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Rights Group Details Role Of Big Data To Target Uyghurs In China's Xinjiang

Many Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang region are forced into "counterextremism centers."
Many Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang region are forced into "counterextremism centers."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says it has analyzed a leaked list of more than 2,000 Uyghur detainees in China's Xinjiang suggesting that the authorities are using an expansive data-collection program to "arbitrarily" select Turkic Muslims in the region for possible detention.

In a report on December 8, the New York-based human rights watchdog says the list from Aksu prefecture, provided in 2018 by Radio Free Asia, contains detainees flagged by a Chinese predictive policing program that collects data and identifies candidates for detention.

“The Aksu list provides further insights into how China’s brutal repression of Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims is being turbocharged by technology,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher for HRW.

“The Chinese government owes answers to the families of those on the list: why were they detained, and where are they now?”

Asked about the report, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told a daily briefing that it was not worth refuting and accused the human rights group of being "full of bias."

Beijing has come under intense international criticism over its policies in Xinjiang, where the UN have estimated at least 1 million ethnic Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim indigenous people have been detained in what it described as "counterextremism centers" in the region.

'Being Generally Untrustworthy'

The UN has also said millions more have been forced into internment camps.

Beijing insists that the facilities are "vocational education centers" aimed at helping people steer clear of terrorism and allowing them to be reintegrated into society.

Speaking during her year-end press conference on December 9, UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet voiced concern at "ongoing reports of a range of serious human rights violations in Xinjiang" and expressed hope to send a team from her office to China in the first half of 2021 to prepare for her visit there.

HRW says the Aksu list details detentions in Aksu from mid-2016 to late 2018 and the reasons for these detentions.

It says the authorities cited “terrorism” and “extremism” as the reasons for detaining about 10 percent of those on the list, without mentioning whether these detainees had “committed, incited, supported, or plotted any acts of violence, much less any acts that would rise to the level of terrorism.”

The group says its analysis of the Aksu list “strongly suggests that the vast majority of the people flagged by the...system are detained for everyday lawful, nonviolent behavior” and is further evidence that the government selected Uyghurs for detention based on religion, personal relationships, contact with overseas relatives, and age.

Other reasons for detention included activities like repeatedly switching off a smartphone, having "unstable thoughts," or "being generally untrustworthy."

HRW says it was able to confirm the identities of people on the list with Uyghurs living abroad.

The rights group said that to protect the source of the list, it had obscured its precise location, precise dates, and some of the numbers throughout the analysis.

Authorities in Xinjiang have been accused in recent years of using technologies such as facial recognition, iris scanners, and artificial intelligence across Xinjiang in the name of preventing terrorism.

In a report on December 8, U.S.-based surveillance research firm IPVM said that Chinese telecoms giant Huawei and facial recognition provider Megvii have worked together to test and validate facial-recognition software that could detect ethnic Uyghurs and send alerts to authorities.

IPVM cited an internal Huawei report dated January 2018 showing the software as passing tests for "Uyghur alarms" and "recognition based on age, sex, ethnicity, angle of facial images."

Huawei said on December 9 the program "has not seen real-world application" and that the company "only supplies general-purpose products for this kind of testing."

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

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Imprisoned Nobel Laureate Mohammadi Urges Boycott, Sanctions, Condemnation Of Iran Elections

Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi has previously described the clerically led Iranian leadership "criminal" and has long been a vocal critic of conditions for political and other prisoners in Iran. (file photo)
Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi has previously described the clerically led Iranian leadership "criminal" and has long been a vocal critic of conditions for political and other prisoners in Iran. (file photo)

Imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi has urged a boycott alongside "national sanctions and global condemnation" of next month's legislative elections there, calling the moves "a political necessity and a moral duty."

"Sanctioning elections under a despotic religious regime is not just a political move but also a moral obligation for freedom-loving and justice-seeking Iranians," Mohammadi said on social media on February 24.

Mohammadi has previously described the clerically led Iranian leadership "criminal" and has long been a vocal critic of conditions for political and other prisoners in Iran.

She pledged that "I, alongside the informed and proud people from all over Iran, from Sistan and Baluchestan to Kurdistan, from Khuzestan to Azerbaijan, will stand to declare the illegitimacy of the Islamic Republic and the divide within the oppressive regime and its people through the sanctioning of sham elections."

In January, an Iranian court extended the 51-year-old Mohammadi's prison sentence by 15 months for “spreading propaganda” against the Islamic republic while in jail. It was her fifth conviction since March 2021 and the third for activities from prison, where she was sent for alleged actions against national security and propaganda against the state.

In her February 24 post, she criticized Iranian authorities' "ruthless and brutal suppression, the killing of young people on the streets, the executions, and the imprisonment and torture of men and women."

A number of prominent Iranians outside the country and some political and civil activists in Iran have already called for a boycott of the March 1 voting.

Officials routinely vet to exclude large numbers of candidates who are critical of the regime from elections to fill seats at all nearly all levels of government.

"Transition from the despotic religious regime is a national demand and the only way for the survival of Iran, Iranians, and our humanity," Mohammadi said.

Mustafa Tajzadeh, a jailed former reform-minded politician, said in a letter he published on February 29 from Tehran's Evin Prison that the leadership's strategic mistakes are "making elections meaningless and making elected institutions ineffective...especially the parliament."

Elections for the parliament, the Majlis, are scheduled for March 1 along with voting to fill the Assembly of Experts, with a majority of would-be candidates already disqualified.

Some government polls also indicate that there is waning interest in the votes.

The Iranian Students' Opinion Center (ISPA) said research in February suggested only 36 percent of Iranians were aware of the upcoming elections.

A brutal crackdown on dissent followed widespread protests and unrest that broke out after the death in custody in September 2022 of 22-year-old student Mahsa Amini after she was detained for a dress-code violation and, according to eyewitnesses, beaten by the morality police.

Iranian officials this week officially outlawed the use of tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs) designed to bypass Internet censorship following a directive from the country's Supreme Council of Cyberspace that was endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Pakistani Police Detain Dozens At Postelection Protest In Karachi

Tehrik-e Labbaik Pakistan activists protest against Supreme Court Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa in Karachi on February 23.
Tehrik-e Labbaik Pakistan activists protest against Supreme Court Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa in Karachi on February 23.

Pakistani police on February 24 detained dozens of political workers in Karachi who staged protests outside the provincial assembly in the southern Sindh Province against alleged fraud in February's general elections.

Protesters had gathered in front of the assembly building ahead of the swearing-in of newly elected members.

The police also baton-charged the protesters.

Out of 168 members of the Sindh provincial assembly, 148 took their oath.

The Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), PTI and Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM-Haqiqi) had announced plans for a joint protest outside the Sindh assembly.

Sindh's provincial government on February 23 invoked Section 144 of the criminal code in anticipation of the protest, citing concerns about security and order. That section prohibits gatherings of five or more people and bans public assemblies, gatherings, protests, processions, or demonstrations.

The Sindh showdown comes against a backdrop of national political tension following a power-sharing agreement to allow rivals of imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan to pick a candidate for prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, and president.

The Pakistan Muslim League, the Pakistan People’s Party, and smaller parties after the February 8 vote announced on February 20 that they had secured a majority to support a coalition government.

Ex-President Medvedev Says Moscow Will Seek 'Revenge' For Western Sanctions

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow on February 23.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow on February 23.

Russia's ex-President Dmitry Medvedev, a leading hawk on the Ukraine offensive, said on February 24 that Moscow will seek "revenge" for massive Western sanctions. A day earlier, the United States and the European Union unveiled fresh sanctions on the eve of the second anniversary of Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and after the death in prison of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. "The reason [behind the sanctions] is clear: The worse it is for Russian citizens, the better it is for the Western world," Medvedev said on social media. "We all just need to remember this and take revenge on them wherever possible. They are our enemies."

Daughter Of Assassinated Kremlin Foe Nemtsov Says Putin Fears 'Dead Navalny No Less Than Living Navalny'

A protester (center) holds images depicting Aleksei Navalny and Russian President Vladimir Putin at demonstration outside the Russian Embassy in Belgrade on February 16, following the news of Navalny's death at an Arctic prison.
A protester (center) holds images depicting Aleksei Navalny and Russian President Vladimir Putin at demonstration outside the Russian Embassy in Belgrade on February 16, following the news of Navalny's death at an Arctic prison.

The exiled daughter of assassinated Kremlin political foe Boris Nemtsov has called the treatment of the body of recently deceased opposition leader Aleksei Navalny by Russian officials "absolutely terrifying, surreal" and a "monstrous, inhumane story" that demonstrates just how deeply President Vladimir Putin fears Navalny's legacy of dissent.

"Vladimir Putin is afraid of the dead Navalny no less than he was afraid of the living Navalny," Zhenna Nemtsova told Current Time in a televised interview a week after Russian authorities said Navalny died after collapsing at an Arctic prison.

Zhanna Nemtsova
Zhanna Nemtsova

Nemtsova's father was a popular post-Soviet politician who became a vocal Putin critic who, like Navalny, produced in-depth reports of corruption before his death.

Boris Nemtsov was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin in Moscow in February 2015, weeks after publicly expressing fears that Putin might have him killed.

Nemtsova said Russian state TV initially "covered my father very favorably but everything changed...when there was a funeral march" that demonstrated her father's popularity with tens of thousands of Russians taking to the streets even for "a political corpse."

Russian authorities subsequently discouraged expressions of mourning or looked the other way as ultranationalists bullied the slain sympathizers.

Mourners surround the coffin at the funeral of Russian leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov in Moscow in 2015.
Mourners surround the coffin at the funeral of Russian leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov in Moscow in 2015.

"They understand that the same thing will happen with Aleksei Navalny" if public memorials are allowed, Nemtsova said.

She told Current Time she is "absolutely convinced that millions of people in Russia and outside Russia are deeply concerned and mourning the murder of [Navalny] in prison." She predicted hundreds of thousands would attend if a funeral were held for him even amid the current repression.

Russia has doubled down on tools like "foreign agent" and "undesirable" designations in addition to brutal beatings and detentions to minimize public dissent since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began two years ago.

Still, police detained hundreds across the country in the days after Navalny's death and quickly eliminated makeshift memorials that sprung up in dozens of cities.

Navalny's widow and his mother have accused Putin of responsibility for his death, as have U.S. President Joe Biden and some other Western officials.

Russian officials deny foul play but have not released the remains and reportedly demanded a private memorial before they would hand over his body to Navalny's mother.

"I believe that Aleksei was killed on Putin's orders, and they are afraid that in the run-up to the elections, hundreds of thousands of people will come to say goodbye to Aleksei," Nemtsova said.

Putin is seeking to win a fifth presidential term in a carefully controlled March 15-17 vote in which election officials have already disqualified the only seemingly authentic anti-war aspirant.

Nemtsova said Putin's administration is trying to "dehumanize" in a similar way to what followed the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and her father's assassination a year later, including through accusations that Kremlin critics are "traitors."

"[B]ecause you must first dehumanize, and then you deal with your enemy, and people don’t feel sorry for the person they consider a traitor," she said. "The same thing has been tried for years."

U.K. Pledges 245 Million Pounds To Boost Ukraine Artillery Reserves

British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps said Ukraine's armed forces "against all odds" had recaptured large parts of the land seized by Russia in its 2022 invasion. (file photo)
British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps said Ukraine's armed forces "against all odds" had recaptured large parts of the land seized by Russia in its 2022 invasion. (file photo)

Britain announced on February 24 a new 245 million-pound ($311 million) defense package to help boost the production of "urgently needed artillery ammunition" for Ukraine, two years after full-scale war broke out with Russia. Defense Secretary Grant Shapps said Ukraine's armed forces "against all odds" had recaptured large parts of the land seized by Russia in its 2022 invasion. "But they cannot win this fight without the support of the international community -- and that's why we continue to do what it takes to ensure Ukraine can continue to fight toward victory," he added.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Challenges U.S. Buzz On Possible Nuclear Space Weapon

A Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile is launched from Plesetsk in Russia's northwest. (file photo)
A Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile is launched from Plesetsk in Russia's northwest. (file photo)

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov says the United States has not shown any evidence for accusations that Moscow wants to put nuclear weapons in space, following U.S. media reports and official hints of concern at emerging Russian capabilities in space-based weapons.

The White House said on February 15 that Russia has obtained a "troubling" emerging anti-satellite "capability" but said it has not yet been deployed and posed no immediate threat.

In his statement carried by Russian state news agency RIA and quoted by Reuters, Ryabkov said contacts with U.S. officials had been "completely unproductive."

Reuters reported recently that U.S. intelligence thinks Russia's military might be working on nuclear-powered technology "to blind, jam, or fry the electronics inside satellites."

"I can confirm that it is related to an anti-satellite capability that Russia has developed," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said of the concerns. Kirby said that while Russia’s "pursuit of this particular capability is troubling, there is no immediate threat to anyone's safety."

The White House confirmation came a day after the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Mike Turner (Republican-Ohio), urged the Biden administration to declassify information about what he called a serious national security threat.

Kirby suggested the timing of Turner's statement "regrettable" as reviewing and declassification processes were ongoing.

Moscow called the claims a tactic to encourage U.S. Congress to back aid for Ukraine.

Turner said he was asking Biden to declassify "all information relating to this threat so that Congress, the Administration, and our allies can openly discuss the actions necessary to respond."

Sullivan said it is Biden's decision whether or not to declassify any information.

The New York Times said the intelligence Turner referred to was related to Russia’s attempts to develop a space-based anti-satellite nuclear weapon. This would potentially violate an international space treaty, to which more than 130 countries have signed onto, including Russia.

With reporting by Reuters

U.S. Sanctions Russia's Largest Shipper As It Says Oil Price Cap Enforcement Bearing Fruit

A crude oil tanker owned by Russia's leading shipping company Sovcomflot transits the Bosphorus in Istanbul in 2020.
A crude oil tanker owned by Russia's leading shipping company Sovcomflot transits the Bosphorus in Istanbul in 2020.

WASHINGTON -- The United States said on February 23 that it is targeting Russia’s largest state-owned shipping company and fleet operator for sanctions, saying at the same time that a price cap on Russian sea-borne oil imposed in December 2022 is serving its "twin goals" of limiting Kremlin profits from the sale of oil while promoting stable energy markets.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in a news release that the targeting of Sovcomflot was the "next step" after the price cap.

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.

"We are entering the next phase of increasing Russia’s costs in a responsible manner to mitigate risks," Adeyemo said, adding that in addition to the designation of Sovcomflot, the treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has identified 14 crude oil tankers as property in which Sovcomflot has an interest.

OFAC said it issued a general license authorizing the offloading of crude oil or other cargo from these 14 vessels for a period of 45 days. In addition, OFAC is issuing a general license authorizing transactions with all other Sovcomflot-owned vessels at this time. Nothing in these general licenses changes any of the restrictions imposed by the price cap sanctions regime.

The Treasury Department earlier on February 23 released an analysis showing that Russia is selling its oil at a steeper discount to global prices since Western governments in October stepped up enforcement of its sanctions regime.

Russia sold its oil at an average discount of $19 last month compared with $12-$13 in October, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a February 23 statement. The Treasury Department oversees U.S. sanctions enforcement.

The United States and the European Union in December 2022 imposed a $60-per-barrel price cap on Russian oil shipped with the use of Western service providers -- such as transportation and insurance firms -- to curtail the Kremlin’s ability to finance its war.

Chris Weafer, the founder of Macro-Advisory, a consulting firm focusing on the countries of the former Soviet Union, said the oil price cap is hard to enforce because the shadow Russian tankers change their names, registrations, and ownership to avoid detection by the United States and EU.

"It is a cat-and-mouse game with the mouse sailing rings around the cat," he said, adding there are dozens or hundreds of small companies owning these shadow tankers.

Russia is the world’s second-largest oil exporter, and foreign sales of the fossil fuel account for more than a third of its federal budget. Most of its sea-borne oil exports used Western service providers prior to the sanctions. The wider discount means Russia is losing out on tens of millions of dollars a day in revenue.

The price cap initially had an immediate effect, driving down the price of Russian oil. However, in the ensuing months, as traders and buyers adjusted to the sanctions regime and as Russia scooped up its own shipping vessels, the discount shrank and Russia’s average selling price surpassed $60.

In response, the United States and Europe in October announced they were stepping up enforcement to curtail cheating. Experts said that market participants were artificially inflating the cost of shipping to hide the fact that Russia’s net price was above the cap. Russia had also purchased hundreds of vessels to avoid using Western service providers.

That month the United States slapped sanctions on two entities and put a freeze on two vessels for violating the Russian oil price cap, a move seen as a warning to other participants.

In January, it sanctioned a United Arab Emirates-based shipping company with 18 vessels that repeatedly made calls to Russian ports.

In its statement, the Treasury Department said the market for Russian oil continues to be highly opaque. It said it will continue to implement "creative solutions" to combat Russia's continuous attempts to avoid the price cap.

U.S. Senators Promise To Pressure House Speaker To Bring Aid Bill Up For Vote During Visit To Ukraine

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov, Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskiy, and Senators Michael Bennet and Maggie Hassan visit the Cemetery of the Defenders in Lviv, Ukraine, on February 23.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov, Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskiy, and Senators Michael Bennet and Maggie Hassan visit the Cemetery of the Defenders in Lviv, Ukraine, on February 23.

A U.S. Senate delegation visiting Ukraine led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promised to pressure the leader of the House of Representatives to bring a bill that includes military aid up for a vote.

"We are going to do everything we can to tell him [Speaker Mike Johnson] what we have learned and openly pressure him to make the right decision," said Schumer after a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

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.

Schumer, who was part of a delegation of five senators that held talks with Zelenskiy in Lviv, said Johnson (Republican-Louisiana) should "do the right thing," adding that he and the other senators are confident it will pass.

Schumer (Democrat-New York) also said Zelenskiy told the delegation that without the aid Ukraine will lose the war.

The Senate last week passed a military aid package that includes $61 billion for Ukraine. President Joe Biden has urged the House to approve it, but Johnson sent members home for a two-week recess without bringing the measure up for a vote.

Johnson, an ally of Republican former President Donald Trump, voted against bills to provide assistance to Ukraine before he became speaker.

Schumer said that if Ukrainian forces during the defense of Avdiyivka had had more weapons and ammunition, the result would have been different. Ukrainian forces last week withdrew from the Donetsk city after months of heavy fighting.

"If Ukraine does not receive help, Putin may be right on the Polish border sooner or later," Schumer said, adding that the delegation had been told by almost everyone during its visit -- representatives of the military, politicians, diplomats -- that if Ukraine gets help, it will win the war.

Another member of the delegation, Senator Jack Reed (Democrat-Rhode Island), said that the United States must make a decision to help Ukraine in order to avoid having to send its own troops.

"As Senator Schumer beautifully said to Speaker Johnson: If you come to Ukraine, you will see the cemetery that we saw today, if you go to the wall in Kyiv, which I visited to lay flowers there, you will see people of all ages who died in support of democracy,” Reed said.

“You will have no choice, America has no choice. Pay now by supplying arms to the brave warriors who bleed and die, or our young men and women will bleed and die on the battlefields of Europe.”

Reed pledged to work for additional support, including military aid, for Ukraine.

With reporting by Reuters

French Defense Chief Visits Armenia, Signs Defense Deals Amid Deepening Ties

The defense ministers of Armenia and France take part in a joint press conference in Yerevan on February 23.
The defense ministers of Armenia and France take part in a joint press conference in Yerevan on February 23.

France will provide more weapons and other military assistance to Armenia to help the South Caucasus country defend its territory, French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu said during his first visit to Yerevan on February 23.

"Threats hanging over Armenia force us to move forward faster," Lecornu told Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. "It is very important for us to react and take necessary steps quickly."

Speaking after talks with Armenian Defense Minister Suren Papikian earlier in the day, Lecornu confirmed that Armenia took delivery the previous night of the first batch of French night-vision devices commissioned last year. The Armenian military will also soon receive air-defense radar systems and more armored personnel carriers from French manufacturers, he said.

The French defense group Thales signed with the Armenian Defense Ministry a contract for the supply of three GM200 radars during Papikian’s visit to Paris last October. Papikian and Lecornu signed at the time a letter of intent on Armenia’s future acquisition of short-range surface-to-air missiles manufactured by another French company.

Lecornu expressed France’s readiness to also sell more long-range systems to Armenia and announced that a French military adviser specializing in air defense will be deployed in Armenia to help it neutralize "possible strikes by potential aggressors."

"Nobody can reproach the Armenian Army for boosting its defense capacity," Lecornu told a joint news conference with Papikian, clearly alluding to Azerbaijan’s strong criticism of French-Armenian military cooperation.

The Armenian minister emphasized that Yerevan is acquiring these and other weapons for solely defensive purposes. In an apparent reference to Azerbaijan, he spoke of a "visible threat" to Armenia’s territorial integrity.

Neither minister shed light on a number of documents that they signed after their talks. AFP reported that the Armenian side also signed a supply contract with the French company PGM, maker of sniper rifles. It said no details of the deal were made public.

The defense cooperation is part of a deepening of French-Armenian relations cemented by the existence of an influential Armenian community in France. It comes amid mounting tensions with Russia, Armenia’s longtime ally, and as neighboring Iran signals unease over the pro-Western tilt in Armenia’s foreign policy.

"Our Iranian partners respect our cooperation with other partners, and I think our Russian and other partners should do the same because Armenia has no taboos when it comes to cooperation to the benefit of Armenia," Papikian said.

Armenia is "turning to partners that are truly providers of security," Lecornu said when asked to comment on the tensions between Yerevan and Moscow.

With reporting by Astghik Bedevian

At Invasion's Two-Year Mark, Kyiv And Western Leaders Unite In 'Clear Message' To Russia

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (center), standing alongside representatives of more than 50 countries, reads a joint statement on the second anniversary of Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine, in New York City on February 23.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (center), standing alongside representatives of more than 50 countries, reads a joint statement on the second anniversary of Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine, in New York City on February 23.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrived in Kyiv early on February 24 along with other foreign leaders and dignitaries eager to send a defiant message on the second anniversary of Russia's launch of its all-out invasion of Ukraine, while Moscow sought to capitalize on its recent gains by announcing a visit by Russia's defense minister to occupied Ukrainian territory.

Von der Leyen traveled to the Ukrainian capital from Poland by train along with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, according to a statement by the Italian government.

Meloni is scheduled to host a videoconference involving Group of Seven (G7) democracy leaders during which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is expected to encourage ongoing support to beat back Europe's first full-scale military invasion since World War II.

On her arrival, von der Leyen said alongside a photo of herself on a train platform in Kyiv that she was there to mark the grim anniversary "and to celebrate the extraordinary resistance of the Ukrainian people."

"More than ever, we stand firmly by Ukraine," she said, "Financially, economically, militarily, morally...[u]ntil the country is finally free."

Before arriving in Ukraine, Trudeau shared his Foreign Minister Melanie Joly's sentiment via X, formerly Twitter, that Canada and its allies were "sending a clear message to [Russia]: Ukraine will not be defeated in the face of Putin’s illegal war."

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz urged in a statement to mark the anniversary that by attacking Ukraine Russia is "also destroying peace in Europe." He urged Germans and all Europeans to "do even more -- so that we can defend ourselves effectively."

Scholz said that Germany was completely fulfilling its NATO target of 2 percent investment of total economic output into its military for the first time in decades.

The visit comes one day after the United States and European Union announced new rounds of hundreds of sanctions targeting Russia and officials responsible for the war, but with Ukrainian officials desperately pleading with the international community to avoid cutoffs in support or a "depletion of empathy."

Ukrainians have battled fiercely since a Russian invasion of hundreds of thousands of troops began on February 24, 2022, after Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to cast doubt on Ukrainian nationhood and eventually said Moscow's goal was the "denazification" and demilitarization of Ukraine's government.

But it was also the culmination of a land grab that had begun eight years earlier in 2014, when Russia covertly invaded and then annexed Crimea from Ukraine and began intensive support of armed Ukrainian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The United Nations has overwhelmingly voted to back Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty.

WATCH: Current Time correspondents Borys Sachalko, Andriy Kuzakov, and Oleksiy Prodayvod reflect on their wartime experiences together with the cameramen and drivers who form a critical part of their reporting teams.

Two Years Into War, Current Time Correspondents Reflect On Covering Ukraine's Front Line
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But a massive assistance package proposed by U.S. President Joe Biden's administration has been blocked primarily by Republicans in Congress.

The European Union managed to pass its own $54 billion aid package for Ukraine earlier this month despite reluctance from member Hungary and talk of Ukraine fatigue.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a recorded statement for the anniversary that "the situation on the battlefield remains extremely serious" and "President Putin's aim to dominate Ukraine has not changed, and there are no indications that he is preparing for peace. But we must not lose heart."

Earlier this week, Stoltenberg told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that the alliance was an advantage that neither Russia nor China could match.

At the UN General Assembly on February 23, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said "Russia's aim is to destroy Ukraine and they are quite outspoken about it," adding that "The only reason for this war has been and remains Russia's denial of Ukraine's right to exist and its continued colonial conquest."

Russian forces last week captured the mostly destroyed eastern city of Avdiyivka as remaining Ukrainian troops withdrew amid reported ammunition shortages to hand Moscow its first significant gain of territory in nearly a year.

The Russian military said on February 24 that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited troops in occupied Ukraine in a clear effort to send a message to Ukraine and its defenders, as well as to a Russian public subjected to heavy censorship and punishments for anti-war dissenters as the "special military operation" has ground on.

"Today, in terms of the ratio of forces, the advantage is on our side," officials quoted Shoigu as telling troops at a Russian command center.

The Russian military further said its troops were on the offensive after having taken Avdiyivka, in the Donetsk region.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy used an interview on the conservative Fox News channel to urge the U.S. Congress to pass a $60 billion aid package to help his country defend itself, saying it is cheaper than the consequences of a Russian victory.

Zelenskiy echoed warnings among Russia's other neighbors that Putin will push further into Eastern Europe if he conquers Ukraine.

Zelenskiy was speaking from a bombed-out building in the eastern city of Kharkiv with explosions sounding in the background.

"Will Ukraine survive without Congress's support? Of course. But not all of us," Zelenskiy said.

The Ukrainian military said it had destroyed a Russian A-50 surveillance aircraft after a new round of Russian drone and missile strikes on several Ukrainian regions on February 23, which if confirmed would mark the loss of the second A-50 in just over a month.

The general appointed recently by Zelenskiy as commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces, Oleksandr Syrskiy, said on February 24 that he is "convinced that unity is our victory."

"It will definitely happen," he said, "because light always conquers darkness!"

Noting the two-year mark in the invasion, Ukraine's General Staff asserted that Russia had suffered troop casualties of around 409,000 since February 24, 2022.

Both sides classify casualty figures, and RFE/RL cannot confirm the accuracy of accounts by either side of battlefield developments in areas of heavy fighting or of casualty claims.

With reporting by dpa, AFP, and Reuters

Head Of UN Atomic Watchdog Calls For 'Restraint' After Blasts Near Ukrainian Nuclear Plant

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi (file photo)
International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi (file photo)

UN atomic watchdog chief Rafael Grossi called on February 23 for "maximum military restraint" after a string of powerful explosions occurred near Ukraine's Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant this week.

Experts with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stationed at the Zaporizhzhya plant reported hearing explosions every day over the past week, including one on February 16 that appeared to occur close to the plant itself, Grossi said in a statement released by the Vienna-based organization.

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“There were also several explosions yesterday (February 22). One of them was unusually loud, indicating very close proximity to the site,” the statement said.

The large explosion on February 22 was part of “field training,” plant officials said. The plant itself was not damaged and there were no injuries. It was not possible to conclusively determine the origin or direction of the other blasts, which Gross said “shook windows” at the plant.

In addition, the IAEA was told that a mine exploded outside the site perimeter on February 22 but it did not cause any damage or injury.

The Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant was captured by Russian forces in March 2022 and has been shut down but requires electrical power to run coolant and other safety systems. IAEA experts have been at the site to monitor its functions since September 2022. During the course of the war both Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of compromising its safety.

Grossi has warned numerous times about the dangers posed by the risk of the plant being caught in the cross fire.

"I remain deeply concerned about the nuclear safety and security situation at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, located on the frontline of the war,” Grossi said. “The reports of our experts indicate possible combat action not far away from the site.”

He also urged the restoration “as soon as possible" of the plant's back-up power line for off-site power.

The plant is still receiving the electricity it needs for reactor cooling and other safety functions, but it currently has no back-up options available for off-site power, Grossi said.

With reporting by AFP

Families Demand Release Of 39 Afghans Detained In Turkey

Turkey hosts one of the largest refugee communities worldwide, with some 3.6 million Syrians and more than 300,000 people from other countries, the majority of whom are Afghan. (file photo)
Turkey hosts one of the largest refugee communities worldwide, with some 3.6 million Syrians and more than 300,000 people from other countries, the majority of whom are Afghan. (file photo)

The families of 39 Afghan citizens detained in Turkey after they reportedly tried to reach Europe on a migrant route have called for the release and the safe return of their relatives.

The Afghan migrants were hiding inside a truck carrying boxes of tissue when they were arrested in the Çilimli district of the northwestern Duzce Province, Turkey's state-run news agency reported on February 22.

All 39 Afghans were taken to the Immigration Department, and the truck driver was also arrested on charges of human trafficking, Anadolu reported.

Their relatives said they were attempting to reach Europe via Turkey to seek better opportunities.

The father of one of the Afghans detained in Turkey told Radio Azadi that he told his son he didn't have money for the journey, but he left anyway and reached Turkey after staying in Iran for a month.

The man, who identified himself as Sediqullah, a resident of Nangarhar, said he now has sent his 18-year-old son money so he can return to Afghanistan.

His son is among a wave of migrants who are fleeing Taliban persecution and a country that is reeling from one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises.

Some Afghans who have been detained by the Turkish police in the past claim that they were tortured by the security forces during their detention.

“They electrocuted, tortured, and brutalized the Afghans,” said 23-year-old Rahman Heydari, an Afghan who was recently deported from Turkey.

Earlier this month, Abdul Rahman Rashid, the Taliban's deputy minister of refugees, said some 1,600 Afghans currently languish in Turkish prisons. He said that Ankara has released more than 600 Afghans, who returned to their country.

Last year the number of Afghans deported by Turkey was in the thousands. In November alone the number was 4,000. The number of Afghans expelled by Turkey was even higher in 2022 when Ankara deported 50,000 back to their country.

According to the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, Turkey hosts one of the largest refugee communities worldwide, with some 3.6 million Syrians and more than 300,000 people from other countries, the majority of whom are Afghan.

In a 2022 report, global rights watchdog Human Rights Watch criticized Ankara for routinely pushing tens of thousands of Afghans -- many of whom are undocumented -- back to its border with Iran or deporting them directly to Afghanistan “with little or no examination of their claims for international protection.”

Neighboring Iran and Pakistan forced more than 1 million Afghans to return to their country in the past year.

Ecuador Calls Off Arms Exchange With U.S. Over Plan To Send Weapons To Ukraine

Ecuadorean President Daniel Noboa (file photo)
Ecuadorean President Daniel Noboa (file photo)

Ecuador has canceled a plan to trade outdated Soviet weapons for new arms from the United States, President Daniel Noboa said on February 23 after learning that the old weapons would have been sent to Ukraine. Noboa, who is grappling with a sharply deteriorated security situation in the South American country, said in January that Washington would give his country $200 million of new weaponry in exchange for "junk" arms. But he told CNN that Ecuador “can't go ahead with it" after learning that the weapons would go to “the armed conflict in Ukraine, in which we do not want to take part."

Residents Of Russia's Ingushetia Mark 80th Anniversary Of Deportation To Central Asia

Ingushetia residents mark the 80th anniversary of the deportation of Ingush and Chechens from the North Caucasus in 1944 on February 23.
Ingushetia residents mark the 80th anniversary of the deportation of Ingush and Chechens from the North Caucasus in 1944 on February 23.

Residents of Russia's North Caucasus region of Ingushetia have been marking the 80th anniversary of the deportation of Ingush and Chechens from the North Caucasus to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Hundreds of people, including the region's leader, Makhmud-Ali Kalimatov, lawmakers, government members, public organizations, and youth groups gathered near the Memorial of Memory and Glory in Ingushetia's largest city, Nazran, on February 23, where a mass prayer was performed to honor the victims of the deportation.

Kalimatov issued a statement on his official website, calling the February 1944 deportation "a terrible crime."

"The years of repressions failed to liquidate or diminish the beauty of our people's soul; the peculiar, beautiful Ingush culture is alive. And the years spent in alien lands proved again the capability of our people to unite, to have an unbreakable faith and strong national culture," Kalimatov’s statement said.

For the second year in a row, Kalimatov did not directly accuse Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and his regime of carrying out the deportation.

From February 23, 1944, to March 9, 1944, Soviet authorities deported almost all Ingush and Chechens -- an estimated 650,000 people -- to Central Asia, mostly to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, claiming they were collaborating with Nazi Germany.

As many as half of the deportees died either on the journey or due to the harsh conditions they were forced to endure.

Soviet authorities liquidated the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic at the time, distributing the ethnic republic’s territories among neighboring administrative units and republics.

In 1957, four years after Stalin's death, the republic was re-installed, and survivors were allowed to return to the North Caucasus.

In neighboring Chechnya, February 23 was not officially marked with any public event.

In 2012, the Moscow-backed authoritarian leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, moved the Day of Grief and Remembrance from February 23 to May 10, the anniversary of the burial of his father, Akhmat Kadyrov, who was killed in a bomb attack in Grozny in 2004.

With reporting by Ingushetia

Poland Opts Not To Meet Ukrainian Delegation Sent To Border To Discuss Farmers' Blockade

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said that Kyiv was "ready to help in solving" the impasse over Ukrainian food imports in Poland. (file photo)
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said that Kyiv was "ready to help in solving" the impasse over Ukrainian food imports in Poland. (file photo)

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said a meeting with Polish government officials on the border between the countries did not take place on February 23 as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had requested.

Ukrainian government officials, including the deputy prime minister and the interior minister, went to the border to meet with Polish officials, but “unfortunately, such a meeting…did not take place today," Shmyhal said on Facebook, posting a photo showing himself and 10 other government officials standing in front of one of the checkpoints at the Ukrainian-Polish border.

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"We understand the difficulties faced by the Polish government. And we are ready to help in solving this situation,” Shmyhal said, predicting that a meeting eventually will take place to negotiate a compromise to resolve tension over Polish farmers' protests over an increase in Ukrainian food imports since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

The farmers in recent weeks have blocked Ukrainian transport vehicles on the Polish side of the border, complaining that the increase in food and other goods from Ukraine is impacting prices for their own produce.

The situation escalated this week when a freight train was stopped at the Medyka-Shehyniy border crossing and its grain was spilled onto the tracks. Ukrainian Border Service spokesman Andriy Demchenko told RFE/RL at the time that six of the nine border crossings for trucks between the two countries remained blocked.

Shmyhal said Ukraine wants a resolution to the blockade that for the past six months has affected the Ukrainian economy and its ability to defend itself against the war.

Earlier on February 23, Zelenskiy said that a delegation of the Ukrainian government would arrive at the border ready to negotiate. However, he said he did not know whether any representatives of the Polish government would be there.

Zelenskiy appealed earlier to Poland and the European Commission regarding the situation at the border and asked Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk "to come to the border as well."

Tusk responded by saying that Polish and Ukrainian government members would hold talks in Warsaw on March 28.

Zelenskiy wants the matter to be treated more urgently, saying in his nightly video address on February 22 that it is a matter of national security which should be addressed in the coming days.

Tusk this week said that border crossing points with Ukraine will be considered critically important infrastructure "to ensure a 100 percent guarantee that military and humanitarian aid will reach the Ukrainian side without any delays."

In addition to demanding a ban on the import of agricultural products from Ukraine, the Polish protesters oppose a European Union agricultural policy that aims to implement a so-called "green system" that includes a number of environmental and climate requirements.

Poland Extradites Ukrainian Citizen Accused Of Drug-Related Crime To Kazakhstan

According to the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office, investigators confiscated illegal drugs that were worth $3.3 million and weighed more than one ton. (file photo)
According to the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office, investigators confiscated illegal drugs that were worth $3.3 million and weighed more than one ton. (file photo)

Kazakh authorities said on February 23 that Poland extradited a Ukrainian citizen, whose identity was not disclosed, to the Kazakh capital, Astana, where he is wanted for allegedly organizing the illegal production and distribution of psychotropic drugs. According to the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office, investigators confiscated illegal drugs that were worth $3.3 million and weighed more than one ton. They were allegedly produced by the suspect's group, which was established in Kazakhstan in 2022. If convicted, the Ukrainian citizen faces up to 20 years in prison. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Latvia's Hockey Federation Suspends Licenses Of 7 Who Took Part In Tournament In Russia

The suspended Latvian hockey players took part in a tournament that had been officially opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin. (file photo)
The suspended Latvian hockey players took part in a tournament that had been officially opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin. (file photo)

Latvia's Hockey Federation said on February 22 that it had suspended the licenses of several ice hockey players who took part in the Games of the Future tournament, which was officially opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 21 in Russia's Republic of Tatarstan. Seven Latvian athletes -- Ervins Mustukovs, Kirils Tambijevs, Pavels Goroskovs, Martins Lavrovs, Aleksejs Popovs, Alisers Mubaraksins, Nikita Zantmans, and Artems Kuvsinovs -- took part in the hockey event as members of the Baltic Select team. Latvian sports federations decided earlier to boycott sports events in Russia over Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

Romanian Presidency Tight-Lipped On Reports Of Iohannis Aiming For NATO Top Job

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis (file photo)
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis (file photo)

The Romanian presidency has refused to comment on media reports that Bucharest has proposed President Klaus Iohannis for the post of NATO Secretary-General. Quoting NATO diplomats, Bloomberg and Politico reported on February 22 that Romania had notified the alliance that Iohannis, who ends his term in December, was interested in the position, which incumbent Jens Stoltenberg is leaving in October. Asked for comment by RFE/RL, the Romanian presidency said it "does not comment on rumors." The United States, Britain, Germany, and France back outgoing Dutch premier Mark Rutte for the job. However, Rutte is viewed with skepticisim by eastern members like Romania and Bulgaria. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Romanian Service, click here.

Updated

Navalny Widow, Mother Accuse Russia Of 'Torture,' Desecration Amid Dispute Over Remains

Lyudmila Navalnaya
Lyudmila Navalnaya

Aleksei Navalny's mother and his widow have launched fresh pressure on Russian authorities with the dispute escalating over the return of the 47-year-old anti-corruption lawyer and opposition leader's body more than a week after officials said he collapsed at an Arctic prison.

His exiled widow, Yulia Navalnaya, issued a 6-minute video on YouTube on February 24 telling Russian officials "you tortured him alive [and] you torture him now that he is dead" and alleging that "Putin is directing all of it."

Navalnaya was in Munich for a major international security conference amid the February 16 announcement of her husband's death and defiantly vowed to continue her husband's fight against President Vladimir Putin's regime.

In the video, she said the treatment of his body nine days after he was "murdered" exposes the Kremlin leader's "fake" appeals to "traditional values" and the Christian Orthodox faith.

"You will be held to account for all of this," Navalnaya said, and she accused the Kremlin of "mocking Aleksei's mother and forcing her to agree to a secret funeral" or they would dispose of the body themselves.

"It is Putin saying, 'Put pressure on the mother, break her, tell her the body of her son is rotting,'" Navalnaya said in the video.

An ally of the late Aleksei Navalny shared an image on February 24 showing that a lawyer for the opposition leader's mother has appealed to investigators in the Yamal region where he was said to have died in prison to demand a criminal desecration case because Navalny's body has not been turned over for eight days.

Ivan Zhdanov, the former head of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, shared the photograph of Lyudmila Navalnaya's lawyer's appeal to the Yamal Investigative Committee citing an article in the law on burials. It was dated February 23.

"In accordance with Orthodox canons, it is customary to bury the body of the deceased on the third day. As of today, 8 days have passed since Navalny’s death, but to date the body has not been buried," the text argued.

Word of the challenge follows the expiry of a purported three-hour deadline that former Navalny colleagues say his mother was given by Yamal investigators to force her to agree to a secret memorial with no word on whether officials would hand over the body or bury it at the Arctic prison where officials say he fell unconscious during a walk.

Russia's Investigative Committee reportedly relayed the demands to Lyudmila Navalnaya as President Vladimir Putin's administration appears eager to prevent public mourning and anti-Kremlin sentiment in any farewell to the late anti-corruption crusader.

Kira Yarmysh, the former press secretary of the Kremlin critic, said Navalnaya refused to negotiate with the official, saying the Investigative Committee has no legal right to decide where and how her son should be buried. Navalnaya wants to hold a funeral and farewell ceremony in accordance with traditions, Yarmysh wrote.

RFE/RL could not immediately verify whether an ultimatum had been given. Neither the prison authorities nor the Investigative Committee have publicly commented on the matter.

Russian law states that authorities must turn over a body to family members within two days after the cause of death is officially established. Yarmysh said Navalnaya demanded that the authorities adhere to the law and release her son's body by February 24, when the two-day period expires.

A day earlier, Lyudmila Navalnaya said in a video posted to social media that investigators had allowed her to see her son's body late on February 21 in the Arctic city of Salekhard, but refused to hand it over for burial.

Navalnaya said she signed her son’s death certificate.

Family and friends have said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is responsible for Navalny's death. His wife, Yulia Navalnaya, said Putin murdered her husband.

Yulia Navalnaya previous accused Putin of being behind the murder of her husband.

'Proper Farewell'

Navalny's mother said she wants her son's burial to be public so that all his supporters can bid a proper farewell to the anti-corruption crusader.

Navalnaya has been trying to get access to her son’s body since his death in the harsh Arctic penitentiary was announced on February 16. Prison officials said Navalny died after he collapsed while on a daily walk outside of his cell.

On February 21, Navalnaya filed a lawsuit in a Russian court demanding the release of her son's body. A closed-door hearing into the complaint is scheduled for March 4, which roughly coincides with the time frame authorities have said they need to perform "chemical forensics" on Navalny's body.

Rights groups and Navalny's associates have accused authorities of holding the body to allow them to hide the cause of death.

WATCH: A Russian doctor who was involved in efforts to diagnose Aleksei Navalny after he was poisoned in 2020 says traces of poison can be removed from a dead body.

Former Navalny Doctor Says Poison Could Be Removed From Body
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Earlier on February 23, Navalny's associates published video statements of many leading Russian public figures urging authorities to immediately release Navalny's body.

The group included 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Dmitry Muratov, prominent Latvian-American ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, a founding member of the Pussy Riot protest group, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, writers Mikhail Zygar and Viktor Shenderovich, historian Tamara Eidelman, television journalist Tatyana Lazareva, popular rock musician Andrei Makarevich, rapper Noize MC (Ivan Alekseyev), businessman Yevgeny Chichvarkin, and many other noted public figures, nearly all of whom are living in exile.

Ivan Zhdanov, the former head of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, said in an interview with Current Time on February 23 that the authorities are refusing to hand over the Kremlin critic's body above all else to hide evidence of his murder. But he also said they fear a public funeral will attract a "massive" crowd of Navalny supporters who come, flowers in hand, to say their last goodbyes.

“They don't want to see it, they don't want it to happen,” Zhdanov said.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a self-exiled leading Russian opposition figure, agreed with that assessment, saying a public funeral could trigger “large-scale confrontations” between Navalny supporters and law enforcement.

“The authorities do not want people to grasp how many of them oppose Putin. The main task of Putin’s propaganda is to convince people that if they are against Putin, they are on the margins,” the former oil tycoon said in a February 23 interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

“If people see that there are really a lot of them…then the situation can change in seconds,” he said.

Khodorkovsky: 'Putin Afraid' Navalny Funeral Could Spark Protests
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Navalny was Russia’s most popular opposition leader with a large, dedicated following around the country. He had organized some of the biggest public protests in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Tens of thousands of citizens would heed his calls to demonstrate against Putin’s rule despite the threat of arrest.

In 2013, Navalny ran for mayor of Moscow, the nation’s capital and largest city, receiving more than a quarter of the vote despite censorship by state television.

Diplomatic pressure on Moscow continues to mount over Navalny's death as well.

The United States and the European Union on February 23 announced fresh sanctions on Russia in retaliation for Navalny's death ahead of the second anniversary of Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Russian officials have said no foul play was involved and called the international outrage over Navalny's death in custody "hysterical."

With reporting by dpa

Hungary Blocks Common EU Statement To Mark Second Anniversary Of Ukraine Invasion -- Sources

European Union flags fly outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels (file photo)
European Union flags fly outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels (file photo)

Hungary has blocked a statement that the European Union had been supposed to issue on February 23 to mark the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, EU sources told RFE/RL. The EU is now instead working on a statement to be issued on behalf of the three presidents of the main European institutions -- EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, European Parliament chief Roberta Metsola, and European Council President Charles Michel. To issue a statement on behalf of the EU, all 27 member states need to consent. Budapest objected to the statement without offering a concrete explanation, sources told RFE/RL.

Iran Tries To Tighten Grip On Internet By Officially Outlawing VPN Use

Iran has long faced criticism for its extensive Internet restrictions, with many citizens relying on VPNs to access blocked content including social media and instant messaging platforms. (file photo)
Iran has long faced criticism for its extensive Internet restrictions, with many citizens relying on VPNs to access blocked content including social media and instant messaging platforms. (file photo)

Iran has officially outlawed the use of tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs) designed to bypass Internet censorship following a directive from the country's Supreme Council of Cyberspace that was endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The secretary of the council, Mohammad Amin Aqamiri, announced the enforcement of the decree, which was initially approved by Khamenei, signaling a significant move to control Internet access within the country.

Under the new regulation, the use of VPN tools is banned unless explicitly authorized by authorities, further tightening the government's grip on Internet access.

Iran has long faced criticism for its extensive Internet restrictions, with many citizens relying on VPNs to access blocked content including social media and instant messaging platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, and WhatsApp, as well as many streaming websites such as HBO, YouTube, and Netflix.

Local media reports have also surfaced suggesting that elements within the government or its affiliates have profited from the VPN trade, raising questions about the motives behind the crackdown.

The specifics of how the government plans to enforce the ban or grant exceptions remain unclear, adding to the uncertainty surrounding digital usage in Iran.

Communications technology expert Mohammad Keshvari said that the prohibition of VPNs is "not new, but the latest decree fails to clarify the consequences for those who defy it.”

He added that, from a technical viewpoint, completely preventing VPN use is not feasible.

The criminalization of VPN use was notably absent from the decree, which analysts said reflects the legislative duties of the parliament, which had previously removed such provisions from proposed legislation.

Iran has come under international scrutiny over its digital repression, with a report from Freedom House marking the country as having the worst decline in Internet freedom globally in 2023.

Iran was home to 2023’s sharpest drop in online access and freedom, the report said, as authorities shut down Internet service, blocked the WhatsApp and Instagram social media apps, and increased surveillance during a crackdown on anti-government protests last year sparked by the death of a young woman -- 22-year-old Mahsa Amini -- while in police custody.

The situation underscores the ongoing tensions between government control and digital rights in Iran, posing significant challenges for access to information and freedom of expression within the country.

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

EU Announces 13th Russia Sanctions Package On Eve Of Second Anniversary Of Ukraine Invasion

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (file photo)
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (file photo)

The European Union announced a fresh package of sanctions against Russia on February 23, on the eve of the second anniversary of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

"Today, we are further tightening the restrictive measures against Russia's military and defense sector," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a press release.

“We remain united in our determination to dent Russia’s war machine and help Ukraine win its legitimate fight for self-defense.”

The 13th Ukraine-related sanctions package targets Russia's defense industry and slaps assets freezes and travel bans on 106 individuals and 88 organizations, bringing to 2,000 the total number of people and groups sanctioned by the 27-member bloc for "undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine."

The newly sanctioned individuals include dozens of Russian officials including "members of the judiciary, local politicians and people responsible for the illegal deportation and military re-education of Ukrainian children," the statement said.

They also impose restrictions on companies from India, Sri Lanka, China, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Thailand, and Turkey suspected of exporting to Russia dual-use products for "supporting Russia's military and industrial complex."

The restrictions also expand on components for the development and production of aerial drones.

The names of the companies will be published in the EU’s official journal in several days.

In response to the EU move, the Russia Foreign Ministry announced on February 23 that it had drastically expanded a list of the bloc's officials and politicians banned from entering Russia.

"The European Union is continuing its fruitless attempts to put pressure on Russia through unilateral restrictive measures," the ministry said in a statement.

While the bloc's 27 members agreed on the sanctions package, a statement to mark February 24 ran aground when Hungary refused to sign on, EU sources told RFE/RL. Budapest objected to the statement without offering a concrete explanation, the sources said.

In the end, the EU issued a statement on February 23 signed by the presidents of the three main European institutions -- EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, European Parliament chief Roberta Metsola, and European Council President Charles Michel -- instead of the entire bloc.

"Russia and its leadership bear sole responsibility for this war and its global consequences, as well as for the serious crimes committed. We remain determined to hold them to account, including for the crime of aggression," the statement reads.

"Russia and its leaders will pay a growing price for their actions. Together with partners, we have imposed unprecedented sanctions against Russia and those complicit in the war and remain ready to increase the pressure on Russia to limit its ability to wage war. We have also taken the first concrete steps towards directing extraordinary revenues stemming from Russian immobilized assets to support Ukraine. We will continue our targeted actions to further isolate Russia in international fora."

Three Tajik Public Figures Handed Prison Terms Over Book

Abdukhalil Kholiqzoda and Abduqodiri Rustam (file photo)
Abdukhalil Kholiqzoda and Abduqodiri Rustam (file photo)

Tajikistan's Supreme Court has handed prison terms to three well-known public figures for writing, editing, and publishing a book that highlights some of the challenges faced by those living in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic, which the authorities ordered cleared from bookstores.

Several sources told RFE/RL on February 23 that the court sentenced Abdukhalil Kholiqzoda to 6 1/2 years, Abduqodir Rustam to 4 1/2 years, and Suhrob Rajabzoda to one year in prison after finding them guilty of inciting hatred.

There was no official announcement of the verdicts and sentences as the trial was held behind closed doors within a detention center in Dushanbe.

Lawyers and relatives of the three defendants refused to comment, while Supreme Court officials confirmed to RFE/RL that the trial session was held on February 22, but they could not comment, saying the trial judge was not available for comment.

It remains unclear if Kholiqzoda, Rustam, and Rajabzoda will appeal the sentences.

The men were arrested in August 2023 and went on trial on January 19.

The charges against them stemmed from their roles in publishing a book titled Stories Of My Life that, among other things, focused on everyday developments in modern Tajikistan, including corruption, migration, and cultural challenges faced in the Central Asian country.

The authorities confiscated all copies of the book from bookstores after the three men were arrested. The book's author is businessman Kholiqzoda, while Rustam edited it, and Rajabzoda's Er-Graf publishing house published it.

Self-exiled Tajik intellectuals and opposition figures condemned the arrests and the sentencing of the three men, calling the case against them a crackdown on freedom of expression.

Meanwhile, amid a lack of transparency in the country, speculation has risen that the case might be connected to a power struggle among the elite.

President Emomali Rahmon, who has run Tajikistan for almost 30 years, has been criticized by international human rights groups over his administration's policies toward independent media, religious freedoms, civil society, and political pluralism.

In recent years, several Tajik journalists, rights activists, and opposition politicians have been handed lengthy prison terms on charges seen by rights groups as trumped-up and politically motivated.

Jailed Kyrgyz Blogger Transferred To House Arrest

Batmakan Jolboldueva (file photo)
Batmakan Jolboldueva (file photo)

A court in the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad ruled on February 22 to transfer local blogger Batmakan Jolboldueva from a pretrial detention center to house arrest. The State Committee for National Security said in early February that Jolboldueva was arrested and charged with extortion after she was caught receiving 25,000 soms ($280) from a person in exchange for withholding a sensitive report from being published. It remains unclear how Jolboldueva pleaded. She refused to elaborate on the charges when asked by RFE/RL to talk about the details of her case. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Putin Fears Navalny Funeral Could Trigger Mass Demonstrations, Khodorkovsky Says

Formerly Russia's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 on fraud charges that he says were trumped up by Putin and his allies and spent a decade in prison. (file photo)
Formerly Russia's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 on fraud charges that he says were trumped up by Putin and his allies and spent a decade in prison. (file photo)

The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely refusing to release the body of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who died suspiciously in prison on February 16, because it fears a massive outpouring of grief and support just ahead of the March presidential election, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a leading Russian opposition figure, said.

"There could be large-scale confrontations in Moscow," the exiled former oil tycoon said in an interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

"The authorities do not want people to understand how many of them oppose Putin. The main task of Putin’s propaganda is to convince people that if they are against Putin, they are on the margins…. If people see that there are really a lot of them...then the situation can change in seconds."

Khodorkovsky: 'Putin Afraid' Navalny Funeral Could Spark Protests
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Russian authorities have yet to release Navalny's body to his family, while his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, said on February 22 they were pressing her to hold a private funeral "without any farewell ceremonies."

Khodorkovsky, who lives in London in exile and funds various projects aimed at promoting democracy in Russia, said that if Navalny's family rejected the government's demands, his body likely would not be released until after the March 17 presidential election, which the Kremlin hopes to use as a show of national unity in support of Putin and the ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

A large show of support for Navalny would be "a very serious signal to the elite," Khodorkovsky told Current Time.

Khodorkovsky described Navalny's widow, Yulia Navalnaya, who has pledged to continue her husband's work, as "a person who is acceptable to the majority of opposition leaders" and said he was ready to coordinate with her and "join forces in tackling certain issues."

However, he said the democratic Russian opposition was too diverse to unite around a single figure "even the smartest, most brilliant, and best person imaginable."

He added that Putin’s government was "pushing us toward revolution" by replacing politics with government violence.

"The more it uses violent methods and the harsher it is with the opposition, the greater the likelihood that the opposition will become radicalized and adopt responses that are rather harsh and radical," he said. "And after that, one should expect that Russia will become a democratic country. That is just objective reality."

Khodorkovsky also urged the West not to recognize the legitimacy of the March presidential election and to deal with Putin from a position of strength.

"The West’s weakness gives Putin a free hand," he said, encouraging him to continue his aggression.

"What can stop him is a show of force," he said. "If you have the power, show it. If you don't, then just wait until he kicks in your door."

He said he believes adopting further sanctions against Russia would have little effect, but that existing sanctions need more rigorous enforcement. Many of the advanced weapons systems Russia is deploying in Ukraine contain Western-made components, he said, which encourages Putin not to consider sanctions a serious problem.

Formerly Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky, 60, was arrested in 2003 on fraud charges that he says were trumped up by Putin and his allies to punish his political activity, bring influential tycoons to heel, and put the oil assets of his company, Yukos, into state hands.

He spent just over a decade in prison before being pardoned and flown out of the country in December 2013.

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