rewriting history.

Standing at a Soviet-era monument to Polish soldiers, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk warned about the danger of forgetting history. "We meet here to remember who started this war, who was the perpetrator of this war, who was the executioner in this war, and who was the victim of this war and this aggression," Tusk said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel apologized for Germany's role, saying there are "no words to describe the suffering of the victims of the war and the Holocaust."

Seventy years ago, Germany had expected the 182 Polish soldiers defending a small fort on Westerplatte to surrender within hours. Instead they held off more than 3,000 German troops for seven days in a battle that became Poland's chief symbol of resistance.

At the same time, German forces invaded Poland from east, west, and south, prompting Britain and France to declare war against Germany two days later. The 20th century's bloodiest conflict lasted almost six years, killed more than 50 million people, and redrew the map of Europe.

Anger Old And New

Tusk said seeking the truth about the massive suffering during the war would enable European countries to build trust in the future.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk (left) with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Sopot, on Poland's northern coast.
But the commemoration events have been colored by fresh controversy over the war's causes, with Russia condemning the West for blaming Moscow for helping start the war.

Poles believe a secret Nazi-Soviet pact gave Germany the green light to invade their country. Two weeks after the German attack, the Red Army also invaded, annexing eastern Poland under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement.. In a strong message to Moscow during the September 1 ceremonies, Polish President Lech Kaczynski called the actions a "stab in the back."

"This blow came from Bolshevik Russia, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact," Kaczynski said.

The Polish view has produced growing fury in Moscow.

In an interview ahead of his visit to Poland, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that viewed in retrospect, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was "immoral." But anyone expecting him to deliver an apology was disappointed.

Putin said Moscow had no choice but to sign the agreement to postpone war after Western powers concluded their own agreement with Germany. He said the 1938 Munich pact ended "all hope of creating a united front against fascism."

Putin said the Soviet Union was just one country of many that had committed mistakes, blaming even Poland.

"I want bring to the attention of our respected colleagues the fact that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was the last document signed by a European power -- the Soviet Union -- with Hitler's Germany," Putin said. "It had been preceded by a 1934 agreement between Poland and Germany, bilateral nonaggression agreements between [Germany and] leading European powers, much like the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and the so-called Munich Agreement signed in 1938."

Debating History

In Moscow, Russia's intelligence agency poured more fuel on the fire, saying it was declassifying documents that show Poland was partly to blame for its invasion by the Nazis.

Also, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lashed out against a recent resolution by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) parliamentary assembly equating Nazism and Stalinism. He called the view "lies" and a "rewriting of history."

"Even during the Cold War no one ever tried to put the Nazi regime and Stalin's dictatorship on the same footing," Lavrov said. "It never occurred to anyone to equate the Nazi threat, which meant the enslavement and annihilation of entire nations, and the policy of the Soviet Union, which was the only force capable of standing up against the war machine of Hitler's Germany and in the end ensuring its defeat."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev weighed in on August 30, saying the Soviet Union had "ultimately saved Europe" in the war.

The Soviet Union bore the brunt of the casualties in the fight against the Nazis, losing tens of millions of lives. In ever-grander ceremonies marking the war's end, contemporary Russians praise Soviet dictator Josef Stalin for bringing about victory against Nazi Germany, still seen as one of Russia's crowning achievements.

A Polish veteran at early morning ceremonies marking the anniversary of the start of World War II at Westerplatte Monument in Gdansk.
But many in Central and Eastern Europe say Moscow replaced German occupation with Soviet totalitarianism.

Poles are especially upset about disagreements over the Soviet massacre of 21,000 Polish army officers and intellectuals in the Katyn forest near the Russian city of Smolensk in 1940. The Soviets blamed the murders on the Nazis, admitting to the killings only in 1990.

'Common Front'

But at a September 1 news conference, Putin said the Soviet Union and Poland were "comrades in arms fighting a common front." He said Moscow may declassify documents relating to the massacre, but only on the basis of "reciprocity."

Putin used his speech at the ceremonies to praise the Soviet Union's achievements and sacrifices, saying half of those who died during the war were Soviet citizens. "Think about those frightening numbers," he said.

He said the Moscow has acknowledged its mistakes during the war.

"The Russian State Duma, Russia's parliament, has denounced the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact," Putin said. "We're right to expect that to happen in other countries that also made deals with the Nazis, and not on the level of declarations by political leaders, but on the level of political decisions."

Putin went on to say that Russia has since helped build "a new Europe," saying Moscow had brought down the Berlin Wall.

Critics say the Kremlin is especially sensitive over its role in the war because Putin has used nostalgia for the Soviet Union's superpower status to appeal to Russians.

"This is a part of not their ideology, but their PR campaign to legitimize and justify their absolutely corrupt and inefficient regime," says Russian political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky.

Piontkovsky says in comparison to occasional conciliatory statements made abroad, at home, Putin has presented a "complete justification of Stalin's regime."

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Prosecutor Seeks 12 Years In Prison For Belarusian Nobel Prize Winner Byalyatski

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski at his trial in Minsk last month.

MINSK -- The prosecutor at a high-profile trial in Minsk has asked a court to convict and sentence Belarusian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski to 12 years in prison on smuggling and tax-evasion charges that rights defenders and Western governments call politically motivated retribution on the part of longtime authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The prosecutor also asked the Lenin district court on February 9 to convict and sentence Byalyatski's co-defendants -- Valyantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimer Labkovich -- to 11 years and 9 years, respectively.

For a fourth defendant, Zmitser Salauyou, who is being tried in absentia, the prosecutor requested 10 years in prison.

The first three defendants have been in custody since July 2021 and potentially face up to 12 years in prison if convicted and the judge decides to enforce the maximum penalty.

The men, who went on trial in early January, are accused of bringing money into the country for "illegal activities and financing" the Vyasna (Spring) human rights group in Belarus, whose chairman is Byalyatski.

Byalyatski, who has been fighting for democracy and human rights in his beleaguered homeland his entire life, was awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize along with the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties and the embattled Russian rights group Memorial.

He founded the Vyasna Human Rights Center, which was originally a Minsk-based organization with the name Vyasna-96. In 1999, it was reborn as a national nongovernmental rights organization.

The NGO was outlawed by the Belarusian Supreme Court in October 2003 for its role in monitoring the country's 2001 presidential election. It has continued its work, however, as an unregistered NGO.

The main work of the organization has been defending and supporting political prisoners. The group -- and Byalyatski personally -- have regularly been harassed and persecuted by Lukashenka's government since its founding.

Belarusian authorities have moved to shut down critical and nonstate media outlets and human rights bodies in the wake of mass protests that erupted in August 2020 after a presidential election that the opposition said was rigged.

The opposition and Western governments say Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was driven into exile, won the vote, which has not been recognized by the United States, the European Union, and several other countries.

Thousands have been detained since the vote and there have been credible reports of the torture and ill-treatment of detainees by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown.

Uzbek Investigative Blogger Detained In Tashkent

Uzbek journalist and blogger Abduqodir Mominov

A noted Uzbek investigative blogger known for his criticism of the government has been detained in Tashkent. The city police said on February 9 that Abduqodir Mominov is suspected of alleged fraud and extortion. Police searched Mominov's apartment in Tashkent on February 8 as the blogger went missing the same day. Mominov's mother told RFE/RL that her son's situation is linked to his professional activities. Mominov's detention comes two weeks after police arrested several journalists working for the Human.uz website and the press secretary of the Employment Ministry, Mavjuda Mirzaeva, on unspecified charges. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.

Poland To Close Belarus Border Crossing Until Further Notice, Says Minister

Bobrowniki is one of the key border-crossing points between Poland and Belarus. 

Poland is to close a key border crossing with Belarus until further notice, the Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said on February 9, as relations between Warsaw and Minsk sink to new lows. The already tense relations between Poland and Belarus were further strained a day earlier when Andrzej Poczobut, a journalist of Polish origin, was sentenced to eight years in prison by a Belarusian court in a trial that Warsaw says was politically motivated. Bobrowniki, more than 200 kilometers northeast of Warsaw, is one of the key crossing points between Poland and Belarus. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Ethnic Kazakh Man Reunites With Relatives In Almaty After Years In Xinjiang Labor Camp

Sarsenbek Akbar upon being reunited with his family after years of incarceration in China.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- An ethnic Kazakh man from China's northwestern region of Xinjiang, Sarsenbek Aqbar, has reunited with his family in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, after serving almost three years in a Chinese labor camp and two years under house arrest.

Aqbar's wife, Gulnur Qosdaulet, told RFE/RL on February 9 that her husband arrived in Almaty late in the evening the previous day. She refused to elaborate further, fearing repercussions.

Aqbar's relatives said earlier that he spent almost three years in a Chinese labor camp for "political prisoners" between 2017 and 2020 and was placed under house arrest for two years after his release.

Kazakh officials have not commented on Aqbar's arrival in Almaty.

China’s crackdown in Xinjiang has seen Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities put into mass detention camps. Since Beijing’s dragnet accelerated in 2017, the plight of ethnic Kazakhs interned in China has been an unexpected source of dissent, with the testimonies of former detainees and family members fueling a guerrilla advocacy campaign that brought outsized international attention to the issue.

This left the Kazakh government walking a tightrope between appeasing Beijing -- which denies the long list of abuses that have been documented in its camp system -- and dealing with an exasperated segment of its population lobbying for family members in China.

Qosdaulet herself, along with dozens of people, attended rallies near the Chinese Consulate in Almaty for years before her husband was allowed to return to Kazakhstan.

The U.S. State Department has said that as many as 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and members of Xinjiang's other indigenous, mostly Muslim ethnic groups have been taken to detention centers.

China denies that the facilities are internment camps, but people who have fled the province say members of these groups are undergoing "political indoctrination" at a network of facilities officially referred to as reeducation camps.

Kazakhs are the second-largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang after Uyghurs. The region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans. Han, China's largest ethnicity, is the second-largest community in Xinjiang.

Explosion In Residential Building Kills At Least Five In Siberia

Smoke rises from a residential building following an explosion in Novosibirsk on February 9.

An explosion in a residential building in Russia's Siberian city of Novosibirsk has killed at least five people. The region’s Health Ministry said a 2-year-old child was among those killed in the explosion, which occurred on February 9. City authorities said the explosion was caused by a gas leak and destroyed 30 apartments in a five-story building. Gas explosions frequently occur across the former Soviet Union due to aging pipelines and infrastructure, as well as lax safety standards. Two days earlier, a gas explosion in Russia's western region of Tula killed at least eight people. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

RFE/RL President Says Afghan Service 'Stronger Than Ever' With Expanded Programming, Despite Taliban Ban

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly (file photo)

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has said that Radio Azadi has come back “stronger than ever” with expanded programming despite the Taliban’s efforts to ban the company’s Afghan news service from the airwaves and the Internet.

“When the Taliban took Azadi off its airwaves, Azadi came back stronger than ever, doubling its daily time on air to become a 24/7 service,” RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly said in a February 8 statement. “For two decades, Afghans have turned to Azadi for hope, and we will continue to find ways to reach them."

The statement came after Radio Azadi’s Dari and Pashto websites were blocked in Afghanistan this week, and after the Taliban removed Azadi broadcasts from AM and FM airwaves on December 1. Azadi remained accessible to listeners in Afghanistan on medium-wave and shortwave frequencies.

In response to the ban, RFE/RL on January 30 announced that it was doubling the length of its radio broadcasts to provide 24/7 coverage. Twelve hours of broadcasts are now transmitted on medium wave, followed by 12 hours on shortwave every day.

The expanded coverage was announced on Azadi’s 21st anniversary serving as a public broadcaster in Afghanistan.

After the Taliban implemented the airwaves ban on December 1, Fly described the decision as “tragic” and said that banning Azadi broadcasts would cut off a “lifeline for tens of millions of Afghans.”

“RFE/RL will not change our editorial line to accommodate Taliban demands in order to stay on the air,” Fly said at the time. “We know from experience that our audiences make great efforts to find us. The truth cannot be completely suppressed.”

In a recent survey commissioned by the U.S. Agency for Global Media, half of Afghan adults surveyed use Azadi content weekly.

The Taliban has consistently pressured Azadi since the hard-line Islamist group seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021.

Following the Taliban takeover, RFE/RL closed its Kabul bureau, but continues to cover news ignored by state media and at odds with the Taliban’s hardline views, including on women’s issues, freedom of the press, and human rights.

Wagner's Founder Says Russian Mercenary Group Has Halted Prisoner Recruitment Campaign

Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin (file photo)

Russia's Wagner mercenary group has stopped recruiting prisoners to fight in Ukraine, the organization's founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on February 9. "The recruitment of prisoners by the Wagner private military company has completely stopped," Prigozhin said in response to a request for comment from a Russian outlet published on social media. Wagner began recruiting prisoners in Russia's sprawling penal system in summer 2022, with Prigozhin, a catering entrepreneur who served nine years in prison during the Soviet era, offering convicts a pardon if they survived six months in Ukraine. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Updated

Zelenskiy Arrives In Brussels To Lobby For More Weapons In Defense Against 'Anti-European' Russia

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addresses the European Parliament in Brussels on February 9.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has arrived in Brussels to continue to lobby for more advanced weapons from European allies, telling the European Parliament that his country is fighting “against the biggest anti-European force of the modern world.”

The February 9 visit was the latest in Zelenskiy’s surprise tour of Europe to lobby for more weapons nearly one year after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and came as Russian forces reportedly stepped up attacks in Ukraine’s east ahead of an expected offensive.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

While Zelenskiy is unlikely to leave Brussels with immediate pledges of more military aid, the visit will give him the opportunity to speak to all 27 leaders of the European Union during a summit scheduled for later in the day.

During his address to the European Parliament, the Ukrainian president thanked the EU for the help that the bloc has already provided since Russia invaded more than 11 months ago.

"Thank you," Zelenskiy said as EU lawmakers gave him a long standing ovation. “We are defending ourselves in the battlefield, we Ukrainians, together with you...against (the) biggest anti-European force of the modern world."

In recent weeks, Ukraine has received promises from Western countries for the provision of battle tanks to boost its forces, but has called for even more advanced weaponry, including fighter jets and longer-range rockets. He is also expected to discuss a quick start to EU membership talks during the summit.

“Ukraine will be part of the European Union, a victorious Ukraine,” Zelenskiy told the European Parliament.

EU Parliament head Roberta Metsola said while addressing Zelenskiy that "you need to win and now (EU) member states must consider quickly as the next step providing long-range systems and the jets that you need to protect your liberty."

During his visit to the British Parliament on January 8, Zelenskiy specifically called on Western leaders to provide fighter jets.

"I appeal to you and the world, with simple and yet the most important words -- combat aircraft for Ukraine, wings for freedom," Zelenskiy said. "We know freedom will win, we know Russia will lose."

'Wings For Freedom': Zelenskiy Pleads For Fighter Jets In London Speech
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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said later at a joint news conference that "nothing is off the table" in terms of military aid for Ukraine, adding that fighter jets were "part of the conversation."

The same day, Zelenskiy met in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and flew with Macron to Brussels for the February 9 EU summit.

Macron said that he had not discussed providing fighter jets with Zelenskiy during their talks.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 9 that any delivery of fighter jets by the West would mark a more “direct” role by NATO countries in the war, and that it would only increase tensions and bring more pain and suffering to Ukrainians.

"This is nothing more than the growing involvement of the United Kingdom, Germany and France in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine," Peskov told reporters.

"The line between indirect and direct involvement is gradually disappearing. One can only express regret in this regard, and say that such actions...lead to an escalation of tension, prolong the conflict, and make the conflict more and more painful for Ukraine," Peskov added.

Zelenskiy’s tour is believed to be only his second trip abroad since Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine nearly one year ago, and comes as Russian forces attempt to make a breakthrough in Ukraine’s east ahead of an expected major offensive.

On February 9, Luhansk region Governor Serhiy Hayday said that Russian forces were trying to break through Ukrainian defenses near Kreminna. Control of the town would put Russian forces within 70 kilometers of the city of Kramatorsk, a much larger city in the Donetsk region.

"I can confirm that there has been a significant increase in attacks and shelling,” Hayday said on Ukrainian television. “And it is in the direction of Kreminna that they are trying to build on their success by pushing through our defenders' defenses.”

Hayday added that Russian forces had not had “significant success,” saying that “our defense forces are holding firmly there."

On February 9, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said that more than 900 Russian soldiers had died the previous day, which would be one of the bloodiest of the war that began with Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24.

Western media has reported that the number of Russian soldiers killed or wounded in the war is approaching 200,000.

Russia does not regularly disclose data on its war casualties.

With reporting by Reuters

Ukraine's UN Envoy Slams Ex-Pink Floyd Musician's Comments To Security Council

Former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters speaks via a video link during a UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine in New York on February 8.

Comments made by Roger Waters, co-founder of the rock band Pink Floyd, were denounced by Ukraine on February 8 after the British musician told the UN Security Council that Russia's invasion of its neighbor was "not unprovoked."

Moscow's UN ambassador invited Waters, 79, to address a Security Council meeting to discuss the delivery of weapons to Ukraine.

Waters has previously sparked controversy with his stance on the war and by saying the West should stop providing arms to Kyiv.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The former Pink Floyd bassist told the Security Council that the invasion of Ukraine was illegal and he condemned it “in the strongest possible terms." But he implied that Kyiv was to blame as well.

"Also the Russian invasion of Ukraine was not unprovoked. So I also condemn the provocateurs in the strongest possible terms," he said, addressing the council via a video link.

"The only sensible course of action today is to call for an immediate cease fire in Ukraine," Waters added.

Ukrainian Ambassador to the UN Serhiy Kyslytsya responded by referencing the lyrics of one of Pink Floyd's most famous songs, Another Brick in the Wall, released in 1979.

"How sad for his former fans to see him accepting the role of just a brick in the wall, a wall of Russian disinformation and propaganda," Kyslytsya said.

The ambassador also referenced the giant inflatable pink pig that featured in many of the rock band's shows, saying he was surprised Waters had not arranged to have it floating in the Security Council chamber.

"What could it have been this time Mr. Waters? Pigs with swastikas and the hammer and sickle?" Kyslytsya said during the discussion.

Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the UN Richard Mills acknowledged Waters' "impressive credentials as a recording artist," but said his qualifications to speak on arms control or European security issues were "less evident."

Albanian UN Ambassador Ferit Hoxha told the council Waters was “lucky to be in New York,” where he could speak his mind, “including about the Russian aggression and how wrong that is.” He said if he had been in Russia, “with what he said, he might have been in custody by now."

Waters sparked backlash in September when he wrote an open letter saying the West should stop providing arms to Kyiv, accusing President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of allowing "extreme nationalism" in Ukraine, and urging him to "put an end to this deadly war."

He was subsequently declared persona non grata by the Polish city of Krakow and his concerts were scrapped there.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Death Toll Raised To Eight In Explosion Of Russian Residential Building

Authorities say rescue work is continuing at the site of the disaster in the town of Yefremov.

The death toll in a gas explosion in a residential building in Russia's western Tula region has risen to eight. Emergency Department officials in the town of Yefremov said on February 8 that rescue teams had found three more bodies under the rubble. After the blast on February 7, rescue teams discovered the first five victims at the site. The authorities say rescue work continues. Gas explosions frequently occur across the former Soviet Union due to aging pipelines and infrastructure, as well as lax safety standards. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Russia Sanctions Another 77 U.S. Nationals, Including Relatives Of Top Officials

Russia's Foreign Ministry announced the sanctions on February 8. (file photo)

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on February 8 that it had imposed sanctions on 77 more U.S. nationals, including the governors of several U.S. states and some of their relatives. Others targeted also included the children of senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer as well as of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The announcement comes a week after Washington imposed sanctions on 22 individuals and entities in several countries that the U.S. Treasury Department said were involved in evading previously announced sanctions targeting Russia’s defense industry over Moscow's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Belarusian Court Sends Two Activists To Prison On Terrorism Charges

Syarhey Plyahskun (left) and Yury Selvich (file photo)

The Homel regional court in southeastern Belarus has sentenced two activists, Syarhey Plyahskun and Yury Selvich, to 16 and 14 years in prison, respectively, on multiple charges, including terrorism, extremism, and sabotage. The two men were arrested in March 2022 on suspicion of planning to damage railways in the region to disrupt the movement of Russian military equipment to the ongoing war in Ukraine via Belarus. Investigators say the two men allegedly purchased components to make Molotov cocktails and explosives to implement the plan. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

Minsk Court Sentences Polish-Belarusian Activist Poczobut To Eight Years In Prison

Andrzej Poczobut (center) attends a court hearing last month.

MINSK -- A court in Minsk has sentenced a leader of the Polish-Belarusian community, noted journalist Andrzej Poczobut, to eight years in prison for criticizing Belarus's authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and his regime.

The Hrodna regional court in the country's west sentenced the 49-year-old activist and journalist on February 8 on charges of public calls for actions directed at harming the country's national security, distributing materials containing such calls, and inciting hatred.

The trial was held behind closed doors.

Poczobut, who is a correspondent for the respected Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, was arrested in March 2021 amid rising tensions between Minsk and Warsaw following the brutal suppression of mass protests against Lukashenka after he claimed a landslide victory in a 2020 presidential election.

The Belarusian opposition claimed the election was rigged in favor of Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994.

Relations between Poland and Belarus worsened further after a migrant crisis on their shared border at the end of 2021, which Warsaw blamed on Minsk, and after Lukashenka allowed Moscow to use its territory as a launching pad for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The European Union, the United States, and other countries have imposed sanctions against Lukashenka's regime following the crackdown on protesters.

The Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) rights group has included Poczobut on its list of 1,440 political prisoners in Belarus, and Poland has demanded his release.

Poland, along with most of Europe and many other countries around the world, has criticized Lukashenka, and has provided sanctuary for Belarusian opposition leaders and activists.

Kazakh Court Rejects Jailed Dissident’s Appeal Of Decision To Deny Early Release

Kazakh dissident Ermek Narymbaev has been jailed several times for his political views (file photo)

QONAEV, Kazakhstan -- The Almaty regional court in southern Kazakhstan has rejected an appeal filed by noted dissident Ermek Narymbaev (aka Narymbai) against a lower court's refusal to grant him an early release.

Narymbaev's lawyer, Zhanar Balghabaeva, told RFE/RL on February 8 that the court was unable to clearly explain its decision in the courtroom and expressed hope that proper justification would be shown in the court's written decision, which has yet to reach her client.

The Qonaev city court near Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, ruled on December 14 that Narymbaev did not deserve an early release on parole due to a violation of internal regulations allegedly committed by the activist at the penal colony where he is incarcerated.

Narymbaev has been jailed several times for his political views and is known as a staunch critic of the tightly controlled former Soviet republic's government.

He fled Kazakhstan in 2016 for Ukraine after receiving death threats from unknown individuals. Narymbaev said at the time that the threats were masterminded by Kazakh authorities in a bid to intimidate him.

He returned to Kazakhstan in February 2022 after unprecedented anti-government rallies shook the Central Asian nation the month before, leaving at least 238 people dead.

He was arrested upon his arrival in Almaty and sent to prison for 30 months to serve the remainder of a previous suspended prison term he was given in 2015 on a charge of inciting hatred, which he called politically motivated.

In October and November, Narymbaev held a hunger strike for 54 days to protest against his incarceration. He also demanded democratic reforms from the government. He lost 41 kilograms during the hunger strike.

Iranian Protester, Focus Of Torture Reports, Released After Four Months

Iranian protester Armita Abbasi (file photo)

Iranian protester Armita Abbasi, who media reports said was tortured and raped while in detention after being identified as a "leader" of protests sparked by the death of a young woman while in policy custody for an alleged head scarf violation, has been released from prison.

"We experienced a very difficult time, but now I am extremely happy," Abbasi’s father wrote in a social media post along with a video of his 20-year-old daughter next to him.


Armita Abbasi’s lawyer, Shahla Orouji, said last week that a court accused her client of “propaganda against the Islamic republic” and “gathering and conspiring to commit a crime against national security.”

Abbasi was arrested on October 10 in her hometown of Karaj, west of the Iranian capital, nearly a month into the nationwide protests triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody in September.

The Iranian government claimed she was “the leader of the riots” and that police discovered “10 Molotov cocktails” in her apartment.

In November, CNN published an investigative report about the sexual assault and rape of some of the detainees from recent protests, including Abbasi, while they were being held in prisons across Iran.

A source told CNN that Abbasi was rushed to the Imam Ali hospital in Karaj on October 17, accompanied by plainclothes officers while “her head had been shaved and she was shaking violently.”

“In the accounts, the medical staff attending to her spoke of the horror they felt when they saw evidence of brutal rape,” CNN added.

Neither Abassi, her family, nor her lawyer have publicly commented on the report.

Earlier in January, Abbasi and 14 other Iranian women incarcerated in the Kachoui prison near Tehran reportedly went on a hunger strike to protest the conditions of their imprisonment and the lack of medical attention at the facility.

At that time, her mother wrote on her Instagram account that, because of her daughter’s hunger strike, prison authorities were no longer allowing her to call her family. She also said the court did not accept the lawyer representing her daughter.

Since Amini's death, Iranians have flooded into the streets across the country to protest against a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls making unprecedented shows of support in the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said that, as of January 29, at least 527 people had been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.

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

Prominent Iranian Figures To Discuss The Future Of The Democracy Movement In Their Country

The Iranian oppositionists will meet at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (file photo)

Eight prominent Iranian opposition figures have announced they will meet this week at Georgetown University to discuss the future of the country's pro-democracy movement amid a wave of protests following the September 16 death of a young woman while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.

Rights activist Masih Alinejad, the exiled former crown prince of Iran Reza Pahlavi, the spokesman for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims Hamed Esmaeilion, and rights activist Nazanin Boniadi will be present at the February 10 meeting.

Four others, including Nobel laureate lawyer Shirin Ebadi, renowned Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, leader of the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan Abdullah Mohtadi and former captain of Iran’s national soccer team Ali Karimi will join the meeting online.


According to the announcement published by Washington, D.C.-based Georgetown University, the eight are going to sit together in a meeting called “The Future of Iran’s Democracy Movement.”

The meeting comes amid months of pressure from Iranian opposition politicians and protesters, who have demanded that the Islamic republic's leadership step down.

Iranian social media users welcomed news of the meeting, with many calling for the leaders to form an alliance to unify forces battling to change the system.

The news comes amid nationwide protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. The 22-year-old died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious "morality police" for "improperly" wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf, or hijab.

Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country. The authorities have responded to the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.

Officials, who have blamed 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

Uzbek Authorities Detain Man Suspected Of Organizing Illegal Migration To The U.S.

Uzbekistan's State Security Service (DXX) said on February 7 that its department in the southeastern region of Samarkand had arrested a 27-year-old resident of the city of Bukhara on a charge of organizing illegal immigration to the United States via Mexico and the European Union. The DXX did not disclose the suspect's identity, saying he was caught while receiving $3,000 in cash, the fifth part of a requested fee from a client. Uzbek authorities said in December that they arrested two men on similar charges. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.

Updated

MH17 Investigators Close Probe Despite 'Strong Indications' Of Putin's Involvement

Local workers transport a piece of wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in the Donetsk region, where the plane was shot down in 2014, killing all 298 people on board.

International investigators say there are "strong indications" that Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally involved in the 2014 downing of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine, parts of which were controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, but that a lack of concrete evidence meant they were putting an end to their eight-year probe into the tragedy.

The Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was blown out of the sky on July 17, 2014, amid a conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian armed forces. All 298 people on board the airliner died in the crash. The victims came from more than a dozen countries, although more than two-thirds of them were Dutch citizens.

Russia has denied any involvement in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17).

Even though the probe resulted in some convictions, prosecutor Digna van Boetzelaer told journalists in The Hague on February 8 that the investigation "has now reached its limit.”

“There are strong indications that the Russian president decided on supplying the Buk [missile system] to the [Russia-backed] separatists. This is the conclusion of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) in its investigation into those responsible in the Russian Federation for the downing of flight MH17 with a Buk missile” van Boetzelaer said.

During the news conference, the investigators backed up the claim by playing a recording of a telephone call from an adviser who appears to make a thinly veiled reference to Putin, saying a delay in sending the weapons used was "because there is only one who makes a decision...,the person who is currently at a summit in France."

"Although a lot of new information has been discovered about various people involved, the evidence is at the moment not concrete enough to lead to new prosecutions," van Boetzelaer added.

In November last year, a Dutch court convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison two Russians and one pro-Moscow Ukrainian separatist for their role in the shooting down of the passenger plane. They had been tried in absentia

The three men convicted were former Russian intelligence agents Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov) and Sergei Dubinsky, and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian separatist leader. All three are believed to be currently in Russia.

The court concluded that the three men had helped to arrange the transport into Ukraine of the Russian military Buk missile system that was used to shoot down the plane.

The fourth defendant, Russian Oleg Pulatov, the only suspect represented by defense lawyers at the trial, was acquitted due to a lack of evidence.

Russia called the trial "scandalous" and said the court's ruling was "politically motivated," insisting that the court was under "unprecedented pressure" from Dutch politicians, prosecutors, and media.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said after the decision to end the investigation into the incident was announced that the news was a "bitter disappointment." He added that the Dutch government would continue to call for Russia to be held to account for the "tragedy."

Well-Known Kyrgyz Political Activist Nazarbek Nyshanov Detained

Kyrgyz political activist Nazarbek Nyshanov (file photo)

The well-known Kyrgyz political activist and government critic Nazarbek Nyshanov has been detained on a charge of making public calls to forcibly seize power, the State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said on February 8. According to the UKMK, Nyshanov was detained two days earlier. Nyshanov's representatives and relatives have yet to comment on the statement. Nyshanov is known for his criticism of the current and previous governments, as well as for his political ambitions and attempts to get registered as a candidate for presidential elections since 2005. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Georgian Officials Detain Man Suspected Of Bank Robbery, Hostage-Taking

On October 21, 2020, a masked gunman wearing military fatigues took 43 people hostage at a branch of the Bank of Georgia in the western city of Zugdidi. Georgia's Interior Ministry identifies the suspect as Badri Esebua (right). (composite photo)

TBILISI -- Georgia's Interior Ministry says its officers have detained a man suspected of an attempted bank robbery in October 2020 that turned into a hostage-taking situation.

In a statement on February 8, the ministry said the suspect, Badri Esebua, born in 1988, was apprehended early in the morning as he tried to cross the administrative boundary of Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Esebua is accused of illegal arms possession, terrorism, and hostage-taking and may face up to 15 years in prison if convicted, the statement said.

On October 21, 2020, a masked gunman wearing military fatigues took 43 people hostage at a branch of the Bank of Georgia in the western city of Zugdidi.

He initially released 24 of the hostages and then, after an almost 12-hour standoff with police that stretched into the evening, he left the bank premises with four persons, including three hostages and the head of the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti Police Department, Avtandil Galdava, who had been acting as a negotiator. He also reportedly demanded $500,000 and a guarantee to leave the area safely.

The four were released later, while the suspect escaped with an unknown amount of cash and remained at large until his arrest on February 8.

In December 2020, police arrested Esebua’s brother for the illegal purchase and possession of firearms and ammunition. He was found guilty and sentenced by a court to four years in prison in July 2021.

U.S. To Lift Sanctions On Russian Sberbank's Former Subsidiary In Kazakhstan

The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the subsidiary in February 2022 in response to Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The U.S. Treasury Department plans to lift sanctions imposed on the former Russian Sberbank subsidiary in Kazakhstan, Bereke Bank. The U.S. Treasury Department said on February 7 that it will lift the sanctions on March 6. Kazakhstan's state-owned Baiterek financial holding group bought the Sberbank's Kazakh subsidiary in August 2022. The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the subsidiary in February 2022 in response to Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Kazakh Website Editor Receives Box Containing Meat And Photos Of Her Children

The box was delivered to the website's office on February 8.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- The chief editor of the Ulysmedia.kz news website in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, says she received a box from unknown people that contained a hunk of meat and pictures of her children, a parcel she called a new attempt "to intimidate" her and her staff.

Samal Ibraeva told RFE/RL that the box was delivered to the website's office on February 8. She linked the box's delivery to the professional activities of her team, which she said has been the target of other intimidation attempts.

On January 18, Ulysmedia.kz had to suspend its operations following a hacking attack. Ibraeva said at the time that the attack was most likely linked to the website's work, adding that it had faced several previous similar attacks.

The incident comes at a time when the independent press in Kazakhstan is coming under pressure.

The Almaty-based Adil Soz (A Just Word) group, which monitors journalists' rights, said earlier that there have been at least five attacks against journalists in the Central Asian nation since January 1.

The subjects of the attacks, including Ulysmedia.kz, have been writing and reporting about Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the first anniversary of the violent dispersal of anti-government protests in Kazakhstan that turned into mass unrest that left at least 238 people, including 19 law enforcement officers, dead.

On January 20, presidential spokesman Ruslan Zheldibai said President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, who has initiated a series of changes since last year's deadly protests aimed at creating what he calls a "new Kazakhstan," has ordered law enforcement to investigate each attack against journalists.

Ibraeva said to RFE/RL on February 8 that, despite the presidential order to investigate the attacks, it remains unclear who is behind the assaults.

International human rights watchdogs and the embassies of several Western nations have urged Kazakh authorities to investigate the attacks.

Kazakh Court Convicts Five Dead Men Killed During 2022 Anti-Government Unrest

The men's relatives protested near the courtroom after the verdicts were announced, saying that their loved ones were victims of police and security officers who opened fire on protesters.

A court in Kazakhstan's southern city of Taraz has posthumously convicted five men who were shot dead during unprecedented anti-government protests in January 2022. The five were convicted of illegal weapons possession and taking part in mass unrest. The men's relatives protested near the courtroom after the verdicts were announced, saying that their loved ones were victims of police and security officers who opened fire on protesters following a presidential order "to shoot to kill without warning." At least 238 people, including 19 law enforcement officers, were killed across Kazakhstan during the protests. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Estonian Intelligence Service Warns Of 'Security Risks' From Russia

(Left to right) Lithuania's President Gitanas Nauseda, Polish President Andrzej Duda, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Latvian President Egils Levits, and Estonia's President Alar Karis pose for a picture during their meeting in Kyiv on April 13.

The Estonian intelligence service said in its annual report on February 8 that Russia remains capable of exerting “credible military pressure” in the Baltic region, presenting a medium- and long-term security risk. Although the Russian military is currently engaged in its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, “Russia’s belligerence and foreign policy ambitions have significantly increased security risks for Estonia,” the report stated. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Russian Prosecutor Seeks 23 Years In Prison For Former Khabarovsk Governor Sergei Furgal

Sergei Furgal in court in Moscow on February 8.

The prosecutor at the high-profile murder trial of Sergei Furgal, the former governor of the Far Eastern Khabarovsk Krai region whose arrest in 2020 caused months-long protests in the region, has asked a Moscow court to sentence the politician to 23 years in prison.

The prosecutor on February 8 also asked the Lyubertsy City Court, which held the trial in the building of the Moscow regional court, to sentence Furgal's three co-defendants -- Marat Kadyrov, Andrei Palei, and Andrei Karepov -- to 10 1/2, five, and 17 years in prison, respectively.

On February 2, a jury found Furgal guilty of attempted murder and of ordering two killings in 2004 and 2005. The prosecutor claimed that decisions to commit the murders were driven by the commercial interests of Furgal and his accomplices. Investigators said Kadyrov was the actual perpetrator of the crime.

Furgal has stressed his innocence several times in court. He and his supporters insist that the case against him is politically motivated.

In his closing remarks, the ex-governor noted that 100 witnesses were brought forward by the defense but that only two were interrogated, while the rest were not admitted. In addition, he alleged the investigation hid material evidence.

Furgal, a member of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, was elected in 2018 in a runoff that he won handily against the region’s longtime incumbent from the Kremlin-backed ruling United Russia party.

His arrest on July 9, 2020, sparked mass protests in Khabarovsk Krai's capital, Khabarovsk, and several other towns and cities in the region.

The protests were held almost daily for many months, highlighting growing discontent in the Far East over what demonstrators see as Moscow-dominated policies that often neglect their views and interests.

With reporting by Meduza and TASS

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