U.S. Authorities Charge Armenian-Americans In $100 Million Fraud Case
The lead prosecutor in the case, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, said the Mirzoyan-Terdjanian organization -- which is named after its two alleged leaders, 35-year-old Davit Mirzoyan and 36-year-old Robert Terdjanian -- employed threats, intimidation, and violence and operated in a classical mafia style:
"The reach of this organization stretches clear across the country and well beyond our shores. And so in terms of profitability, geographic scope, and sheer ambition this emerging international organized crime syndicate would be the envy of any traditional mafia family," Bharara said.
Bharara said that the Armenian-American criminal group operated principally out of Los Angeles and New York but had offshoots in 25 states involved in extortion, credit card fraud, identity theft, immigration fraud, and even distribution of contraband cigarettes and stolen Viagra.
The indictment says most members of the organization were Armenian nationals or immigrants who maintained substantial ties to Armenia. In addition to regularly traveling there, they had criminal connections, transferred criminal proceeds to the country, and bought real estate and businesses with money from their illegal profits.
WATCH: The fraud suspects walk from the FBI building in New York to a waiting van after being arrested:
Armenian national Armen Kazarian, 46, is identified as the principal leader -- the so-called "godfather" of the Mirzoyan-Terdjanian organization. The indictment identifies him as "vor v zakone," or a thief in the law/code -- a powerful figure in the criminal underworld of the former Soviet Union.
Kazarian immigrated to the United States in 1996 and has received asylum status despite frequently traveling to Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Prosecutor Bharara said the case is the second time a "vor v zakone" has been charged with federal crimes in the United States but the first time one has been charged with federal racketeering.
"In important respects, though, this organization was a far cry from the classic Cosa Nostra. For one thing, when it comes to making money illegally, this Armenian-American group puts the traditional mafia to shame," Bharara said.
Vaycheslav Ivankov -- also known as "Yaponchik," which means "Little Japanese" -- a notorious Russian organized crime figure, was the first "vor v zakone." He was arrested by the FBI in 1995 on extortion charges.
Ivankov was convicted and served nine years in a U.S. prison before being deported to Russia. He was gunned down in Moscow in October 2009.
Janice Fedarcyk, the assistant director in charge of the FBI office in New York, said that U.S. law enforcement authorities are always on the lookout for the next emerging criminal scheme, no matter where it's coming from.
"This particular scheme did originate from areas in the former Soviet [Union]. Certainly the vor, the thief in law, has grown of interest to us with the dissolution of the USSR particularly because more information is now available and we are starting to see with the availability of international travel the expansion of some of those criminal schemes over to Europe and the United States," Fedarcyk said.
In early October, U.S. law enforcement authorities announced the indictment of 73 individuals from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Belarus who they accuse of participating in a complex Internet fraud scheme that targeted the bank accounts of U.S. citizens, businesses, and cities.
Prosecutors in the Armenian case are investigating whether any of the arrested individuals were in the United States illegally.
Bharara said almost all of the indicted individuals are from Armenia but wouldn't say whether Armenian authorities are helping with the case, but said foreign authorities are usually willing to cooperate with the United States.
The indictment almost reads like a thriller, with lurid details of the criminal defrauding enterprise, the members' posh lifestyles, and their expensive cars:
"The indictments in this case talk about phantom doctors, fancy cars, money laundering through [Las] Vegas casino chips, threats to disembowel rivals and more," Bharara said.
"That's the kind of material that makes a great movie. But this is no movie. It is very real and we are using every resource at our disposal and every tool we can find to prosecute those alleged international gangsters."
New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the criminals conducted their business with remarkable efficiency.
"And even though it was a very lavish fraudulent scheme, it's amazing how they were able to maintain a low overhead. They actually did an awful lot of their operations out of a very small office over an auto-body shop on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn. And one woman, Galina Vovk was there from early morning to late at night [filling] out all of these [fraudulent claims]," Kelly said.
Galina Vovk is the wife of Robert Terdjanian, one of the principle leaders.
If convicted, the defendants face various sentences up to life imprisonment and up to $500,000 fine.
The office of the Armenian ambassador in Washington D.C., Tatoul Markarian, did not return repeated calls from RFE/RL seeking comment.
Head Of Russia's Tyva Republic Sends Representatives To Russia-Occupied Donetsk After Complaints
The leader of Russia's Republic of Tyva in Siberia, Vladislav Khovalyg, has sent his representatives to parts of Ukraine's Russia-occupied Donetsk region after a group of Tyvan men mobilized to fight with the Russian armed forces invading Ukraine complained of ill treatment.
In a video posted on Telegram on February 6, the men said they had been mobilized in September and gone through poor military training in the Novosibirsk region, where they were told that they will serving in a patrolling unit.
According to the men, they were transferred to the Donetsk region in late December, where they had not been officially registered with any Russian military unit, while some of them were ordered to fight against Ukrainian forces on the line of contact, which is not what a patrolling unit does.
The men also said Russian-backed separatists from the Donetsk region, as well as military police, came to them and beat them severely while saying that they now belong to them.
"In that case, we are not soldiers of the Russian Federation," the men said in the video.
Footage also showed two men in military uniform forcing a third man to kneel as they put the barrel of an assault rifle to his head. It is not clear who is in the footage and when the video was shot.
Khovalyg called the situation "a flagrant case that discredits the situation of mobilized men," adding that he already talked to the leader of Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk, Vitaliy Khotsenko, regarding the situation before sending his representatives to the Russia-controlled part of Donetsk.
Tyva's former leader, Sholban Kara-Ool, also issued a statement on January 6, saying he had canceled a business trip across Siberia and would urgently travel to Donetsk to personally look into the situation.
In recent years, soldiers in the Russian armed forces conscripted from Tyva complained about race-based bullying because of their ethnicity, as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's father was a Tyvan.
Tyvans (Tuvinians) are a Turkic-speaking ethnic group of some 308,000 people, mainly residing in the remote republic on the Russian-Mongolian border.
Tatar Sociologist Gets Three Days In Jail On Hatred Charge Over Analysis Published By RFE/RL
A noted sociologist in Russia's Republic of Tatarstan, Iskander Yasaveyev, has been sentenced to three days in jail on a charge of inciting hatred because of an analysis he wrote about Moscow's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The analysis was published on the website of RFE/RL's Idel.Realities project in June. Yasaveyev's lawyer, Rim Sabirov, said the Vakhitov district court in Tatarstan's capital, Kazan, sentenced his client on February 6, adding that the court's ruling will be appealed. Yasaveyev pleaded not guilty.
Ukraine, Russia Offer Help After Powerful Earthquake Strikes Turkey, Syria
Ukraine and Russia are among the countries that immediately pledged to send rescuers and other aid after a powerful earthquake struck Turkey and Syria in the early hours of February 6. At least 2,300 people were killed in the two countries. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv stands ready to send a large group of rescue workers to Turkey even as it battles to repel invading Russian troops. "We are working closely with the Turkish side to coordinate their deployment," Kuleba said on Twitter. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also promising to send rescuers.
Serbian PM Apologizes For Official Reference To 'Republic Of Kosovo'
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic publicly apologized on February 6 for the appearance on the official government website of the phrase “Republic of Kosovo,” saying it was the result of an “unforgivable” translation error.
Serbia does not acknowledge the independence of its former province, and Brnabic’s government, along with populist President Aleksandar Vucic, has waged a campaign aimed at persuading more than 100 countries to withdraw their official recognition.
"I couldn't sleep last night,” Brnabic told Serbia’s public broadcaster. “I don't know what I'm doing. I can't kill myself over it. But I'm sorry that it's being used by the political opposition to score some political points.”
Brnabic said there would be consequences for the Internet team that works on the government website. In the broadcast, she called it a "gross, unforgivable mistake by the translator."
Official Serbian documents describe Kosovo as part of Serbia.
Former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who is in the opposition, shared a screenshot on January 5 of the original wording in English next to the Serbian-language version referring to “KiM.”
The English-language statement was subsequently amended to read “Kosovo and Metohija,” a term used by Belgrade that evokes the Serbian Orthodox Church’s historical presence the region.
The item in question relates to a February 2 special session of the Serbian National Assembly at which Vucic accused Kosovo’s leadership and its Western allies of seeking to “avoid the obligation to form the Community of Serb Municipalities (ZSO)” since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began last year.
Pristina has failed to provide the legal groundwork for the formation of the ZSO as a conduit for dialogue with minority Serbs despite its inclusion in the so-called Brussels Agreement signed by Kosovo in 2013.
Belgrade and Pristina have been locked in mostly stagnant talks organized by EU officials for a decade to pursue a normalization of relations, a development that could allow Kosovo access to blocked multilateral institutions.
The past year has seen tensions rise at their shared border, including as a result of Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s imposition of a “reciprocal” license-plate requirement on vehicles in northern Kosovo owned by ethnic Serbs who oppose such registration as a de facto recognition of Kosovo’s independence.
Serbia has long refused to respect Kosovar vehicle registration and other documents.
Ethnic Serbs make up a majority in four northern Kosovar regions but are otherwise far outweighed by ethnic Albanians.
Frenchman Held In Iran Reportedly Starts New Hunger Strike
Benjamin Briere, a French national held in Iran, has gone on hunger strike for the second time since his incarceration in May 2020, his sister and his lawyer said on February 6. Briere, who was sentenced to eight years in jail for espionage, is one of seven French and more than two dozen foreign nationals who campaigners say Iran has jailed in a strategy of hostage-taking to extract concessions from the West. A hunger strike is the "only weapon he has," his sister, Blandine Briere, said in a statement. He stopped eating on January 28, she said.
Iranian Activist Says Reforms Can't Save Islamic Government, Change Needed
A leading jailed Iranian political activist says the time has come for the Islamic government to leave, even if it takes some reforms such as repealing the deeply divisive mandatory hijab law.
In a letter written from the women's ward of Evin prison imploring fellow rights activist Farhad Meysami to end his hunger strike, Bahareh Hedayat wrote that "our problem is with the logic of this regime, which is a form of Islamic fascism."
"The overthrow [of the Islamic republic] is now the will of the majority of the nation and the necessity of the existing situation," she added.
Last week, Meysami vowed to continue his hunger strike until Iranian authorities release six political prisoners, including Hedayat, and stop their harassment of women through the compulsory hijab rule. Photos on social media showed him in an emaciated condition amid growing fears over his health.
Meysami has been in prison since August 2018 after being sentenced to six years for supporting women protesting against the hijab law, which forces them to cover their hair in public.
He was charged with "spreading propaganda against the system" and "gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security," as well as for "insulting Islamic sanctities," because the authorities said he denigrated the hijab.
In the letter, Hedayat wrote that even if the Islamic republic repeals the compulsory hijab law, "what should we do with its costly conflict with the world?"
"Even if they reached an agreement with the West, what should we do with its organized corruption? What to do with the guardian jurist (supreme leader)? What should we do with its madness, tyranny, inefficiency, and looting?" she added.
In the face of withering criticism from the West over its treatment of protesters and its human rights record in general, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on February 5 issued an amnesty for "tens of thousands" of prisoners, including protesters arrested during recent anti-government rallies.
Meysami has held several hunger strikes during his incarceration; his demands have been mostly related to social conditions in Iran and the pligth of other activists and prisoners.
Hedayat is a student activist and women's rights campaigner in Iran who has been arrested and sentenced to long prison terms several times.
Most recently, she was arrested on October 3 during nationwide protests in Iran that broke out following the September 16 death of a young woman while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said that, as of January 29, at least 527 people had been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Media Watchdog Urges Release Of Journalist Detained In Kabul
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) along with 14 French media outlets and production companies called on Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers on February 6 to release a journalist imprisoned for a month in Kabul. In a joint statement, RSF and French media said journalist Mortaza Behbudi, who holds dual French and Afghan citizenship, was arrested on January 7 in the Afghan capital, two days after he arrived in the country as part of a reporting assignment. They said they decided to make the case public after trying in vain for a month to obtain his release. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Iranian Activists Greet Prisoner Amnesty With Skepticism, Calling It An Attempt To Change The Narrative
Several Iranian lawyers, human rights activists, imprisoned protesters, and former political prisoners have dismissed an amnesty decree issued by Iran's supreme leader for tens of thousands of protesters as propaganda and lies.
Iranian state media reported on February 5 that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued an amnesty for "tens of thousands" of prisoners, including protesters arrested during the anti-government rallies, as the country finds itself engulfed in a wave of protests following the September 16 death of a young woman while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.
Saeed Dehghan, the lawyer of several political activists, called the statements of the judiciary authorities an attempt by the regime to "impose a false narrative" and "impudently change the positions of the plaintiff and the accused."
Meanwhile, a group of Iranian users on Twitter reacted to the news of Khamenei's amnesty in a campaign with the hashtag #NeverForget (#یادمون_نمیره) that recalled the killing of protesters and regime opponents.
Khamenei's order to pardon some prisoners is a common procedure that usually occurs before the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. However, this year the order has been issued as the government faces one of the biggest threats to the Islamic leadership since the revolution in 1979.
State media quoted Sadegh Rahimi, the deputy of the judiciary, as saying that in order to be pardoned, the accused must "express regret for their activities and give a written commitment not to repeat those activities."
Reports also indicate that Khamenei's amnesty order does not include dual-national prisoners and those accused of "corruption on Earth," a charge that many of those arrested in the recent nationwide protests are facing and which could carry the death penalty.
Human rights groups estimate that around 20,000 people have been arrested in connection with the protests so far.
The Norway-based Iran Human Rights Group estimates that around 100 prisoners may face the death penalty.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Police Launch Probe Into Alleged Attack Against Noted Kazakh Journalist's Son
ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Police in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, have launched a probe into an alleged attack against the son of noted journalist Dinara Egeubaeva by an unknown person armed with a pistol.
The Almaty city police department said on February 6 that it had registered Egeubaeva's complaint and started an investigation into it.
Egeubaeva said a day earlier that her son was approached by a man with a pistol in his hand late in the evening and managed to escape an attack by fleeing and then hiding in a residential building.
Egeubaeva insists that the attack was linked to her professional activities.
Last month, unknown attackers broke a window of Egeubaeva's car before setting the vehicle on fire. Egeubaeva linked that attack with her professional activities as well.
Police said later that they apprehended a group of teenagers suspected of the arson attack, but it remains unclear who ordered the assault.
The Almaty-based Adil Soz (A Just Word) group, which monitors journalists' rights, said last month that at least five journalists have been attacked in Kazakhstan since January 1.
Egeubaeva has been writing and reporting about the first anniversary of the violent dispersal of anti-government protests that turned into mass disorder and left at least 238 people, including 19 law enforcement officers, dead.
She has also announced her decision to take part in early parliamentary elections scheduled for March 19.
Last month, the New-York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the embassies of several Western countries urged the Kazakh authorities to investigate the attacks on journalists.
Belarusian Handed Five Years For Comment On Deadly Police Shooting
MINSK -- A Belarusian businessman has been sentenced to five years in prison for "insulting" disputed ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka while commenting on a deadly police shoot-out at a Minsk apartment that left a KGB officer and an IT worker dead in September 2021.
The Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) human rights center said on February 6 that the Minsk City Court sentenced Hleb Hladkouski five days earlier after finding him guilty of insulting Lukashenka, inciting social hatred, calling for sanctions against Belarus, and obstructing journalistic activities.
Hladkouski was arrested on September 30, 2021, after he posted a comment regarding the police shooting in Minsk several days earlier.
Little is known about the shooting that resulted in the deaths of Andrey Zeltsar, who worked for U.S.-based IT company EPAM, and KGB officer Dzmitry Fedasyuk.
Authorities claimed at the time that “an especially dangerous criminal” had opened fire on security officers after they showed up at his apartment looking for “individuals involved in terrorist activities.”
Lukashenka has issued thinly veiled threats to people who posted comments on social media praising Zeltsar and criticizing Fedasyuk, saying, "We have all their accounts, and we can see who is who."
Multiple individuals have received prison terms in recent months on charges related to comments about the incident.
Belarus witnessed unprecedented anti-government protests after a presidential election in August 2020 in which Lukashenka claimed victory while rights activists and opposition politicians said the poll was rigged.
Thousands were detained in the subsequent protests and there have been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment of detainees by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown.
Lukashenka, 68, has leaned heavily on Russian support amid Western sanctions while punishing the opposition and arresting many of its leaders or forcing them abroad.
The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka's self-declared victory in the 2020 vote.
Karakalpak Activist Dies In Custody Four Days After Being Sentenced Over Protests
Activist Polat Shamshetov, who on January 31 was handed a prison term along with 21 other people for taking part in unprecedented anti-government protests in Uzbekistan's Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan last year, has died in custody.
Uzbekistan's Prosecutor-General’s Office said on February 6 that Shamshetov, 45, had died two days earlier of a "thromboembolism of the pulmonary artery and acute heart failure."
Self-exiled Karakalpak activists said over the weekend that Shamshetov might have been tortured to death in custody and demanded a thorough investigation of Shamshetov's death.
Shamshetov was the chief of Karakalpakstan’s Interior Ministry’s detective unit before his arrest in early July last year. He was a son of the late first and only president of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, Dauletbai Shamshetov, who led the autonomous republic in 1991-1992 before Tashkent canceled the post.
Polat Shamshetov was among Karakalpak activists who were handed prison terms in Uzbekistan's southwestern city of Bukhara on January 31 for their roles in the protests in Karakalpakstan in July. He was found guilty of inciting mass unrest and taking part in them and handed a six-year prison term.
Lawyer and journalist Dauletmurat Tajimuratov received the longest prison term in the case -- 16 years, on a charge of plotting to seize power by disrupting the constitutional order, organizing mass unrest, embezzlement, and money laundering.
Four defendants, including another journalist, Lolagul Qallykhanova, were handed parole-like sentences and immediately released from custody.
Other defendants were sentenced to prison terms of between three and 8 1/2 years. It remains unclear how the defendants pleaded.
Uzbek authorities say 21 people died in Karakalpakstan during the protests, which were sparked by the announcement in early July last year of a planned change to the constitution that would have undermined the region's right to self-determination.
The violence in Nukus, the main city in Karakalpakstan, forced President Shavkat Mirziyoev to make a rare about-face and scrap the proposal.
Mirziyoev accused "foreign forces" of being behind the unrest, without further explanation, before backing away from the proposed changes.
The trial started in late November in Bukhara, around 600 kilometers from both Nukus and the capital, Tashkent.
Mirziyoev came to power in 2016 after the death of his autocratic predecessor, Islam Karimov.
Karakalpaks are a Central Asian Turkic-speaking people. Their region used to be an autonomous area within Kazakhstan before becoming autonomous within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1930 and then part of Uzbekistan in 1936.
Karakalpakstan is home to fewer than two million people, out of a nation of 35 million, but it covers more than one-third of Uzbekistan's territory.
The European Union has called for an independent investigation into the violence.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service
Popular Russian Food Blogger Sentenced In Absentia To Nine Years In Prison Over Posts
MOSCOW -- A court in Moscow has sentenced in absentia a popular food blogger and magazine founder over her online posts about Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The Basmanny district court sentenced the Ukrainian-born Nika Belotserkovskaya on February 6 after finding her guilty of distributing "false information" about Russia's armed forces.
Belotserkovskaya, who founded the St. Petersburg magazine and website Sobaka, currently lives in France.
Russia's Investigative Committee in March 2022 opened a criminal case against Belotserkovskaya, who blogs under the name Belonika, for allegedly spreading false news about the Russian Army on her Instagram account, which now has 1.3 million subscribers.
She was accused of publishing several Instagram posts containing "deliberately false information about the armed forces of the Russian Federation's destruction of cities and civilians in Ukraine, including children, during a special military operation." Some of the posts cited the coverage of the war by Western news agencies and media outlets.
In May last year, Russian authorities added her to the nation's wanted list and issued an arrest warrant for her. Belotserkovskaya then wrote on the Internet that it meant she is "a decent person."
That was followed up in in June, with the impounding of all of her property in Russia.
Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has strictly restricted access to information about the war in Ukraine launched by Russia in late February last year and directed media to describe events in Ukraine as a “special military operation” and not a war or an invasion.
Following the opening of the criminal case against her in March, Belotserkovskaya transferred ownership of Sobaka to employees.
Astana Rejects Russian Court's Summons Of Kazakh Journalists Over Ukraine War Article
Kazakh Foreign Ministry officials have rejected a Russian court's summoning of editors of the Arbat.media news website over an article it published about Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Ministry officials told Arbat.media on February 6 that the decision last month by the Lenin district court in Russia's Vladimir region "has no legal force in Kazakhstan."
Arbat.media said last week that it had received a letter from the Russian court ordering its editors to show up at a trial in the city of Vladimir on February 17. At issue was the website’s article "Russia Occupiers Do Not Admit Defeat In Kharkiv," which was published in September.
The letter said that a lawsuit against the Kazakh website was filed by Russian armed forces military unit 56680 and Russian Military Prosecutor's Office No 19.
The Almaty-based Adil Soz (A Just Word) group, which monitors journalists' rights, had urged the Kazakh government to react to the Russian court's decision.
Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry said in an official letter to Arbat.media that there are no bilateral agreements between Kazakhstan and Russia on mutual interference in media activities, adding that the media outlet did not violate any Kazakh laws, while Russian legal motions against Kazakh citizens have no power on the territory of Kazakhstan.
"The norms of international law state that everyone has the right to freely express opinions; this right includes the freedom to seek, receive and disseminate information and ideas of any kind, regardless of national borders, orally, in writing or by means of print or artistic forms of expression, or by other means of their choice," the ministry's letter said.
This is the first time a Russian court had summoned Kazakh journalists over an article about Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine, launched last February.
With reporting by Arbat.media
Norway Proposes $7.3 Billion, Five-Year Aid Package To Ukraine
Norway's prime minister proposed on February 6 that his country should provide aid to Ukraine of some 75 billion Norwegian krone ($7.3 billion) over a five-year period. "We aim to secure a unified agreement on this in parliament," Labor Party Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere told a news conference after meeting Norwegian opposition leaders. The Nordic country, a major petroleum exporter, has seen its government income swell to record levels following Russia's invasion of Ukraine as the price of gas sold to Europe soared last year. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Bomb Kills Soldier, Wounds 11 People In Southwest Pakistan
A bombing near a vehicle carrying Pakistani paramilitary troops in southwestern Balochistan Province killed a soldier and wounded 11 people, mostly civilians, police and security officials said on February 6. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which took place near the Musa Khan checkpoint in the provincial capital, Quetta, on February 5. Pakistan has been battling an insurgency in Balochistan for more than a decade, with separatists in the province demanding complete autonomy or a larger share of the province’s gas and mineral resources. (AP)
To read the original story from AP, click here.
Kremlin Says UN Atomic Watchdog Chief Will Not Meet Putin During Moscow Visit
The Kremlin said on February 6 that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi will not meet Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Moscow this week. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Grossi would meet officials from the state nuclear energy firm, Rosatom, and the Foreign Ministry. He also said that Moscow expected "a substantive dialogue." The IAEA has repeatedly expressed concerns about the safety of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, which Russian forces seized last March soon after invading Ukraine. The plant has come under repeated shelling, with the two sides blaming each other.
Kosovar PM Calls On West Not To Exert Pressure Over Serb Entity
Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti has called on Western powers not to pressure his country into accepting a contentious association of five Serb-majority municipalities that is ramping up tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. Kurti told the Associated Press that the focus instead should be on making Serbia more democratic and getting rid of what he called Belgrade's hegemonistic ideas. Kurti said on February 5 that the Serbian government should acknowledge the independence of all the ex-republics of the former Yugoslavia in order to “face the past.” (AP)
To read the original story from AP, click here.
Ukraine Sends Mixed Messages Over Defense Ministry At A Sensitive Point In The War
Intense fighting in eastern Ukraine between Russian and Ukrainian troops continues as Kyiv sends mixed signals over a possible reshuffle at the Defense Ministry amid expectations of a major Russian offensive in the coming weeks.
Almost a year into the conflict, sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine late last February, a battle for the city of Bakhmut rages, as well as in areas around it, such as the towns of Soledar and Vuhledar.
“The battles for the region are heating up,” according to Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko, who said “the Russians are throwing new units into the battle and eradicating our towns and villages.”
Meanwhile, Russian shelling had subsided in the neighboring Luhansk region because “the Russians have been saving ammunition for a large-scale offensive,” Luhansk Governor Serhiy Hayday claimed.
Amid the tense fighting that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy characterized late on February 5 as "very difficult," Ukraine announced that Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov would be transferred to the post of minister for strategic industries to strengthen military-industrial cooperation and would be replaced by General Kyrylo Budanov, the head of the country’s military intelligence agency.
However, less than 24 hours later, David Arakhamia, the head of Zelenskiy's parliamentary bloc, reversed his earlier comments, saying on Telegram that “there will be no personnel changes in the defense sector this week.”
Reznikov has said that while he was not planning to resign, any decision about his future would be made by the president.
Rumors of a possible Reznikov resignation or ouster have mounted after a series of accusations of corruption within the ministry.
In January, Ukrainian media reported that the Defense Ministry had allegedly purchased products for the military at inflated prices through a "gasket" company. Other charges of corruption were also alleged in the media.
Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov, who was responsible for supplying troops with food and equipment, resigned on January 24, citing the accusations, which he said were baseless.
Ukrainian authorities also again accused Russian forces of firing at targets across the Dnieper River from the Russia-occupied Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant. The attacks damaged residential buildings and electricity lines in Nikopol and Marhanets.
The reports come as Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi is expected to visit Moscow this week for talks on creating a safety zone around the Zaporizhzhya plant, Europe's largest nuclear power station.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed Grossi's visit but said the IAEA chief would meet officials from the state nuclear energy firm Rosatom and the Foreign Ministry but not from the Kremlin itself.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials continue to warn that Russia is planning a new, full-scale offensive as early as mid-February. Russia has been deploying “more and more reserves” and equipment in eastern Ukraine, Hayday said.
Ukraine, too, has been planning its own counteroffensive, but that depends on the supplies of battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles Western countries have pledged to send to Kyiv.
Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand tweeted late on February 5 that the first Leopard tank her country is donating to Ukraine had arrived in Poland. Training for Ukrainian personnel in how to use the tank was due to begin soon, she added.
Ukraine’s Western allies pledged to send dozens of German-made Leopard tanks and other weaponry to Ukraine to help it defeat the invading Russian forces.
In Kyiv, Reznikov renewed calls for allies to supply additional weapons, including jet fighters, saying the West’s reluctance to send such aircraft will “cost us more lives” in its battle against Russian forces.
Western leaders have said it was not practical to send such jets to Ukraine given the amount of time it would take to train pilots and maintenance crews and amid fears of a widening of the conflict.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned in a speech on February 6 to the UN General Assembly that he fears the likelihood of further escalation in the conflict means the world is heading toward a "wider war."
"The prospects for peace keep diminishing. The chances of further escalation and bloodshed keep growing," he told diplomats in New York. "I fear the world is not sleepwalking into a wider war. I fear it is doing so with its eyes wide open."
With reporting by AP and Reuters
Pakistan Blocks Wikipedia For 'Hurting Muslim Sentiment'
Pakistan's media regulator said on February 6 that it blocked Wikipedia services in the country for hurting Muslim sentiment by not removing purportedly blasphemous content from the site. Blasphemy is a sensitive subject and carries the death penalty in Pakistan, where even allegations of the offense are often enough to provoke mob violence. International and domestic rights groups say that accusations of blasphemy have often been used to intimidate religious minorities and settle personal scores. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority says it blocked Wikipedia because a 48-hour deadline to remove the content was ignored. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Reports: Russian Patriarch Kirill Spied In Switzerland For The KGB In The 1970s
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a strong supporter of President Vladimir Putin, worked for Soviet intelligence while living in Switzerland in the 1970s, Swiss newspapers reported, citing declassified archives. According to the Sonntagszeitung and Le Matin Dimanche weeklies, the Swiss police file on the man who today serves as the spiritual head of the Russian Orthodox Church "confirms that 'Monsignor Kirill,' as he is referred to in this document, worked for the KGB."
Drone Explodes Outside Russian City Of Kaluga, Governor Says
A drone has exploded outside the Russian city of Kaluga, regional Governor Vladislav Shapsha said on February 6, adding that no one was injured in the blast. "The drone exploded in the air at an altitude of 50 meters in the forest near the city at 5 o'clock in the morning," he wrote on Telegram. Kaluga is about 150 kilometers southwest of Moscow and 260 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. The governor did not make it clear what the source of the drone was. Russia has said in the past that Ukrainian drones have flown into its territory, an assertion that Kyiv denies.
Russia Says It Discussed Nuclear Arms Treaty With U.S. Ambassador
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on February 6 that he discussed the New START nuclear arms control treaty with new United States Ambassador Lynne Tracy last week, the Interfax news agency reported. He added that Russia was committed to the treaty but that no date had been set for new talks, citing the conflict in Ukraine. Talks between Moscow and Washington on the New START treaty were scheduled for last November but were called off at the last moment.
Iranian Songwriter Facing Possible Prison Time Takes Home Grammy Award
Iranian singer Shervin Hajipur, who has been accused of "propaganda against the system" and "inciting people to violent acts," has won a Grammy award for social change for his song Baraye, which has become an anthem for the ongoing protests in Iran over the death of a 22-year-old woman in police custody.
Hajipur attended the event late on February 5 via video link where U.S. First Lady Jill Biden, on stage at the awards ceremony in Los Angeles, presented the award. He could be seen wiping away tears after winning the prize.
Hajipur was detained by police on September 29 after his song gained prominence among protesters demonstrating against the death weeks earlier of Mahsa Amini. She died while in the custody of Tehran's notorious morality police after being detained for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.
The singer was released on bail a few days after his arrest and prohibited from leaving the country. He made the appearance at the Grammy awards from an unknown location.
The song Baraye, which roughly translates as "because of," is based on the outpouring of public anger following Amini's death. It is composed of tweets sent by Iranians following Amini's death. Many of the tweets blame the country's social, economic, and political ills on the clerical regime.
“This song became the anthem of the Mahsa Amini protests, a powerful and poetic call for freedom and women's rights,” Biden said. “Shervin was arrested, but this song continues to resonate around the world with its powerful theme: Women, life, freedom."
"We won!" Hajipur added in a tweet.
Iranian officials have not commented on the award.
The song garnered more than 40 million views in less than 48 hours before it was removed from Instagram by Iranian authorities. It also flooded the submission box for the Grammys' newest special award category, which honors a song dedicated to social change.
Hajipur is one of many Iranian celebrities to have been interrogated and had their passports confiscated by the authorities after showing support for anti-government protests enveloping the country.
The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said that, as of January 29, at least 527 people had been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.
Former Military Ruler Musharraf's Body To Be Flown To Pakistan
The body of Pakistan's exiled former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who became a key U.S. ally during the "war on terror," is expected to be repatriated on February 6.
Musharraf, who fled Pakistan in 2016 for medical treatment after a travel ban was lifted, died on February 5, aged 79, in Dubai after a long illness.
Senior officials who asked not to be named said his body would be repatriated on February 6, with a burial expected later in the day.
Russia's Lavrov In Iraq For Energy Talks
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Iraq on February 5 for talks on energy and food security in view of the Ukraine conflict, an Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman said. He landed in Baghdad late in the day at the head of a large delegation that includes "oil and gas companies and investors," Ahmad al-Sahhaf told AFP. On February 6, Lavrov will meet Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein, the state news agency INA quoted Sahhaf as saying.
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