WHO: Contamination From Fukushima Worse Than Thought
The warning comes amid signs of progress in efforts to avert a catastrophic meltdown in Fukushima's six nuclear reactors.
Engineers today managed to rig power cables to all six of Fukushima's reactors. They also started a water pump at one reactor to reverse overheating that has triggered the world's worst nuclear crisis since the Chornobyl disaster in 1986.
But workers were later evacuated from the complex after gray smoke rose from a building housing one of the most damaged reactors.
Tokyo Electric Power spokesman Kaoru Yoshida says the problem at Reactor No. 3 is under investigation.
"At around 3:55 p.m., we received reports that there was slightly grayish smoke coming out from the southeast roof of nuclear Reactor No. 3," he said. "Due to this, we have evacuated the workers and we are checking the situation."
Japan's National Police Agency says it fears the death toll from the quake and tsunami will exceed 18,000. More than 8,600 people have been confirmed dead, while more than 12,800 are missing.
The World Bank says it could take five years for Japan to rebuild from the triple disaster, costing the country as much as $235 billion.
compiled from agency reports
Head Of UN Atomic Watchdog Calls For 'Restraint' After Blasts Near Ukrainian Nuclear Plant
UN atomic watchdog chief Rafael Grossi called on February 23 for "maximum military restraint" after a string of powerful explosions occurred near Ukraine's Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant this week.
Experts with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stationed at the Zaporizhzhya plant reported hearing explosions every day over the past week, including one on February 16 that appeared to occur close to the plant itself, Grossi said in a statement released by the Vienna-based organization.
“There were also several explosions yesterday (February 22). One of them was unusually loud, indicating very close proximity to the site,” the statement said.
The large explosion on February 22 was part of “field training,” plant officials said. The plant itself was not damaged and there were no injuries. It was not possible to conclusively determine the origin or direction of the other blasts, which Gross said “shook windows” at the plant.
In addition, the IAEA was told that a mine exploded outside the site perimeter on February 22 but it did not cause any damage or injury.
The Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant was captured by Russian forces in March 2022 and has been shut down but requires electrical power to run coolant and other safety systems. IAEA experts have been at the site to monitor its functions since September 2022. During the course of the war both Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of compromising its safety.
Grossi has warned numerous times about the dangers posed by the risk of the plant being caught in the cross fire.
"I remain deeply concerned about the nuclear safety and security situation at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, located on the frontline of the war,” Grossi said. “The reports of our experts indicate possible combat action not far away from the site.”
He also urged the restoration “as soon as possible" of the plant's back-up power line for off-site power.
The plant is still receiving the electricity it needs for reactor cooling and other safety functions, but it currently has no back-up options available for off-site power, Grossi said.
With reporting by AFP
Families Demand Release Of 39 Afghans Detained In Turkey
The families of 39 Afghan citizens detained in Turkey after they reportedly tried to reach Europe on a migrant route have called for the release and the safe return of their relatives.
The Afghan migrants were hiding inside a truck carrying boxes of tissue when they were arrested in the Çilimli district of the northwestern Duzce Province, Turkey's state-run news agency reported on February 22.
All 39 Afghans were taken to the Immigration Department, and the truck driver was also arrested on charges of human trafficking, Anadolu reported.
Their relatives said they were attempting to reach Europe via Turkey to seek better opportunities.
The father of one of the Afghans detained in Turkey told Radio Azadi that he told his son he didn't have money for the journey, but he left anyway and reached Turkey after staying in Iran for a month.
The man, who identified himself as Sediqullah, a resident of Nangarhar, said he now has sent his 18-year-old son money so he can return to Afghanistan.
His son is among a wave of migrants who are fleeing Taliban persecution and a country that is reeling from one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises.
Some Afghans who have been detained by the Turkish police in the past claim that they were tortured by the security forces during their detention.
“They electrocuted, tortured, and brutalized the Afghans,” said 23-year-old Rahman Heydari, an Afghan who was recently deported from Turkey.
Earlier this month, Abdul Rahman Rashid, the Taliban's deputy minister of refugees, said some 1,600 Afghans currently languish in Turkish prisons. He said that Ankara has released more than 600 Afghans, who returned to their country.
Last year the number of Afghans deported by Turkey was in the thousands. In November alone the number was 4,000. The number of Afghans expelled by Turkey was even higher in 2022 when Ankara deported 50,000 back to their country.
According to the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, Turkey hosts one of the largest refugee communities worldwide, with some 3.6 million Syrians and more than 300,000 people from other countries, the majority of whom are Afghan.
In a 2022 report, global rights watchdog Human Rights Watch criticized Ankara for routinely pushing tens of thousands of Afghans -- many of whom are undocumented -- back to its border with Iran or deporting them directly to Afghanistan “with little or no examination of their claims for international protection.”
Neighboring Iran and Pakistan forced more than 1 million Afghans to return to their country in the past year.
Ecuador Calls Off Arms Exchange With U.S. Over Plan To Send Weapons To Ukraine
Ecuador has canceled a plan to trade outdated Soviet weapons for new arms from the United States, President Daniel Noboa said on February 23 after learning that the old weapons would have been sent to Ukraine. Noboa, who is grappling with a sharply deteriorated security situation in the South American country, said in January that Washington would give his country $200 million of new weaponry in exchange for "junk" arms. But he told CNN that Ecuador “can't go ahead with it" after learning that the weapons would go to “the armed conflict in Ukraine, in which we do not want to take part."
Residents Of Russia's Ingushetia Mark 80th Anniversary Of Deportation To Central Asia
Residents of Russia's North Caucasus region of Ingushetia have been marking the 80th anniversary of the deportation of Ingush and Chechens from the North Caucasus to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Hundreds of people, including the region's leader, Makhmud-Ali Kalimatov, lawmakers, government members, public organizations, and youth groups gathered near the Memorial of Memory and Glory in Ingushetia's largest city, Nazran, on February 23, where a mass prayer was performed to honor the victims of the deportation.
Kalimatov issued a statement on his official website, calling the February 1944 deportation "a terrible crime."
"The years of repressions failed to liquidate or diminish the beauty of our people's soul; the peculiar, beautiful Ingush culture is alive. And the years spent in alien lands proved again the capability of our people to unite, to have an unbreakable faith and strong national culture," Kalimatov’s statement said.
For the second year in a row, Kalimatov did not directly accuse Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and his regime of carrying out the deportation.
From February 23, 1944, to March 9, 1944, Soviet authorities deported almost all Ingush and Chechens -- an estimated 650,000 people -- to Central Asia, mostly to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, claiming they were collaborating with Nazi Germany.
As many as half of the deportees died either on the journey or due to the harsh conditions they were forced to endure.
Soviet authorities liquidated the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic at the time, distributing the ethnic republic’s territories among neighboring administrative units and republics.
In 1957, four years after Stalin's death, the republic was re-installed, and survivors were allowed to return to the North Caucasus.
In neighboring Chechnya, February 23 was not officially marked with any public event.
In 2012, the Moscow-backed authoritarian leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, moved the Day of Grief and Remembrance from February 23 to May 10, the anniversary of the burial of his father, Akhmat Kadyrov, who was killed in a bomb attack in Grozny in 2004.
With reporting by Ingushetia
Poland Opts Not To Meet Ukrainian Delegation Sent To Border To Discuss Farmers' Blockade
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said a meeting with Polish government officials on the border between the countries did not take place on February 23 as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had requested.
Ukrainian government officials, including the deputy prime minister and the interior minister, went to the border to meet with Polish officials, but “unfortunately, such a meeting…did not take place today," Shmyhal said on Facebook, posting a photo showing himself and 10 other government officials standing in front of one of the checkpoints at the Ukrainian-Polish border.
"We understand the difficulties faced by the Polish government. And we are ready to help in solving this situation,” Shmyhal said, predicting that a meeting eventually will take place to negotiate a compromise to resolve tension over Polish farmers' protests over an increase in Ukrainian food imports since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
The farmers in recent weeks have blocked Ukrainian transport vehicles on the Polish side of the border, complaining that the increase in food and other goods from Ukraine is impacting prices for their own produce.
The situation escalated this week when a freight train was stopped at the Medyka-Shehyniy border crossing and its grain was spilled onto the tracks. Ukrainian Border Service spokesman Andriy Demchenko told RFE/RL at the time that six of the nine border crossings for trucks between the two countries remained blocked.
Shmyhal said Ukraine wants a resolution to the blockade that for the past six months has affected the Ukrainian economy and its ability to defend itself against the war.
Earlier on February 23, Zelenskiy said that a delegation of the Ukrainian government would arrive at the border ready to negotiate. However, he said he did not know whether any representatives of the Polish government would be there.
Zelenskiy appealed earlier to Poland and the European Commission regarding the situation at the border and asked Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk "to come to the border as well."
Tusk responded by saying that Polish and Ukrainian government members would hold talks in Warsaw on March 28.
Zelenskiy wants the matter to be treated more urgently, saying in his nightly video address on February 22 that it is a matter of national security which should be addressed in the coming days.
Tusk this week said that border crossing points with Ukraine will be considered critically important infrastructure "to ensure a 100 percent guarantee that military and humanitarian aid will reach the Ukrainian side without any delays."
In addition to demanding a ban on the import of agricultural products from Ukraine, the Polish protesters oppose a European Union agricultural policy that aims to implement a so-called "green system" that includes a number of environmental and climate requirements.
Poland Extradites Ukrainian Citizen Accused Of Drug-Related Crime To Kazakhstan
Kazakh authorities said on February 23 that Poland extradited a Ukrainian citizen, whose identity was not disclosed, to the Kazakh capital, Astana, where he is wanted for allegedly organizing the illegal production and distribution of psychotropic drugs. According to the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office, investigators confiscated illegal drugs that were worth $3.3 million and weighed more than one ton. They were allegedly produced by the suspect's group, which was established in Kazakhstan in 2022. If convicted, the Ukrainian citizen faces up to 20 years in prison. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Latvia's Hockey Federation Suspends Licenses Of 7 Who Took Part In Tournament In Russia
Latvia's Hockey Federation said on February 22 that it had suspended the licenses of several ice hockey players who took part in the Games of the Future tournament, which was officially opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 21 in Russia's Republic of Tatarstan. Seven Latvian athletes -- Ervins Mustukovs, Kirils Tambijevs, Pavels Goroskovs, Martins Lavrovs, Aleksejs Popovs, Alisers Mubaraksins, Nikita Zantmans, and Artems Kuvsinovs -- took part in the hockey event as members of the Baltic Select team. Latvian sports federations decided earlier to boycott sports events in Russia over Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.
Romanian Presidency Tight-Lipped On Reports Of Iohannis Aiming For NATO Top Job
The Romanian presidency has refused to comment on media reports that Bucharest has proposed President Klaus Iohannis for the post of NATO Secretary-General. Quoting NATO diplomats, Bloomberg and Politico reported on February 22 that Romania had notified the alliance that Iohannis, who ends his term in December, was interested in the position, which incumbent Jens Stoltenberg is leaving in October. Asked for comment by RFE/RL, the Romanian presidency said it "does not comment on rumors." The United States, Britain, Germany, and France back outgoing Dutch premier Mark Rutte for the job. However, Rutte is viewed with skepticisim by eastern members like Romania and Bulgaria. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Romanian Service, click here.
Navalny's Mother Given Three Hours To Agree To Secretly Bury Him, Associate Says
Russia's Investigative Committee gave Aleksei Navalny’s mother an ultimatum that she immediately agree to bury his body without a public ceremony or they would inter him on a site at the Arctic prison where he died a week ago, Kira Yarmysh, the former press secretary of the Kremlin critic, said in a statement.
Yarmysh said an official from the Investigative Committee called Lyudmila Navalnaya around 5 p.m. Moscow time and said that, if she didn't agree to the ultimatum within three hours, her son’s body would be buried at the so-called "Arctic Wolf" correctional colony.
Yarmysh said Navalnaya refused to negotiate with the official, saying the Investigative Committee had no legal right to decide where and how her son should be buried. Navalnaya wants to hold a funeral and farewell ceremony in accordance with traditions, Yarmysh wrote.
RFE/RL could not immediately verify whether an ultimatum had been given. Neither the prison authorities nor the Investigative Committee have publicly commented on the matter.
Russian law states that authorities must turn over a body to family members within two days after the cause of death is officially established. Yarmysh said Navalnaya demanded that the authorities adhere to the law and release her son's body by February 24, when the two-day period expires.
A day earlier, Lyudmila Navalnaya said in a video posted to social media that investigators had allowed her to see her son's body late on February 21 in the Arctic city of Salekhard, but refused to hand it over for burial.
Navalnaya said she signed her son’s death certificate.
Family and friends have said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is responsible for Navalny's death. His wife, Yulia Navalnaya, said Putin murdered her husband.
Navalnaya said she wants her son's burial to be public so that all his supporters can bid a proper farewell to the anti-corruption crusader.
Navalnaya has been trying to get access to her son’s body since his death in the harsh Arctic penitentiary was announced on February 16. Prison officials said the 47-year-old died after he collapsed while on a daily walk outside of his cell.
On February 21, Navalnaya filed a lawsuit in a Russian court demanding the release of her son's body. A closed-door hearing into the complaint is scheduled for March 4, which roughly coincides with the time frame authorities have said they need to perform "chemical forensics" on Navalny's body.
Rights groups and Navalny's associates have accused authorities of holding the body to allow them to hide the cause of death.
Earlier on February 23, Navalny's associates published video statements of many leading Russian public figures urging authorities to immediately release Navalny's body.
The group included 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Dmitry Muratov, prominent Latvian-American ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, a founding member of the Pussy Riot protest group, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, writers Mikhail Zygar and Viktor Shenderovich, historian Tamara Eidelman, television journalist Tatyana Lazareva, popular rock musician Andrei Makarevich, rapper Noize MC (Ivan Alekseyev), businessman Yevgeny Chichvarkin, and many other noted public figures, nearly all of whom are living in exile.
Ivan Zhdanov, the former head of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, told RFE/RL on February 23 that the authorities fear a “massive” public funeral with scenes of people carrying flowers to the open coffin.
“They don't want to see it, they don't want it to happen,” he said.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a self-exiled leading Russian opposition figure, agreed, saying a public funeral could trigger “large-scale confrontations” between people and law enforcement.
“The authorities do not want people to understand how many of them oppose Putin. The main task of Putin’s propaganda is to convince people that if they are against Putin, they are on the margins,” the former oil tycoon said in a February 23 interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
“If people see that there are really a lot of them…then the situation can change in seconds,” he said.
Navalny was Russia’s most popular opposition leader with a large, dedicated following around the country. He had organized some of the biggest public protests in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Tens of thousands of citizens would heed his calls to demonstrate against Putin’s rule despite the threat of arrest.
In 2013, Navalny ran for mayor of Moscow, the nation’s capital and largest city, receiving more than a quarter of the vote despite censorship by state television.
Diplomatic pressure on Moscow continues to mount over Navalny's death as well.
The United States and the European Union on February 23 announced fresh sanctions on Russia in retaliation for Navalny's death ahead of the second anniversary of Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
U.S. President Joe Biden has announced a fresh package of more than 500 sanctions against Russia to "ensure [Russian President Vladimir ] Putin pays an even steeper price for his aggression abroad and repression at home."
Washington said it was imposing export restrictions on nearly 100 entities that are helping Russia to evade trade sanctions and are "providing backdoor support for Russia’s war machine."
Biden's announcement came after the European Union announced its 13th package of sanctions against Russia. targeting the country's defense industry and slapping asset freezes and travel bans on 106 individuals and 88 organizations.
Hungary Blocks Common EU Statement To Mark Second Anniversary Of Ukraine Invasion -- Sources
Hungary has blocked a statement that the European Union had been supposed to issue on February 23 to mark the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, EU sources told RFE/RL. The EU is now instead working on a statement to be issued on behalf of the three presidents of the main European institutions -- EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, European Parliament chief Roberta Metsola, and European Council President Charles Michel. To issue a statement on behalf of the EU, all 27 member states need to consent. Budapest objected to the statement without offering a concrete explanation, sources told RFE/RL.
Iran Tries To Tighten Grip On Internet By Officially Outlawing VPN Use
Iran has officially outlawed the use of tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs) designed to bypass Internet censorship following a directive from the country's Supreme Council of Cyberspace that was endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The secretary of the council, Mohammad Amin Aqamiri, announced the enforcement of the decree, which was initially approved by Khamenei, signaling a significant move to control Internet access within the country.
Under the new regulation, the use of VPN tools is banned unless explicitly authorized by authorities, further tightening the government's grip on Internet access.
Iran has long faced criticism for its extensive Internet restrictions, with many citizens relying on VPNs to access blocked content including social media and instant messaging platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, and WhatsApp, as well as many streaming websites such as HBO, YouTube, and Netflix.
Local media reports have also surfaced suggesting that elements within the government or its affiliates have profited from the VPN trade, raising questions about the motives behind the crackdown.
The specifics of how the government plans to enforce the ban or grant exceptions remain unclear, adding to the uncertainty surrounding digital usage in Iran.
Communications technology expert Mohammad Keshvari said that the prohibition of VPNs is "not new, but the latest decree fails to clarify the consequences for those who defy it.”
He added that, from a technical viewpoint, completely preventing VPN use is not feasible.
The criminalization of VPN use was notably absent from the decree, which analysts said reflects the legislative duties of the parliament, which had previously removed such provisions from proposed legislation.
Iran has come under international scrutiny over its digital repression, with a report from Freedom House marking the country as having the worst decline in Internet freedom globally in 2023.
Iran was home to 2023’s sharpest drop in online access and freedom, the report said, as authorities shut down Internet service, blocked the WhatsApp and Instagram social media apps, and increased surveillance during a crackdown on anti-government protests last year sparked by the death of a young woman -- 22-year-old Mahsa Amini -- while in police custody.
The situation underscores the ongoing tensions between government control and digital rights in Iran, posing significant challenges for access to information and freedom of expression within the country.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
EU Announces 13th Russia Sanctions Package On Eve Of Second Anniversary Of Ukraine Invasion
The European Union announced a fresh package of sanctions against Russia on February 23, on the eve of the second anniversary of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
"Today, we are further tightening the restrictive measures against Russia's military and defense sector," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a press release.
“We remain united in our determination to dent Russia’s war machine and help Ukraine win its legitimate fight for self-defense.”
The 13th Ukraine-related sanctions package targets Russia's defense industry and slaps assets freezes and travel bans on 106 individuals and 88 organizations, bringing to 2,000 the total number of people and groups sanctioned by the 27-member bloc for "undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine."
The newly sanctioned individuals include dozens of Russian officials including "members of the judiciary, local politicians and people responsible for the illegal deportation and military re-education of Ukrainian children," the statement said.
They also impose restrictions on companies from India, Sri Lanka, China, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Thailand, and Turkey suspected of exporting to Russia dual-use products for "supporting Russia's military and industrial complex."
The restrictions also expand on components for the development and production of aerial drones.
The names of the companies will be published in the EU’s official journal in several days.
In response to the EU move, the Russia Foreign Ministry announced on February 23 that it had drastically expanded a list of the bloc's officials and politicians banned from entering Russia.
"The European Union is continuing its fruitless attempts to put pressure on Russia through unilateral restrictive measures," the ministry said in a statement.
While the bloc's 27 members agreed on the sanctions package, a statement to mark February 24 ran aground when Hungary refused to sign on, EU sources told RFE/RL. Budapest objected to the statement without offering a concrete explanation, the sources said.
In the end, the EU issued a statement on February 23 signed by the presidents of the three main European institutions -- EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, European Parliament chief Roberta Metsola, and European Council President Charles Michel -- instead of the entire bloc.
"Russia and its leadership bear sole responsibility for this war and its global consequences, as well as for the serious crimes committed. We remain determined to hold them to account, including for the crime of aggression," the statement reads.
"Russia and its leaders will pay a growing price for their actions. Together with partners, we have imposed unprecedented sanctions against Russia and those complicit in the war and remain ready to increase the pressure on Russia to limit its ability to wage war. We have also taken the first concrete steps towards directing extraordinary revenues stemming from Russian immobilized assets to support Ukraine. We will continue our targeted actions to further isolate Russia in international fora."
Three Tajik Public Figures Handed Prison Terms Over Book
Tajikistan's Supreme Court has handed prison terms to three well-known public figures for writing, editing, and publishing a book that highlights some of the challenges faced by those living in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic, which the authorities ordered cleared from bookstores.
Several sources told RFE/RL on February 23 that the court sentenced Abdukhalil Kholiqzoda to 6 1/2 years, Abduqodir Rustam to 4 1/2 years, and Suhrob Rajabzoda to one year in prison after finding them guilty of inciting hatred.
There was no official announcement of the verdicts and sentences as the trial was held behind closed doors within a detention center in Dushanbe.
Lawyers and relatives of the three defendants refused to comment, while Supreme Court officials confirmed to RFE/RL that the trial session was held on February 22, but they could not comment, saying the trial judge was not available for comment.
It remains unclear if Kholiqzoda, Rustam, and Rajabzoda will appeal the sentences.
The men were arrested in August 2023 and went on trial on January 19.
The charges against them stemmed from their roles in publishing a book titled Stories Of My Life that, among other things, focused on everyday developments in modern Tajikistan, including corruption, migration, and cultural challenges faced in the Central Asian country.
The authorities confiscated all copies of the book from bookstores after the three men were arrested. The book's author is businessman Kholiqzoda, while Rustam edited it, and Rajabzoda's Er-Graf publishing house published it.
Self-exiled Tajik intellectuals and opposition figures condemned the arrests and the sentencing of the three men, calling the case against them a crackdown on freedom of expression.
Meanwhile, amid a lack of transparency in the country, speculation has risen that the case might be connected to a power struggle among the elite.
President Emomali Rahmon, who has run Tajikistan for almost 30 years, has been criticized by international human rights groups over his administration's policies toward independent media, religious freedoms, civil society, and political pluralism.
In recent years, several Tajik journalists, rights activists, and opposition politicians have been handed lengthy prison terms on charges seen by rights groups as trumped-up and politically motivated.
Jailed Kyrgyz Blogger Transferred To House Arrest
A court in the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad ruled on February 22 to transfer local blogger Batmakan Jolboldueva from a pretrial detention center to house arrest. The State Committee for National Security said in early February that Jolboldueva was arrested and charged with extortion after she was caught receiving 25,000 soms ($280) from a person in exchange for withholding a sensitive report from being published. It remains unclear how Jolboldueva pleaded. She refused to elaborate on the charges when asked by RFE/RL to talk about the details of her case. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.
Putin Fears Navalny Funeral Could Trigger Mass Demonstrations, Khodorkovsky Says
The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely refusing to release the body of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who died suspiciously in prison on February 16, because it fears a massive outpouring of grief and support just ahead of the March presidential election, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a leading Russian opposition figure, said.
"There could be large-scale confrontations in Moscow," the exiled former oil tycoon said in an interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
"The authorities do not want people to understand how many of them oppose Putin. The main task of Putin’s propaganda is to convince people that if they are against Putin, they are on the margins…. If people see that there are really a lot of them...then the situation can change in seconds."
Russian authorities have yet to release Navalny's body to his family, while his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, said on February 22 they were pressing her to hold a private funeral "without any farewell ceremonies."
Khodorkovsky, who lives in London in exile and funds various projects aimed at promoting democracy in Russia, said that if Navalny's family rejected the government's demands, his body likely would not be released until after the March 17 presidential election, which the Kremlin hopes to use as a show of national unity in support of Putin and the ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
A large show of support for Navalny would be "a very serious signal to the elite," Khodorkovsky told Current Time.
Khodorkovsky described Navalny's widow, Yulia Navalnaya, who has pledged to continue her husband's work, as "a person who is acceptable to the majority of opposition leaders" and said he was ready to coordinate with her and "join forces in tackling certain issues."
However, he said the democratic Russian opposition was too diverse to unite around a single figure "even the smartest, most brilliant, and best person imaginable."
He added that Putin’s government was "pushing us toward revolution" by replacing politics with government violence.
"The more it uses violent methods and the harsher it is with the opposition, the greater the likelihood that the opposition will become radicalized and adopt responses that are rather harsh and radical," he said. "And after that, one should expect that Russia will become a democratic country. That is just objective reality."
Khodorkovsky also urged the West not to recognize the legitimacy of the March presidential election and to deal with Putin from a position of strength.
"The West’s weakness gives Putin a free hand," he said, encouraging him to continue his aggression.
"What can stop him is a show of force," he said. "If you have the power, show it. If you don't, then just wait until he kicks in your door."
He said he believes adopting further sanctions against Russia would have little effect, but that existing sanctions need more rigorous enforcement. Many of the advanced weapons systems Russia is deploying in Ukraine contain Western-made components, he said, which encourages Putin not to consider sanctions a serious problem.
Formerly Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky, 60, was arrested in 2003 on fraud charges that he says were trumped up by Putin and his allies to punish his political activity, bring influential tycoons to heel, and put the oil assets of his company, Yukos, into state hands.
He spent just over a decade in prison before being pardoned and flown out of the country in December 2013.
Russian Appeal Against Olympic Suspension Rejected
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) says it has dismissed an appeal by the Russian Olympic Committee against its suspension by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Lausanne, Switzerland-based CAS said in a decision released on February 23 that it had set aside the appeal after Russia was suspended by the IOC over its decision to include sports bodies representing regions of eastern Ukraine -- Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhya -- which Moscow illegally annexed. The IOC's suspension "did not breach the principles of legality, equality, predictability, or proportionality," the CAS said.
Public Figures Urge Russia To Release Navalny's Body To His Family
A group of leading Russian public figures has urged the authorities to immediately release the body of outspoken Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny to his family after he died in prison a week ago.
Navalny's associates published video statements on their Komanda Navalnogo (Navalny's Team) Telegram channel on February 23 that show celebrities, musicians, actors, writers, and scholars all demanding Navalny's body be handed to his family, which has been told it may not be until the end of the month or later before it is released.
The group includes 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov; prominent ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov; a founding member of Pussy Riot protest group, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova; writers Mikhail Zygar and Viktor Shenderovich; historian Tamara Eidelman; television journalist Tatyana Lazareva; popular rock musician Andrei Makarevich; rapper Noize MC (Ivan Alekseyev); businessman Yevgeny Chichvarkin; and many other noted public figures.
A day earlier, Navalny's mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, said that investigators had allowed her to see her son's body late on February 21 in the Arctic city of Salekhard, but refused to hand it over for burial.
Navalnaya said she signed the death certificate, pointing out that the authorities were breaking the law by not releasing her son's body.
She also accused them of trying to force her to agree to bury her son secretly. She said she wanted her son's burial to be public so that all his supporters can bid a proper farewell to the anti-corruption crusader.
Navalnaya has been trying to get access to her son’s body since his death in a special-regime prison, the harshest type of penitentiary in Russia, was announced on February 16. Prison officials said the 47-year-old died after he collapsed while on a daily walk out of his cell.
On February 21, Navalnaya filed a lawsuit in a Russian court demanding the release of her son's body. A closed-door hearing into complaint is scheduled to be held on March 4, which roughly coincides with the time frame authorities have said they need to perform "chemical forensics" on Navalny's body.
Rights groups and Navalny's associates have accused authorities of holding the body to allow it to hide the cause of death.
WATCH: A Russian doctor who was involved in efforts to diagnose Aleksei Navalny after he was poisoned in 2020 says traces of poison can be removed from a dead body, and there was no reason for the Russian authorities not to hand over the body.
The White House said on February 22 that U.S. President Joe Biden met with Navalny's widow and daughter, Yulia and Dasha Navalnaya, in California "to express his heartfelt condolences."
Dasha Navalnaya is currently studying at Stanford University just outside of San Francisco.
During the meeting, Biden expressed his admiration for Navalny's "extraordinary courage and his legacy of fighting against corruption and for a free and democratic Russia in which the rule of law applies equally to everyone," the statement said.
Biden later announced major new sanctions against Russia in response to Navalny's death, Russia's repression, and aggression and its war in Ukraine.
Biden Announces More Than 500 Fresh Russia Sanctions, Warns House 'History Is Watching'
U.S. President Joe Biden has announced a fresh package of more than 500 sanctions against Russia for its war on Ukraine and for the death of Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny, while urging the House of Representatives to pass a desperately needed aid package for Kyiv.
"These sanctions will target individuals connected to Navalny's imprisonment as well as Russia's financial sector, defense industrial base, procurement networks, and sanctions evaders across multiple continents," Biden said in a statement issued by the White House on February 23, on the eve of the second anniversary of Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The sanctions "will ensure [Russian President Vladimir ] Putin pays an even steeper price for his aggression abroad and repression at home," Biden said.
The statement also announced that Washington was imposing export restrictions on nearly 100 entities that are helping Russia evade trade sanctions and are "providing backdoor support for Russia's war machine."
The list includes three Serbian companies that an RFE/RL investigation in November found were exporting dual-use goods that can be used for both military and civilian purposes to Russia.
It also designates two Kazakhstan-based companies that were named in an RFE/RL investigation in June that revealed that the companies exported sanctioned dual-use technology to Russian suppliers of the Kremlin’s war machine.
Biden’s announcement said further measures were being taken to diminish Russia’s energy revenues, and he says he's directed his team "to strengthen support for civil society, independent media, and those who fight for democracy around the world."
Biden also said Ukraine's U.S.-led allies remain committed to providing critical assistance to Kyiv, but Ukrainians, despite fighting with immense courage, are running out of ammunition. The president again urged Congress to pass $61 billion in aid to Ukraine that has been stalled in the Republican-led House of Representatives despite being passed in the Senate in an overwhelming bipartisan vote.
"Ukraine needs more supplies from the United States to hold the line against Russia’s relentless attacks, which are enabled by arms and ammunition from Iran and North Korea," Biden said.
"That’s why the House of Representatives must pass the bipartisan national security supplemental bill, before it’s too late.... History is watching," Biden warned.
The U.S. Treasury Department's sanctions target nearly 300 people and entities, while the State Department hit more than 250 people and entities, and the Commerce Department added more than 90 companies to the Entity List.
The combined actions comprise the largest number of sanctions imposed since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Treasury Department said in a news release.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the anniversary of the war and Navalny’s death in Russian custody are “stark reminders of Putin’s disregard for human life,” noting the suffering of Ukrainians and “those who dare to expose the corrupt abuses that fuel his regime.”
She said Russia’s economy and military-industrial base are showing signs of weakness, in part due to the sanctions and other actions taken by the United States and its allies.
Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov said the new round of sanctions is an attack on Russia's core interests but said Moscow will continue protecting them.
"The new illegitimate restrictions are yet another brazen and cynical attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of the Russian Federation," Antonov said, according RIA Novosti.
The sweeping U.S. sanctions take aim at the state-owned National Payment Card System, the operator of the Mir payment system whose cards became more widely used after U.S. companies suspended operations in Russia. The sanctions also target dozens of Russian banks, investment firms, venture capital funds, and fintech companies.
In the energy sector, the Treasury Department broadened sanctions against the Arctic LNG 2 project in Siberia, and the State Department targeted Russia's Zvezda shipbuilding company, which it said is involved in the construction of highly specialized LNG tankers intended for use in support of Arctic LNG 2 exports.
The new sanctions also target the network Russia has used to acquire and produce drones and a wide array of individuals and entities in Russia’s military-industrial base -- “from Russia’s flagship defense companies to machine tool importers, third-country sanctions evaders to semiconductor manufacturers,” the Treasury Department said.
The State Department said it imposed sanctions on three individuals in connection with Navalny's death -- the prison warden, regional prison head, and the deputy director of the Federal Penitentiary Service.
The sanctions freeze any property the individuals and entities hold in U.S. jurisdiction and block people and entities in the United States from dealing with them.
Pashinian Says Armenia Freezes Membership In Russian-Led Security Alliance
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has said his country has frozen its membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as Yerevan continues to distance itself from Moscow amid a souring of bilateral relations.
Pashinian said in an interview with France 24 television channel on February 22 that the move comes after Moscow began several months ago to openly call on Armenian citizens to overthrow his government, and that the deluge of propaganda against him "has never stopped."
The Pashinian government has long criticized the CSTO for its "failure to respond to the security challenges" facing Armenia.
Armenian authorities have accused Russian peacekeepers deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 of failing to stop Azerbaijan's lightning offensive in September that ended with Baku regaining control over the breakaway region that for three decades was under ethnic Armenians' control.
Moscow has rejected the accusations, arguing that its troops didn’t have a mandate to intervene and charging that Pashinian had effectively paved the way for the collapse of separatist rule in the region by previously acknowledging Azerbaijan's sovereignty over it.
Still, Pashinian declined to attend a CSTO summit in Minsk in November and said in a televised Q&A session then that any decision about Yerevan's continued membership in the grouping -- which includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- would be based on Armenia's "own state interests."
In the interview, the Armenian prime minister also expressed concern over the detention in Armenia in November of Russian citizen Dmitry Setrakov, who was mobilized to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Rights watchdogs said at the time that Setrakov was detained by Russian military police, but Yerevan has not commented on the situation and Setrakov is said to have since appeared in police custody in Russia.
When asked about the possible closure of Russia's military base in the northwestern Armenian city of Gyumri, Pashinian said that "that issue is not on the agenda" at this point.
Pashinian told France 24 that Setrakov's detention was "an abduction" and that "we cannot tolerate illegal actions on our territory."
Armenia has been on edge since the Azerbaijan regained control of Nagorno-Karabakh amid fears Baku remains hostile toward the country.
Pashinian said he thinks Azerbaijan considers Armenia "Western Azerbaijan" and plans to attack Armenia and seize other Armenian territories.
Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry issued a statement on February 23 calling Pashinian's words about Baku's plans to attack Armenia "unfounded allegations...intended to inflict another blow to the peace process by deliberately inflaming tensions in the region."
Hungary To Sign Defense Deal With Sweden, Orban Says
Hungary will sign a defense-industry deal with Sweden, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said ahead of a meeting with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Budapest on February 23, as Hungary prepares to finally ratify Sweden's NATO bid. "We will close all pending issues, and we will sign a defense-industry deal, a serious one considering Hungary's size, and we will also lay down some decisions or...goals about military cooperation," Orban told state radio. Orban and Kristersson will hold a press conference on February 23, before parliament is due to approve Sweden's NATO membership bid in a vote on February 26.
Ukraine Destroys Russian Surveillance Plane, Commander Says; Five Killed In Drone Strikes
The Ukrainian military has destroyed a Russian A-50 surveillance aircraft, Air Force Commander Mykola Oleshchuk said on February 23 after Ukrainian military and regional officials said that at least five people were killed and 27 others were wounded in a new round of Russian drone and missile strikes on several Ukrainian regions.
"The A-50 with the call sign 'Bayan' has flown its last!" Oleshchuk wrote on Telegram. “Congratulations to the occupiers on the Defender of the Fatherland day,” Oleshchuk said, referring to a Russian military holiday on February 23.
Ukrainian military intelligence said the plane was downed over the Sea of Azov, calling the loss of the spy plane "another serious blow to the potential and capabilities of terrorist Moscow."
Videos posted on social media showed multiple flashes of light against the night sky followed by another image showing a large blaze on the ground in what appeared to be a rural area.
The Russian military didn't comment on Ukraine's claim, but emergency authorities in Russia's Krasnodar region said firefighters were responding to a plane crash.
If confirmed, the plane's downing would mark the loss of the second A-50 in just over a month. The other one was brought down over the Sea of Azov on January 14, Ukrainian officials said then. The Russian military never commented on the Ukrainian claim, but Russian bloggers and some media confirmed the aircraft's loss.
Experts have said Russia could struggle to replace the A-50 because of U.S. and European sanctions. Some of the plane’s critical hardware is produced by Intel and other Western manufacturers.
Even if Russia could get around the sanctions, it might be difficult for its armed forces to replace the 10 to 11 crew men who operate the A-50’s tracking equipment because it takes years to train such specialists.
The A-50, capable of relaying information to troops on the ground about battlefield movements up to 650 kilometers away, reportedly costs $330 million. Media reports suggest that Russia may have seven A-50s left in operation. Belarusian partisans in February 2023 claimed to have blown up an older-version of the plane.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian military said in its evening summary on February 23 that Ukrainian forces held back Russian troops along the entire front line. The summary said that there were 58 combat clashes on the front line during the day.
Ukraine's armed forces are holding back the Russian attacks, particularly in the area around Maryinsk, where Russian troops tried to break through the defenses 31 times, the General Staff said, noting air strikes in other parts of the Donetsk region.
The General Staff said that the armed forces had also repelled six attacks in the area of Bakhmut and nine attacks in the area of Avdiyivka.
The claims could not be independently verified.
Earlier on February 23, Ukrainian air defenses shot down 23 out of the 31 drones launched by Russia at the Odesa, Mykolayiv, Poltava, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kharkiv regions, the air force said in a statement.
Additionally, Russia launched an S-300 antiaircraft missile and three Kinzhal cruise missiles at Ukrainian targets.
In the southern Ukrainian port city of Odesa, the debris from a Russian drone fell on a building in the coastal area, killing three people, the military said.
In Dnipro, the capital of the central Dnipropetrovsk region, a drone hit a high-rise apartment building, killing one woman and wounding eight, regional Governor Serhiy Lysak reported on Telegram.
Rescuers retrieved the woman's body from the rubble of a house damaged by the overnight drone attack Lysak said.
In Dnipro, the capital of the central Dnipropetrovsk region, a drone hit a high-rise apartment building, wounding eight people, regional Governor Serhiy Lysak reported on Telegram.
In the eastern region of Donetsk, a 68-year-old man was killed in a missile strike in the city of Myrnohrad, Oleksiy Kuleba, the deputy head of the office of the president, said on Telegram.
More than 20 houses and an apartment building were also damaged in the strike, Kuleba said.
The Donetsk region's governor, Vadym Filashkin, said at least 19 people were wounded in the strike.
As the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine nears the two-year mark, the country's infrastructure has sustained almost daily destruction.
Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov estimated that it would take up to a decade to rebuild Ukraine even if the war were to end now.
"I think the most urgent damage could be repaired in two or three years. But overall it would take five to 10 years," Kubrakov told the German news agency dpa.
He cited figures advanced by the World Bank, the European Union, and the United Nations that put the cost of the war damage so far at 500 billion euros ($541 billion).
With reporting by dpa
Four Charged In Deaths Of Two U.S. Navy SEALs Boarding Ship Carrying Iranian-Made Weapons To Yemen
Four foreign nationals have been charged with transporting suspected Iranian-made weapons after U.S. naval forces interdicted a vessel in the Arabian Sea last month. Two Navy SEALs died during the mission. The criminal complaint released on February 22 alleges that the four defendants were transporting suspected Iranian-made missile components for the type of weapons used by Huthi rebel forces in recent attacks on ships in the Red Sea. The two Navy SEALS died when one of them slipped into the gap between the vessel and the SEALs' combatant craft and the other one jumped in to try to save him.
U.S. Announces Project To Protect Ukrainian State Archives
The U.S. State Department on February 22 announced a project to protect and digitize collections of the State Archival Services of Ukraine. The project aims to ensure that Ukrainian history, through its archives, will be safeguarded for generations to come. The $645,000 project includes training for archive staff in the management and digitization of archival records at risk of damage or destruction caused by Russia's full-scale invasion. The materials that will be preserved include archival records in the Ukrainian language that are central to Ukraine's identity and to understanding the country's history, the State Department said.
New U.S. Russia Sanctions To Target Banks, Weapons Components
Senior U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland said on February 22 that the United States will impose "a crushing new package of sanctions" against Russia to mark the second anniversary of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and respond to the death of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Nuland said most of the sanctions will hit "Putin's war machine" and close gaps in existing sanctions regimes. They also will target countries that help Russia evade existing sanctions and banks that allow sanctions evasion.
Hacktivist Group Publishes Leaked Documents Showing Iran's Judiciary Targeting Journalists
Documents leaked by the hacktivist group Edalat-e Ali (Ali's Justice) appear to show clandestine actions against journalists of Persian-language media operating outside of Iran, including those affiliated with RFE/RL's Radio Farda, by the Iranian judiciary.
The leaked documents list 44 journalists and media activists who have been targeted for allegedly undermining the regime.
The findings were part of a broader expose by the hacker group -- which released more than 3 million documents -- shedding light on the judicial proceedings conducted in secrecy within Branch 26 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran.
"In this hack, we infiltrated the court case management system and managed to access millions of documents and files," the group said in a post on Telegram where many of the documents were posted.
Edalat-e Ali says it is composed of Iranians living and working inside Iran and its intent is to expose alleged human rights abuses in the country while seeking the release of political prisoners.
It added that the documents "reveal the true face of the Islamic republic."
The hack was done "with the aim of exposing the crimes of the regime against the oppressed people of Iran and with the help of our dear compatriots," the group said.
With regard to the documents revealing the actions aimed at the media, the disclosure highlights the judiciary's secretive issuance of rulings against journalists accused of engaging in "propaganda against the Islamic republic."
The group said that under the stewardship of Judge Iman Afshari, Branch 26 has been pivotal in adjudicating cases against a broad spectrum of individuals, from political dissidents to cultural figures, especially in the aftermath of the 2022 protests triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested for allegedly wearing her mandatory hijab improperly.
The documents show the judiciary targeted personnel from Radio Farda and journalists associated with other prominent Persian-language outlets, including BBC Persian, Voice of America, Iran International, Manoto TV, and the GEM satellite network.
Analysts say the leak underscores the Iranian judiciary's long-standing practice of leveraging legal actions as a mechanism to silence opposition, a strategy that has seen mixed results in quelling dissent or curtailing the activities of journalists and civil society activists.
It also reveals the state's approach to various issues, from the enforcement of the mandatory hijab to the suppression of widespread protests in 2022, they said, adding the documents further corroborate the judiciary's susceptibility to influence from security and intelligence entities, casting a shadow over its independence and impartiality.
International human rights organizations have consistently ranked Iran as one of the world's top oppressors of journalists and free speech.
In December 2022, Iran's Foreign Ministry placed sanctions on several individuals and entities in the European Union, including RFE/RL's Persian-language Radio Farda.
The sanctions include visa bans, prohibiting the listed individuals from entering Iran, and the seizure of their assets within territories under the jurisdiction of the Islamic republic.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
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