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UN Chief To Attend Hiroshima, Nagasaki Ceremonies

A memorial to the victims of the Hiroshima bombing
UN chief Ban Ki-moon, speaking in Japan ahead of ceremonies marking the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has said the world must strive to become free of nuclear weapons.

Ban began his tour of Japan in Tokyo, where he met Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and was expected to meet Prime Minister Naoto Kan on August 4 before heading to the two cities in western Japan.

More than 140,000 people were killed instantly or died in the days and weeks after the first atomic bomb struck Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Three days later, a U.S. plane dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing more than 70,000 people.

Japan announced its surrender to U.S. forces on August 14-15 and signed formal surrender documents weeks later.

In a speech in Prague, Czech Republic, in April 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged "clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

compiled from agency reports

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Popular Russian Social Network VK Starts Marking Materials Containing LGBT Text

(file photo)

Four days after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law expanding a ban on the promotion of "LGBT propaganda," the popular VKontakte (VK) social network has started putting a special disclaimer on online groups that post materials about LGBT communities. The disclaimers, which began appearing on December 9, warn that some groups may post "materials that may be considered in violation of the laws of the Russian Federation," including the LGBT law. Human rights defenders and activists working with LGBT+ groups have said the new law will make it impossible for public organizations that help LGBT+ organizations function. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Erdogan Says He Is Set To Speak To Putin, Zelenskiy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (file photo)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he will speak to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on December 11, and he will also speak to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in order to strengthen the UN-backed Black Sea grain deal. Erdogan was making a speech at a conference in Istanbul on December 9, which Zelenskiy also addressed via video link. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Russia Presses Offensive In Eastern Ukraine As U.S. Readies More Military Aid For Kyiv

A woman stands near the debris of her house following Russian shelling in the Donetsk region on December

Russian forces pounded the entire front line in Ukraine's eastern region of Donetsk and Luhansk, the General Staff of the Ukrainian military said on December 9, as U.S. officials said that Washington was preparing to send Ukraine a $275 million military aid package containing new capabilities to defeat drones and strengthen air defenses.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Ukrainian forces repelled dozens of Russian attacks in the Bilohoryivka area in Luhansk as well as Klishchyivka and Maryinka in the Donetsk region, the General Staff said in its daily update.

"Over the past day, the enemy launched five missile strikes and three air strikes, as well as 54 salvoes from multiple rocket systems," it said, adding that the Russians continued to threaten Ukraine's already badly damaged energy infrastructure system as winter settles in.

The fiercest fighting continued near the towns of Bakhmut and Avdiyivka in Donetsk, regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said in a television interview. Artillery slammed into the town of Toretsk southwest of Bakhmut, killing one civilian and damaging 12 buildings, Kyrylenko said.

"The entire front line is being shelled," he said, adding that Russians were also trying to advance near Lyman, which was recaptured by Ukrainian forces last month in one of a number of setbacks suffered by Moscow since invading its neighbor in February.

In Bakhmut and other parts of the Donetsk region, Ukrainian forces countered with barrages from rocket launchers, witnesses said.

The recently liberated city of Kherson sustained another wave of Russian bombardments targeting the energy and civilian infrastructure, according to Yuriy Sobolevskiy, the deputy head of the Kherson regional council.

"The night in Kherson was restless, with the sounds of explosions from enemy aircraft. The orcs were once again hitting civilian infrastructure," Sobolevskiy said on Telegram on December 9.

In Washington, officials said the United States is preparing to send Ukraine an additional $275 million in military aid, including large amounts of ammunition and high-tech systems that can be used to detect and counter drones.

Numerous waves of Russian drone and missile attacks on Ukraine's infrastructure over the past months have caused huge damage and left millions of people without electricity, heating, and water as freezing temperatures kicked in.

The fresh U.S. package, which could be announced as early as December 9, is also expected to include rockets for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers made by Lockheed Martin Corp, 155-millimeter ammunition, Humvee military vehicles, and generators, according to the officials familiar with the issue.

A National Security Council spokesperson declined to comment on the aid package, which is smaller than most of the recent ones that the United States has delivered, and it comes as some military officials and experts predict a reduction in military hostilities during the winter.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said Russia appears to be slowing its military activities to regroup and launch a new offensive when the weather warms.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed on December 8 to continue the attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure.

"There's a lot of noise about our strikes on the energy infrastructure of a neighboring country," Putin said at a military awards ceremony in the Kremlin. "This will not interfere with our combat missions," Putin added.

In yet another sign that Moscow was bent on keeping up the military pressure during the cold months, the Russian Defense Ministry said on December 8 that its soldiers were preparing for fighting in winter conditions by taking part in tactical training exercises in Belarus.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the Belarusian strongman who relied on Russian troops to help put down a popular revolt two years ago, has allowed his country to serve as a launch pad for Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

U.S. House Overwhelmingly Approves Bill Backing Record Military Spending

The House approved the compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act by 350 votes to 80, far exceeding the two-thirds majority required to pass the legislation and send it for a vote in the Senate. (file photo)

The U.S. House of Representatives has backed legislation paving the way for the defense budget to hit a record $858 billion next year, $45 billion more than proposed by President Joe Biden. The House approved the compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by 350 votes to 80, far exceeding the two-thirds majority required to pass the legislation and send it for a vote in the Senate. The fiscal 2023 NDAA authorizes $858 billion in military spending and includes a 4.6 percent pay increase for the troops, funding for purchases of weapons, ships and aircraft, and support for Taiwan as it faces aggression from China and Ukraine as it fights an invasion by Russia. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

One Dead In Shopping Mall Fire In Moscow Suburb, Authorities Say

Authorities said that the flames at the Mega shopping center in Khimki spread over an area of about 18,000 square meters.

Fire engulfed the Mega shopping center in Khimki near Moscow early on December 9, emergency services said, adding that the fire was apparently caused by a short circuit. The flames spread over an area of about 18,000 square meters, authorities said. The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said that one person died, apparently a security guard who did not have time to get out of the fire. Mega had been home to a large number of Western retail chains before the companies' departure from Russia in the wake of the Ukraine conflict. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Ukraine Says Russia Put Rocket Launchers At Nuclear Power Plant

The Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant is the largest atomic power station in Europe. (file photo)

Russian forces have installed multiple rocket launchers at Ukraine's shut-down Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, Ukrainian officials claimed on December 8, raising fears that Europe's largest atomic power station could be used as a base to fire on Ukrainian territory and heightening radiation dangers. Ukraine's nuclear company Enerhoatom said in a statement that Russian forces occupying the plant have placed several Grad multiple rocket launchers near one of its six nuclear reactors. The systems are located at new “protective structures,” which the Russians secretly built "violating all conditions for nuclear and radiation safety,” it said. The claim could not be independently verified. To read the original story by AP, click here.

'Mine Terror' Will Be Among Charges Against Russia, Zelenskiy Says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made his remarks in his nightly video address on December 8.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on December 8 that he believes "mine terror" will be one of the charges against Russia when it is held to account for its invasion of 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, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

"I am sure this will be among the charges against Russia for aggression,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address after posthumously presenting state awards to four policemen who died on December 7 in the Kherson region when Russian mines blew up.

Zelenskiy signed decrees awarding the title of Hero of Ukraine to police Colonel Mykhaylo Kuratchenko and the Order of Courage to police captains Ihor Melnyk and Serhiy Nenada, and Corporal Vadym Perizhko.

“They did everything for the safety of Ukrainians,” he said.

They were killed when they “fell into a mine trap" after returning from collecting weapons and ammunition left in the Kherson region by Russians, he said in his video message.

Zelenskiy said the use of mines is even more cruel than the use of missiles because mines cannot be shot out of the air. He said Russian mines are a legacy of terror that Ukraine will have to contend with for years.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said last month that approximately one-third of the territory of Ukraine remains potentially dangerous due to explosive objects.

At the end of October, Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy said that, in the territories recently liberated from the Russian Army, mining is twice as dense as in the previously deoccupied part of the Kyiv region or Chernihiv region.

Ukrainian Crews Work To Clear Liberated Areas Of Donetsk Of Russian Explosives
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The head of the joint coordination press center of the Defense Forces of Southern Ukraine, Natalya Humenyuk, said Russian troops who retreated from the Kherson region used "insidious" methods of mining large areas.

The mines have slowed the work of Ukrainian specialists restoring power knocked out by Russian attacks on the country's infrastructure.

Romania, Bulgaria Snubbed By Schengen As Croatia Gets Green Light To Join Europe's Free-Travel Zone

European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson (left) and Czech Interior Minister Vit Rakusan address a press conference at a meeting of EU interior ministers at the European Council building in Brussels on December 8.

Croatia has received the go-ahead to join Europe's Schengen passport-free travel zone in January in a long-awaited decision that leaves out Bulgaria and Romania.

The decision came on December 8 during a meeting in Brussels of interior and justice ministers of EU and Schengen states and was heartily welcomed by Croatia but greeted unhappily by Bulgaria and Romania.

"The Schengen area is growing for the first time in more than a decade," tweeted the Czech Republic, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency. "Ministers approved Croatia’s membership as of 1 January 2023!"

Croatia's delegation to the EU also responded enthusiastically.

"Last step completed! Council decision adopted -- It is now formally confirmed that #Croatia joins #Schengen area as of 1 January 2023," it said on Twitter.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic wrote on Facebook that, with the open borders, Croatia "has fulfilled the strategic goals of the government" and that "citizens and the economy will have the biggest benefit."

Deputy Prime Minister Davor Bozinovic said Croatia met all the conditions in a long and demanding process.

"With Croatia in Schengen, everyone benefits -- the citizens, the economy, Croatia and the EU," he said.

Twenty-six countries -- 22 EU states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland -- currently comprise the
Schengen area. Croatia will become its 27th country and the first to join since the area was expanded in 2011 to admit Liechtenstein.

The EU said Schengen is the largest free-travel area in the world. Within it there are 1.25 billion journeys annually and 3.5 million border crossings daily, it said.

The move required unanimous support from the 27 EU members. Croatia's bid received no notable opposition, while the membership of Romania and Bulgaria was opposed by Austria and the Netherlands, citing corruption and migration concerns as increasing numbers of people cross its borders without authorization via the Balkans region.

Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner noted that more than 100,000 people have entered Austria this year without authorization.

"It is wrong that a system that does not work properly in many places would get expanded at this point," he said.

Throughout the bloc in the first 10 months of 2022, 281,000 irregular entries were recorded, up 77 percent from a year before and the highest since 2016, Frontex, the EU's border police, said last month.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock had urged Austria to change its mind especially at time when it is "important that Europe moves closer together,” she said in a statement.

The Netherlands also opposed granting access. The Dutch parliament in October adopted a resolution saying further analysis of the functioning of the rule of law and the extent of corruption and organized crime in Bulgaria and Romania was needed.

Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca said he was disappointed and would reapply.

"We regret and honestly do not understand the inflexible position taken by Austria," he said.

Honor Keleman, Romania’s deputy prime minister, however, was incensed by the result and vowed to "continue to fight" to join Schengen "without giving in to Austria's miserable blackmail," he wrote on Facebook.

Bulgaria will also try again, its foreign minister said.

Bulgarian Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev was cautiously optimistic, saying he thought common ground could be found to overcome the objections of Austria and perhaps the Netherlands.

"Austria already signaled that there are mechanisms, compromises that it is ready to accept. So, the talks will continue," he told reporters.

European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said Romania and Bulgaria deserve to be full members of Schengen and have access to free movement.

"I share the disappointment with the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania," he said.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and dpa

Iranian Shopkeepers Clash With Police Trying To Seal Shops Closed

Women protest on the streets of Tehran on December 8.

Following the call for three days of nationwide strikes in Iran, shopkeepers in the western Iranian city of Sanandaj have clashed with police forces who came to seal the strikers' shops on December 8.

Hengaw, a Norway-based group that monitors rights violations in Iran's Kurdish regions, reported that following the clashes, shopkeepers defied the move by authorities to keep their businesses closed by breaking the seals and reopening.

The protests, which have snowballed into one of the biggest threats to the clerical establishment that has ruled since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, started after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died on September 16, three days after being detained in Tehran by the morality police for allegedly breaching Iran's strict rules on head scarves.

The unrest was initially centered in Amini's hometown of Saghez in Iran's Kurdistan region before quickly spreading to dozens of cities and towns across Iran. Tehran has claimed, without providing evidence, that Kurdish groups in northern Iraq have been supporting the demonstrations.

Shopkeepers, workers, and students in dozens of Iranian cities joined a call to broaden the unrest even further by joining three days of nationwide strikes from December 5 to 7.

A video received by RFE/RL's Radio Farda from the central Iranian city of Isfahan appeared to show threats from security forces written on the shutters of some of the shops. The words "under watch" and "traitor to the country " could be seen on some storefronts.

Security forces reportedly raided several markets during the strike as they tried to prevent the move from gaining steam.

The activist HRANA news agency said that as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors.

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

Iran's Chief Of Police Threatens Harsher Crackdown On Protesters

Iranian police arrive to disperse a protest in Tehran.

The chief of Iran's Law Enforcement Command has threatened to crack down more decisively on protesters as Iran enters its fourth month of unrest touched off in mid-September by the death of a young woman in police custody over how she was wearing a head scarf.

In a speech at the Amin Police Academy, Hossein Ashtari said security forces have exercised restraint in dealing with the protesters so far, a claim that flies in the face of estimates by human rights groups that say more than 450 people, including dozens of minors, have been killed so far in the uprising, one of the biggest challenges to the authorities since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Ashtari said police will draw a "red line" at the safety of regular citizens, and that they will "deal decisively with those who target people's safety and will not hold back."

The warning from the country's top police official comes after weeks of increased threats by authorities that they will react harshly to any unrest. Lawmakers have pushed the judiciary to render harsh penalties -- including the death penalty -- in trials for those arrested during protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

The Mizan news agency, which is affiliated with the judiciary, reported on December 8 that 24-year-old Mohsen Shekhari had become the first protester to be executed after an appeal of his sentence was rejected by the Supreme Court.

Ashtari added that during the recent unrest, the police did not allow "enemies and counter-revolutionaries to achieve their ominous and fake goals."

Iranian officials have blamed foreign countries and intelligence services of orchestrating the unrest, though they have not provided evidence to back up the claim.

The activist HRANA news agency says that as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest. The figure includes 64 minors.

Amnesty International says at least 28 people, including three children, could face execution in connection with the nationwide protests as Iranian authorities use the death penalty "as a tool of political repression to instill fear among the public and end the popular uprising."

Several thousand people have been arrested since Amini's death on September 16, including many protesters, journalists, lawyers, activists, and digital-rights defenders.

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

Norwegian Court Acquits Son Of Putin's Confidant On Illegal Drone Charges

Andrei Yakunin in 2016

A Norwegian court has acquitted Andrei Yakunin, the son of one of President Vladimir Putin's longtime confidants, of charges he violated a law that bars Russian citizens from flying drones in Norway.

The Nord-Troms and Senja District Court handed down the decision late on December 7, saying that flying a hobby drone is not covered by the ban.

The 47-year-old, who has Russian and British citizenship and permanently resides in Italy, was arrested in October in Norway's Arctic region after he used two drones while sailing the Archipelago of Svalbard and along the coast of Norway.

Norwegian laws prohibit aircraft operated by Russian citizens and companies on Norwegian territory.

Prosecutors sought four months in prison for Yakunin. They said they will appeal the court's ruling.

Norwegian law enforcement officers have arrested several Russian citizens in recent months for flying drones or taking pictures of sensitive objects, including those near Norway's offshore oil and gas platforms.

Andrei Yakunin's father, Vladimir Yakunin, was a longtime member of Putin's inner circle. He has been under U.S. sanctions since Russia illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimea in 2014.

The 74-year-old businessman led Russian Railways for 10 years before he retired in 2015. British and Russia media reports said at the time that Vladimir Yakunin was dismissed due to his son's decision to apply for British citizenship.

In April, Andrei Yakunin said in an interview with Italy's La7 television channel that he stands against Russia’s ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

He also said he never voted for Putin, nor for the ruling United Russia party aligned with the president.

With reporting by NRK TV

Jailed Belarus Activist Byalyatski Barred From Sending Speech To Nobel Ceremony

Ales Byalyatski in 2020

Imprisoned Belarusian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski hasn't been allowed by Belarus authorities to hand over his speech for the award ceremony. His wife, Natalia Pinchuk, who will deliver a speech on Byalyatski's behalf during a December 10 award ceremony in Oslo, said it will still convey her husband's thoughts and statements. "He has been unable to hand it over. The situation with letters is difficult; everything is closely monitored," she told the Associated Press en route to Oslo. "But we have his statements and his thoughts, and the speech will contain them." To read the original story from AP, click here.

Belgian Court Suspends Controversial Prisoner Exchange Treaty With Iran

Iranian government opponents have said the treaty is "tailor-made" to permit the release of Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat convicted of supplying explosives for a foiled plot targeting Iran's exiled opposition.

Belgium's constitutional court on December 8 suspended a prisoner exchange treaty with Iran criticized for opening the way for a bomb-plot mastermind to return to Tehran. Iranian government opponents have said the treaty is "tailor-made" to permit the release of Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat convicted of supplying explosives for a foiled plot targeting Iran's exiled opposition. The Belgian government has said the treaty is the only way to secure the release an aid worker detained in Iran. The court ruled that the treaty was suspended pending a final ruling within three months.

Pope Breaks Down And Cries While Mentioning Ukraine At Public Prayer

Pope Francis broke down with emotion during the Immaculate Conception celebration prayer on Piazza di Spagna in Rome on December 8.

Pope Francis broke down and cried on December 8 as he mentioned the suffering of Ukrainians during a traditional prayer in central Rome. The pope's voice began to tremble as he mentioned the Ukrainians and he had to stop, unable to speak, for about 30 seconds. When he resumed the prayer, his voice was cracking. Francis broke down during a traditional prayer to the Madonna at the foot of a statue on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a national holiday in Italy. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Date Set For Trial In Absentia Of Belarusian Athlete Herasimenya Over Call For Sanctions

Alyaksandra Herasimenya was a successful swimmer who won multiple medals at various competitions. (file photo)

MINSK -- A date for the trial in absentia of noted retired Belarusian swimmer Alyaksandra Herasimenya and former handball manager Alyaksandr Apeykin has been set for December 19.

The Minsk City Court said on December 8 that the two were charged with "public calls for sanctions against Belarus, which damaged the country's national security." A conviction on the charge envisages a prison term of up to 12 years.

Herasimenya and Apeykin, who are currently out of Belarus, created the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF) in August 2020 amid protests that erupted after a disputed presidential election that Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1994, claimed he won.

The organization provides financial and legal help to Belarusian athletes targeted by the authorities over anti-Lukashenka protests.

In April last year, Belarusian authorities added Herasimenya and Apeykin to the country's wanted list.

In April this year, Herasimenya, 36, who currently resides in neighboring Lithuania, announced her decision to leave the BSSF. Apeykin is currently the foundation's acting director.

Herasimenya was a successful swimmer who won multiple medals at various competitions, including gold at the 2012 World Championships and silver at the 2012 London Olympics.

In one of the most high-profile cases targeting athletes, Belarusian team officials tried to force sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya to fly home from the Tokyo Olympics last year after she criticized them on social media.

'You Did A Stupid Thing': Belarusian Athletics Officials Tell Sprinter To Leave Olympics
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She took refuge in the Polish Embassy in Tokyo after refusing the order. Two days later she boarded a plane to Europe, reaching Warsaw, where she now lives in exile.

Lukashenka's crackdown on dissent has seen thousands detained, while there have been credible reports of the torture and ill-treatment of detainees by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown and most opposition politicians have left the country, fearing for their security.

Lukashenka, 68, has leaned heavily on Russian support amid Western sanctions.

The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka's self-declared victory.

Two Men Arrested In Russia-Annexed Crimea On High Treason Charge

Russian authorities have arrested dozens of people in Crimea and across Russia on charges that include espionage, extremism, and terrorism since it illegally annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in March 2014. (file photo)

Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said on December 8 that it has arrested two residents of Ukraine’s Russia-annexed Crimea on a high treason charge. According to the FSB, the men passed data about military installations in Crimea to Ukrainian intelligence. Russian authorities have arrested dozens of people in Crimea and across Russia on charges that include espionage, extremism, and terrorism since it illegally annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in March 2014. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Updated

U.S. Basketball Star Released In Prisoner Exchange Involving Convicted Russian Arms Dealer

Viktor Bout (left), a suspected Russian arms dealer, and WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner (right)

The United States and Russia have carried out a prisoner exchange, swapping American basketball star Brittney Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout after months of negotiations that took place despite strained relations between the two countries.

President Joe Biden on December 8 confirmed the swap in a press conference, stressing that Griner was "wrongfully detained" after a "show trial" in Russia.

"This is a day we've worked toward for a long time,” said Biden, whose administration in late July proposed a deal for a prisoner swap to secure the release of Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.

Biden said Griner would need time to recover from "needless trauma" after being "wrongfully detained" and held in a Russian penal colony in the central region of Mordovia.

Biden made the announcement at the White House flanked by Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

"I'm just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions," Cherelle Griner said, describing the ordeal of her wife's imprisonment as "one of the darkest moments of my life."

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told MSNBC that Griner would receive a medical check after arriving back in the United States later on December 8 and then would be able to "get back to her family, her teammates, and her life."

He said it was a bittersweet day because the exchange failed to include Whelan, whose release along with other U.S. citizens Biden pledged to continue to work toward.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time all-star for the U.S. Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), was arrested at a Moscow airport in February and accused of possession of vape cartridges with a small quantity of cannabis oil. She was passing through Moscow en route to Yekaterinburg, where she has played in the WNBA off-season.

Griner was sentenced in August to nine years in prison after she confessed to having the cannabis oil, which his illegal in Russia. She told the court a doctor had recommended medicinal cannabis for treatment of pain from injuries sustained during her basketball career.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a post on Telegram that the exchange took place at the Abu Dhabi airport.

The ministry said it had been negotiating with Washington to secure Bout's release "for a long time" and that initially the United States had "refused dialogue" on including him in any swap.

"Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot," it said. "The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland."

Bout, nicknamed the "Merchant of Death," served 15 years of a 25-year sentence in the United States for arms dealing. He was accused of selling arms to rebels in conflicts such as the one in Colombia between government forces and rebels with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Bout was arrested in Thailand in a U.S. sting operation in 2008, extradited to the United States, and sentenced in 2012.

The 55-year-old has extensive knowledge of Russian weapons at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to purchase weapons systems for the war in Ukraine. There is concern that he will return to illegal arms dealing, although some say his knowledge of weapons systems likely is obsolete.

Whelan has been imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges that he denies. Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said in an e-mail on December 8 that the Whelan family was informed by U.S. government officials on December 7 that Whelan would not be freed in the exchange.

"That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul. I do not know if he is aware yet, although he will surely learn from Russian media," David Whelan said.

He also said his family is glad that Griner is on her way home and said the Biden administration had made the right decision to "make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to happen."

With reporting by CBS, MSNBC, and CNN

Uzbekistan Rejects Putin-Proposed 'Trilateral Natural Gas Union'

Uzbek Energy Minister Jorabek Mirzamahmudov (file photo)

Uzbekistan has rejected the idea of creating a so-called "natural gas union" with Russia and Kazakhstan that was proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, a sign of the growing divide between Moscow and former Soviet republics over the war against Ukraine.

Putin proposed creating a "gas union" with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on November 28 at talks with Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev in Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at the time that the idea was proposed to establish a mechanism to ship natural gas between the three countries and to other nations, including China.

While such as deal would help the Central Asian countries ensure supplies during their peak needs, it has met resistance among populations wary of Moscow's intentions, especially at a time when it is waging war in another nearby part of the former Soviet Union.

Uzbek Energy Minister Jorabek Mirzamahmudov said in an interview with the Kun.uz news website published on December 7 that his country would not give up its national interests in exchange for natural gas.

"Signing a gas agreement with Russia does not mean an alliance or union...It would be a technical contract," Mirzamahmudov said.

"We will never compromise our national interests. Even if we [agree to receive natural gas from Russia], we will proceed via commercial sales contracts. We will not allow any political conditions to be imposed in return," he added, saying that Uzbekistan will agree to get natural gas from Russia only "at a reasonable price."

Kazakhstan has yet to commit to any gas union, saying only that it would study the idea.

Russia is a major natural gas exporter, while the amount of natural gas produced by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is barely enough for their own consumption, with shortages especially acute in winter.

The two major economies of the Central Asian region share a gas pipeline to Russia and a pipeline transporting natural gas from Turkmenistan to China.

Moscow has increased its natural gas deliveries to China since European nations began decreasing their dependence on Russian gas amid the Kremlin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which started in late February.

Both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have kept their distance from Moscow during the war.

With reporting by Kun.uz

Kazakh Activist Elshibaev's Appeal Against Extension Of Prison Term Denied

Erzhan Elshibaev in court in September

QYZYLORDA, Kazakhstan -- A court in Kazakhstan has rejected an appeal filed by imprisoned activist Erzhan Elshibaev against an additional seven years incarceration handed to him in September for "violating the penitentiary’s internal regulations and for calls to disobey prison guards."

Elshibaev’s lawyer, Zhanar Sundetqalieva, told RFE/RL on December 8 that the Qyzylorda city court of appeals in the country's south pronounced the decision a day earlier.

Sundetqalieva said her client was not allowed to be present at the hearing, adding that the court's decision will be appealed at the Supreme Court.

Elshibaev, who is recognized as a political prisoner by Kazakh rights watchdogs, was expected to be released in October next year. He was initially sentenced to five years in prison in 2018 after a court in his native town of Zhanaozen in the country's southwest found him guilty of hooliganism.

Elshibaev and his supporters have rejected the charges, saying they were politically motivated and aimed at ensuring he wouldn't lead any protests in the restive town.

Elshibaev was one of the leaders of several protest rallies in Zhanaozen in 2018 during which residents in the oil town demanded jobs.

Kazakh authorities have been very sensitive to any dissent or protests in the volatile town, where police fatally shot at least 16 people while dispersing rallies by oil workers in December 2011.

In January 2022, a rally in Zhanaozen against abrupt fuel price hikes led to unprecedented anti-government protests across the nation that ended with violent dispersals in which at least 238 people, including 19 law enforcement officers, were killed.

The European Parliament has urged Kazakh authorities to release Elshibaev and other political prisoners.

Kazakhstan’s government has denied that there are political prisoners in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.

Group Recognizes Russian Poets Arrested For Anti-War Verses As Political Prisoners

A photograph showing Artyom Kamardin with facial injuries in court earlier this year.

The Moscow-based human rights group Support Of Political Prisoners. Memorial has recognized Russian poets Artyom Kamardin, Nikolai Daineko, and Yegor Shtovba as political prisoners. The three were arrested in September on a charge of inciting hatred after they presented verses critical of the Kremlin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Kamardin’s girlfriend said earlier that police raped the poet with a dumbbell during the arrest. Last month, a court sent Kamardin to a psychiatric clinic for a 30-day forced evaluation. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Former Leader Of Navalny's Team In Yakutia Goes On Trial

Anatoly Nogovitsyn (file photo)

A court in Russia’s Yakutia began the trial of the ex-leader of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's team in the Siberia region on December 8. Anatoly Nogovitsyn is being tried on a charge of discrediting Russian forces involved in Moscow's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The case against Nogovitsyn, who also leads the Yabloko party's branch in Yakutia, was launched in September after he criticized in an online post Russia's aggression against Ukraine and called on fellow citizens to stay away from 'killing Ukrainians." Nogovitsyn faces up to three years in prison if convicted. To read the original story by RFR/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Austria Says It Will Veto Bulgaria And Romania Joining Schengen Zone

Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner (file photo)

Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner told journalists that his country will veto EU members Romania and Bulgaria joining the passport-free Schengen Area, as he arrived for a meeting of EU justice and interior ministers in Brussels. The meeting was expected to approve Croatia joining Schengen, which currently includes 22 of the EU's 27 member countries as well as non-EU members Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein, and Iceland. Last month, the European Commission ruled that all three countries meet the technical criteria for joining, and the European Parliament has also voted in favor of their membership.

Red Cross Says It Has Visited Ukrainian, Russian Prisoners Of War

The International Committee of the Red Cross said the visits to POWs signify "important progress." (file photo)

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement on December 8 that it has visited more prisoners of war held by Russia and Ukraine in recent weeks, checking on their condition and treatment and sharing "much-awaited news with their families." The ICRC said the visits signify "important progress," but added that it must be granted unimpeded access to see all prisoners of war "repeatedly and in private."

Magnitude 5.6 Earthquake Strikes Russia's Caucasus Region

A magnitude 5.6 earthquake struck Russia's Caucasus region on December 8, the European Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) said. The quake was 41 kilometers below the earth's surface, according to the EMSC. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Updated

Iran Carries Out First Execution Of Amini Protester Despite Outcry From West, Rights Groups

Mohsen Shekari was accused by Iranian authorities of blocking a street and attacking a member of the security forces with a machete in Tehran.

Iran has carried out its first execution of a protester from the unrest sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, carrying out a death sentence handed to a man who was accused of "warfare" for allegedly injuring a security officer.

The Mizan news agency, which is affiliated with the judiciary, said Moshen Shekari was hanged on December 8 after his appeal against his sentence was rejected by Iran's Supreme Court.

Shekari was accused of brandishing a weapon with the "intention of killing and causing terror and depriving the freedom and security of people," as well as "intentionally injuring" a security officer with a weapon and "blocking the street."

Shekari was one of thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide since Amini died while in police custody in September. She was being held for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.

The government has launched a brutal, and often deadly, crackdown on demonstrators, while lawmakers have pushed for harsh punishments to try and quell what has become the biggest challenge to the country's leadership since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Rights groups and Western governments have warned Tehran about issuing death sentences to protesters after hasty trials some have called "sham" justice.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price called the execution a "grim escalation in the Iranian regime's attempt to suppress dissent" and vowed that the clerical regime would be held to account.

Price said earlier this week that the death sentences were a tactic in the regime's "brutal crackdown on what can only be described as peaceful protesters -- individuals who are exercising their universal rights."

The sentences are meant to intimidate people and "simply underscore Iran’s leadership’s fears of its own people and the fact that Iran’s government fears the truth,” he said.

Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden's national-security adviser, reacted to the execution of Shekari on Twitter.

"The unjust and cruel execution of #MohsenShekari is a cynical attempt to intimidate the brave Iranian people. Our hearts are with his family. We will hold the Iranian regime accountable for the brutal violence it’s committing against its own people," he said.

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