EU Parliament President Backs Letting Western Balkan States Into Bloc
European Parliament President David Sassoli has called for allowing Western Balkan states into the European Union, saying expanding the EU would be positive for peace and prosperity.
"Enlargement can bring immense benefits both to the region and to Europe as a whole, helping to secure a stable, prosperous and peaceful continent," Sassoli said, Germany’s Funke Mediengruppe reported on June 6.
But how quickly they can join depends on the Western Balkan countries' fulfillment of the accession criteria.
"Reforms still need to be completed in every single one of these countries," Sassoli said, adding that the European Union must also keep its promises and recognize progress.
The EU is already conducting accession talks with Montenegro and Serbia, while Albania and North Macedonia are official candidates. North Macedonia last month received the backing of Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia to start talks with the EU.
Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo have so far been considered potential candidates for negotiations.
The EU enlargement process has faced major challenges, including some rooted in ethnic divisions in Western Balkan countries. Unanimity is required from all EU member for the adoption of the negotiating framework.
Bulgaria last year vetoed the start of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia over a language and history dispute.
Bulgaria, which wants Skopje to acknowledge that both its identity and language have Bulgarian roots, last month said it did not plan to lift its veto on accession talks.
Skopje has long insisted Macedonian is a distinct South Slavic language that forms part of the country's culture and national identity, while Sofia says Macedonian is a regional dialect of Bulgarian.
Many in the West have urged the EU to speed up accession talks, seeing membership in the bloc as a way to counter Russian and Chinese efforts to gain influence in the region.
Based on reporting by dpa
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Canadian Man Admits To Hacking Spree With Russian Cybergang
A former Canadian government IT worker has admitted to taking part in a hacking spree with a Russian cybercrime group.
Media reports quoted U.S. court documents on June 29 as saying that Sebastien Vachon-Desjardins agreed to plead guilty in a Florida court last month, admitting that he was affiliated with the NetWalker ransomware crew that has attacked organizations, businesses, official entities, schools, and hospitals in Canada, the United States, and other countries.
The NetWalker group, with some 100 members, operated a ransomware-as-a-service criminal business, offering its malicious software and an extortion website to hacker affiliates.
Analysts say the leaders of the group, who are still at large, communicate in Russian online and ensure that their malware does not infect Russian computer systems, or those of former Soviet republics.
Vachon-Desjardins was arrested by Canadian police in January 2021. Police seized dozens of computers and storage devices, 719 Bitcoin worth approximately $27 million, and 790,000 Canadian dollars ($613,500) in cash during his arrest.
He was extradited to Florida in March after being sentenced to seven years in prison in Canada on charges of mischief in relation to computer data, extortion, unauthorized use of a computer, and participating in a criminal organization.
According to Florida court documents, Vachon-Desjardins pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to commit computer fraud and one count of transmitting a demand in relation to damaging a protected computer.
Vachon-Desjardins agreed to forfeit about $21.5 million from the proceeds of the crimes, along with 27.65 Bitcoins, and cooperate with other investigations as part of a plea agreement where he accepted that he "was one of the most prolific NetWalker ransomware affiliates."
He will be sentenced at a later date and could face 10 years in prison, the court documents said.
With reporting by the BBC and CBC
Noted Russian Lawyer Sent To Pretrial Detention Over Critical Comments About Ukraine Invasion
The chairman of the attorneys chamber in Russia's Republic of Udmurtia, Dmitry Talantov, has been sent to pretrial detention over his criticism of the Kremlin for its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The Cheryomushki district court in Moscow ruled on June 29 that Talantov must stay in pretrial detention until at least August 21.
Talantov was detained in the Udmurt capital, Izhevsk, on June 28 and transferred to Moscow after he criticized the government and military forces over a deadly strike on a shopping mall in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk.
Talantov has been accused of distributing false information about the Russian armed forces. Earlier in April, Talantov also harshly criticized Russian military forces for killing civilians in the Ukrainian towns and cities of Irpin, Bucha, and Mariupol.
Talantov's lawyers asked the court to choose milder pretrial restrictions for their client, but the court rejected the request, saying Talantov, as an experienced lawyer, would be able to influence the investigation while outside of custody.
Talantov is the lawyer for Ivan Safronov, a prominent former Russian journalist who is on trial in Moscow on a high treason charge widely considered to be politically motivated.
At least 18 people died in the missile strike in Kremenchuk, which leaders from the Group of Seven (G7) nations called a "war crime."
Russia has denied it targeted the mall, saying it launched a "high-precision strike" on a nearby munitions depot and that subsequent explosions from the attack sparked the blaze at the shopping center.
Ukraine Says It Has Retaken Infamous Snake Island; Russia Says It Withdrew For 'Goodwill'
Ukraine says its forces have forced Russian troops off Snake Island in the Black Sea, a claim Russia denied, with Moscow saying it withdrew its forces as a "gesture of goodwill" to show the country isn't impeding efforts to allow the export of agricultural products.
"KABOOM! No Russian troops on the Snake Island anymore. Our Armed Forces did a great job," Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office, wrote on Twitter, along with a a photo showing plumes of smoke rising from several parts of the a small but strategic outpost that was captured by Russia in the early days of its invasion.
The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed its troops had left the island, which it had been using as an outpost to supply anti-ship and antiaircraft missiles as well as radar systems to its forces, saying the withdrawal came after soldiers stationed there had carried out all of the duties they were tasked with.
Control of Snake Island, located about 40 kilometers from Ukraine’s coast, had enabled Russia to threaten the sea lanes leading to and from Odesa, Ukraine’s main port for shipping grain to the world.
The island became a symbol of resistance for Ukraine when border guards stationed on it refused Russian demands to surrender or die.
In response, one border guard sent a message to the Russian flagship, the Moskva: "Russian warship, go f*** yourself."
The Russian ship then bombed the island. It is not clear how many died in the attack, but the soldier who sent the message survived.
The Moskva, the command-and-control ship for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, later sunk after what Kyiv says was a Ukrainian attack.
European Rights Court Tells Russia To Ensure Two Britons Captured In Ukraine Aren't Executed
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has issued interim measures instructing Russia to hold off on carrying out any capital punishment against two Britons who surrendered after they fought alongside Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine.
Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, along with Moroccan national Saaudun Brahim, were sentenced to death on June 9 for "mercenary activities" by what Russia-backed separatists called the Supreme Court of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
"The European Court decided to indicate to the Russian government...should...ensure that the death penalty imposed on the applicants is not carried out," the judgment, issued on June 30, said.
It also called on Russian authorities to ensure the rights of the two prisoners were respected since they were part of Ukraine's armed forces, lived in Ukraine, and considered the country to be their home.
Aslin's family has said he and Pinner were living in Ukraine when the war broke out in February and "as members of Ukrainian armed forces, should be treated with respect just like any other prisoners of war."
Britain, the United Nations, Ukraine, and Germany have condemned the death sentences.
The court had previously granted similar interim measures for Brahim. His father has said that his son is also a Ukrainian citizen and his rights as a prisoner of war should be respected.
Russia-Appointed Official Says Grain Shipment Left Ukraine's Berdyansk For 'Friendly Countries'
A merchant ship with 7,000 tons of grain has left the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Berdyansk, the first such shipment from the port since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February.
Evgeny Balitsky, the head of the Moscow-appointed administration in the Zaporizhzhya region, said on Telegram on June 30 that the ship is headed for "friendly countries."
He did not specify which countries were considered "friendly," nor did he give any details on the origins of the grain.
Ukraine has accused Russia of stealing its grain during the invasion and blockading its ports to keep grain from leaving the country, which has helped contribute to a global food shortage.
Moscow has denied taking Ukrainian grain, but satellite images and GPS data have been used to back up the allegations that Russia has been transporting grain out of Ukraine through the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.
Grain is one of Ukraine's main industries. Exports totaled $12.2 billion last year and accounted for nearly one-fifth of the country's exports. Ukraine's Black Sea ports, including Berdyansk, handled about 6 million tons of grains and other crops each month before the war.
Russia and Ukraine together, meanwhile, account for nearly one-third of the world's wheat supply.
Many areas of southern Ukraine have been placed under the control of Russia-appointed officials since Moscow launched its war against Ukraine on February 24. Some of those areas are now being forcefully integrated into Russia's economy.
In the weeks following the invasion, many Western countries and the European Union slapped crippling sanctions on Russia, which in turn created a list of "unfriendly" foreign state and territories.
Lysychansk Under 'Enormous' Shelling As Russia Unleashes Fresh Wave Of Attacks In Ukraine's East
Lysychansk continued to be targeted by heavy Russian artillery fire, with regional officials saying the last major Ukrainian holdout in the east was subjected to "enormous" bombardment, while Russian forces also shelled civilian settlements in the Dnipropetrovsk region.
The head of the military administration of the Luhansk region, Serhiy Hayday, said Lysychansk "is constantly being shelled" by Russian forces attempting to encircle the strategic hilltop city -- a key battleground in Moscow's attempt to conquer Ukraine's industrial heartland known as the Donbas.
After weeks of fighting that killed hundreds of civilians and turned the city into rubble, Moscow took control of neighboring Syevyerodonetsk and is now setting its sights on Lysychansk.
"The fighting is continuing at the outskirts of the city. The Russian Army is trying to attack constantly," Hayday told Ukrainian television, later posting the video on his Telegram channel.
"Now there is a peak of fighting. The frequency of shelling is enormous," Hayday said, adding that there are still about 15,000 civilians remaining in the city, which had a prewar population of nearly 100,000.
The Russians "brought in large numbers of vehicles, an enormous number of people. Shelling and attacks do not stop," Hayday said.
Britain's Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence bulletin on June 30 that the fighting in Lysychansk is likely focused around the city's oil refinery, some 10 kilometers southwest of the center, adding that Ukrainian forces continue to hold their positions in the city following their withdrawal from Syevyerodonetsk.
In the Dnipropetrovsk region, Russian forces shelled the villages of Zelenodolsk and Velyka Kostromka, the head of the regional military administration, Valentyn Reznichenko, said.
"The enemy continues to terrorize the towns and villages of the Kryvyi Rih district.... In Zelenodolsk, the enemy destroyed a warehouse containing 40 tons of grain. The explosion caused a fire," Reznichenko wrote on Telegram.
British intelligence said the ability of Ukrainian forces to continue fighting battles that slow down the enemy and avoid encirclement will continue to be a key factor in the outcome of the war.
But the U.S. director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, said on June 29 that the outlook remains "pretty grim" and said Russian President Vladimir Putin still wants to take most of Ukraine.
"We continue to be in a position where we look at President Putin and we think he has effectively the same political goals that he had previously, which is to say that he wants to take most of Ukraine," Haines told a U.S. Commerce Department conference.
Haines said U.S. intelligence agencies consider the most likely scenario in the near future is that the war will become a grinding conflict in which Russian forces only make incremental gains but no breakthrough toward Putin's goal.
WATCH: In a phone video, a police officer in the besieged Ukrainian city of Lysychansk recorded his personal account of trying to help civilians under fire with food and support.
But the intelligence agencies are considering two other possible scenarios: a major Russian breakthrough and Ukraine succeeding in stabilizing the front lines while achieving small gains, perhaps near the Russian-held city of Kherson and other areas of southern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told NATO leaders gathered for a crucial summit in Madrid that Ukraine needs more advanced heavy weapons and additional financial support to stave off Russia's unprovoked invasion, warning that Moscow's ambitions won't stop with his country.
"We need to break the Russian artillery advantage.... We need much more modern systems, modern artillery," Zelenskiy told a NATO summit in Madrid via video link on June 29, adding that financial support was "no less important than aid with weapons."
NATO responded by branding Russia the most "direct threat" to allied security and vowed to modernize Ukraine's military.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, CNN, and BBC
Ukraine Cuts Diplomatic Ties With Syria After It Recognizes Eastern Regions As Independent
Ukraine cut diplomatic ties with Syria on June 29 after Damascus recognized the independence of the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced the decision on June 29 in a video posted on Telegram.
"There will no longer be relations between Ukraine and Syria," Zelenskiy said, adding that the sanctions pressure against Syria "will be even greater."
Donetsk and Luhansk, commonly known as the Donbas, currently are at the center of the fighting in the war Moscow launched in February shortly after recognizing their separatist-controlled districts as independent.
Parts of Luhansk and Donetsk came under Russia-backed separatists' control after Russia illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Leonid Pasechnik, the Luhansk separatist leader, thanked Syria and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for what he called the “courageous and responsible political gesture” of recognizing Luhansk as an independent and sovereign country, according to TASS.
Syria, a close ally of Russia and a beneficiary of Russian military assistance in its civil war, is the first state other than Russia to recognize the two separatist regions.
Syria has previously sided with Russia in territorial disputes. It agreed in 2018 to recognize Abkhazia and a second breakaway Georgian region, South Ossetia, as independent countries. That move prompted Tbilisi to cut diplomatic ties with Damascus.
With reporting by AFP, AP, and TASS
Former Giuliani Associate Sentenced To 20 Months For Fraud, Campaign Finance Violations
A Ukrainian-born associate of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been sentenced to one year and eight months in prison for fraud and campaign finance crimes.
Lev Parnas, 50, was also ordered to pay $2.3 million in restitution.
Prosecutors in New York City had sought a six-year sentence. Parnas asked for leniency based on his cooperation with a probe into President Donald Trump's efforts to get Ukrainian officials to investigate President Joe Biden’s son.
Addressing the court before the sentence was announced, Parnas sobbed and apologized to people who had lost money investing in his business ventures.
“A lot that you heard is true, your honor,” Parnas told the judge. “I have not been a good person my whole life. I’ve made mistakes. And I admit it.”
The criminal case against Parnas was not directly related to his work for Giuliani as he lobbied Ukrainian officials in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election in 2016 to investigate Biden's son, who served on the board of a Kyiv-based natural gas company.
Instead, it focused on donations Parnas illegally made to a number of U.S. politicians using money from Russian businessman Andrei Muravyov while lying about the source of the money. U.S. law bars foreign individuals from contributing to political campaigns.
Parnas in March pleaded guilty to a separate charge involving an insurance startup that he conned people into investing in and then used much of the money for campaign contributions.
Igor Fruman, a business associate of Parnas who also worked for Giuliani, was sentenced earlier this year to one year in prison for campaign finance law violations. The Soviet-born Fruman also expressed remorse for his crimes.
Giuliani, who served as a personal lawyer to Trump, has said he knew nothing about the crimes and has not been charged.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
Ukraine Announces Prisoner Swap Of 144 Soldiers, Some Captured At Azovstal Steelworks
Ukraine's Defense Ministry has announced a prisoner exchange involving 144 Ukrainian soldiers, including scores of defenders of the Azovstal steelworks in the southern port city of Mariupol.
"This is the largest exchange since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion. Of the 144 freed, 95 are Azovstal defenders. Among them, 43 servicemen of the Azov Regiment," the main intelligence directorate of the Defense Ministry said on June 29 on Telegram.
It did not specify when and where the swap took place or how many Russian prisoners were part of the exchange.
The head of a Russia-backed separatist group in Ukraine’s Donetsk region also reported a prisoner exchange with Kyiv, saying the number of fighters exchanged was 144 on each side.
Denis Pushilin said 144 Russia-backed separatists and Russian soldiers would return home as part of the exchange.
"We handed over to Kyiv the same number of prisoners from Ukrainian armed units. Most of whom were wounded,” Pushilin said on Telegram.
There had been concerns over the fate of Ukrainian soldiers taken prisoner by Russian forces after they abandoned the Azovstal steel complex in Mariupol.
Some prominent Russian lawmakers last month said there should be no exchange of members of the Azov Regiment, which Russia considers a neo-Nazi organization.
Russia said some 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers had been taken into custody when it took over the steel plant. Pushilin said at the time he thought the prisoners would face a “tribunal.”
Ukrainian officials and relatives of the soldiers had urged Moscow to treat the men as prisoners of war, and Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshuk said that Kyiv would fight for their return.
Moscow and Kyiv have exchanged prisoners several times since Russia invaded on February 24.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters
Zelenskiy Says He May Attend G20 Summit In Bali (Depending On Who Else Is Invited)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says he has accepted an invitation to attend the autumn G20 summit in Bali, but his participation will depend on which leaders are also attending, a thinly veiled reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Following talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Kyiv on June 29, Zelenskiy said Ukraine's participation "will depend on the security situation in the country and on the composition of the summit's participants."
Indonesia, which holds the G20's rotating presidency this year, has come under pressure from several Western nations not to invite Putin over the war he launched in February against Ukraine.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi says Widodo told him Putin's presence at the summit on the tropical island in November has been ruled out, but Putin's adviser, Yury Ushakov, said Draghi does not decide issues related to the G20 summit.
Widodo will travel to Moscow on June 30, where he'll meet Putin.
As have many other developing nations, Indonesia has been neutral in the issue of Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which was launched on February 24.
G20 nations make up about 80 percent of world's total economic output.
With reporting by AFP and dpa
Russian Prosecutor Seeks 11 Years For Opera Singer Over 2020 Coronavirus-Related Rally In North Ossetia
The prosecution has asked a court in Russia’s southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don to convict and sentence opera singer Vadim Cheldiyev to 11 years in prison for his role in organizing a massive rally against coronavirus restrictions in the entertainer’s native North Ossetia region in 2020.
The prosecutor also asked the Rostov regional court on June 29 to convict and sentence Cheldiyev's co-defendants, Ramis Chirkinov and Arsen Besolov, to nine years in prison each.
Cheldiyev is charged with distribution of false information about the pandemic, extremism, hooliganism, organization of mass disorder, and attacking a law enforcement officer. His co-defendants are charged with organizing an unsanctioned rally and mass disorder.
The trio went on trial in October. All three pleaded not guilty.
On April 20, 2020, police in Russia's North Caucasus region of North Ossetia detained dozens of protesters when about 2,000 people gathered in the central square of the regional capital, Vladikavkaz, demanding the resignation of then-regional leader Vyacheslav Bitarov, accusing him of “unnecessary anti-COVID restrictions.”
The rally was violently dispersed by police.
The protest was initiated online by Cheldiyev, who permanently resided in St. Petersburg at the time.
Cheldiyev was detained in St. Petersburg after the rally in Vladikavkaz and brought to North Ossetia, where he was arrested and charged.
Dozens of participants in the 2020 protest were sentenced to lengthy prison terms at separate trials since last year.
Relatives Of Jailed Labor Activists In Iran Say Security Agents Are Threatening Them
Many relatives of civic and labor activists detained in Iran say security agents are issuing threats if they don't remain silent about their loved ones' cases.
The families of Jafar Ebrahimi, Anisha Asadollahi, Rasul Badaghi, Mohammad Habibi, Hassan Saeedi, Reza Shahabi, Eskandar Lotfi, Shaban Mohammadi, Keyvan Mohtadi, and Massud Nikkhah -- activists who have been detained due to their participation in labor protests -- wrote about the threats in an open letter.
"In the past two months, not only has the pressure on our loved ones not ended, but prison officials have banned us from visiting them," they wrote.
Citing what they called the "negligence" of judicial officials in these cases, the signatories of the letter said the authorities told them that "if they do not remain silent, the situation will become more complicated."
The signatories called for an "immediate cessation of false allegations" and an "end to repeated, derogatory, and threatening interrogations."
"There is no justification for the continued detention of these activists," they said, adding that "threats and insults from prison officials and interrogators in dealing with detainees and their families are a clear example of persecution."
In May, security forces raided the homes of cultural and labor activists, arresting many of them and sending them to the notorious Evin prison.
UN human rights experts have previously expressed serious concern about the “violent repression” of civil society in Iran, including union members and teachers arrested for protesting low or unpaid wages and poor working conditions.
Labor protests in Iran have been on the rise in response to declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of insurance support. The labor law in Iran does not recognize the right of workers to form independent unions.
At the same time, pensioners and other groups have been protesting in recent months about the poor economic situation in the country, blaming the government for spiraling inflation, high unemployment, and failing to deliver on pledges to increase wages and improve living conditions.
The government's response to the protests has been arrests, violence, and repression of participants.
With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi
Iranian Court Confirms Long Prison Sentence For Espionage For French National Briere
A court in Iran has denied an appeal by French citizen Benjamin Briere and confirmed his prison sentence of eight years and eight months for espionage, a charge he and his family have rejected.
Briere’s Iranian lawyer, Saeid Dehghan, announced on Twitter on June 28 that the court had declared France a "hostile state."
The 37-year-old French tourist had traveled to Iran in a van in May 2020 and was arrested after flying a drone on the plains near the Iran-Turkmenistan border.
The trial lasted until February last year, when the Islamic republic's judiciary finally sentenced him to eight years and eight months in prison on charges of "espionage" and "propaganda against the regime."
At the time, Dehghan stated that he had been "accused of collaborating with governments hostile to Iran," while his client "was unaware of his new charge."
AFP quoted Briere's sister, Blandine, as saying the trial was "a masquerade" and part of a geopolitical game Tehran is playing.
Briere is one of more than a dozen foreign nationals or people with dual Iranian citizenship being held in Iran. Two other French nationals -- 37-year-old Cecile Kohler and her 69-year-old partner, Jacques Paris -- have also been detained in Iran, accused of seeking to foment labor unrest in the country.
Western countries have repeatedly charged that Iran is trying to take advantage of foreign countries by taking dual and foreign nationals hostage.
The verdict also comes as Iran and world powers are seeking to reach agreement on reviving the 2015 deal over Tehran's nuclear program.
Negotiators from the United States and Iran are expected to hold indirect talks in Qatar on June 29 as they look to overcome hurdles to reaching a final agreement.
With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi
Iran Nuclear Talks In Qatar Proceeding, Iran Says, Denying Report They'd Ended
The Iranian Foreign Ministry says indirect talks between Tehran and Washington in Qatar are continuing, denying an Iranian media report that they had ended.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said the two-day talks were not over and that another meeting would be held later on June 29 between Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, and Enrique Mora, the European coordinator of the talks.
"Talks continue in a serious and businesslike atmosphere," Kanani said.
The talks are aimed at overcoming differences over how to salvage a 2015 nuclear pact between Iran and world powers.
Iran's semiofficial Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), reported earlier that the negotiations in Doha had ended without result.
The talks started on June 28 with Mora as the coordinator shuttling between Kani and U.S. special envoy Robert Malley.
"What prevented these negotiations from coming to fruition is the U.S. insistence on its proposed draft text in Vienna that excludes any guarantee for Iran's economic benefits," Tasnim said, citing informed sources at the talks.
“Washington is seeking to revive the [deal] in order to limit Iran without economic achievement for our country,” the report claimed.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on June 27 that the talks would focus on the lifting of U.S. sanctions.
The talks are separate from broader EU-mediated negotiations that have taken place in Vienna between Iran and major powers.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last week traveled to Tehran in a push to resuscitate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. EU countries have been forced to find oil suppliers other than Russia as they seek to lower their reliance on Russian energy amid the war in Ukraine.
Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to limits on its controversial nuclear program in exchange for relief from punitive sanctions imposed by the West. But the arrangement began to fall apart in 2018 when then- U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the deal.
Washington subsequently reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, while the Iranian government backed away from some of the commitments laid out in the deal.
Iran has been engaged for more than a year in negotiations in Vienna with Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China directly -- and the United States, indirectly -- to revive the deal.
Negotiators were reportedly close to a new agreement in March, but the talks abruptly stalled in April, with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for failing to take the necessary political decisions to settle remaining issues.
One of them is Tehran's insistence that Washington remove the IRGC from its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
Moscow City Court Rejects Opposition Politician Kara-Murza's Appeal Against Pretrial Arrest
The Moscow City Court has rejected an appeal filed by prominent Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza against a lower court decision to place him in pretrial detention after he was arrested for allegedly spreading false information about the Russian Army.
Kara-Murza tweeted on June 29 that the hearing was held behind closed doors under the pretext that the judge did not want to disclose information about the politician's family residing abroad. Journalists were present only for the handing down of the court's decision.
The 40-year Kremlin critic was detained in April and sentenced to 15 days in jail on a charge of disobedience to police. He was later charged with spreading false information about the Russian Army and placed in pretrial detention for two months.
On June 8, the Basmanny district court extended Kara-Murza's pretrial detention until at least August 12.
Russia's Investigative Committee is conducting a probe into allegations that Kara-Murza distributed false information about the army while speaking to lawmakers in the U.S. state of Arizona.
Kara-Murza has rejected the charge, calling it politically motivated.
His arrest came amid a mounting crackdown by Russian authorities on opposition figures and any dissent to the ongoing war in Ukraine that Moscow launched against its neighbor on February 24.
In early March, President Vladimir Putin signed a law that calls for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations.
The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of "deliberately false information" about the Russian Army that leads to "serious consequences" is 15 years in prison.
It also makes it illegal "to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia" or "for discrediting such use" with a possible penalty of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calls for sanctions against Russia.
A close associate of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Kara-Murza is best known for falling deathly ill on two separate occasions in Moscow -- in 2015 and 2017-- with symptoms consistent with poisoning.
Tissue samples smuggled out of Russia by his relatives were turned over to the FBI, which investigated his case as one of "intentional poisoning."
U.S. government laboratories also conducted extensive tests on the samples, but documents released by the Justice Department suggest they were unable to reach a conclusive finding.
Russian Lawmakers OK 'Foreign Agent' Amendment Making It Easier To Target Domestic Critics
The Russian parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, has approved a bill that would allow it to define any person who receives financial assistance from abroad as a "foreign agent," a change making it easier for the state to target its domestic critics.
The bill, approved on June 29, must still pass through parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, before it is signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.
Russia has used the so-called "foreign agent" law for the past decade to label and target critics who it feels are engaged in political activity and receive foreign funding.
The new law tweaks that to say all individuals who receive financial support from abroad or who "are under foreign influence" can be defined as "foreign agents." It also broadens the definition of political activities to include a vague clause covering any activities that "contradict the national interests of the Russia Federation."
Individuals who are officially labeled as "foreign agents" will no longer be able to receive state grants for creative activities, work as teachers, organize public events, or work at structures that distribute information.
Russia already maintains multiple lists of individuals and entities it considers to be working as "foreign agents."
Among other things, the designation requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance, and which are considered by the government to be engaged in political activities, to register as "foreign agents," to identify themselves as such, and to submit to cumbersome audits.
They also must label any content they produce with an intrusive disclaimer or face criminal fines for not doing so. Kremlin critics say the "foreign agent" designation brings up Soviet-era connotations that are intended to stigmatize any independent civic activity in Russia.
The "foreign agent" law has been increasingly used by officials to shutter civil society and media groups in Russia.
The original 2012 legislation targeted NGOs and rights groups but has since been expanded to target media organizations, individual journalists, YouTube vloggers, and virtually anyone who receives money from outside of Russia and, in the eyes of the Kremlin, voices a political opinion.
RFE/RL has 18 Russian-national journalists on the government's "foreign agents" list.
The U.S. government-funded independent broadcaster suspended its operations in Russia in March after local tax authorities initiated bankruptcy proceedings against its Russian entity and police intensified pressure on its journalists.
The bankruptcy proceedings stemmed from the company's refusal to comply with the labeling mandate or pay the millions of dollars in fines that have piled up for not adhering to the law.
RFE/RL has rejected the “foreign agent” label, saying it connotes that it is an enemy of the state.
Kazakh Official Says Six People Arrested After January Unrest Were Tortured To Death
NUR-SULTAN -- Kazakhstan's deputy prosecutor-general, Aset Shyndaliev, says six people were tortured to death after being arrested for taking part in January anti-government protests that led to the removal of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his relatives from the oil-rich Central Asian nation's political scene.
Shyndaliev said in a statement on June 29 that 232 individuals died during the protests, which were violently dispersed by law enforcement and armed forces. The previous death toll provided by the authorities was 230, including 19 law enforcement officers.
Shyndaliev added that eight officers of the Committee of National Security (KNB) and a police officer had been arrested on a charge of torturing suspects. Overall, he said, 15 officers are suspected of using torture and illegal methods of interrogation on people arrested during and after the unrest.
The Prosecutor-General's Office said earlier that 25 people were officially considered victims of torture by hot irons, which investigators used on them during interrogations related to the deadly unrest.
Shyndaliev's comments come amid demands by rights activists and some who survived the brutality for more transparency to get justice for the victims in ongoing probes over the use of torture.
Thousands of people were detained by officials during and after the protests, which President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said were caused by "20,000 terrorists" from abroad, a claim for which authorities have provided no evidence.
The unrest occurred after a peaceful demonstration over a fuel-price hike in the tightly controlled nation's western region of Manghystau on January 2 led to widespread anti-government protests.
Human rights groups say the number of people killed was much higher than any of the figures provided by officials. The groups have provided evidence proving that peaceful demonstrators and people who had nothing to do with the protests were among those killed by law enforcement and military personnel.
The government has not published the names of those killed during and after the unrest and has rejected calls by domestic and international human rights organizations to launch an international probe into the deaths.
Zelenskiy Asks NATO Allies For Modern Heavy Weapons, More Financial Support
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has told NATO leaders that his country needs more advanced heavy weapons and additional financial support to stave off Russia's unprovoked invasion, warning that Moscow's ambitions won't stop with Ukraine.
"We need to break the Russian artillery advantage...We need much more modern systems, modern artillery," Zelenskiy told a NATO summit in Madrid via a video link on June 29, adding that financial support was "no less important than aid with weapons."
"This is not a war being waged by Russia against only Ukraine. This is a war for the right to dictate conditions in Europe -- for what the future world order will be like," Zelenskiy said.
WATCH: Polish and Lithuanian leaders have expressed support for Ukraine and stressed the need for additional military assistance to Kyiv in the face of the ongoing Russian invasion. Polish President Andrzej Duda and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda talked to RFE/RL on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid on June 29.
He also pressed the allies for more financial aid, saying that Ukraine needs $5 billion monthly for its defense and protection against Russia's aggression.
He also rhetorically asked why NATO's ties with Kyiv have not been closer: “Hasn’t our contribution to defending Europe and the entire civilization been sufficient? What else is necessary?”
Zelenskiy called for more sanctions on Russia that will prevent from getting the money to pay for the war.
"Russia still receives billions every day and spends them on war. We have a multibillion-dollar deficit, we don't have oil and gas to cover it," Zelensky said.
Three Belarusian 'Railway Guerrillas' May Face Death Penalty
MINSK -- Three Belarusian activists who were arrested for allegedly damaging railways in the country to disrupt Russian arms and troops supply to war-torn Ukraine may face the death penalty if convicted.
The Investigative Committee said on June 29 that a probe launched into the case of the three activists in the southeastern region of Homel had been completed, with the suspects expected to face trial in the near future.
The three men were among some 60 activists arrested for their alleged involvement in damaging Belarus's railways to impede the progress of Russian troops and arms to Ukraine as part of Moscow's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The other cases are still being investigated.
The Investigative Committee did not identify the trio, giving only their ages -- 29, 33, and 51 -- and calling them 'traitors of the motherland."
The Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) human rights center has identified the men as Dzmitry Ravich, Dzyanis Dzikun, and Aleh Malchanau, all from the southeastern city of Svetlahorsk.
They have been charged with being members of an extremist group, carrying out a terrorist act, inflicting premeditated damage to communication lines, and high treason.
The campaign called "railways war" was initiated in Belarus by a group called BYPOL. Those involved in the campaign have been nicknamed "railway guerrillas."
Belarus is not a direct participant in the war in Ukraine, but it has provided logistical support to Russia for the invasion by allowing Russian forces to enter Ukraine via Belarusian territory.
Western nations have slapped Belarus, like Russia, with an ever-increasing list of financial sanctions in response to the Kremlin's war on Ukraine, and for Belarus's efforts to aid the Russian invasion.
Belarus is the only country in Europe that still uses the death penalty.
In May, the country's authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed a controversial law amending the Criminal Code that allowed the use of capital punishment for "attempted terrorist acts."
Britain Announces New Russia Sanctions List That Includes Potanin And Putin's Cousin
The United Kingdom has announced new sanctions aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle, including his close ally Vladimir Potanin, the country's second-wealthiest man with an estimated net worth of more than $30 billion.
The British Foreign Office said in a statement on June 29 that Potanin "continues to amass wealth as he supports Putin’s regime, acquiring Rosbank, and shares in Tinkoff Bank in the period since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine."
The sanctions include an asset freeze, travel ban, and transport measures that make it a criminal offence for any Russian aircraft to fly or land in the United Kingdom, and give the government powers to remove aircraft belonging to designated Russian individuals and entities from the U.K. aircraft register, even if the sanctioned individual is not on board.
The statement added that Anna Tsivileva, Putin’s cousin and president of the prominent Russian coal mining company, JSC Kolmar Group, has also been sanctioned. Tsivileva’s husband, Sergey Tsivilev, is the governor of the coal-rich Kemerovo region.
The couple have "significantly benefitted" from their relationship with Putin. JSC Kolmar Group is also being sanctioned, the statement said.
"As long as Putin continues his abhorrent assault on Ukraine, we will use sanctions to weaken the Russian war machine. Today’s sanctions show that nothing and no one is off the table, including Putin’s inner circle," the statement quoted a government spokesperson as saying.
The statement said that the British government is also sanctioning a group of Russian individuals and companies for their involvement in "repressing civilians and supporting" the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria -- "exposing Russia’s malign activity across the globe."
Since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Britain has sanctioned more than 1,000 people and over 120 businesses.
Kyrgyz TV Station Director Detained Over Report On Ukraine War Faces Additional Charge
BISHKEK -- The director of the NEXT television channel in Kyrgyzstan, who is currently under arrest over the airing of a controversial report in which an interviewee alleged the existence of an agreement between Bishkek and Moscow to send troops to assist Russian armed forces in the war against Ukraine, now faces an additional charge.
Taalaibek Duishembiev's lawyer, Timur Sultanov, said on June 29 that his client faces another charge of inciting ethnic hatred over an unspecified report posted on Instagram in early March.
A day earlier, a court in Bishkek extended Duishembiev's pretrial detention until at least August 3.
Duishembiev was arrested and charged with inciting interethnic hatred in early March.
The initial charge stemmed from a report by the channel that quoted the exiled former chief of the Committee for National Security of neighboring Kazakhstan, Alnur Musaev, as saying that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had agreed to support Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by sending troops to help Russia.
NEXT officials have insisted the report was balanced as it quoted Musaev directly while giving other people's views on the issue as well.
There has been no evidence of Tajik or Kyrgyz troops fighting in Ukraine since the invasion was launched on February 24.
The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry has rejected the report and called on local media outlets to base their reporting on the ongoing war in Ukraine solely on official government statements.
Domestic and international human rights organizations have demanded Duishembiev's release, saying that his arrest violates freedom of expression.
Biden Says U.S. To Strengthen European Posture In Face Of Russian Aggression
President Joe Biden says the United States will change its military posture in Europe because of threats resulting from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking as he was greeted by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at a summit of the alliance on June 29, Biden said the United States would raise the number of destroyers it has in Spain from four to six. He also said Washington will send two additional F-35 squadrons to Britain and establish a 5th Army headquarters in Poland.
The alliance is needed more today "than it ever has been," Biden said, adding that NATO will be "strengthened in all directions across every domain -- land, air and sea."
Moscow-Imposed Administration Plans Referendum In Ukraine's Kherson On Joining Russia
The Moscow-installed military administration ruling the area around the occupied Ukrainian city of Kherson said it is preparing to hold a referendum on joining Russia.
"Yes, we are preparing for a referendum -- and we will hold it," Kirill Stremoussov, the deputy head of Kherson's military and civil administration, said in a video published on Telegram.
Stremoussov said Kherson should become "a full-fledged member" of Russia.
Russian-installed officials said earlier that their security forces had detained Kherson Mayor Ihor Kolykhayev on June 28 after he refused to follow Moscow's orders. A local official said the mayor was kidnapped.
Kherson, an important port on the Black Sea, has been fully under Russian control since early March, just weeks after Moscow launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Russian Missile Strike Kills At Least Three In Mykolayiv Residential Building
A missile strike killed at least three people in a residential building in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolayiv on June 29 in an attack that Russia said was meant to destroy a training base for foreign fighters.
Mykolayiv Mayor Oleksandr Senkevych said eight Russian missiles had struck the city, including an apartment block. Photographs showed smoke billowing from a four-story building with its upper floor partly destroyed.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement quoted by TASS that its forces carried out strikes on a military training base for "foreign mercenaries" near Mykolayiv.
Mykolayiv, a river port and shipbuilding center just off the Black Sea, has been a Ukrainian stronghold against Russia's westward push in the direction of Odesa.
The Mykolayiv strike took place just two days after Russia hit a commercial center in Kremenchuk in central Ukraine, killing at least 18 people. Dozens of people were still missing on June 29.
Russian Blogger Finally Allowed To Enter Georgia, Immediately Flies From Tbilisi To Lithuania
A blogger from Russia's North Caucasus facing terrorism charges that she says are an attempt to stop her investigative reporting has been allowed to enter Georgia after being stranded for more than two weeks in a neutral zone at the Russian-Georgian border.
Insa Lander, also known as Insa Oguz, told RFE/RL on June 29 that she had gone to Georgia and then flew on to Lithuania after Georgian authorities allowed her to enter the country on July 27.
Lander, who fled her native Kabardino-Balkaria region on June 12, was stuck in a neutral segment of the border as Georgian authorities refused to allow her to enter the country, saying she had given "controversial information about the goal of her visit to the country." They never explained what that meant.
Amid an outcry by human rights groups, Georgia's Foreign Ministry then tried to justify its hesitance to allow the blogger to enter the country by saying that she was facing terrorism-related charges at home.
Lithuania's ambassador to Tbilisi, Andrius Kalindra, said at the time that Vilnius was ready to provide Lander with a visa if she was allowed to enter Georgia.
Lander, who resided in Moscow for many years, was arrested in Kabardino-Balkaria in December when she came to visit relatives. She was charged with recruiting a person to a terrorist group. The charge was based on an online chat she had with an acquaintance.
Lander and her supporters have rejected the charge, saying the case was fabricated to stop her from investigating possible corruption at a charity foundation led by a top official in Kabardino-Balkaria.
Wives Of Russian Officers Urge Buryatia Leader To Return Their Husbands From Ukraine2
Investigation: Free From Western Sanctions, A Russian Bank Helps Fund The Invasion Of Ukraine3
Interview: Can Russia Maintain Its Momentum In Ukraine's East?4
Three Belarusian 'Railway Guerrillas' May Face Death Penalty5
Before And After: The Great Cleanup Of Kyiv6
'We Won't Surrender': Slovyansk Prepares For Russian Offensive7
Putin Arrives In Tajikistan For First Stop On Trip To Central Asia8
'Run This Russian Over!' Ukrainian Tank Crew Recounts Battle9
Scorched Earth: The Catastrophic Environmental Costs Of Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine10
Ukraine's Foreign Legion: Soldiers Speak Of Historic Fight For Democracy