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Deaths After Latvian Store-Roof Collapse

Rescue Workers Search For Survivors Trapped In Latvian Supermarket Collapse
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WATCH: Rescue Workers Search For Survivors

At least 48 people died when a roof at a supermarket in the Latvian capital, Riga, collapsed on shoppers.

At least 36 others were injured, with most of them hospitalized.

Firefighters suffered casualties -- including three dead -- when a second part of the roof fell on them minutes after they arrived to aid those injured.

A survivor described the scene as the collapse took place on November 22: "It was crashing, most people started crying and screaming as it was sure that those who were left inside, after the first collapse, would not be alive after the second fall."

The accident occurred during the evening shopping rush-hour at the Maxima supermarket in the Riga suburbs.

It is unclear how many people might still be trapped under the rubble, but officials estimated dozens are still unaccounted for.

Rescue teams -- including three cranes -- are continuing a search for survivors among the ruins of the collapsed store. Sniffer dogs were also being used.

Winter Garden

Workers had been building a winter garden on the roof, but the reason for the collapse is still unknown.

Police officials said the collapse is possibly related to flaws in the design of the building or poor construction work on the building, which was built in 2011.

Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said a criminal investigation had begun.

"We are going to take more severe control measures on construction sites of this kind, especially on sites that are currently under construction or the construction is planned to start soon," Dombrovskis said.

Officials were calling on Riga residents to donate blood to help those injured. They also asked family members of the missing to call their mobile phones so that police could pinpoint where people might be trapped in the debris.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

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Migrants From Afghanistan, Pakistan Found In Truck In Serbia

Serbia lies at the heart of the so-called Balkan land route that refugees and migrants use to try to reach Western Europe. (illustrative photo)

Serbia's customs authorities said on March 24 they discovered nine migrants hiding among aluminum rolls in a truck headed to Poland from Greece. Customs officers on Serbia's border with North Macedonia spotted the migrants on March 22 during a scan that showed human silhouettes in the back of the truck, a statement said. The migrants were young men from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, the statement added. Serbia lies at the heart of the so-called Balkan land route that refugees and migrants use to try to reach Western Europe and start new lives there. To read the original story by AP, click here.

OSCE To Examine Human Rights Situation In Belarus

Belarus's authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, was declared the winner of an August 2020 presidential election despite allegations of widespread voter fraud.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will establish an expert mission to examine the human rights situation in Belarus after a request by the United States and 37 other countries, the U.S. State Department said on March 23. "The expert mission will have a mandate to assess Belarus's adherence to its OSCE commitments and how the Lukashenka regime's actions may have adversely affected Belarus's civil society, press freedoms, the rule of law, and the ability of democratic processes and institutions to function," State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said in a statement.

Russian Blogger Varlamov, Human Rights Lawyer Chikov Listed As 'Foreign Agents'

Pavel Chikov (file photo)

Russia's Justice Ministry has added blogger Ilya Varlamov and lawyer Pavel Chikov of the Agora legal defense organization to the "foreign agents" registry. The ministry said Varlamov and Chikov disseminated "inaccurate information about decisions made by public authorities and their policies." It said Varlamov received "support from foreign sources" while Chikov is accused of "participation in the creation and distribution of materials of foreign agents." The initial law listed as a "foreign agent" anyone who received financial assistance from abroad, but it was amended in December to include anyone who is "under foreign influence." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.


Russian Strike Hits Civilian Shelter As Fighting Rages In Eastern Ukraine

Rockets launched from Russia's Belgorod region streak across the sky at dawn in Kharkiv, Ukraine, early on March 24.

A Russian strike on the town of Kostyantynivka in the eastern region of Donetsk killed at least five people on March 24, Ukraine's emergency service reported, as an air-raid alert was declared in several regions overnight while heavy fighting continued in and around the eastern city of Bakhmut.

A missile fired from an S-300 antiaircraft system hit a local so-called "invincibility point" -- a humanitarian support center -- in Kostyantynivka, the Prosecutor General's Office reported, killing five people.

Of those, at least three of them were women taking shelter at a "invincibility point" set up to provide a place with basic services such as electricity, water, and heating for those displaced by the fighting in the region.

Russia also launched a drone attack overnight on the city of Kryviy Rih in Ukraine's south-central region of Dnipropetrovsk, the region's governor said on March 24.

Five Iranian-made drones were launched on Kryviy Rih at night but there were no casualties, Serhiy Lysak said on Telegram, adding that one Shahed drone and several Russian missiles were downed.

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 counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Moscow has repeatedly denied targeting civilians since the start of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

In the east, Russian forces pressed on with their offensive, launching 79 assaults on Bakhmut and the surrounding areas over the past 24 hours, despite some reports of signs of exhaustion among Moscow's troops, Ukraine's General Staff said in its morning summary on March 24.

Most of Russia's assaults targeted Bakhmut, the largely destroyed city in the Donetsk region that has been the epicenter of Moscow's efforts for months.

The enemy continued to launch unsuccessful attacks in other areas of Donetsk -- Lyman, Avdiyivka, Maryinka, and Shakhtarsk, the General Staff said, adding that fighting was also under way in parts of the Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions.

General Oleksandr Syrskiy, commander of Ukraine's ground forces, said on March 23 that the Russians' relentless push in Bakhmut was beginning to take its toll on their strength, and that the Ukrainians were preparing to take advantage of their enemy's perceived weakness "very soon."

But Serhiy Cherevatiy, a spokesman for the Eastern Group of Ukraine's forces, cautioned that Bakhmut was still seeing intense combat.

On March 23, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy implored European leaders to speed up and increase the supply of weapons, including long-range missiles and fighter jets.

Zelenskiy, who earlier in the day, visited the Kherson region, said delays in the delivery of long-range missiles and fighter jets could extend the war.

"Time is of the essence. Not just months and weeks, but days. The sooner we act together, the more lives we save," Zelenskiy said.

"If Europe hesitates, the evil may have time to regroup and prepare itself for years of war," he added, speaking in a video address on March 23 to European leaders that he recorded as he traveled by train to Kherson, which was recaptured by Kyiv in November.

Speaking at a press conference after the meeting, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said any new sanctions against Russia would mostly crack down on evasion of previously imposed sanctions.

She also said the EU would work with other organizations to find Ukrainian children deported to Russia and press for their return.

"It is a horrible reminder of the darkest times of our deport children. This is a war crime," she said.

The International Criminal Court last week issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, a Russian children's rights official, for the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children.

Zelenskiy also welcomed the endorsement by EU foreign and defense ministers of a plan for sending Ukraine 1 million rounds of artillery ammunition within the next 12 months.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is now deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council, said in an interview on March 24 with Russian news agencies that Moscow's troops may have to capture Kyiv or Lviv to destroy the Ukrainian state, which he referred to as "this infection."

He said that while Russia did not want a direct war with NATO, any Ukrainian move to liberate its Crimea region, illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014, would give Russia a green light to use "absolutely any weapon" in retaliation, including "those provided for by the basic doctrine of nuclear deterrence."

Medvedev, once seen as a moderate politician, has used increasingly inflammatory rhetoric since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

Athletics Council Stymies Russian Path To Olympics Due To War In Ukraine

Maria Lasitskene of Russia competes in the women's high jump during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in August 2021.

Track and field leaders have signaled that it will be nearly impossible for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in track and field at the Paris Olympics next year if the war in Ukraine continues. The World Athletics Council, in a decision announced on March 23, kept its ban on Russian athletes in international events in place "for the foreseeable future," a move that goes directly against the International Olympic Committee's efforts to find a way for Russian athletes to compete as neutrals in upcoming events. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Blinken Tells Congress Funds Approved For Ukraine In December Should Last Through 2023

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies at a Senate subcommittee hearing on his department's proposed budget request for fiscal year 2024 in Washington on March 22.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has reassured members of Congress that the billions of dollars already approved for Ukraine should last for much of 2023.

Congress passed a spending bill in December that included $45 billion in new emergency aid for Ukraine.

Blinken, testifying on March 23 before the House of Representatives Appropriations subcommittee, would not say exactly when the administration might need to ask for more funds but said the recent funding "carries us through much of this year."

The hearing focused on the State Department's budget request for fiscal year 2024, which is an 11 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

Some Republican lawmakers have questioned the amount of money sent to Kyiv, given budget deficits and talk of cuts in U.S. domestic programs.

"The budget will sustain our security, our economic and energy and humanitarian support for Ukraine, so that we ensure that President [Vladimir] Putin's war remains a strategic failure," Blinken told members of the committee.

Blinken also told the subcommittee that measures were in place to ensure money sent to Ukraine is well spent.

"I have 45 people at our embassy in Ukraine whose job is to oversee the expenditure of these monies," Blinken said.

He also addressed concerns that the United States is carrying too much of the burden.

Thus far, the United States has committed $32 billion of security assistance for Ukraine, while other countries have committed $22 billion, Blinken said. Washington has provided about $15.5 billion in economic support, while other countries have sent $24 billion, he added. The breakdown on humanitarian assistance is $2 billion sent by Washington and $3.5 billion sent by other countries.

"We do have real burden-sharing when it comes to Ukraine," he said, also noting that European countries have taken in about 8 million refugees.

Blinken also suggested there was a role for diplomacy in determining Ukraine's future borders but said decisions are for Ukraine to make.

While Blinken has dismissed the near-term prospects for peace talks, saying Russia is not serious and would only use a cease-fire to resupply and rearm its forces, he appeared to accept that Ukrainian forces would not be able to win back all their territory on the battlefield.

"I think there's going to be territory in Ukraine that the Ukrainians are determined to fight for on the ground; there may be territory that they decide that they'll have to try to get back in other ways," Blinken said.

He made the comment in response to a question from Representative Chris Stewart (Republican-Utah), who asked if the United States backed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's goal to take back Crimea.

"If our commitment and our agreement with Mr. Zelenskiy is we will support you whatever you want to achieve, including no Russian presence at all in Crimea, then we're asking for a world of hurt," he said.

The United States and its European allies have refused to recognize Moscow's illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Blinken stressed that decisions about Crimea and others regarding territory "have to be Ukrainian decisions about what they want their future to terms of the sovereignty, the territorial integrity, the independence of the country."

Bosnian Serbs Approve Measure On 'Foreign Agents' Mirroring Controversial Russian Law

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik says the legislation will require foreign-financed organizations active in Republika Srpska -- the entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina that Dodik leads -- to report "everything they are doing" and has predicted it will pass.

The government of Republika Srpska has adopted a draft law that would require nonprofit organizations funded from abroad and active in the Bosnian Serb entity to register and report on their work.

The draft law, which is backed by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, was approved on March 23 by the government.

Dodik says the legislation will require foreign-financed organizations active in Republika Srpska -- the entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina that Dodik leads -- to report "everything they are doing" and has predicted it will pass.

A communique issued after the government approved the measure said existing law on associations and foundations funded from abroad regulate the founding, registration, inner organization, and cessation of their work, but not their transparency.

The communique said their political activity, the publication of financial reports, and the "supervision of the legality of their work and other provisions" are among the things that have not been regulated.

The government claims this gap in regulation creates a situation that could lead to "the collapse of the legal system and constitutional framework of [Republika Srpska], while harmful consequences are caused for the institutions and organizations of [Republika Srpska]."

The draft law now moves to the National Assembly of Republika Srpska for debate. This is to be followed by a two-month period for public discussion. An adapted version of the law would then return to the National Assembly for more discussion and a vote. If it passes, it would take effect with the signature of the president.

Dodik, leader of the largest political party in Republika Srpska, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), has previously said that the draft law is based on the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

A similar "foreign agents" law in Russia has proved controversial and has been used to disrupt the work of media organizations, including RFE/RL. Russia also claimed its law was in response to FARA.

U.S. officials have argued that Russia uses its "foreign agents" law to silence dissent and discourage the free exchange of ideas and have said there is there "no equivalence" between Russia's "foreign agents" law and the U.S. FARA.

Civil society organizations in Republika Srpska claim that the proposed law has more in common with the Russian law than the U.S. FARA. They also said is about "establishing supervision and total control over the work of civil society."

According to the registry of associations and foundations, Bosnia has about 25,600 NGOs, including 7,500 based in Republika Srpska. There is no data on how many of them are financed from abroad.

With reporting by Goran Katic

Bulgarian President Balks At Delivery Of Bulgarian-Made Ammunition To Ukraine

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev speaks on arrival for an EU summit at EU headquarters in Brussels on March 23.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev on March 23 objected to the delivery to Ukraine of ammunition that Bulgaria sells to other European Union states. Radev confirmed to journalists that Bulgaria would engage only in the production of ammunition for other EU members. "Bulgaria does not support and is not part of the general order for the supply of shells to Ukraine," Radev said. "Our country will support European diplomatic efforts to restore peace." Radev made the comment before EU foreign and defense ministers meeting in Brussels endorsed a plan to send Ukraine 1 million rounds of artillery ammunition. To read the full story by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, click here.

Fugitive Sought In Collapse Of Cryptocurrency Arrested In Montenegro

Terra USD was a crypto asset security referred to as an "algorithmic stablecoin" that supposedly maintained its peg to the U.S. dollar by being interchangeable with Luna, another of Do Kwon's crypto asset securities. (illustrative photo)

The former CEO and co-founder of cryptocurrency company Terraform Labs has been captured in Montenegro, the country's interior minister said on March 23.

Do Kwon, who is suspected in the loss of investments worth more than $40 billion, was detained at the Podgorica airport with falsified documents, Interior Minister Filip Adzic said.

"Montenegrin police have detained a person suspected of being one of the most wanted fugitives, South Korean citizen Do Kwon, co-founder and CEO of Singapore-based Terraform Labs," Adzic said on Twitter. "We are waiting for official confirmation of identity."

Do Kwon is wanted by the United States, South Korea, and Singapore, Adzic said.

He stands accused of "orchestrating a multibillion-dollar crypto asset securities fraud," according to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

"We allege that Terraform and Do Kwon failed to provide the public with full, fair, and truthful disclosure as required for a host of crypto asset securities, most notably for Luna and Terra USD," SEC Chairman Gary Gensler said in a statement in February.

Terra USD was a crypto-asset security referred to as an "algorithmic stablecoin" that supposedly maintained its peg to the U.S. dollar by being interchangeable with Luna, another of Kwon's crypto-asset securities, the SEC said.

"We also allege that [Terraform and Kwon] committed fraud by repeating false and misleading statements to build trust before causing devastating losses for investors," he added.

An arrest warrant was issued by South Korea in September after Terraform Labs and its cryptocurrency crashed in May.

The arrest warrants named several people linked to the Terra USD and Luna cryptocurrencies, the BBC reported.

South Korean prosecutors previously asked Interpol to issue a red notice for Kwon, saying he refused to cooperate with their probe into the crash.

Many investors lost their life savings when Luna and Terra USD collapsed, falling to a value of near zero. The fallout from the collapse of Terraform Labs also affected the wider cryptocurrency market.

With reporting by AFP

Russian Suspected Of Evading Sanctions Escapes From House Arrest In Italy While Awaiting Extradition To U.S.

Artyom Uss was arrested in October at a Milan airport at the request of the United States. Shortly after he was detained, a court in Moscow issued an arrest warrant for Uss, accusing him of money laundering. (illustrative photo)

Artyom Uss, the son of a Russian regional governor who was set to be extradited from Italy to the United States to face charges of violating an embargo against Venezuela and bank fraud, has escaped from house arrest near Milan, Italian media reported on March 23.

Uss disappeared after he removed an electronic bracelet, reports by La Republica, La Stampa, and ANSA said, adding that police are looking for him.

Italian officials have yet to make a statement on the situation.

Two days earlier, a court in Milan approved a motion to extradite Uss to the United States, where he would face decades behind bars if convicted.

Uss was arrested in October at a Milan airport at the request of the United States. Shortly after he was detained, a court in Moscow issued an arrest warrant for Uss, accusing him of money laundering. The move appeared aimed at heading off his extradition to the United States.

Uss, whose father, Aleksandr Uss, has served at the governor of Russia's Krasnoyarsk Krai region since 2018, asked to be handed to the Russian authorities in January. The court in Milan rejected his request and on March 21 approved his extradition to the United States on charges of violating an embargo against Venezuela and bank fraud.

But the court ruled against handing him over on charges of smuggling military technology to Russia and money laundering. The judges wrote in a statement that they refused extradition due to a lack of evidence for the first charge and the issue of double jeopardy for the second.

U.S. prosecutors said in October that another suspect in the case against Uss, Yury Orekhov, was arrested in Germany.

A 12-count indictment was unsealed on October 19 in a federal court in Brooklyn, New York, charging the two men along with three other Russian nationals -- Svetlana Kuzurgasheva, Timofei Telegin, and Sergei Tulyakov. In addition, two Venezuelan nationals -- Juan Fernando Serrano Ponce and Juan Carlos Soto -- were charged for brokering illicit oil deals for a Venezuelan energy company.

According to the statement, Uss and Orekhov owned Nord-Deutsche Industrieanlagenbau GmbH (NDA GmbH), which bought U.S. military technologies and dual-use technologies, including semiconductors and microchips that are used in military jets, missile systems, modern ammunition, radars, and satellites. Kuzurgasheva served as the company's executive director.

The items bought in the United States by the company in question were then passed on to Russian companies -- Radioavtomatika, Radioexport, and Abtronix -- owned by Telegin and Tulyakov.

The U.S. Attorney General’s Office said the items were discovered in Russian military vehicles and in equipment captured by Ukrainian forces during Russia's ongoing full-scale aggression against Ukraine.

According to the indictment papers, Uss and Orekhov also used NDA GmbH to illegally smuggle hundreds of millions of tons of oil from Venezuela to companies in China and Russia, including one that might be linked to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who is under U.S. and European Union sanctions over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

With reporting by Reuters, La Republica, La Stampa, and ANSA

Lawmakers In Iceland Recognize Soviet-Era Famine In Ukraine As Genocide

A statue commemorating the Holodomor famine in central Kyiv. (file photo)

Iceland's lawmakers have recognized the Holodomor -- the 1932-33 famine caused by the policies of the Soviet government in Ukraine -- as genocide. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy expressed gratitude to Iceland on March 23, calling the move "a clear signal that such crimes do not go unpunished and do not have a statute of limitations." Earlier this month, lawmakers in Belgium and Bulgaria also recognized the Holodomor as genocide. The Holodomor took place as communist leader Josef Stalin's police units forced peasants in Ukraine to join collective farms by requisitioning their grain and other foodstuffs. Historians say the failure to properly harvest crops in Ukraine in 1932 under Soviet mismanagement was the main cause of the famine.

EU Leaders Endorse Joint Ammunition Purchases For Ukraine

(file photo)

European Union leaders have endorsed a plan for sending Ukraine 1 million rounds of artillery ammunition within the next 12 months to help the country counter Russia’s invading forces. EU foreign and defense ministers approved the plan for a fast-track purchasing procedure earlier this week, and the leaders of the bloc’s 27 member nations gave it their political blessing at a summit in Brussels on March 23. “Taking into account the security and defense interests of all member states, the European Council welcomes the deliver ground-to-ground and artillery ammunition to Ukraine and, if requested, missiles,” a statement at the conclusion of the meeting said. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Iranian National Soccer Team's Assistant Coach Fired For Supporting Protesters Online

Rahman Rezaei (third right at back) poses with Iran's national soccer team in 2006.

An assistant coach with Iran's national soccer team has been fired amid a campaign by hard-liners to oust him over social media posts he made criticizing the government's response to protests sparked by the death of a young woman while in police custody.

Rahman Rezaei, a former star player on the Iranian men's national soccer team, had come increasingly under fire after being named last week as an assistant coach for his comments online about the regime's crackdown on demonstrators, including one last October where he said, "Enough is enough. You should be tried in the nation's courts."

On March 20, an official of the Sports Ministry wrote on Twitter: "Do you think that someone who insults the Islamic republic so brazenly can be trusted to serve honestly under the holy flag?"

Soon after, the semiofficial Fars News Agency, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, announced Rezaei's dismissal.

FIFA, world soccer's governing body, has repeatedly warned the Iranian Football Federation over government interference in national team affairs. There was no immediate comment by FIFA.

Since the start of nationwide protests following the death of Mahsa Amini in September while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly, numerous Iranian celebrities and sports personalities have been interrogated and had their passports confiscated after voicing support for the protests.

The unrest has put women's rights in Iran and the lack of freedoms in general in Iran in the spotlight.

Authorities have responded to the unrest with a wave of brutal and often deadly repression.

Another Iranian professional soccer player, Amir Nasr-Azadani, has been sentenced to 16 years in prison for "assisting in waging war against God." Nasr-Azadani had faced a potential death sentence.

Ali Karimi, a former soccer player with Bayern Munich and once the captain of Iran's national soccer team, has also been a target of the government for his support of the protesters and his posts on social media, including on Instagram, where he has nearly 15 million followers.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has described efforts by celebrities to support the protesters as "worthless" and has called for judicial action against them.

Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups. Thousands more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

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

Kyrgyz Activist Fined For Inciting Hatred Calls Ruling Politically Motivated, Plans To Appeal

Civil rights activist Aijan Myrsalieva is known for her harsh online criticism of Kyrgyz authorities. (file photo)

A court in Bishkek on March 23 fined a noted civil rights activist, Aijan Myrsalieva, 100,000 soms ($1,145), after finding her guilty of inciting hatred. Myrsalieva told RFE/RL that she considers the ruling politically motivated, adding that she will appeal it. Myrsalieva, who is also known as Myrsan, was charged in July. She is known for her harsh online criticism of Kyrgyz authorities. International and domestic rights watchdogs have accused the Kyrgyz government of increasing pressure on independent journalists and bloggers in recent months. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Pretrial Detention For Former Kyrgyz Kumtor Gold-Mine Manager Upheld

Kumtor had been the target of financial and environmental disagreements for years before turning into the subject of a control battle between the Kyrgyz state and Centerra Gold. (file photo)

BISHKEK -- A Bishkek court has upheld a lower court's decision to keep in pretrial detention the former interim manager of Kyrgyzstan's Kumtor gold mine, Tengiz Bolturuk, who is being held on charges of financial misdeeds that he has rejected.

The court announced its decision on March 23. The same day, Bolturuk's wife, Ilmira Alpysbaeva, said she was ending a hunger strike she started several days earlier to demand her husband's transfer to house arrest.

"I have children. My hunger strike does not bring any results. My husband is innocent," Alpysbaeva said.

On March 10, the Oktyabr (October) district court rejected Bolturuk's request for a transfer to house arrest even though Alpysbaeva was insisting her husband's health condition had dramatically worsened since his arrest in September.

The State Committee for National Security (UKMK) arrested Bolturuk and two of his associates -- Aisha-Gul Janalieva and Ryspek Toktogulov.

They were fired in late August after the UKMK launched a probe against them, saying the auditing chamber found financial violations in their activities.

The UKMK said at the time that Bolturuk and his assistants allegedly caused financial damage to the State Treasury assessed at 1 billion soms ($11.4 million).

Bolturuk has rejected the charges.

Kyrgyzstan and the Kyrgyz state-owned gold mining company regained full control of the Kumtor gold mine earlier last year under the terms of a deal with the Canadian company Centerra Gold signed in April 2022.

Bolturuk, who previously represented Kyrgyzstan at the Centerra Gold, was the interim manager of Kumtor at the time.

Kumtor had been the target of financial and environmental disagreements for years before turning into the subject of a control battle between the Kyrgyz state and Centerra Gold.

The Kyrgyz government has insisted Centerra's operations endangered human lives and the environment, which the company denied.

In May 2021, the Canadian firm said it had "initiated binding arbitration to enforce its rights under long-standing investment agreements with the government."

Many Kyrgyz lawmakers have expressed concern about an alleged lack of transparency at Kumtor since the Kyrgyz government took control of the gold mine.

Slovakia Sends First Four MiG-29 Fighter Jets To Ukraine

Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jets fly in formation over the Malacky Air Base in Slovakia in August 2022.

Slovakia has delivered the first four of a total of 13 Soviet-made fighter jets promised to Ukraine, the Slovak Defense Ministry said on March 23. "The first four MiG-29 fighter jets have been safely handed over to the Ukrainian Armed Forces," the ministry said in a statement, adding that the transfer was carried out by Ukrainian pilots. "In the coming weeks, the rest of the planes will be handed over to Ukraine," the statement said. Slovakia’s government approved the transfer of its fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets last week.

NHL Team Will Not Wear Pride-Themed Jerseys Due To Russian LGBTQ Law

Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Nikita Zaitsev

The Chicago Blackhawks will not wear Pride-themed warmup jerseys before their Pride Night game against Vancouver because of security concerns involving a Russian law that expands restrictions on activities seen as promoting LGBTQ rights in the country. The decision was made by the NHL following discussions with security officials within and outside the franchise, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke to the AP on March 22 on condition of anonymity. Chicago defenseman Nikita Zaitsev is from Moscow, and there are other players with family in Russia or other connections to the country. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Sweden To Seek Explanation From Hungary On NATO Delay

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson (file photo)

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said on March 23 that he would seek an explanation from Hungary as to why its parliament is delaying ratification of Sweden's NATO bid but not Finland's. "I'm going to ask why they are now separating Sweden from Finland. These are signals we have not received before, so I'm absolutely going to raise this with [Prime Minister Viktor] Orban today," Kristersson told public broadcaster Sveriges Radio. To read the original story by AFP, click here.

Iran Sentences Five To Death For Alleged Spy Operations With Israel

A man who identified himself as Mansur Rasuli admitted he wanted to assassinate an Israeli diplomat working in the country's consulate in Istanbul, as well as a U.S. general stationed in Germany and a journalist in France. (video grab)

Five Iranians -- four men and one woman -- in the northwestern Iranian city of Urmia have been sentenced by a court to death for allegedly engaging in intelligence cooperation and espionage activities that benefited Israel.

Hengaw, a Norway-based group that monitors rights violations in Iran's Kurdish regions, said one of those sentenced to death is Mansur Rasuli, whose interrogation by Mossad agents in Iran made headlines last year.

At least five other people have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms in the case, the report added.

Last year, Israeli media reported that agents for the Mossad security service captured and interrogated a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps inside Iran.

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

Iran and Israel have been engaged in a years-long shadow war. Tensions have been nearing a boiling point in recent years.

In November, the semiofficial Mehr News agency reported that Iran sentenced to death four people accused of collaborating with Israel. The four were accused of having interrogated people in Iran with intelligence cooperation from Mossad, the Israeli secret service.

Tensions have also flared between the two countries as negotiations aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers remain deadlocked. In the absence of a deal that would curb Iran's sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions, Tehran has reduced its commitments and expanded its nuclear activities.

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

Tehran has blamed Israel, the United States, and other Western countries for the unrest, which has seen security forces kill more than 500 people, according to human rights groups, including dozens of minors.

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

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

Hungary Would Not Arrest Putin Under ICC Warrant, Says Orban's Chief Of Staff

Gergely Gulyas, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff (file photo)

Hungary would not arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin if he entered the country, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff said, adding that it would have no legal grounds. Hungary signed and ratified the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court (ICC), which issued an arrest warrant accusing Putin of the war crime of illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine. But when asked if Putin would be arrested if he came to Hungary, Gergely Gulyas told a briefing that the Rome Statute had not been built into the Hungarian legal system. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Prosecution Witness At Trial Of Navalny Associate In Bashkortostan Says She Was Pressured

Lilia Chanysheva (right) with Aleksei Navalny in 2021.

UFA, Russia -- A prosecution witness at the high-profile trial of Lilia Chanysheva, the former leader of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's team in Ufa, the capital of Russia's Republic of Bashkortostan, has testified in court that she has been pressured by officers of the Interior Ministry's anti-extremist directorate.

The witness said at a hearing on March 22 that investigators also tried to recruit her as an informant during the preliminary investigations of Chanysheva’s case, Chanysheva's lawyer, Sergei Makarenko, told RFE/RL on March 23.

"The judge had to call a five-minute break after one of the witnesses started crying while answering questions. She said after she calmed down that the investigators imposed serious psychological pressure on her during a preliminary investigation, threatening her with repercussions. The witness also testified that she does not consider Chanysheva's activities in the Ufa headquarters of Navalny’s team illegal, emphasizing that Chanysheva is not guilty," Makarenko said.

Navalny's team said in a post on Telegram that the witness also testified that officers from the Interior Ministry's anti-extremism directorate forced her to sign a recruitment agreement, according to which she was supposed to become an informant with a monthly salary of 12,000 rubles ($155), about which she said she immediately informed Chanysheva at the time.

The witness, whose identity RFE/RL chose not to disclose, told RFE/RL that she was "ashamed" to testify at the trial.

"I am just horrified that I was even summoned to the trial. I thought I would manage to avoid the disgrace. I consider it torture of my conscience.... I actually answered all the questions of the investigator honestly, because Lilia [Chanysheva] did not do anything illegal. I know her as a decent person, and certainly I said at the trial that I consider the charges against her to be without grounds," the witness said.

She added that she "wanted to offer apologies to Lilia for this shame."

"I was not strong enough to keep silent during questioning. I chose my own safety, and now I wake up every day with these thoughts," the woman said.

Makarenko said the judge agreed with a prosecutor's request at the trial that the incident with the witness would not be shared with media, but he decided to make the situation public.

Chanysheva, 41, who was arrested in November, headed the local unit of Navalny's network of regional campaign groups until his team disbanded them after a Moscow prosecutor went to court to have them branded "extremist."

The court accepted the prosecutor's request, effectively outlawing the group.

Chanysheva's defense team said at the time that her arrest was the first since the movement was banned. The charges appear to be retroactive since the organization she worked for disbanded before it had been legally classified as extremist.

In January, Amnesty International urged Russian authorities to release Chanysheva "immediately," insisting that the extremism charges are absurd and should be dropped.

Navalny himself has been in prison since February last year, while several of his associates have been charged with establishing an extremist group. Many of his associates have fled the country.

Lawyer Who Defended Jailed RFE/RL Journalist Ihar Losik Handed 15-Day Jail Term

Artsyom Syamyanau

Artsyom Syamyanau, a Belarusian lawyer who defended jailed RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik, was sentenced to 15 days in jail on March 22 on a charge of disobeying requests by authorities. A day earlier, Syamyanau and several other Belarusian lawyers who have defended journalists and opposition politicians in Belarus were detained in Minsk. Details of the detentions remain unclear. Syamyanau also defended Valyantsin Stefanovich of the Vyasna (Spring) human rights center who, along with Vyasna's chairman, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski, and another colleague, Uladzimer Labkovich, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms earlier this month. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

Belarusian Journalist Gets Three-Year Prison Sentence Over Article About Deadly KGB Raid

Belarusian journalist Henadz Mazheyka (file photo)

MINSK -- A Belarusian journalist who wrote about a deadly raid by officers of the Committee of State Security (KGB) on a Minsk apartment in September 2021 has been sentenced to three years in prison.

On March 23, the Minsk City Court sentenced Henadz Mazheyka, a former correspondent for the Belarusian edition of the Moscow-based Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, after finding him guilty of inciting social hatred and insulting authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Mazheyka was arrested in October after he was extradited from Russia. He was initially charged with inciting social hatred. Investigators said later they had found audio of Mazheyka “insulting Lukashenka” and filed an additional charge against the journalist.

Mazheyka is one of dozens of Belarusians detained across the country on similar charges related to a shooting in Minsk in late September 2021 in which an IT worker and a KGB officer died.

The arrests were connected to comments posted on social media about the incident.

Belarusian authorities blocked Komsomolskaya Pravda's website after Mazheyka's article was published about Andrey Zeltsar, an employee of the U.S.-based EPAM Systems IT company, who was shot dead during the incident.

In the article, a classmate of Zeltsar remembers him as a decent person.

Little is known about the shooting, during which Zeltsar allegedly shot and killed KGB officer Dzmitry Fedasyuk.

Authorities claimed at the time that “an especially dangerous criminal” had opened fire on security officers after they showed up at his apartment looking for “individuals involved in terrorist activities.”

Lukashenka has issued thinly veiled threats to people who post comments on social media praising Zeltsar and criticizing Fedasyuk, saying, "We have all their accounts, and we can see who is who."

Multiple individuals have received prison terms in recent months on charges related to comments about the incident.

Russia-Installed Law Enforcement Officers In Annexed Crimea Detain Crimean Tatar Activist, Son

It is not clear why and on what charges the search and the detentions were based. (illustrative photo)

Russia-installed law enforcement officers in Ukraine's Moscow-annexed Crimea have detained Crimean Tatar activist Mustafa Mustafayev and his son after searching their home on March 23, the Crimean Solidarity human right groups said. It is not clear why and on what charges the search and the detentions were based. Since illegally annexing Crimea in 2014, Russia has imposed pressure on Crimean Tatars, the peninsula's indigenous ethnic group, many of whom openly protested the annexation. Dozens of Crimean Tatars have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms by Russian authorities on extremism charges since then. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.

Moscow Research Institute 'Postpones' Meeting With Nobel Laureate Muratov Amid Protests By War Supporters

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov

MOSCOW -- The Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MFTI) says a planned meeting of its lecturers and students with Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov has been postponed amid online protests against the meeting by supporters of Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

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 counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Muratov, the editor in chief of the independent newspaper Novaya gazeta and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, has openly called for Moscow to stop its war against Ukraine.

MFTI Rector Dmitry Livanov said in a March 23 statement that the forum with Muratov -- titled Conflict Of Generations After February 24 -- was postponed as "it was impossible to avoid politicizing the talk."

The discussion was scheduled for March 28. February 24 refers to the day the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

"Despite huge interest among [MFTI staff and students] for the talk with Dmitry [Muratov], just the announcement of the event caused a storm of negative emotions, mostly from people who have nothing to do with MFTI," Livanov's statement said. "I would like to emphasize that Dmitry Muratov was not added to the Russian Justice Ministry’s registry of foreign agents and there are no legal obstacles either for his talking with students, nor his teaching activities."

Livanov's statement came two days after several Telegram channels supporting Russias war in Ukraine called to cancel the meeting with Muratov, accusing him of having a pro-Ukrainian stance.

Muratov said in an interview with the Novaya gazeta Europe Telegram channel that when he was invited to the meeting at the MFTI in January he anticipated such a reaction from what he called "ultras."

"I surely understand the reason why the university informed me and the students about the postponement of the meeting," Muratov said.

Last month, the Moscow City Court upheld a lower court decision to withdraw the licenses of Muratov's Novaya gazeta newspaper and its Novaya rasskaz-gazeta magazine, two of the last independent media outlets in the country, amid a crackdown on the free press during the Kremlin's war against Ukraine.

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