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Tensions Soar Ahead Of North Korean Missile Launch

The missile launch presents another opportunity for North Korea to flex its military muscle
The missile launch presents another opportunity for North Korea to flex its military muscle
North Korea has said it will send a communications satellite into orbit between April 4 and 8, raising concerns among its neighbors about Pyongyang's true intentions for the launch.

Topping the list of worries is the possibility that North Korea is using the mission as an opportunity to test -- and perhaps perfect -- its missile launch capabilities. If perfected, the Taepodong-2 would be capable of easily hitting Japan and, theoretically, even targets as far away as Alaska.

In addition, when Pyongyang fired off its longest-range missile in its only previous test flight in 2006, the Taepodong-2 blew up shortly after launch -- either because of a malfunction or because ground control feared it was about to veer wildly off course.

In Japan, public worry over the planned launch early next month is growing by the day. On March 27, the army sought to reassure citizens that it is able to destroy any missile, or debris from an aborted missile, that threatens to land in Japan.

Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada announced that he had issued an order, in keeping with Japan's Self-Defense Forces Act, "to prepare to destroy any object that might fall on Japan as a result of an accident involving a flying object from North Korea."

News reports say Japan is preparing to deploy ground-based antimissile defense systems in the country's north, which lies below the North Korean rocket's anticipated flight path.

At the same time, Japan is deploying two warships equipped with antimissile systems to the Sea of Japan.

Too Late To Turn Back

The Japanese moves come as hope is fading fast that any international pressure can persuade Pyongyang to give up its launch plans.

Russia, which has good ties with North Korea, called on Pyongyang to call off the launch. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin said: "The situation now in the North-East Asia region is tense, and it would be better for our partners in North Korea to hold back from this launch.... There is no need for an unnecessary fanning of emotions."

But there is little chance Moscow's last-minute appeal will be heeded.

Pyongyang has reportedly already put a rocket onto one of its launch pads and on March 26 again signaled its determination to go ahead.

A spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry told the country's official media that any attempt to bring the issue of the launch to the United Nations would be a "hostile act."

The spokesman said that in response to such an act, North Korea would break off its participation in the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program. Those talks have been suspended December over disagreements on how to verify that Pyongyang is disabling its nuclear facilities as it claims

North Korea's determination to proceed with the launch might be linked to internal politics, especially questions about who will succeed leader Kim Jong-il, according to Aidan Foster-Carter, a leading Korea analyst at Britain's Leeds University.

Foster-Carter noted that Kim reportedly suffered a stroke in August, raising questions about his ability to hold onto power. "It is certainly long overdue for him to appoint someone," he said. "He was unwell last year, and I think they want to fire off a big rocket -- and it may indeed be to launch a satellite, but whether it is or isn't, [it is] just to show how powerful they are. They will do this just before their newly 'elected' parliament -- a Communist style election -- is about to meet, so I think it is for internal reasons."

Military Might

The North Korean regime, which has been unable to feed its citizens for over a decade without UN assistance, has sacrificed everything to its military program.

That makes it necessary to demonstrate its military prowess from time to time, as it tried to do unsuccessfully with the first Taepodong-2 test in 2006 and -- successfully -- with its first nuclear bomb test a few months later, in October 2006.

At the same time, North Korea's sole export and foreign currency earner is its nuclear and missile technology -- giving Pyongyang another reason to periodically demonstrate its technical capabilities.

Foster-Carter says Pyongyang's determination to test its longest-range missile in defiance of global pressure raises questions about the sincerity of its intentions to ultimately give up its greatest military asset -- its nuclear program.

"One has to give the six-party talks the benefit of a doubt, and we might as well call them the six-year talks because that is how long they have been going on," Foster-Carter said. "And it's true, there has been movement, they have shut down definitively, though they have threatened to reopen [the] Yongbyon site where they produced plutonium."

Foster-Carter added that there are hopes that North Korea will follow the example of Libya, which has agreed to give up its nuclear ambitions. But he points out that oil-rich Libya's standing is much different from that of North Korea, which might be reluctant to give up its only bargaining chip -- its nuclear deterrent.

The six-party talks group North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, Japan, and the United States. The aim is for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for foreign aid.

North Korea remains technically at war with South Korea, since the two states never signed a peace treaty following their 1950-1953 war. Pyongyang, backed by its closest ally China, has remained on military alert against Seoul and its chief ally, the United States, ever since.

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Iranian Political Prisoners Launch Hunger Strike Over Wave Of Executions

Inmates at Iran's in Ghezel Hesar prisone have been holding regular protests against exeuctions since February 29. (file photo)
Inmates at Iran's in Ghezel Hesar prisone have been holding regular protests against exeuctions since February 29. (file photo)

A group of Iranian political prisoners around the country have launched a hunger strike to protest a wave of death sentences that could push Iran's execution rate even higher, human rights activists reported.

The hunger strike, which includes prisoners at the notorious Evin and Ghezel Hesar prisons, coincides with the 12th consecutive week of the "No to Execution Tuesdays" campaign, which has been ongoing in Iranian prisons to protest against the regime's use of the death penalty.

Sources within the prisons said that in recent days the government has quietly executed a large number of nonpolitical prisoners across the country as Iranians focus on rising tensions with Israel after Tehran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Iran's sworn enemy in an unprecedented attack on Israeli soil.

The sources added that many inmates also have been moved to solitary confinement in Ghezel Hesar and other prisons, a sign more executions could be carried out soon in what the protesting prisoners describe as a "new wave of repression and intimidation by the judicial and security apparatus."

Prisoners in Ghezel Hesar have been actively protesting through the "No to Execution Tuesdays Strike" campaign since February 29, aiming to draw attention to the widespread executions.

The campaign has gained momentum, with inmates from prisons such as Evin, Khorramabad, Karaj Central, Khoy, Naghadeh, Mashhad, and Saqqez joining in support.

The rate of executions in Iran has been rising sharply, particularly in the wake of the widespread protests following the September 2022 death of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was being held for an alleged head-scarf violation.

Two weeks ago, Amnesty International highlighted that at least 853 executions were carried out in Iran in 2023, marking a 48 percent increase from the previous year. The organization attributes this rise to the government's strategy of instilling fear among the populace against regime opposition.

In response to these ongoing issues, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva renewed its special rapporteur's mandate on Iranian affairs on April 4, 2023.

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

Turkmenistan Opens Section Of Ashgabat-Turkmenabat Highway

Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhamedov (left) attended the opening ceremony for the new highway section on April 17.
Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhamedov (left) attended the opening ceremony for the new highway section on April 17.

Turkmenistan has opened a section of the Ashgabat-Turkmenabat highway linking the cities of Tejen and Mary in southeastern Turkmenistan. President Serdar Berdymukhammedov attended the ceremony on April 17 to open the highway, which officials hope will cut journey times and boost trade between Asia and Europe. "The construction of this highway is further evidence of the revival of the Great Silk Road," Berdymukhamedov said, referring to the trade route that crossed Central Asia for centuries. Construction of the 600-kilometer-long Ashgabat-Turkmenabat highway began in 2019. The Tejen-Mary section, which is 109 kilometers long, was the second section to be opened. To read the full story on RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, click here.

Head Of Anti-Graft Agency In Montenegro Arrested On Suspicion Of Abuse Of Office

Jelena Perovic, the director of Montenegro's Anti-Corruption Agency, is escorted by investigators in Podgorica on April 17.
Jelena Perovic, the director of Montenegro's Anti-Corruption Agency, is escorted by investigators in Podgorica on April 17.

The director of Montenegro’s Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) has been arrested after a search of the ACA's offices and vehicles in Podgorica in the latest in a series of measures aimed at curtailing graft and abuse of public office at the highest levels of the Montenegrin justice system.

Jelena Perovic was escorted out of the ACA building in handcuffs as the searches were taking place on April 17, according to an RFE/RL reporter who was at the scene. She was taken to the Special Police Team building for questioning.

The search was ordered by the Special State Prosecutor's Office, which announced that Perovic is suspected of abuse of office over a prolonged period starting last year. The office said police officers also searched her apartment and "other premises."

There was no official confirmation that charges had been filed. Her lawyer, Nikola Martinovic, said that her arrest was in connection with her alleged misuse of a state car.

Perovic has been accused by parties in the Montenegrin ruling coalition of failing to be transparent in her work, taking selective action in checking the assets of public officials, and protecting some officials, including former President Milo Djukanovic.

In addition, she has been accused of giving herself and some employees pay increases in violation of the law.

The nongovernmental Network for the Affirmation of the NGO Sector, which goes by the acronym MANS, announced that it has made criminal complaints to Montenegrin authorities, including the Prosecutor-General's Office, seeking charges against Perovic for abuse of office, including using an official vehicle for private purposes.

Perovic has denied the allegations. She was questioned by the police in February but there were no grounds for suspecting that she committed any crime, ACA said at the time.

Perovic, who was appointed ACA director in July 2020, said the agency is the target of nonstop political attacks and claimed that the work of the ACA is in line with the law and conducted without bias.

Perovic is the third current or former government official arrest in the last four days as Montenegro forges ahead in its fight against corruption and organized crime.

The other two were former chief special prosecutor Milivoje Katnic and former deputy police director Zoran Lazovic, who were arrested on April 14.

The Special State Prosecutor's Office said the two are charged with forming and participating in a criminal organization and abuse of office. A Montenegro court on April 16 ordered them held in pretrial detention for up to 30 days.

In its latest report on Montenegro, the European Comission said the Balkan country had made only limited progress in preventing corruption.

The results achieved by the ACA improved in quantitative terms, but added that the ACA’s "independence, accountability, impartiality, and proactiveness should be further ensured.“

Indictments were previously brought against the former president of the Supreme Court, Vesna Medenica; former police directors Veselin Veljovic and Slavko Stojanovic; deputy police director Dejan Kneževic special prosecutor Sasa Cadjenovic; and others.

With reporting by Milos Rudovic

Kyrgyz Ministry Reportedly Asks Internet Providers To Limit TikTok Accessibility

(file photo)
(file photo)

Media reports in Kyrgyzstan cited the Digital Development Ministry as saying that it had instructed Internet providers to limit access to TikTok as of April 18. The ministry reportedly explained the move by citing a letter by the State Committee for National Security expressing concerns over the content on TikTok that may negatively affect children. In November, Kyrgyzstan's Culture Ministry blocked access to TikTok, citing the platform's effect on the mental health of children. TikTok was later unblocked after talks were held between the video-hosting serice and Kyrgyz authorities. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Memorial Human Rights Group Recognizes Imprisoned Bashkir Anti-War Activist As Political Prisoner

Activist Ramila Saitova (file photo)
Activist Ramila Saitova (file photo)

The Memorial human rights group has recognized activist Ramila Saitova (aka Galim) from Russia’s Republic of Bashkortostan, who was sentenced in December to five years in prison for her online post protesting Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, as a political prisoner. Saitova was arrested in May 2023 and charged with "public calls for actions aimed against the country's security." Saitova rejected the charge, which stemmed from her online video address to men mobilized in Bashkortostan, calling on them "to be brave and openly say 'I do not want to kill.'" To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

Raisi Reiterates Warning As Israel Mulls Response To Weekend Air Attack

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi attends a military parade alongside high-ranking officials and commanders during a ceremony marking the country's annual National Army Day in Tehran on April 17.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi attends a military parade alongside high-ranking officials and commanders during a ceremony marking the country's annual National Army Day in Tehran on April 17.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has reiterated his warning to Israel that "the tiniest invasion" would trigger a swift and severe response amid global concerns over how the Jewish state will retaliate following a drone and missile attack on it orchestrated by Tehran over the weekend.

Speaking at a National Army Day parade on April 17 that was relocated without explanation, Raisi called the massive drone and missile attack in the early morning hours of April 14 a "limited action" and that an Israeli response on Iranian soil would be met with a "massive and harsh" answer. He made no further comment on what such a response would entail.

"If we had carried out a heavier operation, nothing would be left of Israel. But it was supposed to be a limited action," he said

Almost all of the more than 300 drones and missiles launched by Iran were shot down by Israeli defense systems, along with intercepts by forces from the United States, France, Britain, and Jordan.

An attack by Tehran had been widely anticipated in Israel following a suspected Israeli air strike on the Iranian Embassy compound in Damascus, Syria, early last month that killed two brigadier generals.

Since then, diplomats and politicians around the world, fearing another major escalation of fighting in the Middle East, have urged restraint as they await Israel's response.

Israel and Iran have been bitter enemies for decades, but this was the first direct attack by one on the other's soil instead of through proxy forces or by targeting each other's assets operating in third countries.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on April 17 that Israel will decide how and whether it will respond to the unprecedented attack on its soil.

“I want to be clear: we will make our decisions ourselves. The state of Israel will do whatever is necessary to defend itself,” Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting on April 17.

Netanyahu's statement came after the British and German foreign ministers said during separate visits to the Middle East that, while they were in solidarity with Israel in its right to respond, restraint is needed as well.

“Everyone must now act prudently and responsibly. I’m not talking about giving in. I’m talking about prudent restraint, which is nothing less than strength,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said.

“Because Israel has already shown strength with its defensive victory at the weekend,” she added.

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

Water Level Rising 'Dangerously' In Tobol River Crossing Russia, Kazakhstan

A dog is rescued from a flooded street in the Russian city of Orenberg amid heavy flooding in Russia and Kazakhstan.
A dog is rescued from a flooded street in the Russian city of Orenberg amid heavy flooding in Russia and Kazakhstan.

Water levels in the Tobol River in the Russian region of Kurgan have risen "dangerously," amid flooding in the border region with Kazakhstan caused by heavy rains and a massive snowmelt sparked by unseasonably warm weather.

Regional authorities said on April 17 that the level of the river that crosses West Siberia and into Kazakhstan’s northern region of Qostanai, where it is known as Tobyl, had reached almost 11 meters in one place and around 10 meters in other places.

They called on residents of several towns and villages located on the river's banks to evacuate as soon as possible fearing water levels could rise even higher.

More than 13,000 people have been evacuated in the Kurgan region due to flood danger. Most of those have gone to stay with relatives in other regions, while some 900, including more than 200 children, have been placed in temporary shelters.

In neighboring Kazakhstan, the Emergencies Ministry said that 116,000 people have been evacuated from the areas affected by the floods, adding that more than 5,800 houses and 1,350 households remain under water in the regions of Aqmola, Aqtobe, Atyrau, Qostanai, and North Kazakhstan.

At least five people have died and four remain missing since the floods hit the country's northern regions in late March.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev visited the North Kazakhstan region on April 16, where he said that each of the Central Asian nation's richest individuals had been ordered to take responsibility for rescue operations in every district and region affected by the high waters.

The presidential office added that Toqaev had ordered the government to suspend as many projects and programs as possible to "save money" for urgent rescue efforts related to the ongoing floods.

70 killed As Afghanistan Hit By Heavy Rains

An Afghan motorcyclist drives through a sodden street following heavy rains and flash flooding in the Guzara district of Herat Province earlier this week.
An Afghan motorcyclist drives through a sodden street following heavy rains and flash flooding in the Guzara district of Herat Province earlier this week.

Around 70 people have been killed by heavy rains lashing Afghanistan over the past five days, the government's disaster management department said on April 17. Afghanistan was parched by an unusually dry winter, which desiccated the earth, exacerbating flash flooding caused by spring downpours in most provinces. Disaster management spokesman Janan Sayeq said "approximately 70 people lost their lives" as a result of rains between April 13 and April 17.

Russian Dissident Kara-Murza Faces Brutal Prison Transfer, Says Lawyer

Imprisoned Russian oppositionist Vladimir Kara-Murza (file photo)
Imprisoned Russian oppositionist Vladimir Kara-Murza (file photo)

Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza faces a long and arduous transfer from a Siberian penal colony to a Moscow court to appeal against his 25-year sentence on treason and other charges, his lawyer said on April 17. Maria Eismont told reporters that the conditions of the transfer would amount to torture for Kara-Murza, 42, who suffers from a serious nerve condition. Eismont said transferring Kara-Murza from Omsk to Moscow was likely to take at least three weeks, during which time he would have no contact with his family or lawyers.

U.K. Says Israel 'Making Decision To Act' As Iran Vows To Respond To Any Incursion

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron (file photo)
British Foreign Secretary David Cameron (file photo)

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said on April 17 that Israel “is making a decision to act” in response to Iran's missile and drone attack over the weekend, while Iran warned that even the “tiniest” invasion of its territory would bring a “massive and harsh” response. Israel has vowed to respond to Iran's unprecedented attack without saying when or how, leaving the region bracing for further escalation after months of unrest linked to the ongoing war in Gaza.

Iran Says UN Nuclear Watchdog Chief Will Visit Tehran

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi (center) looks on during a news conference with the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, as they meet in Tehran in March 2022.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi (center) looks on during a news conference with the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, as they meet in Tehran in March 2022.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, will shortly be travelling to Tehran to resume nuclear talks with the Iranian side, a top Iranian official said on April 17. "We have good cooperation with the IAEA and the IAEA chief will also come to Tehran soon to continue the bilateral talks and update them, so to speak," Iran's nuclear boss, Mohammad Eslami, said, according to the Iranian news agency IRNA. Grossi said in an interview with CNN on April 16 that he was "considering" visiting Tehran.

Another Tajik Arrested In Connection With Moscow Terrorist Attack

Ashurov is accused of illegally registering two foreign nationals, Aminjon and Dilovar Islomov (from left, with father Isroil), at his residence.
Ashurov is accused of illegally registering two foreign nationals, Aminjon and Dilovar Islomov (from left, with father Isroil), at his residence.

Russian authorities have arrested a dual Tajik–Russian national in connection with the March 22 terrorist attack on the Crocus City Hall concert venue on the outskirts of Moscow that left 144 people dead.

The suspect, identified only by his surname, Ashurov, has been placed under arrest for illegally registering two foreign nationals at his residence, a court in the city of Tver said on April 16.

The two foreigners -- Aminjon and Dilovar Islomov, brothers from Tajikistan -- are currently in Russian custody along with their father, Isroil Islomov, for allegedly aiding the suspects who are accused of carrying out the deadly attack on the Crocus City Hall concert venue.

Prior to Ashurov's arrest, Russian authorities had arrested 10 Tajik citizens and a Kyrgyz national in connection with the attack, Russia's worst terrorist attack in two decades. Responsibility was claimed by an offshoot of the Islamic State extremist group.

Russian investigators have said the assault was carried out by four men, all Tajik nationals. Other detainees are being held for aiding and abetting the attackers.

On April 17, a Moscow court upheld the arrest of the Kyrgyz suspect, Alisher Kasimov, who had appealed against his arrest.

"The ruling of Moscow's Basmanny district court of March 26, 2024, has been upheld, and the appeal has been dismissed," a Moscow court official was quoted as saying by Russian state media.

A similar ruling was passed by the same court for Aminjon Islomov, who had also appealed his detention. The Islomovs have been charged with providing an apartment and vehicle to the attackers, and transporting cash for them. They have denied the accusations.

The Basmanny court also said that another suspect, Lutfulloi Nazrimad, a 24-year-old Tajik national, filed an appeal on April 15 against his arrest.

Nazrimad was taken into custody on March 23 with investigators claiming he knew about the planned terrorist attack and helped the attackers. In a closed-door hearing on March 29, the court extended Nazrimad's detention until May 22.

Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin on April 12 condemned the treatment of the Tajik suspects amid allegations that they were tortured in custody.

Several Tajik suspects showed signs of abuse when they appeared in court in Moscow following the attack.

The four accused gunmen had bruised and swollen faces and showed other signs of having been severely beaten. There were unconfirmed reports that one of them had his ear cut off during his arrest.

"The use of torture in the form of bodily mutilation is unacceptable," Muhriddin said. "The price of confessions extracted in this way is well known to everyone."

Muhriddin said that Russian security authorities should respect the rights of the Tajik suspects and adhere to the principles and norms of international law in their investigations into the massacre, especially regarding the presumption of innocence and the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment of detainees.

Speaking in Minsk at a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Muhriddin also criticized what he said was a media campaign to slander Tajiks.

Kremlin Confirms Russian Peacekeepers Leaving Nagorno-Karabakh

Russian peacekeepers park at a checkpoint on a road in Nagorno-Karabakh in November 2020.
Russian peacekeepers park at a checkpoint on a road in Nagorno-Karabakh in November 2020.

The Kremlin has confirmed that Russian peacekeepers are leaving Azerbaijan's once-breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. On April 17, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists Azerbaijani media reports saying that Russian troops had started leaving the region were true. Armenia has criticized Russian peacekeepers deployed to the once mostly ethnic Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh for failing to stop Azerbaijan’s lightning offensive in September 2023 that ended with Baku regaining control over the region that for three decades had been under ethnic Armenians’ control. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, click here.


Protesters Give Georgian Government Ultimatum To Pull Controversial 'Foreign Agents' Law

Demonstrators hold a Georgian national flag as they protest against a controversial "foreign agents" bill outside the parliament in Tbilisi on April 17.
Demonstrators hold a Georgian national flag as they protest against a controversial "foreign agents" bill outside the parliament in Tbilisi on April 17.

TBILISI -- Thousands of Georgians rallied in front of parliament demanding the government immediately withdraw a controversial "foreign agents" bill being pushed through the legislature after lawmakers approved the first reading of it despite warnings from civil society groups and several Western governments that the bill is a replica of Russia's law on foreign agents, which Moscow has used for years to muzzle dissent.

Poet Rati Amaglobeli, one of the speakers at the rally on April 17, said the government had one hour to revoke the bill or face "the unbreakable will of the Georgian people." Just hours earlier, 83 lawmakers supported the legislation in its first reading while no votes were cast against.

There was no immediate comment from government officials, nor from the ruling Georgian Dream party that reintroduced the bill that would force foreign-funded entities to register as foreign agents -- a move that many liken to similar legislation enforced in Russia that has been used to severely restrict dissent and the activity of civil society groups.

The legislation, which sparked mass protests when first introduced last year, causing the government to withdraw the bill, would also introduce wide oversight powers by the authorities and potential criminal sanctions for undefined criminal offences.

"I ask, is it our request today to withdraw this law today?! Yes, today! They should make a political statement today, as they did a year ago," Amaglobeli told the crowd. He did not say what the protesters planned to do if the bill is not revoked.

Georgian Riot Police Use Pepper Spray, Detain Protesters
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The final reading of the bill is scheduled to be debated on May 17 and Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, told BBC News that she will veto it if it’s approved in its final reading.

Zurabishvili said that her major concern is the fact that the bill in question is "exactly a copy of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's law."

However, Zurabishvili said that the ruling Georgian Dream party has enough lawmakers to override her if she does use her veto.

The EU High Representative Joseph Borrell and Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Verhelyi issued a joint statement shortly after the first reading, calling the lawmakers' move "a very concerning development" that may "negatively impact Georgia’s progress on its EU path” if endorsed into law.

"Georgia has a vibrant civil society that contributes to the country’s successful progress towards EU membership. The proposed legislation would limit the capacity of civil society and media organizations to operate freely, could limit freedom of expression and unfairly stigmatize organizations that deliver benefits to the citizens of Georgia," the statement said,

It urged Tbilisi "to refrain from adopting legislation that can compromise Georgia’s EU path, a path supported by the overwhelming majority of Georgian citizens."

Vedant Patel, deputy spokesman at the U.S. State Department, said Washington remains "deeply concerned that this bill, if passed, will stigmatize civil society organizations that work to improve the lives of Georgian citizens and the media that provide information to the public."

Putin's Classmate Named Russian Supreme Court Chair

Irina Podnosova (file photo)
Irina Podnosova (file photo)

The Russian parliament’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, on April 17 voted to appoint Irina Podnosova, who in 1975 graduated from the Leningrad State University's law school along with Vladimir Putin, to the post of chairwoman of the Supreme Court. The 70-year-old Podnosova replaces Vyacheslav Lebedev, who died in February at the age of 80. Lebedev had occupied the post since 1989. The Kommersant daily said that Podnosova was considered an influential person among Russian judges, as "everyone understood who stands behind her." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Kazakh Judge Excludes Russian Forensics Experts' Conclusion From Ex-Minister's Murder Trial

Quandyq Bishimbaev is accused of viciously beating his wife to death in a restaurant in November.
Quandyq Bishimbaev is accused of viciously beating his wife to death in a restaurant in November.

Judge Aizhan Qulbaeva on April 17 ruled to exclude Russian forensics experts' conclusion from the high-profile trial of former Kazakh Economy Minister Quandyq Bishimbaev, who is accused of beating his wife to death. The judge rejected the defense team's move, saying that the Russian experts were not present at the victim's autopsy. The Russian experts suggested that Bishimbaev's wife, Saltanat Nukenova, might have died of a subdural hematoma not caused by beating. Bishimbaev, who is accused of viciously beating his wife to death in a restaurant in November, faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Jailed Kazakh Journalist Mukhammedkarim Launches New Hunger Strike

Duman Muhammedkarim (file photo)
Duman Muhammedkarim (file photo)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Independent Kazakh journalist Duman Mukhammedkarim, who is on trial for what he says are politically motivated charges of financing an extremist group and participating in a banned group's activities, has launched another hunger strike to protest against the delay of an investigation into a complaint he filed against jail guards, whom he accused of torture.

Mukhammedkarim's lawyer, Ghalym Nurpeisov, said on April 16 that his client launched the hunger strike three days earlier.

Mukhammedkarim, whose Ne Deidi? (What Do They Say?) YouTube channel is extremely popular in Kazakhstan, was sent to pretrial detention in June 2023 over an online interview he did with the fugitive banker and outspoken critic of the government, Mukhtar Ablyazov.

Ablyazov's Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement was declared extremist and banned in March 2018.

As Mukhammedkarim's trial started on February 12, he complained of being beaten by jail guards, prompting prosecutors to launch a probe into the matter. The trial was postponed indefinitely to allow for the investigation.

Mukhammedkarim and his defense team insist that it's illegal to keep him behind bars for such a long period with his trial on hold.

If convicted, Mukhammedkarim could be sentenced to up to 12 years in prison.

Domestic and international right organizations have urged the Kazakh authorities to drop all charges against Mukhammedkarim and release him immediately. Kazakh rights defenders have recognized Mukhammedkarim as a political prisoner.

Rights watchdogs have criticized the authorities in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic for persecuting dissent, but Astana has shrugged the criticism off and denied there are political prisoners in the country.

Kazakhstan was ruled by authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbaev from its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 until current President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev succeeded him in 2019.

Over the past three decades, several opposition figures have been killed and many jailed or forced to flee the country.

Toqaev, who broadened his powers after Nazarbaev and his family left the oil-rich country's political scene following the deadly, unprecedented anti-government protests in January 2022, has promised political reforms and more freedoms for citizens.

However, many in Kazakhstan consider the reforms announced by Toqaev cosmetic, as a crackdown on dissent has continued even after the president announced his "New Kazakhstan" program.

Russia Adds Journalist Marshenkulova To Wanted List

Zalina Marshenkulova (file photo)
Zalina Marshenkulova (file photo)

Russia's Interior Ministry on April 17 added Zalina Marshenkulova, an activist journalist in exile, to its wanted list on unspecified charges. Last week, media reports said Marshenkulova was charged in absentia with justifying terrorism, adding that the charge stemmed from her online post last year in which she called the death of pro-Kremlin blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, who was killed in a blast in a restaurant in St. Petersburg after an explosive device in a gift handed to him detonated, "appropriate." Marshenkulova, a native of Russia's mostly Muslim Kabardino-Balkaria region, has a Telegram channel, Women’s Power, with around 30,000 subscribers. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

Crew Of Ship Seized By Iran Safe, Operator MSC Says

MSC leases the Aries from Gortal Shipping, an affiliate of Zodiac Maritime, which is partly owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer.
MSC leases the Aries from Gortal Shipping, an affiliate of Zodiac Maritime, which is partly owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer.

The 25 crew members of the MSC Aries, which was seized by Iran on April 13, are safe, shipping firm MSC said, adding that discussions with Iranian authorities were in progress to secure their earliest release. "We are also working with the Iranian authorities to have the cargo discharged," the company said. Portugal's Foreign Ministry summoned Iran's ambassador to condemn a weekend attack on Israel by Tehran and to demand the immediate release of the Portuguese-flagged container ship. MSC leases the Aries from Gortal Shipping, an affiliate of Zodiac Maritime. Zodiac is partly owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer.

Council Of Europe Assembly Recommends Extending Invitation To Kosovo

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) recommended late on April 16 that Kosovo be invited to become a member of the Council of Europe and will monitor its fulfilment of an "extensive list of commitments and obligations as from its accession." A final decision on the move will be made by the Committee of Ministers, the organization's executive body made up of foreign ministers from member states. "Membership should catalyze momentum for Kosovo to continue to make progress in strengthening human rights, democracy and the rule of law," PACE said. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Balkan Service, click here.

Yerevan Assures Iran That South Caucasus Won't Turn Into Field Of 'Geopolitical Competition,' Envoy Says

Iranian Ambassador to Armenia Mehdi Sobhani (file photo)
Iranian Ambassador to Armenia Mehdi Sobhani (file photo)

Iran says it has received assurances from Armenia regarding its concerns about the potential escalation of geopolitical competition in the South Caucasus stemming from the Armenian leader's recent high-level discussions with U.S. and EU officials in Brussels.

Iranian Ambassador to Armenia Mehdi Sobhani said on April 16 that Tehran had a discussion with Armenian authorities about the trilateral meeting on April 5 between Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Western powers said the meeting was focused on helping Armenia increase its resilience and diversify its economy, which is still heavily dependent on Russia.

Sobhani said Armenian authorities told him that the meeting was "not directed against any third country" and was meant to "strengthen the economy of Armenia and to receive humanitarian aid and support for those displaced from Karabakh."

Iran does not oppose Armenia’s efforts to develop its economy and solve the problems of the people displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh, Sobhani said at a news conference in Yerevan. This is Armenia's right, he said.

"Our concern is that Armenia and the [South] Caucasus should not turn into an arena for geopolitical competition and that the development of Armenia's foreign relations should not be at the expense of other countries," Sobhani said.

"And the Armenian authorities have informed us that the diversification of their country's foreign policy is not directed against Armenia-Iran relations."

The Iranian ambassador also defined the "extra-regional forces" whose intervention in the South Caucasus would be considered dangerous by Tehran. These would be forces unrelated to any security or geopolitical issues of the region, he said.

“That is, they come here from across the ocean and try to make decisions for the people of this region,” Sobhani said.

Asked whether members of the EU mission who have been monitoring the Armenian-Azerbaijani border since last year are considered "extra-regional forces," the Iranian ambassador said, "Yes, some European countries and the United States are."

Meanwhile, the Iranian diplomat said that Tehran's "red lines" regarding borders in the South Caucasus have not changed.

"Iran has expressed its opposition to the change of internationally recognized borders at the highest level, at the level of the head of the country, and it cannot be ignored," he said.

"We are categorically against the change of any geopolitical and internationally recognized borders. If there are problems on the border, they should be solved on the basis of dialogue, mutual understanding, with the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the countries respected," Sobhani said.

Baku and Yerevan have been conducting negotiations over their respective borders for decades, but the process took on new urgency after Azerbaijan recaptured Nagorno-Karabakh amid a swift military offensive in September 2023.

Unlike in the past, the talks are now being conducted one-on-one without Russian, U.S., or EU mediators.

Countries In Czech-Led Initiative Pledge Enough To Buy 500,000 Shells For Ukraine

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala waves as he arrives for a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on April 15.
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala waves as he arrives for a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on April 15.

WASHINGTON -- Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said on April 16 that 20 countries had pledged enough money to buy 500,000 artillery shells under the Czech Republic's international fundraising drive to buy badly needed ammunition for the Ukrainian Army.

"I am glad that at this moment about 20 countries already joined our initiative -- from Canada, Germany and [from] the Netherlands to Poland," Fiala said in a speech in Washington.

"Thanks to them we can provide around 500,000 rounds of artillery ammunition. We believe that more deliveries will follow."

Ukraine has been pleading for its Western allies to supply more ammunition as troops on the battlefield run short with Russian forces outfiring them at a rate of about five-to-one.

The supply is dwindling, the top U.S. military commander in Europe told Congress last week, and the rate will go to 10-to-one in a matter of weeks.

European Union members promised 1 million artillery shells by the end of March, but their production capacities are limited and the countries fell short of delivering.

The Czech government then announced it would collect a substantial amount of shells -- some 800,000 in total -- for Ukraine from third countries outside the European Union.

Speaking at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank, Fiala said there was no reason why the 20 donor countries in the next 12 months could not help deliver 1 million more beyond the 500,000 already covered.

"I want to highlight that this initiative is not a onetime project. Our goal is to create a long-term system of ammunition supplies for heavy weapons. This will directly help to change the situation on the front line," he added.

The initiative can help cover Ukraine's ammunition needs at least until Europe's own defense industries can produce enough ammunition, he said.

Fiala didn’t include details on the amount of money pledged to acquire artillery shells, but Tomas Kopecny, Czech commissioner for the reconstruction of Ukraine, told Czech Radio on April 16 that the sum was roughly $3 billion.

The Czech prime minister also said that for too long many European countries took their security for granted, which led to very low spending on defense. The situation is completely different now, he said, because of the "wakeup call" Europe received when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

"Most countries in the West want to pay. Europe now knows that it cannot use only soft power," he said. "It learned that hard power must be used, not only for global balance but also for out security."

With reporting by AFP

At Least 17 Dead In Ukraine As Zelenskiy Laments Lack Of Air Defenses

A body lies at the site of a Russian missile strike on Chernihiv, Ukraine, on April 17.
A body lies at the site of a Russian missile strike on Chernihiv, Ukraine, on April 17.

At least 17 people have died and several were injured in a Russian air strike on the city of Chernihiv, an attack President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said couldn't be thwarted because Ukraine lacked "sufficient" air defenses due to dwindling supplies from allies, especially the United States, where politicians are deadlocked over a military assistance and aid package worth some $62 billion.

Vyacheslav Chaus, governor of the Chernihiv region, said the air attack by Russian forces came after an air-raid alert was declared at 8:50 a.m. local time on April 17. The number of people killed was raised to 17, including two who died in the hospital, Emergencies Services said. Sixty people were injured.

Chaus said three missiles were fired at almost the center of the city, damaging 16 residential apartment buildings, a school, and a hospital.

Chernihiv Mayor Oleksandr Lomako expressed his condolences to the relatives of the victims and announced that April 18 would be a day of mourning in Chernihiv for those who died. He said the strikes hit local civil and social infrastructure in the city, which lies about 145 kilometers north of Kyiv. It has been hit several times since Russian tanks swept into Ukraine from nearby Belarusian territory in February 2022.

Deadly Russian Attack Hits Chernihiv With Air Defenses Lacking
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Zelenskiy had warned earlier on Telegram that the death toll may rise.

"This would not have happened if Ukraine had received enough air-defense equipment and if the world's determination to counter Russian terror was also sufficient," Zelenskiy said in a post on Telegram.

"Determination matters. Support matters. Ukrainian determination is enough. There needs to be sufficient commitment from partners and sufficient support to reflect it," he added.

Russia has drastically stepped up its air attacks on Ukraine as Kyiv's forces run low on air defenses and ammunition while desperately needed U.S. help remains stuck in the House of Representatives due to Republican opposition.

Ukrainian officials have desperately pleaded with Washington and its allies to step up military supplies and aid, saying Ukraine's air defenses were critical for the protection of its neighbors as well.

U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson has been seeking the votes needed to pass some $62 billion in aid for Ukraine, but many hard-right Republicans, especially those closely allied with former President Donald Trump, the party's presumptive nominee to run against President Joe Biden in a November election, have been skeptical about assisting Kyiv in its fight against Russia.

Confronted with a worsening lack of enough air defense systems, weapons, and ammunition as Western aid dries up, Kyiv has increasingly resorted to air and naval drone strikes deep inside Russian territory, targeting both military installations and critical oil-refining capabilities.

In Ukraine's Russian-occupied Crimea region, a series of explosions rang out early on April 17 in the area of the military airfield in the northern city of Dzhankoy.

The Telegram channel Astra showed several videos from local residents that showed flames shooting skyward amid large plumes of smoke at what reportedly was the airfield.

The reports could not be independently confirmed. Russian authorities in Crimea did not immediately comment on the reports.


Facing Republican Revolt, House Speaker Pushes Ahead On U.S. Aid For Ukraine, Other Allies

House Speaker Mike Johnson (file photo)
House Speaker Mike Johnson (file photo)

House Speaker Mike Johnson (Republican-Louisiana) pushed back on April 16 against mounting anger within his own party over proposed U.S. security aid for Ukraine, Israel, and other allies, and rejected a call to step aside or risk a vote to oust him from office.

After meeting with fellow Republicans, Johnson said he was "not resigning" and called the motion to oust him "absurd" as he seeks the votes needed to pass the aid for U.S. allies.

At least two far-right Republicans have threatened to remove Johnson as speaker if he allows a vote on assistance for Ukraine.

Many other hard-right Republicans, especially those closely allied with former President Donald Trump, the party’s presumptive nominee to run against President Joe Biden in the November election, have been skeptical about assisting Kyiv in its fight against Russia and fiercely oppose sending billions more dollars to Ukraine.

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.

Democrats say they will not rush to judgment on a new proposal from Johnson to consider national security assistance for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan separately, rather than as one bill.

They previously stressed that the best and quickest strategy would be for the House to pass the $95 billion package of security assistance approved by the Senate in February.

"I am reserving judgment on what will come out of the House until we see more about the substance of the proposal and the process by which the proposal will proceed," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York) said on April 16.

Schumer said he hoped to get details of the speaker's proposal later on April 16, adding that "time is of the essence."

The leaders of several House committees endorsed Johnson's plan.

"There is nothing our adversaries would love more than if Congress were to fail to pass critical national security aid. Speaker Johnson has produced a plan that will boost U.S. national security interests in Europe, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific," said a joint statement from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (Republican-Alabama), House Appropriations Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Republican-Oklahoma), House Appropriations defense subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert (Republican-California), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (Republican-Texas), and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner (Republican-Ohio).

"We don’t have time to spare when it comes to our national security. We need to pass this aid package this week," the statement said.

Johnson said on April 15 that the House would consider the aid bills separately this week, but it could take many more weeks for the bills to become law.

If the House were to pass aid to Ukraine, the bill would go back for a vote in the Senate, which is due to leave Washington next week for a two-week recess.

The texts of the separate bills have not been released, and it also was not clear which country's assistance the House would consider first.

Republicans have already tried to push through aid for Israel without any aid for Ukraine. Democrats in the House have blocked those efforts.

Johnson told Fox News that in addition to the three separate bills for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, there would be a fourth bill including additional sanctions on Russia and Iran as well as the REPO Act, a provision regarding the seizure of Russian assets to help Ukraine.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

EU To Begin Work On Expanding Sanctions Against Iran As Israeli War Cabinet Meets Again

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the EU needs to coordinate the European response to the first-ever attack on Israel launched from the territory of Iran. (file photo)
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the EU needs to coordinate the European response to the first-ever attack on Israel launched from the territory of Iran. (file photo)

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says he will request that the EU’s diplomatic service start work on an expansion of sanctions in response to Tehran's weekend attack on Israel.

Borrell made the comment on April 16 after an emergency video conference of EU foreign ministers called to discuss the repercussions of the attack and as Israel's war cabinet was set to meet again to decide its response to Iran's weekend attack.

Borrell said the EU needs to coordinate the European response to the first-ever attack on Israel launched from the territory of Iran, which he said "certainly represents a major escalation of an already very tense situation in the region."

The ministers "took a strong stance asking all actors in the region to move away from the abyss" during their video conference, he said.

Israeli military chief of staff Herzi Halevi said on April 15 that the launch of more than 300 missiles and drones from Iran at Israeli territory "will be met with a response" but gave no details.

The attack caused no deaths and little damage, but it has increased fears that violence will spread beyond the current war in the Gaza Strip and throughout the Middle East.

Iran launched the attack in retaliation for an air strike on its embassy compound in Damascus on April 1 attributed to Israel. At the same time Tehran signaled that it did not seek further escalation.

President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekend that the United States would not participate in an Israeli counterstrike.

Washington instead said it would strive to toughen economic and political sanctions against Iran.

 'Everyone Is Against Us': Iranian RFE/RL Listeners' War Worries
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Meanwhile, Israel has begun writing to 32 countries to ask them to place sanctions on Iran's missile program and join Washington in designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist group.

Earlier on April 16, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi by phone about what the Kremlin called "retaliatory measures taken by Iran." Putin urged all sides to refrain from action that would trigger a new confrontation, which would be fraught with catastrophic consequences for the region, the Kremlin said.

In his first publicly aired comments on Iran's attack, Putin said the root cause of the current instability in the Middle East was the unresolved conflict between Palestinians and Israel.

Raisi's office gave a slightly different interpretation of the call, saying Putin said Iran's response was "the best way to punish the aggressor and show the wisdom and rationality of Iran's leaders."

The statement also said Raisi declared that Iran would respond more severely, extensively, and painfully than ever to any action against Iran's interests.

Also on April 16, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was "the main one responsible" for Iran's first direct attack on Israel.

"Those who have been silent for months about Israel's aggressive attitude immediately condemned the Iranian response," said Erdogan, who regularly criticizes Israel and its leadership. "But it's Netanyahu himself who is the first who should be condemned."

He said Israel's attack in Damascus violated international law and "was the straw that broke the camel's back."

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

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