$10 Billion In Aid Pledged At Syria Donors Conference In London
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has welcomed the pledges made for Syrian humanitarian relief during a donors conference in London, saying the international community has never raised so much money in a single day for a crisis.
Pledges of more than $10 billion in aid were made -- including $6 billion just for 2016 -- as Russian air strikes in Syria intensified and after tentative peace talks in Geneva were put on a "temporary pause."
Conference co-host Britain pledged $1.75 billion in new aid between now and 2020.
The U.S. delegation, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, committed $900 million to bring total U.S. humanitarian spending on Syria to $5.1 billion.
Germany said it would give $2.5 billion through 2018 to help Syrian refugees.
The head of Russia's delegation tweeted on February 3 that it was hard to discuss aid to Syria without the presence of the Syrian government.
The international charity Oxfam criticized Russia and other countries involved in Syria for not helping the victims of conflict, which has killed at least 250,000 people and forced millions to flee the country.
Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and BBC
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Finnish, Swedish Envoys To Turkey To Discuss NATO Bids
Envoys from Finland and Sweden are due to meet in Ankara on May 25 for talks with Turkish officials regarding the two countries' applications for membership in NATO, which Turkey opposes, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto has said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been vocal in his opposition to Sweden and Finland joining the military alliance, held phone calls with the leaders of the two countries on May 21 and discussed his concerns.
"We are sending our delegations to visit Ankara, actually both Sweden and Finland. This will happen tomorrow, so the dialogue is continuing," Haavisto said during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Erdogan has said he is against the accession of the two Nordic countries because of what he called their support for "terrorist organizations," a reference to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdish militia People's Defense Units (YPG) in Syria.
"We understand that Turkey has some of their own security concerns vis a vis terrorism.... We think that these issues can be settled. There might be also some issues that are not linked directly to Finland and Sweden but more to other NATO members," Haavisto said.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said on May 24 that he was confident the alliance will be able to welcome Sweden and Finland as members.
Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP
Russia Finally Releases Danish Jehovah's Witness Christensen
Danish Jehovah's Witness Dennis Christensen has been released from prison in Russia after serving a term he was handed on extremism charges that he and his supporters have denied.
The Jehovah's Witnesses' website said on May 24 that Christensen was released from a prison in the Oryol region after serving out his punishment.
Christensen was detained in May 2017 in the city of Oryol, some 320 kilometers south of Moscow, weeks after the Russian Supreme Court ruled to ban the religious group in the country, declaring it "an extremist organization."
In February 2019, Christensen was found guilty of organizing the activities of an extremist group and sentenced to six years in prison. His two years in pretrial detention counted as three years toward his sentence, putting his release date at May 24, 2022.
Several requests Christensen made for early release were denied, including one in 2020 that a court actually approved, only to then reverse itself and refuse to free him, saying it had decided he was a "malicious violator."
The news of Christensen's release comes a day after a court in the city of Prokopevsk sentenced 53-year-old Andrei Vlasov to seven years in prison after finding him guilty of the same charges Christensen was found guilty of.
Prosecutors had sought an 8 1/2-year prison term for Vlasov, who is also a Jehovah's Witness. His defense team said it will appeal the court ruling.
The probe against Vlasov was launched in July 2020 and he was placed under house arrest despite being legally disabled.
Since the faith was outlawed, many Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned in Russia.
According to the group, dozens of Jehovah's Witnesses have either been convicted of extremism or have been held in pretrial detention.
The United States has condemned Russia's ongoing crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious minorities it says are peaceful.
For decades, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.
The Christian group is known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, the rejection of military service, and its refusal to mark national and religious holidays or birthdays.
With reporting by Siberia.Realities
EU's Von Der Leyen Accuses Russia Of Weaponizing Food Supplies
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says Russia is weaponizing food supplies as prices of grain, cooking oil, and other food commodities soar following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, one of the world's largest wheat producers.
"In Russian-occupied Ukraine, the Kremlin's army is confiscating grain stocks and machinery.... And Russian warships in the Black Sea are blockading Ukrainian ships full of wheat and sunflower seeds," von der Leyen said in an address at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on May 24.
"Russia is now hoarding its own food exports as a form of blackmail -- holding back supplies to increase global prices, or trading wheat in exchange for political support.... This is using hunger and grain to wield power."
She said that for some, this had brought back memories from "a dark past -- the times of the Soviets' crop seizures and the devastating famine of the 1930s," a reference to a famine that killed millions of Ukrainians.
Russia has blamed rising food prices and shortages on the West for imposing sanctions in response to the war.
The German government has accused Russia of blocking the possible shipment of some 20 million tons of grain from Ukraine, while Polish President Andrzej Duda told a panel at the WEF that the food shortages could trigger a wave of migrants from North Africa to Europe.
Von der Leyen said the way to combat Russia's moves to disrupt the food-supply chain was through global cooperation.
With reporting by Reuters and dpa
Navalny's Appeal Denied In Moscow, New Nine-Year Sentence Confirmed
MOSCOW -- A Moscow court has upheld a nine-year prison term for opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who is already behind bars for a previous conviction he and his supporters have called politically motivated.
Navalny took part in the May 24 hearing via a video link from a prison in the Vladimir region.
The Kremlin critic used his final statement in court to condemn the Russian authorities for launching the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and reiterated his previous statements that all of the charges against him are politically motivated.
Navalny was handed the sentence on March 22 after the court found him guilty of embezzlement and contempt charges that he and his supporters have repeatedly rejected as politically motivated.
Navalny was arrested in January last year upon his arrival to Moscow from Germany, where he was treated for a poison attack with what European labs defined as a Soviet-style nerve agent.
He was then handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of an earlier parole because of his convalescence abroad. The original conviction is widely regarded as a trumped-up, politically motivated case.
Navalny has blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for his poisoning with a Novichok-style chemical substance. The Kremlin has denied any role in the attack.
International organizations consider Navalny a political prisoner.
The European Union, U.S. President Joe Biden, and other international officials have demanded Russia release the 45-year-old Kremlin-critic.
Navalny is currently serving his term in a prison in the town of Pokrov, some 200 kilometers east of Moscow. He is expected to be transferred to a stricter regime prison for the new conviction.
With reporting by Mediazona
Ex-Moldovan President Dodon Detained For Treason, Corruption
CHISINAU -- Former Moldovan President Igor Dodon has been detained in Chisinau in a raid by anti-corruption prosecutors who searched his home.
Maria Cherpec, spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General's Office, was quoted by local media as saying that Dodon, a pro-Russian politician who was president in 2016-20, was suspected of corruption, illicit enrichment, accepting political funding from a criminal organization, and treason.
Acting Prosecutor-General Dumitru Robu said Dodon had been detained for 72 hours.
Dodon's brother-in-law, Petru Merineanu, was also detained after allegedly trying to swallow a piece of evidence, the Prosecutor-General's Office said.
At a news conference, members of Dodon's Party of Socialists rejected the accusations against Dodon, which they said were part of a "two-penny show" meant to distract the public's attention from poverty and social issues. They also called for public protests.
Dodon was defeated in November 2020 by Maia Sandu, a U.S.-educated politician who ran on a ticket of closer relations with the West.
Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, formally applied for European Union membership in March after Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Moldova has received hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighboring Ukraine.
With reporting my Unimedia.md and Deschide.md
Russia Issues Arrest Warrant For Self-Exiled Journalist Naki
A court in Moscow has issued an arrest warrant for well-known journalist Maikl Naki, who is currently outside of Russia, accusing him of distributing false information about the Russian military as Moscow's war against Ukraine continues.
Naki reacted to the Basmanny district court's May 24 decision by saying on Twitter that the judge who announced the ruling, along with state investigators, "will face trials before me, I have no doubt about that."
Naki is a former journalist at the radio station Ekho Moskvy, which halted operations in March after the Prosecutor-General's Office said the broadcaster, known to be critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was distributing what authorities called information "calling for extremist activities, violence, and premeditated false information" about Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Media across the country have been instructed by the government that Russia's actions in Ukraine cannot be called a "war" or an "invasion," and should instead be referred to as a "special military operation."
Naki has his own YouTube channel with 726,000 subscribers. He uses it to regularly report about the war in Ukraine.
The founder of the Conflict Intelligence Team, Ruslan Leviyev, is a suspect in the same case. The Basmanny district court issued an arrest warrant for Leviyev on May 18.
Leviyev's team investigates armed conflicts in Ukraine and other parts of the world. Leviyev is a frequent guest on Naki's YouTube channel.
Two Pilots Dead As Iranian Fighter Jet Crashes During Training Mission
Two Iranian Air Force pilots were killed when their F-7 fighter jet crashed during a training mission near the city of Naeen in central Iran.
The state news agency IRNA said the crash occurred in the morning on May 24. The state ISNA news agency quoted a military official as saying that it appeared a "technical issue" caused the accident, though an investigation has been opened to pinpoint the cause.
Iran's air force has seen a number of crashes in recent years.
In February, an F-5 fighter jet -- purchased from the United States before the 1979 Islamic Revolution -- crashed into a school stadium in a residential area of the northwestern city of Tabriz, killing two pilots and one civilian.
Decades of Western sanctions against Tehran have made it difficult to get spare parts for the jets and to maintain the fleet.
The air force also flies Russian-made MiG and Sukhoi planes.
Protesters Block Entrance To Armenian Foreign Ministry As Pressure On PM Builds
YEREVAN -- Demonstrators demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian have broken through police barriers and blocked the entrances of several government buildings, including the Foreign Ministry.
Ishkhan Saghatelyan, vice president of the National Assembly and a deputy for the "Armenia" parliamentary faction, said on May 24 that the intent of the action was to prevent employees from entering the buildings, especially the Foreign Ministry, "which no longer serves the interests of Armenia nor the Armenian people."
Thousands of opposition supporters have been demonstrating on a daily basis in Yerevan to protest what they said were unacceptable concessions made by Pashinian during negotiations with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Police have detained hundreds during the demonstrations, which have been aimed at committing acts of civil disobedience to ratchet up pressure on the government.
Pashinian has faced heavy criticism since he and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed last month in Brussels to begin drafting a peace treaty to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and set up a joint commission on demarcating their common border.
European Council President Charles Michel said on May 22 in Brussels that the first meeting of the joint commission will be held "soon."
Azerbaijan wants the peace deal to be based on five elements, including a mutual recognition of each other’s territorial integrity.
Pashinian has publicly stated that the elements are acceptable to Yerevan in principle, fueling Armenian opposition claims that he is ready to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia lost control over parts of the breakaway region in a 2020 war that ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire that an estimated 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed to monitor.
Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been under ethnic Armenian control for nearly three decades, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
Pashinian, who said he had agreed to the 2020 cease-fire to avoid further losses, said he would not sign any peace deal with Azerbaijan without consulting ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Amnesty Highlights Rise In 'State-Sanctioned' Executions; Iran Among Worst Offenders
Last year saw a "worrying rise" in global executions in 2021 amid an easing in pandemic restrictions, Amnesty International has said, with Iran recording its highest number of state-sanctioned killings since 2017.
The global number of executions saw a 20 percent increase over 2020, with Iran accounting for most of the rise.
The global totals do not include executions in China, which Amnesty believes to be in the thousands, North Korea, and Vietnam.
Out of the total of 579 executions carried out across 18 countries last year, Iran executed at least 314 people, up from 246 in 2020 and the highest total in four years, Amnesty said in its Death Sentences And Executions 2021 Report.
The rights watchdog said the higher number was due to the increase in drug-related executions in Iran.
"Iran maintains a mandatory death penalty for possession of certain types and quantities of drugs -- with the number of executions recorded for drug-related offenses rising more than five-fold to 132 in 2021 from 23 the previous year," the report said.
It also highlighted the rise in the number of women executed, which went up from nine to 14 year-to-year.
"The Iranian authorities continued their abhorrent assault on children's rights by executing three people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime, contrary to their obligations under international law," the report said.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, more than doubled the number of executed people last year. Amnesty also mentions that Saudi Arabia this year stepped up the practice, with the execution of 81 people in just one day in March.
"After the drop in their execution totals in 2020, Iran and Saudi Arabia once again ramped up their use of the death penalty last year, including by shamelessly violating prohibitions put in place under international human rights law," Amnesty's Agnes Callamard said.
"Their appetite for putting the executioner to work has also shown no sign of abating in the early months of 2022," Callamard added.
Myanmar, which has been under martial law, sentenced to death some 90 people, according to available figures.
At least 2,052 death sentences were handed down last year in 56 countries. Large increases in the number of death sentences were recorded in Bangladesh, India, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, and Pakistan.
On a positive note, Amnesty highlighted Kazakhstan's abolishing of capital punishment.
"In December, Kazakhstan adopted legislation to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, which came into effect in January 2022," the report noted.
"The minority of countries that still retain the death penalty are on notice: a world without state-sanctioned killing is not only imaginable, it is within reach and we will continue to fight for it," Callamard said.
"It is high time the ultimate cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment is consigned to the history books," she added.
With reporting by AFP and dpa
Russia Boosts Offensive In Eastern Ukraine As War Enters Fourth Month
Russian forces have stepped up their assault on the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk as Moscow now appears focused on securing and expanding its gains in Donbas and the southern coast.
As the conflict entered its fourth month, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned Ukrainians that the coming period of time will be harsh, especially in the eastern Donbas region.
Zelenskiy told the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos that Russia had carried out nearly 1,500 missile strikes and over 3,000 air strikes against Ukraine in the first three months of the war.
British intelligence said in its daily report on May 24 that Russians are seeking to encircle Severodonetsk, a city of some 100,000 people on the banks of the Siverskiy Donets river, but are also focusing their attacks on Lysychansk and Rubyzhne in the same area.
The report said that Russian forces had achieved some localized successes in the area with the aid of intense artillery fire, but Ukrainian resistance is strong and Kyiv's Joint Force Operation command structure has remained in control of this segment of the front.
Russia's capture of Severodonetsk would see the whole of the Luhansk region falling under Russian occupation, the report said.
"The coming weeks of the war will be difficult, and we must be aware of that," Zelensky said on May 23 in his nightly address after regional leaders and residents reported heavy bombardments in the east.
"The most difficult fighting situation today is in Donbas," Zelenskiy said, singling out the worst-hit towns of Bakhmut -- a crucial junction that serves as a command center for much of the Ukrainian war effort -- Popasna, and Severodonetsk.
The governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Hayday, said that the Russians had beefed up their forces with some 12,500 soldiers who were attempting to seize Luhansk.
Hayday said early on May 24 that Severodonetsk has suffered a lot of damage from the Russian bombardment, and at least four people were killed in the shelling of a high-rise building in the city.
If the Russians are successful and the Donbas front line moves further west, British intelligence estimated that Russian lines of communication would be overstretched and likely lead to further logistic resupply difficulties.
Zelenskiy earlier warned the WEF in Davos that slow-walking military aid was causing unnecessary deaths as Ukrainians are "paying dearly for freedom and independence."
He said that 87 people had been killed in a Russian attack earlier this month on a military base in Desna in the north, in what would be one of the largest single recorded strikes of the war.
Kyiv was ready for an exchange of prisoners with Russia "even tomorrow," Zelenskiy said, calling on his allies to put pressure on Moscow.
Zelenskiy also reiterated his demand that Moscow be cut off from the global economy, calling for an international oil embargo on Russia, as well as punitive measures against all of its banks.
Many of the EU's 27 member states are heavily dependent of Russian oil and gas, prompting criticism from Kyiv that the bloc has not moved quickly enough to halt supplies.
But Germany said on May 22 that the European Union will likely agree on an embargo on Russian oil imports "within days," despite opposition from Hungary, which is sticking to its demands for energy investment before it agrees to such an embargo.
"We will reach a breakthrough within days," German Economy Minister Robert Habeck told broadcaster ZDF.
However, Habeck warned that a ban would not hurt Moscow immediately, since the surge in global oil prices means it is earning more for less crude.
Habeck said the EU and the United States were considering a proposal to cap global oil prices -- an "unusual measure" for "unusual times."
Russia supplies 40 percent of the EU's natural gas and 27 percent of its oil imports, and receives an estimated 400 billion euros ($426 billion) annually for this supply.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, CNN, and BBC
20 Countries Pledge Fresh Military Aid To Ukraine, Says U.S. Defense Secretary
Twenty countries have pledged new military aid for Ukraine in its battle against invading Russian military forces, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced on May 23 following the second Ukraine Contact Group meeting.
Denmark has agreed to provide Ukraine with a Harpoon launcher and missiles to “help Ukraine defend its coast,” Austin said at a press conference following the virtual gathering.
The Czech Republic also agreed to send “substantial support” to Ukraine including “a recent donation of attack helicopters, tanks, and rocket systems,” Austin added.
Overall, 20 countries “announced new security assistance packages,” Austin said, including “donating critically needed artillery ammunition, coastal defense systems, and tanks and other armored vehicles.”
“Others came forward with new commitments for training Ukraine’s forces and sustaining its military systems,” Austin added.
A total of 47 countries participated in the contact group’s second meeting, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said.
The group was briefed by Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov on the current situation in the three-month-old war.
"Today, together with Minister Reznikov and his team, we've gained a sharper and shared sense of Ukraine's priority requirements and the situation on the battlefield," Austin said.
Since the first meeting of the group at a U.S. military base in Germany four weeks ago, Austin said, "the momentum of donations and deliveries has been outstanding."
He said Ukraine's needs had not changed much since the previous meeting, that the war continues to be driven by artillery, supported by tanks, drones, and other equipment.
"The fight is really shaped by artillery in this phase, and we've seen serious exchanges of artillery fires over the last several weeks," Austin said.
He added that the Ukraine Contact Group would meet next in person on June 15 during a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels.
Milley provided an update on the increased U.S. presence in Europe since Russia invaded in late February.
Last fall, there were roughly 78,000 U.S. troops in the region, and that has gone up to 102,000 -- including 24 surface ships, four submarines, 12 fighter jet squadrons, two combat aviation units, and six Army brigade combat teams, along with their division and corps leaderships.
With reporting by AFP, AP, and CNN
Ukraine's First Lady Says Russian Invasion Will Leave Lasting Negative Health Impact
Olena Zelenska, the wife of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has told an assembly of the World Health Organization (WHO) that the impact of Russia’s invasion on health care and mental well-being could last for decades.
In a video address to the World Health Assembly in Geneva on May 23, Zelenska said that "Russia's war has shown horrors we could not have imagined," stressing the consequences for mental health.
"WHO is committed to protecting the most crucial human rights to life and health. Now they are both being violated in Ukraine," she said.
"The consequences of this war unfortunately will remain for years and decades," said Zelenska.
Zelenska's comments came as countries at the World Health Assembly prepare to discuss a resolution to be presented by Ukraine and its allies on May 24, harshly condemning Russia's invasion, especially its more than 200 attacks on health care, including hospitals and ambulances, in Ukraine.
Currently, Zelenska said, "no Ukrainian, neither adult nor small children, can be sure that they will wake up tomorrow and a missile will not fly into their house."
"Doctors can't be sure that their ambulances will not be bombed on the way to reach the patient."
The resolution also voices alarm at the "health emergency in Ukraine," and highlights the dire impacts beyond its borders, including how disrupted grain exports are deepening a global food security crisis.
German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told reporters on May 23 that the "resolution uses strong language," and voiced confidence it had enough support to pass.
Top health officials addressing the Geneva gathering on May 23 voiced support for the resolution while condemning Russia's invasion.
"We gather here today in a peaceful European city with no need to fear the sound of incoming missiles or artillery... or to fear rape and execution at the hands of invading troops," British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the assembly.
"As a group of nations we cannot be pro-health, pro-humanity, without being against such brutal violence," as is happening in Ukraine, he said.
"So, it is absolutely right that we vote on a motion condemning [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin's unjustifiable aggression."
Echoing those sentiments was U.S. Assistant Health Secretary Loyce Pace.
"Russia's attacks have destroyed numerous health facilities. Civilians and health workers have been maimed and killed," she said.
"The international community must and the United States will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine."
Without mentioning the resolution specifically, Russia claimed the WHO and its decision-making body were being politicized.
"With deep concern, we have recently been taking note of politicization attempts of the prganization's work, as well as deviations from the principle of "impartiality" in its work," Russia's Deputy Minister of Health Aleksandra Dronova told the assembly.
She called on WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus "to prevent the WHO from becoming a political platform."
With reporting by AFP and TASS
Another Imprisoned Kazakh Activist's Term Replaced With A Parole-Like Sentence
QONAEV, Kazakhstan -- A Kazakh court has replaced another activist's prison sentence with a parole-like penalty, the latest in a series of similar moves in President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev's self-proclaimed liberalization campaign amid an outcry by human rights groups over political prisoners.
Noyan Rakhymzhanov's lawyer, Zhanar Balghabaeva, told RFE/RL on May 23 that the Qonaev City Court in Kazakhstan's southern region of Almaty had ruled that the remainder of her client’s five-year prison term will be replaced by a parole-like sentence in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.
Balghabaeva added that the court's decision will take effect in 15 days unless it is appealed by prosecutors.
Rakhymzhanov, along with three other activists, Abai Begimbetov, Qairat Qylyshev, and Askhat Zheksebaev, were sentenced to five years in prison each in October last year on a charge of having links with the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) and its affiliate Koshe (Street) party.
The activists, who were recognized as political prisoners by human rights organizations in Kazakhstan, pleaded not guilty and claimed during their trial that they only participated in peaceful protests and exercised their constitutionally protected rights.
The case sparked protests by rights defenders and opposition activists who said the harsh sentences handed to the four activists go against Toqaev's campaign "to build a new, democratic Kazakhstan."
Toqaev has been distancing himself from his authoritarian predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev, following deadly anti-government protests in the oil-rich nation in early January, though his critics say concrete legislation strengthening human rights in the country is needed.
In recent weeks, Begimbetov, Qylyshev, and Zheksebaev, were also released from prison after the remainders of their prison terms were replaced by parole-like sentences.
“A ‘New Kazakhstan’ is impossible without respect for freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, and accountability for serious human rights violations,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on May 19.
Last week, another civil rights activist, Asqar Qaiyrbek, was released from prison after a court replaced the remainder of the prison term handed to him in separate high-profile case with a parole-like penalty.
DVK is led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugitive former head of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank and an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government. Kazakh authorities labeled DVK extremist and banned the group in March 2018.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) earlier this year criticized the Kazakh government for using anti-extremism laws as a tool to persecute critics and civic activists. Several hundred people have been prosecuted for membership in the Koshe party.
Kazakh authorities have insisted there are no political prisoners in the country.
Former U.S. Marine Describes Harsh Conditions Of Russian Imprisonment
Trevor Reed, the former U.S. Marine who was imprisoned in Russia for nearly three years on charges that were widely condemned as being trumped-up, says he refused to let himself hope for his release up until the day he left detention as he never wanted the authorities to be able to take that away.
In his first interviews with U.S. media since his release in a prisoner swap last month, the 30-year-old Texan described the harsh conditions of his detention, which lasted 985 days, and his battle to maintain his physical and mental health.
"A lot of people are not going to like what I'm gonna say about this, but I kind of viewed their having hope as being a weakness," he said in an interview with CNN that aired on May 22.
"So, I did not want to have that hope of, like, me, you know, being released somehow and then have that taken from me."
Reed was sentenced in 2020 after being convicted of assaulting two Russian police officers in 2019. He denied the allegations, while the United States questioned the fairness of the proceedings, calling his trial a "theater of the absurd."
He returned to the United States on April 27 in a prisoner swap for convicted Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko, whose 20-year prison sentence in the United States in 2010 was commuted.
Reed said that, while in prison, he lost 45 pounds and at times was coughing up blood, raising fears he may have contracted COVID-19 or worse, tuberculosis.
Yet, he said, he never came close to breaking point, even when held in extreme conditions where blood was smeared on the walls with a hole in the floor for a toilet.
“The psychiatric treatment facility, I was in there with seven other prisoners in a cell. They all had severe, psychological health issues -- most of them," Reed said to CNN.
"So over 50 percent of them in that cell were in there for murder. Or, like, multiple murders, sexual assault and murder -- just really disturbed individuals.”
He described the inside of the cell as "not a good place."
“There was blood all over the walls there -- where prisoners had killed themselves, or killed other prisoners, or attempted to do that,” he said. “The toilet’s just a hole in the floor. And there’s, you know, crap everywhere, all over the floor, on the walls. There’s people in there also that walk around that look like zombies.”
Reed didn't sleep for several days fearing what his cellmates might do to him.
“You felt they might kill you?” host Jake Tapper asked. “Yes. I thought that was a possibility,” Reed replied.
Reed served his sentence in Mordovia, a region about 350 kilometers east of Moscow with a long reputation for being the location of Russia's toughest prisons, including Soviet-era labor camps for political prisoners.
In recent months, Reed went on two hunger strikes to protest prison conditions, including being placed in solitary confinement.
Now back in the United States, Reed said he is trying to adjust to normal life.
"I've been hanging out with the family a lot, been trying to get used to being free again," the former U.S. Marine told ABC News.
"That takes a little bit of time, that process. But I feel better every day."
Starbucks Quits Russian Market Amid International Exodus Over War In Ukraine
Starbucks Corp says it will be closing its 130 stores in Russia and exiting the market after nearly 15 years because of the war against Ukraine.
The Seattle-based coffee giant informed its employees on May 23 that it will shut its operations in Russia, though the company will continue to pay its nearly 2,000 Russian employees for six months to help them as they search for new jobs.
"Starbucks has made the decision to exit and no longer have a brand presence in the market," the company said in a statement. In March it announced a suspension of operations because of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces.
Dozens of major international companies from a broad range of sectors have exited Russia since it launched its war against Ukraine on February 24.
McDonald's announced on May 19 that it had signed a deal to sell its business in Russia to a local licensee that will give him the global fast food giant's entire portfolio in the country and allow him to operate the restaurants under a new brand.
Starbucks has operated in Russia since 2007.
At Least Five Dead, 80 Trapped Under Rubble After Building Collapses In Iran
At least five people were killed and 27 injured when parts of an unfinished 10-storey building in Iran's southern city of Abadan collapsed, trapping at least 80 more people under the rubble.
A rescue operation was being carried out, Iranian state TV reported on May 23, with emergency teams being sent in from other cities to help.
The semiofficial Mehr news agency said the building was a residential-commercial property on Amir Kabir Street in the city, which is close to the border with Iraq.
Most of those trapped under the rubble were people who were shopping on the ground floor in one of the finished parts of the building, reports said. The collapse caused nearby buildings to "shake violently," they added.
State TV showed footage of angry Abadan residents shouting slogans against the city authorities.
The ILNA news agency reported that the mayor of Abadan, Hossein Hamidpour, was beaten by the angry mob. The report could not be immediately confirmed.
The head of Khuzestan Province's judiciary has ordered a probe into the accident while the owner and the contractor who built the building have been arrested, state TV said.
'Ashamed' Russian Diplomat In Geneva Resigns In Protest Against War In Ukraine
A diplomat at Russia's Permanent Mission to the UN Office in Geneva says he has resigned in protest at the "needless" war Russia has launched against Ukraine.
Boris Bondarev said in a statement placed on his LinkedIn page on May 23 that he has "never been so ashamed of my country as on February 24," when Russia launched an invasion of its neighbor.
"The aggressive war unleashed by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin against Ukraine, and in fact against the entire Western world, is not only a crime against the Ukrainian people, but also, perhaps, the most serious crime against the people of Russia," Bondarev, who identifies himself on LinkedIn as a counsellor at the mission who worked on arms control, wrote.
"Those who conceived this war want only one thing -- to remain in power forever, live in pompous tasteless palaces, sail on yachts comparable in tonnage and cost to the entire Russian Navy, enjoying unlimited power and complete impunity. To achieve that they are willing to sacrifice as many lives as it takes. Thousands of Russians and Ukrainians have already died just for this," Bondarev's statement added.
There was no immediate comment from the Russian permanent mission to the UN.
Bondarev confirmed the statement to both Reuters and the Associated Press, telling Reuters that he started to imagine making such a move a few years ago "but the scale of this disaster drove me to do it."
He added that he had raised concerns about the invasion with senior embassy staff, only to be told to "keep my mouth shut."
"I studied to be a diplomat and have been a diplomat for twenty years. The ministry has become my home and family. But I simply cannot any longer share in this bloody, witless, and absolutely needless ignominy," Bondarev concluded in his statement.
The Kremlin has misleadingly portrayed its invasion of Ukraine, which has involved tens of thousands of troops, as an effort to root out “Nazis” and other extremists. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have died in the war despite claims by Russia that it has not targeted them.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
Ukraine Warns Of Increased Military Moves By Belarus Near Border
Ukraine's Armed Forces have warned of an increase in military activity and troop levels by Belarus near the border.
"The armed forces of the Republic of Belarus are intensifying reconnaissance, additional units are being deployed in the border areas of the Homel region," the Ukrainian general staff said in a situation report on May 23.
"The threat of missile and air strikes from the territory of the Republic of Belarus remains," it added.
After the Ukrainian statement, Belarus's Defense Ministry said that it had started what it called "another phase of checks" of military equipment to observe their mobility and capacity.
Belarus has not officially participated in the war launched by Moscow against Ukraine on February 24, but it has allowed its territory to be used by Russian forces as a staging area for attacks on Ukrainian soil.
But in a sign of how Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin have closed ranks in the face of international isolation, the two met for the third time in the last month on May 23.
The meeting, in the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi, centered on the ongoing war in Ukraine, with Lukashenka thanking the West for "giving an impetus to our own development."
With reporting by BelTA and Interfax
'Putin Is The Devil!' Daghestani Schoolgirl Protests Ukraine War At Graduation Ceremony
IZBERBASH, Russia -- A young girl from Russia's North Caucasus region of Daghestan has chosen her high-school graduation ceremony to express her opposition to Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
A video of the girl, which went viral on social media on May 22, purportedly shows her shouting: "No to war! Liberty to Ukraine! [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is the devil!"
The video shows that the girl's action was apparently applauded by members of the audience, comprising students, parents, and teachers.
Pro-government Daghestani Telegram channels say the footage was taken from a graduation ceremony at school No. 11 in the city of Izberbash, adding that the girl was charged with an administrative offense, namely taking public actions to discredit the Russian Federation's armed forces.
According to the Telegram channels, the girl’s mother was charged with "failing to properly bring up a minor." The identity of the girl was not officially disclosed, but various media outlets said her name is Zukhra Albekova. She and her mother may face fines.
The Daghestani Interior Ministry refused to comment on the incident.
A source in the Education Ministry of Daghestan told RFE/RL that "the girl did it after she made a bet with her classmates."
Later in the day, several online social groups in Daghestan showed the girl and her mother apologizing for the "incident."
The girl said she regretted her action, which was prompted by her desire "to attract classmates' attention to her."
Her mother said she fully supports Putin and his policies, including what Russian officials call the "special military operation in Ukraine."
A source in the Daghestani government told RFE/RL that the girl and her mother were forced to make online statements after the regional head Sergei Melikov personally called Izberbash's mayor ordering him "to clear up the situation."
Izberbash authorities refused to provide any comments to RFE/RL.
For The First Time, Number Of Forcibly Displaced People Tops 100 Million
Russia's war in Ukraine has pushed the number of forcibly displaced people around the world to more than 100 million for the first time ever, the United Nations said on May 23.
"The number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution has now crossed the staggering milestone of 100 million for the first time on record, propelled by the war in Ukraine and other deadly conflicts," the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in a statement on May 23.
The figures combine refugees, asylum-seekers, as well as more than 50 million people displaced inside their own countries.
The UNHCR said the "alarming" numbers of forcibly displaced people rose towards 90 million by the end of 2021, spurred by violence in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Burma, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, more than 8 million people have been displaced within the country, while more than 6 million refugees have fled across the borders.
"One hundred million is a stark figure -- sobering and alarming in equal measure. It's a record that should never have been set," said UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi.
"This must serve as a wake-up call to resolve and prevent destructive conflicts, end persecution, and address the underlying causes that force innocent people to flee their homes."
The figure represents more than 1 percent of the global population, the UNHCR said.
With reporting by AFP and dpa
Former Austrian Foreign Minister, Who Danced With Putin, Leaves Rosneft Board
Russian state oil giant Rosneft has confirmed that Austria's former foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, whose wedding in 2018 was attended by President Vladimir Putin, has left the company's board of directors.
Rosneft said in a statement on May 23 that Kneissel had stepped down three days earlier, and that she would not seek to renew her position on the board for a second term.
Her resignation comes after former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder left the board under pressure from lawmakers in the Bundestag, who had announced he would lose his taxpayer-funded office and staff amid the controversy over his close ties to Russia.
Kneissl was confirmed to the Rosneft board as an independent director in June 2021. The move immediately raised eyebrows as it came at a time when the European Union was at odds with Moscow over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and other issues.
Kneissl had already made headlines with regard to Russia when pictures of her dancing with Putin at her 2018 wedding were splashed across newspapers around the world.
Kneissl, a Middle East expert without political affiliation, was appointed to her cabinet post by the far-right Freedom Party, which had a cooperation agreement with Putin's United Russia party.
She left the government in 2019.
According to Kneissl's personal website, the 57-year-old was recently interviewed by the Kremlin-backed RT media outlet, for which she has written several opinion pieces.
Rosneft, Russia's biggest oil producer, is headed by Igor Sechin, a close ally of Putin.
Russian Soldier Sentenced To Life In Prison In First War Crimes Case Since Ukraine Invasion
A court in Kyiv has sentenced 21-year-old Russian Vadim Shishimarin to life imprisonment for the murder of an unarmed civilian in the first war crimes trial to arise from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
With a packed courtroom looking on, judges at the Solomyanka district court in Kyiv on May 23 handed down the punishment to the Russian sergeant, who had earlier pleaded guilty in the death of a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian, Oleksandr Shelypov.
Ukraine has accused Russia of atrocities and brutality against civilians during the three months since the invasion was launched in February and has said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes. Independent media and rights groups have also gathered mounting evidence that Moscow has targeted civilians in the fighting.
Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in war crimes.
Judge Serhiy Agafonov said Shishimarin had carried out a "criminal order" given to him by a soldier of higher rank when he fired several shots at the victim's head from an automatic weapon.
"Given that the crime committed is a crime against peace, security, humanity, and the international legal order...the court does not see the possibility of imposing a [shorter] sentence," he said.
WATCH: Kateryna Shelipova confronted the Russian soldier who killed her husband during a war crimes trial in a Kyiv courtroom on May 19.
In his final statement to the court last week, Shishimarin, who comes from the Siberian region of Irkutsk, said that he didn’t want to kill Shelypov and was "sincerely" sorry for what had happened.
Shishmarin's lawyer, Viktor Ovsyannikov, said the sentence was expected given "certain pressure from society." He said his client would appeal the decision.
Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova last month identified 10 soldiers of the 64th Mechanized Infantry Brigade of the Russian armed forces, saying that they are suspected of "cruelty toward civilians and other war crimes," adding that Ukrainian investigators are continuing to gather evidence and that those named were just the beginning of her findings.
She also said at the time that investigations were under way to find out if the 10 Russians took part in the killing of civilians in Bucha, a town just outside of Kyiv.
The retreat of Russian forces from Bucha and other towns near the capital revealed harrowing evidence of brutal killings, torture, mass graves, and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians in the fighting.
On May 12, the UN Human Rights Council overwhelmingly approved a resolution to set up an investigation into allegations of abuses by Russian troops in areas of Ukraine they temporarily controlled.
The council's resolution cited apparent cases of torture, shootings, and sexual violence, along with other atrocities documented by a UN team on the ground.
Influential Gorno-Badakhshan Figure Killed In Tajikistan's Restive Region
One of the informal leaders of Tajikistan's restive Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) was killed on May 22 in Khorugh, the region's administrative capital, police said, adding that the death was the result of "internal clashes between criminal groups."
The death of Mahmadboqir Mahmadboqirov was reported after clashes between protesters and police in recent days in the GBAO left as many as 21 dead, including one police officer.
In an official statement, the GBAO branch of Tajikistan's Interior Ministry described Mahmadboqirov as "the leader of an organized criminal group," saying that his death was "the result of internal clashes between criminal groups.”
The statement said the regional prosecutor's office has launched a preliminary investigation into the incident.
The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, said 19 residents of GBAO's Rushon district, whom it called "members of organized criminal and terrorist organizations," had "surrendered" to police after taking part in anti-government protests on May 15-18.
The list of those detained includes Amirbek Qayobekov and Nuriddin Saidov -- the former leaders of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan in Rushon -- as well as 15 members of a group led by Kholbash Kholbashov.
Authorities have accused Kholbashov, his former wife, well-known civil rights activist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva, former opposition field commander Yadgor Ghulomhaidarov, and exiled opposition politician Alim Sherzamonov of organizing the unsanctioned anti-government rallies. Mahmadboqirov was also accused of organizing the demonstrations.
The whereabouts of Kholbashov and Ghulomhaidarov are unknown. Mamadshoeva was arrested last week. Before her arrest, she told RFE/RL that all accusations against her were baseless and that she has had nothing to do with the protests.
Deeper tensions between the government and residents of the region have simmered ever since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Mahmadboqirov and other influential leaders in the region fought against the government during that conflict but were integrated into the state structures as part of the peace deal that Russia helped broker.
The current protests were initially sparked several days ago by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of Khorugh.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old local resident Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting authorities to launch what they called an "anti-terrorist operation."
The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.
"The United Nations will monitor the situation closely," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told journalists late on May 19, adding that Guterres was calling on all sides to exercise restraint and make every effort to resolve the current situation peacefully.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has demanded the Tajik government "strictly observe its obligations to respect and protect people’s rights to life, and freedom of assembly and the media in any military or law enforcement operations in Tajikistan’s autonomous region."
Protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.
Gordo-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict in the 1990s.
While it occupies almost half of the entire country, its population is a mere 250,000. The region is difficult to travel around because of the mountainous terrain, while its economy is wracked by unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.
With reporting by AFP
Moscow Accused Of 'Scorched-Earth Tactics' As It Steps Up Assaults In Eastern Ukraine
Moscow has intensified its offensive in the eastern Luhansk region, the Ukrainian military said on May 23, with Severodonetsk under "round-the-clock" indiscriminate bombardment as Russian troops attempt to encircle the city, while U.S. President Joe Biden warned that Russia wants to "eliminate" Ukraine's national identity.
The heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine has taken a severe toll on Russia's military, British intelligence has said, estimating that during the first three months of its war in Ukraine, Moscow has suffered a number of deaths similar to that experienced by the Soviet Union during its nine-year war in Afghanistan.
Biden, who was speaking at a news conference in Tokyo on May 23 during his Asia tour, said Russian President Vladimir Putin can't occupy Ukraine, but he can "try to destroy its identity." Biden warned that Putin will have to "pay a dear price for his barbarism in Ukraine."
Russian forces tried to storm Severodonetsk but were unsuccessful and retreated, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office said.
In total, Ukrainian defenders have repelled 11 enemy attacks in the last 24 hours as Russian troops repeatedly tried to break through, stepping up their use of aircraft to destroy infrastructure, Ukraine's General Staff of Ukraine's Armed Forces said early on May 23.
Regional Governor Serhiy Hayday said Russian forces attempting to encircle Severodonetsk were "using scorched-earth tactics, deliberately destroying" the city.
Hayday said Russia was concentrating forces brought from a vast area -- those withdrawn from the Kharkiv region, others that had been involved in Mariupol's siege, Moscow-backed separatist militias, and even troops freshly mobilized from Siberia -- and concentrating their attacks on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
At least seven civilians were killed and eight wounded on May 22 across the Donetsk region, according to the Ukrainian Army's Facebook page.
Russian shelling and missile strikes also kept pounding Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, in the north, as well as Mykolayiv and Zaporizhzhya in the south, Ukrainian officials said.
The British military, in its daily intelligence bulletin on May 23, said that Russia's high casualty rate "continues to rise in the Donbas offensive" as a result of converging factors such as poor low-level tactics, insufficient air cover, poor flexibility, "and a command approach which is prepared to reinforce failure and repeat mistakes."
The bulletin cautioned that a continuously rising death toll could spark public discontent back home, where Russians in the past proved sensitive to losses suffered during wars of choice.
Ukrainian officials have said little since the start of the war about the extent of their armed force’s casualties, but President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said at a news conference on May 22 that 50 to 100 Ukrainian fighters were being killed, apparently each day, in the east.
Russia's war in Ukraine has also pushed the number of forcibly displaced people around the world above 100 million for the first time ever, the United Nations said on May 23.
"The number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution has now crossed the staggering milestone of 100 million for the first time on record, propelled by the war in Ukraine and other deadly conflicts," said the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency.
In Ukraine, 8 million people are internally displaced, while another 6 million have left the country, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said.
In delivering a keynote address on the first day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Zelenskiy on May 23 told the gathering of some of the world's most influential business leaders that "preemptive, not reactive measures" need to be imposed to prevent similar invasions to Russia's unprovoked actions against Ukraine.
"The sanctions must be maximum. That is what they should be so that Russia and every other potential aggressor that wants to launch a brutal war against its neighbor would clearly understand what consequences they will face right away as a response to their actions," Zelenskiy said.
In Kyiv, a court sentenced 21-year-old Russian Vadim Shishimarin to life imprisonment for the murder of an unarmed civilian in the first war crimes trial to arise from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Shishimarin has admitted to killing a 62-year-old civilian in the early stages of the invasion, but told the court he was pressured into an act for which he was "truly sorry."
Meanwhile, Ukraine's armed forces have warned of an increase in military activity and troop levels by Belarus near the border.
"The armed forces of the Republic of Belarus are intensifying reconnaissance. Additional units are being deployed in the border areas of the Homel region," the Ukrainian general staff said in a situation report on May 23.
Officials from Belarus did not immediately comment.
With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa, BBC, and CNN
Family In Buryatia Grieves Over Son Killed In Ukraine War: 'If We Stop Now, What Has It Been For?'2
Russia Bans 963 Prominent Americans From Entering Russia3
Buzzing, But Not With Tourists: Crimea Suffers As Russians Avoid Region Over War4
Montenegro's $1 Billion Highway Faces Uncertain Future After Years Of Delays5
'Putin Only Understands Force,' Says Ukrainian Ex-President In Call For United Response Against Russia6
Ukrainian Teachers Balk As Moscow Seeks To Impose 'Russian Standards' In Occupied Territories7
'Putin Is The Devil!' Daghestani Schoolgirl Protests Ukraine War At Graduation Ceremony8
Living Under The Cross: A New Architectural Tradition Rises In The Tbilisi Suburbs9
Russian Soldier Sentenced To Life In Prison In First War Crimes Case Since Ukraine Invasion10
Live Briefing: Russia Invades Ukraine