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U.S. Government Criticizes BP For Oil Spill

A boat passes through heavily oiled marsh near Pass a Loutre, Louisiana
A boat passes through heavily oiled marsh near Pass a Loutre, Louisiana
The U.S. government has criticized BP for its handling of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

U.S. Interior Minister Ken Salazar said Washington is frustrated and angry that BP missed "deadline after deadline" in its efforts to seal the well more than a month after an oil rig explosion triggered the disaster.

Meanwhile, Louisiana's governor Bobby Jindal says the U.S. Coast Guard and BP were slow to make decisions and delayed supplying necessary clean-up equipment even as oil washes onto the state's fragile marshland

The U.S. Coast Guard says more than 110 kilometers of Gulf Coast has experienced "shoreline impact" and less than half of it could be cleaned up relatively quickly.

compiled from agency reports

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Iranian Grammy Winner Sentenced To Prison, Writing Music Anti-U.S. Music

Grammy winner Shervin Hajipour has been handed eight months in prison for "propaganda against the establishment" and three years for "encouraging and provoking the public to riot to disrupt national security."
Grammy winner Shervin Hajipour has been handed eight months in prison for "propaganda against the establishment" and three years for "encouraging and provoking the public to riot to disrupt national security."

An Iranian court has sentenced Grammy winner Shervin Hajipour, who was first detained after his song Baraye turned into an anthem of anti-establishment protests in 2022, to nearly four years in prison while also forcing him to write music critical of the United States.

Hajipour shared the news along with a picture of the court verdict on his Instagram account on March 1. He thanked his lawyers for "trying their best" and used a Persian expression that suggested he had no regrets.

Hajipour has been handed eight months in prison for "propaganda against the establishment" and three years for "encouraging and provoking the public to riot to disrupt national security." Hajipour will serve only the longer of the two prison sentences.

The singer and songwriter has also been ordered to "create music about America's crimes against humanity" and "document America's human rights violations in the last century" and publish his findings on social media.

He has also been banned from leaving Iran for two years and ordered, among other things, to publish on social media handwritten notes from religious books about women.

Baraye, whose lyrics were heavily inspired by social media posts from Iranians explaining why they were protesting, won the inaugural Special Merit Award for Best Song For Social Change at the 2023 Grammys.

The protests in 2022 erupted after Mahsa Amini, who had been detained for allegedly wearing "inappropriate" attire, died in police custody. The monthslong unrest gave birth to the "Women, Life, Freedom" movement and presented one of the strongest challenges to the Islamic republic since its inception.

Hundreds were killed and thousands were arrested as the authorities cracked down on the protests.

Hajipour was arrested in September 2022 and held for about three weeks before being released on bail.

Iranian Media Says IRGC Commander Killed In Suspected Israeli Strike On Syria

The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory For Human Rights said the strikes came at dawn and targeted a villa, killing an Iranian commander and two companions who were not Syrian.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory For Human Rights said the strikes came at dawn and targeted a villa, killing an Iranian commander and two companions who were not Syrian.

An Iranian commander was among three people killed in a suspected Israeli air strike on Syria, Iranian state media reported on March 1.

Reza Zare'i, a "military adviser" with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGC), was killed following strikes on the Syrian coastal city of Banyas, the IRGC-linked Tasnim News Agency reported. It said he was a member of the IRGC Navy.

Earlier, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory For Human Rights said the strikes came at dawn and targeted a villa, killing an Iranian commander and two companions who were not Syrian.

The IRGC has not commented on the reported death of one of its commanders. Iran refers to its troops in Syria as "military advisers."

At least 11 members of the IRGC, including an Afghan fighter with the Fatemiyun Brigade, have been killed in suspected Israeli strikes in Syria and Lebanon since the outbreak of war in the Gaza Strip in October.

Israel launched a deadly offensive against the Palestinian enclave in response to a multipronged attack by Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States and European Union. Around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the Hamas attack inside Israel, while more than 250 were taken hostage and brought back to Gaza.

Iran has supported the assault by Hamas but denied it was involved in planning it. U.S. intelligence has indicated that Iranian leaders were surprised by the attack.

Iran's regional allies have been targeting Israeli and U.S. interests in the Middle East following Israel's attack on Gaza. However, armed groups backed by have scaled back their attacks on American bases following a series of U.S. strikes last month, according to the New York Times.

Iran stepped in to defend President Bashar al-Assad in 2013 when his rule was challenged during the Syrian civil war. Hundreds of IRGC commanders and officers and believed to be present in Syria, where Tehran has also built up a large network of militias, consisting mostly of Afghans and Pakistanis.

Austria Refuses Asylum To Karakalpak Activist, Deports Him To Poland

Koshkarbai Toremuratov (file photo)
Koshkarbai Toremuratov (file photo)

Karakalpak activist Koshkarbai Toremuratov has said he was deported by Austria to Poland after Vienna refused to grant him political asylum.

Nazgul Seitbek of the Vienna-based Freedom for Eurasia group said on March 1 that Toremuratov, an Uzbek citizen, was currently in immigration detention at the Warsaw airport, where he applied for asylum.

However, another Karakalpak activist, Nauryzbai Menlibaev, told RFE/RL that Polish authorities ordered Toremuratov to leave the country within 30 days.

Seitbek said human rights lawyers were currently working to provide Toremuratov with legal assistance.

The 48-year-old Toremuratov, a leader of the Karakalpak diaspora in Kazakhstan, went to Poland last fall to take part in a conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), where he emphasized what he called the "discrimination" against Karakalpaks in his native Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, which is part of Uzbekistan.

Toremuratov then travelled to Austria, where he applied for political asylum. In mid-February, he was officially informed that his request for asylum in Austria had been rejected.

Before travelling to Europe, Toremuratov spent one year in a detention center in Kazakhstan after he was detained at Uzbekistan's request. Uzbek officials accuse Toremuratov of "posing a threat to Uzbekistan's constitutional order," which Toremuratov and his supporters reject as politically motivated.

Although he was released last fall, Toremuratov says he might be detained in Kazakhstan again and extradited to Uzbekistan, where he says he will face arbitrary arrest and persecution for his activities defending the rights of Karakalpaks.

Toremuratov is one of several Karakalpak activists who spent as much as a year in detention in Kazakhstan after they were arrested at Uzbekistan's request but then later released.

Last month, another Karakalpak activist, Aqylbek Muratov (aka Muratbai), who has resided in Kazakhstan for 10 years, was arrested in Kazakhstan at Uzbekistan's request.

The arrests of Karakalpak activists in Kazakhstan were linked to mass rallies in the region's capital, Nukus, in July 2022. Thousands protested against Tashkent's plans to change the constitution that would have undermined the republic's right to self-determination.

The protests were violently dispersed. Uzbek authorities said at the time that 21 people died during the protests, but the Freedom for Eurasia group said at least 70 people were killed during the unrest.

Last year, an Uzbek court sentenced dozens of Karakalpak activists to lengthy prison terms on charges including undermining the constitutional order for taking part in the protests.

The violence forced Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev to make a rare about-face and scrap the proposal.

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.

Thousands Gather At Moscow Church For Navalny's Funeral

Russian Prosecutor Seeks 8 Years For Journalist Over Ukraine War Coverage

Another RusNews journalist, Maria Ponomarenko, was sentenced to six years in prison on the same charge last year.
Another RusNews journalist, Maria Ponomarenko, was sentenced to six years in prison on the same charge last year.

A prosecutor asked a court in the city of Korolyov near Moscow on March 1 to convict and sentence journalist Roman Ivanov to eight years in prison on a charge of distributing false information about Russia's military. The charge stems from Romanov's online coverage of the Kremlin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Romanov pleaded not guilty, saying he was carrying out his journalistic work. In February 2023, a court in Siberia sentenced another RusNews journalist, Maria Ponomarenko, to six years in prison on the same charge, which she also rejected, saying journalism was not a crime. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Australia Slaps Sanctions On 3 More Russian Officials Linked To Navalny's Death

People rally in support of Aleksei Navalny in Melbourne, Australia, in January 2023.
People rally in support of Aleksei Navalny in Melbourne, Australia, in January 2023.

The Australian government has announced targeted sanctions against three unnamed Russian prison officials linked to the Arctic prison where opposition leader Aleksei Navalny died on February 16. The sanctions, announced in a statement on March 1, the day of Navalny's funeral, follow punitive measures against seven other officials involved in his mistreatment in another prison before he was transferred to the "Polar Wolf" prison camp in the remote northern Yamalo-Nenets region. "Australia holds President [Vladimir] Putin and the Russian government responsible for Mr. Navalny’s treatment and death in prison," the statement said.

Russia-China 5G, Satellite Cooperation Poses Risk For Ukraine, Report Warns

A Ukrainian soldier checks a connection with a Vampire attack drone before flying near the front line. The report says cooperation with China on network technology could provide Russia with the military breakthrough it desires.
A Ukrainian soldier checks a connection with a Vampire attack drone before flying near the front line. The report says cooperation with China on network technology could provide Russia with the military breakthrough it desires.

Russia is increasing its cooperation with China in 5G and satellite technology and this could facilitate Moscow's military aggression against Ukraine, a report by the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) security think tank warns.

The report, published on March 1, says that although battlefield integration of 5G networks may face domestic hurdles in Russia, infrastructure for Chinese aid to Russian satellite systems already exists and can "facilitate Russian military action in Ukraine."

China, which maintains close ties with Moscow, has refused to condemn Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and offered economic support to Russia that has helped the Kremlin survive waves of sweeping Western sanctions.

Beijing has said that it does not sell lethal weapons to Russia for its war against Ukraine, but Western governments have repeatedly accused China of aiding in the flow of technology to Russia's war effort despite Western sanctions.

The RUSI report details how the cooperation between Russia and China in 5G and satellite technology can also help Russia on the battlefield in Ukraine.

"Extensive deployment of drones and advanced telecommunications equipment have been crucial on all fronts in Ukraine, from intelligence collection to air-strike campaigns," the report says.

"These technologies, though critical, require steady connectivity and geospatial support, making cooperation with China a potential solution to Moscow's desire for a military breakthrough."

According to the report, 5G network development has gained particular significance in Russo-Chinese strategic relations in recent years, resulting in a sequence of agreements between Chinese technology giant Huawei and Russian companies MTS and Beeline, both under sanctions by Canada for being linked to Russia's military-industrial complex.

5G is a technology standard for cellular networks, which allows a higher speed of data transfer than its predecessor, 4G. According to the RUSI’s report, 5G "has the potential to reshape the battlefield" through enhanced tracking of military objects, faster transferring and real-time processing of large sensor datasets and enhanced communications.

These are "precisely the features that could render Russo-Chinese 5G cooperation extremely useful in a wartime context -- and therefore create a heightened risk for Ukraine," the report adds.

Although the report says that there are currently "operational and institutional constraints" to Russia's battlefield integration of 5G technology, it has advantages which make it an "appealing priority" for Moscow, Jack Crawford, a research analyst at RUSI and one of the authors of the report, said.

"As Russia continues to seek battlefield advantages over Ukraine, recent improvements in 5G against jamming technologies make 5G communications -- both on the ground and with aerial weapons and vehicles -- an even more appealing priority," Crawford told RFE/RL in an e-mailed response.

Satellite technology, however, is already the focus of the collaboration between China and Russia, the report says, pointing to recent major developments in the collaboration between the Russian satellite navigation system GLONASS and its Chinese equivalent, Beidou.

In 2018, Russia and China agreed on the joint application of GLONASS/Beidou and in 2022 decided to build three Russian monitoring stations in China and three Chinese stations in Russia -- in the city of Obninsk, about 100 kilometers southwest of Moscow, the Siberian city of Irkutsk, and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in Russia's Far East.

Satellite technology can collect imagery, weather and terrain data, improve logistics management, track troop movements, and enhance precision in the identification and elimination of ground targets.

According to the report, GLONASS has already enabled Russian missile and drone strikes in Ukraine through satellite correction and supported communications between Russian troops.

The anticipated construction of Beidou's Obninsk monitoring station, the closest of the three Chinese stations to Ukraine, would allow Russia to increasingly leverage satellite cooperation with China against Ukraine, the report warns.

In 2022, the Russian company Racurs, which provides software solutions for photogrammetry, GIS, and remote sensing, signed satellite data-sharing agreements with two Chinese companies. The deals were aimed at replacing contracts with Western satellite companies that suspended data supply in Russia following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The two companies -- HEAD Aerospace and Spacety -- are both under sanctions by the United States for supplying satellite imagery of locations in Ukraine to entities affiliated with the Wagner mercenary group.

"For the time being, we cannot trace how exactly these shared data have informed specific decisions on the front line," Roman Kolodii, a security expert at Charles University in Prague and one of the authors of the report, told RFE/RL.

"However, since Racurs is a partner of the Russian Ministry of Defense, it is highly likely that such data might end up strengthening Russia's geospatial capabilities in the military domain, too."

"Ultimately, such dynamic interactions with Chinese companies may improve Russian military logistics, reconnaissance capabilities, geospatial intelligence, and drone deployment in Ukraine," the report says.

The report comes as Western governments are stepping up efforts to counter Russia's attempt to evade sanctions imposed as a response to its military aggression against Ukraine.

On February 23, on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion, the United States imposed sanctions on nearly 100 entities that are helping Russia evade trade sanctions and "providing backdoor support for Russia's war machine."

The list includes Chinese companies, accused of supporting "Russia's military-industrial base."

With reporting by Merhat Sharpizhanov

Kazakh Activist Reportedly Beaten After Giving Out Details Of Journalist's Trial

Kazakh activist Abzal Dostiyarov (file photo)
Kazakh activist Abzal Dostiyarov (file photo)

Kazakh activist Abzal Dostiyarov's wife, Dana Sarsenbai, said on March 1 that police in Almaty's Auezov district detained her husband for unknown reasons and beat him at a police station. Dostiyarov managed to use his mobile phone to live broadcast his interrogation by several police officers as he asked for the reasons for his detainment and beating. The Auezov district police department refused to comment on the situation. Dostiyarov recently distributed information about the ongoing trial of independent journalist Duman Mukhammedkarim in the city of Qonaev. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Pakistani Parliament Elects Speaker As Khan's Supporters Protest

Sardar Ayaz Sadiq (file photo)
Sardar Ayaz Sadiq (file photo)

Pakistan's new parliament elected a speaker on March 1 despite protests from lawmakers loyal to jailed ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan three weeks after an election they claim was brazenly rigged. Sardar Ayaz Sadiq of the military-backed Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party was elected by parliamentarians from his party and a handful of others in a coalition pact shutting Khan's followers out of power. The 336-seat National Assembly convened on February 29 for the first time since Pakistan's February 8 elections, and the alliance is slated to vote in PML-N's Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister on March 3.

Updated

Navalny Buried In Moscow As Tens Of Thousands Gather Amid Heavy Police Presence

Crowd Chants Outside Navalny Funeral: 'You Were Not Afraid And We Are Not Afraid!'
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Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who died in an Arctic prison under mysterious circumstances, was laid to rest in a cemetery near his childhood home in Moscow as police kept tens of thousands of supporters from joining in the funeral service and burial.

Relatives and close associates were allowed to be present at the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God for a brief funeral ceremony for President Vladimir Putin's most vocal critic on March 1 before his body was taken to the nearby Borisovskoye cemetery for burial.

The services came after two weeks of battling between Navalny's family and Russian authorities, who delayed the release of his body as they allegedly tried to blackmail Navalny's mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, to hold a private funeral "without any farewell ceremonies."

Navalny's spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, said the music from the final scene of the film Terminator 2 -- Navalny's favorite movie -- was played at the funeral, as was Frank Sinatra's song My Way.

A photo of Navalny's open casket appeared on social media. In it, his mother and father could be seen sitting next to their son, whose body was covered from the shoulders down by red and white roses. Dozens of others, including clergy members, stood behind.

The coffin was then carried out of the church as many threw flowers at the hearse where Navalny's casket had been loaded to be taken to the cemetary. Some of those gathered broke down metal fences to get closer to the vehicle but there were no signs of clashes with police as some chanted "Russia will be free," "No to war," "Russia without Putin," "We won't forget," and "Putin is a murderer."

"Goodbye my friend. 4.6.1976 – 16.2.2024 Killed by Putin," Ivan Zhdanov, a self-exiled associate of Navalny, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Among the crowd to arrive and pay their respects at the service on March 1 was the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, along with several other Western diplomats.

The general public was not allowed to file past the coffin. At large Orthodox ceremonies, mourners are typically given a chance to file past the open casket.

Thousands then made the 2.4-kilometer trip to the cemetery, where some were allowed in to see the burial site after Navalny's coffin had been lowered into the ground.

"Aleksei Navalny's work was dedicated to sharing a vision of a better future for Russia and all Russians. And ultimately, he gave his life for his patriotic service. For many Russians, he remains a symbol of what Russia could and should be," the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said in a post on Telegram.

Ahead of the service, people chanted Navalny's name as lines snaking through the streets around the church grew from dozens, to hundreds, to thousands, to tens of thousands. When his body arrived at the church, the chants stopped for several minutes as the crowd began to applaud.

After Navalny's casket was driven away, some vented their anger toward Putin, whom Navalny's widow and many Western countries -- including the United States -- have blamed for the Kremlin critic's death.

"You were not afraid, and we are not afraid," Navalny's team said in a post on Telegram that was echoed by some in the crowd.

Navalny's widow, Yulia, who lives outside of Russia for security reasons, did not attend the service. But she posted an emotional letter and video on Instagram paying tribute to her husband, saying he made her laugh, even when he was imprisoned.

"I don’t know how to live without you, but I will try my best to make you up there happy for me and proud of me. I don't know if I'll manage it or not, but I will try," she said, alluding to her pledge to continue her husband's work to bring democracy and freedom to Russia.

Yarmysh said in a social media post that ritual services initially had refused to transport Navalny's body from a Moscow morgue to the church, but at the last minute relented.

"The burial today is not marking an end. It marks the fact that nothing ended, it is a continuation of something that the Kremlin understands is not just an ordinary farewell," self-exiled Russian politician Leonid Gozman told Current Time.

Gozman said Navalny's death could be compared to that of U.S. civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in that their legacies and impact would live on and fuel the fight for civil rights.

Ahead of the ceremony, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov issued a warning through reporters during a conference call that any unsanctioned gatherings in support of Navalny would be considered as violations of the law, a thinly veiled threat that police would intervene quickly to deal with crowds.

He also said the Kremlin had no assessment of Navalny as a politician and nothing to say to Navalny's family.

"But we have something to say to the Kremlin -- the killers of Aleksei," Yarmysh tweeted in response.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement or responsibility for Navalny's death.

Navalny’s team also put out an appeal to the Kremlin critic’s supporters around the world to gather at 7 p.m. in their time zones.

"We understand that not everyone will have the opportunity to come to Moscow to say goodbye to Aleksei Navalny on March 1," his team said on Telegram. "To honor his memory, go to the memorial in your city at 7 p.m. local time."

The post includes a list of some cities and urges people to create a memorial if there isn't one in their city or town.

Navalny's body was released to his mother on February 24, more than a week after his death from "natural causes" at a prison in an Arctic region of Russia. He was 47. Officials have not commented further.

Before the body was released, Navalny's mother said authorities were setting conditions on where, when, and how her son should be buried. She said authorities wanted the family to agree to buy him quietly and threatened to bury him on the prison grounds if she didn't agree.

With reporting by SOTA, Mediazona, Baza, and Mozhem Obyasnit

Ukraine Shoots Down 4 Russian Drones; 4 Russian Villages Without Power After Attack

Ukrainian air defenses shot down four Russian drones on March 1. (file photo)
Ukrainian air defenses shot down four Russian drones on March 1. (file photo)

Ukrainian air-defense forces shot down four Russian drones over the regions of Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk early on March 1, the military said, without specifying how many drones Moscow had launched at Ukraine's territory. Meanwhile, Roman Starovoit, the governor of Russia's border region of Kursk, said a Ukrainian drone attack left four villages in his region without electricity on March 1. Russia's Defense Ministry previously said that its air defenses downed four Ukrainian drones over the Belgorod and Nizhny Novogorod regions. Ukraine has not commented on the Russian claim. To read the original stories by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here and here.

Updated

Turnout Becomes Focus Of 'Engineered' Iranian Elections Amid Widespread Dissatisfaction

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballots at a polling station in Tehran on March 1.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballots at a polling station in Tehran on March 1.

Iranians have begun voting in two elections that will usher in a new parliament and Assembly of Experts as opinion polls project a low turnout amid calls for a boycott of what many see as "engineered" balloting.

The elections are the first since the deadly nationwide protests that erupted following the September 2022 death while in police custody of Mahsa Amini. She had been detained for allegedly not following Iran’s hijab laws.

Many Iranians have said they will not vote in what they are seeing as “meaningless” elections that are likely to consolidate the power of the country’s hard-liners.

'Engineered Elections': Iran To Vote On Assembly That May Name Next Supreme Leader
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Prominent figures, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, have said openly they will boycott the elections, labeling them as superficial and predetermined. Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister, has voiced his refusal to vote, criticizing the supreme leader's indifference to the country's crises.

The state-linked polling agency ISPA, which ordinarily releases frequent polling data ahead of elections, put out its first and only survey results on February 28. It found that only 38.5 percent of respondents said they would “definitely” turn up to vote and projected turnout of 41 percent on election day.

Another poll by the state broadcaster IRIB, which was released on February 29, projected a 43.1 percent turnout.

Voter apathy, fueled by general dissatisfaction over living standards and a clampdown on basic human rights in Iran, has been growing for years.

Even before Amini's death, which sparked massive protests and the Women, Life, Freedom movement, unrest had rattled Iran for months in response to declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of welfare support.

In the last parliamentary elections in February 2020, ISPA predicted a 52 percent turnout, but actual participation was 42.57 percent --- a historic low for legislative elections since the Islamic republic came to power in 1979.

In a last-ditch effort to encourage a high turnout, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said after casting his ballot in Tehran that voting would “make the friends happy and ill-wishers disappointed.”

While domestically the attention is mostly on the parliamentary elections, it is perhaps the Assembly of Experts polls that are more significant. The 88-seat assembly, whose members are elected for eight-year terms, is tasked with appointing the next supreme leader. Given Khamenei is 84, the next assembly may end up having to name his successor.

Analysts and activists say the elections are “engineered” because only candidates vetted and approved by the Guardians Council are allowed to run. The council is made up of six clerics and six jurists who are all appointed directly and indirectly by Khamenei.

In dozens of audio and written messages sent to RFE/RL’s Radio Farda from inside Iran, many said they were opting against voting because the elections are “meaningless” and likely to consolidate the hard-liners’ grip on power.

State television has been providing wall-to-wall coverage of the elections from across the country. News outlets linked to the establishment have been trying to generate excitement on banned social media platforms -- including Telegram, Instagram, and X (formerly Twitter) – by posting videos with catchy captions.

As has become the norm, some outlets, including the IRIB-run Young Journalists’ Club, have posted videos and images of women in polling stations dressed in attire that on a normal day would likely earn them a warning or even detention.

Prominent Iranians abroad and civil and political activists in the country have called for a boycott of the voting.

In the run-up to the elections, authorities arrested several people for allegedly calling for a boycott.

Balkan Leaders Pledged To Supply Ukraine With Ammunition, Zelenskiy Says

A Ukrainian tank of the 17th Tank Brigade fires at Russian positions in Chasiv Yar in the Donetsk region on February 29.
A Ukrainian tank of the 17th Tank Brigade fires at Russian positions in Chasiv Yar in the Donetsk region on February 29.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on February 29 that his meetings with Western Balkan leaders at a summit in Tirana will help Ukrainian troops get more of the artillery shells they badly need to fend off advancing Russian forces.

Zelenskiy said his forces will receive more artillery under new defense agreements he reached during the two-day summit hosted by Albania.

“We use every meeting and every day to provide more capabilities to our warriors,” he said in his nightly video address. “We had good talks in Albania – as always principled support and not only in terms of our bilateral relations but also in terms of how to make the dialogue with those states that are still reserved in their support more meaningful.”

Zelenskiy added that the participants of the summit will take part in a global peace summit that has been proposed to be held in Switzerland in the coming months to discuss his vision for peace.

“It’s planned to be held in Switzerland and we already see opportunities for broad representation of countries from around the world,” Zelenskiy said.

Russia has already rejected the idea.

Zelenskiy, who also mentioned his visit to Saudi Arabia prior to the Tirana summit, said 2024 should be a time of maximum pragmatism in relations with Ukraine’s neighbors.

“Everyone sees that Russia is not going to stop,” he said.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Russian forces are pushing against more Ukrainian towns and villages in eastern and southeastern Ukraine, hitting some Ukrainian defensive positions hard by deploying overwhelming amounts of artillery and troops.

The Russian Army currently is trying to seize Tonenke, Orlivka, Semenivka, Berdychi, and Krasnohorivka in the eastern Donetsk region, Ukraine’s army chief, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskiy, said on social media.

Ukrainian military officials said earlier that Ukraine would form a new line of defense in those areas after Ukrainian troops pulled out of Avdiyivka on February 17.

In the southeastern Zaporizhzhya region, Russian forces are focusing on retaking Verbove and Robotyne, towns that Ukraine won back last summer, Syrskiy said.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said that its forces shot down three Russian Su-34 jets overnight. That makes a total of 11 warplanes that Ukraine claims to have downed since February 17.

“The enemy has increased its air presence in the east. Our top military leadership reacted accordingly,” air force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said on national television.

The General Staff of Ukraine's armed forces also said on February 29 that 19 Russian soldiers were killed and 12 wounded in a missile strike on a group of Russian troops in Olenivka in the Russian-occupied part of the Donetsk region.

According to the statement, a deputy commander of a Russian military unit was among those killed, while the unit's commander was among the wounded. The statement has not been confirmed by Russia's military.

With reporting by AP

Former Bosnian Serb Soldier Sentenced To 6 Years For Wartime Rape Of Bosniak Woman

The long-overdue judgment in Sarajevo against Rade Grujic, 57, came in one of the few cases in which a member of the Bosnian military has been prosecuted for rape, despite tens of thousands of suspected cases.
The long-overdue judgment in Sarajevo against Rade Grujic, 57, came in one of the few cases in which a member of the Bosnian military has been prosecuted for rape, despite tens of thousands of suspected cases.

SARAJEVO -- A court in Bosnia-Herzegovina on February 29 sentenced a former member of the Bosnian Serb military to six years in prison for the rape of a Bosniak woman in the spring of 1992 shortly after war broke out in the country.

The long-overdue judgment in Sarajevo against Rade Grujic, 57, came in one of the few cases in which a member of the Bosnian military has been prosecuted for rape, despite tens of thousands of suspected cases.

Judge Tanja Curovic said that the court established beyond a reasonable doubt that in May 1992 Grujic entered a house in the village of Liplje in eastern Bosnia where Bosniak civilians were staying, took the victim into a room, ordered her to undress, and raped her.

In addition to the six-year sentence, Curovic ordered Grujic to pay the victim $5,400 and ordered him to be held in custody until the verdict becomes final. Grujic has the right to appeal the first-instance verdict.

Prosecutor Eldina Biuk said that the victim, whose name was withheld by the court, "clearly, unambiguously, and in detail" described what happened in Liplje.

The prosecutor said the victim knew Grujic because he was her neighbor, and she identified him in photographs presented during the trial and also pointed to him in the courtroom, identifying him as the man who raped her.

The prosecution called a total of 22 witnesses, including an expert witness, and submitted 60 material pieces of evidence.

Grujic's trial began in April 2023 after he was arrested in Liplje. The case is one of hundreds of war crimes cases in Bosnia, but one of the few prosecutions for rape during wartime, which falls under the category crime against humanity in Bosnia.

The court took into account the cruelty of the crime and the psychological consequences for the victim in determining the sentence, but it also considered the fact that the defendant was 25 at the time he committed the crime, has had no previous convictions, and is the father of two.

During the Bosnian War, which lasted from 1992 to 1995, it is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 women, girls, and men were raped. Many of them never received proper medical and psychological care and financial support.

Bosnia does not have a state law to support victims of war, including those who have suffered sexual violence.

A war crimes court in Belgrade in 2010 convicted several Serbs of committing crimes in Zvornik, a city near Liplje, and the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia previously convicted Bosnian Serb political and army leaders of war crimes in the Zvornik municipality.

With reporting by Balkan Insight

Russian Who Smuggled Military Technology Pleads Guilty In U.S. Court

A Russian man pled guilty on February 29 to U.S. charges that he smuggled large quantities of American-made, military-grade microelectronics to Russia, U.S. justice officials said in a statement. Maksim Marchenko, 51, was arrested in September. He and two other Russians were accused of using shell companies to conceal the fraudulent procurement of microelectronics. Marchenko pled guilty in a New York court to one count of money laundering, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, and one count of smuggling goods from the United States, which carries a maximum 10 years. He is scheduled to be sentenced on June 6.

Imam Acquitted Of Insulting Bosnian Serb Entity

Muharem Stulanovic (left) and his lawyer Duško Tomic speak to reporters outside the court in Banja Luka on February 29.
Muharem Stulanovic (left) and his lawyer Duško Tomic speak to reporters outside the court in Banja Luka on February 29.

A court in the Bosnian Serb entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina on February 29 acquitted imam Muharem Stulanovic of the charge of "harming the reputation and honor of the Republika Srpska and its peoples."

Stulanovic was charged with the crime after he called Republika Srpska a "genocidal creation" in January 2023 during a religious ceremony at the Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy in Bihac, where he is a professor.

The decision of the court in Banja Luka follows a ruling by the Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which last month declared the charge unconstitutional.

"A persecution that should not have happened has ended," Stulanovic told RFE/RL after the trial.

Stulanovic's lawyer, Dusko Tomic, said the verdict was a victory for both the Constitutional Court and Bosnia.

"It has been confirmed once again that the judiciary respects the decisions of the Constitutional Court," Tomic said.

But Tomic also asserted that Republika Srpska's Prosecutor-General's Office did not comply with the decision of the Constitutional Court by failing to drop the charge against Stulanovic before the trial even started on January 10.

The case against him is the first confirmed indictment by the Prosecutor-General's Office of a person for calling Republika Srpska a "genocidal creation."

Stulanovic was charged based on Entity Criminal Code changes by Republika Srpska's assembly in July 2021 after amendments to the State Criminal Code imposed by then-High Representative Valentin Inzko prohibiting the denial of genocide and other war crimes, as well as the glorification of war criminals.

There was heightened interest in the trial after the decision of the Constitutional Court ruling last month and after Republika Srpska last year adopted a law saying the decisions of the Constitutional Court would not be enforced in the territory of the entity.

Ethnic Serbs in Republika Srpska have for years resisted Bosnia's central authorities, and the entity's assembly voted in June to suspend recognition of any decisions by Bosnia's multiethnic Constitutional Court.

Christian Schmidt, the international community's current high representative in Bosnia, annulled that law in July, a move that has been rejected by Republika Srpska, as were other decisions by Schmidt.

Updated

Iran Cracks Down On Calls For Election Boycott

A woman walks past campaign posters for the parliamentary elections in Tehran.
A woman walks past campaign posters for the parliamentary elections in Tehran.

Several people have been detained in Iran for allegedly calling for a boycott of parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections scheduled for March 1.

A young woman was arrested on February 28 for "opposing electoral participation" in Tehran's Valiasr Square during an event called "Free Tribune," witnesses told RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

They said the woman estimated to be in her 20s protested in front of a state television camera, symbolically removing her head scarf while declaring, "Vote or no vote, we will not vote."

A street vendor, who claimed to have witnessed the event, said the woman was quickly surrounded and subsequently detained by several security personnel after she waved her scarf over her head in protest.

Other eyewitness accounts detailed the intervention of two female officers, who covered the young woman with a chador cloak, while five male officers forcibly escorted her to a van.

The woman, described as having dyed, long hair and a slim build, was reportedly shouting for the officers to release her. Security forces present at the scene issued warnings to bystanders not to film the arrest and to disperse.

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

Many Iranians have said they will not vote in what they said will be "meaningless" elections that are likely to consolidate the power of the country's hard-liners.

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Iran's elections could not be considered free and fair.

"I suspect that a great number of Iranians have no expectation that those elections will be free and fair," Miller told reporters at the State Department on February 29.

"As you probably already know, thousands of candidates were already disqualified in an opaque process and the world has long known that Iran's political system features undemocratic and nontransparent administrative, judicial, and electoral systems.”

In the lead-up to the election, "Free Tribunes" have been organized by student groups in Tehran, where sentiment against the elections has spilled out.

Similar events have taken place -- in public and online -- in several areas of the country.

In the West Azerbaijan Province, police chief Rahim Jahanbakhsh announced the arrest of 50 people responsible for managing social-media pages that authorities say incited public unrest and discouraged election participation.

The arrests, Jahanbakhsh noted, were conducted in coordination with judicial authorities, though the identities of those detained remain undisclosed.

Jahanbakhsh also warned that publishing any content deemed provocative on social media would be considered a criminal offense.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has tried to push the importance of high voter turnout in the elections after more than a year of unrest that had boosted growing skepticism over the efficacy of participating in the electoral process.

'Engineered Elections': Iran To Vote On Assembly That May Name Next Supreme Leader
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Independent polling on electoral participation is restricted in Iran, with government-conducted surveys rarely made public.

However, a leaked poll from a state-affiliated center suggested a mere 30 perecnt of voters may turn out for the upcoming elections, a figure that was swiftly retracted from publication. In the previous parliamentary elections in 2020, voter turnout was reported at a historic low of approximately 42.6 percent.

Prominent figures, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, have said openly they will boycott the elections, calling them superficial and predetermined. Similarly, Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister, has voiced his refusal to vote, criticizing the supreme leader's indifference to the country's crises.

The elections also mark the first balloting since the widespread "Women, Life, Freedom" protests, ignited by the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini while in custody of the morality police. The protests led to a heavy-handed response from the government, including widespread arrests and crackdowns on demonstrators. At least 500 protesters were killed.

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

Ukraine Says 19 Russian Soldiers Killed In Missile Strike In Donetsk Region

(illustrative photo)
(illustrative photo)

The General Staff of Ukraine's armed forces said on February 29 that 19 Russian soldiers were killed and 12 wounded in a missile strike on a group of Russian troops in the town of Olenivka in the Russian-occupied part of the Donetsk region. According to the statement, a deputy commander of a Russian military unit was among those killed, while the unit's commander was among the wounded. The statement has not been confirmed by Russia's military.

Russians Jailed In Mass Cider-Poisoning Case

Poisonings with surrogate alcohol are common in Russia.
Poisonings with surrogate alcohol are common in Russia.

A Russian court on February 29 sentenced former police officer Ivan Grebyonkin and father and son Aleksei and Dmitry Yegorov to prison terms of between 3 1/4 and 3 1/2 years for their involvement in making and selling cider tainted with methanol, a highly poisonous type of industrial alcohol, that killed 40 people last summer in the regions of Samara, Nizhny Novgorod, Ulyanovsk, and Udmurtia. Poisonings with surrogate alcohol are common in Russia as people look to save money. In 2021, 34 people were killed by surrogate alcohol in the Urals region of Orenburg. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

German-Iranian Woman Returned To Tehran Prison After Medical Furlough Cut Short

Nahid Taghavi after her release
Nahid Taghavi after her release

A German-Iranian woman has been ordered back to jail in Tehran after several weeks of medical leave despite mounting concerns over her health, her daughter said on February 29.

Nahid Taghavi, 69, was sent back to Evin prison "arbitrarily and for no clear reason" on February 28, said Mariam Claren on X, formerly Twitter.

Taghavi's supporters have previously said she suffers from a herniated disc, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Claren said she developed "a painful eye disease in the last weeks, which must be strictly monitored by doctors."

Taghavi, held in Iran since 2020 on national security charges, was granted a medical furlough on January 9 under strict conditions, including that she wear an electronic tracking device and remain within 1 kilometer of her home in Tehran.

Her daughter said the conditions made it almost impossible for her to receive necessary medical care.

Taghavi, an architect, was convicted in 2021 of "leading an illegal group." She was sentenced to 10 years in jail, according to her lawyer. She has been forced to endure prolonged solitary confinement.

The German Foreign Ministry condemned the decision to send Taghavi back to jail, which it said was "taken in blatant disregard of her health."

The ministry said Taghavi was seriously ill and should be receiving medical treatment.

"Her furlough was terminated abruptly, without her even being able to receive the necessary medical treatment," the ministry said, adding that Germany will "continue to work tirelessly for her release."

Human rights groups and Western governments have accused Iran of imprisoning foreign nationals and dual citizens in order to pressure other countries into releasing jailed Iranians in prisoner swaps.

Tehran has repeatedly said it does not recognize dual nationality and denies holding foreign nationals for political reasons.

With reporting by AFP and dpa

Two More Billionaires Renounce Russian Citizenship In Wake Of Ukraine War

(illustrative photo)
(illustrative photo)

Forbes reported on February 29 that billionaires Andrei Baronov and Ratmir Timashev have become the latest tycoons to renounce their Russian citizenship since Moscow launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. According to Forbes, Baronov and Timashev are now citizens of Cyprus, with Baronov residing in Switzerland and Timashev in the United States. Baronov has criticized the war, saying it caused him "deep suffering." Timashev did not comment. Other tycoons who have given up their Russian citizenship since February 2022 include Vasily Anisimov, Timur Turlov, Ruben Vardanyan, Yury Milner, Nikolai Storonsky, Oleg Tinkov, and Igor Makarov. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Vucic Says Serbia's Noncompliance With EU Position On Navalny's Death Not A 'Tragedy'

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic walks out of a car on the day of the Ukraine Southeast Europe Summit in Tirana on February 28.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic walks out of a car on the day of the Ukraine Southeast Europe Summit in Tirana on February 28.

Belgrade has not signed on to an EU declaration assigning responsibility for the death of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny to President Vladimir Putin, a move Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said wasn't a "tragedy."

Navalny died on February 16 in an Arctic prison in Russia under suspicious circumstances. Russian officials said he died of natural causes, the so-called "sudden death" syndrome, while taking a mandatory walk, without giving other details.

Officials then refused for days to release Navalny's body to his mother, raising further suspicion on the cause of his death.

In a joint declaration on February 16, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Navalny "was slowly murdered by President Putin and his regime, who fear nothing more than dissent from their own people."

Diplomatic sources in Brussels told RFE/RL that under EU procedures, third countries that do not officially confirm their alignment with the bloc's common position on an issue are considered as noncompliant.

The deadline for third countries to have declared alignment with the EU's position on Navalny's death expired on February 28 without Belgrade confirming its acceptance of Brussels' stance, sources told RFE/RL, adding that other Western Balkans countries did officially align with the EU's position.

Two exceptions, besides Serbia, were Turkey and Armenia, the sources said.

Serbia's noncompliance should not be seen as "a great tragedy," Vucic told journalists on February 29 in Tirana on the sidelines of a Western Balkans summit.

"Until now, we have not agreed on such issues, and now I really can't tell you about this case, because I don't know. But, I know that we haven't done that so far, I would be surprised if it were different," Vucic said.

"I think it is very important that Serbia calculates carefully, conducts its own independent policy and evaluates each case separately," Vucic said.

Serbia's Ministry for European Integration and the Foreign Ministry did not respond to RFE/RL questions about the EU declaration regarding Navalny's death.

Serbia, which is a candidate country for membership in the 27-member bloc, has not complied with any of the restrictive measures or declarations against its traditional ally Russia that the EU has introduced since the Kremlin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Novaya Gazeta Editor In Chief Charged With Discrediting Russia's Military

Sergei Sokolov (file photo)
Sergei Sokolov (file photo)

The Moscow-based Novaya gazeta newspaper said on February 29 that police detained its chief editor, Sergei Sokolov, and charged him with discrediting Russia's military. The charge, which stemmed from an unspecified report, is administrative and could lead to jail time or a fine. Sokolov, who for many years led the paper's investigative team, became editor in chief in September after the newspaper's founding chief, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, stepped down following a Justice Ministry decision to add hm to the "foreign agents" registry. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

After 'Trump Card' Exposed, North Macedonia Scammers Retreat, Try To Cover Digital Tracks

Informed by RFE/RL of the transactions and the false claims by the sellers, Macedonian and U.S. law enforcement authorities have not commented directly.
Informed by RFE/RL of the transactions and the false claims by the sellers, Macedonian and U.S. law enforcement authorities have not commented directly.

BELGRADE -- Around one-third of the encrypted Telegram channels being used by Macedonian sellers to organize online sales of fake "Trump" debit cards have been deleted, two days after an RFE/RL investigation traced the digital footprints between pro-Trump Americans and a Balkan hub of fraud and disinformation.

The cards are part of a multimillion-dollar scam organized among closed chat groups for marketing alongside real and bogus news items designed to appeal to conservatives eager to see ex-President Donald Trump win reelection in November.

In many cases, the sale of tokens, coins, and bills with Trump's likeness are predicated on hopes that a return to power would supercharge the value of such souvenir items or even make them legal currency.

Neither the Republican presidential hopeful nor any of his organizations appear to have any connection to the manufacturers, platforms, or sellers.

"On our return, we'll be three times stronger, don't worry," read a February 26 message on one of several closed Telegram groups where Macedonian speakers previously communicated to further the scheme.

The channel's owner has erased all its content and deactivated the platform.

Twenty-three of the 88 websites uncovered by a digital team from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that infiltrated the closed Telegram groups have been shut down and payment options in 10 cases have been deactivated.

The network involved 69 individuals, two-thirds of them with digital trails placing them in Veles, a longtime center of "fake news" and inauthentic digital activity in North Macedonia.

Informed by RFE/RL of the transactions and the false claims by the sellers, Macedonian and U.S. law enforcement authorities have not commented directly.

Purchasing schemes frequently led buyers to the CopeCart payment platform, which is registered in the United States. CopeCart representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

RFE/RL also found that 33 Macedonian citizens who were selling cards or coins featuring Trump's likeness had withdrawn their products from the CopeCart platform.

Veles became synonymous with opportunism around the Trump movement ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with more than 100 political websites there spreading fake news or appeals on particularly divisive topics.

The sites generated millions of views per month on Facebook.

Updated

Security Beefed Up At Moscow Cemetery Where Navalny To Be Buried

Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's funeral service and burial is set to take place in Moscow on March 1 amid heightened security and other tactics that appeared aimed at discouraging people from attending.

Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said on X, formerly Twitter, that the ceremony was scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. local time on March 1 at the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God in the Moscow district of Maryino, where Navalny used to live.

"Despite all the opposition, farewell to Aleksei will definitely take place tomorrow,” she said on X on February 29. “Funeral service at 14:00, funeral at 16:00. If you are in Moscow, come.”

For those who can’t make it, Yarmysh said the funeral would be live-streamed on YouTube.

It was not clear how many people would attend and how the authorities would ensure crowd control.

Hundreds of Russians have been arrested just for laying flowers at memorials to Navalny across the country.

Ivan Pavlov, a prominent Russian civil rights lawyer who has left the country, said Russian authorities will see the funeral as "an undesirable mass event" and will try to keep participation low.

"I'm sure there will be police cordons and video surveillance from all sides," he said. "As a preventive measure, they'll summon known activists to police stations or visit them at their homes to give warnings. We've already seen it."

Fearing Crackdown, Rights Group Offers Tips On Avoiding Police At Navalny Funeral
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At large Orthodox ceremonies, mourners are typically given a chance to file past the open casket, and the service is presided over by a priest and accompanied by a choir.

He will be buried after the service at the Borisovskoye cemetery, which is about 2 kilometers away on the other side of the Moskva River.

Security has been beefed up at Borisovskoye cemetery in Moscow and a nearby subway station, while security cameras have been installed on each streetlight around the cemetery.

The entrance to the cemetery has also been tightly restricted, the RusNews and Mozhem Obyasnit Telegram channels reported.

Ivan Zhdanov, the former head of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, also said there was a rumor in the media that only relatives would be allowed to attend the funeral service.

"We do not have any such information. All we know is that the church will be open to everyone."

Navalny's team also put out an appeal to the Kremlin critic's supporters around the world to gather at 7 p.m. in their time zones.

"We understand that not everyone will have the opportunity to come to Moscow to say goodbye to Aleksei Navalny on March 1," his team said on Telegram. "To honor his memory, go to the memorial in your city at 7 p.m. local time."

The post includes a list of some cities and urges people to create a memorial if there isn't one in their city or town.

Navalny's body was released to his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, on February 24, more than a week after his death from "natural causes" at a prison in an Arctic region of Russia. He was 47. Officials have not commented further.

Before the body was released, Navalnaya said officials were setting conditions on where, when, and how her son should be buried. She said the authorities wanted the family to agree to buy him quietly and threatened to bury him on the prison grounds if she didn't agree.

Zhdanov also accused the Kremlin of thwarting their attempts to organize a bigger event on February 29.

Zhdanov said February 29 was initially chosen as the date for the funeral, but it became clear that officials were forcing a different date. Zhdanov said this was probably because it would have conflicted with Putin's state-of-the-nation address.

Putin delivered the address as scheduled on February 29 and did not mention Navalny in his speech.

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