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Amnesty: Students In Belarus Face Arrest, Expulsion For Peaceful Activism

Students attend an opposition rally to reject the presidential election results, near the Belarusian State University in Minsk on October 26, 2020.

Students in Belarus are facing arrest and expulsion from school for peaceful activism against the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Amnesty International said in a report issued on May 24.

Belarus has been thrown into turmoil since Lukashenka was declared the winner of the country’s presidential election last August, despite opposition and Western assertions the poll was rigged to maintain the authoritarian leader's rule after more than two decades in power.

More than 30,000 people have been arrested, hundreds beaten or even tortured, and journalists targeted in a sweeping crackdown that has led to the government's international isolation amid Western sanctions targeting Lukashenka and his inner circle.

In its news publication, Amnesty International described brutal reprisals against students and exposed the impact of the state’s repression of academic life in Belarus.

“Students and teachers who protested across Belarus began their current academic year in a country radically transformed by events over the summer. From the outset, it was clear that their dissent would not be tolerated by either the authorities or many university administrations. On October 27, Alyaksandr Lukashenka called for universities to dismiss them. We then saw with dismay how universities did exactly this to scores of students,” said Aisha Jung, Amnesty International’s senior campaigner on Belarus.

As of May, according to the Belarusian Students’ Association, an independent student union, at least 466 students have been detained. Many were put under administrative detention or fined an average of 120 euros, a quarter of the average monthly salary in Belarus. At least 153 students have been arbitrarily expelled from universities and many have fled to neighboring countries fearful for their safety. Forty-two students have become suspects in criminal cases and six have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment.

Amnesty International highlighted the launching of a criminal investigation against 11 student activists and one teacher, many of whom were apprehended at their homes on November 12, 2020, a date which has since become known as “Black Thursday.” Their trial started on May 14 and is expected to continue until mid-June. All are facing charges under an article of the criminal code for "violating public order” that carries a prison sentence of up to two years.

The targeting of politically active students and teachers is not a new tactic in Belarus. However, as with all those currently speaking out against the government in the context of the presidential election, the scale of harassment, persecution, and violence against them is unprecedented in the former Soviet state's postindependence history.

Amnesty International calls on the Belarusian authorities to immediately end the repression against students, academics, and all peaceful protesters.

“The Belarusian authorities must abide by their obligations under international human rights law and respect students’ rights to peacefully express their opinions, together or in association, and to peacefully demonstrate without fear of harassment or reprisals,” said Jung.

“We call on student unions and student leaders across the world to show solidarity with their peers in Belarus and demand that their countries’ authorities take immediate steps to put pressure on Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government to end the strangulation of public life, of academic life, of the brightest youth in the country,” she said.

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Relatives Fear Tajik Activist Faces Torture, Prison At Home As Russia Considers Extradition

Emomali Kholov (right) with Izzat Amon

DUSHANBE -- Russian authorities have detained a Tajik activist residing in the Kursk region and plan to extradite him to Tajikistan, where he may face torture and imprisonment, his relatives and colleagues say.

Emomali Kholov's relatives and colleagues told RFE/RL that the 30-year-old father of 11 was detained on June 26 in the Kursk region.

Kholov's close associate, Suhrob Jahon, quoted his friend's lawyer as saying that Tajik authorities had requested Russian officials extradite the activist after a criminal case was launched against him in March 2021 on extremism charges.

Kholov used to work as a volunteer at the Center of Tajiks in Russia.

The center was led by Izzat Amon, before he was deprived of Russian citizenship and forced to return to Dushanbe in March 2021 at the request of Tajik authorities, who accused him of financial fraud.

Amon was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison in October. Earlier this month, a court in Dushanbe handed Amon an additional six years in prison on a separate fraud charge that his relatives have called politically motivated.

Activists and rights groups say President Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled Tajikistan since 1992, has used various levers of power to suppress rights groups and dissent.

Amon's nonprofit organization in Moscow helped Tajik migrant workers find jobs, obtain work and residency permits, and get legal advice.

It was shut down after his arrest and several of its employees and volunteers have complained of being put under pressure by Russian authorities since.

Russian Lawyer Detained After Criticizing Ukraine Shopping-Mall Strike

Dmitry Talantov (file photo)

The chairman of the attorneys chamber in Russia's Udmurtia region, Dmitry Talantov, has been detained after he criticized the government and military forces over a deadly strike on a shopping mall in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk.

Talantov wrote on Facebook that he was detained on June 28 and taken handcuffed to the Investigative Committee for questioning.

The Society of Russian Lawyers wrote on Telegram that Talantov was detained as he was trying to fly to Moscow.

No official reason has been given for Talantov's detention.

On June 27, when news of the deadly missile attack broke, Talantov condemned the strike, calling the Russian authorities "scumbags."

Talantov also is the lawyer for Ivan Safronov, a prominent former Russian journalist who is on trial in Moscow on a high-treason charge widely considered to be politically motivated.

At least 18 people died in the missile strike in Kremenchuk, which leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) called "a war crime."

Russia has denied it targeted the mall, saying it launched a "high-precision strike" on a nearby munitions depot and that subsequent explosions from the attack sparked the blaze at the shopping center.

G7 Leaders Wrap Up Summit Condemning Russian Invasion, Pledge Support For Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a working session of G7 leaders via video link in Kyiv on June 27.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies have condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine as "illegal and unjustifiable," and pledged to hold an international conference to raise funds for the country's postwar reconstruction.

A final statement from the G7 meeting in Germany that ended on June 28 also addresses the issue of global food security, which has been shaken by Russia's blockade of Ukrainian ports, keeping grain stocks from one of the world's largest producers from being exported.

"We, the leaders of the Group of Seven...were joined by the leaders of Argentina, India, Indonesia, Senegal, and South Africa, as well as Ukraine," the statement says.

"We reemphasize our condemnation of Russia's illegal and unjustifiable war of aggression against Ukraine."

The three-day summit of leaders from the world's leading democracies has already pledged to keep sanctions on Russia for as long as necessary and to intensify international economic and political pressure on President Vladimir Putin and his supporters in ally Belarus.

By the end of the meeting, they had strengthened that pledge and condemned Russia for an "abominable" attack on a shopping center in central Ukraine, calling it a "war crime," while vowing Putin will "be held to account" for Moscow's actions.

"We are strongly committed to supporting Ukrainian reconstruction through an international reconstruction conference," the G7 said, adding that members had agreed to spend $4.5 billion on addressing food-security issues around the globe exacerbated by rising grain and food costs following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The White House added that the United States would pitch in $2.76 billion toward that effort, which will assist 47 countries and regional organizations dealing with food insecurity and malnutrition.

Officials have said during the summit that leaders of the major economies are working on plans to pursue a price cap on Russian oil, raise tariffs on Russian goods and impose other new sanctions, though no final deal was reached in Germany and further discussions beyond the summit are expected.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

Belarus Adds Jailed Opposition Activist Tsikhanouski, RFE/RL Consultant Losik To Terrorist List

A popular video blogger, Syarhey Tsikhanouski intended to run for president but was disqualified and arrested before the vote in August 2020.

The Belarusian KGB has added 23 people to its terrorists list, including the jailed husband of opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, and RFE/RL consultant Ihar Losik.

The KGB's June 28 move brings the total number of persons on its official registry of terrorists to 870.

Tsikhanouski and Losik were sentenced in December to 18 years and 15 years in prison, respectively, on charges of organizing mass disorder, inciting social hatred, impeding the activities of the Central Election Commission, and organizing activities that disrupted social order.

Both denied the charges, calling them politically motivated.

Rights groups consider them, and four other persons who were sentenced behind closed doors in the southeastern city of Homel, to be political prisoners.

The crackdown on the pro-democracy movement has intensified since mass protests erupted in the wake of authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka's August 2020 reelection, which has not been recognized by the opposition and the West.

A popular video blogger, Tsikhanouski intended to run against Lukashenka but was disqualified and arrested before the vote.

Tsikhanouskaya subsequently mobilized voters and won the election, according to the opposition and Western countries who say Lukashenka rigged the results.

Tsikhanouskaya has been living in Lithuania since fleeing Belarus due to concerns about her safety and that of the couple's two children.

Russia Places Sanctions On Biden's Wife, Daughter, Several Senators In Latest List

U.S. President Joe Biden (in front, from left), First Lady Jill Biden, their daughter, Ashley Biden, and granddaughters Finnegan and Naomi pose for a picture during a celebration of Independence Day in Washington on July 4, 2021.

Russia has added U.S. President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, and daughter, Ashley, to its list of Americans under sanctions in retaliation for Washington's moves against Russia over its war in Ukraine.

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said in a statement on June 28 that 23 other academics and U.S. officials, including Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, and Senators Charles Grassley, Kirsten Gillebrand, Susan Collins, Ben Sass, and Martin Heinrich, were also added to the list.

"As a response to the ever-expanding U.S. sanctions against Russian political and public figures, 25 American citizens are included in the 'stop list' from among the senators responsible for the formation of a Russophobic narrative, participants in the so-called McFaul-Yermak group, which develops recommendations on anti-Russian restrictions, as well as members of the family of President Joe Biden," the statement said.

Those people on the list are banned from entering Russian territory.

The United States has led international efforts to impose far-reaching sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, launched on February 24.

Washington and the European Union have imposed sanctions against individuals, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, his daughters, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and members of his family, and several oligarchs linked to Putin.

They have also implemented crippling economic sanctions on Russia, such as cutting off much of its financial network from international transactions, freezing assets, and implementing a partial embargo on Russian oil imports.


Russian Opposition Politician Ilya Yashin Handed 15-Day Jail Term On Disobedience Charge

Ilya Yashin speaks with the Associated Press at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Moscow in September 2021.

MOSCOW -- Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin has been sentenced to 15 days in jail after being convicted of being disobedient to police, a charge that he and his supporters denied.

Yashin said on Telegram that the Khamovniki district court in Moscow sentenced him on June 28, a day after he was detained while on a walk in a Moscow park with a friend.

"I am an opposition politician, an independent municipal lawmaker, a critic of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and an opponent of the war in Ukraine. This detention of mine is a tool to impose pressure on me," Yashin wrote, adding that he does not exclude that a criminal case may be launched against him after he serves his jail term, which has become a routine practice in the country after Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Journalist Irina Babloyan, who was with Yashin when he was detained, tweeted on June 28 that the accusation by police that he fought with them was untrue and that Yashin did not resist.

Yashin, 38, is an outspoken Kremlin critic. He was fined four times in recent weeks on charges of discrediting the Russian military over his open opposition to the war in Ukraine.

Another Jehovah's Witness Gets Prison Term In Siberia Amid Crackdown

For decades, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia, where the dominant Russian Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.

A Russian court in Siberia has sentenced a Jehovah's Witness to six years in prison amid an ongoing crackdown on the religious group, which has been banned in the country since 2017.

A court in the city of Krasnoyarsk sentenced Yevgeny Zinich on June 27 after finding him guilty of organizing the activities of an "extremist organization."

The court also ruled that Zinich will be on parole for one year after serving his term and banned him from leading public and religious organizations for two years.

The probe against Zinich was launched in early 2021.

Since the faith was outlawed, many Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned in Russia.

According to the group, dozens of Jehovah's Witnesses have either been convicted of extremism or have been held in pretrial detention.

The United States has condemned Russia's ongoing crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses and other peaceful religious minorities.

For decades, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia, where the dominant Russian Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.

The Christian group is known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, rejection of military service, and refusal to mark national and religious holidays or birthdays.


Death Toll Climbs In Russian Missile Attack As Fighting Rages In East

Rescue services work at the site of a shopping mall hit by a Russian missile strike in Kremenchuk on June 27.

The death toll from a Russian missile strike that hit a crowded shopping center in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk has risen to at least 18 people, with at least 60 wounded, as fighting continues for control of Lysychansk, the last Ukrainian holdout in the eastern Luhansk region.

Regional Governor Dmytro Lunyn announced the updated toll of the strike on June 28 on Telegram as rescue and cleanup operations in Kremenchuk continued overnight.

Lunyn said the mall was "completely destroyed" by the missile strike and that 36 people were still missing. More than 1,000 people were inside the mall at the time of the attack, authorities said.

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Ukraine blamed Russia for the attack, saying that missiles fired from Tu-22 long-range bombers had been used.

Russia's Defense Ministry on June 28 denied it targeted the shopping mall, saying the missiles were fired at a weapons depot in Kremenchuk and that exploding ammunition stocks sparked the deadly fire.

"As a result of a high-precision strike, Western-made weapons and ammunition concentrated in the storage area for further shipment to the Ukrainian grouping of troops in the Donbas were hit," the ministry said in a statement.

"The detonation of stored ammunition for Western weapons caused a fire in a non-functioning shopping center located next to the plant," it added.

Russia also shelled Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, hitting apartment buildings and a primary school, the regional governor said. The shelling killed five people and wounded 22, including children, the governor said.

Russian forces continued to shell Lysychansk, in the Donbas. The head of the regional military administration, Serhiy Hayday, said Ukrainian forces still controlled Lysychansk but its loss was possible as Russia poured resources into the fight.

Britain's Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin on June 28 that Ukrainian forces continued to consolidate their positions on higher ground in Lysychansk, after abandoning its twin city, Syevyerodonetsk, to the Russians.

The bulletin said Ukrainian forces continued to disrupt the Russians' command and control with successful strikes deep behind Russian lines.

British intelligence assessed that Russian forces in the Donbas are increasingly "hollowed out" and their combat effectiveness has been degraded -- a situation that is "probably unsustainable" in the long term.

In the aftermath of the Kremenchuk strike, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, accused Russia of being the "largest terrorist organization in the world" in a video on Telegram.

"Everyone in the world should know that buying or transporting Russian oil, maintaining ties with Russian banks, paying taxes and duties to the Russian state is giving money to terrorists," he said.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Russia has claimed repeatedly that it is not targeting civilians in the unprovoked war it launched on Ukraine just over four months ago.

Leaders of the G7 called the missile strike a war crime and vowed to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable.

Kremenchuk, an industrial city of just over 200,000, lies on the Dnipro River in the region of Poltava and is the site of Ukraine's biggest oil refinery.

NATO Meets To Coordinate Defense Strategy, Discuss Ukraine Assistance

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg displays documents as Sweden and Finland applied for membership in Brussels on May 18.

NATO leaders are gathering in Madrid for what is expected to be one of the most important summits of the Western alliance in recent years amid Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on June 27 that the three-day summit will agree a new assistance package for Ukraine in areas "like secure communications, anti-drone systems, and fuel."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is due to address the NATO leaders and allies via video link during the summit.

Turkey's opposition to Finland and Sweden's bids to join the alliance is also a sticking point on the agenda. Stoltenberg is due to join the leaders of the three countries for talks ahead of the summit.

NATO's proclaimed unity is being put to test on the issue, as Turkey, which has the second-biggest army in the alliance after the United States, is looking for guarantees from Finland and Sweden regarding Kurdish groups that Ankara regards as terrorists.

The summit will also change NATO's language on Russia that it sees Moscow as a strategic partner. That language dates back to 2010.

"That will not be the case in the strategic concept that we will agree in Madrid," Stoltenberg said.

"I expect that allies will state clearly that Russia poses a direct threat to our security, to our values, to the rules-based international order."

Stoltenberg on June 27 announced that NATO will boost its high-readiness forces to "well over 300,000" in response to Russia's war in Ukraine. The NATO Response Force currently has about 40,000 troops.

The summit, which opens with a state dinner later on June 28 followed by discussions on June 29, will also be attended by leaders of countries not currently members of NATO -- including South Korea and Japan -- as observers.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and Time

Iran, U.S. To Hold Indirect Talks In Doha After EU Push to Restart Talks On Nuclear Deal

Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, will travel to Doha for the nuclear talks.

Indirect talks between Iran and the United States are set to take place on June 28 in Doha, Qatar, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said amid a push by the European Union to break an impasse in negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran said the discussions would be mediated by EU chief negotiator Enrique Mora and no direct talks between Iran and the United States were planned.

Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, will travel to Doha for the nuclear talks, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Naser Kanani told state news agency IRNA.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on June 27 the talks would focus on the lifting of U.S. sanctions.l

The talks will be separate from broader EU-mediated negotiations that have taken place in Vienna between Iran and major powers.

The U.S. State Department confirmed the meeting and reiterated Iran needed to drop additional demands that go beyond the scope of the pact.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last week traveled to Tehran in a push to resuscitate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. EU countries have been forced to find oil suppliers other than Russia as they seek to lower their reliance on Russian energy amid the war in Ukraine.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to limits on its controversial nuclear program in exchange for relief from punitive sanctions imposed by the West. But the arrangement began to fall apart in 2018 when then- U.S. President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of the deal.

Trump subsequently reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, while the Iranian government backed away from some of the commitments laid out in the deal.

Iran has been engaged for more than a year in negotiations in Vienna with Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China directly -- and the United States indirectly -- to revive the deal.

Negotiators were reportedly close to a new agreement in March, but the talks abruptly stalled in April, with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for failing to take the necessary political decisions to settle remaining issues.

One of them is Tehran's insistence that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) from its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently warned that Iran will be able to produce the raw material for a nuclear bomb within a few weeks. Tehran has repeatedly stressed that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposed.

News of the talks in Qatar came shortly after Iran said it tested a booster rocket designed to send a research satellite into space.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

Iranian-Norwegian Lawmakers Condemn Oslo Attack By Man Of Iranian Descent

People taking part in a spontaneous Pride parade arrive at the London Pub, a popular gay bar and nightclub, to pay tribute to the victims of the shooting after the official event was cancelled in central Oslo on June 25.

Iranian-born Norwegian lawmakers Masud Gharahkhani and Mahmoud Farahmand have condemned an attack by a man of Iranian descent in Oslo that killed two people and wounded eight others.

Gharahkhani, the speaker of Norway's parliament, said the weekend shooting near the London Pub, which describes itself on its website as "the largest gay and lesbian venue in Oslo," reminded him of "how hatred grows on social media when we celebrate gender diversity, and that is sad and unacceptable."

In an interview with Radio Farda on June 27, Farahmand, a Conservative deputy, said the attack showed that freedoms need to be defended more vigorously than ever and that "the use of violence" should be resisted.

The 43-year-old Iranian-born politician, who represents the Conservative Party (Hoyre), added that without individual freedoms, "a democratic society cannot survive."

The suspect, a Norwegian citizen of Iranian descent who has been charged with terrorism, was known to police and had previously been detained for "minor convictions," according to prosecutor Christian Hatlo.

Oslo's annual LGBT Pride parade was scheduled to take place on June 25, but was canceled following the shooting, which took place early that day.

A senior Norwegian police official said only one assailant had been identified in the attack and no other suspects had been identified.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Iranian Pensioners Return To Streets, Say Government Failing To Meet Promises

Retired people gather for a protest in Kermanshah on June 26.

Iranian pensioners and retired public employees showed no signs of letting up in their protests against what they say is the government's failure to address deteriorating living conditions.

Videos posted on social media on June 27 showed retirees gathering in at least four cities, Ahvaz, Kermanshah, Arak, and Rasht, chanting slogans against the government of President Ebrahim Raisi.

The recent wave of protests by pensioners and retirees comes after the government announced on June 6 that it would increase the monthly salaries of non-minimum-wage retirees by 10 percent, far below a previous pledge for a hike of 38 percent plus 5.15 million Iranian rials ($16).

Legislation to enact the increase was rejected by parliament, leading to the lower increase, which pensioners say is too little given that the inflation rate currently stands at more than 45 percent.

In recent weeks, Iran has witnessed protests from a broad cross-section of society, most of which have been met with security crackdowns, most notably after a round of nationwide teachers' protests in May.

Taxi Drivers Strike, Pensioners March As Inflation Protests Continue Across Iran
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The Iranian Teachers' Union's Coordination Council announced on June 26 that since then, a total of 230 teachers and union activists had been detained or imprisoned in various cities.

The council also said that over the past two weeks it had not received any information on the situation of three imprisoned teachers: Rasoul Badaqi, Mohammad Habibi, and Jafar Ebrahimi.

Devastated by years of harsh economic sanctions imposed by Washington since the United States pulled out of an accord with global superpowers aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear program, many Iranians have launched protests in recent months to decry the government's inability to help their lives.

In addition, Iran’s economy has struggled to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left at least 2 million Iranians jobless and resulted in soaring consumer prices.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Uzbek Constitutional Amendments To Change Status Of Karakalpakstan

President Shavkat Mirziyoev (front left) visits Karakalpakstan's Bozatau district in September 2021.

Constitutional amendments initiated by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev will annul the current right of the Karakalpakstan region to seek independence.

According to the draft amendments, Karakalpakstan will retain its autonomy, but a constitutional clause giving it the right to secede on the basis of a referendum among its roughly 2 million inhabitants will be taken out.

Local media quoted officials as saying that the amendments were approved by lawmakers in Karakalpakstan as well, due to "numerous demands to define Karakalpakstan as indivisible part of Uzbekistan."

Karakalpaks are a Turkic-speaking people in Central Asia. Their region used to be an autonomous area within Kazakhstan until 1930. Before becoming part of Uzbekistan in 1936, the region was the Karakalpak Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

Of the 170 amendments planned to be introduced to the constitution, the most controversial will change presidential eligibility from two five-year terms to two seven-year terms, while nullifying the previous presidential terms of a president.

This means Mirziyoev, who is in his second term, would be able to seek a new term in office.

Mirziyoev opened up Central Asia's most populous country of some 35 million people to foreign investment, improved Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbors, eased restrictions on religious freedoms, and released dozens of political prisoners after he came to power following the death of his authoritarian predecessor, Islam Karimov, in 2016.

But like his predecessor, Mirziyoev exercises virtually unrestrained political power in Uzbekistan and his relatives have been accused of using his political clout to amass wealth.

The 64-year-old was reelected to his second presidential term in October 2021. He faced four little-known candidates who were largely pro-government. Three opposition parties were not allowed to register or have candidates in the race.

With reporting by Mediazona and

Exiled Tajik Journalist's Relatives Questioned Over Her Articles About Deadly Protests In Remote Region

Tajik journalist Anora Sarkorova worked for the BBC for many years until 2018 and is currently working as a freelance journalist and blogger. (file photo)

Exiled Tajik journalist Anora Sarkorova says two of her relatives have been detained for questioning in Tajikistan over her online articles about deadly protests last month in her native Gorno-Badakhshan region.

Sarkorova told RFE/RL that police detained her 68-year-old mother and a brother and released them hours later after they questioned them about her current address and journalistic activities.

Sarkorova, who lives in an unspecified country in the European Union, emphasized that she considers the questioning a pressure tactic to force her to stop writing about the human rights situation in the Central Asian country.

The authorities in Tajikistan acknowledged in recent weeks that several informal leaders of Gorno-Badakhshan, whom they called criminals, have been killed and dozens arrested in the restive region.

They have yet to say anything about the questioning of the mother and brother of Sarkorova, who worked for the BBC for many years until 2018 and is currently working as a freelance journalist and blogger using her Facebook account.

Deep tensions between the government and residents of the volatile region have simmered since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Protests are rare in the tightly controlled state of 9.5 million, where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.

The latest protests were initially sparked in mid-May over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Khorugh Mayor Rizo Nazarzoda.

The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting the authorities to launch what they called an "counterterrorist operation."

The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.

Gordo-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict in the 1990s.

While it occupies almost half of the country's territory, its population is a mere 250,000. The region's mountainous terrain makes travel difficult, while its economy suffers from unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.

U.S. Basketball Star Griner To Stand Trial, Faces 10 Years On Drug Charge

Speculation has mounted that Moscow may be hoping Britney Griner's high profile in the United States could be used to help spur a prisoner swap. (file photo)

A Russian court has set July 1 for the trial of U.S. basketball star Britney Griner, who was detained more than four months ago on charges of illegal drug possession and smuggling.

The court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki on June 27 told Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, that she faced up to 10 years in prison for the offense, which stemmed from being found carrying vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage when she was at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February.

Griner was also told at the closed-door hearing that her detention had been extended for another six months.

The arrest came as Moscow was building up troops in preparation for its February 24 invasion of neighboring Ukraine, which has severely strained relations with Washington.

Since the arrest, speculation has mounted that Moscow may be hoping Griner's high profile in the United States could be used to help spur a prisoner swap similar to one in April that saw jailed former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed exchanged for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking.

Russia is also holding another former Marine, Paul Whelan, on spy charges the United States has repeatedly described as unfounded.

Some have suggested Moscow is seeking to swap Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trader currently serving a 25-year sentence in the United States after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

The U.S. State Department has classified Griner as "wrongfully detained" and shifted oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

At Least 18 Dead In Russian Rocket Attack On Shopping Center In Ukraine

Rescuers work at a site of a shopping mall hit by a Russian missile strike in Kremenchuk on June 27.

The death toll from a Russian missile strike that hit a crowded shopping center in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk has risen to at least 18 people, with at least 60 wounded, a regional official said.

Regional Governor Dmytro Lunyn announced the updated toll of the strike on June 28 on Telegram as rescue and clean-up operations in Kremenchuk continued overnight.

Lunyn said the mall was "completely destroyed" by the missile strike. He posted a video showing firefighters searching through the debris.

The Prosecutor-General's Office said more than 40 people were missing and of the 59 people who sought medical assistance almost half were in serious condition.

Zelenskiy accused Russia of being the "largest terrorist organization in the world" in a video on Telegram.

"Everyone in the world should know that buying or transporting Russian oil, maintaining ties with Russian banks, paying taxes and duties to the Russian state is giving money to terrorists," he said.

Ukraine called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council over the strike, which came on the second day of a Group of Seven (G7) summit in Germany and ahead of a NATO summit scheduled to begin later this week in Madrid.

The missile strike will be the main focus of the meeting on June 28, said a spokesman for the Albanian mission, which currently holds the rotating Security Council presidency.

Mayor Vitaliy Maletskiy wrote on his Facebook page that the strike "came in a very crowded place, which is 100 percent irrelevant to hostilities," while Zelenskiy said "more than 1,000 people were gathered" at the mall and that "it is impossible to even imagine the number of victims."

Video recorded at the shopping center and posted on Telegram by Zelenskiy showed it engulfed in flames as huge plumes of black and gray smoke billowed out.

"No danger to the Russian Army. No strategic value. Only an attempt on the people who try to live a normal life, which so angers the [Russians]," he wrote.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Russia has claimed repeatedly that it is not targeting civilians in the unprovoked war it launched on Ukraine just over four months ago.

It has not commented on the strike.

Leaders of the G7 called the missile strike a war crime and vowed to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking from the G7 summit, said the Kremenchuk attacked demonstrated the "depths of cruelty and barbarism" of Putin.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the world was "horrified" by the strike, saying on Twitter it was the latest in a string of atrocities.

A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned it as "deplorable," and French President Emmanuel Macron denounced the deadly strike as a "complete horror" and said France shares the pain of the families of the victims and the anger in the face of such "meanness."

He included a video of the inferno in his tweet and said, "The Russian people must see the truth."

Kremenchuk, an industrial city of just over 200,000, lies on the Dnipro River in the Poltava region and is the site of Ukraine's biggest oil refinery.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Ukrainian Billionaire Akhmetov Sues Russia Over Losses Caused By War

Rinat Akhmetov (file photo)

Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, has filed a lawsuit against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), demanding compensation for losses caused by Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Akhmetov's System Capital Management (SCM) holding company said in a statement on June 27 that the tycoon had lost billions of dollars in business since Russia launched the war more than four months ago.

"As the owner of Azovstal and many other industrial facilities that have been targeted by the invading Russian armed forces, Mr. Akhmetov seeks to ensure that Russia is held accountable for the destruction it is wreaking across Ukraine," the statement said.

Russian troops took over the Azovstal steelworks in the southeastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in May after a siege that lasted weeks as Ukrainian fighters held out inside the massive plant.

Akhmetov is also seeking an order from the court "preventing Russia from engaging in further blockading, looting, diversion, and destruction of grain and steel" produced by his companies, the statement said.

"Evil cannot go unpunished. Russia's crimes against Ukraine and our people are egregious, and those guilty of them must be held liable," SCM quoted Akhmetov as saying.

The statement said Akhmetov was seeking compensation from Russia for the "trampling of his property rights." It also said that while the precise amount of damages cannot yet be assessed, "it is anticipated that Mr. Akhmetov is due billions of dollars from the Russian Federation for its violation of his human rights."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, responding to a question regarding Akhmetov's lawsuit, told reporters in Moscow that Russia was no longer under the jurisdiction of the ECHR, which is in Strasbourg, France.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 11 signed a law under which Russia will not follow ECHR rulings made after March 15.

With reporting by Interfax, Reuters, RIA Novosti, and TASS

Moldovan President Visits Kyiv, Will Meet Zelenskiy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) with his Moldovan counterpart, Maia Sandu, in Kyiv (file photo)

President Maia Sandu traveled to Ukraine on June 27 in her first trip to Moldova's neighbor since start of the war and visited the towns of Bucha and Irpin -- sites of alleged Russian atrocities against civilians.

“No matter the economic costs, no matter the political costs we have to stop war and we have to make sure that these kinds of atrocities will never repeat,” Maia Sandu said. She said it was “heartbreaking” to hear accounts from witnesses and victims of the war.

"Was left speechless by the level of violence & destruction we saw," Sandu wrote separately in English on Twitter. "It’s an unimaginable tragedy & we wholeheartedly wish the brave selfless Ukrainian people peace, freedom & prosperity, & life of their own choosing."

Sandu was expected to meet with her Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, during her visit, her office said on social media.

Her visit to Ukraine comes just days after both Ukraine and Moldova obtained the status of EU candidate countries -- a historic move for both former Soviet republics.

Moldova absorbed one of the largest numbers of Ukrainian refugees after the start of Russia's unprovoked invasion of its neighbor on February 24.

With reporting by AP

In Tit-For-Tat Move, Russia Places Sanctions On 43 Canadians

The head of the Liberal Party of Canada, Suzanne Cowan, is among the Canadian citizens who have been hit by Russian sanctions. (file photo)

Russia says it is placing sanctions on 43 Canadians, including federal and regional officials, members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal party, and public figures, in retaliation for similar steps taken by Ottawa in May against leaders of large Russian companies and members of their families.

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on June 27 that it had banned the Canadian citizens, including Suzanne Cowan, head of the Liberal Party of Canada, from entering Russia.

Last month, Canada imposed sanctions on dozens of Russian individuals, including oligarchs and people close to the Kremlin and Russia's Defense Ministry, as well as several Russian companies, over Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to pro-Western Ukraine on February 24, many Western countries, including Canada, slapped wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow.

These measures include the exclusion of several Russian banks from the SWIFT messaging system, embargoes on Russian exports, restrictions on investments, asset freezes for government officials and their families, and travel bans for many senior Russian officials.

Putin To Meet Tajik Counterpart Rahmon In Dushanbe As War In Ukraine Continues

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon (file photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold talks with his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, in Dushanbe on June 28 as Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, launched more than four months ago, continues to raise concerns in Central Asia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow on June 27 that the talks will be held in a face-to-face format. He did not elaborate.

Putin's visit to the Tajik capital will take place three days after he told another ally, Belarus's authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, that Moscow will supply Minsk with an Iskander-M mobile missile system with a range of up to 500 kilometers as the standoff between Russia and the West over the war in Ukraine escalates.

Russia, Belarus, and Tajikistan, along with Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Earlier this month, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev of Kazakhstan, attending an economic forum in Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, pushed back against Moscow's narrative in the invasion of Ukraine, rejecting recognition for "quasi-states" like the Russia-backed-separatist-controlled territories of eastern Ukraine.

He also vowed that Kazakhstan wouldn't break international sanctions imposed against Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

Moscow has stationed about 7,000 troops from Russia’s 201st Motor Rifle Division at three facilities that are considered part of a Russian base in Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic.

Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax

With Russia A 'Direct Threat,' Stoltenberg Says NATO To Boost Troops On 'High Readiness'

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (file photo)

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the western military alliance will boost its high readiness forces to "well over 300,000" in response to Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking ahead of a NATO summit in Madrid, Stoltenberg said on June 27 that the alliance will enhance its battle groups on its eastern flank up to brigade levels.

"We will strengthen our forward defenses...We will transform the NATO Response Force and increase the number of our high readiness forces to well over 300,000," Stoltenberg told reporters.

The NATO Response Force, currently has about 40,000 troops.

The Madrid summit, which runs from June 28 to 30, will also change NATO's language on Russia that says the alliance sees Moscow as a strategic partner. That language dates back to 2010.

"That will not be the case in the strategic concept that we will agree in Madrid," Stoltenberg said.

"I expect that allies will state clearly that Russia poses a direct threat to our security, to our values, to the rules-based international order."

Jailed In Belarus, Russian Sapega Asks Lukashenka For Clemency

Russian citizen Sofia Sapega attends a court hearing in Hrodna in May.

Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen who is serving a six-year prison term in Belarus after being arrested along with her then boyfriend Raman Pratasevich after their commercial flight was forced to land in Minsk last year, has asked Belarusian authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka for clemency.

Sapega's lawyer, Anton Hashynski, told the BBC on June 27 that his client officially filed her clemency request last week. Relatives had said that Sapega asked Lukashenka for clemency in December as well, though there was no further information given on that request.

Sapega and Pratasevich, a dissident blogger, were detained after their commercial flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk in May 2021.

They were immediately detained upon leaving the aircraft and Sapega was accused of administering a channel on the Telegram messenger app that published the personal data of Belarusian security forces. She was sentenced on May 6, and three days later, Pratasevich announced that he had married another woman.

'Wrong Place, Wrong Time'? The Woman Detained With Belarusian Activist After Flight Diverted To Minsk
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Belarus said it had ordered the plane to land after an anonymous bomb threat. Evidence later revealed that Belarusian officials conspired to fake the bomb threat as a pretense for diverting the plane so they could detain the two.

Pratasevich, who fled Belarus in 2019, worked as an editor at the Poland-based Nexta Live channel on Telegram. He has yet to go on trial and the status of the investigation against him is unclear.

He faces charges in connection with civil disturbances that followed a disputed presidential election in August 2020, an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. He was a key administrator of the Telegram channel Nexta-Live, which covered mass protests denouncing the official results of the election, which the opposition said was rigged.

Pratasevich, who was transferred to house arrest after his initial detention, made several appearances on Belarusian state television last year, which prompted the opposition and Western officials to accuse Lukashenka's regime of extracting video confessions under torture and called for his and Sapega's immediate release.

In January, Pratasevich said in a televised interview that he was not under house arrest, though again it was not clear if he made the statement freely.

Lukashenka has denied stealing the election and has since cracked down hard on the opposition, whose leading members have been jailed or forced to flee the country fearing for their safety.

With reporting by the BBC

Iranian Steel Firm Halts Production After Cyberattack

The Khuzestan Steel Company said it was unable to continue production "due to technical problems" following "cyberattacks." (file photo)

One of Iran's biggest steel companies said on June 27 that it was forced to halt its operations until further notice after being targeted by a cyberattack.

The Khuzestan Steel Company said in a statement that experts had determined that the firm was unable to continue production “due to technical problems" following “cyberattacks.” The company's website appeared to be out of service.

A purported hacking group called "Predatory Sparrow" claimed responsibility for the cyberattack in a message and video on social media. It said that two other state-owned steel companies -- Mobarekh and Hormozgan -- had been targeted in the attack, adding that all three companies were affiliated with Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

"These companies continue to operate despite international sanctions against them," the message said.

The company did not blame any specific group for the assault.

Iran has previously accused the United States and Israel for cyberattacks that have targeted and crippled the country's infrastructure.

With reporting by AP

G7 Leaders Look To Adopt Price Cap On Russian Oil To Limit Moscow's Energy Revenues

G7 and EU leaders pose for a family photo during the summit at Bavaria's Schloss Elmau castle, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on June 26.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) nations, meeting for a second day at a summit in Germany, are expected to agree to a price cap on Russian oil to limit Moscow's energy revenues as the centerpiece of new sanctions on Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Several international media outlets quoted U.S. officials on June 27 as saying details of how the price cap would work are being ironed out during the summit, which ends on June 28.

"The dual objectives of G7 leaders have been to take direct aim at [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's revenues, particularly through energy, but also to minimize the spillovers and the impact on the G7 economies and the rest of the world," Reuters quoted a U.S. official as saying in a background briefing on the sidelines of the annual G7 summit.

The group of wealthy Western nations has been looking to ratchet up pressure on Moscow while trying to minimize any harm that could be done to their own economies. Oil prices have jumped since Russia launched its war against Ukraine on February 24 as sanctions limit Russian crude exports.

Many Western nations and the European Union already have imposed several rounds of sweeping sanctions against Moscow to isolate President Vladimir Putin and cripple Russia's economy to try and force the Kremlin to end the war.

The White House said leaders at the summit will also make an "unprecedented, long-term security commitment to providing Ukraine with financial, humanitarian, military and diplomatic support as long as it takes," including the timely provision of advanced weapons.

Based on reporting by AP, Reuters and The New York Times.

Finland, Sweden Will Talk NATO Bid With Turkey's Erdogan On June 28, Says Finnish Presidency

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (left), Finnish President Sauli Niinisto (center), and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (composite file photo)

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson will discuss their stalled NATO bids with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 28 ahead of a summit of the 30-member alliance in Madrid, Helsinki said on June 27.

"President Niinisto will meet tomorrow in Madrid with Turkish President Erdogan, Swedish Prime Minister Andersson and NATO Secretary General [Jens] Stoltenberg," the Finnish presidency tweeted.

It said the meeting "will be preceded today (June 27) by a round of talks between Finnish, Swedish, and Turkish officials hosted by NATO in Brussels."

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted Finland and Sweden to apply to join NATO.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he is against the accession of the two Nordic countries because of what he called their support for "terrorist organizations," a reference to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdish militia People's Defense Units (YPG) in Syria.

The Turkish leader has also called on Sweden and Finland to lift arms embargos imposed against Turkey in 2019 over Ankara's military offensive in Syria.

Erdogan indicated on June 25 that no progress had been made in Sweden's bid to join NATO, urging Stockholm to take "concrete actions" to meet Ankara's concerns, his office said.

Turkish officials said Ankara does not view the summit as a final deadline for resolving its objections.

With reporting by Reuters

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