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Syria Leader In Iran As West's Nuclear Deadline Looms

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
TEHRAN -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has arrived for talks in Tehran, a few weeks after he told France he would use his good relations with Iran to help resolve its nuclear stand-off with the West.

Al-Assad's two-day visit to Iran coincides with an informal deadline set by Western officials in the dispute over Tehran's atomic plans, which the United States suspects are aimed at making bombs. The Islamic Republic says its aims are peaceful.

Syria's president was expected to meet his Iranian counterpart Mahmud Ahmadinejad and other senior officials.

Western powers gave Iran two weeks from July 19 to respond to their offer to hold off on imposing more UN sanctions on Iran if Tehran would freeze any expansion of its nuclear work.

That would suggest a deadline of August 2, although Russia, one of the six powers facing Iran, has opposed a deadline and Iran dismissed the idea of having two weeks to reply.

European diplomats in Brussels say they are ready to wait a few more days for an answer.

The West accuses Iran of seeking to build nuclear warheads under cover of a civilian power program. Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil producer, denies the charge.

Visiting Paris last month, al-Assad said he would respond to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's request and use his good ties with Iran to help resolve the nuclear row.

He also said in the French capital on July 14 that a military attack on Iran over its nuclear program would have grave consequences for the United States, Israel, and the world.

Washington says it wants a diplomatic solution to the dispute but has not ruled out military action if that fails.

The United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany in June offered Iran economic and other incentives to coax it into halting uranium enrichment, which can have both civilian and military uses.

The freeze idea is aimed at getting preliminary talks started, although formal negotiations on the incentives package will not start before Iran stops enriching uranium, which Tehran says is solely aimed at providing fuel for power plants.

Iran, whose refusal to halt the work has drawn three rounds of UN sanctions since 2006, has rejected suspension in the past and has given no indication that it is ready for a freeze.

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Russian Veteran Rights Defender Oleg Orlov Sentenced To 2 1/2 Years In Prison

Russian rights activist Oleg Orlov (file photo)
Russian rights activist Oleg Orlov (file photo)

The Golovinsky district court in Moscow sentenced Oleg Orlov, the co-chair of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Memorial human rights center, to 2 1/2 years in prison for "repeatedly discrediting" Russian armed forces involved in the Kremlin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Orlov, 70, refused to take part in closing arguments on February 27 and asked his defense team not to invite their witnesses to the stand, saying that they may be labeled "foreign agents" if they testify. Orlov was labeled a "foreign agent" in early February.

In his final statement shortly before the verdict and sentence were pronounced, Orlov reiterated his innocence, stressing that Russian authorities have banned "any independent opinion."

"[Russian officials'] children or grandchildren will be ashamed to talk about where their fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers served and what they did. And the same will happen to those who, by carrying out orders, are committing crimes in Ukraine. In my view, this is the worst punishment, and it is inevitable," Orlov said,

"The punishment for me is clearly inevitable as well, because in today’s circumstances, hoping for an acquittal on this charge would be the highest level of naivete. And now, very soon, we will see what the verdict is. But I have nothing to regret or repent."

In October last year, the court fined Orlov 150,000 rubles ($1,590) on a charge that stemmed from several single-person pickets he held condemning Russia's aggression against Ukraine, along with an article he wrote criticizing the Russian government for sending troops to Ukraine that was published in the French magazine Mediapart.

In mid-December, the Moscow City Court canceled that ruling and sent Orlov's case back to prosecutors, who had appealed, saying the sentence was too mild.

Earlier this month, investigators updated the charge against the rights defender, saying that his alleged misdeeds were motivated by "ideological enmity against traditional Russian spiritual, moral, and patriotic values."

Memorial has noted that the case was reinvestigated hastily, while Orlov said he thinks the investigators received an order to move quickly with the case to allow for the retrial.

Orlov gained prominence as one of Russia's leading human rights activists after he co-founded the Memorial human rights center following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2004-2006, Orlov was a member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights Institutions.

For his contribution to human rights in Russia, in 2009, Orlov was awarded the Sakharov Prize, an international honorary award for individuals or groups who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought.

Memorial was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022 for its longtime "fight for human rights and democracy."

With reporting by Mediazona

Ukraine Shoots Down Russian Su-34 Fighter Jet, Says Air Force Commander

A file photo of a Russian Su-34 fighter-bomber
A file photo of a Russian Su-34 fighter-bomber

The Ukrainian military has shot down another Russian Su-34 fighter-bomber jet, the commander of Ukraine's air force said on Telegram on February 27. "Minus one Su-34 in the eastern direction," General Mykola Oleshchuk said, without giving details. Russia has not commented on Ukraine's claim, which could not be independently verified immediately. Oleshchuk previously reported the downing of a Su-34 fighter-bomber on February 21. That claim could also not be independently confirmed. To read the original story by RFE/ RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Moscow Court Issues Arrest Warrant For Self-Exiled Opposition Politician Dmitry Gudkov

Dmitry Gudkov (file photo)
Dmitry Gudkov (file photo)

A Moscow court on February 27 issued an arrest warrant for self-exiled opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov on a charge of distributing "false" information about Russian military forces involved in Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The case against Gudkov was launched in October. The charge against the Kremlin critic stemmed from a video Gudkov placed on YouTube that was critical of the war in Ukraine. In December, the Interior Ministry added Gudkov to its wanted list. Last February, Gudkov was labeled "a foreign agent." If he returns to Russia and is convicted, Gudkov faces up to 15 years in prison. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Court In Chechnya Sentences Teenager To More Than 3 Years In Prison For Burning Koran

Nikita Zhuravel (file photo)
Nikita Zhuravel (file photo)

A court in Russia's North Caucasus region of Chechnya sentenced a teenager on February 27 to 3 1/2 years in prison and 300 hours of community work for publicly burning a Koran. Nikita Zhuravel, 19, who set fire to a Koran in the Russian city of Volgograd, was found guilty of "insulting believers' feelings" and "religious hatred-based hooliganism." In August, video showing Adam Kadyrov, the 15-year-old son of Chechnya's authoritarian ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, beating Zhuravel while in custody caused public outrage. Rights defenders have questioned the legality of Zhuravel's trial being held in mostly Muslim-populated Chechnya instead of the Volgograd region, where the incident took place. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

Independent Pakistani Journalist In Police Custody; Media Watchdog Calls For His Release

Pakistani journalist Asad Ali Toor (file photo)
Pakistani journalist Asad Ali Toor (file photo)

Popular independent Pakistani journalist Asad Ali Toor was arrested late on February 26 after he was ordered to appear for questioning in connection with an alleged “explicit and malicious” campaign against Supreme Court judges. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said it spoke to Toor's lawyer, Imaan Mazari-Hazir, who confirmed the news. Toor was arrested in the capital, Islamabad, by the FIA’s cybercrime wing. The CPJ called on authorities to "immediately and unconditionally release" Toor, and "to cease harassing him for his journalistic work."

Azerbaijani Journalist Sentenced To 9 Years In Prison On Charges He Rejects

Azerbaijani journalist Avaz Zeynalli (file photo)
Azerbaijani journalist Avaz Zeynalli (file photo)

A court in Baku on February 27 sentenced independent Azerbaijani journalist Avaz Zeynalli to nine years in prison on corruption charges that he and his supporters have rejected as motivated by his journalistic work.

Zeynalli, the editor in chief of Khural (Parliament) TV, a leading independent Azerbaijani Internet TV station, has been in pretrial detention since September 2022, when he was arrested together with human rights lawyer Elchin Sadygov.

The two were arrested after a pro-government news organization claimed that they had extorted 20 thousand manats ($10,845) from the wife of imprisoned businessman Rasim Mamedov in exchange for favorable coverage of his case.

Mammadov is the former head of the steelmaking plant Baku Steel Company LLC. In February 2021 he was detained on charges that included the embezzlement of some 55 million manat (more than $32 million). He was defended by Sadygov.

Later in September 2022, the Baku Court of Appeal transferred Sadygov to house arrest, separating his case into a different proceeding.

Zeynalli has rejected the charges, saying that the state prosecution did not provide any reliable evidence confirming his guilt. In his final address to the court on February 26, he said that he was a prisoner of conscience, and the case against him was prompted by his journalistic work.

Zeynalli also told the court that he did not know 31 of the 38 witnesses produced by the prosecution in his case.

The court also ruled to confiscate 16,000 manat seized during the search of Zeynalli's house on the day of his detention in September 2022.

It was the second time that Zeynalli was sentenced on bribery-related charges.

In 2011, he was detained on allegations of extorting and accepting a bribe from former parliament deputy Gulyar Ahmadova.

Zeynalli pleaded not guilty at his subsequent trial in 2013, saying the case against him was connected with his work as a journalist.

He was sentenced to nine years in prison but was released a year later in 2014.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has urged Azerbaijani authorities to release Zeynalli and Sadygov and drop all charges against them.

“Bribery charges against Avaz Zeynalli, a critical journalist whom authorities have previously jailed for his work, and Elchin Sadygov, a lawyer who regularly defends journalists against state repression, are concerning, especially as pro-government media made the accusations,” said CPJ's Gulnoza Said in September 2022.

“Azerbaijani authorities should free Zeynalli and Sadygov, drop the charges against them, and refrain from jailing members of the press and their advocates in retaliation for their work.”

Russian Metals Tycoon's Assets Nationalized Days After Putin Criticized Operations At Chelyabinsk Plant

Metals tycoon Yury Antipov (file photo)
Metals tycoon Yury Antipov (file photo)

A Russian metals tycoon's assets in a company that produces a key component in making steel have reportedly been nationalized days after President Vladimir Putin criticized his management of his company.

Yury Antipov, 69, the owner of Russia’s largest ferroalloy company, was also questioned by investigators in Chelyabinsk, the Urals industrial city where his company is based, and released on February 26, according to local media.

Earlier in the day, the government seized his shares in Kompaniya Etalon, a holding company for three metals plants that reportedly produce as much as 90 percent of Russia’s ferroalloy, a resource critical for steelmaking.

Russia’s Prosecutor-General Office filed a lawsuit on February 5 to seize Etalon, claiming the underlying Soviet-era metals assets were illegally privatized in the 1990s. It also said the strategic company was partially owned by entities in “unfriendly” countries.

While campaigning for a presidential vote next month, Putin criticized Antipov on February 16 without naming him during a visit to Chelyabinsk, whose working-class residents are typical of the president’s electoral base.

Putin told the regional governor that the Chelyabinsk Electrometallurgical Plant, the largest of Etalon’s five metals factories, had failed to reduce dangerous emissions as agreed in 2019 and the asset would be taken over even though the court had yet to hear the case on privatization.

“I think that all the property should be transferred to state ownership and part of the plant -- [where there is ecologically] harmful production -- should be moved outside the city limits,” Putin told Governor Aleksei Teksler.

In a closed hearing, a Chelyabinsk court approved the transfer of Etalon’s assets to the state, a move potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Antipov ranked 170 on Forbes 2021 list of richest Russians with a net worth of $700 million.

The nationalization of a domestic company owned by a Russian citizen is the latest in a series of about two dozen by the state since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Prosecutors have based their cases on illegal privatization, foreign ownership, criminal activity, or a combination of the three. A rare-metals producer whose owner had been critical of the war effort was among the other assets seized. l

The seizures contradict Putin’s repeated promises in the nearly quarter century he has been in power that he would not review the controversial 1990s privatizations. In return, businessmen were expected to be loyal to the Kremlin and stay out of politics, experts say.

That unofficial social contract had more or less functioned up until the war. Now businessmen are also expected to contribute to the war effort and support the national economy amid sweeping Western sanctions, experts say.

The current trend of state seizures has spooked Russian entrepreneurs and raised questions about whether that social contract is still valid.

U.S. Ties

Antipov began his business career in the 1990s selling nails, fertilizer, dried meats, and other goods. In 1996 he and his business partner plowed their profits into the purchase of the Chelyabinsk Electrometallurgical Plant and subsequently purchased four more metals plants in the ensuing years.

The plants sold some of their output in the United States, where the firm had a trading company.

Antipov received full control of the metals holding in 2020 when he split with his business partner. That year he put 25 percent of the company each in the names of his wife and two eldest sons, Sergei and Aleksei Antipov, according to Russian business registration records.

In 2022, the metal assets were transferred to the Etalon holding company, whose ownership was hidden. Ferroalloy prices surged in 2022 as the war triggered a spike in commodity prices.

A hit piece published by The Moscow Post in December -- six weeks before prosecutors launched the privatization case -- claimed Antipov paid himself a dividend of more than $300 million from 2021-2023 using a structure that avoids capital gains taxes. RFE/RL could not confirm that claim. The Moscow Post is a Russian-language online tabloid that regularly publishes compromising and scandalous stories.

According to public records, Antipov’s two sons own homes in the United States and may be U.S. citizens. Sergei Antipov founded the trading company around the year 2000 in the U.S. state of Indiana. If he and his brother together still own 50 percent of the company, prosecutors could potentially have grounds for seizure.

Russia has changed some laws regulating the purchase of large stakes in strategic assets since its invasion of Ukraine.

One is a 2008 law that requires foreign entities to receive state permission to buy large stakes in strategic assets. An exception had been made for foreign entities controlled by Russian citizens.

Under the change, a Russian citizen with dual citizenship or a residence permit in another country may be considered a “foreign” owner and must receive permission to own an asset.

Nationalization is among the punishments for failure to do so. Thus, if Antipov’s two sons are U.S. citizens or if they have U.S. residency permits, their combined 50 percent stake in the company could be seized.

This already happened to a Russian businessman from St. Petersburg. His business was determined to be strategic and seized after he received foreign residency.

Ukrainian Air Defenses Down 11 Russian Drones, Two Cruise Missiles

Ukrainian air defenses shot down 11 out of the 13 drones launched by Russia early on February 27, the country's air force said. (file photo)
Ukrainian air defenses shot down 11 out of the 13 drones launched by Russia early on February 27, the country's air force said. (file photo)

Ukrainian air defenses shot down 11 of 13 drones launched by Russia at targets inside Ukraine early on February 27, the country's air force said. It added that two cruise missiles out of a total of six had also been destroyed. "Fighter aircraft, antiaircraft missile units, mobile groups, and electronic warfare equipment were involved in repelling the attack," the Ukrainian military said, adding that the drones and missiles were shot down over the Kharkiv, Sumy, Dnipropetrovsk, Khmelnytskiy and Kirovohrad regions. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Allies Agree On Coalition To Supply Ukraine With Medium- And Long-Range Missiles, Macron Says

French President Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron

European leaders have agreed to create a coalition to supply Ukraine with medium- and long-range missiles and bombs to back Kyiv's efforts to stave off Russia's invasion, French President Emmanuel Macron said after a summit of continental leaders in Paris.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Polish President Andrzej Duda, and leaders from the Baltic nations also attended the summit that extended late into February 26. The United States was represented by its top diplomat for Europe, James O’Brien, while Britain sent in Foreign Secretary David Cameron.

"We have also decided to give new impetus to the anti-missile defense coalition, which Ukrainian President [Volodymyr Zelenskiy] has called for, and to create a ninth such coalition this evening, a coalition for missiles and bombs of medium and long range to carry out deep strikes," Macron told a news conference after the meeting.

Zelenskiy, who addressed the summit via video link, called on European leaders to ensure that Russian President Vladimir Putin "cannot destroy our achievements and cannot expand his aggression to other nations.”

Ukraine relies heavily on advanced weaponry and ammunition supplies from its Western allies, mainly from the United States, to resist the increasingly intense assaults by Russian forces who have superiority in manpower and a large supply of ammunition.

Outgunned and outmanned Ukrainian troops have been recently forced to withdraw from some of their defensive positions in the east as a critical U.S. military aid package worth $61 billion remains blocked in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

Europe will help Ukraine "to take the initiative and act together at a time when there is uncertainty on the part of the United States regarding aid," Macron said, adding that there was a "broad consensus to do more and quicker" among the leaders taking part in the summit.

He said that "no consensus" existed on the sending of Western ground troops to Ukraine, but added, "nothing should be excluded to achieve our objective. Russia cannot win that war."

Talking separately to journalists after the meeting, Duda said that "there was no enthusiasm" among the participants about the possibility of sending Western troops to Ukraine.

Participants to the gathering said there was increasing support from European countries, including France, for a Czech initiative to buy ammunition and shells outside the EU and send them to Ukraine.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Netherlands was willing to provide more than 100 million euros for that purpose.

With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters and dpa

Associate Says Navalny Killed As Exchange Deal To West Neared

Maria Pevchikh, the chairwoman of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (file photo)
Maria Pevchikh, the chairwoman of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (file photo)

An associate of the late Aleksei Navalny claims a prisoner swap involving the Russian opposition leader was in the final stages before he died in a remote Siberian prison.

Maria Pevchikh, the chairwoman of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, said in a video statement on YouTube on February 26 that Navalny's associates had worked for two years to convince Western officials to negotiate a deal that would include the Kremlin critic and two U.S. citizens held in Russian prisons for Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) who was convicted of assassinating a former Chechen fighter in Berlin in 2019.

Pevchik did not name the two U.S. citizens to be included in the exchange. Several Americans are currently being held in Russian prisons, including former Marine Paul Whelan, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, and RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva. Navalny would be included in the deal as part of "a humanitarian exchange."

"At the beginning of February, Putin was offered to swap the FSB killer, Vadim Krasikov, who is serving time for a murder in Berlin, for two American citizens and Aleksei Navalny. I received confirmation that negotiations were at the final stage in the evening of February 15. On February 16, Aleksei was killed," Pevchikh said.

"Aleksei Navalny could have been sitting here now, today. It's not a figure of speech," she added.

Pevchikh’s statements have yet to be confirmed or rejected by other sources.

Asked at a regular news conference in Berlin on February 26 about the report, German government spokeswoman Christiane Hoffmann said she couldn’t comment.

"We have already received similar questions, and I can't answer anything other than that we can't comment on them,” she told the news conference, according to a senior press officer responding to RFE/RL's e-mail.

Earlier this month, Putin told U.S. commentator Tucker Carlson that "an agreement can be reached" to free Gershkovich, who was arrested in March 2023 in Russia on espionage charges that he, his employer, and the U.S. government have rejected as groundless, in a swap for a "patriotic" Russian national currently serving out a life sentence for murder in Germany -- an apparent reference to Krasikov.

The Wall Street Journal cited Western officials at the time as saying that Putin wanted Krasikov to be released in exchange for U.S. prisoners, including Gershkovich and that Krasikov was central to any deal.

In her video, Pevchikh alleged Putin "wouldn't tolerate" Navalny being set free and instead of swapping him, the Russian leader decided to "get rid of the bargaining chip." She offered no evidence to back up her claim.

She also said Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich acted as an "informal negotiator" between the Kremlin and U.S. and European officials.

"I asked Roman Abramovich through mutual acquaintances how, when, and under what circumstances he did this, and what Putin said. Unfortunately, Abramovich did not answer these questions, but he did not deny anything either," Pevchikh said.

There was no immediate comment from Abramovich. The Kremlin has also not commented on the report.

Navalny's body was released to his family over the weekend, a week after his death was made public by the administration of the so-called "Polar Wolf" prison where he was serving a 19-year term on extremism and other charges that he and his supporters rejected as politically motivated.

No cause of death has been given.

Navalny's mother has accused Russian officials of pressuring her to have a secret burial for her son in order to avoid a massive outpouring of support for one of Putin's most vocal critics.

"The funeral is still pending. We do not know if the authorities will interfere to carry it out as the family wants and as Aleksei deserves. We will inform you as soon as there is news," his spokeswoman, Kyra Yarmysh, said on X, formerly Twitter, on February 24.

She added in a post on February 26 that "we are looking for a hall for a public farewell to Aleksei. Time: end of this work week."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 26 it was "absurd" to claim Navalny's family was being pressured.

With reporting by Reuters

Former Russian Actor Gets Life Sentence For Joining Group Fighting For Ukraine

Kirill Kanakhin
Kirill Kanakhin

A military court in Moscow on February 26 sentenced to life in prison on high-treason charge former actor Kirill Kanakhin, who joined the so-called Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) fighting alongside Ukrainian forces against Russian troops. The court issued the sentence in absentia four months after an arrest warrant was issued for Kanakhin. He was previously added to Russia's list of extremists and terrorists. Also in November, a Moscow court sentenced in absentia Denis Kapustin (aka Nikitin), a commander of the RDK, to life in prison in absentia on the same charge. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Russian Tycoon Antipov Reportedly Detained In Fraud Case

The facilities produce high-quality steel used to produce military equipment and ammunition.
The facilities produce high-quality steel used to produce military equipment and ammunition.

Russian media reports said on February 26 that police detained oligarch Yury Antipov in an unspecified fraud case. The reports also said a court in the Sverdlovsk region ruled to nationalize Antipov's shares in a major metallurgical plant in the region, as well as his shares in two metallurgical plants in the regions of Chelyabinsk and Kemerovo. The court said the facilities were obtained through "illegal privatization" in the 1990s. The facilities produce high-quality steel used to produce military equipment and ammunition. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Updated

Bulgaria Bans Two Russians From Entering EU

(illustrative photo)
(illustrative photo)

Bulgaria has banned two Russian citizens from entering Bulgaria and the entire European Union for five years over their alleged role in a security agency operation in the Balkan country, its state security agency said on February 26.

The State Agency for National Security, which goes by the acronym DANS, said it banned Russian citizens Vladimir Nikolayevich Gorochkin, 39, and Tatyana Anatolievna Gorochkina, 37, who DANS said presented themselves as Bulgarian nationals Denis Rashkov and Diana Rashkova.

"The main purpose of their presence in Bulgaria was to obtain the Bulgarian identity documents and credible biographical data, which they would later use to carry out intelligence activities outside Bulgaria," DANS said.

The case came after DANS earlier this month detained an employee of the EU and NATO member's General Directorate for the Fight against Organized Crime (GDBOP) for allegedly spying for Russia. An employee of DANS was also placed under investigation, supervising prosecutor Angel Kanev said on February 6.

The detained employee of the GDBOP is a 57-year-old expert in the International Cooperation and Projects sector who had active access to classified information prepared by Bulgarian services and data from partner agencies in several European countries and is said to have provided it to Russia over a long period. He had been working in the Interior Ministry since 1993 and from 2001 to 2002 was on a mission in Kosovo.

He used various methods to transmit the information, which was a mix of paper and digitally stored documents, Kanchev said.

"It's certainly not about a one-time handover or just a few documents," Kanev added, noting that his activity did not torpedo any joint operations with partner services or Bulgarian operations.

An inquiry was to be launched into the relevant European countries about the status of the documents that were handed over to Russian intelligence.

The detainee had frequent communication with the DANS employee who was also placed under investigation. As of the day of the announcement of the detention of the GDBOP employee, there was no evidence that the DANS employee had also passed information to the Russian services, but measures were taken to restrict his access to information.

Bulgaria in recent years has expelled Russian diplomats and other Russian citizens on suspicion on espionage. In September the government expelled the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia and two Belarusian priests, accusing them of serving Moscow's geopolitical interests.

The Russian Embassy reacted to the expulsions by describing them as "crude" and "flagrant" and expressed outrage at the decision.

With reporting by Reuters

Scores Of Prominent Iranians Call For Boycott Of 'Staged' Elections

A man and a child walk past campaign posters of parliamentary candidates during the first day of the election campaign in Tehran on February 22.
A man and a child walk past campaign posters of parliamentary candidates during the first day of the election campaign in Tehran on February 22.

Almost 300 political, social, and cultural figures in Iran have publicly denounced the forthcoming parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections, calling for people to follow suit and not participate in the "engineered" and "staged" balloting.

"The half-hearted position and status of the institution of elections" in Iran has "reached a more deplorable situation, even compared to the previous elections," the group of 275 people, including Morteza Alviri, Abdolali Bazargan, Alireza Rajaei, Ali Babachahi, Alireza Alavitabar, and Abolfazl Ghadiani, said in a statement on February 25.

Elections for the parliament, the Majlis, are scheduled for March 1 along with voting to fill the Assembly of Experts, with a majority of would-be candidates already disqualified.

The statement highlighted the extent of the disqualifications of candidates for the 12th round of elections to the Majlis and said the "deadlock of reforms" points to a deepening crisis within the country's political landscape.

The signatories rejected justifications by some who say that Iranians should still participate even in what is seen as a flawed electoral process, saying that the previous policy of encouraging participation at any cost to push out the Islamic republic's leaders has not only been fruitless, but in fact contributed to the perpetuation of authoritarianism and political stagnation.


Emphasizing the dire state of Iran's current electoral institution, the activists outline a series of prerequisites for holding genuine, fair, and healthy elections.

These include the demand for freedom of speech, for the activities of opposition parties and associations, for the press and media, and the oversight of independent and impartial bodies on election procedures and outcomes.

The activists said those conditions aren't present in the upcoming elections, and therefore they "deem it necessary not to participate in the upcoming elections, which are clearly engineered against the public's sovereignty, and not to give in to this staging."

The statement also warns that without a genuine revival of the institution of elections, real participation in Iran's political process is "unattainable," drawing a bleak comparison to the fate of Lake Urmia, once the largest lake in the Middle East, that has now shrunk to one-10th of its original size.

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

Armenian, Azerbaijani Envoys To Meet In Berlin To Discuss Peace Agreement

Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan (left), U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Ceyhun Bayramov (right)meet in May 2023.
Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan (left), U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Ceyhun Bayramov (right)meet in May 2023.

The Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers will meet in Berlin on February 28-29 to discuss a peace agreement between the two South Caucasus countries as agreed in Munich earlier this month, Armenian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Ani Badalian told RFE/RL on February 26. Local media in Azerbaijan quoted the Foreign Ministry in Baku confirming the meeting time and place. The meeting comes days after the latest flare-up of deadly violence along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, click here.

Navalny Associates Say Looking For Place In Russia To Bid Farewell To Kremlin Foe

Flowers are seen placed around portraits of late Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny at a makeshift memorial in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin on February 23 during a rally marking the eve of the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Flowers are seen placed around portraits of late Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny at a makeshift memorial in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin on February 23 during a rally marking the eve of the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Kira Yarmysh, the former spokeswoman for Aleksei Navalny, said on February 26 that his associates are looking for premises to hold a farewell ceremony for the opposition leader, who died in a remote Russian prison on February 16.

"We are looking for a hall for a public farewell ceremony for Aleksei. Time -- the end of this business week. If you have proper premises, please contact us," Yarmysh wrote on X, formerly Twitter, providing a telephone number that appeared to be inside Russia.

Navalny's relatives have yet to confirm any details of a farewell ceremony and funeral for the anti-corruption crusader.

The Baza Telegram channel, citing unnamed sources at the Borisovskoye cemetery in Moscow, said on February 26 that its employees had started preparations for Navalny's burial overnight, adding that the preliminary date for a ceremony was set for February 29.

Baza also published a video it received from a subscriber showing that a parking place at the Borisovskoye cemetery was thoroughly cleared of snow the night before with a large number of police vehicles present. The video was not independently verified.

Several Telegram channels mentioned possible sites where Navalny could be buried, including the Borisovskoye, Khovanskoye, and Troyekurovskoye cemeteries. All are in Moscow.

Navalny's body was released to his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, on February 24, more than a week after his suspicious death in an Arctic prison. No cause has been made public for the death of the 47-year-old.

Hundreds of Russians have been arrested as people continued to honor Navalny's memory at sites across the country.

Navalny's relatives, associates, and Western officials have blamed Putin for Navalny's death. Russian officials have said no foul play was involved and called the international outrage over Navalny's death while in prison "hysterical."

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a self-exiled leading Russian opposition figure, said in a recent interview with RFE/RL that a public funeral could trigger "large-scale confrontations" between Navalny supporters and law enforcement.

Navalny died while serving a 19-year prison term on charges including extremism that he, his supporters, Western officials, and rights watchdogs called politically motivated.

Lengthy Prison Sentences For Uzbek Child Deaths Blamed On Indian-Produced Medicine

Dozens of children died after using the Indian syrup.
Dozens of children died after using the Indian syrup.

TASHKENT -- The Tashkent City Court sentenced 23 people -- including an Indian national -- to prisons terms of up to 20 years after a cough syrup imported into Uzbekistan from India killed 68 children in 2022.

In reading out the court's verdict on February 26, the judge said Indian national Ragvendra Pradar, who is the director of the Quramax Medical company that imported the medicine, received 20 years, while the former chief of Uzbekistan’s state pharmacy development agency, Sardor Kariev, received an 18-year prison term and his two former deputies, Amirkhon Azimov and Nodirbek Musaev, were sentenced to 16 years in prison each.

Several other defendants were handed prison terms of up to 10 years in prison, while the remainder received parole-like sentences.

The charges against the defendants included tax evasion, the sale of substandard or counterfeit medicines, abuse of office, negligence, forgery, and bribery.

In December 2022, amid reports about the mass deaths of children blamed on Doc-1 Max syrup, which was produced by Marion Biotech and imported by Quramax, Uzbek authorities suspended the sale of all the company's products.

Uzbekistan's Health Ministry said at the time that Doc-1 Max syrup contained the extremely toxic substance ethylene glycol.

Criminal probes over the affair have been launched in both Uzbekistan and India.

The Indian regulator has canceled Marion Biotech's manufacturing license and arrested some of its employees.

A legal representative of Marion Biotech said at the time the company regretted the deaths.

The defendants in Tashkent went on trial in August last year.

Two months before the Uzbek outbreak, cough and cold syrups made by Indian firm Maiden Pharmaceuticals Ltd were blamed for the deaths of dozens of children in the West African country of Gambia.

A laboratory analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that Maiden Pharmaceuticals' syrups contained "unacceptable amounts of diethylene glycol and ethylene glycol," chemicals often meant for industrial use.

Scholz Reiterates No Taurus Delivery To Avoid Ukraine War Involvement

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (file photo)
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (file photo)

Chancellor Olaf Scholz has again ruled out delivering German Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine at this time, citing the risk of Germany becoming involved in the war. "It is a very far-reaching weapon. And what the British and French are doing in terms of target control and accompanying target control cannot be done in Germany," Scholz said on February 26 at an editorial conference organized in Berlin by the German news agency dpa. Taurus cruise missiles can hit targets up to 500 kilometers away with great precision. Ukraine wants to use them to cut off the Russian troops' supply lines.

Four Czechs Die In Avalanches In Kyrgyzstan

Avalanches in the mountainous area of Kyrgyzstan occur very often in late winter and spring.  (file photo)
Avalanches in the mountainous area of Kyrgyzstan occur very often in late winter and spring.  (file photo)

Avalanches in Kyrgyzstan's northern district of Ak-Suu killed four Czech citizens over the weekend, Stalbek Usubakunov, a spokesman for the Issyk-Kul regional police department, told RFE/RL on February 26. According to Usubakunov, 19 other Czechs survived the avalanches on February 25. The bodies of the deceased were recovered and brought to a morgue in the city of Karakol. Avalanches in the mountainous area of Kyrgyzstan occur very often in late winter and spring. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

China Introduces Visa-Free Visits For Georgian Citizens

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze said on February 26 that Georgian citizens can now visit China without visas for a period of up to 30 days. In September, Georgia canceled visas for Chinese nationals visiting the South Caucasus nation after the two countries announced a decision to upgrade their bilateral ties to a strategic partnership. Tbilisi's move to enhance ties with Beijing coincided with rising tensions with both the United States and the European Union over what was seen as the Georgian government's ambivalence towards Russia in the face of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Georgian Service, click here.

Taliban Holds Another Public Execution In Afghanistan

A Taliban fighter and onlookers witness the execution of three men in Afghanistan's Ghazni Province in 2015.
A Taliban fighter and onlookers witness the execution of three men in Afghanistan's Ghazni Province in 2015.

A spokesman for the Taliban government said a man was publicly executed on February 26 at a stadium in Shibirghan, in Afghanistan's northern Jawzjan Province, the fifth public execution since the radical group returned to power in August 2021. Zabihullah Mujahid said the Taliban's Supreme Court had sentenced the man to death for murder. The man was shot five times with a rifle by the victim's brother, according to an anonymous witness. Last week, two people were publicly executed for murder in the southern city of Ghazni. The UN and rights groups have criticized the practice, calling for its abolition. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.

Kazakh Activists Mark Second Anniversary Of Ukraine War With Rally In Almaty

People gathered at the monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Almaty as a sign of support for Ukraine on the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion on February 24.
People gathered at the monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Almaty as a sign of support for Ukraine on the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion on February 24.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Kazakh activists marked the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine with a rally over the weekend in the Central Asian nation's largest city, Almaty, to show support for Kyiv.

Around 100 activists gathered near a monument to prominent Ukrainian writer, poet, and thinker Taras Shevchenko carrying flowers, balloons, and posters in Ukrainian saying "Glory to Ukraine!" and "Peace to Ukraine, freedom to the world!"

The activists also sang Ukrainian songs, held Ukrainian national flags, and lit candles.

When some of those in attendance unfolded more national flags from Ukraine and Kazakhstan, police officers approached and warned that the gathering was not officially permitted by the city. However, they did not halt the event and no clashes were reported.

The Kazakh government under President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has been trying to maintain cooperation with Ukraine, its Western allies, and Russia since Moscow launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

While not openly condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Toqaev has publicly stated that his country would not recognize parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions occupied by Moscow's forces as Russian territory.

Thousands of Russians have moved to Kazakhstan to avoid a so-called "partial mobilization," which Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in September 2022.

Meanwhile, Kazakh businesses last year set up so called "invincibility" yurts (traditional nomadic felt tents) in Kyiv and several other Ukrainian cities to provide local residents with food, tea, warmth, and the possibility of charging electronic devices.

Kazakhstan has preserved its economic ties with Russia, while the Kazakh-Russian border is over 7,000 kilometers long -- the world's second largest after the U.S.-Canadian border.

While many in Kazakhstan have openly supported Kyiv, the attitude among Kazakh citizens to the ongoing war in Ukraine varies.

Around 3.5 million of some 20 million Kazakh citizens are ethnic Russians and about 250,000 are ethnic Ukrainians.

Meanwhile, more than 1 million Russian citizens residing mostly in Russian regions adjacent to Kazakhstan, are ethnic Kazakhs, some of whom were mobilized to the war in Ukraine and died there.

Prosecutor Seeks Almost Three Years For Veteran Russian Rights Defender

Russian rights activist Oleg Orlov (file photo)
Russian rights activist Oleg Orlov (file photo)

A prosecutor in the high-profile retrial of veteran Russian rights defender Oleg Orlov has asked the Golovinsky district court in Moscow to sentence the co-chair of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Memorial human rights center to two years and 11 months on a charge of "repeatedly discrediting" Russian armed forces involved in Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Orlov's lawyer, Katerina Tertukhina, said on February 26 that her client is not guilty, while Orlov refused to take part in closing arguments, stressing that he will issue his final statement before the court hands down its decision.

Fifteen diplomats from Western nations attended the hearing, while the courtroom overflowed as scores of activists came to show support for the 70-year-old.

Orlov, whose retrial started on February 16, came to the courtroom holding a copy of the Franz Kafka novel The Trial about a man arrested and tried by a remote court on charges unknown to the defendant.

In October last year, the court fined Orlov 150,000 rubles ($1,590) on a charge that stemmed from several single-person pickets he held condemning Russia's aggression against Ukraine, along with an article he wrote criticizing the Russian government for sending troops to Ukraine that was published in the French magazine Mediapart.

In mid-December, the Moscow City Court canceled that ruling and sent Orlov's case back to prosecutors, who had appealed the decision, saying the sentence was too mild.

Earlier this month, Russian authorities added Orlov to the "foreign agents" registry, and investigators updated the charge against the rights defender, saying that his alleged misdeeds were motivated by "ideological enmity against traditional Russian spiritual, moral, and patriotic values."

Memorial has noted that the case was reinvestigated hastily, while Orlov said he thinks the investigators received an order to move quickly with the case to allow for the retrial.

"Despite that rush, we are ready to prove our innocence and our position with reference to the rule of the constitution," Orlov said earlier.

Orlov gained prominence as one of Russia's leading human rights activists after he co-founded the Memorial human rights center following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2004-2006, Orlov was a member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights Institutions.

For his contribution to human rights in Russia, in 2009, Orlov was awarded with the Sakharov Prize, an international honorary award for individuals or groups who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought.

Memorial was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022 for its longtime "fight for human rights and democracy."

With reporting by Mediazona

Kremlin Dismisses Suggestion Of Peace Talks Without Russia As Western Leaders Discuss Ukraine In Paris

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov (file photo)
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov (file photo)

Russia has rejected an idea advanced by Switzerland about possible talks in Geneva on a peace plan for Ukraine without Moscow's participation as "ridiculous."

The news came as outgunned and outmanned Ukrainian forces withdrew from a second location in the east of the country.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy voiced hopes on February 25 that a summit of world leaders will be held in Switzerland in the coming months to discuss his vision for peace after Swiss President Viola Amherd had said the previous day her neutral country was ready to host a senior-level peace conference.

"I hope it [a summit] will take place this spring. We must not lose this diplomatic initiative," Zelenskiy said, adding that he expected the resulting peace initiative to be presented to Moscow.

But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on February 26 called the idea "bizarre."

"As far as we understand, the issue on the agenda is some bizarre so-called Geneva platform -- a conference to discuss Zelenskiy's peace plan.

"We have repeatedly said that at least this is a strange arrangement, because some peace plans are being discussed without Russia's participation, which in itself is not serious and even ridiculous," Peskov said at his weekly news conference.

Meanwhile, some 20 Western leaders and senior officials are gathering in Paris on February 26 to reinforce Europe's determination to back Ukraine as the war entered its third year.

"We want to send [Russian President Vladimir] Putin a very clear message, that he won't win in Ukraine," an adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters about the hastily arranged meeting.

"Our goal is to crush this idea he wants us to believe that he would be somehow winning," the adviser said.

Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, confirmed that they had retreated from Lastochkyne, a village some 5 kilometers northwest of Avdiyivka, which fell to Russian troops last week after a fierce monthslong battle.

"This is an orderly and competent retreat," military spokesman Serhiy Tsekhotskiy told RFE/RL. "No need to panic. The most important thing is to save the lives of Ukrainian personnel."

Exhausted Ukrainian forces have been suffering from mounting shortages of heavy weapons and ammunition as desperately needed U.S. military help remains stuck in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which refuses to pass a bill that includes $61 billion in aid to Ukraine.

Separately, at least two people were killed in a Russian air strike in northeastern Sumy region on February 26 as Russia unleashed a fresh wave of drone and missile strikes on Ukraine, regional officials and the military said.

"A private residential building was destroyed, five others were damaged" in the strike on the village of Yunakyiv. "A couple was killed in the strike," Sumy regional authorities said in a message on Telegram.

Ukrainian air defenses shot down nine out of the 14 drones launched by Russia early on February 26, the military said. Three Russian cruise missiles were also destroyed, it added.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Polio Inoculation Campaign Kicks Off In 21 Afghan Provinces

Afghan health workers administer polio vaccination drops to a child during an inoculation campaign in Jalalabad. (file photo)
Afghan health workers administer polio vaccination drops to a child during an inoculation campaign in Jalalabad. (file photo)

An extensive polio vaccination campaign started on February 26 in 21 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, the country's Health Ministry said. The Taliban-controlled ministry's spokesman, Sharaf Zaman, said the four-day-long campaign aims to inoculate 7.6 million children under the age of five. Zaman asked local religious leaders to cooperate with the inoculation teams. Some parents in the northwest refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated against polio, an infectious disease that can cause paralysis and lead to death. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries in the world where polio has not been completely eradicated. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.

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