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India Makes Tests Mandatory For Cough Syrup Export After Deaths In Uzbekistan, Gambia

Indian police at the gates of a branch of Marion Biotech, a health-care and pharmaceutical company whose cough syrup has been linked to the deaths of children in Uzbekistan. (file photo)
Indian police at the gates of a branch of Marion Biotech, a health-care and pharmaceutical company whose cough syrup has been linked to the deaths of children in Uzbekistan. (file photo)

India will allow the export of cough syrups only after samples are tested in a government laboratory, a government notice said on May 23, after Indian-made cough syrups were linked to the deaths of dozens of children in Uzbekistan and Gambia. Any cough syrup must have a certificate of analysis issued by a government laboratory before it is exported, effective June 1, the government said in a notice shared by the Health Ministry on May 23. Indian-made cough syrups were linked to the deaths of 70 children in Gambia and 19 in Uzbekistan last year. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

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Senior Russian Military Official Held As Kremlin Continues Corruption Sweep

 Lieutenant General Vadim Shamarin, a senior military official, is suspected of accepting a bribe of an "especially large amount." (file photo)
Lieutenant General Vadim Shamarin, a senior military official, is suspected of accepting a bribe of an "especially large amount." (file photo)

A military court in Moscow has sent to pretrial detention Lieutenant General Vadim Shamarin, a senior military official, the latest arrest of a top military official in what the Kremlin called its ongoing fight against corruption.

Representatives of the 235th Garrison Military Court told RBK news agency on May 23 that Shamarin, who also leads the armed forces' main directorate for communications, is suspected of accepting a bribe of an "especially large amount."

"The fight against corruption is a consistent work. It is not a campaign; it is a constant ongoing work," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on May 23 after news spread of Shamarin's detention.

President Vladimir Putin recently relieved his close ally, Sergei Shoigu, of his duties as defense minister.

Shoigu had been accused of incompetence and corruption by mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who in June last year attempted a mutiny while demanding the dismissal of Shoigu and the military chief of staff, General Valery Gerasimov.

The move to detain Shamarin comes days after the former commander of Russia’s 58th Army, Major General Ivan Popov, was arrested on fraud charges reportedly linked to the alleged embezzlement of 100 million rubles ($1.1 million) allocated for military needs in Ukraine's Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhya region.

Last week, investigators arrested Lieutenant General Yury Kuznetsov, who headed the personnel directorate of Russia's Defense Ministry, in an alleged corruption case.

In late April, police detained Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov on bribe-taking charges and a court later sent him to pretrial detention for at least two months.

Putin replaced Shoigu with former First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov, 65, a politician who specializes in economic matters. The move is seen as part of a strategy to make the armed forces more streamlined with Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine now in its third year.

On May 20, Putin appointed Oleg Savelyev, the former minister on Crimean affairs, to the post of deputy defense minister.

The 58-year-old Savelyev also served as deputy minister for economic development and as the auditor at the Audit Chamber, a parliamentary group that serves as a financial watchdog.

With reporting by Kommersant, RBK, TASS, and Interfax

Iran Prepares To Bury President Raisi In His Hometown

The last day of funeral ceremonies for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi commenced on May 23 in the eastern city of Birjand.
The last day of funeral ceremonies for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi commenced on May 23 in the eastern city of Birjand.

The last day of funeral ceremonies for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi commenced on May 23 in the eastern city of Birjand, where thousands of black-clad people marched along the main avenue holding portraits of the president and others killed in a weekend helicopter crash.

Throngs of mourners accompanied Raisi's casket draped in the Iranian flag and placed on a platform truck that also displayed a sign reading, "This is the shrine," before the ceremonies were to move to the late ultraconservative president's home town of Mashhad, where he will be buried at the holy shrine of Imam Reza, an important Shi'ite site.

Foreign dignitaries from friendly states are expected to attend, including Russian parliamentary leader Vyacheslav Volodin.

Although thousands of people joined the procession, the attendance was less numerous than on other similar occasions, a likely indication of a deepening rift between the country's Islamic theocracy and ordinary citizens frustrated by the increasing repression of their rights and declining living standards.

New Pictures And Account Emerge Of Raisi Crash As Thousands Attend Funeral
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Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who was also killed in the helicopter crash, was to be buried later on May 23 in the Shah Abdul Azim shrine in the city of Rey, just south of Tehran. Ahead of the burial, Iranian officials and foreign diplomats paid their respects to Amir-Abdollahian at a ceremony in Tehran.

A day earlier, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led funeral prayers in Tehran, where thousands attended a funeral procession.

Some reports said Tehran residents received mobile phone messages urging them to attend the funeral procession.

Khamenei presided over the start of the ceremony, where he delivered a traditional "death prayer" for Raisi and then left the ceremony without giving a speech. Iran's acting president, First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, was also in attendance.

Several foreign dignitaries attended, including Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shia al-Sudani, and a delegation from Afghanistan's Taliban rulers led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi.

No Western leaders attended. Three former Iranian presidents -- Mohammad Khatami, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and Hassan Rohani -- were also not seen among dignitaries in attendance.

A presidential election to determine Raisi's successor was announced for June 28. The election is to be organized by a council consisting of the speaker of parliament, the head of the judiciary, and the first vice president.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Baqeri Kani was appointed acting foreign minister.

Analyst Mehdi Khalaji, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that no matter who will become the next president, Iran's future leadership will not be endured by one person, but the regime will try to form a "special joint leadership stock company."

The ceremonies marking the deaths of those involved in the crash started on May 21 in the city of Tabriz, the capital of Iran's northwestern province of East Azerbaijan where the crash occurred, and the Shi'ite clerical center of Qom.

Beyond the official display of public grief, many Iranians who have been victims of acts of repression by Raisi and the Iranian regime or had relatives who suffered from such acts were adamant in voicing their satisfaction at Raisi's death.

A woman who lost 11 relatives, including two daughters, in executions allegedly coordinated by Raisi in 1988 told RFE/RL that she was celebrating his death.

"Truly, I cannot express how limitless my happiness is," Esman Vatanparast said. "When Raisi became president, it was very difficult for us hurting mothers, the survivors of the massacres committed by him."

Raisi was elected president in 2021 and had tightened many restrictions on Iranians through the enforcement of morality laws and a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests spurred by the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly violating the Islamic dress code on head scarves.

Thousands of people, including protesters, journalists, lawyers, athletes, and artists have been arrested and at least 500 people have been killed in Iran's brutal crackdown on the protests.

Raisi also pushed hard in nuclear talks with world powers while also allowing the country to markedly increase its uranium enrichment program.

The director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Raisi's has pushed back nuclear negotiations to improve Iran's cooperation with the agency.

"Now Iran is in a period of mourning and it should be respected, but when this period is over, we want to re-engage with Iran to improve cooperation," Rafael Grossi said on May 22 in Helsinki.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Russia Says It Shot Down Dozens Of Ukranian Rockets, Drones

Russia's Defense Ministry said its air-defense systems repelled a large Ukrainian rocket and drone attack targeting Belgorod region on May 23.
Russia's Defense Ministry said its air-defense systems repelled a large Ukrainian rocket and drone attack targeting Belgorod region on May 23.

Russia's Defense Ministry said its air-defense systems repelled a large Ukrainian rocket and drone attack targeting Belgorod region on May 23. "The air-defense systems on duty destroyed three Vilkha MLRS rockets, 32 Vampire MLRS rockets, and three UAVs over the territory of the Belgorod region," the ministry said in a message on Telegram. Belgorod Governor Cyacheslav Gladkov said in a separate message that the there were no casualties from the attack, but two children's camps were damaged by falling debris. The claims could not be independently verified immediately. Ukraine has not commented.

Norway Slaps Further Restrictions On Russian Visitors

Norway-Russia border (file photo)
Norway-Russia border (file photo)

Norway has announced further restrictions for the entry of Russian citizens in the Nordic country in reaction to Moscow's ongoing war in Ukraine. Oslo first introduced restrictions on visas for Russian visitors in the spring of 2022, after the start of Russia's unprovoked full-scale invasion. Under the new restrictions, police can refuse the entry of certain Russian citizens, the Justice Ministry said in a statement. "The decision...is in line with the Norwegian approach of standing by allies and partners in the reactions against Russia's illegal war of aggression against Ukraine," it said. The new rules take effect on May 29.

UN General Assembly To Vote On Resolution To Commemorate Srebrenica Genocide

A woman prays amid the gravestones of Srebrenica victims at a memorial cemetery in Potocari.
A woman prays amid the gravestones of Srebrenica victims at a memorial cemetery in Potocari.

The UN General Assembly has scheduled a debate on a UN resolution to establish an annual day to commemorate the 1995 genocide of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs on May 23 to be followed by a vote.

The resolution would designate July 11 as the International Day of Reflection and Commemoration of the 1995 Genocide in Srebrenica.

The resolution has sparked protests and a lobbying campaign by Serbia’s president and the Bosnian Serb leadership to block its adoption by the 193-member General Assembly. Approval requires a majority of those countries that take part in the vote.

The draft resolution condemns “without reservation any denial of the Srebrenica genocide as a historical event.” It also “condemns without reservation actions that glorify those convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide by international courts, including those responsible for the Srebrenica genocide.”

Sponsored by Germany and Rwanda, the resolution also asks the United Nations to prepare an outreach program and invites countries, organizations, civil society organizations, and others to observe July 11 with “appropriate education and public awareness-raising activities" in memory and honor of the victims.

The killings began near the end of the 1992-95 Bosnian War, which broke out after the breakup of Yugoslavia and pitted Bosnian Serbs against the country’s two other main ethnic populations, Croats and Muslim Bosniaks.

A Doctor Hid Bones Of Srebrenica Victims In His Garden. He's Still Practicing.
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On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serbs overran a UN-protected safe area in Srebrenica and began targeting Bosniak men and boys. Those who tried to escape were chased through the woods and over the mountains around the town.

The International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest tribunal, determined in 2007 that the acts committed in Srebrenica constituted genocide, and the court’s determination is included in the draft resolution.

Germany’s UN Ambassador Antje Leendertse said the resolution “has the support of a large cross-regional group. She noted in a statement to the Associated Press last week that there is an official UN commemoration of the 1994 Rwanda genocide every year on April 7, and the Srebrenica resolution aims to do the same for Bosnia before the 30th anniversary of the start of the genocide in 2025.

Serbia’s nationalist president, Aleksandar Vucic, and the leadership of the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska, have vehemently opposed the adoption of the resolution, saying it brands Serbia as a “genocidal nation.”

Serbian Foreign Minister Marko Duric told the UN Security Council on April 30 that Serbia has consistently condemned the “horrific” Srebrenica massacre and other crimes committed during the Bosnian War. Duric called for the resolution to be withdrawn and replaced by one that honors all victims of the war.

Vucic said the resolution should be subjected to a vote in the UN Security Council, not the General Assembly. Those put to a vote in the Security Council can be vetoed by any of its five members, therefore allowing Russia and China to sink it.

Russia’s envoy to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, dismissed the resolution as “one-sided” and “politically charged” in his comments to the Security Council on April 30. Nebenzya said the move would not promote reconciliation among the peoples of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Milorad Dodik, Republika Srpska's Russia-friendly leader, has repeatedly threatened that if the resolution is adopted, the entity "will withdraw from the decision-making process in Bosnia."

Dodik, who has regularly reiterated his denial of the Srebrenica genocide, told supporters at a rally in Banja Luka last month that the actions of the Republika Srpska Army in Srebrenica in 1995 were "a mistake that left the crime," but he denied it was genocide.

With reporting by AP

Turkey Claims Its Drone Was Instrumental In Finding Wreckage Of Iranian Helicopter

An Akinci drone made by Turkey (file photo)
An Akinci drone made by Turkey (file photo)

Turkey says its Akinci drone deserves more credit for helping to locate the wreckage of the Iranian helicopter that crashed in a remote and mountainous area of Iran on May 19, killing President Ebrahim Raisi and other top Iranian officials, according to Turkish media reports on May 22.

The reports say that the Akinci drone was first to find the site of the wreckage and accused Iran of changing its narrative about the use of the Turkish equipment after it provided information about the location of the wreckage and then made counterclaims that its own drone found the site.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this week that the Akinci drone was sent at the request of the Iranian government.

According to Erdogan, despite the bad weather conditions the drone was able to conduct search operations in the region for seven and a half hours and fly a total of 2,100 kilometers.

After the Turkish drone identified the helicopter wreckage and detected heat sources believed to be the crash site in Iran’s East Azerbaijan Province, the Iranian search team successfully located the downed helicopter and the bodies of Raisi and the others in the mountainous terrain, according to Turkish media reports.

However, Iran rejected the notion that there was foreign participation in the search operation despite data from the Turkish drone that revealed the coordinates of the crash, and confirmation of this data by some Iranian news agencies.

After the Akinci drone captured images of the wreckage using its night vision and thermal camera and released them on the Internet, Pirhossein Kolivand, the head of the Iranian Red Crescent Society, called foreign participation in the search a rumor.

“We did not stop the search in the dark, fog, and rain, and when we discovered the wreckage of the helicopter with our own drone, we moved to the exact place where the helicopter fell," Kolivand said.

He claimed that rescuers from the Red Crescent found the wreckage at an altitude of 2,500 meters and "it took 40 minutes from the time of finding the wreckage of the helicopter to reaching the accident site.”

New Pictures And Account Emerge Of Raisi Crash As Thousands Attend Funeral
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But during the overnight search, the Red Crescent said in a statement at around 4 a.m. local time on May 20 that after the Turkish drone identified two potential “hot spots” the Red Crescent rescue teams headed toward the sites.

The head of the East Azerbaijan Red Crescent also cited the Turkish drone report that a “burning spot” had been detected and said rescue forces were sent to that area.

The head of Turkey, Asia, and Indo-Pacific studies at the Institute for International Relations and Strategic Research (ULISA) said in an opinion piece published by the state news agency Anadolu that the drone’s role in finding the wreckage site demonstrated the need to recognize Turkey’s commitment to fulfilling its humanitarian responsibilities through its defense capacity.

Professor M. Nazmul Islam said that, after Iran accepted Turkey’s offer to send the drone, the Akinci took off from a Turkish base at around 11:30 p.m. local time and began searching nearly an hour later. Turkey claims that it transmitted the image of the wreckage of the helicopter at 3:06 a.m. Iranian time and shared the coordinates with the Iranian authorities.

But according to Iranian media accounts, an Iranian drone belonging to the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps found the remains of the helicopter at around 5:30 a.m. local time.

A statement issued by Iran's military said that, despite Turkey sending a drone equipped with night vision and thermal cameras, it "failed to accurately locate the crash site due to its lack of detection equipment and control points below the cloud," referring to the adverse weather conditions.

Iran Radio reported that it was “five o'clock in the morning when the correct coordinates were finally found with Iranian equipment and Iranian relief forces.”

Iran, whose military has its own drone program, was not able to deploy its drones because they were located in the northern part of the Indian Ocean at the time, the Iranian military said. Western powers have accused Iran of providing drones to Russia for its war in Ukraine.

With reporting by Anadolu and Reuters

Bulgarian Prosecutor Seeks Closure Of 2 Pro-Russian Paramilitary Groups

Pro-Russian demonstrators hold a rally in Sofia in May 2023.
Pro-Russian demonstrators hold a rally in Sofia in May 2023.

Two pro-Russian paramilitary organizations operating in Bulgaria should be closed because their activities violate the constitution, a district prosecutor’s office said on May 22.

The request to shut down BNO Shipka and the Vasil Levski Military Union was submitted to the district court in Varna by the local prosecutor’s office. The court is expected to schedule a hearing to consider the request.

The two paramilitary organizations are connected to one another and known for their pro-Russian rhetoric. They have been conducting combat training for years and oppose Bulgaria’s Euro-Atlantic affiliations, including its membership in the European Union and in NATO.

The request comes a year and a half after the state prosecutor’s office announced that it was investigating BNO Shipka for sedition.

Investigators found that the two paramilitary organizations violated the constitution’s prohibition of actions “against the sovereignty [and] territorial integrity of the country and the unity of the nation” and its prohibition of inciting hatred and creating "secret or paramilitary structures."

The Varna district prosecutor's office said members of both groups had made organized visits to the border with Turkey aimed at "catching illegal migrants."

In addition, the leaders of the two associations have maintained contacts with representatives of German political factions, including people known for their far-right beliefs, the investigators said.

The groups describe their activities as patriotic.

The leader and spokesman for the organizations, a man who introduces himself as Vladimir Rusev, has spread conspiracy theories against NATO and the European Union on social media for years. Rusev, who has gained fame in the past with the nickname Walter Kalashnikov, opposes COVID-19 vaccination, linking it to disinformation that circulated on social media during the pandemic.

Questions about the organizations were raised last year by investigative journalist Hristo Grozev, who reported that they were linked to a 2016 attempt by Russia to destabilize Bulgaria using a model deployed in Montenegro the same year.

Grozev’s investigation looked into a protest in Sofia in April 2016 organized by BNO Shipka and the Vasil Levski Military Union in front of the National Assembly. Many of the activists of the paramilitary organizations were preemptively detained before the protest.

A few months later members of the organizations beat protesters who demonstrated against the visit of the pro-Russian biker Night Wolves club to the Black Sea port city of Burgas. The Burgas district court in April 2019 convicted three people in the case.

Custody Extended For Russian Teen Jailed For Posting Ukrainian Poet

Darya Kozyreva in court earlier this year
Darya Kozyreva in court earlier this year

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- A court in St. Petersburg has extended pretrial detention by another two months for an 18-year-old activist who is charged with repeatedly discrediting Russian armed forces involved in Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

The Petrograd district court ruled on May 22 that Darya Kozyreva must stay in pretrial detention at least until July 25.

Kozyreva was detained on February 24, the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, after she glued a poster on a monument to prominent Ukrainian writer, poet, and thinker Taras Shevchenko with an excerpt of a well-known poem from his book, My Testament:

Oh bury me, then rise ye up

And break your heavy chains

And water with the tyrants' blood

The freedom you have gained.

The poster was so strongly glued to the monument that police were unable to remove it and had to cover it with a black plastic bag.

Kozyreva was initially charged with vandalism in January last year after she left a comment in December 2022 on an art installation symbolizing "friendship" between St. Petersburg and Ukraine's city of Mariupol, which was destroyed by Russian bombs at the start of the invasion.

An investigation into that case is still under way.

On December 18, 2022, less than a week after the installation was unveiled in St. Petersburg's Palace Square, the words “Murderers, you bombed it to ruins yourselves!" appeared on the installation.

Kozyreva was expelled from St. Petersburg State University in January after she was found guilty of discrediting Russia's armed forces and ordered to pay a 30,000 ruble ($330) fine in December.

That charge stemmed from Kozyreva's online posts criticizing Russian laws on discrediting the country's armed forces, which were introduced shortly after Russia launched its full-scale invasion in late February 2022.

6 Kyrgyz, 4 Foreign Nationals Detained Over Mob Attacks In Bishkek

Pakistani students leaving Kyrgyzstan following mob attacks. Manas international airport in Bishkek. May 21, 2024
Pakistani students leaving Kyrgyzstan following mob attacks. Manas international airport in Bishkek. May 21, 2024

BISHKEK -- The Kyrgyz Interior Ministry said on May 22 that six Kyrgyz and four foreign citizens had been detained on suspicion of being involved in a brawl that sparked mob attacks on foreign students in Bishkek, triggering a mass exodus of Pakistani students from the Central Asian nation.

According to the ministry, nine investigations have been launched into hooliganism, robbery, mass disorder, and inciting ethnic hatred. Thirty-three people were injured in the violence, the ministry added.

Hundreds of Pakistani students have left Kyrgyzstan since the May 18 violence, which was triggered by the appearance on social media of a video purportedly showing a group of "people of Asian appearance" harassing foreign students on the night of May 13.

Pakistani Students Report Food Shortages While Sheltering At University In Bishkek
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The group then pursued the students to their dormitory, where at least one foreigner was assaulted by several men and dragged along the floor.

Kyrgyz officials said later that the foreigners involved in the brawl on video were Egyptians.

The Kyrgyz government has vowed to pursue those responsible for the violence.

Still, it appeared to lay the blame for the attack on illegal migrants, saying authorities had been taking "decisive measures to suppress illegal migration and expel undesirable persons from Kyrgyzstan."

On May 22, Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said in a statement that five Egyptian citizens were arrested on charges of extortion, illegal drug possession, and violating immigration laws.

A day earlier, the UKMK said six Pakistani nationals were detained overnight while trying to illegally enter Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan.

Just three days before the violence, the UKMK detained 28 Pakistani nationals for "working illegally" in a sewing shop in Bishkek.

The same day, Bishkek city police shut down delivery services conducted by more than 400 foreign students, mostly from Pakistan, on motorcycles and scooters, citing traffic safety concerns.

Britain Accuses China Of Working To Provide Russia With 'Lethal Aid'

Chinese leader Xi Jinping (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing on May 16 during a two-day state visit.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing on May 16 during a two-day state visit.

Britain has accused China of preparing to or already providing ‘lethal aid’ to Russia for its ongoing full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

Citing U.S. and British defense intelligence, Defense Secretary Grant Shapps said there was evidence that “lethal aid is now, or will be, flowing from China to Russia and into Ukraine.”

“Today I can reveal that we have evidence that Russia and China are collaborating on combat equipment for use in Ukraine,” Shapps told a defense conference in London on May 22.

The British defense minister did not provide details or evidence to back up his claim, but his assertion, the first such accusation from a Western official, would indicate a new level of support for Moscow from Beijing and that China had pivoted to directly supporting Russia’s military.

“We should be concerned about that because in the earlier days of this war, China would like to present itself as a moderating influence on” Russian President Vladimir Putin, Schnapps said, adding that trade data since the Kremlin’s February 2022 full-scale invasion of invasion shows that Beijing and Moscow “are covering each other's backs.”

China has emerged as the Kremlin's leading international supporter as a vital consumer for oil and gas that has helped boost the Russian economy and by supplying Russia with key militarily useful, but nonlethal, dual-use components for the production and repair of weapons.

In April, senior U.S. officials said that Beijing was providing Moscow with drone and missile technology, satellite imagery, and machine tools.

Analyses of Chinese customs data show that in 2023 some 90 percent of “high priority” dual-use goods used in Russian weapons production was imported from China.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a late April visit to China that there was no evidence that Beijing was sending weapons to Russia to use in Ukraine.

“What China is doing, or what some of its enterprises are doing, is to provide critical components for Russia’s defense industrial base, things like machine tools, microelectronics, and optics,” Blinken said during his trip to the Chinese capital.

However, Shapps' accusation would mean that China is no longer shying away from directly helping Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, where fighting is in its third year.

Putin visited China in May for a state visit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping where the pair touted their burgeoning ties as a “new era” and as “one of the main stabilizing factors in the international arena,” while criticizing the United States for “hegemonic” behavior.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Extremism Trial Of Kazakh Journalist Resumes

Duman Mukhammedkarim (file photo)
Duman Mukhammedkarim (file photo)

QONAEV, Kazakhstan -- The trial of independent Kazakh journalist Duman Mukhammedkarim, who is accused of financing an extremist group and participating in a banned group's activities, resumed on May 22 after a pause of more than 100 days.

Mukhammedkarim's lawyer, Ghalym Nurpeiisov, told RFE/RL that the trial resumed after investigators concluded that his client's complaint about being tortured by jail guards was "baseless."

About 20 people came to the court in the southern town of Qonaev to support Mukhammedkarim but were not allowed to enter the building as the trial is being held behind closed doors.

Mukhammedkarim, whose Ne Deidi? (What Do They Say?) YouTube channel is extremely popular in Kazakhstan, was sent to pretrial detention in June 2023 over an online interview he did with the fugitive banker and outspoken critic of the Kazakh government, Mukhtar Ablyazov.

Ablyazov's Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement was labeled extremist and banned in the country in March 2018.

Mukhammedkarim's trial started on February 12 but was postponed after he complained of being beaten by jail guards, prompting prosecutors to launch a probe into the matter.

The journalist has held at least two hunger strikes demanding that his trial be open to the public and protesting against being held behind bars for such a long period when his trial was on hold.

If convicted, Mukhammedkarim could be sentenced to up to 12 years in prison.

Domestic and international rights organizations have urged Kazakh authorities to drop all charges against Mukhammedkarim and immediately release him.

Kazakh rights defenders have recognized Mukhammedkarim as a "political prisoner."

Rights watchdogs have criticized the authorities in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic for persecuting dissent, but Astana has shrugged the criticism off, saying there are no political prisoners in the country.

Kazakhstan was ruled by authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbaev from its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 until current President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev succeeded him in 2019.

Over the past three decades, several opposition figures have been killed and many jailed or forced to flee the country.

Toqaev, who broadened his powers after Nazarbaev and his family left the oil-rich country's political scene following the deadly, unprecedented anti-government protests in January 2022, has promised political reforms and more freedoms for citizens.

However, many in Kazakhstan consider the reforms announced by Toqaev to be cosmetic, as a crackdown on dissent has continued even after the president announced his "New Kazakhstan" program.

Baltics Criticize Russian Proposal On Maritime Borders; Moscow Withdraws Draft

Zelenogradsk in Russia's Kaliningrad exclave (file photo)
Zelenogradsk in Russia's Kaliningrad exclave (file photo)

Russia has withdrawn without explanation a Defense Ministry draft that proposed revising Moscow's maritime border in the eastern Baltic Sea and expanding its territorial waters that raised the ire of littoral NATO members Finland, Sweden, Lithuania, and Estonia.

The draft, dated May 21, was initially published on an official Russian portal of legal drafts. It proposed expanding Russia's territorial waters in the Gulf of Finland and around the Kaliningrad exclave near the maritime borders with Finland, Estonia, and Lithuania.

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Finland and Sweden have joined NATO, leaving Kaliningrad completely surrounded by members of the alliance.

According to the draft, expanding the border off the coast of Kaliningrad between Baltiysk and Zelenogradsk and in the eastern part of the Gulf of Finland would have allowed the corresponding maritime areas to be used as internal sea waters of Russia as vessels made the trip from St. Petersburg.

It also proposed changes off the coast of Lithuania in the area of the Curonian Spit, the crescent-shaped sand dune separating the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea.

Following the publication of the draft, Lithuania's Foreign Ministry said it was "summoning a representative of the Russian Federation for a full explanation." Moscow has not had an ambassador in Vilnius since April 2022.

Lithuania expelled Moscow's envoy and downgraded its diplomatic relations with Russia following the atrocities allegedly committed by Russian forces in the Ukrainian town of Bucha.

"Another Russian hybrid operation is under way, this time attempting to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about their intentions in the Baltic Sea," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

“Finland acts as always: calmly and based on facts,” Finnish President Alexander Stubb wrote on X.

Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo said Helsinki will monitor Russia's moves, while Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen told reporters that Helsinki was "following the situation."

"We don't have any official information on what Russia is planning," she said.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson reminded Moscow that it was a signatory to the UN convention regulating maritime border changes.

“Both we and Finland assume that Russia -- which is a signatory party to that convention -- lives up to that responsibility,” Kristersson was quoted as saying by the Swedish news agency TT.

The draft was withdrawn without any explanation just hours after the wave of criticism, with an unnamed Russian diplomatic source telling Interfax that Moscow had no intention of revising its maritime borders, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters there was “nothing political” in the draft.

“You see how tensions and the level of confrontation are escalating, especially in the Baltic region. This requires appropriate steps from our relevant bodies to ensure our security,” Peskov said.

News of the Russian proposal to redraw the maritime border was first reported by the Moscow Times

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Kyrgyz Activist Goes On Trial On 'Mass Unrest' Charge

Askat Jetigen
Askat Jetigen

Kyrgyz activist Askat Jetigen, known for his criticism of the Central Asian nation's government, went on trial on May 22 on a charge of calling for mass unrest. Jetigen, who rejects the charge as politically motivated, was arrested in March days after his last video criticizing reforms by the Culture Ministry was posted online. Human rights groups have criticized the Kyrgyz government for using the charge of "calling for mass unrest" as a tool to muzzle dissent. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Memorial Rights Group Recognizes Bashkir Activist As Political Prisoner

Fail Alsynov
Fail Alsynov

The Memorial human rights group on May 22 recognized Bashkir activist Fail Alsynov as a political prisoner. The 37-year-old was sentenced to four years in prison in January on a charge of inciting hatred that he and his supporters call politically motivated. Thousands of Alsynov's supporters have rallied before and since his sentencing, sometimes clashing with police, who have used tear gas, stun grenades, and batons to disperse the protesters. Alsynov is known for his open criticism of Bashkortostan’s Kremlin-backed chief, Radiy Khabirov, and his government. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

Fire-Bomber Of Russian Embassy In Chisinau Given Suspended Sentence

Smoke pours out of Moscow's embassy in Chisinau on March 17.
Smoke pours out of Moscow's embassy in Chisinau on March 17.

A man accused of throwing two Molotov cocktails over the fence of the Russian Embassy in Chisinau on March 17, the day of Russia's presidential election, has been sentenced to 150 hours of unpaid community service. The Chisinau court took into consideration that the man, whose identity has not been disclosed, admitted his guilt. Judges deducted from the sentence the time spent by the man in preventive custody and house arrest since March 17, thus ruling the sentence has been completed and he can be set free. Moscow had demanded a severe punishment for the man. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Moldovan Service, click here.

U.S. Says Russia 'Likely' Deployed Anti-Satellite Weapon In Space; Moscow Rejects Claim

Pentagon spokesman Patrick Ryder (file photo)
Pentagon spokesman Patrick Ryder (file photo)

The Pentagon has said Russia "likely" deployed an anti-satellite weapon in space earlier this month, a claim quickly rejected by Moscow.

Pentagon spokesman Patrick Ryder told journalists during a press conference on May 21 that the new counter-space weapon was launched five days earlier into the same orbit as a U.S. government satellite.

He added Pentagon assessments "further indicate characteristics resembling previously deployed counter-space payloads from 2019 and 2022."

"Certainly, we would say that we have a responsibility to be ready to protect and defend the domain -- the space domain -- and ensure continuous and uninterrupted support to the Joint and Combined Force," he said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on May 22 rejected the statement, calling it "false information from Washington."

"We always stand against the placing of assault items in the Earth orbit," Ryabkov told reporters in Moscow.

A growing number of nations have moved into space, with about a dozen capable of launching spacecraft. Meanwhile, about 80 nations and many private companies have assets in orbit, making the weaponization of space a global concern, even though the the 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires weapons to remain on Earth.

On May 20, a UN resolution proposed by Russia against an arms race in space was not approved by the Security Council, with seven countries, including the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, voting against it, and seven nations, including Russia and China, voting in favor of the resolution.

Last month, Russia vetoed a U.S. resolution against nuclear weapons in space. The U.S. representative in the UN, Robert Wood, accused Russia at the time of using manipulative tactics regarding the issue of nuclear weapons in space.

In February, media reports in the United States described Russia's nuclear ambitions in space and the nuclear potential of anti-satellite weapons as a threat to national and international security.

Amid the reports, Washington accused Russia of developing anti-satellite weapons, while President Joe Biden publicly assured Americans that neither they nor the international community face any danger.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said then that his country "has always been categorically against and is now against the deployment of nuclear weapons in space."

With reporting by AP and TASS

Former Siberian Official Suspected Of Serial Killings To Face Trial

Russia's Investigative Committee said on May 21 that the former deputy governor of the Kalman district in the Siberian region of Altai Krai, Vitaly Manishin, will face trial over the deaths of 11 women. The committee said an investigation into the case is over and that it has been sent to a court. After several women were found dead in 2000, investigators detained Aleksandr Anisimov, who had a criminal record, as a suspect. Anisimov maintained his innocence. He died after he reportedly jumped from a high-rise building while in police custody. Manishin was arrested in May 2023. To read the original story by RFE/RL;'s Siberia.Realities, click here.

Imprisoned Kremlin Critic Ilya Yashin Placed In Solitary Confinement

Ilya Yashin
Ilya Yashin

Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who is serving an 8 1/2-year prison term for his criticism of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, has been placed in solitary confinement, just ahead of a scheduled visit by his parents. Yashin said on his Telegram channel on May 22 that the prison administration sent him to solitary for 15 days on May 17 for "a delay in leaving his barracks after a wakeup command in the morning." Yashin says the move was intentional to disrupt his three-day stay with his parents on the penitentiary's premises. The visit was scheduled for May 20. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Updated

Ukraine Needs Improved Defense Against Russian Aerial Bombs, Zelenskiy Says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (file photo)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (file photo)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made a plea on May 22 for upgraded defense systems to protect Ukrainian cities against guided bombs, which have been used by Russian forces to hit Ukrainian energy infrastructure.

Zelenskiy said the need for improved air defense systems was discussed at a special meeting on Ukrainian arms production and countermeasures against Russian guided aerial bombs.

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"This is a challenging topic, and while we see some good progress on electronic warfare, drones, and the missile program, there is still a lot of work to be done to counter Russian bombs," he said in a summary posted at his website.

He said Ukraine needs systems and tactics that will allow it to protect its troop positions and cities and other communities from the bombs, which he said are the "main instrument of Russian terror and the advance of the occupier."

Zelenskiy's comments came after a Russian air attack on Kharkiv injured at least nine people and set fire to a residential building, local officials said.

"One of the guided aerial bombs, according to preliminary data, hit a cafe. It is very close to a multistory residential building," Serhiy Bolvinov, the head of the investigative department of the regional police, told Ukrainian television.

Zelenskiy said earlier this month that Russia used more than 3,200 guided bombs against Ukrainian targets in April. Russia has increasingly resorted to these bombs, which are directed to a target by a guidance system, have great destructive potential, and pose fewer risks to air crews delivering them.

Commenting on the situation at the front, Zelenskiy said border issues are receiving maximum attention not only in the Kharkiv region but also in the Sumy region.

The areas of the main battles have not changed and remain primarily Pokrovsk and other areas in the Donetsk region and in the area around Kupyansk in the Kharkiv region.

The Ukrainian Air Force said earlier on May 22 that its air defenses shot down all 24 drones launched by Russia at targets on Ukraine's territory early in the say.

"The drones were destroyed over the Mykolayiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya, Donetsk, Sumy, and Odesa regions," the air force command said in a statement.

Separately, the Sumy city council said power lines and water pipes were damaged by falling drone debris and that the power supply to the city was disrupted. It said work was already under way to restore water and electricity to the city's inhabitants.

Zelenskiy also announced in his address that four more countries -- Albania, Austria, Chile, and Mozambique -- had agreed to attend a peace summit in Switzerland in June. The aim of the meeting is to create a broad front to oblige Russia to agree to a peace settlement under the terms of the UN Charter.

"Russian aggression has tried to turn the UN Charter into a museum exhibit," Zelenskiy said. "Our peace summit…can restore the full effectiveness and full protection of the UN Charter to every nation."

Zelenskiy's peace plan calls for the withdrawal of all Russian forces and the restoration of Ukraine's 1991 borders.

Russia, which rejects the plan, has not been invited to the summit and has dismissed any discussion of the conflict without its participation as pointless.

With reporting by Reuters
Updated

Khamenei Prays Over Coffins At Funeral For Raisi, Others Killed In Helicopter Crash

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (center) and other clerics pray over the coffins of President Ebrahim Raisi and other officials in Tehran on May 22.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (center) and other clerics pray over the coffins of President Ebrahim Raisi and other officials in Tehran on May 22.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led prayers in Tehran at the funeral of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on May 22 as thousands attended a procession for Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and other officials killed in a helicopter crash over the weekend.

Khamenei presided over the start of the ceremony at a time of deepening crisis between the country's Islamic leadership and many citizens over a lack of freedoms and declining living standards. He delivered a traditional "death prayer" for Raisi and then left the ceremony without giving a speech.

Khamenei delivered a traditional "death prayer" for Raisi at the ceremony on May 22, three days after the accident in a remote, mountainous area of the country's northwest. Khamenei then left without giving a speech.

Crowds reached out to touch the caskets during the procession as Iran's acting president, First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, stood nearby.

Besides Iran's top leaders, including the chiefs of the paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, several foreign dignitaries attended, including Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shia al-Sudani, and a delegation from Afghanistan's Taliban rulers led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi.

No Western leaders attended. Three former Iranian presidents -- Mohammad Khatami, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and Hassan Rohani -- were also not seen among dignitaries in attendance.

After the ceremony, the caskets of Raisi and the other victims of the crash were carried out on the shoulders of people onto a platform truck amid chants of "Death to America!" and "Death to Israel!" from the crowds.

Some reports said Tehran residents received mobile phone messages urging them to attend the funeral procession, which headed toward Freedom Square in central Tehran.

The caskets were draped in Iranian flags with pictures of the deceased on them, while on Raisi's casket, a black turban was placed to mark his alleged direct descendance from Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

Although Egypt and Iran do not have diplomatic relations, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry traveled to Tehran to attend the funeral. Tehran and Cairo have recently floated the possibility of reestablishing relations, which were cut after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

New Pictures And Account Emerge Of Raisi Crash As Thousands Attend Funeral
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Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Guoqing was to attend the memorial service, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, was also seen in live footage as attending. Iran has armed and supported Hamas during the ongoing war with Israel in Gaza. Sheikh Naim Qassem, the deputy leader of Hizballah, Iran's Lebanese proxy, was also present.

A presidential election to determine Raisi's successor was announced for June 28. The election is to be organized by a council consisting of the speaker of parliament, the head of the judiciary, and the first vice president.

According to Iranian media, Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Baqeri Kani was appointed acting foreign minister.

WATCH: A woman who lost 11 relatives in executions in 1988 told RFE/RL that she was celebrating Raisi's death. Raisi was accused of being on a "death committee" that ordered mass executions at the time.

As Raisi Funeral Ceremonies Begin, Mother Of Executed Iranians Celebrates
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The ceremonies marking the deaths of those involved in the crash started on May 21 with tens of thousands of mourners in attendance in the city of Tabriz, the capital of Iran's northwestern province of East Azerbaijan where the crash occurred, and the Shi'ite clerical center of Qom.

Beyond the official display of public grief, many Iranians who have been victims of acts of repression by Raisi and the Iranian regime or had relatives who suffered from such acts were adamant in voicing their satisfaction at Raisi's death.

A woman who lost 11 relatives, including two daughters, in executions allegedly coordinated by Raisi in 1988 told RFE/RL that she was celebrating his death.

"Truly, I cannot express how limitless my happiness is," Esman Vatanparast said. "When Raisi became president, it was very difficult for us hurting mothers, the survivors of the massacres committed by him."

The White House, too, had harsh words for Raisi.

U.S. national-security spokesman John Kirby told reporters that "no question, this was a man who had a lot of blood on his hands" for supporting extremist groups in the Middle East.

U.S. Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson said Raisi's rule was "barbaric" and marked by "terror, danger, and oppression."

Raisi was elected president in 2021 and had tightened many restrictions on Iranians through the enforcement of morality laws and a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests spurred by the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly violating the Islamic dress code on head scarves.

Thousands of people, including protesters, journalists, lawyers, athletes, and artists have been arrested and at least 500 people have been killed in Iran's brutal crackdown on the protests.

Raisi also pushed hard in nuclear talks with world powers while also allowing the country to markedly increase its uranium enrichment program.

The director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that the death of Raisi has pushed back nuclear negotiations to improve Iran's cooperation with the agency.

"Now Iran is in a period of mourning and it should be respected, but when this period is over, we want to re-engage with Iran to improve cooperation," Rafael Grossi said on May 22 in Helsinki.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Moldova Becomes First Nation To Sign Security, Defense Pact With EU

Moldovan Prime Minister Dorin Recean (left) shakes hands with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell after a signing ceremony in Brussels on May 21.
Moldovan Prime Minister Dorin Recean (left) shakes hands with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell after a signing ceremony in Brussels on May 21.

Moldova has signed a security and defense partnership with the European Union, the first country to ink such a pact, according to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. "This partnership will strengthen the country's resilience. It will allow for a joint approach to security challenges, make our engagement more effective, and explore new areas of cooperation," Borrell said. Moldova, led by pro-Western President Maia Sandu, has expressed hopes of joining the EU and has strongly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moldova’s Transdniester region, a mainly Russian-speaking sliver of land on the eastern bank of the Dniester River, declared independence in 1990. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Moldovan Service, click here.

Council Of Europe Commission Denounces Georgia's 'Foreign Agent' Law

Salome Kurasbediani, a member of the Georgian Dream party, rejected the Venice Commission's report on May 21.
Salome Kurasbediani, a member of the Georgian Dream party, rejected the Venice Commission's report on May 21.

TBILISI -- The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe said it "strongly recommends" that authorities in Georgia abandon efforts to introduce planned "foreign agent" legislation that has been condemned in the West and led to massive street protests in the South Caucasus nation.

"The Venice Commission strongly recommends repealing the law in its current form, as its fundamental flaws will involve significant negative consequences for the freedoms of association and expression, the right to privacy, the right to participate in public affairs as well as the prohibition of discrimination," its said in its "urgent opinion" published on May 21.

The commission, at the request of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, undertook to assess the Georgia legislation, which critics say is similar to laws used in Russia to silence independent media and civil society groups.

It said it "regrets that the Georgian parliament did not wait for its opinion before adopting the law, despite the calls by the president of the Parliamentary Assembly and by the secretary-general of the Council of Europe."

The ruling Georgian Dream party, which has pushed the legislation through parliament, quickly rejected the commission’s report.

"We find many unsubstantiated and conflicting legal reasonings as well as a number of gross distortions of facts [in the conclusions], which further encourages the radicalization of specific groups," Georgian Dream member Salome Kurasbediani told a briefing.

"Obviously, all this undermines the credibility of the institution and the values it should serve," she said.

The so-called foreign agent legislation -- formally the Law On Transparency Of Foreign Influence -- has been condemned by the United States, the European Union, and rights watchdogs and prompted weeks of protests that were repeatedly cracked down on violently by authorities.

The law would require media and NGOs to register as "pursuing the interests of a foreign power" if they receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad.

Opponents have pointed to similar legislation used by President Vladimir Putin to crush dissent in Russia and stifle independent institutions, prompting Georgians to refer to the measure as "the Russian law" and see it as endangering the country's path toward EU integration.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, who has increasingly feuded with the ruling Georgian Dream party since it endorsed her candidacy in 2018, has vetoed the bill.

However, Georgian Dream's parliamentary majority will allow it to easily override the presidential veto.

Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili said lawmakers, as expected, will override the veto in the upcoming week.

During the crackdown on protesters, dozens of people have been arrested, with many reporting beatings at the hands of security forces or roving bands of thugs.

The government, which claims the law is necessary to ensure transparency in social matters, has denied that demonstrators have been beaten.

An American And A Russian Confront Georgia's Violent Crackdown On Protests
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Bryan Bingham, 53, who says he is a tourist from the United States, told RFE/RL he was detained by security forces at a demonstration on May 13. He claims he was beaten by beaten by police wearing black masks.

"It happened very quickly," he said in an interview conducted three days later. "They pulled me through the police and dropped me on the ground."

"They beat me. And somebody punched my face."

"They quit beating me, but there were some Georgians that quickly arrived and they were being beaten badly," he said.

A pro-government media channel reported that Bingham came to Georgia to create "unrest," a claim he denies.

"How ridiculous," he said. "I came here to go backpacking, to meet some Georgian people."

Director Mohammad Rasoulof, Who Fled Iran, Will Attend Cannes

Film director Mohammad Rasoulof, who fled Iran, is expected to attend the Cannes Film Festival.
Film director Mohammad Rasoulof, who fled Iran, is expected to attend the Cannes Film Festival.

Film director Mohammad Rasoulof, who made a dramatic on-foot escape from Iran, will attend the Cannes Film Festival for the premiere of his new movie, organizers told AFP on May 21. The award-winning director will be on the French Cote d'Azur on May 24 when The Seed Of The Sacred Fig competes for the top prize Palme d'Or, festival director Thierry Fremaux said. An outspoken critic of the Iranian government, Rasoulof served two terms in Iranian jails over previous films and had his passport revoked in 2017. His new film tells the story of a judge's struggles amid political unrest in Tehran. He had come under pressure from the Iranian government to withdraw it from Cannes before the festival opened.

Chechnya's Kadyrov Replaces Sanctioned Prime Minister, Names Relative By Marriage To Post

Muslim Khuchiyev
Muslim Khuchiyev

Ramzan Kadyrov, the authoritarian ruler of Russia's North Caucasus region of Chechnya, on May 21 said the region's prime minister, Muslim Khuchiyev, had resigned to take to another, unspecified job. Kadyrov named Highways Minister Isa Tumkhadzhiyev as acting prime minister. Tumkhadzhiyev is married to a relative of Kadyrov. Last week, close Kadyrov associate Magomed Daudov resigned as speaker of the Chechen parliament after serving in the post for nine years. Both Khuchiyev and Daudov are under U.S. and British sanctions over their alleged roles in mass violations of human rights in Chechnya. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

Russia Begins Drills Of Tactical Nuclear Weapons Near Ukrainian Border

 A Russian Iskander-K missile is launched during a military exercise in Russia. (file photo)
A Russian Iskander-K missile is launched during a military exercise in Russia. (file photo)

Russian has begun the "first stage" of exercises in the Southern Military District to increase the readiness of tactical nuclear forces near the Ukrainian border, the Defense Ministry said on May 21. The ministry said the "exercise is aimed at maintaining the readiness of personnel and equipment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons combat units to respond to and unconditionally ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian state." Plans for the drills were announced on May 6. The West has accused President Vladimir Putin of "saber-rattling" and undertaking a "continuation of Russia's irresponsible behavior." To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Russian Service, click here.

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