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Thousands Of Election Observers To Monitor Iraq Vote

Iraqi soldiers vote early in Amara on March 4.
(RFE/RL) -- When Iraqis go to the polls on March 7, the legitimacy of the new parliament they elect will largely hinge upon how free and fair is the vote.

To help ascertain that, thousands of Iraqi and international observers have fanned out across the country to monitor what happens at polling stations and counting centers.

"There is a quite impressive observation presence in the polling stations," Stephen Mandan, a European Union election observer in Irbil, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on March 4. "In all the polling stations where we have been, major political parties have their agents, their representatives, there."

Many foreign countries have sent observers, taking advantage of the improved security conditions.

Karim al-Tamimi, a member of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, said last week that observers were participating from the EU, UN agencies, the United States, Canada, Australia, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. He said the more than 350 international observers are accompanied by protection teams and interpreters.

However, the vast majority of election monitors will be representatives of Iraq's competing political parties themselves.

Under the election rules, each party is permitted to send observers to polling and counting stations in every province where its candidates are running. Some parties are running only locally, while others lists are competing nationwide.

Security A Concern

As the country waits for the polls to open, security is the main concern. Abbass al-Hakim, in charge of a polling station in central Baghdad, said security preparations in his area began late last month.

"Actually, the security forces started preparations to protect the polling stations 10 days ago," Hakim said. "The security forces have been trained, so that they are ready to protect the polling stations on the day of the election. God willing, we hope all the best during the election."

The dangers have been highlighted this week by attacks on polling stations in Baghdad, as early voting began on March 4, that killed 12 people. On March 3, attacks killed 33 people in Diyala Province, northeast of the capital.

As part of the security measures for March 7, the government will restrict vehicle traffic in city centers and ban trucks, horse-drawn carts, and motorcycles. Voters will largely have to walk to ballot stations.

Iraqi police and soldiers will maintain multiple checkpoints while, in Baghdad, security will be boosted by U.S. airborne monitoring systems sharing information with Iraqi forces below.

U.S. military spokesman Major General Steve Lanza said U.S. troops largely will be restricted to protecting Western election observers. But U.S. troops will also serve as a rapid-reaction force, if needed.

with agency reports

All Of The Latest News

Germany To Open New LNG Ports By Early 2023 In Bid To Cut Dependence On Russia

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said the effort to move away from Russian gas was proceeding at a pace that has "never been seen before in Germany." (file photo)

Germany will begin operation of two temporary terminals for the import of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by early 2023, Economy Minister Robert Habeck said in an interview published by the Welt am Sonntag newspaper on July 2.

In all, the German government has leased four floating LNG terminals in its aggressive effort to reduce the country’s dependence on natural gas imported from Russia.

“Two ships are already available this year and are to be deployed in Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbuttel at the turn of the year 2022-23,” Habeck said.

He said the effort to move away from Russian gas was proceeding at a pace that has “never been seen before in Germany.”

Klaus Mueller, the head of Germany’s Network Agency, which oversees energy supplies, said on July 2 that he fears Russia could cut off gas supplies to Germany entirely.

The same day, Jens Kerstan, Hamburg’s senator for the environment, was also quoted by Welt am Sonntag as saying rationing of hot water for residences in the city could be imposed if Russia reduces gas supplies.

“In an acute gas shortage, warm water could be only made available at certain times of day,” Kerstan said, urging citizens and companies to reduce energy consumption to help the government fill storage capacity ahead of the winter heating season.

Kerstan said a temporary LNG terminal planned for Hamburg would not be operational until mid-2023 at the earliest.

Russia reduced gas supplies to Germany, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia last month, citing technical issues with the Nord Stream-1 pipeline. At the time, Habeck said there were no technical issues and that Germany was “in a trade dispute” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In June, the European Union as a whole imported more LNG from the United States than pipeline gas from Russia for the first time ever.

Nonetheless, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, wrote on Twitter that “the drop in Russian supplies calls for efforts to reduce EU demand to prepare for a tough winter.”

With reporting by Welt am Sonntag, Reuters, TASS, and dpa

Explosions Reported In Ukraine's Mykolayiv As Russian Missile Strikes Continue

Firefighters work at a damaged residential building in the town of Serhiyivka, about 50 kilometers southwest of Odesa, on July 1. Officials said at least two children were among the 21 killed in the Russian missile strike.

Explosions and air-raid sirens were heard in the Ukrainian city of Mykolayiv early on July 2, one day after 21 civilians were killed in Russian missile strikes near the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odesa.

“There are powerful explosions in the city! Stay in shelters!” Mykolayiv Mayor Oleksandr Senkevych posted on Telegram.

The cause of the explosions could not be immediately determined, but air-raid sirens were heard across the southern Mykolayiv region, which borders the Odesa region.

Ukrainian officials on July 1 said Russian missiles had struck a multistory apartment building and a recreational center in the town of Serhiyivka, about 50 kilometers southwest of Odesa.

Officials said at least two children were among the 21 killed, while three other children were among the 38 people reported injured.

“Terrorist state Russia continues its war against civilians with overnight missile strikes on Odesa region,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba posted on Twitter, along with a call for increased Western military aid.

In his nightly video address on July 1, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy denounced the Odesa region strikes as “conscious, deliberately targeted Russian terror and not some sort of error or coincidental missile strike.”

Russian officials have denied targeting civilians in Ukraine.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians and refugees, and Western aid and reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Russia has intensified its campaign of missile attacks against Ukrainian cities to support its offensive in the Donbas region aimed at securing complete control of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Russian forces are reportedly poised to capture the city of Luhansk after capturing the nearby city of Syevyerodonetsk late last month.

Fighting has been intense in the city of Lysychansk, just across the Siverskiy Donets River from Syevyerodonetsk.

Late last month, Russian missiles hit a crowded shopping mall in Kremenchuk, in central Ukraine. Ukrainian officials have described the mall attack as a "terrorist" act, while Moscow has denied responsibility.

The Ukrainian State Emergency Service on July 1 raised the number of confirmed dead in the Kremenchuk attack to 19 and the number of injured to 64. Among the injured, 26 were hospitalized. The Prosecutor-General's Office reported that 36 people remain missing.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Fatalities Reported As Earthquake Rocks Southern Iran

The epicenter of the quake was some 1,000 kilometers south of Tehran in Hormozgan Province.

A powerful earthquake rocked southern Iran overnight, officials reported on July 2.

Iranian state television reported that at least five people had been killed and 44 injured in the magnitude 6.3 earthquake, the epicenter of which was some 1,000 kilometers south of Tehran in Hormozgan Province.

Rescue workers were on the scene as aftershocks continued to drive locals into the streets.

The early morning earthquake damaged buildings and other structures in the village of Sayeh Khosh, where about 300 people live. It was not clear where the fatalities occurred.

Iran straddles several tectonic plates and is crisscrossed by seismic fault lines.

In 1990, the country was struck by a 7.4-magnitude earthquake in the northern part of the country that killed more than 40,000 people. In 2003, a magnitude 6.6 quake in southern Kerman Province left more than 31,000 people dead.

Based on reporting by IRNA, Tasnim, Reuters, and AP

Ukraine Asks Turkey To Detain Ship Believed To Be Carrying Ukrainian Grain

The Azov Sea port of Berdyansk (file photo)

Ukraine has asked Turkey to detain a Russian-flagged cargo ship believed to be carrying Ukrainian grain that Kyiv says set off from Berdyansk, a Ukrainian port occupied by Russian forces.

The Ukrainian ambassador to Ankara on July 1 said the Zhibek Zholy had reached the Turkish port of Karasu after setting sail from Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov.

"Based on instruction from the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General, we asked the Turkish side to take corresponding measures," Ambassador Vasyl Bodnar said on Twitter.

"I am confident that the decisions to be taken [by Turkey] will prevent attempts to violate Ukraine's sovereignty," Bodnar said.

The ambassador's tweets did not specify the ship's cargo.

Marinetraffic.com said the 140-meter general cargo vessel Zhibek Zholy was sailing under the Russian flag. It showed the ship late on July 1 anchored about 1 kilometer off Turkey's Black Sea port of Karasu.

Yevhen Balytskiy, the head of the Moscow-appointed administration in the Zaporizhzhya region, said on Telegram on June 30 that a merchant ship with 7,000 tons of grain had left Berdyansk. He said it was headed for "friendly countries" but did not name them or give any details on the origins of the grain.

A letter dated June 30 to Turkey's Justice Ministry says the Zhibek Zholy was involved in the "illegal export of Ukrainian grain" from Berdyansk, according to Reuters, which said it had seen the document.

Bodnar last month accused Turkey of purchasing grain seized by Russia from Ukraine during its invasion.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week that Ankara was investigating reports of Russian-seized Ukrainian grain reaching its shores. He added that Turkey had been unable to find any stolen Ukrainian grain shipments to date.

Moscow-installed officials claim that they have nationalized state infrastructure and buy their crops from local farmers.

Ukraine is one of the world's largest exporters of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil, but Russian forces are currently blocking Ukrainian Black Sea ports, endangering the world's food supply.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Russian Ice Hockey Star Reportedly Detained For Alleged Evasion Of Military Service

Russian goalkeeper Ivan Fedotov (right)

Russian ice hockey goalkeeper Ivan Fedotov reportedly has been detained for alleged evasion of military service.

Media reports on July 1 said that Fedotov, one of Russia's best goalkeepers and a member of the country's national team, was detained in St. Petersburg.

The newspaper Fontanka and the online journal Baza cited St. Petersburg police sources as saying that police and military officials had launched a manhunt to locate Fedotov on July 1 at the request of the military prosecutor's office, which accused him of evading military service.

The 25-year-old last month signed an entry-level contract with the Philadelphia Flyers of the U.S. National Hockey League and planned to quit his Russian club, Central Sport Club of Army (CSKA), to be able to play in the United States.

The CSKA is an ice hockey club of the Russian Army and its members are officially considered military personnel. Therefore, termination of contracts by team members may be considered illegal.

Fedotov played in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow in the 2021-22 season, leading the team to the league championship. He was named one of three finalists for the KHL's best goalie award.

Fedotov also played on Russia's 2022 Olympic team at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, winning a silver medal as the starting goaltender.

With reporting by Fontanka, Baza, and Sport-Express

Labor Activist In Iran Ordered To Serve Seven-Year Prison Term

Nasrin Javadi

Nasrin Javadi, a trade union activist in Iran, has begun serving a seven-year prison sentence that she and activists have slammed as retribution for her labor agitation.

The Free Union of Iranian Workers said in a statement on June 30, that Javadi was ordered to report to prison on July 2, following "numerous summonses and pressure from the authorities."

Javadi, 64, was first arrested on May 1, 2019, when she attended a workers’ protest rally in front of parliament in Tehran. She was released from Qarchak prison on May 29 that year after posting bail.

Since then, the labor activist has been sentenced to a total of seven years in prison and 74 lashes by the Revolutionary Court for charges including "gathering and conspiring to act against the security of the country," "disturbing public order and peace," and "propaganda against the regime.”

Activists and human rights groups have condemned the charges, saying Javadi has been persecuted for her labor activism.

In the past, Javadi’s lawyer had submitted medical documents to court showing she suffers from “numerous illnesses” that make it impossible for her to serve time in prison.

Labor protests in Iran have been on the rise amid declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of insurance support. Labor law in Iran does not recognize the right of workers to form independent unions.

Authorities have cracked down on the protests, arresting many of those taking part.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Visa Delay Denies Iranian Tennis Player Chance To Play In Wimbledon

Mashkat Safi

The British Embassy in the United Arab Emirates failed to issue a visa to the 18-year-old Iranian tennis player Mashkat Safi, denying her the opportunity to become the first Iranian woman to participate in the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

The tennis player’s manager, Amir Sadri, said in a video on June 30 that with Safi’s first match scheduled for July 2 there was no way she could play due to the visa delay.

The reason for the delay in issuing the visa has not been disclosed by the British Embassy in the United Arab Emirates, which received Safi's request.

In 2021, when Safi was 17 years old, she won her match in the first round of the Australian Open, achieving a first in Iranian sports.

She is also the first Iranian female athlete to be ranked in the top 100 of the junior world rankings.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Tokyo Scrambles After Putin Orders Transfer Of Joint Oil And Gas Project

The Sakhalin-2 project's liquefaction gas plant in Russia's Far East. (file photo)

Japan's government warned on July 1 that its "interests must not be undermined" after a Moscow decree ordered a transfer of the operations of a multibillion-dollar joint oil and gas project to a new Russian entity.

The decree over control of the Sakhalin-2 project in Russia's Far East was signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin a day earlier and could mark a dangerous new precedent in Moscow's relations with foreign investors.

"Speaking generally, we believe our resource interests must not be undermined," Japanese government spokesman Seiji Kihara said. He said Tokyo was "closely examining the impact on liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports."

Japan relies heavily on LNG imports and had previously ruled out Japanese companies' withdrawal from the Sakhalin-2 project despite Tokyo's support for international energy sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said later that his government did not think the decree "will immediately stop LNG imports," but his economy minister said officials were examining other potential suppliers.

Industry Minister Koichi Hagiuda told reporters that Japanese officials do not regard the decree as a requisition but interpret it as Putin asking stakeholders about a possible handover to a new company.

Japanese trading houses Mitsui and Mitsubishi Corp own a combined 22.5 percent in Sakhalin-2.

Russian officials have been stung by massive financial and other sanctions since tens of thousands of Putin's troops rolled across Ukraine's borders on February 24.

Putin's decree reportedly creates a new Russian operator of Sakhalin-2 and requires current owners to apply to Moscow for the right to participate in it.

Asked about Sakhalin-2 as an example of what might happen to other joint projects with Western investors, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would act on a case-by-case basis.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

The Beet Goes On: UNESCO Sides With Ukraine Over Russia In 'Borscht War'

Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko called it Ukraine’s "victory in the borscht war."

UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, has weighed in on the brouhaha over borscht, officially recognizing the cooking of the beetroot soup as part of Ukraine’s cultural heritage, despite similar claims by Russia.

The culture of Ukrainian borscht cooking “was today inscribed on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding” by a UNESCO committee, a UNESCO statement said on July 1.

The decision was approved after a fast-track process prompted by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the "negative impact on this tradition" caused by the war, UNESCO said.

"Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, UNESCO has initiated a series of emergency measures in the fields of culture, education, as well as the protection of journalists, in accordance with UNESCO's mandate," UNESCO added.

Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko hailed UNESCO's move, calling it Ukraine’s "victory in the borscht war."

"And remember and be sure that we will win both in the war of borscht and in this war," referring to Russia's invasion.

With reporting by AFP, Ukrayinska pravda, Ukrinform, and UNIAN

Armenian Parliament Strips Opposition Lawmakers Of Posts In Vote Boycotted By Opposition

Armenian opposition deputies Ishkhan Saghatelian (left) and Vage Akopian (composite file photo)

YEREVAN -- Two leading opposition lawmakers in Armenia have lost their posts at the National Assembly after they led rallies in Yerevan to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.

All 66 lawmakers, most from Pashinian's Civil Contract party, who took part in the July 1 vote backed the measure to remove Ishkhan Saghatelian from the post of deputy speaker of the parliament and Vage Akopian from the post of chairman of the parliamentary commission on economic issues.

Opposition lawmakers boycotted the vote.

The initiators of the move justified the decision by arguing that the two lawmakers had missed a significant number of parliamentary sessions since last year.

Saghatelian, who along with Akopian was not present at parliament’s July 1 session, said to RFE/RL that the move to remove him and his colleague from the parliamentary posts was politically motivated.

The two politicians represent the Hayastan (Armenia) opposition faction in parliament.

Between May 1 and mid-June, the Armenian opposition led almost daily mass protests in Yerevan, demanding Pashinian's resignation.

The protests erupted after Pashinian signaled his readiness in April to recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and “lower the bar” on the status of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh acceptable to the Armenian side.

Opposition politicians have accused Pashinian of helping Baku regain full control of Nagorno-Karabakh after Armenia lost control over parts of the Azerbaijani breakaway region and seven adjacent districts in a 2020 war that ended with a Moscow-brokered cease-fire monitored by Russian troops.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Pashinian, who said he had agreed to the 2020 cease-fire to avoid further losses, said he would not sign any peace deal with Azerbaijan without consulting ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, and Interfax
Updated

American Basketball Star's Trial For Drug Possession Begins In Russia

U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist. (file photo)

U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner appeared in a Russian court on July 1 for the start of a drug-possession trial more than four months into her custody and with U.S.-Russian relations at a low point.

Griner, a Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) player and two-time Olympic gold medalist, faces up to 10 years in prison on the possession and smuggling charges.

Authorities said they found cannabis oil in vape cartridges in Griner's luggage when she passed through Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February while returning to play for a Russian team.

Griner, who was led into the court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki in handcuffs and wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, was quoted by TASS as saying that she understood the charges but would not comment further until later.

Aleksandr Boikov, an attorney for Griner, declined to discuss specifics of the case or comment on the defense's position, telling reporters outside the court that it’s too early for that.

Two witnesses were questioned by the prosecution during the court session. One of them, an airport customs official, spoke in open court. The other, an unidentified witness, spoke in a closed session, according to state news agency RIA Novosti. Two other witnesses did not show up.

The trial was then adjourned until July 7, RIA Novosti reported.

Boikov also told RIA Novosti that Griner, a player on the Phoenix Mercury, has been exercising while in detention. Griner is currently missing the WNBA season, which opened in May.

The 31-year-old was told at a closed-door hearing earlier this week that her detention had been extended until December 20.

The U.S. State Department in May classified Griner as "wrongfully detained" and shifted oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said U.S. Embassy officials attended the hearing on July 1 and reiterated that her return is a top priority.

Griner's family and supporters have tempered concerns in pursuit of a quiet resolution of the case.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on July 1 that "the famous athlete was detained in possession of prohibited medication containing narcotic substances" and thus the case "can’t be politically motivated."

Griner's arrest came as the West was warning of a massive buildup of Russian troops in preparation for its February 24 invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

Since the arrest, speculation has mounted that Moscow may be hoping Griner's high profile in the United States could be used to help spur a prisoner swap.

Russia is also holding another former Marine, Paul Whelan, on spy charges the United States has repeatedly described as unfounded.

Only around 1 percent of Russian trials end in acquittal.

With reporting by Reuters and AP
Updated

Bulgarian Finance Minister Handed Mandate To Form Government

Asen Vassilev now has seven days to try to end Bulgaria's latest political crisis.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev on July 1 handed a mandate to form a new government to the country's finance minister, Asen Vassilev.

Outgoing Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, a pro-Western reformist who resigned earlier this week following a no-confidence vote, said earlier on July 1 that his centrist Continue the Change party (PP) party would nominate Vassilev to become the country's next prime minister.

Vassilev now has seven days to try to end Bulgaria's latest political crisis, which Radev warned is also economic and social.

“I expect adequate solutions and the defense of the national interest to build a free, democratic, and prosperous European Bulgaria,” he added.

Vassilev must submit his proposed cabinet for approval to Radev and would then face a confidence vote in parliament.

Vassilev said all are aware of the crises that Bulgaria has to face, adding that it will be important that the cabinet "works in the interest of the citizens, not in the interest of the status quo."

Vassilev was handed the mandate after the leftist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), a partner in Petkov's coalition, ruled out backing him. The BSP, traditionally friendly toward Moscow, said they were angered by Petkov's decision to expel 70 Russian diplomatic staff for allegedly working against Sofia's interests.

Bulgaria’s outgoing prime minister, Kiril Petkov, has rejected a Russian ultimatum to reverse a decision to expel 70 Russian diplomatic staff, calling Moscow’s behavior “unacceptable.”

Petkov earlier on July 1 rejected a Russian ultimatum to reverse the expulsions, calling Moscow’s behavior “unacceptable.”

On June 30, Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova delivered a diplomatic note that included a threat to close the Russian Embassy unless Sofia reversed the expulsions by noon on July 1.

The embassy remained open despite the ultimatum, but Mitrofanova said she would ask Moscow to close it.

"I intend to immediately raise with the leadership of my country the issue of the closure of the Russian Embassy in Bulgaria, which will inevitably lead to the closure of the Bulgarian diplomatic mission in Moscow," Mitrofanova wrote on Facebook.

Petkov said earlier that Russia's behavior was unacceptable.

"We will not allow Bulgaria to take a wrong turn.... We will not allow foreign diplomats to give ultimatums to the Bulgarian state [to comply with their demands] by noon," he said.

Earlier on July 1, the BSP called on parliament to vote to revoke the expulsions to save diplomatic ties with Moscow. The biggest opposition party, the center-right GERB, said it backed the expulsions.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Russia Ends All Public Anti-COVID Restrictions

Official infection numbers last spiked in Russia in February, although like many places testing has eased there. (file photo)

Russian officials have announced the end of all anti-COVID restrictions on the public, including mask requirements.

The country's consumer authority, Rospotrebnadzor, said 93 percent of infected patients were mild or asymptomatic.

It said it was "suspending previously introduced restrictions, including the mask regime, a ban on public catering at night, and a number of other measures."

But the decree issued on July 1 makes no mention of two-year-old restrictions on leaving the country via land routes.

Official infection numbers last spiked in Russia in February, although like many places testing has eased there.

More than 800,000 people in Russia have died from confirmed COVID-19 cases from a total of 18 million infections in the country.

Some Russian physicians and other medical professionals faced punishment for blowing the whistle on seemingly underreported COVID-19 figures early in the 2 1/2-year pandemic.

Researchers quickly developed and launched a vaccine, Sputnik-V, and exported it, but take-up was hampered by distrust among Russians.

Some 52 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated against the virus.

Recent surges in case numbers in Europe and the Americas, in particular, have been offset by numbers suggesting current variants are less lethal than some previous ones.

With additional reporting by Reuters

Four Men Found Guilty, Handed Long Prison Terms For Murder Of Daghestani Journalist In 2011

Journalist Khadzhimurad Kamalov was shot dead in Daghestan in 2011.

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia -- More than a decade after prominent journalist Khadzhimurad Kamalov was gunned down in Russia's North Caucasus republic of Daghestan, a court sentenced four men to lengthy prison terms after finding them guilty of his murder in the high-profile case.

On July 1, a court in Russia’s southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don, sentenced the former deputy prime minister of Daghestan, Shamil Isayev, to 16 years in prison after finding him guilty of ordering the assassination.

Two men, whom the court found guilty of conducting the deadly attack, Murat Shuaibov and Magomed Khazamov, were sentenced to 23 and 24 years in prison, respectively.

A fourth defendant, Magomed Abigasanov, who pleaded guilty to taking part in the attack, was handed a 16-year prison term.

Prosecutors had sought life in prison for Isayev, Shuaibov, and Khazamov. The high-profile trial started in November 2020.

Khadzhimurad Kamalov, the editor and publisher of the weekly newspaper Chernovik, was shot dead in mid-December 2011 outside the newspaper's office in Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan.

Kamalov's newspaper was known for in-depth reporting on police abuses in the fight against an Islamist insurgency that originated in neighboring Chechnya and spread across Russia's North Caucasus.

After the verdicts and sentences were announced, Kamalov's brother, Magdi Kamalov, said that he hoped the case will be returned to investigators as, according to him, more people were involved in the journalist's murder.

Khadzhimurad Kamalov's murder was harshly criticized by international and domestic human rights organizations.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said at the time that Kamalov's murder sent "a chilling message to journalists" seeking to cover alleged abuses by authorities and called on the Russian government to conduct a "thorough, transparent and independent" investigation into the journalist's killing and bring the perpetrators to justice promptly.

Russians Hoping To Travel To Ukraine Will Need Visa As Of July 1

Ukraine's Border Service chief, Serhiy Deyneko (file photo)

KYIV -- Russian citizens will need to obtain visas to enter Ukraine as of July 1, the chief of Ukraine's Border Service, Serhiy Deyneko announced.

"The Ukrainian government’s decision to cancel visa-free visits for Russians went into effect today. Visa-free trips are a privilege for citizens of developed democracies that neither kill civilians nor endanger the sovereignty of neighboring nations," Deyneko wrote on Facebook.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said earlier that Russians could apply for visas in eight cities across Russia -- Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Kaliningrad, Kazan, Novosibirsk, Rostov-on-Don, and Samara – at the offices of VFS Global, a visa outsourcing company.

The applications will be processed by Ukrainian diplomatic missions in other countries, as Ukraine severed diplomatic ties with Russia shortly after Moscow launched its unprovoked invasion on February 24.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in mid-June that the move to introduce visas for Russians was made "to counter unprecedented threats to Ukraine's national security."

The Russian Foreign Ministry said at the time that it would respond to the move with measures "based on Russia's national interests and humanitarian issues."

Popular Kyrgyz Blogger Detained For Alleged Calls For Mass Disorder

Kyrgyz blogger Adilet Ali Myktybek (file photo)

BISHKEK -- A Kyrgyz blogger known for his critical reports of authorities has been detained for 48 hours before a pretrial hearing to decide on whether to place him in detention or under house arrest.

Adilet Ali Myktybek, known on social media as Alibek Baltabai, faces charges of calling for social unrest on the Internet, allegations he says are politically motivated.

Myktybek was detained late on June 30 after he was questioned by Bishkek police for a third time since late May, the Birinchi Mai district court said.

Opposition politician Ravshan Jeenbekov told RFE/RL that Myktybek's supporters are currently looking for a lawyer to defend the noted blogger.

After questioning earlier by police, Myktybek said that the case against him is the authorities’ retaliation for his numerous reports on Facebook criticizing them.

"This is, I am confident, pressure being put on me for my opposition stance and my criticism of the authorities. What they are using against me is my own reports, in which I expressed my social and political stance, my activism," Myktybek said.

Myktybek is also known for actively covering anti-government rallies and pickets in the Central Asian nation.

He is also a freelance correspondent of the Next television channel, whose director, Taalai Duishembiev, is currently in pretrial detention over the airing of a controversial report in which an interviewee alleged the existence of an agreement between Bishkek and Moscow to send troops to assist Russian armed forces in the ongoing war against Ukraine.

Domestic and international human rights groups have urged Kyrgyz authorities to release Duishembiev, who was arrested on March 24.

Montenegrin President Urges Calm Over Government Deal With Serbian Church

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic (file photo)

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic has downplayed a seemingly imminent agreement between the government in Podgorica and the Serbian Orthodox Church in an effort to ease tensions in his fractious Balkan coastal state.

Montenegrin Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic pledged on June 29 that despite coalition frictions his government would sign a "fundamental agreement" governing sensitive relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has considerable influence in his country and within the ruling coalition.

A majority of Montenegrins worship under the auspices of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has an arm based in Cetinje called the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral.

"The most important thing for Montenegro is to unblock the negotiation process and move toward Europe, but due to the circumstances, it has become an important political issue," Djukanovic said in Madrid after a NATO summit concluded on June 30.

"We just need to reduce tensions [and] the media should not overemphasize the importance of this issue," he added.

Some protests broke out in Podgorica after Abazovic's announcement alongside the Serbian patriarch.

In addition to unsettled questions about property and primacy, the Serbian church has sometimes meddled politically in Montenegrin affairs, including by organizing protests before the election that unseated Djukanovic's governing allies in 2020.

Critics say the draft agreement recognizes Serbian Orthodox subjectivity six centuries further back than the church is afforded in Serbia itself, and that it improperly extends extraterritoriality to it.

It also reportedly sets criteria for settling registration disputes over property. The Serbian church controls hundreds of properties throughout Montenegro.

Abazovic did not specify when the agreement should be signed.

Djukanovic has made Montenegrin identity a prominent theme over a checkered tenure atop domestic politics dating back to the breakup of Yugoslavia three decades ago, and has sought to curb the Serbian church's influence while promoting a Montenegrin alternative group.

Montenegro existed in federation with Serbia until a referendum opted for independence in 2006, and the two countries' ethnonationalist, historical, and cultural ties are deep.

Montenegro's largest ruling party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), and the Social Democrats (SDP) criticized a draft of the "Basic Agreement on the Regulation of Mutual Relations" published on June 28 as overly generous toward the Serbian church.

Abazovic countered that "those parties had an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction" but neither group's officials objected when they saw the draft agreement before publication.

He suggested they could exercise their rightful powers but that "this government will close this issue."

After their meeting at church headquarters in Belgrade on June 30, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Porfirije said the new agreement would mark a "crowning" of the normalization of relations between Montenegro and his church.

He noted that efforts to hammer out an agreement had begun in 2012.

Since then, in late 2019, Djukanovic and a previous government pushed through a legislative challenge to the Serbian church's operations and property.

The move sparked a walkout by some pro-Serbian parties and protests that eventually cost Djukanovic's allies their governing majority in 2020 elections.

Indonesian Leader 'Conveyed Message' From Zelenskiy To Putin

Indonesia's president, Joko Vidodo (left), says he was given the message from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) during a stopover in Kyiv on June 29.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo says he delivered a message from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to Russian President Vladimir Putin during his meeting with the Kremlin leader on June 30, one day after a stopover in Kyiv.

He did not reveal the contents of the message.

"I conveyed President Zelenskiy's message to President Putin," Widodo said in Moscow as Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine entered its 19th week.

He expressed his "readiness" to facilitate "communication" between the two leaders.

Indonesia currently holds the rotating presidency of the Group of 20 wealthiest nations and will host a G20 summit in Bali in November.

"Although the external situation is still difficult, it is still important to move toward a settlement and open dialogue," Widodo said in Moscow.

He said that his country would like "the war to end soon."

After several meetings between Russian and Ukrainian delegations early in the Russian invasion that began on February 24, peace talks have mostly been on hold.

Zelenskiy said he has accepted an invitation to the summit but his attendance will depend "on the composition of the summit's participants" -- an apparent reference to Putin.

Indonesia has reportedly come under pressure from several Western nations not to invite Putin over the war.

Based on reporting by AFP and RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
Updated

At Least 21 Killed By Missile Attack On Apartments, Recreational Center Near Odesa

Body bags containing the remains of some of the 21 civilians killed by a Russian missile strike lie in front of a damaged residential building in the village of Serhiyivka on July 1.

At least 21 people have been killed, including two children, in Russian missile attacks on a village near the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, authorities said, a day after Russian invading forces withdrew from a strategic Black Sea island.

Video of the aftermath of the predawn attack on July 1 showed the charred remains of buildings in Serhiyivka, located about 50 kilometers southwest of Odesa. Ukrainian news reports said missiles struck a multistory apartment building and a recreational center.

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Ukrainian authorities linked the missile strikes to the withdrawal of Russian troops from Snake Island a day earlier.

“A terrorist country is killing our people. In response to defeats on the battlefield, they fight civilians," Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Twitter.

According to Serhiy Bratchuk, a spokesman for Odesa's regional military administration, rescuers have so far found 21 dead as a result of the missile attack.

Ukrainian emergency officials said earlier that two children were among the dead and said 38 people were injured, including three children.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba posted photos of the destruction on Twitter and appealed for weapons.

"Terrorist state Russia continues its war against civilians with overnight missile strikes on Odesa region killing dozens, including children," he said. "I urge partners to provide Ukraine with modern missile defense systems as soon as possible. Help us save lives and put an end to this war."

The withdrawal of Russian forces from Snake Island was expected to potentially ease the threat to nearby Odesa. The island sits along a busy shipping lane.

The Kremlin portrayed the withdrawal as a “goodwill gesture.” Ukraine’s military claimed a barrage of its artillery and missiles forced the Russians to flee in two small speedboats. The exact number of withdrawing troops was not disclosed.

Control of Snake Island, located about 40 kilometers from Ukraine’s coast near the Danube Delta, had enabled Russia to threaten the sea lanes leading to and from Odesa, Ukraine’s main port for shipping grain to the world.

General Valery Zaluzhny, commander of Ukraine's armed forces, said on July 1 that Russian planes had dropped phosphorus bombs on the island.

"The leadership of the armed forces of the Russian Federation does not even adhere to its own statements, which declare a `gesture of goodwill,''' Zaluzhny said on Telegram. He posted a video of explosions hitting the island on Facebook.

The attacks on the civilian buildings in Serhiyivka came in the 19th of Russian President Vladimir Putin's large-scale invasion, with Russian forces otherwise focused on what Ukrainians call an "enormous" bombardment of the last major city holding out in the east, Lysychansk, and the shelling of civilian settlements in the Dnipropetrovsk region.

It also follows an attack earlier this week on a crowded shopping mall in Kremenchuk, in central Ukraine. Ukrainian officials have described the mall attack as a "terrorist" act, while Moscow has denied responsibility.

Ukrainian State Emergency Service on July 1 raised the number of confirmed dead in the attack to 19 and the number of injured to 64. Among the injured, 26 were hospitalized. The Prosecutor-General's Office reported that 36 people remain missing.

WATCH: Survivors of the Russian missile attack on the Amstor shopping mall in Kremenchuk on June 27 describe digging themselves out of rubble, being helped by strangers, and missing death by pure chance.

Survivors Of Russian Missile Attack On Ukraine Shopping Mall Describe Chaos
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The head of the military administration of the Luhansk region to the east, Serhiy Hayday, said Lysychansk "is constantly being shelled with large [gun] calibers" by the Russian forces attempting to encircle the strategic hilltop city -- a key battleground in Moscow's attempt to conquer Ukraine's industrial heartland of Donbas.

After weeks of fighting that killed hundreds of civilians and turned the city into rubble, Moscow took control of neighboring Syevyerodonetsk, and is now setting its sights on Lysychansk.

The United States said on July 1 that a new package of military aid worth $820 million will include new surface-to-air missile systems and anti-artillery radar systems.

"We are going to support Ukraine as long as it takes," U.S. President Joe Biden said on June 30 at the close of a NATO summit in Madrid.

As part of the new package, the United States will purchase two systems known as NASAMS, a Norwegian-developed antiaircraft system.

Zelenskiy thanked Biden for providing the NASAMS, which he said will "significantly strengthen our antiaircraft defense."

In addition to the NASAMS, the package includes artillery ammunition and radar systems, he said in a video message late on July 1.

According to Zelenskiy, Ukraine is actively negotiating for other new weapons from partners.

"This is necessary for the Donbas, for the Kharkiv region, for the south of Ukraine. We are doing everything to break the advantage of the occupiers," he said.

With reporting by AP

U.S. Blocks More Than $1 Billion In Trust Fund Linked To Russian Oligarch Kerimov

Russian billionaire Suleiman Kerimov (file photo)

The United States says it has blocked a U.S.-based trust worth more than $1 billion linked to Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov.

The Treasury Department said in a news release on June 30 that Kerimov secretly managed Heritage Trust by bringing money into the United States through shell companies and foundations in Europe.

The action comes weeks after Fiji handed over a superyacht linked to Kerimov to the United States.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen vowed that Washington would continue using “the full range of our tools to expose and disrupt those who seek to evade our sanctions and hide their ill-gotten gains.”

The United States will "actively implement the multilaterally coordinated sanctions imposed on those who fund and benefit from Russia's war against Ukraine," she said in a statement.

The U.S. and European governments announced a crackdown on Russian oligarchs following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of a raft of Western sanctions.

The Treasury Department joined the Justice Department and other agencies earlier this year to form a task force known as REPO -- short for Russian Elites, Proxies and Oligarchs -- to work with other countries to investigate and prosecute oligarchs and individuals allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That consortium blocked and froze $30 billion in sanctioned individuals’ property and funds in its first 100 days in operation, the Treasury Department reported on June 29.

Kerimov has been under U.S. sanctions since 2018 over alleged money laundering and his role in the Russian government. His empire is built mainly on Russia's vast natural resources.

Kerimov appeared in February with several other billionaires alongside Putin as Russian tanks crossed into Ukraine.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Macron Says Compromise Found On EU Membership Talks For North Macedonia

French President Emmanuel Macron (file photo)

French President Emmanuel Macron says he believes a compromise has been found on the framework for negotiations on EU membership for North Macedonia.

Macron provided no details when he made the comment on June 30 at a news conference at the close of the NATO summit in Spain.

EU officials confirmed to RFE/RL that the proposal takes into account concerns expressed by both sides, potentially breaking a deadlock that has prevented the start of accession talks for more than two years.

Balkan countries are deeply frustrated about the impasse in their bids to join. Especially frustrating for North Macedonia is EU member Bulgaria’s veto on the start of negotiations because of a dispute with Skopje relating to history and language.

Albania is being held back because the EU has linked its progress to that of North Macedonia.

Last week, Bulgarian lawmakers conditionally approved dropping their opposition, raising the prospect of progress in the Western Balkans' quest for EU membership.

EU officials emphasized that, if the proposal cited by Macron is accepted, it would enable a major step forward in enlargement talks.

"This would pave the way for the immediate adoption (in the EU Council) of negotiating frameworks for North Macedonia and Albania and for the organization of intergovernmental conferences with both countries," one EU official said.

If the French proposal is accepted, an intergovernmental conference can be expected to be organized in the coming days that would formally start the process of membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, RFE/RL's Balkan Service reported.

European Council President Charles Michel, welcomed the French proposal, saying on Twitter it “addresses concerns expressed” and brings the Council closer than it’s ever been to adopting a framework for the talks.

“Now is the time to say yes,” he added.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell echoed those words.

“This is a moment to move forward in bringing the #WesternBalkans into the EU,” he said on Twitter, also welcoming the compromise proposal presented by Macron.

Skopje announced shortly after Macron's announcement that it had received a proposal from the French presidency of the EU on June 30, the last day that France holds the rotating position.

"This is the basis for opening a broad consultation process first in the government and coalition partners, and then with the president, parliament and opposition, as well as with the civil sector, experts and the entire public in the country," the government said.

It did not specify what the proposals were but said a decision would be made "as promised, jointly, on the merits, in accordance with the strategic interests of the country and all its citizens."

The government also thanked Macron and the French presidency of the EU for their efforts to overcome obstacles and preserve European credibility in the Balkans.

Albania and North Macedonia have had EU candidate status for years. The stalled accession process was raised last week by the leaders of the two countries before EU leaders formally accepted Ukraine and Moldova as candidates to join.

With reporting by Reuters

Russia Deeply Offended By Johnson's 'Toxic Masculinity' Comment On Putin's Decision To Invade Ukraine

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) said this week that the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) against Ukraine was "a perfect example of toxic masculinity." (file photo)

Russia summoned Britain's ambassador to Moscow to protest Prime Minister Boris Johnson's remarks about President Vladimir Putin and the remarks of another British official about top Russian government figures.

Russia told Ambassador Deborah Bronnert that it "firmly" opposed the “boorish statements” of the British leadership regarding Russia, its leader, official representatives of the authorities, as well as the Russian people, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on June 30.

"In polite society, it is customary to apologize for remarks of this kind," it said, scolding Britain for the "unacceptable insulting rhetoric."

Johnson said on June 29 in comments to German broadcaster ZDF that Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine was "a perfect example of toxic masculinity."

He said that, if Putin were a woman, “I really don't think he would've embarked on a crazy, macho war of invasion and violence in the way that he has.”

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace also provoked Russia's ire after he accused the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman of "every week, threatening to nuke everyone or doing something or another."

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was "unacceptable" for British officials "to share deliberately false information, especially on alleged threats by Russians 'resorting to nuclear arms.'"

The Russian Embassy in London also protested the remarks in a note to the Foreign Office, the embassy said in a statement published on June 30.

“The note points out that such rhetoric is unacceptable and inappropriate both in form and content," the statement said.

It also emphasized that the British authorities’ words were perceived in Russia "as a manifestation of profound disrespect" for the country and its diplomatic traditions.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

Kyrgyz President Signs Into Law Controversial Bill Legalizing Casinos

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov (file photo)

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov has signed into law a controversial bill that legalizes casinos, which have been outlawed in the Central Asian nation for a decade.

According to the law endorsed by Japarov on June 30, only foreigners who are at least 21 years of age and have no health problems, will be allowed into the casinos.

The law also says that casinos cannot be set up in residential buildings, kindergartens, schools, universities, education and culture centers, medical institutions, and religious sites.

Many people in Kyrgyzstan oppose legalizing casinos, a move initiated by Japarov last year.

Several rallies protesting the reopening of casinos have been held in Bishkek and the country's second largest city, Osh, in recent days.

The protesters said the bill was approved without adequate public discussion and therefore should be withdrawn. They also raised concerns that even though casinos will be open to foreigners only, Kyrgyz citizens will end up being clients as well.

Lawmakers approved the bill on June 22 after voting was disrupted four times due to the refusal of many lawmakers to take part in the proceedings.

Casinos were banned in Kyrgyzstan in 2012. Since then, numerous underground casinos have been uncovered by law enforcement in Bishkek, Osh, and other towns and cities.

Japarov has insisted that the move to legalize casinos will help tackle the economic hardships the former Soviet republic has faced for decades.

Rights Watchdog Says Iran Secretly Executed 10 Prisoners On June 29

Some human rights sources says that more than 85 percent of executions in Iran are carried out in secret. (file photo)

The Norway-based watchdog Iran Human Rights says it has found evidence that 10 people convicted of various charges had their punishments meted out in a mass execution on June 29 at the Rajai-Shahr prison in the city of Karaj.

In a statement dated June 30, the group said eight of those executed had been convicted of murder, while the ninth had been convicted of sodomy and the tenth of rape.

Farhad Meisamy, a civil activist who has been in the same prison for more than four years, wrote in a note earlier this month that "about 200 executions are carried out in this prison every year."

As of June 28, 239 executions had been recorded in Iran this year, including more than three a day over the past month, according to Iran Human Rights, a pace that puts Iran within reach of the 517 executions it carried out in 2017.

"There is no evidence of any dramatic changes [in crime rates] that would explain this," Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the director of the rights watchdog told RFE/RL by telephone.

Furthermore, he added, Iranian authorities are aware that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent to violent crimes or drug offenses, "so the aim is not to fight crime or deter crime."

Amiry-Moghaddam noted that the wave of executions recorded in May, when 50 prisoners were put to death, coincided with the start of mass protests over rising food prices in southwestern Iran.

Some human rights sources, including the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), have previously stated that more than 85 percent of executions in Iran are carried out "in secret and without official and public information."

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry Condemns Syria's Decision To Recognize Eastern Regions As Independent

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry has described Syria's decision to recognize Luhansk and Donetsk as "an unfriendly act." (file photo)

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has strongly condemned the decision of Syria to recognize the eastern Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent.

A ministry statement on June 30 said the decision was "an unfriendly act against Ukraine, an encroachment on its sovereignty and territorial integrity, a gross violation of Ukrainian law, the UN Charter, and the fundamental norms and principles of international law."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy cut relations with Syria on June 29 over the decision, which the ministry said was an attempt by the Syrian regime “to give pseudo-subjectivity to the Russian occupation administrations in Donetsk and Luhansk at the behest of its Kremlin curators.”

Parts of Luhansk and Donetsk came under Russia-backed separatists' control after Moscow illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Ukraine is also initiating the process of imposing a trade embargo on Syria, as well as imposing other sanctions on Syrian legal entities and individuals, the Foreign Ministry statement said.

Ukraine closed its embassy in Damascus in 2016 and in 2018 ordered the Syrian Embassy in Kyiv to close “in connection with the crimes of the regime of Bashar al-Assad against the Syrian people."

Syria, a close ally of Russia and a beneficiary of Russian military assistance in its civil war, is the first state other than Russia to recognize the two separatist regions.

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