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COVID-19: Olympics Postponed As Iran Rejects Medical Charity Mission

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a Tokyo 2020 kickoff rally in Tokyo in August 2013.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach have agreed to put off the Tokyo 2020 games for one year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The move, unprecedented in peacetime, was requested "taking into consideration the current circumstances," Abe said, noting that all parties want a secure and safe environment for the athletes and crowds.

The Olympics, which have been held every four years since 1948, is to date the highest-profile event affected by the virus, which has killed more nearly 19,000 and infected over 422,000 people, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try and slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

Here's a roundup of other coronavirus developments in RFE/RL's broadcast countries.

Iran

Iran, one of the hardest-hit countries in the world by the coronavirus, has rejected an offer from a Geneva-based medical charity to set up a 50-bed inflatable hospital in the central city of Isfahan to deal with the epidemic.

The total number of people diagnosed with the disease increased by 1,762 during the previous 24 hours, the Health Ministry said on March 24, raising the total figure to 24,811.

The ministry also announced 122 new deaths from the virus, putting the official toll at 1,934.

"We are surprised to learn that the deployment of our treatment unit is canceled," Michel-Olivier Lacharite, who is in charge of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) crisis-response team, said in a statement on March 24.

Lacharite said the organization had been ready to set up the unit at the end of the week after being given prior approval from the authorities.

Alireza Vahabzadeh, adviser to Iran's health minister, tweeted that "it is not necessary for now for hospital beds to be set up by foreign forces, and their presence is ruled out."

Vahabzadeh cited Iran's "national mobilization against the virus and the full use of the medical capacity of the armed forces" as the reasons for the refusal.

On March 22, MSF said it was sending a 50-bed inflatable hospital and an emergency team to Isfahan to treat patients critically ill with COVID-19.

An MSF team comprised of nine emergency and intensive-care unit doctors and logisticians was to run the unit to be set up in the compound of the city’s Amin hospital, the organization said.

The announcement stirred opposition from Iranian hard-liners, who alleged that MSF staff would serve as "spies."

Iranian officials have previously rejected the United States' offer of humanitarian assistance, saying that Washington should lift sanctions if it wants to help Tehran fight the epidemic.

Iran has been under crippling U.S. sanctions in connection with its nuclear and missile program.

On March 24, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for any sanctions imposed on countries like Iran to be "urgently reevaluated" to avoid pushing strained medical systems into collapse.

"At this crucial time, both for global public-health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended," Bachelet said.

More than 50 Iranian medics have died since the first coronavirus case was detected in the country five weeks ago, according to her office.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani on March 24 announced that about half of all government employees were staying at home in a bid to slow the coronavirus outbreak.

Rohani also said the temporary release of prisoners will be extended until the end of the current Iranian month of Farvardin, about April 18.

Iranian authorities say they have temporarily released tens of thousands of prisoners because of the epidemic.

Russia

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has warned President Vladimir Putin that the number of confirmed coronavirus infections in Russia is likely to rise sharply in the days ahead as health officials dramatically increase the number of tests they are carrying out.

Sobyanin, who heads a coronavirus task force at Russia's State Council, told Putin on March 24 that the number of tests performed in Moscow will increase from about 3,000 a day to 13,000 per day by the end of this week.

"The problem is that the volume of testing is very low and no one has a clear picture" of the situation in Russia and the world, Sobyanin told Putin.

"The picture that is unfolding is serious," he said, warning that the number of infected people in Russia was "significantly" higher than official figures.

Russia has registered 495 cases of the coronavirus and maintains that there have not been any deaths from the disease in the country.

One patient with coronavirus died in a Russian hospital, but the authorities are not counting the woman's death as part of its coronavirus toll -- saying she died from a blood clot.

However, a global database maintained by Johns Hopkins University is including that patient in its coronavirus death toll.

Some experts say Russia's relatively low number of confirmed coronavirus infections could be attributed to its slow pace of screening.

Until recently, just one lab in Novosibirsk was analyzing tests from all over Russia.

Russia is now taking steps to open new labs and increase the number of tests being carried out for coronavirus.

Putin, meanwhile, visited a Moscow hospital for coronavirus patients on March 24 -- donning a yellow hazmat suit with a protective mask within an area where patients were being treated.

During his visit to a hospital in the Moscow suburb of Kommunarka, Putin praised doctors for their efforts in treating infected patients, saying they were working "like clockwork, a well-oiled machine."

"I could see how well the seriously ill patients are being cared for with three specialists working on one patient at once," Putin said in comments published on the Kremlin website.

Don't Kiss The Icons: Russian Orthodox Church Moves To Limit Coronavirus Spread
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Armenia

Armenia has ordered nearly all people in the country to remain at home except to buy food, receive medical care, or to exercise, with only "vitally" necessary workers allowed to go to their jobs as the government steps up measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision announced on March 24 by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian came hours after a government task force ordered a partial closure of virtually all state agencies, allowing only a limited number of employees to show up for work.

Armenia, a South Caucasus country of just under 3 million people, has reported 249 coronavirus cases, a rise of 14 over the past 24 hours.

Interactive Coronavirus Map

Updated constantly with the latest figures

Pashinian said in a nationally televised address that one of the persons infected, a 77-year-old man, was in "extremely grave" condition and that four others were in "grave" condition.

The prime minister added that 868 Armenians remained in quarantine and more than 2,400 others were in self-isolation.

At least 37 people were released from a two-week quarantine on March 24 after testing negative for the virus.

In his address, Pashinian said that the lockdown "means the work of thousands of enterprises will be halted and only vitally necessary entities will be allowed to operate."

He said the measures would be in effect "for at least a week."

"Our fellow citizens taking to the streets will have to clearly explain where they are going and those explanations must fit into the logic of people's vital movements," Pashinian warned.

He said that only people over the age of 65 would be allowed to go shopping between 10 a.m. and noon each day.

As part of the measures, the government earlier ordered the temporary closure of all cafes and restaurants as well as most businesses in the country.

Pashinian urged Armenians to, if possible, use online services provided by state and private entities.

He also stressed that food stores, pharmacies, and bank offices will remain open and that no restrictions will be placed on agricultural work.

"We are overcoming coronavirus step by step...rest assured that we will defeat this evil," Pashinian said.

The government on March 16 declared a one-month state of emergency to slow the spread of the disease.

It had previously closed its border with Iran -- one of the hardest-hit countries in the world by the virus -- and Georgia.

Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan

Kyrgyzstan has imposed a state of emergency in the capital and several other cities and regions to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, the country's presidential service announced on March 24.

"President Sooronbai Jeenbekov has signed decrees to enact a state of emergency in the cities of Bishkek, Osh, and Jalal-Abad, as well as the Nookat and Kara-Suu districts of the Osh region and the Suzak district of the Jalal-Abad region. The decrees have been sent to parliament," it said.

The decrees were immediately sent to parliament, which unanimously approved them in an emergency session.

Kyrgyzstan's Security Council first recommended the state of emergency on March 22, and the government subsequently imposed some restrictions and took some measures such as placing checkpoints in every region and city.

Tight Restrictions Placed On Kyrgyz Travel In Fight Against Coronavirus
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In the southern district of Nookat, regional officials already declared a local state of emergency on March 21 after three coronavirus cases were reported there.

Under the state of emergency which, after parliament's approval, will come into force on March 25 and will last until April 15, a curfew will be enacted and measures to maintain public order and security at strategic facilities will be stepped up, the statement said.

The decree bans artistic, sports, and other mass events as well as strikes, rallies, meetings, street marches, demonstrations, and pickets.

In line with the presidential decree declaring a state of emergency, the government said all internal flights will be suspended in Kyrgyzstan from March 25.

Exceptions will be made for special flights upon agreement with the country's headquarters for coronavirus actions, according to Deputy Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov.

Kyrgyzstan's Health Ministry reported 26 more confirmed cases on March 23, bringing the total number to 42.

Tight Restrictions Placed On Kyrgyz Travel In Fight Against Coronavirus
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Tajikistan, which has not reported any coronavirus cases so far, decided to close its border with Kyrgyzstan starting on March 24 "until the situation stabilizes," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The decision does not apply to Tajik citizens returning to their home country, foreigners departing from Tajikistan, drivers of goods vehicles, diplomats and their families, and members of government delegations.

In neighboring Uzbekistan, the capital, Tashkent, went into lockdown on March 24 to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

Uzbekistan has 50 confirmed coronavirus cases, all but one in Tashkent, a city of more than 2.5 million.

Uzbekistan closed its borders on March 23 and has already shut down public transit in the capital and ordered most businesses to switch to remote working.

Pakistan

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says the media in Pakistan should temporarily close their bureaus to lower health risks after three TV journalists working in the field tested positive for the coronavirus.

"You cannot rule out the possibility that the three journalists who have tested positive for COVID-19 caught it while reporting in the field," Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk, said in a statement on March 23, a day after it emerged that two journalists with News 24 HD TV and one with AbbTakk TV had tested positive.

The journalists are based in Lahore, the capital of the eastern province of Punjab.

"We ask all of the country's media executives and owners to put their reporters' health first and not send large numbers of them into the field," Bastard said. "Everything must be put in place so that they can work from home and avoid any potential source of infection."

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan has passed 950, with seven deaths.

Pakistani Village Shaken By Country's First COVID-19 Death
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Romania

President Klaus Iohannis has said that Romania will deploy the military to help impose a "total quarantine" to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak amid a spike in the number of confirmed cases.

Romania declared a state of emergency on March 16, but the number of cases has continued to rise sharply as many people have been ignoring the government's recommendations to remain indoors.

On March 24, authorities reported 186 more infections -- the highest day-to-day increase so far -- and one more death, bringing the total to 762 confirmed cases and eight fatalities.

Iohannis said in a live televised address that starting from March 25, people will only be allowed to leave home to buy food or medicine, to go to work, or for emergencies. Those over 65 will be completely banned from leaving their homes.

Those who have been placed in self-quarantine will be monitored electronically, Iohannis said. He did not elaborate.

Iohannis said previous recommendations will become mandatory and the army will be deployed to help police the streets.

"The restrictions, dear Romanians, will come into force from tomorrow," Iohannis said.

Moldova

Moldovan Prime Minister Ion Chicu has imposed further freedom-of-movement restrictions, banning people from visiting parks and other recreation sites in an effort to stem the spread ofthe coronavirus.

"Starting from March 24, city residents are prohibited from visiting parks and other public zones where people gather. This measure is tough, but is necessary for containing the coronavirus. The Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry will be responsible for enforcing these measures," Chicu told a session of the emergency situations commission late on March 23.

Additional measures include shutting down public transportation, outdoor food markets, mail delivery, and the closing of all commercial shops except for grocery stores and pharmacies.

Residents were instructed to stay at home and can only leave for work or to shop for food.

Moldova reported 15 new cases of COVID-19 on March 23, bringing the total number of infections to 109.

A national emergency is in place until May 15.

Ukraine

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal says there is no need yet to declare a national state of emergency even as a leading health official announced 10 more cases of coronavirus.

"At the moment, there is no need to introduce a state of emergency in Ukraine. A state of emergency is introduced when there are extreme events. Today, the development of the coronavirus in Ukraine is quite moderate compared to many European countries," Shmyhal told local television late on March 23.

He added that measures the government is currently taking are ample for the time being, though the situation may change in the coming weeks due to the spread of the coronavirus.

Chief Medical Officer Viktor Lyashko said on March 23 that preliminary tests showed 10 more people have been infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Confirmation of their tests is expected on March 24 and could raise the number of confirmed cases to 83. Three deaths have been recorded linked to the virus.

According to the Interior Ministry, more than 72,000 Ukrainians have returned from abroad, including from some of the hardest-hit European countries, since a nationwide quarantine was imposed from March 12 to April 3.

Among those diagnosed with the coronavirus are several members of parliament, including Ruslan Horbenko, a member of the ruling party.

Meanwhile, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has urged the heads of church confessions to conduct prayer services online and without the presence of people at places of worship.

"I thank those church leaders who understand the danger and conduct divine service online, without people. I am sure other leaders will join these forced measures. After all, today people really need faith, but they equally need basic security," he said.

Ride-Sharing And Home Workouts: Kharkiv Amid Coronavirus
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Since March 17, all aviation, rail, and bus services with foreign countries and within the country have been shut down. Shopping centers, cafes, restaurants, gyms, and other nonessential facilities have been shuttered. Only grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, and banks are still open.

The previous day, Kyiv further closed public transportation, allowing only critical personnel to take buses, trolleybuses, and trams. Subway systems were closed in Kyiv, Odesa, and Dnipro on March 17.

Several cities, including Kyiv, have declared states of emergency.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian, Kyrgyz, Moldovan, Romanian, Tajik, Ukrainian, and Uzbek services, Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, IRNA, TASS, Interfax, Digi24.ro, G4media.ro, and Hotnews.ro

All Of The Latest News

U.S. To End Russia's Ability To Pay Bondholders Through U.S. Banks

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen

The United States will not extend a waiver set to expire on May 25 that allows Russia to pay U.S. bondholders through U.S. banks.

The U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement it would not extend a license that allows Russia to make payments on its sovereign debt.

The waiver had allowed Moscow to keep paying interest and principal and avert default on its government debt.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said last week that the United States was unlikely to extend the waiver, but added that if Russia is unable to make the payments and it defaults, it would not represent a significant change in Russia's situation because the country is already cut off from global capital markets.

Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said last week that Moscow would service its external debt in rubles if the United States blocked other options and would not consider itself in default as it had the means to pay.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AP

Orban Imposes New State Of Emergency In Hungary, Saying Ukraine War Poses 'Constant Danger'

“The world is on the brink of an economic crisis. Hungary must stay outside of this war and must protect the families' material security," Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Facebook.

BUDAPEST -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has imposed a new state of emergency in the country, citing the war in Ukraine, which he said “poses a threat to our physical security.”

Speaking in a video message posted on Facebook on May 24, Orban said no one can see an end to the war, which began three months ago when Russia invaded Ukraine.

“This war means a constant danger to Hungary. It poses a threat to our physical security. It threatens our economy and our families in terms of energy supplies and material security," Orban said.

The war and the sanctions imposed by the European Union have led to huge economic turbulence and drastic price increases, he said.

“The world is on the brink of an economic crisis. Hungary must stay outside of this war and must protect the families' material security," he added.

The state of emergency, which is to begin at midnight, enables the government “to react with all available instruments to protect Hungary and Hungarian families,” he said.

Hungary already is under a state of emergency that was declared because of COVID-19, but it is due to expire on May 31.

New rules that will be in effect under the change will be announced on May 25, Orban said.

Shortly before the announcement, the Hungarian parliament amended the constitution to allow for such a measure.

Orban's Fidesz party, which won reelection on April 3, commands a two-thirds majority in the chamber.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) denounced the declaration, saying the state of emergency "has become permanent."

The move gives Orban "more leeway than usual," allowing him to "restrict or simply suspend everybody's fundamental rights," TASZ said.

Orban, in power for 12 years, has been accused by his Western partners of abuses of power in his country, a member of both the European Union and NATO.

With reporting by AFP

Serbian Orthodox Church Recognizes Independence Of Orthodox Church In North Macedonia

A joint liturgy of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Macedonian Orthodox Church in Skopje May 24.

The head of Serbia's Orthodox Church recognized the independence of the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia, signaling an end to a religious dispute dating back more than 50 years.

Patriarch Porfirije, the leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church, announced the decision to recognize the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia during a joint liturgy on May 24 in Skopje.

“Brothers and sisters, we are here to bring you joy," Porfirije said. “God is one, his church is one, and our faith is one. That is why we are rejoicing today. A miracle is happening before us. We are part of that miracle.”

Believers at the joint service and around St. Clement of Ohrid Cathedral greeted the announcement with joy and thunderous applause.

The rift dates back to 1967 when the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia unilaterally announced its independence, or autocephaly, from the Serbian Church. At the time, the two predominantly Orthodox republics were part of Yugoslavia.

Serbian religious leaders condemned the move, and the breakaway church was not recognized by other Orthodox churches.

As he announced the reversal, Porfirije said the synod of Serbia's senior bishops unanimously accepted the change, and an official proclamation of the church's independence is being prepared. The proclamation will be followed by an invitation of acceptance to be sent to other Orthodox churches.

Porfirije expects that all local churches will accept the autocephaly status of the church, whose formal name is the Macedonian Orthodox Church-Ohrid Archbishopric.

Formal recognition of the autocephaly of the church is expected to be officially announced by Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians.

Bartholomew earlier this month acknowledged the Macedonian Orthodox Church as the Church of Ohrid, and the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate followed suit last week.

“We have been waiting to hear this news for a long time. This is the day,” said Archbishop Stefan, head of the Orthodox Church in North Macedonia, as he thanked Bartholomew and Porfirije for their support.

"Once again, we thank you, your holiness, and the members of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church on behalf of the monasticism and the faithful people of the Macedonian Orthodox Church-Ohrid Archbishopric," Archbishop Stefan said.

The news was widely seen in North Macedonia as a historic event, and after the end of the joint liturgy the bells in the cathedral in Skopje continued to ring.

"It is good news that we are finally together after so many years, and the patriarch himself says in Serbian that this is a miracle that happened to us, so we thank God," said Blagica Blazeska, according to RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.

Donco Domazetovski, another worshiper, said it was “a miracle above the miracles” that the church’s autocephaly was recognized and its priests have the right to preach everywhere and build unity.

With reporting by AP and dpa

Poll Shows Near Even Split Among Ukrainians Over Joining NATO

A poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) shows that 39 percent of Ukrainians believe that joining NATO would guarantee the nation's security, while 42 percent believe that in the current environment settling for security guarantees may be acceptable.

The KIIS poll asked 2,000 people whether it would be acceptable not to join the alliance if Ukraine instead received security guarantees from NATO countries.

The poll was conducted May 13-18 via computer-assisted telephone interviews based on a random sample of mobile telephone numbers throughout the country, except in Russian-occupied Crimea.

Nineteen percent of respondents had no opinion or did not agree with either of the options.

Russia has opposed Ukraine becoming a member of NATO and cited the potential of NATO expansion as one of its reasons for launching its invasion three months ago. Kyiv has been working on joining the alliance for years.

As Russia continues its unprovoked invasion, the possibility of Ukraine not joining NATO or postponing the process has been raised at talks between Kyiv and Moscow.

The poll also showed that the population's readiness to abandon the idea of joining NATO and instead obtaining security guarantees from NATO countries is supported by 35 percent of the population in the country's west, which has been less affected by the war, and 50 percent in Ukraine's eastern regions.

At the same time, people who strongly support Ukraine joining NATO is 46 percent in western regions of Ukraine and 25 percent in the country's east.

Exclusive: Murdered Artist's Work Returned To Family, 80 Years After The Holocaust

Exclusive: Murdered Artist's Work Returned To Family, 80 Years After The Holocaust
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After a demolition crew made a startling art discovery in the walls of a Prague house, the work of Gertrud Kauders has been handed over to her descendants. Kauders was a Jewish artist from Prague who was murdered in a Nazi death camp in World War II.

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

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

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

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

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

After Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, the West slapped wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow, including the exclusion of several banks from the SWIFT messaging system, embargoes on Russian exports, restrictions on investments, asset freezes for government officials and their families, and travel bans for many senior officials.

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

The House of Lords has around 800 members.

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

Veronika Belotserkovskaya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PEN America Honors Jailed RFE/RL Journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finnish, Swedish Envoys To Turkey To Discuss NATO Bids

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (file photo)

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

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

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

Erdogan has said he is against the accession of the two Nordic countries because of what he called their support for "terrorist organizations," a reference to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdish militia People's Defense Units (YPG) in Syria.

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

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

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

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

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Russia Finally Releases Danish Jehovah's Witness Christensen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since the faith was outlawed, many Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned in Russia.

According to the group, dozens of Jehovah's Witnesses have either been convicted of extremism or have been held in pretrial detention.

The United States has condemned Russia's ongoing crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious minorities it says are peaceful.

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

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

With reporting by Siberia.Realities

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

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (file photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reporting by Reuters and dpa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reacted by saying that the denial of Navalny's appeal "is another example of the Kremlin's quest to suppress dissent and civil society."

The United States respects "the brave citizens of Russia who protest their government's brutal war and endemic corruption, despite threats, criminal charges, detentions and poisonings," he said on Twitter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

International organizations consider Navalny a political prisoner.

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

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

With reporting by Mediazona and Interfax

Ex-Moldovan President Dodon Detained After Home Searched By Anti-Corruption Police

Igor Dodon lost the presidential election in November 2020.

CHISINAU -- The former president of Moldova, Igor Dodon, has been detained by Moldovan authorities on corruption charges, the Prosecutor-General's Office said on May 24.

Senior anti-corruption prosecutor Elena Kazakov announced that Dodon was detained after searches of his home, office, and cars during which several luxury goods, foreign currency, receipts, and other documents were found.

Kazakov, speaking at a briefing, identified Dodon as the main subject of the investigation but said that "intermediaries" also were subjects of the probe.

The goods and money that prosecutors say were used to commit crimes exceed tens of millions of lei -- hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars -- and include real estate and vehicles, she said.

The documents found at Dodon’s home confirm real estate transactions that exceed 700,000 euros, Kazakov said, adding that two people have been detained for trying to hide evidence. One of them tried to destroy evidence by swallowing it, she said, without specifying what it was.

Moldovan media reported that the person was identified as the brother-in-law of the former head of state and that he allegedly swallowed a receipt.

Prosecutors said they found 600,000 lei in one of the locations subject to the search and that an envelope with the insignia of an unspecified party contained foreign currency of more than 17,000 euros and $1,000.

The Prosecutor-General's Office announced the search earlier on May 24, saying it was being conducted by anti-corruption authorities.

The Moldovan-Russian Business Union, headed by Dodon since its founding in February, was among the offices searched.

Late on May 24, Dodon declared his innocence and blamed pro-Western President Maia Sandu, who he said wanted to distract people from the country's economic woes.

"Dear citizens, I want to assure you that for every element of interest to the prosecutors I have the necessary explanations that remove any suspicion of corruption or breaking the law," Dodon said in an online message. "This politically motivated case is fabricated."

Dodon, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was president of Moldova from 2016-2020. He was defeated in November 2020 by Sandu, a U.S.-educated politician who ran on a ticket of closer relations with the West.

The Kremlin said it is "naturally alarmed that such a practice and persecution once again affects those who advocate the development of friendly relations with Russia for mutual benefit."

Spokesman Dmitry Peskov called on the Moldovan authorities to ensure Dodon's rights are respected.

At a news conference on the issue, members of Dodon's Party of Socialists said the actions were part of a "two-penny show" meant to distract the public's attention from poverty and social issues.

Vlad Batrincea, deputy chairman of the party, said he believed the actions of the investigators were a politically motivated move by authorities loyal to Sandu.

"This is a dangerous game. Those who go against the opposition want to provoke destabilization," Batrincea said at a briefing.

A representative of Sandu, who is currently in the United States to celebrate her 50th birthday, did not respond to a request for comment, according to Reuters.

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

Despite its lack of wealth and size, Moldova, which has a population of about 2.6 million people, has taken in more than 472,000 refugees from neighboring Ukraine.

With reporting by Reuters, unimedia.md, and deschide.md

Russia Issues Arrest Warrant For Self-Exiled Journalist Naki

Maikl Naki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Pilots Dead As Iranian Fighter Jet Crashes During Training Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iranian police officers prepare a rope for a public hanging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reporting by AFP and dpa

Zelenskiy Warns Of 'Extremely Difficult' Period As Russia Boosts Offensive In Eastern Ukraine

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

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

As the conflict entered its fourth month, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned in his nightly address on May 24 that Ukrainians that the coming period of time will be "extremely difficult," especially in the eastern Donbas region.

"All the power of the Russian army, which still remains in them, has been thrown into the attack,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly address on May 24.

The Russian forces are aiming to destroy everything in Lyman, Popasna, Severodonetsk, and Slovyansk, he said.

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"But in the interceptions of their conversations, we hear that they are well aware that this war does not make sense for Russia and that strategically their army has no chance,” he said.

It will take time and “a lot of extraordinary efforts” for Ukrainians to break their advantage in equipment and weapons, Zelenskiy said as he again called for Western countries to supply more heavy weapons.

Providing rocket-propelled grenades, tanks, anti-ship, and other weapons to Ukraine is the best investment to maintain stability in the world and prevent many "severe crises" that he said Russia is still planning.

Zelenskiy spoke earlier on May 24 to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, saying that Russia had carried out nearly 1,500 missile strikes and over 3,000 air strikes against Ukraine in the first three months of the war.

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

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

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

Amid the fighting, two top Russian officials appeared to acknowledge that Moscow’s advance has been slower than expected, though they vowed the offensive would achieve its goals.

Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said the Russian government “is not chasing deadlines.” And Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told a meeting of a Russia-led security alliance of former Soviet states that Moscow is deliberately slowing down its offensive to allow residents of encircled cities to evacuate.

Russian officials also announced that Moscow’s forces had finished clearing mines from the waters off Mariupol and that a safe corridor will open on May 25 for the exit of as many as 70 foreign ships from Ukraine’s southern coast.

With Russia's military campaign now in its most active phase, Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman said battles being fought in eastern Ukraine could determine the country's fate.

In Donetsk region, Moscow’s troops took over the industrial town of Svitlodarsk, home to a thermal power station, and raised the Russian flag there, Serhiy Goshko, head of the local Ukrainian military administration, told Ukraine’s Vilny Radio.

Goshko said armed units were patrolling Svitlodarsk’s streets, checking residents’ documents.

The governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Hayday, said that the Russian military was advancing in all directions at once in the region. The Russians beefed up their forces with some 12,500 soldiers who were attempting to seize Luhansk, he said.

“They brought over an insane number of fighters and equipment," Hayday said on Telegram. “The invaders are killing our cities, destroying everything around.” He added that Luhansk is becoming “like Mariupol.”

Mariupol was relentlessly pounded during a nearly three-month siege that ended last week after some 2,500 Ukrainian fighters abandoned a steel plant where they had made their stand.

Workers digging through the rubble of an apartment building in Mariupol found 200 decomposing bodies in the basement, Ukrainian authorities said on May 24.

Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the mayor, did not say when they were discovered, but the number of victims makes it one of the deadliest known attacks of the war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reporting by AFP, AP, and CNN

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

Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska (file photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reporting by AFP and TASS

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

Kazakh activist Noyan Rakhymzhanov (file photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starbucks Quits Russian Market Amid International Exodus Over War In Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starbucks has operated in Russia since 2007.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

​With reporting by Reuters and AP

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