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Renowned Pianist Again Gets Suspended Sentence For Blasphemy

Turkish pianist Fazil Say
An Istanbul court has again handed a 10-month suspended jail term to world-renowned Turkish pianist Fazil Say for blasphemy.

Say, who was not present at the hearing on September 20, was also placed on two years' probation.

In April, Say was handed the same sentence on charges of inciting religious hatred and insulting Islamic values for a series of tweets last year.

In one post on Twitter, he said that "buffoons, thieves, and jesters are Allahists."

The EU had expressed concern over Say's April sentence.

A higher Istanbul court overturned the conviction on "procedural flaws" and a retrial was ordered.

Say has accused the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of pursuing a hidden Islamist agenda and says his case is politically motivated.

Say, 43, has played with orchestras in Berlin, New York, Tokyo, and Israel.


Based on reporting by AFP and Zaman

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Putin Says Further Prisoner Exchanges With United States Possible

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with Kyrgyz counterpart Sadyr Japarov at a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Bishkek on December 9.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that further prisoner swaps between the United States and Russia are possible, and that contacts between the two countries' intelligence services will continue. Putin was speaking at a news conference in Bishkek on December 9, a day after the United States freed arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner. Putin was asked if other exchanges were possible. "Yes, anything is possible," he replied. "Contacts continue. In fact, they have never stopped.... A compromise was found, we do not reject continuing this work in the future." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

U.S. Imposes Sanctions On Turkish Businessman Over Iran Oil Trade

According to the U.S. Treasury, Sitki Ayan also used one of his companies to buy a Panamanian-flagged liquefied natural gas tanker for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. (file photo)

The United States has blacklisted prominent Turkish businessman Sitki Ayan for allegedly operating a trading network that facilitated oil sales on behalf of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Ayan's companies have established international sales contracts for Iranian oil, arranged shipments, helped launder the proceeds, and obscured the origin of the oil on behalf of Iran's Quds Force, an arm of the IRGC, the U.S. Treasury said on December 8 in a statement.

Ayan, his son, Bahaddin Ayan, and Kasim Oztas, a senior official of ASB Group, a Gibraltar-registered holding company for several businesses controlled by Ayan, were all designated for sanctions in an action that the Treasury said supplements one in May targeting other elements of the network.

That network facilitated the sale of Iranian oil for both the IRGC Quds Force and Hizballah with the backing of senior levels of the Russian government and state-run entities, Treasury said.

Ayan used the network of his Gibraltar-registered ASB Group, which was also blacklisted by the Treasury on December 8, to hide the origins of the oil and the destination of the payments, Treasury said.

Bahaddin Ayan directs and owns shares in at least five ASB Group-associated companies, while Oztas "directly handles much of Ayan's business," the department said.

It said Ayan has helped the Quds Force by arranging the sale and shipment of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of oil the IRGC controls to China and other East Asian buyers, Europe, and the United Arab Emirates.

He has also helped move the proceeds from the sales to the IRGC, the Treasury said.

Ayan also used one of his companies to buy a Panamanian-flagged liquefied natural gas tanker for the IRGC, it said.

The Treasury also placed around 20 companies in the ASB Group and Ayan-affiliated companies on its blacklist. The sanctions freeze any assets the individuals or companies have under U.S. jurisdiction, inhibits their access to global financial markets, and bars people based in the U.S. from dealing with them.

Ayan, his son, and Oztas were not immediately available for comment, Reuters reported. Ayan's ASB Group and Turkey’s Directorate of Communications did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Washington maintains sweeping sanctions on Iran and has looked for ways to increase pressure as efforts to resurrect a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran have stalled.

The agreement limited Iran's uranium enrichment activity to make it harder for Tehran to develop nuclear arms in return for lifting international sanctions. U.S. President Joe Biden sought to negotiate the return of Iran to the nuclear deal after former President Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement in 2018. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Brother Of Iranian Doctor Handed Death Sentence Says Wife's Confession Came After She Was Tortured

Radiologist Hamid Qarahasanlou and his wife, Farzaneh

The brother of Iranian doctor Hamid Qarahasanlou says interrogators severly tortured his brother's wife to extract a confession from her against her husband as security forces looked to pin the blame on protesters for the death of a member of the Basij paramilitary force during nationwide demonstrations.

Iran's judiciary said on December 6 that it had sentenced 16 people to sentences ranging from long-term imprisonment to death for their alleged roles in the killing of Ruhollah Ajamian, who was part of the Basij, a volunteer militia under the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Hamid Qarahasanlou, who is in hospital recovering after reportedly being tortured as well, was one of five accused to be handed death sentences over the killing of Ajamian.

Qarahasanlu's brother said in an interview with RFERL’s Radio Farda that, during the interrogations, Farzaneh, Hamid’s wife, was tortured to the point where to save herself, she lied and said that her husband may have kicked the victim.

“She resisted the first day. On the second day, they told her that we know your son is in the dormitory of Tabriz University, and if you don't confess by tonight that Hamid hit the victim, we will arrest your son and he will suffer the same torture that you are suffering, and he may be killed,” Farzaneh Qarahasanlou’s brother in law told Radio Farda.

“This is the only evidence they have against Hamid, and Farzaneh later recanted the statement and told the court that her confession was obtained under torture and has no validity,” he added.

Hassan Qarahasanlou also told Radio Farda that the judicial authorities threatened their lawyers and finally, upon the withdrawal of the lawyers, they forced them to accept a public defender.

"The public defender spoke against my brother in court. He told Hamid that you are lying, and that you hit Ajamian and were not tortured."

According to Qarahasanlou’s brother, the public defender personally went to the hospital where Hamid was admitted and without taking into account medical opinions, determined that Hamid Qarahasanlou was capable of appearing in court.

“The forensic doctor had said that Hamid could not be present in the court, that he could not even have a video call. That’s why he was absent from the first session of the trial, but still, they took him to the court for the second session,” Hassan Qarahasanlou said.

Prosecutors said Ajamian, 27, was stripped naked and killed by a group of mourners who had been paying tribute to a slain protester, Hadis Najafi, during ceremonies marking the 40th day since her death.

The four others sentenced to death were not named. Of the 11 people sentenced in the case, three were minors, judiciary spokesman Massud Setayeshi told a news conference, adding that the sentences can be appealed.

Hamid Qarahasanlou, who is a radiologist, was seriously injured during the arrest and interrogation.

According to his brother, one of Hamid's ribs was broken during detention and five more during interrogation. Finally, these fractures resulted in internal bleeding and he was taken to hospital.

After Qarahasanlou regained consciousness following surgery, judicial authorities came to the hospital in the middle of the night to wake him and hand him the death sentence, Hassan Qarahasanlou said.

The cases were rushed through three hearings within six days before the sentences were handed down.

Human rights organizations have strongly objected to the death sentences being issued against protesters in Iran after "sham trials."

The verdict comes after weeks of increased threats by authorities that they will react harshly to any unrest. Lawmakers have pushed the judiciary to render harsh penalties -- including the death penalty -- in trials for those arrested during protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

The Mizan news agency, which is affiliated with the judiciary, reported on December 8 that 24-year-old Mohsen Shekhari had become the first protester to be executed after an appeal of his sentence was rejected by the Supreme Court.

Iran is currently in the throes of unrest as people take to the streets across the country to protest Amini's death on September 16.

Police have met the unrest with deadly force.

The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

The Oslo-based Iran Human Rights Organization says the number of executions in Iran exceeds 500 this year.

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

Woman Linked To Russian Defense Minister Stripped Of Residence Permit in Lithuania

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attends a meeting with officials of the Defence Ministry in an unknown location

A Vilnius court on December 9 cancelled the residence permit of Yelena Kaminskas, aka Shebunova, a Russian citizen who is reportedly the mother of two extramarital children from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The court hearing was held behind closed doors. Lithuania’s State Security Department said earlier that Shebunova's presence "may impose a threat to the country's national security over her links with Russian structures." Shebunova's husband, Adolfas Kaminskas, may be stripped of his Lithuanian citizenship for having Russian citizenship as well. Dual citizenship is banned in Lithuania. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Austria's President Blasts Own Government For Blocking Romania And Bulgaria's Schengen Entry

Austria's Presiden Alexander Van der Bellen (file photo)

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen said on December 9 that he regrets a government decision to block Romania and Bulgaria from joining Europe's open-borders Schengen Area.

Croatia, which was admitted to the European Union in 2013, received the go-ahead on December 8 to join Schengen in January during a meeting in Brussels of EU interior and justice ministers.

Admission to the Schengen zone requires unanimity, and Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the European Union together in 2007, faced opposition from Austria, while Sofia's accession was also blocked by the Netherlands.

Both Austria and the Netherlands cited concerns about illegal migration as increasing numbers of people cross its borders without authorization via the Balkans region.

Last month, the European Commission ruled that all three countries meet the technical criteria for joining, and the European Parliament has also voted in favor of their membership.

Van der Bellen criticized the Austrian government's move, which he said would add to the migration crisis instead of alleviating it.

"It is true that Austria is in a difficult situation due to the very high number of asylum seekers. But the Schengen blockade does not contribute to a solution," he wrote on Twitter.

"On the contrary, the Austrian economy is now threatened with fines as a result of Romanian countermeasures," he tweeted.

Van der Bellen expressed hope that a solution through dialogue with European Union partners would be found soon.

"We can only meet the challenges in the area of flight and migration together with our partners in the EU. I hope that a solution through dialogue is possible soon," he said.

Both Romania and Bulgaria have said they will continue efforts to join the Schengen Area.

“Bulgaria performed very well, the very conclusion of the European Commission and the reports and opinions showed that Bulgaria and Romania meet all the requirements for our admission to Schengen. The issue was political,” Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev told Bulgarian journalists in Brussels on December 8.

But Romania, while vowing to reapply for membership, was vocal in criticizing Austria's opposition, and recalled its ambassador to Vienna.

"We regret and honestly do not understand the inflexible position taken by Austria," Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca said.

Media reports said Romanian President Klaus Iohannis had called for the resignation of Interior Minister Lucian Bode for his failure to secure Romania's membership in Schengen, while some politicians have blamed Iohannis -- an ethnic German -- for not doing enough to help ensure accession.

Romanians on social media have also called for a generalized boycott of Austrian products and urged compatriots to stop doing business with Austrian-owned banks and avoid the gas stations operated by Austria's OMV oil company in Romania.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Romanian and Bulgarian services, g4media.ro, and digi24.ro

Tajik Journalist Mamadshoeva Sentenced To 21 Years In Prison

Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva (left) and her former husband, Kholbash Kholbashov, were shown on TV confessing to organizing the protests after their arrest.

DUSHANBE -- Tajikistan's Supreme Court has sentenced noted journalist and civil rights activist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva to 21 years in prison on charges related to deadly May protests in the Gorno-Badakhshan region, which rights watchdogs have called trumped-up.

Sources close to law enforcement structures told RFE/RL on December 9 that Mamadshoeva was sentenced earlier in the week. The trial was held behind closed doors.

Mamadshoeva and her former husband, Kholbash Kholbashov, were arrested in May and charged with publicly calling for the violent change of Tajikistan's constitutional order, organizing a criminal group, murder, attempted murder, and terrorism.

Kholbashov was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in September.

Shortly after their arrest, Kholbashov and Mamadshoeva were shown on the Tojikiston television channel saying that they were among the people who had planned and organized the protests.

The day before her arrest, Mamadshoeva told RFE/RL that she had nothing to do with the anti-government protests in the regional capital Khorugh, and in the district of Rushon.

Tajik authorities have said 10 people were killed and 27 injured during the clashes between protesters and police. Residents of the Rushon district, however, have told RFE/RL 21 bodies were found at the sites where the clashes took place.

The escalating violence in the region sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.

Gorno-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, was 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.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Says Russian And U.S. Diplomats Have Met In Istanbul

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (file photo)

Russian and U.S. diplomats met in Istanbul on December 9 to discuss a number of technical issues in the bilateral relationship, Russian state media quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying. The TASS news agency said the two sides would discuss "difficult questions" including visas, embassy staffing levels, and the work of each side's institutions and agencies abroad, among other unspecified issues. Ryabkov said the meeting was between heads of department from the Russian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department. He said it was a technical meeting and not a sign that the two sides were ready to resume discussing "major issues." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

U.S. Office Of Foreign Assets Control Allows Kazakhstan To Operate Russia's Mir Cards

Many banks in several nations stopped operations with Mir in recent months amid warnings to adhere to international sanctions against Moscow. (file photo)

The U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has permitted Kazakh banks to operate with Russia's Mir payment cards, which had been blocked due to international sanctions against Moscow for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The Kazakh Agency of Financial Market Regulation said on December 9 that the OFAC permission was received a day earlier and relates only to individuals, namely Russian citizens who moved to Kazakhstan. Many banks in several nations stopped operations with Mir in recent months amid warnings to adhere to international sanctions against Moscow. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Russian Officer Who Fled To Kazakhstan To Avoid Mobilization To Ukraine War Faces Deportation

Many Russian men who fled Russia over the Ukraine mobilization went to Kazakhstan and other neighboring countries, often waiting in line for long periods to get across the border. (file photo)

An officer with Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) who fled to Kazakhstan to avoid Moscow's military mobilization for the war in Ukraine is in custody and faces deportation from the Central Asian nation.

According to Siberian journalist Yevgenia Baltatarova, who is currently based in Kazakhstan, 36-year-old Major Mikhail Zhilin managed to send his wife and children to Kazakhstan after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization in September to beef-up his armed forces as they suffered setbacks from the strong resistance being put up by Ukraine's military.

Zhilin had to cross the border illegally as he knew that, as an FSB officer, he would not be allowed to leave the country. He asked for political asylum, but his request was rejected by Kazakh authorities and he was arrested, Baltatarova added in a Telegram post on December 8.

Baltatarova said that Zhilin, who fled his country along with hundreds of thousands of other men who were worried about the mobilization, now faces possible extradition to Russia, where he is wanted on a charge of desertion.

"In Russia, Mikhail will face a lengthy prison term or service in the death battalions [of private Vagner mercenary group that recruits inmates for the war in Ukraine]," Baltatarova wrote.

Kazakhstan's Migration Service has refused to give any information on Zhilin's case to RFE/RL. It has requested that written questions be sent to it.

Many Russian men who fled Russia over the mobilization went to Kazakhstan and other neighboring countries.

Kazakh Interior Minister Marat Akhmetzhanov said at the time that the Central Asian nation would extradite only those Russian citizens who are added to Russia's wanted list.

With reporting by Reuters

Griner, Bout Both Back At Home After Russia-U.S. Prisoner Swap

Viktor Bout (left), a suspected Russian arms dealer, and women's basketball star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner (right)

American basketball star Brittney Griner returned to the United States early on December 9 after being freed in a high-profile prisoner exchange following nearly 10 months in detention in Russia. The deal, which saw her swapped for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, secured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad and achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden. But Washington failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years. Some have criticized Biden for making the deal without securing the release of Whelan, or any other Americans held in Russia. Bout arrived back in Russia earlier on December 9. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Updated

Russian Opposition Politician Ilya Yashin Sentenced To Eight Years In Prison

Ilya Yashin gestures inside a defendant's cage prior to his court hearing in Moscow on December 9.

A Moscow court has sentenced opposition politician Ilya Yashin to 8 1/2 years in prison on a charge of spreading false information about the Russian military amid its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

The Meshchansky district court pronounced the decision on December 9.

Yashin, 39, is an outspoken Kremlin critic and one of the few prominent opposition politicians still in Russia after a wave of repression against supporters of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and people who have spoken out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The sentence is the harshest handed down in cases of people charged with discrediting Russia's armed forces since a new law was introduced days after the Kremlin launched the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in late February.

The case against Yashin was launched in July. The charge against him stems from his YouTube posts about alleged crimes committed by the Russian military in the Ukrainian city of Bucha.

Yashin has been arrested many times in the past for his protest activities.

In his final testimony at the trial on December 5, Yashin said, "I do not regret anything."

"I could run away, I could keep silent. But I was doing what I had to do. It is better to spend 10 years behind bars than to feel ashamed for what is being conducted in your name," Yashin said.

Yashin has said that the authorities were trying to force him to leave Russia, which he refused to do.

Navalny condemned Yashin's sentencing, calling it "lawless."

"Another shameless and lawless verdict by Putin's court will not silence Ilya and should not intimidate the honest people of Russia. This is yet another reason why we need to keep fighting, and I have no doubt we will ultimately win," Navalny said on Twitter.

With reporting by Meduza

U.K. Says It Has Sanctioned 30 More Political Figures, Rights Violators

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly (file photo)

The United Kingdom has announced a new wave of sanctions that targets 30 individuals and entities -- including several Iranian and Russian officials -- it says are oppressing fundamental freedoms around the world.

This British Foreign Office said the announcement on December 9 to mark International Anti-Corruption Day and Global Human Rights Day includes 18 designations targeting individuals involved in violations and abuses of human rights, six perpetrators behind conflict-related sexual violence, and five individuals for their involvement in "serious corruption and illicit finance."

Among those sanctioned are Andrey Tishenin and Artur Shambazov, Moscow-installed officials in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and Valentin Oparin and Oleg Tkachenko, from the Rostov region of Russia that borders Crimea. All four are accused of using torture on prisoners or of obstructing complaints of torture.

Ten Iranian officials connected to Iran’s judicial and prison systems are on the list, including six individuals linked to courts that have been responsible for prosecuting protesters with "egregious sentences including the death penalty."

"It is our duty to promote free and open societies around the world," Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement.

"Today our sanctions go further to expose those behind the heinous violations of our most fundamental rights to account. We are committed to using every lever at our disposal to secure a future of freedom over fear."

In total, the new sanctions include targets from 11 countries across seven sanctions regimes -- "the most that the U.K. has ever brought together in one package."

All of the individuals are subject to an asset freeze and travel ban, while all entities are subject to an asset freeze.

The statement said that five individuals, including Slobodan Tesic, "a significant arms dealer based in Serbia," Milan Radojcic, an ethnic Serb businessman from Kosovo, and Zvonko Veselinovic, a construction magnate in Kosovo, were on the list for corruption. The other two are Ilan Shor, a Moldovan politician, and Vladimir Plahotniuc, a businessman and a former politician who is a fugitive from Moldovan justice.

"Lining their pockets through corruption and theft, corrupt actors have a corrosive effect on the communities around them -- undermining democracy and depriving countries of vital resources for their own gain," the statement said.

"As a result, over 2 percent of global [gross domestic product] is lost to corruption every single year," it added.

UN Human Rights Chief 'Determined' To Follow Up With China On Xinjiang Concerns

UN human rights chief Volker Turk (file photo)

UN human rights chief Volker Turk said on December 9 that he was determined to engage with Beijing over the findings of a report issued by his predecessor that said China's treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslims in its Xinjiang region may constitute crimes against humanity. Grappling with the human rights record of China has been one of the thorniest issues facing Turk since he started his job in October. Beijing pressured Turk's predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, not to publish the report, Reuters revealed, and she only did so a few minutes before the end of her term. To read the original Reuters story, click here.

Popular Russian Social Network VK Starts Marking Materials Containing LGBT Text

(file photo)

Four days after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law expanding a ban on the promotion of "LGBT propaganda," the popular VKontakte (VK) social network has started putting a special disclaimer on online groups that post materials about LGBT communities. The disclaimers, which began appearing on December 9, warn that some groups may post "materials that may be considered in violation of the laws of the Russian Federation," including the LGBT law. Human rights defenders and activists working with LGBT+ groups have said the new law will make it impossible for public organizations that help LGBT+ organizations function. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Erdogan Says He Is Set To Speak To Putin, Zelenskiy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (file photo)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he will speak to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on December 11, and he will also speak to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in order to strengthen the UN-backed Black Sea grain deal. Erdogan was making a speech at a conference in Istanbul on December 9, which Zelenskiy also addressed via video link. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Russia Presses Offensive In Eastern Ukraine As U.S. Readies More Military Aid For Kyiv

A woman stands near the debris of her house following Russian shelling in the Donetsk region on December

Russian forces pounded the entire front line in Ukraine's eastern region of Donetsk and Luhansk, the General Staff of the Ukrainian military said on December 9, as U.S. officials said that Washington was preparing to send Ukraine a $275 million military aid package containing new capabilities to defeat drones and strengthen air defenses.

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.

Ukrainian forces repelled dozens of Russian attacks in the Bilohoryivka area in Luhansk as well as Klishchyivka and Maryinka in the Donetsk region, the General Staff said in its daily update.

"Over the past day, the enemy launched five missile strikes and three air strikes, as well as 54 salvoes from multiple rocket systems," it said, adding that the Russians continued to threaten Ukraine's already badly damaged energy infrastructure system as winter settles in.

The fiercest fighting continued near the towns of Bakhmut and Avdiyivka in Donetsk, regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said in a television interview. Artillery slammed into the town of Toretsk southwest of Bakhmut, killing one civilian and damaging 12 buildings, Kyrylenko said.

"The entire front line is being shelled," he said, adding that Russians were also trying to advance near Lyman, which was recaptured by Ukrainian forces last month in one of a number of setbacks suffered by Moscow since invading its neighbor in February.

In Bakhmut and other parts of the Donetsk region, Ukrainian forces countered with barrages from rocket launchers, witnesses said.

The recently liberated city of Kherson sustained another wave of Russian bombardments targeting the energy and civilian infrastructure, according to Yuriy Sobolevskiy, the deputy head of the Kherson regional council.

"The night in Kherson was restless, with the sounds of explosions from enemy aircraft. The orcs were once again hitting civilian infrastructure," Sobolevskiy said on Telegram on December 9.

In Washington, officials said the United States is preparing to send Ukraine an additional $275 million in military aid, including large amounts of ammunition and high-tech systems that can be used to detect and counter drones.

Numerous waves of Russian drone and missile attacks on Ukraine's infrastructure over the past months have caused huge damage and left millions of people without electricity, heating, and water as freezing temperatures kicked in.

The fresh U.S. package, which could be announced as early as December 9, is also expected to include rockets for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers made by Lockheed Martin Corp, 155-millimeter ammunition, Humvee military vehicles, and generators, according to the officials familiar with the issue.

A National Security Council spokesperson declined to comment on the aid package, which is smaller than most of the recent ones that the United States has delivered, and it comes as some military officials and experts predict a reduction in military hostilities during the winter.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said Russia appears to be slowing its military activities to regroup and launch a new offensive when the weather warms.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed on December 8 to continue the attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure.

"There's a lot of noise about our strikes on the energy infrastructure of a neighboring country," Putin said at a military awards ceremony in the Kremlin. "This will not interfere with our combat missions," Putin added.

In yet another sign that Moscow was bent on keeping up the military pressure during the cold months, the Russian Defense Ministry said on December 8 that its soldiers were preparing for fighting in winter conditions by taking part in tactical training exercises in Belarus.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the Belarusian strongman who relied on Russian troops to help put down a popular revolt two years ago, has allowed his country to serve as a launch pad for Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

U.S. House Overwhelmingly Approves Bill Backing Record Military Spending

The House approved the compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act by 350 votes to 80, far exceeding the two-thirds majority required to pass the legislation and send it for a vote in the Senate. (file photo)

The U.S. House of Representatives has backed legislation paving the way for the defense budget to hit a record $858 billion next year, $45 billion more than proposed by President Joe Biden. The House approved the compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by 350 votes to 80, far exceeding the two-thirds majority required to pass the legislation and send it for a vote in the Senate. The fiscal 2023 NDAA authorizes $858 billion in military spending and includes a 4.6 percent pay increase for the troops, funding for purchases of weapons, ships and aircraft, and support for Taiwan as it faces aggression from China and Ukraine as it fights an invasion by Russia. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

One Dead In Shopping Mall Fire In Moscow Suburb, Authorities Say

Authorities said that the flames at the Mega shopping center in Khimki spread over an area of about 18,000 square meters.

Fire engulfed the Mega shopping center in Khimki near Moscow early on December 9, emergency services said, adding that the fire was apparently caused by a short circuit. The flames spread over an area of about 18,000 square meters, authorities said. The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said that one person died, apparently a security guard who did not have time to get out of the fire. Mega had been home to a large number of Western retail chains before the companies' departure from Russia in the wake of the Ukraine conflict. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Ukraine Says Russia Put Rocket Launchers At Nuclear Power Plant

The Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant is the largest atomic power station in Europe. (file photo)

Russian forces have installed multiple rocket launchers at Ukraine's shut-down Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, Ukrainian officials claimed on December 8, raising fears that Europe's largest atomic power station could be used as a base to fire on Ukrainian territory and heightening radiation dangers. Ukraine's nuclear company Enerhoatom said in a statement that Russian forces occupying the plant have placed several Grad multiple rocket launchers near one of its six nuclear reactors. The systems are located at new “protective structures,” which the Russians secretly built "violating all conditions for nuclear and radiation safety,” it said. The claim could not be independently verified. To read the original story by AP, click here.

'Mine Terror' Will Be Among Charges Against Russia, Zelenskiy Says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made his remarks in his nightly video address on December 8.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on December 8 that he believes "mine terror" will be one of the charges against Russia when it is held to account for its invasion of Ukraine.

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.

"I am sure this will be among the charges against Russia for aggression,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address after posthumously presenting state awards to four policemen who died on December 7 in the Kherson region when Russian mines blew up.

Zelenskiy signed decrees awarding the title of Hero of Ukraine to police Colonel Mykhaylo Kuratchenko and the Order of Courage to police captains Ihor Melnyk and Serhiy Nenada, and Corporal Vadym Perizhko.

“They did everything for the safety of Ukrainians,” he said.

They were killed when they “fell into a mine trap" after returning from collecting weapons and ammunition left in the Kherson region by Russians, he said in his video message.

Zelenskiy said the use of mines is even more cruel than the use of missiles because mines cannot be shot out of the air. He said Russian mines are a legacy of terror that Ukraine will have to contend with for years.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said last month that approximately one-third of the territory of Ukraine remains potentially dangerous due to explosive objects.

At the end of October, Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy said that, in the territories recently liberated from the Russian Army, mining is twice as dense as in the previously deoccupied part of the Kyiv region or Chernihiv region.

Ukrainian Crews Work To Clear Liberated Areas Of Donetsk Of Russian Explosives
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The head of the joint coordination press center of the Defense Forces of Southern Ukraine, Natalya Humenyuk, said Russian troops who retreated from the Kherson region used "insidious" methods of mining large areas.

The mines have slowed the work of Ukrainian specialists restoring power knocked out by Russian attacks on the country's infrastructure.

Romania, Bulgaria Snubbed By Schengen As Croatia Gets Green Light To Join Europe's Free-Travel Zone

European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson (left) and Czech Interior Minister Vit Rakusan address a press conference at a meeting of EU interior ministers at the European Council building in Brussels on December 8.

Croatia has received the go-ahead to join Europe's Schengen passport-free travel zone in January in a long-awaited decision that leaves out Bulgaria and Romania.

The decision came on December 8 during a meeting in Brussels of interior and justice ministers of EU and Schengen states and was heartily welcomed by Croatia but greeted unhappily by Bulgaria and Romania.

"The Schengen area is growing for the first time in more than a decade," tweeted the Czech Republic, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency. "Ministers approved Croatia’s membership as of 1 January 2023!"

Croatia's delegation to the EU also responded enthusiastically.

"Last step completed! Council decision adopted -- It is now formally confirmed that #Croatia joins #Schengen area as of 1 January 2023," it said on Twitter.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic wrote on Facebook that, with the open borders, Croatia "has fulfilled the strategic goals of the government" and that "citizens and the economy will have the biggest benefit."

Deputy Prime Minister Davor Bozinovic said Croatia met all the conditions in a long and demanding process.

"With Croatia in Schengen, everyone benefits -- the citizens, the economy, Croatia and the EU," he said.

Twenty-six countries -- 22 EU states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland -- currently comprise the
Schengen area. Croatia will become its 27th country and the first to join since the area was expanded in 2011 to admit Liechtenstein.

The EU said Schengen is the largest free-travel area in the world. Within it there are 1.25 billion journeys annually and 3.5 million border crossings daily, it said.

The move required unanimous support from the 27 EU members. Croatia's bid received no notable opposition, while the membership of Romania and Bulgaria was opposed by Austria and the Netherlands, citing corruption and migration concerns as increasing numbers of people cross its borders without authorization via the Balkans region.

Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner noted that more than 100,000 people have entered Austria this year without authorization.

"It is wrong that a system that does not work properly in many places would get expanded at this point," he said.

Throughout the bloc in the first 10 months of 2022, 281,000 irregular entries were recorded, up 77 percent from a year before and the highest since 2016, Frontex, the EU's border police, said last month.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock had urged Austria to change its mind especially at time when it is "important that Europe moves closer together,” she said in a statement.

The Netherlands also opposed granting access. The Dutch parliament in October adopted a resolution saying further analysis of the functioning of the rule of law and the extent of corruption and organized crime in Bulgaria and Romania was needed.

Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca said he was disappointed and would reapply.

"We regret and honestly do not understand the inflexible position taken by Austria," he said.

Honor Keleman, Romania’s deputy prime minister, however, was incensed by the result and vowed to "continue to fight" to join Schengen "without giving in to Austria's miserable blackmail," he wrote on Facebook.

Bulgaria will also try again, its foreign minister said.

Bulgarian Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev was cautiously optimistic, saying he thought common ground could be found to overcome the objections of Austria and perhaps the Netherlands.

"Austria already signaled that there are mechanisms, compromises that it is ready to accept. So, the talks will continue," he told reporters.

European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said Romania and Bulgaria deserve to be full members of Schengen and have access to free movement.

"I share the disappointment with the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania," he said.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and dpa

Iranian Shopkeepers Clash With Police Trying To Seal Shops Closed

Women protest on the streets of Tehran on December 8.

Following the call for three days of nationwide strikes in Iran, shopkeepers in the western Iranian city of Sanandaj have clashed with police forces who came to seal the strikers' shops on December 8.

Hengaw, a Norway-based group that monitors rights violations in Iran's Kurdish regions, reported that following the clashes, shopkeepers defied the move by authorities to keep their businesses closed by breaking the seals and reopening.

The protests, which have snowballed into one of the biggest threats to the clerical establishment that has ruled since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, started after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died on September 16, three days after being detained in Tehran by the morality police for allegedly breaching Iran's strict rules on head scarves.

The unrest was initially centered in Amini's hometown of Saghez in Iran's Kurdistan region before quickly spreading to dozens of cities and towns across Iran. Tehran has claimed, without providing evidence, that Kurdish groups in northern Iraq have been supporting the demonstrations.

Shopkeepers, workers, and students in dozens of Iranian cities joined a call to broaden the unrest even further by joining three days of nationwide strikes from December 5 to 7.

A video received by RFE/RL's Radio Farda from the central Iranian city of Isfahan appeared to show threats from security forces written on the shutters of some of the shops. The words "under watch" and "traitor to the country " could be seen on some storefronts.

Security forces reportedly raided several markets during the strike as they tried to prevent the move from gaining steam.

The activist HRANA news agency said that as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors.

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

Iran's Chief Of Police Threatens Harsher Crackdown On Protesters

Iranian police arrive to disperse a protest in Tehran.

The chief of Iran's Law Enforcement Command has threatened to crack down more decisively on protesters as Iran enters its fourth month of unrest touched off in mid-September by the death of a young woman in police custody over how she was wearing a head scarf.

In a speech at the Amin Police Academy, Hossein Ashtari said security forces have exercised restraint in dealing with the protesters so far, a claim that flies in the face of estimates by human rights groups that say more than 450 people, including dozens of minors, have been killed so far in the uprising, one of the biggest challenges to the authorities since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Ashtari said police will draw a "red line" at the safety of regular citizens, and that they will "deal decisively with those who target people's safety and will not hold back."

The warning from the country's top police official comes after weeks of increased threats by authorities that they will react harshly to any unrest. Lawmakers have pushed the judiciary to render harsh penalties -- including the death penalty -- in trials for those arrested during protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

The Mizan news agency, which is affiliated with the judiciary, reported on December 8 that 24-year-old Mohsen Shekhari had become the first protester to be executed after an appeal of his sentence was rejected by the Supreme Court.

Ashtari added that during the recent unrest, the police did not allow "enemies and counter-revolutionaries to achieve their ominous and fake goals."

Iranian officials have blamed foreign countries and intelligence services of orchestrating the unrest, though they have not provided evidence to back up the claim.

The activist HRANA news agency says that as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest. The figure includes 64 minors.

Amnesty International says at least 28 people, including three children, could face execution in connection with the nationwide protests as Iranian authorities use the death penalty "as a tool of political repression to instill fear among the public and end the popular uprising."

Several thousand people have been arrested since Amini's death on September 16, including many protesters, journalists, lawyers, activists, and digital-rights defenders.

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

Norwegian Court Acquits Son Of Putin's Confidant On Illegal Drone Charges

Andrei Yakunin in 2016

A Norwegian court has acquitted Andrei Yakunin, the son of one of President Vladimir Putin's longtime confidants, of charges he violated a law that bars Russian citizens from flying drones in Norway.

The Nord-Troms and Senja District Court handed down the decision late on December 7, saying that flying a hobby drone is not covered by the ban.

The 47-year-old, who has Russian and British citizenship and permanently resides in Italy, was arrested in October in Norway's Arctic region after he used two drones while sailing the Archipelago of Svalbard and along the coast of Norway.

Norwegian laws prohibit aircraft operated by Russian citizens and companies on Norwegian territory.

Prosecutors sought four months in prison for Yakunin. They said they will appeal the court's ruling.

Norwegian law enforcement officers have arrested several Russian citizens in recent months for flying drones or taking pictures of sensitive objects, including those near Norway's offshore oil and gas platforms.

Andrei Yakunin's father, Vladimir Yakunin, was a longtime member of Putin's inner circle. He has been under U.S. sanctions since Russia illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimea in 2014.

The 74-year-old businessman led Russian Railways for 10 years before he retired in 2015. British and Russia media reports said at the time that Vladimir Yakunin was dismissed due to his son's decision to apply for British citizenship.

In April, Andrei Yakunin said in an interview with Italy's La7 television channel that he stands against Russia’s ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

He also said he never voted for Putin, nor for the ruling United Russia party aligned with the president.

With reporting by NRK TV

Jailed Belarus Activist Byalyatski Barred From Sending Speech To Nobel Ceremony

Ales Byalyatski in 2020

Imprisoned Belarusian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski hasn't been allowed by Belarus authorities to hand over his speech for the award ceremony. His wife, Natalia Pinchuk, who will deliver a speech on Byalyatski's behalf during a December 10 award ceremony in Oslo, said it will still convey her husband's thoughts and statements. "He has been unable to hand it over. The situation with letters is difficult; everything is closely monitored," she told the Associated Press en route to Oslo. "But we have his statements and his thoughts, and the speech will contain them." To read the original story from AP, click here.

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