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Slovak Minister Resigns Amid Protests Over Journalist’s Murder

Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kalinak announcing his resignation on March 12.
Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kalinak announcing his resignation on March 12.

Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kalinak says he has decided to resign amid political tensions sparked by the murder of an investigative journalist.

Kalinak made the announcement on March 12, bowing to demands of a junior coalition partner, the Most-Hid (Bridge) group, which had demanded Prime Minister Robert Fico dump his close ally by the end of the day.

Fico’s government has been shaken by street demonstrators protesting the perceived lack of progress in an investigation into the death of Jan Kuciak and his fiancee in February, as well as allegations of persistent corruption.

Kuciak was investigating fraud cases involving politically connected businessmen and organized crime.

Critics say Kalinak, a founding member of Fico's Smer party, could not guarantee an independent probe into the killings.

On March 9, an estimated 50,000 people rallied in the capital, Bratislava, and thousands more in other Slovak cities to demand the resignation of Fico's cabinet and a full investigation into the deaths of Kuciak and his fiancee.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

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Tajik Ex-Police Officer Gets 19 Years In Prison For Kidnap And Murder

Former Tajik police officer Akmal Yusufzoda (right) has been convicted of abducting Ismoiljon Rahmonov (left) and killing him. (composite file photo)
Former Tajik police officer Akmal Yusufzoda (right) has been convicted of abducting Ismoiljon Rahmonov (left) and killing him. (composite file photo)

The Supreme Court of Tajikistan informed RFE/RL on March 5 that it sentenced last week former police Colonel Akmal Yusufzoda to 19 years in prison on a charge of kidnapping and murdering a university teacher. The court added that Yusufzoda's co-defendant and relative, Ismoiljon Shukurov, was handed a 12-year prison term on February 28 for assisting Yusufzoda in the abduction and for helping throw Ismoiljon Rahmonov, whose hands were bound, into a river last summer. Investigators say Yusufzoda's actions were motivated by jealousy as he suspected Rahmonov had an affair with his wife. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here.

Bosnia-Herzegovina Can Only Join EU As One Country, Germany's Baerbock Says

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (left) with her Bosnian counterpart, Elmedin Konakovic, in Sarajevo on March 5.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (left) with her Bosnian counterpart, Elmedin Konakovic, in Sarajevo on March 5.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has warned against what she called the "secessionist fantasies" of the Bosnian Serb entity under its leader, Milorad Dodik, saying that Bosnia-Herzegovina's accession into the European Union could only be achieved as a unified country.

Under the Dayton peace agreement that ended the 1992-95 Bosnian War, Bosnia has consisted of the Bosniak-Croat federation and Republika Srpska under a weak central government.

Baerbock, who is on a tour of the Western Balkans, spoke on March 5 after talks in Sarajevo with Bosnian Foreign Minister Elmedin Konakovic.

"Secessionist fantasies meant to put obstacles on the path of European integration; we will clearly name those fantasies, because only a joint commitment and a united Bosnia-Herzegovina can lead to the path to the EU," Baerbock said.

Dodik has repeatedly threatened secession, spurning the Muslim-Croat Federation and taking steps to establish some parallel institutions over the past two years.

Dodik, who met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month and plays up their "good relations," is under U.S. and British sanctions for his obstruction of the Dayton agreement and for violating the legitimacy of Bosnia.

In December, the EU announced it will open accession negotiations with Bosnia "once the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria is achieved."

The European Commission is to assess the country's progress in mid-March and make a decision on whether negotiations can be opened.

Baerbock has said that Bosnia is at a "key crossroads in the accession process."

Konakovic said after the meeting that Bosnia's central authorities still have a lot of work to do, but they are determined "to continue the European path faster than we have ever traveled."

Baerbock is scheduled to meet with members of Bosnia's joint parliamentary commission for European integration and representatives of both houses of parliament.

Earlier on March 5, Baerbock met with the high representative of the international community in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt, his office announced.

Dodik has been charged over two laws he signed in July that allow the Bosnian Serb entity to bypass or ignore decisions made by Schmidt.

At Least Four Moscow Residents Reportedly Detained For Laying Flowers To Honor Navalny

 With Russia's Federal Security Service building in the background, a woman lays flowers to pay tribute to Aleksei Navalny at a monument in Moscow dedicated to gulag prisoners.
With Russia's Federal Security Service building in the background, a woman lays flowers to pay tribute to Aleksei Navalny at a monument in Moscow dedicated to gulag prisoners.

At least four Moscow residents were reportedly detained on March 5 for laying flowers to honor late opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who died in prison last month. The OVD-Info Telegram channel said Polina Orekhova and Yegor Komlev were detained over laying flowers at makeshift Navalny memorials on February 16, the day Navalny's death was made public, and February 17. OVD-Info said that two other Moscow residents -- Yelena Gribkova and Yelena Levina, who were detained briefly on February 17 for honoring Navalny -- were detained again on March 5 over attending Navalny’s burial last week. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Kyrgyz President's Ex-Associate Gets 7 Years In Prison

Kyrgyz activist Melis Aspekov
Kyrgyz activist Melis Aspekov

Aaly Aspekov, the son of a former associate of the Kyrgyz president, said on March 4 that a court in Bishkek sentenced his father, activist Melis Aspekov, to seven years in prison last week on a charge of plotting mass disorder, which he rejects. The Birinchi Mai district court confirmed to RFE/RL that Aspekov was handed the prison term on February 28. Aspekov was a staunch supporter of Sadyr Japarov and actively participated in rallies promoting Japarov for the presidency during anti-government protests in October 2020 that led to resignation of Japarov's predecessor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Court Rejects Russian Journalist's Appeal Against Sentence Over Posts About Ukraine War

Russian journalist Andrei Novashov (file photo)
Russian journalist Andrei Novashov (file photo)

A court of appeals in the Siberian region of Kemerovo on March 5 rejected an appeal filed by journalist Andrei Novashov against a sentence he was handed last year over his social media posts saying Russian forces attacked civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. Novashov reiterated his innocence, saying he just did his job as a journalist. A court sentenced Novashov to eight months of correctional work after finding him guilty of discrediting Russia's armed forces. It also barred him from posting any materials online for one year. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Report: Executions In Iran Last Year Highest Since 2015

Iran has the second-highest number of executions in the world, trailing only China, according to rights groups. (file photo)
Iran has the second-highest number of executions in the world, trailing only China, according to rights groups. (file photo)

At least 834 people were executed in Iran last year, a 43 percent increase compared to 2022, according to a joint report from the Iran Human Rights group (IHR) and the Paris-based Together Against the Death Penalty, as authorities continue to ramp up the use of the death penalty for drug-related offenses.

In the annual report on capital punishment in Iran, released on March 5, the groups said that some 85 percent of all executions were not announced by Iranian authorities, meaning that the actual number of executions is likely much higher as dozens more are not included in the report "due to a lack of sufficient details or an inability to confirm cases through two different sources."

"Instilling societal fear is the regime's only way to hold on to power, and the death penalty is its most important instrument," said IHR Director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam in the report.

The rate of executions in Iran has been rising sharply with rights groups pointing to a surge in drug-related executions and widespread protests that swept across the country last year following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody for an alleged head-scarf violation.

Iran has the second-highest number of executions in the world, trailing only China, according to rights groups. Last year was only the second time since 2015 that capital punishment in the Middle Eastern nation was carried out more than 800 times.

The IHR report said 471 executions carried out in 2023 were for drug offenses, almost double the number of the previous year.

"Some of the executions were carried out secretly, without the family or the lawyer being informed, and some have simply not been announced by the official media," the report says.

"This is while according to the Islamic republic’s own laws, the defendant’s lawyer must be notified of the planned execution."

The report showed that, excluding China where rights groups say it is impossible to get accurate data, Iran executed more women -- 22 -- than any other country in the world.

Furthermore, it said ethnic minorities also account for a disproportionate amount of the total number of people executed.

The report said that at least 167 members of Iran's Sunni Baluch community were executed, meaning they accounted for 20 percent of the overall total while representing only 5 percent of the country's population.

The Baluch community is "grossly overrepresented amongst those executed" on drug-related charges, it said.

Oil Depot Burning After Explosion In Russia's Belgorod Region Bordering Ukraine

Authorities in Belgorod have announced a missile threat alert in some of the region's districts. (file photo)
Authorities in Belgorod have announced a missile threat alert in some of the region's districts. (file photo)

Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov of Russia's Belgorod region said on March 5 that an important building in the region's Gubkin district was hit by a fire caused by an explosion. Media reports said the building that Gladkov mentioned is an oil depot in the village of Dolgoye. The oil depot belongs to Russian energy giant Rosneft. The Ukrayinska Pravda website in Ukraine cited sources as saying that the explosion and fire were the result of an attack conducted by Ukraine's military intelligence. Authorities in Belgorod announced a missile threat alert in the districts of Gubkin and Stary Oskol. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Ex-U.S. Officer Shared Classified Ukraine War Intelligence On Dating Site, Prosecutors Say

According to prosecutors the retired lieutenant colonel was working as a civilian employee at U.S. Strategic Command, when he allegedly began an online relationship with a woman on a “foreign dating platform.” (file photo)
According to prosecutors the retired lieutenant colonel was working as a civilian employee at U.S. Strategic Command, when he allegedly began an online relationship with a woman on a “foreign dating platform.” (file photo)

A retired U.S. Army officer allegedly shared classified intelligence with a woman claiming to be from Ukraine, prosecutors said, using e-mail and an online dating platform to send information that included Russian military targets in Ukraine.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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The arrest of David Slater, who was set to appear in federal court in Nebraska on March 5, was the latest in a series of embarrassing disclosures and leaks of classified U.S. intelligence, at least some of which has concerned Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and U.S. support for Kyiv.

In a statement released March 4, U.S. prosecutors said that Slater, a retired lieutenant colonel, was working as a civilian employee at U.S. Strategic Command, when he allegedly began an online relationship with a woman on a “foreign dating platform.” U.S. Strategic Command oversees U.S. nuclear arsenals, among other things.

It’s unclear whether Slater, 63, ever physically met the woman, whom prosecutors said identified herself as Ukrainian.

In a series of e-mails and chats on the unnamed dating site between February and April 2022, the woman sent messages asking Slater specific questions about U.S. intelligence on Russia’s invasion.

"Dear, what is shown on the screens in the special room?? It is very interesting," the woman texted Slater around March 11, 2022, according to the unsealed indictment.

“By the way, you were the first to tell me that NATO members are traveling by train and only now (already evening) this was announced on our news. You are my secret informant love! How were your meetings? Successfully?” the woman texted Slater days later.

"Beloved Dave, do NATO and Biden have a secret plan to help us?" the woman wrote on March 18.

“You are my secret agent. With love,” the woman allegedly wrote a week later.

The indictment does not quote any e-mails or messages authored by Slater.

If convicted at trial, Slater faces up to 10 years in federal prison on each of the three counts laid out in the indictment.

A series of leaks of classified U.S. data, about Ukraine or other issues, have embarrassed the U.S. intelligence community and stirred doubts among U.S. allies sharing closely held information.

On March 4, a man who served in the U.S. Air National Guard unit pleaded guilty to leaking highly classified military documents about the Ukraine war and other U.S. national security secrets.

Jack Teixeira, 22, admitted to obtaining the information while he worked as an information technology specialist, and then sharing it with other users on Discord, a social media platform popular with online gamers.

The leaks, which included information about troop movements in Ukraine and the provision of U.S. equipment to Ukrainian troops, were seen as highly embarrassing for the Pentagon; more than a dozen military personnel were reprimanded in the subsequent investigation.


Siberian Court Hands Prison Terms To Nine Jehovah's Witnesses

Dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned in the country since Russia banned the religious group in 2017 and designated it as an "extremist organization." (file photo)
Dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned in the country since Russia banned the religious group in 2017 and designated it as an "extremist organization." (file photo)

A court in Russia's Irkutsk region in Siberia sentenced nine Jehovah's Witnesses to various prison terms on March 5 as a crackdown on the religious group continues. The court handed seven years in prison to six Jehovah's Witnesses on a charge of financing an extremist group. Two believers were sentenced to six years and four months each on a charge of organizing the activities of an extremist group, and one person was convicted of taking part in the activities of an extremist group and sentenced to three years in prison. Russia designated the religion as an "extremist organization" in 2017. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Ukraine Downs 18 Russian Drones Over Odesa Region, Says Military

A Ukrainian handout image shows damage to a building in Odesa following a reported Russian drone attack on March 5.
A Ukrainian handout image shows damage to a building in Odesa following a reported Russian drone attack on March 5.

Ukrainian air defenses shot down 18 out of 22 drones launched by Russia at the southern region of Odesa early on March 5, the military said.

The attack mostly targeted residential and industrial areas of the Black Sea port of Odesa, the military said.

Russia's Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said that its air defense forces destroyed three Ukrainian drones over the Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine.

Kyiv has not commented on the Russian claim.

To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Updated

Ukraine Says It Has 'Sunk' Russian Patrol Vessel In Occupied Crimea

Ukraine claims it struck the Sergei Kotov with Magura V5 maritime drones. (file photo)
Ukraine claims it struck the Sergei Kotov with Magura V5 maritime drones. (file photo)

Ukrainian sea drones have struck and "sunk" the Russian patrol vessel Sergei Kotov off the coast of occupied Crimea, the Main Directorate of Ukraine's Military Intelligence (HUR) said in a statement on March 5.

HUR's special unit Group 13 and Ukraine's Naval Forces took part in the operation with support from the Ministry of Digital Transformation, HUR said in a statement on Telegram.

“As a result of a strike by Magura V5 maritime drones, the Russian ship Project 22160 Sergey Kotov sustained damage to the stern and to the starboard and port sides. The action occurred in the territorial waters of Ukraine, not far from the Kerch Strait,” the statement said.

The value of the "destroyed" Russian vessel was about $65 million, it added.

A video posted later on social media platforms by the HUR claims to show "how the Sergei Kotov was sunk." The grainy black-and-white video appears to have been shot from cameras on board naval drones from different angles and distances and show several explosions hitting a ship purported to be the Sergei Kotov.

HUR representative Andriy Yusov told RFE/RL that, according to preliminary information, there are dead and wounded among the ship's crew, and some have been evacuated.

Ukraine Claims To Sink Another Russian Navy Ship
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"There are dead and wounded. However, there is a possibility that part of the crew could have evacuated," Yusov said.

The destroyer-class vessel reportedly can carry cruise missiles and around 60 crew.

Social media posts reported that the attack on the vessel occurred in the port of Feodosia overnight. A video posted on X, formerly Twitter, purportedly shows the moment of the impact and a large explosion.

Russia has not commented on the Ukrainian claim, but the Rybar war blog, which is close to Russia's Defense Ministry, said the ship was destroyed.

"The Russian Black Sea Fleet is a symbol of occupation. It cannot be in Ukrainian Crimea," Andriy Yermak, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's chief of staff, wrote on Telegram on March 5.

Explosions were heard early on March 5 in the Crimean city of Kerch, and the bridge connecting the occupied peninsula with Russia was closed, according to RFE/RL’s Crimea.Realities project.

Highway traffic reportedly reopened on the bridge at around 7 a.m. local time, the Russian-installed administration managing the bridge said on March 5.

Last month, Ukraine's military said it had destroyed the Tsezar Kunikov, one of the largest Russian landing ships, in the Black Sea off the coast of occupied Crimea.

It said the February 14 strike was a combined operation of the armed forces and military intelligence also using Magura V5 naval drones.

Earlier in February, Ukrainian forces said they had sunk the Russian missile-armed corvette Ivanovets in the Black Sea in an operation carried out by the same elite Group 13 unit with Magura V5 drones.

Russia has not commented on the two Ukrainian claims.

The Magura V5 drone, an acronym for Maritime Autonomous Guard Unmanned Robotic Apparatus V Type, was unveiled last year. The drone, which has the appearance of a sleek speedboat, has a top speed of 80 kilometers per hour, according to reports, and can carry a payload of 320 kilograms.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Explosions Heard In City Of Kerch In Occupied Crimea; Bridge Connecting Peninsula To Russia Closed, Says Report

The Kerch bridge connecting Ukraine's occupied Crimean peninsula with Russia was closed on March 5, according to RFE/RL. (file photo)
The Kerch bridge connecting Ukraine's occupied Crimean peninsula with Russia was closed on March 5, according to RFE/RL. (file photo)

Explosions were heard early on March 5 in the Crimean city of Kerch, and the bridge connecting the occupied peninsula with Russia was closed, according to RFE/RL’s Crimea.Realities project. According to unconfirmed reports on social media, the Kerch region was being attacked by aerial and seaborne surface drones. Russian authorities have not commented on the situation. Attacks on the illegally annexed Ukrainian peninsula occur regularly, particularly near the bridge. Russian authorities typically blame the Ukrainian military for the explosions or say they were the result of military drills. Kyiv has confirmed its involvement in only some of the attacks. To read the original story on RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.

Magnitude 5.4 Earthquake Strikes Southwestern Iran

An 5.4 magnitude earthquake struck Iran's southwestern Sistan-Baluchistan Province, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said early on March 5. The quake was at a depth of 35 kilometers, the USGS said, adding that the epicenter was some 66 kilometers northwest of the city of Fannuj. No injuries or damage were immediately reported.

Russian Forces Battle To Advance Beyond Eastern City Captured Last Month, Ukrainian Military Says

A Ukrainian soldier fires a cannon toward Russian positions at the front line in eastern Ukraine on March 2.
A Ukrainian soldier fires a cannon toward Russian positions at the front line in eastern Ukraine on March 2.

The Ukrainian military says its forces have contained an advance by Moscow's forces outside the eastern city of Avdiyivka as Russian drones carried out another attack on Odesa, the Air Force said.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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Ukrainian military spokesman Dmytro Lykhoviy said on March 4 that the fighting is especially heavy on the eastern outskirts of the village of Novomikhaylovka near Maryinka.

"At the same time, we are saying that in this hottest sector of the direct Russian assault, we are managing to stabilize the situation and the enemy's advance has been halted," Lykhoviy said.

Russian units in this area are attacking even more fiercely using small assault groups and first-person view (FPV) drones, as well as carrying out massive artillery and air strikes, Lykhoviy said.

Russian forces are focusing on an area around the village of Novomikhaylovka, where they were "transferring reinforcements from the depths of Russia," he added in comments to LIGA.net.

In Odesa, an air alert was sounded early on March 5, and air defense forces were operating in the Odesa region, the Ukrainian Air Force said.

The southern Ukrainian port city is still reeling from a Russian drone attack on March 2 that killed 12 people, including five children aged 4 months to 10 years.

Russian forces captured Avdiyivka last month in the biggest victory for Moscow in months, and Russia's Defense Ministry last week said its forces had captured new villages outside the city, but that claim could not be confirmed.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Moscow's forces had "as a result of coordinated action continued to occupy more advantageous positions" near Avdiyivka. It made no mention of the area near Novomikhaylovka.

Elsewhere in the country, Russian artillery shelling during the day on March 4 damaged a school, a kindergarten, and more than 20 apartments in the city of Seredyna-Buda in the northeastern Sumy region, the regional prosecutor-general's office said on Facebook.

The border village was hit in November by strikes that killed three people.

Meanwhile, the head of the press service of the Eastern Group of the Ukrainian military, Ilya Yevlash, said that the military is preparing to defend the village of Chasiv Yar.

Ukrainian forces are currently trying to hold territory that lies between Chasiv Yar and Bakhmut in heavy fighting, Yevlash said. But the Russian army is constantly transferring significant reserves, and its troops are advancing from different flanks, attacking Ukrainian positions head-on, he added.

Chasiv Yar itself is also under constant attack, according to Yevlash. The Russian Army is firing mortars, automatic mounted grenade launchers, and using drones and aircraft.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov said on March 4 that he and the commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces discussed with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin the front-line situation and the supply of weapons.

"We are working together on providing for the needs of the Ukrainian armed forces and increasing the army's capabilities," Umerov said, adding that Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskiy had also taken part in the call.

Syrskiy said on Telegram that he and Umerov also spoke with British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps and the chief of Britain's Defense Staff, Sir Tony Radakin.

Syrskiy said the discussions focused on the needs of the Ukrainian military and the development of Ukraine's naval capabilities with help from Kyiv's allies.

With reporting by Reuters

Iranian Judiciary Says 'Mossad Agent' Executed In Connection With Attack In Isfahan

The attack on the Iranian Defense Ministry workshop in Isfahan occurred in January last year. (file photo)
The attack on the Iranian Defense Ministry workshop in Isfahan occurred in January last year. (file photo)

Iran's judiciary has announced the execution of a person it claims was a Mossad agent involved in an explosion at a Defense Ministry workshop complex in the city of Isfahan last year.

According to the Mizan News Agency, which is affiliated with Iran's judiciary, the execution took place on March 3. Four Kurds also accused of having a connection with the attack were executed in January. The Hengaw human rights group says none of the five was given a fair trial and their confessions were obtained through torture.

The person executed on March 3 was accused of being in contact with agents of Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency, since February 2019. It was alleged that, in 2022, the individual helped facilitate the smuggling of several drones into Iran by arranging the rental of a warehouse to store the aircraft and the purchase of vehicles to move them and people around. The attack occurred in January 2023.

The identity of the executed person has not been disclosed. However, Mizan, quoting the chief of the Isfahan judiciary, revealed that the individual fled the country under a false identity 13 days after the Isfahan attack. They were later apprehended by security forces in a “neighboring country,” although details of the arrest and the specific country where it occurred were not provided.

The Iranian Defense Ministry described the attack as unsuccessful, reporting no casualties and only minor damage to the facility's roof.

Though no one took responsibility for the attack, The Wall Street Journal quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying Israel had carried out the strike.

In an article published by the newspaper in December, former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hinted at Israel's involvement in several operations inside Iran in 2022, including attacks on drone bases. Bennett cited the destruction of an Iranian drone base as a retaliatory measure for Iran's alleged attempts to launch drone attacks against Israel.

There has been a series of incidents inside Iran over the past year, including sabotage and cyberattacks, assassinations, and the mysterious killings of members of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as well as scientists and engineers.

Tehran has blamed some of the incidents on Israel, its regional foe.

Israel says its standard policy is to not comment officially on such incidents.

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

U.S. Condemns Sentencing Of Iranian Singer Who Won Grammy

Shervin Hajipour, who wrote and performed the song Baraye in 2022, was sentenced last week to nearly four years in prison.
Shervin Hajipour, who wrote and performed the song Baraye in 2022, was sentenced last week to nearly four years in prison.

The United States on March 4 condemned the sentencing of an Iranian singer who won a Grammy award in 2023 for a song that became an anthem for mass Iranian protests after the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody. Shervin Hajipour, who wrote and performed the song Baraye in 2022, was sentenced last week to nearly four years in prison. He was also forced to write music critical of the United States. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the sentence was another sign of the government's "intent to crack down on freedom of expression and repress voices" inside Iran.

U.S. Says Low Turnout In Iranian Elections Another Sign Of 'Discontent'

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, casts his ballots during the parliamentary and key clerical body elections at a polling station in Tehran on March 1.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, casts his ballots during the parliamentary and key clerical body elections at a polling station in Tehran on March 1.

The United States said on March 4 that low turnout in Iran's election was a new sign of discontent in the country. "I don't think there's any doubt that there's discontent about the regime's rule," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters. Miller said many Iranians likely assessed that the elections would not be free and fair and chose not to participate. Election authorities said earlier that conservatives and ultraconservatives secured a large majority in the parliamentary elections held on March 1 in which turnout was 41 percent. Many candidates, including moderates and reformists, had been disqualified from running.

Top Iranian Sunni Cleric Barred From Touring Flood Sites In Baluchistan

Iran's state news agency has described the flooding in Sistan-Baluchistan Province as severe.
Iran's state news agency has described the flooding in Sistan-Baluchistan Province as severe.

Iranian security forces have barred Molavi Abdolhamid, Iran's top Sunni cleric, from visiting areas affected by recent floods in Sistan-Baluchistan Province, while also detaining two of his children, according to local media reports.

Haalvsh, a group that monitors rights violations in the impoverished province, reported that the incident occurred on March 4 as Abdolhamid, accompanied by his family and associates, attempted to reach the flood-stricken region of Dashtyari.

However, their journey was abruptly halted by security personnel at a checkpoint on the Zahedan-Khash highway, where two of the cleric's teenage children were taken into custody.

Molavi Abdolhamid reportedly protested by refusing to leave the checkpoint.

The Baluch Activists Campaign also reported the vehicles of Abdolhamid and his companions being stopped and the "arrest" of two of his children, adding that residents of Zahedan were mobilizing toward the Zahedan-to-Khash road in response.

Abdolhamid has expressed criticism over the handling of flood disaster-relief efforts by officials and urged the public to provide aid to those affected in the province.

Molavi Abdolhamid (file photo)
Molavi Abdolhamid (file photo)

The heavy rainfall, which began last week, has inflicted significant damage across the southeastern province, leading to widespread flooding. Official reports indicate that at least 1,800 homes were damaged.

The floods, described as severe by the state news agency IRNA, have led to the overflow of four dams, affecting 1,947 villages across the region. The disaster has prompted concerns over the adequacy of emergency response and infrastructure resilience in Iran in the face of natural calamities.

Members of the Baluch minority, many of whom are Sunni Muslims in Shi'a-majority Iran, have long faced disproportionate discrimination and violence at the hands of the authorities.

Abdolhamid, the outspoken leader of Friday Prayers in Zahedan, has publicly criticized the authorities for alleged human rights abuses and repression of Iran's ethnic and religious minorities.

Sources in Sistan-Baluchistan told Radio Farda that Abdolhamid, whose popularity has soared, has been the subject of "intimidation and threats" from the authorities.

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

43 Countries Demand International Probe Into Navalny's Death

Hundreds Visit Navalny's Grave Under Police Surveillance
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More than 40 countries have demanded an independent international investigation into the death of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and said President Vladimir Putin bore ultimate responsibility. European Union countries joined the United States, Britain, Ukraine, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Norway in voicing outrage on March 4 over Navalny's death. EU Ambassador Lotte Knudsen, speaking on behalf of 43 countries, told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that Russia "must allow an independent and transparent international investigation into circumstances of his sudden death," which is viewed as "yet another sign of the accelerating and systematic repression in Russia."

Report Documents 223 Incidents Of Damage To Ukrainian Power Grid

Investigators inspect a crater left by a Russian missile strike at an electrical transformer facility in Kharkiv in September 2022.
Investigators inspect a crater left by a Russian missile strike at an electrical transformer facility in Kharkiv in September 2022.

The Yale University Humanitarian Research Lab says it has documented 223 incidents of damage to Ukraine’s electric power infrastructure between October 2022 and April 2023. In most of these incidents, the damaged infrastructure was far from the front line, calling into question whether the strikes were directed at legitimate military objectives, the research lab said on March 4. The pattern of attacks "indicates widespread and targeted efforts to cripple vital power generation" during cold-weather months. The findings are consistent with those previously reported by the Conflict Observatory, a U.S. State Department-supported consortium that documents war crimes and atrocities.

German FM Pushes For EU Enlargement To Include Western Balkans

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock speaks to journalists during a press conference in Podgorica on March 4.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock speaks to journalists during a press conference in Podgorica on March 4.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock wants to step up the pace of EU enlargement to include Western Balkan countries such as Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the face of Russian and Chinese attempts to exert influence in the region. "The faster we become stronger as a European Union in these geopolitical times, the better," Germany's top diplomat said on March 4 at a meeting with Montenegrin colleague Filip Ivanovic in the capital, Podgorica. At the same time, she emphasized, "Enlargement is not an end in itself but serves to strengthen our common Europe."

Russian Actor In Prison For Deadly Drunk Driving Accident May Get Early Release

Mikhail Yefremov is escorted after the verdict was announced in Moscow in September 2020.
Mikhail Yefremov is escorted after the verdict was announced in Moscow in September 2020.

Russian actor and Kremlin critic Mikhail Yefremov, who is serving a prison sentence for killing a man while driving under the influence, may be granted an early release.

The chairman of the Public Monitoring Commission, Georgy Volkov, said on March 4 that the administration of the prison where Yefremov is serving his 7 1/2-year prison term had approved Yefremov's request for an early release.

A court must now decide if the 60-year-old actor deserves it, but courts typically follow the recommendations and approvals of the administrations at penitentiaries when looking into early-release requests by inmates.

Performances by Yefremov satirizing President Vladimir Putin and his policies had been popular among Russians before he was sent to prison in late 2020.

Moscow's Presnensky district court initially sentenced Yefremov in September 2020 to eight years in prison on charge of "causing a deadly traffic accident while driving under the influence."

The Moscow City Court one month later cut Yefremov's prison term by six months.

Yefremov initially pleaded not guilty when the high-profile trial started in early August 2020, insisting that he couldn't remember anything that took place the night of the accident.

His defense team brought in three witnesses who testified that Yefremov was not alone in his car when it hit the other vehicle. They said that Yefremov was not driving and had exited the car from the passenger side after the deadly collision.

However, Yefremov changed his plea to guilty and asked for forgiveness from the victim's relatives.

Investigators said Yefremov was inebriated when he drove his car at high speed into an oncoming lane in central Moscow on the evening of June 8, 2020, hitting a car.

Yefremov was not injured in the accident, but the 57-year-old driver of the other car, Sergei Zakharov, was rushed to hospital with multiple injuries and died hours later.

After Zakharov was pronounced dead, Yefremov was charged and placed under house arrest.

Authorities later said that medical tests confirmed that Yefremov was under the influence of alcohol and had traces of drugs, including cocaine, in his blood at the time of the accident.

With reporting by TASS

Relatives Of Imprisoned Former Russian Lawmaker Handed Lengthy Prison Terms

Raul Arashukov (front) and his son Rauf attend a court hearing in Moscow in July 2020.
Raul Arashukov (front) and his son Rauf attend a court hearing in Moscow in July 2020.

A court in Moscow has handed lengthy prison terms to two relatives of a former member of the Russian parliament's upper chamber who along with his father is serving a life sentence for masterminding the murder of two officials in the North Caucasus region of Karachai-Cherkessia.

The Preobrazhensky district court on March 4 sentenced former Federation Council member Rauf Arashukov's cousin Ruslan Arashukov to 16 1/2 years in prison on charges of embezzlement and participation in a criminal group.

The court also sentenced Beslan Arashukov, Arashukov's second cousin, to 16 years in prison on the same charges.

Nine other defendants were handed prison terms between five and 19 years. One defendant, a woman, received a suspended sentence and left the court a free person.

Rauf Arashukov and his father, Raul, were each sentenced to life in prison in December 2022 after a jury found Rauf Arashukov guilty of creating a criminal group and organizing the 2010 murders of Fral Shebzukhov, an adviser to the leader of the North Caucasus region of Karachai-Cherkessia, and Aslan Zhukov, deputy chairman of a youth movement in the mostly Muslim region.

The court also convicted Raul Arashukov of fraud and ordering the two killings. At the time of his arrest, he was serving as a local lawmaker in Karachai-Cherkessia and as an adviser to the chief executive of a Gazprom subsidiary.

Rauf Arashukov, 37, was detained in late January 2019 at a dramatic session of the upper house after fellow lawmakers voted to strip him of his immunity from prosecution.

He represented Karachai-Cherkessia in the Federation Council. His 64-year-old father was arrested at the same time, along with several other people, including their relatives.

Both Rauf and Raul Arashukov pleaded not guilty. The former lawmaker has insisted that the cases against him and his father are politically motivated.

With reporting by TASS and Interfax

UN Rights Chief Slams Russia's 'Repression' Of Dissent Ahead Of Election

Cars drive past electronic screens on the facade of a building showing an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 29.
Cars drive past electronic screens on the facade of a building showing an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 29.

The head of human rights for the United Nations has chided Russia for its throttling of "dissenting voices" prior to this month's presidential election, adding that the death of Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny added to concerns over the state of human rights in the country.

Speaking at a meeting of the UN's Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 4, Volker Turk pointed to the absence of opposition candidates over administrative technicalities in the March 15-17 election, which incumbent Vladimir Putin is expected to easily win, as fostering "serious concerns" about the election.

"The authorities have further intensified their repression of dissenting voices prior to this month's presidential election," he said.

"Several candidates have been prevented from running, due to alleged administrative irregularities. The death in prison of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny adds to my serious concerns about his persecution," he added.

Russian elections are tightly controlled by the Kremlin and are neither free nor fair but are viewed by the government as necessary to convey a sense of legitimacy. They are mangled by the exclusion of opposition candidates, voter intimidation, ballot stuffing, and other means of manipulation.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin's tight grip on politics, media, law enforcement, and other levers means Putin, who has ruled Russia as president or prime minister since 1999, is certain to win, barring a very big, unexpected development.

Earlier on March 4, the Supreme Court in Moscow rejected for the third time an appeal by Boris Nadezhdin, the one candidate seen as a legitimate opponent to Putin, over his exclusion from the election due to a technicality pertaining to the signatures submitted from supporters to back his candidacy.

Nadezhdin has said the invasion of Ukraine was a "fatal mistake" and accused Putin of dragging Russia into the past instead of building a sustainable future. His candidacy would have complicated the Kremlin's more aggressive ambition of boosting the perception of legitimacy for Putin.

Navalny was once a leading opposition voice who attempted to run against Putin in 2018, only to be barred by the Central Election Commission (TsIK) over a conviction in a fraud case in what is widely seen as a politically motivated conviction.

The 47-year-old lawyer, who was Putin's most vocal critic, died on February 16 in an Arctic prison. The circumstances of his death have not been clarified.

"I urge a swift and comprehensive review of all cases of deprivation of liberty that result from the exercise of fundamental freedoms; as well as an immediate end to the repression of independent voices and the legal professionals who represent them," Volker said in his speech.

"The future of the country depends on an open space," he added.

New NATO Base Opens In Albania At Former Soviet-Era 'Stalin City' Air Field

Military personnel watch as Eurofighter Typhoon jets fly over the newly rebuilt air base in Kucova, Albania, on March 4.
Military personnel watch as Eurofighter Typhoon jets fly over the newly rebuilt air base in Kucova, Albania, on March 4.

Two fighter jets that took off from NATO's Aviano Air Base in Italy landed in Albania on March 4 to mark the reopening of the Soviet-era Kucova Air Base. NATO has invested more than $50 million to refurbish the base -- once known as "Stalin City" -- in Albania, which joined the alliance in 2009 but does not have fighter jets of it own. "This is a base that will (add) another element of security for our Western Balkan region," Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said during the inauguration, noting the increased threat Europe faces from "the ambitions of Russia." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Balkan Service, click here.

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