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Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary Among States With Highest Number Of ECHR Cases

Council of Europe Secretary-General Marija Pejcinovic Buric: “Our member states have a duty to implement ECHR judgments promptly and fully. This is not a kind request -- it is a binding requirement.” (file photo)

The Council of Europe says states across the continent last year continued to make “progress” on implementing judgments from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) despite the coronavirus pandemic.

But it stressed that further efforts are needed to tackle issues such as ill-treatment or deaths caused by security forces and poor conditions of detention, as well as a “growing number of cases concerning abusive limitations on rights and freedoms.”

The assessment was part of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers' annual report for 2020 on the execution of ECHR judgments.

States with the highest total number of new cases last year were Russia (218), Turkey (103), and Ukraine (84), followed by Romania (78) and Hungary (61).

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These countries also had the highest number of pending cases at the end of 2020: Russia (1,789), Turkey (624), Ukraine (567), Romania (347), and Hungary (276).

The states over which the ECHR awarded the most “just satisfaction” to applicants were Romania ($43.9 million), Russia ($13.4 million), Italy ($6 million), Montenegro ($5.4 million), and Moldova ($4.9 million).

Council of Europe Secretary-General Marija Pejcinovic Buric said in a statement that the report shows that member states take their obligations to implement judgments from the Strasbourg-based court “very seriously, even in difficult circumstances."

However, Buric noted that “many important judgments have been outstanding for several years and a small number of high-profile cases are not being resolved quickly enough.”

“Our member states have a duty to implement ECHR judgments promptly and fully. This is not a kind request -- it is a binding requirement,” she insisted.

According to the report, 983 cases were closed by the Committee of Ministers in 2020, which marked the 70th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights, as a result of steps taken by the relevant member states.

At the end of the year, 5,233 cases had yet to be fully implemented by the member states involved -- among the lowest counts since 2006.

The report states that 581 payments of “just satisfaction” to applicants, awarded by the ECHR, were made on time in 2020, while the Committee of Ministers was still awaiting confirmation of payment in 1,574 cases at the end of December.

Among the most significant cases that the committee was able to close in 2020 were three cases regarding abusive limitations of the rights to liberty and security in Azerbaijan, and a case concerning voting rights in local elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But the report cautions there is “not a time for complacency” because “serious challenges continue to be raised in the context of the execution of many cases.”

It cited an interstate case opposing Georgia and Russia, a “larger number” of individual applications linked to post-conflict situations or unresolved conflicts, and “many long-standing systemic and structural problems" concerning in particular "ineffective investigations" into ill-treatment or death caused by security forces and poor conditions of detention.

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Two Iranian Professors Suspended For Supporting Anti-Government Protests

In recent months, the Tehran University of Arts has been a center of creative performances in support of the protests in Iran, including the erection of symbolic tombstones on the university campus in memory of protesters killed by the security forces.

Two Iranian university professors have been suspended from their jobs after they came out in support of nationwide protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody.

Amir Maziar, a member of the Faculty of Theoretical Sciences at the Tehran University of Arts, published his suspension letter on February 7 and wrote that Koroush Golnari, another member of the faculty of the same university, also received a similar letter.

Maziar added that some of his colleagues are under pressure to sign letters condemning the protesters, "which has happened at universities and other educational institutions as well."

According to Maziar, pressure on professors continues in other ways as well, including instances of forced retirement.

Anger over Amini's death on September 16 has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets to demand more freedoms and women's rights.

Numerous protests have been held at universities, particularly in Tehran, where many students have refused to attend classes. Protesting students have chanted "woman, life, freedom" and "death to the dictator" at the rallies. Some female students have removed and burned their head scarves.

In recent months, the Tehran University of Arts has been a center of creative performances in support of the protests in Iran, including the erection of symbolic tombstones on the university campus in memory of protesters killed by the security forces, which has gone viral on social media.

In most of the protests, students have asked professors to support them, and some university professors and lecturers have expressed solidarity with the protesters.

Universities and students have long been at the forefront of the struggle for greater social and political freedoms in Iran. In 1999, students protested the closure of a reformist daily, prompting a brutal raid on the dorms of Tehran University that left one student dead.

Over the years, the authorities have arrested student activists and leaders, sentencing them to prison and banning them from studying.

The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of January 26, at least 700 university students had been arrested during the recent unrest.

Many have faced sentences such as imprisonment, flogging, and dozens of students have been expelled from universities or suspended from their studies, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

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

Ivan Silayev, Last Russian Prime Minister Of The Soviet Era, Dies At 92

Ivan Silayev

The last prime minister of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) within the Soviet Union, Ivan Silayev, has died at the age of 92. The Sokol Aircraft Plant in Nizhny Novgorod, which Silayev used to lead in the 1970s, said on February 9 that he had died the previous day. Silayev led the RSFSR government in 1990-1991. Shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, he led a committee within the short-lived government of the Commonwealth of Independent States. He then served for three years as the Russian Ambassador to the European Union. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Families Of Victims Urge Diplomats To Boycott Iranian Revolution Ceremonies

Videos posted on social media in recent days have shown protesters in several Iranian cities set fire to propaganda banners hung by the government to promote the revolution and anniversary celebrations around it.

The families of those killed by authorities in Iran -- including people who have died in recent mass protests over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly -- have launched a campaign on Twitter asking foreign diplomats not to participate in a government ceremony for the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the revolution, a series of events that culminated in the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty, takes place every year on February 11. Many of the celebrations are marked with extensive government propaganda.

This year, however, the anniversary will be held as the government faces one of the biggest threats to its Islamic leadership since the revolution, with a wave of protests following the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

The opposition activist collective 1500tasvir reported that the families of several victims killed by state authorities, including Nika Shakrami, Navid Afkari and Mino Majidi, have created the hashtag "#BoycottIRIDay" on Twitter and are asking diplomatic missions based in Iran to boycott the ceremonies.

Videos posted on social media in recent days have shown protesters in several Iranian cities set fire to propaganda banners hung by the government to promote the revolution and anniversary celebrations around it.

Amini's death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country.

Authorities have responded to the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.

Human rights groups say that around 20,000 people have been arrested in connection with the protests so far.

The Norway-based Iran Human Rights Group estimates that around 100 prisoners may face the death penalty.

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

Director Of Prestigious Moscow Gallery Leaves Post Amid Accusations Of 'Nonpatriotism'

Art gallery director Zelfira Tregulova (file photo)

The head of Moscow’s state-run Tretyakov Gallery Arts Museum, Zelfira Tregulova, has left her post amid accusations of "nonpatriotism." The Culture Ministry said Tregulova's contract had expired and the museum will now be led by Yelena Pronicheva, the daughter of the former deputy chief of the Federal Security Service, Vladimir Pronichev. Tregulova has faced pressure after the cancellation of an exhibition over its “patriotic content.” The works were by artists from parts of Ukraine's eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, which are controlled by Russia-backed separatists. The gallery is considered to be the foremost depository of Russian fine art in the world. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Minsk Court Sentences Man To Two Years In Prison For Online Posts

A court in Belarus has sentenced a man to two years in prison for making online comments about the country's authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and his regime. The central district court in Minsk sentenced Aleh Yushkevich, 36, on February 9 after convicting him of insulting Lukashenka and the tightly controlled former Soviet nation’s authorities. The court also ordered Yushkevich to pay a fine of 7,400 rubles ($3,000). To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

Prosecutor Seeks 12 Years In Prison For Belarusian Nobel Prize Winner Byalyatski

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski at his trial in Minsk last month.

MINSK -- The prosecutor at a high-profile trial in Minsk has asked a court to convict and sentence Belarusian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski to 12 years in prison on smuggling and tax-evasion charges that rights defenders and Western governments call politically motivated retribution on the part of longtime authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The prosecutor also asked the Lenin district court on February 9 to convict and sentence Byalyatski's co-defendants -- Valyantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimer Labkovich -- to 11 years and 9 years, respectively.

For a fourth defendant, Zmitser Salauyou, who is being tried in absentia, the prosecutor requested 10 years in prison.

The first three defendants have been in custody since July 2021 and potentially face up to 12 years in prison if convicted and the judge decides to enforce the maximum penalty.

The men, who went on trial in early January, are accused of bringing money into the country for "illegal activities and financing" the Vyasna (Spring) human rights group in Belarus, whose chairman is Byalyatski.

Byalyatski, who has been fighting for democracy and human rights in his beleaguered homeland his entire life, was awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize along with the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties and the embattled Russian rights group Memorial.

He founded the Vyasna Human Rights Center, which was originally a Minsk-based organization with the name Vyasna-96. In 1999, it was reborn as a national nongovernmental rights organization.

The NGO was outlawed by the Belarusian Supreme Court in October 2003 for its role in monitoring the country's 2001 presidential election. It has continued its work, however, as an unregistered NGO.

The main work of the organization has been defending and supporting political prisoners. The group -- and Byalyatski personally -- have regularly been harassed and persecuted by Lukashenka's government since its founding.

Belarusian authorities have moved to shut down critical and nonstate media outlets and human rights bodies in the wake of mass protests that erupted in August 2020 after a presidential election that the opposition said was rigged.

The opposition and Western governments say Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was driven into exile, won the vote, which has not been recognized by the United States, the European Union, and several other countries.

Thousands have been detained since the vote and there have been credible reports of the torture and ill-treatment of detainees by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown.

Uzbek Investigative Blogger Detained In Tashkent

Uzbek journalist and blogger Abduqodir Mominov

A noted Uzbek investigative blogger known for his criticism of the government has been detained in Tashkent. The city police said on February 9 that Abduqodir Mominov is suspected of alleged fraud and extortion. Police searched Mominov's apartment in Tashkent on February 8 as the blogger went missing the same day. Mominov's mother told RFE/RL that her son's situation is linked to his professional activities. Mominov's detention comes two weeks after police arrested several journalists working for the website and the press secretary of the Employment Ministry, Mavjuda Mirzaeva, on unspecified charges. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.

Poland To Close Belarus Border Crossing Until Further Notice, Says Minister

Bobrowniki is one of the key border-crossing points between Poland and Belarus. 

Poland is to close a key border crossing with Belarus until further notice, the Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said on February 9, as relations between Warsaw and Minsk sink to new lows. The already tense relations between Poland and Belarus were further strained a day earlier when Andrzej Poczobut, a journalist of Polish origin, was sentenced to eight years in prison by a Belarusian court in a trial that Warsaw says was politically motivated. Bobrowniki, more than 200 kilometers northeast of Warsaw, is one of the key crossing points between Poland and Belarus. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Ethnic Kazakh Man Reunites With Relatives In Almaty After Years In Xinjiang Labor Camp

Sarsenbek Akbar upon being reunited with his family after years of incarceration in China.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- An ethnic Kazakh man from China's northwestern region of Xinjiang, Sarsenbek Aqbar, has reunited with his family in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, after serving almost three years in a Chinese labor camp and two years under house arrest.

Aqbar's wife, Gulnur Qosdaulet, told RFE/RL on February 9 that her husband arrived in Almaty late in the evening the previous day. She refused to elaborate further, fearing repercussions.

Aqbar's relatives said earlier that he spent almost three years in a Chinese labor camp for "political prisoners" between 2017 and 2020 and was placed under house arrest for two years after his release.

Kazakh officials have not commented on Aqbar's arrival in Almaty.

China’s crackdown in Xinjiang has seen Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities put into mass detention camps. Since Beijing’s dragnet accelerated in 2017, the plight of ethnic Kazakhs interned in China has been an unexpected source of dissent, with the testimonies of former detainees and family members fueling a guerrilla advocacy campaign that brought outsized international attention to the issue.

This left the Kazakh government walking a tightrope between appeasing Beijing -- which denies the long list of abuses that have been documented in its camp system -- and dealing with an exasperated segment of its population lobbying for family members in China.

Qosdaulet herself, along with dozens of people, attended rallies near the Chinese Consulate in Almaty for years before her husband was allowed to return to Kazakhstan.

The U.S. State Department has said that as many as 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and members of Xinjiang's other indigenous, mostly Muslim ethnic groups have been taken to detention centers.

China denies that the facilities are internment camps, but people who have fled the province say members of these groups are undergoing "political indoctrination" at a network of facilities officially referred to as reeducation camps.

Kazakhs are the second-largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang after Uyghurs. The region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans. Han, China's largest ethnicity, is the second-largest community in Xinjiang.


Explosion In Residential Building Kills At Least Seven In Siberia

Smoke rises from a residential building following an explosion in Novosibirsk on February 9.

An explosion in a residential building in Russia's Siberian city of Novosibirsk has killed at least seven people. The region’s Health Ministry said a 2-year-old child was among those killed in the explosion, which occurred on February 9. City authorities said the explosion was caused by a gas leak and destroyed 30 apartments in a five-story building. Gas explosions frequently occur across the former Soviet Union due to aging pipelines and infrastructure, as well as lax safety standards. Two days earlier, a gas explosion in Russia's western region of Tula killed at least eight people. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

RFE/RL President Says Afghan Service 'Stronger Than Ever' With Expanded Programming, Despite Taliban Ban

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly (file photo)

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has said that Radio Azadi has come back “stronger than ever” with expanded programming despite the Taliban’s efforts to ban the company’s Afghan news service from the airwaves and the Internet.

“When the Taliban took Azadi off its airwaves, Azadi came back stronger than ever, doubling its daily time on air to become a 24/7 service,” RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly said in a February 8 statement. “For two decades, Afghans have turned to Azadi for hope, and we will continue to find ways to reach them."

The statement came after Radio Azadi’s Dari and Pashto websites were blocked in Afghanistan this week, and after the Taliban removed Azadi broadcasts from AM and FM airwaves on December 1. Azadi remained accessible to listeners in Afghanistan on medium-wave and shortwave frequencies.

In response to the ban, RFE/RL on January 30 announced that it was doubling the length of its radio broadcasts to provide 24/7 coverage. Twelve hours of broadcasts are now transmitted on medium wave, followed by 12 hours on shortwave every day.

The expanded coverage was announced on Azadi’s 21st anniversary serving as a public broadcaster in Afghanistan.

After the Taliban implemented the airwaves ban on December 1, Fly described the decision as “tragic” and said that banning Azadi broadcasts would cut off a “lifeline for tens of millions of Afghans.”

“RFE/RL will not change our editorial line to accommodate Taliban demands in order to stay on the air,” Fly said at the time. “We know from experience that our audiences make great efforts to find us. The truth cannot be completely suppressed.”

In a recent survey commissioned by the U.S. Agency for Global Media, half of Afghan adults surveyed use Azadi content weekly.

The Taliban has consistently pressured Azadi since the hard-line Islamist group seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021.

Following the Taliban takeover, RFE/RL closed its Kabul bureau, but continues to cover news ignored by state media and at odds with the Taliban’s hardline views, including on women’s issues, freedom of the press, and human rights.

Wagner's Founder Says Russian Mercenary Group Has Halted Prisoner Recruitment Campaign

Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin (file photo)

Russia's Wagner mercenary group has stopped recruiting prisoners to fight in Ukraine, the organization's founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on February 9. "The recruitment of prisoners by the Wagner private military company has completely stopped," Prigozhin said in response to a request for comment from a Russian outlet published on social media. Wagner began recruiting prisoners in Russia's sprawling penal system in summer 2022, with Prigozhin, a catering entrepreneur who served nine years in prison during the Soviet era, offering convicts a pardon if they survived six months in Ukraine. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.


Zelenskiy Tells EU Leaders There Is No Free Europe Without Free Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addresses the European Parliament in Brussels on February 9.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has told EU leaders that a free Europe is not possible without a free Ukraine, as he pressed for more weapons to aid Kyiv’s defense against invading Russian forces.

"Europe should not have gray zones, our whole continent should be open to European destiny," Zelenskiy told an EU summit in Brussels on February 9 in which he also pressed for fast-tracked Ukrainian membership of the European Union.

Zelenskiy said that Ukraine had “never wanted, never provoked” the full-scale war launched by Russia nearly one year ago, and that the security of Europe as a whole was tied to the war’s outcome.

"The unity of Europe is fundamental to security," Zelenskiy said, adding that a "free Europe cannot be imagined without free Ukraine.”

The February 9 visit was the latest stop in Zelenskiy’s surprise tour of Europe to lobby for more weapons and EU membership to aid Ukraine’s defense, and came as Russian forces reportedly stepped up attacks in Ukraine’s east ahead of an expected offensive.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

The trip to Brussels gave Zelenskiy the opportunity to speak to all 27 leaders of the European Union following visits to Britain and France the day earlier. Josep Borrell, who chairs EU summits, said without providing details that the EU leaders would promise more military support for Ukraine.

Standing in front of the Ukrainian flag, Zelenskiy told the European Parliament ahead of the summit that his country is fighting “against the biggest anti-European force of the modern world.”

He also thanked EU lawmakers for the help the bloc has already provided since Russia invaded more than 11 months ago.

"Thank you," Zelenskiy said as EU lawmakers gave him a long standing ovation. “We are defending ourselves in the battlefield, we Ukrainians, together with you...."

He also vowed that one day “Ukraine will be part of the European Union, a victorious Ukraine.”

In recent weeks, Ukraine has received promises from Western countries for the provision of battle tanks to boost its forces, but has called for even more advanced weaponry, including fighter jets and longer-range rockets.

EU Parliament head Roberta Metsola said while addressing Zelenskiy that "you need to win and now (EU) member states must consider quickly as the next step providing long-range systems and the jets that you need to protect your liberty."

During his visit to the British Parliament on January 8, Zelenskiy specifically called on Western leaders to provide fighter jets.

'Wings For Freedom': Zelenskiy Pleads For Fighter Jets In London Speech
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Later the same day, Zelenskiy met in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 9 that any delivery of fighter jets by the West would mark a more “direct” role by NATO countries in the war, and that it would only increase tensions and bring more pain and suffering to Ukrainians.

"This is nothing more than the growing involvement of the United Kingdom, Germany and France in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine," Peskov told reporters.

"The line between indirect and direct involvement is gradually disappearing. One can only express regret in this regard, and say that such actions...lead to an escalation of tension, prolong the conflict, and make the conflict more and more painful for Ukraine," Peskov added.

Zelenskiy’s tour is believed to be only his second trip abroad since Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine nearly one year ago, and comes as Russian forces attempt to make a breakthrough in Ukraine’s east ahead of an expected major offensive.

On February 9, Luhansk region Governor Serhiy Hayday said that Russian forces were trying to break through Ukrainian defenses near Kreminna. Control of the town would put Russian forces within 70 kilometers of the city of Kramatorsk, a much larger city in the Donetsk region.

"I can confirm that there has been a significant increase in attacks and shelling,” Hayday said on Ukrainian television. “And it is in the direction of Kreminna that they are trying to build on their success by pushing through our defenders' defenses.”

Hayday added that Russian forces had not had “significant success,” saying that “our defense forces are holding firmly there."

On February 9, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said that more than 900 Russian soldiers had died the previous day, which would be one of the bloodiest of the war that began with Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24.

Western media has reported that the number of Russian soldiers killed or wounded in the war is approaching 200,000.

Russia does not regularly disclose data on its war casualties.

With reporting by Reuters

Ukraine's UN Envoy Slams Ex-Pink Floyd Musician's Comments To Security Council

Former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters speaks via a video link during a UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine in New York on February 8.

Comments made by Roger Waters, co-founder of the rock band Pink Floyd, were denounced by Ukraine on February 8 after the British musician told the UN Security Council that Russia's invasion of its neighbor was "not unprovoked."

Moscow's UN ambassador invited Waters, 79, to address a Security Council meeting to discuss the delivery of weapons to Ukraine.

Waters has previously sparked controversy with his stance on the war and by saying the West should stop providing arms to Kyiv.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

The former Pink Floyd bassist told the Security Council that the invasion of Ukraine was illegal and he condemned it “in the strongest possible terms." But he implied that Kyiv was to blame as well.

"Also the Russian invasion of Ukraine was not unprovoked. So I also condemn the provocateurs in the strongest possible terms," he said, addressing the council via a video link.

"The only sensible course of action today is to call for an immediate cease fire in Ukraine," Waters added.

Ukrainian Ambassador to the UN Serhiy Kyslytsya responded by referencing the lyrics of one of Pink Floyd's most famous songs, Another Brick in the Wall, released in 1979.

"How sad for his former fans to see him accepting the role of just a brick in the wall, a wall of Russian disinformation and propaganda," Kyslytsya said.

The ambassador also referenced the giant inflatable pink pig that featured in many of the rock band's shows, saying he was surprised Waters had not arranged to have it floating in the Security Council chamber.

"What could it have been this time Mr. Waters? Pigs with swastikas and the hammer and sickle?" Kyslytsya said during the discussion.

Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the UN Richard Mills acknowledged Waters' "impressive credentials as a recording artist," but said his qualifications to speak on arms control or European security issues were "less evident."

Albanian UN Ambassador Ferit Hoxha told the council Waters was “lucky to be in New York,” where he could speak his mind, “including about the Russian aggression and how wrong that is.” He said if he had been in Russia, “with what he said, he might have been in custody by now."

Waters sparked backlash in September when he wrote an open letter saying the West should stop providing arms to Kyiv, accusing President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of allowing "extreme nationalism" in Ukraine, and urging him to "put an end to this deadly war."

He was subsequently declared persona non grata by the Polish city of Krakow and his concerts were scrapped there.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Death Toll Raised To Eight In Explosion Of Russian Residential Building

Authorities say rescue work is continuing at the site of the disaster in the town of Yefremov.

The death toll in a gas explosion in a residential building in Russia's western Tula region has risen to eight. Emergency Department officials in the town of Yefremov said on February 8 that rescue teams had found three more bodies under the rubble. After the blast on February 7, rescue teams discovered the first five victims at the site. The authorities say rescue work continues. Gas explosions frequently occur across the former Soviet Union due to aging pipelines and infrastructure, as well as lax safety standards. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Russia Sanctions Another 77 U.S. Nationals, Including Relatives Of Top Officials

Russia's Foreign Ministry announced the sanctions on February 8. (file photo)

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on February 8 that it had imposed sanctions on 77 more U.S. nationals, including the governors of several U.S. states and some of their relatives. Others targeted also included the children of senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer as well as of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The announcement comes a week after Washington imposed sanctions on 22 individuals and entities in several countries that the U.S. Treasury Department said were involved in evading previously announced sanctions targeting Russia’s defense industry over Moscow's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Belarusian Court Sends Two Activists To Prison On Terrorism Charges

Syarhey Plyahskun (left) and Yury Selvich (file photo)

The Homel regional court in southeastern Belarus has sentenced two activists, Syarhey Plyahskun and Yury Selvich, to 16 and 14 years in prison, respectively, on multiple charges, including terrorism, extremism, and sabotage. The two men were arrested in March 2022 on suspicion of planning to damage railways in the region to disrupt the movement of Russian military equipment to the ongoing war in Ukraine via Belarus. Investigators say the two men allegedly purchased components to make Molotov cocktails and explosives to implement the plan. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

Minsk Court Sentences Polish-Belarusian Activist Poczobut To Eight Years In Prison

Andrzej Poczobut (center) attends a court hearing last month.

MINSK -- A court in Minsk has sentenced a leader of the Polish-Belarusian community, noted journalist Andrzej Poczobut, to eight years in prison for criticizing Belarus's authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and his regime.

The Hrodna regional court in the country's west sentenced the 49-year-old activist and journalist on February 8 on charges of public calls for actions directed at harming the country's national security, distributing materials containing such calls, and inciting hatred.

The trial was held behind closed doors.

Poczobut, who is a correspondent for the respected Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, was arrested in March 2021 amid rising tensions between Minsk and Warsaw following the brutal suppression of mass protests against Lukashenka after he claimed a landslide victory in a 2020 presidential election.

The Belarusian opposition claimed the election was rigged in favor of Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994.

Relations between Poland and Belarus worsened further after a migrant crisis on their shared border at the end of 2021, which Warsaw blamed on Minsk, and after Lukashenka allowed Moscow to use its territory as a launching pad for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The European Union, the United States, and other countries have imposed sanctions against Lukashenka's regime following the crackdown on protesters.

The Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) rights group has included Poczobut on its list of 1,440 political prisoners in Belarus, and Poland has demanded his release.

Poland, along with most of Europe and many other countries around the world, has criticized Lukashenka, and has provided sanctuary for Belarusian opposition leaders and activists.

Kazakh Court Rejects Jailed Dissident’s Appeal Of Decision To Deny Early Release

Kazakh dissident Ermek Narymbaev has been jailed several times for his political views (file photo)

QONAEV, Kazakhstan -- The Almaty regional court in southern Kazakhstan has rejected an appeal filed by noted dissident Ermek Narymbaev (aka Narymbai) against a lower court's refusal to grant him an early release.

Narymbaev's lawyer, Zhanar Balghabaeva, told RFE/RL on February 8 that the court was unable to clearly explain its decision in the courtroom and expressed hope that proper justification would be shown in the court's written decision, which has yet to reach her client.

The Qonaev city court near Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, ruled on December 14 that Narymbaev did not deserve an early release on parole due to a violation of internal regulations allegedly committed by the activist at the penal colony where he is incarcerated.

Narymbaev has been jailed several times for his political views and is known as a staunch critic of the tightly controlled former Soviet republic's government.

He fled Kazakhstan in 2016 for Ukraine after receiving death threats from unknown individuals. Narymbaev said at the time that the threats were masterminded by Kazakh authorities in a bid to intimidate him.

He returned to Kazakhstan in February 2022 after unprecedented anti-government rallies shook the Central Asian nation the month before, leaving at least 238 people dead.

He was arrested upon his arrival in Almaty and sent to prison for 30 months to serve the remainder of a previous suspended prison term he was given in 2015 on a charge of inciting hatred, which he called politically motivated.

In October and November, Narymbaev held a hunger strike for 54 days to protest against his incarceration. He also demanded democratic reforms from the government. He lost 41 kilograms during the hunger strike.

Iranian Protester, Focus Of Torture Reports, Released After Four Months

Iranian protester Armita Abbasi (file photo)

Iranian protester Armita Abbasi, who media reports said was tortured and raped while in detention after being identified as a "leader" of protests sparked by the death of a young woman while in policy custody for an alleged head scarf violation, has been released from prison.

"We experienced a very difficult time, but now I am extremely happy," Abbasi’s father wrote in a social media post along with a video of his 20-year-old daughter next to him.

Armita Abbasi’s lawyer, Shahla Orouji, said last week that a court accused her client of “propaganda against the Islamic republic” and “gathering and conspiring to commit a crime against national security.”

Abbasi was arrested on October 10 in her hometown of Karaj, west of the Iranian capital, nearly a month into the nationwide protests triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody in September.

The Iranian government claimed she was “the leader of the riots” and that police discovered “10 Molotov cocktails” in her apartment.

In November, CNN published an investigative report about the sexual assault and rape of some of the detainees from recent protests, including Abbasi, while they were being held in prisons across Iran.

A source told CNN that Abbasi was rushed to the Imam Ali hospital in Karaj on October 17, accompanied by plainclothes officers while “her head had been shaved and she was shaking violently.”

“In the accounts, the medical staff attending to her spoke of the horror they felt when they saw evidence of brutal rape,” CNN added.

Neither Abassi, her family, nor her lawyer have publicly commented on the report.

Earlier in January, Abbasi and 14 other Iranian women incarcerated in the Kachoui prison near Tehran reportedly went on a hunger strike to protest the conditions of their imprisonment and the lack of medical attention at the facility.

At that time, her mother wrote on her Instagram account that, because of her daughter’s hunger strike, prison authorities were no longer allowing her to call her family. She also said the court did not accept the lawyer representing her daughter.

Since Amini's death, Iranians have flooded into the streets across the country to protest against a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls making unprecedented shows of support in the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said that, as of January 29, at least 527 people had been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.

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

Prominent Iranian Figures To Discuss The Future Of The Democracy Movement In Their Country

The Iranian oppositionists will meet at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (file photo)

Eight prominent Iranian opposition figures have announced they will meet this week at Georgetown University to discuss the future of the country's pro-democracy movement amid a wave of protests following the September 16 death of a young woman while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.

Rights activist Masih Alinejad, the exiled former crown prince of Iran Reza Pahlavi, the spokesman for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims Hamed Esmaeilion, and rights activist Nazanin Boniadi will be present at the February 10 meeting.

Four others, including Nobel laureate lawyer Shirin Ebadi, renowned Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, leader of the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan Abdullah Mohtadi and former captain of Iran’s national soccer team Ali Karimi will join the meeting online.

According to the announcement published by Washington, D.C.-based Georgetown University, the eight are going to sit together in a meeting called “The Future of Iran’s Democracy Movement.”

The meeting comes amid months of pressure from Iranian opposition politicians and protesters, who have demanded that the Islamic republic's leadership step down.

Iranian social media users welcomed news of the meeting, with many calling for the leaders to form an alliance to unify forces battling to change the system.

The news comes amid nationwide protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. The 22-year-old died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious "morality police" for "improperly" wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf, or hijab.

Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country. The authorities have responded to the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.

Officials, who have blamed the West for the demonstrations, have vowed to crack down even harder on protesters, with the judiciary leading the way after the unrest entered a fourth month.

The protests pose the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

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

Uzbek Authorities Detain Man Suspected Of Organizing Illegal Migration To The U.S.

Uzbekistan's State Security Service (DXX) said on February 7 that its department in the southeastern region of Samarkand had arrested a 27-year-old resident of the city of Bukhara on a charge of organizing illegal immigration to the United States via Mexico and the European Union. The DXX did not disclose the suspect's identity, saying he was caught while receiving $3,000 in cash, the fifth part of a requested fee from a client. Uzbek authorities said in December that they arrested two men on similar charges. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.


MH17 Investigators Close Probe Despite 'Strong Indications' Of Putin's Involvement

Local workers transport a piece of wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in the Donetsk region, where the plane was shot down in 2014, killing all 298 people on board.

International investigators say there are "strong indications" that Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally involved in the 2014 downing of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine, parts of which were controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, but that a lack of concrete evidence meant they were putting an end to their eight-year probe into the tragedy.

The Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was blown out of the sky on July 17, 2014, amid a conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian armed forces. All 298 people on board the airliner died in the crash. The victims came from more than a dozen countries, although more than two-thirds of them were Dutch citizens.

Russia has denied any involvement in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17).

Even though the probe resulted in some convictions, prosecutor Digna van Boetzelaer told journalists in The Hague on February 8 that the investigation "has now reached its limit.”

“There are strong indications that the Russian president decided on supplying the Buk [missile system] to the [Russia-backed] separatists. This is the conclusion of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) in its investigation into those responsible in the Russian Federation for the downing of flight MH17 with a Buk missile” van Boetzelaer said.

During the news conference, the investigators backed up the claim by playing a recording of a telephone call from an adviser who appears to make a thinly veiled reference to Putin, saying a delay in sending the weapons used was "because there is only one who makes a decision...,the person who is currently at a summit in France."

"Although a lot of new information has been discovered about various people involved, the evidence is at the moment not concrete enough to lead to new prosecutions," van Boetzelaer added.

In November last year, a Dutch court convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison two Russians and one pro-Moscow Ukrainian separatist for their role in the shooting down of the passenger plane. They had been tried in absentia

The three men convicted were former Russian intelligence agents Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov) and Sergei Dubinsky, and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian separatist leader. All three are believed to be currently in Russia.

The court concluded that the three men had helped to arrange the transport into Ukraine of the Russian military Buk missile system that was used to shoot down the plane.

The fourth defendant, Russian Oleg Pulatov, the only suspect represented by defense lawyers at the trial, was acquitted due to a lack of evidence.

Russia called the trial "scandalous" and said the court's ruling was "politically motivated," insisting that the court was under "unprecedented pressure" from Dutch politicians, prosecutors, and media.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said after the decision to end the investigation into the incident was announced that the news was a "bitter disappointment." He added that the Dutch government would continue to call for Russia to be held to account for the "tragedy."

Well-Known Kyrgyz Political Activist Nazarbek Nyshanov Detained

Kyrgyz political activist Nazarbek Nyshanov (file photo)

The well-known Kyrgyz political activist and government critic Nazarbek Nyshanov has been detained on a charge of making public calls to forcibly seize power, the State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said on February 8. According to the UKMK, Nyshanov was detained two days earlier. Nyshanov's representatives and relatives have yet to comment on the statement. Nyshanov is known for his criticism of the current and previous governments, as well as for his political ambitions and attempts to get registered as a candidate for presidential elections since 2005. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Georgian Officials Detain Man Suspected Of Bank Robbery, Hostage-Taking

On October 21, 2020, a masked gunman wearing military fatigues took 43 people hostage at a branch of the Bank of Georgia in the western city of Zugdidi. Georgia's Interior Ministry identifies the suspect as Badri Esebua (right). (composite photo)

TBILISI -- Georgia's Interior Ministry says its officers have detained a man suspected of an attempted bank robbery in October 2020 that turned into a hostage-taking situation.

In a statement on February 8, the ministry said the suspect, Badri Esebua, born in 1988, was apprehended early in the morning as he tried to cross the administrative boundary of Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Esebua is accused of illegal arms possession, terrorism, and hostage-taking and may face up to 15 years in prison if convicted, the statement said.

On October 21, 2020, a masked gunman wearing military fatigues took 43 people hostage at a branch of the Bank of Georgia in the western city of Zugdidi.

He initially released 24 of the hostages and then, after an almost 12-hour standoff with police that stretched into the evening, he left the bank premises with four persons, including three hostages and the head of the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti Police Department, Avtandil Galdava, who had been acting as a negotiator. He also reportedly demanded $500,000 and a guarantee to leave the area safely.

The four were released later, while the suspect escaped with an unknown amount of cash and remained at large until his arrest on February 8.

In December 2020, police arrested Esebua’s brother for the illegal purchase and possession of firearms and ammunition. He was found guilty and sentenced by a court to four years in prison in July 2021.

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