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Human Rights Watch Calls For Criminal Investigation Against Bush Officials

In this picture from 2009, a group of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. detention center kneels during morning prayers.
A U.S. human rights group says former President George W. Bush and three of his administration's top officials should be investigated on criminal charges for authorizing the use of torture.

In a new report, Human Rights Watch cites "overwhelming evidence" that Bush ordered the use of torture -- including waterboarding and secret rendition -- to be used on terrorism suspects from the earliest days after the terror attacks of 2001.

"The road to the violations...began within days of the September 11, 2001, attacks by Al-Qaeda on New York and Washington, D.C., when the Bush administration began crafting a new set of policies, procedures, and practices for detainees captured in military and counterterrorism operations outside the United States," the report says.

Titled "Getting Away With Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees," the report also contains what the group says is evidence of illegal acts sanctioned by Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet.

U.S. President George W. Bush and U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a joint appearance six days after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
"The report makes very clear that, looking at the publicly available evidence, there is overwhelming evidence that senior Bush administration officials should be criminally investigated and potentially prosecuted for authorizing torture," said Andrea Prasow, senior counsel in Human Rights Watch's Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program. Prasow has also served as a defense attorney with the U.S. Office of Military Commissions and represented several detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.

The report accuses Bush of ordering the creation of the CIA's secret program to kidnap and transport terrorism suspects to third countries where they underwent harsh interrogations.

Cheney is accused of being "the driving force behind the establishment of illegal detention policies and the formulation of legal justifications for those policies," including torture. Ex-CIA Director George Tenet is said to have run the agency's waterboarding and secret rendition programs.

Legal Duty

The rights group says President Barack Obama has a legal duty to investigate acts of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees because the United States -- along with more than 140 other countries -- is a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture.

In a statement, the group's director, Kenneth Roth, said the United States "is right to call for justice when serious international crimes are committed in places like Darfur, Libya, and Sri Lanka, but there should be no double standards." He added, "When the U.S. government shields its own officials from investigation and prosecution, it makes it easier for others to dismiss global efforts to bring violators of serious crimes to justice."

Allegations that Bush and some of his top aides authorized the use of interrogation techniques considered torture under international law are not new. The former president has even admitted that he ordered two suspects to be waterboarded, saying that lawyers at the Justice Department told him it was legal.

But the amount of publicly available material documenting the U.S. government's actions during that time has recently increased, in part due to action by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which forced the release of previously classified papers under the country's Freedom of Information Act.

Thousands more documents remain classified, however, and Prasow says if rights groups could see what the reports contain, "there's probably an even stronger case to be made" against members of the former White House administration.

Held In Isolation

The best-known case of illegal rendition during the Bush era is that of Maher Arar, who was detained by U.S. officials as a suspected member of Al-Qaeda during a stopover at New York's JFK Airport as he traveled back home to Canada from a vacation abroad. The dual Canadian-Syrian citizen was held in isolation for two weeks and then sent to Syria, where he was tortured during a year of detention.

A March 12, 2004, photo of a plane suspected of being used by the CIA for rendition purposes, departing from Palma de Mallorca airport in Spain
Since then, Syria has admitted Arar's innocence and the Canadian government, which cooperated with U.S. officials, has awarded him nearly $11 million in damages. But Washington has not exonerated Arar and has thrown out a lawsuit he brought against it claiming that his civil and international human rights had been violated.

Human Rights Watch is urging the Obama administration to pursue a criminal investigation against Bush and other former officials, but if that doesn't happen -- as it isn't likely to -- the group wants foreign governments to pursue their own cases.

Prasow says that under the Convention Against Torture's principle of universal jurisdiction, any country can pass its own legal judgment.

"That principle says torture is so egregious, such a horrendous crime, that torturers need to be investigated and prosecuted wherever they are found. So if the U.S. doesn't conduct an investigation, it's the obligation of other countries that have signed the Torture Convention to do that."

She cited an example where Bush was scheduled to travel to Switzerland a few months ago, "and when news leaked a couple days before his trip that human rights activists and victims had prepared a criminal complaint to file with the Swiss authorities, he canceled his trip."

One of Obama's first acts as president was to order an immediate halt to the CIA's rendition program and close secret prisons abroad. He unambiguously declared that the United States does not torture. But he has also repeatedly said that he would rather look forward than into the past.

Presumably in that spirit, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder narrowed the scope of a review of CIA interrogations of more than 100 detainees at secret overseas sites, and last month concluded that only two cases of deaths in U.S. custody would be criminally investigated.

The Obama administration has also successfully won immunity for former Attorney General John Ashcroft and kept secret what rights groups say are more incriminating documents from that era.

'Nothing New'

Jamie Fly, who served as a member of President Bush's National Security Council and was on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's staff, said he didn't see anything "that new" in the Human Rights Watch report. Fly now runs the Washington-based Foreign Policy Initiative.

"There has always been a long-running dispute [involving] some international and American groups that do believe that waterboarding is torture [and] that some of the activities that the [Bush] administration undertook in the context of national security action post-9/11 -- there has always been concern that some of these things might be torture," he said.

He added, "But the United States is governed by laws and has processes, and the Bush administration, just like the Obama administration, made sure that their actions were legal and that U.S. government lawyers had approved these actions."

Fry also thinks it's unlikely this White House will open an investigation into the past, saying there doesn't seem to be "a real interest at senior levels in the Obama administration in reopening all of these issues" but rather, a desire "to move on and not dwell on these issues any longer."

Prasow conceded that there isn't much public appetite for the kind of investigation that Human Rights Watch is calling for, but said it was important for Obama to do more than just announce that under his leadership, the United States doesn't torture.

Unless a legal precedent against it is established, she says, the next U.S. president might make a different choice.

Richard Solash contributed reporting to this story

All Of The Latest News

Finnish PM Warns Russian Win Would Empower Aggressors

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin (second right) met with other EU leaders in Prague on October 27.

Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin warned an Australian audience on December 2 that a Russian victory over Ukraine would empower other aggressors and urged democracies against forming “critical dependencies” on authoritarian states such as China. Marin was speaking in Sydney at the end of the first-ever visit by a Finnish prime minister to Australia and New Zealand. She used a speech to urge democracies to ramp up sanctions against Russia. To read the original AP story, click here.

Russia Tests New Missile-Defense System Rocket

A missile of the Russian missile-defense system is launched at the Sary-Shagan military range in Kazakhstan in 2021.

Russia on December 2 tested a new missile-defense system rocket, the Defense Ministry said, adding that the missile was launched from the Sary Shagan testing range in Kazakhstan. Other than saying the test was successful, the ministry gave few other details. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Ukraine War Shows Europe 'Not Strong Enough,' Says Finnish PM

Visiting Australia, the leader of the pending NATO member said Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion and occupation of neighboring Ukraine had exposed both European weaknesses and strategic blunders in dealing with Russia. (file photo)

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin on December 2 offered a "brutally honest" assessment of Europe's capabilities in the wake of Russia's war on Ukraine, stating that "we're not strong enough" to stand up to Moscow alone. Visiting Australia, the leader of the pending NATO member said Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion and occupation of neighboring Ukraine had exposed both European weaknesses and strategic blunders in dealing with Russia.

Fighting Rages In East As Zelenskiy Aide Says Up To 13,000 Ukrainian Soldiers Killed In War

Medics and members of Ukraine's 24th Mechanized Brigade of King Danylo treat a wounded soldier at a field clinic used to stabilize patients before they are sent to a hospital, near Bakhmut in the Donetsk region on December 1.

Fierce fighting continued in the east, where Kyiv's forces fought off waves of attacks in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, the military reported early on December 2, as an aide to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said up to 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the start of the war.

The General Staff of the Armed Forces said in its daily update that Russian troops attacked Ukrainian positions in 14 settlements including Belohoryivka in Luhansk and Bakhmut in Donetsk while carrying out 30 air strikes and 35 multiple-rocket attacks on civilian settlements along the contact line.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The Russians were on the defensive in Kupyansk and Lyman in the east and in Zaporizhzhya in central Ukraine, the General Staff said, while in the Bakhmut and Avdiyivka directions in the east Moscow's forces were on the offensive.

The battlefield reports could not be independently verified.

Mykhaylo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Zelenskiy, told Ukraine's Channel 24 television on December 1 that as many as 13,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed since Russia's invasion in February.

"We have official estimates from the General Staff.... They range from 10,000...to 13,000 dead," Podolyak said.

He said Zelenskiy would make the official data public "when the right moment comes." Podolyak's comments have not been confirmed by the military.

In June, Zelenskiy said Ukraine was losing "60 to 100 soldiers per day, killed in action, and around 500 people wounded in action."

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in September that 5,937 Russian troops had been killed in the nearly seven months of fighting to that point.

The figures could not be independently verified, and it is believed that both sides are minimizing their losses to avoid lowering the troops' morale.

U.S. General Mark Milley said last month that more than 100,000 Russian military personnel and 100,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed or wounded since the start of the war.

The figures advanced by Milley -- which could not be independently confirmed -- are the most precise to date from the U.S. government.

Meanwhile, in the recently liberated southern city of Kherson, Russian missiles killed at least one person and knocking out power, a city military administration official said late on December 1.

Halyna Luhova said residential buildings were damaged and three cars caught fire. Shelling the night before damaged power lines in the city, where electricity had only begun to be restored nearly three weeks after Russian troops withdrew to the eastern side of the Dnieper River.

The shelling was severe enough that air-raid alerts were issued in Kherson and other regions of Ukraine earlier on December 1.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at a news conference in Moscow, defended recent missile strikes, saying they targeted Ukraine's civil infrastructure to prevent Kyiv from importing Western arms.

"We disable energy facilities (in Ukraine) that allow you (the West) to pump lethal weapons into Ukraine to kill Russians," Lavrov said. "So don't say that the U.S. and NATO are not participants in this war -- you are directly participating."

NATO, the United States, and other Western allies have sent weapons requested by Kyiv to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian invasion and its attacks on energy infrastructure. Western countries recently have agreed to send generators and other equipment to help Ukraine repair the damage caused by the Russian attacks.

In a sign some channels of communication remain open, Russia's Defense Ministry and the head of Ukraine's presidential administration said the two countries swapped 50 service personnel on December 1.

Russia's Defense Ministry published a video of prisoners of war cheering as they crossed the border in a bus. "We're going home!" said one as his fellow soldiers waved at a camera.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and BBC

Reports: EU Close To Agreeing On $60 A Barrel Cap For Russian Seaborne Oil

The price cap would work by prohibiting shippers and insurance companies from handling cargoes of Russian seaborne crude unless it is sold at or below the price cap. (file photo)

EU governments have tentatively agreed on a $60 a barrel price cap on Russian seaborne oil aimed at reducing Moscow's ability to finance its war in Ukraine.

"The price cap is set at $60 with a provision to keep it 5 percent below market price for Russian crude, based on [International Energy Agency] figures," an EU diplomat said, according to Reuters on December 1.

U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said he was encouraged by the news about the tentative agreement on the price cap -- an idea supported by the United States and the other Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized nations -- adding that he expects the European Union to iron out details and reach a final agreement.

EU countries have wrangled for days over the details of the price cap. Poland, which had pushed for the cap to be as low as possible, had as of late on December 1 not confirmed its support for the deal, Reuters and AFP reported.

The initial G7 proposal last week was for a cap of $65-$70 per barrel with no adjustment mechanism.

Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia rejected that level because Russian Urals crude, the main variety sold by Russia, was trading at below $70 a barrel on December 1 and last week traded at about $55.

The G7 price cap on Russian seaborne crude oil is to kick in on December 5, replacing an outright ban on buying Russian seaborne crude.

The price cap would work by prohibiting shippers and insurance companies from handling cargoes of Russian crude unless it is sold at or below the price cap.

The world's key shipping and insurance firms are based in G7 countries, giving them leverage to set the price cap and make it difficult for Moscow to sell its oil for a higher price.

The adjustment mechanism would mean the price cap would be reviewed in mid-January and every two months after that.

The document outlining the tentative agreement, quoted by Reuters, said a 45-day "transitional period" would apply to vessels carrying Russian-origin crude oil that was loaded before December 5 and unloaded at its final destination by January 19, 2023.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned last week that any attempt by the West to cap the price of Russian oil would have "grave consequences" for world markets. But the G7 vowed to go ahead.

Oil ministers from OPEC+ cartel of petroleum exporting countries, of which Russia is a member, will meet in Vienna on December 4.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, RFE/RL's Russian Service, Reuters, and AFP

Leaked Document Says Iranian Leadership Is Seeking To Discredit Sunni Cleric

Iranian Sunni theologian and spiritual leader Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzah (file photo)

A leaked document from the hard-line Fars news agency says Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has told security and military officials to try and disgrace a top Sunni cleric, who is a vocal critic of the government, instead of arresting him.

The document was published on November 30 after the hacktivist group Black Reward announced that it had succeeded in hacking the Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The group released dozens of documents and videos it said were prepared by the news agency.

The cleric, Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzah, is regarded across the country as a spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni Muslim population. He is the director of the main Sunni seminary in Iran and has been under pressure for his comments against the Islamic republic.

"He [Molavi Abdolhamid] should not be arrested. Rather, he should be dishonored," according to one of the documents, which are delivered as bulletins prepared by Fars and delivered to senior IRGC officials, which was handing down comments from the Ayatollah.

Early last month, Molavi Abdolhamid said senior officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were "responsible" for the killing of protesters during the so-called "Bloody Friday" massacre in the southeastern city of Zahedan on September 30. He also called for an immediate referendum with the presence of international observers to "change policies based on the wishes of the people."

Almost 100 people were killed and hundreds injured by security forces in the incident, which came during protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police and the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl by a local police commander.

Anger over Amini's death has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide to demand more freedoms and women's rights. The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran where Molavi Abdolhamid is based, but make up only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.

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

Dutch Prosecutors Won't Appeal In MH17 Case, Making Verdicts Final

A Dutch court last month convicted three former Russian intelligence agents in absentia and sentenced them to life in prison for the downing of the jet.

Dutch prosecutors said on December 1 that they will not file an appeal regarding the outcome in the trial over the 2014 downing of Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine, making the verdicts final. A Dutch court last month convicted three former Russian intelligence agents in absentia and sentenced them to life in prison for the downing of the jet. All 298 people aboard were killed. The three men were found to have helped arrange the transport of the Russian military Buk missile system that was used to shoot down the plane. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Biden, Macron Vow To Hold Russia Accountable For 'Widely Documented Atrocities' In Ukraine

U.S. President Joe Biden (left) greets French President Emmanuel Macron at the White House in Washington on December 1.

U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron on December 1 renewed their commitment to fighting Russia's invasion of Ukraine during a meeting at the White House.

The two leaders said in a joint statement that they were determined to hold Russia to account "for widely documented atrocities and war crimes, committed both by its regular armed forces and by its proxies including mercenary entities such as Vagner" in Ukraine.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Speaking at a joint news conference after their meeting, Biden said he was ready to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin "if he is looking for a way to end the war," while Macron vowed not to push Ukraine into a compromise it can't accept.

They also reaffirmed their continued support for Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity “for as long as it takes.” The support includes significant resources to help Ukrainian civilians through the winter.

The United States and France also intend to continue providing “robust direct budget support for Ukraine, and to urge the international financial institutions to scale up their financial support,” the joint statement said.

He said the two countries were "facing down Vladimir Putin's grasping ambition for conquest" and "defending the democratic values and universal human rights which are the heart of both our nations."

"It doesn't mean that every single solitary thing we agree on," Biden said, speaking after meeting Macron. "But it does mean we agree on almost everything."

Macron said the two nations had a shared responsibility to protect democracies on both sides of the ocean and face the direct and indirect consequences of the war in Ukraine together.

Biden and Macron covered several other topics during their meeting, including energy, emerging technologies, trade, and nuclear deterrence.

The two leaders said in their joint statement that they will continue to coordinate on their concerns regarding "China’s challenge to the rules-based international order, including respect for human rights, and to work together with China on important global issues like climate change."

Prior to their meeting, Macron raised French and European concerns about subsidies in Biden's Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a $430 billion bill that offers massive subsidies for U.S.-made products and is aimed at addressing the climate crisis.

European leaders say the legislation signed by Biden in August is unfair to non-American companies and would be a serious blow to their economies as Europe deals with the fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Biden is hosting Macron for the first state visit since he took office last year. He and first lady Jill Biden are playing up the pageantry with a colorful arrival ceremony planned and 200 live lobsters flown in from Maine for a glittering state dinner.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Armenia, Hungary Agree To Restore Diplomatic Relations After 10-Year Suspension

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto (front left) and his Armenian counterpart, Ararat Mirzoyan (front right) meet in Lodz on December 1.

Armenia and Hungary have agreed to fully restore diplomatic relations, which were severed in 2012 after Hungary extradited Azerbaijani military officer Ramil Safarov to Baku. Safarov at the time was serving a life sentence in Hungary for axing to death Armenian officer Gurgen Margarian in 2004 during NATO training courses. The Armenian Foreign Ministry said on December 1 that the Armenian and Hungarian foreign ministers, who met in Poland, expressed their intention to open a new chapter in Armenian-Hungarian relations. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, click here.

Iran Hands Death Sentences To Four Accused Of Collaborating With Israel

A screengrab from a video released in which an Iranian appeared to admit that he wanted to assassinate an Israeli diplomat, as well as an American general and a journalist in France. (file photo)

Iran has sentenced to death four people accused of collaborating with Israel, the semiofficial Mehr News agency reported.

According to a report by Mehr News on November 30, the four were arrested in June and were accused of having interrogated people in Iran with intelligence cooperation from Mossad, the Israeli secret service.

Three other people on trial in the case were handed sentences by the Supreme Judicial Court of Iran of between five years and 10 years for "acting against the country's security," kidnapping, and the possession of weapons.

Iran and Israel have been engaged in a yearslong shadow war. Tensions between the two have soared in recent years.

The report on the sentencing comes after Tehran accused Israel of carrying out a recent spate of assassinations and sabotage attacks inside the Islamic republic.

Earlier this year, Israeli media reported that Mossad captured and interrogated a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps inside Iran.

Later, a video was released in which a person who identified himself as Mansur Rasuli, admitted that he wanted to assassinate an Israeli diplomat working in the country's consulate in Istanbul, as well as an American general stationed in Germany and a journalist in France.

Mehr News has not specified whether the people who were sentenced to death were related to that case or not.

Iran has been roiled in recent months by nationwide protests sparked by the death of a young woman while she was being held in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.

Tehran has blamed Israel, the United States, and other Western countries for the unrest, which has seen security forces kill more than 400 people, according to human rights groups, including dozens of minors.

Officials have not shown any evidence to back up their accusations that the West has been involved in the anti-government uprising.

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

Ukrainian Power-Grid Operator Receives 300 Million Euro Loan From European Bank, 72 Million Euro Grant From Netherlands

Workers repair broken power lines damaged by shelling in Ukraine's Donetsk region on November 25.

Ukraine's Ukrenerho grid operator has secured 300 million euros ($315 million) in loans from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to restore power infrastructure damaged in Russian attacks and improve financial stability, the company said in a statement on December 1. Ukrenerho said 150 million euros of the loan and a 72 million euro grant from the Netherlands will be used for the purchase of equipment needed for the repairs. The remaining 150 million euros of EBRD funds will be allocated for the company's financial obligations in the electricity market, Ukrenerho said. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Jailed Belarusian Opposition Activist Kalesnikava Leaves Intensive Care Unit After Surgery

Belarusian opposition activist Maria Kalesnikava (file photo)

Maryya Kalesnikava, a leading opposition activist in Belarus who was sentenced to 11 years in prison last year, was transferred from an intensive care unit to a regular unit in a hospital after a surgery.

Viktar Babaryka, a would-be presidential candidate who was imprisoned for alleged corruption last year, wrote on Telegram on December 1 that doctors informed Kalesnikava’s father, Alyaksandr Kalesnikau, that his daughter felt better and ate yogurt and porridge in the morning.

Kalesnikau has not been allowed to see his daughter and still does not know her diagnosis. Kalesnikava’s lawyer, Uladzimer Pylchanka, has not been able to see his client either due to "the absence of a request from the convict."

Kalesnikava was rushed to the hospital from a penal colony in the city of Homel, 300 kilometers southeast of Minsk, on November 29.

Kalesnikava rose to prominence after she joined forces with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veranika Tsapkala to form a trio of women who led historic demonstrations against Belarusian authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020.

Kalesnikava, 40, the only one of the three still in the country, has been imprisoned over her role in the mass protests that lasted for more than two years. She was arrested in September 2020.

Kalesnikava and another opposition figure, Maksim Znak, were sentenced to prison terms of 11 and 10 years, respectively, in September 2021, after being found guilty on charges of conspiracy to seize power, calls for action to damage national security, and calls for actions damaging national security by trying to create an extremist group. Both had pleaded not guilty and rejected the charges.

Human rights watchdogs in Belarus have recognized Kalesnikava and two other associates who also being detained as political prisoners and have demanded their immediate release.

Jailed Russian Opposition Politician Navalny Again Placed In Punitive Solitary Confinement

Jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (file photo)

Imprisoned Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has been placed in a punitive solitary confinement cell for the eighth time since August, Navalny's press secretary Kira Yarmysh tweeted on December 1. This time, Navalny was sent to solitary confinement for 11 days for a "violation of the dress code." The violation was for failing to have on a prison jacket during a check at 5:12 a.m. Navalny has called all his previous incarcerations in solitary confinement "politically motivated." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Tajik Prosecutors Seek 30 Years In Prison For Activist From Restive Gorno-Badakhshan Region

Former Tajik lawmaker Faromuz Irgashev (file photo)

DUSHANBE -- Tajik prosecutors have asked a court in Dushanbe to convict and sentence to 30 years in prison Faromuz Irgashev, an activist and former lawmaker in the volatile Gorno-Badakhshan region (GBAO), on charges of receiving illegal financial support from abroad, organizing an unsanctioned rally, and participating in the activities of a criminal group.

Two sources close to the trial, which started in October and is being held behind closed doors, told RFE/RL on December 1 that the prosecutor asked the court to sentence Irgashev last week.

The 32-year-old lawyer was arrested in May with several other activists in the wake of the deadly dispersal of protesters in GBAO. It is not known how he pleaded.

Irgashev was a lawyer for the Commission 44 group, which was created in November last year in GBAO to facilitate a dialogue between regional authorities and anti-government protesters. The group’s efforts led to the peaceful resolution of protests in the region.

In May, the protests in GBAO resumed as people demanded a thorough investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of the regional governor and the mayor of GBAO's capital, Khorugh.

The rallies intensified after one of the protesters was killed by police in May, prompting the authorities to launch a "counterterrorist operation."

Authorities violently dispersed the protesters, arresting dozens of them. Irgashev and at least six other members of Commission 44 were among those apprehended. Two of them were later sentenced to 18 years in prison each.

In August, Tajikistan's Supreme Court declared Commission 44 to be a criminal group.

Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades.

Former Russian Lawmaker And His Brother Handed Lengthy Prison Terms On Embezzlement Charges

Former Russian lawmaker Magomed Magomedov (right) and his brother Ziyavudin (file photo)

A court in Moscow on December 1 sentenced former Russian lawmaker Magomed Magomedov and his brother, an ex-tycoon, Ziyavudin Magomedov, to 18 years and 19 years in prison, respectively, on embezzlement charges. The Meshchansky district court also found the brothers guilty of creating a criminal group. Magomed Magomedov used to be a member of the Federation Council, the Russian parliament's upper chamber. In 2017, Forbes estimated Ziyavudin Magomedov's wealth to be $1.4 billion. The two were arrested in March 2018. Both maintain their innocence. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Police In Russia's Tatarstan Search Homes Of Local Journalist, Anti-War Activist

A video in May showed Russia's ambassador to Poland, Sergei Andreyev (right) being doused with red paint by participants of a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine during his attempt to lay flowers at a cemetery in Warsaw.

Police in Kazan, the capital of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan, have searched the home of local journalist Nailla Mullayeva over a video of an attack by anti-war activists in Poland against the Russian ambassador in May.

Police in Kazan also searched the home of activist Elina Yasonova on December 1 for unspecified reasons. Both Mullayeva and Yasonova have been known for their public stance against Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Mullayeva told OVD-Info, a group that monitors cases of persecution of journalists and activists, that the search of her home was held as part of a probe into a "justification of terrorist action" case.

According to Mullayeva, police are investigating whether she had any involvement in distributing a video in May showing Ambassador Sergei Andreyev being doused with red paint by Polish activists as he attempted to lay flowers at a Soviet military memorial cemetery in Warsaw for Red Army soldiers who died during World War II.

Last month, Tatarstan's authorities added Andrei Grigoryev, a correspondent from RFE/RL's Idel.Realities online project, to the wanted list and issued a warrant for his arrest over the same video, accusing him of publicly calling for terrorist activities via the Internet.

In August, police in Kazan searched the homes of Grigoryev and several other current and former correspondents of RFE/RL's Idel.Realities and Tatar-Bashkir Service, saying they were suspected of having been involved in the video's distribution online.

All of the journalists said they had nothing to do with the video.

Idel.Realities is a regional news outlet in Russian of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service.

With reporting by OVD-Info

Serbia's Plum Brandy Gets UNESCO World Heritage Status

Sljivovica has been handcrafted in Serbia for centuries, a custom carried from generation to generation that experts say has become part of the national identity. 

Serbian authorities announced on December 1 that sljivovica, Serbia's traditional plum brandy, is being added to the UN’s list of intangible cultural heritage as "a cherished tradition to be preserved by humanity." UNESCO experts gathering in Morocco this week decided that “social practices and knowledge related to the preparation and use” of sljivovica deserve UN recognition as an example of an important cultural tradition, Serbia's Culture Ministry said. Sljivovica has been handcrafted in Serbia for centuries, a custom carried from generation to generation that experts say has become part of the national identity. To read the original AP story, click here.

Streaming Of Foreign Movies, Music Aboard Russia's Aeroflot Aircraft Suspended Amid Sanctions

Aeroflot said on Telegram on December 1 that all of its 137 planes were affected by the situation, adding that domestic movies and music will be offered to passengers by January 1, 2023. 

Streaming of foreign movies and music aboard planes operated by Aeroflot, Russia's largest airline, has been suspended after foreign partners refused to provide services due to international sanctions imposed on Russia over its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Aeroflot said on Telegram on December 1 that all of its 137 planes were affected by the situation, adding that domestic movies and music will be offered to passengers by January 1, 2023. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Former Kyrgyz President Atambaev Calls Trial A 'Circus,' Removed From Courtroom For 'Disrupting Order'

Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev stands in a glass cage at the start of his trial at a Bishkek courthouse on December 1.

BISHKEK -- Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has been removed from the courtroom after he called his trial "a circus" and started kicking at the glass cage where he had been placed.

The judge of the Birinchi Mai district court ordered bailiffs to remove Atambaev from the courtroom as the trial of the former leader and three other former officials charged with abuse of office during deadly ethnic clashes in 2010 in the Central Asian nation started on December 1.

The 66-year-old Atambaev, who is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for his role in the illegal release of a notorious crime boss in 2013, led Kyrgyzstan's interim government when clashes between Kyrgyz and local Uzbeks shook the Central Asian nation's southern regions of Osh and Jalal-Abad in June 2010, following anti-government protests that toppled then President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

According to Kyrgyz officials, 446 men and women were killed in the ethnic clashes, about 2,000 people were injured, and tens of thousands were displaced.

Atambaev is currently involved in another trial that is related to August 2019 clashes between his supporters and security forces at his residential compound near Bishkek.

The two-day standoff between security forces and Atambaev’s supporters resulted in the death of a top security officer and more than 170 injuries -- 79 of them sustained by law enforcement officers.

Atambaev and 13 others are charged in that case with murder, attempted murder, threatening or assaulting representatives of authorities, hostage taking, and the forcible seizure of power.

Russia-Backed Separatist Leader In Ukraine Says Moscow, Kyiv To Exchange 50 POWs Each

Denis Pushilin (file photo)

The leader of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's occupied eastern region of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, says that Russia and Ukraine will each hand over 50 prisoners of war in the latest in a series of prisoner exchanges. Pushilin said in a post on Telegram on December 1 that the exchange will be conducted during the day. He said 20 of the POWs to be returned to the Russian side are from Donetsk and separatist-controlled districts of another eastern region in Ukraine, Luhansk. Ukrainian officials have yet to confirm the swap.

China's Xi Urges Ukraine Talks In Meeting With EU's Michel

European Council President Charles Michel meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on December 1.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping urged negotiations on a political solution to the Ukraine conflict in talks with visiting European Council President Charles Michel in Beijing on December 1, state broadcaster CCTV said. Xi was quoted as saying that "solving the Ukrainian crisis through political means is in the best interest of Europe and the common interest of all countries in Eurasia." He added that “under current conditions, we must avoid escalation and expansion of the crisis and work for peace." To read the original AP story, click here.

EU's Borrell Says Russia Must Pay For Ukraine Reconstruction

A damaged building in the Russian-occupied Azov Sea port city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine on November 29.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said at regional security talks on December 1 that he plans to discuss with his counterparts any available legal means to ensure Russia pays for the reconstruction of war-torn Ukraine. Borrell spoke at the start of this year's two-day ministerial conference of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in the central Polish city of Lodz. He noted that the EU has frozen Russian assets worth nearly 20 billion euros since Moscow invaded Ukraine.

U.S. Prosecutors Move To Seize $5 Million Tied To Russian Oligarch Malofeyev

Konstantin Malofeyev is accused of evading sanctions and using co-conspirators to acquire media organizations across Europe. He’s also been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. (file photo)

U.S. prosecutors have moved to seize more than $5 million from a U.S. bank account belonging to Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeyev, a nationalist oligarch who officials say has funded separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine for years.

The civil forfeiture complaint, filed on November 30 in a U.S. federal court in Manhattan, was the latest effort by U.S. authorities targeting Malofeyev and part of a wider effort by authorities to go after assets belonging to wealthy and politically connected Russians.

Malofeyev himself was hit with criminal charges in March. He is accused of evading sanctions and using co-conspirators to acquire media organizations across Europe. He’s also been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department.

There was no immediate response to an e-mail sent by RFE/RL to his television channel Tsargrad TV seeking comment.

In the court filing, U.S. prosecutors alleged that Malofeyev used a Seychelles shell company in March 2014 to invest $10 million in shares in a Texas bank.

Prosecutors said he sold the shell company in 2015 to an unnamed Greek business partner for $1. But the sale agreement was backdated to July 2014, before sanctions were imposed, prosecutors said.

According to the complaint, the Texas bank, called Strategic Growth Bancorp, recognized Malofeyev as the owner of the original shares and flagged the attempted transfer to the Treasury Department.

Malofeyev's shares were later converted into cash and deposited into a blocked account when Strategic Growth Bancorp merged with another bank, Sunflower Bank, which is Denver-based.

Neither Strategic Growth Bancorp nor Sunflower Bank was accused of wrongdoing.

A billionaire and founder of Tsargrad TV, Malofeyev has gained notoriety for years for espousing a nationalist, religious ideology that has been increasingly embraced by some Russian officials. He’s also been instrumental in financing and supporting separatist efforts in the Donbas for years, according to Western and Ukrainian officials.

In the criminal indictment issued in April, U.S. prosecutors accused Malofeyev of trying to evade U.S. sanctions by a U.S. man to operate television networks in Russia and Greece and attempting to acquire a Bulgarian television network.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, U.S. and Western authorities have stepped up efforts to go after assets -- bank accounts, yachts, private jets, mansions -- owned by wealthy and politically connected Russians.

FIFA Allows Banners Supporting Iranian Protesters At World Cup After Iran Eliminated

Players fight for a header during the World Cup group B soccer match between Iran and the United States in Doha on November 29.

FIFA has given permission for the display of banners supporting protests in Iran and rainbow items at the World Cup soccer tournament in Qatar -- but only after the Middle Eastern country was eliminated from the competition.

Since the start of the World Cup on November 20, stadium security staff organized by Qatari authorities had confiscated items with rainbow colors and slogans such as "Women, Life, Freedom" to stop them from being taken inside stadiums.

During matches involving the Iranian national team, Iranian spectators were not allowed to wear clothes with slogans in support of the months-long protest movement in Iran triggered by the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained in September for allegedly improperly wearing a head scarf, or hijab.

At least 459 protesters have been killed so far by security forces during the unrest in Iran, including 64 minors, according to the activist HRANA news agency.

The U.S.-Iran game on November 29 was charged with emotion for Iranian fans, some of whom had come to Qatar to back the protest movement back home with banners and flags. Iran lost 1-0 and was eliminated from the tournament.

“FIFA is aware of some incidents where permitted items were not allowed to be displayed at stadiums,” soccer’s world body said in a statement on November 30, more than a week after some infractions were reported at World Cup stadiums.

“FIFA has received assurances by authorities that venue commanders have been contacted in relation to the agreed rules and regulations for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.”

In the first week of the tournament, seven European teams including Wales were banned by FIFA from wearing multicolored “One Love” armbands during World Cup matches and some fans complained they weren’t allowed to bring items with rainbow colors, a symbol of LGBTQ rights, into the stadiums of the conservative Islamic emirate.

“FIFA continues to work closely with the Host Country to ensure the full implementation of related regulations and agreed protocols,” FIFA said.

Russian Interior Ministry Adds Noted Lawyer Ilya Novikov To Its Wanted List

Russian lawyer Ilya Novikov has harshly criticized Russian authorities for the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Russia's Interior Ministry has added noted Russian lawyer and outspoken Kremlin critic Ilya Novikov, who currently resides in Ukraine, to its wanted list on unspecified charges. Novikov's picture and data appeared on the ministry's online registry of wanted persons on November 30. Novikov, 40, has harshly criticized Russian authorities for the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. He has gained prominence for defending Ukrainian nationals and human rights activists in high-profile cases in recent years. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

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