- By Gresa Kraja
Albania, North Macedonia, Serbia Deepen Ties At 'Open Balkan' Summit
TIRANA -- Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have signed a raft of deals and agreed to further their Open Balkan initiative to promote ties as the three countries’ leaders held two days of talks in Tirana.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama hosted the December 20-21 summit in the Albanian capital with his counterpart from North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
The sides inked six agreements on the labor market, electronic identification, and the lifting of nontariff barriers for businesses, among other things.
They had previously decided to abolish customs controls from January 1, 2023.
Rama said the Open Balkan initiative's goal is to establish a single market among its members and pave the way for EU membership.
"Our goal is that the Balkans have no more borders for people, for the movement of goods, capital, and services -- four European Union principles," Albania's prime minister said.
The Open Balkan initiative, launched in October 2019, "is one of the biggest ideas in today's Europe," according to Vucic.
"The most important goal is to unite people who have been focusing more on the past rather than the future. It is important to connect people and their businesses," the Serbian leader said.
According to Zaev, "Open Balkan is our way forward on the road to the European Union."
The three Western Balkan countries are at different stages on the path to EU membership.
While Serbia has launched full membership negotiations, accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania have been delayed.
"We agreed that our three countries would not be held hostage to the failure of the European Union to unblock our European integration process," Zaev said. "That process can be stopped in Brussels, but the Europeanization and implementation of European values in Northern Macedonia, Serbia, and Albania have no reason to be on hold."
Officials of the three other Western Balkan countries seeking to join the EU -- Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Montenegro -- have expressed skepticism toward the Open Balkan initiative and rejected calls to join.
Vucic's arrival in Tirana on December 20 triggered a protest by thousands of Albanians opposed to his visit and the summit.
The rally was called by former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who said the Open Balkan initiative was meant to "establish Serbian hegemony in the region."
The next Open Balkan summit is scheduled for February in North Macedonia's capital, Skopje.
U.S. Mideast Envoy Hopeful Saudi-Iran Detente Will Help Region
The Biden administration is hopeful that warming ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia will help de-escalate conflicts and crises across the Middle East, a senior U.S. diplomat said on March 30. The detente between the two regional heavyweights could help bring Yemen's civil war to an end, Barbara Leaf said. Earlier this month, Riyadh and Tehran agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations -- a move that stirred cautious optimism across the region. "The first order is to see whether Iran will live up to its commitments in terms of Yemen," Leaf said.
U.S. Blacklists Slovak For Allegedly Facilitating Arms Deals Between North Korea, Russia
The United States has imposed sanctions on a Slovakian man who allegedly worked as a broker for Russia in its efforts to purchase arms and munitions from North Korea to support its war on Ukraine.
Ashot Mkrtychev, 56, of Bratislava was involved in arranging sales and barter deals for North Korea to ship weapons and munitions to Russia between late 2022 and early 2023, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a news release.
In exchange, Pyongyang would obtain cash, commercial aircraft, commodities, and raw materials, according to the Treasury Department.
Mkrtychev worked with officials from both sides to makes the deals happen, according to the Treasury.
"Mkrtychev's negotiations with DPRK and Russian officials detailed mutually beneficial cooperation between North Korea and Russia to include financial payments and barter arrangements," the department said, referring to North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). "He confirmed Russia's readiness to receive military equipment from the DPRK with senior Russian officials."
Although the department did not say if any deals were completed or describe the specific weapons involved, it said its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions against Mkrtychev.
The United States said last year amid an increase in air strikes on Ukraine that Russia has purchased artillery shells and rockets from North Korea.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said then that North Korea was shipping the ammunition to Russia but making it look like it was sending the arms to the Middle East or North Africa.
Kirby also said North Korea completed an arms delivery to the Wagner mercenary group, which is fighting on the front lines in Ukraine.
Pyongyang has denied the U.S. claims.
Kirby said on March 30 that Russia continues to seek arms from the communist country.
"We have new information that Russia is actively seeking to acquire additional munitions from North Korea," Kirby said after the Treasury announced the sanctions against Mkrtychev.
The OFAC blacklist freezes any assets Mkrtychev holds within the jurisdiction of the United States and bans Americans and U.S. businesses, including banks, of having any dealings with him.
The move comes as Washington steps up sanctions targeting Russia's attempts to obtain military equipment to replenish stocks that have been depleted by the war in Ukraine.
"Russia has lost over 9,000 pieces of heavy military equipment since the start of the war, and thanks in part to multilateral sanctions and export controls, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has become increasingly desperate to replace them," U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in the statement.
Schemes like the alleged arms deal pursued by Mkrtychev "show that Putin is turning to suppliers of last resort like Iran and [North Korea]," she added.
"We remain committed to degrading Russia's military-industrial capabilities, as well as exposing and countering Russian attempts to evade sanctions and obtain military equipment from the DPRK or any other state that is prepared to support its war in Ukraine," Yellen said.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Russian Soldier Jailed In Crimea For Desertion
A court in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea has sentenced a military serviceman to nine years in prison for desertion. The Crimea Garrison Military Court said on March 30 the defendant, whose identity was not disclosed, pleaded guilty and said he desert his unit in Crimea in September because he was unwilling to take part in the war against Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.
Russian, 63, Jailed For Seven Years For Anti-War Posts
A court in Moscow has sentenced a 63-year-old man to seven years in prison for two online posts last year condemning Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The Timiryazev district court sentenced Mikhail Simonov on March 30 after finding him guilty of "discrediting the Russian armed forces," a charge Russian authorities have been using against any criticism of the war in Ukraine since it was launched by Moscow in February 2022. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
UN Court Rejects Iranian Bid To Unfreeze Funds But Faults U.S. For Seizing Other Assets
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has rejected Iran's bid to unblock nearly $2 billion in assets belonging to its central bank that were frozen by the United States over alleged terrorist attacks.
The Hague-based court said on March 30 it did not have jurisdiction over $1.75 billion in bonds, plus accumulated interest, that are held in a Citibank account in New York.
But the court simultaneously found that the United States had "violated" the rights of some Iranians and companies whose assets were also frozen. The ruling ordered the United States to pay compensation, but said the amount should be determined through negotiation.
The ruling comes amid strained relations between the United States and Iran over the use of Iranian drones by Russia against Ukraine, attempts to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers, and a deadly strike last week involving Iran-backed militias in Syria and U.S. personnel.
The case before the ICJ, also known as the World Court, was initially brought by Tehran in 2016 claiming a breach of the 1955 Treaty of Amity, which promised friendship and cooperation between the two countries.
The treaty was signed long before Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, which toppled the U.S.-backed shah, and the subsequent severing of U.S.-Iranian relations. Washington withdrew from the treaty in 2018.
The ICJ ruled that the treaty was in place at the time of the freezing of the assets of Iranian commercial companies and entities, and therefore Washington violated it.
The United States argued the asset seizures were the result of Tehran's alleged sponsorship of terrorism and said the whole case should be dismissed because Iran had "unclean hands."
The court dismissed this defense and ruled the treaty was valid. It said if the countries fail in the negotiation of compensation, they will have to return to the ICJ for a ruling.
In another decision on the assets held at Citibank, the court ruled it had no jurisdiction over the $1.75 billion in assets from Iran's central bank because that bank was not a commercial enterprise, and thus not protected by the treaty.
The United States has said the money is to be used to pay compensation to victims of a 1983 bombing in Lebanon and other attacks linked to Iran, which denies supporting international terrorism.
The rulings of the ICJ, the United Nations' top court, are binding, but it has no means of enforcing its rulings.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
Clerics In Historic Kyiv Monastery Defy Eviction Notice, Deny Officials, Journalists Entry
KYIV -- Clerics of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) who have been ordered to leave the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in the Ukrainian capital on March 30 defied the eviction order and refused to allow officials from the Culture Ministry and journalists into the historic Orthodox Christian monastery.
Scuffles between members of the UOC and journalists broke out outside the 11th-century monastery and UNESCO World Heritage site when clerics pushed reporters away from Metropolitan Pavlo, the monastery's abbot.
The UOC clerics refused to communicate with the journalists, who were at the monastery to cover the standoff, which developed after the agency overseeing the property notified the UOC earlier this month that it was terminating the lease as of March 29.
An RFE/RL correspondent's camera was struck and journalists of the Suspilne (Public) television channel were jostled as the clerics attempted to keep the journalists away from Pavlo.
Pavlo, meanwhile, threatened to hit journalists with a stick, urging them "instead of gabbing away" for "seas of money" to do "real" work, like "milking cows, gardening, etc."
The National Union of Journalists of Ukraine said on March 30 that journalists' rights were violated as UOC followers did not allow them to use their cameras, covering their lenses with different objects, insulting reporters, and pushing them away from the entrance to the monastery, which is owned by the Ukrainian government.
The UOC is a branch of Ukraine's Orthodox Church that was previously under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox patriarch in Moscow. It cut ties with Moscow in May 2022 over Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but it has been accused of maintaining links to Russia.
Metropolitan Pavlo and other UOC officials also did not allow a commission of the Culture and Information Policy Ministry to enter the monastery, where it was scheduled to inspect buildings as the handover of the property was planned to start on March 30.
A day earlier, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said no force would be used to evict the monks from the monastery.
Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko condemned the "brutal" treatment of the commission members. The government filed a complaint with the police, Tkachenko said in a statement, adding that efforts to inspect the buildings would continue on March 31.
In November, Ukrainian security agents conducted a "counterintelligence" operation at the monastery and other UOC facilities as part of a probe into suspected pro-Russian activity.
The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) is the country's main Orthodox Church. A 2020 survey found that 34 percent of Ukrainians identified as members of the OCU, while 14 percent said they were members of the UOC.
With reporting by Reuters
Siberian Actor Slits Wrist On Stage To Protest Anti-War Director's Firing
ULAN-UDE, Russia -- An actor in a theater in the Siberian region of Buryatia has slashed his veins while on stage to protest the firing of the company's artistic director last year over his stance against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Artur Shuvalov of the Russian Drama Theater in Buryatia's capital, Ulan-Ude, slashed his wrist with a knife at the end of a play on March 29 in front of a live audience, saying that he and his colleagues had been under pressure for their attempts to get the theater's artistic director, Sergei Levitsky, back after he openly condemned the war in Ukraine.
Shuvalov said that hours earlier his wife, Svetlana Polyanskaya, who is an actress in the same theater, filed her resignation after coming under constant pressure from management for urging Levitsky's reinstatement.
Shuvalov is currently hospitalized with wounds to his arms. Buryatia Culture Minister Soelma Dagayeva said Shuvalov's life was not in danger.
Since Levitsky was fired last year, the theater's actors have demanded local authorities reinstate him and have held different types of protest, including removing the symbols of Russia's aggression against Ukraine from the theater's facade and raising awareness of the situation in local media.
The actors also complained that the new art director, Vyacheslav Dyachenko, had called them prostitutes by calling them "representatives of the oldest profession in the world," and demanding they perform "simple plays that are comprehensible to ordinary people."
"I do not want to hear that actors are similar to representatives of the oldest profession. I think our audience deserves smart performances, not those demanded by our artistic director. I am sorry. I am tired. I do not have any other choice," Shuvalov said before slashing his wrist, adding that Dyachenko and the theater's executive director, Natalya Svetozarova, would be responsible for his death.
Buryatia government officials said they were investigating the incident, including "events that preceded the incident."
Dagayeva added that Shuvalov's wife resigned of her own free will.
Tajik Opposition Politician's Son Extradited From Germany Sentenced To Seven Years In Prison
A son of Tajik opposition politician Shamsiddin Saidov, who was recently extradited to Tajikistan from Germany, has been sentenced to seven years in prison in Dushanbe after a trial Human Rights Watch (HRW) called unfair.
According to HRW, a court in the Tajik capital sentenced Abdullo Shamsiddin on March 29 after finding him guilty of "public calls to violent change of the constitutional order of Tajikistan."
"The trial started on March 28 and did not adhere to fair trial standards, including the right of defendants to challenge the evidence used against them, based on information available. Authorities should publicly present the evidence used to justify his conviction and in the meantime he should be immediately released from detention," the HRW's statement said.
Tajik authorities have yet to officially confirm the sentencing but Shamsiddin's father, Shamsiddin Saidov, who is currently residing in the European Union, confirmed to RFE/RL that his son was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Saidov is a member of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). In January 2018, he was sentenced in absentia in Tajikistan to 15 years in prison on extremism charges.
Saidov said earlier that his 32-year-old son, who had lived in Germany since 2009, was deported from Germany due to his failure to reregister with the country's migration authorities on time.
The IRPT said at the time the decision to deport Shamsiddin might have been because he provided incorrect data to the immigration service.
The IRPT, long an influential party with representatives in the government and parliament, was labeled a terrorist group and banned in 2015.
Dozens of IRPT officials and supporters have been prosecuted and many of them imprisoned, drawing criticism from human rights groups.
Tajik authorities have been criticized for cracking down on dissent for years.
- By Current Time
Captured Russian Soldier Given 12-Year Prison Sentence
A court in Ukraine has sentenced a Russian soldier to 12 years in prison on a charge of violating of the laws of war, the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office said on March 30. The soldier, whose identity was not disclosed, was found guilty of intimidating and victimizing Ukrainian civilians near Kyiv as they fled the area in early March 2022, days after Russia launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this month, Ukraine handed a similar sentence to Russian Air Force officer Aleksei Loboda for bombing civilian targets in Ukraine's eastern region of Kharkiv in March 2022. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Smaiylov Reappointed Kazakh PM
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev reappointed Alikhan Smaiylov to the prime minister's post on March 30 after the newly elected parliament approved his candidacy. A day earlier, Smaiylov's government officially resigned as the parliament that was elected in snap polls on March 19 held its first session. The 50-year-old Smaiylov was promoted to the prime minister's post from the deputy prime minister position in January 2022 after the standing of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev dramatically weakened following unprecedented nationwide anti-government protests that turned to mass unrest, leaving at least 238 people dead. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
- By AFP
Russia's Ukraine Invasion 'Threatens' European Security, Says Britain's King Charles
Europe's security has come under threat amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Britain's King Charles told German MPs on March 30, adding however that "we can draw courage from our unity." "The scourge of war is back in Europe. The war of aggression against Ukraine has brought unimaginable suffering on so many innocent people," he said. "The security of Europe as well as our democratic values are under threat. But the world did not stand idly by.... We can draw courage from our unity."
Russian Actress, Kremlin Critic Akhedzhakova Leaves Moscow Theater Amid Pressure
Popular Russian actress Liya Akhedzhakova, known for her open criticism of Kremlin policies including its ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has left the prominent Moscow theater Sovremennik (Contemporary) amid pressure from authorities and pro-government activists.
Akhedzhakova told the Novaya gazeta newspaper on March 30 that she submitted her resignation letter 20 days earlier and she now plans to switch to touring activities. The theater has not commented on the issue.
She said she does not plan to leave Russia despite the pressure campaign imposed on her over her stance against Russia's war against Ukraine.
On February 8, the administration of Sovremennik, where Akhedzhakova had performed since 1977, canceled a performance of Playing Genie with Akhedzhakova's participation. The theater explained the move by saying Akhedzhakova was "unwell," a claim Akhedzhakova rejected, telling Novaya gazeta that she wanted to perform.
Akhedzhakova also said the theater's director had complained to her that he was "literally overwhelmed by angry letters condemning her" for her stance against the war in Ukraine.
In December, a theater in St. Petersburg canceled another play Akhedzhakova was scheduled to perform in following her public calls to stop the war in Ukraine.
Ukraine-born Akhedzhakova has been targeted before for her activism.
In 2021, Sovremennik canceled a play in which she had a leading role after the Kremlin-backed Officers of Russia nongovernmental organization accused her of propagating same-sex relations and insulting World War II veterans.
The Sovremennik theater was founded in the late 1950s by a group of young Soviet actors during the Khrushchev Thaw. Dozens of actors who were extremely popular in the former Soviet Union started their careers at the Sovremennik.
With reporting by Novaya gazeta
EU Says China's Role In Ukraine Conflict Is Vital To EU Relations
China must play a part in pressing for a "just peace" in Ukraine and its role in the conflict will be vital in shaping relations with the European Union, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. "Any peace plan which would in effect consolidate Russian annexations is simply not a viable plan. We have to be frank on this point," von der Leyen said in a speech in Brussels on the eve of a trip to Beijing. "How China continues to interact with Putin's war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Four Bankers Who Helped Putin's Friend Set Up Swiss Bank Account Convicted
Four bankers who helped a close friend of Vladimir Putin move millions of francs through Swiss bank accounts have been convicted of lacking diligence in financial transactions. The four were found guilty of helping Sergei Roldugin, a concert cellist who has been dubbed "Putin's wallet" by the Swiss government. The executives -- three Russians and one Swiss -- helped Roldugin, who is godfather to Putin's eldest daughter, Maria, deposit millions of francs in Swiss bank accounts between 2014 and 2016. The men, who cannot be identified under Swiss reporting restrictions, were given suspended sentences of seven months each. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Russia Formally Arrests Wall Street Journal Reporter; Newspaper Denies Allegation Of Spying
A Moscow court has granted a request from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) to arrest Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) who was detained in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg and accused of espionage, a charge the U.S.-based newspaper said it "vehemently" denies.
Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen based in Moscow as a correspondent for the WSJ, had been in Yekaterinburg for several weeks reporting about the attitude of Russians toward the Kremlin's war against Ukraine and on the Wagner mercenary group.
During a closed-door session on March 30, the Lefortovo district court in Moscow agreed to an FSB request to hold Gershkovich under arrest for two months.
"The court ruling on Gershkovich: the court has ordered [his] arrest until May 29, 2023," the court's press service said.
Mediazona reported from the courthouse that Gershkovich's lawyer, Daniil Berman, was not allowed to be present at the hearing as another lawyer had been appointed to the case to represent his client.
Berman and journalists were blocked by security forces from the fifth floor of the court's building where the hearing took place.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was "deeply concerned" about the detention of Gershkovich, condemning Moscow's actions toward the media, while White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre condemned the detention of the reporters and said the targeting of U.S. citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable.
Jean-Pierre also said U.S. officials had been in touch with The Wall Street Journal and members of Gershkovich's family, adding that the State Department had been in direct touch with the Russian government, including actively working to secure consular access.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Washington will be granted consular access to Gershkovich in due course.
Jean-Pierre reiterated the State Department's advisory that Americans should not travel to Russia and those residing or currently traveling in the country should depart immediately.
Citing law enforcement sources, the TASS news agency reported that the materials of the case against Gershkovich had been classified as "top secret" and that he had entered a not-guilty plea.
Mediazona and the newspaper Izvestia posted videos taken after the court hearing that showed a person who appeared to be Gershkovich -- wearing a hood over his head and with his hands cuffed behind his back -- being escorted out of the court.
The person can then be seen being loaded into a black van in a courtyard at the court building before being driven away.
The FSB alleged that, on instructions from the United States, Gershkovich "was collecting information about one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex, which constitutes a state secret." The charge carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
"The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich," the WSJ said in an e-mailed statement.
Gershkovich's detention appears to be the first time a U.S. correspondent has been put behind bars since the end of the Cold War and highlights the growing tensions between Moscow and Washington amid the Kremlin's war in Ukraine, launched in February 2022.
The Meduza website quoted one of Gershkovich's colleagues as saying the reporter recently traveled to the city of Nizhny Tagil, 140 kilometers north of Yekaterinburg, where Russia's major tank-producing facility, Uralvagonzavod, and several other factories producing military equipment are located.
Local media outlets in Yekaterinburg and the surrounding Sverdlovsk region reported that several men in civil clothes detained an individual near the Bukowski Grill restaurant in Yekaterinburg late on March 29, pulling his sweater over his head and taking him away in a car. The reports suggested it was Gershkovich, a veteran reporter who has worked in Russia for almost six years.
An unofficial Telegram channel of the Sverdlovsk region's governor later confirmed Gershkovich was the person detained in Yekaterinburg, adding that "the situation is very serious."
Gershkovich was officially accredited as a journalist by the Russian Foreign Ministry, and earlier this week was the author of a story focused on the economic slowdown in Russia sparked by Western sanctions imposed in response to the Ukraine invasion.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Telegram that "what the employee of The Wall Street Journal was doing in Yekaterinburg was not journalism" while the Kremlin said Gershkovich was caught "red-handed." Neither, however, gave any evidence to back up their claims.
Gershkovich, whose family emigrated from Russia to the United States when he was a child, previously worked for Agence France-Presse, The Moscow Times, and The New York Times. His last article was published by The Wall Street Journal on March 28.
"The Wall Street Journal is deeply concerned for the safety of Mr. Gershkovich," the WSJ said.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) immediately condemned Gershkovich's detention, calling it "retaliation" for reporting the facts from Russia.
"[Gershkovich] was investigating the Wagner military group. RSF is alarmed by what seems to be a 'retaliatory' measure: journalists must not be targeted!" the rights group's statement said.
Some analysts speculated the move may follow a similar pattern to the last American reporter to be arrested in Russia on espionage charges.
In 1986, Nicholas Daniloff was a correspondent for the U.S. News and World Report when he was detained by the KGB. He was held -- without formal charges being laid -- for 20 days until he was swapped for an employee working at the Soviet Union's United Nations mission in the United States who had been arrested by the FBI.
The two countries held a prisoner swap in December 2022 involving American basketball star Brittney Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
With reporting by Meduza, TASS, and Mediazona
Father Of Russian Sixth-Grader Who Drew Anti-War Picture Detained In Minsk
A Russian man sentenced to two years in prison after his daughter's anti-war drawing brought attention to his social media posts against the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been detained in Belarus after escaping house arrest in Russia just before sentencing.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry said on March 30 that Aleksei Moskalyov was detained in Minsk at Moscow's request.
His lawyer, Dmitry Zakhvatov, said earlier on March 30 that his client was most likely located and arrested after he switched on his mobile phone in Minsk. Zakhvatov added that Moskalyov's phone currently was not responding.
Moskalyov was sentenced to two years in prison in absentia on March 28 by a court in the town of Yefremov after it convicted him of "discrediting Russia's armed forces," a charge Russian authorities have been using against any criticism of the war in Ukraine.
Moskalyov came to the attention of police after his 12-year-old daughter Maria drew a picture at school last year depicting a woman standing next to a Ukrainian national flag and protecting a child from missiles coming from Russia.
The school's principal reported Maria Moskalyova to the police over her picture, after which law enforcement searched Moskalyov's apartment.
Police then found Moskalyov's online posts condemning the war in Ukraine, which featured a caricature of President Vladmir Putin.
Moskalyov was initially charged with "discrediting Russia's armed forces" and ordered to pay a 32,000-ruble ($415) fine after a court found him guilty. In December, a criminal case was launched against him on the same charge. He was placed under house arrest and his daughter was sent to a shelter, where her phone was confiscated and she was not allowed to communicate with her father.
On March 12, authorities in Yefremov asked a court to deprive Moskalyov of custody over his daughter. The same motion was made against Moskalyov's estranged wife.
Putin signed a law shortly after launching Russia's invasion last February that criminalizes the expression of any thoughts or reports contradicting official statements regarding the full-scale aggression against Ukraine.
Moskalyov is one of dozens of Russian citizens, including politicians, journalists, and rights activists, who have been handed prison terms for voicing dissent since the law was approved.
With reporting by SOTA and Dozhd TV
Pakistani Taliban Kills Four Police Officers In Bomb Attack
Four Pakistani policemen, including a senior officer, were killed and several were wounded in a roadside bomb attack as they were rushing to rescue colleagues besieged by militants in a police station in northwestern Pakistan late on March 29, authorities said.
Gunmen attacked a police station in the district of Lakki Marwat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, close to the North Waziristan tribal region, and an intense firefight ensued, district police spokesman Shahid Khan told RFE/RL.
A police team led by deputy superintendent Iqbal Mohmand rushed to the aid of their colleagues but their armored personnel carrier was blown up by a remote-controlled bomb planted by the side of the road some 3 kilometers before reaching their destination.
Four police officers, including Mohmand, were killed and six were wounded in the explosion, Khan said.
The banned Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for both the roadside bomb blast and the attack on the police station.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif condemned the attack.
"Our police officers have made unforgettable sacrifices in the war against terrorism," Sharif said in a statement.
Momand was also a well-known poet who wrote in Pashto.
The TTP in November ended a monthslong cease-fire with the government following more than a year of inconclusive peace talks.
The TTP claimed that promises made during the negotiations had not been fulfilled and announced the resumption of attacks.
The announcement was followed by a wave of deadly attacks targeting Pakistani security forces.
North Waziristan was once the stronghold of the TTP. However, the Pakistani military conducted a massive operation in mid-2014 to expel the militants.
The TTP commanders have reportedly taken refuge across the border in Afghanistan, triggering protests by authorities in Islamabad against Kabul's Taliban rulers.
With reporting by AFP, dpa, and AP
'Slaughter-Fest': Ukrainian Forces Hold Out In Bakhmut As Kyiv Renews Appeal For Modern Fighter Aircraft
Ukrainian forces continued to hold their ground on the eastern front over the past day, the military said on March 30, repelling dozens of attacks in and around Bakhmut, the city in the Donetsk region that has been the focal point of Russia's offensive over the past several months.
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The General Staff of the Ukrainian military said in its daily bulletin on March 30 that Russian forces continued to concentrate their offensive on Bakhmut and several other locations in Donetsk -- Avdiyivka, Maryinka, Belohoryivka, and Lyman -- having launched a total of 60 attacks in those locations over the past 24 hours.
In Bakhmut alone, Ukrainian forces repelled 28 enemy attacks, the military said.
Russian forces launched five missile strikes and 25 air strikes, as well as 34 rocket salvos over the past day, it said, adding that indiscriminate shelling of civilian and energy infrastructure continued.
The relentless attacks on Bakhmut and its surroundings have taken a heavy toll on Russian forces.
General Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told American lawmakers that Moscow has failed to make any advances in Bakhmut in the last couple of weeks while Russian casualties continued to go up.
Milley told the House Armed Services Committee on March 29 that Russia has not made "any progress whatsoever" around Bakhmut over the past weeks and that the Wagner mercenary group has been "suffering an enormous amount of casualties" in the area.
He said Bakhmut has become a "slaughter-fest for the Russians."
The commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, on March 30 issued a video depicting the actions of Ukraine's air force in the war. In the video, the commander of Ukraine's tactical aviation brigade, Oleksiy Manyushkyn, appeals to Kyiv's allies to supply it with U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets.
Manyushkin says Ukrainian pilots are motivated and ready to master any Western equipment in the shortest possible time to bring Ukraine closer to victory.
So far, only NATO members Poland and Slovakia have offered Ukraine fighter jets, but they only agreed to deliver old Russian-made MiG-29 aircraft, which Ukrainian pilots know how to operate.
On March 28, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told the House Armed Service Committee that during the current phase of the conflict, providing Ukraine with modern fighter jets will do little to help.
In PHOTOS: The Ukrainian military claims Moscow's forces are showing signs of "exhaustion" as the battle over the destroyed eastern city of Bakhmut rages on.
"Regarding the F16 fighters, if such a decision is made, it will take approximately 18 months to provide these capabilities. However, this will not help the Ukrainians at this stage of the war," Austin told U.S. lawmakers.
"Can the Ukrainians get fighters in the future? We all believe so. Potentially, these could be either F-16s or other fourth-generation aircraft. So we will continue to work with our partners to ensure that Ukraine has exactly what it needs," he said, arguing that Kyiv now needs more air-defense systems, armored vehicles, and long-range weapons.
"And we provide them with a significant package of such opportunities," Austin said.
Last month, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also said that arming Ukraine with warplanes "currently makes no sense," adding in an interview with German television that Berlin does not have any of the F-16 fighters that Ukraine has requested.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa
No Forced Eviction From Kyiv Monastery But Property Must Be Vacated, Ukrainian Security Official Says
Force will not be used to evict representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) from the Pechersk Lavra in Kyiv, the secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said on March 29 after monks who have been ordered to leave the historic site refused to go.
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Danilov, speaking on Ukrainian television, said while there will be no evictions, the monastery must be turned over to the Ukrainian government.
“If someone thinks that he has the right not to follow the laws of our country, then he is deeply mistaken.... The laws of Ukraine must be followed by everyone,” Danilov said. He added that the monks are expected to leave quietly.
Metropolitan Pavlo, an abbot of the monastery, told worshippers on March 29 that the UOC would not leave the site pending the outcome of a lawsuit it filed last week to stop the eviction. Pavlo said the UOC had been notified that the handover of the property would begin on March 30, according to the AP.
The 11th-century monastery and UNESCO World Heritage site, which is also known as the Monastery of the Caves, is owned by the Ukrainian government, and the agency overseeing the property notified the UOC earlier this month that it was terminating the lease as of March 29.
The UOC is a branch of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church that previously was under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox patriarch in Moscow. It cut ties with Moscow in May over Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but it has been accused of maintaining links to Russia.
In November, security agents conducted a “counterintelligence” operation at the Pechersk Lavra and other facilities of the UOC as part of a probe into suspected pro-Russia activity.
Danilov said the termination of the lease is in the interest of national security. The work of the UOC cannot be done inside Ukraine “from the point of view of our security” and must be stopped, he said.
The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) is the country’s main Orthodox church. A 2020 survey found that 34 percent of Ukrainians identified as members of the OCU, while 14 percent said they were members of the UOC.
With reporting by AP
Russia Stops Sharing Advance Missile Test Info With U.S.
Russia will no longer give the United States advance notice about its missile tests as envisioned under a nuclear pact the Kremlin has suspended, a senior Moscow diplomat said on March 29, as its military rolled missile launchers across Siberia in a show of the country’s massive nuclear capability amid fighting in Ukraine. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian news agencies that Moscow has halted all information exchanges with Washington under the last remaining nuclear arms treaty with the United States after suspending its participation in it last month. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Construction Contracts For Serbian Tennis Open Under Scrutiny In Republika Srpska
Authorities have inspected documents related to the construction of a tennis stadium in Banja Luka for the Serbian Open tennis tournament organized by the family of the world's second-ranked men's player, Novak Djokovic.
Banja Luka Mayor Drasko Stanivukovic confirmed at a news conference on March 29 that the inspections took place after the prosecutor's office asked to see some records and documentation regarding the tournament, which is scheduled to take place April 17-23.
Questions have been raised about the procurement process for stadium construction contracts. The construction is being financed by public funds from the city of Banja Luka and the government of Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s two entities.
The tournament is usually held in Belgrade but has been moved to Banja Luka for 2023 while the existing grounds in the Serbian capital are renovated.
The construction of the 6,000-seat stadium and the surrounding infrastructure is expected to cost about 12 million euros. Work began in November, although the construction permit was not issued until January 20 and it only covers preparatory work.
Funds were transferred to the Tennis Association of Republika Srpska, which picked the contractors without a public procurement process, even though the funds are entirely public.
The Interior Ministry of Republika Srpska told RFE/RL that the inspection of the documents took place at the request of the Public Prosecutor's Office of Republika Srpska.
The prosecutor's office told RFE/RL that the request came after complaints against Stanivukovic and Republika Srpska Prime Minister Radovan Viskovic.
Both officials were reported on February 9 to the prosecutor's office by Nebojsa Vukanovic, a member of the Republika Srpska parliament, who accused them of negligence in their work as public servants and the inappropriate spending of public funds.
Stanivukovic acknowledged that the prosecutor's office asked to see some records and documentation regarding the tournament. He said he had nothing against the prosecutors doing their job, adding that all documents that the city has related to the construction are publicly available and have been discussed by the City Council.
"I know that we have worked perfectly and honestly and will continue to do so," Stanivukovic said.
The government of Republika Srpska also issued a statement saying the inspections of the documents were "acts prescribed by law."
It said Viskovic supports the arrival of Djokovic and other professional tennis players in Banja Luka but added that it appears this “bothers some people in Republika Srpska because they are trying in every way to minimize and compromise this great sports event, and therefore Banja Luka and Republika Srpska.”
Djordje Djokovic, the brother of the tennis star and one of the principal organizers of the Serbian Open, said on March 7 during a press conference that "neither construction permits nor politics” are part of his job as the tournament organizer.
With reporting by Goran Katic
Ukraine Condemns IOC Recommendations Allowing Russian, Belarusian Athletes To Compete As Neutrals
The Ukrainian Ministry of Youth and Sports has condemned what it called the "partial change of position" of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in international sports competitions.
The ministry statement on March 29 came a day after the executive board of the IOC recommended allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in international competitions as neutral athletes.
"We have consistently advocated and will continue to insist that under the conditions of the unprecedented, unprovoked military aggression of the Russian Federation with the support of Belarus against Ukraine, which contradicts the principles of the Olympic Charter, representatives of the aggressor states should not be present at international sports arenas," the ministry said in its statement.
The ministry also expressed regret that the IOC used concern expressed by UN special rapporteurs over discrimination solely on the basis of the nationality of athletes as an excuse to radically change its “previous well-argued position.”
The ministry added that it will continue to work on barring Russian and Belarusian athletes from international sports competitions, including the Olympics, as long as Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine continues.
The board’s six recommendations, issued on March 28 after a meeting at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, say that while they do not concern the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus in the 2024 Paris Olympics, their implementation will be monitored.
The recommendations include allowing Russians and Belarusians to compete as individual neutral athletes who could not display national symbols. The recommendations also bar teams from the two countries, athletes who actively support the war, and athletes who are "contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military."
The recommendations roll back sanctions imposed by the IOC in February 2022 recommending that international sports federations and organizers of sports events "not invite and not allow” Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials to international competitions.
The IOC board signaled two months ago that it wanted to find a pathway to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to qualify for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris and the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan.
The idea has been criticized by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and several of Ukraine’s allies. Ukraine has raised the possibility of boycotting the Olympics if Russian and Belarusian athletes are allowed to compete.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on March 29 he would work to build a coalition to seek the withdrawal of what he said was a "bad and wrong decision."
IOC President Thomas Bach has indicated he backs allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as individual neutral athletes. He said on March 28 that athletes should not be punished for their passports.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call that the IOC recommendations “were characterized as containing elements of discrimination, which is unacceptable." He added that Russia “will continue to defend the interests of our athletes in every possible way."
With reporting by Reuters
Missing Iranian Cleric Warns Of His Possible Detention, Death
Four months after the disappearance of Molavi Abdul Ghaffar Naqshbandi, the Sunni imam from the Iranian city of Rask in Sistan-Baluchistan Province who disclosed the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl by a local police commander, a video has surfaced in which he warns of the possibility that he may be "assassinated" or "apprehended."
Naqshbandi disappeared after he was summoned to a court in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad late last year. Since attending a court session in December, his whereabouts have been unknown and his family says they have no information on where he might be detained.
The news of the alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl by the Chabahar police commander sparked mass protests in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan. The protesters demanded accountability and were met with a violent and bloody response from security forces.
Almost 100 people were killed, and hundreds more injured by security forces in the unrest, which came on top of protests touched off by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Tehran's morality police for an alleged violation of the hijab law.
"If I am killed, those who did not tolerate my words, they are the cause of my murder," Naqshbandi says in the recording, released on his official Telegram social media channel.
He goes on in the video to mention the possibility he will be arrested and tortured.
"If they arrest and imprison me, because they have the power to arrest us again and again, they can also broadcast forced confessions from us in front of the television," he says, appearing to indicate any confession that may come out would not be of his own volition.
The date of the recording, which lasts about 4 minutes and 30 seconds, is not known. The post appeared on the site on March 28.
The disappearance of Naqshbandi came after an apparent attempt to discredit a top Sunni cleric by the local representative of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In December, a leaked document from the hard-line Fars news agency said Khamenei told security and military officials to try and disgrace Molavi Abdolhamid, a spiritual leader for Iran's Sunni Muslim population, who is a vocal critic of the government, instead of arresting him.
Another prominent Iranian Sunni cleric, Molavi Abdulmajid, is also among those to have been detained.
In a January 19 interview with RFE/RL, Abdulmajid criticized the government for generating an atmosphere of insecurity in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-Baluchistan Province and a hotbed of the protest movement, and said the protests in the city will continue.
The government has unleashed a brutal crackdown on the months of unrest -- one of the deepest challenges to the Islamic regime since the revolution in 1979 -- that erupted following the September 16 death of Amini.
Sunni Muslims make up a majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province and Kurdistan, but account for only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.
Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups. Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Eastern European Governments Urge Tech Firms To Fight Disinformation
Ukraine and seven other Central and Eastern European nations on March 29 called on the world's top tech firms to take action to fight disinformation by hostile powers on their social media platforms, which they say undermines peace and stability. In an open letter signed by their prime ministers, the countries said tech platforms such as Facebook should take concrete steps, including rejecting payments from sanctioned individuals and altering algorithms to promote accuracy over engagement. The letter was signed by the prime ministers of Ukraine, Moldova, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Former Executive Of Russian Gas Company Convicted Of Tax Evasion In U.S.
A former top executive at Russian natural gas producer Novatek has been convicted of tax evasion in the United States.
Mark Gyetvay, who was deputy chairman of Novatek’s management board and its chief financial officer, was convicted of making false statements to U.S. tax authorities, failing to disclose offshore accounts, and failing to file tax returns, the U.S. Justice Department said.
According to court documents and evidence presented at his trial, Gyetvay from 2005-15 “concealed his ownership and control over substantial offshore assets and failed to file and pay taxes on millions of dollars of income,” the Justice Department said in a news release on March 28.
Gyetvay, who lives in Naples, Florida, worked as a certified public accountant (CPA) in the United States and Russia before becoming the chief financial officer of Novatek, a large Russian gas company.
Beginning in 2005, Gyetvay opened two accounts at a bank in Switzerland to hold assets amounting to more than $93 million, the Justice Department said.
“Over a period of several years, Gyetvay took steps to conceal his ownership and control over these funds, including removing himself from the accounts and making his then-wife, a Russian citizen, the beneficial owner of the accounts,” the department said.
Additionally, despite being a CPA, Gyetvay did not file his 2013 and 2014 U.S. tax returns and did not file documents on foreign bank accounts, as required, to disclose his control over the Swiss accounts.
As an American citizen, Gyetvay is required to pay U.S. taxes on his worldwide income, even if he spends most of the year in Russia.
At the time of his arrest in September 2021, Gyetvay called the charges “baseless” and said he had already settled them through a voluntary program. He vowed then to vigorously fight the charges.
Gyetvay was the face of Novatek to the Western investment community for more than a decade, conducting the quarterly earnings conference calls with stock and bond investors, as well as speaking at industry conferences. He now faces more than 10 years in prison at his sentencing on September 21.
Novatek is Russia’s largest independent natural gas producer and analysts say its phenomenal rise from a bit player in the early 2000s to a company that was once valued as high as $79 billion was in large part due to the company’s connections to the Kremlin.
Gennady Timchenko, a major shareholder in Novatek, is considered a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their friendship goes back to the early 1990s.
"Timchenko’s activities in the energy sector have been directly linked to Putin," the United States said in a 2014 statement sanctioning Timchenko. Putin has investments in oil trader Gunvor in which Timchenko had been a major shareholder and may have access to Gunvor funds, the United States said.
Timchenko sold his stake in Gunvor shortly before the sanctions were imposed.
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'Slaughter-Fest': Ukrainian Forces Hold Out In Bakhmut As Kyiv Renews Appeal For Modern Fighter Aircraft4
As Fighting Rages On At The Front, Thousands Join Ukraine's Offensive Guard5
Amnesty Report Says 'Hypocrisy' Of Western States Laid Bare By Russia's Invasion of Ukraine6
Fighting Rages Around Bakhmut As West Assails Kremlin Plan To Place Nukes In Belarus7
In Hungary, 'Deteriorating Relationship' Seen Behind Biden's Democracy Summit Snub8
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Live Briefing: Russia Invades Ukraine10
Interview: What Ukraine Wants From Russia May Be 'Moral,' But Is It 'Practical'?