COVID-19: Baku Extends Restrictions; Afghan Presidential Staff Test Positive
The global death toll from the coronavirus is more than 158,000 with over 2.3 million infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.
Here's a roundup of COVID-19 developments in RFE/RL's broadcast regions.
Azerbaijan has announced it is extending coronavirus restrictions by two weeks until May 4.
Baku also announced on April 18 that borders with Georgia and Iran will remain closed until May 4.
Azerbaijan, an energy-rich nation in the South Caucasus, has recorded a total of 1,373 coronavirus cases, with 18 deaths. Authorities said 590 patients had recovered.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Baku of "abusing" coronavirus restrictions to arrest government critics.
The rights watchdog said on April 16 that in less than a month at least six opposition activists and a pro-opposition journalist were sentenced to detention of up to 30 days on "spurious charges" that included breaking lockdown rules or disobeying police orders.
Most of them had criticized conditions in government-run quarantine centers or authorities’ failure to provide adequate compensation to people struggling financially from the consequences of the pandemic, it added.
The arrests "fall squarely within a longstanding pattern of political retaliation in Azerbaijan," said Giorgi Gogia, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at HRW.
He urged authorities to "stop using a public health emergency as a pretext to punish legitimate speech."
The government has put in place a series of social-distancing measures to combat the outbreak, including a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people.
Last month, parliament passed legal amendments providing for fines of up to 200 manat ($120) or detention of up to 30 days for violating the lockdown regime.
In March, 154 people were jailed and thousands were fined for violating the restrictions, according to the Interior Ministry.
Critics of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev say authorities frequently seek to silence dissent by jailing opposition activists, reporters, human rights defenders, and civil society advocates without grounds.
Government sources in Afghanistan say at least 20 officials working at Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's palace have tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting the 70-year-old leader to limit most of his contact with staff to digital communication.
An official document delivered to the Presidential Palace in Kabul is thought to have infected staff, many of whom began feeling unwell and were tested earlier in April, a senior Afghan health official told Reuters on April 18.
"A contaminated document was sent to an office inside the palace from another government department and that's how the employees were infected," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Some of the employees were still working in their offices when the results came out," the Afghan official said. "We had to quarantine them and their families, but the numbers could be higher."
Sediq Sediqqi, Ghani's spokesman, said the Civil Service Commission had already asked government employees to stay at home before the tests were conducted. Sediqqi said on April 18 that the order had been extended for another three weeks.
Live Map: The Spread Of The Coronavirus
The Afghan president is said to be conducting most business through video conference calls and is meeting in person with only a handful in his inner circle.
Afghanistan, already experiencing shortages of food and medicine while violent clashes with the Taliban continue, had recorded 933 cases of coronavirus as of April 18.
Thirty people have died of the virus in Afghanistan, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University in the United States. Afghan health officials say the number of cases is likely to be much higher than reported due to limited testing.
The Health Ministry has warned that, unless containment measures are improved throughout the country, Afghanistan is heading for a catastrophe in which millions could be infected.
Iran is allowing some businesses in Tehran and nearby towns to reopen on April 18 after weeks of lockdown aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Iran initially was slow to respond to the pandemic and held off on imposing widespread restrictions even after other countries in the region with far fewer cases forced most businesses to close.
Authorities in Iran have reported more than 80,000 confirmed infections with more than 5,000 deaths. But many Iranians and international experts think the government has intentionally underreported the extent of the pandemic in the country.
According to a report by Iran's parliament, the country's published figures are based only on those hospitalized with "severe symptoms."
That report said the real death toll is estimated to be as much as 80 percent higher and infections "eight to 10 times" higher.
Iran's Health Ministry has confirmed the real infection rate and death toll may be higher due to limited testing in the country.
RFE/RL's Coverage Of COVID-19
Features and analysis, videos, and infographics explore how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the countries in our region.
Gyms, restaurants, shopping malls, and Tehran's grand bazaar remain closed on April 18.
Shrines and mosques, as well as schools and universities, are also closed and public gatherings are banned.
But government offices have reopened with a third of employees working from home.
Traffic was heavy in Tehran early on April 18, the first day of Iran's work week. Authorities allowed businesses outside the capital to reopen a week ago.
Iran's leaders say they must consider the economic consequences of quarantine measures. The country is struggling under tight sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the United States from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Iran's economy shrank by 7.6 percent in 2019 and is expected to contract a further 6 percent this year.
Meanwhile, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a fatwa, or religious ruling, that believers may abstain from fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan if it threatens their health.
"The fast is a religious necessity and a pillar of Islamic law and it is not permissible to abstain from fasting...unless one has a rational belief that fasting may cause a sickness, worsen a disease or prolong it," Khamenei said in the ruling published on his official website.
On April 17, human rights experts from the United Nations called on Iran to release political prisoners who risk becoming infected inside the country's crowded detention centers.
Tehran has temporarily released 100,000 prisoners. But Iran continues to detain many dual-nationals convicted on security charges.
The UN experts have highlighted the cases of human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and rights defenders Narges Mohammadi and Arash Sadeghi, as well as Ahmadreza Djalali , an Iranian-Swedish national; Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-British-American national; and Kamran Ghaderi and Massud Mossaheb, who are both Iranian-Austrian nationals.
They said all seven have requested temporary release but have been rejected or not received a response.
Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili denied that nationality was a factor in determining whether a prisoner would be released.
Russian health authorities have reported 4,785 new cases of coronavirus, a record for a single day.
Authorities also said 40 people had died over the past 24 hours, bringing the overall death toll to 313. Some 36,700 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Russia.
Moscow accounted for more than half of the new infections and 21 of the 40 deaths, the Russian coronavirus crisis response center said.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the government to provide daily forecasts of the spread of the coronavirus.
Russia had reported far fewer infections than many Western European countries during the pandemic's early stages. But Russia's official tally began rising sharply in April.
Like in many countries, health authorities in Russia are not carrying out mass testing.
Private testing results in Moscow among people without symptoms suggest the virus has penetrated more deeply into the population than official data shows.
In Moscow, a city of 12.7 million people and hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak, cases jumped by 2,649 to 20,754.
However, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the lockdown measures first introduced in March were working.
"The disease rate in the city is growing but not exponentially, and far from the worst-case scenario," Sobyanin wrote on his website.
Declared on March 30, the lockdown regime banned residents from leaving their homes unless they were going to buy food or medicines, get urgent medical treatment, or walk the dog.
The authorities also introduced a travel-permit system effective from April 15, and Sobyanin said on April 18 that the authorities would use traffic cameras to catch drivers travelling without passes.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Current Time, TASS, and Interfax
All Of The Latest News
Ukrainian Power-Grid Operator Receives 300 Million Euro Loan From European Bank, 72 Million Euro Grant From Netherlands
Ukraine's Ukrenerho grid operator has secured 300 million euros ($315 million) in loans from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to restore power infrastructure damaged in Russian attacks and improve financial stability, the company said in a statement on December 1. Ukrenerho said 150 million euros of the loan and a 72 million euro grant from the Netherlands will be used for the purchase of equipment needed for the repairs. The remaining 150 million euros of EBRD funds will be allocated for the company's financial obligations in the electricity market, Ukrenerho said. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Jailed Belarusian Opposition Activist Kalesnikava Leaves Intensive Care Unit After Surgery
Maryya Kalesnikava, a leading opposition activist in Belarus who was sentenced to 11 years in prison last year, was transferred from an intensive care unit to a regular unit in a hospital after a surgery.
Viktar Babaryka, a would-be presidential candidate who was imprisoned for alleged corruption last year, wrote on Telegram on December 1 that doctors informed Kalesnikava’s father, Alyaksandr Kalesnikau, that his daughter felt better and ate yogurt and porridge in the morning.
Kalesnikau has not been allowed to see his daughter and still does not know her diagnosis. Kalesnikava’s lawyer, Uladzimer Pylchanka, has not been able to see his client either due to "the absence of a request from the convict."
Kalesnikava was rushed to the hospital from a penal colony in the city of Homel, 300 kilometers southeast of Minsk, on November 29.
Kalesnikava rose to prominence after she joined forces with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veranika Tsapkala to form a trio of women who led historic demonstrations against Belarusian authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020.
Kalesnikava, 40, the only one of the three still in the country, has been imprisoned over her role in the mass protests that lasted for more than two years. She was arrested in September 2020.
Kalesnikava and another opposition figure, Maksim Znak, were sentenced to prison terms of 11 and 10 years, respectively, in September 2021, after being found guilty on charges of conspiracy to seize power, calls for action to damage national security, and calls for actions damaging national security by trying to create an extremist group. Both had pleaded not guilty and rejected the charges.
Human rights watchdogs in Belarus have recognized Kalesnikava and two other associates who also being detained as political prisoners and have demanded their immediate release.
Jailed Russian Opposition Politician Navalny Again Placed In Punitive Solitary Confinement
Imprisoned Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has been placed in a punitive solitary confinement cell for the eighth time since August, Navalny's press secretary Kira Yarmysh tweeted on December 1. This time, Navalny was sent to solitary confinement for 11 days for a "violation of the dress code." The violation was for failing to have on a prison jacket during a check at 5:12 a.m. Navalny has called all his previous incarcerations in solitary confinement "politically motivated." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Tajik Prosecutors Seek 30 Years In Prison For Activist From Restive Gorno-Badakhshan Region
DUSHANBE -- Tajik prosecutors have asked a court in Dushanbe to convict and sentence to 30 years in prison Faromuz Irgashev, an activist and former lawmaker in the volatile Gorno-Badakhshan region (GBAO), on charges of receiving illegal financial support from abroad, organizing an unsanctioned rally, and participating in the activities of a criminal group.
Two sources close to the trial, which started in October and is being held behind closed doors, told RFE/RL on December 1 that the prosecutor asked the court to sentence Irgashev last week.
The 32-year-old lawyer was arrested in May with several other activists in the wake of the deadly dispersal of protesters in GBAO. It is not known how he pleaded.
Irgashev was a lawyer for the Commission 44 group, which was created in November last year in GBAO to facilitate a dialogue between regional authorities and anti-government protesters. The group’s efforts led to the peaceful resolution of protests in the region.
In May, the protests in GBAO resumed as people demanded a thorough investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of the regional governor and the mayor of GBAO's capital, Khorugh.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters was killed by police in May, prompting the authorities to launch a "counterterrorist operation."
Authorities violently dispersed the protesters, arresting dozens of them. Irgashev and at least six other members of Commission 44 were among those apprehended. Two of them were later sentenced to 18 years in prison each.
In August, Tajikistan's Supreme Court declared Commission 44 to be a criminal group.
Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades.
Former Russian Lawmaker And His Brother Handed Lengthy Prison Terms On Embezzlement Charges
A court in Moscow on December 1 sentenced former Russian lawmaker Magomed Magomedov and his brother, an ex-tycoon, Ziyavudin Magomedov, to 18 years and 19 years in prison, respectively, on embezzlement charges. The Meshchansky district court also found the brothers guilty of creating a criminal group. Magomed Magomedov used to be a member of the Federation Council, the Russian parliament's upper chamber. In 2017, Forbes estimated Ziyavudin Magomedov's wealth to be $1.4 billion. The two were arrested in March 2018. Both maintain their innocence. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Police In Russia's Tatarstan Search Homes Of Local Journalist, Anti-War Activist
Police in Kazan, the capital of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan, have searched the home of local journalist Nailla Mullayeva over a video of an attack by anti-war activists in Poland against the Russian ambassador in May.
Police in Kazan also searched the home of activist Elina Yasonova on December 1 for unspecified reasons. Both Mullayeva and Yasonova have been known for their public stance against Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Mullayeva told OVD-Info, a group that monitors cases of persecution of journalists and activists, that the search of her home was held as part of a probe into a "justification of terrorist action" case.
According to Mullayeva, police are investigating whether she had any involvement in distributing a video in May showing Ambassador Sergei Andreyev being doused with red paint by Polish activists as he attempted to lay flowers at a Soviet military memorial cemetery in Warsaw for Red Army soldiers who died during World War II.
Last month, Tatarstan's authorities added Andrei Grigoryev, a correspondent from RFE/RL's Idel.Realities online project, to the wanted list and issued a warrant for his arrest over the same video, accusing him of publicly calling for terrorist activities via the Internet.
In August, police in Kazan searched the homes of Grigoryev and several other current and former correspondents of RFE/RL's Idel.Realities and Tatar-Bashkir Service, saying they were suspected of having been involved in the video's distribution online.
All of the journalists said they had nothing to do with the video.
Idel.Realities is a regional news outlet in Russian of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service.
With reporting by OVD-Info
Serbia's Plum Brandy Gets UNESCO World Heritage Status
Serbian authorities announced on December 1 that sljivovica, Serbia's traditional plum brandy, is being added to the UN’s list of intangible cultural heritage as "a cherished tradition to be preserved by humanity." UNESCO experts gathering in Morocco this week decided that “social practices and knowledge related to the preparation and use” of sljivovica deserve UN recognition as an example of an important cultural tradition, Serbia's Culture Ministry said. Sljivovica has been handcrafted in Serbia for centuries, a custom carried from generation to generation that experts say has become part of the national identity. To read the original AP story, click here.
Streaming Of Foreign Movies, Music Aboard Russia's Aeroflot Aircraft Suspended Amid Sanctions
Streaming of foreign movies and music aboard planes operated by Aeroflot, Russia's largest airline, has been suspended after foreign partners refused to provide services due to international sanctions imposed on Russia over its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Aeroflot said on Telegram on December 1 that all of its 137 planes were affected by the situation, adding that domestic movies and music will be offered to passengers by January 1, 2023. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Former Kyrgyz President Atambaev Calls Trial A 'Circus,' Removed From Courtroom For 'Disrupting Order'
BISHKEK -- Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has been removed from the courtroom after he called his trial "a circus" and started kicking at the glass cage where he had been placed.
The judge of the Birinchi Mai district court ordered bailiffs to remove Atambaev from the courtroom as the trial of the former leader and three other former officials charged with abuse of office during deadly ethnic clashes in 2010 in the Central Asian nation started on December 1.
The 66-year-old Atambaev, who is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for his role in the illegal release of a notorious crime boss in 2013, led Kyrgyzstan's interim government when clashes between Kyrgyz and local Uzbeks shook the Central Asian nation's southern regions of Osh and Jalal-Abad in June 2010, following anti-government protests that toppled then President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
According to Kyrgyz officials, 446 men and women were killed in the ethnic clashes, about 2,000 people were injured, and tens of thousands were displaced.
Atambaev is currently involved in another trial that is related to August 2019 clashes between his supporters and security forces at his residential compound near Bishkek.
The two-day standoff between security forces and Atambaev’s supporters resulted in the death of a top security officer and more than 170 injuries -- 79 of them sustained by law enforcement officers.
Atambaev and 13 others are charged in that case with murder, attempted murder, threatening or assaulting representatives of authorities, hostage taking, and the forcible seizure of power.
Russia-Backed Separatist Leader In Ukraine Says Moscow, Kyiv To Exchange 50 POWs Each
The leader of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's occupied eastern region of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, says that Russia and Ukraine will each hand over 50 prisoners of war in the latest in a series of prisoner exchanges. Pushilin said in a post on Telegram on December 1 that the exchange will be conducted during the day. He said 20 of the POWs to be returned to the Russian side are from Donetsk and separatist-controlled districts of another eastern region in Ukraine, Luhansk. Ukrainian officials have yet to confirm the swap.
China's Xi Urges Ukraine Talks In Meeting With EU's Michel
Chinese leader Xi Jinping urged negotiations on a political solution to the Ukraine conflict in talks with visiting European Council President Charles Michel in Beijing on December 1, state broadcaster CCTV said. Xi was quoted as saying that "solving the Ukrainian crisis through political means is in the best interest of Europe and the common interest of all countries in Eurasia." He added that “under current conditions, we must avoid escalation and expansion of the crisis and work for peace." To read the original AP story, click here.
EU's Borrell Says Russia Must Pay For Ukraine Reconstruction
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said at regional security talks on December 1 that he plans to discuss with his counterparts any available legal means to ensure Russia pays for the reconstruction of war-torn Ukraine. Borrell spoke at the start of this year's two-day ministerial conference of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in the central Polish city of Lodz. He noted that the EU has frozen Russian assets worth nearly 20 billion euros since Moscow invaded Ukraine.
U.S. Prosecutors Move To Seize $5 Million Tied To Russian Oligarch Malofeyev
U.S. prosecutors have moved to seize more than $5 million from a U.S. bank account belonging to Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeyev, a nationalist oligarch who officials say has funded separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine for years.
The civil forfeiture complaint, filed on November 30 in a U.S. federal court in Manhattan, was the latest effort by U.S. authorities targeting Malofeyev and part of a wider effort by authorities to go after assets belonging to wealthy and politically connected Russians.
Malofeyev himself was hit with criminal charges in March. He is accused of evading sanctions and using co-conspirators to acquire media organizations across Europe. He’s also been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department.
There was no immediate response to an e-mail sent by RFE/RL to his television channel Tsargrad TV seeking comment.
In the court filing, U.S. prosecutors alleged that Malofeyev used a Seychelles shell company in March 2014 to invest $10 million in shares in a Texas bank.
Prosecutors said he sold the shell company in 2015 to an unnamed Greek business partner for $1. But the sale agreement was backdated to July 2014, before sanctions were imposed, prosecutors said.
According to the complaint, the Texas bank, called Strategic Growth Bancorp, recognized Malofeyev as the owner of the original shares and flagged the attempted transfer to the Treasury Department.
Malofeyev's shares were later converted into cash and deposited into a blocked account when Strategic Growth Bancorp merged with another bank, Sunflower Bank, which is Denver-based.
Neither Strategic Growth Bancorp nor Sunflower Bank was accused of wrongdoing.
A billionaire and founder of Tsargrad TV, Malofeyev has gained notoriety for years for espousing a nationalist, religious ideology that has been increasingly embraced by some Russian officials. He’s also been instrumental in financing and supporting separatist efforts in the Donbas for years, according to Western and Ukrainian officials.
In the criminal indictment issued in April, U.S. prosecutors accused Malofeyev of trying to evade U.S. sanctions by a U.S. man to operate television networks in Russia and Greece and attempting to acquire a Bulgarian television network.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, U.S. and Western authorities have stepped up efforts to go after assets -- bank accounts, yachts, private jets, mansions -- owned by wealthy and politically connected Russians.
FIFA Allows Banners Supporting Iranian Protesters At World Cup After Iran Eliminated
FIFA has given permission for the display of banners supporting protests in Iran and rainbow items at the World Cup soccer tournament in Qatar -- but only after the Middle Eastern country was eliminated from the competition.
Since the start of the World Cup on November 20, stadium security staff organized by Qatari authorities had confiscated items with rainbow colors and slogans such as "Women, Life, Freedom" to stop them from being taken inside stadiums.
During matches involving the Iranian national team, Iranian spectators were not allowed to wear clothes with slogans in support of the months-long protest movement in Iran triggered by the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained in September for allegedly improperly wearing a head scarf, or hijab.
At least 459 protesters have been killed so far by security forces during the unrest in Iran, including 64 minors, according to the activist HRANA news agency.
The U.S.-Iran game on November 29 was charged with emotion for Iranian fans, some of whom had come to Qatar to back the protest movement back home with banners and flags. Iran lost 1-0 and was eliminated from the tournament.
“FIFA is aware of some incidents where permitted items were not allowed to be displayed at stadiums,” soccer’s world body said in a statement on November 30, more than a week after some infractions were reported at World Cup stadiums.
“FIFA has received assurances by authorities that venue commanders have been contacted in relation to the agreed rules and regulations for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.”
In the first week of the tournament, seven European teams including Wales were banned by FIFA from wearing multicolored “One Love” armbands during World Cup matches and some fans complained they weren’t allowed to bring items with rainbow colors, a symbol of LGBTQ rights, into the stadiums of the conservative Islamic emirate.
“FIFA continues to work closely with the Host Country to ensure the full implementation of related regulations and agreed protocols,” FIFA said.
Russian Interior Ministry Adds Noted Lawyer Ilya Novikov To Its Wanted List
Russia's Interior Ministry has added noted Russian lawyer and outspoken Kremlin critic Ilya Novikov, who currently resides in Ukraine, to its wanted list on unspecified charges. Novikov's picture and data appeared on the ministry's online registry of wanted persons on November 30. Novikov, 40, has harshly criticized Russian authorities for the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. He has gained prominence for defending Ukrainian nationals and human rights activists in high-profile cases in recent years. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Switzerland Freezes $8 Billion In Financial Assets Under Russia Sanctions
Switzerland has frozen financial assets worth 7.5 billion Swiss francs ($7.94 billion) as of November 25 under sanctions against Russians to punish Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), the agency overseeing sanctions, said on December 1 that 15 properties in six cantons are also "blocked." Up until June 3, it said, SECO had been notified of existing deposits held by Russian nationals, and individuals and legal entities in Russia, amounting to 46.1 billion francs. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Spain Ramps Up Security After Five Letter Bombs Detected
Bomb-disposal experts defused a fifth letter bomb on December 1 as Spain stepped up security to confront a spate of explosive devices sent to high-profile targets, including the prime minister and the Ukrainian ambassador in Madrid. Early indications suggest that all five of the packages were sent from within Spain, said Rafael Perez, the country's deputy interior minister. Perez said one of the devices had detonated, injuring a security officer at the Ukrainian Embassy in Madrid, while three others were detonated in controlled explosions. One had been kept intact for investigative purposes.
New Law Broadens The Net For 'Foreign Agents' In Russia
A Russian law that expands the definition of so-called foreign agents has come into force that rights groups say will make it easier for the state to target its domestic critics at a time when the Kremlin is cracking down on dissent over its war in Ukraine.
The new law, signed by President Vladimir Putin in July, took effect as of December 1 and allows officials to include in the foreign agents registry anyone who is "under foreign influence."
The new law also broadens the definition of political activities to include a vague clause covering any activities that "contradict the national interests of the Russian Federation."
Under the previous version of the law, prosecutors had to assert that an individual charged as a foreign agent had to receive financial or material assistance from abroad.
Russia has used its foreign agent law for the past decade to label and punish critics of government policies. It also has been increasingly used by officials to shutter civil society and media groups in Russia since the Kremlin launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in late February.
Individuals who are officially labeled as foreign agents are banned from receiving state grants for creative activities, working as teachers, organizing public events, and working for organizations that distribute information.
According to the law, the four existing registries of foreign agents will be merged and a new list will be created to register all individuals tagged as foreign agents.
That designation requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and which the government claims are engaged in political activities to register as foreign agents, publicly identify themselves as such, and submit to cumbersome audits.
They also must label any content they produce with an intrusive disclaimer or face criminal fines for not doing so. Kremlin critics say the foreign agent designation is also intended to stigmatize any independent civic activity in Russia.
Hungarian Government Misused Personal Data For Political Campaigns, HRW Says
Hungary's right-wing government misused personal data during the campaign for national elections this year, undermining privacy and tipping an already uneven political playing field in favor of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's ruling Fidesz party, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report published on December 1.
Orban and his party won a fourth consecutive term in power in April by a landslide.
Since coming to power in 2010, Orban has tightened state control over media, courts, academia, and migrants from Africa and the Middle East and NGOs that support them. He also has clashed with the EU over alleged discrimination against LGBT people
In its report, Trapped in a Web: The Exploitation of Personal Data in Hungary’s 2022 Elections, HRW says the government repurposed data it collected from people applying for services to spread Fidesz's campaign messages.
"Using people's personal data collected so they could access public services to bombard them with political campaign messages is a betrayal of trust and an abuse of power," said Deborah Brown, a senior researcher for HRW.
"The Hungarian government should stop exploiting personal data for political campaigns and guarantee a level playing field for elections," she added.
HRW found that the personal data collected from people who signed up for the COVID-19 vaccine, applied for tax benefits, or registered for mandatory membership in a professional association was used to spread Fidesz's campaign messages.
For example, political messages intended to tilt voters toward the ruling party were received by people who had submitted their data to a government-run website to register for the vaccine, HRW said.
HRW urged the European Union to establish whether the exploitation of personal data collected by the Hungarian government for political campaigning is consistent with EU laws, in particular with the EU General Data Protection Regulation.
It also called on the European Commission, the bloc's executive branch, to bring infringement proceedings against Budapest for the failure of the national body that that supervises data protection to act as an independent authority.
The HRW report comes a day after the commission proposed that billions of euros of European Union funds allocated to Hungary remain blocked over the failure of Orban's government to implement credible rule-of-law and anti-corruption reforms.
Orban, who maintains warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has also antagonized EU officials with his repeated criticism of EU sanctions targeting Russia for its war in Ukraine.
Orban continues to block crucial EU decisions such as the disbursement of 18 billion euros of financial aid to Ukraine and a global tax deal.
Air-Raid Alerts Sound Across Ukraine As Fierce Fighting Rages In East
Air-raid alerts were issued across all regions of Ukraine in the early afternoon on December 1 as fighting raged in the eastern region of Donetsk while in the south, heavy Russian bombardment knocked out power again in the regional capital of Kherson, where power had only started to be restored after Russian troops fled the city across the Dnieper River.
"An overall air-raid alert is in place in Ukraine. Go to shelters," Ukraine's border service wrote on Telegram following warnings that Russia was preparing a new wave of missile and drone strikes.
German magazine Der Spiegel reported on November 30 that Russia may be preparing a new massive wave of attacks on Ukraine that would involve strategic bombers. Der Spiegel also published satellite images of the Engels-2 military airfield near the southwestern city of Saratov purporting to show Russian bombers.
"Current satellite images show unusual movement at a key Russian military airport. Experts see 'Engels-2' in high combat readiness and warn of a new powerful air raid on Ukraine," Der Spiegel wrote.
Across Ukraine, technicians were frantically working to restore electricity supplies heavily damaged by relentless waves of Russian bombardment that have left millions in darkness and cold at the onset of winter.
Donetsk, where Russian forces have been attempting to make further advances, remained the site of the heaviest fighting, the Ukrainian General Staff said on December 1, adding that Russian artillery pounded Ukrainian positions and several towns, including the flashpoint town of Bakhmut and nearby Soledar and Opytne.
Russian troops were building defense lines in the direction of the town of Lyman, the General Staff said. Fresh units as well as those that sustained losses "are being resupplied with personnel, ammunition, and fuel," it said.
The leader of Moscow-backed separatists in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, said in a post on Telegram on December 1 that Russia and Ukraine will each hand over 50 prisoners of war in the latest in a series of prisoner exchanges. Ukrainian officials have yet to confirm the swap.
On the southern front, the military said, Russian forces dug in on the left bank of the Dnieper River, taking up defensive positions, and trained tank, mortar, and artillery fire on the recently liberated city of Kherson, causing it to lose electricity again after technicians had restored it to more than half of the city's population.
Regional Governor Yaroslav Yanushevych said on December 1 in a statement on Telegram that energy workers were working to fix the problem.
In the central Dnipropetrovsk region, Russian troops shelled the Nikopol region from artillery and rocket systems, destroying several houses, a gas pipeline, and an electric transmission line, said regional Governor Valentyn Reznichenko. No one was injured, he added in a message on Telegram.
Other battleground activity was reported in northeastern and central Ukraine, the military said.
The battlefield reports could not be independently verified.
The United States and other Western allies pledged more financial support and relevant equipment to boost Kyiv's energy resilience during a gathering of NATO foreign ministers in Romania on November 30.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a news conference at the end of the meeting in Bucharest that Russia's strategy of targeting Ukraine's energy infrastructure will not divide Ukraine's supporters.
Blinken said Russian President Vladimir Putin has focused "his ire and his fire" on Ukraine's civilian population, hitting infrastructure that provides heat, water, and electricity to Ukrainians.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on December 1 accused the United States and its allies of directly playing a role in the war by supplying weapons and training personnel to Ukraine with the aim of "destroying Russia as a player altogether."
He also defended the usage of air, drone and missile strikes to destroy Ukrainian infrastructure -- which Kyiv and the West have called war crimes.
Still, he said Russia remains ready to hold talks on settling the crisis. Ukraine has vowed not to negotiate with Moscow until all Russian troops have left its territory, which include the Crimean peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
With reporting by Reuters
Biden Nominee For Ambassador To Russia Pledges To Prioritize Prisoner Release
U.S. President Joe Biden's nominee for ambassador to Russia, Lynne Tracy, has pledged to make the release of detained Americans a priority if she is confirmed. "The plight of U.S. citizens detained in Russia will be a top priority for me," Tracy said on November 30 during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Tracy, a career diplomat and current ambassador to Armenia, promised to visit detained Americans, including basketball star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Blinken Says Putin's 'Ire And Fire' Attacks On Ukrainian Energy Infrastructure Will Not Divide Allies
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Russia's recent strategy of targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure will not divide Ukraine's supporters.
Blinken on November 30 told a news conference in Bucharest following a two-day NATO foreign ministers' meeting that Russian President Vladimir Putin has focused "his ire and his fire" on Ukraine's civilian population, hitting infrastructure that provides heat, water, and electricity to Ukrainians.
"We know President Putin's playbook: Freeze and starve Ukrainians, force them from their homes, drive up energy, food, and other household costs, not only across Europe but around the world, and then try to splinter our coalition," Blinken said.
Russia's recent attacks have left millions of people in the dark and without heating amid sub-zero temperatures. Blinken said his "brutalization of Ukraine's people is barbaric."
Blinken accused Putin of trying to force Ukraine's partners to abandon their support for Ukraine.
"This strategy has not, and will not, work. We will continue to prove him wrong. That's what I heard loudly and clearly from every country here in Bucharest," Blinken added.
The United States and other Western allies pledged more financial support and relevant equipment to boost Kyiv's energy resilience during the foreign ministers' meeting.
In addition, U.S. military planners are working to ensure that the equipment provided thus far to restore Ukraine's energy infrastructure is not destroyed by Russian attacks, Blinken said.
The United States also is trying to establish the best possible defense for Ukraine's energy infrastructure, he said.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who also attended the meeting in Bucharest, said on Twitter that he and Blinken "focused on urgent assistance to restore Ukraine's energy system and new military aid, including [air defense], to protect it from Russian strikes."
WATCH: After Ukrainian troops retook large parts of the Kherson region from Russian forces, officials began the work of investigating military and civilian deaths and removing mines and booby traps from the area.
Blinken also said NATO is considering the possibility of investing in the production of Soviet-era weapons systems used by the Ukrainian Army.
Ukraine’s NATO allies are considering all options to provide Ukraine with what will be effective, including Soviet-era weapons systems that have been in the Ukrainian arsenal for decades, and ammunition for these systems.
In some cases, this may require the production of equipment that has not been produced for some time, he told CNN.
Blinken's comments came after The New York Times reported last week that NATO member states are discussing the possibility of investing in old factories in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Bulgaria to resume production of ammunition for Ukrainian Soviet-style artillery systems.
NATO foreign ministers also used their meeting in Bucharest to reassure countries in Russia's neighborhood that could be destabilized by Russia as the conflict in Ukraine drags on.
The NATO ministers pledged to provide stronger "individualized support" for Moldova, Georgia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, countries that Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said are "facing pressure from Russia" amid Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
With reporting by Reuters and CNN
Four Lion Cubs Saved From War In Ukraine Arrive At U.S. Sanctuary
Four lion cubs that were orphaned during the war in Ukraine have arrived safely at an animal sanctuary in the U.S. state of Minnesota that has pledged to give them a permanent home. The arrival of one male cub and three female cubs on November 29 marked the final step of their journey after they lived through sporadic bombings and drone attacks in Ukraine, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "These cubs have endured more in their short lives than any animal should," said Meredith Whitney, wildlife rescue program manager at the fund. To read the original story from AP, click here.
U.K. Unveils New Sanctions Targeting Russian Officials Over Mobilization
Britain has unveiled a new round of sanctions on Russian officials over the war in Ukraine, targeting those accused of spearheading the recent mobilization and the recruitment of "criminal mercenaries." The new package of 22 sanctions hit Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov, who London said is responsible for overseeing the country's weapons industry and equipping newly mobilized troops. It also targeted 10 governors and regional heads, including in Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kalmykia, noting that “a significant number" of conscripts had been drawn from those regions. To read the original story from RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.
Zelenskiy Thanks Germany For Recognizing 1932-33 Famine In Ukraine As Genocide
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has thanked the German parliament for recognizing the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine, known as the Holodomor, as a genocide of the Ukrainian people.
"Germany recognized the 1932-1933 Holodomor as a genocide. I thank the members of the Bundestag for this historic decision. The truth always wins," Zelenskiy said on Twitter.
The Bundestag voted on November 30 in favor of the resolution, which was submitted by three parties of the ruling coalition and the main opposition bloc. It passed with their support in a show of hands, while the two other opposition parties abstained.
The vote took place after a debate attended by Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany and comes days after Ukrainians marked the 90th anniversary of the start of the famine, which is believed to have killed millions of Ukrainians.
Historians say the failure to properly harvest crops in Ukraine in 1932 under Soviet mismanagement was the main cause of the famine.
Zelenskiy said on November 26 as he marked the anniversary that Ukraine “cannot be broken” in its current fight against Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion.
"Ukrainians went through very terrible things.... Once they wanted to destroy us with hunger -- now, with darkness and cold," Zelenskiy said.
The resolution states that “the mass deaths from hunger were not a result of failed harvests; the political leadership of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin was responsible for them." It adds that all things Ukrainian were “deeply suspect” to Stalin and notes that “the whole of Ukraine was affected by hunger and repression, not just its grain-producing areas.”
The resolution says that from today's perspective, “a historical and political classification as genocide is obvious. The German Bundestag shares such a classification.”
Such resolutions aren't binding and don't mandate government action, but Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has thanked lawmakers who championed it.
Lawmaker Robin Wagener of the Green party told the Bundestag that the “horror” of the Holodomor “had its cause in the Kremlin,” where “the dictator took the cruel decision to push through collectivization by force and cause hunger.”
He said that “the parallels with today are unmissable.”
According to the Holodomor Museum in Kyiv, in addition to Ukraine and Germany the states that so far have recognized the famine as genocide are Australia, Ecuador, Estonia, Canada, Colombia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, the United States, and the Vatican. Some other countries, including Argentina, Chile, and Spain, have condemned it as “an act of extermination.”
The resolution calls on the German government to work against “any attempts to spread one-sided Russian historical narratives” and to keep supporting Ukraine as a victim of the current war.
It notes that the famine in Ukraine happened in a period of massive crimes against humanity in Europe, which included the Holocaust “in its historical singularity,” the war crimes of the German military, and the systematic murder of millions of civilians as part of the “the racist German war of annihilation in the east.”
With reporting by AP
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