U.S. Withdrawal In Iraq Welcomed, But Troop Numbers Unclear
Iraqis celebrate the return by U.S. forces of cities and towns to Iraqi control (Reuters video).
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. President Barack Obama has lauded the U.S. troop withdrawal from towns and cities in Iraq as an important milestone but warned of "difficult days" ahead.
Obama said U.S. forces in Iraq had met a June 30 deadline to complete their withdrawal from urban areas and hand over full control to Iraqi security forces.
All U.S. troops are due to withdraw from Iraq by 2012, nine years after invading to topple Saddam Hussein.
It was a day of celebration in Iraq as U.S. forces handed control of the cities to Iraqi authorities.
But the top U.S. commander was less than joyous when pressed on how many of his troops would remain.
Speaking via satellite from Baghdad, U.S. Army General Ray Odierno lost his cool at a briefing for Pentagon reporters when he was repeatedly questioned about the number of U.S. troops that would remain in the cities as advisers to Iraqi forces.
Asked why he could not give a figure, he became visibly irritated, raised his voice, and replied: "Because it would be inaccurate! Because I don't know exactly how many are in the cities. It varies day-to-day based on the mission."
Pressed to give a rough figure, he snapped: "How many times you want me to say that? I don't know."
Odierno, one of the most formidable figures in the U.S. military, apologized for his outburst at the end of the briefing.
"Sorry I lost my temper a little bit on the number," he said, to some laughter from reporters.
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U.S. Defense Secretary Accuses Russia Of 'Deliberate Cruelty' In Ukraine
The U.S. defense secretary has accused Russia of "deliberate cruelty" in its war in Ukraine, saying Moscow was intentionally targeting civilians. Lloyd Austin made the accusation on December 3 during a speech at the Ronald Reagan National Defense Forum in California. "With deliberate cruelty, Russia is putting civilians and civilian targets in its gunsights," Austin said. "Russian attacks have left children dead, schools shattered, and hospitals smashed." Still, Austin said, the Pentagon is also concerned about escalating the Ukraine conflict into a U.S. war with Moscow: "We will not be dragged into Putin's war." To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Popular Iranian Actress Mitra Hajjar Arrested
Popular Iranian film and television actress Mitra Hajjar has been arrested, the IRNA news agency reported on December 3. Mehdi Kohian, a member of a group that monitors artists' arrests, has confirmed Hajjar's detention. The reason for the arrest of Hajjar, who is also an environmental activist, was not immediately clear. Last month, Hajjar was one of the artists summoned by prosecutors and questioned about "provocative" content posted online amid a wave of popular protests caused by the death in September of a young woman in the custody of Iran's notorious morality police. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.
Russian Businessman Mikhail Fridman Reportedly Detained In London On Money-Laundering Suspicions
British police say a "wealthy Russian businessman" has been arrested at his multimillion-dollar London home on potential money-laundering suspicions, and later released on bail.
The National Crime Agency did not identify the man in its December 3 statement.
But Russian state news agency TASS identified the man as Mikhail Fridman, a Russian-Ukrainian billionaire and one of the principals behind the Alfa Group conglomerate.
In its statement, the crime agency said a 58-year-old man was among three men who was arrested by officers from the Combating Kleptocracy Cell on December 1 at a "multimillion-pound residence" in London.
It was unclear why the agency released its statement two days after the arrest.
The man was detained on suspicion of money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the Home Office, and conspiracy to commit perjury, the agency said.
The agency also said a 35-year-old man was arrested at the premises after he was seen leaving with a bag containing a large amount of cash.
A former boyfriend, 39, of the businessman's partner was also arrested at the property, police said.
All three were released on bail.
The press service for Alfa Group issued a statement on December 3 stating Fridman was not under arrest. But the statement did not address whether Fridman had been released on bail.
TASS, citing what it described as a source close to Fridman, said Fridman had been detained, but then released on bail.
The Russian Embassy in London, meanwhile, issued a statement on December 3 demanding more information about the detentions.
Fridman, 58, was the founder of Alfa Bank, and grew to be one of Russia's wealthiest businessmen. He's been put under sanctions by the European Union as part of broader punishment against Russia for its war against Ukraine.
The EU described him as as "a top Russian financier and enabler of [President Vladimir] Putin's inner circle."
In 2013, Fridman and one of his main Alfa partners, Pyotr Aven, reorganized their holdings following the $14 billion sale of their stake in the Russian oil company TNK-BP, and created a new London-based investment group called LetterOne.
Both Fridman and Aven stepped down from LetterOne after the EU imposed sanctions in March.
In a statement to RFE/RL, LetterOne said it had no comment on the reports of Fridman's arrest.
Iranian Reportedly Begins Construction On Nuclear Plant
Iran has begun construction on a new nuclear power plant in the country's southwest, Iranian state TV announced, amid tensions with the United States over sweeping sanctions imposed after Washington pulled out of the Islamic republic's nuclear deal with world powers. The new 300-megawatt plant, known as Karoon, will take eight years to build and cost around $2 billion, the country’s state television and radio agency reported on December 3. The plant will be located in the oil-rich Khuzestan Province, near its western border with Iraq, it said. To read the original story from AP, click here.
Iran's Security Council Says 200 People Died In Recent Protests
Two hundred people have lost their lives in Iran during nationwide protests that started in mid-September, an Iranian state security body said on December 3, a considerably smaller toll than that advanced by rights groups. "Two hundred people lost their lives in the recent riots," the Interior Ministry's Security Council said. An Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander recently put the number of dead at 300. The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.
Sofia Angry At Dutch Refusal To Let Bulgaria Into Schengen
The Bulgarian government has criticized the Netherlands' decision to block the southeastern EU member's accession into Europe's passport-free Schengen zone, calling it an act of "cynicism."
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's government on December 2 announced that it will agree with Romania and Croatia's joining the Schengen zone, but will block Bulgaria's admission.
It said its veto was prompted by Bulgaria's failure to achieve satisfactory results in the fight against corruption and organized crime.
The EU justice ministers will decide on accepting Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania in Schengen at a meeting on December 8 and 9.
The acceptance of new members in Schengen requires unanimity.
"Instead of European solidarity, Bulgaria receives cynicism," Bulgarian President Rumen Radev wrote on Facebook.
"Our efforts do not deserve neglect! Our efforts do not deserve insults," Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev said.
"The Netherlands has no right not to want us in Schengen. The way they did it is absolutely unacceptable, unfounded politically and legally," Justice Minister Krum Zarkov told Bulgarian TV .
Radev and Demerdzhiev have said that Bulgarian border authorities are making "extraordinary efforts to ensure the security" of European Union borders.
Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said on December 2 that it was "too early" to change the Netherlands' position regarding Bulgaria.
Hoekstra said the Netherlands can reconsider the issue only when it becomes clear that Bulgaria has an effective rule-of-law mechanism capable of dealing with corruption and organized crime.
Austria also expressed reservations about Bulgaria's Schengen membership. Chancellor Karl Nehammer said that his country supported the membership of Croatia, but was against the accession of Bulgaria and Romania.
The European Commission has said several times that Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia fulfill the criteria and are ready for membership in the Schengen area. The European Parliament called for the countries to be accepted into the zone without further delay.
The Schengen area allows people to move freely, without identity checks, across the internal borders of 26 member states, four of which are not part of the EU.
Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Ireland, and Cyprus are the only EU countries that are not part of the Schengen area, while non-EU countries Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein are members.
Price Cap On Russian Oil Should Be Lowered To $30 Per Barrel, Ukraine Says
Ukraine has welcomed a $60 price cap on Russian oil agreed by the European Union, the Group of Seven (G7) group of advanced economies, and Australia, but said it should be lowered to $30 per barrel to hit Russia's economy harder.
"We always achieve our goal and Russia's economy will be destroyed, and it will pay and be responsible for all its crimes," the head of the Ukrainian presidential office, Andriy Yermak, said on Telegram.
"But it would be necessary to lower [the cap] to $30 to destroy the enemy's economy quicker," Yermak added.
In reaction to the move, the Kremlin said on December 3 that it would "not accept" a price limit.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the media that the Kremlin was "analyzing" the move, adding, "We will not accept this price cap."
EU ambassadors reached the deal for the $60-per-barrel price cap on Russian seaborne oil on December 2 after breaking a deadlock over the price, with Poland saying it was not low enough.
The G7 and Australia later on December 2 joined the EU in adopting the $60 price cap.
The move is meant to help achieve the goal of restricting Russia's primary source of funding for the war in Ukraine while preventing a spike in global prices.
The cap will keep global markets well supplied while "institutionalizing" discounts created by the threat of such a limit, a senior U.S. Treasury official said on December 2.
Poland had refused to back the price-cap measure over concerns the ceiling was too high, before its ambassador to the EU confirmed Warsaw's agreement on December 2 in the evening.
Europe needed to set the cap by December 5, when an EU embargo on Russian oil shipped by sea and a ban on insurance for those supplies take effect.
The embargo will prevent shipments of Russian crude by tanker vessel to the EU, which account for two-thirds of imports, potentially depriving Russia's war chest of billions of dollars.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement that the price cap "will help us achieve our goal of restricting [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's primary source of revenue for his illegal war in Ukraine while simultaneously preserving the stability of global energy supplies."
The price cap "will immediately cut into Putin's most important source of revenue," Yellen said.
The announcement is the culmination of months of effort by a coalition of countries, and Yellen commended the "hard work of our partners in achieving this outcome."
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa
Ukraine Grain Exports Down 30 Percent So Far In 2022/23
Ukraine has exported almost 18.1 million tons of grain so far in the 2022/23 season, down 29.6 percent from the 25.8 million tons exported by the same stage of the previous season, Agriculture Ministry data showed on December 2. After an almost six-month blockade caused by the Russian invasion, three Ukrainian Black Sea ports were unblocked at the end of July under a deal between Moscow and Kyiv brokered by the United Nations and Turkey. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Putin Could Use Peace Talks To Restock His Army, U.K. Warns
Peace talks could be used by Russian President Vladimir Putin to restock his army in Ukraine before launching another attack, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in an interview with The Telegraph. Cleverly said Putin could pretend to engage in negotiations while training more troops and sending more ammunition, the newspaper said on December 2. There is a risk that a cease-fire would be used by Putin to "refit his damaged armed forces and to rearm his armed forces," The Telegraph quoted Cleverly as saying. To read the original story from The Telegraph, click here.
Russian Shelling Again Cuts Power In Kherson As Ukrainian Officials Warn Of Tough Months Ahead
Russian troops have resumed the shelling of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, cutting the electricity supply to the recently liberated city, as fierce fighting continues in the east and officials cautioned that Ukraine faces a tough winter because of the Russian missile attacks on its infrastructure.
"Russian invaders shelled Kherson -- damaged power grids. The city was left without electricity again," Governor Yaroslav Yanushevych said on Telegram, adding that technicians were already at work trying to repair the damage and restore power to the recently liberated city located on the right bank of the Dnieper River.
Kherson was returned to Ukrainian control on November 11, as the Russian military retreated to the left bank of the Dnieper. Russian artillery took new positions across the river and has been regularly pounding the city with artillery and rockets.
Three people were killed the previous day in the city by Russian shelling, Yanushevych said.
Millions of Ukrainians are struggling without electricity and heating at the onset of winter following waves of Russian strikes across the country, and Russian President Vladimir Putin said on December 2 that further attacks on Ukraine's infrastructure were "inevitable."
Ukrainian officials have responded with defiance, vowing to do everything to contain the damage.
Maksym Tymchenko, chief executive officer of DTEK, a major power company, said on December 2 that all six of DTEK's power stations had been attacked, some of them several times. The company has managed to bring them all back to the grid, he said.
Tymchenko voiced confidence that there was no chance "for the Russians to plunge Ukraine into darkness."
Yet, there was a power-generation deficit and issues with electricity transmission, Tymchenko told the Kyiv Security Forum.
He said that in Kyiv, the company was trying to introduce "rolling controlled blackouts: three-four hours of electricity supply, followed by four hours break. This situation will continue, we hope, until next week only, if there are no further attacks. But we are prepared for further attacks."
Additionally, he said, "We managed to accumulate enough coal stock for the country, not just for our company. We have enough gas storage to use gas for power generation. So we have enough capacity for the whole country."
"Transformers, substations, high-voltage transformers: these are what we've been in deficit of, and what we appeal to our international partners for. Some of the equipment is already on the way to Ukraine," he said.
Mayor Vitali Klitschko told the forum that last week Kyiv had faced an almost total blackout. "There was no heat and water supply. And about 4,000 employees of utility companies worked day and night to restore them."
Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told the forum that the months ahead would be difficult.
"The enemy still has significant resources, but there are more and more signs that he needs a pause at any cost," he said.
As fierce fighting continues in the east, where Kyiv's forces fought off waves of attacks in Luhansk and Donetsk regions, the military reported on December 3 that over the previous day it shot down an enemy helicopter and six drones.
The General Staff said in its regular update that Russian forces launched five missile strikes, 27 air strikes, and 44 rocket attacks at civilian infrastructure and Ukrainian Army positions along the contact line.
Meanwhile, Britain's Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence update that Russia is likely planning to encircle Bakhmut in the Donetsk region with tactical advances to the north and south.
Although the capture of Bakhmut would have limited operational value, it could allow Russia to threaten Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, the ministry said on December 3. "There is a realistic possibility that Bakhmut's capture has become primarily a symbolic, political objective for Russia," it said on Twitter.
The battlefield reports could not be independently verified.
With reporting by Reuters and CNN
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Urges Decision On Patriot Missile System
Ukraine’s foreign minister says the “time has come” for a decision on whether to provide his country with the Patriot missile defense system. “We began our conversation about Patriots in the very beginning of the war -- even actually before the war,” Dmytro Kuleba told CNN in an interview published on December 2. “But now, the time has come to make decisions.” Kuleba said that he had spoken with his American and German counterparts about the system, which he said “would be a huge help.” A decision has not yet been made at the Pentagon or at the NATO level.
G7 Joins EU In $60-Per-Barrel Price Cap For Russian Oil Delivered By Sea
The Group of Seven (G7) and Australia have joined the European Union in adopting a $60-per-barrel price cap on Russian oil, a move that the countries say will help achieve the goal of restricting Russia's primary source of funding for the war in Ukraine while preventing a spike in global prices.
EU ambassadors reached a deal for the $60-per-barrel price cap on Russian seaborne oil earlier on December 2 after breaking a deadlock over the price, with some countries saying it was not low enough.
The decision must still be approved by EU members but is expected to go through. Europe needed to set the cap by December 5, when an EU embargo on Russian oil shipped by sea and a ban on insurance for those supplies take effect.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement that the price cap, which was led by the G7, "will help us achieve our goal of restricting [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's primary source of revenue for his illegal war in Ukraine while simultaneously preserving the stability of global energy supplies."
The price cap "will immediately cut into Putin's most important source of revenue," Yellen said.
The announcement is the culmination of months of effort by a coalition of countries, and Yellen commended the "hard work of our partners in achieving this outcome."
The agreement comes after a last-minute flurry of negotiations that saw Poland holding up the agreement as it sought to set the cap as low as possible. Following more than 24 hours of deliberations, Warsaw finally relented late on December 2.
A joint G7 coalition statement said the group was "prepared to review and adjust the maximum price as appropriate," taking into account market developments and potential impacts on coalition members and low and middle-income countries.
The price cap will work by prohibiting shippers and insurance companies from handling cargoes of Russian crude unless it is sold at or below the price cap.
The world's key shipping and insurance firms are based in G7 countries, giving them leverage to set the price cap and make it difficult for Moscow to sell its oil for a higher price.
With reporting by AP
Snowden Receives Russian Passport, Takes Citizenship Oath
Former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who fled prosecution after revealing highly classified surveillance programs, has received a Russian passport and taken the citizenship oath, Russian news agencies quoted his lawyer as saying on December 2. Snowden’s lawyer said he got the passport and took the oath on December 1, about three months after Russian President Vladimir Putin granted him citizenship. Snowden leaked documents in 2013 on the National Security Agency’s collection of data passing through U.S. public communications networks and released details about the classified U.S. intelligence budget and the extent of American surveillance of foreign officials. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Bosnian Court Abolishes Republika Srpska's Law On Medicines
The Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina has abolished Republika Srpska’s law on medicines and medical devices, declaring it unconstitutional.
The law envisioned the formation of Republika Srpska’s own agency for medicines, which would usurp the state’s authority, the court ruled on December 2. According to the constitution, state level jurisdictions cannot be moved to the entities’ level, and the state law on medicines can be altered only by Bosnia’s parliament.
"There are no provisions in the constitution of [Bosnia] upon which it could be concluded that the disputed laws, passed by the National Assembly of Republika Srpska, are constitutional. According to the constitution…entities are obliged to respect the decisions made by the institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina,” the court’s decision said.
The Constitutional Court had temporarily abolished the law prior to its final decision. It also abolished several provisions in May regarding “the return of transferred jurisdictions” from Bosnia to Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated entity that makes up half of Bosnia alongside the Bosniak and Croat federation.
The Republika Srpska government had been expected to send more laws to the entity’s assembly aimed at taking over jurisdictions on taxation, criminal law and defense and security. However, the assembly decided to postpone these actions for six months.
The Constitutional Court on December 2 also declined the appeal of Zeljko Komsic, a member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, to adopt a temporary measure regarding the amendments to Bosnia’s election law imposed by the high representative for Bosnia, Christian Schmidt, on October 2 shortly after the polls closed on Bosnia’s general election.
Komsic’s appeal said Schmidt’s step to impose the decision after the voting concluded was a “direct assault on the integrity of the election process" because voters possibly would have voted differently had they known how the elections law was going to be changed.
“By the opinion of the Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the applicants have not clearly stated, outside the realm of the abstract, what sort of irretrievable damage could be done if the disputed decision were to remain in place, nor have they produced evidence on the validity of their claims,” the court stated.
UN Nuclear Chief Says Iran Ties Need To Get Back On Track
Iran appears to be at odds with the UN nuclear watchdog over information it should be providing regarding its atomic program, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said on December 2. "We don't seem to be seeing eye-to-eye with Iran over their obligations to the IAEA," Rafael Grossi told a conference in Rome, adding that he was concerned over a recent announcement by Tehran that it was boosting its enrichment capacity. "We need to put our relationship back on track," he said. Grossi said he was "still hopeful" Tehran would give an explanation for the unexpected discovery a few years back of traces of uranium at three undeclared sites. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
U.S. Designates China, Iran, Russia As Countries Of Concern Under Religious Freedom Act
The United States has designated China, Iran, and Russia among other nations as "countries of particular concern" under the Religious Freedom Act, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on December 2. “Our announcement of these designations is in keeping with our values and interests to protect national security and to advance human rights around the globe,” Blinken said in a statement. The Taliban and the Vagner Group were added to the blacklist as entities of particular concern. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Iranian Students Accuse Authorities Of Poisoning After Spate Of Incidents
Several Iranian student associations have accused authorities of deliberate "serial poisoning" after reports that a large number of students from at least four Iranian universities across the country fell ill.
In a report on December 1, the Union Councils of Iranian students reported that several schools experienced outbreaks of poisoning after eating at cafeterias, including Kharazmi University in Karaj, near the Iranian capital, where the number of those poisoned was so high that the university's clinic could not handle all of the patients.
Similarly, the Telegram channel of the United Students group also reported that several students at Allameh University in Tehran were poisoned after consuming food in the university canteen.
Students across the country have been at the forefront of protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly. The authorities have cracked down violently on the university protests, beating and detaining dozens of students.
The channel, which covers university news, alleged the poisonings were "intentional" and an attempt by officials to intimidate the students.
"You cannot stop the student movement with these things," it said. It did not provide any evidence to back up its claim.
Universities and students have long been at the center of the struggle for greater social and political freedoms in Iran.
In 1999, students protested the closure of a reformist daily, prompting a brutal raid on the dormitories of Tehran University that left one student dead.
Over the years, the authorities have arrested student activists and leaders, sentencing them to prison and banning them from studying.
Anger over Amini's death has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide to demand more freedoms and women's rights. The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
Some university professors and lecturers have expressed solidarity with the protesters.
The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters have been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Dozhd TV Channel Fined, Warned Of Possible Loss Of License In Latvia
The Latvia-based independent Russian television channel Dozhd (Rain) has been fined 10,000 euros ($10,468) for using a map of Russia with Ukraine's Moscow-annexed Crimea on it and calling Russian armed forces invading Ukraine "our army."
The chairman of Latvia's National Council on Electronic Media (NEPLP), Ivars Abolins, tweeted on December 2 that it was Dozhd's second violation of regulations in recent months, adding that a third violation of that kind would lead to the suspension of the television channel's license.
Abolins also wrote on Twitter that a probe had been launched into an administrative violation by Dozhd in a report about Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine, in which an anchor, who was later fired, appeared to express support for the Russian military.
Anchor Aleksei Korostelyov on December 1 called on the Dozhd audience to write about cases of violations of Russian laws during the recent mobilization in Russia and about war crimes. In making the request, he said:
"We hope we also helped many military personnel, namely by assisting with equipment and bare necessities on the front line."
The chief of Dozhd's information service, Yekaterina Kotrikadze, offered apologies on December 2 and said that Korostelyov was fired for his on-air statements.
Editor in Chief Tikhon Dzyadko said his television channel "has never been, is not, and will never be involved in assisting Russian armed forces with equipment."
NEPLP granted Dozhd a broadcast license in June after it was forced to suspend operations in Russia in March amid pressure linked to its coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Dozhd's website was blocked in Russia on March 1 under a demand by the Prosecutor-General's Office.
Russia further tightened its grip on media freedom after launching its full-scale attack against Ukraine on February 24.
Iranian Climbing Champion Rekabi Says Police Demolished Her Family's Home
The family of Elnaz Rekabi, the Iranian rock-climbing champion who sparked a controversy by competing in the Asian climbing championships in Seoul without a head scarf, announced that police officers have violently demolished their family villa.
Rekabi's supporters had expressed concerns about her safety after her return last month amid unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a hijab improperly.
The BBC quoted an informed source as saying that the authorities of the Islamic republic have also fined the Rekabi family 168,000,000,000 Rials ($4,700).
Officials have not yet provided an explanation for knocking down the dwelling.
Rekabi’s participation without the head scarf in Seoul was seen by some observers as a move to show solidarity with ongoing anti-government protests.
However, in a post that appeared on her Instagram page on October 18, she apologized and explained that "due to poor scheduling and an unexpected call for me to climb.... I inadvertently had a problem with my cover."
It could not be verified whether Rekabi made the post independent of pressure from Iranian officials, and some government critics said the apology appeared in line with previous similar confessions by offenders who were pressured by authorities to recant. There were also unconfirmed reports that Rekabi's brother had been detained by police.
The 33-year-old said in an Instagram post that she competed without the hijab, which is mandatory for Iranian women to wear in public, "due to poor scheduling and an unexpected call for me to climb."
She added that she returned to Iran with the team "according to a pre-arranged schedule."
The controversy comes after months of unrest across Iran -- one of the deepest challenges to the Islamic regime since the revolution in 1979 -- sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was taken into police custody for allegedly breaking hijab rules.
Since the start of the protests, several Iranian sports champions and prominent public figures, including soccer star Ali Daei, have been summoned or arrested by the authorities and had their passports confiscated after showing support for anti-government protests.
The hijab -- the head covering worn by Muslim women -- became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over the age of nine after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Brother Of Russia-Imprisoned American Says Contact Resumed
The family of Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia for espionage, said on December 2 that he has resumed contact after unexpectedly becoming unreachable in November. Whelan's brother, David, said that Paul had called his parents early U.S. time on December 2, the first time any family member had spoken with him since November 23. The family had been told he was moved to a prison hospital, but the reason for that was unclear because he had not spoken of health problems. In the call, he did not explain why he was at the hospital, David Whelan said. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Zelenskiy Says More Measures Coming After Decree Banning Religious Organizations With Links To Russia
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said measures to guarantee Ukraine's "spiritual independence" will continue after Ukraine on December 2 banned the activities of religious organizations “affiliated with centers of influence” in Russia.
"These days we have taken some steps to guarantee the spiritual independence of our people. I see that people support these steps,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video message, pledging to implement more steps.
Zelenskiy earlier on December 2 signed a decree enacting a decision to impose personal sanctions against representatives of religious organizations associated with Russia, which invaded Ukraine more than nine months ago.
The decree additionally provided for examining links between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, one of two Orthodox bodies in Ukraine following a schism that in 2019 resulted in the establishment of one with independence from the Russian church.
The Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council on December 1 told the government to draft the law following a series of raids on parishes that Kyiv said could be taking orders from Moscow. The government has two months to submit to the Verkhovna Rada a corresponding draft law on making it impossible for such religious organizations to operate in Ukraine.
In an addendum to the decree, sanctions were introduced against the vicar of Kyiv's Pechersk Lavra, other Russian Orthodox Church leaders, and former lawmaker Vadym Novinsky.
The sanctions packages contain 12 types of restrictions, including a complete block of assets and a ban on trade operations.
The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) has conducted searches recently at the facilities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in which law enforcement officers discovered "a large number of anti-Ukrainian materials” and documents confirming the presence of Russian citizenship in the leadership of diocesan structures.
The SBU continued its raids on December 2, saying it searched at least five parishes belonging to a branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church urged the government "not to ignite an internal war" and called the accusations of collaborative activities "unproven and groundless."
Journalist In Tatarstan Jailed, Fined For Reposting Online Call For Anti-War Rally
A journalist in Russia's Tatarstan, Nailla Mullayeva, has been sentenced to six days in jail and fined $490 on a charge of discrediting the Russian armed forces and violating the law on public gatherings. Mullayeva's lawyer said the charge stemmed from his client's reposting of an online call for an unsanctioned rally against the war in Ukraine in September. Police searched Mullayeva’s home twice before her arrest this week. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.
Russian Police Investigate Private Animal Shelter After Dozens Of Mutilated Dogs Found Dead
Police in Russia's southwestern Astrakhan region have started an investigation into an animal shelter after activists found dozens of mutilated dead dogs in the facility and nearby. The shelter, owned by the wife of a former Astrakhan city lawmaker, Andrei Nevlyudov, has received significant amounts of money from the city to catch stray dogs, provide them with medical assistance, and find homes for them. Activists said on December 1 that some 60 dogs that were found dead and mutilated are registered as alive in the shelter's documents. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Moscow Court Issues Arrest Warrants For Two Former Coordinators Of Navalny Groups In Siberia
A court in Moscow has issued arrest warrants for two former coordinators of groups in Siberia associated with jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny. The Basmanny district court's ruling on December 2 resulted in warrants being issued for Stanislav Kalinichenko from Kemerovo and Sergei Bespalov from Irkutsk. Both are accused of organizing the activities of an extremist group. Both activists, who are currently outside of Russia, were earlier designated as extremists and added to the Interior Ministry’s wanted list. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Belarusian Journalist, Wife, Colleague Handed Prison Terms Over Reporting On Border Crisis
MINSK -- A court in Minsk has sentenced journalist Dzmitry Luksha; his wife, Palina Palavinka; and cameraman Dzyanis Yarouski for their reporting on a migrants' crisis along the Belarusian-Polish border last year.
The Minsk City Court on December 2 sentenced Luksha, a freelance correspondent for Kazakhstan's Khabar 24 television channel, and Palavinka to four and 2 1/2 years in prison, respectively, after finding them guilty of discrediting Belarus and "actively participating in group activities that blatantly disrupt social order."
Yarouski was sentenced to 18 months in prison on the same charges.
A fourth defendant in the case, Kanstantsin Nikanorau, was handed a parole-like sentence on a charge of discrediting Belarus.
The charges against the four stemmed from Luksha's video reports from the Belarusian-Polish border for Khabar 24.
The reports covered the situation along the border, where thousands of migrants mostly from the Middle East tried to illegally enter EU-member Poland from Belarusian territory.
European nations have condemned the authoritarian ruler of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, for masterminding the crisis in response to Western sanctions imposed on him over an ongoing crackdown on dissent and independent media that followed his disputed win in a 2020 presidential election.
Separately on December 2, the Minsk City Court started the trial of another journalist, Henadz Mazheyka, who is accused of insulting Lukashenka and inciting hatred over his report about a police shootout at a Minsk apartment last year that left an IT worker and a KGB officer dead.
Little is known about the September 2021 shooting that resulted in the deaths of Andrey Zeltsar, who worked for U.S.-based IT company EPAM, and KGB officer Dzmitry Fedasyuk.
Multiple individuals have received prison terms in recent months on charges related to comments about the incident.
Mazheyka pleaded not guilty.
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