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COVID-19: Bulgarian Nationalist Leader Charged For Coronavirus Comments; Armenia Extends State Of Emergency

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Workers disinfect an ambulance at a hospital in Yerevan.

The global death toll from the coronavirus is about 121,700 with 1.94 million infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

Here's a roundup of COVID-19 developments in RFE/RL's broadcast regions.

Bulgaria

Bulgarian prosecutors have charged the leader of the nationalist Attack party for threatening investigators and other comments he made urging people to violate public-health measures meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The Sofia District Prosecutor's Office said on April 14 that Volen Siderov was charged for instigating a crime when he "repeatedly called for a breach of an order by the minister of health in connection with the pandemic of the new coronavirus."

Among other things, Siderov called on Bulgarians during a television broadcast on April 12 to ignore social-distancing measures and not wear face masks during Easter mass.

Investigators also cited a press release from Attack, in which the party leader directly called on people to attend Orthodox Easter mass on April 19 to "prove that God" is stronger than the head of national operations leading the country’s response to the coronavirus epidemic.

In a second charge, Siderov stands accused of threatening a prosecutor during a televised broadcast on April 13, just after an investigation for his coronavirus-related comments was opened against him.

"Make up your mind, those who are now preparing to charge me, how long you will live?" he said. "Those who have agreed to act against me, there will be no you."

Siderov, who is also a Sofia city council member, appeared at the Interior Ministry on April 14 to be arraigned and will be able to post bail.

Bulgaria has been in a state of emergency since March 13 because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has officially infected 713 people in the country and killed 35.

Siderov has downplayed the outbreak, describing it as "a world hysteria that was created to rearrange the world and economic order."

In the past, he has stirred controversy over xenophobic remarks and espousal of various conspiracy theories,

Attack is part of the United Patriots alliance, which is a partner in Prime Minister Boris Borisov's GERB-led government. Siderov's party has traditionally defended positions in support of Russia and against the European Union and NATO.

Armenia

Armenia’s government has extended a state of emergency over the coronavirus pandemic until May 14 amid ongoing efforts to slow the spread of the disease.

The state of emergency, declared on March 16 after the first confirmed coronavirus cases emerged in the country, had been due to expire on April 14.

But the government in Yerevan said on April 13 that serious restrictions on people’s movements and business activity remain essential for slowing the spread of the virus.

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Under the extended emergency rule, Armenia’s government will be empowered to requisition hotels or other private properties in order to accommodate people placed under quarantine.

At the same time, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s government lifted nearly all restrictions on coronavirus-related news reporting.

“If further monitoring detects a rapid spread of so-called fake news, we could revert to those restrictions,” Justice Minister Rustam Badasian warned.

According to Armenia’s official count early on April 14, there have been more than 1,000 coronavirus infections in the country so far, including 14 deaths.

Citing the government data, Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinian said Armenia’s lockdown is working and should continue to slow the spread of the disease in the coming weeks.

Armenian authorities also plan to increase their controversial use of mobile-phone data to track potential carriers of the virus and continue to expand COVID-19 testing, Avinian told parliament later on April 13.

“If we manage to keep the downward trend in the spread of infections, the restrictions will be revised,” Avinian said.

Conversely, he said, the government will not hesitate to tighten restrictions if the infection rate rises.

Pashinian admitted that the government’s decision on April 12 to reopen some sectors of Armenia’s economy will increase the risk of an upsurge.

But he said the affected companies and their workers can minimize that risk by following social distancing rules and taking other precautions.

Armenian farmers, food retailers, public utilities, and banks are continuing to work through the lockdown as well as food-processing firms, mines, and cargo companies.

Russia

Dozens of employees of Moscow's famous Bolshoi Theater have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Bolshoi's director-general, Vladimir Urin, said on April 13 that 34 employees of the renowned theater had tested positive for the virus. They had been involved in preparations for a concert devoted to medical personnel fighting the pandemic.

"They did not have fever or any other common signs of the infection, but all of them were suspended and sent to quarantine before the concert,” Urin said.

The concert called We Are Together was staged on April 11. Two days prior to the event, all participants and technical personnel were tested for the coronavirus, Urin said, adding that it was not possible for anyone to have been infected during the concert.

Russia’s leading musicians and popular actors took part in the concert that was held on the Bolshoi’s stage without spectators and was available online.

Russian health authorities said on April 14 that the number of coronavirus cases in the country reached 21,102, including 170 deaths.

Pakistan

Pakistan's government has announced an extension of the nationwide shutdown in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but said it would allow what it identifies as low-risk industries to resume operations.

The government on April 14 announced it had extended restrictions on public gatherings for another two weeks. Educational institutions will also remain shut during that period.

Pakistan, which has already been in lockdown for three weeks, has reported 5,812 coronavirus cases and 100 deaths.

Amid warnings that a prolonged economic halt could push half of Pakistan’s population into poverty, the government said a number of industries would be allowed to operate if they adhere to safety guidelines.

Prime Minister Imran Khan said the first industry to reopen would be construction.

The decisions come a day after a group of religious leaders demanded authorities relax restrictions on mosque prayers.

The request was issued on April 14 at a gathering of the Wafaq-ul-Madaris, a board overseeing official madrasahs across Pakistan, said Maulana Qazi Abdul Rashid, who heads the organization’s Punjab regional branch.

"We are ready to adopt all precautions such as sanitizers, soap, and washing hands, but we cannot keep our mosques empty," he told RFE/RL.

Rashid, however, stressed that the board would not get into a confrontation with the government if authorities didn’t agree with its demand.

Pakistan hasn’t banned mosque prayers amid the coronavirus outbreak. Instead, the government relies on restricting the size of congregations attending mosques and advisories to stay at home from religious groups like the country's Islamic Ideology Council.

Some provinces have issued their own lockdown orders to prevent gatherings at Friday Prayers.

In the southern Sindh Province, a complete lockdown is being enforced from noon until 3 p.m., the time when the faithful gather for prayers.

In the eastern Punjab Province, checkpoints have been set up in major cities to stop people from congregating.

Central Asia

The head of Uzbekistan's muslim community says that mass prayers and meals traditionally served during Ramadan have been canceled this year because of the coronacirus outbreak.

The Directorate of the Muslims of Uzbekistan said on April 14 that mass tarawih prayers in mosques and iftar, the daily meals served to the public at mosques to break each day's fast, will not be allowed when the month of Ramadan, during which observant Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, and sex from sunrise to sunset, begins later this month.

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The directorate said the decision was made after discussions with the Muslim directorates of neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where similar measures will be undertaken.

Last month, Uzbek religious authorities temporarily banned Friday Prayers at mosques to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The number of confirmed cases in Uzbekistan was reported at 1,113, including four deaths, while in Kazakhstan, the number of coronavirus cases reached 1,179, including 14 deaths.

In Kyrgyzstan, 430 cases were reported with five deaths.

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have not officially registered coronavirus cases so far, though experts are skeptical of the claims given the lack of transparency within their governments and a lack of independent media.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian, Uzbek, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz services and AP, TASS, and Novaya Gazeta
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