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U.S. 'Disappointed' At Serbia-Kosovo Talks, Echoes EU Warning That 'Time Is Running Out'

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left to right), EU envoys Josep Borrell and Miroslav Lajcak, and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti meet in Brussels on September 14.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left to right), EU envoys Josep Borrell and Miroslav Lajcak, and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti meet in Brussels on September 14.

The United States has expressed disappointment at the lack of progress in the latest round of EU-facilitated talks between Balkan neighbors Serbia and Kosovo aimed at normalizing relations.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell signaled frustration at Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti after the talks in Brussels on September 14, which also involved Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

The negotiations are part of a decade-long U.S. and EU diplomatic push to repair some of the wounds from bloody internecine wars in the 1990s, after the breakup of Yugoslavia.

"We are disappointed that progress was not made today," a U.S. State Department spokesperson said in a statement to RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "As we’ve repeatedly said, the EU-facilitated Dialogue is the only path forward for Kosovo and Serbia."

Serbia refuses to recognize its former province's 2008 declaration of independence, and tensions between ethnic Serbs and Kosovar institutions spilled over into violence against NATO peacekeepers in May after locals boycotted local elections in four mostly Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo.

Belgrade also continues to unilaterally support ethnic Serbs through parallel institutions and ethnic-based political parties, which Pristina regards as illegal meddling.

Vucic and Kurti orally agreed to advance the normalization process at mediated talks in February, although specific follow-up steps have failed to materialize.

"We expect both countries to take seriously their obligations under the agreement on the path to normalization they reached earlier this year," the State Department said. "Time is running out."

It demanded progress including the establishment of an association of Serb-majority municipalities, as Pristina pledged a decade ago but has avoided laying the legal groundwork for.

The State Department said it was "united" in support of the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue with the informal decision-making group, known as the Quint, that includes Britain, France, Germany, and Italy.

"We will be consulting internally and with our European partners on next steps," it said.

Borrell, who mediated the September 14 negotiations and has said he sees resolving the long-running dispute between Belgrade and Pristina as essential to their efforts to join the European Union, said that Kurti rejected Brussels' compromise proposal.

Kosovo under Kurti has insisted that Serbia first recognize its independence before relations can be normalized.

"Kurti was not ready to take a step forward," Borrell said, adding that the Kosovar leader "insisted instead on formalizing de facto recognition as the first step."

Vucic, who accepted the compromise offer presented by the EU, said the talks were "unsuccessful," blaming Kurti for the lack of progress.

Kurti said there was "full readiness" from Kosovo to work out an agreement but accused Vucic of "sabotaging" the talks.

Kurti also claimed the European Union had sided with Belgrade, saying Brussels "only adopted Serbia's conditionality" of establishing an association of Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo, which was "unacceptable" to Pristina.

Western patience with Kurti appeared to wear thin in May and June after Pristina ignored outside warnings and tried to forcibly install four mayors in mostly Serbian northern municipalities following boycotted by-elections to fill posts vacated by protesting Serbs.

The resulting tensions erupted into violence that injured dozens of NATO KFOR peacekeepers and some ethnic Serb protesters.

Weeks later, Serbian authorities detained three Kosovar police officers near their mutual border under unclear circumstances and held them for days.

Relations between Serbia and Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians are a majority, have been on edge for decades.

Kosovo's 1998-99 war of independence from Serbia left more than 10,000 people dead -- most of them ethnic Albanians. More than 1,600 people are still considered missing.

With reporting by AP and AFP

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New Trials, Sentences In Belarus Amid Ongoing Crackdown On Dissent

The Kastrychnik district court in Hrodna
The Kastrychnik district court in Hrodna

Belarusian activist Lizaveta Makrydzina has gone on trial over her participation in 2020 mass rallies challenging the results of a presidential election that announced the country's authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka as the winner in the face of opposition claims the voting was rigged.

The Kastrychnik district court in the western Belarusian city of Hrodna started the trial of the 25-year-old IT specialist on July 23.

Makrydzina was arrested after she came to Belarus for a visit from Poland, where she settled several years earlier. She was charged with taking part in unsanctioned rallies. If found guilty, she faces up to three years in prison.

Separately on July 23, the Vitsebsk regional court in the country's northeast started the trial in absentia of businessman Uladzimer Zakharau, the Vyasna human rights center said.

Zakharau was charged with discrediting Belarus and the evasion of taxes and insurance fees.

His supporters and human rights groups say the charges are politically motivated.

The MAYDAY website said on July 23 that a court in the eastern city of Mahilyou sentenced political prisoner Paval Belaholau to three years and four months last month for "slandering" Lukashenka.

According to MAYDAY, Judge Tatsyana Rakhmanenka sentenced the 35-year-old activist on June 20 after finding him guilty of posting a "false" comment on YouTube about Lukashenka, who has run the country with an iron fist for 30 years.

Belaholau was previously handed a 30-month prison term in 2022 on a charge of insulting an official and inciting social hatred online during the unprecedented anti-Lukashenka rallies in 2020. Human rights groups recognized Belaholau as a political prisoner at the time.

Lukashenka, 69, has been in power since 1994. He has tightened his grip on the country since the August 2020 election by arresting -- sometimes violently -- more than 35,000 people. Fearing for their safety, most opposition members have fled the country.

The West has refused to recognize the results of the election and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader.

Many countries have imposed sanctions against Lukashenka's regime in response to the suppression of dissent in the country.

Moscow Court Fines In Absentia Chief Of International Anti-Corruption Foundation

Maria Pevchikh (file photo)
Maria Pevchikh (file photo)

A Moscow court on July 23 ordered the self-exiled chief of the International Anti-Corruption Foundation, Maria Pevchikh, to pay a 30,000-ruble ($340) fine for failing to fulfill the duties of a "foreign agent." Pevchikh was added to the "foreign agent" registry in May. Repeated violation of the "foreign agent" law may lead to a criminal charge. In January, a Moscow court issued an arrest warrant for Pevchikh on charges of distributing false information about Russia's military, organizing an extremist group, and vandalism. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

EU Green-Lights Talks With Armenia On Visa-Free Travel, Offers Military Aid

People line up at check-in desks at the airport in Zvartnots, west of Yerevan, in April.
People line up at check-in desks at the airport in Zvartnots, west of Yerevan, in April.

The European Union has approved opening talks with Armenia on visa liberalization and has offered 10 million euros ($10.9 million) in military aid to the Caucasus country, the bloc's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has announced.

"These two decisions were long awaited by Armenia," Borrell said in remarks to a meeting of the EU foreign ministers on July 22.

A traditional ally and partner of Russia, Armenia recently has turned toward improving its ties with the West and putting on ice its relations with Moscow, which Yerevan has blamed for failing to support it in its conflict with longtime archfoe Azerbaijan.

The EU announcement was hailed by Yerevan, with Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan calling it "a very important milestone in the deepening partnership between Armenia and the EU, based on shared values and principles."

The decision to open visa liberalization talks with Yerevan was initially made by the European Council on July 17 when the 27 EU ambassadors approved the proposal, with the council saying Armenia would have to meet commonly agreed benchmarks.

Once negotiations -- a process that could take several years -- are concluded, Armenians would be able to travel visa-free to EU countries and the Schengen Zone -- where border controls have been generally abolished -- for a period of 90 days within any 180-day period.

Several other former Soviet republics such as Moldova, Ukraine, and Armenia's fellow Caucasus neighbor Georgia have been granted visa-free travel to the bloc.

The second decision regarding military aid was adopted under the European Peace Facility.

"The aim of this assistance measure is to enhance the logistical capacities of the Armenian Armed Forces, and to contribute to improved protection of civilians in crises and emergencies," the council said in a separate statement.

Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry, however, protested the EU decision.

"We strongly object to this decision by the Council of the European Union and expect transparent information about the aid to be provided," Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aykhan Hajizadeh told the media.

"[This decision] is a very wrong and dangerous step and serves to increase tension in the region," said Hajizadeh.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought several wars in the past three decades over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been a majority ethnic-Armenian enclave since the Soviet collapse and is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory.

After Baku took full control over the region as the result of a one-day military operation in September 2023, nearly 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.

U.S. Embassy Calls On Russia To Free RFE/RL's Kurmasheva After Sentencing

Journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan.
Journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has called for the release of Alsu Kurmasheva, a veteran RFE/RL journalist who holds dual U.S.-Russian citizenship, after she was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison by a Russian court on charges she, her employer, the U.S. government, and her supporters reject as politically motivated.

Responding a day after news of Kurmasheva's sentencing broke, the embassy said it was "a sad day for journalism in Russia."

"We once again call on the Russian authorities to release Alsu and other imprisoned journalists and prisoners of conscience," the embassy said in a post on social media on July 23.

"The suppression of dissenting voices harms all Russians. A free and independent press is at the heart of democracy, enabling voters to make informed decisions and holding public officials accountable," it added.

The court convicted Kurmasheva on a charge of spreading falsehoods about the Russian military.

RFE/RL President and CEO Stephen Capus called the trial and conviction -- first reported by AP -- "a mockery of justice," adding that "the only just outcome is for Alsu to be immediately released from prison by her Russian captors."

"It's beyond time for this American citizen, our dear colleague, to be reunited with her loving family," Capus said in a statement.

Kurmasheva, a 47-year-old mother of two, was arrested in Kazan in October and first charged with failing to register as a "foreign agent" under a punitive Russian law that targets journalists, civil society activists, and others. She was subsequently charged with spreading falsehoods about the Russian military.

RFE/RL and the U.S. government say the charges are reprisals for her work as a journalist for the broadcaster in Prague.

"She’s a dedicated journalist who is being targeted by Russian authorities for her uncompromising commitment to speaking the truth and her principled reporting," U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters on July 22 after the news of her conviction.

"Journalism is not a crime, as you have heard us say on a number of occasions, and we continue to make very clear that she should be released," he said.

The Kremlin has not commented on the conviction. In the past, it has said it is not closely following the case and that it wouldn't comment as Russia's justice system must be allowed to work through the case.

The verdict came on July 19, the same day that Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was found guilty of espionage charges -- which he, his employer, and the U.S. government have rejected as politically motivated -- by a court in the city of Yekaterinberg.

A White House statement on July 19 said Gershkovich was targeted by the Russian government because he is a journalist and an American.

Unlike Gershkovich and another American, Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence also on espionage charges, Kurmasheva has not been designated by the U.S. government as "wrongfully detained."

Such a designation ensures that the case is assigned to the office of the special envoy for hostage affairs in the U.S. State Department, raising the political profile of the prisoner's situation and allowing the U.S. administration to allocate more resources to securing their release.

The U.S. National Press Club -- a professional association of American journalists -- and 18 other media freedom groups called on President Joe Biden in an open letter on May 31 to press for the recognition of Kurmasheva as a "wrongfully detained" person.

"She meets all the criteria. This should happen immediately. It should have happened months ago," the letter said.

"We have listened to the State Department twist itself into a pretzel explaining how there are other factors to be considered besides the criteria, but we have yet to hear a clear reason why [it] cannot declare her wrongfully detained," it added.

Miller did not address the issue of Kurmasheva's designation with reporters, saying only that the Biden administration remains focused on her case.

Russia has been accused of targeting American citizens by detaining them on trumped-up charges to later use as bargaining chips in talks to bring back Russians convicted of crimes abroad.

Some analysts have said the move to expedite the cases of Kurmasheva and Gershkovich could be a sign that talks are heating up between Moscow and Washington on a possible prisoner exchange. There has been no word on such talks from either Washington or Moscow.

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

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

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

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

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

8 People In Russia's Kabardino-Balkaria Fined For 'Disrespecting' National Anthem

An arch with the inscription "Forever With Russia" in Kabardino-Balkaria's capital, Nalchik
An arch with the inscription "Forever With Russia" in Kabardino-Balkaria's capital, Nalchik

Officials in Russia's North Caucasus region of Kabardino-Balkaria said on July 22 that eight local residents have each been ordered to pay a 3,000 ruble ($34) fine for "violating regulations on the use of Russia's national anthem." The case was launched after a video circulated on the Internet earlier this month showing a graduation ceremony at a local secondary school, at which several students and their parents remained seated when Russia's national anthem was played. Some of the participants covered their ears with their hands. Russian lawmaker Andrei Kartapolov requested a probe into "the open disrespect of Russia's national anthem." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

Woman Dies From Injuries After Explosion Levels Russian Shopping Center

Emergency personnel work at the scene of the destroyed shopping center in Apsheronsk on July 22.
Emergency personnel work at the scene of the destroyed shopping center in Apsheronsk on July 22.

Emergency officials in Russia's southwestern Krasnodar region said on July 23 that a woman who was injured in a suspected gas explosion that completely leveled a shopping center in the city of Apsheronsk a day earlier had died in the hospital. Two other people remain in the hospital, while rescue workers continue to search for survivors or bodies under the debris. The regional prosecutor's office has said the building was destroyed by a gas explosion. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

Former Azerbaijani Diplomat Detained On Stabbing Charge

Former Azerbaijani diplomat Emin Ibrahimov said police used an electric-shock device to force him to reveal the PIN for his mobile phone. (file photo)
Former Azerbaijani diplomat Emin Ibrahimov said police used an electric-shock device to force him to reveal the PIN for his mobile phone. (file photo)

BAKU -- Relatives and a lawyer of former Azerbaijani diplomat Emin Ibrahimov said on July 23 that police had detained the government critic a day earlier for allegedly stabbing a person, a charge Ibrahimov rejects as totally fabricated.

Ibrahimov's lawyer Aqil Layic said his client told him an unknown person had attacked him near a metro station in Baku late on July 22. Immediately after, several men in plainclothes appeared at the site and took him to the Nizami district police department.

"The detention of a diplomat looks like a new tendency. Emin Ibrahimov said that he is the victim of a provocation. He rejects the charge as he insists he did not commit the crime he is charged with," Layic said, adding a court must decide on his client's pretrial restrictions within 48 hours of his detention.

Layic said Ibrahimov told him police used an electric-shock device to force him to reveal the PIN for his mobile phone.

The Interior Ministry confirmed Ibrahimov's detention, saying he was held after he stabbed a person born in 1987, whose identity was not disclosed, during a brawl. According to the ministry, the stabbed man was hospitalized.

If convicted, Ibrahimov faces up to eight years in prison.

The 43-year-old Ibrahimov used to work at the Azerbaijani Embassy in the United States and held other diplomatic posts as well.

In recent years, he criticized the government for Baku's worsening relations with the West, among other things.

In September, he was sentenced to 30 days in jail on a charge of "spreading harmful information" after an online post criticizing Russia and calling for peaceful solution of Azerbaijan's conflict with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

With reporting by Turan and Kavkazsky uzel
Updated

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Visits Beijing For First Time Since Start Of War

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (file photo)
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (file photo)

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba arrived in Beijing for the first time since Russia's full-scale invasion for talks geared toward finding a possible Chinese role in ending the war.

The three-day visit began on July 23, with Ukraine's top diplomat traveling at the invitation of Wang Yi, his Chinese counterpart. Few details have been disclosed about the trip beyond that it will explore how to reach a peace settlement for the grinding war that is now in its third year.

"The main topic of discussion will be the search for ways to stop Russia's aggression and China's possible role in achieving a stable and just peace," the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement prior to Kuleba's trip.

The trip is Kuleba's first visit to China since Russia's war in Ukraine began in February 2022 and is seen as unexpected by many observers given Beijing's close relationship with Moscow and diplomatic maneuvering that has often seen Chinese diplomats keep their distance from high-level Ukrainian officials.

The meeting also comes as various peace initiatives have emerged in recent months against the backdrop of prolonged fighting and uncertainty ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November that could see the return of former President Donald Trump, who has threatened to limit aid flows to Ukraine and push for talks between Kyiv and Moscow that could quickly end the war.

In June, Kyiv held an international summit without Russian representation in Switzerland to promote its vision of peace. The gathering hosted delegations from 100 countries, and Ukraine has since said that it hopes to be ready to hold another one in November that would feature envoys from Moscow.

China, which did not attend the Swiss summit, published a separate six-point peace plan with Brazil in the weeks leading up to the gathering where they called for a separate international peace conference to be held that would have both representation from Kyiv and Moscow.

This alternative diplomatic track led to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy offering his most vocal criticism yet of Beijing since the war began, where he said that China's efforts were undermining the Swiss peace talks by pushing some countries to not attend and others to not sign the final communique.

"China, unfortunately...is working hard today for countries not to come to the peace summit," Zelenskiy said in Singapore on June 2.

Despite expressing neutrality toward the war in Ukraine, China has emerged as the Kremlin's leading international supporter by supplying Russia with key components that Moscow needs for its production of weapons and as a vital consumer for oil and gas that has helped boost the Russian economy.

Western governments have also accused China of providing crucial support to Russia during the war, with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg saying Beijing's assistance to Moscow has made it a "decisive enabler" of the war.

"Allies have stated clearly that China cannot enable the largest conflict in Europe in recent history without this negatively impacting their interests and reputation," Stoltenberg said on July 11 at the NATO summit in Washington.

China, meanwhile, says its ties with Russia are built on the basis of non-alliance and do not target any third party.

Kuleba's trip is also on Moscow's radar, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov acknowledging the news on July 22.

"For us, our relations with China are the main thing," he said in comments to reporters. "We intend to continue following the path of developing Russian-Chinese relations in all areas."

In February 2023, Beijing released a 12-point paper calling for a "political settlement" to the war.

The document was dismissed at the time by Western countries and Kyiv, who warned that the Chinese proposal would enable Russia to retain much of the territory it had seized in Ukraine.

In the years leading up to Moscow's full-scale invasion, Kyiv tried to build strong economic ties with Beijing as it reoriented its economy away from Russia, and found itself frustrated with some Western policy moves.

Despite Beijing's deepening ties with Moscow since the outbreak of the war, Kyiv has been hesitant to criticize China, with Zelenskiy often encouraging the country to play a role in reaching a peace settlement.

1 Dead After Ferry Attacked In Russian Port, Regional Official Says

Ferry in the port of Kavkaz (file photo)
Ferry in the port of Kavkaz (file photo)

A drone attack on a ferry in southern Russia has killed at least one person and injured several others, a regional official reported, while traffic on a bridge over the Kerch Strait has been temporarily halted and the Crimean port of Sevastopol was also targeted, according to reports by local officials.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The governor of Russia's southern Krasnodar region, Venyamin Kondratyev, said on Telegram that Ukrainian drones early on July 23 attacked a passenger ferry and set it on fire in the port of Kavkaz, close to the Kerch Strait that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov and separates Ukraine's Moscow-occupied Crimea region from Russia.

"Unfortunately, one person was killed and there are casualties among the crew members and port employees," Kondratyev wrote.

Ukraine, whose energy and civilian infrastructure has been devastated by continuous Russian drone and missile strikes that have caused numerous victims and serious damage, has in recent months started to increasingly target Russian industrial objectives and transport infrastructure.

In Crimea, Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Kremlin-installed governor of Sevastopol, separately said the city was attacked by 15 drones and traffic was halted on the Kerch bridge built by Moscow after it occupied the Ukrainian region.

Ukraine has not commented and the Russian claims could not be independently confirmed immediately.

In Moscow, Russia's Defense Ministry said its air-defense systems shot down 25 Ukrainian drones over several of its regions early on July 23.

It said two drones were downed over the Bryansk region and two over the Belgorod region, while 21 drones were destroyed over Crimea and off the Black Sea coast.

Meanwhile, Ukraine said Russia overnight struck a critical infrastructure facility in the northeastern Sumy region, without giving details. No casualties were reported.

Ukraine's Air Force said in a message on Facebook that its air-defense systems shot down seven out of eight Russian drones that attacked Sumy and also neutralized a Kh-69 guided cruise missile.

"As a result of active countermeasures, the enemy's Kh-69 guided air missile did not reach its target," Air Force commander Mykola Oleschuk said.

In Snub To Hungary, EU To Hold Meeting In Brussels, Borrell Says

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (file photo)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (file photo)

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says the bloc will hold a strategic meeting next month in Brussels instead of Budapest, the capital of the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency, Hungary. The bloc's move came in response to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s trips to Russia and China this month, which he said were part of a "peace mission" aimed at ending the war in Ukraine. Orban's move caused outrage among Ukraine's allies, who saw it as undermining their support for Kyiv. "EU member states overwhelmingly criticized Hungary’s lack of sincere and loyal cooperation," Borrell wrote on X. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Ukraine Strikes Preliminary Deal To Restructure $20 Billion Debt 

The new agreement "allows us to free up resources for our defense, social spending, and reconstruction," Ukrainian Prime Minster Denys Shmyhal said on X.
The new agreement "allows us to free up resources for our defense, social spending, and reconstruction," Ukrainian Prime Minster Denys Shmyhal said on X.

Kyiv said it reached an agreement in principle with international creditors to restructure government debt worth more than $20 billion, according to a July 22 filing with the London Stock Exchange. Shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, the government struck a deal with holders of its international bonds to freeze repayments. However, that deal expires on August 1. The new agreement "allows us to free up resources for our defense, social spending, and reconstruction," Ukrainian Prime Minster Denys Shmyhal said on X. The new deal will see creditors, including BlackRock, Pimco, and other major institutional investors, write billions off the nominal value of their holdings and agree to a new payment schedule. The group rejected a June offer by Ukraine that called for even steeper write-downs.

Iran's Revolutionary Guards Intercept U.A.E.-Managed Tanker

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps intercepted a U.A.E.-managed tanker carrying 1,500 tons of marine gas oil, British security firm Ambrey said on July 22. (file photo)
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps intercepted a U.A.E.-managed tanker carrying 1,500 tons of marine gas oil, British security firm Ambrey said on July 22. (file photo)

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have intercepted a Togo-flagged, U.A.E.-managed tanker carrying 1,500 tons of marine gas oil, British security firm Ambrey said on July 22. The vessel was intercepted 113 kilometers southwest of Iran's port of Bushehr en route to the U.A.E. from Iraq, Ambrey said. The owner lost contact with the tanker as it was arrested, but Ambrey said the incident was likely a counter-smuggling operation by the IRGC. Iran has some of the world's cheapest fuel prices due to heavy subsidies and the plunge in the value of its currency, making smuggling for resale on world markets very profitable.

Kazakh Court Commences Trial in High-Profile Prison Torture Case

Kazakh activist Timur Danebaev (file photo)
Kazakh activist Timur Danebaev (file photo)

A dozen former Kazakh prison guards accused of torturing a noted anti-war activist Timur Danebaev and 40 other inmates went on trial on July 22. The probe was launched after a video showing guards severely beating the 39-year-old activist and other inmates circulated online in September 2023. Danebaev was arrested in December 2022 over his online posts condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine and criticizing Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev for inviting the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization’s troops to disperse antigovernment protests in January that year. In June 2023, he was convicted of inciting ethnic hatred and sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Georgian Opposition Lawmakers Challenge 'Foreign Agent' Law In Constitutional Court

A rally in Georgia protesting the "foreign agent" law
A rally in Georgia protesting the "foreign agent" law

Nearly three dozen opposition lawmakers in Georgia said on July 22 that they have taken steps to challenge the recently passed controversial law on "foreign agents" that has jeopardized the country's aspirations to join the European Union.

The opposition lawmakers said they signed a lawsuit to challenge the legislation, a necessary step before it can be submitted to the Constitutional Court.

The "foreign agent" law, analogous to one passed a decade ago in Russia, was pushed through parliament by the ruling Georgian Dream party and adopted in May-June despite a presidential veto and weeks of protests.

The only opposition party represented in the parliament, Girchi, refused to join other opposition lawmakers in the move, saying the Constitutional Court is not independent and there is no sense to appeal the unpopular law with it.

The law's fierce critic, President Salome Zurabishvili, appealed the controversial legislation with the Constitutional Court on July 16.

In May, several nongovernmental organizations in Georgia also said they will challenge the law in question with the Constitutional Court and lodge a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The Georgian Dream-dominated parliament overrode Zurabishvili's veto with an 84-4 vote in the 150-seat parliament on May 28.

On June 4, the speaker of parliament, Georgian Dream member Shalva Papuashvili, signed the bill into law.

On June 24, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the European Union will downgrade political contacts with Georgia and consider freezing financial aid to the Tbilisi government after it pushed the law through.

"If the government does not change the course of action, Georgia will not progress on the European Union path," Borrell said.

He also said the EU would reconsider its support for Georgia through a military aid fund, the European Peace Facility.

Critics say the legislation was introduced by Georgian Dream, founded by Russian-friendly Georgian tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, in order to cement the party's grip on power ahead of elections later this year seen as crucial for Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

The law requires civil-society and media organizations that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from foreign sources to submit to oversight that could encompass sanctions for as-yet-undefined criminal offenses.

Both the United States and the European Union have warned Georgian Dream that ignoring criticism and cracking down violently on protesters will have negative consequences.

Georgia obtained the coveted EU candidate status in December, but it has yet to start actual accession talks, which could last for years.

Georgian Dream has insisted it remains committed to joining Western institutions and the law was only meant to increase transparency on NGO funding.

But Western governments and organizations have issued stark statements, warning the Georgian Dream government that the Tbilisi's EU path will be blocked if the law comes into force.

With reporting by Civil.ge, Apsny.ge, and Interpressnews.ge

Belarusian Woman Gets 6 Years In Prison For Sending Money To Regiment In Ukraine

The Kastus Kalinouski Regiment, consisting of Belarusian citizens, fights on the Ukrainian side against Russian invaders. (file photo)
The Kastus Kalinouski Regiment, consisting of Belarusian citizens, fights on the Ukrainian side against Russian invaders. (file photo)

Prosecutors in the western Belarusian region of Brest said on July 22 that a local woman had been sentenced to six years in prison for sending 4,400 rubles ($1,344) to a regiment of Belarusian soldiers fighting on the side of Ukraine. The Vyasna human right center identified the woman as Natallya Levaya, a 38-year-old resident of Brest. The Brest regional court on July 17 convicted Levaya of financing extremist activities for sending the funds to the Kastus Kalinouski Regiment and attempting to join an armed group in a foreign country. Levaya was also ordered to pay a $40,000 ruble ($12,218) fine. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Hungary, Slovakia Seek EU Consultation Procedure With Ukraine Over LUKoil Ban

Hungarian Foreign and Trade Minister Peter Szijjarto (file photo)
Hungarian Foreign and Trade Minister Peter Szijjarto (file photo)

Hungary and Slovakia will seek a consultation procedure with Ukraine mediated by the European Commission after Kyiv placed Russian group LUKoil on a sanctions list, leading to a halt in deliveries, Hungary's foreign minister said in Brussels on July 22. "I spoke with the Ukrainian foreign minister yesterday, he said they allow every oil transfer through, but it's not true," Peter Szijjarto said. "The commission has three days to execute our request, after which we will bring the issue to court."

Updated

Russian Court Sentences RFE/RL Journalist Kurmasheva To 6 1/2 Years In Prison

RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan on May 31.
RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan on May 31.

A Russian court has sentenced Alsu Kurmasheva, a veteran RFE/RL journalist who holds dual U.S.-Russian citizenship, to 6 1/2 years in prison on charges she, her employer, the U.S. government, and her supporters reject as politically motivated.

The court convicted Kurmasheva on a charge of spreading falsehoods about the Russian military.

The AP, which first reported the news, cited court records and officials as confirming the conviction was handed down on July 19 after the court held a secret trial in the city of Kazan.

RFE/RL President and CEO Stephen Capus called the trial and conviction "a mockery of justice," adding that "the only just outcome is for Alsu to be immediately released from prison by her Russian captors."

"It's beyond time for this American citizen, our dear colleague, to be reunited with her loving family," Capus said in a statement.

Kurmasheva, 47, was arrested in Kazan in October and initially charged with failing to register as a "foreign agent" under a punitive Russian law that targets journalists, civil society activists, and others.

RFE/RL and the U.S. government say the charges are reprisals for her work as a journalist for the broadcaster in Prague.

"She’s a dedicated journalist who is being targeted by Russian authorities for her uncompromising commitment to speaking the truth and her principled reporting," U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters on July 22 after the news of her conviction.

"Journalism is not a crime, as you have heard us say on a number of occasions, and we continue to make very clear that she should be released," he said.

The July 19 verdict came the same day that Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was found guilty of espionage charges -- which he, his employer, and the U.S. government have rejected as politically motivated -- by a court in the city of Yekaterinberg.

A White House statement on July 19 said Gershkovich was targeted by the Russian government because he is a journalist and an American.

Unlike Gershkovich and another American, Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence also on espionage charges, Kurmasheva has not been designated by the U.S. government as "wrongfully detained."

Such a designation ensures that the case is assigned to the office of the special envoy for hostage affairs in the U.S. State Department, raising the political profile of the prisoner's situation and allowing the U.S. administration to allocate more resources to securing their release.

The U.S. National Press Club -- a professional association of American journalists -- and 18 other media freedom groups called on President Joe Biden in an open letter on May 31 to press for the recognition of Kurmasheva as a "wrongfully detained" person.

"She meets all the criteria. This should happen immediately. It should have happened months ago," the letter said.

"We have listened to the State Department twist itself into a pretzel explaining how there are other factors to be considered besides the criteria, but we have yet to hear a clear reason why State cannot declare her wrongfully detained," it added.

Miller did not address the issue of Kurmasheva's designation with reporters, saying only that the Biden administrations remains focused on her case.

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

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

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

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

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

Belarusian Activist On Trial For Helping Families Of Political Prisoners

The Mahilyou regional court (file photo)
The Mahilyou regional court (file photo)

The Mahilyou regional court in southeastern Belarus on July 22 began the trial of activist Alesya Serheyenka for allegedly facilitating extremist activities. The charge stems from her participation in the INeedHelpBY initiative that assisted families of political prisoners with money and food while their loved ones were behind bars. If convicted, the 40-year-old activist faces up to seven years in prison. Serheyenka was arrested in January, one month before her husband, Maksim, was released after serving three years in prison on a charge of insulting senior officials, including the country's authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Human rights defenders recognized Maksim Serheyenka as a political prisoner. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

Belarusian Opposition Politician Kazlou Released After 30 Months In Prison

Mikalay Kazlou in the city of Mahilyou in February 2021
Mikalay Kazlou in the city of Mahilyou in February 2021

The former leader of the opposition United Civic Party (AHP), Mikalay Kazlou, was released from prison on July 22 after serving 30 months on a charge of disrupting civil order. The charge stemmed from Kazlou's participation in a rally on August 23, 2020, that was attended by at least 100,000 people challenging the results of a presidential election and a brutal police crackdown that started shortly after authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka was declared the winner. Belarusian authorities later shut down the AHP -- one of the oldest opposition political parties in Belarus, established in 1995. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

Explosion Destroys Shopping Center In Southwestern Russia

Emergency personnel work at the scene of the destroyed shopping center in Apsheronsk on July 22.
Emergency personnel work at the scene of the destroyed shopping center in Apsheronsk on July 22.

Emergency officials in Russia's southwestern Krasnodar region said on July 22 that an explosion completely leveled a shopping center in the city of Apsheronsk. The regional prosecutor's office said the building was destroyed by a gas explosion. Rescue workers managed to rescue one person from under the debris and are looking for more. At least 15 people who were standing at a bus stop nearby were also injured, of whom three were hospitalized. Russia's southern regions suffered a mass drone attack overnight. At the moment there is no information that the explosion was linked to that attack. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Head Of Stalin Bust Knocked Off In Town Near Moscow

A bust of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin being cleaned in Moscow. (file photo)
A bust of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin being cleaned in Moscow. (file photo)

An unidentified man has used a sledgehammer to knock off the head of a bust of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in the town of Zvenigorod in the Moscow region, videos posted by Telegram channels Beware, News and Zvenigorod appeared to show. A nearby bust of Vladimir Lenin was also damaged in the attack. A criminal investigation into vandalism has been opened, Moscow region police announced, adding that a 43-year-old suspect had been detained and released on bail. He faces up to three months in jail if found guilty. The bust was erected last year without permission from the authorities. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Tajik, Uzbek Teenagers Charged With Attempted Murder After Brawl With Russian Lawmaker

Police check the documents of migrants in Samara. (file photo)
Police check the documents of migrants in Samara. (file photo)

A Russian court on July 22 sent three teenagers -- two of whom were from Central Asia -- to pretrial detention until September 18 on an attempted-murder charge after a brawl last week with Mikhail Matveyev -- a member of the Russian parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma. Matveyev says he was hit in the head with a glass bottle after he tried to stop a brawl in the city of Samara. Tajik-Russian citizen Nekruz Bakhirov and Uzbek citizen Murod Musurov, both 19, as well as a 16-year-old Russian national identified as Artur B., were initially charged with hooliganism. The charge was later changed to attempted murder. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Ukrainian FM Kuleba To Visit China

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (file photo)
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (file photo)

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba will visit China on July 23-25 at the invitation of his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, the Foreign Ministries of both countries said on their official websites on July 22. "During the meetings and negotiations, the parties will exchange views on the current state and prospects for the development of bilateral relations. The main topic of discussion will be the search for ways to stop Russia's aggression [against Ukraine] and China's possible role in achieving a stable and just peace, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Iran Hangs 8 In 2 Days Amid Concerns Over Rise In Executions After Election

Iran executed at least 853 people last year, according to rights groups, most of whom were convicted of narcotics-related crimes.
Iran executed at least 853 people last year, according to rights groups, most of whom were convicted of narcotics-related crimes.

Rights groups say Iranian authorities executed eight people over the weekend, bolstering concerns that the regime may accelerate the carrying out of death sentences after a lull ahead a snap presidential election held earlier this month.

The human rights-focused news agency HRANA reported that four people, including an Afghan national, were hanged on July 21 in Qezel Hesar prison in Karaj. The news agency said they were convicted of drug-related charges.

Rights groups have documented a sharp rise in the number of Afghans executed in Iran, with activists saying they do not get fair trials.

Separately, the Oslo-based organization Iran Human Rights said four people, including a woman, were hanged on July 20 in a prison in Shiraz. Three of them were convicted of murder and one was found guilty of rape.

Earlier this month, Iran Human Rights said executions had dropped by 30 percent in the first six months of 2024 but warned that it could pick up following the snap presidential election.

Reformist lawmaker Masud Pezeshkian beat ultraconservative rival Saeed Jalili in a runoff vote on July 5.

Human Rights Watch on July 15 urged Pezeshkian to fight the rising number of executions in Iran.

As of July 22, at least 268 people have been executed in Iranian prisons this year, more than half of whom were convicted on drug-related charges, according to Iran Human Rights.

Amnesty International says Iran carried out 853 executions in 2023, with at least 481 executions for narcotics convictions.

Because the Iranian government does not publish official statistics on the number of executions, international and Iranian rights groups document cases using open-source data such as state media and human rights organizations.

Warrants Issued For Russian Anti-War Activists In Exile

Lev Gyammer (file photo)
Lev Gyammer (file photo)

A Moscow court on July 22 issued arrest warrants for two members of the Vesna youth movement on charges of organizing an extremist group, distributing false data about Russia's military, calls for anti-government activities, and disrespecting past military glory. Lev Gyammer and Gleb Kondratyev have both fled Russia. Gyammer used to lead late opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's team in the southwestern city of Krasnodar. Vesna was declared extremist and banned in Russia in December 2022 after it organized rallies against mobilization for the Kremlin's war against Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

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