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Syrian President Puts Himself At Center Of Road Map For Reforms

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: "A defining moment"
Embattled President Bashar al-Assad today announced a road map for the future of Syria -- outlining steps toward revising or rewriting the country's constitution and announcing the formation of a "national dialogue" committee that would lead to the drafting of a new election law.

In his third public speech since a popular uprising against his regime began in March, Assad today called the situation in Syria "a defining moment" in the history of the country, saying "the only option is to look forward toward the future."

Assad said steps toward reforms would be discussed in a "national dialogue where all take part," and that the process had already begun through the formation of a National Dialogue Authority representing all elements within Syrian society.

Specifying that he is part of the National Dialogue Authority, Assad stressed that the group "will not take part in the dialogue" but "will preside over the dialogue and set time limits" for reaching reform goals. He said the new National Dialogue Authority has decided to hold "a consultative meeting in the next few days" and would "invite more than 100 personalities to discuss with them the criteria and mechanisms."

Assad said "dialogue would begin immediately" after those consultations. He said he himself, on the basis of the national dialogue, would hand down resolutions for proposed reforms that would be ratified by Syria's parliament within one or two months. He said decisions also would be made to either amend or rewrite Syria's Constitution.

Political analysts are questioning whether Assad's speech offered too little and came too late for demonstrators who have faced a deadly crackdown at the hands of Syria's Army and paramilitary fighters from Assad's minority Alawite religious faction.

Defying Key Demand

Assad today defied the key demand of demonstrators who have taken to the streets across the country -- that is, his immediate resignation. Protesters also are demanding an end to killings and the use of torture by the state against opponents of Assad's regime and the lifting of restrictions on the freedom of the press.

Demonstrators also have been demanding the release of political prisoners, free and fair elections and an independent investigation into killings and other abuses by security forces during the three-month uprising.

Assad today said he would ask the Justice Ministry to carry out a study about expanding an amnesty to include all except drug dealers and those charged with attempting to violently overthrow the government.

He said the completion of new laws on political parties and elections were the most important legislation on political reforms. He said parliamentary elections would be held in August unless they are postponed. He said that with a new parliament in place in August, the package of political reforms could be completed in September.

Assad described the violence that has gripped Syria in the last three months as a "cloud which left behind acts of vandalism, murder, and the destruction of private and public property amid public demonstrations."

He said there are three components to the demonstrations taking place on the streets across Syria. He described one element as legitimate voices of people seeking demands from the government." He said the government should "listen, cooperate, and lend them a helping hand."

But he said there also are some 64,000 "outlaws wanted for criminal offenses" who are trying to take advantage of the street demonstrations and are now trying to sabotage the country.

'Radical And Blasphemous'

He said a third component of the demonstrations across Syria are "radical and blasphemous intellectuals who are trying to infiltrate Syria" -- including Syrians who are being paid by "foreign elements" to film and take part in antigovernment demonstrations.

He said the country must differentiate between Syrians with legitimate needs and those who are fomenting violence, people he described as conspirators producing "germs everywhere that cannot be eradicated yet."

Rights groups and opposition activists estimate more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Assad's forces have tried to preserve his grip on power. Nearly 11,000 refugees have fled into neighboring Turkey.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Assad used the speech to “blam(e) foreign instigators rather than appreciating that his own people are simply disgusted by a regime that supports itself through repression, corruption, and fear."

She called the state’s brutality toward Syrians “repulsive” and added that the vast majority of those "innocents" killed in Syria were killed at the hands of security forces.

"What we need now in Syria is action, not words," she said

Ahead of Assad's speech today, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the regime in Syria is losing its legitimacy and that Turkey should join with countries that are pressuring Assad to "either reform or step aside."

"I hope our Turkish colleagues will bring every possible pressure to bear on the Assad regime with a very clear message that they are losing legitimacy and that Assad should reform or step aside," Hague said. "And I hope they will be very clear and very bold about that."

Hague also called on Assad to heed the calls in a proposed UN Security Council resolution drafted by Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal that calls for the release of "prisoners of conscience," the opening of access to the Internet and free media, and cooperation with the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said today that Moscow is ready to use its veto on the UN Security Council to block the draft resolution, claiming it could be used as cover for military action against Syria.

But Medvedev said other calls and declarations, "including from the UN Security Council towards Syria, are possible."

compiled from agency reports

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In Tit-For-Tat Move, Russia Sanctions 154 Members Of Britain's House Of Lords

William Hague, a former U.K. foreign minister, is on the list.

Russia says it is sanctioning 154 members of the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament, in retaliation for similar steps taken against Moscow's foreign envoys and lawmakers over the Kremlin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on May 24 that it had banned the British lawmakers -- including William Hague, a former foreign minister and leader of the Conservative Party in opposition -- from entering Russia.

In March, the British government imposed personal sanctions on "almost all the members" of the Russian parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, the Foreign Ministry said in justifying its move.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, the West slapped wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow, including the exclusion of several 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 officials.

Russia last month banned entry to 287 British MPs in another tit-for-tat move, saying it had chosen those who played "the most active part" in drawing up anti-Russian sanctions and contributed to "Russophobic hysteria."

The House of Lords has around 800 members.

Russian Court Issues Arrest Warrant For Food Blogger Over Posts On Ukraine War

Veronika Belotserkovskaya

A court in Moscow has issued an arrest warrant for a food blogger and magazine founder for allegedly "spreading fake news" about the Russian military.

The Basmanny district court announced its decision on May 24 to arrest Veronika Belotserkovskaya, who founded the St. Petersburg magazine and website Sobaka. Belotserkovskaya currently lives in France.

On March 16, Russia's Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against the Ukrainian-born Belotserkovskaya, who blogs under the name Belonika, for allegedly spreading false news about the Russian Army on her Instagram account, which has almost 950,000 subscribers.

She was accused of publishing several Instagram posts containing "deliberately false information about the armed forces of the Russian Federation's destruction of cities and civilians in Ukraine, including children, during a special military operation."

Some of the posts cited the coverage of the war by Western news agencies and media outlets.

Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has strictly limited access to information about the war in Ukraine launched by Russia on February 24 and directed media to describe events in Ukraine as a “special military operation” and not a war or an invasion.

On May 14, Russian authorities added Belotserkovskaya to the wanted list.

Following the opening of the criminal case against her in March, Belotserkovskaya transferred ownership of Sobaka to its employees.

PEN America Honors Jailed RFE/RL Journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko

Kateryna Yesypenko demonstrates with a poster featuring her husband's face near the pffice of the president in Kyiv in July 2021.

RFE/RL journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko, who is serving a lengthy prison term in Russia on espionage charges that he and his supporters reject, has been awarded the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, which is given to political prisoners.

Yesypenko, currently serving a six-year sentence in a Russian prison for his reporting in Russian-occupied Crimea, was presented with the award in absentia at the PEN America gala in New York on May 23.

Hollywood actor Michael Douglas presented the award to Yesypenko's wife, Kateryna, and daughter, Stefania.

Kateryna Yesypenko began her acceptance speech on behalf of her husband in English, but then switched to Ukrainian "because of the power of this language," which has gained global recognition because of its usage by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in speeches to world leaders over Russia's unprovoked war.

"My husband has been behind bars for 15 months now. And that is only and entirely because he is a journalist. Vladyslav knew that reporting from the Russian-occupied Crimea is dangerous, but he was confident that people deserve to know what is happening, know the truth.... And I fully support him in that," Kateryna Yesypenko said.

A court in Crimea sentenced Yesypenko in February, after a closed-door trial.

Yesypenko, a dual Russian-Ukrainian citizen who contributes to Crimea.Realities, was detained in Crimea in March 2021 on suspicion of collecting information for Ukrainian intelligence.

Before his arrest, he had worked in Crimea for five years reporting on the social and environmental situation in the region.

Yesypenko testified during a court hearing that the Russian authorities "want to discredit the work of freelance journalists who really want to show the things that really happen in Crimea."

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly called the judgment a "travesty" in a statement released after the sentence was announced.

"As a journalist doing nothing more than reporting the facts, he should never have been detained in the first place, much less put through the physical and mental torture that he has endured over the past 11 months," Fly said.

'Vladyslav needs to be returned home to his wife and daughter immediately."

Press-freedom advocates, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, along with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and the U.S. State Department, are among those who have called for Yesypenko's immediate release in the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing.

Moscow illegally annexed Crimea in early 2014 and weeks later threw its support behind separatists in Ukraine's east.

On February 24, Moscow launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. In recent weeks it has intensified its bombardment of areas in the east to tighten and expand its grip on the areas where the separatists have a stronghold.

Finnish, Swedish Envoys To Turkey To Discuss NATO Bids

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (file photo)

Envoys from Finland and Sweden are due to meet in Ankara on May 25 for talks with Turkish officials regarding the two countries' applications for membership in NATO, which Turkey opposes, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto has said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been vocal in his opposition to Sweden and Finland joining the military alliance, held phone calls with the leaders of the two countries on May 21 and discussed his concerns.

"We are sending our delegations to visit Ankara, actually both Sweden and Finland. This will happen tomorrow, so the dialogue is continuing," Haavisto said during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

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.

"We understand that Turkey has some of their own security concerns vis a vis terrorism.... We think that these issues can be settled. There might be also some issues that are not linked directly to Finland and Sweden but more to other NATO members," Haavisto said.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said on May 24 that he was confident the alliance will be able to welcome Sweden and Finland as members.

Stoltenberg told the World Economic Forum in Davos that Russian President Vladimir Putin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine had backfired, leading to a result opposite to what he had wanted.

"He wanted less NATO on his borders and launched a war. And now he is getting more NATO on his borders and more members," Stoltenberg said.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Russia Finally Releases Danish Jehovah's Witness Christensen

Dennis Christensen is escorted inside a courthouse following the verdict announcement in the town of Oryol in February 2019.

Danish Jehovah's Witness Dennis Christensen has been released from prison in Russia after serving a term he was handed on extremism charges that he and his supporters have denied.

The Jehovah's Witnesses' website said on May 24 that Christensen was released from a prison in the Oryol region after serving out his punishment.

Christensen was detained in May 2017 in the city of Oryol, some 320 kilometers south of Moscow, weeks after the Russian Supreme Court ruled to ban the religious group in the country, declaring it "an extremist organization."

In February 2019, Christensen was found guilty of organizing the activities of an extremist group and sentenced to six years in prison. His two years in pretrial detention counted as three years toward his sentence, putting his release date at May 24, 2022.

Several requests Christensen made for early release were denied, including one in 2020 that a court actually approved, only to then reverse itself and refuse to free him, saying it had decided he was a "malicious violator."

The news of Christensen's release comes a day after a court in the city of Prokopevsk sentenced 53-year-old Andrei Vlasov to seven years in prison after finding him guilty of the same charges Christensen was found guilty of.

Prosecutors had sought an 8 1/2-year prison term for Vlasov, who is also a Jehovah's Witness. His defense team said it will appeal the court ruling.

The probe against Vlasov was launched in July 2020 and he was placed under house arrest despite being legally disabled.

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 religious minorities it says are peaceful.

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

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

With reporting by Siberia.Realities

EU's Von Der Leyen Accuses Russia Of Weaponizing Food Supplies

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (file photo)

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says Russia is weaponizing food supplies as prices of grain, cooking oil, and other food commodities soar following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, one of the world's largest wheat producers.

"In Russian-occupied Ukraine, the Kremlin's army is confiscating grain stocks and machinery.... And Russian warships in the Black Sea are blockading Ukrainian ships full of wheat and sunflower seeds," von der Leyen said in an address at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on May 24.

"Russia is now hoarding its own food exports as a form of blackmail -- holding back supplies to increase global prices, or trading wheat in exchange for political support.... This is using hunger and grain to wield power."

She said that for some, this had brought back memories from "a dark past -- the times of the Soviets' crop seizures and the devastating famine of the 1930s," a reference to a famine that killed millions of Ukrainians.

Russia has blamed rising food prices and shortages on the West for imposing sanctions in response to the war.

The German government has accused Russia of blocking the possible shipment of some 20 million tons of grain from Ukraine, while Polish President Andrzej Duda told a panel at the WEF that the food shortages could trigger a wave of migrants from North Africa to Europe.

Von der Leyen said the way to combat Russia's moves to disrupt the food-supply chain was through global cooperation.

With reporting by Reuters and dpa

Navalny's Appeal Denied In Moscow, New Nine-Year Sentence Confirmed

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny appears via video link during a court hearing in Moscow on May 24.

MOSCOW -- A Moscow court has upheld a nine-year prison term for opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who is already behind bars for a previous conviction he and his supporters have called politically motivated.

Navalny took part in the May 24 hearing via a video link from a prison in the Vladimir region.

The Kremlin critic used his final statement in court to condemn the Russian authorities for launching the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and reiterated his previous statements that all of the charges against him are politically motivated.

"It's you, your system, and Putin who are traitors against the Russian people.... I am ready to sit in jail to prove that not everyone in Russia is like this," Navalny told the court.

"What Putin is doing is pointless.... One crazy thief has seized hold of Ukraine, and no one understands what he wants to do with it.... Your time will pass and you will burn in hell," he added.

Navalny was handed the sentence on March 22 after the court found him guilty of embezzlement and contempt charges that he and his supporters have repeatedly rejected as politically motivated.

Separately on May 24, a different court in Moscow rejected another appeal filed by Navalny, this one against a January decision by the federal financial monitoring service, Rosfinmonitoring, to add him and 11 of his associates to its list of "terrorists and extremists," Navalny’s lawyer told the Interfax news agency.

The entries for Navalny and his associates in Rosfinmonitoring's registry on January 25 put them in the same ranks as right-wing nationalist groups and foreign terrorist organizations such as the Taliban and Islamic State.

Several of Navalny's associates were subsequently charged with establishing an extremist group. Many of them have fled the country amid pressure from the Russian authorities.

Navalny was arrested in January last year upon his arrival to Moscow from Germany, where he was treated for a poison attack with what European labs defined as a Soviet-style nerve agent.

He was then handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of an earlier parole because of his convalescence abroad. The original conviction is widely regarded as a trumped-up, politically motivated case.

Navalny has blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for his poisoning with a Novichok-style chemical substance. The Kremlin has denied any role in the attack.

International organizations consider Navalny a political prisoner.

The European Union, U.S. President Joe Biden, and other international officials have demanded Russia release the 45-year-old Kremlin-critic.

Navalny is currently serving his term in a prison in the town of Pokrov, some 200 kilometers east of Moscow. He is expected to be transferred to a stricter regime prison for the new conviction.

With reporting by Mediazona and Interfax

Ex-Moldovan President Dodon's Home Searched By Anti-Corruption Police

Igor Dodon lost the presidential election in November 2020.

CHISINAU -- Moldova's Prosecutor-General's Office says former President Igor Dodon's home is being searched by anti-corruption authorities, after which a determination will be made on whether to detain the 47-year-old politician.

Mariana Cherpec, a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General's Office, said that Dodon's house was being searched in his presence and clarified earlier reports that Dodon -- a pro-Russian politician who was president from 2016 to 2020 -- had been detained during the raid for 72 hours under suspicion of corruption, illicit enrichment, accepting political funding from a criminal organization, and treason.

But spokeswoman Cherpec clarified her comments in a statement for RFE/RL's Moldovan Service to say that the former head of state "is not currently detained."

"Once the search has been finalized, the prosecutors will decide whether he will be arrested," Cherpec said, adding that Dodon did not enjoy immunity from prosecution as a former head of state.

At a news conference, members of Dodon's Party of Socialists rejected the accusations against him, which they said were part of a "two-penny show" meant to distract the public's attention from poverty and social issues. They also called for public protests.

Dodon, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he visited frequently in Moscow, was defeated in November 2020 by Maia Sandu, a U.S.-educated politician who ran on a ticket of closer relations with the West.

In Moscow, the Kremlin voiced "concern" at the reports surrounding Dodon, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov calling on the Moldovan authorities to ensure his rights are respected.

Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, formally applied for European Union membership in March after Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Despite its lack of wealth and size, Moldova, which has a population of about 2.6 million people, has taken in more than 470,000 refugees from neighboring Ukraine.

With reporting my Unimedia.md and Deschide.md

Russia Issues Arrest Warrant For Self-Exiled Journalist Naki

Maikl Naki

A court in Moscow has issued an arrest warrant for well-known journalist Maikl Naki, who is currently outside of Russia, accusing him of distributing false information about the Russian military as Moscow's war against Ukraine continues.

Naki reacted to the Basmanny district court's May 24 decision by saying on Twitter that the judge who announced the ruling, along with state investigators, "will face trials before me, I have no doubt about that."

Naki is a former journalist at the radio station Ekho Moskvy, which halted operations in March after the Prosecutor-General's Office said the broadcaster, known to be critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was distributing what authorities called information "calling for extremist activities, violence, and premeditated false information" about Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Media across the country have been instructed by the government that Russia's actions in Ukraine cannot be called a "war" or an "invasion," and should instead be referred to as a "special military operation."

Naki has his own YouTube channel with 726,000 subscribers. He uses it to regularly report about the war in Ukraine.

The founder of the Conflict Intelligence Team, Ruslan Leviyev, is a suspect in the same case. The Basmanny district court issued an arrest warrant for Leviyev on May 18.

Leviyev's team investigates armed conflicts in Ukraine and other parts of the world. Leviyev is a frequent guest on Naki's YouTube channel.

Two Pilots Dead As Iranian Fighter Jet Crashes During Training Mission

An Iranian F-7 takes off. Decades of Western sanctions against Tehran have made it difficult to get spare parts for the jets and to maintain the fleet.

Two Iranian Air Force pilots were killed when their F-7 fighter jet crashed during a training mission near the city of Naeen in central Iran.

The state news agency IRNA said the crash occurred in the morning on May 24. The state ISNA news agency quoted a military official as saying that it appeared a "technical issue" caused the accident, though an investigation has been opened to pinpoint the cause.

Iran's air force has seen a number of crashes in recent years.

In February, an F-5 fighter jet -- purchased from the United States before the 1979 Islamic Revolution -- crashed into a school stadium in a residential area of the northwestern city of Tabriz, killing two pilots and one civilian.

Decades of Western sanctions against Tehran have made it difficult to get spare parts for the jets and to maintain the fleet.

The air force also flies Russian-made MiG and Sukhoi planes.

Protesters Block Entrance To Armenian Foreign Ministry As Pressure On PM Builds

Opposition protesters block the entrances of the building of the Foreign Ministry in Yerevan on May 24.

YEREVAN -- Demonstrators demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian have broken through police barriers and blocked the entrances of several government buildings, including the Foreign Ministry.

Ishkhan Saghatelyan, vice president of the National Assembly and a deputy for the "Armenia" parliamentary faction, said on May 24 that the intent of the action was to prevent employees from entering the buildings, especially the Foreign Ministry, "which no longer serves the interests of Armenia nor the Armenian people."

Thousands of opposition supporters have been demonstrating on a daily basis in Yerevan to protest what they said were unacceptable concessions made by Pashinian during negotiations with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenian Protesters Blockade Foreign Ministry
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Police have detained hundreds during the demonstrations, which have been aimed at committing acts of civil disobedience to ratchet up pressure on the government.

Pashinian has faced heavy criticism since he and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed last month in Brussels to begin drafting a peace treaty to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and set up a joint commission on demarcating their common border.

European Council President Charles Michel said on May 22 in Brussels that the first meeting of the joint commission will be held "soon."

Azerbaijan wants the peace deal to be based on five elements, including a mutual recognition of each other’s territorial integrity.

Pashinian has publicly stated that the elements are acceptable to Yerevan in principle, fueling Armenian opposition claims that he is ready to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia lost control over parts of the breakaway region in a 2020 war that ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire that an estimated 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed to monitor.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Pashinian, who said he had agreed to the 2020 cease-fire to avoid further losses, said he would not sign any peace deal with Azerbaijan without consulting ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Amnesty Highlights Rise In 'State-Sanctioned' Executions; Iran Among Worst Offenders

Iranian police officers prepare a rope for a public hanging.

Last year saw a "worrying rise" in global executions in 2021 amid an easing in pandemic restrictions, Amnesty International has said, with Iran recording its highest number of state-sanctioned killings since 2017.

The global number of executions saw a 20 percent increase over 2020, with Iran accounting for most of the rise.

The global totals do not include executions in China, which Amnesty believes to be in the thousands, North Korea, and Vietnam.

Out of the total of 579 executions carried out across 18 countries last year, Iran executed at least 314 people, up from 246 in 2020 and the highest total in four years, Amnesty said in its Death Sentences And Executions 2021 Report.

The rights watchdog said the higher number was due to the increase in drug-related executions in Iran.

"Iran maintains a mandatory death penalty for possession of certain types and quantities of drugs -- with the number of executions recorded for drug-related offenses rising more than five-fold to 132 in 2021 from 23 the previous year," the report said.

It also highlighted the rise in the number of women executed, which went up from nine to 14 year-to-year.

"The Iranian authorities continued their abhorrent assault on children's rights by executing three people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime, contrary to their obligations under international law," the report said.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, more than doubled the number of executed people last year. Amnesty also mentions that Saudi Arabia this year stepped up the practice, with the execution of 81 people in just one day in March.

"After the drop in their execution totals in 2020, Iran and Saudi Arabia once again ramped up their use of the death penalty last year, including by shamelessly violating prohibitions put in place under international human rights law," Amnesty's Agnes Callamard said.

"Their appetite for putting the executioner to work has also shown no sign of abating in the early months of 2022," Callamard added.

Myanmar, which has been under martial law, sentenced to death some 90 people, according to available figures.

At least 2,052 death sentences were handed down last year in 56 countries. Large increases in the number of death sentences were recorded in Bangladesh, India, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, and Pakistan.

On a positive note, Amnesty highlighted Kazakhstan's abolishing of capital punishment.

"In December, Kazakhstan adopted legislation to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, which came into effect in January 2022," the report noted.

"The minority of countries that still retain the death penalty are on notice: a world without state-sanctioned killing is not only imaginable, it is within reach and we will continue to fight for it," Callamard said.

"It is high time the ultimate cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment is consigned to the history books," she added.

With reporting by AFP and dpa

Russia Boosts Offensive In Eastern Ukraine As War Enters Fourth Month

Cars pass by destroyed Russian tanks from a recent battle against Ukrainians in the village of Dmytrivka, close to Kyiv, on May 23.

Russian forces have stepped up their assault on the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk as Moscow now appears focused on securing and expanding its gains in Donbas and the southern coast.

As the conflict entered its fourth month, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned Ukrainians that the coming period of time will be harsh, especially in the eastern Donbas region.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the major developments on Russia's invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians, and Western reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Zelenskiy told the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos that Russia had carried out nearly 1,500 missile strikes and over 3,000 air strikes against Ukraine in the first three months of the war.

British intelligence said in its daily report on May 24 that Russians are seeking to encircle Severodonetsk, a city of some 100,000 people on the banks of the Siverskiy Donets river, but are also focusing their attacks on Lysychansk and Rubyzhne in the same area.

The report said that Russian forces had achieved some localized successes in the area with the aid of intense artillery fire, but Ukrainian resistance is strong and Kyiv's Joint Force Operation command structure has remained in control of this segment of the front.

Russia's capture of Severodonetsk would see the whole of the Luhansk region falling under Russian occupation, the report said.

"The coming weeks of the war will be difficult, and we must be aware of that," Zelensky said on May 23 in his nightly address after regional leaders and residents reported heavy bombardments in the east.

"The most difficult fighting situation today is in Donbas," Zelenskiy said, singling out the worst-hit towns of Bakhmut -- a crucial junction that serves as a command center for much of the Ukrainian war effort -- Popasna, and Severodonetsk.

The governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Hayday, said that the Russians had beefed up their forces with some 12,500 soldiers who were attempting to seize Luhansk.

Hayday said early on May 24 that Severodonetsk has suffered a lot of damage from the Russian bombardment, and at least four people were killed in the shelling of a high-rise building in the city.

If the Russians are successful and the Donbas front line moves further west, British intelligence estimated that Russian lines of communication would be overstretched and likely lead to further logistic resupply difficulties.

Zelenskiy earlier warned the WEF in Davos that slow-walking military aid was causing unnecessary deaths as Ukrainians are "paying dearly for freedom and independence."

He said that 87 people had been killed in a Russian attack earlier this month on a military base in Desna in the north, in what would be one of the largest single recorded strikes of the war.

Kyiv was ready for an exchange of prisoners with Russia "even tomorrow," Zelenskiy said, calling on his allies to put pressure on Moscow.

Digging Up Bodies In Ukraine In Search Of War Crimes Evidence
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Zelenskiy also reiterated his demand that Moscow be cut off from the global economy, calling for an international oil embargo on Russia, as well as punitive measures against all of its banks.

Many of the EU's 27 member states are heavily dependent of Russian oil and gas, prompting criticism from Kyiv that the bloc has not moved quickly enough to halt supplies.

But Germany said on May 22 that the European Union will likely agree on an embargo on Russian oil imports "within days," despite opposition from Hungary, which is sticking to its demands for energy investment before it agrees to such an embargo.

"We will reach a breakthrough within days," German Economy Minister Robert Habeck told broadcaster ZDF.

However, Habeck warned that a ban would not hurt Moscow immediately, since the surge in global oil prices means it is earning more for less crude.

Habeck said the EU and the United States were considering a proposal to cap global oil prices -- an "unusual measure" for "unusual times."

Russia supplies 40 percent of the EU's natural gas and 27 percent of its oil imports, and receives an estimated 400 billion euros ($426 billion) annually for this supply.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, CNN, and BBC

20 Countries Pledge Fresh Military Aid To Ukraine, Says U.S. Defense Secretary

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks at a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Contact Group at the Pentagon in Washington on May 23.

Twenty countries have pledged new military aid for Ukraine in its battle against invading Russian military forces, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced on May 23 following the second Ukraine Contact Group meeting.

Denmark has agreed to provide Ukraine with a Harpoon launcher and missiles to “help Ukraine defend its coast,” Austin said at a press conference following the virtual gathering.

The Czech Republic also agreed to send “substantial support” to Ukraine including “a recent donation of attack helicopters, tanks, and rocket systems,” Austin added.

Overall, 20 countries “announced new security assistance packages,” Austin said, including “donating critically needed artillery ammunition, coastal defense systems, and tanks and other armored vehicles.”

“Others came forward with new commitments for training Ukraine’s forces and sustaining its military systems,” Austin added.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the major developments on Russia's invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians, and Western reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

A total of 47 countries participated in the contact group’s second meeting, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said.

The group was briefed by Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov on the current situation in the three-month-old war.

"Today, together with Minister Reznikov and his team, we've gained a sharper and shared sense of Ukraine's priority requirements and the situation on the battlefield," Austin said.

Since the first meeting of the group at a U.S. military base in Germany four weeks ago, Austin said, "the momentum of donations and deliveries has been outstanding."

He said Ukraine's needs had not changed much since the previous meeting, that the war continues to be driven by artillery, supported by tanks, drones, and other equipment.

"The fight is really shaped by artillery in this phase, and we've seen serious exchanges of artillery fires over the last several weeks," Austin said.

He added that the Ukraine Contact Group would meet next in person on June 15 during a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels.

Milley provided an update on the increased U.S. presence in Europe since Russia invaded in late February.

Last fall, there were roughly 78,000 U.S. troops in the region, and that has gone up to 102,000 -- including 24 surface ships, four submarines, 12 fighter jet squadrons, two combat aviation units, and six Army brigade combat teams, along with their division and corps leaderships.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and CNN

Ukraine's First Lady Says Russian Invasion Will Leave Lasting Negative Health Impact

Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska (file photo)

Olena Zelenska, the wife of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has told an assembly of the World Health Organization (WHO) that the impact of Russia’s invasion on health care and mental well-being could last for decades.

In a video address to the World Health Assembly in Geneva on May 23, Zelenska said that "Russia's war has shown horrors we could not have imagined," stressing the consequences for mental health.

"WHO is committed to protecting the most crucial human rights to life and health. Now they are both being violated in Ukraine," she said.

"The consequences of this war unfortunately will remain for years and decades," said Zelenska.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the major developments on Russia's invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians, and Western reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Zelenska's comments came as countries at the World Health Assembly prepare to discuss a resolution to be presented by Ukraine and its allies on May 24, harshly condemning Russia's invasion, especially its more than 200 attacks on health care, including hospitals and ambulances, in Ukraine.

Currently, Zelenska said, "no Ukrainian, neither adult nor small children, can be sure that they will wake up tomorrow and a missile will not fly into their house."

"Doctors can't be sure that their ambulances will not be bombed on the way to reach the patient."

The resolution also voices alarm at the "health emergency in Ukraine," and highlights the dire impacts beyond its borders, including how disrupted grain exports are deepening a global food security crisis.

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told reporters on May 23 that the "resolution uses strong language," and voiced confidence it had enough support to pass.

Top health officials addressing the Geneva gathering on May 23 voiced support for the resolution while condemning Russia's invasion.

"We gather here today in a peaceful European city with no need to fear the sound of incoming missiles or artillery... or to fear rape and execution at the hands of invading troops," British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the assembly.

"As a group of nations we cannot be pro-health, pro-humanity, without being against such brutal violence," as is happening in Ukraine, he said.

"So, it is absolutely right that we vote on a motion condemning [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin's unjustifiable aggression."

Echoing those sentiments was U.S. Assistant Health Secretary Loyce Pace.

"Russia's attacks have destroyed numerous health facilities. Civilians and health workers have been maimed and killed," she said.

"The international community must and the United States will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine."

Without mentioning the resolution specifically, Russia claimed the WHO and its decision-making body were being politicized.

"With deep concern, we have recently been taking note of politicization attempts of the prganization's work, as well as deviations from the principle of "impartiality" in its work," Russia's Deputy Minister of Health Aleksandra Dronova told the assembly.

She called on WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus "to prevent the WHO from becoming a political platform."

With reporting by AFP and TASS

Another Imprisoned Kazakh Activist's Term Replaced With A Parole-Like Sentence

Kazakh activist Noyan Rakhymzhanov (file photo)

QONAEV, Kazakhstan -- A Kazakh court has replaced another activist's prison sentence with a parole-like penalty, the latest in a series of similar moves in President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev's self-proclaimed liberalization campaign amid an outcry by human rights groups over political prisoners.

Noyan Rakhymzhanov's lawyer, Zhanar Balghabaeva, told RFE/RL on May 23 that the Qonaev City Court in Kazakhstan's southern region of Almaty had ruled that the remainder of her client’s five-year prison term will be replaced by a parole-like sentence in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.

Balghabaeva added that the court's decision will take effect in 15 days unless it is appealed by prosecutors.

Rakhymzhanov, along with three other activists, Abai Begimbetov, Qairat Qylyshev, and Askhat Zheksebaev, were sentenced to five years in prison each in October last year on a charge of having links with the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) and its affiliate Koshe (Street) party.

The activists, who were recognized as political prisoners by human rights organizations in Kazakhstan, pleaded not guilty and claimed during their trial that they only participated in peaceful protests and exercised their constitutionally protected rights.

The case sparked protests by rights defenders and opposition activists who said the harsh sentences handed to the four activists go against Toqaev's campaign "to build a new, democratic Kazakhstan."

Toqaev has been distancing himself from his authoritarian predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev, following deadly anti-government protests in the oil-rich nation in early January, though his critics say concrete legislation strengthening human rights in the country is needed.

In recent weeks, Begimbetov, Qylyshev, and Zheksebaev, were also released from prison after the remainders of their prison terms were replaced by parole-like sentences.

“A ‘New Kazakhstan’ is impossible without respect for freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, and accountability for serious human rights violations,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on May 19.

Last week, another civil rights activist, Asqar Qaiyrbek, was released from prison after a court replaced the remainder of the prison term handed to him in separate high-profile case with a parole-like penalty.

DVK is led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugitive former head of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank and an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government. Kazakh authorities labeled DVK extremist and banned the group in March 2018.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) earlier this year criticized the Kazakh government for using anti-extremism laws as a tool to persecute critics and civic activists. Several hundred people have been prosecuted for membership in the Koshe party.

Kazakh authorities have insisted there are no political prisoners in the country.

Former U.S. Marine Describes Harsh Conditions Of Russian Imprisonment

Trevor Reed stands inside a defendants' cage at a court hearing in Moscow in 2020.

Trevor Reed, the former U.S. Marine who was imprisoned in Russia for nearly three years on charges that were widely condemned as being trumped-up, says he refused to let himself hope for his release up until the day he left detention as he never wanted the authorities to be able to take that away.

In his first interviews with U.S. media since his release in a prisoner swap last month, the 30-year-old Texan described the harsh conditions of his detention, which lasted 985 days, and his battle to maintain his physical and mental health.

"A lot of people are not going to like what I'm gonna say about this, but I kind of viewed their having hope as being a weakness," he said in an interview with CNN that aired on May 22.

"So, I did not want to have that hope of, like, me, you know, being released somehow and then have that taken from me."

Reed was sentenced in 2020 after being convicted of assaulting two Russian police officers in 2019. He denied the allegations, while the United States questioned the fairness of the proceedings, calling his trial a "theater of the absurd."

He returned to the United States on April 27 in a prisoner swap for convicted Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko, whose 20-year prison sentence in the United States in 2010 was commuted.

Reed said that, while in prison, he lost 45 pounds and at times was coughing up blood, raising fears he may have contracted COVID-19 or worse, tuberculosis.

Yet, he said, he never came close to breaking point, even when held in extreme conditions where blood was smeared on the walls with a hole in the floor for a toilet.

“The psychiatric treatment facility, I was in there with seven other prisoners in a cell. They all had severe, psychological health issues -- most of them," Reed said to CNN.

"So over 50 percent of them in that cell were in there for murder. Or, like, multiple murders, sexual assault and murder -- just really disturbed individuals.”

He described the inside of the cell as "not a good place."

“There was blood all over the walls there -- where prisoners had killed themselves, or killed other prisoners, or attempted to do that,” he said. “The toilet’s just a hole in the floor. And there’s, you know, crap everywhere, all over the floor, on the walls. There’s people in there also that walk around that look like zombies.”

Reed didn't sleep for several days fearing what his cellmates might do to him.

“You felt they might kill you?” host Jake Tapper asked. “Yes. I thought that was a possibility,” Reed replied.

Reed served his sentence in Mordovia, a region about 350 kilometers east of Moscow with a long reputation for being the location of Russia's toughest prisons, including Soviet-era labor camps for political prisoners.

In recent months, Reed went on two hunger strikes to protest prison conditions, including being placed in solitary confinement.

Now back in the United States, Reed said he is trying to adjust to normal life.

"I've been hanging out with the family a lot, been trying to get used to being free again," the former U.S. Marine told ABC News.

"That takes a little bit of time, that process. But I feel better every day."

Starbucks Quits Russian Market Amid International Exodus Over War In Ukraine

Starbucks will be shuttering all its stores across Russia. (file photo)

Starbucks Corp says it will be closing its 130 stores in Russia and exiting the market after nearly 15 years because of the war against Ukraine.

The Seattle-based coffee giant informed its employees on May 23 that it will shut its operations in Russia, though the company will continue to pay its nearly 2,000 Russian employees for six months to help them as they search for new jobs.

"Starbucks has made the decision to exit and no longer have a brand presence in the market," the company said in a statement. In March it announced a suspension of operations because of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces.

Dozens of major international companies from a broad range of sectors have exited Russia since it launched its war against Ukraine on February 24.

McDonald's announced on May 19 that it had signed a deal to sell its business in Russia to a local licensee that will give him the global fast food giant's entire portfolio in the country and allow him to operate the restaurants under a new brand.

Starbucks has operated in Russia since 2007.

At Least Five Dead, 80 Trapped Under Rubble After Building Collapses In Iran

Rescue crews work at the site of a collapsed building in Abadan, Iran, on May 23.

At least five people were killed and 27 injured when parts of an unfinished 10-storey building in Iran's southern city of Abadan collapsed, trapping at least 80 more people under the rubble.

A rescue operation was being carried out, Iranian state TV reported on May 23, with emergency teams being sent in from other cities to help.

The semiofficial Mehr news agency said the building was a residential-commercial property on Amir Kabir Street in the city, which is close to the border with Iraq.

Most of those trapped under the rubble were people who were shopping on the ground floor in one of the finished parts of the building, reports said. The collapse caused nearby buildings to "shake violently," they added.

State TV showed footage of angry Abadan residents shouting slogans against the city authorities.

The ILNA news agency reported that the mayor of Abadan, Hossein Hamidpour, was beaten by the angry mob. The report could not be immediately confirmed.

The head of Khuzestan Province's judiciary has ordered a probe into the accident while the owner and the contractor who built the building have been arrested, state TV said.

'Ashamed' Russian Diplomat In Geneva Resigns In Protest Against War In Ukraine

Boris Bondarev had been working at Russia's Permanent Mission to the UN Office in Geneva. (file photo)

A diplomat at Russia's Permanent Mission to the UN Office in Geneva says he has resigned in protest at the "needless" war Russia has launched against Ukraine.

Boris Bondarev said in a statement placed on his LinkedIn page on May 23 that he has "never been so ashamed of my country as on February 24," when Russia launched an invasion of its neighbor.

"The aggressive war unleashed by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin against Ukraine, and in fact against the entire Western world, is not only a crime against the Ukrainian people, but also, perhaps, the most serious crime against the people of Russia," Bondarev, who identifies himself on LinkedIn as a counsellor at the mission who worked on arms control, wrote.

"Those who conceived this war want only one thing -- to remain in power forever, live in pompous tasteless palaces, sail on yachts comparable in tonnage and cost to the entire Russian Navy, enjoying unlimited power and complete impunity. To achieve that they are willing to sacrifice as many lives as it takes. Thousands of Russians and Ukrainians have already died just for this," Bondarev's statement added.

There was no immediate comment from the Russian permanent mission to the UN.

Bondarev confirmed the statement to both Reuters and the Associated Press, telling Reuters that he started to imagine making such a move a few years ago "but the scale of this disaster drove me to do it."

He added that he had raised concerns about the invasion with senior embassy staff, only to be told to "keep my mouth shut."

"I studied to be a diplomat and have been a diplomat for twenty years. The ministry has become my home and family. But I simply cannot any longer share in this bloody, witless, and absolutely needless ignominy," Bondarev concluded in his statement.

The Kremlin has misleadingly portrayed its invasion of Ukraine, which has involved tens of thousands of troops, as an effort to root out “Nazis” and other extremists. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have died in the war despite claims by Russia that it has not targeted them.

​With reporting by Reuters and AP

Ukraine Warns Of Increased Military Moves By Belarus Near Border

Ukraine says it has been seeing an uptick in military activity and troop levels in neighboring Belarus. (file photo)

Ukraine's Armed Forces have warned of an increase in military activity and troop levels by Belarus near the border.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the major developments on Russia's invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians, and Western reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

"The armed forces of the Republic of Belarus are intensifying reconnaissance, additional units are being deployed in the border areas of the Homel region," the Ukrainian general staff said in a situation report on May 23.

"The threat of missile and air strikes from the territory of the Republic of Belarus remains," it added.

After the Ukrainian statement, Belarus's Defense Ministry said that it had started what it called "another phase of checks" of military equipment to observe their mobility and capacity.

Belarus has not officially participated in the war launched by Moscow against Ukraine on February 24, but it has allowed its territory to be used by Russian forces as a staging area for attacks on Ukrainian soil.

But in a sign of how Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin have closed ranks in the face of international isolation, the two met for the third time in the last month on May 23.

The meeting, in the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi, centered on the ongoing war in Ukraine, with Lukashenka thanking the West for "giving an impetus to our own development."

With reporting by BelTA and Interfax

'Putin Is The Devil!' Daghestani Schoolgirl Protests Ukraine War At Graduation Ceremony

Authorities in the Daghestani town of Izberbash have refused to comment on the incident. (file photo)

IZBERBASH, Russia -- A young girl from Russia's North Caucasus region of Daghestan has chosen her high-school graduation ceremony to express her opposition to Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

A video of the girl, which went viral on social media on May 22, purportedly shows her shouting: "No to war! Liberty to Ukraine! [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is the devil!"

The video shows that the girl's action was apparently applauded by members of the audience, comprising students, parents, and teachers.

Pro-government Daghestani Telegram channels say the footage was taken from a graduation ceremony at school No. 11 in the city of Izberbash, adding that the girl was charged with an administrative offense, namely taking public actions to discredit the Russian Federation's armed forces.

According to the Telegram channels, the girl’s mother was charged with "failing to properly bring up a minor." The identity of the girl was not officially disclosed, but various media outlets said her name is Zukhra Albekova. She and her mother may face fines.

The Daghestani Interior Ministry refused to comment on the incident.

A source in the Education Ministry of Daghestan told RFE/RL that "the girl did it after she made a bet with her classmates."

Later in the day, several online social groups in Daghestan showed the girl and her mother apologizing for the "incident."

The girl said she regretted her action, which was prompted by her desire "to attract classmates' attention to her."

Her mother said she fully supports Putin and his policies, including what Russian officials call the "special military operation in Ukraine."

A source in the Daghestani government told RFE/RL that the girl and her mother were forced to make online statements after the regional head Sergei Melikov personally called Izberbash's mayor ordering him "to clear up the situation."

Izberbash authorities refused to provide any comments to RFE/RL.

For The First Time, Number Of Forcibly Displaced People Tops 100 Million

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, more than 8 million people have been displaced within the country, while more than 6 million refugees have fled across the borders.

Russia's war in Ukraine has pushed the number of forcibly displaced people around the world to more than 100 million for the first time ever, the United Nations said on May 23.

"The number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution has now crossed the staggering milestone of 100 million for the first time on record, propelled by the war in Ukraine and other deadly conflicts," the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in a statement on May 23.

The figures combine refugees, asylum-seekers, as well as more than 50 million people displaced inside their own countries.

The UNHCR said the "alarming" numbers of forcibly displaced people rose towards 90 million by the end of 2021, spurred by violence in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Burma, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, more than 8 million people have been displaced within the country, while more than 6 million refugees have fled across the borders.

"One hundred million is a stark figure -- sobering and alarming in equal measure. It's a record that should never have been set," said UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi.

"This must serve as a wake-up call to resolve and prevent destructive conflicts, end persecution, and address the underlying causes that force innocent people to flee their homes."

The figure represents more than 1 percent of the global population, the UNHCR said.

With reporting by AFP and dpa

Former Austrian Foreign Minister, Who Danced With Putin, Leaves Rosneft Board

Then-Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl dances with Russian President Vladimir Putin at her wedding on August 18, 2018.

Russian state oil giant Rosneft has confirmed that Austria's former foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, whose wedding in 2018 was attended by President Vladimir Putin, has left the company's board of directors.

Rosneft said in a statement on May 23 that Kneissel had stepped down three days earlier, and that she would not seek to renew her position on the board for a second term.

Her resignation comes after former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder left the board under pressure from lawmakers in the Bundestag, who had announced he would lose his taxpayer-funded office and staff amid the controversy over his close ties to Russia.

Kneissl was confirmed to the Rosneft board as an independent director in June 2021. The move immediately raised eyebrows as it came at a time when the European Union was at odds with Moscow over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and other issues.

Kneissl had already made headlines with regard to Russia when pictures of her dancing with Putin at her 2018 wedding were splashed across newspapers around the world.

Kneissl, a Middle East expert without political affiliation, was appointed to her cabinet post by the far-right Freedom Party, which had a cooperation agreement with Putin's United Russia party.

She left the government in 2019.

According to Kneissl's personal website, the 57-year-old was recently interviewed by the Kremlin-backed RT media outlet, for which she has written several opinion pieces.

Rosneft, Russia's biggest oil producer, is headed by Igor Sechin, a close ally of Putin.

Russian Soldier Sentenced To Life In Prison In First War Crimes Case Since Ukraine Invasion

Ukrainian Court Sentences Russian Soldier To Life Imprisonment In First War Crimes Trial
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A court in Kyiv has sentenced 21-year-old Russian Vadim Shishimarin to life imprisonment for the murder of an unarmed civilian in the first war crimes trial to arise from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

With a packed courtroom looking on, judges at the Solomyanka district court in Kyiv on May 23 handed down the punishment to the Russian sergeant, who had earlier pleaded guilty in the death of a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian, Oleksandr Shelypov.

Ukraine has accused Russia of atrocities and brutality against civilians during the three months since the invasion was launched in February and has said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes. Independent media and rights groups have also gathered mounting evidence that Moscow has targeted civilians in the fighting.

Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in war crimes.

Judge Serhiy Agafonov said Shishimarin had carried out a "criminal order" given to him by a soldier of higher rank when he fired several shots at the victim's head from an automatic weapon.

"Given that the crime committed is a crime against peace, security, humanity, and the international legal order...the court does not see the possibility of imposing a [shorter] sentence," he said.

WATCH: Kateryna Shelipova confronted the Russian soldier who killed her husband during a war crimes trial in a Kyiv courtroom on May 19.

Widow Confronts Russian Soldier Who Killed Her Husband At War Crimes Trial
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In his final statement to the court last week, Shishimarin, who comes from the Siberian region of Irkutsk, said that he didn’t want to kill Shelypov and was "sincerely" sorry for what had happened.

Shishmarin's lawyer, Viktor Ovsyannikov, said the sentence was expected given "certain pressure from society." He said his client would appeal the decision.

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova last month identified 10 soldiers of the 64th Mechanized Infantry Brigade of the Russian armed forces, saying that they are suspected of "cruelty toward civilians and other war crimes," adding that Ukrainian investigators are continuing to gather evidence and that those named were just the beginning of her findings.

She also said at the time that investigations were under way to find out if the 10 Russians took part in the killing of civilians in Bucha, a town just outside of Kyiv.

The retreat of Russian forces from Bucha and other towns near the capital revealed harrowing evidence of brutal killings, torture, mass graves, and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians in the fighting.

On May 12, the UN Human Rights Council overwhelmingly approved a resolution to set up an investigation into allegations of abuses by Russian troops in areas of Ukraine they temporarily controlled.

The council's resolution cited apparent cases of torture, shootings, and sexual violence, along with other atrocities documented by a UN team on the ground.

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