Konduz Bombing Highlights Mounting Insecurity In Key Northern Afghan Region
Some Afghan officials said the blasts came as the trucks were delivering fuel to a crowd of villagers. But Afghan and Western security officials are now saying the most of those killed were Taliban fighters, including a senior commander.
According to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent in Konduz, Noor Mohammad Sahim, the strike at around 2 a.m. in the village of Haji Aman in the Char Dara district caused the tankers to explode, killing 90 people.
Konduz Province Governor Mohammad Omar told RFE/RL that half of those killed were Taliban fighters, while the rest were civilians who had gathered around the tankers to collect fuel.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told journalists that the alliance was investigating the reports of civilian casualties.
Questions Of Civilian Casualties
"There was an ISAF air strike against the Taliban during the night. Certainly, a number of Taliban [members] were killed," Rasmussen said. "There is also a possibility of civilian casualties as well, but it is not yet clear."
Rasmussen said that an investigation team led by an admiral from the headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had already been to the scene of the incident, and U.S. and NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal "has already spoken" to Afghan President Hamid Karzai "to express his commitment to get to the bottom of what happened as soon as possible."
Radio Free Afghanistan's correspondent, who visited the main hospital in Konduz early on September 4, said that many of the injured there appeared to be civilians who claimed to be collecting oil from the tankers when the blast occurred. The blast apparently burned many to death.
Konduz police chief Mohammad Razzaq Yaqubi told RFE/RL that the tankers were hijacked on the evening of September 3 while transporting fuel from the Sher Khan river port on Tajikistan's border to Kabul.
Yaqubi claimed that insurgents killed the drivers of both vehicles and were taking them to an unknown location, but got stuck in river in a forested area away from nearby villages. Both tankers were then targeted in an NATO air strike as the Taliban had brought tractors to extract them and were also trying to remove fuel from them.
Yaqubi said the air strike killed 56 fighters and injured 12 who are in their 20s, which indicates that they were fighters.
"They were all people associated with the Taliban," he said. "There were no elderly or children there. This was not an attack on civilian quarters. This is a forest and these people had gathered around the fuel tankers when it was attacked and they were eliminated."
In Kabul, Interior Ministry spokesman Zmaray Bashari told RFE/RL that they were investigating the incident and particularly focusing on determining whether civilians were killed.
"The question we have is that where the attack happened, it is a river bank in the forest," Bashari said. "So what were civilians doing there after half-past two in the night?"
President Karzai's office gave a death toll of 90 and said an investigation team had gone to the scene. "No civilians must be harmed during military operations," Karzai said in a statement. "Targeting civilians under no circumstances is acceptable."
Northern Supply Route
This latest incident highlights the growing insecurity in parts of northern Afghanistan, particularly in strategically significant Konduz Province on Tajikistan's border. Once a Taliban stronghold in the late 1990s, the region had been relatively peaceful until the beginning of this year.
Experts suggest that the "national caveat" or combat restrictions placed by Germany on its peacekeepers in the region and the Taliban's effort to expand its insurgency into Konduz has worsened security.
According to the AFP news agency, the German Army said that the air strike killed 50 insurgents and that there were no civilian casualties.
The growing insecurity in Afghanistan's southern and eastern Pashtun-populated regions has forced NATO to negotiate alternative supply routes through Konduz. And, experts suggest, Taliban activities in the region are now targeting these routes.
"The powerful [anti-Taliban] Northern Alliance, also known as the United Front, was alienated from the system and they didn't care about the threats to the new [political] system," Konduz Governor Omar told journalists on September 3.
"When our [Amu Darya River] port [on the Tajik border] was declared a NATO supply route, it was another reason for the Taliban's expansion in this region."
Omar added that because of a lack of resources, "the police have not been seen in many parts of Konduz for months. This gives an opportunity to our enemies to recuperate and operate in those areas."
The government's inability to properly prosecute insurgents and mushrooming unemployment in the region were helping the Taliban, Omar concluded.
In July, German and Afghan troops launched a joint offensive in the area, which Afghan officials said in part was intended to stop Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) fighters fleeing the ongoing Pakistani military offensive along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
While growing insecurity in Konduz could have grave repercussions for Afghanistan, it has also worried officials in Tajikistan and other Central Asian states, who fear the possibility of a Taliban-like insurgency in their countries.
If large-scale civilian deaths are confirmed in Konduz, this incident could reignite local anger against foreign troops, just two months after the new U.S. and NATO commander in the country, General McChrystal, announced measures to reduce civilian casualties, which he said were undermining the war effort.
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Reports: EU Close To Agreeing On $60 A Barrel Cap For Russian Seaborne Oil
EU governments have tentatively agreed on a $60 a barrel price cap on Russian seaborne oil aimed at reducing Moscow's ability to finance its war in Ukraine.
"The price cap is set at $60 with a provision to keep it 5 percent below market price for Russian crude, based on [International Energy Agency] figures," an EU diplomat said, according to Reuters on December 1.
U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said he was encouraged by the news about the tentative agreement on the price cap -- an idea supported by the United States and the other Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized nations -- adding that he expects the European Union to iron out details and reach a final agreement.
EU countries have wrangled for days over the details of the price cap. Poland, which had pushed for the cap to be as low as possible, had as of late on December 1 not confirmed its support for the deal, Reuters and AFP reported.
The initial G7 proposal last week was for a cap of $65-$70 per barrel with no adjustment mechanism.
Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia rejected that level because Russian Urals crude, the main variety sold by Russia, was trading at below $70 a barrel on December 1 and last week traded at about $55.
The G7 price cap on Russian seaborne crude oil is to kick in on December 5, replacing an outright ban on buying Russian seaborne crude.
The price cap would work by prohibiting shippers and insurance companies from handling cargoes of Russian crude unless it is sold at or below the price cap.
The world's key shipping and insurance firms are based in G7 countries, giving them leverage to set the price cap and make it difficult for Moscow to sell its oil for a higher price.
The adjustment mechanism would mean the price cap would be reviewed in mid-January and every two months after that.
The document outlining the tentative agreement, quoted by Reuters, said a 45-day "transitional period" would apply to vessels carrying Russian-origin crude oil that was loaded before December 5 and unloaded at its final destination by January 19, 2023.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned last week that any attempt by the West to cap the price of Russian oil would have "grave consequences" for world markets. But the G7 vowed to go ahead.
Oil ministers from OPEC+ cartel of petroleum exporting countries, of which Russia is a member, will meet in Vienna on December 4.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, RFE/RL's Russian Service, Reuters, and AFP
Leaked Document Says Iranian Leadership Is Seeking To Discredit Sunni Cleric
A leaked document from the hard-line Fars news agency says Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has told security and military officials to try and disgrace a top Sunni cleric, who is a vocal critic of the government, instead of arresting him.
The document was published on November 30 after the hacktivist group Black Reward announced that it had succeeded in hacking the Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The group released dozens of documents and videos it said were prepared by the news agency.
The cleric, Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzah, is regarded across the country as a spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni Muslim population. He is the director of the main Sunni seminary in Iran and has been under pressure for his comments against the Islamic republic.
"He [Molavi Abdolhamid] should not be arrested. Rather, he should be dishonored," according to one of the documents, which are delivered as bulletins prepared by Fars and delivered to senior IRGC officials, which was handing down comments from the Ayatollah.
Early last month, Molavi Abdolhamid said senior officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were "responsible" for the killing of protesters during the so-called "Bloody Friday" massacre in the southeastern city of Zahedan on September 30. He also called for an immediate referendum with the presence of international observers to "change policies based on the wishes of the people."
Almost 100 people were killed and hundreds injured by security forces in the incident, which came during protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police and the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl by a local police commander.
Anger over Amini's death has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide to demand more freedoms and women's rights. The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.
Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran where Molavi Abdolhamid is based, but make up only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Dutch Prosecutors Won't Appeal In MH17 Case, Making Verdicts Final
Dutch prosecutors said on December 1 that they will not file an appeal regarding the outcome in the trial over the 2014 downing of Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine, making the verdicts final. A Dutch court last month convicted three former Russian intelligence agents in absentia and sentenced them to life in prison for the downing of the jet. All 298 people aboard were killed. The three men were found to have helped arrange the transport of the Russian military Buk missile system that was used to shoot down the plane. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Biden, Macron Vow To Hold Russia Accountable For 'Widely Documented Atrocities' In Ukraine
U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron on December 1 renewed their commitment to fighting Russia's invasion of Ukraine during a meeting at the White House.
The two leaders said in a joint statement that they were determined to hold Russia to account "for widely documented atrocities and war crimes, committed both by its regular armed forces and by its proxies including mercenary entities such as Vagner" in Ukraine.
Speaking at a joint news conference after their meeting, Biden said he was ready to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin "if he is looking for a way to end the war," while Macron vowed not to push Ukraine into a compromise it can't accept.
They also reaffirmed their continued support for Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity “for as long as it takes.” The support includes significant resources to help Ukrainian civilians through the winter.
The United States and France also intend to continue providing “robust direct budget support for Ukraine, and to urge the international financial institutions to scale up their financial support,” the joint statement said.
He said the two countries were "facing down Vladimir Putin's grasping ambition for conquest" and "defending the democratic values and universal human rights which are the heart of both our nations."
"It doesn't mean that every single solitary thing we agree on," Biden said, speaking after meeting Macron. "But it does mean we agree on almost everything."
Macron said the two nations had a shared responsibility to protect democracies on both sides of the ocean and face the direct and indirect consequences of the war in Ukraine together.
Biden and Macron covered several other topics during their meeting, including energy, emerging technologies, trade, and nuclear deterrence.
The two leaders said in their joint statement that they will continue to coordinate on their concerns regarding "China’s challenge to the rules-based international order, including respect for human rights, and to work together with China on important global issues like climate change."
Prior to their meeting, Macron raised French and European concerns about subsidies in Biden's Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a $430 billion bill that offers massive subsidies for U.S.-made products and is aimed at addressing the climate crisis.
European leaders say the legislation signed by Biden in August is unfair to non-American companies and would be a serious blow to their economies as Europe deals with the fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Biden is hosting Macron for the first state visit since he took office last year. He and first lady Jill Biden are playing up the pageantry with a colorful arrival ceremony planned and 200 live lobsters flown in from Maine for a glittering state dinner.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
Armenia, Hungary Agree To Restore Diplomatic Relations After 10-Year Suspension
Armenia and Hungary have agreed to fully restore diplomatic relations, which were severed in 2012 after Hungary extradited Azerbaijani military officer Ramil Safarov to Baku. Safarov at the time was serving a life sentence in Hungary for axing to death Armenian officer Gurgen Margarian in 2004 during NATO training courses. The Armenian Foreign Ministry said on December 1 that the Armenian and Hungarian foreign ministers, who met in Poland, expressed their intention to open a new chapter in Armenian-Hungarian relations. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, click here.
Iran Hands Death Sentences To Four Accused Of Collaborating With Israel
Iran has sentenced to death four people accused of collaborating with Israel, the semiofficial Mehr News agency reported.
According to a report by Mehr News on November 30, the four were arrested in June and were accused of having interrogated people in Iran with intelligence cooperation from Mossad, the Israeli secret service.
Three other people on trial in the case were handed sentences by the Supreme Judicial Court of Iran of between five years and 10 years for "acting against the country's security," kidnapping, and the possession of weapons.
Iran and Israel have been engaged in a yearslong shadow war. Tensions between the two have soared in recent years.
The report on the sentencing comes after Tehran accused Israel of carrying out a recent spate of assassinations and sabotage attacks inside the Islamic republic.
Earlier this year, Israeli media reported that Mossad captured and interrogated a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps inside Iran.
Later, a video was released in which a person who identified himself as Mansur Rasuli, admitted that he wanted to assassinate an Israeli diplomat working in the country's consulate in Istanbul, as well as an American general stationed in Germany and a journalist in France.
Mehr News has not specified whether the people who were sentenced to death were related to that case or not.
Iran has been roiled in recent months by nationwide protests sparked by the death of a young woman while she was being held in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.
Tehran has blamed Israel, the United States, and other Western countries for the unrest, which has seen security forces kill more than 400 people, according to human rights groups, including dozens of minors.
Officials have not shown any evidence to back up their accusations that the West has been involved in the anti-government uprising.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Ukrainian Power-Grid Operator Receives 300 Million Euro Loan From European Bank, 72 Million Euro Grant From Netherlands
Ukraine's Ukrenerho grid operator has secured 300 million euros ($315 million) in loans from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to restore power infrastructure damaged in Russian attacks and improve financial stability, the company said in a statement on December 1. Ukrenerho said 150 million euros of the loan and a 72 million euro grant from the Netherlands will be used for the purchase of equipment needed for the repairs. The remaining 150 million euros of EBRD funds will be allocated for the company's financial obligations in the electricity market, Ukrenerho said. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Jailed Belarusian Opposition Activist Kalesnikava Leaves Intensive Care Unit After Surgery
Maryya Kalesnikava, a leading opposition activist in Belarus who was sentenced to 11 years in prison last year, was transferred from an intensive care unit to a regular unit in a hospital after a surgery.
Viktar Babaryka, a would-be presidential candidate who was imprisoned for alleged corruption last year, wrote on Telegram on December 1 that doctors informed Kalesnikava’s father, Alyaksandr Kalesnikau, that his daughter felt better and ate yogurt and porridge in the morning.
Kalesnikau has not been allowed to see his daughter and still does not know her diagnosis. Kalesnikava’s lawyer, Uladzimer Pylchanka, has not been able to see his client either due to "the absence of a request from the convict."
Kalesnikava was rushed to the hospital from a penal colony in the city of Homel, 300 kilometers southeast of Minsk, on November 29.
Kalesnikava rose to prominence after she joined forces with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veranika Tsapkala to form a trio of women who led historic demonstrations against Belarusian authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020.
Kalesnikava, 40, the only one of the three still in the country, has been imprisoned over her role in the mass protests that lasted for more than two years. She was arrested in September 2020.
Kalesnikava and another opposition figure, Maksim Znak, were sentenced to prison terms of 11 and 10 years, respectively, in September 2021, after being found guilty on charges of conspiracy to seize power, calls for action to damage national security, and calls for actions damaging national security by trying to create an extremist group. Both had pleaded not guilty and rejected the charges.
Human rights watchdogs in Belarus have recognized Kalesnikava and two other associates who also being detained as political prisoners and have demanded their immediate release.
Jailed Russian Opposition Politician Navalny Again Placed In Punitive Solitary Confinement
Imprisoned Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has been placed in a punitive solitary confinement cell for the eighth time since August, Navalny's press secretary Kira Yarmysh tweeted on December 1. This time, Navalny was sent to solitary confinement for 11 days for a "violation of the dress code." The violation was for failing to have on a prison jacket during a check at 5:12 a.m. Navalny has called all his previous incarcerations in solitary confinement "politically motivated." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Tajik Prosecutors Seek 30 Years In Prison For Activist From Restive Gorno-Badakhshan Region
DUSHANBE -- Tajik prosecutors have asked a court in Dushanbe to convict and sentence to 30 years in prison Faromuz Irgashev, an activist and former lawmaker in the volatile Gorno-Badakhshan region (GBAO), on charges of receiving illegal financial support from abroad, organizing an unsanctioned rally, and participating in the activities of a criminal group.
Two sources close to the trial, which started in October and is being held behind closed doors, told RFE/RL on December 1 that the prosecutor asked the court to sentence Irgashev last week.
The 32-year-old lawyer was arrested in May with several other activists in the wake of the deadly dispersal of protesters in GBAO. It is not known how he pleaded.
Irgashev was a lawyer for the Commission 44 group, which was created in November last year in GBAO to facilitate a dialogue between regional authorities and anti-government protesters. The group’s efforts led to the peaceful resolution of protests in the region.
In May, the protests in GBAO resumed as people demanded a thorough investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of the regional governor and the mayor of GBAO's capital, Khorugh.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters was killed by police in May, prompting the authorities to launch a "counterterrorist operation."
Authorities violently dispersed the protesters, arresting dozens of them. Irgashev and at least six other members of Commission 44 were among those apprehended. Two of them were later sentenced to 18 years in prison each.
In August, Tajikistan's Supreme Court declared Commission 44 to be a criminal group.
Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades.
Former Russian Lawmaker And His Brother Handed Lengthy Prison Terms On Embezzlement Charges
A court in Moscow on December 1 sentenced former Russian lawmaker Magomed Magomedov and his brother, an ex-tycoon, Ziyavudin Magomedov, to 18 years and 19 years in prison, respectively, on embezzlement charges. The Meshchansky district court also found the brothers guilty of creating a criminal group. Magomed Magomedov used to be a member of the Federation Council, the Russian parliament's upper chamber. In 2017, Forbes estimated Ziyavudin Magomedov's wealth to be $1.4 billion. The two were arrested in March 2018. Both maintain their innocence. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Police In Russia's Tatarstan Search Homes Of Local Journalist, Anti-War Activist
Police in Kazan, the capital of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan, have searched the home of local journalist Nailla Mullayeva over a video of an attack by anti-war activists in Poland against the Russian ambassador in May.
Police in Kazan also searched the home of activist Elina Yasonova on December 1 for unspecified reasons. Both Mullayeva and Yasonova have been known for their public stance against Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Mullayeva told OVD-Info, a group that monitors cases of persecution of journalists and activists, that the search of her home was held as part of a probe into a "justification of terrorist action" case.
According to Mullayeva, police are investigating whether she had any involvement in distributing a video in May showing Ambassador Sergei Andreyev being doused with red paint by Polish activists as he attempted to lay flowers at a Soviet military memorial cemetery in Warsaw for Red Army soldiers who died during World War II.
Last month, Tatarstan's authorities added Andrei Grigoryev, a correspondent from RFE/RL's Idel.Realities online project, to the wanted list and issued a warrant for his arrest over the same video, accusing him of publicly calling for terrorist activities via the Internet.
In August, police in Kazan searched the homes of Grigoryev and several other current and former correspondents of RFE/RL's Idel.Realities and Tatar-Bashkir Service, saying they were suspected of having been involved in the video's distribution online.
All of the journalists said they had nothing to do with the video.
Idel.Realities is a regional news outlet in Russian of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service.
With reporting by OVD-Info
Serbia's Plum Brandy Gets UNESCO World Heritage Status
Serbian authorities announced on December 1 that sljivovica, Serbia's traditional plum brandy, is being added to the UN’s list of intangible cultural heritage as "a cherished tradition to be preserved by humanity." UNESCO experts gathering in Morocco this week decided that “social practices and knowledge related to the preparation and use” of sljivovica deserve UN recognition as an example of an important cultural tradition, Serbia's Culture Ministry said. Sljivovica has been handcrafted in Serbia for centuries, a custom carried from generation to generation that experts say has become part of the national identity. To read the original AP story, click here.
Streaming Of Foreign Movies, Music Aboard Russia's Aeroflot Aircraft Suspended Amid Sanctions
Streaming of foreign movies and music aboard planes operated by Aeroflot, Russia's largest airline, has been suspended after foreign partners refused to provide services due to international sanctions imposed on Russia over its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Aeroflot said on Telegram on December 1 that all of its 137 planes were affected by the situation, adding that domestic movies and music will be offered to passengers by January 1, 2023. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Former Kyrgyz President Atambaev Calls Trial A 'Circus,' Removed From Courtroom For 'Disrupting Order'
BISHKEK -- Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has been removed from the courtroom after he called his trial "a circus" and started kicking at the glass cage where he had been placed.
The judge of the Birinchi Mai district court ordered bailiffs to remove Atambaev from the courtroom as the trial of the former leader and three other former officials charged with abuse of office during deadly ethnic clashes in 2010 in the Central Asian nation started on December 1.
The 66-year-old Atambaev, who is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for his role in the illegal release of a notorious crime boss in 2013, led Kyrgyzstan's interim government when clashes between Kyrgyz and local Uzbeks shook the Central Asian nation's southern regions of Osh and Jalal-Abad in June 2010, following anti-government protests that toppled then President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
According to Kyrgyz officials, 446 men and women were killed in the ethnic clashes, about 2,000 people were injured, and tens of thousands were displaced.
Atambaev is currently involved in another trial that is related to August 2019 clashes between his supporters and security forces at his residential compound near Bishkek.
The two-day standoff between security forces and Atambaev’s supporters resulted in the death of a top security officer and more than 170 injuries -- 79 of them sustained by law enforcement officers.
Atambaev and 13 others are charged in that case with murder, attempted murder, threatening or assaulting representatives of authorities, hostage taking, and the forcible seizure of power.
Russia-Backed Separatist Leader In Ukraine Says Moscow, Kyiv To Exchange 50 POWs Each
The leader of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's occupied eastern region of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, says that Russia and Ukraine will each hand over 50 prisoners of war in the latest in a series of prisoner exchanges. Pushilin said in a post on Telegram on December 1 that the exchange will be conducted during the day. He said 20 of the POWs to be returned to the Russian side are from Donetsk and separatist-controlled districts of another eastern region in Ukraine, Luhansk. Ukrainian officials have yet to confirm the swap.
China's Xi Urges Ukraine Talks In Meeting With EU's Michel
Chinese leader Xi Jinping urged negotiations on a political solution to the Ukraine conflict in talks with visiting European Council President Charles Michel in Beijing on December 1, state broadcaster CCTV said. Xi was quoted as saying that "solving the Ukrainian crisis through political means is in the best interest of Europe and the common interest of all countries in Eurasia." He added that “under current conditions, we must avoid escalation and expansion of the crisis and work for peace." To read the original AP story, click here.
EU's Borrell Says Russia Must Pay For Ukraine Reconstruction
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said at regional security talks on December 1 that he plans to discuss with his counterparts any available legal means to ensure Russia pays for the reconstruction of war-torn Ukraine. Borrell spoke at the start of this year's two-day ministerial conference of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in the central Polish city of Lodz. He noted that the EU has frozen Russian assets worth nearly 20 billion euros since Moscow invaded Ukraine.
U.S. Prosecutors Move To Seize $5 Million Tied To Russian Oligarch Malofeyev
U.S. prosecutors have moved to seize more than $5 million from a U.S. bank account belonging to Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeyev, a nationalist oligarch who officials say has funded separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine for years.
The civil forfeiture complaint, filed on November 30 in a U.S. federal court in Manhattan, was the latest effort by U.S. authorities targeting Malofeyev and part of a wider effort by authorities to go after assets belonging to wealthy and politically connected Russians.
Malofeyev himself was hit with criminal charges in March. He is accused of evading sanctions and using co-conspirators to acquire media organizations across Europe. He’s also been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department.
There was no immediate response to an e-mail sent by RFE/RL to his television channel Tsargrad TV seeking comment.
In the court filing, U.S. prosecutors alleged that Malofeyev used a Seychelles shell company in March 2014 to invest $10 million in shares in a Texas bank.
Prosecutors said he sold the shell company in 2015 to an unnamed Greek business partner for $1. But the sale agreement was backdated to July 2014, before sanctions were imposed, prosecutors said.
According to the complaint, the Texas bank, called Strategic Growth Bancorp, recognized Malofeyev as the owner of the original shares and flagged the attempted transfer to the Treasury Department.
Malofeyev's shares were later converted into cash and deposited into a blocked account when Strategic Growth Bancorp merged with another bank, Sunflower Bank, which is Denver-based.
Neither Strategic Growth Bancorp nor Sunflower Bank was accused of wrongdoing.
A billionaire and founder of Tsargrad TV, Malofeyev has gained notoriety for years for espousing a nationalist, religious ideology that has been increasingly embraced by some Russian officials. He’s also been instrumental in financing and supporting separatist efforts in the Donbas for years, according to Western and Ukrainian officials.
In the criminal indictment issued in April, U.S. prosecutors accused Malofeyev of trying to evade U.S. sanctions by a U.S. man to operate television networks in Russia and Greece and attempting to acquire a Bulgarian television network.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, U.S. and Western authorities have stepped up efforts to go after assets -- bank accounts, yachts, private jets, mansions -- owned by wealthy and politically connected Russians.
FIFA Allows Banners Supporting Iranian Protesters At World Cup After Iran Eliminated
FIFA has given permission for the display of banners supporting protests in Iran and rainbow items at the World Cup soccer tournament in Qatar -- but only after the Middle Eastern country was eliminated from the competition.
Since the start of the World Cup on November 20, stadium security staff organized by Qatari authorities had confiscated items with rainbow colors and slogans such as "Women, Life, Freedom" to stop them from being taken inside stadiums.
During matches involving the Iranian national team, Iranian spectators were not allowed to wear clothes with slogans in support of the months-long protest movement in Iran triggered by the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained in September for allegedly improperly wearing a head scarf, or hijab.
At least 459 protesters have been killed so far by security forces during the unrest in Iran, including 64 minors, according to the activist HRANA news agency.
The U.S.-Iran game on November 29 was charged with emotion for Iranian fans, some of whom had come to Qatar to back the protest movement back home with banners and flags. Iran lost 1-0 and was eliminated from the tournament.
“FIFA is aware of some incidents where permitted items were not allowed to be displayed at stadiums,” soccer’s world body said in a statement on November 30, more than a week after some infractions were reported at World Cup stadiums.
“FIFA has received assurances by authorities that venue commanders have been contacted in relation to the agreed rules and regulations for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.”
In the first week of the tournament, seven European teams including Wales were banned by FIFA from wearing multicolored “One Love” armbands during World Cup matches and some fans complained they weren’t allowed to bring items with rainbow colors, a symbol of LGBTQ rights, into the stadiums of the conservative Islamic emirate.
“FIFA continues to work closely with the Host Country to ensure the full implementation of related regulations and agreed protocols,” FIFA said.
Russian Interior Ministry Adds Noted Lawyer Ilya Novikov To Its Wanted List
Russia's Interior Ministry has added noted Russian lawyer and outspoken Kremlin critic Ilya Novikov, who currently resides in Ukraine, to its wanted list on unspecified charges. Novikov's picture and data appeared on the ministry's online registry of wanted persons on November 30. Novikov, 40, has harshly criticized Russian authorities for the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. He has gained prominence for defending Ukrainian nationals and human rights activists in high-profile cases in recent years. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Switzerland Freezes $8 Billion In Financial Assets Under Russia Sanctions
Switzerland has frozen financial assets worth 7.5 billion Swiss francs ($7.94 billion) as of November 25 under sanctions against Russians to punish Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), the agency overseeing sanctions, said on December 1 that 15 properties in six cantons are also "blocked." Up until June 3, it said, SECO had been notified of existing deposits held by Russian nationals, and individuals and legal entities in Russia, amounting to 46.1 billion francs. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Spate Of Letter Bombs In Spain Targets Embassies, High-Profile Officials
Bomb disposal experts on December 1 defused a letter bomb at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, the sixth such device sent to high-profile targets in Spain in the past few days. The campaign began with a letter bomb sent to Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez last week. Similar devices have been sent to the Defense Ministry, an air force base, a weapons manufacturer, and the Ukrainian Embassy. Defense Minister Margarita Robles, who met Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, in Odesa on December 1, said the letter bombs would not deter Spain from supporting Ukraine's "just cause.” To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
New Law Broadens The Net For 'Foreign Agents' In Russia
A Russian law that expands the definition of so-called foreign agents has come into force that rights groups say will make it easier for the state to target its domestic critics at a time when the Kremlin is cracking down on dissent over its war in Ukraine.
The new law, signed by President Vladimir Putin in July, took effect as of December 1 and allows officials to include in the foreign agents registry anyone who is "under foreign influence."
The new law also broadens the definition of political activities to include a vague clause covering any activities that "contradict the national interests of the Russian Federation."
Under the previous version of the law, prosecutors had to assert that an individual charged as a foreign agent had to receive financial or material assistance from abroad.
Russia has used its foreign agent law for the past decade to label and punish critics of government policies. It also has been increasingly used by officials to shutter civil society and media groups in Russia since the Kremlin launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in late February.
Individuals who are officially labeled as foreign agents are banned from receiving state grants for creative activities, working as teachers, organizing public events, and working for organizations that distribute information.
According to the law, the four existing registries of foreign agents will be merged and a new list will be created to register all individuals tagged as foreign agents.
That designation requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and which the government claims are engaged in political activities to register as foreign agents, publicly identify themselves as such, and submit to cumbersome audits.
They also must label any content they produce with an intrusive disclaimer or face criminal fines for not doing so. Kremlin critics say the foreign agent designation is also intended to stigmatize any independent civic activity in Russia.
Hungarian Government Misused Personal Data For Political Campaigns, HRW Says
Hungary's right-wing government misused personal data during the campaign for national elections this year, undermining privacy and tipping an already uneven political playing field in favor of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's ruling Fidesz party, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report published on December 1.
Orban and his party won a fourth consecutive term in power in April by a landslide.
Since coming to power in 2010, Orban has tightened state control over media, courts, academia, and migrants from Africa and the Middle East and NGOs that support them. He also has clashed with the EU over alleged discrimination against LGBT people
In its report, Trapped in a Web: The Exploitation of Personal Data in Hungary’s 2022 Elections, HRW says the government repurposed data it collected from people applying for services to spread Fidesz's campaign messages.
"Using people's personal data collected so they could access public services to bombard them with political campaign messages is a betrayal of trust and an abuse of power," said Deborah Brown, a senior researcher for HRW.
"The Hungarian government should stop exploiting personal data for political campaigns and guarantee a level playing field for elections," she added.
HRW found that the personal data collected from people who signed up for the COVID-19 vaccine, applied for tax benefits, or registered for mandatory membership in a professional association was used to spread Fidesz's campaign messages.
For example, political messages intended to tilt voters toward the ruling party were received by people who had submitted their data to a government-run website to register for the vaccine, HRW said.
HRW urged the European Union to establish whether the exploitation of personal data collected by the Hungarian government for political campaigning is consistent with EU laws, in particular with the EU General Data Protection Regulation.
It also called on the European Commission, the bloc's executive branch, to bring infringement proceedings against Budapest for the failure of the national body that that supervises data protection to act as an independent authority.
The HRW report comes a day after the commission proposed that billions of euros of European Union funds allocated to Hungary remain blocked over the failure of Orban's government to implement credible rule-of-law and anti-corruption reforms.
Orban, who maintains warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has also antagonized EU officials with his repeated criticism of EU sanctions targeting Russia for its war in Ukraine.
Orban continues to block crucial EU decisions such as the disbursement of 18 billion euros of financial aid to Ukraine and a global tax deal.
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