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Eastern Europe, Central Asia Rank Near Bottom In Press Freedom

A journalist watches a live stream of a court hearing with the Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny on a screen in front of the court in Moscow on February 2.
A journalist watches a live stream of a court hearing with the Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny on a screen in front of the court in Moscow on February 2.

Unprecedented crackdowns on reporters covering protests in Belarus and the obstruction of reporting on the war over Nagorno-Karabakh were among the factors that kept Eastern Europe and Central Asia at the bottom of the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

But the Paris-based media freedom watchdog said of all the somber developments in its latest ranking, released on April 20, the most disturbing for the future of press freedom in the region was the evolution in Russia, which the watchdog said followed “a political model involving ever greater repression of independent journalists and media.”

Russian police have never cracked down so extensively and systematically on journalists as they did in their efforts to prevent coverage of protests in support of Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny, RSF said.

Navalny is now in the third week of a hunger strike in a Russian prison as his anti-corruption foundation calls on Russians to take part in another round of demonstrations backing him later this week.

Independent media in Russia, which fell one spot to 150 in the ranking of 180 countries, also fought for months to report the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and to combat the government’s claims and erroneous figures.

RSF noted that there was a “contagious” desire to control information to varying degrees across all of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

“Following the Russian model, other governments used the need to combat disinformation about COVID-19 as grounds for imposing additional curbs on press freedom,” RSF said.

This included Tajikistan, which fell one position to 162, where any “false” or “inaccurate” information about serious infectious diseases appearing in the media became punishable by a fine of up to twice the minimum monthly wage or 15 days in prison, RSF said.

“The aim was clearly to make journalists self-censor any information about the pandemic that did not come from official sources,” RSF said.

Of the other Central Asian republics, only Kyrgyzstan’s ranking at 79 was in the top half. Kazakhstan improved two positions to 155; Uzbekistan fell one position to 157; and Turkmenistan improved two slots to 178, outranking only two other totalitarian countries: North Korea and Eritrea.

RSF also spotlighted Belarus, which slipped five positions to 158, noting that journalists working for independent media in the country were targeted by the police following the contested presidential election in August 2020.

An unprecedented wave of protests has gripped Belarus since authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka was declared the winner of the vote, which the opposition says was rigged and which the West does not recognize as legitimate.

RSF said journalists working in the country faced censorship, mass arrests, harassment, and violence, and authorities have begun raising the stakes by bringing more serious charges against them and subjecting them to sham trials.

In addition, the Internet was completely inaccessible for three days after the election and then intermittently in the following months, RSF said.

Internet shutdowns also hampered the work of journalists in Azerbaijan during the war with Armenia over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, during which at least seven journalists were injured and reporting was obstructed, RSF said.

Azerbaijan improved one position in the ranking to 167, while Armenia fell in the ranking two slots to 63.

The overall ranking placed Norway at the top for the fifth year in a row. Finland held second place, while Sweden moved up one to third and Denmark moved down one to fourth.

RSF also expressed dismay that only 12 of the Index’s 180 countries can claim to offer a favorable environment for journalism.

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Hungary's Government To Discuss Potential Fuel-Price Intervention

(file photo)
(file photo)

Hungary's government will discuss fuel prices at its upcoming government meeting on April 24, the economy minister told a press conference on April 19. The minister said reintroducing fuel price caps is "not ruled out," putting further pressure on suppliers to cut fuel prices closer to the Central European average as part of a wider government price-setting intervention after the worst inflationary surge in the European Union.

Russian Suspect In Assassination Attempt On Ex-Ukrainian Security Officer Arrested

Russian authorities said the assassination attempt was organized by the SBU. (file photo)
Russian authorities said the assassination attempt was organized by the SBU. (file photo)

A court in Moscow on April 18 sent to pretrial detention a Russian man suspected of being involved in the attempted murder of a former officer of Ukraine's Security Service (SBU), according to local media reports. Vladimir Golovchenko is the second suspect arrested in the case. Former SBU officer Vasily (Vasyl) Prozorov, who in 2019 defected to Moscow and publicly stated that he had collaborated with the Russian secret services, survived the car bombing in Moscow last week. Russian authorities said the assassination attempt was organized by the SBU. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Poland Detains Two Suspects In Attack On Navalny Associate In Lithuania

Leonid Volkov (file photo)
Leonid Volkov (file photo)

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said on April 19 that Polish authorities had detained two men suspected of attacking Leonid Volkov, an associate of late Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny who left Russia in 2019 fearing for his personal security. Nauseda added that the suspects will be extradited to Lithuania following due process. Volkov was attacked in March with a meat hammer by an unidentified assailant in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, leaving him bloodied with a broken arm and other injuries. The attack occurred less than one month after Navalny died in a Russian Arctic prison. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Updated

Israel Reportedly Hits Iran With Retaliatory Air Attack

A social media video reportedly captures explosions near a military base in Iran believed to be Isfahan. Iranian news agency Fars said the flashes were antiaircraft guns working at very low altitude and that no air-defense missiles were launched.
A social media video reportedly captures explosions near a military base in Iran believed to be Isfahan. Iranian news agency Fars said the flashes were antiaircraft guns working at very low altitude and that no air-defense missiles were launched.

Israel's military has reportedly struck targets inside Iran in what appears to be a limited retaliation for an unprecedented air attack Tehran launched last weekend on its sworn enemy as the decades-long war between the two countries threatens to break out of the shadows.

Explosions were heard early on April 19 -- the 85th birthday of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- near the central city of Isfahan, with reports unclear over the cause.

Several major U.S. media organizations, all citing U.S. government sources, said Israel launched a missile or drone strike on targets inside Iran.

Video posted on social media and broadcast around the world showed several large explosions that were reportedly near Isfahan.

Iranian state media quoted officials in Tehran as saying the explosions were caused by air defenses that shot down three drones in the area of Isfahan.

Hossein Deliriyan, the spokesman for Iran's National Center for Cyberspace, refuted the U.S. media reports, saying in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that "there has been no air attack from outside the borders on Isfahan or other parts of the country."

One analyst appearing on Iranian state TV said that mini-drones flown by "infiltrators from inside Iran" had been shot down by air defenses in Isfahan.

Iran's state news agency IRNA said air defenses fired from a large air base in Isfahan that is home to Iran's aging fleet of U.S.-made F-14 Tomcats acquired before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Isfahan also houses facilities that are part of Iran's nuclear program, including its underground Natanz enrichment site.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had seen no damage to Iran's nuclear sites. Earlier this week, the sites were rumored to be a possible target if Israel launched a strike inside Iran.

One of Iran's top nuclear facilities, the installation at Natanz, is located in central Isfahan. Such sites have seen several sabotage attacks that Tehran has blamed on Israel.

"IAEA can confirm that there is no damage to Iran's nuclear sites," the UN nuclear watchdog said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

"Director-General Rafael Grossi continues to call for extreme restraint from everybody and reiterates that nuclear facilities should never be a target in military conflicts. IAEA is monitoring the situation very closely."

Israeli strikes targeting a Syrian Army position in the country's south were also reported on April 19.

According to AFP, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the strikes, which he attributed to Israel, "targeted a radar installation of the Syrian Army" between the provinces of Sweida and Daraa provinces.

Tehran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel in the early morning hours of April 14, almost all of which were shot down by Israeli defense systems, along with intercepts by forces from the United States, France, Britain, and Jordan.

The attack by Tehran had been widely anticipated in Israel following a suspected Israeli air strike on the Iranian Embassy compound in Damascus on April 1 that killed two brigadier generals.

Since then, diplomats and politicians around the world, fearing another major escalation of fighting in the Middle East, had urged restraint as they awaited Israel's response.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on April 17 that Israel will decide how and whether it will respond to the unprecedented attack on its soil.

Israel and Iran have been bitter enemies for decades but Iran's was the first direct attack by one on the other's soil instead of through proxy forces or by targeting each other's assets operating in third countries.

With reporting by CNN, ABC, CBS, and IRNA

Japanese Group Escapes Suicide Bombing Attempt In Pakistan

Police stand guard at the scene of the attack in Karachi on April 19.
Police stand guard at the scene of the attack in Karachi on April 19.

Five Japanese nationals escaped unhurt from a suicide attack in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, early on April 19. Police official Azfar Mahesar told a news conference the five Japanese were on their way to Karachi's Landi Economic Zone, when a suicide bomber attempted to blow himself up neat them. Mahesar said the suicide attacker and another armed accomplice were shot dead by the Japanese nationals' security detail. Three security guards were wounded in the exchange of gunfire. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

Updated

Zelenskiy Calls For More Air Defenses After Deadly Ukraine Strike

Firefighters work at the site of a Russian missile strike in Dnipro on April 19.
Firefighters work at the site of a Russian missile strike in Dnipro on April 19.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has again appealed to Ukraine's Western allies and partners to urgently supply his embattled country with more air defense systems following more deadly Russian missile strikes on April 19 on Ukrainian cities and critical energy infrastructure.

Separately, Ukraine's air force claimed that it destroyed a Russian bomber in response to the missile attacks on April 19.

"Every country that provides air defense systems to Ukraine, every leader who helps persuade our partners that air defense systems should not be stored in warehouses but deployed in real cities and communities facing terror, and everyone who supports our defense is a life saver," Zelenskiy wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

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Ukraine's air force said it destroyed a Russian Tu-22M3 strategic bomber following the Russian attack on April 19.

"This is retaliation for the fact that the Russian strategic aircraft attacked our peaceful cities today, where civilians were killed," air force spokesman Ilya Yevlash told RFE/RL.

"This is the first time that our air force together with our partners from the [military intelligence] and other defense forces were able to shoot down a Tu-22M3 strategic aviation aircraft. And for the first time, two Kh-22 missiles fired by this aircraft were also shot down. Of course, it's a combo. Today is a rainy day in the Russian propaganda media," Yevlash said.

The claim could not be independently verified.

Russia's Defense Ministry said a Tu-22 had crashed in the southern region of Stavropol due to a technical malfunction while returning to base from a combat mission.

Stavropol regional chief Vladimir Vladimirov said one of the four members of the crew had died, while another was missing. Two other members were found alive, Vladimirov said.

Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said that at least eight people were killed and 25 wounded in the Russian missile strikes on the Dnipropetrovsk region early on April 19.

Two people were killed in the city of Dnipro and six in the Synelnykivskiy district just south of Dnipro, where more than a dozen homes were damaged, Klymenko said.

Serhiy Lysak, the chief of the administration of the region, said on Telegram that a residential building and an infrastructure facility were also damaged in the city.

A third location in Dnipropetrovsk, Zelenskiy's hometown of Kriviy Rih, was targeted by a separate Russian attack that damaged infrastructure and wounded three people, according to Mayor Oleksandr Vilkul, who said the strike on infrastructure caused a fire.

"Russia must be held accountable for its terror, and all missiles and 'Shahed' drones must be intercepted," Zelenskiy wrote.

"The world can ensure this, and our partners possess the necessary capabilities. This has been demonstrated in the skies over the Middle East, and it should also work in Europe," Zelenskiy said in an apparent reference of a massive Iranian drone attack on Israel last week that was virtually completely repelled in a joint effort by Israeli, U.S., French, British, and Jordanian air defenses.

Ukraine has been pleading for months for more air defenses as it grapples with increasingly intense Russian air strikes on its infrastructure while its stocks of weapons and ammunition dwindle as critical U.S. aid remains stuck in Congress.

The United States has been by far the main provider of military assistance to Ukraine since the start of Russia's invasion in February 2022.

But a desperately needed $61 billion military aid package for Ukraine remains blocked in the U.S. House of Representatives amid opposition from hard-liners in the Republican Party who want to tie domestic policy issues such as immigration to a decision on foreign aid.

The House is expected to vote on April 20 on new military aid, including the long-delayed package for Ukraine.

Cyberpartisans Hack Belarusian Fertilizer Plant, Demand Release Of Political Prisoners

The Hrodna Azot plant in the Homel region (file photo)
The Hrodna Azot plant in the Homel region (file photo)

A group known as Cyberpartisans says it hacked into the computers and security systems of a major Belarusian state-run producer of nitrogen compounds and fertilizers and is demanding the release of workers who were arrested during protests against the disputed 2020 presidential election.

The Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election.

The group claimed that it took control of all internal e-mail accounts of the Hrodna Azot plant in the region of Homel as well as hundreds of computers, servers belonging to the facility, and the security system and security cameras in the plant’s buildings. In addition, the plant's heating center stopped functioning due to the cyberattack.

The hackers say they will undo their work in exchange for the release of all the workers of the facility incarcerated for participating in the 2020 protests against the official results of the presidential poll that named authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka the winner. The hackers also demand 75 other political prisoners with medical conditions be released.

Hrodna Azot's website has not been accessible since April 17.

An employee of the plant told RFE/RL on April 18 on condition of anonymity that "there was a big buzz at the plant” the day before.

"People have been discussing that. Everybody knows what happened and who did it. But I do not know to what extent the attack affected the work," the employee said.

Official representatives of Hrodna Azot refused to comment and hung up the phone when RFE/RL correspondents called to request comment.

Yulyana Shametavets of the Cyberpartisans group told RFE/RL on April 18 that the cyberattack had been prepared for several months.

"The attack was huge enough and may have affected not only documentation and networks but the production of outputs as well," Shametavets said, adding that the attack revealed the weakness of the electronic systems used by industrial facilities in Belarus.

An unspecified number of the facility's workers were arrested during and after the 2020 rallies and many were later handed lengthy prison terms.

In February 2023, a court in the Homel region sentenced 10 activists of the Rabochy rukh (Workers' Movement) consisting of workers of Hrodna Azot on charges of high treason and creation of an extremist group. The Rabochy rukh movement was created in 2020 amid nationwide protests against the disputed reelection of Lukashenka.

Alyaksandr Kapshul and Uladzimer Zhurauka were sentenced to 15 years in prison each then; Syarhey Shelest, Andrey Paheryla, and Alyaksandr Hashnikau to 14 years in prison each; Syarhey Dzyuba, Ihar Mints, Valyantsin Tseranevich, and Syarhey Shametska to 12 years in prison each; and Hanna Ablab, the only woman in the group, to 11 years in prison.

Kapshul was also convicted of illegal use of a firearm, while Shelest, Zhurauka, and Paheryla were additionally found guilty of slander.

All members of the group, which went on trial in November 2023, pleaded not guilty at the time.

The movement tried to organize strikes at Hrodna Azot and another factory, Belarusian Steel Works (BMZ), also located in the southeastern Homel region.

Investigators claim the activists collected sensitive information and passed it to representatives and organizations of foreign countries, including the United States and Lithuania.

Lukashenka, 69, has tightened his grip on the country since the August 2020 election by arresting -- sometimes violently -- tens of thousands of people. Fearing for their safety, most opposition members have fled the country.

The West has refused to recognize the results of the election and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader. Many countries have imposed several rounds of sanctions against his regime in response to the suppression of dissent in the country.

Updated

Bosnian Serb Leader Tells Rally In Banja Luka Srebrenica Massacre 'Wasn't Genocide'

The president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik: Genocide “did not happen.”
The president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik: Genocide “did not happen.”

Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik told supporters at a rally in Banja Luka on April 18 that the actions of the Republika Srpska Army in Srebrenica in 1995 were "a mistake that left the crime" but again denied it was genocide.

"I want to express my special respect to all the victims and my condolences to their families. It was a crime," he said, addressing thousands of supporters. But he denied it was genocide.

More than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys were massacred by Bosnian Serb troops in Srebrenica in July 1995. International courts have ruled it a genocide, and Bosnian Serb army officers and political leaders also have been convicted of genocide by UN judges.

Earlier on April 18, Dodik told the Republika Srpska parliament that genocide "did not happen," adding that "such a qualification must be dismissed." The parliament adopted a report stating that the massacre in Srebrenica did not constitute genocide.

The moves came as Serbia and the Republika Srpska campaign against a resolution under debate at the UN to commemorate the Srebrenica genocide. Dodik said the government of Republika Srpska will spend the whole day in Srebrenica when the resolution is discussed at the UN.

Dodik, the pro-Russian leader of the ethnic Serbian entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, has been designated for sanctions by the United States and Britain over alleged destabilization efforts and corruption.

He organized the rally to voice opposition to the resolution, which would declare July 11 as the International Day of the Remembrance of the Genocide committed in Srebrenica in 1995.

The draft resolution, seen by RFE/RL, also calls for the condemnation of any denial of the genocide in Srebrenica and encourages UN members to establish educational programs to prevent future manifestations of revisionism and genocide.

The Serbian people, as well as collective responsibility, are not directly mentioned in this document, which was initiated by Germany and Rwanda. All 193 UN member countries are expected to have their say on the resolution at the UN General Assembly early next month.

Dodik already threatened last week that if the resolution is adopted, "Republika Srpska will withdraw from the decision-making process in Bosnia."

Government representatives from Serbia, including Ana Brnabic, the speaker of the Serbian parliament, and Nikola Selakovic, the acting minister for labor, employment, veterans and social affairs, also attended the rally in Banja Luka. Brnabic said Serbia was in favor of respecting the Dayton accords signed in 1995 bringing an end to the Bosnian War.

"Today in Serbia, there are people in power who will always be with Republika Srpska and with our people. We don't have to think the same, but we will always be together. The harder it gets, the closer we will be," she said.

People attending the rally carried the flags of Republika Srpska and Serbia. Some also held posters bearing the image of Russian President Vladimir Putin. A photo of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs' military commander who was also sentenced to life for his role in the genocide, was on one of the banners.

Hundreds of people who attended the rally were bused in from Serbia.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Sister Of Iranian Protest Victim Detained By Tehran's Morality Police

School students wearing the compulsory hijab
School students wearing the compulsory hijab

The sister of Nika Shakarmi, a victim of the Women, Life, Freedom movement protests, has been detained by Tehran's morality police for failing to adhere to the Iran's mandatory hijab law.

Aida Shakarmi, a university student, was arrested in the Iranian capital on April 17 and remains in custody, her father said on Instagram.

Nika Shakarmi, a 16-year-old from Khorramabad residing in Tehran, was killed by security forces during nationwide protests that broke out following the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police for an alleged hijab offense.

Nika Shakarmi was missing for eight days after being chased by security officers during a protest before her body was discovered. Authorities attributed her death to a fall from a height, a claim her family disputes.

The Shakarmi family has faced continuous threats and harassment from security forces since as they actively pursued justice for their daughter.

The report of Aida Shakarmi's detention comes amid a new crackdown on women for not adhering to the hijab law. Enforcement intensified after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a directive during the recent Eid al-Fitr prayer sermon to step up measures against what he called "religious norm-breaking" within Iranian society.

Khamenei also emphasized the mandatory hijab law as a "definite religious decree," underscoring the obligation of all to adhere to this law the same as other legal decrees.

The resurgence of the morality police has sparked increased tensions and confrontations across various cities.

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

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

4 Pakistani Customs Officials Killed After Gunmen Ambush Vehicle

Unidentified gunmen ambushed a vehicle carrying officials from the customs department in northwestern Pakistan on April 18, killing four of them before fleeing the scene, police said. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in a district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province bordering Afghanistan, local police official Nasir Khan said. The motive behind the attack wasn't immediately clear. Pakistan has witnessed a surge in violence mostly blamed on the Pakistani Taliban, who are known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Russian-American Fined For Supporting Navalny's Foundation

Ilya Startsev (file photo)
Ilya Startsev (file photo)

The Memorial human rights groups says that a court in Russia's western city of Oryol ordered Russian-American citizen Ilya Startsev to pay 400,000 rubles ($4,240) on a charge of financing an extremist group. The court on April 17 found Startsev guilty of sending 7,000 rubles ($74) to the late opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). Startsev, who was arrested in early September 2023, was immediately released from custody after the court announced its decision. The FBK and Navalny's other groups and organizations were labeled extremist in 2021. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Russian Prosecutors Appeal Suspended Sentence For Ex-Memorial Chief

Aleksandr Chernyshev (file photo)
Aleksandr Chernyshev (file photo)

Prosecutors in the Russian city of Perm on April 18 appealed a local court decision to hand a three-year suspended prison term to Aleksandr Chernyshov, the ex-chief of the Center of Historic Memory, the successor entity of the Memorial human rights group. Prosecutors say Chernyshov should serve the sentence in prison instead of it being suspended. Chernyshov was found guilty of "attempting to smuggle cultural artifacts" in early April. He was arrested in May 2023 and accused of attempting to transfer Memorial's archives to Germany. The authorities ordered Memorial's archives to be transferred to Moscow after the group was liquidated in February 2022. To see the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

U.S. Announces New Sanctions On Iran In Response To Attack On Israel

An Iranian Shahed drone (file photo)
An Iranian Shahed drone (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- The United States has announced new sanctions on Iran targeting its drone production capabilities after its attack on Israel, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement on April 18.

The sanctions designate 16 individuals and two entities enabling Iran’s drone production, including engine types that power Iran’s Shahed drones, which were used in the April 13 attack.

“These actors work on behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), its UAV production arm, Kimia Part Sivan Company (KIPAS), and other Iranian manufacturers of UAVs and UAV engines,” the Treasury Department’s statement said.

The department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is also designating five companies in multiple jurisdictions providing component materials for steel production to Iran’s Khuzestan Steel Company (KSC), one of Iran’s largest steel producers, or purchasing KSC’s finished steel products.

Also targeted were three subsidiaries of Iranian automaker Bahman Group, which OFAC said had materially supported Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

In addition, the U.S. Commerce Department is imposing new controls to restrict Iran’s access to technologies, such as basic commercial grade microelectronics.

U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States and its allies had helped Israel beat back the April 13 missile and drone strike and were now holding Iran accountable with the new sanctions and export controls.

“The sanctions target leaders and entities connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran’s Defense Ministry, and the Iranian government’s missile and drone program that enabled this brazen assault," Biden said in a statement. "And our allies and partners have or will issue additional sanctions and measures to restrict Iran’s destabilizing military programs."

He added that the Group of Seven (G7) leaders are committed to acting together to increase economic pressure on Tehran.

Finance ministers and central bank governors of the G7 industrial democracies on April 17 said they would "ensure close coordination of any future measure to diminish Iran's ability to acquire, produce, or transfer weapons to support destabilizing regional activities."

The Treasury Department’s statement noted that Britain is imposing sanctions targeting several Iranian military organizations, individuals, and entities involved in Iran’s drone and ballistic missile industries.

Britain said these sanctions included the General Staff of the Armed Forces and the IRGC Navy.

Tehran says it carried out the April 13 attack in retaliation for a presumed Israeli strike on April 1 on the Iranian Embassy compound in Damascus that killed two generals and several others.

With reporting by Reuters

EU Set To Provide Nonlethal Assistance To Armenia

A preliminary agreement has been reached in Brussels on providing nonlethal assistance to Armenia from the European Peace Facility (EPF), according to a diplomatic document obtained by RFE/RL.

The document, obtained on April 17 from diplomatic sources in Brussels, shows that the European Union plans to allocate 10 million euros ($10.6 million) to Armenia under the EPF as part of an assistance measure that will last 30 months from the date of the adoption of the decision.

According to the document, the assistance measure will finance setting up a mobile field camp for a battalion-size unit, including a medical treatment facility and other relevant services.

“The objective of the assistance measure is to contribute to strengthening the Armed Forces of the Republic of Armenia’s capabilities to enhance national security, stability, and resilience in the defense sector,” the document says.

The assistance also aims to allow Armenian forces to enhance operational effectiveness and accelerate compliance with EU standards and interoperability, thereby better protecting civilians in crises and emergencies, it adds.

The EPF was established in 2021 to provide funds for the purchase of nonlethal weapons or capabilities to promote peace, prevent conflict, and strengthen international security around the world. EU membership is not a prerequisite for applying to receive EPF funding.

Details about the EPF agreement come as Armenia turns away from Russia for security assistance. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in February spoke about “freezing” Armenia's membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led regional security grouping that Pashinian criticized for its “failure to respond to the security challenges” facing Armenia.

In an interview with RFE/RL earlier this month, Peter Stano, spokesman for the EU’s Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, confirmed that discussions on possible support to Armenia under the EPF were ongoing but said that security policy is a “strictly member state-controlled area where any decision needs to be agreed by unanimity of all the member states.”

The draft agreement seen by RFE/RL is expected to be submitted for final approval in the coming weeks.

Armenia first submitted an application for funding from the EPF in 2023, and it earned the backing of then-French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, who said during a visit to Armenia last October that she had personally appealed to the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy on this issue.

Among other countries that have received assistance from the EPF in previous years are Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, all of which are seeking membership in the European Union. A number of African countries also have tapped into EPF funding.

With reporting by Heghine Buniatyan

Bashkir Activist Alsynov Loses Appeal Against Four-Year Prison Term

Fail Alsynov talks to supporters outside the courtroom in January.
Fail Alsynov talks to supporters outside the courtroom in January.

The Supreme Court of Russia's Baskortostan region on April 18 rejected the appeal filed by Bashkir activist Fail Alsynov against a four-year prison sentence he was handed in January on a charge of inciting hatred that he and his supporters call politically motivated. Thousands of Alsynov's supporters rallied in protest before and after his sentence was handed down in mid-January and clashed with police. Police used tear gas, stun grenades, and batons to disperse the protesters. Alsynov is known for his open criticism of Bashkortostan's Kremlin-backed head, Radiy Khabirov, and his government. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service, click here.

Russian Hypersonic-Flight Expert Gets 7 Years On Treason Charge

Aleksandr Kuranov is escorted to a hearing at Moscow's Lefortovo district court in August 2021.
Aleksandr Kuranov is escorted to a hearing at Moscow's Lefortovo district court in August 2021.

A court in St. Petersburg on April 18 sentenced Aleksandr Kuranov, the former head of an institute researching hypersonic flight, to seven years in prison on a charge of high treason. The 76-year-old former chief of the Hypersonic Systems Research Center in Russia's second-largest city was arrested in August 2021 after investigators accused him of passing classified materials to a foreigner. Several Russian scientists and officials have been charged with treason in recent years after being accused of passing sensitive material to foreign countries. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Taliban Pulls 2 TV Channels For 'Violating Islamic Values'

Rights monitors warn that the Taliban authorities have been cracking down on media freedoms since their return to power in 2021 as they enforce an austere vision of Islamist rule.
Rights monitors warn that the Taliban authorities have been cracking down on media freedoms since their return to power in 2021 as they enforce an austere vision of Islamist rule.

Two Afghan television channels have been taken off the airwaves for "violations against Islamic and national values," a spokesman for the Taliban-led government said on April 18. Rights monitors warn that the Taliban authorities have been cracking down on media freedoms since their return to power in 2021 as they enforce an austere vision of Islamist rule. Culture Ministry spokesman Khubaib Ghufran said the Barya and Noor TV channels had been suspended on April 16 for failing to abide by "journalistic principles." "They had programs creating confusion among the public and their owners are abroad," he told AFP. "The media violation commission suspended their operations."

Updated

German Foreign Minister Says G7 Needs 'Response' To Iran's Unprecedented Attack

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock addresses journalists in Tel Aviv on April 17.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock addresses journalists in Tel Aviv on April 17.

The G7 must respond to Iran's attack on Israel, Germany's foreign minister said on April 18, adding that measures were being discussed with her counterparts at a meeting in Italy.

"We are also discussing further measures here at the G7, because of course there must be a response to this unprecedented incident," Annalena Baerbock said from the island of Capri.

She added however that "there must be no further escalation in the region; that would be fatal for its people."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on April 18 painted a dark picture of the situation in the Middle East, warning that spiraling tensions over the war in Gaza and Iran's attack on Israel could devolve into a "full-scale regional conflict."

Guterres said Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip had created a "humanitarian hellscape" for civilians trapped there.

"The Middle East is on a precipice. Recent days have seen a perilous escalation," Guterres told a high-level Security Council meeting.

He said one miscalculation or miscommunication “could lead to the unthinkable --- a full-scale regional conflict.”

Iranian Journalist Arrested After Recounting Assault By Morality Police

Iran's so-called morality police arrest a woman over an alleged head-scarf violation. (Illustrative photo)
Iran's so-called morality police arrest a woman over an alleged head-scarf violation. (Illustrative photo)

Iranian journalist Dina Ghalibaf was arrested after she published a personal narrative about her previous detention by Iran’s morality police for not adhering to the mandatory hijab law.

Ghalibaf, a journalist and student of political science at Tehran’s Beheshti University, disclosed details of her arrest by law enforcement on April 15 for defying the compulsory hijab law, including that she was sexually assaulted during her detention. She was subsequently re-arrested by intelligence forces and taken to an undisclosed location.


Reports indicate that Ghalibaf was arrested at her residence. No information available on her whereabouts has been made available.

Ghalibaf's arrest coincides with the reimplementation of Iran’s Plan Noor initiative, under which the morality police have resumed operations and are strictly enforcing dress codes. This has led to several incidents of violence against women challenging the compulsory hijab, documented through numerous accounts, including Ghalibaf's.

According to Ghalibaf, during her initial detention, she was forcibly moved and subjected to electric shocks while handcuffed. She says a law enforcement officer also sexually assaulted her.

Following the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, who died while detained by the morality police, and the subsequent nationwide protests it sparked, the presence of morality police vehicles in cities had noticeably decreased. Instead, the Islamic Republic employed individuals referred to as "hijab guards."

The new crackdown on women for not adhering to the hijab intensified after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a directive during the recent Eid al-Fitr prayer sermon to step up enforcement measures against what he called "religious norm-breaking" within Iranian society.

Khamenei also emphasized the mandatory hijab law as a "definite religious decree," underscoring the obligation of all to adhere to this the same as other legal decrees.

The resurgence of the morality police has sparked increased tensions and confrontations across various cities.

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

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

Two Arrested In Germany For Planning Sabotage In Favor Of Russia

Training of the Ukrainian military at the Grafenwehr base in the German state of Bavaria (illustrative photo)
Training of the Ukrainian military at the Grafenwehr base in the German state of Bavaria (illustrative photo)

Two men with dual German-Russian citizenship have been arrested in Germany for allegedly plotting acts of sabotage aimed at undermining military support for Ukraine, the German prosecutor's office reported on April 18. One suspect, identified as Dieter S., had been discussing possible actions with a person connected to Russian intelligence since October 2023, the prosecutor's office said in a statement. Dieter S. was ready to carry out attacks on military facilities, including U.S. ones, in Germany. German media reported the Grafenwehr military base in Bavaria, where Ukrainian soldiers are trained to use U.S. Abrams tanks, was among the likely targets. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Updated

'Send Them To Ukraine': EU's Borrell Urges Europeans To Donate Air Defense Systems

A rescuer works with a sniffer dog at the site of a destroyed building during a deadly Russian missile strike in Chernihiv on April 17.
A rescuer works with a sniffer dog at the site of a destroyed building during a deadly Russian missile strike in Chernihiv on April 17.

The European Union's foreign policy chief called on EU member states to give Ukraine more air defense systems as the embattled country grapples with increasingly intense Russian air strikes on its infrastructure while its stocks of weapons and ammunition dwindle as critical U.S. aid remains stuck in Congress.

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"We have Patriots (U.S. air defense systems). We have anti-missile systems. We have to take them [out] from our barracks where they are just in case and send them to Ukraine where the war is raging," Josep Borrell told the media on the sidelines of a meeting of the Group of Seven (G7) foreign ministers on the Italian island of Capri, where Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine is topping the agenda.

The United States has been by far the main provider of military assistance to Ukraine since the start of Russia's invasion in February 2022.

But a desperately needed $62 billion military aid package for Ukraine remains blocked in the U.S. House of Representatives amid opposition from hard-liners in the Republican party who want to tie domestic policy issues such as immigration to a decision on foreign aid.

The House is expected to vote on April 20 on new military aid, including the long-delayed package for Ukraine.

"We cannot only rely on the U.S. We have to take our [own] responsibility and stop saying, 'Oh, the U.S. will do it'," Borrell said, adding, however, that he regretted "internal politics" in the United States was delaying the critical aid package.

Without more air defenses, "the electricity system of Ukraine will be destroyed. And no country can fight without having electricity at home, in the factories, online, for everything," Borrell added.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who was invited to attend the Capri meeting, thanked Germany for providing Ukraine with a Patriot battery, while urging Congress to approve the package.

“We will work here at the ministerial level to make other allies deliver air defense systems to Ukraine. Because it’s of fundamental importance," Kuleba said after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Kuleba pointed to the Russian missile strike on Ukraine's historic city of Chernihiv that killed at least 18 people on April 17 as evidence of his country's urgent need for military assistance.


"This is a matter of death and life for thousands of people, and in a broader sense, it's a matter of Ukraine's survival in this struggle against a much stronger enemy," he said.

The G7 meeting is also being attended by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Earlier on April 18, Ukraine shot down all 13 drones launched by Russia at its territory. The Ukrainian Air Force said most of the drones were launched at infrastructure targets in the western region of Ivano-Frankivsk. Russian news agency RIA Novosti claimed the drones struck Ukrainian military installations in Ivano-Frankivsk, but the mayor of the regional capital of Ivano-Frankivsk, Ruslan Martinskiv, told RFE/RL that only civilian infrastructure had been targeted.

Martsinkiv said debris from the drones caused a fire which was put out.

But a Russian missile attack on an infrastructure facility in the Dnipro region on April 18 causes substantial damage, regional administration head Serhiy Lysak said on Telegram.

"Two fires are still raging. We are clarifying the information," Lysak wrote.

Meanwhile, Andriy Yusov, spokesman for Ukraine's Main Intelligence Directorate at the Defense Ministry, has confirmed to RFE/RL reports of a "successful" attack by Ukrainian armed forces on a military airfield in the city of Dzhankoy in Ukraine's Russian-occupied Crimea.

Yusov told RFE/RL on April 18 that the attack, conducted a day earlier, destroyed Russia's launchers of anti-missile and anti-aircraft defense systems, radar systems, and damaged some planes.

Social media channels reported powerful explosions in the area of the airfield early on April 17, but the reports had not been verified.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Social Media Platform X Pledges To Work With Pakistan Amid Service Disruption

The Pakistani government shut down the social media platform X in the country two months ago, citing threats to national security.
The Pakistani government shut down the social media platform X in the country two months ago, citing threats to national security.

Social media platform X, formerly Twitter, has pledged to work with Pakistan's government "to understand its concerns" after authorities said an ongoing two-month shutdown of the site in the country was based on national security threats. "We continue to work with the Pakistani Government to understand their concerns," X's Global Government Affairs team said in a post late on April 17. It was the company's first public comments on the move since the site was disrupted on February 17, when jailed former prime minister Imran Khan's party called for nationwide protests against general elections they say were rigged.

Updated

After 6 Months In Russian Detention, RFE/RL Journalist Still Making Sense Of It All

Jailed journalist Alsu Kurmasheva (file photo)
Jailed journalist Alsu Kurmasheva (file photo)

For some 25 years, Alsu Kurmasheva worked as a journalist at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tatar-Bashkir Service. Then, six months ago, as she says, "in an instant, it turned into a crime."

That instant came exactly on October 18 when Kurmasheva, a Russian-U.S. dual citizen, was arrested in Kazan and charged with failing to register as a "foreign agent" under a punitive Russian law that targets journalists, civil society activists, and others.

Later, she was charged with spreading falsehoods about the Russian military and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

RFE/RL and the U.S. government say the charges are a reprisal for her work as a journalist for RFE/RL. She had traveled to Russia to visit and care for her elderly mother and was initially detained while waiting for her return flight on June 2 at Kazan airport, where her passports were confiscated.

U.S. Journalist Detained In Russia Defiantly Insists She Will Walk Free
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"On October 18 last year, I was imprisoned on charges that still don’t make sense inside my head," she wrote in a recent message published by a Tatar-language monthly in Kazan.

Kurmasheva, who lives in Prague with her husband, Pavel Butorin, who is also a journalist for RFE/RL in Prague, and their two daughters, ages 12 and 15, described her prison conditions as poor and said her health has deteriorated as she has been unable to access treatment.

Alsu writes that "some illnesses have intensified," but medication and regular exercise "give me the strength to hold on and endure the pain."

"She's being held in inhumane conditions for the mere fact of being an American," Butorin said. "I want the Russian government to explain to me and my children why exactly Alsu is being held hostage. She's not an opposition politician. She's not an activist. She's not a criminal. Her detention is wrongful. She doesn't belong in jail."

Minimal Health Care, No Room To Move: Jailed RFE/RL Journalist Describes Russian Prison
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Many critics and rights groups say the so-called "foreign agent" law is used by the Kremlin to crack down on any dissent.

Moscow has also been accused of detaining Americans to use as bargaining chips to exchange for Russians jailed in the United States.

"Russian authorities are conducting a deplorable criminal campaign against the wrongfully detained Alsu Kurmasheva," according to RFE/RL President Stephen Capus.

Journalism watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) added that as health issues continue to worsen for Kurmasheva "due to the deplorable conditions of the Russian prison system, her rights as a U.S. citizen are constantly denied by the authorities."

"The refusal to grant her access to U.S. consular assistance is a blatant violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR). RSF urges the U.S. government to step up its efforts to get her released," Jeanne Cavelier, head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said in a statement marking the six months Kurmasheva has been detained.

Another U.S. journalist, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, has been held in detention since March 2023 on spying charges both he and the newspaper vehemently deny, saying the 32-year-old was merely doing his job as an accredited reporter when he was arrested.

In February, 23 countries nominated Kurmasheva for the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano 2024 World Press Freedom Prize.

The prize, created in 1997, is an annual award that honors a person or a group of people who make an "outstanding" contribution to the defense and promotion of press freedom across the globe despite the "danger and persecution" they face.

For Kurmasheva, awards are something she has little time to focus on.

Instead, her goal, she says, is simple: "My greatest wish is to come out of here alive and well."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service
Updated

Senior Kosovar Police Officer Released After Detention At Serbian Border

Deputy police commander Dejan Jankovic, a Kosovar Serb, was detained on the morning of April 17 "without any explanation," the ministry said in a statement.
Deputy police commander Dejan Jankovic, a Kosovar Serb, was detained on the morning of April 17 "without any explanation," the ministry said in a statement.

A Kosovar police deputy who was detained at the border by Serbian police has been released and was on his way back to Kosovo, the Kosovar Foreign Ministry announced late on April 18.

Police Deputy Director Dejan Jankovic was detained on April 17 at the Jarinje border crossing and accused of undermining Serbia's constitutional order, according to Kosovar Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla.

The Foreign Ministry issued in a statement on Facebook quoting Kosovar Ambassador to Serbia Jetish Jashari as confirming that Jankovic had been released.

Prime Minister Albin Kurti said earlier on April 18 at a government meeting in Pristina that four other police officers who were detained together with Jankovic had been released.

Ten off-duty Kosovar police officers, both ethnic Albanians and Serbs, were detained by Serbian authorities while returning to Kosovo. Five of them were released the same day.

Serbia's Interior Ministry confirmed to Serbian news agency Tanjug that the officers were detained on April 17 during border checks but did not say why Jankovic was kept and reportedly sent for interrogation.

The U.S. State Department in an e-mail to RFE/RL said it urged all parties involved to avoid any actions that could jeopardize regional security and stability.

The spokesperson also warned that arbitrary or unduly lengthy detentions, especially if they target Kosovo police officers, "will be seen as escalatory actions detrimental to peace and stability."

The detentions came after at least six buses from Kosovo were earlier stopped for hours by Serbian police at a border crossing with Croatia and Hungary, according to passengers, before being allowed to continue.

Serbia said the delays were caused by additional security measures at the border, but that Kosovar citizens' movement has not been restricted.

The tightening of border controls by Serbia came shortly after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) recommended on April 16 that Kosovo be invited to become a member of the Council of Europe, a European human rights body.

Kurti was quick to link the Kosovar police officers' detentions with the decision by PACE.

"The mass arrests, detentions, and ill-treatment of [Kosovar] travelers occurred immediately after the favorable vote in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe," Kurti told the government meeting.

Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani said the stopping of buses was a retaliatory measure by Belgrade, and directly accused Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic of ordering the move.

"Serbia is retaliating against Kosovar citizens, one day after PACE's CoE vote, by holding many hostage at border crossings, intimidating, confiscating docs & depriving them of food," Osmani wrote on X, formerly Twitter, adding, "One man is responsible for this: Vucic."

Kosovo's Foreign Ministry also said in a statement that Serbia had stopped the buses as a "a sign of retaliation against the PACE's support for Kosovo's membership in the organization."

Kosovo, a mainly ethnic Albanian former province of Serbia, declared independence from Belgrade in 2008 after fighting a guerrilla war in 1998-99 that ended with NATO's bombing of Serbia. Kosovo's independence has been recognized neither by Belgrade nor by its traditional ally, Russia, or China.

With reporting by Reuters

U.S. House To Vote On Ukraine, Israel Aid Despite Hard-Line Objections

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson gives a weekly press conference from Capitol Hill on April 16.
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson gives a weekly press conference from Capitol Hill on April 16.

The U.S. House of Representatives will have its long-awaited vote on aid for Ukraine, Israel, and the Indo-Pacific as soon as this weekend, Republican Speaker Mike Johnson said, paving the way for its possible passage despite fierce objections from the right wing of his conference. The House Appropriations Committee unveiled legislation providing more than $95 billion in security assistance, including $60.84 billion to address the conflict in Ukraine, of which $23.2 billion would be used to replenish U.S. weapons, stocks, and facilities. The Israel bill totals $26.38 billion, some of which will cover the cost of U.S. military operations responding to recent attacks.

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