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Ramadan Begins In Some Parts Of World

Indonesian children and elder Muslim men prepare to sight the new moon from the rooftop of the Al-Hidayah Basmol Mosque in Jakarta on July 8.
Indonesian children and elder Muslim men prepare to sight the new moon from the rooftop of the Al-Hidayah Basmol Mosque in Jakarta on July 8.
The Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins in some parts of the world on July 9, with Muslims in North and South America and western Africa starting the traditional month of daytime fasting.

Ramadan begins with the sighting of the new moon, which varies from country to country.

It begins in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, eastern Africa, and Oceania on July 10.

During Ramadan, Muslims are required to abstain from eating, drinking liquids, smoking, and having sex between dawn and dusk.

The period marks the month in which the Koran was revealed by Allah to the Prophet Muhammad and is meant to emphasize piety and charitable acts.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on all sides in Syria's civil war to stop fighting during Ramadan "as a collective present to their people."

Based on reporting by AP, AFP, and dpa

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Writers, Artists Demand Iran Release Cartoonist Arrested For Trying To Hang Picture

Atena Farghadani (file photo)
Atena Farghadani (file photo)

PEN America, along with a group of organizations that support cartoonists and artists, has condemned the violent arrest of Atena Farghadani, an Iranian cartoonist currently being held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison for attempting to hang one of her drawings on a wall near the presidential palace.

Farghadani's lawyer, Mohammad Moghimi, said she was violently arrested on April 12 by intelligence officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and sustained facial injuries that were visible during her arrest.

Moghimi said in a post on social media that Farghadani refused bail in protest against her violent arrest and was initially transferred to Qarchak prison, only to be moved to Evin prison due to the refusal of Qarchak to accept her because of her injuries.

A statement issued jointly on April 22 by PEN America, Cartooning for Peace, Cartoonists Rights, and the Freedom Cartoonists Foundation expressed outrage over the treatment of Farghadani by Iranian authorities, noting her work in support of human rights and democratic values.

"We call on the Iranian authorities to immediately and permanently cease their deliberate and brutal campaign against artistic freedom, and artists like Farghadani, and for the charges against her to be dropped immediately," Julie Trebault, managing director of Artists at Risk Connection, said in the statement.

The Iranian Cartoonist Arrested For Her Art
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The groups highlighted Farghadani's courage in upholding democratic values under "severe repression" and called for her "unconditional and immediate release."

At a recent United Nations Human Rights Council meeting, PEN America joined an international coalition that urged the extension of a mandate of a commission that is investigating human rights abuses in Iran, underscoring ongoing concerns about the suppression of free expression in the country.

In 2022, the association reported that Iran was responsible for imprisoning over one-third of all female writers jailed worldwide, emphasizing the systemic suppression of women's voices amid their struggle for full human rights.

Farghadani was previously detained in 2015 and served 18 months on various charges including "propaganda against the regime."

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

Five Suspects Named In Deadly Attack On Police In Russia's Karachai-Cherkessia

The regional Investigative Committee added the five men to its wanted list. (file photo)
The regional Investigative Committee added the five men to its wanted list. (file photo)

Authorities in Russia's North Caucasus region of Karachai-Cherkessia on April 23 identified five men suspected of opening fire on a police patrol a day earlier, killing two officers and wounding another. Ruslan Semyonov, Vladimir Averyanov, Kazbek Dzhazayev, Akhmat Elkanov, and Ruslan Elkanov were added to the wanted list, the regional Investigative Committee said. The committee said earlier that it launched an investigation into "a deadly attack against law enforcement officers and illegal firearms possession." The assailants managed to take a pistol, an AK-47, and ammunition from the officers during the attack. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

Sister Of Iranian Teen Killed In Anti-Government Protests Released From Prison

Aida Shakarami (file photo)
Aida Shakarami (file photo)

The sister of a 16-year-old killed in 2022 in anti-government protests has been freed from an Iranian jail. Aida Shakarami, sister of Nika Shakarami, was released on April 23 after about a week of detention for violating Iran’s hijab law. Shakarami was arrested by the morality police during the government's attempt to reimpose the compulsory head scarf. Nasrin Shakarami, the mother of Nika and Aida, said the judge in the case had insulted and threatened her daughter, including accusations of promoting corruption and prostitution. Pictures of Aida Shakarami on social media after her release showed her without a hijab. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.

U.S. Journalist Gershkovich's Appeal Against Russian Detention Denied

Evan Gershkovich stands inside the defendants' cage during a hearing on the extension of his pretrial detention at the Moscow City Court on March 26.
Evan Gershkovich stands inside the defendants' cage during a hearing on the extension of his pretrial detention at the Moscow City Court on March 26.

A Moscow court on April 23 rejected an appeal by jailed U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich against the extension of his pretrial detention until June 30.

The judge in the case said a ruling on March 26, which extended Gershkovich's pretrial detention until June 30, "should be left unchanged."

The Wall Street Journal reporter, who has spent more than a year behind bars on espionage charges, has lost multiple appeals seeking to end his pretrial detention.

The 32-year-old U.S. citizen was arrested in late March 2023 in Yekaterinburg while on a reporting trip.

Russian authorities have not provided any evidence to support the espionage charges, which The Wall Street Journal and the U.S. government have vehemently rejected. They say Gershkovich was merely doing his job as an accredited reporter when he was arrested.

U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy said in March after Gershkovich's detention was extended that his case "is about using American citizens as pawns to achieve political ends."

The U.S. State Department said in December that Moscow rejected a significant offer it made to secure the release of Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, another American imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges.

Another U.S. citizen currently held by Russian authorities is Alsu Kurmasheva, an RFE/RL journalist who was arrested in Kazan in October 2023 and charged with failing to register as a "foreign agent" and spreading falsehoods about the Russian military.

Prior to her arrest, Kurmasheva, who faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted, had her passport confiscated following a visit to care for her elderly mother. RFE/RL and the U.S. government say the charges against her are reprisals for her work.

Russian officials have kept mum about any talks to win the release of the Americans. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has repeatedly said that while "certain contacts" on swaps continue, "they must be carried out in absolute silence."

Russia is believed to be seeking the release of Vadim Krasikov, who was given a life sentence in Germany in 2021 for the killing of Zelimkhan "Tornike" Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen descent who had fought Russian troops in Chechnya and later claimed asylum in Germany.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, asked in February about releasing Gershkovich, appeared to refer to Krasikov by pointing to a man imprisoned by a U.S. ally for "liquidating a bandit" who had allegedly killed Russian soldiers during separatist fighting in Chechnya.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP

No Russian Fencers At Paris Olympics, European Fencing Says

Russia's fencers last year rejected the format set out by the International Olympic Committee to come back to international competition, raising the possibility they would boycott Olympic qualifying events. (file photo)
Russia's fencers last year rejected the format set out by the International Olympic Committee to come back to international competition, raising the possibility they would boycott Olympic qualifying events. (file photo)

No fencers from Russia or Belarus will take part in the Paris Olympics after those eligible under a neutral banner did not enter European qualifiers, according to the European Fencing Confederation (EFC). "There are unfortunately no Russian or Belarusian athletes," EFC President Giorgio Scarso told reporters on April 23. "The reason for their absence is not known, there was no official declaration of letter to explain it," Scarso added. Russia's fencers last year rejected the format set out by the International Olympic Committee to come back to international competition, raising the possibility they would boycott Olympic qualifying events.

RFE/RL, Kazakh Foreign Ministry Reach Agreement On Accreditation

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan in Astana
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan in Astana

ASTANA -- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has reached agreement with the Kazakh Foreign Ministry over the accreditation of dozens of its journalists in the Central Asian country amid fears the government was trying to stifle independent media.

Details of the agreement, reached on April 23, were not immediately available.

"We welcome the agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," RFE/RL President Stephen Capus said in response to the deal.

"Throughout this process, all we have wanted was for our journalists to be able to continue their vital work in Kazakhstan safely, without compromise. We remain committed to serving our audiences with independent, trusted reporting and I am confident that this agreement will enable us to do just that."

In January 2023, the ministry denied accreditation to 36 journalists of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Radio Azattyq. Some of the correspondents had not been able to extend their accreditation since late 2022.

The situation around the accreditation of RFE/RL correspondents turned into a hot topic in January after a group of Kazakh lawmakers approved a draft bill that would allow the tightly controlled former Soviet republic's authorities to refuse accreditation to foreign media outlets and their reporters on grounds of national security.

According to the draft legislation, the Foreign Ministry could refuse accreditation to foreign media outlets and their reporters "in case of a threat to the national security of the Republic of Kazakhstan."

The bill states that any activities of foreign media and their journalists without accreditation are banned, and the decision to suspend the activities of foreign media in the country can be made by the ministry without a court ruling.

In accordance with current legislation, the Foreign Ministry must make decisions on accreditation within two months of receiving an application. In case of refusal, the ministry must provide an explanation for its decision.

Ukraine Restricts Consular Services For Conscription-Age Men Living Abroad

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

Ukraine has moved to restrict consular services at its diplomatic missions for men of conscription age (18-60) who live abroad as Kyiv tries to increase troop levels in its fight to repel invading Russian forces.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on April 23 that he ordered the restrictions because "staying abroad does not relieve a citizen of his or her duties to the Homeland."

"As it looks like now, a man of conscription age goes abroad and shows his state that he does not care about its survival. He then comes back and wants to receive services from this state. It does not work this way. Our country is at war," Kuleba wrote.

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Kuleba added that he will clarify in the coming days the process of legally obtaining consular services in Ukraine's foreign diplomatic missions by men of conscription age as the law on mobilization signed by President Zelenskiy last week will come into force.

According to the law that Zelenskiy signed on April 16, all men between 18 and 60 years of age must update their draft data with military conscription centers across the country.

Though lawmakers watered down some amendments to draft dodging, the law does allow for the punishment of those convicted of avoiding service.

An unknown number of Ukrainian men fled the country after Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 despite Kyiv's move to ban men of conscription age from leaving the country.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian men working abroad as migrant laborers have also not returned to Ukraine as Russia continues its full-scale aggression against its neighbor.

"The obligation to update one's documents with the conscription centers existed even before the new law on mobilization was passed. If anyone believes that while one person is fighting far away at the frontline and risking his or her life for this state, another can stay abroad and receive services from this state, well, this is not how it works," Kuleba added.

Torture Conviction Of Five Russian Prison Officers Canceled, Sent Back For Retrial

Kezhik Ondar with his wife
Kezhik Ondar with his wife

A court of appeals in Siberia has canceled the conviction of five former prison officials who were sentenced in a high-profile case involving the torture and rape of an inmate.

In August 2023, Maksim Volf, the former head of the operative department of the detention center No. 1 in Irkutsk, was handed five years in prison, while his former subordinates, Andrei Melentyev, Maksim Danchinov, Yevgeny Shadayev, and Andrei Moskvitin, were sentenced to four years in prison each for organizing the torture and rape of Kezhik Ondar, who was left disabled after the ordeal.

Ondar's lawyers said at the time that the sentences were too lenient and that they would appeal the ruling.

The Court of Appeals No. 5 in the city of Novosibirsk on April 22 sent the case back to prosecutors for additional investigation. It is not clear if the court considered the sentences too lenient or too harsh, since the whole case is now starting again from the beginning.

The five men accused of torturing Ondar were arrested in March 2021 along with the former warden of the IK-6 prison in Irkutsk, Aleksei Agapov, and his former subordinates, Aleksandr Mednikov and Anton Yerokhin.

Agapov, Mednikov, and Yerokhin were sentenced to five years in prison each in February 2023 on the same charge after a court in Irkutsk found them guilty of involvement in the separate beating, torture, and rape of Tahirjon Bakiev, an inmate with Central Asian roots, in January 2021.

In all, three probes were launched in the Irkutsk region in late May 2022 into allegations of the torture and rape of three inmates -- Kezhik Ondar, Tahirjon Bakiev, and Yevgeny Yurchenko -- while they were held in a detention center in Irkutsk and a prison in the nearby city of Angarsk.

Bakiev died in prison in February this year, a day before a hearing that would decide financial compensation he had demanded from his abusers. The prison administration called the death a suicide, while Bakiev’s family insists he was murdered or forced to commit suicide while in custody.

In April 2020, inmates at the IK-15 prison in Angarsk started a mass riot, protesting what they claimed were incidents of torture.

Afterward, many of them were transferred to other prisons in the region.

Human rights groups have quoted some of the inmates as saying that they faced beatings and torture after they were transferred to other prisons, where guards used other inmates who agreed to "cooperate" with the administration to force them to confess to organizing the riot.

In May 2022, courts in Irkutsk sentenced several inmates who agreed to "cooperate" with the guards to prison terms between five and 11 years on charges of rape, premeditated HIV infection, and inflicting serious bodily damage.

Bosnian Police Officials Arrested In Large-Scale Drug Operation

The raids were conducted at dozens of locations across Sarajevo.
The raids were conducted at dozens of locations across Sarajevo.

Bosnian police have raided multiple locations in Sarajevo in a large-scale antidrug operation that led to the arrest of 23 people, including several high-ranking Bosnian law enforcement officials suspected of close links with Edin Gacanin, a drug kingpin arrested in November 2022.

The raids were conducted on April 22 with the backing of EU and U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Those arrested are suspected of involvement in organized crime, money laundering, influence peddling, abuse of office, bribe taking, and the disclosure of classified information, according to a statement by the Interior Ministry of Sarajevo Canton -- one of the 10 cantons of the Bosniak-Croat Federation, one of the two entities of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Vahidin Munjic, the acting director of Bosnia's federal police, and Mustafa Selmanovic, the commander of a police special unit, were among those arrested during the raids, the interior minister of the Bosniak-Croat Federation, Ramo Isak, confirmed to RFE/RL.

The raids were conducted in more than 30 Sarajevo locations with support from the EU Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol), the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and the FBI.

The two police officials are suspected of being close associates of Gacanin, nicknamed "Tito," who since March last year has been on the sanctions list of the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which has described him as "one of the world's most prolific drug traffickers."

Raids were also conducted in Zenica and Mostar.

Europol described the raid as a "milestone in the fight against the so-called ‘super cartel,’ an alliance of criminal networks that controlled much of Europe’s cocaine trade."

"The primary objective of operation codenamed 'Black Tie' was to indict and prosecute a Bosnian-Herzegovinian/Dutch national considered a High Value Target by Europol and the Netherlands," Europol said in a statement, without mentioning Gacanin by name.

Europol said that, despite his arrest in 2022, the individual "continued to steer drug trafficking from source countries in South America such as Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, to Europe, and Australia from his base in Dubai, United Arab Emirates."

Europol added that those arrested include "not only accomplices, but also corrupt officials identified as facilitators of the network’s criminal activities."

One of the agencies involved in the operation, Bosnia's State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA), said several bank accounts were checked and transactions of more than 300,000 euros ($320,000) were blocked.

Updated

U.S. Report Highlights Worsening Human Rights Abuses In Russia, Iran, Afghanistan

Russian police officers detain a man during an opposition rally in Moscow. (file photo)
Russian police officers detain a man during an opposition rally in Moscow. (file photo)

Russia has continued to show blatant disregard for human rights both in its unprovoked war against Ukraine and in the treatment of its own citizens over the past year, the U.S. State Department has said in its latest annual report on human rights around the globe, which also highlights the abuses committed by Iran's theocratic regime and the Taliban's mistreatment of Afghans -- especially its discrimination against women and girls.

Russian troops continued to commit numerous abuses and atrocities, some amounting to war crimes, the report says, highlighting the issuance by the International Criminal Court of arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his children's rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for their role in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.

"There were credible reports of summary execution, torture, rape, and attacks killing and injuring civilians and damaging or destroying civilian infrastructure by Russia's forces in Ukraine, as well as war crimes, including those involving forced deportation or transfer of civilians, and the forced placement in foster care or adoption of Ukrainian children," the report notes.

At home, Russian authorities continued to step up the pressure on dissent and independent expression, imprisoning political opponents and anti-war protesters, clamping down on the media, prosecuting numerous people for expressing their opinions online, and forcibly closing down nongovernmental organizations.

More moves were made to persecute opposition politicians such as the sentencing of Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison on charges including treason and the slapping of an extra 19 years for "extremism" on the already imprisoned Aleksei Navalny, who subsequently died under suspicious circumstances in February in a penitentiary in Russia's Arctic region.

"Tragically, as we saw with Aleksei Navalny's unjust imprisonment in a Russian penal colony, incarceration can come with horrific conditions -- with abuse, even death," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on April 22 while presenting the report.

The report also highlights a multitude of other human rights abuses committed by Russian authorities on Russia's territory and abroad, such as, but not limited to, arbitrary or unlawful killings, including extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearances; pervasive torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; and serious problems with the independence of the judiciary.

Harsh Punishments Meted Out In Iran

Brutal human rights abuses continue to take place and even worsen in Iran, where women and members of marginalized communities bear the brunt of the regime's human rights violations and abuses, the report says, highlighting the harsh punishment meted out to prisoners, including executions, for bogus or unjust reasons.

"Women continued to face discrimination, including through enhanced means for enforcing the mandatory dress code, which led to acts of civil disobedience," the report says, adding that many people have reportedly disappeared during extended protests that were triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of morality police in September 2022.

The number of executions was up by more than one-third last year compared to 2022, with 798 people being put to death, some of them political dissidents.

Executions In Iran Drive Global Death-Penalty Spike
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"The government often charged political dissidents with vague crimes, some of which carried the death penalty, such as 'antirevolutionary behavior,' 'corruption on earth,' 'siding with global arrogance,' 'waging war against God,' and 'crimes against Islam,'" the report notes.

The Iranian regime is also guilty of serious violations outside its borders, which include enabling abuses by terrorist groups throughout the region by the Syrian government, Iran-aligned militia groups in Iraq, and Yemeni Huthi militants, as well as the unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers, the document said.

Systemic Mistreatment, Discrimination In Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, the Taliban has resorted to systemic mistreatment of and discrimination against Afghanistan’s women and girls since it returned to power in August 2021 following the hasty withdrawal of U.S.-led forces.

"In Afghanistan, the Taliban have limited work opportunities for women, shuttered institutions found educating girls, and increasing floggings for women and men accused of, quote, 'immoral behavior,' end quote," Blinken said.

The report says Taliban authorities have issued more than 50 pieces of legislation "that effectively erase women from public life."

The Taliban authorities have shown continuous and widespread "disregard for the rule of law and official impunity for those responsible for human rights abuses," the document says, adding that both the Taliban and their current arch-foe, the Islamic State group, have been using child soldiers.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on April 23 pushed back against the criticism, emphasizing the Taliban's commitment to upholding Shari'a law, which he argued defines and guarantees the rights of Afghan citizens based on their wishes.

"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has a Shari'a and Islamic obligation to give the rights of its citizens," Mujahid said on state-controlled RTA Radio. "When America or other Western countries talk about rights, they should not impose Western culture on other countries. What is defined as rights in America may not be the same in Afghanistan."

Referring to the ongoing war in Gaza that was triggered by an October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, the report notes "serious abuses...by Hamas and Israel."

It says those abuses include unlawful or widespread civilian deaths and harm, enforced disappearances or abductions, torture, as well as "violence or threats against journalists."

British Foreign Secretary Holds Talks With Uzbek Counterpart In Tashkent

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron visits the Hazrati Imam Mosque in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, on April 23.
British Foreign Secretary David Cameron visits the Hazrati Imam Mosque in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, on April 23.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron held talks with his Uzbek counterpart Baxtiyor Saidov in Tashkent on April 23, focusing on regional security, education, climate change, bilateral trade, and the development of business relations, according to official Uzbek media reports. Cameron held similar talks with top officials in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan earlier this week before making his way to the region's most populous nation of 37 million. Cameron will also visit Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia during his tour of Central Asia. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.

State Of Emergency Declared In Kyrgyz District Over Mudslides And Floods

Authorities in Kyrgyzstan's northwestern district of Talas declared a state of emergency on April 23 over ongoing mudslides and floods caused by heavy rains, which hit the region over the weekend. The latest mudslides were reported in the villages of Ar-Jar, Kok-Kashat, and Kara-Suu. Some 250 private houses have been damaged, as well as one bridge and several roads in the area. A day earlier, authorities in the southern Osh region announced a state of emergency after a mudslide killed one person while another local resident was killed by lightning. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Court In Tatarstan Reinstates Fine For Activist Who Supported RFE/RL Journalist

Iskander Yasaveyev must pay a fine for holding a placard reading "Alsu Kurmasheva is a journalist, not a criminal" during an authorized rally in December.
Iskander Yasaveyev must pay a fine for holding a placard reading "Alsu Kurmasheva is a journalist, not a criminal" during an authorized rally in December.

KAZAN, Russia -- A court in Kazan, the capital of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan, has reinstated a fine against sociologist Iskander Yasaveyev for holding a poster demanding the release of RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, who has been held in Russian custody since October 18.

The Vakhitov district court ruled on April 22 that Yasaveyev must pay 15,000 rubles ($160) for holding a placard reading "Alsu Kurmasheva is a journalist, not a criminal" during an authorized rally in December in Kazan in support of all journalists currently held in Russian detention.

Yasaveyev was initially ordered to pay the 15,000-ruble fine on February 1 after he was found guilty by the same court of violating regulations for holding public events.

He appealed that ruling and on March 20, Tatarstan's Supreme Court canceled the sentence and sent the case back for retrial.

Yasaveyev's lawyers said on April 22 that they will appeal the new sentence as well.

Alsu Kurmasheva -- a Prague-based veteran journalist with RFE/RL who holds dual U.S. and Russian citizenship -- traveled to Russia in May last year for a family emergency.

She was temporarily detained while waiting for her return flight on June 2 at the airport in Kazan, where both of her passports were confiscated. She was not able to leave Russia as she awaited the return of her travel documents.

On October 11, a court in Kazan fined Kurmasheva 10,000 rubles ($106) for "failing to inform Russian officials about holding a second citizenship."

Kurmasheva was detained again on October 18 and this time charged with failing to register as a foreign agent, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

The Investigative Committee said at the time that Kurmasheva was being charged under a section of the Criminal Code that refers to the registration of foreign agents who carry out the “purposeful collection of information in the field of military, military-technical activities of Russia,” which, if received by foreign sources, “can be used against the security of the country."

It gave no further details.

Many critics and rights group say the so-called foreign agent law is used by the Kremlin to crack down on any dissent.

On December 12, the Tatar-Inform news agency in Tatarstan and the Baza Telegram channel, both linked to the government, said Kurmasheva was additionally accused of distributing "fake" news about Russia's armed forces, a charge that comes with a punishment of up to 10 years in prison.

RFE/RL has called the cases a reprisal against her for her work as a journalist.

Russia's detention of Kurmasheva, the second U.S. media member to be held by Moscow in 2024, triggered a wave of criticism from rights groups and politicians saying the move signals new level of war-time censorship.

Russia's leading human rights group Memorial has recognized Kurmasheva as a political prisoner.

Moscow has been accused of detaining Americans to use as bargaining chips to exchange for Russians jailed in the United States. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested in March last year for allegedly spying -- a charge he and the newspaper vehemently deny.

Kazakh Prosecutors Seek Lengthy Prison Terms For Coal Mine Managers Over Deadly Blast

A general view of the Lenin coal mine in the Kazakh town of Shakhtinsk where an explosion killed five miners in 2022.
A general view of the Lenin coal mine in the Kazakh town of Shakhtinsk where an explosion killed five miners in 2022.

Kazakh prosecutors on April 22 asked a court in the central town of Shakhtinsk to sentence four managers of the Lenin coal mine to prison terms of between 6 years and 7 years over an explosion that killed five miners in November 2022. Deadly accidents in the region’s mines are frequent. In 2006, a similar blast at the Lenin mine killed 41 miners. In 2021, an explosion in the Abai mine in the town killed six miners. According to Kazakh officials, more than 180 miners have died in blasts, mainly caused by methane gas leaks, in the last 30 years. To read the original story from RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, click here.

Iranian Rapper's Death Sentence Changed To 5 Years In Prison

Iranian rapper Saman Yasin (file photo)
Iranian rapper Saman Yasin (file photo)

Iranian dissident rapper Saman Yasin, who was detained during nationwide protests in 2022, has been sentenced to five years in prison, according to a verdict obtained by RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.

In sentencing Yasin, Branch 15 of Tehran's Islamic Revolutionary Court said Yasin will serve the punishment at a prison in the city of Kerman, as dictated by a fatwa from the Islamic republic's leader that bars Yasin from associating with others. Yasin is from the northwestern Kurdish region of Iran, while Kerman is located near the southeastern part of the country.

Legal sources noted that Yasin, who was involved in the "Women, Life, Freedom" protests sparked by the death of a young woman in police custody for an alleged head-scarf violation, was initially sentenced to death, but that sentence was overturned by the Supreme Court.

Hossein Sartipi, Yasin’s lawyer, confirmed on social media platform X (formerly Twitter) that the sentence had been changed, remarking, "Saman Yasin was saved from execution."

Yasin has been in temporary detention for over 18 months. Sartipi said he plans to appeal the latest sentence.

The 25-year-old rapper recently made a plea from prison to the judiciary to "issue my death sentence" rather than continue holding him indefinitely without a trial after multiple court dates were set and then delayed.

Yasin described enduring a "mock execution" set up by prison officials before being moved to a prison in Karaj.

He has consistently maintained his innocence, releasing multiple audio recordings to publicize his claims. He has also reportedly launched at least one hunger strike in protest.

After the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini in custody after she was detained for allegedly wearing her head scarf improperly, Iranians took to the streets across the country to protest a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls making unprecedented shows of support in the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

The judiciary, at the urging of lawmakers, has instituted harsh penalties, including the death sentence, for offenders.

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

In Sign Of Thawing Relations With Saudis, Iranian Pilgrims Leave For Mecca

Despite the recent thaw in relations, the resumption of flights between Iran and Saudi Arabia was delayed over technical issues, keeping pilgrims from making the trip until this year. (file photo)
Despite the recent thaw in relations, the resumption of flights between Iran and Saudi Arabia was delayed over technical issues, keeping pilgrims from making the trip until this year. (file photo)

For the first time in nine years, a group of Iranian pilgrims has arrived in Saudi Arabia to perform the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca, a sign of thawing relations between Tehran and Riyadh.

The arrival follows a restoration of full diplomatic ties in March 2023, which was mediated by China after a rift sparked by the 2016 execution of a Shi'ite cleric by Saudi Arabia and subsequent attacks on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.

Diplomatic efforts, including a significant meeting in Beijing between Ali Shamkhani, the former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, and a visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Saudi Arabia, resulted in the lifting of restrictions on Iranian pilgrims. However, the resumption of flights from Iran to Saudi Arabia was delayed over technical issues, keeping pilgrims from making the trip until this year.

Muslims around the world pray toward the Kaaba, which is located in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and pilgrims walk around it seven times.

Unlike the haj, which is compulsory and subject to strict annual quotas, the Umrah can be performed at any time of the year and is not deemed compulsory.

A ceremony held at Tehran’s main airport on April 22 -- coinciding with an announcement from Iran Air that it would operate two daily flights carrying up to 260 pilgrims between various cities in Iran and Saudia Arabia -- was attended by Saudi Ambassador to Iran Abdullah bin Saud al-Anzi, marking a significant step toward increased cooperation between the two Middle Eastern powers.

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

U.S. Senate Expected To Vote On Long-Delayed Ukraine Military-Aid Bill

A Ukrainian police investigator examines debris at a television tower hit by a missile strike in Kharkiv, a city that has been exposed to air and missile attacks amid air defense shortages.
A Ukrainian police investigator examines debris at a television tower hit by a missile strike in Kharkiv, a city that has been exposed to air and missile attacks amid air defense shortages.

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on a long-delayed military-aid package that includes more than $60 billion for Ukraine as early as April 23 after the House of Representatives passed the measure on April 20 following months of bickering.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The package, which contains desperately needed aid for Ukraine's embattled military, is anticipated to pass in the Senate as early as April 23 and be sent to U.S. President Joe Biden for signing by the end of the week.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York) asked fellow senators to pass the bill on April 23 "as expeditiously as possible."

Schumer said the vote was "six months in the making" and urged his colleagues "not keep our friends around the world waiting for a moment longer," Schumer said in a speech as the Senate opened.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky) said failing to support allies emboldened rivals like China and Russia, and denounced isolationism.

"Today, the Senate sits for a test on behalf of the entire nation. It’s a test of American resolve, our readiness, and our willingness to lead," he said.

The Democratic-controlled Senate could pass the massive $95 billion package, which also contains military aid for Israel and Taiwan, as soon as April 23 in the afternoon if the timing for a vote is rapidly agreed.

If Republicans opposed to the bill attempt to procrastinate the process, a vote could be held on April 24.

The bill is expected to easily garner the 60 votes needed for approval.

Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a phone call on April 22 that the United States will "quickly provide significant new security assistance packages to meet Ukraine’s urgent battlefield and air defense needs," the White House said in a statement.

The package includes air defense munitions and large amounts of artillery rounds, as well as armored vehicles and other weapons. U.S. officials say some of the weapons will be delivered very quickly to the battlefront.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russian forces would expand their aerial bombardment of Ukraine to include storage bases that house Western-supplied weapons.

"We will increase the intensity of strikes against logistics centers and warehouses for Western weapons," Shoigu told a meeting of high-ranking military officials in Moscow.

An intense campaign of Russian missile and drone strikes on Ukrainian cities has taken a large toll in human lives and has caused huge damage to the country's already battered energy infrastructure after more than two years of war.

Zelenskiy said on X, formerly Twitter, that Biden told him he will sign the bill "immediately as soon as it is approved by the Senate."

Zelenskiy also told Biden about a strike on the TV tower in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, which had occurred just before their conversation.

Zelenskiy said later on April 22 that the Russian missile strike that smashed the prominent skyline tower was part of the Kremlin's effort to intimidate the city, which in recent weeks has come under increasingly frequent attack.

The strike sought to "make the terror visible to the whole city and to try to limit Kharkiv's connection and access to information," Zelenskiy said.

Ukraine's air defense shortages have made Kharkiv, a city with a population of more than 1 million located just 35 kilometers from the Russian border, more vulnerable to air and missile attacks. The power supply has already been disrupted and electricity is only available on an hourly basis.

"Russia clearly signals its intention to make the city uninhabitable," Zelenskiy said in his post on X about his call with Biden.

In the latest strikes, Russian drones targeted Ukraine's Black Sea port city of Odesa early on April 23, wounding nine people, including four children, of whom two are less than a year old, regional administration chief Oleh Kiper said, adding that several buildings caught fire.

Ukrainian air defenses shot down 15 out of 16 drones launched by Russia at the regions of Odesa, Kyiv, Mykolayiv, and Cherkasy, the air force said in a statement on Telegram.

All drones targeting Kyiv were destroyed, Serhiy Popko, the head of the Ukrainian capital's military administration, said in a message on Telegram, adding that there were no casualties or damage in the city.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

U.K. To Announce Largest-Ever Military Support Package For Ukraine

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is to announce a $617-million aid package for Ukraine -- Britain's largest ever -- on a visit to Poland on April 23, the British government said in a statement. "Ukraine is facing an existential threat as Russia continues its barbaric invasion, risking the security and stability of all of Europe," the statement said. Britain has been one of Ukraine's staunchest supporters. The extra funding brings the U.K.'s total military aid for this financial year to $3.71 billion. Britain will also send what it said is its largest-ever single package of equipment, the statement added.

Swiss Report Big Drop In Frozen Russian Assets

Swiss authorities said the main reason for the decline was a decrease in the market value of the shares and other financial assets that have been blocked.
Swiss authorities said the main reason for the decline was a decrease in the market value of the shares and other financial assets that have been blocked.

Switzerland has frozen Russian assets worth 5.8 billion Swiss francs ($6.36 billion), the government said on April 23, a big drop that could intensify international pressure on the neutral country to do more to sanction Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine. The figure, which applies to assets frozen at the end of 2023, was down from the 7.5 billion francs in assets frozen at the end of 2022. The main reason was a decrease in the market value of the shares and other financial assets that have been blocked, said the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, which oversees sanctions.


Updated

Children Among 9 Wounded In Russian Attack On Odesa

Odesa's regional governor said several buildings caught fire in the latest attacks on the city on April 23.
Odesa's regional governor said several buildings caught fire in the latest attacks on the city on April 23.

A Russian drone attack on Ukraine's Black Sea port city of Odesa early on April 23 wounded nine people, including four children, regional administration chief Oleh Kiper said, adding that several buildings caught fire. Ukrainian air defense systems shot down 15 out of 16 drones launched by Russia at the regions of Odesa, Kyiv, Mykolayiv, and Cherkasy, the air force said in a statement on Telegram. All drones targeting Kyiv were destroyed, Serhiy Popko, the head of the Ukrainian capital's military administration, said in a message on Telegram adding that there were no casualties or damage in the city. To read the original stories by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here and here.

Kosovo, Serbia Trade Accusations At UN Security Council Meeting

Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani speaks at a UN Security Council meeting in New York on April 22.
Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani speaks at a UN Security Council meeting in New York on April 22.

The presidents of Serbia and Kosovo traded accusations on April 22 at a session of the UN Security Council in New York called to consider a report on the work of UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani accused Serbia of preventing the integration of ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo into Kosovar institutions, while Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said the world is not paying enough attention to the plight of Serbs living in the region.

Osmani also accused Serbia of "intimidating" the Serbian community in the region, citing as an example the recent detention of Kosovar police officers at the border for what Serbian officials said was "security checks.”

Osmani also noted that a vote on April 21 in four mostly Serbian municipalities in the north of the country fell far short of the 50 percent required to validate the results amid a boycott by Serbian List, the leading Serbian political grouping. The vote was an initiative to remove the current mayors and elect new ones through a recall process.

Speaking at the UN in New York, she said that Serbs in Kosovo “can thank Serbian President Vucic” for the fact that Albanian mayors remain at the head of the municipalities.

Vucic, whose country has refused to recognize Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence, was also present for the council meeting, telling its 15 members that the international community paid a lot of attention to the incident in Banjska in September but not to the attacks on the Serbian minority.

The incident near Kosovo's border with Serbia escalated tensions dramatically when an ethnic Albanian Kosovar police officer was left dead after an encounter with masked commandos allegedly led by a Kosovar Serb politician who has long enjoyed Belgrade’s support. Three of the gunmen were also killed.

"We will not allow it to be used as an alibi for the persecution of Serbs (in Kosovo)," he said, adding that poor conditions are being deliberately created for the Serbian minority in Kosovo.

The incident is a "consequence of repression" in Kosovo, said Vucic, who also raised the Central Bank of Kosovo’s decision to ban the Serbian currency, the dinar, for cash payments, calling it “an ethnically motivated campaign against Serbs and non-Albanians" in Kosovo.

U.S. Deputy Ambassador Robert Wood said that Serbia has not made significant progress in bringing responsible justice when it comes to the incident in Banjska.

"It is important that Serbia works with KFOR so that this [kind of] attack does not happen again," he told the Council, referring to NATO’s peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

The detention of Kosovar citizens traveling through Serbia and “the arrest of Serbs working in the Kosovo police" are also concerns of the United States, Wood said, calling such actions “a violation of previous agreements on free movement."

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya said that the situation in Kosovo is worrying because of the "ethnically motivated violence by the authorities in Pristina."

He said the European Union was “standing by” Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti, and said Brussels and Washington aim for Serbia to recognize the independence of Kosovo and take away its territory.

Caroline Ziadeh, who heads the UNMIK, told the council that tensions have increased in recent months and one of her key observations has been "dissatisfaction with what was achieved in the [Pristina-Belgrade] dialogue," which Brussels and the United States have been trying to restart.

Ziadeh said that it has never been more urgent to carry out "the full implementation of the agreements reached under the auspices of the European Union to help solve the major crises and series of crises that have occurred."

U.K.'s Cameron Seeks To Define Common Interests On Visit To Kyrgyzstan

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron speaks with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on April 22.
British Foreign Secretary David Cameron speaks with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on April 22.

BISHKEK -- British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said he's seeking to highlight the common interests of Britain and Kyrgyzstan on his first visit to the Central Asian country in his new job as foreign secretary.

Cameron told RFE/RL in an interview on April 22 that he believes the two countries had "a whole series" of common interests on their agendas, particularly the areas of climate change, trade, education, and security.

The former British prime minister, who 11 years ago was the first British leader to visit Kyrgyzstan, also said his meetings with President Sadyr Japarov covered the importance of healthy and functioning democracies, and that this is in the interest of both Britain and Kyrgyzstan.

Cameron noted that the world has become a more competitive and contested place in which "big powers are muscling around" trying to win partners. Without naming any country in particular, he said his message to Kyrgyzstan was that it doesn't have to choose one partner over another or reject partners it already has.

"We're saying we are a new partner that is keen to work with you with common interests, where we can make success together," Cameron told RFE/RL.

On Central Asian Trip, U.K. Foreign Secretary Cameron Criticizes Russia's 'Aggression'
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He noted that Kyrgyzstan was "investing hugely" in education, while Britain believes in the "importance of the English language" and wants to help promote that.

Asked about concerns over the deteriorating state of press freedom and the shrinking civic space in Kyrgyzstan, a country that was once called "an island of democracy in Central Asia," and other states in the region, Cameron said he raised these issues in his meeting with Japarov.

"We talked about the importance of voluntary bodies, charities, nongovernmental organizations, civil society organizations," he said.

Countries should always respect each other's differences and approaches, but he said that in his view, civil society organizations play a role in "helping to make our democracies work better, and that's the approach very much that we take in the United Kingdom."

On Russia's war in Ukraine, Cameron said his message was that it's wrong because Ukraine is an independent sovereign country just like Kyrgyzstan, and Britain is helping Ukraine to fight off the illegal invasion.

"But I think there's a broader message for everyone about the importance of sovereignty, the importance of borders, the importance of respecting those things, and I think that's a message that people want to hear [and are] very receptive to hear," he said.

Cameron visited Israel before arriving in Central Asia. He said his message there was that Britain wants the fighting to stop and the hostages released.

"Our message is one of: let's have a pause in the fighting. Let's turn that into the hostage release. Let's turn that into a sustainable cease-fire where we deal with the problems of the conflict," he said.

Biden Assures Zelenskiy That He Will Sign Military-Aid Bill Immediately

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden hold a press conference at the White House in Washington in December 2023.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) and U.S. President Joe Biden hold a press conference at the White House in Washington in December 2023.

U.S. President Joe Biden assured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a phone call on April 22 that he will immediately sign legislation providing military aid as soon as it reaches his desk, and the aid will be dispatched quickly to Ukraine.

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on a massive national security aid package that includes more than $60 billion for Ukraine on April 23 and send it to Biden for his signature.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Zelenskiy said on X that Biden assured him during their phone call that the package of aid would include the type of aid that Ukraine needs to fend off advancing Russian forces.

"I have the president's assurance that it will be fast and powerful and will strengthen our anti-aircraft, long-range, and artillery capabilities," Zelenskiy said.

He also told Biden "about Russia's air terror using thousands of missiles, drones, and bombs," including an attack on the Kharkiv TV tower just a few minutes before their conversation.

The digital television broadcasting signal was disrupted, regional Governor Oleh Synyehubov said.

A video circulating on social media showed the main 240-meter-tall mast of the tower breaking off and falling. It was unclear what hit the tower, but Kharkiv prosecutors said Russia had likely used a Kh-59 cruise missile in the attack.

The television tower, which went into operation in 1981, provides the region with radio and television reception and is located 6 kilometers from the city center.

The northeastern Ukrainian city, with a population of more than 1 million, has been under heavy Russian fire since mid-March. The power supply has already been disrupted and electricity is only available on an hourly basis.

"Russia clearly signals its intention to make the city uninhabitable," Zelenskiy said in his post on X on his call with Biden.

Russian forces also shelled areas near the village of Yurchenkove in the Kharkiv region, killing a man who was driving an excavator, according to the regional prosecutor's office.

"A direct hit was recorded on an excavator driven by a 34-year-old driver. A fire broke out, the man died on the spot," the prosecutor's office said on Facebook.

Russian troops also shelled the town of Krasnohorivka in the Donetsk region, killing a 70-year-old woman, said the head of the regional military administration, Vadym Filashkin, adding that three high-rise buildings were also damaged in the attack.

WATCH: On the eve of the Ukraine aid vote in the U.S. House of Representatives, gunners with Kyiv's 148th Separate Artillery Brigade told RFE/RL that Ukraine would lose the war without more ammunition.

Ukrainian Frontline Gunners Await More U.S. Shells For 'Best Artillery Weapon'
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The Russian Defense Ministry claimed its forces had captured Novomykhailivka, a village in the eastern Donetsk region, where its forces have steadily been gaining ground.

The claim of Novomykhaylivka's capture came as the Ukrainian military repelled 14 attacks in the area of Lyman and 12 in the area of Bakhmut, according to the April 22 evening summary of the General Staff of the Ukrainian military.

There were a total of 62 combat clashes recorded during the day, the General Staff said.

The assessment did not confirm the Russian claim that Novomykhaylivka had been captured. It said the Ukrainian military "continues to restrain" Russian forces in the areas of Novomykhaylivka and two other settlements west of Avdiyivka, which Russian forces captured in February.

Military analysts have said that Vuhledar, which lies south of Novomykhaylivka, is the next target for Russian forces in this area.

With reporting by Reuters and dpa

EU Ministers Agree To Expand Iran Sanctions

Several EU countries called for widening the drone-related sanctions regime to cover missiles and transfers to proxy forces.
Several EU countries called for widening the drone-related sanctions regime to cover missiles and transfers to proxy forces.

EU foreign ministers agreed in principle on April 22 to expand sanctions on Iran following Tehran's missile and drone attack on Israel, the bloc's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said. The European Union already has multiple sanctions programs against Iran, for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, human rights abuses and supplying drones to Russia. But several EU countries had called for widening the drone-related sanctions regime to cover missiles and transfers to proxy forces.

Ex-Employee Of Banned Belsat TV Jailed On Extremism Charge

The Minsk City Court on April 22 sentenced a former employee of the Poland-based Belsat television channel, which was declared extremist and banned in the country in November 2021, to two years in prison. The court found Anastasia Matsyash guilty of being a member of an extremist group and also ordered her to pay a 20,000-ruble ($6,100) fine. Matsyash rejected the charge and maintains her innocence. Several journalists from Belsat, as well as individuals who gave interviews to the news agency, have been imprisoned on extremism charges after it was banned in Belarus. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

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