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Biden's 2023 Budget Proposal Sees Another $6.9 Billion For Ukraine, NATO

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a child as he visits Ukrainian refugees at a stadium in Warsaw on March 26.

U.S. President Joe Biden has proposed spending another $6.9 billion to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia's unprovoked invasion and bolster European security through NATO.

The White House said in a statement outlining the 2023 budget that the funds would be used to "enhance the capabilities and readiness of U.S. forces, NATO allies, and regional partners in the face of Russian aggression."

"I'm calling for continued investment to forcefully respond to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's aggression against Ukraine with U.S. support for Ukraine's economic, humanitarian, and security needs," Biden said in the statement on March 28.

Overall Biden's budget proposal sees $5.8 trillion in federal spending in fiscal 2023, which begins in October, slightly less than what was projected to be spent this year before a supplemental spending bill was signed into law this month.

The deficit for 2023 would be $1.15 trillion, "cutting in half the deficit from the last year of the previous administration and delivering the largest one-year reduction in the deficit in U.S. history.”

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Romania Soccer Association Sanctioned Over 'Serbia' Chants In Kosovo Match

Romanian fans hold up a banner reading "Kosovo is Serbia" at the Euro 2024 qualifier match against Kosovo in Bucharest on September 12.

UEFA has sanctioned the Romanian soccer federation (FRF) over pro-Serbia chanting by supporters during a Euro 2024 qualifier against Kosovo last week, European soccer's governing body said. The September 12 match in Bucharest was suspended for 50 minutes after some home fans chanted "Serbia, Serbia" and held up a banner saying "Kosovo is Serbia." Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and won recognition from more than 100 countries, but not from Romania. UEFA fined the FRF 40,000 euros ($42,540) and ordered Romania's next home game, a Euro qualifier against Andorra on October 15 in Bucharest, to be played without fans. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Poland No Longer Arming Ukraine, Says PM Morawiecki

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki

Poland says it will no longer arm Ukraine and will instead focus on its own defense, as the two allies clashed at a key moment in Kyiv's fightback against invasion by Russia. In a mounting row over grain exports from Ukraine, Poland summoned the Ukrainian ambassador on September 20 to protest remarks at the UN by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The Ukrainian leader said some countries were only pretending to support his nation. Asked about the dispute, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said, "We are no longer transferring weapons to Ukraine, because we are now arming Poland with more modern weapons."

Azerbaijani, Nagorno-Karabakh Sides To Meet On 'Integration' As Cease-Fire Appears To Hold

A protester holds up an Armenian flag in front of police officers during a rally in Yerevan on September 20 to support ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Representatives of Azerbaijan and the ethnic Armenian leadership of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh are gathering in western Azerbaijan on September 21 for "reintegration" talks as Baku seeks to consolidate gains from a 24-hour military offensive that dramatically shifted political calculations in the Caucasus.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev told his oil- and gas-rich nation of 10 million after a Russian-brokered cease-fire halted intense fighting on September 20 that he had "restored its sovereignty."

He praised the lightning operation to dislodge the territory's de facto leadership nearly three years after another offensive retook many areas controlled for decades by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support, saying, "In just one day, Azerbaijan fulfilled all the tasks set as part of local anti-terrorist measures."

The breakaway leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory internationally recognized as Azerbaijani that Armenians call Artsakh, was forced to acquiesce to Baku's terms for the cease-fire as more numerous and better-supplied Azerbaijani forces armed with artillery and drones quickly tallied victories after the surprise offensive began on September 19, with Russian peacekeepers seemingly unprepared or unwilling to act.

A rights ombudsman for Nagorno-Karabakh, Gegham Stepanian, has said that at least 200 people were killed and about twice as many wounded during the fighting, including children.

WATCH: Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh say they have agreed to a Russian-brokered cease-fire after Azerbaijan launched a fresh offensive in the region. Under the terms of the deal, ethnic Armenians said they had agreed to the region's reintegration into Azerbaijan.

Cease-Fire Called In Nagorno-Karabakh As Ethnic Armenians Agree To Discuss 'Reintegration' Into Azerbaijan
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Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian appeared to have been caught off guard by the Azerbaijani offensive, and he has since emphasized that his government was not involved in shaping the terms of the cease-fire. But he welcomed the end of intense fighting.

Representatives of Azerbaijan and the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh agreed to meet on September 21 in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlax, about 265 kilometers west of Baku, as part of the truce for what the Azerbaijani side calls talks on "reintegration" of the territory into the rest of the country after decades of occupation.

"The day is not far off when Azerbaijan and Armenia will settle the issues between them, sign a peace treaty, and the countries of the South Caucasus will start working on future cooperation in a trilateral format," Aliyev said in his address to the nation, in a reference that also included Georgia.

He said of Armenia that Azerbaijan "recognize[s] their territorial integrity."

The Kremlin has said Russian peacekeepers will mediate the talks.

"The integration plan of Karabakh Armenians is ready," Hikmet Hajiyev, assistant to the president of Azerbaijan, told reporters at a briefing organized for accredited foreign diplomats in Baku.

Thousands of ethnic Armenians converged on the airport of Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto capital, Stepanakert, on September 20 seeking protection and possible transport to Armenia amid uncertainty over the fighting and the cease-fire that was proffered by Russian peacekeepers on distinctly Azerbaijani terms.

Russia has said its peacekeepers have "taken in" about 5,000 Karabakh residents.

But the truce appeared to be holding early on September 21.

The White House has expressed concern about a possible humanitarian and refugee crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh and placed the blame on Baku for the situation.

"We're obviously still watching very, very closely the worsening humanitarian situation inside Nagorno-Karabakh," White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

Azerbaijani leaders vowed to allow “safe passage" to Armenia for the separatist forces of the region as part of the agreement to halt fighting, putting a halt to the long struggle for ethnic Armenians seeking independence or attachment to Armenia for the territory.

"Safe passage to appropriate assembly points will also be provided by the Azerbaijani side," Aliyev adviser Hajiyev told reporters. "All the actions on the ground are coordinated with Russian peacekeepers."

The European Union called on Aliyev to protect the rights of ethnic-Armenians in region and “to ensure full cease-fire and safe, dignified treatment by Azerbaijan of Karabakh Armenians.”

“Their human rights and security need to be ensured. Access needed for immediate humanitarian assistance," EU chief Charles Michel said he told the Aliyev in a phone call.

Authorities in Armenia accused Baku of attempting ethnic cleansing with their actions in Karabakh.

Scuffles, Protests In Yerevan After Azerbaijan Attack In Nagorno-Karabakh
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Separately, the Russian Defense Ministry said late on September 20 that an unknown number of its peacekeepers had been killed when the vehicle they were in was fired upon in the region. Details remained scarce in the incident.

The quickly changing situation is a blow to Armenians who have made control of Nagorno-Karabakh a nationalist priority since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Yerevan saw a second successive night of anti-government protests after the cease-fire.

As part of the truce, Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto leadership said that "issues raised by the Azerbaijani side on reintegration, ensuring the rights and security of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh...will be discussed at a meeting between representatives of the local Armenian population and the central authorities of the Republic of Azerbaijan."

In addition to a suspension of fighting and some sort of integration effort, the cease-fire proposal reportedly includes a commitment for a pullout of any "remaining units of the armed forces of Armenia," the withdrawal and destruction of any heavy military equipment from the territory, and the disbandment of the so-called Artsakh Defense Army established by ethnic Armenians in the early 1990s at an early phase of the conflict.

The UN Security Council's rotating Albanian chairmanship scheduled an emergency meeting for September 21 to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting.

After weeks of bloody skirmishes and one day after an aid shipment was finally allowed into the area, Azerbaijan launched the major escalation on September 19 with the breakaway region already teetering on the brink of a humanitarian crisis after being essentially blockaded for more than eight months despite international calls for Baku to allow food and other shipments.

The shelling started shortly after Azerbaijan blamed what it called "Armenian sabotage groups" for two separate explosions that killed at least four military personnel and two civilians in areas of Nagorno-Karabakh that are under the control of Russian peacekeepers.

Those peacekeepers are in place since a cease-fire that ended six weeks of fighting in 2020 in which Azerbaijan recaptured much of the territory and seven surrounding districts controlled since the 1990s by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support.

Iran's President Says U.S. Should Ease Sanctions To Demonstrate It Wants To Return To Nuclear Deal

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 19.

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi said on September 20 that relations with the United States can move forward if the Biden administration demonstrates it wants to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, and a first step should be easing sanctions. He told a news conference that the Americans have reached out through several channels “saying they wish to have a dialogue, but we do believe that it must be accompanied by action.” “So talk alone is not going to do it,” Raisi said. But action on sanctions can be “a solid foundation for continuing” discussions. The Iranian leader added: “We have not left the table of negotiations.” To read the original story by AP, click here.

U.S. Lawmakers Call For Kremlin Critic Kara-Murza To Be Designated 'Wrongfully Detained'

A Moscow court in April jailed Kara-Murza, a U.S. permanent resident, for 25 years, the harshest sentence of its kind since Russia invaded Ukraine.

U.S. lawmakers on September 21 called on the Biden administration to formally designate jailed Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza, a U.S. permanent resident, as "wrongfully detained" in hopes it will help secure his release. A Moscow court in April jailed Kara-Murza, 42, for 25 years, the harshest sentence of its kind since Russia invaded Ukraine. He was convicted of treason and other offences in a trial he said was politically motivated. U.S. officials have condemned his detention as politically motivated and called for his release, but a formal designation of wrongful detention would mobilize U.S. government resources and involve the presidential envoy for hostage affairs in the case. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

U.S. Urges Kosovo, Serbia To 'Fully Implement' Obligations After Talks Fail

U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Jeffrey Hovenier warned both countries risk losing opportunities to progress in their goal of joining the bloc if compromises aren’t found. 

PRISTINA -- The United States expects both Kosovo and Serbia to “fully implement” all of their obligations and commitments to normalized relations and mutual recognition.

Speaking to RFE/RL in an interview a week after EU-mediated talks between Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Brussels, U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Jeffrey Hovenier warned both countries risk losing opportunities to progress in their goal of joining the bloc if compromises aren’t found.

“You have to give a little and get a little,” he said in the interview on September 20 in the capital, Pristina.

Serbia refuses to recognize its former province's 2008 declaration of independence, and tensions between ethnic Serbs and Kosovar institutions spilled over into violence against NATO peacekeepers in May after locals boycotted local elections in four mostly Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo.

Kurti and Vucic met on September 14 for talks in Brussels, which went nowhere according to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

He said Kurti was "not ready to move forward" with setting up an association of Serb-majority municipalities that would give Serbs living in Kosovo's north more autonomy, a goal approved by Pristina a decade ago under the EU-sponsored Ohrid agreement with Belgrade.

Hovenier said parallel steps could be taken by both Pristina and Belgrade to ensure progress toward the goal of mutual recognition, but that the association of municipalities is key for getting the process moving forward.

"We could spend a lot of time on who does what, when exactly and in what order. But let's be honest, at the end of the day both things need to happen. Kosovo has got to start moving forward with the association," he said.

“That has to be among the very first steps…. There's an urgency to this. We also do look to Serbia to fulfill its commitments under the Ohrid Agreement,” Hovenier added.

In a statement on September 19, the EU diplomatic service complained about a "lack of progress from both parties in de-escalating tensions in the north of Kosovo."

It called out Pristina for expropriations, evictions, and using special forces for routine policing, while it blamed Belgrade for "blocking the energy roadmap" and other actions.

The statement came a day after Kurti accused Miroslav Lajcak, the EU's special envoy for dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, of "taking a position" against Kosovo.

Hovenier said Lajcak “enjoys strong confidence” from Washington and he hopes the government of Kosovo will work with the designated representatives of the EU to achieve their strategic goals.

“The United States supports normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, which is what the Ohrid agreement is supposed to do, as a really important step toward our longer-term goal of mutual recognition,” he said.

“But we think this is what is achievable right now. And it needs to happen, because without it, Kosovo's path toward Europe is constrained.”

Mahsa Amini, Activists From Afghanistan, Georgia Nominated For EU's Sakharov Prize

Mahsa Amini died in Iran last year while in custody for an alleged hijab infraction.

Mahsa Amini and the women of Iran were nominated for this year's Sakharov Prize, the European Union’s top rights prize, the EU Parliament said on September 20. Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died in Iran last year while in custody for an alleged hijab infraction, was nominated by the parliament’s three largest blocs, making her the favorite to be chosen for the award in December. Afghan education activists Marzia Amiri, Parasto Hakim, and Matiullah Wesa were nominated, as were the "pro-European people of Georgia" and Nino Lomjaria, former public defender of Georgia. The award will be presented in December.

International Envoy Urges Bosnia To Ban War Criminals From Holding Office

Christian Schmidt

The international high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina urged the country’s authorities to ban the election, appointment, and employment in the public sector of people convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. In a statement released on September 20, Christian Schmidt called on authorities to include data on those convicted by international tribunals in the criminal records. Currently, there is no register of individuals convicted of war crimes in Bosnia and the information is not included in the criminal records of the country, torn by a civil war in the 1990s. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.

Kazakhstan Publishes List Of Those Allegedly Receiving Support From Abroad

The Kazakh Youth Information Service was among those organizations on the list.

Kazakh authorities on September 20 published a list of individuals and organizations that they say "receive financial and other types of support from foreign countries, international organizations, foreigners, and stateless persons." Several noted bloggers and journalists, as well as the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in Kazakhstan; the Kazakh Youth Information Service; the Internews international nonprofit association office; the Kazakh Bureau of Human Rights; the Adil Soz (Just Word) center for monitoring journalists' rights; and other persons and entities were included on the list. The list was created in accordance with 2022 amendments to the Taxation Code that allow publishing of the registers of people and organizations receiving support from abroad. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Moscow Court Sentences Crimean Tatar Journalist To Six Years In Prison In Absentia

Ayder Muzhdabayev in 2015

The Second Western District Military Court in Moscow on September 20 sentenced staunch Kremlin critic Ayder Muzhdabayev to six years in prison in absentia on a charge of public calls for terrorist actions. The court also banned the Crimean Tatar journalist from administering websites for four years. Muzhdabayev, 51, is a deputy director of the ATR Crimean Tatar television channel in Ukraine. He co-authored the report Putin.War that was published after the assassination of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov in 2015. Muzhdabayev moved to Ukraine from Russia in 2015 and received Ukrainian citizenship in 2016. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Bulgarian Farmers Reach Deal To Halt Protest Against Food Imports From Ukraine

“We have no more work here today,” Iliya Prodanov, chairman of the National Association of Grain Producers, told the protesters.

SOFIA -- Bulgarian farmers, who have protested for days against food imports from Ukraine, said they are ending their demonstration after reaching an agreement with the government over agricultural imports from neighboring Ukraine.

The agreement, reached late on September 19, provides for a temporary ban on the import of sunflower seeds from Ukraine as well as the introduction of quotas on grain imports from Ukraine.

Though some said the deal does not solve all of the issues on the table, most of the farmers, who had gathered with their tractors outside Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, said they approved of the draft text of an agreement that was later signed by representatives of the protesters and the government on September 20.

“We have no more work here today,” Iliya Prodanov, chairman of the National Association of Grain Producers, told the protesters.

After that, the farmers left their meeting point near Sofia.

The farmers started their protest on September 18 following a decision by the Bulgarian parliament to lift a ban on Ukrainian grain imports, which they said would trigger an influx as Kyiv looks for routes to export after a deal with Russia to allow cargo ships to safely use the Black Sea despite the Russia-launched war in Ukraine collapsed.

Earlier this year, a flood of grain drove down prices for local growers and sparked the call for a ban on a number of food products from Ukraine.

Last week, the farmersrefused to negotiate with the government, prompting Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov to say that “they had started behaving like terrorists.”

Negotiations between the farmers and the government found a “common approach” to meet most of the demands, paving the way for a deal, producers said.

As part of the agreement, the government said it would negotiate with the European Commission and the government in Kyiv for quotas on Ukrainian grain imports in an attempt to avoid an oversaturation of the Bulgarian market.

The farmers also will receive an additional 150 million leva ($82 million) in subsidies until October 6 due to the negative impact of the war in Ukraine. The government will also allocate additional 63 million leva ($35 million) for agricultural subsidies for 2023.

In May, Bulgaria was among five EU countries that imposed a ban on grain imports from Ukraine, citing the need to protect local agricultural sectors.

But a subsequent change in government has resulted in a shift in Bulgaria’s position. Denkov’s government, which took office in June, said the ban had deprived the budget of tax revenue and led to higher food prices.

Bulgaria’s parliament approved on September 14 a decision to lift the ban on Ukrainian grain imports in a move welcomed by Ukraine.

A day later, the European Commission decided not to renew the overall ban on Ukrainian food heading to the five member countries. Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have since unilaterally imposed their own blockades, while Ukraine said it would file a complaint at the World Trade Organization against them.

Ukrainian Lawmakers Approve Amended Bill On Asset Declarations

Ukrainian lawmaker Yaroslav Zheleznyak wrote on Telegram on September 20 that parliament passed an amended bill on asset declarations after a previous text passed by the Verkhovna Rada in early September was vetoed by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The veto came amid a struggle by the Ukrainian government to clamp down on corruption and assure allies that it’s committed to fighting graft. The original approved bill included a loophole that would keep the disclosures closed to the public for one year. Zelenskiy said such declarations should be public “immediately, not in a year.”

Poland Summons Ukraine's Ambassador After Zelenskiy's Comments At UN

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addresses the UN General Assembly on September 19.

Poland's Foreign Ministry summoned Ukraine's ambassador following comments made by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the United Nations General Assembly over discontent in some European countries over grain imports, which he said was helping Russia. Warsaw conveyed its "strong protest against the statements made by President V. Zelenskiy at the UN General Assembly yesterday, alleging that some EU countries feigned solidarity while indirectly supporting Russia," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on September 20, adding Poland has provided "unprecedented assistance" to Ukraine and its citizens during Russia's invasion. To read the Polish Foreign Ministry's statement, click here.

Tajik Sergeant Gets Five Years In Prison For Shaving Letters On Young Recruits' Heads

The army sergeant was sentenced for shaving letters on the heads of nine newly recruited soldiers to spell the name of a city in the country's north.

A military court in Tajikistan has sentenced a sergeant to five years in prison for shaving letters on the heads of nine newly recruited soldiers to spell the word Konibodom -- the name of a city in the country's north. According to official documents obtained by RFE/RL, the military court in the city of Khujand sentenced Muhriddin Islomov on September 18 after finding him guilty of abuse of power. A picture, which appeared on the Internet in June showing Islomov alongside the nine conscripts standing with their heads bowed exposing the shaved letters, sparked a public outcry in Tajikistan. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here.

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's Trial Resumes In Tbilisi

An emaciated Mikheil Saakashvili joined the trial via a videolink from a Tbilisi hospital.

TBILISI -- The Tbilisi City Court on September 20 resumed the trial of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on a charge of violently dispersing an anti-government rally in November 2007, which he and his supporters have reject as politically motivated.

An emaciated Saakashvili joined the trial via a videolink from a Tbilisi hospital, greeting "all in Georgia" and saying "I am still weak, but my spirit is high, because it belongs to the entire Georgian people."

Former members of Saakashvili's government, Vano Merabishvili, Zurab Adeishvili, David Kezerashvili, and Gigi Ugulava, are also defendants in the case.

Saakashvili, who was Georgia’s president from 2004 to 2013, is serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power, a charge that he and his supporters say was politically motivated.

He was separately charged with illegally crossing the border in October 2021, when he returned to Georgia from self-imposed exile.

Family members and his lawyers have warned for months that Saakashvili’s health condition has been deteriorating even as he has been receiving medical treatment in a private clinic in Tbilisi since May last year.

Saakashvili's medical team has said his health has worsened since he went to prison in October 2021 and staged repeated hunger strikes to protest against his incarceration.

Saakashvili's legal team has also asserted that he was "poisoned" with heavy metals while in custody.

Since the 55-year-old politician’s arrest in 2021, several mass rallies have been held by his supporters and opposition activists, demanding his immediate release.

Saakashvili is a Ukrainian citizen and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in early July that Russia was killing Saakashvili, using the Georgian authorities as their proxy. He also instructed his country's Foreign Ministry to summon the Georgian ambassador and convey his protest.

The European Union has also expressed concerns over Saakashvili’s deteriorated health.

Ukraine's Allies Make Legal Arguments At Top UN Court In Support Of Kyiv's Case Against Russia

Ukrainian delegates address the World Court in The Hague on September 19.

Ukraine’s international allies filed into the United Nations’ top court on September 20 to support Kyiv’s case against Russia that alleges Moscow twisted the genocide convention to manufacture a pretext for its invasion last year. An unprecedented 32 states were making brief legal arguments to the 16-judge panel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is holding hearings into Moscow’s assertions that the World Court does not have jurisdiction and should throw out Ukraine's case. Kyiv filed its case two days after Russia invaded Ukraine. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Russian Military Plane Crashes, Two Pilots Survive After Ejecting

Two pilots of the Su-34 aircraft survived after they ejected. (file photo)

The Russian Defense Ministry said on September 20 one of its Su-34 military planes crashed during a training flight in the Voronezh region bordering with Ukraine. Two pilots of the aircraft survived after they ejected. The ministry cited a possible technical malfunction as the crash's cause. Last week, another Russian military jet, an Su-24, crashed in the Volgograd region that borders western Kazakhstan, killing two pilots. Last month, another crew was killed after am Su-30 military plane crashed in Russia's far western Kaliningrad exclave. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Ukrainian First Lady's Apartment In Occupied Crimea To Be Sold At Auction

Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska (file photo)

Russian-installed authorities in Ukraine's Moscow-annexed Crimea will put an apartment that belongs to Ukraine's first lady, Olena Zelenska, up for auction. The price of the apartment in the resort city of Yalta was preliminary assessed at 23.9 million rubles ($247,600). The Russian-imposed speaker of Crimea’s de facto parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, said on September 20 that several other pieces of real estate "belonging to foreigners who committed unfriendly actions towards Russia" will be sold as well. The Russian-installed governor of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, said earlier that money obtained from the sales of "Ukrainian businessmen’s properties" will be used to finance Russia's invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.

UN Experts Warn That Lukashenka Decree Puts Belarusians Abroad At Risk

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

UN experts warned on September 20 that a presidential decree in Belarus ordering its consulates to stop issuing passports puts hundreds of thousands of Belarusians abroad at risk, especially those living in exile. Belarusian authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka issued a decree earlier in September saying that Belarusians living abroad can only get a new passport or renew an old one in Belarus. The UN experts warned that emigres would be exposed to the high risk of persecution in Belarus. They said Lukashenka’s decree is part of “a deliberate policy to punish Belarusian exiles,” including human rights defenders, journalists, and members of the opposition.

UN Records Torture And Deaths Of Detainees In Taliban Custody

Since ousting the Western-backed Afghan government and taking over the country in August 2021, the hard-line Taliban has failed to live up to promises of moderation and has instead severely restricted people's freedoms. (file photo)

The United Nations said it had documented hundreds of cases of torture and other "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" committed by the Taliban de facto authorities in Afghanistan during the arrest and subsequent detention of individuals.

In a report issued on September 20, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said it had documented more than 1,600 cases of human rights violations -- nearly half of which comprised acts of “torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” -- committed by the de facto authorities in Afghanistan during arrests and detentions, and the deaths of 18 individuals while in custody. The report covers the period from January 2022 until the end of July 2023, with cases found across 29 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

“The personal accounts of beatings, electric shocks, water torture, and numerous other forms of cruel and degrading treatment, along with threats made against individuals and their families, are harrowing. Torture is forbidden in all circumstances,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said in a statement issued with the report.

“This report suggests that torture is also used as a tool -- in lieu of effective investigations. I urge all concerned de facto authorities to put in place concrete measures to halt these abuses and hold perpetrators accountable,” he added.

In a response published with the report, the Taliban-led Foreign Ministry questioned UNAMA’s data and said it had taken steps to improve the human rights situation of detainees.

Since ousting the Western-backed Afghan government and taking over the country in August 2021, the hard-line Taliban has failed to live up to promises of moderation and has instead severely restricted people's freedoms, waged a harsh crackdown on dissent, and reintroduced the militants' brutal form of justice.

Around one in 10 of the violations were against women, the report said. Journalists and civil society members accounted for nearly a quarter of the victims of the violations.

UNAMA considers the extent of torture and other forms of ill-treatment “widely under-reported” and says that the figures presented in the report represent “only a snapshot” of the full scale of human rights violations across Afghanistan.

The report also said that violations of due process guarantees, including the denial of access to lawyers, “are the norm.”

The Taliban claimed the number of reported violations was not accurate, especially the number of journalists or civil society advocates affected. It added that the authorities have taken steps to improve the human rights situation of detainees, and that Islamic law, or Shari'a, prohibits torture.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Blast Caused By Gas Leak Kills At Least Three In Residential Building In Moscow Region

At least three people were killed after an explosion caused by a gas leak ripped through a nine-story apartment block in the city of Balashikha near Moscow, local officials said on September 20. The explosion destroyed three levels of the building. At least two people remain under the debris. When rescuers tried to free them from under the debris on the third floor, a concrete slab fell from the fifth level and injured three firefighters. Gas explosions occur frequently in Russia due to aging pipes and infrastructure, as well as lax safety standards. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Biden Stresses Central Asian Nations' Integrity After 'Historic' Meeting With Regional Leaders

U.S. President Joe Biden (center) meets with Central Asian leaders on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 19.

U.S. President Joe Biden emphasized the "territorial integrity" of five Central Asian nations -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- after meeting with the countries' leaders in New York late on September 19 amid the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

Biden called the meeting "historic" as the leader of the United States met with what has been dubbed the C5+1 -- Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Turkment President Serdar Berdymukhammedov, and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev.

Biden added that the five former Soviet republics, which Russia considers its backyard, and the United States had a "shared commitment to sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity."

"These principles matter more than ever, in my view...I genuinely believe the world is safer when we stand together," Biden said,

The U.S. president also said that the United States and the five Central Asian nations "are taking our cooperation to new heights," stressing that efforts would include strengthened counterterrorism cooperation and increased U.S. security funding in the region, new business connections with the U.S. private sector, and a C5+1 Critical Minerals Dialogue to develop Central Asia’s vast mineral wealth and advance the security of critical minerals such as those needed for the high-tech industry.

In his speech to the UNGA delivered earlier in the day, Biden warned that Moscow's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine launched in February last year could undermine the international principles of the countries' sovereignty.

Ahead of the C5+1 summit, rights watchdogs had urged Biden to use the meeting to emphasize human rights.

All five Central Asian nations have a documented history of credible, serious allegations of human rights abuses, including crackdowns on opposition politicians, independent journalists, civil society, and other democratic institutions.

The White House readout of the meeting said Biden “welcomed his counterparts' views on how our nations can work together to further strengthen the Central Asian nations' sovereignty, resilience, and prosperity while also advancing human rights through our C5+1 partnership.”

"President Biden advocated for continued support of civil society and women’s economic empowerment activities and encouraged a new C5+1 focus on mainstreaming disability rights across all sectors," the readout said.

With reporting by VOA and AP

Iranian Deputies Vote To Toughen Penalties For Women Flouting Dress Code

Iranian lawmakers passed the legislation on September 20. (file photo)

Iran's parliament has unveiled the text of a contentious hijab and chastity bill aimed at confronting, detaining, and penalizing women who fail to observe the compulsory dress code amid a fierce debate over the rules, which have drawn criticism both inside the country and abroad.

The bill was approved by 152 deputies -- 34 voted against and seven abstained -- on September 20, just four days after the first anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini while the 22-year-old was in custody for an alleged hijab infraction.

The legislation empowers three intelligence agencies -- the Ministry of Intelligence, the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization, and the Intelligence Organization of the Judiciary -- along with police, the Basij paramilitary forces, and the Command of Enjoining Good and Forbidding Wrong to take action against women who break the rules.

The legislation, which is being implemented on a three-year trial basis, also touches on the need for broader gender segregation in universities, administrative centers, educational institutions, parks, and tourist locations, and even in hospital treatment sections. It proposes severe penalties, including imprisonment up to 10 years and fines for women who defy the mandatory hijab law.

A United Nations fact-finding mission said in a statement last week that the law will "expose women and girls to increased risks of violence, harassment, and arbitrary detention."

According to Article 50 of the bill, anyone who appears in public places or streets in a state of nudity or seminudity, or with a dress that is considered as too revealing, will be immediately apprehended by officers and handed over to the judiciary. Those arrested will face imprisonment or a fine, and if the offense is repeated, the imprisonment or fine will be increased.

The bill also stipulates that anyone who is judged to have insulted the hijab, promoted nudity, immodesty, or an improper hijab, or performs any behavior that promotes them will be sentenced to a fine and, at the discretion of the judicial authority, a ban on leaving the country and a ban on public activity on the Internet for six months to two years.

The bill also prohibits commissioning work or advertising from individuals or legal entities that promote non-hijab values in their activities inside or outside the country, or in any media, including social media.

The hijab became compulsory for women and girls over the age of 9 in 1981, two years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The move triggered protests that were swiftly crushed by the new authorities. Many women have flouted the rule over the years and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.

The death of Amini released a wave of anger that has presented the Islamic regime with its biggest challenge since the revolution.

The Women, Life, Freedom protests and civil disobedience against the compulsory hijab have swept the country, involving tens of thousands of Iranians, many of whom were already upset over the country's deteriorating living standards. Campaigns were also launched against the discriminatory law, although many have been pressured by the state and forced to leave the country.

The protests have also been buffeted by the participation of celebrities, sports stars, and well-known rights activists, prompting a special mention of such luminaries in the legislation.

In the face of the unrest, some religious and government figures have repeatedly advocated for a tougher stance by the government against offenders, even going as far as encouraging a "fire-at-will" approach against noncompliant women.

While the protests have shown some signs of waning, resistance to the hijab is likely to increase, analysts say, as it is seen now as a symbol of the state's repression of women and the deadly crackdown on society.

Russia-Iran Ties Have Reached New Level, Says Russian Defense Minister

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu meets with the chief of staff of Iran's armed forces, Mohammad Bagheri, in Tehran on September 19.

Relations between Russia and Iran have reached a new level despite opposition from much of the Western world, Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on September 20 during a visit to Tehran. "We are aiming at an entire range of planned activities, despite opposition from the United States and its Western allies," the Interfax news agency cited Shoigu as saying. "Sanctions pressure on Russia and Iran shows its futility, while Russian-Iranian interaction is reaching a new level."


Zelenskiy Laments UN Weakness In Face Of Russia's Veto Power, Urges Expansion Of Security Council

Ukrainian President Zelenskiy told the UN Security Council that the UN General Assembly and its 193 members must be given a way to overcome the Kremlin’s veto.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the UN Security Council that the world can no longer rely on the organization to defend the “sovereign borders of nations,” specifically pointing to Russia’s veto power in the Security Council as blocking progress to any “real solutions” to global crises.

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.

He called Russia's invasion of his country "criminal" and said Moscow should be stripped of its veto power.

"Most of the world recognizes the truth about this war," Zelenskiy said on September 20 as Russia's UN ambassador sat before him. "It is a criminal and unprovoked aggression by Russia against our nation aimed at seizing Ukraine's territory and resources."

Zelenskiy said the UN General Assembly and its 193 members must be given a way to overcome the Kremlin’s veto and said that new permanent members should be added to the all-important Security Council.

"Germany has become one of the key global guarantors of peace and security," Zelenskiy told a special session of the Security Council.

"This is a fact. It is also a matter of fact that Germany deserves a place among the permanent members of the Security Council,” he said, adding that Latin America, the Pacific states, Africa, and Asia must have more representation.

Currently, five nations -- the United States, France, Britain, Russia, and China -- are permanent Security Council members and wield veto power over resolutions.

Zelenskiy's remarks to the council followed his speech a day earlier to the General Assembly in which he warned of the global threat from Russia.

The session marked the first time the defiant Ukrainian leader has publicly faced Russian officials in person and comes during a rare U.S. visit that could prove crucial in Kyiv's ongoing efforts to rally international support for its defense against its much larger post-Soviet neighbor.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who also spoke to the council, was not present in the session while Zelenskiy spoke, but Moscow’s UN ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, was there.

Lavrov called Russia's use of its veto power in the council a "legitimate tool" of international relations set out in the UN Charter.

In his September 19 speech, Zelenskiy accused Russia of “weaponizing” everything from food and energy to abducted children in its unprovoked full-scale invasion, which followed eight years since an occupation of Crimea and lower-grade fighting began with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Zelenskiy said "there are no real restrictions on [Russia's] weaponization" plans in an effort to get international recognition for occupied regions of Ukraine.

WATCH: Capitalizing on "any gaps in the enemy's defense," Ukrainian troops said they were slowly but steadily reclaiming ground in their counteroffensive to Russia's invasion. The cost is high, they explain, because Russian artillery usually razes retaken villages to the ground.

Taking Ground 'Meter By Meter': Ukrainian Counteroffensive Liberates Village Bordering Donetsk Airport
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It is Zelenskiy's first in-person appearance at an annual UN General Assembly since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022. His trip comes three months into a Ukrainian counteroffensive that has not advanced as fast or as well as hoped for at first, and has included meetings with foreign leaders. The visit will also take him to Washington for more appeals to U.S. President Joe Biden and leading lawmakers on September 21.

"When hatred is weaponized against one nation, it never stops there, Zelenskiy said. "Each decade Russia starts a new war. Parts of Moldova and Georgia remain occupied. Russia turned Syria into ruins. Russia has almost swallowed Belarus. It's obviously threatening Kazakhstan and Baltic states."

Zelenskiy also said Kyiv was working on preparing a global peace summit.

Speaking to the assembly earlier, Biden urged the leaders to stand by Ukraine against the invasion, saying, "Russia alone has the power to end this war immediately."

Russia will address the General Assembly on September 23, when Lavrov is expected on the rostrum.

Back in Ukraine, that country's military said it had destroyed 17 drones overnight on September 19-20 out of what it estimated to have been 24 Russian drones launched from the north and southeast.

The Ukrainian General Staff also said it was conducting offensives in the areas of Melitopol, in the southeastern Zaporizhzhya region, and the fiercely contested town of Bakhmut, in the eastern Donetsk region.

The British Defense Ministry said in its daily assessment that the reported capture of the villages of Andriyivka and Klilshchiyivka, about eight kilometers from Bakhmut, "brings Ukrainian forces closer of the main supply routes into Bakhmut from the south," although it said Russia still held a "readily defensible" railway line.

Ukraine's military said there had been several strikes on an oil refinery in the central region of Poltava, resulting in a temporary halt to operations.

Acting Governor Dmytro Lunin said there did not appear to be any casualties.

In Russia, the mayor of the Black Sea resort of Sochi said a fire at a fuel tank near an airport there had been put out and "there were no casualties." The mayor, Aleksei Kopaygorodsky, said "the airport and the entire transport system are operating as normal" and the cause of the blaze was under investigation.

Ukraine is thought to have stepped up its drone and other attacks in occupied Crimea and inside Russia in recent months, although it routinely avoids claiming responsibility.

RFE/RL cannot independently confirm battlefield accounts by either side in areas of heavy fighting, and strictures on the media make reporting inside Russia difficult.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, and Reuters

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