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UN/OPCW Inquiry Blames Syria Government, Islamic State For Chemical Attacks

A joint investigation by the United Nations and the global chemical weapons watchdog has established that President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the Islamic State (IS) group have carried out three chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

According to a report seen by the Reuters and AFP news agencies, Syrian government forces are responsible for two toxic gas attacks in Idlib province – in April 2014 and March 2015. Both cases involved the use of chlorine.

The panel also determined there was sufficient information to conclude that IS militants used sulfur mustard gas in Marea, north of Aleppo, in August 2015.

However, the year-long inquiry by the United Nations and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which was authorized by the UN Security Council, was unable to draw any conclusions in the other six cases that it has been investigating.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

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Police Officers In Peshawar Demonstrate To Demand Thorough Investigation Of Mosque Bombing

The police who protested on February 1 gathered in front of the Peshawar Journalists' Center and were joined by civil and political activists. 

Dozens of police officers protested in Peshawar on February 1 to demand the government conduct a full and transparent investigation of a suicide attack on a mosque earlier this week that killed 101 people and injured 221 others.

The attack on January 30 killed mostly police officers in the Sunni mosque located inside a high-security police facility.

The police who protested on February 1 gathered in front of the Peshawar Journalists' Center and were joined by civil and political activists.

Sajid Ali, one of the protesters, told RFE/RL that the police officers were compelled to protest to put pressure on authorities and because police officers “are dying amid this terrorism and insecurity.”

Ali Daraz, another protester, said police officers want answers about how the explosives got into the compound and said he believes there were at least two suicide bombers because of the amount of destruction. Daraz added that there have been complaints for years about a lack of equipment to fight terrorists.

"It seems like there were many explosives used there because even two suicide bombers could not cause that much destruction," he told RFE/RL.

The attack in Peshawar, capital of the volatile Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, which borders Afghanistan, was one of the deadliest that targeted Pakistani security forces in recent years.

The interim government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has formed a team to investigate the attack, including how a major security breach could happen in a compound that houses intelligence and counterterrorism bureaus.

Eyewitnesses told Radio Mashaal that suicide bombers standing in the first row in the compound's mosque behind the imam detonated explosive vests as worshippers gathered for the afternoon prayers in the Police Line Mosque on January 30.

A commander for the Pakistani Taliban known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) initially claimed responsibility for the attack, but hours later, TTP spokesman Muhammad Khurasani denied involvement, saying it was not the group's policy to target mosques, seminaries, and religious places.

Ibrahim Kamil, a participant in the protest and a leading member of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, told RFE/RL that a number of policemen are now feeling insecure about their own security.

There have been dozens of attacks in recent years, but the January 30 attack was a different incident because "people who protect us are facing so much danger in their own mosque."

Kamil added that the investigation should determine how the assailants got past checkpoints to enter the building and the mosque.

With reporting by AFP

Bulgarian Parliament Passes Resolution Declaring Soviet-Era Famine Genocide

The Bulgarian National Assembly voted 134-25 on February 1 on a resolution saying that any "denial, justification, or underestimation of this genocide flouts the memory of the millions of people who perished." (file photo)

The Bulgarian National Assembly has approved legislation declaring the 1932-33 famine caused by the policies of the Soviet government led by Joseph Stalin a genocide.

The decision came in a 134-25 vote on February 1 on a resolution backing the combined proposals of the Democratic Bulgaria and GERB parties.

The resolution says that any "denial, justification, or underestimation of this genocide flouts the memory of the millions of people who perished." It also calls for the last Saturday of November to be declared a day of honor and remembrance for the victims of the famine, known as the Holodomor.

Members of the far-right Vazrazhdane (Revival) party and Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) parliamentary groups, which often take pro-Russian positions, spoke against declaring the resolution.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy expressed gratitude to Bulgaria for declaring the Holodomor a genocide, saying on Twitter that the move "commemorates millions of Holodomor victims and restores historical justice."

Bulgaria’s gesture of solidarity "will always be remembered in Ukraine," he added.

Kyiv has urged the international community to officially declare the Holodomor a genocide as Ukraine confronts Moscow's ongoing full-scale invasion.

The Holodomor took place as Stalin's police units forced peasants in Ukraine to join collective farms by requisitioning their grain and other foodstuffs.

Historians say the failure to properly harvest crops in Ukraine in 1932 under Soviet mismanagement was the main cause of the famine.

It is estimated that up to 9 million people died as a result of executions, deportation, and starvation during the Stalin-era campaign.

The Bulgarian National Assembly's move comes six weeks after the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to recognize the famine as a genocide.

The resolution passed on December 15 called it an "artificial famine" caused by "a deliberate policy of the Soviet regime."

Kostadin Kostadinov, leader of the Vazrazhdane in the Bulgarian General Assembly, acknowledged that there was "a massacre by starvation of millions of people" in the Soviet Union in 1932-33, but he said the goal was not based on the victims' ethnicity, rather their class.

Borislav Gutsanov of the BSP opposed the proposal being put to a vote.

Earlier on February 1, the Vazrazhdane and BSP groups left the assembly hall, while their colleagues marked the day of appreciation and respect for the victims of the communist regime in Bulgaria.

With reporting by AFP

New U.S. Sanctions Target Russian Arms Trader's Global Network, Treasury Department Says

The U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C.

The United States has imposed Russian-related sanctions on 22 individuals and entities in multiple countries that the U.S. Treasury Department says are part of a global network set up to evade previously announced sanctions targeting Russia’s defense industry.

The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed the new sanctions on February 1, designating individuals and entities in the network, which OFAC said supports Russia’s military-industrial complex.

The actions are part of a strategy to target sanctions evasion efforts around the globe, expose facilitators, and ultimately limit Russia’s access to revenue needed to wage its war in Ukraine, the department said in a news release.

“Russia’s desperate attempts to utilize proxies to circumvent U.S. sanctions demonstrate that sanctions have made it much harder and costlier for Russia’s military-industrial complex to re-supply [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war machine,” said Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo.

The network is led by Russian- and Cypriot-based arms dealer Igor Zimenkov, who has worked closely with his son, Jonatan Zimenkov, within the network to enable Russian defense sales to third-country governments, the department said.

The network has engaged in projects connected to Russian defense capabilities, including supplying high-technology devices, since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Treasury said.

Certain members of the network have also supported sanctioned Russian defense entities Rosoboroneksport and State Corporation Rostec, which the Treasury said are key parts of Russia’s military-industrial complex.

Igor Zimenkov maintains close relationships with people associated with Rosoboroneksport and has provided information to Rostec personnel abroad, while Jonatan Zimenkov has maintained powers of attorney for companies in the Zimenkov network on behalf of his father, according to the Treasury.

They have additionally been involved in multiple deals for Russian cybersecurity and helicopter sales to South American countries and have engaged directly with Rosoboroneksport’s potential clients to enable sales of Russian defense materiel, according to the department.

Igor Zimenkov has also supported the Belarusian military-industrial complex by facilitating sales efforts in Latin America of Belarusian defense entity State Owned Foreign Trade Unitary Enterprise Belspetsvneshtechnika (BSVT). BSVT was previously designated for its links to the government of Belarus, as well as for operating in the defense and related materiel sector of the Belarus economy.

Among the members of the network were “front companies” used to funnel money within the network. These companies, which were also designated for sanctions, are based in Singapore, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Uzbekistan, and Israel. Several people associated with the companies also were designated.

The sanctions designations freeze any assets under U.S. jurisdiction held by the individuals and entities. They also inhibit their access to global financial markets and bar people based in the U.S. from dealing with them.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Bulgaria, Serbia Break Ground On Pipeline Aimed At Easing Russian Gas Dependence

Attending a groundbreaking ceremony in the Bulgarian town of Kostinbrod on February 1, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic shook hands where one end of the 170-kilometer link will be built. 

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, have launched the construction of a gas pipeline that will link the two countries and help ease the region's dependence on Russian supplies, which have become less reliable amid Moscow's war against Ukraine.

Attending a groundbreaking ceremony in the Bulgarian town of Kostinbrod on February 1, the two leaders shook hands where one end of the 170-kilometer link -- 109 kilometers of which will run through Serbia -- will be built.

"This is a big thing, a European project. We will supply other countries via our country," Vucic said.

The link, which will have a capacity of 1.8 billion cubic meters of gas annually, will allow gas from Azerbaijan to flow all the way to Western Europe, while also giving Serbia access to liquefied natural gas coming through from ports in Greece.

"It gives new opportunities to the region through real diversification and security of deliveries," Radev added.

In a show of the link's regional importance, European Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson also attended the ceremony. The 85.5-million-euro project will receive 25 million euros from the European Investment Bank (EIB), as well as 49.6 million euros in co-financing by the European Union. Serbia will supply the rest of the funding needed to complete the pipeline.

Even before the effect of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine on gas supplies to Europe, Bulgaria and Serbia have tried to diversify from a deep reliance on Russian supplies.

In 2009, the two countries were hit hard by a dispute between Russia and Ukraine over pricing that slashed deliveries and left many in Europe cold over the winter.

Sofia then moved quickly to establish a link with Greece to begin accepting supplies from Azerbaijan.

That gas pipeline is part of a broad EU initiative called the Southern Gas Corridor, which aims to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian gas. The main source of supply would be the Shah Deniz gas field located in the Caspian Sea, in territory belonging to Azerbaijan.

While Bulgaria has been critical of Moscow's war in Ukraine, Serbia, a traditional ally of Russia, has maintained good relations.

Adviser To Iranian Sunni Leader Detained Over Comments On Protests

In a recent interview with RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, Molavi Abdulmajid criticized the government for creating an atmosphere of insecurity in Zahedan. (file photo)

A senior adviser to Molavi Abdolhamid, a spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni Muslim population, has been arrested amid months of unrest in Iran sparked by the death of a young woman while she was detained by the notorious morality police for an alleged dress code violation.

According to Haalvsh, a group that monitors rights violations of the Sunni minority in Iran, Molavi Abdulmajid was arrested on January 30 in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan and transferred a day later to a prison in the city of Mashhad. The relatives of the cleric have been told to follow up on his situation "with the Special Clerical Court," the report adds.

The state news agency IRNA confirmed Abdulmajid's arrest and quoted an informed source saying he was accused of "numerous communications with foreign people and media, and distorting public opinion."

Zahedan has been a hotbed for unrest since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was in police custody for allegedly wearing her head scarf improperly. The protests grew even larger following the news of the alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl by the Chabahar police commander.

On September 30, people in the southeastern Iranian city took to the streets demanding accountability. They were met with a violent and bloody response from security forces that had become known as Bloody Friday. Almost 100 people were killed and hundreds more injured in the clash.

In a January 19 interview with RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, Abdulmajid criticized the government for creating an atmosphere of insecurity in Zahedan and said the protests in the city will continue "until the issue of Bloody Friday and the people of Zahedan who were killed and injured is resolved."

Abdolhamid had said previously that senior officials, including Khamenei, were "responsible" for the killing of protesters during the so-called Bloody Friday massacre. He also called for an immediate referendum with the presence of international observers to "change policies based on the wishes of the people."

The Iranian government has unleashed a brutal crackdown on weeks of unrest -- one of the deepest challenges to the Islamic regime since the revolution in 1979 -- that erupted following the September 16 death of Amini.

Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran where Abdolhamid is based but account for only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.

Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups. Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

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

Pakistan Court Grants Bail To Imran Khan Aide

Police officials escort the Pakistan's former information minister Fawad Chaudhry (center) to present him before a court in Lahore on January 25, 2023.

An aide to former prime minister Imran Khan was granted bail on February 1, a week after being arrested for allegedly harassing election commission officials. Fawad Chaudhry, who was information minister under Khan, had been arrested in a predawn raid on his home in the eastern city of Lahore. "A lower court in Islamabad granted bail to Fawad Chaudhry against surety bonds of 20,000 rupees ($75) and on condition that such words won't be repeated again," a spokesman of his Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party said. His lawyer Faisal Chaudhry confirmed the details to reporters outside court.

Azerbaijan Reportedly Detains Dozens Suspected Of Spying For Iran

Law enforcement bodies have neither confirmed nor rejected the reports. (file photo)

Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry has detained around 40 people it suspects of being part of an Iranian spy network that used religion to push pro-Iranian propaganda.

Local media reported on February 1 that the suspects were arrested in Baku and other regions of the country as a result of the operation conducted by the ministry. Some reports a day earlier put the number of people detained at seven.

Law enforcement bodies have neither confirmed nor rejected the reports.

Lawmaker Elman Mammadov, a member of the parliamentary Defense, Security, and Anti-Corruption Committee, accused Iran of being "quite active" in defending Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for many years.

"I can't say whether it is a network or not, but there are such people. Even in certain media organizations and social networks, there are such people who from time to time speak in favor of Iran and against us express their opinions," he said.

Tehran has not commented on the reports.

Azer Qasimli, the director of the Baku-based Political Management Institute, said that while Iranian spies were most likely operating in the country, Russia has a bigger undercover network in the country.

Still, he said Azerbaijani authorities had to be careful, as "Iran is a state that has used terrorism in different countries and is characterized by very aggressive actions."

"It can be dangerous from this point of view," he added.

Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan appeared relatively calm until recent days.

Baku ordered the evacuation of staff and family members from its embassy in Iran on January 29, two days after a gunman shot dead a security guard and wounded two other people at the embassy in an attack Baku branded an "act of terrorism."

Police arrested a suspect and Iranian authorities have condemned the January 27 incident. They have said the suspect appeared to have had a personal, not a political, motive for the attack.

Turkey 'Looks Positively' On Finland's NATO Bid But Not On Sweden's

Protesters demonstrate against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Sweden's NATO bid in a rally arranged by the Kurdish Democratic Society Center in Stockholm on January 21.

Turkey looks positively on Finland's application for NATO membership, but does not support Sweden's bid, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on February 1. "Sweden should not bother to try at this point. We will not say 'yes' to their NATO application as long as they allow burning of the Koran," Erdogan said in a speech to his party's deputies in parliament. Erdogan signaled on January 29 that Ankara could agree to Finland joining NATO ahead of Sweden and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on January 30 made similar statements. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Pakistani Inflation Rises To 48-Year High As IMF Visits

Inflation has risen to a 48-year high in crisis-hit Pakistan, where the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is visiting for urgent talks, according to data released on February 1 by the country's statistics bureau. Year-on-year inflation in January 2023 was recorded at 27.55 percent, the highest since May 1975, with thousands of containers of imports held up at Karachi port. Pakistan's economy is in dire straits, stricken by a balance-of-payments crisis while it attempts to service high amounts of external debt.

Latvia Says It Would Not Send Athletes To Olympics If Russia, Belarus Are Allowed To Compete

Russia's Aleksandr Zuev (left) fights for the ball with Latvia's Karlis Lasmanis during the men's gold medal 3x3 basketball final match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in July 2021.

Latvia wouldn't send athletes to an Olympic Games that included Russian and Belarusian nationals while the invasion in Ukraine is ongoing, a spokesperson for the country's Olympic Committee said on February 1. The International Olympic Committee said last week it was open to including Russian and Belarusian athletes as neutrals at the 2024 Paris Games and has opened a door to them competing in qualifiers. "If we need to make a decision now, of course we will not go to such competition," the spokesperson told Reuters, adding that the situation in Ukraine may change before the Games are held. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Iranian Student Council Says 11 Professors Fired For Protest Support

Universities and students have long been at the forefront of the struggle for greater social and political freedoms in Iran. (file photo)

Almost a dozen Iranian university professors have been fired from their jobs at Ferdowsi University in the northeastern city of Mashhad following their support for students in nationwide protests over the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody.

The Union Council of Iranian Students said 11 professors were dismissed for "accompanying, supporting, and defending the rights of students."

The council, which did not reveal the names of the professors, said six were from the faculty of literature, three from the faculty of law and political science, and one each from the mathematics and economics faculties.

Anger over the 22-year-old Amini's death on September 16 has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets to demand more freedoms and women's rights.

Numerous protests have been held at universities, particularly in Tehran, where many students have refused to attend class. Protesting students have chanted "Woman, life, freedom" and "Death to the dictator" at the rallies. Some female students have removed and burned their head scarves.

In most of the protests, students have asked professors to support them, and some university professors and lecturers have expressed solidarity with the protesters.

Universities and students have long been at the forefront of the struggle for greater social and political freedoms in Iran. In 1999, students protested the closure of a reformist daily, prompting a brutal raid on the dorms of Tehran University that left one student dead.

Over the years, the authorities have arrested student activists and leaders, sentencing them to prison and banning them from studying.

The activist HRANA news agency said that as of January 26 at least 700 university students had been arrested during the recent unrest.

Many have faced sentences such as imprisonment, flogging, and dozens of students have been expelled from universities or suspended from their studies, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

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

Saakashvili Tells Georgian Court He Wants 'Opportunity For Adequate Treatment'

Mikheil Saakashvili appears in court for his trial in Tbilisi via video link on February 1.

TBILISI -- Jailed former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is being treated in a private clinic in Tbilisi for health problems, has asked for "the opportunity for adequate treatment" during a court hearing on having his sentence suspended so he can be transferred abroad for more intensive care.

The imprisoned ex-president has been treated at the Vivamedi facility since May 2022. Doctors said earlier this month that Saakashvili contracted a mild form of COVID and therefore does not need treatment in intensive care.

Saakashvili, who was Georgian president from 2004 to 2013, is serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power, a charge that he and his supporters say was politically motivated.

His medical team says his health has worsened significantly since he went to prison in October 2021 and staged repeated hunger strikes to protest his incarceration. He is also currently on trial on separate charges of violently dispersing an anti-government rally in November 2007 and illegal border crossing.

He has rejected those charges as well, calling them trumped-up, and his legal team is seeking to have the trial postponed for health reasons.

"I gave Georgia all my knowledge and creativity...the only thing I ask for is to give me the opportunity for adequate treatment," he told the court on February 1 via video link from the clinic where he is being treated.

During his address to the court, which was severely hampered by technical issues, Saakashvili lifted his hospital dress to reveal his emaciated physical condition. The judge quickly stopped the video transmission and asked the former president to appear only fully clothed.

The court hearing came a day after Saakashvili's associates said the former president had been transferred to an intensive-care unit, a claim hospital personnel rejected.

Saakashvili's mother, Giuli Alasania, said earlier in the day that her son, who was diagnosed with COVID several days ago, "again fell unconscious" overnight and that his body temperature had risen to 39 degrees Celsius.

Medical personnel did not confirm her statement and hospital director Nino Nadiradze told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that the former leader had not been moved.

On January 28, Vivamedi's chief physician, Zurab Chkhaidze, told journalists that Saakashvili had dramatically reduced food consumption and was rejecting medical treatment. Chkhaidze then called on Saakashvili's relatives to convince the ex-president to obey the doctors' recommendations.

In early December, Saakashvili's legal team distributed a medical report that said he had been "poisoned" with heavy metals while in custody and risked dying without proper treatment.

But Georgian officials have raised doubts about how critical his health situation is.

Updated

Ukraine Raids Home Of Kolomoyskiy, Former Minister, In Fraud Case

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left), meeting with Ihor Kolomoyskiy (right) in his office in Kyiv in September 2019, removed his citizenship in 2022.

Agents from Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) and the Bureau of Economic Security have carried out searches on the homes of billionaire tycoon Ihor Kolomoyskiy and ex-Interior Minister Arsen Avakov in an alleged embezzlement case worth over $1 billion in what appears to be part of an effort to root out corruption amid the battle to repel invading Russian forces.

The SBU said in a post on Telegram that the searches on February 1 were carried out as part of an investigation into possible financial crimes involving two oil companies -- Ukrnafta and Ukrtatnafta -- which until late last year were partly owned by Kolomoyskiy, one of Ukraine's richest men.

"It was established that illegal mechanisms were combined with tax evasion and the legalization of funds obtained through criminal means," the SBU said.

Neither Kolomoyskiy nor Avakov have commented on the developments.

The raids, first reported by the Ukrainian media, come after Zelenskiy last month pledged to eradicate corruption amid a high-profile graft scandal.

David Arakhamia, the leader of the Servant of the People faction in parliament, confirmed on Telegram that raids were carried out on the two men, as well as at the premises of the Tax Office, .

He added that the management team of the Customs Service would be dismissed and that Ukraine, which was plagued by deep-seated corruption before Russian troops invaded almost a year ago, would undergo a change.

"The country will change during the war. If someone is not ready for change, then the state itself will come and help them change," Arakhamia wrote on Telegram.

Kolomoyskiy, one of Ukraine's richest men, is a former ally of Zelenskiy and owner of one of the country's most influential television channels. He backed Zelenskiy's election campaign in 2019.

Kolomoyskiy was indicted in the United States in 2020 on charges related to large-scale bank fraud. U.S. authorities have also alleged that Kolomoyskiy and a business partner laundered stolen funds through the United States.

The billionaire has denied any wrongdoing. Last year he was deprived of Ukrainian citizenship by Zelenskiy.

Avakov said his home was searched by security officials on February 1 in an investigation connected to a purchase of French-made Airbus helicopters, local media reported.

On January 18, an Airbus helicopter crashed, killing 14 people including Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy and other top ministry officials.

Avakov, one of Ukraine's most influential officials, resigned in July 2021 after serving as interior minister for more than seven years.

Zelenskiy on January 23 said he would make personnel changes at senior and lower levels, following the most high-profile corruption allegations since Russia's invasion in February 2022.

"There are already personnel decisions -- some today, some tomorrow -- regarding officials at various levels in ministries and other central government structures, as well as in the regions and in law enforcement," Zelenskiy said.

Zelenskiy's announcement came after the deputy infrastructure minister was detained by anti-graft authorities on suspicion of receiving a $400,000 bribe over the import of generators in September, an allegation the minister denies.

Separately, the Defense Ministry was accused by an investigative newspaper of overpaying suppliers for troops' food. The supplier has said a technical mistake was to blame and no extra money had been paid.

Following Zelenskiy's pledge to clean out corruption, the deputy head of the presidential administration, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, announced on January 24 that he had tendered his resignation to the head of state.

"I thank the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskiy for the trust and the opportunity to do good deeds every day and every minute," Tymoshenko wrote on Telegram.

On January 25, prosecutors in five regions -- Zaporizhzhya, Kirovohrad, Poltava, Sumy, and Chernihiv --were removed from their posts.

Ukraine has long been marred by widespread corruption that has weakened the effectiveness of state institutions, even as the country faced an increasingly aggressive Russia since 2014, culminating with Moscow's full-scale invasion.

"The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was a stark reminder of the threat that corruption and the absence of government accountability pose for global peace and security," Transparency International said in its annual report on graft published earlier this week.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Russian Journalist Nevzorov Sentenced To Nine Years For Comments On War

Aleksandr Nevzorov currently resides in an unspecified European Union member state. (file photo)

One of Russia's best-known TV journalists, Aleksandr Nevzorov, has been sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison for allegedly discrediting the armed forces involved in the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Moscow's Basmanny district court handed down the sentence on February 1. The prosecutor had asked for a nine-year prison term for the Kremlin critic.

The Investigative Committee launched a probe into Nevzorov in March 2022 over statements he made on Instagram and YouTube that criticized the armed forces for a deadly assault on a nursing home in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol and the alleged torture and killing of civilians in the town of Bucha.

In May, a court in Moscow ordered that Nevzorov be detained for two months should he return to Russia.

Nevzorov's property in the northwestern Leningrad region was impounded in what the court said was a move to secure compensation for any possible fines Nevzorov will be ordered to pay if convicted.

Nevzorov is currently on tour across Canada with lectures about Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine. He currently resides in an unspecified European Union member state.

In June 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed a decree granting Ukrainian citizenship to Nevzorov and his wife Lidia "for transcendental services" to Ukraine.

In the days after launching his invasion of Ukraine on February 24, President Vladimir Putin signed into law legislation that calls for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about its war in Ukraine.

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

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

Nevzorov, who continues to sharply criticize Putin and his government over the Moscow-launched war in Ukraine on his YouTube channel, has rejected the charges, saying he has a right to express his own opinion.

Ukrainian Defenders Under Concentrated Attacks In East As Kyiv Lobbies For Warplanes

French military support staff walk towards a Rafale fighter jet. (file photo)

Russia has thrown fresh contingents of troops at Ukrainian positions in the east but failed to make notable advances, the Ukrainian military said on February 1, as Kyiv stepped up its efforts to convince its Western allies to give it fighter jets.

"The enemy has not paused its offensive actions in the Lyman and Bakhmut directions [in the eastern region of Donetsk," Ukraine's General Staff said in its daily report early on February 1, adding that Russian forces also conducted "unsuccessful offensives" in the Avdiyivka and Novopavlivka areas of Donestk as well, and "suffered great losses."

The information could not be independently verified.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Russia has kept pressing its attacks on the town of Vuhledar, some 150 kilometers southeast of the fighting in and around Bakhmut, which has been the focal point of months of fighting in Donetsk.

The latest wave in the incessant Russian offensive came as Washington is preparing a fresh $2.2 billion package of military aid for Ukraine that is expected to give Kyiv longer-range missiles for the first time, as well as other munitions and weapons, according to two U.S. officials briefed on the matter who spoke to Reuters on January 31.

But the United States, which has given Kyiv some $27.2 billion in military aid since the start of Russia's unprovoked invasion almost one year ago, has so far been reluctant to provide warplanes for Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden responded negatively when asked by reporters on January 30 if Washington would send F-16s.

On January 31, he told reporters that he and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy were "going to talk" but gave no further details.

France also gave mixed signals on the matter, with Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu saying after talks in Paris on January 31 with Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov that "there was no taboo" about supplying Kyiv with fighter planes.

A day earlier, President Emmanuel Macron also told reporters that "nothing is excluded" when it comes to military assistance but offered no specifics.

But Reznikov voiced guarded optimism at a joint news conference with Lecornu on January 31, saying that all of Ukraine's requests were initially met with refusal by its allies, only to be eventually granted.

"In the beginning, all types of aid went through the 'no' phase. That means no as of today. The second stage: let's discuss, study the technical possibilities. Third stage: let's prepare your crews. And the fourth stage: take it. It happened with HIMARS, it happened with 155 mm artillery, the same with Bradley [fighting vehicles]," Reznikov said.

After months of reluctance, the United States and Germany agreed last month to send Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks, respectively, to Ukraine, while the United Kingdom earlier in January said it would send 14 Challenger 2 tanks.

Germany also allowed other countries, such as Norway and Poland to send their German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

WATCH: Ukrainian civilians come under shelling as they attempt to flee from Russian attacks in Bakhmut, in a video posted online by foreign volunteers.

Frontline Videos Show Intense Battles In Eastern Ukraine
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On January 31, Ukraine said it was expecting up to 140 modern tanks from its Western allies.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba gave the estimate, saying that 12 countries had promised more than 100 tanks after the U.S. and German opposition was lifted.

"Ukraine's armed forces will receive between 120 and 140 modern Western tanks," Kuleba said, describing the figure as the "first wave of contributions."

"These are Leopard 2, Challenger 2, M1 Abrams," Kuleba said, without specifying a timeline for the deliveries.

Kuleba noted too that Kyiv was "very much counting on" France to pass over to the Ukrainian military its Leclerc battle tank.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

U.S. Official Asserts Sanctions Cutting Off Russian War Machine

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Robin Dunnigan spoke to RFE/RL in Vilnius on January 31.

VILNIUS -- Western sanctions against Russia have been "very effective" in cutting off Russia's war machine, a U.S. official asserted, amid growing questions about Moscow's ability to circumvent the measures.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Robin Dunnigan, a deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state, said the economic sanctions imposed after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 were putting pressure on Moscow, and "we will see the results of that in the coming months and years."

Russia's economy has been squeezed by the Western sanctions, contracting around 2.7 percent in 2022, according to Western estimates, but not as badly as some Western governments had hoped. Russia continues to export oil and gas, despite Europe all but cutting itself off, and that's allowed Moscow to bring in sizable revenues.

The International Monetary Fund predicted Russia's economy will expand just 0.3 percent in 2023, which is an improvement from earlier forecasts of a contraction up to 2.3 percent.

The Russian economy has also held up surprisingly well due to long-standing conservative fiscal policies and revenues from natural-resource sales overseen by President Vladimir Putin that filled public coffers and its rainy-day funds, including ample reserves of both gold and Chinese yuan.

Some experts say Moscow has as least three more years of funding to continue the war at the current pace of operations.

Russia has also managed to circumvent many of the restrictions on dual-use technologies, such as semiconductors, through increased trade with countries like China. China, India, and other countries have also stepped in to replace supply chains for consumer goods like smartphones, appliances, and cars and trucks.

In the interview, Dunnigan also accused Belarus, which has provided logistical support for Russian troops, of being an "accomplice" in the war.

"I do not think that Belarusians want a war against Ukraine to be waged from their country. Therefore, I do not think that he represents the will of his own people," she said. "And I think that's tragic. I think that the consequences for the Belarusian people, who did not want to have anything to do with it, are truly terrible."

She said the United States continued to press Belarus for free and fair elections. Strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed reelection to the presidency in 2020, sparking months of unprecedented streets protests and further isolation from the West.

Dunnigan was scheduled later to travel to Poland to meet with Polish officials about the situation in Belarus.

Ukrainian PM Announces EU-Ukraine Summit In Kyiv On February 3

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal (file photo)

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal has announced that a summit with the European Union will take place in Kyiv on February 3, which would send a "powerful signal" to Moscow and the world. Shmyhal told a government meeting that the event would be "extremely important" for Kyiv's bid to join the European bloc. "The fact that this summit will be held in Kyiv is a powerful signal to both partners and enemies." No details were provided on who would be attending on the European Union's side.

U.S. Curbs Exports To Iranian Firms For Producing Drones

An Iranian-made kamikaze drone approaches for an attack in Kyiv on October 17.

The United States has placed new trade restrictions on seven Iranian entities for producing drones used by Russia to attack Ukraine, the U.S. Department of Commerce said. The firms and other organizations were added to an export control list for those engaged in activities contrary to U.S. national security and foreign policy interests. The additions to the so-called entities list were posted in a preliminary filing on January 31. Since Moscow launched its unprovoked war against Ukraine, the United States and other countries have sought to degrade Russia’s military and defense industrial base by using export controls to restrict its access to technology. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Russia Not Complying With Inspection Obligation Under Nuclear Arms Treaty, U.S. Says

Then-U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, concluded the new START Treaty in 2010.

The United States says Russia is not complying with its obligation under the New START nuclear arms treaty to allow inspection activities on its territory. In a statement on January 31, a State Department spokesperson said Russia's “refusal to facilitate inspection activities prevents the United States from exercising important rights under the treaty and threatens the viability of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control." Talks between Moscow and Washington on resuming inspections under the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty were to take place in November, but Russia postponed them and neither side has set a new date for a meeting. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Iranians Use Sadeh Festival To Protest Against Lack Of Freedoms

Sadeh festivities in the Iranian city of Kerman on January 30.

Iranian protesters have staged fresh anti-government demonstrations by taking to the streets during the Sadeh festival, a traditional ancient celebration in which fire is used to defeat the forces of darkness and cold.

Protesters in Tehran's Ekbatan neighborhood celebrated the Sadeh festival by lighting huge fires, saying they showed the depth of their anger toward the government's intrusion on their freedoms and chanted “death to the dictator,” a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Similar scenes were repeated in the Iranian cities of Yazd, Kerman, Shiraz, Kermanshah, Kerman, and Mashhad.

Sadeh in Persian means "hundred" and refers to the 100 days and nights remaining until the beginning of spring.

The festival, which took on an extra meaning this year after several months of unrest that threatens to tear the country apart as protesters fight for women's and human rights.

The unrest was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. The 22-year-old died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious "morality police" for "improperly" wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf, or hijab.

Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country. The authorities have met the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.

Officials, who have blamed the West for the demonstrations, have vowed to crack down even harder on protesters, with the judiciary leading the way after the unrest entered a fourth month.

The protests pose the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

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

Azerbaijan Asks International Court Of Justice To Order Armenia To Help Demining Effort

A view of the International Court of Justice in The Hague (file photo)

Azerbaijan has asked judges at the International Court Of Justice (ICJ) to order Armenia to help demine areas it previously controlled and stop planting explosive devices which prevent Azerbaijani nationals from returning to their former homes. Azerbaijan asked the court, as part of an ongoing larger case, to issue an emergency ruling ordering Armenia to give the locations of the devices to allow for safe demining and stop putting in new mines. Armenia's representative at the ICJ denied that his country had laid landmines outside its sovereign territories, "let alone in civilian areas." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Updated

IOC Says Sporting Sanctions On Russia 'Not Negotiable'

The IOC was responding to remarks made by the head of Russia's Olympic Committee, Stanislav Pozdnyakov (pictured)​​​​​, who had said that athletes representing Russia must not be subjected to different conditions than those of other countries. (file photo)

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) insisted on January 31 that the sporting sanctions on Russia and Belarus, imposed over the invasion of Ukraine, are not negotiable. These include bans on Russian and Belarusian athletes competing under their countries' flag. The head of Russia's Olympic Committee, Stanislav Pozdnyakov​, had said earlier that athletes representing Russia must not be subjected to different conditions than those of other countries, amid a growing row over their possible participation in the Paris 2024 Olympics. "The sanctions against the Russian and Belarusian state and governments are not negotiable," an IOC spokesperson said. "They have been unanimously confirmed by the recent Olympic summit meeting on December 9."

Prosecutor Seeks Nine Years For Putin Critic In Trial Held In Absentia

Russian journalist Aleksandr Nevzorov (file photo)

The prosecutor at a high-profile trial in absentia of one of Russia's best-known TV journalists, Aleksandr Nevzorov, has asked a court in Moscow to sentence the outspoken Kremlin critic to nine years in prison on a charge of discrediting the armed forces involved in the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The prosecutor also asked the Basmanny district court on January 31 to bar Nevzorov from posting anything on the Internet for four years.

The Investigative Committee launched a probe into Nevzorov in March last year over statements he made on Instagram and YouTube that criticized the armed forces for a deadly assault on a nursing home in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol and the alleged torturing and killing of civilians in the town of Bucha.

In May, a court in Moscow ordered that Nevzorov be detained for two months should he return to Russia.

Nevzorov's property in the northwestern Leningrad region was impounded in what the Basmanny district court said was a move to secure compensation for any possible fines Nevzorov will be ordered to pay if convicted.

Nevzorov is currently on a tour across Canada with lectures about Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine. He permanently resides in one of the European Union member-states.

In June last year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed a decree granting Ukrainian citizenship to Nevzorov and his wife Lidia "for transcendent services" to Ukraine.

In the days after launching his invasion of Ukraine on February 24, President Vladimir Putin signed into law legislation that calls for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about its war in Ukraine.

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

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

Nevzorov, who continues to sharply criticize Putin and his government over the Moscow-launched war in Ukraine on his YouTube channel, has rejected the charges saying he has a right to express his own opinion.

Russia issues Decree To Check Cars For Weapons In Regions With 'Terrorist Risk'

(file photo)

Russia will begin checks for weapons and explosives in cars in regions considered to have a high terrorist threat level, according to a presidential decree published on January 31. The decree says "inspections of vehicles using technical means for detecting weapons and explosives" will begin in regions where "a level of terrorist threat has been confirmed." Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, Russia has been at a "yellow" level terrorist threat, which corresponds to confirmed information about a planned terrorist act, in a number of regions that border or are near Ukraine. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Court Rejects Belarusian Oppositionists Appeal Against Their Imprisonment

Belarusian oppositionists Aksana Alyakseyeva (left), Mikalay Kazlou (center), and Antanina Kavalyova (composite file photo)

MINSK -- The Minsk City Court has rejected appeals filed by the leader of the Belarusian opposition United Civic Party (AHP) Mikalay Kazlou and his two associates against their imprisonment for participating in a march protesting the official results of a disputed August 2020 presidential election.

The court ruled on January 31 that the sentences of Kazlou, the leader of the AHP's branch in Minsk, Aksana Alyakseyeva, and human rights defender Antanina Kavalyova remain unchanged as they were properly adjudicated by the Pershamayski district court of Minsk in November.

Kazlou was handed 30 months in prison, Alyakseyeva, received 18 months in prison, and Kavalyova was sentenced to one year in prison after Judge Anastasia Kulik found them guilty of taking part in actions that disrupted civil order.

The trio was arrested in late July. Kazlou pleaded not guilty, Kavalyova pleaded partially guilty, and Alyakseyeva pleaded guilty.

On October 31, another court in Minsk sentenced three other AHP members -- Andrus Asmalouski, Dziyana Charnushina, and Artur Smalyakou -- to prison terms of between two and three years on the same charges.

The crimes in both cases stem from a rally on August 23, 2020, that was attended by at least 100,000 people who challenged the results of the presidential poll and a brutal police crackdown that started shortly after Lukashenka was declared the winner. The opposition says the election was rigged.

Security forces used deadly force as they violently detained tens of thousands of people.

Many of Belarus's opposition leaders have been jailed or forced into exile since the August 2020 presidential election. Several protesters have been killed and there have also been credible reports of torture during a widening security crackdown.

Belarusian authorities have also clamped down on civil society, shutting down several nongovernmental organizations and independent media outlets.

The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and the police crackdown ordered by officials.

AHP is one of the oldest opposition political parties in Belarus and has been in operation since 1995.

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