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Putin Announces Presidential Bid, With Medvedev Backing

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (nearer, left) and President Dmitry Medvedev wave to attendees at a United Russia party congress in Moscow on September 24.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (nearer, left) and President Dmitry Medvedev wave to attendees at a United Russia party congress in Moscow on September 24.
Former two-term Russian president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has ended years of speculation by accepting the nomination for a fresh presidential bid after the current president, Dmitry Medvedev, backed him at a weekend party congress.

Critics of the unrivaled hold that Putin has maintained on the country since his elevation to the presidency more than a decade ago were bound to see the maneuver as a recipe for further stagnation of the political system and the economy.

Leaders of Russia's beleaguered opposition interviewed by RFE/RL's Russian Service predicted the move would damage the country in both the short and long terms.

Storify page on early reaction to Putin's new presidential bid

Putin, widely seen as Russia's most powerful politician, called it a "great honor" and thanked the United Russia party that nominated him.

"I would like to express my gratitude for the positive reaction to the proposal that I run for president of Russia," Putin told a cheering crowd of thousands of party activists at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium. "This is a great honor. I am counting on your support."

Putin had already proposed that Medvedev lead United Russia's party list in parliamentary elections in December and suggested that he serve as his prime minister.

"I am certain that United Russia will win, and based on popular support, Dmitry Anatolyevich will be able to create a new, effective, young, energetic management team and head the government of the Russian Federation."

'Turning Into Mubarak'

The carefully choreographed announcements, and the proposed role reversal between Putin and Medvedev, ends a long period of uncertainty about which member of Russia's so-called ruling tandem would stand in the March 2012 presidential election. Putin turned the presidency over to Medvedev in 2008 to become prime minister because he was constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term. At the time, speculation arose quickly as to how Putin might engineer a return to the presidency.

Putin's victory in March is a virtual certainty, given both his popularity and Russia's tightly controlled political system. It would set the stage for him to serve two six year terms, which would keep him in the Kremlin until 2024, meaning he could end up running the country longer than Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, whose 18-year rule became synonymous with socioeconomic decay.

Journalists in the press center watch a live broadcast of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's speech at the same United Russia party congress in Moscow on September 23.

Former Prime Minister and head of the extraparliamentary People's Democratic Union Mikhail Kasyanov suggested a new Putin presidency would deal a blow to nascent power structures in the country.

Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin called it a blow to modernization efforts.

Longtime Kremlin critic and former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who now heads the smallish People's Freedom Party (Parnas), told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the situation was "the worst possible scenario for the development of my country."

"This will result in massive capital flight, a new wave of emigration, and further degradation of the state," Nemtsov said. "Our country can expect very serious social and economic shocks and shocks connected to the degradation of the country as a whole. Putin is turning into [Belarusian Preident Alyaksandr] Lukashenka, and he could transform into [deposed Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak or [deposed Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi."

Partying It Up

Medvedev made the proposal to nominate Putin for next year's race on the second day of the United Russia annual congress in Moscow.

"I think it would be correct for the congress to support the candidacy of the party chairman, Vladimir Putin, to the post of president of the country," Medvedev said.

Medvedev accepted the spot atop the electoral list earlier in the day and pledged his willingness to work hard on "practical work of the government," RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Medvedev listed his priorities as modernizing Russia's economy, ushering in social safeguards, and battling corruption.

Putin told the congress that he and Medvedev had agreed on their future roles long ago.

About 11,000 delegates were attending United Russia's weekend congress, which opened on September 23.

Predicted By Some

The 58-year-old Putin, a former KGB colonel, is seen by many Kremlin watchers as more conservative than Medvedev, who is 46 years old and a lawyer by profession. Some economists have said Putin's presidential return could herald an era of economic stagnation in the world's biggest energy producer.

Many analysts, however, say the differences between the two are largely cosmetic and a matter of style rather than policy.

The news that Putin plans to return to the Kremlin comes as Russia is facing increasing economic uncertainty amid the European debt crisis and falling oil prices.

On September 22, Russia's two benchmark stock indexes suffered major losses. The ruble-denominated MICEX index dropped 7.8 percent, its biggest single-day loss in two years, and the dollar-denominated RTS fell 8.6 percent. A day later, the MICEX fell an additional 4.5 percent.

The Russian ruble, pressured by the ongoing capital flight, continued its plunge this past week, falling to 32.2 to the U.S. dollar, its weakest level since August 2009.

Lev Ponomaryov, director of the group For Human Rights, predicted that a combination of economic woes and political disillusionment would cause Putin and the ruling party to lose public support.

"This confirms my basic assumptions about this regime," Ponomaryov told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "It is Putin's regime and Medvedev plays a decorative role. I am certain Putin's and United Russia's popularity over the next half-year will fall by 10 percent and in a year it will be down by another 10 percent. And if there is an economic crisis it will simply be a catastrophe."

Some casual observers noted that Putin could keep his grip on the presidency until he is into his 70s. Edward Lucas, author of "The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and The Threat To The West," predicted via Twitter that the return would spell "stagnation" and "corruption" and was "bad for Russia" and "bad for Russia's neighbors." (See Storify page below for a sample of Web reaction and related content.)

Despite persistent allegations of unfairness in Russian elections, some of the country's harried opposition leaders have cited signs of weakness in United Russia's position and argued that the December elections are a chance to deny that party the constitutional majority that it currently holds.

Written by Brian Whitmore and Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service and additional agency reports

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U.S. House On Brink Of Approving Crucial Ukraine Aid

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson

The House of Representatives is to vote on April 20 on a $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel, and other U.S. allies after Democrats and Republicans finally joined together behind the legislation following months of Republican opposition over continued U.S. support for Ukraine against Russia's invasion. Ukraine is to get a desperately needed $60.84 billion if the package passes as expected. If approved, the package will go to the Senate, where rapid passage is nearly assured. President Joe Biden has pledged to sign it immediately.

Srebrenica Genocide Must Be Condemned, Denial Banned, 2 Members Of Bosnian Presidency Tell UN

Denis Becirovic (left), Zlatko Lagumdzija (center), and Azir Osmanovic at a UN session in New York on April 19.
Denis Becirovic (left), Zlatko Lagumdzija (center), and Azir Osmanovic at a UN session in New York on April 19.

The 1995 genocide in Srebrenica must be globally condemned, support for victims must be expressed, and denial of genocide and glorification of war criminals be banned to prevent future similar tragedies, two members of the tripartite presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina told a UN session on April 19.

Denis Becirovic and Zeljko Komsic of Bosnia's presidency made the remarks along with Azir Osmanovic, a survivor from Srebrenica, at the UN headquarters in New York.

A third member of the presidency, Zeljka Cvijanovic -- who represents the Serbian entity -- is banned from U.S. entry due to sanctions imposed for violating the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the war in Bosnia in 1995, and didn’t attend the session.

Germany and Rwanda initiated talks regarding a resolution on the Srebrenica genocide. Voice of America, citing unnamed sources, reported that the United States, Albania, Finland, New Zealand, Turkey, and other countries are also participating in the drafting of the text.

UN member nations are expected to vote on the final resolution, which is still being worked on, at a session of the UN General Assembly in early May.

In a draft seen by RFE/RL, the resolution calls for, among other things, the "condemnation without reservation" of any denial of the genocide in Srebrenica, as well as actions that glorify those convicted of war crimes, including those responsible for the genocide.

The resolution would declare July 11 as the International Day of Remembrance for the Genocide in Srebrenica.

In July 1995, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were rounded up and killed by Bosnian Serb forces in Potocari near the eastern town of Srebrenica -- the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II.

The massacre has been deemed genocide by various verdicts of both the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague established that the killings constituted genocide.

So far, more than 50 individuals have been sentenced to some 700 years in prison for their roles in the Srebrenica genocide.

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The move to draft a UN resolution has been opposed by Milorad Dodik, the Russia-friendly leader of Bosnia-Herzegovina's ethnic-Serb entity, Republika Srpska, who threatened that if the document is adopted, "Republika Srpska will withdraw from the decision-making process in Bosnia."

Dodik, who has been sanctioned by the United States and Britain over his efforts to undermine the Dayton Peace Accords, has regularly reiterated his denial of the Srebrenica genocide.

Dodik told supporters at a rally in Banja Luka on April 18 that the actions of the Republika Srpska army in Srebrenica in 1995 were "a mistake that left the crime," but he denied it was genocide.

The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo condemned the remarks by Dodik and other Bosnian-Serb leaders, saying the comments were “reprehensible and irresponsible. “

“Genocide denial insults victims of all ethnicities and compounds the suffering of their families. It tears at the fabric of the society of Bosnia and Herzegovina, threatens [Bosnia’s] stability, and is illegal under [Bosnian] law.”

Separately on April 19, the Srebrenica Memorial Center demanded an urgent public statement from the Iranian Embassy after remarks made by Iran’s ambassador to Serbia, Rashid Hassan Pur Baei, regarding Srebrenica.

When asked on Belgrade TV what he thought about the proposed UN resolution, he said "that a crime was committed there, but that this fact is presented in an improper manner."

"It is absolutely reprehensible that they are using this event as a political instrument for their goals. There is a hidden agenda behind it. Serbia admits that a crime took place there, but the presentation of the Serbian people as a genocidal people is absolutely with political intentions and political goals," the ambassador reportedly said.

U.S. National Dies In Occupied Donetsk, Says Russian Journalist

Russian journalist Margarita Simonyan announced the news on Telegram.
Russian journalist Margarita Simonyan announced the news on Telegram.

Russell Bentley, a U.S. national, has died in the Russian-controlled city of Donetsk in Ukraine, Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russia's state media outlet RT, wrote on Telegram on April 19. Simonyan said Bentley had been "fighting there for our guys" and working with Russia's Sputnik news service. She did not say how he died. Bentley, born in 1960, a self-declared supporter of Russian-backed forces in Ukraine whom Russian state media had described as a war correspondent, reportedly went missing on April 8, police in the Russian-controlled Donetsk region said in a statement last week.

Imprisoned Mother Of Chechen Activists Loses Bid For Early Release For Health Reasons

Zarema Musayeva (file photo)
Zarema Musayeva (file photo)

Zarema Musayeva, the imprisoned mother of three self-exiled outspoken Chechen opposition activists, has lost a bid for early release because of her medical condition after health officials in Russia's North Caucasus region of Chechnya changed her diagnosis.

Musayeva's lawyer, Aleksamdr Savin, told the Team Against Torture human rights group on April 19 that a medical commission in Chechnya replaced Musayeva's previous diagnosis -- type 2 diabetes with multiple complications -- with a new one -- type 2 diabetes without complications.

"The new diagnosis excludes the possibility for Musayeva to get an early release on grounds of her state of health," Savin said.

Savin said last month that his client, who is serving a five-year term in a colony settlement -- a dormitory-like penitentiary located near an industrial facility where convicts work alongside regular employees -- was hospitalized in late March after her eyesight deteriorated sharply and swellings appeared on her body.

Human rights groups have said that Musayeva needs proper medical assistance as she has an acute form of diabetes, a cataract, and a constant pain in her knee.

Musayeva is the mother of Ibragim, Abubakar, and Baisangur Yangulbayev, all of whom have fled the country citing harassment from Chechen authorities over their online criticism of Kremlin-backed Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov.

Chechen police and security officers detained Musayeva in January 2022 in her apartment in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, some 1,800 kilometers from Chechnya, and forcibly returned her to the North Caucasus region's capital, Grozny.

In July, a court in Chechnya sentenced Musayeva to 5 1/2 years in prison on charges of fraud and attacking a police officer, which Musayeva and her supporters have denied.

In September, the Supreme Court of Chechnya shortened Musayeva's prison term by six months and said Musayeva must serve her term in a colony settlement instead of a penitentiary colony.

Kadyrov, other Chechen officials, and a member of the Russian Duma have publicly vowed to kill all members of the Yangulbayev family, calling them "terrorists."

Journalists, rights activists, and other Russians have urged the government to punish those who issued the threats.

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Abubakar Yangulbayev has accused Kadyrov's law enforcement and security officers of "lawlessness on a daily basis in Chechnya" and said the case against his mother is Kadyrov's retaliation for his activities.

Ibragim and Abubakar have said they faced years of pressure from Chechen authorities over their online criticism of Kadyrov and the rights situation in Chechnya.

Many of their relatives have been similarly harassed in Chechnya and even deprived of their homes since Kadyrov and his people vowed to kill them and their families.

The activists' father, retired federal judge Saidi Yangulbayev, and a sister fled Russia in January 2022, following the threats.

Russian and international human rights groups have for years accused Kadyrov of overseeing grave human rights abuses, including abductions, torture, extrajudicial killings, and the persecution of the LGBT community.

Kremlin critics say Putin has turned a blind eye to the abuses because he relies on the former rebel commander to control separatist sentiment and violence in Chechnya.

Ukraine, Israel Aid Advances In Rare House Vote As Democrats Help Republicans

The vote produced a seldom-seen outcome in the typically hyper-partisan House, with Democrats helping Republican Speaker Mike Johnson’s plan advance. (file photo)
The vote produced a seldom-seen outcome in the typically hyper-partisan House, with Democrats helping Republican Speaker Mike Johnson’s plan advance. (file photo)

With rare bipartisan momentum, the U.S. House of Representatives pushed ahead on April 19 on a foreign aid package of $95 billion for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, and humanitarian support as a robust coalition of lawmakers helped it clear a procedural hurdle to reach final votes this weekend. The vote produced a seldom-seen outcome in the typically hyper-partisan House, with Democrats helping Republican Speaker Mike Johnson’s plan advance overwhelmingly by 316 votes to 94. Final House approval could come this weekend, when the package would be sent to the Senate.

Detained Former Karabakh Separatist Official Begins Hunger Strike, Says Family

Ruben Vardanian (file photo)
Ruben Vardanian (file photo)

Ruben Vardanian, a former Russian citizen of Armenian descent who served as prime minister in the de facto government of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, has begun a hunger strike in a Baku prison, his family said on April 19. Vardanian, a billionaire banker who had renounced his Russian citizenship, was arrested and brought to Baku after a military operation by Azerbaijan retook Nagorno-Karabakh from ethnic-Armenian forces in September. He served as prime minister of the region from November 2022 to February 2023. He has demanded his release and that of other detained former Karabakh separatist leaders, his family said. Baku hasn't confirmed the hunger strike. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, click here.

Armenia Agrees To Return 4 Villages To Azerbaijan As First Step To Define Borders

The agreement was reached during the eighth round of talks between Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigorian (left) and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Shahin Mustafayev. (file photo)
The agreement was reached during the eighth round of talks between Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigorian (left) and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Shahin Mustafayev. (file photo)

Armenia has agreed to return four abandoned border villages that it has controlled since the early 1990s to Azerbaijan as the initial step in defining the frontier between the two bitter South Caucasus rivals, the countries said in identical statements on April 19.

Armenia’s Foreign Ministry said the agreement was reached during the eighth round of talks between Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigorian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Shahin Mustafayev, which was held at an undisclosed section of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

It said the parties reached preliminary agreement that the initial stage of the delimitation process will involve sections between four villages in the territory of Armenia’s northeastern Tavush Province and four abandoned villages that used to be part of Azerbaijan’s northwestern Qazax district.

"Armenia has agreed to return four villages under occupation since the early 1990s," Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry spokesman Aykhan Hajizade wrote on social media.

The abandoned former Azerbaijani villages face the Armenian villages and have been under Armenia’s military control since 1991-92, when ethnic clashes between the two former Soviet nations intensified. The proposed border will run between the Armenian and Azerbaijani villages.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought wars over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh -- with more than 30,000 people killed -- as they transitioned into independent countries.

Azerbaijan regained control of Nagorno-Karabakh in a lightning military offensive last year, but much of the border between the countries remains in dispute, with both sides occupying villages that formerly belonged to the other.

The statement says the paired villages are Baghanis (Armenia) and Baganis Ayrum (Azerbaijan), Voskepar (Armenia) and Asagi Askipara (Azerbaijan), Kirants (Armenia) and Xeyrimli (Azerbaijan), and Berkaber (Armenia) and Qizilhacili (Azerbaijan).

According to the statement, the process is aimed at “bringing them in line with the legally established inter-republican border that existed within the framework of the Soviet Union at the time of its disintegration.”

"It was continue the process of delimitation of all other sections of the border, including on the issues of enclaves and exclaves."

The agreement comes two days after Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian visited three border villages in Tavush to meet with residents and discuss upcoming arrangements, which he said were vital to ensuring Armenia’s sovereignty and independence.

Residents of border villages have expressed concerns that the demarcation of the border with Azerbaijan in accordance with the Soviet-era configuration would deprive them of access to their farmlands and complicate their communication with the rest of the country due to the fact that some sections of the only road they have would fall under Azerbaijani control.

Pashinian pledged his government’s efforts to address the difficulties that local residents might face in connection with the planned border demarcation, including building new sections of the road stretching along the border.

Talking to residents in Berkaber on April 17, Pashinian said that he was putting his political career in the balance so that “Armenia can become a truly independent state.”

Armenian opposition groups have strongly criticized Pashinian for agreeing to discuss the transfer of four formerly Azeri villages to Baku without immediately getting Azerbaijan to withdraw from parts of sovereign Armenian territory that Baku's military captured during a series of border incursions in 2021-22.

Word of the latest agreement comes shortly after the Group of Seven (G7) nations called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to remain “fully committed” to the peace process as the group’s foreign ministers issued a communique after their meeting in Capri, Italy, on April 19.

In the lengthy statement on various challenges around the world, the top diplomats of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, the United States, as well as the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, also called on Azerbaijan “to fully comply with its obligations under international humanitarian law.”

“We urge Armenia and Azerbaijan to remain fully committed to the peace process to achieve a dignified and durable peace based on the principles of non-use of force, respect for sovereignty, the inviolability of borders, and territorial integrity,” the part of the communique concerning the South Caucasus reads.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

'Security Measures' Taken For Kazakh Judge In Murder Trial Of Ex-Minister Amid Threats

Former Kazakh Economy Minister Quandyq Bishimbaev in court last month
Former Kazakh Economy Minister Quandyq Bishimbaev in court last month

Kazakhstan's Supreme Court said on April 19 that Judge Aizhan Qulbaeva -- who is presiding over the high-profile trial of former Kazakh Economy Minister Quandyq Bishimbaev -- has been provided with "measures of personal security" after she received multiple unspecified threats by phone from persons unknown. The court added that a probe has been launched regarding an "obstruction of justice." Bishimbaev, who is accused of viciously beating his wife, Saltanat Nukenova, to death in a restaurant in Astana in November, faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Russian Military Court To Try Theater Director Berkovich, Playwright Petriichuk

Russian playwright Svetlana Petriichuk (left) and director Yevgenia Berkovich appear at a Moscow court hearing last year.
Russian playwright Svetlana Petriichuk (left) and director Yevgenia Berkovich appear at a Moscow court hearing last year.

Moscow theater director Yevgenia Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriichuk will face trial in a Russian military court after prosecutors affirmed charges of justifying terrorism, lawyer Sergei Badamshin said on April 19. The two women were arrested in May 2023 following the production of the play Finist The Brave Falcon. The play is about Russian women who married Muslim men and moved to Syria. Berkovich and Petriichuk maintain their innocence. If convicted, they face up to five years in prison. Military courts handle cases related to terrorism charges in Russia. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Belarusian Gets Prison Term For Sending $32 To Banned Groups

A court in Belarus has sentenced a man to 3 1/2 years in prison for sending the equivalent of $32 to three Belarusian groups -- Honest People, the Belarusian Culture Council, and ByHelp -- which were labeled extremist and banned by authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime. Fyodar Shvedau, 48, was found guilty of "financing extremist groups." Shvedau pleaded partially guilty. He was held handcuffed in a glass cage during the court proceedings, which human rights groups have called a common practice under Lukashenka's regime to additionally humiliate people on trial. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

G7 Urges Armenia, Azerbaijan To Stay 'Fully Committed' To Peace Process

Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations meet on the island of Capri, Italy, on April 18.
Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations meet on the island of Capri, Italy, on April 18.

The Group of Seven (G7) nations have called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to remain “fully committed” to the peace process as the group’s foreign ministers issued a communique after their meeting in Capri, Italy, on April 19.

In the lengthy statement on various challenges around the world, the top diplomats of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, and the United States, as well as the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, also called on Azerbaijan “to fully comply with its obligations under international humanitarian law.”

“We urge Armenia and Azerbaijan to remain fully committed to the peace process to achieve a dignified and durable peace based on the principles of non-use of force, respect for sovereignty, the inviolability of borders, and territorial integrity,” the part of the communique concerning the South Caucasus reads.

Recalling the joint statement issued by Armenia and Azerbaijan on December 7, 2023, which also included a prisoner exchange deal, the G7 foreign ministers encouraged the sides “to uphold that spirit of cooperation in their future interactions,” stressing that “further escalation would be unacceptable.”

They also called on Azerbaijan to “fully comply with its obligations under international humanitarian law” and encouraged “appropriate steps to ensure the safe, dignified, and sustainable return of refugees and displaced persons wishing to come back to their homes.”

According to the statement, the G7 and its members are “ready to facilitate further constructive contacts at all levels, notably within the established negotiating frameworks provided by the EU and the USA, whose enduring efforts we commend.”

“We reiterate the importance of the commitment to the Alma Ata 1991 Declaration through which Armenia and Azerbaijan recognize each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. We encourage greater regional cooperation and the re-opening of all borders, including the border between Armenia and [Turkey],” it said.

Locals Fear Being Cut Off Amid Armenian-Azerbaijani Peace Talks
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Last November, the top diplomats from the G7 nations expressed “grave concern” regarding the humanitarian consequences of the displacement of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh after the military operation conducted by Azerbaijan,” and called on Baku to “fully comply with its obligations.”

Russia confirmed on April 17 that its peacekeepers are leaving Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan's once-breakaway region. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that Azerbaijani media reports saying that Russian troops had started leaving the region were true.

Armenia has criticized Russian peacekeepers deployed to the once mostly ethnic Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh for failing to stop Azerbaijan’s lightning offensive in September 2023, which ended with Baku regaining control over the region that for three decades had been under ethnic Armenians’ control.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Azerbaijan Service

EU's Von Der Leyen Visits Finland-Russia Border To Assess Security Situation

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen (left), and Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo attend a press briefing in eastern Finland on April 19.
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen (left), and Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo attend a press briefing in eastern Finland on April 19.

The head of the European Union's executive branch said Finland's decision to close its border with Russia over a surge in migrants is a security matter for the whole 27-member bloc. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made the remarks on April 19 during a trip to the frontier, visiting a part of the border in southeastern Finland. “We all know how [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his allies instrumentalize migrants to test our defenses and to try to destabilize us,” von der Leyen told officials. “Now Putin is focusing on Finland, and this is no doubt in response to your firm support of Ukraine and your accession to NATO.”

Rising Rivers Force More Evacuations in Kazakhstan, Russia

Kazakh rescue workers seek to evacuate residents from the flooded settlement of Pokrovka in northern Kazakhstan, close to the border with Russia, a region that has been badly affected by floods in recent weeks.
Kazakh rescue workers seek to evacuate residents from the flooded settlement of Pokrovka in northern Kazakhstan, close to the border with Russia, a region that has been badly affected by floods in recent weeks.

Water levels are still rising in rivers crossing Kazakhstan and Russia as floods continue to wreak havoc and force the evacuation of thousands from towns and cities.

Authorities in the West Kazakhstan region said on April 19 that the water level in the Oral River, which is known in neighboring Russia as the Ural, rose 28 centimeters overnight to 8.84 meters in the area close to the village of Yanvartsevo -- the first settlement on the Kazakh side of the border.

Yanvartsevo, home to some 1,200 people, is located 70 kilometers from the regional capital, Oral. Despite an official call to evacuate, most residents have remained in the village filling sand bags and reinforcing the river's banks along with military personnel and rescue teams from the Emergencies Ministry.

Regional government spokesman Erkhan Tatken said on April 19 that the high waters, which have been caused by abrupt warm weather that led to a massive snowmelt, are expected to reach the region from the adjacent Russian region of Orenburg sometime after April 22.

Tatken added that about 3,000 private houses in the region have been damaged by the floods and some 14,000 people have been evacuated. Kazakh officials have said that well over 100,000 people have been forced from their homes across the country because of heavy flooding.

Kazakhs Prepare For Second Wave As Central Asia, Russia Struggle With Floods
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A day earlier, Kazakh Deputy Interior Minister Marat Qozhaev said seven deaths had been confirmed and two people were missing because of the floods in Kazakhstan’s northern regions, which began in late March.

Frustration over the preparations and response to the floods has boiled over in some parts of the country, with authorities meeting criticism with a heavy hand.

At least two people were handed jail terms of up to 10 days in early April on a charge of "spreading ungrounded information" over publicly accusing local governments in the Qostanai and Pavlodar regions for what they called a failure to properly deal with the floods.

In neighboring Russia, the situation is just as dire, with water levels in rivers continuing to rise in the regions bordering Kazakhstan.

As of April 19, the water level in the Ishim River in Russia's Tyumen region, which borders the North Kazakhstan region, reached 7.23 meters overnight, while 8.5 meters is considered to be the critical point.

The region’s governor, Aleksandr Moor, called on the residents of several villages located close to the river to "evacuate immediately, before it is too late."

According to Moor, the region has not experienced floods of this scale since 1947.

Russian officials said on April 18 that the number of houses affected by the floods in the southern regions was about 18,000 in total.

Russian Journalist's Home Searched Over Case Against Colleague In Exile

Andrei Zakharov left Russia in 2021.
Andrei Zakharov left Russia in 2021.

Police in St. Petersburg on April 18 searched the home of journalist Ksenia Klochkova as part of an investigation of her former colleague, Andrei Zakharov. Klochkova was told that she is a witness in the case against Zakharov, who is accused of failing to comply with the requirements of a "foreign agent," a status he received in 2021, after which he fled Russia. Zakharov worked with Klochkova at the Fontanka online newspaper until 2016, before he moved to Moscow. Russia has used the controversial law on "foreign agents" to muzzle free media and dissent for years. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Bulgarian President Blocks Replacement Of Caretaker Minister

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (file photo)
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev (file photo)

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, who has been criticized by the oppposition as taking a pro-Russian stance, has refused to endorse the replacement of current caretaker Foreign Minister Stefan Dimitrov with Daniel Mitov from the pro-Western GERB center-right party, raising concerns about Bulgaria's support for Ukraine. The caretaker government took office on April 9 after the dissolution of the previous pro-Western cabinet of Nikolay Denkov. Caretaker Prime Minister Dimitar Glavchev had requested Dimitrov's replacement following concerns about his stance on Ukraine. In contrast, Mitov is known for his consistently pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian positions. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, click here.

Hungary's Government To Discuss Potential Fuel-Price Intervention

(file photo)
(file photo)

Hungary's government will discuss fuel prices at its upcoming government meeting on April 24, the economy minister told a press conference on April 19. The minister said reintroducing fuel price caps is "not ruled out," putting further pressure on suppliers to cut fuel prices closer to the Central European average as part of a wider government price-setting intervention after the worst inflationary surge in the European Union.

Russian Suspect In Assassination Attempt On Ex-Ukrainian Security Officer Arrested

Russian authorities said the assassination attempt was organized by the SBU. (file photo)
Russian authorities said the assassination attempt was organized by the SBU. (file photo)

A court in Moscow on April 18 sent to pretrial detention a Russian man suspected of being involved in the attempted murder of a former officer of Ukraine's Security Service (SBU), according to local media reports. Vladimir Golovchenko is the second suspect arrested in the case. Former SBU officer Vasily (Vasyl) Prozorov, who in 2019 defected to Moscow and publicly stated that he had collaborated with the Russian secret services, survived the car bombing in Moscow last week. Russian authorities said the assassination attempt was organized by the SBU. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Poland Detains 2 Suspects In Attack On Navalny Associate In Lithuania

Leonid Volkov (file photo)
Leonid Volkov (file photo)

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said on April 19 that Polish authorities had detained two men suspected of attacking Leonid Volkov, an associate of late Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny who left Russia in 2019 fearing for his personal security. Nauseda added that the suspects will be extradited to Lithuania following due process. Volkov was attacked in March with a meat hammer by an unidentified assailant in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, leaving him bloodied with a broken arm and other injuries. The attack occurred less than one month after Navalny died in a Russian Arctic prison. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.


Apparent Israeli Air Attack Strikes Near Iranian City Of Isfahan

Video Purportedly Shows Israeli Aerial Attack On Iran
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Israel's military reportedly struck targets inside Iran in retaliation for an unprecedented air attack Tehran launched last weekend on its sworn enemy, but the limited scope of the operation and a muted Iranian response appeared to indicate an escalation of the conflict had been avoided.

Explosions were heard early on April 19 -- the 85th birthday of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- near the central city of Isfahan, with reports unclear over the cause.

Several major U.S. media organizations, all citing U.S. government sources, said Israel launched a missile or drones to strike targets inside Iran.

Video posted on social media and broadcast around the world showed several large explosions that were reportedly near Isfahan.

Iranian state media quoted officials in Tehran as saying the explosions were caused by air defenses that shot down three drones in the area of Isfahan.

Hossein Deliriyan, the spokesman for Iran's National Center for Cyberspace, refuted the U.S. media reports, saying in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that "there has been no air attack from outside the borders on Isfahan or other parts of the country."

Speaking at a mosque on April 19, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi didn’t mention the attack near Isfahan and with the Israeli retaliation limited in size and scope, experts said it appeared it was aimed at deescalating soaring tensions while still sending a clear message to Tehran.

Reuters quoted an unnamed Iranian official as saying that Tehran “has no plan to strike back immediately.”

Tehran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel in the early morning hours of April 14, almost all of which were shot down by Israeli defense systems, along with intercepts by forces from the United States, France, Britain, and Jordan.

The attack by Tehran had been widely anticipated in Israel following a suspected Israeli air strike on the Iranian Embassy compound in Damascus, Syria, on April 1 that killed two brigadier generals.

Since then, diplomats and politicians around the world, fearing another major escalation of fighting in the Middle East, had urged restraint as they awaited Israel's response.

According to Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, Washington informed the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized nations that it had received word from Israel on the strikes at the "last minute," but “there was no sharing of the attack by the U.S. It was a mere information.”

“I’m not going to speak to that [the suspected Israeli attack] except to say that the United States has not been involved in any offensive operations,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after a G7 ministerial meeting on the Italian island of Capri.

Iran's state news agency IRNA said air defenses fired from a large air base in Isfahan that is home to Iran's aging fleet of U.S.-made F-14 Tomcats acquired before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Isfahan also houses facilities that are part of Iran's nuclear program, including its underground Natanz enrichment site.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had seen no damage to Iran's nuclear sites. Earlier this week, the sites were rumored to be a possible target if Israel launched a strike inside Iran.

One of Iran's top nuclear facilities, the installation at Natanz, is located in central Isfahan. Such sites have seen several sabotage attacks that Tehran has blamed on Israel.

"IAEA can confirm that there is no damage to Iran's nuclear sites," the UN nuclear watchdog said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

"Director-General Rafael Grossi continues to call for extreme restraint from everybody and reiterates that nuclear facilities should never be a target in military conflicts. IAEA is monitoring the situation very closely."

Israeli strikes targeting a Syrian Army position in the country's south were also reported on April 19.

According to AFP, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the strikes, which he attributed to Israel, "targeted a radar installation of the Syrian Army" between the provinces of Sweida and Daraa provinces.

Raisi had warned earlier this week that Tehran would deliver a "severe response" to any attack on its territory and the limited scope of the reported Israeli attack appeared to heed U.S. President Joe Biden's comment to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel should show restraint with any response and instead "take the win" since the Iranian attack didn't have a great impact.

"It is absolutely necessary that the region stays stable and that all sides refrain from further action," European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said during a visit to Finland on April 19.

Inside Israel, some hawkish lawmakers appeared to acknowledge the strike while criticizing it.

"Feeble," wrote hard-right Security Minister Itamar Ben-Givir in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

Israel and Iran have been bitter enemies for decades but Iran's was the first direct attack by one on the other's soil instead of through proxy forces or by targeting each other's assets operating in third countries.

With reporting by CNN, ABC, CBS, and IRNA

Japanese Group Escapes Suicide Bombing Attempt In Pakistan

Five Japanese nationals escaped unhurt from a suicide attack in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, early on April 19. Police official Azfar Mahesar told a news conference the five Japanese were on their way to Karachi's Landi Economic Zone, when a suicide bomber attempted to blow himself up neat them. Mahesar said the suicide attacker and another armed accomplice were shot dead by the Japanese nationals' security detail. Three security guards were wounded in the exchange of gunfire. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.


Zelenskiy Presses Call For Help As U.S. House Set to Vote On Ukraine Aid

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy inspects new fortifications on a visit to the Donetsk region on April 19.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy inspects new fortifications on a visit to the Donetsk region on April 19.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy stepped up his calls for urgent military assistance, saying NATO members must decide “whether we indeed are allies,” as a crucial vote in the U.S. Congress for a new Ukraine aid package was expected to finally take place on April 20.

"Our sky must become safe again," Zelenskiy told a video conference with NATO defense ministers on April 19.

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"It depends fully on your choice. Choice whether life is indeed equally valuable everywhere. Choice whether you have an equal attitude to all partners. Choice whether we indeed are allies," he said.

Zelenskiy said his embattled nation could not defend itself from the Russian invasion without additional support from Western allies.

"It is obvious that -- now while Russia has air advantage and can rely on its drone and rocket terror -- our capabilities on the ground, unfortunately, are limited," he added.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg reiterated the alliance’s support for Kyiv and stressed to members the need to further aid Ukraine given the perilous battlefield situation.

"The allies must dig deep into the inventories and speed up the delivery of missiles, artillery, and ammunition," Stoltenberg said.

"Ukraine is using the weapons we provided to destroy Russian combat capabilities. This makes us all safer. So support to Ukraine is not charity. It is an investment in our own security," he added.

Ukraine has been pleading for months for more air defense systems as it grapples with increasingly intense Russian air strikes on its infrastructure while its stocks of weapons and ammunition dwindle as critical U.S. aid remains stuck in Congress.

The United States has been by far the main provider of military assistance to Ukraine since the start of Russia's invasion in February 2022.

A desperately needed $60.84 billion military aid package for Ukraine has until this week been blocked in the U.S. House of Representatives amid opposition from hard-liners in the Republican party who want to tie domestic policy issues such as immigration to a decision on foreign aid.

But the House on April 19 pressed forward on a package of $95 billion in aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan as a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers helped clear a procedural hurdle to reach final votes, now expected to start at 1 p.m. on April 20.

On April 19, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said that his recent visit to Washington marked "a shift in the issue of unblocking the aid from the United States."

"We received assurances of the support for the bill from both [the Republican and Democratic] parties. We expect that this large aid package from the U.S. will be voted on in the near future," Shmyhal added.

Separately, members of the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized nations responded to the strikes by pledging to boost Ukraine's air defenses.

"Every country that provides air defense systems to Ukraine, every leader who helps persuade our partners that air defense systems should not be stored in warehouses but deployed in real cities and communities facing terror, and everyone who supports our defense is a life saver," Zelenskiy wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

"We are determined to continue to provide military, financial, political, humanitarian, economic, and development support to Ukraine and its people," the G7 foreign ministers said at the end of a two-day meeting on the Italian island of Capri.

The G7 will "bolster Ukraine's air defense capabilities to save lives and protect critical infrastructure," the statement said, but without providing a specific deadline.

A day of mourning was declared on April 19 for those killed in Russian missile strikes on the city of Dnipro and its surroundings in Ukraine's southeastern region of Dnipropetrovsk as Ukraine's air force for the first time said it had downed one of Russia's attacking strategic bombers.

At least eight people were killed and 25 were wounded when Russian warplanes fired missiles at targets in the Dnipropetrovsk region -- the country's industrial heartland.

Residential Building Burns After Deadly Russian Attacks On Dnipropetrovsk
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Two people were killed in Dnipro, a city of 1 million that is also the region's capital, and six in the Synelnykivskiy district, some 60 kilometers south of Dnipro, where more than a dozen homes were damaged, Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said.

Serhiy Lysak, the head of the Dnipropetrovsk region, said on Telegram that 24 people were wounded and residential buildings and infrastructure facilities were also damaged in the city.

Dnipro Mayor Boris Filatov declared April 20 a day of mourning in the region.

A third location in Dnipropetrovsk, Zelenskiy's hometown of Kriviy Rih, was targeted by a separate Russian attack that damaged infrastructure and wounded three people, according to Mayor Oleksandr Vilkul, who said the strike on infrastructure caused a fire.

Following the strikes, Ukraine's air force said it destroyed a Russian Tu-22M3 strategic bomber.

"This is retaliation for the fact that the Russian strategic aircraft attacked our peaceful cities today, where civilians were killed," air force spokesman Ilya Yevlash told RFE/RL.

"This is the first time that our air force together with our partners from the [military intelligence] and other defense forces were able to shoot down a Tu-22M3 strategic aviation aircraft. And for the first time, two Kh-22 missiles fired by this aircraft were also shot down. Of course, it's a combo. Today is a rainy day in the Russian propaganda media," Yevlash said.

Ukraine Says It Shot Down Russian Strategic Bomber
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Yevlash later added that a second Tu-22M3 was forced to turn around before it had time to launch its missiles, without providing details.

The Ukrainian claim could not be independently verified.

Russia's Defense Ministry said a Tu-22 had crashed in the southern region of Stavropol due to a technical malfunction while returning to base from a combat mission.

Stavropol regional chief Vladimir Vladimirov said one of the four members of the crew had died, while rescue services were searching for one that was missing. Two other members were found alive, Vladimirov said.

"Russia must be held accountable for its terror, and all missiles and 'Shahed' drones must be intercepted," Zelenskiy wrote on X.

"The world can ensure this, and our partners possess the necessary capabilities. This has been demonstrated in the skies over the Middle East, and it should also work in Europe," Zelenskiy said in an apparent reference to a massive Iranian drone attack on Israel last week that was virtually completely repelled in a joint effort by Israeli, U.S., French, British, and Jordanian air defenses.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, and AP

Cyberpartisans Hack Belarusian Fertilizer Plant, Demand Release Of Political Prisoners

The Hrodna Azot plant in the Homel region (file photo)
The Hrodna Azot plant in the Homel region (file photo)

A group known as Cyberpartisans says it hacked into the computers and security systems of a major Belarusian state-run producer of nitrogen compounds and fertilizers and is demanding the release of workers who were arrested during protests against the disputed 2020 presidential election.

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The group claimed that it took control of all internal e-mail accounts of the Hrodna Azot plant in the region of Homel as well as hundreds of computers, servers belonging to the facility, and the security system and security cameras in the plant’s buildings. In addition, the plant's heating center stopped functioning due to the cyberattack.

The hackers say they will undo their work in exchange for the release of all the workers of the facility incarcerated for participating in the 2020 protests against the official results of the presidential poll that named authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka the winner. The hackers also demand 75 other political prisoners with medical conditions be released.

Hrodna Azot's website has not been accessible since April 17.

An employee of the plant told RFE/RL on April 18 on condition of anonymity that "there was a big buzz at the plant” the day before.

"People have been discussing that. Everybody knows what happened and who did it. But I do not know to what extent the attack affected the work," the employee said.

Official representatives of Hrodna Azot refused to comment and hung up the phone when RFE/RL correspondents called to request comment.

Yulyana Shametavets of the Cyberpartisans group told RFE/RL on April 18 that the cyberattack had been prepared for several months.

"The attack was huge enough and may have affected not only documentation and networks but the production of outputs as well," Shametavets said, adding that the attack revealed the weakness of the electronic systems used by industrial facilities in Belarus.

An unspecified number of the facility's workers were arrested during and after the 2020 rallies and many were later handed lengthy prison terms.

In February 2023, a court in the Homel region sentenced 10 activists of the Rabochy rukh (Workers' Movement) consisting of workers of Hrodna Azot on charges of high treason and creation of an extremist group. The Rabochy rukh movement was created in 2020 amid nationwide protests against the disputed reelection of Lukashenka.

Alyaksandr Kapshul and Uladzimer Zhurauka were sentenced to 15 years in prison each then; Syarhey Shelest, Andrey Paheryla, and Alyaksandr Hashnikau to 14 years in prison each; Syarhey Dzyuba, Ihar Mints, Valyantsin Tseranevich, and Syarhey Shametska to 12 years in prison each; and Hanna Ablab, the only woman in the group, to 11 years in prison.

Kapshul was also convicted of illegal use of a firearm, while Shelest, Zhurauka, and Paheryla were additionally found guilty of slander.

All members of the group, which went on trial in November 2023, pleaded not guilty at the time.

The movement tried to organize strikes at Hrodna Azot and another factory, Belarusian Steel Works (BMZ), also located in the southeastern Homel region.

Investigators claim the activists collected sensitive information and passed it to representatives and organizations of foreign countries, including the United States and Lithuania.

Lukashenka, 69, has tightened his grip on the country since the August 2020 election by arresting -- sometimes violently -- tens of thousands of 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 several rounds of sanctions against his regime in response to the suppression of dissent in the country.


Bosnian Serb Leader Tells Rally In Banja Luka Srebrenica Massacre 'Wasn't Genocide'

The president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik: Genocide “did not happen.”
The president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik: Genocide “did not happen.”

Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik told supporters at a rally in Banja Luka on April 18 that the actions of the Republika Srpska Army in Srebrenica in 1995 were "a mistake that left the crime" but again denied it was genocide.

"I want to express my special respect to all the victims and my condolences to their families. It was a crime," he said, addressing thousands of supporters. But he denied it was genocide.

More than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys were massacred by Bosnian Serb troops in Srebrenica in July 1995. International courts have ruled it a genocide, and Bosnian Serb army officers and political leaders also have been convicted of genocide by UN judges.

Earlier on April 18, Dodik told the Republika Srpska parliament that genocide "did not happen," adding that "such a qualification must be dismissed." The parliament adopted a report stating that the massacre in Srebrenica did not constitute genocide.

The moves came as Serbia and the Republika Srpska campaign against a resolution under debate at the UN to commemorate the Srebrenica genocide. Dodik said the government of Republika Srpska will spend the whole day in Srebrenica when the resolution is discussed at the UN.

Dodik, the pro-Russian leader of the ethnic Serbian entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, has been designated for sanctions by the United States and Britain over alleged destabilization efforts and corruption.

He organized the rally to voice opposition to the resolution, which would declare July 11 as the International Day of the Remembrance of the Genocide committed in Srebrenica in 1995.

The draft resolution, seen by RFE/RL, also calls for the condemnation of any denial of the genocide in Srebrenica and encourages UN members to establish educational programs to prevent future manifestations of revisionism and genocide.

The Serbian people, as well as collective responsibility, are not directly mentioned in this document, which was initiated by Germany and Rwanda. All 193 UN member countries are expected to have their say on the resolution at the UN General Assembly early next month.

Dodik already threatened last week that if the resolution is adopted, "Republika Srpska will withdraw from the decision-making process in Bosnia."

Government representatives from Serbia, including Ana Brnabic, the speaker of the Serbian parliament, and Nikola Selakovic, the acting minister for labor, employment, veterans and social affairs, also attended the rally in Banja Luka. Brnabic said Serbia was in favor of respecting the Dayton accords signed in 1995 bringing an end to the Bosnian War.

"Today in Serbia, there are people in power who will always be with Republika Srpska and with our people. We don't have to think the same, but we will always be together. The harder it gets, the closer we will be," she said.

People attending the rally carried the flags of Republika Srpska and Serbia. Some also held posters bearing the image of Russian President Vladimir Putin. A photo of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs' military commander who was also sentenced to life for his role in the genocide, was on one of the banners.

Hundreds of people who attended the rally were bused in from Serbia.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Sister Of Iranian Protest Victim Detained By Tehran's Morality Police

School students wearing the compulsory hijab
School students wearing the compulsory hijab

The sister of Nika Shakarmi, a victim of the Women, Life, Freedom movement protests, has been detained by Tehran's morality police for failing to adhere to the Iran's mandatory hijab law.

Aida Shakarmi, a university student, was arrested in the Iranian capital on April 17 and remains in custody, her father said on Instagram.

Nika Shakarmi, a 16-year-old from Khorramabad residing in Tehran, was killed by security forces during nationwide protests that broke out following the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police for an alleged hijab offense.

Nika Shakarmi was missing for eight days after being chased by security officers during a protest before her body was discovered. Authorities attributed her death to a fall from a height, a claim her family disputes.

The Shakarmi family has faced continuous threats and harassment from security forces since as they actively pursued justice for their daughter.

The report of Aida Shakarmi's detention comes amid a new crackdown on women for not adhering to the hijab law. Enforcement intensified after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a directive during the recent Eid al-Fitr prayer sermon to step up measures against what he called "religious norm-breaking" within Iranian society.

Khamenei also emphasized the mandatory hijab law as a "definite religious decree," underscoring the obligation of all to adhere to this law the same as other legal decrees.

The resurgence of the morality police has sparked increased tensions and confrontations across various cities.

The hijab became compulsory for women and girls over the age of 9 in 1981, two years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The move triggered protests that were swiftly crushed by the new authorities. Many women have flouted the rule over the years and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.

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

4 Pakistani Customs Officials Killed After Gunmen Ambush Vehicle

Unidentified gunmen ambushed a vehicle carrying officials from the customs department in northwestern Pakistan on April 18, killing four of them before fleeing the scene, police said. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in a district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province bordering Afghanistan, local police official Nasir Khan said. The motive behind the attack wasn't immediately clear. Pakistan has witnessed a surge in violence mostly blamed on the Pakistani Taliban, who are known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

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