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NATO Says More Members Plan To Reach Spending Goal By 2024

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg

Fifteen of NATO's 29 members have laid out plans to meet the alliance's defense spending goal by 2024, overall increasing spending by $46 billion, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

"This is substantial progress, and a good start," he said on February 13 ahead of a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels this week. "After years of decline, since 2014 we have seen three years of increasing defense spending across European allies and Canada."

Stoltenberg's comments come as U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is expected to pressure U.S. allies in Europe to increase military spending to levels targeted by NATO, fulfilling a key commitment sought by U.S. President Donald Trump.

NATO has set a goal of each member spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, but until recently only a few of NATO's 29 members met that target.

Stoltenberg said that in 2014, only three allies met the goal, but the number has increased to eight this year. The increase in the last four years has added $19 billion to spending on weapons and equipment for the alliance, he said.

An additional seven NATO members have laid out plans to meet the goal by 2024, he said.

"This should lead to significant improvements in our forces and their readiness," he said, "but we still have a long way to go."

According to NATO, Britain, Greece, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have met the 2 percent goal, while France and Turkey are among the countries set to reach it soon.

France is envisioning a dramatic increase in spending of more than one-third by 2025. But important NATO members remain far short of the goal.

A large projected increase in military spending by Germany will not be enough to take Berlin up to 2 percent by 2024. Spain, Belgium, and Italy also have said they will not meet the target by 2024.

Trump has since taking office last year pushed hard for greater burden-sharing by Europe and Canada. The United States for decades has borne the biggest defense budgets and accounted for the lion's share of NATO spending.

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison said on February 13 that Washington will continue to push for higher spending by NATO partners.

"We talk 2 percent, but that's because in the overall, that is what we need to have the capabilities and the ability to withstand any kind of threat," Hutchinson said.

Mattis is also expected to take a tough stance at the NATO gathering, said Katie Wheelbarger, principal U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

"He will address those who don't have national plans to meet 2 percent and suggest they really need to develop those plans," she told reporters on February 13.

U.S. officials say Trump set an example this week by proposing a $1.7 billion increase in U.S. military spending in Europe in his 2019 budget.

With reporting by dpa and Reuters

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Polish, Ukrainian Ministers Meet To Seek Solutions To Trucker Blockade On Border

An aerial photo shows trucks standing in line at the Polish-Ukrainian border near the village of Hrebenne in southeastern Poland on November 27.
An aerial photo shows trucks standing in line at the Polish-Ukrainian border near the village of Hrebenne in southeastern Poland on November 27.

Ukrainian and Polish government officials met on December 1 in Warsaw to try to find ways to end a weekslong protest by Polish truckers who want the European Union to reintroduce entry permits for their Ukrainian competitors heading for EU countries.

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Polish transport companies have blocked three border crossings with Ukraine since November 6, demanding the reintroduction of the permits, which the EU waived after Russia invaded Ukraine last year.

As the government officials seek solutions, Ukraine’s ombudsman pointed to the urgency of the situation, saying it was “catastrophic” for Ukraine, while Slovak haulers also joined the protest at border crossings from their country into war-torn Ukraine.

The officials agreed at the Warsaw meeting to open the Ugriniv-Dolgobychev checkpoint for the passage of empty trucks from Ukraine to increase the capacity at the border and reduce the load on other checkpoints, the Ukrainian Ministry of Community, Territory, and Infrastructure Development said on Facebook.

They also agreed to create lanes for empty vehicles at two other checkpoints on both the Ukrainian and Polish sides and to launch a pilot electronic registration project for one month at another checkpoint.

The ministry emphasized in its message on Facebook that the issue of canceling or making changes to the entry permit policy was not discussed and was not on the agenda.

The protest has resulted in huge lines on both sides of the border, leaving drivers stuck in their vehicles in cold temperatures and with little food. Kyiv on December 1 said that some 2,100 trucks trying to enter Ukraine were blocked on the Polish side.

Ukrainian rights ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said in a statement that the blockade has put Ukrainian drivers in such a dire situation that they plan to go on hunger strike if the situation is not improved.

"Blocking traffic on the border between Poland and Ukraine: the situation is catastrophic!" Lubinets said.

Ukrainian Truckers Still Stuck At Polish Border After Weeks Of Blockades
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Lubinets said he had contacted his Polish counterpart, Marcin Wiacek, but has not yet received a response.

The Warsaw meeting was between Jadwiga Emilewicz, Ukrainian deputy minister of community, territory, and infrastructure development, and Rafal Weber, Polish secretary of state of the Ministry of Infrastructure. Serhiy Derkach, a Ukrainian government commissioner for Polish-Ukrainian development cooperation, chaired the meeting.

Ukraine rejects the Polish protesters’ demands, saying they are discriminatory. The Ukrainian ministry said this was confirmed on November 30 in a meeting of the Ukraine-Poland-EU Coordination Platform, adding that it is working with the European Commission to develop “strategic solutions that will resolve the situation with queues at the border and reduce tension in the issue of road transportation.”

The Federation of Employers of Ukraine and the Association of International Motor Carriers last month appealed to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen regarding the blockade, which the association estimated has cost the Ukrainian economy hundreds of millions of euros.

With reporting by AFP

U.S. Imposes Sanctions On Three Tankers And Their Owners For Shipping Russian Oil Above Price Cap

The sanctions target three entities and three oil tankers that the U.S. Treasury Department said carried Russian Urals crude above $70 per barrel, which exceeds the price cap by $10. (file photo)
The sanctions target three entities and three oil tankers that the U.S. Treasury Department said carried Russian Urals crude above $70 per barrel, which exceeds the price cap by $10. (file photo)

The United States on December 1 imposed additional sanctions related to the price cap on Russian oil agreed by the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized nations, the European Union, and Australia to curtail Russia’s revenue from seaborne oil shipments.

The sanctions target three entities and three oil tankers that the U.S. Treasury Department said carried Russian Urals crude above $70 per barrel, which exceeds the price cap by $10.

The department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said the three vessels and the three entities shipped the oil using Western maritime services, such as transportation, insurance, and financing.

The G7 countries -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States -- set the $60 price cap on seaborne exports of Russian crude last December, and the European Union and Australia later agreed to join the mechanism, which bans Western companies from providing the services for oil sold above the cap.

The mechanism is designed to maintain a reliable supply of crude oil to the global market while reducing the revenues that Russia earns from oil, which it in turn uses to fund its war in Ukraine.

OFAC's action announced on December 1 is the third time in as many months that it has imposed sanctions against ships and their owners for carrying Russian oil priced above the cap.

Two companies based in the United Arab Emirates -- Sterling Shipping and Streymoy Shipping Limited -- are named by OFAC as the registered owners of two of the tankers designated. The other ship is registered to HS Atlantica Ltd based in Liberia.

The ships are blocked under the sanctions, while all property held by their registered owners in the United States is blocked and people in the United States and its jurisdictions are blocked from dealing with them.

"Enforcement of the price cap on Russian oil is a top priority for the United States and our Coalition partners," Treasury Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in the statement.

"By targeting these companies and their ships, we are upholding the dual goals of the price cap by restricting Russia’s profits from oil while promoting stable global energy markets."

The Treasury Department also issued a general license through February 29 authorizing limited safety and environmental transactions involving the targeted entities and vessels, including transactions necessary for their safe docking and anchoring.

With reporting by Reuters

NATO Chief Tells Turkey's Erdogan 'Time Has Come' To Let Sweden Join The Alliance

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (file photo)
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (file photo)

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says he has told Turkey’s president that “the time has come” to let Sweden become a member of the military alliance. Turkey and Hungary are the only NATO countries that have not yet formally approved Sweden’s accession bid. Stoltenberg told the Associated Press that he urged Turkey to finalize the process as he met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on December 1 on the sidelines of the COP28 climate summit in Dubai.

Uzbek Court Suspends Trial Over Deaths Of Children Linked To Cough Syrup To Identify More Suspects

The case investigated the deaths of at least 65 children who consumed a cough syrup made by Indian pharmaceuticals company Marion Biotech. (file photo)
The case investigated the deaths of at least 65 children who consumed a cough syrup made by Indian pharmaceuticals company Marion Biotech. (file photo)

Uzbekistan's Supreme Court said on December 1 that the Tashkent city court has suspended the trial of 21 people allegedly responsible for the deaths of at least 65 children who consumed a cough syrup made by Indian pharmaceuticals company Marion Biotech. According to the statement, the case was sent back to investigators to identify more suspects in the high-profile case, which shocked the Central Asian nation in 2022. The current defendants include the former head of the State Agency for Pharmaceutical Network Development and senior employees of Quramax Medical LLC, which imported the syrup to Uzbekistan. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, click here.

More Than 400 People Punished Under Shari'a Law In Afghanistan, Rights Group Says

The most common punishment was flogging under a category of Shari’a law that includes discretionary punishments not specified in religious texts. (illustrative file photo)
The most common punishment was flogging under a category of Shari’a law that includes discretionary punishments not specified in religious texts. (illustrative file photo)

Afghanistan's Taliban-led government announced punishments handed out to 417 people under Shari’a law during a recent 12-month period, according to a report issued this week by Afghan Witness, an organization that monitors human rights abuses in Afghanistan.

Afghan Witness collected the data by reviewing the announcements of Shari’a punishments posted on the website of the Taliban-led Supreme Court. The announcements, which were also were published on X, formerly Twitter, have been made public since the Taliban’s Supreme Leader Mullah Hebatullah Akhundzada announced the return of Shari’a punishments in mid-November 2022.

Akhundzada had previously ordered a return to Islamic retribution and corporal punishments shortly after the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021.

Afghan Witness said in a statement on November 29 that it looked at punishments meted out between October 26, 2022 and October 26, 2023, and found 71 announcements handed down to 417 individuals.

It said this included nine “Qisas punishments” during the period, including two that resulted in the execution of alleged murderers, while the remaining seven were pardoned.

Qisas punishments are for offenses seen as violations of the boundaries set by God such as murder, theft, and adultery. Convicts can be executed, flogged, stoned to death, or have limbs amputated.

Afghan Witness said it has yet to record any stonings or amputations, but it said its sources in Afghanistan say there are stoning punishments awaiting approval by Akhundzada.

The most common punishment was flogging under a category of Shari’a law that includes discretionary punishments not specified in religious texts.

The report said the punishments occurred in 22 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces from October 2022 through September 2023. A gender breakdown of the punished indicates that 220 men were punished compared with 57 women.

The organization also noted that while the sentences are often referred to as “public punishments,” their public nature is often limited.

“Although these punishments are carried out with an audience, including Taliban officials and citizens, they are often fulfilled behind closed doors, or under significant publication restrictions,” Afghan Witness said, adding that this leaves little visual evidence of the punishments being carried out.

The Taliban has framed its implementation of Shari’a punishments as “fair, righteous and desired by Afghanistan’s citizens” and claimed that the punishments act as a deterrent, Afghan Witness said.

After seizing power in August 2021 as U.S-led international forces withdrew from the country, the Taliban dismantled Afghanistan’s judicial system, suspended or scrapped all laws, and replaced judges, prosecutors, and lawyers.

Afghan Witness is a project to independently collect, preserve, and verify information on the human rights, security, and political situation in Afghanistan, according to its website.

The organization aims to provide a reliable source of information for international organizations, policymakers, and the media, and to “raise awareness of the reality of everyday life for Afghans living in the country.”

Popular Uzbek Blogger Gets Eight Years In Prison On Charges He Rejects

Olimjon Haidarov was arrested by masked security officers in July 2022.
Olimjon Haidarov was arrested by masked security officers in July 2022.

A court in Uzbekistan's eastern region of Ferghana sentenced blogger Olimjon Haidarov on December 1 to eight years in prison on charges of extortion, defamation, and libel. Haidarov, who was arrested in late July, has rejected the charges as politically motivated. Haidarov, a popular blogger in Uzbekistan, has raised the issue of the arrest of several bloggers on extortion charges in recent months. In December 2022, a court in Ferghana ordered him to pay a hefty fine for his online reporting of the country's energy shortages. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. click here.

Former Kazakh Security Chief's Cousin's Appeal Against 10-Year Prison Term Rejected

Nurlan Masimov formerly served as police chief of the northern Pavlodar region. (file photo)
Nurlan Masimov formerly served as police chief of the northern Pavlodar region. (file photo)

A court in Kazakhstan has rejected an appeal filed by a cousin of the jailed former head of Kazakhstan's Committee of National Security (KNB) against his conviction and 10-year prison term on charges of bribery and embezzlement.

Nurlan Masimov, 49, a cousin of former KNB chief Karim Masimov, served as police chief of the Pavlodar region in northern Kazakhstan before deadly anti-government protests in January last year that left at least 238 people dead, including 19 law enforcement officers.

The court ruling on December 1 upheld the verdict against Nurlan Masimov and his 10-year sentence. It also upheld the verdict and eight-year sentence handed to co-defendant Damir Sirazidimov, his former deputy, on bribery charges.

But the court cut by two years the seven-year prison term handed to Masimov's other co-defendant, businessman Yevgeny Yevkovich, on a charge of embezzlement.

Kazakh authorities said in July last year that Nurlan Masimov was detained while trying to cross the border into Russia using forged documents.

His cousin, Karim Masimov, a close ally of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev, is serving an 18-year prison sentence over his role in deadly events that followed unprecedented anti-government protests in the former Soviet republic in January 2022.

Karim Masimov's former deputies, Anuar Sadyqulov, Daulet Erghozhin, and Marat Osipov, were sentenced to 16, 15, and three years in prison respectively at the trial in April.

The 58-year-old Masimov was arrested along with Erghozhin and Sadyqulov days after the protests turned into deadly unrest. Osipov was arrested in February 2022.

The protests began in the southwestern town of Zhanaozen in January 2022 over a sudden fuel price hike. But the demonstrations quickly grew into broader unrest against corruption, political stagnation, and widespread injustice.

What's Behind The State Of Emergency And Protests Erupting Across Kazakhstan?
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Much of the protesters' anger appeared directed at Nazarbaev, who ruled Kazakhstan from 1989 until March 2019, when he handed power to President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev. However, Nazarbaev was widely believed to remain in control behind the scenes.

The protests were violently dispersed by police and military personnel, including troops of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization whom Toqaev invited into the country claiming that "20,000 extremists who were trained in terrorist camps abroad" had attacked Almaty.

The authorities have provided no evidence proving Toqaev’s claim about foreign terrorists.

With reporting by Tengrinews and Orda

Rights Group Says Iranian Political Prisoner From 1980s Has Been Executed

Iranian security officers prepare a rope for hanging. members preparing hanging rope. The Islamic republic has executed more people than any other country in the world other than China so far this year, according to Amnesty International. (file photo)
Iranian security officers prepare a rope for hanging. members preparing hanging rope. The Islamic republic has executed more people than any other country in the world other than China so far this year, according to Amnesty International. (file photo)

An Iranian human rights group has reported the execution of Geda Ali (Hormoz) Saber Motlaq, a political prisoner from the 1980s, and Kamran Rezaei, who was detained during nationwide protests in 2019, amid a jump in capital punishment by authorities in Tehran following unrest triggered by the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini.

The Norway-based group Iran Human Rights said Motlaq, 62, was initially arrested in the 1980s for affiliating with the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran and the alleged murder of an official of the Islamic republic. He was subsequently released due to insufficient evidence but was rearrested and sentenced to death after returning to Iran in 2020, despite a lack of concrete evidence against him.

The nature of the charges leading to Motlaq's execution, analysts say possibly Qesas (retributive justice) or for other accusations such as "Moharebeh" (enmity against God), remains unclear. He consistently denied any involvement in the alleged murder.

Rezaei, Iran Human Rights said, was hanged on November 30 in Shiraz Central Prison, and warned it expects more protesters to be executed.

“Political prisoners including protesters are at serious risk of execution," Iran Human Rights Director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam said.

"Further silence from the international community is not acceptable. The current leaders of the Islamic republic have a history of massacring political prisoners and committing crimes against humanity. It is only the high political cost from the international community that has prevented them from repeating these atrocities.”

Rezaei, a political prisoner, was accused of the "premeditated murder" of a Basij paramilitary member and coerced under torture to confess.

Executions have jumped in Iran this year, according to rights groups and the United Nations.

Earlier in November, a UN report said executions jumped 30 percent in the first seven months of 2023 compared with the same period a year earlier, with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres saying information received by the UN human rights office “consistently indicated that the judicial proceedings did not fulfil the requirements for due process and a fair trial under international human rights law.”

Iran Human Rights said that, so far this year, more than 700 people have been executed in Iran, with a marked increase in recent months.

Two days before Rezaei's execution, Hani Shahbazi was executed in Sepidar Prison, Ahvaz. He also was accused of "enmity against God" following the alleged premeditated murder of law enforcement and Basij paramilitary members in 2019.

The rate of executions in Iran has been rising sharply, particularly in the wake of widespread protests that swept across the country last year following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody for an alleged head-scarf violation.

Amnesty International says the regime in Tehran has executed more people than any other country in the world other than China so far this year.

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

Second Train In Days Explodes On Main Russian Railway Line In Siberia

A fire glows in the distance after an apparent explosion on Russia's Baikal-Amur Main Line.
A fire glows in the distance after an apparent explosion on Russia's Baikal-Amur Main Line.

A second train has exploded on Russia's main railway line in the Siberian region of Buryatia in recent days. A person who witnessed the November 30 explosion confirmed media reports about the blast on the Baikal-Amur Main Line, saying the explosion occurred on the segment bypassing the Severomuisk tunnel, where a train also exploded one day earlier. Ukrainian media reports cited sources in law enforcement and military entities as saying that the second train exploded while on a bridge by the tunnel. Russian officials have yet to comment on the situation. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Russia Fails To Get Elected To UN Ship Agency's Governing Council

The official emblem of the United Nations at UN headquarters in New York. (file photo)
The official emblem of the United Nations at UN headquarters in New York. (file photo)

Russia failed on December 1 to win enough votes for reelection to the United Nation's shipping agency's governing council after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had urged countries not to allow Moscow to be part of the UN body's executive arm. The outcome is another blow for Russia after it failed in its bid to return to the UN's top human rights body in October, in an election seen as a key test of Western efforts to keep Moscow isolated. Last year Moscow also failed to win enough votes for reelection to the UN aviation agency's governing council.

Museum Of Prominent Gulag Survivor In Russia's Far East Shut Down

Russian writer and gulag survivor Varlam Shalamov
Russian writer and gulag survivor Varlam Shalamov

Authorities in Russia's Far Eastern town of Debin have shut down a museum devoted to prominent writer Varlam Shalamov, who was widely known for his short stories about his years in a gulag in the Kolyma area, the most notorious part of the Soviet “correctional” system. RFE/RL correspondents reported on November 30 that the museum, located in a local hospital where Shalamov was successsfully treated for starvation-related illnesses in 1943, was closed following debate around the building's possible demolition. In the end, the building was not condemned, but the museum was shut. Regional authorities have refused to comment. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Orban Says Ukraine's EU Accession Not Currently In Hungary's Interest

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (file photo)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (file photo)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said opening European Union accession negotiations with Ukraine is not currently in Budapest's interest and that the 27-member bloc should opt instead for a "strategic partnership" with the war-wracked country.

In a progress report last month, the European Commission -- the bloc's executive body -- recommended opening EU accession negotiations with Ukraine once it meets the required conditions after gaining candidate status together with much smaller Moldova in June last year.

Orban, a right-wing populist who has maintained warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has long been at odds with the EU over rule-of-law and corruption concerns and has seen the bloc freeze 22 billion euros ($24 billion) in cohesion funds for Hungary until it introduces judicial and human rights reforms.

In his weekly interview with Hungarian state radio on December 1, Orban said opening membership talks with Kyiv does not coincide with Hungary's interests and we "dare say it, no matter how much pressure they put on us," in an apparent reference to alleged interference from Brussels.

"I would favor the EU reaching a strategic partnership agreement with Ukraine first," Orban said, adding that such a partnership could take up to 10 years until Ukraine could adapt to the EU's requirements.

"When we see that we can cooperate, then let's bring up the issue of membership again, but that will be possible only after many, many years," he said.

Orban again spoke against continuing giving Ukraine financial aid, in what critics see as an attempt by Budapest to blackmail the EU into releasing its frozen cohesion funds in exchange for Hungary not using its veto power as the European Commission seeks unanimous support to ensure a 1.1 trillion euros ($1.2 trillion) revision of the bloc's budget that would include 50 billion euros for Ukraine.

"Europe has economic problems but in the meantime throws money away -- it sends wagonloads of weapons and money to Ukraine," Orban said.

Orban and his government have repeatedly spoken against the bloc's giving military aid to Ukraine to fight Russia's unprovoked aggression, arguing that such aid would only prolong the war.

The EU will hold a summit on December 14-15.

Imprisoned Kremlin Critic Kara-Murza Fined For Failing To Follow 'Foreign Agent' Requirement

Vladimir Kara-Murza
Vladimir Kara-Murza

A court in Moscow on December 1 fined imprisoned Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza for a "violation of the law on foreign agents" because while incarcerated he failed to report every three months to the Justice Ministry about his activities due to his designation as a "foreign agent."

The Zamoskvorechye district court ordered Kara-Murza to pay 50,000 rubles ($560) for not filing a report to the Justice Ministry.

Kara-Murza's lawyer, Anna Stavitskaya, told the Business FM radio station that since her client is serving a 25-year prison term in a Siberian penal colony, he was unable to file reports with the ministry. Stavitskaya added that her client, who took part in the hearing via a video link, said he would not file any reports even if he was at home because he considers the law on "foreign agents" in "contradiction" of the constitution.

On the same day, Ilya Yashin, another jailed opposition politician, was fined 45,000 rubles ($505) by the Babushkinsky district court because five reports on his YouTube Channel last year did not have a "foreign agent" marking.

The reports about Russian President Vladimir Putin were published on YouTube when Yashin was already being held in custody. The YouTube channel is moderated by Yashin's associates.

Yashin, who took part in the hearing via video link, said the court's ruling "has no meaning" as "the 'foreign agent' label will not get stuck on me despite propaganda’s efforts."

"Nobody will be able to frighten and muzzle me. Most importantly, nobody will be able to break my faith in Russia and its people," Yashin said.

Since 2012, Russia has used its so-called "foreign agent" laws to label and punish critics of government policies. It also has been increasingly used to shut down civil society and media groups in Russia since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The "foreign agent" law allows authorities to label nonprofit organizations and individuals as “foreign agents” if they receive funding from abroad and are engaged in political activities.

Kara-Murza, 42, was initially arrested in April 2022 after returning to Russia from abroad and charged with disobeying a police officer.

He was later charged with discrediting the Russian military, a charge stemming from Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine and a Kremlin push to stamp out criticism of the subject. He was later additionally charged with treason over remarks he made in speeches outside Russia that criticized Kremlin policies.

In April this year, Kara-Murza was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Yashin, 40, was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison on a charge of spreading false information about the Russian military amid its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

With reporting by Business FM, Mediazona, and RFE/RL's Russian Service

Hundreds Of Kyrgyz Vendors Protest Plan To Introduce New Taxation System

 The protesters demanded that the previous system -- based on a flat annual sum -- be kept in place.
The protesters demanded that the previous system -- based on a flat annual sum -- be kept in place.

Hundreds of Kyrgyz vendors at marketplaces across the Central Asian nation rallied on November 30 to protest the government's plan to introduce a new taxation system as of January 1 that will increase taxes overall. The protesters demanded that the previous system -- based on a flat annual sum -- be kept in place. According to the government's plan, vendors will be obliged to use electronic cash registers and pay tax on each item sold. Bishkek police said on December 1 that one demonstrator, who allegedly attacked a city official, had been detained. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Director Of Kyrgyz Opera And Ballet Theater Arrested For Alleged Abuse Of Office

Almazbek Istambaev (file photo)
Almazbek Istambaev (file photo)

The Kyrgyz State Committee of National Security (UKMK) said on December 1 it arrested the director of the Kyrgyz Opera and Ballet Theater, Almazbek Istambaev, on a charge of abuse of office. According to the UKMK, Istambaev is suspected of illegally leasing premises of the theater to unspecified groups. Istambaev is currently in pretrial detention, a UKMK statement said. Istambaev took over the theater in February 2022. Before that, namely between 2000 and 2019, he performed at the theater as an opera soloist. Istambaev and his lawyers are yet to officially comment on the situation. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Iran Still Top Terror Sponsor; IS Still A Threat In Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan, U.S. Says

Iran continued to back Hizballah (above), designated a terrorist group by Washington in 1997, and also provided weapons systems to Hamas and other U.S.-designated Palestinian terrorist groups.
Iran continued to back Hizballah (above), designated a terrorist group by Washington in 1997, and also provided weapons systems to Hamas and other U.S.-designated Palestinian terrorist groups.

Iran remained the leading state sponsor of global terrorism last year, involved in backing terrorist recruitment, financing, and plotting across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, the U.S. State Department said in its 2022 Country Reports On Terrorism released on December 1.

In the Middle East, Iran continued to back Hizballah, designated a terrorist group by Washington in 1997, the report said, adding that it also provided weapons systems to Hamas and other U.S.-designated Palestinian terrorist groups, including Palestine Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

"These groups were behind numerous deadly attacks originating in Gaza and the West Bank," the report said.

Tehran also provided support to extremist groups in Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria, through its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to provide support to terrorist organizations with the aim to create instability in the region, the report said.

Iran increasingly encouraged and plotted attacks against the United States, including against former U.S. officials, in retaliation for the death of Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced in 2022 that it had disrupted an IRGC-QF-led plot to assassinate former national-security adviser John Bolton and arrested an Iranian accused of planning the killing.

In Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, the report says that members of Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State group, and regional terrorist groups remained active in 2022, despite the Taliban committing to prevent extremists from using the country to conduct attacks against the United States and its allies after the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces in August 2021.

The Taliban's capacity to stop elements from Al-Qaeda, Islamic State-Khorasan -- an IS splinter -- or Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) from mounting external operations from the Afghan territory "remained unclear," the report said.

Islamic State-Khorasan in 2022 continued to conduct terrorist attacks against the Taliban and Afghan civilians, in particular against members of the Shi'ite community as well as cross-border attacks in Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

The report mentions that "the United States has not yet decided whether to recognize the Taliban or any other entity as the government of Afghanistan," and says the Taliban hosted and sheltered Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri in Kabul before his death in a U.S. air strike in July last year.

Georgia Does Not Allow Outspoken Russian Nationalist To Enter Country

Dmitry Dyomushkin in 2019
Dmitry Dyomushkin in 2019

Dmitry Dyomushkin, an outspoken Russian nationalist, said late on November 30 that Georgian officials prevented him from entering the country upon his arrival at the Tbilisi airport. The 44-year-old used to lead the now-banned groups called Slavic Union, Slavic Power, and Russians. In the past, he organized several marches in Moscow and called for the introduction of a visa regime for migrants from Central Asia. In April 2017, he was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on extremism charges. In February 2019, he was granted an early release. Dyomushkin said no reason was given for his return to Russia. To read the original story by the Echo of the Caucasus, click here.

Updated

Gergiev Appointed Bolshoi Director After Predecessor, Who Protested Ukraine War, Resigns

Vladimir Urin in 2020
Vladimir Urin in 2020

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin on December 1 appointed Kremlin-friendly conductor Valery Gergiev to the post of director of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, one day after Vladimir Urin left the post without explanation. After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 22 last year, Urin was one of the Russian arts and cultural figures to sign an open letter calling on "all on whom it depends to stop all armed activities." Urin had led the Bolshoi since 2013. Gergiev was fired from his position as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic last year after he refused to condemn the war. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Navalny Says A New Criminal Case Has Been Opened Against Him

Aleksei Navalny appears on a screen set up in a Moscow courtroom in May 2022.
Aleksei Navalny appears on a screen set up in a Moscow courtroom in May 2022.

Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who is serving a total of 19 years in prison on extremism and other charges that he rejects as politically motivated, said a new criminal case has been brought against him.

In posts issued on December 1 through his associates on X, formerly known as Twitter, Navalny, who is serving his term in a penal colony, said he received a letter from Russia's Investigative Committee informing him that a case had been opened against him "for a crime under Part 2 of Article 214 of the Criminal Code," which deals with vandalism.

"Rarely an inmate, confined to a solitary cell for over a year, has had such a vibrant social and political existence," one of the messages attributed to Navalny on X said. "It means that they really initiate a new criminal case against me every three months."

On November 21, Navalny was placed in 15-day punitive solitary confinement for an unspecified violation after having finished his previous solitary confinement a day earlier. It was the 23rd time he had been placed in solitary confinement since August 2022, totaling 266 days in punitive incarceration.

Navalny, one of President Vladimir Putin's most vocal critics, had his sentence increased to 19 years in August after being found guilty of creating an extremist organization and was transferred to a harsher “special regime” facility.

His previous sentence was handed down in 2021 after he arrived in Moscow from Germany, where he had been recovering from a poisoning attack he blames on the Kremlin.

He was Russia's loudest opposition voice and galvanized huge anti-government rallies before he was jailed.

Three of Navalny's lawyers -- Vadim Kobzev, Igor Sergunin, and Aleksei Lipster -- were taken into custody in October and prosecuted for allegedly participating in an extremist community because of their association with Navalny and his foundation to root out corruption.

Updated

Another Journalist From Independent Investigative Outlet Detained In Azerbaijan

Journalist Nargis Absalamova
Journalist Nargis Absalamova

BAKU -- Another journalist from the independent Abzas Media news website in Azerbaijan has been detained in a smuggling case that the outlet rejects as trumped up, the latest in a series of arrests in what rights groups say is a crackdown on the outlet's "pioneering journalism" to root out corruption.

Nargiz Absalamova's relatives told RFE/RL that she was summoned for interrogation for a second time on November 30 and was detained later on charges of smuggling.

Interior Ministry spokesman Ibragim Amiraslanli confirmed to the Turan news agency on December 1 that Absalamova had been detained on unspecified charges and that an investigation is under way.

Absalamova is the fourth journalist from Abzas Media arrested in recent days.

Abzas's director, Ulvi Hasanli; chief editor Sevinc Vaqifqizi; and employee Mahammad Kekalov were arrested less than two weeks ago after police claimed they found 40,000 euros ($43,800) in cash in Abzas's offices.

The journalists insist the case against them is in retaliation for their reports about corruption among officials.

Critics of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's government say authorities in the oil-rich Caspian Sea state frequently seek to silence dissent by jailing opposition activists, journalists, and civil society advocates on trumped-up charges.

Amnesty International has demanded the immediate release of Hasanli, Vaqifqizi, and Kekalov, saying the government's campaign "fits into a pattern of critics being arrested by the authorities to stifle their dissent," while Human Rights Watch (HRW) chided Azerbaijani authorities for pursuing "dubious, punitive criminal charges against their critics.”

Aliyev has repeatedly rejected criticism from rights groups and Western governments accusing him of jailing his opponents and abusing power to stifle dissent.

Earlier this week, Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S., French, and German envoys to protest what it called "illegal financial operations" by organizations located in the three countries to support Abzas Media.

Aliyev has ruled Azerbaijan with an iron fist since 2003, taking over for his father, Heydar Aliyev, who served as president for a decade.

With reporting by Turan

Russia's Investigative Committee Says Russian-Italian Citizen Arrested For Railway Bombing

Russia's Investigative Committee says it has arrested a Russian-Italian citizen suspected of bombing a freight train in the Ryazan region last month. The man, whose identity was not disclosed, allegedly detonated an improvised explosive device that damaged 15 freight train cars on November 11, the committee said on its Telegram channel. It said the man, 35, was a resident of Ryazan who had been recruited by Ukrainian intelligence in February last year and underwent "sabotage training" in Latvia. The message said the man had "confessed" to the bombing during an interrogation. Ukraine has not commented and the claim could not be independently confirmed.

Zelenskiy Says Changes Needed In Ukraine's Mobilization System As Putin Signs Decree On Troop Increase

Ukrainian soldiers of a drone-hunting team are seen on the outskirts of Kyiv on November 30.
Ukrainian soldiers of a drone-hunting team are seen on the outskirts of Kyiv on November 30.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says changes must be made to improve mobilization as the Ukrainian military and the country’s civilian leadership work to improve conditions for troops on and off the battlefield.

Zelenskiy said mobilization was discussed during meetings he held on December 1 with military commanders to discuss scenarios to produce "concrete results" next year.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

“Everything necessary for our state, our brigades. These specific results must be calculated precisely. This includes issues of mobilization,” Zelenskiy said in his evening video message. “Everyone in Ukraine understands that changes are needed in this area.”

He said the changes would go beyond numbers to include a time frame for soldiers currently serving in the military, demobilization, and terms and conditions for new recruits.

“These are comprehensive things that military leadership and the Ministry of Defense have to work out and present to the staff for approval,” he said, adding that several proposals were made and he is "awaiting comprehensive solutions."

The issue of fine-tuning the process of mobilization and recruitment has been publicly discussed amid reports of corruption in recruitment such as bribes paid to recruiters to secure medical exemptions.

Zelenskiy's comments came as Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree ordering an increase of 170,000 in the Russian armed forces. According to the decree, the regular strength of the armed forces is now set at 1,320,000 servicemen.

"The increase in the full-time strength of the armed forces is due to the growing threats to our country associated with the special military operation and the ongoing expansion of NATO," the Russian Defense Ministry said.

There are no plans to significantly increase conscription or carry out a new wave of mobilization, it said, attributing the increase to the recruitment of contract personnel.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on December 1 that more than 452,000 people were recruited to the Russian military under contract from January 1 to December 1, 2023.

On the battlefield, the General Staff of the Ukrainian military said in its summary on December 1 that Russian troops tried 10 times unsuccessfully to restore its lost position near Robotyne in the Zaporizhzhya region.

The summary said 67 combat clashes took place during the day, and the enemy conducted assault operations in five areas. This included in hard-fought areas near Kupyansk, Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Maryinka.

Ukraine's air defense said earlier that 18 out of 25 Iranian-made drones launched by Russia at several Ukrainian regions were shot down on December 1 as an air-raid alert was declared in Kyiv and its surrounding region.

The Ukrainian Air Force said it also destroyed one of the two X-59 guided missiles launched at its territory.

Russian drones were shot down over the Mykolayiv, Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, and Dnepropetrovsk regions, the Ukrainian air defense said on Telegram.

There were no reports of casualties or material damage.

Meanwhile, Russia's Defense Ministry said its navy destroyed an unmanned Ukrainian sea drone in the Black Sea off the coast of Ukraine's occupied Crimea region.

"On December 1, at about 8 a.m. Moscow time, a Ukrainian Navy unmanned boat was detected in the western part of the Black Sea, heading in the direction of the Crimean peninsula. The target detected was destroyed by...the naval aviation of the Black Sea Fleet," the ministry said on its telegram channel.

Ukraine has not commented, and the claim could not be independently verified.

With reporting by Reuters

LGBT Initiative Ceases Work In Russia Following Move To Label 'Movement' As Extremist

The Russian Supreme Court ruled that what it called the “international LGBT social movement” is an "extremist organization."
The Russian Supreme Court ruled that what it called the “international LGBT social movement” is an "extremist organization."

The human rights initiative LGBT+ Cause announced that it is ending its Russia operation following the Russian Supreme Court's ruling that what it called the “international LGBT social movement” is an “extremist organization” and banned its activities in the country. “Due to external circumstances, we are forced to announce the self-dissolution of our initiative and, accordingly, the cessation of activities" in Russia," LGBT+ Cause said on Telegram. LGBT+ Cause has been active in protect the rights of people discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. To read the original article by Current Time, click here.

Russian Court Extends Detention Of RFE/RL Journalist Alsu Kurmasheva

RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan on December 1.
RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan on December 1.

A court in the Russian city of Kazan has extended by two months the detention of Alsu Kurmasheva, a veteran journalist from RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service who has been in Russian custody since October 18, until February 5.

Kurmasheva, a Prague-based journalist with RFE/RL who holds dual U.S. and Russian citizenship, traveled to Russia for a family emergency in May.

She was temporarily detained while waiting for her return flight on June 2 at the airport in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, where both of her passports were confiscated. She was not able to leave Russia as she awaited the return of her travel documents.

Authorities on October 11 fined Kurmasheva 10,000 rubles ($103) for failing to register her U.S. passport with Russian authorities, according to local media reports based on court documents they've seen.

Kurmasheva was detained again on October 18 and this time charged with failing to register as a "foreign agent," which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

The Investigative Committee said Kurmasheva was being charged under a section of the Criminal Code that refers to the registration of "foreign agents" who carry out “purposeful collection of information in the field of military, military-technical activities of Russia,” which, if received by foreign sources, “can be used against the security of the country."

It gave no further details.

“Alsu has spent 45 days behind bars in Russia and, today, her unjust, politically motivated detention has been extended,” said RFE/RL acting President Jeffrey Gedmin. “We call on Russian authorities to immediately grant Alsu consular access, which is her right as a U.S. citizen. Alsu must be released and reunited with her family."

The Investigative Committee said its investigation found that while the Russian Justice Ministry did not add her to the list of "foreign agents," she failed to provide documents to be included on the registry.

Kurmasheva and RFE/RL have both rejected the charge.

Russia's detention of Kurmasheva, the second U.S. media member to be held by Moscow this year, triggered a wave of criticism from rights groups and politicians who said the move signals a new level of wartime censorship.

The court decision to extend Kurmasheva's detention comes a day after leading Russian human rights group Memorial recognized Kurmasheva as a political prisoner.

Moscow has been accused of detaining Americans to use as bargaining chips to exchange for Russians jailed in the United States. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested for allegedly spying -- a charge he and the newspaper vehemently deny -- in March.

RFE/RL's jailed journalists (left to right): Alsu Kurmasheva, Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk, and Vladyslav Yesypenko
RFE/RL's jailed journalists (left to right): Alsu Kurmasheva, Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk, and Vladyslav Yesypenko

Kurmasheva is one of four RFE/RL journalists -- Andrey Kuznechyk, Ihar Losik, and Vladyslav Yesypenko are the other three -- currently imprisoned on charges related to their work. Rights groups and RFE/RL have called repeatedly for the release of all four, saying they have been wrongly detained.

Losik is a blogger and contributor for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service who was convicted in December 2021 on several charges including the “organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order” and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Kuznechyk, a web editor for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, was sentenced in June 2022 to six years in prison following a trial that lasted no more than a few hours. He was convicted of “creating or participating in an extremist organization.”

Yesypenko, a dual Ukrainian-Russian citizen who contributed to Crimea.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, was sentenced in February 2022 to six years in prison by a Russian judge in occupied Crimea after a closed-door trial. He was convicted of “possession and transport of explosives,” a charge he steadfastly denies.

Kazakh Lawmakers OK Controversial Amendments To Media Law On First Reading

Kazakh lawmakers have approved on first reading controversial amendments to the law on mass media that would allow citizens to file a libel lawsuit up to three years after publication. Currently, there is no time limit for such lawsuits. Organizations defending journalists' rights have insisted that the limit for filing libel suits against journalists and media outlets should be one year. The amendments approved on November 30 also would oblige journalists to get accredited by a single accreditation system. Journalists’ rights organizations have expressed concerns that the mandatory accreditation requirements may allow authorities to muzzle independent reporters. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

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