Watchdog Says Media Freedom Situation 'Bleak' In Post-Soviet Space
On February 12, the Paris-based group published its annual "World Press Freedom Index," measuring the level of freedom of information in 180 countries.
The head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk Johann Bihr told RFE/RL that authorities in Russia, which came 148th in the survey, have chosen repression with more and more draconian laws being adopted, and are exporting their model throughout the region.
"2013 has been marked by a cascade of repressive laws in Russia which have narrowed the scope of free information more and more," he said. "For instance, traditional values are used to justify new restrictions, including the criminalization of homosexual propaganda or the ban on blasphemy. Journalists are being detained in connection with their work."
In Belarus, which came 157th, RSF says journalists who cover street protests are "routinely detained," and authorities often use "combatting extremism" as a pretext for silencing those who refuse to toe the official line.
Ukraine ranks 127th, but RSF says the political crisis that began in December 2013 and the government’s adoption of "very repressive policies" came after the period covered by this year’s index.
WATCH: By The Numbers: Journalists Targeted In Ukraine
Bihr says both Kazakhstan (161st) and Azerbaijan (160th) are "on the verge of suppression of any media freedom."
RSF says television stations in Azerbaijan are under government control, while recalcitrant journalists and bloggers are exposed to physical attacks, death threats, and abduction.
And freedom of information in Kazakhstan is in "free fall," according to Bihr.
"Kazakhstan closed all its national opposition media outlets in early 2012.," Bihr said. "Since then, all the critical media outlets still existing at the local level or trying to exist at the national level have been routinely prosecuted under trumped-up charges under various administrative pretexts."
In Tajikistan (115th), the report says coverage of the 2013 presidential election campaign was "openly skewed" in favor of the incumbent, Emomali Rakhmon, while the arbitrary blocking of independent news websites has become "common."
Strict censorship also prevails in Uzbekistan (166th), where "no fewer than 10 journalists and netizens are currently detained."
At the bottom of the ranking, RSF says Turkmenistan (178th) continues to be a "news and information black hole" and a "living hell" for journalists.
Some Bright Spots
The region's four best-placed countries are Moldova (56th), Armenia (78th), Georgia (84th), and Kyrgyzstan (97th).
"In these countries, there is a significant degree of pluralism and there is relatively little state censorship, but of course it doesn't mean that challenges have disappeared," Bihr said. "The considerable social polarization is [especially] reflected very much in the media [and] the independence of editorial teams remains a very harsh challenge for these countries."
Elsewhere, RSF says continued violence and religious tension in Iraq (153rd) are having a negative impact on the safety of journalists and the independence of the media.
In Iran (173rd), the Paris-based watchdog says coverage of the Syrian civil war is "closely watched" by the regime, which cracks down on "any criticism" of its foreign policy. By the end of 2013, 50 journalists and Internet activists had been detained.
In Pakistan (158th), seven journalists were murdered in connection with their work last year. RSF denounces a "lack of interest" in the country in finding those responsible for the killings. It also describes Pakistan as a country where the government "seems powerless against armed groups and the military."
In neighboring Afghanistan (128th), Bihr says that despite widespread violence, the situation remains quite satisfactory with regards to media pluralism.
The report also criticizes democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom for not setting good examples in 2013, relying on "overly broad and abusive" interpretations of national security needs. The United States fell 13 places to 46th as it aggressively pursued whistleblowers and the sources of leaks. The United Kingdom. fell three places to 33rd amid its own "disgraceful" persecution of whistleblowers.
Azerbaijan Denounces 'Slanderous' Comments By Top Iranian Commander
Azerbaijan has denounced comments by a senior Iranian military commander who said members of the Islamic State militant group had fought for Azerbaijan and were still based in the country. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry on March 30 said the comments made by Kiumars Heydari, head of Iran's regular army ground forces, were "vile, defamatory, and slanderous," adding, "Generally speaking, there are no foreign elements on the territory of Azerbaijan." The ministry's response came a day after security services said they were investigating "a terrorist act" on lawmaker Fazil Mustafa, who has strong anti-Iranian views. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
U.S. Mideast Envoy Hopeful Saudi-Iran Detente Will Help Region
The Biden administration is hopeful that warming ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia will help de-escalate conflicts and crises across the Middle East, a senior U.S. diplomat said on March 30. The detente between the two regional heavyweights could help bring Yemen's civil war to an end, Barbara Leaf said. Earlier this month, Riyadh and Tehran agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations -- a move that stirred cautious optimism across the region. "The first order is to see whether Iran will live up to its commitments in terms of Yemen," Leaf said.
U.S. Blacklists Slovak For Allegedly Facilitating Arms Deals Between North Korea, Russia
The United States has imposed sanctions on a Slovakian man who allegedly worked as a broker for Russia in its efforts to purchase arms and munitions from North Korea to support its war on Ukraine.
Ashot Mkrtychev, 56, of Bratislava was involved in arranging sales and barter deals for North Korea to ship weapons and munitions to Russia between late 2022 and early 2023, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a news release.
In exchange, Pyongyang would obtain cash, commercial aircraft, commodities, and raw materials, according to the Treasury Department.
Mkrtychev worked with officials from both sides to makes the deals happen, according to the Treasury.
"Mkrtychev's negotiations with DPRK and Russian officials detailed mutually beneficial cooperation between North Korea and Russia to include financial payments and barter arrangements," the department said, referring to North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). "He confirmed Russia's readiness to receive military equipment from the DPRK with senior Russian officials."
Although the department did not say if any deals were completed or describe the specific weapons involved, it said its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions against Mkrtychev.
The United States said last year amid an increase in air strikes on Ukraine that Russia has purchased artillery shells and rockets from North Korea.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said then that North Korea was shipping the ammunition to Russia but making it look like it was sending the arms to the Middle East or North Africa.
Kirby also said North Korea completed an arms delivery to the Wagner mercenary group, which is fighting on the front lines in Ukraine.
Pyongyang has denied the U.S. claims.
Kirby said on March 30 that Russia continues to seek arms from the communist country.
"We have new information that Russia is actively seeking to acquire additional munitions from North Korea," Kirby said after the Treasury announced the sanctions against Mkrtychev.
The OFAC blacklist freezes any assets Mkrtychev holds within the jurisdiction of the United States and bans Americans and U.S. businesses, including banks, of having any dealings with him.
The move comes as Washington steps up sanctions targeting Russia's attempts to obtain military equipment to replenish stocks that have been depleted by the war in Ukraine.
"Russia has lost over 9,000 pieces of heavy military equipment since the start of the war, and thanks in part to multilateral sanctions and export controls, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has become increasingly desperate to replace them," U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in the statement.
Schemes like the alleged arms deal pursued by Mkrtychev "show that Putin is turning to suppliers of last resort like Iran and [North Korea]," she added.
"We remain committed to degrading Russia's military-industrial capabilities, as well as exposing and countering Russian attempts to evade sanctions and obtain military equipment from the DPRK or any other state that is prepared to support its war in Ukraine," Yellen said.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Russian Soldier Jailed In Crimea For Desertion
A court in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea has sentenced a military serviceman to nine years in prison for desertion. The Crimea Garrison Military Court said on March 30 the defendant, whose identity was not disclosed, pleaded guilty and said he desert his unit in Crimea in September because he was unwilling to take part in the war against Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.
Russian, 63, Jailed For Seven Years For Anti-War Posts
A court in Moscow has sentenced a 63-year-old man to seven years in prison for two online posts last year condemning Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The Timiryazev district court sentenced Mikhail Simonov on March 30 after finding him guilty of "discrediting the Russian armed forces," a charge Russian authorities have been using against any criticism of the war in Ukraine since it was launched by Moscow in February 2022. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
UN Court Rejects Iranian Bid To Unfreeze Funds But Faults U.S. For Seizing Other Assets
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has rejected Iran's bid to unblock nearly $2 billion in assets belonging to its central bank that were frozen by the United States over alleged terrorist attacks.
The Hague-based court said on March 30 it did not have jurisdiction over $1.75 billion in bonds, plus accumulated interest, that are held in a Citibank account in New York.
But the court simultaneously found that the United States had "violated" the rights of some Iranians and companies whose assets were also frozen. The ruling ordered the United States to pay compensation, but said the amount should be determined through negotiation.
The ruling comes amid strained relations between the United States and Iran over the use of Iranian drones by Russia against Ukraine, attempts to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers, and a deadly strike last week involving Iran-backed militias in Syria and U.S. personnel.
The case before the ICJ, also known as the World Court, was initially brought by Tehran in 2016 claiming a breach of the 1955 Treaty of Amity, which promised friendship and cooperation between the two countries.
The treaty was signed long before Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, which toppled the U.S.-backed shah, and the subsequent severing of U.S.-Iranian relations. Washington withdrew from the treaty in 2018.
The ICJ ruled that the treaty was in place at the time of the freezing of the assets of Iranian commercial companies and entities, and therefore Washington violated it.
The United States argued the asset seizures were the result of Tehran's alleged sponsorship of terrorism and said the whole case should be dismissed because Iran had "unclean hands."
The court dismissed this defense and ruled the treaty was valid. It said if the countries fail in the negotiation of compensation, they will have to return to the ICJ for a ruling.
In another decision on the assets held at Citibank, the court ruled it had no jurisdiction over the $1.75 billion in assets from Iran's central bank because that bank was not a commercial enterprise, and thus not protected by the treaty.
The United States has said the money is to be used to pay compensation to victims of a 1983 bombing in Lebanon and other attacks linked to Iran, which denies supporting international terrorism.
The rulings of the ICJ, the United Nations' top court, are binding, but it has no means of enforcing its rulings.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
Clerics In Historic Kyiv Monastery Defy Eviction Notice, Deny Officials, Journalists Entry
KYIV -- Clerics of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) who have been ordered to leave the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in the Ukrainian capital on March 30 defied the eviction order and refused to allow officials from the Culture Ministry and journalists into the historic Orthodox Christian monastery.
Scuffles between members of the UOC and journalists broke out outside the 11th-century monastery and UNESCO World Heritage site when clerics pushed reporters away from Metropolitan Pavlo, the monastery's abbot.
The UOC clerics refused to communicate with the journalists, who were at the monastery to cover the standoff, which developed after the agency overseeing the property notified the UOC earlier this month that it was terminating the lease as of March 29.
An RFE/RL correspondent's camera was struck and journalists of the Suspilne (Public) television channel were jostled as the clerics attempted to keep the journalists away from Pavlo.
Pavlo, meanwhile, threatened to hit journalists with a stick, urging them "instead of gabbing away" for "seas of money" to do "real" work, like "milking cows, gardening, etc."
The National Union of Journalists of Ukraine said on March 30 that journalists' rights were violated as UOC followers did not allow them to use their cameras, covering their lenses with different objects, insulting reporters, and pushing them away from the entrance to the monastery, which is owned by the Ukrainian government.
The UOC is a branch of Ukraine's Orthodox Church that was previously under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox patriarch in Moscow. It cut ties with Moscow in May 2022 over Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but it has been accused of maintaining links to Russia.
Metropolitan Pavlo and other UOC officials also did not allow a commission of the Culture and Information Policy Ministry to enter the monastery, where it was scheduled to inspect buildings as the handover of the property was planned to start on March 30.
A day earlier, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said no force would be used to evict the monks from the monastery.
Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko condemned the "brutal" treatment of the commission members. The government filed a complaint with the police, Tkachenko said in a statement, adding that efforts to inspect the buildings would continue on March 31.
In November, Ukrainian security agents conducted a "counterintelligence" operation at the monastery and other UOC facilities as part of a probe into suspected pro-Russian activity.
The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) is the country's main Orthodox Church. A 2020 survey found that 34 percent of Ukrainians identified as members of the OCU, while 14 percent said they were members of the UOC.
With reporting by Reuters
Siberian Actor Slits Wrist On Stage To Protest Anti-War Director's Firing
ULAN-UDE, Russia -- An actor in a theater in the Siberian region of Buryatia has slashed his veins while on stage to protest the firing of the company's artistic director last year over his stance against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Artur Shuvalov of the Russian Drama Theater in Buryatia's capital, Ulan-Ude, slashed his wrist with a knife at the end of a play on March 29 in front of a live audience, saying that he and his colleagues had been under pressure for their attempts to get the theater's artistic director, Sergei Levitsky, back after he openly condemned the war in Ukraine.
Shuvalov said that hours earlier his wife, Svetlana Polyanskaya, who is an actress in the same theater, filed her resignation after coming under constant pressure from management for urging Levitsky's reinstatement.
Shuvalov is currently hospitalized with wounds to his arms. Buryatia Culture Minister Soelma Dagayeva said Shuvalov's life was not in danger.
Since Levitsky was fired last year, the theater's actors have demanded local authorities reinstate him and have held different types of protest, including removing the symbols of Russia's aggression against Ukraine from the theater's facade and raising awareness of the situation in local media.
The actors also complained that the new art director, Vyacheslav Dyachenko, had called them prostitutes by calling them "representatives of the oldest profession in the world," and demanding they perform "simple plays that are comprehensible to ordinary people."
"I do not want to hear that actors are similar to representatives of the oldest profession. I think our audience deserves smart performances, not those demanded by our artistic director. I am sorry. I am tired. I do not have any other choice," Shuvalov said before slashing his wrist, adding that Dyachenko and the theater's executive director, Natalya Svetozarova, would be responsible for his death.
Buryatia government officials said they were investigating the incident, including "events that preceded the incident."
Dagayeva added that Shuvalov's wife resigned of her own free will.
Tajik Opposition Politician's Son Extradited From Germany Sentenced To Seven Years In Prison
A son of Tajik opposition politician Shamsiddin Saidov, who was recently extradited to Tajikistan from Germany, has been sentenced to seven years in prison in Dushanbe after a trial Human Rights Watch (HRW) called unfair.
According to HRW, a court in the Tajik capital sentenced Abdullo Shamsiddin on March 29 after finding him guilty of "public calls to violent change of the constitutional order of Tajikistan."
"The trial started on March 28 and did not adhere to fair trial standards, including the right of defendants to challenge the evidence used against them, based on information available. Authorities should publicly present the evidence used to justify his conviction and in the meantime he should be immediately released from detention," the HRW's statement said.
Tajik authorities have yet to officially confirm the sentencing but Shamsiddin's father, Shamsiddin Saidov, who is currently residing in the European Union, confirmed to RFE/RL that his son was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Saidov is a member of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). In January 2018, he was sentenced in absentia in Tajikistan to 15 years in prison on extremism charges.
Saidov said earlier that his 32-year-old son, who had lived in Germany since 2009, was deported from Germany due to his failure to reregister with the country's migration authorities on time.
The IRPT said at the time the decision to deport Shamsiddin might have been because he provided incorrect data to the immigration service.
The IRPT, long an influential party with representatives in the government and parliament, was labeled a terrorist group and banned in 2015.
Dozens of IRPT officials and supporters have been prosecuted and many of them imprisoned, drawing criticism from human rights groups.
Tajik authorities have been criticized for cracking down on dissent for years.
- By Current Time
Captured Russian Soldier Given 12-Year Prison Sentence
A court in Ukraine has sentenced a Russian soldier to 12 years in prison on a charge of violating of the laws of war, the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office said on March 30. The soldier, whose identity was not disclosed, was found guilty of intimidating and victimizing Ukrainian civilians near Kyiv as they fled the area in early March 2022, days after Russia launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this month, Ukraine handed a similar sentence to Russian Air Force officer Aleksei Loboda for bombing civilian targets in Ukraine's eastern region of Kharkiv in March 2022. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Smaiylov Reappointed Kazakh PM
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev reappointed Alikhan Smaiylov to the prime minister's post on March 30 after the newly elected parliament approved his candidacy. A day earlier, Smaiylov's government officially resigned as the parliament that was elected in snap polls on March 19 held its first session. The 50-year-old Smaiylov was promoted to the prime minister's post from the deputy prime minister position in January 2022 after the standing of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev dramatically weakened following unprecedented nationwide anti-government protests that turned to mass unrest, leaving at least 238 people dead. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
- By AFP
Russia's Ukraine Invasion 'Threatens' European Security, Says Britain's King Charles
Europe's security has come under threat amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Britain's King Charles told German MPs on March 30, adding however that "we can draw courage from our unity." "The scourge of war is back in Europe. The war of aggression against Ukraine has brought unimaginable suffering on so many innocent people," he said. "The security of Europe as well as our democratic values are under threat. But the world did not stand idly by.... We can draw courage from our unity."
Russian Actress, Kremlin Critic Akhedzhakova Leaves Moscow Theater Amid Pressure
Popular Russian actress Liya Akhedzhakova, known for her open criticism of Kremlin policies including its ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has left the prominent Moscow theater Sovremennik (Contemporary) amid pressure from authorities and pro-government activists.
Akhedzhakova told the Novaya gazeta newspaper on March 30 that she submitted her resignation letter 20 days earlier and she now plans to switch to touring activities. The theater has not commented on the issue.
She said she does not plan to leave Russia despite the pressure campaign imposed on her over her stance against Russia's war against Ukraine.
On February 8, the administration of Sovremennik, where Akhedzhakova had performed since 1977, canceled a performance of Playing Genie with Akhedzhakova's participation. The theater explained the move by saying Akhedzhakova was "unwell," a claim Akhedzhakova rejected, telling Novaya gazeta that she wanted to perform.
Akhedzhakova also said the theater's director had complained to her that he was "literally overwhelmed by angry letters condemning her" for her stance against the war in Ukraine.
In December, a theater in St. Petersburg canceled another play Akhedzhakova was scheduled to perform in following her public calls to stop the war in Ukraine.
Ukraine-born Akhedzhakova has been targeted before for her activism.
In 2021, Sovremennik canceled a play in which she had a leading role after the Kremlin-backed Officers of Russia nongovernmental organization accused her of propagating same-sex relations and insulting World War II veterans.
The Sovremennik theater was founded in the late 1950s by a group of young Soviet actors during the Khrushchev Thaw. Dozens of actors who were extremely popular in the former Soviet Union started their careers at the Sovremennik.
With reporting by Novaya gazeta
EU Says China's Role In Ukraine Conflict Is Vital To EU Relations
China must play a part in pressing for a "just peace" in Ukraine and its role in the conflict will be vital in shaping relations with the European Union, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. "Any peace plan which would in effect consolidate Russian annexations is simply not a viable plan. We have to be frank on this point," von der Leyen said in a speech in Brussels on the eve of a trip to Beijing. "How China continues to interact with Putin's war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Four Bankers Who Helped Putin's Friend Set Up Swiss Bank Account Convicted
Four bankers who helped a close friend of Vladimir Putin move millions of francs through Swiss bank accounts have been convicted of lacking diligence in financial transactions. The four were found guilty of helping Sergei Roldugin, a concert cellist who has been dubbed "Putin's wallet" by the Swiss government. The executives -- three Russians and one Swiss -- helped Roldugin, who is godfather to Putin's eldest daughter, Maria, deposit millions of francs in Swiss bank accounts between 2014 and 2016. The men, who cannot be identified under Swiss reporting restrictions, were given suspended sentences of seven months each. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
U.S. Condemns Russia's Arrest Of Wall Street Journal Reporter, Calls Espionage Charge 'Ridiculous'
The United States has strongly condemned the detention of a U.S. journalist in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg on espionage charges and demanded his immediate release.
U.S. officials have been in touch with the family of journalist Evan Gershkovich as well as his employer, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), and the State Department is seeking consular access, the White House said on March 30.
"These espionage charges are ridiculous. The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable," White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said at a news briefing.
During a closed-door session on March 30, the Lefortovo district court in Moscow agreed to a request from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor of the Soviet-era KGB security agency, to hold Gershkovich under arrest for two months.
Mediazona reported from the courthouse that Gershkovich's lawyer was not allowed to be present at the hearing, and another lawyer had been appointed to represent his client.
Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen based in Moscow, had been in Yekaterinburg reporting about the attitude of Russians toward the Kremlin's war against Ukraine and on the Wagner mercenary group.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was "deeply concerned" about the detention of Gershkovich.
"In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the Kremlin's continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists and civil society voices," Blinken said in a statement.
Jean-Pierre also issued a statement condemning Gershkovich's detention and reiterating that Americans should not travel to Russia and those residing or currently traveling in the country should depart immediately.
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly joined other Western allies in criticizing the detention of Gershkovich, saying it showed Moscow's complete disregard for media freedom.
"We stand shoulder to shoulder with the US in defence of these fundamental democratic principles," Cleverly said on Twitter.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also condemned what he called Russia's "systematic disregard" of press freedom.
"Journalists must be allowed to exercise their profession freely and deserve protection. The Russian authorities demonstrate yet again their systematic disregard for media freedom," Borrell said on Twitter.
Citing law enforcement sources, the TASS news agency reported that the materials of the case against Gershkovich had been classified as "top secret" and that he had entered a not-guilty plea.
Mediazona and the newspaper Izvestia posted videos taken after the court hearing that showed a person who appeared to be Gershkovich -- wearing a hood over his head and with his hands cuffed behind his back -- being escorted out of the court.
The person can then be seen being loaded into a black van in a courtyard at the court building before being driven away.
The FSB alleged that, on instructions from the United States, Gershkovich "was collecting information about one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex, which constitutes a state secret." The charge carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
"The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich," the WSJ said in an e-mailed statement.
Gershkovich's detention appears to be the first time a U.S. correspondent has been put behind bars since the end of the Cold War and highlights the growing tensions between Moscow and Washington amid the Kremlin's war in Ukraine, launched in February 2022.
The Meduza website quoted one of Gershkovich's colleagues as saying the reporter recently traveled to the city of Nizhny Tagil, 140 kilometers north of Yekaterinburg, where Russia's major tank-producing facility, Uralvagonzavod, and several other factories producing military equipment are located.
Gershkovich was officially accredited as a journalist by the Russian Foreign Ministry, and earlier this week was the author of a story focused on the economic slowdown in Russia sparked by Western sanctions imposed in response to the Ukraine invasion.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Telegram that "what the employee of The Wall Street Journal was doing in Yekaterinburg was not journalism" while the Kremlin said Gershkovich was caught "red-handed." Neither, however, gave any evidence to back up their claims.
Gershkovich, 31, whose family emigrated from Russia to the United States when he was a child, previously worked for Agence France-Presse, The Moscow Times, and The New York Times. His most recent article was published by The Wall Street Journal on March 28.
"The Wall Street Journal is deeply concerned for the safety of Mr. Gershkovich," the WSJ said.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) immediately condemned Gershkovich's detention, calling it "retaliation" for reporting the facts from Russia.
Gershkovich "was investigating the Wagner military group. RSF is alarmed by what seems to be a 'retaliatory' measure: journalists must not be targeted!" the rights group's statement said.
Some analysts speculated the move may follow a similar pattern to the last American reporter to be arrested in Russia on espionage charges.
In 1986, Nicholas Daniloff was a correspondent for the U.S. News and World Report when he was detained by the KGB. He was held -- without formal charges being laid -- for 20 days until he was swapped for an employee working at the Soviet Union's United Nations mission in the United States who had been arrested by the FBI.
The two countries held a prisoner swap in December 2022 involving American basketball star Brittney Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
With reporting by Meduza, TASS, and Mediazona
Father Of Russian Sixth-Grader Who Drew Anti-War Picture Detained In Minsk
A Russian man sentenced to two years in prison after his daughter's anti-war drawing brought attention to his social media posts against the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been detained in Belarus after escaping house arrest in Russia just before sentencing.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry said on March 30 that Aleksei Moskalyov was detained in Minsk at Moscow's request.
His lawyer, Dmitry Zakhvatov, said earlier on March 30 that his client was most likely located and arrested after he switched on his mobile phone in Minsk. Zakhvatov added that Moskalyov's phone currently was not responding.
Moskalyov was sentenced to two years in prison in absentia on March 28 by a court in the town of Yefremov after it convicted him of "discrediting Russia's armed forces," a charge Russian authorities have been using against any criticism of the war in Ukraine.
Moskalyov came to the attention of police after his 12-year-old daughter Maria drew a picture at school last year depicting a woman standing next to a Ukrainian national flag and protecting a child from missiles coming from Russia.
The school's principal reported Maria Moskalyova to the police over her picture, after which law enforcement searched Moskalyov's apartment.
Police then found Moskalyov's online posts condemning the war in Ukraine, which featured a caricature of President Vladmir Putin.
Moskalyov was initially charged with "discrediting Russia's armed forces" and ordered to pay a 32,000-ruble ($415) fine after a court found him guilty. In December, a criminal case was launched against him on the same charge. He was placed under house arrest and his daughter was sent to a shelter, where her phone was confiscated and she was not allowed to communicate with her father.
On March 12, authorities in Yefremov asked a court to deprive Moskalyov of custody over his daughter. The same motion was made against Moskalyov's estranged wife.
Putin signed a law shortly after launching Russia's invasion last February that criminalizes the expression of any thoughts or reports contradicting official statements regarding the full-scale aggression against Ukraine.
Moskalyov is one of dozens of Russian citizens, including politicians, journalists, and rights activists, who have been handed prison terms for voicing dissent since the law was approved.
With reporting by SOTA and Dozhd TV
Pakistani Taliban Kills Four Police Officers In Bomb Attack
Four Pakistani policemen, including a senior officer, were killed and several were wounded in a roadside bomb attack as they were rushing to rescue colleagues besieged by militants in a police station in northwestern Pakistan late on March 29, authorities said.
Gunmen attacked a police station in the district of Lakki Marwat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, close to the North Waziristan tribal region, and an intense firefight ensued, district police spokesman Shahid Khan told RFE/RL.
A police team led by deputy superintendent Iqbal Mohmand rushed to the aid of their colleagues but their armored personnel carrier was blown up by a remote-controlled bomb planted by the side of the road some 3 kilometers before reaching their destination.
Four police officers, including Mohmand, were killed and six were wounded in the explosion, Khan said.
The banned Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for both the roadside bomb blast and the attack on the police station.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif condemned the attack.
"Our police officers have made unforgettable sacrifices in the war against terrorism," Sharif said in a statement.
Momand was also a well-known poet who wrote in Pashto.
The TTP in November ended a monthslong cease-fire with the government following more than a year of inconclusive peace talks.
The TTP claimed that promises made during the negotiations had not been fulfilled and announced the resumption of attacks.
The announcement was followed by a wave of deadly attacks targeting Pakistani security forces.
North Waziristan was once the stronghold of the TTP. However, the Pakistani military conducted a massive operation in mid-2014 to expel the militants.
The TTP commanders have reportedly taken refuge across the border in Afghanistan, triggering protests by authorities in Islamabad against Kabul's Taliban rulers.
With reporting by AFP, dpa, and AP
Zelenskiy Says Ukraine Is Preparing Next Steps As Battles In Eastern Regions Rage On
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy marked the 400th day of Russia's full-scale invasion, saying in his evening address on March 30 that his country is preparing its next steps but did not explicitly mention an anticipated counteroffensive.
Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine
RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.
Zelenskiy noted that 400 days have passed since the start of the invasion on February 24, 2022, and said that Ukraine has come a "colossal way" through its struggle, citing the recapture of areas of the Kharkiv region, the city of Kherson, and the ongoing defense of the eastern city of Bakhmut and the Donbas region in general.
"This is the heroism of Ukrainians, which the world will not forget," he said, adding, "We are preparing our next steps, we are preparing our active actions, approaching victory.... We will not leave a single trace of Russia on our land, and we will not leave any enemy unpunished."
Ukrainian military commanders have said a counteroffensive is not far off, but Zelenskiy indicated earlier this week that Kyiv is still waiting on “sufficient weapons” before mounting any major attacks.
The Ukrainian military said earlier on March 30 that its forces held their ground on the eastern front, repelling dozens of attacks in and around Bakhmut, the city in the Donetsk region that has been the focal point of Russia's offensive over the past several months, and called for the West to give it modern warplanes.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian military said in its daily bulletin that Russian forces continued to concentrate their offensive on Bakhmut and several other locations in Donetsk -- Avdiyivka, Maryinka, Belohoryivka, and Lyman -- having launched a total of 60 attacks in those locations over the past 24 hours.
Later on March 30, Russian missiles hit the eastern city of Kharkiv, regional governor Oleh Sinehubov said.
"The enemy is attacking Kharkiv again. At least 6 'arrivals' have been recorded," Sinehubov said on Telegram. Preliminary information suggested that S-300 antiaircraft missiles launched from the southern Russian region of Belgorod were used in the attack, he said. Belgorod lies across the border to the north of Kharkiv.
The relentless attacks on Bakhmut and its surroundings have taken a heavy toll on Russian forces.
General Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told American lawmakers that Moscow has failed to make any advances in Bakhmut in the last couple of weeks while Russian casualties continued to go up.
Milley told the House Armed Services Committee on March 29 that Russia has not made "any progress whatsoever" around Bakhmut over the past weeks and that the Wagner mercenary group has been "suffering an enormous amount of casualties" in the area.
He said Bakhmut has become a "slaughter-fest for the Russians."
The commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, on March 30 issued a video depicting the actions of Ukraine's air force in the war. In the video, the commander of Ukraine's tactical aviation brigade, Oleksiy Manyushkyn, appeals to Kyiv's allies to supply it with U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets.
Manyushkin says Ukrainian pilots are motivated and ready to master any Western equipment in the shortest possible time to bring Ukraine closer to victory.
So far, only NATO members Poland and Slovakia have offered Ukraine fighter jets, but they only agreed to deliver old Russian-made MiG-29 aircraft, which Ukrainian pilots know how to operate.
On March 28, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told the House Armed Service Committee that during the current phase of the conflict, providing Ukraine with modern fighter jets will do little to help.
In PHOTOS: The Ukrainian military claims Moscow's forces are showing signs of "exhaustion" as the battle over the destroyed eastern city of Bakhmut rages on.
"Regarding the F16 fighters, if such a decision is made, it will take approximately 18 months to provide these capabilities. However, this will not help the Ukrainians at this stage of the war," Austin told U.S. lawmakers.
"Can the Ukrainians get fighters in the future? We all believe so. Potentially, these could be either F-16s or other fourth-generation aircraft. So we will continue to work with our partners to ensure that Ukraine has exactly what it needs," he said, arguing that Kyiv now needs more air-defense systems, armored vehicles, and long-range weapons.
"And we provide them with a significant package of such opportunities," Austin said.
Last month, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also said that arming Ukraine with warplanes "currently makes no sense," adding in an interview with German television that Berlin does not have any of the F-16 fighters that Ukraine has requested.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa
No Forced Eviction From Kyiv Monastery But Property Must Be Vacated, Ukrainian Security Official Says
Force will not be used to evict representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) from the Pechersk Lavra in Kyiv, the secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said on March 29 after monks who have been ordered to leave the historic site refused to go.
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Danilov, speaking on Ukrainian television, said while there will be no evictions, the monastery must be turned over to the Ukrainian government.
“If someone thinks that he has the right not to follow the laws of our country, then he is deeply mistaken.... The laws of Ukraine must be followed by everyone,” Danilov said. He added that the monks are expected to leave quietly.
Metropolitan Pavlo, an abbot of the monastery, told worshippers on March 29 that the UOC would not leave the site pending the outcome of a lawsuit it filed last week to stop the eviction. Pavlo said the UOC had been notified that the handover of the property would begin on March 30, according to the AP.
The 11th-century monastery and UNESCO World Heritage site, which is also known as the Monastery of the Caves, is owned by the Ukrainian government, and the agency overseeing the property notified the UOC earlier this month that it was terminating the lease as of March 29.
The UOC is a branch of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church that previously was under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox patriarch in Moscow. It cut ties with Moscow in May over Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but it has been accused of maintaining links to Russia.
In November, security agents conducted a “counterintelligence” operation at the Pechersk Lavra and other facilities of the UOC as part of a probe into suspected pro-Russia activity.
Danilov said the termination of the lease is in the interest of national security. The work of the UOC cannot be done inside Ukraine “from the point of view of our security” and must be stopped, he said.
The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) is the country’s main Orthodox church. A 2020 survey found that 34 percent of Ukrainians identified as members of the OCU, while 14 percent said they were members of the UOC.
With reporting by AP
Russia Stops Sharing Advance Missile Test Info With U.S.
Russia will no longer give the United States advance notice about its missile tests as envisioned under a nuclear pact the Kremlin has suspended, a senior Moscow diplomat said on March 29, as its military rolled missile launchers across Siberia in a show of the country’s massive nuclear capability amid fighting in Ukraine. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian news agencies that Moscow has halted all information exchanges with Washington under the last remaining nuclear arms treaty with the United States after suspending its participation in it last month. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Construction Contracts For Serbian Tennis Open Under Scrutiny In Republika Srpska
Authorities have inspected documents related to the construction of a tennis stadium in Banja Luka for the Serbian Open tennis tournament organized by the family of the world's second-ranked men's player, Novak Djokovic.
Banja Luka Mayor Drasko Stanivukovic confirmed at a news conference on March 29 that the inspections took place after the prosecutor's office asked to see some records and documentation regarding the tournament, which is scheduled to take place April 17-23.
Questions have been raised about the procurement process for stadium construction contracts. The construction is being financed by public funds from the city of Banja Luka and the government of Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s two entities.
The tournament is usually held in Belgrade but has been moved to Banja Luka for 2023 while the existing grounds in the Serbian capital are renovated.
The construction of the 6,000-seat stadium and the surrounding infrastructure is expected to cost about 12 million euros. Work began in November, although the construction permit was not issued until January 20 and it only covers preparatory work.
Funds were transferred to the Tennis Association of Republika Srpska, which picked the contractors without a public procurement process, even though the funds are entirely public.
The Interior Ministry of Republika Srpska told RFE/RL that the inspection of the documents took place at the request of the Public Prosecutor's Office of Republika Srpska.
The prosecutor's office told RFE/RL that the request came after complaints against Stanivukovic and Republika Srpska Prime Minister Radovan Viskovic.
Both officials were reported on February 9 to the prosecutor's office by Nebojsa Vukanovic, a member of the Republika Srpska parliament, who accused them of negligence in their work as public servants and the inappropriate spending of public funds.
Stanivukovic acknowledged that the prosecutor's office asked to see some records and documentation regarding the tournament. He said he had nothing against the prosecutors doing their job, adding that all documents that the city has related to the construction are publicly available and have been discussed by the City Council.
"I know that we have worked perfectly and honestly and will continue to do so," Stanivukovic said.
The government of Republika Srpska also issued a statement saying the inspections of the documents were "acts prescribed by law."
It said Viskovic supports the arrival of Djokovic and other professional tennis players in Banja Luka but added that it appears this “bothers some people in Republika Srpska because they are trying in every way to minimize and compromise this great sports event, and therefore Banja Luka and Republika Srpska.”
Djordje Djokovic, the brother of the tennis star and one of the principal organizers of the Serbian Open, said on March 7 during a press conference that "neither construction permits nor politics” are part of his job as the tournament organizer.
With reporting by Goran Katic
Ukraine Condemns IOC Recommendations Allowing Russian, Belarusian Athletes To Compete As Neutrals
The Ukrainian Ministry of Youth and Sports has condemned what it called the "partial change of position" of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in international sports competitions.
The ministry statement on March 29 came a day after the executive board of the IOC recommended allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in international competitions as neutral athletes.
"We have consistently advocated and will continue to insist that under the conditions of the unprecedented, unprovoked military aggression of the Russian Federation with the support of Belarus against Ukraine, which contradicts the principles of the Olympic Charter, representatives of the aggressor states should not be present at international sports arenas," the ministry said in its statement.
The ministry also expressed regret that the IOC used concern expressed by UN special rapporteurs over discrimination solely on the basis of the nationality of athletes as an excuse to radically change its “previous well-argued position.”
The ministry added that it will continue to work on barring Russian and Belarusian athletes from international sports competitions, including the Olympics, as long as Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine continues.
The board’s six recommendations, issued on March 28 after a meeting at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, say that while they do not concern the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus in the 2024 Paris Olympics, their implementation will be monitored.
The recommendations include allowing Russians and Belarusians to compete as individual neutral athletes who could not display national symbols. The recommendations also bar teams from the two countries, athletes who actively support the war, and athletes who are "contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military."
The recommendations roll back sanctions imposed by the IOC in February 2022 recommending that international sports federations and organizers of sports events "not invite and not allow” Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials to international competitions.
The IOC board signaled two months ago that it wanted to find a pathway to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to qualify for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris and the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan.
The idea has been criticized by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and several of Ukraine’s allies. Ukraine has raised the possibility of boycotting the Olympics if Russian and Belarusian athletes are allowed to compete.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on March 29 he would work to build a coalition to seek the withdrawal of what he said was a "bad and wrong decision."
IOC President Thomas Bach has indicated he backs allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as individual neutral athletes. He said on March 28 that athletes should not be punished for their passports.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call that the IOC recommendations “were characterized as containing elements of discrimination, which is unacceptable." He added that Russia “will continue to defend the interests of our athletes in every possible way."
With reporting by Reuters
Missing Iranian Cleric Warns Of His Possible Detention, Death
Four months after the disappearance of Molavi Abdul Ghaffar Naqshbandi, the Sunni imam from the Iranian city of Rask in Sistan-Baluchistan Province who disclosed the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl by a local police commander, a video has surfaced in which he warns of the possibility that he may be "assassinated" or "apprehended."
Naqshbandi disappeared after he was summoned to a court in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad late last year. Since attending a court session in December, his whereabouts have been unknown and his family says they have no information on where he might be detained.
The news of the alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl by the Chabahar police commander sparked mass protests in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan. The protesters demanded accountability and were met with a violent and bloody response from security forces.
Almost 100 people were killed, and hundreds more injured by security forces in the unrest, which came on top of protests touched off by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Tehran's morality police for an alleged violation of the hijab law.
"If I am killed, those who did not tolerate my words, they are the cause of my murder," Naqshbandi says in the recording, released on his official Telegram social media channel.
He goes on in the video to mention the possibility he will be arrested and tortured.
"If they arrest and imprison me, because they have the power to arrest us again and again, they can also broadcast forced confessions from us in front of the television," he says, appearing to indicate any confession that may come out would not be of his own volition.
The date of the recording, which lasts about 4 minutes and 30 seconds, is not known. The post appeared on the site on March 28.
The disappearance of Naqshbandi came after an apparent attempt to discredit a top Sunni cleric by the local representative of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In December, a leaked document from the hard-line Fars news agency said Khamenei told security and military officials to try and disgrace Molavi Abdolhamid, a spiritual leader for Iran's Sunni Muslim population, who is a vocal critic of the government, instead of arresting him.
Another prominent Iranian Sunni cleric, Molavi Abdulmajid, is also among those to have been detained.
In a January 19 interview with RFE/RL, Abdulmajid criticized the government for generating an atmosphere of insecurity in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-Baluchistan Province and a hotbed of the protest movement, and said the protests in the city will continue.
The government has unleashed a brutal crackdown on the months of unrest -- one of the deepest challenges to the Islamic regime since the revolution in 1979 -- that erupted following the September 16 death of Amini.
Sunni Muslims make up a majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province and Kurdistan, but account for only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.
Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups. Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Eastern European Governments Urge Tech Firms To Fight Disinformation
Ukraine and seven other Central and Eastern European nations on March 29 called on the world's top tech firms to take action to fight disinformation by hostile powers on their social media platforms, which they say undermines peace and stability. In an open letter signed by their prime ministers, the countries said tech platforms such as Facebook should take concrete steps, including rejecting payments from sanctioned individuals and altering algorithms to promote accuracy over engagement. The letter was signed by the prime ministers of Ukraine, Moldova, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Zelenskiy Makes Surprise Trip To Zaporizhzhya, Meets IAEA Chief2
Zelenskiy Says Ukraine Is Preparing Next Steps As Battles In Eastern Regions Rage On3
Amnesty Report Says 'Hypocrisy' Of Western States Laid Bare By Russia's Invasion of Ukraine4
Fighting Rages Around Bakhmut As West Assails Kremlin Plan To Place Nukes In Belarus5
In Hungary, 'Deteriorating Relationship' Seen Behind Biden's Democracy Summit Snub6
Ukrainian Artillery Hunts Russian Howitzers As Battle For Bakhmut Grinds On7
'We Must Stop The Hatred': After More Than A Year Of War And Repression, A Few Russians Still Dare To Speak Out8
Interview: What Ukraine Wants From Russia May Be 'Moral,' But Is It 'Practical'?9
Live Briefing: Russia Invades Ukraine10
'Field Wife': Officers Make Life Hell For Women In Russia's Military, A Female Medic Says