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Serbia Bans Gay Parade, Other Gatherings

Police clashed with protesters during the gay pride parade in Belgrade in October 2010.
Serbian authorities have banned a gay rights parade in Belgrade as well as all other public gatherings this weekend fearing a repeat of the violence at last year's event.

"The ban was issued in line with the law on public gatherings which prescribes such a measure in cases of probable disruption of public transport, threats to public health or safety of people and property," Interior Minister Ivica Dacic said.

Traditionally conservative societies across the Balkans have been slow to accept open homosexuality and many gay rights events in the region have ended in violence.

Another government official said that Serbia's National Security Council, comprised of heads of police, security agencies, the military and President Boris Tadic, ordered police to cancel the event after security assessments indicated "extremely serious security threats."

"Our intelligence indicated hooligans are poised to attack gay activists, police, media, offices of political parties, foreign businesses, embassies and burn cars," the official said.

Goran Miletic, a human rights activist and an organizer of the pride parade, condemned the decision as a capitulation to hooligans, but said the rally would not go ahead.

"We are shocked," he said. "With this the state capitulated...a democratic state should be able to guarantee two hours of security to its citizens."

More than 100 policemen were injured last year and dozens of right-wing activists were arrested after trying to disrupt the parade.

Rioters attacked offices of the ruling coalition parties, set ablaze the headquarters of Tadic's Democratic Party, and caused widespread damage across the capital Belgrade.

Interior Minister Dacic, who heads the ruling Socialists, said the gay pride event posed a major security risk for ordinary people, property and police.

compiled from Reuters reports

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Rector Of Leading Economy Academy In Moscow Detained On Embezzlement Charges

Vladimir Mau is the rector of Russia's Academy of National Economy and State Service (file photo)

The rector of Russia's presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANKHiGS), Vladimir Mau, has been detained on embezzlement charges.

The Interior Ministry's Main Directorate for Moscow said on June 30 that Mau's arrest was linked to a high-profile fraud case launched last year against former Deputy Education Minister Marina Rakova and the director of the RANKHiGS's Institute of Social Studies, Sergei Zuyev.

Russian authorities said at the time that Rakova was suspected of embezzling 50 million rubles ($950,000) from the ministry.

Mau's pretrial restrictions will be decided by a court in Moscow within 48 hours.

Based on reporting by Interfax and TASS

International Court Issues Warrants For Three War Crimes Suspects Linked To Russia-Georgia War

The International Criminal Court in The Hague says there are "reasonable grounds" to believe that each of the three suspects "bears responsibility for war crimes."

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has issued arrest warrants for three people wanted on suspicion of committing war crimes during the 2008 Russia-Georgia War.

The court said on June 30 that the arrest warrants were issued for Lieutenant General Mikhail Mindzayev, Gamlet Guchmazov, and David Sanakoyev, who served in the separatist government of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The statement said that its judges ruled six days earlier that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that each of these three suspects bears responsibility for war crimes.”

"There are reasonable grounds to believe that civilians perceived to be ethnically Georgian were arrested in the South Ossetian part of Georgia, and subsequently detained, mistreated, and kept in harsh detention conditions in a detention center in Tskhinvali, before being used as a bargaining tool by Russia and the South Ossetian de facto authorities, and used for an exchange of prisoners and detainees," the statement said.

"As a result of the exchange, the detainees were forced to leave South Ossetia."

The court launched an investigation in 2016 into the war that claimed hundreds of lives and left thousands of people displaced.

Last year, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg concluded that “grave human rights abuses” occurred in South Ossetia, which is currently controlled by Russia.

Mindzayev and Guchmazov served as top officials of the breakaway South Ossetia's separatist government's de facto Interior Ministry, while Sanakoyev was the region's de facto presidential representative for human rights.

Mindzayev and Guchmazov face charges of unlawful confinement, torture and inhuman treatment, outrages against personal dignity, hostage-taking, and the unlawful transfer of civilians both during and after the five-day war that erupted on August 8, 2008.

Sanakoyev, meanwhile, faces charges of hostage-taking and the unlawful transfer of civilians.

Russia recognized South Ossetia and Georgia’s other breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent countries after the 2008 war and has maintained thousands of troops in both regions since then.

With reporting by AFP and AP

Poland Finishes Construction Of Wall On Belarusian Border To Keep Migrants Out

The wall at the Polish-Belarusian border stretches for 186 kilometers. (file photo)

Poland says it has completed a steel wall stretching along the border with Belarus to stop the flow of illegal migrants after tens of thousands, mostly from the Middle East, tried to enter the EU-member state from the Belarusian territory last year.

Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said on June 30 that the construction of the 5.5 meter-high, 186 kilometer-long steel wall will "separate us from the bleak dictatorship of (Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr) Lukashenka," whom the West blames for funneling the influx of migrants.

Poland and other European Union states say Lukashenka orchestrated the migrant crisis along with his ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in retaliation for sanctions imposed on him and his regime for a brutal crackdown on dissent after mass protests over a disputed August 2020 presidential election handed Lukashenka a sixth term in power.

Poland had set up a no-access zone at the border, which expires on June 30, banning nonresidents, including migrants, aid workers, and media from the area. The emergency order will not be renewed.

At least 12 people died at the Polish-Belarusian border, where migrants and refugees faced harsh, freezing conditions during the winter.

Iranian Court Rejects Twitter Activist's Appeal For Conviction On Insulting Supreme Leader

Iranian activist Hossein Shanbehzadeh (file photo)

Hossein Shanbehzadeh, a literary editor and Twitter activist, says an Iranian court has denied the appeal of his prison sentence for insulting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni.

Shanbehzadeh wrote on June 30 that his six-year prison sentence has been upheld for being convicted of "insulting the sanctities and the leader of the Islamic republic."

Shanbehzadeh -- who was sentenced on September 12 -- posted the appellate court's verdict, which says he will have to serve 3 and 1/2 years of the sentence.

In a note to his friends and online followers, Shanbehzadeh said the most important thing to him is having freedom of expression, which he said he never gave up in writing online. He urged people to "not give up and to be free," adding that "the government has destroyed my life and future."

Shanbehzadeh concluded his note saying: "Hopefully one day we will all be free [and] no prison [will be] greater than ignorance and oppression."

There has been an increased crackdown on online activists in Iran in recent weeks.

On June 29, Vida Rabbani, a journalist and online activist, announced on Twitter that she had been sentenced to five years in prison with some of the time suspended.

The crackdown comes as pensioners and other labor groups have been protesting about the poor economic situation in the country, blaming the government for spiraling inflation, high unemployment, and failing to deliver on pledges to increase wages and improve living conditions.

The government's response to the protests has been arrests, violence, and the repression of participants.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Noted Bashkir Activist Held In Greece, Faces Deportation To Russia

Bashkir activist Tahir Minnebayev (file photo)

A well-known Bashkir activist who fled Russia fearing persecution over his activities raising awareness about problems faced by Muslims in the country has been held in a deportation center in Greece for almost two months, where authorities tell him they may deport him back to Russia.

After fleeing Russia in 2014, Tahir Minnebayev eventually settled in Ukraine, where he stayed until late February this year when he, his wife, and their four children had to leave the country for Germany after Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of its western neighbor.

Minnebayev told RFE/RL on June 30 that he was detained in Greece in May without any explanation while he was collecting humanitarian aid for children in Ukraine.

Minnebayev said that, after his initial campaign in April to collect aid in Germany for Ukrainian children was successful, he decided to organize more collections and traveled to Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Greece, and Turkey on aid missions.

"When I was going to leave Greece for Turkey on a ferry, Greek border guards detained me," the 40-year-old activist said.

"I don't know why I was detained. All my papers are in order."

Along with his valid travel documents and a valid German visa that allows him to travel across Schengen zone member-states, including Greece, Minnebayev says he also has a document confirming that he is under the protection of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. However, Greek authorities ignored that document, Minnebayev says.

"I tried to explain them that I may face imprisonment or even death in Russia. They then told me to file a political asylum request in Greece, but I already filed such a request in Germany, where my wife and little children are now. They then said they will deport me to Russia if I do not officially ask for political asylum in Greece," Minnebayev said.

According to Minnebayev, he asked the Ukrainian Embassy in Greece for legal assistance given he was in the country collecting humanitarian aid for Ukrainian children. However, he says, Ukrainian diplomats told him that they cannot provide him with any legal assistance as he is not a Ukrainian citizen.

Iranian President Wants Increased Trade With Russia To Bypass Western Financial Systems

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meet on the sidelines of the Caspian Summit in Turkmenistan on June 29.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said in a meeting with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that he wants to expand bilateral trade with Moscow and make it independent of the Western financial exchange system.

Raisi -- who met with Putin on the sidelines of the sixth summit of the Caspian Sea's littoral states in Turkmenistan on June 29 -- added that an independent financial system would make it "impossible for any country to exert influence or pressure on it."

Iran has been under intense economic pressure from the West and the United States for years over its nuclear program. Russia has likewise been hit hard by international sanctions because of its February invasion of Ukraine.

Amid the hardships, Raisi announced there has been an increase in trade and economic relations between the two countries in recent months and said Iran seeks engagement with Russia within the framework of a "strategic relationship."

During the meeting, Putin stressed the security cooperation between Moscow and Tehran.

"We are in constant contact on political and security matters, including in critical areas of Syria," said Putin.

Russia and Iran have solid ties and are key allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in it's decade-long civil war.

Moscow is also a signatory to the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and five world powers under which Tehran was granted sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Biden Pledges Allied Support For Ukraine For 'As Long As It Takes'

U.S. President Joe Biden talks to reporters in Madrid on June 30.

President Joe Biden says the United States and its allies will continue to support Ukraine in its war against Russia for "as long as it takes" to make sure it is victorious.

"We are going to stick with Ukraine, and all of the alliance are going to stick with Ukraine, as long as it takes to make sure they are not defeated by Russia," Biden told a news conference at the end of a NATO summit in Madrid on June 30.

"Ukraine has already dealt a severe blow to Russia," Biden said, adding that he did not "know how it's going to end, but it will not end with a Russian defeat of Ukraine."

Biden said that as part of its commitment to Ukraine, the United States plans to announce more than $800 million more" for air defense, artillery, counter battery systems and other weaponry. He did not say when the announcement will come.

Iran Says Nuclear Deal Still Possible Even If Doha Talks With U.S. Failed To Progress

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (file photo)

Iran's Foreign Ministry says it is still possible to overcome differences and reach an agreement to salvage a 2015 nuclear pact between Tehran and world powers even though the United States said the most-recent indirect talks failed to make progress.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian tweeted on June 30 that, despite a failure to reach an agreement in two days of talks that ended on June 29, "we are ready to reach a good, robust and lasting deal."

The comments follow the talks in Doha, where EU envoys bounced between negotiating teams from Washington and Tehran as they sought a breakthrough that would kickstart broader talks that broke down in March.

Since then, Iran has shut off the surveillance cameras of international inspectors at its nuclear facilities and now has enough high-enriched uranium to potentially make at least one nuclear bomb if it chose to do so.

Both sides blamed each other for the lack of progress in Doha, with Washington saying Iran continues to raise issues "wholly unrelated" to the deal, while Tehran says the Washington's insistence on excluding any guarantee for Iran's economic benefits was the main impediment.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last week traveled to Tehran in a push to resuscitate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. EU countries have been forced to find oil suppliers other than Russia as they seek to lower their reliance on Russian energy amid the war in Ukraine.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to limits on its controversial nuclear program in exchange for relief from punitive sanctions imposed by the West. But the arrangement began to fall apart in 2018 when then-President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the deal.

Washington subsequently reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, while the Iranian government backed away from some of the commitments laid out in the deal.

Iran has been engaged for more than a year in negotiations in Vienna with Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China directly -- and the United States indirectly -- to revive the deal.

Negotiators were reportedly close to a new agreement in March, but the talks abruptly stalled in April, with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for failing to take the necessary political decisions to settle remaining issues.

One of them is Tehran's insistence that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps from its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Iranian 'Clubhouse' Journalist Handed Prison Term

Iranian journalist Vida Rabbani (file photo)

Iranian journalist Vida Rabbani says she has been sentenced to five years in prison, with two of the years being suspended.

Rabbani wrote on Twitter that she had been charged with "insulting sacred things, disturbing public order, inciting violent behavior, and conspiracy to commit a crime against national security."

Rabbani says she is banned from engaging in professional activities for five years, including on social media. She says she is also not allowed to engage in political activity or participate in "gatherings."

She was arrested several times in recent years, including last year for managing a popular room on the Clubhouse social media network, and said the Intelligence Ministry had threatened her and other room managers with five years in prison if they continued their activities.

An audio-based, social-media application, Clubhouse has become a major platform for dialogue among Iranians who join virtual chat rooms to hear from analysts, journalists, and dissidents. Many also joined Clubhouse virtual rooms during last year's presidential campaign to follow debates and listen to analysis.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Parole-Like Sentence Of Pussy Riot Member Shtein Changed To Prison Term

Lyusya Shtein

A court in Moscow has replaced the one-year parole-like sentence handed to Lyusya Shtein, a member of the Pussy Riot protest group and a Moscow municipal lawmaker, to actual prison time, saying she violated the terms of her punishment when she fled the country.

The Presnensky district court on June 30 approved the request made by the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) to change the sentence Shtein was handed in August 2021. She was sentenced for publicly calling for the violation of coronavirus safety precautions because she urged people to participate in unsanctioned rallies to support jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.

The court ruled that Shtein must spend 31 days in prison, which is the remaining part of her term.

In mid-May, the Interior Ministry said it had added Shtein to its registry of wanted persons because she left the country in April, violating her sentence.

Several of Navalny's supporters and associates have been convicted on similar charges and were handed restricted freedom sentences. Many subsequently fled Russia and had their parole-like sentences replaced with actual prison terms.

With reporting by Interfax

Canadian Man Admits To Hacking Spree With Russian Cybergang

The NetWalker group, with some 100 members, operated a ransomware-as-a-service criminal business, offering its malicious software and an extortion website to hacker affiliates. (illustrative photo)

A former Canadian government IT worker has admitted to taking part in a hacking spree with a Russian cybercrime group.

Media reports quoted U.S. court documents on June 29 as saying that Sebastien Vachon-Desjardins agreed to plead guilty in a Florida court last month, admitting that he was affiliated with the NetWalker ransomware crew that has attacked organizations, businesses, official entities, schools, and hospitals in Canada, the United States, and other countries.

The NetWalker group, with some 100 members, operated a ransomware-as-a-service criminal business, offering its malicious software and an extortion website to hacker affiliates.

Analysts say the leaders of the group, who are still at large, communicate in Russian online and ensure that their malware does not infect Russian computer systems, or those of former Soviet republics.

Vachon-Desjardins was arrested by Canadian police in January 2021. Police seized dozens of computers and storage devices, 719 Bitcoin worth approximately $27 million, and 790,000 Canadian dollars ($613,500) in cash during his arrest.

He was extradited to Florida in March after being sentenced to seven years in prison in Canada on charges of mischief in relation to computer data, extortion, unauthorized use of a computer, and participating in a criminal organization.

According to Florida court documents, Vachon-Desjardins pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to commit computer fraud and one count of transmitting a demand in relation to damaging a protected computer.

Vachon-Desjardins agreed to forfeit about $21.5 million from the proceeds of the crimes, along with 27.65 Bitcoins, and cooperate with other investigations as part of a plea agreement where he accepted that he "was one of the most prolific NetWalker ransomware affiliates."

He will be sentenced at a later date and could face 10 years in prison, the court documents said.

With reporting by the BBC and CBC

Noted Russian Lawyer Sent To Pretrial Detention Over Critical Comments About Ukraine Invasion

Dmitry Talantov (file photo)

The chairman of the attorneys chamber in Russia's Republic of Udmurtia, Dmitry Talantov, has been sent to pretrial detention over his criticism of the Kremlin for its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The Cheryomushki district court in Moscow ruled on June 29 that Talantov must stay in pretrial detention until at least August 21.

Talantov was detained in the Udmurt capital, Izhevsk, on June 28 and transferred to Moscow after he criticized the government and military forces over a deadly strike on a shopping mall in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk.

Talantov has been accused of distributing false information about the Russian armed forces. Earlier in April, Talantov also harshly criticized Russian military forces for killing civilians in the Ukrainian towns and cities of Irpin, Bucha, and Mariupol.

Talantov's lawyers asked the court to choose milder pretrial restrictions for their client, but the court rejected the request, saying Talantov, as an experienced lawyer, would be able to influence the investigation while outside of custody.

Talantov is the lawyer for Ivan Safronov, a prominent former Russian journalist who is on trial in Moscow on a high treason charge widely considered to be politically motivated.

At least 18 people died in the missile strike in Kremenchuk, which leaders from the Group of Seven (G7) nations called a "war crime."

Russia has denied it targeted the mall, saying it launched a "high-precision strike" on a nearby munitions depot and that subsequent explosions from the attack sparked the blaze at the shopping center.

Updated

Ukraine Says It Has Retaken Infamous Snake Island; Russia Says It Withdrew For 'Goodwill'

A view of Snake Island in a still image obtained by Reuters on June 30.

Ukraine says its forces have forced Russian troops off Snake Island in the Black Sea, a claim Russia denied, with Moscow saying it withdrew its forces as a "gesture of goodwill" to show the country isn't impeding efforts to allow the export of agricultural products.

"KABOOM! No Russian troops on the Snake Island anymore. Our Armed Forces did a great job," Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office, wrote on Twitter, along with a a photo showing plumes of smoke rising from several parts of the a small but strategic outpost that was captured by Russia in the early days of its invasion.


The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed its troops had left the island, which it had been using as an outpost to supply anti-ship and antiaircraft missiles as well as radar systems to its forces, saying the withdrawal came after soldiers stationed there had carried out all of the duties they were tasked with.

Control of Snake Island, located about 40 kilometers from Ukraine’s coast, had enabled Russia to threaten the sea lanes leading to and from Odesa, Ukraine’s main port for shipping grain to the world.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the retaking of the island as "evidence of the amazing ability of the Ukrainians to fight back to overcome adversity and to repel the Russians."

"In the end, it will prove impossible for Putin to hold down a country that will not accept his rule," Johnson told a news conference at the NATO summit in Madrid.

The island became a symbol of resistance for Ukraine when border guards stationed on it refused Russian demands to surrender or die.

In response, one border guard sent a message to the Russian flagship, the Moskva: "Russian warship, go f*** yourself."

The Russian ship then bombed the island. It is not clear how many died in the attack, but the soldier who sent the message survived.

The Moskva, the command-and-control ship for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, later sunk after what Kyiv says was a Ukrainian attack.

European Rights Court Tells Russia To Ensure Two Britons Captured In Ukraine Aren't Executed

Aiden Aslin (left), Saaudun Brahim (center), and Shaun Pinner sit behind bars in a courtroom in Donetsk on June 9.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has issued interim measures instructing Russia to hold off on carrying out any capital punishment against two Britons who surrendered after they fought alongside Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine.

Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, along with Moroccan national Saaudun Brahim, were sentenced to death on June 9 for "mercenary activities" by what Russia-backed separatists called the Supreme Court of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

"The European Court decided to indicate to the Russian government...should...ensure that the death penalty imposed on the applicants is not carried out," the judgment, issued on June 30, said.

It also called on Russian authorities to ensure the rights of the two prisoners were respected since they were part of Ukraine's armed forces, lived in Ukraine, and considered the country to be their home.

Aslin's family has said he and Pinner were living in Ukraine when the war broke out in February and "as members of Ukrainian armed forces, should be treated with respect just like any other prisoners of war."

Britain, the United Nations, Ukraine, and Germany have condemned the death sentences.

The court had previously granted similar interim measures for Brahim. His father has said that his son is also a Ukrainian citizen and his rights as a prisoner of war should be respected.

Russia-Appointed Official Says Grain Shipment Left Ukraine's Berdyansk For 'Friendly Countries'

The port of Berdyansk as seen in March.

A merchant ship with 7,000 tons of grain has left the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Berdyansk, the first such shipment from the port since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February.

Evgeny Balitsky, the head of the Moscow-appointed administration in the Zaporizhzhya region, said on Telegram on June 30 that the ship is headed for "friendly countries."

He did not specify which countries were considered "friendly," nor did he give any details on the origins of the grain.

Ukraine has accused Russia of stealing its grain during the invasion and blockading its ports to keep grain from leaving the country, which has helped contribute to a global food shortage.

Moscow has denied taking Ukrainian grain, but satellite images and GPS data have been used to back up the allegations that Russia has been transporting grain out of Ukraine through the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.

Satellite Images Show Russia Shipping Grain From Occupied Ukraine To Syria
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Grain is one of Ukraine's main industries. Exports totaled $12.2 billion last year and accounted for nearly one-fifth of the country's exports. Ukraine's Black Sea ports, including Berdyansk, handled about 6 million tons of grains and other crops each month before the war.

Russia and Ukraine together, meanwhile, account for nearly one-third of the world's wheat supply.

Many areas of southern Ukraine have been placed under the control of Russia-appointed officials since Moscow launched its war against Ukraine on February 24. Some of those areas are now being forcefully integrated into Russia's economy.

In the weeks following the invasion, many Western countries and the European Union slapped crippling sanctions on Russia, which in turn created a list of "unfriendly" foreign state and territories.

Updated

Ukraine Takes Control Of Snake Island, Fighting Rages In Lysychansk

Control of Snake Island, located about 40 kilometers from Ukraine’s coast, had enabled Russia to threaten the sea lanes leading to and from Odesa, Ukraine’s main port for shipping grain to the world. (file photo)

Ukraine says its forces have forced Russian troops off Snake Island in the Black Sea, a claim Russia denied with Moscow calling it a withdrawal of its forces as a "gesture of goodwill" to show the country isn't impeding efforts to allow the export of agricultural products.

The report came on June 30 as a Moscow-appointed official in the Zaporizhzhya region said a shipment of grain had left the Ukrainian port city of Berdyansk, which is under Russian control.

Control of Snake Island, located about 40 kilometers from Ukraine’s coast, had enabled Russia to threaten the sea lanes leading to and from Odesa, Ukraine’s main port for shipping grain to the world.

The island became symbol of resistance for Ukraine when border guards stationed on it refused Russian demands that they surrender or die and its return is seen as a major victory.

"KABOOM! No Russian troops on the Snake Island anymore. Our Armed Forces did a great job," Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office, wrote on Twitter along with a a photo showing plumes of smoke rising from several parts of the small outpost that was captured by Russia in the early days of its invasion.


The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed its troops had left the island, which it had been using as an outpost to supply anti-ship and antiaircraft missiles as well as radar systems to its forces, saying the withdrawal came after soldiers stationed there had carried out all of the duties they were tasked with.

It also called the move a "gesture of goodwill" to show Russian isn't impeding efforts to allow the export of agricultural products on a day when Yevgeny Balitsky, the head of the Moscow-appointed administration in the Zaporizhzhya region, said on Telegram that a merchant ship with 7,000 tons of grain had left Berdyansk for "friendly countries." He did not elaborate.

Meanwhile, Lysychansk continued to be targeted by heavy Russian artillery fire, with regional officials saying the last major Ukrainian holdout in the east was subjected to "enormous" bombardment, while Russian forces also shelled civilian settlements in the Dnipropetrovsk region.

The head of the military administration of the Luhansk region, Serhiy Hayday, said Lysychansk "is constantly being shelled" by Russian forces attempting to encircle the strategic hilltop city -- a key battleground in Moscow's attempt to conquer Ukraine's industrial heartland known as the Donbas.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians and refugees, and Western aid and reaction. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

After weeks of fighting that killed hundreds of civilians and turned the city into rubble, Moscow took control of neighboring Syevyerodonetsk and is now setting its sights on Lysychansk.

"The fighting is continuing at the outskirts of the city. The Russian Army is trying to attack constantly," Hayday told Ukrainian television, later posting the video on his Telegram channel.

"Now there is a peak of fighting. The frequency of shelling is enormous," Hayday said, adding that there are still about 15,000 civilians remaining in the city, which had a prewar population of nearly 100,000.

The Russians "brought in large numbers of vehicles, an enormous number of people. Shelling and attacks do not stop," Hayday said.

Britain's Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence bulletin on June 30 that the fighting in Lysychansk is likely focused around the city's oil refinery, some 10 kilometers southwest of the center, adding that Ukrainian forces continue to hold their positions in the city following their withdrawal from Syevyerodonetsk.

In the Dnipropetrovsk region, Russian forces shelled the villages of Zelenodolsk and Velyka Kostromka, the head of the regional military administration, Valentyn Reznichenko, said.

"The enemy continues to terrorize the towns and villages of the Kryvyi Rih district.... In Zelenodolsk, the enemy destroyed a warehouse containing 40 tons of grain. The explosion caused a fire," Reznichenko wrote on Telegram.

British intelligence said the ability of Ukrainian forces to continue fighting battles that slow down the enemy and avoid encirclement will continue to be a key factor in the outcome of the war.

But the U.S. director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, said on June 29 that the outlook remains "pretty grim" and said Russian President Vladimir Putin still wants to take most of Ukraine.

With Ukraine a main topic, leaders of the NATO military alliance ended a three-day summit in Madrid saying one result of Russia's war is that it has seen a strengthening of the group and European security as a whole.

During the historic meeting, NATO officially extended invitations to Sweden and Finland to become members, branded Russia as the alliance's most "direct threat," and vowed to modernize Ukraine's military to allow it to fight Russia.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, CNN, and BBC

Ukraine Cuts Diplomatic Ties With Syria After It Recognizes Eastern Regions As Independent

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Kremlin in Moscow on September 13.

Ukraine cut diplomatic ties with Syria on June 29 after Damascus recognized the independence of the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced the decision on June 29 in a video posted on Telegram.

"There will no longer be relations between Ukraine and Syria," Zelenskiy said, adding that the sanctions pressure against Syria "will be even greater."

Donetsk and Luhansk, commonly known as the Donbas, currently are at the center of the fighting in the war Moscow launched in February shortly after recognizing their separatist-controlled districts as independent.

Parts of Luhansk and Donetsk came under Russia-backed separatists' control after Russia illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Leonid Pasechnik, the Luhansk separatist leader, thanked Syria and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for what he called the “courageous and responsible political gesture” of recognizing Luhansk as an independent and sovereign country, according to TASS.

Syria, a close ally of Russia and a beneficiary of Russian military assistance in its civil war, is the first state other than Russia to recognize the two separatist regions.

Syria has previously sided with Russia in territorial disputes. It agreed in 2018 to recognize Abkhazia and a second breakaway Georgian region, South Ossetia, as independent countries. That move prompted Tbilisi to cut diplomatic ties with Damascus.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and TASS

Former Giuliani Associate Sentenced To 20 Months For Fraud, Campaign Finance Violations

Lev Parnas (file photo)

A Ukrainian-born associate of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been sentenced to one year and eight months in prison for fraud and campaign finance crimes.

Lev Parnas, 50, was also ordered to pay $2.3 million in restitution.

Prosecutors in New York City had sought a six-year sentence. Parnas asked for leniency based on his cooperation with a probe into President Donald Trump's efforts to get Ukrainian officials to investigate President Joe Biden’s son.

Addressing the court before the sentence was announced, Parnas sobbed and apologized to people who had lost money investing in his business ventures.

“A lot that you heard is true, your honor,” Parnas told the judge. “I have not been a good person my whole life. I’ve made mistakes. And I admit it.”

The criminal case against Parnas was not directly related to his work for Giuliani as he lobbied Ukrainian officials in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election in 2016 to investigate Biden's son, who served on the board of a Kyiv-based natural gas company.

Instead, it focused on donations Parnas illegally made to a number of U.S. politicians using money from Russian businessman Andrei Muravyov while lying about the source of the money. U.S. law bars foreign individuals from contributing to political campaigns.

Parnas in March pleaded guilty to a separate charge involving an insurance startup that he conned people into investing in and then used much of the money for campaign contributions.

Igor Fruman, a business associate of Parnas who also worked for Giuliani, was sentenced earlier this year to one year in prison for campaign finance law violations. The Soviet-born Fruman also expressed remorse for his crimes.

Giuliani, who served as a personal lawyer to Trump, has said he knew nothing about the crimes and has not been charged.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Ukraine Announces Prisoner Swap Of 144 Soldiers, Some Captured At Azovstal Steelworks

A view of the prisoner exchange on a road near Zaporizhzhya on June 29 in a photo provided by Ukraine's Military Intelligence.

Ukraine's Defense Ministry has announced a prisoner exchange involving 144 Ukrainian soldiers, including scores of defenders of the Azovstal steelworks in the southern port city of Mariupol.

"This is the largest exchange since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion. Of the 144 freed, 95 are Azovstal defenders. Among them, 43 servicemen of the Azov Regiment," the main intelligence directorate of the Defense Ministry said on June 29 on Telegram.

It did not specify when and where the swap took place or how many Russian prisoners were part of the exchange.

The head of a Russia-backed separatist group in Ukraine’s Donetsk region also reported a prisoner exchange with Kyiv, saying the number of fighters exchanged was 144 on each side.

Denis Pushilin said 144 Russia-backed separatists and Russian soldiers would return home as part of the exchange.

"We handed over to Kyiv the same number of prisoners from Ukrainian armed units. Most of whom were wounded,” Pushilin said on Telegram.

There had been concerns over the fate of Ukrainian soldiers taken prisoner by Russian forces after they abandoned the Azovstal steel complex in Mariupol.

Some prominent Russian lawmakers last month said there should be no exchange of members of the Azov Regiment, which Russia considers a neo-Nazi organization.

Russia said some 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers had been taken into custody when it took over the steel plant. Pushilin said at the time he thought the prisoners would face a “tribunal.”

Ukrainian officials and relatives of the soldiers had urged Moscow to treat the men as prisoners of war, and Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshuk said that Kyiv would fight for their return.

Moscow and Kyiv have exchanged prisoners several times since Russia invaded on February 24.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Zelenskiy Says He May Attend G20 Summit In Bali (Depending On Who Else Is Invited)

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (right) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy shake hands during Widodo's visit to Kyiv on June 29.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says he has accepted an invitation to attend the autumn G20 summit in Bali, but his participation will depend on which leaders are also attending, a thinly veiled reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Following talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Kyiv on June 29, Zelenskiy said Ukraine's participation "will depend on the security situation in the country and on the composition of the summit's participants."

Indonesia, which holds the G20's rotating presidency this year, has come under pressure from several Western nations not to invite Putin over the war he launched in February against Ukraine.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi says Widodo told him Putin's presence at the summit on the tropical island in November has been ruled out, but Putin's adviser, Yury Ushakov, said Draghi does not decide issues related to the G20 summit.

Widodo will travel to Moscow on June 30, where he'll meet Putin.

As have many other developing nations, Indonesia has been neutral in the issue of Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which was launched on February 24.

G20 nations make up about 80 percent of world's total economic output.

With reporting by AFP and dpa

Russian Prosecutor Seeks 11 Years For Opera Singer Over 2020 Coronavirus-Related Rally In North Ossetia

Vadim Cheldiyev (file photo)

The prosecution has asked a court in Russia’s southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don to convict and sentence opera singer Vadim Cheldiyev to 11 years in prison for his role in organizing a massive rally against coronavirus restrictions in the entertainer’s native North Ossetia region in 2020.

The prosecutor also asked the Rostov regional court on June 29 to convict and sentence Cheldiyev's co-defendants, Ramis Chirkinov and Arsen Besolov, to nine years in prison each.

Cheldiyev is charged with distribution of false information about the pandemic, extremism, hooliganism, organization of mass disorder, and attacking a law enforcement officer. His co-defendants are charged with organizing an unsanctioned rally and mass disorder.

The trio went on trial in October. All three pleaded not guilty.

On April 20, 2020, police in Russia's North Caucasus region of North Ossetia detained dozens of protesters when about 2,000 people gathered in the central square of the regional capital, Vladikavkaz, demanding the resignation of then-regional leader Vyacheslav Bitarov, accusing him of “unnecessary anti-COVID restrictions.”

The rally was violently dispersed by police.

The protest was initiated online by Cheldiyev, who permanently resided in St. Petersburg at the time.

Cheldiyev was detained in St. Petersburg after the rally in Vladikavkaz and brought to North Ossetia, where he was arrested and charged.

Dozens of participants in the 2020 protest were sentenced to lengthy prison terms at separate trials since last year.

Relatives Of Jailed Labor Activists In Iran Say Security Agents Are Threatening Them

Trade union rallies in Iran demanding the release of imprisoned teachers and workers.

Many relatives of civic and labor activists detained in Iran say security agents are issuing threats if they don't remain silent about their loved ones' cases.

The families of Jafar Ebrahimi, Anisha Asadollahi, Rasul Badaghi, Mohammad Habibi, Hassan Saeedi, Reza Shahabi, Eskandar Lotfi, Shaban Mohammadi, Keyvan Mohtadi, and Massud Nikkhah -- activists who have been detained due to their participation in labor protests -- wrote about the threats in an open letter.

"In the past two months, not only has the pressure on our loved ones not ended, but prison officials have banned us from visiting them," they wrote.

Citing what they called the "negligence" of judicial officials in these cases, the signatories of the letter said the authorities told them that "if they do not remain silent, the situation will become more complicated."

The signatories called for an "immediate cessation of false allegations" and an "end to repeated, derogatory, and threatening interrogations."

"There is no justification for the continued detention of these activists," they said, adding that "threats and insults from prison officials and interrogators in dealing with detainees and their families are a clear example of persecution."

In May, security forces raided the homes of cultural and labor activists, arresting many of them and sending them to the notorious Evin prison.

UN human rights experts have previously expressed serious concern about the “violent repression” of civil society in Iran, including union members and teachers arrested for protesting low or unpaid wages and poor working conditions.

Labor protests in Iran have been on the rise in response to declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of insurance support. The labor law in Iran does not recognize the right of workers to form independent unions.

At the same time, pensioners and other groups have been protesting in recent months about the poor economic situation in the country, blaming the government for spiraling inflation, high unemployment, and failing to deliver on pledges to increase wages and improve living conditions.

The government's response to the protests has been arrests, violence, and repression of participants.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Iranian Court Confirms Long Prison Sentence For Espionage For French National Briere

Benjamin Briere (file photo)

A court in Iran has denied an appeal by French citizen Benjamin Briere and confirmed his prison sentence of eight years and eight months for espionage, a charge he and his family have rejected.

Briere’s Iranian lawyer, Saeid Dehghan, announced on Twitter on June 28 that the court had declared France a "hostile state."

The 37-year-old French tourist had traveled to Iran in a van in May 2020 and was arrested after flying a drone on the plains near the Iran-Turkmenistan border.

The trial lasted until February last year, when the Islamic republic's judiciary finally sentenced him to eight years and eight months in prison on charges of "espionage" and "propaganda against the regime."

At the time, Dehghan stated that he had been "accused of collaborating with governments hostile to Iran," while his client "was unaware of his new charge."

AFP quoted Briere's sister, Blandine, as saying the trial was "a masquerade" and part of a geopolitical game Tehran is playing.

Briere is one of more than a dozen foreign nationals or people with dual Iranian citizenship being held in Iran. Two other French nationals -- 37-year-old Cecile Kohler and her 69-year-old partner, Jacques Paris -- have also been detained in Iran, accused of seeking to foment labor unrest in the country.

Western countries have repeatedly charged that Iran is trying to take advantage of foreign countries by taking dual and foreign nationals hostage.

The verdict also comes as Iran and world powers are seeking to reach agreement on reviving the 2015 deal over Tehran's nuclear program.

Negotiators from the United States and Iran are expected to hold indirect talks in Qatar on June 29 as they look to overcome hurdles to reaching a final agreement.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Iran Nuclear Talks In Qatar Proceeding, Iran Says, Denying Report They'd Ended

Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani (right), and Enrique Mora, the European coordinator of the talks

The Iranian Foreign Ministry says indirect talks between Tehran and Washington in Qatar are continuing, denying an Iranian media report that they had ended.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said the two-day talks were not over and that another meeting would be held later on June 29 between Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, and Enrique Mora, the European coordinator of the talks.

"Talks continue in a serious and businesslike atmosphere," Kanani said.

The talks are aimed at overcoming differences over how to salvage a 2015 nuclear pact between Iran and world powers.

Iran's semiofficial Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), reported earlier that the negotiations in Doha had ended without result.

The talks started on June 28 with Mora as the coordinator shuttling between Kani and U.S. special envoy Robert Malley.

"What prevented these negotiations from coming to fruition is the U.S. insistence on its proposed draft text in Vienna that excludes any guarantee for Iran's economic benefits," Tasnim said, citing informed sources at the talks.

“Washington is seeking to revive the [deal] in order to limit Iran without economic achievement for our country,” the report claimed.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on June 27 that the talks would focus on the lifting of U.S. sanctions.

The talks are separate from broader EU-mediated negotiations that have taken place in Vienna between Iran and major powers.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last week traveled to Tehran in a push to resuscitate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. EU countries have been forced to find oil suppliers other than Russia as they seek to lower their reliance on Russian energy amid the war in Ukraine.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to limits on its controversial nuclear program in exchange for relief from punitive sanctions imposed by the West. But the arrangement began to fall apart in 2018 when then- U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the deal.

Washington subsequently reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, while the Iranian government backed away from some of the commitments laid out in the deal.

Iran has been engaged for more than a year in negotiations in Vienna with Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China directly -- and the United States, indirectly -- to revive the deal.

Negotiators were reportedly close to a new agreement in March, but the talks abruptly stalled in April, with Tehran and Washington blaming each other for failing to take the necessary political decisions to settle remaining issues.

One of them is Tehran's insistence that Washington remove the IRGC from its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Moscow City Court Rejects Opposition Politician Kara-Murza's Appeal Against Pretrial Arrest

Vladimir Kara-Murza (file photo)

The Moscow City Court has rejected an appeal filed by prominent Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza against a lower court decision to place him in pretrial detention after he was arrested for allegedly spreading false information about the Russian Army.

Kara-Murza tweeted on June 29 that the hearing was held behind closed doors under the pretext that the judge did not want to disclose information about the politician's family residing abroad. Journalists were present only for the handing down of the court's decision.

The 40-year Kremlin critic was detained in April and sentenced to 15 days in jail on a charge of disobedience to police. He was later charged with spreading false information about the Russian Army and placed in pretrial detention for two months.

On June 8, the Basmanny district court extended Kara-Murza's pretrial detention until at least August 12.

Russia's Investigative Committee is conducting a probe into allegations that Kara-Murza distributed false information about the army while speaking to lawmakers in the U.S. state of Arizona.

Kara-Murza has rejected the charge, calling it politically motivated.

His arrest came amid a mounting crackdown by Russian authorities on opposition figures and any dissent to the ongoing war in Ukraine that Moscow launched against its neighbor on February 24.

In early March, President Vladimir Putin signed a law that calls for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations.

The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of "deliberately false information" about the Russian Army that leads to "serious consequences" is 15 years in prison.

It also makes it illegal "to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia" or "for discrediting such use" with a possible penalty of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calls for sanctions against Russia.

A close associate of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Kara-Murza is best known for falling deathly ill on two separate occasions in Moscow -- in 2015 and 2017-- with symptoms consistent with poisoning.

Tissue samples smuggled out of Russia by his relatives were turned over to the FBI, which investigated his case as one of "intentional poisoning."

U.S. government laboratories also conducted extensive tests on the samples, but documents released by the Justice Department suggest they were unable to reach a conclusive finding.

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