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Belarusian Mass Trials Continue After Fresh Crackdown On Protesters

Conversations From The Police Van
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Belarusian police have arrested hundreds of protesters and bystanders since the latest wave of antigovernment demonstrations began on July 6. RFE/RL Belarus Service correspondent Oleg Hruzdzilovich was among those detained, and spoke to his fellow passeng

WATCH: RFE/RL Belarus Service correspondent Oleg Hruzdzilovich was among those detained in Minsk. He turned his camera on and got to know some of his fellow passengers in the back of the police van.


Courts in Belarus have begun hearing cases and imposing short jail sentences and fines against some of the hundreds of people who were detained during antigovernment demonstrations in Minsk and other cities on July 6.

Rights activists say some 130 people were tried in Minsk on July 7.

Alesia Jakubouskaja of the rights group Vyasna ("Spring"), who was monitoring the trials in the capital, told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service that "there were a couple of people who got five- to 7-day [jail] sentences, but most got 10 or even 15 [days]."

"So far, only one woman, born in 1943, was given a fine," Jakubouskaja said. "The same was true in all [the other] courts. And those convicted in the Zavodski [district] court will be taken to Zhodzina jail, because there's no longer any room at Akrescina [jail]."

According to Vyasna's estimates, several thousand people across the country participated in the July 6 protests, with the authorities arresting at least 400 people, including some 180 in the capital and 220 in other regional centers.

According to the Belarusian Journalists Association, about 25 journalists were among those detained. The association said on its website that most reporters were released after being harassed and told not to take pictures or shoot videos.

The protests took place in response to a call on the Internet by the Revolution Through the Social Network group -- the latest in a series of such Wednesday protests.

As in previous demonstrations, protesters did not chant slogans or brandish banners but merely stood in silence.

RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported that designated meeting points were cordoned off and under heavy police guard. Plainclothes police took away people who gathered at the venues, including one young man who spoke to an RFE/RL correspondent as both were being taken to a police station.

He said it was "hard to say why" he was detained. "I came out of the library at about 7:45 as it was closing. I have my membership card with me. I heard people shouting. I came up closer and then an athletic-looking man grabbed my arm and said, 'Go away.' I said, 'OK, where should I go?' He brought me here, they put me inside, so here I am."

Highlighting the harassment that journalists are facing, the RFE/RL correspondent was later released, detained again, and re-released.

WATCH: A protester outside the National Library in Minsk is bundled into a van.

Protests Broken Up Outside Belarus National Library
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A video clip showed plainclothes men putting a lone protester into an unmarked minivan and protesters clapping outside the National Library in Minsk as a man asked, "Why are you taking this person?"

Vyasna spokesman Valentin Stefanovich told AP that the authorities had adopted a "new tactic," detaining people before the protests start.

Internet activist Vyecheslav Dianov said the rallies will continue, telling AFP, "We will be thinking of people's safety and changing our strategy."

Crackdown On Protests

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka launched a crackdown on the opposition after mass protests erupted following his disputed reelection in December.

Speaking in the town of Shlov on July 7, the man dubbed by some "Europe's last dictator" called members of the opposition "enemies of the people."

He has called his opponents a "scabby mob" and offered to ship its members to the West.

Belarusian courts are still processing cases of protesters from the previous rally on July 3, which likewise saw hundreds of arrests.

Rights activists say more than 1,700 protesters have been tried over the past month and given fines of up to $200 and/or jail terms of between five and 15 days on charges of petty hooliganism, disrupting public disorder, or taking part in unsanctioned demonstrations.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill to support democracy and human rights in Belarus. The Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2011, approved late on July 6, calls for the release of all political prisoners and refuses to recognize the results of December's presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.

The bill supports the expansion of existing sanctions against Minsk to include the denial of entry visas to members of the Belarusian security services who have participated in the recent crackdown on opposition leaders, journalists, and peaceful protesters.

The bill also would require the U.S. administration to provide more details to lawmakers on Minsk's arms sales, censorship of the Internet, and other activities.

It also calls for continued support of radio, television, and Internet broadcasting to Belarus via Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and the satellite television station Belsat.

In a statement, the author of the bill, Republican Representative Chris Smith, said, "This bill encourages those struggling for decency and basic rights against the overwhelming pressures from the antidemocratic regime."

Before being signed into law, the bill must be approved by the Senate. It is expected to pass.

Protesters march in Vitsebsk on July 6.
The European Union has joined the United States in imposing sanctions on Belarus, including assets freezes and travel bans on a number of top officials, in response to the postelection crackdown.

On July 6 in Moscow, dozens of people clapped hands outside the Belarusian Embassy in a show of solidarity with the protesters.

"We know that people who are not happy with the Lukashenka regime hold or try to hold such actions each Wednesday in Belarus," the head of the Russian human rights group Memorial, Oleg Orlov, told Reuters.

"We also know how violently and harshly those peaceful actions are dispersed there. Today, thank God, we managed to hold such action without being dispersed here in Moscow, although we were not sure that our authorities would not do the same as those in Belarus."

with additional agency reporting

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Supreme Court Rejects Nadezhdin's Latest Appeal Over Decision To Bar Him From Russian Presidential Vote

The Uzbekistan-born 60-year-old academic and former lawmaker had appealed the final decision by the Central Election Commission to bar him from taking part in Russia's upcoming presidential election.
The Uzbekistan-born 60-year-old academic and former lawmaker had appealed the final decision by the Central Election Commission to bar him from taking part in Russia's upcoming presidential election.

Russia’s Supreme Court on February 21 threw out anti-war presidential candidate Boris Nadezhdin’s latest appeal of the Central Election Commission’s (TsIK) decision to bar him from next month’s presidential election.

The Uzbekistan-born 60-year-old academic and former lawmaker had appealed the Central Election Commission’s final decision to bar him from the election.

TsIK, which routinely refuses to register would-be opposition candidates on the pretext that they submitted an insufficient number of valid signatures, disqualified thousands of signatures Nadezhdin's representatives gathered across the country to reach the 100,000-signature threshold needed to be registered as a candidate.

"The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation refused to satisfy my claim to challenge the refusal to register. I will appeal the decision within 5 days. On February 26, the Court will consider appeals on the first two claims," Nadezhdin said in a post on Telegram.

"I will not accept failure."

Last week the same court rejected two other appeals he filed over TsIK decisions related to the collection of signatures on petitions to register his candidacy. The decision on February 21 can be appealed to the Appeal Board of the Supreme Court.

The first appeal was related to the TsIK's explanation of its decision by the fact that many of Nadezhdin's representatives who collected the signatures had power of attorney papers certified by notary offices in regions other than the ones in which they were collecting signatures.

Nadezhdin insists that TsIK abused its powers because no Russian law says signature collectors' powers of attorney must be certified by notary offices in the same regions where the signatures are collected.

In his second appeal, Nadezhdin questioned the TsIK's documents on checking his supporters' signatures, saying the TsIK failed to add written conclusions of handwriting experts to its signatures’ inspection protocols.

Nadezhdin, who was proposed as a presidential candidate by the Civic Platform party, is the only politician with presidential ambitions who has publicly condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine and criticized incumbent Vladimir Putin. Russia's presidential election is scheduled to be held March 15-17.

Russian elections are tightly controlled by the Kremlin and are neither free nor fair but are viewed by the government as necessary to convey a sense of legitimacy.

They are mangled by the exclusion of opposition candidates, voter intimidation, ballot stuffing, and other means of manipulation.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin's tight grip on politics, media, law enforcement, and other levers means Putin, who has ruled Russia as president or prime minister since 1999, is certain to win, barring a very big, unexpected development.

But the surprising show of support for the little-known Nadezhdin, whose platform says the invasion of Ukraine was a "fatal mistake" and accuses Putin of dragging Russia into the past instead of building a sustainable future, is complicating the Kremlin's more aggressive ambition of boosting the perception of Putin's legitimacy.

Those who were expected to be Putin's main challengers currently are either incarcerated or fled the country, fearing for their safety.

Aleksei Navalny, a leading opposition voice who attempted to run against Putin in 2018, was barred by the TsIK over a conviction in a fraud case in what is widely seen as a politically motivated conviction.

Navalny died in prison on February 16 after he reportedly collapsed while being on a daily walk out of his cell. No official cause of death has been given by authorities, who have refused to turn the body over to family saying they will need two weeks to investigate "chemical forensics."

Soviet-Era Ukrainian Dissident, Politician Stepan Khmara Dies At 86

Stepan Khmara in Kyiv in 2016
Stepan Khmara in Kyiv in 2016

One of the most prominent Soviet-era dissidents of Ukraine, Stepan Khmara has died at age 86, his wife said on February 21 without giving the cause of death. Khmara was involved in human rights activities as a university student. In 1980 he was sentenced to seven years in prison on a charge of anti-Soviet propaganda. After his release in 1987, he co-founded Ukraine's Helsinki Committee and openly supported the idea of Ukraine's independence. Khmara was a lawmaker after Ukraine gained independence in 1991. In 2006 he was awarded the title Hero of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Russian Court Allows Government To Take Over Assets Of Nation's Biggest Auto Dealer

A Rolf dealership in St. Petersburg (file photo)
A Rolf dealership in St. Petersburg (file photo)

A court in St. Petersburg has allowed the government to take over the assets of the country's largest auto dealership, Rolf, founded by businessman Sergei Petrov. The court ruled on February 21 that the company’s shares owned by Delance and Rolf Motors, as well as all existing shares of Rolf Motors, Rolf Estate St. Petersburg, and Rolf Tech must be transferred to Russian government control. President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on temporarily putting Rolf under state management in December. The self-exiled Petrov called Putin's decree a manifestation of "lawlessness" at the time. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Proposed Law In Kazakhstan Would Bar Former President's Relatives From Burial At Pantheon

The idea to construct the Pantheon -- a public building housing the graves of prominent Kazakhs and a cemetery sitting on some 9,000 hectares of land near Astana, the capital -- caused controversy in Kazakh society when it was initiated by Nazarbaev's government in 2016.
The idea to construct the Pantheon -- a public building housing the graves of prominent Kazakhs and a cemetery sitting on some 9,000 hectares of land near Astana, the capital -- caused controversy in Kazakh society when it was initiated by Nazarbaev's government in 2016.

Amid ongoing efforts to further weaken former President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his associates, the Kazakh government has initiated amendments to the law on the Pantheon -- a burial site for the Central Asian nation's prominent figures -- that would remove Nazarbaev's relatives from the list of individuals who deserve to be buried at the pricey public site.

Media reports in Kazakhstan said on February 21 that the bill had been worked out by the Culture and Information Ministry.

The bill says relatives of all presidents, except their spouses, and other top officials, as well as laureates of the state Order of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Elbasy (National Leader) Nursultan Nazarbaev cannot be buried in the Pantheon.

The bill would reverse current law saying relatives of the first president of Kazakhstan, those of his successors, as well as relatives of the Constitutional Court's chairs and those of state secretaries have a right to be buried at the site.

The idea to construct the Pantheon -- a public building housing the graves of prominent Kazakhs and a cemetery sitting on some 9,000 hectares of land near Astana, the capital -- caused controversy in Kazakh society when it was initiated by Nazarbaev's government in 2016.

Many accused the government of misusing hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds and taxpayers' money amid an economic downfall, while others accused Nazarbaev of attempting to preserve the then-cemented cult of his personality even after his death.

The head of the Astana City Directorate for Land Issues, Toleughazy Nurkenov, said at the time that the move was needed "to implement the orders of the state leader [President Nazarbaev] regarding the construction of the National Pantheon and the necessity to set up a new city cemetery."

Nazarbaev, 83, and his inner circle lost power and influence after unprecedented anti-government protests in January 2022 that turned deadly after police and security forces opened fire on protesters.

Nazarbaev resigned as president in 2019, picking longtime ally Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev as his successor.

But he retained sweeping powers as head of the Security Council, enjoying the powers as "elbasy." Many of his relatives continued to hold important posts in the government, security agencies, and profitable energy groups.

The protests in January started over a fuel-price hike and spread across Kazakhstan amid widespread discontent over the cronyism that has long plagued the country. Toqaev subsequently stripped Nazarbaev of the Security Council role, taking it over himself.

Just days after the protests, several of Nazarbaev's relatives and those close to the family were pushed out of their positions or resigned. Some have been arrested on corruption charges.

Last year, Kazakh authorities annulled the Law on the First President -- the Leader of the Nation (Elbasy), depriving Nazarbaev's immediate family members of legal immunity.

Also in January 2023, parliament canceled Nazarbaev’s status of lifetime honorable member of the parliament’s upper chamber, the Senate.

In the last several months, Nazarbaev’s monument was removed from a site in front of the National Defense Ministry in Astana, his large portrait was removed from the Almaty metro, and his another monument in the atrium of the National Museum was also dismantled.

With reporting by KazTAG and Tengrinews

Zelenskiy Calls On Polish, EU Leaders To Meet At Ukrainian-Polish Border Amid Tension

A banner on a tractor reads "Putin, sort out Ukraine, Brussels, and our government" as part of an ongoing protest by Polish farmers at the Ukraine border on February 20.
A banner on a tractor reads "Putin, sort out Ukraine, Brussels, and our government" as part of an ongoing protest by Polish farmers at the Ukraine border on February 20.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 21 called on Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, President Andrzej Duda, and members of the European Commission to meet with him and members of his government at the Ukrainian-Polish border by February 24 amid ongoing tension caused by Polish farmers' protests against Ukrainian food imports that they say are impacting the prices of their own output. Zelenskiy stressed that the issue must be addressed as soon as possible, saying it could affect national security.

Dodik Doubles Down On Refusal To Join Sanctions Against Moscow In Meeting With Putin

Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kazan, Russia, on February 21.
Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kazan, Russia, on February 21.

Milorad Dodik, the pro-Russia president of the Serbian entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 21 and reaffirmed the entity's refusal to join Western sanctions against Moscow over its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, said he "confirmed the good relations" that Republika Srpska has "with the Russian state and with you" at the meeting in the Russian republic of Tatarstan.

"What we are doing in the current circumstances is that we reject any possibility of joining Western sanctions against Russia," Dodik added, according to Radio-Television of Republika Srpska (RTRS), the Bosnian entity's public broadcaster.

It was Dodik's fourth meeting with Putin since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

Dodik is under U.S. and U.K. sanctions for his alleged obstruction of the Dayton agreement and violating the legitimacy of Bosnia. He has spent the past two years attempting to erode central Bosnian authority and establishing parallel institutions to further his longtime threats to divide the country for good, receiving harsh rebukes from Western officials.

The Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Bosnia told RFE/RL that Bosnia "has undertaken to follow the security and foreign policy guidelines of the EU" as a candidate country for membership.

"This excludes cooperation with countries that are under sanctions, as well as personal meetings with the heads of those countries," the OHR said.

In addition to its EU candidate status, granted in December 2022, Bosnia as a nation has joined the EU sanctions against Moscow. However, the implementation has faced obstacles due to the obstruction by Republika Srpska officials led by Dodik.

Dodik is among the few Western Balkan officials to engage in talks with Russian and Belarusian counterparts despite Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Putin said Dodik's visit would be "useful" and expressed gratitude for regular contacts, Republika Srpska news agency SRNA reported.

"Representatives of the [Republika Srpska] leadership visit us regularly. We cooperate with you in various fields," Putin said, according to SRNA. "I am sure that this visit will also be useful, and that we will use the time to discuss bilateral relations in a whole range of areas."

He added that "Russia knows that the situation is not simple."

Dodik and Putin last met in Moscow in May 2023, when Dodik said Republika Srpska "remains pro-Russian, anti-Western, and anti-American."

European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi warned then that EU allies "don't go to Russia."

Dodik arrived in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, after a two-day visit to Belarus that included a meeting with Belarusian authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Minsk on February 19.

Lukashenka and his allies are isolated and under a series of Western sanctions over the brutal crackdown on mass protests that followed Lukashenka's disputed reelection in 2020 and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

With reporting by Goran Katic

Navalny's Mother Files Lawsuit Over Demanding Release His Body, Court Sets March 4 Hearing Date

Lyudmila Navalnaya, the mother of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, delivers a video address to Russian President Vladimir Putin as she stands near the Arctic Polar Wolf prison on February 20.
Lyudmila Navalnaya, the mother of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, delivers a video address to Russian President Vladimir Putin as she stands near the Arctic Polar Wolf prison on February 20.

Lyudmila Navalnaya, the mother of late opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, has filed a lawsuit in a Russian court demanding the release of her son's body as outrage mounts over the authorities' handling of Navalny's death in an Arctic prison.

A court in the Arctic region of Yamalo-Nenets said on February 21 that a hearing into complaint will be held on March 4. Navalny died in prison on February 16 but officials have repeatedly refused to return the body to his family claiming that an "investigation" into the cause of death would take up to two weeks.

If the full two weeks are taken to examine Navalny's body, it wouldn't be released until March 4.

Navalnaya has been trying to get access to her son's body since his death in a prison of special regime, the harshest type of penitentiary in Russia, was announced. Prison officials said the 47-year-old died after he collapsed while being on a daily walk out of his cell.

The Salekhard City Court told TASS news agency that the March 4 hearing set for Navalnaya's lawsuit will be held behind closed doors. Navalny, 47, died in the town of Kharp near Salekhard.

On February 20, Navalnaya posted a video on social media taken from outside the so-called Polar Wolf prison's razor-wire topped fence pleading with President Vladimir Putin for his help.

"I'm reaching out to you, Vladimir Putin. The resolution of this matter depends solely on you. Let me finally see my son. I demand that Aleksei's body is released immediately, so that I can bury him like a human being," she said in the video.

A day before that, Navalny's widow, Yulia Navalnaya, accused Putin of killing her husband and accused officials of "cowardly and meanly hiding his body, refusing to give it to his mother and lying miserably.”

The Kremlin has rejected any accusations of a role or subsequent coverup in the death of Putin's most vocal critic.

Penitentiary officials told Navalnaya that her son's body was in a morgue in Salekhard, but the morgue turned out to be closed that evening, while its employees told Navalnaya that they do not have her son's body. A day later Navalnaya again came to the morgue, but was not allowed to enter it.

The Investigative Committee said the investigation of her son's death was extended as investigators were conducting "chemical forensics" on Navalny's body.

'Putin's Nemesis' Is Dead. Will Aleksei Navalny Still Figure In Russia's Future?
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Navalny's self-exiled associate Ivan Zhdanov said on February 19 that Navalny's body may be held by the authorities for a fortnight, adding that the goal of the investigation's extension was "to cover up the crime."

The OVD-Info human rights group, however, said Russian laws may allow the Investigative Committee to hold Navalny's body for up to 30 days.

Since the announcement of his death, Russian police have cordoned off memorial sites where people were laying flowers and candles to honor Navalny, and dispersed and arrested hundreds of suspected violators in dozens of cities.

Six residents of Russia's second largest city, St. Petersburg, who served several days in jail for laying flowers at a makeshift memorial honoring Navalny were handed written summons on February 21 saying they must report to a military recruitment center.

OVD-Info said that as of February 21, 397 people across 39 cities in Russia have been detained for commemorating Navalny since his death.

With reporting by TASS

Kazakh Lawmakers Approve In First Reading Bill On Life Imprisonment For Pedophiles, Child Murderers

The lower chamber of Kazakhstan's parliament, the Mazhilis (file photo)
The lower chamber of Kazakhstan's parliament, the Mazhilis (file photo)

Members of Kazakh parliament's lower chamber, Mazhilis, on February 21, approved the first reading of a bill that would allow life imprisonment for individuals convicted of pedophilia and/or the murder of children. The bill comes after President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev ordered in his address to the nation in September 2023 that such legislation was needed, the parliament's press service said. The bill also toughens the punishment for assaulting and beating children and "helpless" people. Toqaev initiated the bill amid an outcry by human rights groups about a rise in domestic violence in the Central Asian nation. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Jailed Kyrgyz Rights Defender Anvar Sartaev Transferred To House Arrest

Bishkek City Court (file photo)
Bishkek City Court (file photo)

The Bishkek City Court ruled to transfer to house arrest rights defender Anvar Sartaev, who was detained earlier on charges of calling for mass unrest, violent acts against citizens, and disobedience to the orders of authorities. On February 1, a lower court sent Sartaev to a pretrial detention center until at least April 1. It remains unknown what the charges stem from. Sartaev is known for his activities monitoring the rights of current and former military personnel. He unsuccessfully tried to get elected to the post of the country's ombudsman in 2015 and took part in parliamentary elections in 2017. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Britain Slaps Sanctions On Chiefs Of Arctic Prison Where Navalny Died

Britain's Foreign Secretary David Cameron
Britain's Foreign Secretary David Cameron

Britain on February 21 sanctioned six individuals running the Russian Arctic prison where the death of Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny was announced on February 16. Those sanctioned -- the camp's head, Colonel Vadim Kalinin, and his five deputies -- will be banned from Britain and have their assets frozen, the Foreign Office said. "Navalny suffered from being denied medical treatment, as well as having to walk in [minus] 32 [degree Celsius] weather while being held in the prison," the statement said. "Those responsible for Navalny’s brutal treatment should be under no illusion -- we will hold them accountable," Foreign Secretary David Cameron said.

Iran Blames Israel For Explosions At Gas Pipelines That Disrupted Supplies

The explosion of a gas pipeline in Iran earlier this month.
The explosion of a gas pipeline in Iran earlier this month.

Iranian Oil Minister Javad Owji has blamed Israel for a spate of recent explosions that disrupted gas transmission lines in two of Iran’s provinces, incidents that have heightened tensions further between the two rivals.

Speaking to reporters on February 21, Owji described the incidents as a deliberate act orchestrated by Israel, aimed at undermining Iran's domestic gas supply in major provinces. Owji provided no evidence to support his claims.

Israeli authorities have not made any public statements regarding the allegations.

The February 14 explosions targeted the country's national gas lines, leading to severe disruptions in the flow of gas to at least five Iranian provinces. The sound of the blasts was reported in Fars, Chaharmahal, and Bakhtiari provinces, with the national gas company characterizing the incidents as "sabotage and terrorist acts" targeting two main pipelines.

In a report on February 16, The New York Times cited two Western officials and a military expert linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as saying it was possible Israel was behind not only the pipeline explosions but also a separate incident at a chemical factory in west Tehran.

Israeli officials also have not commented on the factory incident.

Owji said the damaged gas lines have been repaired.

Iran and Israel have been engaged in a years-long shadow war. Tensions between Iran and Israel, its regional foe, have been exacerbated by the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

The collapse of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers has also added to regional tensions as Tehran reduces its commitments and expands its nuclear activities.

Talks to revive the deal that curbs Iran's sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions have been deadlocked.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Czechs Extradite Suspect In Iran-Backed Murder Plot To United States

Polad Omarov
Polad Omarov

The Czech Republic on February 21 extradited to the United States a Georgian wanted in connection with a plot to assassinate a dissident Iranian journalist in New York. The U.S. Department of Justice says Polad Omarov helped to organise the attempted assassination of Masih Alinejad at her New York home in 2022. He and suspected gang leader Rafat Amirov are accused of hiring U.S. citizen Khalid Mehdiyev and sending him $30,000 for her murder.
Czech police detained Omarov in January 2023 under an international arrest warrant and the Constitutional Court later rejected his appeal against extradition to the United States.


Russian Authorities Release Azerbaijani Fitness Trainer Detained At Yerevan's Request

Azerbaijani fitness trainer Kamil Zeynalli
Azerbaijani fitness trainer Kamil Zeynalli

Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry said on February 21 that Russian authorities released Azerbaijani fitness trainer Kamil Zeynalli, who was detained hours earlier at a Moscow airport at Armenia's request. Armenian Interior Ministry spokesman Narek Sarkisian told RFE/RL earlier that Zeynalli is wanted in Armenia on murder charges. RFE/RL's Armenian Service cited sources as saying Zeynalli is suspected of killing two people in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 during the war over the then-breakaway region. Azerbaijan recaptured Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023, 30 years after the region was taken under ethnic-Armenian control. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, click here. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, click here.

EU Approves 'One Of Broadest' Sanctions Packages Against Russia So Far

The European Union has approved a new package of sanctions against Russia, its 13th since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago, in what the bloc's rotating president Belgium said was "one of the broadest approved by the EU."

The new package, agreed on February 21, will add nearly 200 more entities and individuals to the list and will include restrictions aimed at blocking the purchase of "drone components that end up in the Russian military complex and then on the battlefield in Ukraine," EU diplomats were quoted as saying, adding that the list includes several Russian companies, as well as third countries.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

The Belgian presidency said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that the package will be formally approved for February 24, the second anniversary of the start of Russia's invasion.

RFE/RL journalists who saw the sanctions lists as it was being prepared for publication said sectoral sanctions apply to 27 companies, among them some from China, India, Turkey, Serbia, and Kazakhstan.

The EU ambassadors also reportedly rejected an attempt by Hungary to strike down the names of three Russian oligarchs -- Alisher Usmanov, Vyacheslav Kantor, and Dmitry Mazepin, Jr. -- from the lists.

The list includes the names of 48 heads of military companies as well as more than 50 companies that produce heavy and light weaponry and their components as well as IT and logistics firms that cooperate with the Russian Defense Ministry and the firms' chiefs.

It also includes 12 individuals who hold self-styled positions of judges and ministers in the Russian-imposed institutions in occupied territories in Ukraine.

Among them is Valentina Lavryk, the so-called minister of education, science, and youth in occupied Crimea, who "controls the implementation of the militarization of education for Ukrainian children in...Crimea, as well as the suppression of the Ukrainian language and culture for these children," according to the document that justifies the sanctions.

Lavryk, the document adds, was "responsible for the coordination and supervision of the transfer of children from the illegally occupied regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya to camps located in Crimea," the document says.

The list also includes the so-called acting ministers of health, labor, education, youth policies, and industry of the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine's Kherson region.

With reporting by Reuters

Blogger Who Revealed Russian Military Losses In Avdiyivka Reportedly Commits Suicide

Friends of noted Russian blogger Aleksandr Morozov said on February 21 that he committed suicide after citing unnamed sources online saying that Russian troops might have lost up to 16,000 troops while fighting for the Ukrainian city of Avdiyivka. A day earlier, Morozov, who has been fighting along Russia-backed separatists and Russian troops in Ukraine's east since 2014, wrote on Telegram that his military commanders forced him to delete the post about Russian losses. On February 17, Ukrainian forces withdrew from Avdiyivka after four months of a brutal battle with Russian soldiers. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Russian Weekly Pays Tribute To Navalny, Prints His Image On Front Page

Aleksei Navalny
Aleksei Navalny

The Russian weekly Sobesednik has dedicated part of its latest issue, including the front page, to Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny, whose death in a remote Arctic prison camp was announced on February 16.

A photograph depicting a smiling Navalny has been printed on the front page accompanied by the caption, “...but there is hope!”

The articles include reports of the spontaneous commemorations of Navalny's death in several Russian cities and a commentary by 2021 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Dmitry Muratov.

Most printed media in Russia have ignored the news of the opposition leader's death.

More Than 45,000 Russian Soldiers Believed Killed Since Start Of Ukraine War

A dead Russian soldier at the front line in the Donetsk region on September 16
A dead Russian soldier at the front line in the Donetsk region on September 16

At least 45,123 Russian troops have been killed since the start of Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago, according to research by journalists from Mediazona and the BBC's Russian Service who have established the deceased soldiers' identities.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

Two-thirds of all confirmed dead -- volunteers, conscripts, ex-inmates, and fighters from private military companies -- were not connected to the military before the start of the invasion, researchers found.

The number includes 5,406 mobilized soldiers, 80 percent of whom were killed in the second year of the war.

Krasnodar, Sverdlovsk, Bashkortostan, and Chelyabinsk are the regions with the highest number of dead.

Journalists have identified 27,906 Russian soldiers killed last year -- 57 percent more than the confirmed losses in the first year of the invasion.

From October last year until this month -- roughly the period during which Russian forces advanced on the industrial city of Avdiyivka and in neighboring areas in the Donetsk region -- researchers confirmed the deaths of 6,614 Russian soldiers. Avdiyivka fell to Moscow's forces last week.

The journalists based their research on data from open sources such as obituaries in the media, messages on social networks by relatives of the victims, reports from local administrations, as well as data from cemeteries. The researchers say that the actual figures could be at least twice as high.

The Russian Defense Ministry does not disclose data on personnel losses and does not comment on figures reported by journalists.

In January, CIA Director Willam Burns said in an article published by the magazine Foreign Affairs that at least 315,000 Russian soldiers had been wounded or killed during the war in Ukraine.

Lukashenka Wants Armed Police Patrols In Belarusian Cities, Vows Measures Against 'Extremism'

Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a meeting with the leadership of the state security agencies in Minsk on February 20.
Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a meeting with the leadership of the state security agencies in Minsk on February 20.

Strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka has urged police forces to send out patrols armed "at least with pistols" in Belarusian cities to better protect citizens against "crimes of an extremist nature." "Today, this is the most important aspect of maintaining law and order -- stopping the actions of scumbags and preventing the 'misguided,'" Lukashenka said at meeting with Belarusian security bodies on February 20. According to official figures, more than 1,300 "extremism" cases were tried by courts last year in Belarus, dubbed by Western diplomats as Europe's last dictatorship. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.


Some 60 Russian Troops Reportedly Killed By Strike While Waiting In Formation

Smoke rises from the site of a Russian missile strike that hit a water purifying station in Kramatorsk on February 20.
Smoke rises from the site of a Russian missile strike that hit a water purifying station in Kramatorsk on February 20.

A Ukrainian strike on a training ground in Moscow-occupied Donetsk has killed at least 60 Russian troops, the BBC's Russian Service quoted sources as saying.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

Russian soldiers from the 36th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade had been lined up and were waiting for the arrival of Major General Oleg Moiseyev, the commander of the 29th Russian Army, when the strike occurred on February 20, the report said.

Ukraine has not commented on the report.

Pro-Russian social media outlets posted videos and photos purportedly showing dozens of uniformed dead bodies, accusing Moiseyev of making soldiers stand in line waiting for his arrival when they were hit. sian and Ukrainian services)

Meanwhile, three civilians were killed and 13 others were wounded by Russian shelling of three eastern Ukrainian regions, local authorities reported on February 21.

One person was killed in Kramatorsk, in the Donetsk region, while eight others were wounded, regional Governor Vadym Filashkin said.

In the Kharkiv region, two farmers were instantly killed when their car was struck in the village of Petropavlivka in the Kupyansk district, while one woman was wounded, regional Governor Oleh Synyehubov said.

In the Kherson region, four people were wounded in Russian shelling, mortar, and drone strikes, local authorities reported.

Air-defense forces shot down 13 out of 19 drones launched by Russia at four Ukrainian regions early on February 21, Ukraine's Air Force reported, adding that one S-300 missile and four Kh-22 cruise missiles were also destroyed.

The drones were downed in the Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya and Donetsk regions, the air force said.

It said that some of the remaining six drones did not reach their targets.

The four Kh-22 cruise missiles were shot down in the central Poltava region.

Rivals Of Pakistan's Ex-PM Khan Reach Agreement To Form Government

Shehbaz Sharif (file photo)
Shehbaz Sharif (file photo)

The political rivals of Pakistan’s imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan announced details of a power-sharing agreement late on February 20, naming Shehbaz Sharif as their candidate for prime minister. The announcement followed days of talks among the leadership of the Pakistan Muslim League, the Pakistan People’s Party, and other parties that did not gain enough seats in the February 8 vote to govern on their own. They said at a news conference that they had secured the required majority to form a coalition government.

Russian Foreign Minister Visits Venezuela, Reaffirms Support For Maduro

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (right) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Caracas on February 20.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (right) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Caracas on February 20.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reaffirmed his government’s support for the administration of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, expressing during a visit to Caracas on February 20 Moscow's commitment to strategic cooperation in numerous sectors. Lavrov’s meetings with Venezuela’s vice president and foreign minister took place as Venezuela's government and a U.S.-backed faction of the opposition negotiate conditions for a presidential election later this year. During the negotiation process, which has been guided by Norwegian diplomats, Russia has completely backed the Venezuelan government. In addition, unconditional support from Russia and China has allowed Venezuela to circumvent U.S. economic sanctions on Russia.

Estonia Detains 10 People Suspected Of Committing Sabotage On Orders From Russia

Estonian Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets
Estonian Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets

Estonia’s domestic security agency said on February 20 that it has apprehended 10 people suspected of sabotage in the Baltic country in a coordinated “hybrid operation” by Russia’s special services. Among the suspects detained since December are individuals believed to have broken the car windows of Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets and a journalist, the Estonian Internal Security Service said. Information collected thus far indicates that “the Russian special service had coordinated a hybrid operation against the security of [Estonia]” aimed at spreading fear and creating tension in society, the security service said.

Rights Group Says Number Of Christians Arrested In Iran On The Rise

Christians are recognized as one of three religious minorities in the Islamic republic's constitution. (file photo)
Christians are recognized as one of three religious minorities in the Islamic republic's constitution. (file photo)

The number of Christians arrested in Iran jumped sharply in the last six months of 2023, according to a religious rights group, which called on the government to “immediately and unconditionally” release all Christians detained on charges relating to their faith and religious activities.

The report, released by Article 18, a rights organization focused on the protection of Christians, showed 166 Christians were detained last year, an increase from the 134 arrests recorded in 2022.

The group said that while the first half of the year saw only a "handful" of arrests, a worrying trend was that from June to August there were 100 arrests and then "a further rash" of detentions around the Christmas period.

"Very few of those arrested agreed to publicize their cases, leading to an increasing number of faceless victims,” Article 18 said.

Christians are recognized as one of three religious minorities in the Islamic republic's constitution. Despite this, the report notes, the Iranian government has harshly punished Muslims who convert to Christianity or those involved in promoting and teaching religions other than Islam.

The findings are part of a collaborative 40-page investigation by Article 18, in partnership with global Christian organizations Middle East Concern, Open Doors, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

The report showed that in 2023 at least 17 Christians arrested during the summer had been sentenced to prison terms of three to five years. Others faced penalties including fines, whipping, and community service, it added.

Authorities appeared to target distributors of the Bible, with more than one-third of those detained found in possession of multiple copies of the publication.

The report urges the government to "immediately and unconditionally" release the jailed Christians and to ensure the freedom of worship for the faith's followers without the threat of arrest or legal action.

In the face of such pressures, numerous Christians, particularly new converts, have been compelled to flee Iran, seeking asylum in other nations to escape the restrictions and persecution faced at home.

This situation underscores the ongoing challenges faced by religious minorities in Iran amid calls for greater religious freedom and international scrutiny of the country's human rights practices.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Russia Adds Navalny's Self-Exiled Brother To Its 'Wanted List' Again

Oleg Navalny in 2018
Oleg Navalny in 2018

Russia's Interior Ministry on February 20 again added self-exiled Oleg Navalny, a younger brother of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who died in Russian prison last week, to it "wanted list" on unspecified charges.

The last time the ministry added Oleg Navalny to its wanted list was in January 2022 after penitentiary service officials demanded a one-year suspended prison term handed to Oleg Navalny in 2021 on a charge of violating COVID-19 prevention regulations be turned into a real prison term.

In February 2022, a Moscow court approved the penitentiary service officials' demand, but Oleg Navalny had fled Russia by that time. That request was canceled later, most likely because time ran out under the statute of limitations.

Oleg Navalny's current whereabouts are unknown. He was given the one-year suspended prison sentence after a court in Moscow in August 2021 found him guilty of publicly calling for the violation of coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

He and his supporters called the sentence politically motivated.

In 2014, Oleg and Aleksei Navalny were convicted of stealing about $500,000 from two Russian firms, one of which was affiliated with the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher, and of laundering some of the money.

Both were sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison, but Aleksei's sentence was suspended at the time. The brothers denied the charges, saying the case was politically motivated -- in part as an effort to turn Oleg Navalny into a "hostage" who could be used to blackmail his brother into refraining from his political and anti-corruption activism.

In late June 2018, Oleg Navalny was released from prison after serving a 3 1/2-year prison term.

His eldest brother, an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin and his government, died last week in a notorious Polar Wolf prison in the remote Yamalo-Nenets autonomous region in the Arctic, where he was transferred in December after a court extended his prison term to 19 years on extremism charges which Aleksei Navalny and his associates rejected, calling them politically motivated.

Best Way To Honor Navalny, NATO Chief Says, Is Ensuring Russia's Defeat In Ukraine

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg speaks to RFE/RL's Zoriana Stepanenko in Brussels.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg speaks to RFE/RL's Zoriana Stepanenko in Brussels.

BRUSSELS -- NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the death of Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and the first Russian gains on the battlefield in months should help focus the attention of NATO and its allies on the urgent need to support Ukraine.

According to excerpts from an interview Stoltenberg had in Brussels with RFE/RL on February 20, the NATO chief said the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from the city of Avdiyivka after months of intense fighting demonstrates the need for more military aid “to ensure that Russia doesn’t make further gains.”

The death of Navalny in an Arctic prison on February 16 under suspicious circumstances -- authorities say it will be another two weeks before the body may be released to the family -- adds to the need to ensure Russian President Vladimir Putin's authoritarian rule does not go unchecked.

“I strongly believe that the best way to honor the memory of Aleksei Navalny is to ensure that President Putin doesn't win on the battlefield, but that Ukraine prevails,” Stoltenberg said in the interview, a full version of which will be released on February 23.

Stoltenberg: Best Way To Honor Navalny Is To Make Sure Russia Does Not Win In Ukraine
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Ukraine’s allies have been focused on a $61 billion U.S. military aid package, Stoltenberg said, but while that remains stalled in the House of Representatives, other countries, including Sweden, Canada, and Japan, have stepped up their aid.

Sweden announced its 15th aid package and largest to date since Russia launched its full-scale invasion two years ago. Worth 7.1 billion Swedish kroner ($684 million), the package will provide combat boats, mines, artillery ammunition, and air-defense equipment, among other items, Sweden’s defense minister announced.

Canada's Defense Department said on February 19 it would expedite the delivery of more than 800 drones, adding in a statement that drones have become a critical capability for Ukraine in the war. They will cost more than $95 million Canadian ($70 million) and are part of a previously announced military aid package for Ukraine. Deliveries will start as early as this spring, the statement said.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

The additional aid from Tokyo amounts to $106 million to aid Ukraine’s reconstruction from war damages, including areas such as demining and infrastructure.

“Of course, we are focused on the United States, but we also see how other allies are really stepping up and delivering significant support to Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said.

On the question of when Ukraine will be able to deploy F-16 fighter jets, Stoltenberg said it was not possible to say. He reiterated that Ukraine’s allies all want them to be there as early as possible but said the effect of the F-16s will be stronger if pilots are well-trained and maintenance crews and other support personnel are well-prepared.

“So, I think we have to listen to the military experts exactly when we will be ready to or when allies will be ready to start sending and delivering the F-16s,” he said. “The sooner the better.”

Ukraine has actively sought the U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to help it counter Russian air superiority. The United States in August approved sending F-16s to Ukraine from Denmark and the Netherlands as soon as pilot training is completed.

It will be up to each ally to decide whether to deliver F-16s to Ukraine, and allies have different policies, Stoltenberg said. But at the same time, the war in Ukraine is a war of aggression, he said, and Ukraine has the right to self-defense, including striking legitimate Russian military targets outside Ukraine.

Asked about the prospect of former U.S. President Donald Trump returning to the White House, Stoltenberg said he believes that, regardless of the outcome of the U.S. election this year, the United States will remain a committed NATO ally because it is in the security interest of the United States.

Trump, the current front-runner in the race to become the Republican Party's presidential nominee, drew sharp rebukes from President Joe Biden, European leaders, and NATO after suggesting at a campaign rally on February 10 that the United States might not defend alliance members from a potential Russian invasion if they don’t pay enough for their own defense.

Stoltenberg said the United States is safer and stronger together with more than 30 allies -- something that neither China nor Russia has.

The criticism of NATO has been aimed at allies underspending on defense, he said. But Stoltenberg said new data shows that more and more NATO allies are meeting the target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, and this demonstrates that the alliance has come a long way since it pledged in 2014 to meet the target.

At that time, only three members of NATO spent 2 percent of GDP on defense; now it’s 18, he said.

“If you add together what all European allies do and compare that to the GDP in total in Europe, it's actually 2 percent today,” he said. “That's good, but it's not enough because we want [each NATO member] to spend 2 percent. And we also make sure that 2 percent is a minimum."

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