Senate Says U.S. Security Contractors Funnel Cash To Taliban
There are more than 26,000 private security employees in Afghanistan -- a large proportion of them Afghans -- and 90 percent of them work under U.S. government contracts or subcontracts. They are supposed to provide security to U.S. military bases, supply convoys, Western embassies, and aid agencies.
But according to Senator Carl Levin (Democrat, Michigan), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, some security contractors have side jobs.
"The report describes a number of private security contractors funneling U.S. taxpayer dollars to Afghan warlords and strongmen who are linked to murder, kidnapping, bribery, pro-Taliban, and anti-coalition activity," Levin said.
The committee's report says many of the contract employees have not undergone any background checks or received adequate training. The result, according to the report, is that some security staffers are actually assisting the very insurgency that NATO and U.S. forces are trying to combat.
"All too often, our reliance on private security contractors in Afghanistan has empowered warlords and powerbrokers operating outside Afghan government control," Levin said. "There is significant evidence that some security contractors even work against our coalition forces, creating the very threat that they are hired to combat. These contractors threaten the security of our troops and risk the success of our mission.
"[The report] describes the failures by some security contractors to adequately [background check], train, and equip their guards, their employees, and it discusses contractor personnel using drugs, being issued unserviceable weapons, and leaving their guard posts unmanned."
Undermining The Mission
The report concludes that private security companies are undermining the key goal of creating Afghan security forces by attracting their trained cadres away on the promise of better salaries.
The list of violations by private contractors is long and often shocking.
In one case cited by "The New York Times," the Senate report said U.S. military personnel at one air base in Afghanistan did not even know the names of the two leaders of the Afghan group providing security. They jokingly referred to them as "Mr. White and Mr. Pink" -- characters from Quentin Tarantino's gangster movie "Reservoir Dogs."
Mr. Pink turned out to be a Taliban figure.
Washington Wake-Up Call
In another case, the report documents the case of two competing warlords in western Herat Province. They were hired by ArmorGroup North America to provide security at the Shindand air base but were implicated in murders, reprisal attacks, and even hosted a Taliban meeting which was raided by coalition troops.
Analysts says the Senate report is another wake-up call for Washington, which will face additional pressure to tackle corrupt security contracting processes in Afghanistan. A report by the House of Representatives on the topic recently reached conclusions similar to the Senate findings.
In response to this latest report, the Defense Department said it has created a new task force to overhaul contracting practices in Afghanistan.
In August, Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a decree giving foreign security contractors four months to disband.
On October 3, the Interior Ministry announced it had moved to shut down eight firms, seizing 400 weapons. But U.S. officials have indicated that it will be difficult to get rid of all security contractors because of the essential role they fill.
written by Abubakar Siddique, with agency reports
Belgian Court Suspends Controversial Prisoner Exchange Treaty With Iran
Belgium's constitutional court on December 8 suspended a prisoner exchange treaty with Iran criticized for opening the way for a bomb-plot mastermind to return to Tehran. Iranian government opponents have said the treaty is "tailor-made" to permit the release of Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat convicted of supplying explosives for a foiled plot targeting Iran's exiled opposition. The Belgian government has said the treaty is the only way to secure the release an aid worker detained in Iran. The court ruled that the treaty was suspended pending a final ruling within three months.
Pope Breaks Down And Cries While Mentioning Ukraine At Public Prayer
Pope Francis broke down and cried on December 8 as he mentioned the suffering of Ukrainians during a traditional prayer in central Rome. The pope's voice began to tremble as he mentioned the Ukrainians and he had to stop, unable to speak, for about 30 seconds. When he resumed the prayer, his voice was cracking. Francis broke down during a traditional prayer to the Madonna at the foot of a statue on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a national holiday in Italy. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Date Set For Trial In Absentia Of Belarusian Athlete Herasimenya Over Call For Sanctions
MINSK -- A date for the trial in absentia of noted retired Belarusian swimmer Alyaksandra Herasimenya and former handball manager Alyaksandr Apeykin has been set for December 19.
The Minsk City Court said on December 8 that the two were charged with "public calls for sanctions against Belarus, which damaged the country's national security." A conviction on the charge envisages a prison term of up to 12 years.
Herasimenya and Apeykin, who are currently out of Belarus, created the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF) in August 2020 amid protests that erupted after a disputed presidential election that Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1994, claimed he won.
The organization provides financial and legal help to Belarusian athletes targeted by the authorities over anti-Lukashenka protests.
In April last year, Belarusian authorities added Herasimenya and Apeykin to the country's wanted list.
In April this year, Herasimenya, 36, who currently resides in neighboring Lithuania, announced her decision to leave the BSSF. Apeykin is currently the foundation's acting director.
Herasimenya was a successful swimmer who won multiple medals at various competitions, including gold at the 2012 World Championships and silver at the 2012 London Olympics.
In one of the most high-profile cases targeting athletes, Belarusian team officials tried to force sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya to fly home from the Tokyo Olympics last year after she criticized them on social media.
She took refuge in the Polish Embassy in Tokyo after refusing the order. Two days later she boarded a plane to Europe, reaching Warsaw, where she now lives in exile.
Lukashenka's crackdown on dissent has seen thousands detained, while there have been credible reports of the torture and ill-treatment of detainees by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown and most opposition politicians have left the country, fearing for their security.
Lukashenka, 68, has leaned heavily on Russian support amid Western sanctions.
The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka's self-declared victory.
Two Men Arrested In Russia-Annexed Crimea On High Treason Charge
Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said on December 8 that it has arrested two residents of Ukraine’s Russia-annexed Crimea on a high treason charge. According to the FSB, the men passed data about military installations in Crimea to Ukrainian intelligence. Russian authorities have arrested dozens of people in Crimea and across Russia on charges that include espionage, extremism, and terrorism since it illegally annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in March 2014. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Griner, Bout In Prisoner Exchange Between Washington And Moscow
The United States and Russia have carried out a prisoner exchange, swapping American basketball star Brittney Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the second trade of detainees in eight months despite strained relations between the two countries.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a post on Telegram on December 8 that the exchange took place at the Abu Dhabi airport. U.S. officials have yet to comment officially on the exchange, but media quoted sources as saying Griner was no longer in a Russian prison.
President Joe Biden confimed the swap in a press conference, stressing that Griner was "wrongfully detained" after a "show trial" in Russia.
"This is a day we've worked toward for a long time," Biden said.
"She's safe, she's on a plane, she's on her way home," he added.
No other prisoners were part of the deal, but Biden pledged to continue to work toward the release of other U.S. citizens that Russia has sentenced to lengthy prison terms in recent years.
This includes Paul Whelan, who has been imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges, which he denies. Whelan's brother, David Whelan, said in an e-mail on December 8 that the Whelan family was informed by U.S. government officials on December 7 that Whelan would not be freed in the exchange along with Griner.
"That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul. I do not know if he is aware yet, although he will surely learn from Russian media," David Whelan said.
He also said his family is glad that Griner is on her way home and said the Biden administration had made the right decision to "make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to happen."
Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, is serving 16 years. Paul Whelan said his brother is likely losing hope that negotiations will result in his release.
"It's clear that the U.S. government has no concessions that the Russian government will take for Paul Whelan. And so Paul will remain a prisoner until that changes," David Whelan said in the e-mail.
Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time all-star for the U.S. Women's National Basketball Association, The 32-year-old has been in Russian detention since police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is banned in Russia, in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on February 17.
She was returning at the time to Russia, where she has competed since 2014. She was sentenced on August 4 to nine years in a penal colony.
Bout, nicknamed the "Merchant of Death," was serving a 25-year sentence in the United States for arms dealing.
With reporting by CBS and CNN
Uzbekistan Rejects Putin-Proposed 'Trilateral Natural Gas Union'
Uzbekistan has rejected the idea of creating a so-called "natural gas union" with Russia and Kazakhstan that was proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, a sign of the growing divide between Moscow and former Soviet republics over the war against Ukraine.
Putin proposed creating a "gas union" with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on November 28 at talks with Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev in Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at the time that the idea was proposed to establish a mechanism to ship natural gas between the three countries and to other nations, including China.
While such as deal would help the Central Asian countries ensure supplies during their peak needs, it has met resistance among populations wary of Moscow's intentions, especially at a time when it is waging war in another nearby part of the former Soviet Union.
Uzbek Energy Minister Jorabek Mirzamahmudov said in an interview with the Kun.uz news website published on December 7 that his country would not give up its national interests in exchange for natural gas.
"Signing a gas agreement with Russia does not mean an alliance or union...It would be a technical contract," Mirzamahmudov said.
"We will never compromise our national interests. Even if we [agree to receive natural gas from Russia], we will proceed via commercial sales contracts. We will not allow any political conditions to be imposed in return," he added, saying that Uzbekistan will agree to get natural gas from Russia only "at a reasonable price."
Kazakhstan has yet to commit to any gas union, saying only that it would study the idea.
Russia is a major natural gas exporter, while the amount of natural gas produced by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is barely enough for their own consumption, with shortages especially acute in winter.
The two major economies of the Central Asian region share a gas pipeline to Russia and a pipeline transporting natural gas from Turkmenistan to China.
Moscow has increased its natural gas deliveries to China since European nations began decreasing their dependence on Russian gas amid the Kremlin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which started in late February.
Both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have kept their distance from Moscow during the war.
With reporting by Kun.uz
Kazakh Activist Elshibaev's Appeal Against Extension Of Prison Term Denied
QYZYLORDA, Kazakhstan -- A court in Kazakhstan has rejected an appeal filed by imprisoned activist Erzhan Elshibaev against an additional seven years incarceration handed to him in September for "violating the penitentiary’s internal regulations and for calls to disobey prison guards."
Elshibaev’s lawyer, Zhanar Sundetqalieva, told RFE/RL on December 8 that the Qyzylorda city court of appeals in the country's south pronounced the decision a day earlier.
Sundetqalieva said her client was not allowed to be present at the hearing, adding that the court's decision will be appealed at the Supreme Court.
Elshibaev, who is recognized as a political prisoner by Kazakh rights watchdogs, was expected to be released in October next year. He was initially sentenced to five years in prison in 2018 after a court in his native town of Zhanaozen in the country's southwest found him guilty of hooliganism.
Elshibaev and his supporters have rejected the charges, saying they were politically motivated and aimed at ensuring he wouldn't lead any protests in the restive town.
Elshibaev was one of the leaders of several protest rallies in Zhanaozen in 2018 during which residents in the oil town demanded jobs.
Kazakh authorities have been very sensitive to any dissent or protests in the volatile town, where police fatally shot at least 16 people while dispersing rallies by oil workers in December 2011.
In January 2022, a rally in Zhanaozen against abrupt fuel price hikes led to unprecedented anti-government protests across the nation that ended with violent dispersals in which at least 238 people, including 19 law enforcement officers, were killed.
The European Parliament has urged Kazakh authorities to release Elshibaev and other political prisoners.
Kazakhstan’s government has denied that there are political prisoners in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.
Group Recognizes Russian Poets Arrested For Anti-War Verses As Political Prisoners
The Moscow-based human rights group Support Of Political Prisoners. Memorial has recognized Russian poets Artyom Kamardin, Nikolai Daineko, and Yegor Shtovba as political prisoners. The three were arrested in September on a charge of inciting hatred after they presented verses critical of the Kremlin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Kamardin’s girlfriend said earlier that police raped the poet with a dumbbell during the arrest. Last month, a court sent Kamardin to a psychiatric clinic for a 30-day forced evaluation. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Former Leader Of Navalny's Team In Yakutia Goes On Trial
A court in Russia’s Yakutia began the trial of the ex-leader of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's team in the Siberia region on December 8. Anatoly Nogovitsyn is being tried on a charge of discrediting Russian forces involved in Moscow's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The case against Nogovitsyn, who also leads the Yabloko party's branch in Yakutia, was launched in September after he criticized in an online post Russia's aggression against Ukraine and called on fellow citizens to stay away from 'killing Ukrainians." Nogovitsyn faces up to three years in prison if convicted. To read the original story by RFR/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.
Austria Says It Will Veto Bulgaria And Romania Joining Schengen Zone
Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner told journalists that his country will veto EU members Romania and Bulgaria joining the passport-free Schengen Area, as he arrived for a meeting of EU justice and interior ministers in Brussels. The meeting was expected to approve Croatia joining Schengen, which currently includes 22 of the EU's 27 member countries as well as non-EU members Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein, and Iceland. Last month, the European Commission ruled that all three countries meet the technical criteria for joining, and the European Parliament has also voted in favor of their membership.
Red Cross Says It Has Visited Ukrainian, Russian Prisoners Of War
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement on December 8 that it has visited more prisoners of war held by Russia and Ukraine in recent weeks, checking on their condition and treatment and sharing "much-awaited news with their families." The ICRC said the visits signify "important progress," but added that it must be granted unimpeded access to see all prisoners of war "repeatedly and in private."
Magnitude 5.6 Earthquake Strikes Russia's Caucasus Region
A magnitude 5.6 earthquake struck Russia's Caucasus region on December 8, the European Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) said. The quake was 41 kilometers below the earth's surface, according to the EMSC. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Iran Carries Out First Execution Of Amini Protester Despite Outcry From West, Rights Groups
Iran has carried out its first execution of a protester from the unrest sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, carrying out a death sentence handed to a man who was accused of "warfare" for allegedly injuring a security officer.
The Mizan news agency, which is affiliated with the judiciary, said Moshen Shekari was hanged on December 8 after his appeal against his sentence was rejected by Iran's Supreme Court.
Shekari was accused of brandishing a weapon with the "intention of killing and causing terror and depriving the freedom and security of people," as well as "intentionally injuring" a security officer with a weapon and "blocking the street."
Shekari was one of thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide since Amini died while in police custody in September. She was being held for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.
The government has launched a brutal, and often deadly, crackdown on demonstrators, while lawmakers have pushed for harsh punishments to try and quell what has become the biggest challenge to the country's leadership since the Islamic revolution in 1979.
Rights groups and Western governments have warned Tehran about issuing death sentences to protesters after hasty trials some have called "sham" justice.
“Unfortunately, this is just really the latest tactic that we’ve seen from the Iranian regime with its ongoing, brutal crackdown on what can only be described as peaceful protesters -- individuals who are exercising their universal rights," U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said just two days before Shekari's execution.
"These sentences, we know, are meant to intimidate people, to suppress dissent. They are -- they simply underscore Iran’s leadership’s fears of its own people and the fact that Iran’s government fears the truth,” he added.
The activist HRANA news agency says that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest. The figure includes 64 minors.
Amnesty International says at least 28 people, including three children, could face execution in connection with nationwide protests as the Iranian authorities use the death penalty "as a tool of political repression to instill fear among the public and end the popular uprising."
"At least six people have already been sentenced to death in sham trials...The 28 individuals have all been denied fair trials including the rights to access lawyers of their choosing; to be presumed innocent; to remain silent; and to receive a fair, public hearing," it said in a statement on December 2.
The brutality of the crackdown prompted Badri Hosseini Khamenei, the estranged sister of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to publish a letter on December 6 expressing sympathy with mothers who have lost their loved ones because of their opposition to the Islamic republic in the last four decades and declared that she opposes the actions of her brother.
Badri Khamenei’s daughter and the supreme leader’s niece, Farideh Moradkhani, was arrested a week ago after being summoned to Tehran's Islamic Revolutionary Prosecutor's Office.
Badri Khamenei noted her daughter's violent arrest saying that, if she was taken into custody this way, “it is clear that they will inflict thousands of times more violence on the oppressed sons and daughters of others."
Explosion Shakes Russian-Occupied Sevastopol As Fighting Rages In Eastern Ukraine
The Kremlin says that Russia-annexed Crimea remains vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks after officials there said the Russian Navy had shot down a drone near its Sevastopol Black Sea Fleet naval base, and vowed to continue attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure that have left millions without electricity and water at the start of winter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in late February, decimating large swathes of Ukraine's infrastructure in the process.
Russia has bombarded the country with waves of missile attacks in recent weeks, targeting mainly energy installations.
Speaking at a ceremony on December 8 to award military medals, Putin admitted to the strategy but blamed Ukraine for the devastation, claiming the strikes were a response to an attack on a Moscow-built bridge to Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
He also accused Kyiv of blowing up power lines from the Kursk nuclear power plant and not supplying water to Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
In Crimea, a powerful explosion that rang out over the central part of Sevastopol early on December 8 was the result of the "downing of a drone" by a Russian Navy ship, said Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Moscow-installed administrator of the Black Sea port.
He did not specify whom the drone belonged to.
Starting in August, Sevastopol has been targeted several times by explosions that Russian authorities say were caused by Ukrainian drone attacks.
"There are certainly risks because the Ukrainian side continues its policy of organizing terrorist attacks. But, on the other hand, information we get indicates that effective countermeasures are being taken," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
In the east, the General Staff of Ukraine's military said on December 8 that Russian forces continued their relentless rocket attacks and bombardments on Ukrainian positions in Donetsk, with a particular focus on the towns of Bakhmut and Avdiyivka, and Luhansk, where Moscow's offensive was concentrated around Stelmakhyivka and Ploschanka.
In the northeastern region of Kharkiv, Russians attacked Ternova, a village several kilometers from the Russian border.
The Ukrainian military also said Russian occupiers began to mobilize local people in Melitopol in Zaporizhzhya.
Mobilization orders are being issued there to "men of draft age with the requirement to come to the military commissariat in the near future," the military said.
On December 7, a Russian attack on the town of Kurakhovo in Donetsk killed 10 people, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.
In Photos: The Ukrainian city of Bakhmut has been described as a "meat grinder" due to being on the forefront of trench warfare, shelling, and assaults that have killed an untold number of soldiers and civilians.
Zelenskiy said the attack was "very brutal" and "absolutely calculated" and killed "peaceful people, ordinary people" at a market, a grain elevator, a gas station, a bus stop, and a residential building.
"The list of the dead so far includes 10 people and many others wounded."
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine's presidential administration, said the Russian troops shelled Kurakhovo from multiple-rocket launchers. The town has been among the hot spots in fighting in the Donbas region.
Tymoshenko posted video footage of buildings in flames on Telegram.
The chief of Ukrenerho said on December 7 that Russian forces have fired more than 1,000 rockets and missiles at Ukraine's power grid since the start of the war.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko warned of an "apocalypse" scenario for the city this winter if Russian air strikes on infrastructure continue.
With reporting by Reuters
Hungarian PM Raids 'Extra Profits' From Oil After Scrapping Fuel Price Cap
Hungary's government will siphon off nearly all profits earned on cheaper crude oil imported from Russia as of December 8, it said in a decree, a day after Prime Minister Viktor Orban's cabinet scrapped a retail fuel price cap amid a shortage of supplies. Lower crude imports from the Druzhba oil pipeline, extended maintenance work at oil group MOL's Danube refinery, and surging demand forced Orban to abandon the year-long cap. Orban, a vocal critic of Brussels, blamed the situation on EU sanctions on Russian crude. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Putin Says Fight In Ukraine Could Be Long; Zelenskiy Vows Not To Leave Any Ukrainian Under Russian Occupation
Russian President Vladimir Putin says he has not ruled out that the fighting in Ukraine could turn into a "lengthy process," while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says Ukraine will not leave any of its citizens under Russian occupation.
The two presidents made the comments on December 7 as they addressed separate human rights organizations.
Putin, who met in a televised meeting of his Human Rights Council, said the "special military operation" could go on for a long time, and called Russia's annexation of part of the territories of Ukraine a major achievement of the operation.
“Of course, it could be a lengthy process,” Putin said roughly nine and a half months after ordering the invasion.
Putin vowed to “consistently fight for our interests" and to “protect ourselves using all means available” and reiterated his claim that he had no choice but to send troops into Ukraine.
Putin described the land gains as “a significant result for Russia,” noting that the Sea of Azov "has become Russia’s internal sea” and recalled how Tsar Peter the Great fought to get access to it.
Russia captured the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol in May after a nearly three-month siege of the city. In September, Putin illegally annexed four Ukrainian regions – Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, Donetsk, and Luhansk -- even though his forces did not completely control them. Russia illegally seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Ukraine has managed to recapture some territories, including Kherson city and the entire right bank of the Kherson region after the withdrawal of Russian forces last month.
Zelenskiy, who addressed the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation, said Ukrainian forces have liberated 1,888 settlements from Russian occupation so far in the fighting.
The war has turned into a war for survival, he said.
“Hundreds of our cities and villages were simply burned to the ground due to Russian strikes,” he said. “We have already managed to free 1,888 settlements from occupation. But almost as many Ukrainian towns and villages remain under occupation. And this means that now the fate of millions of people is being decided on the battlefield in Ukraine.”
He stressed that Ukraine will not leave "any of our people under Russian occupation," in Russian camps, "where thousands have already disappeared," or on Russian territory, "where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians were forcibly deported."
The subject of nuclear weapons was also discussed during Putin’s meeting with the Human Rights Council, whose members are mostly people who fully support the Kremlin's policy. Asked by a member of the council to pledge that Russia would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, Putin refused to give guarantees.
Russia's military strategy, he said, envisions the use of weapons of mass destruction in response to an attack.
Russia intends to protect "national interests" -- first by "peaceful means" and if this does not help, then by "all available,” Putin said.
"That means if a strike is launched against us, we will strike back in response," Putin said.
Putin has raised alarm in Western countries by making veiled threats about the use of nuclear weapons. These have raised fears that the Russian military could use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine in order to achieve results more quickly.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price, asked about Putin's remarks, declined to reply directly but said, "We think any loose talk of nuclear weapons is absolutely irresponsible."
Putin also said it made no sense to talk about another mobilization because there is no need for it "to date."
About half of the 300,000 conscripts recently mobilized are in the "special operations" zone, but only 70,000 are directly at the front, he said.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa
British Tennis Chiefs Slam ATP Over $1 Million Fine For Russian Player Ban
British tennis chiefs said on December 7 that they were "disappointed" at being fined $1 million by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) for banning Russian and Belarusian players from their events. Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) came under pressure from the British government to impose a ban. Russian and Belarusian players were eventually barred from all five ATP tournaments staged by the LTA. The All England Club, which organizes Wimbledon, also banned them from competing at that tournament.
Romania Rejects Austrian Objections To Its Entry Into Schengen Zone
Romania had a legitimate expectation to join Europe's open-borders Schengen area, Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca said on December 7, rejecting Austrian claims that it is a gateway for illegal migrants as unjustified. European Union interior ministers are expected to vote on December 8 on whether to admit Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia into Schengen, a decision that requires unanimity. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Sister Of Iran's Supreme Leader Pens Open Letter Hoping For End To 'Tyranny' Of Brother's Rule
Badri Hosseini Khamenei, the estranged sister of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has criticized her brother and his "despotic caliphate" in an open letter in which she also says she hopes to see him overthrown.
Badri Khamenei’s letter, published on her son's Twitter account on December 6, expressed sympathy to the mothers who lost their loved ones because of their opposition to the Islamic republic in the last four decades and declared that she opposes the actions of her brother.
“The regime of the Islamic Republic of Khomeini and Ali Khamenei has brought nothing but suffering and oppression to Iran and Iranians,” she added, referring to Ayatollah Khomeini, who served as the first supreme leader of Iran from 1979 until his death in 1989. “I hope to see the victory of the people and the overthrow of this tyranny ruling Iran soon.”
Khamenei's sister, who lives in Iran, wrote that her brother “does not listen to the voice of the people of Iran and wrongly considers the voice of his mercenaries and money-grubbers to be the voice of the Iranian people."
In recent years, as a humanitarian duty, she said she has tried to raise the voice of the Iranian people to her brother's ears but was disappointed and cut off contact with him.
Badri Khamenei also used the letter to address the violent arrest of her daughter, saying that if her daughter is arrested in this way, “it is clear that they will inflict thousands of times more violence on the oppressed sons and daughters of others."
Badri Khamenei’s daughter, Farideh Moradkhani, who is the supreme leader’s niece, was arrested a week ago after being summoned to Tehran's Islamic Revolutionary Prosecutor's Office. In the last video she recorded before her arrest, she called on the international community to cut ties with the Iranian government.
Anger over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide to demand more freedoms and women's rights.
Amini died while in police custody after being detained for allegedly improperly wearing a hijab. Her parents and friends say she was beaten. 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. The figure includes 64 minors.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Alleged Russian Agent Violated U.S. Sanctions By Concealing Purchase Of Luxury Condos, U.S. Says
A Ukrainian lawmaker who has been sanctioned by the U.S. government has now been charged with violating the sanctions when he purchased two luxury properties in California.
The seven-count indictment against Andriy Derkach, unsealed on December 7 in New York City, also charges him with money laundering and bank fraud conspiracy in the purchase and maintenance of the two properties in upscale Beverly Hills, the U.S. Justice Department said.
Derkach purchased the properties in violation of U.S. sanctions and concealed his interest in the transactions from U.S. banks, prosecutors said.
Derkach, 55, was sanctioned for his efforts to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election on behalf of the Russian intelligence services. The U.S. Treasury Department alleged at the time that Derkach -- a member of the Ukrainian parliament who studied at the KGB school in Moscow -- had been "an active Russian agent for over a decade."
U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said in the Justice Department's statement on December 7 that Derkach’s conduct has shown that “he is ready, willing, and capable of exploiting [the] banking system in order to advance his illicit goals.”
The indictment alleges that, beginning in 2013, Derkach and a co-conspirator devised a scheme to purchase and maintain the two luxury condominiums while concealing his ownership and participation in the purchase. Derkach used the services of a corporate nominee, a multitiered structure of California-based shell companies, and numerous bank and brokerage accounts to purchase the properties, the Justice Department said.
Derkach used the network to wire approximately $3.92 million to the corporate nominee from overseas accounts in Latvia and Switzerland belonging to companies registered in the British Virgin Islands, the Justice Department said. The money was then used to pay $3.2 million in cash in the name of a corporate entity set up by the nominee, with Derkach having no visible affiliation with the purchase.
The remaining $800,000 was invested in a brokerage account and used to pay expenses on the condominiums, including taxes, homeowners’ fees, and utilities.
A parallel civil forfeiture action has been initiated to seize the condominiums and the remaining funds in the U.S. accounts, the department said. If convicted, Derkach, whose whereabouts are unknown, faces a maximum of 30 years in prison.
Ukrainian authorities in June said they had uncovered a Russian spy network involving Derkach. The State Security Service (SBU) on June 24 alleged that Derkach set up a network of private security firms to help facilitate the entry of Russian units into cities during Moscow's February 24 invasion.
Derkach has previously denied wrongdoing, claiming he was being targeted for exposing corruption.
Russian Court Rejects Journalist Ivan Safronov's Appeal, Will Serve 22 Years In Penal Colony
MOSCOW -- A court of appeals in Moscow has rejected an appeal filed by Ivan Safronov, a prominent former journalist, against his conviction in a high-profile treason case that highlighted the Kremlin's crackdown on the media in September.
Safronov's conviction and sentence were upheld on December 7, and he is now expected to be transferred to a penal colony in the near future.
The Moscow City Court sentenced Safronov to 22 years in prison in early September after finding him guilty of handing secret materials to foreign agents in a case that is widely considered to be politically motivated.
Safronov has repeatedly denied accusations that he passed documents to Czech secret service agent Martin Laris in 2017 about Russian arms sales in the Middle East. He also denies handing unspecified classified information to German secret service agent Demuri Voronin.
Safronov's supporters have held pickets in Moscow and other cities demanding his release.
Safronov, who was arrested in July 2020, went on trial behind closed doors in early April.
The 32-year-old journalist, who covered the defense industry for the newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti, is also a former adviser to the former head of Russia's space agency, Roskosmos. Russian President Vladimir Putin has twice publicly stated that the charges are related to Safronov's work at Roskosmos.
Human rights organizations have issued statements demanding Safronov’s release and expressing concerns over an intensifying crackdown on dissent in Russia. The Russian human rights organization Memorial recognized him as a political prisoner.
Investigators deny that Safronov's prosecution is related to his work, but they previously offered him a pretrial agreement in exchange for disclosing journalistic sources.
Iran Sentences Five Protesters To Death Over Alleged Involvement In Basij Officer's Death
Iran's judiciary has sentenced to death five people -- including one who is in the hospital recovering after reportedly being tortured -- over the killing of a member of the Basij paramilitary force during nationwide protests.
The judiciary said on December 6 that it had also sentenced 11 others to prison sentences for their alleged roles in the death of Ruhollah Ajamian, who was part of the Basij, a volunteer branch under the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
One of those sentenced to death is Hamid Qarahasanlou, a radiologist that human rights groups say was tortured during interrogation and is now in a hospital as a result.
The three others sentenced to death were not named. Of the 11 people sentenced, three were minors, judiciary spokesman Massoud Setayeshi told a news conference, adding the sentences can be appealed.
Farzaneh Qarahasanlou, Hamid Qarahasanlou's wife, was sentenced to 25 years and exiled to a prison in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz.
Both of the Qarahasanlous denied any wrongdoing in court and said they were merely participants in protests over the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, who died while in custody over allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.
Several of the defendants were charged with "corruption on Earth," which is punishable by death and often leveled in cases allegedly involving espionage or attempts to overthrow Iran's government.
The cases were decided within six days and after three court hearings.
Prosecutors said the 27-year-old Ajamian was stripped naked and killed by a group of mourners who had been paying tribute to a slain protester, Hadis Najafi, during ceremonies marking the 40th day since her death.
Human rights organizations have strongly objected to the death sentences being issued against protesters in Iran after "sham trials."
Amnesty International wrote in a statement that, according to informed sources, the Iranian authorities tortured Qarahasanlou and forced Farzaneh Qarahasanlou to accuse her husband of wrongdoing.
"On 1 December, [Hamid Qarahasanlou] was removed from hospital, where he had undergone surgery for internal bleeding, and taken to court for trial while he was heavily sedated and recovering from surgery and then returned to hospital afterwards," Amnesty said in the statement.
"The couple’s first two lawyers dropped their case after intelligence and security agents threatened them," it added.
The BBC quoted an informed source as saying that, during the interrogations, Farzaneh was hit on the head with a baton so many times that, to save herself, she said that her husband may have kicked the victim. She later recanted the statement.
Iran is currently in the throes of unrest as people take to the streets across the country to protest Amini's death on September 16.
Police have met the unrest with deadly force.
The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters have been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.
The Oslo-based Iran Human Rights Organization says the number of executions in Iran exceeds 500 this year.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Uzbek Household Cooked Food For Nearly 30 Years In Cauldron More Than 2,000 Years Old
An ancient bronze cauldron estimated to be more than 2,000 years old was used for almost 30 years by a household in Uzbekistan to cook food before it was recognized for its cultural value and turned over to a museum. Uzbekistan's Agency of Cultural Heritage said on December 6 that a school director in the Samarkand region found the cauldron in 1993 when digging a canal and did not know its cultural value. Experts assessed that the cauldron belonged to the ancient nomadic Saka people. It has now been acquired by a state museum in Samarkand. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.
Russian Woman Among Alleged Members Of Extremist Group Arrested In Germany
A Russian woman was among more than two dozen suspects detained in Germany on December 7 during nationwide raids on an extremist group linked to the Reichsbuerger movement that allegedly aimed to overthrow the government. According to German prosecutors, the detained Russian citizen is suspected of facilitating unsuccessful attempts to make contact between a would-be group leader and Russian officials. The Russian Embassy in Berlin has denied any links with the group, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the arrests an internal issue for Germany. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Iranian Students Say They Were Beaten Back Ahead Of Speech By Raisi At Tehran University
Students at Tehran University say they were beaten back by security forces as they tried to hold a protest as President Ebrahim Raisi arrived to deliver a speech amid anti-government unrest that has rocked the country since the September death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.
The Students' Union Council Telegram channel on December 7 said several students were injured and left bloodied by the attacking security forces.
Each year on December 7, which is Student Day in Iran, demonstrations are organized by many universities at which students put forward democratic demands.
WATCH: General strikes have been held for a third day in Iran, with shops and factories closed across the country. Meanwhile, students at Tehran University said they were beaten by security forces ahead of a speech on campus by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
Besides such issues as academic rights, freedom of speech, and academic independence from the government, the demands also often reflect broader democratic movements in Iran, including this year's protest movement that has built up across the country since Mahsa Amini died in Tehran on September 16.
Students have been one of the main forces behind the unrest, which has been met by security officials with a brutal, and often deadly, crackdown.
Raisi, an ultra-conservative leader, arrived at the school and in a speech held in front of a selected group of pro-government students said that "protest is different from rioting" and that it was rioters who were "unjustly killing our loved ones."
While Raisi spoke, many students gathered in different parts of the university and chanted slogans against the government, as well as the slogan "Women, Life, Freedom."
Reports from other universities, including AmirKabir University in Tehran, and other universities in Mashhad said students were severely beaten there as well.
An eyewitness from Ferdowsi University in Mashhad said that a gathering of students there was "attacked" by security forces.
Meanwhile, nationwide strikes at businesses and shops continued for a third day.
Videos received by RFERL’s Radio Farda showed shopkeepers in Isfahan, Bukan, and Tehran on strike in support of the protests.
The government has responded to almost three months of unrest with deadly force as it tries to suppress one of the deepest challenges to the Islamic regime since the revolution in 1979.
The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
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