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FBI Reports: Saddam's Weapons Bluff Aimed At Iran

Saddam Hussein addresses the court during his trial in Baghdad in November 2006
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Saddam Hussein believed Iran was a significant threat to Iraq and left open the possibility that he had weapons of mass destruction rather than appear vulnerable, according to declassified FBI documents on interrogations of the former Iraqi leader.

"Hussein believed that Iraq could not appear weak to its enemies, especially Iran," FBI special agent George Piro wrote on notes of a conversation with Saddam in June 2004 about weapons of mass destruction.

He believed Iraq was being threatened by others in the region and must appear able to defend itself, the report said.

The FBI reports, released on July 1, said Saddam asserted that he was more concerned about Iran discovering Iraq's weaknesses and vulnerabilities than the repercussions of the United States for blocking the return of UN weapons inspectors who were searching for WMD.

"In his opinion, the UN inspectors would have directly identified to the Iranians where to inflict maximum damage to Iraq," according to the documents obtained and released by the National Security Archive, a nongovernmental research institute.

Saddam began a bloody border war with Iran in 1980 that lasted until 1988, during which Iraq used chemical weapons.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush launched the Iraq war in 2003, citing a threat of weapons of mass destruction from Saddam's government, but no such weapons were ever found.

FBI special agents carried out 20 formal interviews and at least five "casual conversations" with the former Iraqi leade after his capture by U.S. troops in December 2003, according to the documents.

Saddam, identified as "High Value Detainee #1," shared Bush's hostility towards the "fanatic" Iranian mullahs, according to the FBI records of conversations from February through June 2004 between Saddam and Arabic-speaking agents in his detention cell at Baghdad International Airport.

Saddam also denied any connections to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who he called a "zealot," and cited North Korea as his most likely ally in a crunch, according to the documents.

He also takes personal responsibility for ordering the launching of SCUD missiles against Israeli targets during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, because he blamed Israel and its influence in the United States for "all the problems of the Arabs," the reports said.

During the interviews, Saddam rejects some examples of what he viewed as myths, like his purported use of body doubles. According to the notes, Saddam said he could recall using the telephone only twice since March 1990 and that he communicated primarily through couriers.

Saddam was executed in December 2006 after being convicted of crimes against humanity by an Iraqi court for the killing of 148 Shi'ite men and boys following a 1982 assassination attempt.

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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 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, 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, 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

Russian Police Launch Probe Into Alleged Fraud At Shelter Where Mutilated Dogs Found

Some 60 dogs were found dead and mutilated at the shelter in December.

Police in Russia's southwestern city of Astrakhan have launched a probe into alleged financial fraud after investigating the operations of an animal shelter where some 60 dogs were found dead and mutilated in December. The Investigative Committee said on February 7 that the shelter is suspected of embezzling 28 million rubles ($392,000) allocated by the authorities to catch stray dogs, provide them with medical assistance, and find homes for them. No names were mentioned. The shelter is owned by the wife of a former Astrakhan city lawmaker, Andrei Nevlyudov. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Self-Exiled Pussy Riot Member Charged With Discrediting Russian Armed Forces

Lyusya Shtein (left) with her partner and founding member of Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Moscow municipal lawmaker Lyusya Shtein, who is also a member of the Pussy Riot protest group, has been charged in absentia with discrediting the Russian armed forces.

Media reports in Russia quoted sources as saying that the case launched against Shtein is linked to her online posts last March about Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Shtein told Meduza on February 7 that she learned about the probe against her from those media reports, adding that neither she nor her lawyer had been officially informed about the case.

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.

In May, the Interior Ministry added Shtein to its wanted list for violating a parole-like sentence she was handed in August 2021 for violating coronavirus safety precautions by calling on people to protest against the detention of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.

The outspoken critic of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine left Russia in April after her apartment door was marked with a Z-shaped sticker inscribed with the slogan: "Collaborator. Do Not Sell Motherland," in an apparent attempt to intimidate her.

Many Russian military vehicles and tanks have been marked with the letter Z during the ongoing invasion, with the insignia becoming an increasingly ubiquitous symbol of support for the war, for the military, for the Kremlin’s policies, and most of all for President Vladimir Putin.

Shtein's partner and a founding member of Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina, also fled Russia last year after a Moscow court changed the remainder of her one-year parole-like sentence to real prison time, saying she had violated the terms of her punishment.

Shtein, Alyokhina, and other members of the protest group were sentenced to up 15 days in jail several times in 2021-22 over taking part in protest actions and unsanctioned rallies.

Pussy Riot came to prominence after three of its members were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for a stunt in which they burst into Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral and sang a "punk prayer" against Putin, who was prime minister at the time and campaigning for his subsequent return to the Kremlin.

Alyokhina and bandmate Nadezhda Tolokonnikova had almost completed serving their two-year prison sentences when they were freed in December 2013 under an amnesty. The two have dismissed the move as a propaganda stunt by Putin to improve his image ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics that were held in the Russian resort city of Sochi.

With reporting by RIA Novosti and Meduza

Russian Officer Who Brandished Alleged Ukrainian Skull Dies Of Gunshot Wound

A video showing Mangushev holding the skull of what he said was a Ukrainian soldier circulated around the Internet and sparked an outcry in Ukraine.

Russian Army officer Igor Mangushev, who gained prominence last year for speaking on stage holding what he said was the skull of a Ukrainian soldier while calling for the death of "as many Ukrainian soldiers as necessary," has died in a hospital after sustaining a gunshot wound to his head.

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.

Mangushev's associate, Akim Apachev, said on February 8 that the anti-Ukraine propagandist had been in a coma since being shot on February 4 at a checkpoint near the town of Kadiyivka in a part of Ukraine's Luhansk region, which is controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

It remains unclear who shot Mangushev and why. Some media reports say he was shot at close proximity.

Last August, a video showing Mangushev holding the skull of what he said was a Ukrainian soldier at a concert circulated around the Internet and sparked an outcry in Ukraine.

Mangushev said in the video that the skull belonged to a Ukrainian soldier who had been killed during Russia's invasion of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. He added that Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February 2022, was fighting against "the idea of Ukraine as an anti-Russia state," adding that "all who support that idea must be eliminated."

It has not been independently verified whether the skull actually belonged to a Ukrainian soldier.

After the video appeared on the Internet, Kyiv turned to the United Nations, asking it to condemn the video.

Mangushev positioned himself as a Russian military officer, a political strategist, and an associate of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-linked founder and leader of the Wagner private mercenary group.

Media reports also said that Mangushev was a co-founder of another mercenary group called ENOT (United People's Communal Fellowships) that was involved in Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and military operations in Ukraine’s east and Syria.

With reporting by RIA Novosti and Kommersant

Fire Breaks Out At Russian Oil Refinery Near Ukrainian Border

A fire broke out on February 8 at an oil refinery in Russia's southern Rostov region near the border with Ukraine, state media reported. The fire was extinguished around an hour later, Interfax news agency reported, adding that the small refinery belonged to a company called Resource LLC. It cited the Emergency Service as saying that, according to preliminary information, the blaze was caused by a "violation of technological process." Novoshakhtinsk is about 9 kilometers from the Ukrainian border amid Russia's invasion of that country. Another refinery in Novoshakhtinsk was struck by two drones last June. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Security Forces Raid Hideout Of Pakistani Taliban; 12 Militants Reported Killed

The Pakistani Taliban has a strong presence in Lakki Marwat, where they have launched multiple attacks in recent months. (file photo)

Security forces acting on intelligence raided a hideout of Pakistani Taliban insurgents along the border with Afghanistan, triggering an intense shootout that left 12 militants dead, the country’s military said on February 8. The predawn raid came amid soaring tensions in Pakistan and in the aftermath of a mosque bombing last week that killed 101 people in Peshawar. Pakistani officials blamed the blast on the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, which denied involvement. The Pakistani Taliban has a strong presence in Lakki Marwat, where they have launched multiple attacks in recent months. To read the original story from AP, click here.

Russia To Seek Arbitration With U.S. Over Visas For UN Diplomats

Moscow says it will pursue arbitration after accusing the United States of failing to issue visas to Russian delegates to the United Nations. Russia’s Foreign Ministry also accused Washington of restricting the movements of Russian diplomats in the United States. “The U.S. is raising doubts about the validity of its right to retain its status as host state for the UN headquarters,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Pyotr Ilichyov told Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency. A U.S. State Department spokesperson in September responded to similar complaints by saying the United States takes its obligations seriously. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.


Ukraine's Zelenskiy Visits U.K. As London Expected To Announce New Military Aid

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) walks with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak after his arrival in the U.K. on February 8.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has arrived in the United Kingdom for talks with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, his second known trip abroad since Russia's unprovoked invasion of his country one year ago.

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.

“We will continue to support Ukraine to ensure a decisive military victory on the battlefield this year,” Sunak told parliament.

Sunak’s office said Zelenskiy will visit Ukrainian troops training in Britain on February 8 and address the British Parliament. Additionally, Buckingham Palace said Zelenskiy would meet with King Charles.

Sunak was expected to announce expanded training for the Ukrainian military, including training for fighter jet pilots and marines. The training for pilots would ensure they are able to fly NATO-standard fighters in the future, the statement said.

For months, Kyiv has been urging the West to increase its military support, including the possibility of providing fighter jets.

The United States, Britain, Germany, and other Western allies recently relented and approved sending hundreds of battle tanks, amored vehicles, and other heavy weaponry to Ukraine amid expectations that Russia is gearing up for a new major offensive, possibly as early as this month.

“President Zelenskiy’s visit to the U.K. is a testament to his country’s courage, determination, and fight, and a testament to the unbreakable friendship between our two countries,” Sunak was quoted as saying.

Britain also announced additional sanctions targeting individuals and companies that “are profiting from the Kremlin’s war machine.” The sanctions targeted Russian drone manufacturer CST; RT-Komplekt, a Russian producer of helicopter parts; and software developer Topaz.

“These new sanctions accelerate the economic pressure on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, undermining his war machine to help Ukraine prevail,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said.

Oil executive Nikolai Yegorov and Sergei Rudnov, owner of the pro-Kremlin Regnum news agency, were also targeted.

In all, over 1,300 individuals and entities have been sanctioned by Britain over the invasion of Ukraine.

Zelenskiy's visit comes shortly after U.S. President Joe Biden, in his annual State of the Union address to Congress, pledged U.S. support for Ukraine’s war against invading Russia for “as long as it takes.”

In a post on Twitter, Zelenskiy thanked Biden for his “powerful words of support.”

“Our values are the same, our common goal is victory,” Zelenskiy wrote.

Zelenskiy’s visit to Britain will be his first since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. He visited the United States and addressed Congress in December.

On February 7, Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark pledged to provide more than 100 Leopard 1 battle tanks. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said 20 to 25 of the tanks would arrive by summer, about 80 by the end of the year, and at least 100 more in 2024. The three countries also promised to provide necessary training and support for the tanks.

In an interview with RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, Ukrainian lawmaker Roman Kostenko, head of the parliament’s National Security Committee, said Russia was planning a new offensive in the eastern Donbas region and possibly in another “diversionary” area.

“The enemy is preparing an offensive,” Kostenko said. “Whether he will be able to attack or not remains to be seen.”

Russian forces carried out air strikes in the city of Kharkiv during the night, the head of the regional administration, Oleh Synyehubov, said. The strikes targeted an industrial area of the city and ignited a large fire. No casualties were reported.

Russian military officials said the strike targeted a “workshop” for upgrading drones.

With reporting by Reuters

Biden Calls Russia's 'Murderous Assault' Against Ukraine A 'Test For The Ages,' Says U.S. Will Stand With Kyiv

"Putin's invasion has been a test for the ages, a test for America, a test for the world," U.S. President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress on February 7.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States is united in its support for Ukraine as it opposes the "murderous assault" of Russia's invasion and that Washington will stand with Ukraine "as long as it takes."

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.

Speaking during his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, Biden said his government united NATO, built a global coalition, and stood against the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"We stood with the Ukrainian people," he said, as Kyiv's ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, looked on from the gallery.

"She represents not just her nation, but the courage of her people," Biden said.

The United States and other NATO allies have provided billions of dollars in military aid, including air-defense systems, to bolster Ukrainian forces. U.S. and European Union sanctions have also sought to impose a financial cost on Russia.

Biden noted that his address to lawmakers last year came days after Putin launched what Biden called a "brutal attack against Ukraine" and a test for the world.

"I spoke from this chamber one year ago, just days after Vladimir Putin unleashed his brutal attack against Ukraine -- a murderous assault, evoking images of the death and destruction Europe suffered in World War II," Biden said. "Putin's invasion has been a test for the ages, a test for America, a test for the world."

"Would we stand for the most basic of principles? Would we stand for sovereignty? Would we stand for the right of people to live free from tyranny? Would we stand for the defense of democracy?" Biden asked. "One year later, we know the answer: Yes, we would, and we did. We did."

WATCH: The Russian invasion of Ukraine evokes "images of the death and destruction Europe suffered in World War II," U.S. President Joe Biden said.

Biden: U.S. To Stand With Ukraine 'As Long As It Takes'
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Biden called Putin's invasion a test for America that showed it would stand for the defense of democracy.

"Such a defense matters to us because it keeps the peace and prevents open season for would-be aggressors to threaten our security and prosperity," he said.

Some Republicans have been skeptical of military aid to Ukraine, but that was not the case when Republicans in the chamber, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, appeared to strongly support Biden's remarks.

"I have to say, I saw a lot more support coming from the Republican side of the aisle when he was speaking about Ukraine, particularly at the moment when he said, 'We are in it as long as it takes,'" Elizabeth Shackelford of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs told VOA.

"This is something that we have heard the Republican Party push back on specifically, saying that there wasn't a blank check for Ukraine," she added.

Late last year, Congress passed a spending bill that included $45 billion for Ukraine and NATO allies, which many House Republicans, including McCarthy, opposed.

Biden said the United States faces serious challenges around the world, but that in the past two years, democracies have become stronger while autocracies have grown weaker.

He did not mention Iran or Afghanistan in his remarks. Republicans have criticized his administration for trying to revive a nuclear deal with Tehran, as well as what they argued was a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Days after a Chinese surveillance balloon drifted across American airspace, leading to the cancellation of a high-profile trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Biden outlined where he sees the relationship with Beijing now.

The president said he remains open to working with China "where it can advance American interests and benefit the world."

"But make no mistake about it," he said. "As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country, and we did."

Some Republicans criticized Biden for not ordering the balloon shot down earlier as it traversed the country.

Biden argued that his administration had changed the narrative about how "the People's Republic of China is increasing its power and America was failing in the world."

"Not anymore," he said. "We made clear and I made clear in my personal conversations which have been many with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict."

With reporting by Cindy Saine of VOA

U.S. Charges Associate Of Russian Oligarch With Sanctions Evasion, Money Laundering

Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg (file photo)

U.S. prosecutors have charged fugitive Russian citizen Vladimir Voronchenko with facilitating a sanctions evasion and money-laundering scheme connected to the assets of Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

Voronchenko, who portrayed himself as a successful businessman, art dealer, and collector, and as a close friend of Vekselberg is accused of participating in the scheme in an indictment unsealed in federal court on February 7, the Justice Department said in a statement.

Washington imposed sanctions on Vekselberg in 2018 over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and again in 2022 over his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Voronchenko, 70, was accused of participating in the scheme by making payments to maintain four U.S. properties that were owned by Vekselberg, the Justice Department’s statement said.

Voronchenko was also charged with contempt of court for failing to comply with a grand jury subpoena requiring his personal appearance and testimony, the Justice Department added.

Federal agents served the subpoena in May. About nine days later, Voronchenko took a flight from Miami, Florida, to Dubai, and then went to Moscow, prosecutors said.

Before he was designated for sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), Vekselberg, a billionaire with ties to Russia’s mining industry, bought several properties in the United States through a series of shell companies.

The value of the four properties, including an apartment on Park Avenue in New York City and apartments on Fisher Island, Florida, is approximately $75 million. Federal agents searched the properties in September.

Voronchenko’s role in the scheme involved the hiring of an attorney in New York City in connection with the purchase of the properties, the Justice Department said. The attorney also managed the finances of the properties, including the payment of property taxes and other fees using U.S. dollar transactions from the attorney’s account.

U.S. prosecutors allege in the indictment that shell companies owned by Vekselberg sent approximately 90 wire transfers totaling approximately $18.5 million to the attorney’s account. At the direction of Voronchenko and his family member who lived in Russia, the attorney used the funds to make various U.S. dollar payments to maintain and service the properties.

After Vekselberg’s initial designation for sanctions in 2018, the source of the funds used to maintain and service the properties changed, and the attorney’s account began to receive wires from a bank account in the Bahamas held in the name of a shell company controlled by Voronchenko, Smile Holding, and from a Russian bank account held in the name of a Russian national related to Voronchenko.

Voronchenko is charged with conspiring to violate and evade U.S. sanctions, violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), conspiring to commit international money laundering, and international money laundering. Each of the charges carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

In a related indictment unsealed on January 20, the U.S. government said it charged two businessmen -- one Russian and one Briton -- with facilitating a sanctions evasion and money-laundering scheme in relation to a superyacht belonging to Vekselberg.

Spanish police seized the yacht following a request from the United States, which alleged that the vessel violated U.S. bank fraud, money-laundering, and sanctions statutes.

With reporting by Reuters

U.S. Approves Sale Of HIMARS Rocket Launchers, Ammunition To Poland

The package includes 18 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers. (file photo)

The U.S. State Department has approved the potential sale of long-range missiles and rockets to Poland in a deal valued at up to $10 billion, the Pentagon said on February 7. The sale comes as Kyiv praised U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) rocket launchers for battlefield successes such as destroying Russian warehouses and command posts. The package includes 18 HIMARS launchers, 45 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) missiles, and more than 1,000 Guided Multiple Rocket Launch System (GMLRS) rockets. Poland would not be able to transfer any of its ATACMS to Ukraine without approval from the United States. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Russia Asks Pink Floyd's Roger Waters To Speak At UN On Arms Shipments To Ukraine

Former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters (file photo)

Russia has asked Roger Waters, co-founder of the rock band Pink Floyd, to speak to the UN Security Council on February 8 at a meeting to discuss the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. Waters was criticized by supporters of Ukraine when he published an open letter in September arguing against the Western supply of weapons to Kyiv. "Let's see what he will say. He has a position and you will hear it tomorrow," said Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzia. The Security Council has met dozens of times since Russia invaded Ukraine but has been unable to take any action because Russia has veto power. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Fire Breaks Out At Drone-Making Factory In Latvia

Fire engines are seen at the site of a blaze that broke out at a drone factory on the outskirts of Latvia's capital, Riga, on February 7.

A fire broke out on February 7 at a drone factory in Latvia that has built drones for Ukraine's military and NATO allies. Two dozen police cars, nine fire engines, and five ambulances rushed to the scene of the fire at the factory run by the U.S. company Edge Autonomy on the outskirts of Riga. The cause of the blaze was not known and no injuries were reported. "A high-risk fire has occurred in the production building, sparking a lot of smoke," the fire department said on Twitter, urging local residents to keep their doors and windows closed.


Explosion In Residential Building Kills At Least Five In Russia

According to authorities, the explosion was caused by a gas leak and destroyed three levels of a five-story building.

An explosion in a residential building in Russia's western Tula region has killed at least five people. Emergency Department officials in the town of Yefremov said on February 7 that rescue teams continue to look for survivors or bodies at the site. According to the authorities, the explosion was caused by a gas leak and destroyed three levels of 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.

Ukraine 'Disappointed' With Georgian Court's Rejection Of Saakashvili's Release Request

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (file photo)

KYIV-- Ukraine has expressed concerns over a court decision in Tbilisi rejecting an appeal to release former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who holds Ukrainian citizenship, from prison on health grounds.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry called on Georgian authorities in a statement on February 7 "to stop settling political scores with a Ukrainian citizen and ensure compliance with his rights and hand him over to Ukraine."

A day earlier, Judge Giorgi Arevadze rejected Saakashvili's request to suspend his sentence, a move Saakashvili called a "death sentence" handed to him by his political opponents.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said it was "disappointed with the decision of the Tbilisi City Court."

"The court did not take into account the doctors' conclusions regarding the severity of Mikheil Saakashvili's illness," the statement said.

Saakashvili, who was Georgia’s president from 2004 to 2013, is serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power, a charge that he and his supporters say was politically motivated.

Family members and his lawyers have warned for months that Saakashvili’s health condition has been deteriorating even as he receives treatment in a private clinic in Tbilisi.

His medical team says his health has worsened significantly since he went to prison in October 2021 and staged repeated hunger strikes to protest his incarceration.

Saakashvili's legal team has also asserted that he was "poisoned" with heavy metals while in custody.

During a hearing last week, he asked for “the opportunity for adequate treatment” by having his sentence suspended so he could be transferred abroad for more intensive care.

But Georgian officials have raised doubts about how critical his health situation is.

Saakashvili is currently on trial on separate charges of violently dispersing an anti-government rally in November 2007 and illegal border crossing.


Moscow Court Upholds Decision To Withdraw Novaya Gazeta Newspaper's License

Novaya gazeta suspended publication online and in print after Russia introduced strict new censorship laws. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- The Moscow City Court has upheld the decision of a lower court to withdraw the licenses of the Novaya gazeta newspaper and its Novaya rasskaz-gazeta magazine, two of the last independent media outlets in the country, amid a crackdown on the free press during the Kremlin's war against Ukraine.

The court ruled on February 7 that the decision to withdraw the media outlets’ licenses by the Basmanny district court in September was correct and cannot be changed.

In November, Russian authorities blocked access to Novaya gazeta's website. Previous to that, the newspaper in March was forced to suspend publication online and in print after Russia introduced strict new censorship laws.

Shortly after the Moscow City Court pronounced its decision, Kirill Martynov, the chief editor of Novaya gazeta's project in the EU, Novaya gazeta. Europe, condemned the ruling.

"The court in Moscow just destroyed Novaya gazeta, Russia's oldest independent media outlet. We always opposed to war, our six journalists were murdered and our editor-in-chief received the Nobel Peace Prize a few months before Putin invaded Ukraine. It will not end like this," Martynov wrote on Twitter.

Russian authorities have used courts to intensify pressure on the free press since the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February last year.

Novaya gazeta was founded in part with money from former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and had been one of the most respected publications in post-Soviet Russia since 1993. It suspended operations inside the country in March after being forced to remove material from its website on Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine.

Some members of the paper’s staff left Russia after it stopped publishing and launched the newspaper's new project Novaya gazeta. Europe from Latvia's capital, Riga. Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has blocked that website inside Russia as well.

Novaya gazeta’s chief editor Dmitry Muratov, a 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has remained in Russia despite his vocal opposition to the conflict in Ukraine.

Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Moscow quickly adopted a law criminalizing the dissemination of “false” information that “discredits the armed forces.” The law has been central to a massive crackdown against dissent over the war in Russia.

Rights Watchdog Calls Iranian Government's Anniversary Celebrations 'Shameful,' Banners Burned

Months of unrest sparked have posed the greatest threat to Iran's leadership since the Islamic Revolution. (file photo)

Protesters in several Iranian cities, including the capital, Tehran, have set fire to government banners commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution as rights group Amnesty International chided the country's leaders for "decades of mass killings and cover-ups."

Months of unrest sparked by the death on September 16 of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old who died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious morality police for allegedly not wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf properly, have posed the greatest threat to the Islamic leadership since the revolution.

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.

Amnesty called the anniversary celebrations "shameful" amid decades of mass killings and cover-ups by authorities, including the current brutal treatment of protesters since Amini's death, as well as the 1988 prison massacre that saw thousands of Iranian political prisoners and others killed in mass executions across the country.

“The authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran have maintained an iron grip on power for decades through the commission of horror after horror with absolute impunity," Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement dated February 6.

"The anniversary arrives amid a horrific wave of bloodshed around the latest protests, as well as arbitrary executions and death sentences targeting protesters. This highlights the need for urgent global action from countries around the world to bring Iranian officials involved in crimes under international law to justice in fair trials,” she added.

Despite the crackdown, Iranians continue to push back as they call for increased freedoms and human rights.

In the evening on February 7, neighborhoods in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad witnessed the chanting of slogans -- a nightly occurrence -- by protestors along with the burning of propaganda banners of the government celebrations of the 1979 Islamic Revolution anniversary. Similar scenes were repeated in the cities of Arak, Kermanshah, and Kerman.

In the western Iranian city of Sanandaj, a group of protesters blocked the street leading to the central prison of Sanandaj by lighting a fire and chanting anti-government slogans, including "death to the dictator," a reference to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Videos published on social media also show that, in different areas of the Iranian capital of Tehran, people chanted anti-government slogans from the windows and rooftops of residential buildings and played the song “Baraye,” which won a Grammy award for social change on February 5 and has become an anthem for the ongoing protests in Iran.

The song Baraye, which roughly translates as "because of," is based on the outpouring of public anger following Amini's death. It is composed of tweets sent by Iranians in response to the tragedy. Many of the tweets blame the country's social, economic, and political ills on the clerical regime.

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.

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

Ukraine's Parliament Amends 2023 Budget, Raises Spending

Roksolana Pidlasa, the head of the parliamentary budget committee (file photo)

Ukraine's parliament approved changes to the 2023 state budget that raise state spending to support small businesses and channel more funds into reconstruction and recovery projects following Russia's invasion. Roksolana Pidlasa, the head of the parliamentary budget committee, said spending was increased by 5.5 billion hryvnias ($150 million). The increase included funds to finance and modernize hospitals in Kyiv and Lviv and to rebuild bridges damaged in Russia's war on Ukraine. The amended budget also plans for 1.28 billion hryvnias in additional support for small businesses in the processing industry and state guarantees for loans in the agriculture sector. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Estonian Ambassador Leaves Russia As Deadline Expires In Tit-For-Tat Dispute

The Russian Embassy in Tallinn (file photo)

Estonian Ambassador Margus Laidre has left Moscow as requested by Russia's Foreign Ministry, Russian media reports said on February 7. Last month, Moscow demanded that Laidre leave Russia by February 7, saying the level of diplomatic representation in both countries will be reduced from ambassadors to charge d'affaires. The move came after Estonia told Russia to cut the number of diplomats it has in the Baltic nation to eight, equivalent to the number of Estonian diplomats in Moscow. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Estonia has expelled three Russian diplomats. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Iranian Clinic Shut After Doctor Defends Woman For Her Stance On Hijab

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.

Authorities in the northeastern Iranian city of Kashmar have shut down a clinic after a confrontation between two women over wearing a head scarf, a topic that has been at the center of months of unrest since a young woman died while in police custody after being detained over how she was wearing hers.

A video that appeared on social media on February 4 shows a veiled woman warning another woman for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly. A doctor at the clinic then defends the woman's right not to wear a hijab and says that her move is a symbol of protest.

"This is a criticism of the mullahs and I defend her," the doctor added in the video. The date of the recording of the video could not be independently verified.

The hard-line Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), quoted the prosecutor of Razavi Khorasan Province as saying the doctor was summoned and charged for "insulting a hijabi woman and insulting clerics," while his clinic was also sealed.

In recent weeks, numerous reports have been published about the sealing of businesses, restaurants, cafes, and in some cases even pharmacies for owners and managers failing to observe Islamic laws and mandatory hijab rules.

The wave of closings comes amid the months-long public anger that erupted after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in September while in custody after being detained by morality police in Tehran for "improperly" wearing a head scarf.

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.

In response, the authorities have launched a brutal crackdown on dissent, detaining thousands and handing down stiff sentences, including the death penalty, to protesters.

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

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