U.S. Religious-Freedom Report Cites Improvement in Uzbekistan, Deterioration In Russia
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is proposing the State Department remove Uzbekistan from its "worst of the worst" list of offenders of religious freedom, while reiterating that Russia should be put on that list.
The independent, bipartisan advisory body created by Congress to make recommendations about global religious freedom proposed in its annual report on April 28 that 14 countries be put on the "country of particular concern" list, a category reserved for those that carrying out "systematic, ongoing, and egregious" violations of religious freedom.
Alongside Sudan, the commission recommended Uzbekistan be removed as a country of particular concern, a move already taken by President Donald Trump's administration last year.
Uzbekistan has taken "significant steps" to improve religious freedom, warranting its removal from the list of worst offenders, the commission said.
As improvements it cited an end to long-standing raids on religious communities and restrictions on literature, as well as the government's announcement it would close the notorious Jasliq prison, which had held religious prisoners, including two who in the past had been boiled to death, the commission said.
Tashkent still remains on a special watch list, meaning there are still "severe" violations of religious freedom in the Central Asian country. Other countries on the USCIRF's special watch list include: Cuba, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Turkey.
The State Department has already designated nine of 14 countries on the list of the worst countries regarding religious freedom: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
But it has so far not followed USCIRF recommendations to add five others -- India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.
Russia 'Gets Worse'
The commission said Russia -- which remains on the State Department's special watch list -- saw a deterioration of religious freedom in 2019 with raids on Jehovah's Witnesses and the abuse of vague laws and counterextremism justifications to target religious minorities.
"The Russian government views independent religious activity as threatening social and political stability and its own control, while simultaneously cultivating relationships with the country's so-called 'traditional' religions," the report said.
In Russian-occupied Crimea, the commission said Crimean Tatars were harassed, arrested, and even tortured under the cover of alleged extremism charges leveled against secular human rights groups opposed to the Russian occupation.
Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine also restricted religious freedom, the commission said, following a similar pattern as in Russia, while also privileging the Russian Orthodox Church over the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
In the North Caucacus, meanwhile, security forces arrested and kidnapped people with alleged links to Islamist militant groups and harassed Muslim prayer groups.
'Very Negative Direction'
In another major recommendation to the State Department, the commission put India on its "worst of the worst" list of offenders of religious freedom.
India is "trending in a very negative direction," USCIRF Chairman Tony Perkins said at a press conference.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government implemented a series of discriminatory policies in 2019, including an amendment to the citizenship law that provides a path to Indian citizenship only for non-Muslim immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
When a national register is completed, millions of Muslims who have lived in the country for decades could face detention, deportation, and statelessness.
"The national and various state governments have tolerated widespread harassment and violence against religious minorities," USCIRF added.
Elsewhere in the word, China has rounded up 1.8 million Uyghur Muslims into concentration camps and women in Pakistan were forced to convert to Islam.
Secretive Turkmenistan was identified as one of the worst countries in the world for religious freedom, while the commission said Tajikistan's "already dismal record" deteriorated.
The USCIRF advises the president, Congress, and State Department on international religious-freedom issues. Its annual reports are different from the State Department's reports on international religious freedom.
The advisory body says its independence enables it to "unflinchingly criticize" both U.S. allies and adversaries.
Minsk Court Sentences Polish-Belarusian Activist Poczobut To Eight Years In Prison
MINSK -- A court in Minsk has sentenced a leader of the Polish-Belarusian community, noted journalist Andrzej Poczobut, to eight years in prison for criticizing Belarus's authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and his regime.
The Hrodna regional court in the country's west sentenced the 49-year-old activist and journalist on February 8 on charges of public calls for actions directed at harming the country's national security, distributing materials containing such calls, and inciting hatred.
The trial was held behind closed doors.
Poczobut, who is a correspondent for the respected Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, was arrested in March 2021 amid rising tensions between Minsk and Warsaw following the brutal suppression of mass protests against Lukashenka after he claimed a landslide victory in a 2020 presidential election.
The Belarusian opposition claimed the election was rigged in favor of Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994.
Relations between Poland and Belarus worsened further after a migrant crisis on their shared border at the end of 2021, which Warsaw blamed on Minsk, and after Lukashenka allowed Moscow to use its territory as a launching pad for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The European Union, the United States, and other countries have imposed sanctions against Lukashenka's regime following the crackdown on protesters.
The Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) rights group has included Poczobut on its list of 1,440 political prisoners in Belarus, and Poland has demanded his release.
Poland, along with most of Europe and many other countries around the world, has criticized Lukashenka, and has provided sanctuary for Belarusian opposition leaders and activists.
Kazakh Court Rejects Jailed Dissident’s Appeal Of Decision To Deny Early Release
QONAEV, Kazakhstan -- The Almaty regional court in southern Kazakhstan has rejected an appeal filed by noted dissident Ermek Narymbaev (aka Narymbai) against a lower court's refusal to grant him an early release.
Narymbaev's lawyer, Zhanar Balghabaeva, told RFE/RL on February 8 that the court was unable to clearly explain its decision in the courtroom and expressed hope that proper justification would be shown in the court's written decision, which has yet to reach her client.
The Qonaev city court near Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, ruled on December 14 that Narymbaev did not deserve an early release on parole due to a violation of internal regulations allegedly committed by the activist at the penal colony where he is incarcerated.
Narymbaev has been jailed several times for his political views and is known as a staunch critic of the tightly controlled former Soviet republic's government.
He fled Kazakhstan in 2016 for Ukraine after receiving death threats from unknown individuals. Narymbaev said at the time that the threats were masterminded by Kazakh authorities in a bid to intimidate him.
He returned to Kazakhstan in February 2022 after unprecedented anti-government rallies shook the Central Asian nation the month before, leaving at least 238 people dead.
He was arrested upon his arrival in Almaty and sent to prison for 30 months to serve the remainder of a previous suspended prison term he was given in 2015 on a charge of inciting hatred, which he called politically motivated.
In October and November, Narymbaev held a hunger strike for 54 days to protest against his incarceration. He also demanded democratic reforms from the government. He lost 41 kilograms during the hunger strike.
Iranian Protester, Focus Of Torture Reports, Released After Four Months
Iranian protester Armita Abbasi, who media reports said was tortured and raped while in detention after being identified as a "leader" of protests sparked by the death of a young woman while in policy custody for an alleged head scarf violation, has been released from prison.
"We experienced a very difficult time, but now I am extremely happy," Abbasi’s father wrote in a social media post along with a video of his 20-year-old daughter next to him.
Armita Abbasi’s lawyer, Shahla Orouji, said last week that a court accused her client of “propaganda against the Islamic republic” and “gathering and conspiring to commit a crime against national security.”
Abbasi was arrested on October 10 in her hometown of Karaj, west of the Iranian capital, nearly a month into the nationwide protests triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody in September.
The Iranian government claimed she was “the leader of the riots” and that police discovered “10 Molotov cocktails” in her apartment.
In November, CNN published an investigative report about the sexual assault and rape of some of the detainees from recent protests, including Abbasi, while they were being held in prisons across Iran.
A source told CNN that Abbasi was rushed to the Imam Ali hospital in Karaj on October 17, accompanied by plainclothes officers while “her head had been shaved and she was shaking violently.”
“In the accounts, the medical staff attending to her spoke of the horror they felt when they saw evidence of brutal rape,” CNN added.
Neither Abassi, her family, nor her lawyer have publicly commented on the report.
Earlier in January, Abbasi and 14 other Iranian women incarcerated in the Kachoui prison near Tehran reportedly went on a hunger strike to protest the conditions of their imprisonment and the lack of medical attention at the facility.
At that time, her mother wrote on her Instagram account that, because of her daughter’s hunger strike, prison authorities were no longer allowing her to call her family. She also said the court did not accept the lawyer representing her daughter.
Since Amini's death, Iranians have flooded into the streets across the country to protest against a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls making unprecedented shows of support in the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said that, as of January 29, at least 527 people had been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Prominent Iranian Figures To Discuss The Future Of The Democracy Movement In Their Country
Eight prominent Iranian opposition figures have announced they will meet this week at Georgetown University to discuss the future of the country's pro-democracy movement amid a wave of protests following the September 16 death of a young woman while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.
Rights activist Masih Alinejad, the exiled former crown prince of Iran Reza Pahlavi, the spokesman for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims Hamed Esmaeilion, and rights activist Nazanin Boniadi will be present at the February 10 meeting.
Four others, including Nobel laureate lawyer Shirin Ebadi, renowned Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, leader of the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan Abdullah Mohtadi and former captain of Iran’s national soccer team Ali Karimi will join the meeting online.
According to the announcement published by Washington, D.C.-based Georgetown University, the eight are going to sit together in a meeting called “The Future of Iran’s Democracy Movement.”
The meeting comes amid months of pressure from Iranian opposition politicians and protesters, who have demanded that the Islamic republic's leadership step down.
Iranian social media users welcomed news of the meeting, with many calling for the leaders to form an alliance to unify forces battling to change the system.
The news comes amid nationwide protests in Iran 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 responded to 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
Uzbek Authorities Detain Man Suspected Of Organizing Illegal Migration To The U.S.
Uzbekistan's State Security Service (DXX) said on February 7 that its department in the southeastern region of Samarkand had arrested a 27-year-old resident of the city of Bukhara on a charge of organizing illegal immigration to the United States via Mexico and the European Union. The DXX did not disclose the suspect's identity, saying he was caught while receiving $3,000 in cash, the fifth part of a requested fee from a client. Uzbek authorities said in December that they arrested two men on similar charges. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, click here.
MH17 Investigators Close Probe Despite 'Strong Indications' Of Putin's Involvement
International investigators looking into the 2014 downing of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine said on February 8 that they were ending their probe despite finding "strong indications" of the involvement of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials. “The investigation has now reached its limit,” prosecutor Digna van Boetzelaer told journalists in The Hague. “The findings are insufficient for the prosecution of new suspects.” Despite compelling evidence, Russia has denied any involvement in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) in July 2014, resulting in the deaths of all 298 passengers and crew on board. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Well-Known Kyrgyz Political Activist Nazarbek Nyshanov Detained
The well-known Kyrgyz political activist and government critic Nazarbek Nyshanov has been detained on a charge of making public calls to forcibly seize power, the State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said on February 8. According to the UKMK, Nyshanov was detained two days earlier. Nyshanov's representatives and relatives have yet to comment on the statement. Nyshanov is known for his criticism of the current and previous governments, as well as for his political ambitions and attempts to get registered as a candidate for presidential elections since 2005. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.
Georgian Officials Detain Man Suspected Of Bank Robbery, Hostage-Taking
TBILISI -- Georgia's Interior Ministry says its officers have detained a man suspected of an attempted bank robbery in October 2020 that turned into a hostage-taking situation.
In a statement on February 8, the ministry said the suspect, Badri Esebua, born in 1988, was apprehended early in the morning as he tried to cross the administrative boundary of Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.
Esebua is accused of illegal arms possession, terrorism, and hostage-taking and may face up to 15 years in prison if convicted, the statement said.
On October 21, 2020, a masked gunman wearing military fatigues took 43 people hostage at a branch of the Bank of Georgia in the western city of Zugdidi.
He initially released 24 of the hostages and then, after an almost 12-hour standoff with police that stretched into the evening, he left the bank premises with four persons, including three hostages and the head of the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti Police Department, Avtandil Galdava, who had been acting as a negotiator. He also reportedly demanded $500,000 and a guarantee to leave the area safely.
The four were released later, while the suspect escaped with an unknown amount of cash and remained at large until his arrest on February 8.
In December 2020, police arrested Esebua’s brother for the illegal purchase and possession of firearms and ammunition. He was found guilty and sentenced by a court to four years in prison in July 2021.
U.S. To Lift Sanctions On Russian Sberbank's Former Subsidiary In Kazakhstan
The U.S. Treasury Department plans to lift sanctions imposed on the former Russian Sberbank subsidiary in Kazakhstan, Bereke Bank. The U.S. Treasury Department said on February 7 that it will lift the sanctions on March 6. Kazakhstan's state-owned Baiterek financial holding group bought the Sberbank's Kazakh subsidiary in August 2022. The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the subsidiary in February 2022 in response to Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Kazakh Website Editor Receives Box Containing Meat And Photos Of Her Children
ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- The chief editor of the Ulysmedia.kz news website in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, says she received a box from unknown people that contained a hunk of meat and pictures of her children, a parcel she called a new attempt "to intimidate" her and her staff.
Samal Ibraeva told RFE/RL that the box was delivered to the website's office on February 8. She linked the box's delivery to the professional activities of her team, which she said has been the target of other intimidation attempts.
On January 18, Ulysmedia.kz had to suspend its operations following a hacking attack. Ibraeva said at the time that the attack was most likely linked to the website's work, adding that it had faced several previous similar attacks.
The incident comes at a time when the independent press in Kazakhstan is coming under pressure.
The Almaty-based Adil Soz (A Just Word) group, which monitors journalists' rights, said earlier that there have been at least five attacks against journalists in the Central Asian nation since January 1.
The subjects of the attacks, including Ulysmedia.kz, have been writing and reporting about Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the first anniversary of the violent dispersal of anti-government protests in Kazakhstan that turned into mass unrest that left at least 238 people, including 19 law enforcement officers, dead.
On January 20, presidential spokesman Ruslan Zheldibai said President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, who has initiated a series of changes since last year's deadly protests aimed at creating what he calls a "new Kazakhstan," has ordered law enforcement to investigate each attack against journalists.
Ibraeva said to RFE/RL on February 8 that, despite the presidential order to investigate the attacks, it remains unclear who is behind the assaults.
International human rights watchdogs and the embassies of several Western nations have urged Kazakh authorities to investigate the attacks.
Kazakh Court Convicts Five Dead Men Killed During 2022 Anti-Government Unrest
A court in Kazakhstan's southern city of Taraz has posthumously convicted five men who were shot dead during unprecedented anti-government protests in January 2022. The five were convicted of illegal weapons possession and taking part in mass unrest. The men's relatives protested near the courtroom after the verdicts were announced, saying that their loved ones were victims of police and security officers who opened fire on protesters following a presidential order "to shoot to kill without warning." At least 238 people, including 19 law enforcement officers, were killed across Kazakhstan during the protests. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Estonian Intelligence Service Warns Of 'Security Risks' From Russia
The Estonian intelligence service said in its annual report on February 8 that Russia remains capable of exerting “credible military pressure” in the Baltic region, presenting a medium- and long-term security risk. Although the Russian military is currently engaged in its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, “Russia’s belligerence and foreign policy ambitions have significantly increased security risks for Estonia,” the report stated. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Russian Prosecutor Seeks 23 Years In Prison For Former Khabarovsk Governor Sergei Furgal
The prosecutor at the high-profile murder trial of Sergei Furgal, the former governor of the Far Eastern Khabarovsk Krai region whose arrest in 2020 caused months-long protests in the region, has asked a Moscow court to sentence the politician to 23 years in prison.
The prosecutor on February 8 also asked the Lyubertsy City Court, which held the trial in the building of the Moscow regional court, to sentence Furgal's three co-defendants -- Marat Kadyrov, Andrei Palei, and Andrei Karepov -- to 10 1/2, five, and 17 years in prison, respectively.
On February 2, a jury found Furgal guilty of attempted murder and of ordering two killings in 2004 and 2005. The prosecutor claimed that decisions to commit the murders were driven by the commercial interests of Furgal and his accomplices. Investigators said Kadyrov was the actual perpetrator of the crime.
Furgal has stressed his innocence several times in court. He and his supporters insist that the case against him is politically motivated.
In his closing remarks, the ex-governor noted that 100 witnesses were brought forward by the defense but that only two were interrogated, while the rest were not admitted. In addition, he alleged the investigation hid material evidence.
Furgal, a member of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, was elected in 2018 in a runoff that he won handily against the region’s longtime incumbent from the Kremlin-backed ruling United Russia party.
His arrest on July 9, 2020, sparked mass protests in Khabarovsk Krai's capital, Khabarovsk, and several other towns and cities in the region.
The protests were held almost daily for many months, highlighting growing discontent in the Far East over what demonstrators see as Moscow-dominated policies that often neglect their views and interests.
With reporting by Meduza and TASS
Russian Police Launch Probe Into Alleged Fraud At Shelter Where Mutilated Dogs Found
Police in Russia's southwestern city of Astrakhan have launched a probe into alleged financial fraud after investigating the operations of an animal shelter where some 60 dogs were found dead and mutilated in December. The Investigative Committee said on February 7 that the shelter is suspected of embezzling 28 million rubles ($392,000) allocated by the authorities to catch stray dogs, provide them with medical assistance, and find homes for them. No names were mentioned. The shelter is owned by the wife of a former Astrakhan city lawmaker, Andrei Nevlyudov. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Self-Exiled Pussy Riot Member Charged With Discrediting Russian Armed Forces
MOSCOW -- Moscow municipal lawmaker Lyusya Shtein, who is also a member of the Pussy Riot protest group, has been charged in absentia with discrediting the Russian armed forces.
Media reports in Russia quoted sources as saying that the case launched against Shtein is linked to her online posts last March about Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Shtein told Meduza on February 7 that she learned about the probe against her from those media reports, adding that neither she nor her lawyer had been officially informed about the case.
In May, the Interior Ministry added Shtein to its wanted list for violating a parole-like sentence she was handed in August 2021 for violating coronavirus safety precautions by calling on people to protest against the detention of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.
The outspoken critic of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine left Russia in April after her apartment door was marked with a Z-shaped sticker inscribed with the slogan: "Collaborator. Do Not Sell Motherland," in an apparent attempt to intimidate her.
Many Russian military vehicles and tanks have been marked with the letter Z during the ongoing invasion, with the insignia becoming an increasingly ubiquitous symbol of support for the war, for the military, for the Kremlin’s policies, and most of all for President Vladimir Putin.
Shtein's partner and a founding member of Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina, also fled Russia last year after a Moscow court changed the remainder of her one-year parole-like sentence to real prison time, saying she had violated the terms of her punishment.
Shtein, Alyokhina, and other members of the protest group were sentenced to up 15 days in jail several times in 2021-22 over taking part in protest actions and unsanctioned rallies.
Pussy Riot came to prominence after three of its members were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for a stunt in which they burst into Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral and sang a "punk prayer" against Putin, who was prime minister at the time and campaigning for his subsequent return to the Kremlin.
Alyokhina and bandmate Nadezhda Tolokonnikova had almost completed serving their two-year prison sentences when they were freed in December 2013 under an amnesty. The two have dismissed the move as a propaganda stunt by Putin to improve his image ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics that were held in the Russian resort city of Sochi.
With reporting by RIA Novosti and Meduza
Russian Officer Who Brandished Alleged Ukrainian Skull Dies Of Gunshot Wound
Russian Army officer Igor Mangushev, who gained prominence last year for speaking on stage holding what he said was the skull of a Ukrainian soldier while calling for the death of "as many Ukrainian soldiers as necessary," has died in a hospital after sustaining a gunshot wound to his head.
Mangushev's associate, Akim Apachev, said on February 8 that the anti-Ukraine propagandist had been in a coma since being shot on February 4 at a checkpoint near the town of Kadiyivka in a part of Ukraine's Luhansk region, which is controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
It remains unclear who shot Mangushev and why. Some media reports say he was shot at close proximity.
Last August, a video showing Mangushev holding the skull of what he said was a Ukrainian soldier at a concert circulated around the Internet and sparked an outcry in Ukraine.
Mangushev said in the video that the skull belonged to a Ukrainian soldier who had been killed during Russia's invasion of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. He added that Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February 2022, was fighting against "the idea of Ukraine as an anti-Russia state," adding that "all who support that idea must be eliminated."
It has not been independently verified whether the skull actually belonged to a Ukrainian soldier.
After the video appeared on the Internet, Kyiv turned to the United Nations, asking it to condemn the video.
Mangushev positioned himself as a Russian military officer, a political strategist, and an associate of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-linked founder and leader of the Wagner private mercenary group.
Media reports also said that Mangushev was a co-founder of another mercenary group called ENOT (United People's Communal Fellowships) that was involved in Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and military operations in Ukraine’s east and Syria.
With reporting by RIA Novosti and Kommersant
Fire Breaks Out At Russian Oil Refinery Near Ukrainian Border
A fire broke out on February 8 at an oil refinery in Russia's southern Rostov region near the border with Ukraine, state media reported. The fire was extinguished around an hour later, Interfax news agency reported, adding that the small refinery belonged to a company called Resource LLC. It cited the Emergency Service as saying that, according to preliminary information, the blaze was caused by a "violation of technological process." Novoshakhtinsk is about 9 kilometers from the Ukrainian border amid Russia's invasion of that country. Another refinery in Novoshakhtinsk was struck by two drones last June. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Security Forces Raid Hideout Of Pakistani Taliban; 12 Militants Reported Killed
Security forces acting on intelligence raided a hideout of Pakistani Taliban insurgents along the border with Afghanistan, triggering an intense shootout that left 12 militants dead, the country’s military said on February 8. The predawn raid came amid soaring tensions in Pakistan and in the aftermath of a mosque bombing last week that killed 101 people in Peshawar. Pakistani officials blamed the blast on the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, which denied involvement. The Pakistani Taliban has a strong presence in Lakki Marwat, where they have launched multiple attacks in recent months. To read the original story from AP, click here.
Russia To Seek Arbitration With U.S. Over Visas For UN Diplomats
Moscow says it will pursue arbitration after accusing the United States of failing to issue visas to Russian delegates to the United Nations. Russia’s Foreign Ministry also accused Washington of restricting the movements of Russian diplomats in the United States. “The U.S. is raising doubts about the validity of its right to retain its status as host state for the UN headquarters,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Pyotr Ilichyov told Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency. A U.S. State Department spokesperson in September responded to similar complaints by saying the United States takes its obligations seriously. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Ukraine's Zelenskiy Appeals For Fighter Jets In Surprise Trip Abroad
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who arrived in the United Kingdom early on February 8 on his second known trip abroad since Moscow's unprovoked invasion of his country one year ago, has again appealed to Western allies to provide his country with fighter jets to combat Russian forces.
Speaking in a historic address to the British Parliament, Zelenskiy said "wings for freedom" would help Kyiv in its battle to repel Russian troops amid months of intense fighting.
"We know freedom will win, we know Russia will lose," he told lawmakers.
"The United Kingdom is marching with us towards the most... important victory of our lifetime. It will be a victory over the very idea of the war."
For months, Kyiv has been urging the West to increase its military support, including the possibility of providing fighter jets.
The United States, Britain, Germany, and other Western allies recently relented and approved sending hundreds of battle tanks, armored vehicles, and other heavy weaponry to Ukraine amid expectations that Russia is gearing up for a new major offensive, possibly as early as this month.
Washington has so far also rejected supplying any F-16 warplanes to Ukraine, but some allies, such as Poland, have said they could be open to the idea.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced expanded training for the Ukrainian military, including training for fighter jet pilots and marines. The training for pilots would ensure that they are able to fly NATO-standard fighters in the future, a government statement said.
“We will continue to support Ukraine to ensure a decisive military victory on the battlefield this year,” Sunak told parliament.
Sunak’s office said Zelenskiy will visit Ukrainian troops training in Britain on February 8 and meet with King Charles.
“President Zelenskiy’s visit to the U.K. is a testament to his country’s courage, determination, and fight, and a testament to the unbreakable friendship between our two countries,” Sunak was quoted as saying.
Britain also announced additional sanctions targeting individuals and companies that “are profiting from the Kremlin’s war machine.” The sanctions targeted Russian drone manufacturer CST; RT-Komplekt, a Russian producer of helicopter parts; and software developer Topaz.
“These new sanctions accelerate the economic pressure on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, undermining his war machine to help Ukraine prevail,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said.
Oil executive Nikolai Yegorov and Sergei Rudnov, owner of the pro-Kremlin Regnum news agency, were also targeted.
In all, over 1,300 individuals and entities have been sanctioned by Britain over the invasion of Ukraine.
Zelenskiy’s visit to Britain is his first since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. He visited the United States and addressed Congress in December. According to some reports, Zelenskiy might attend a European Union summit this week in Brussels.
While details of Zelenskiy's travel plans were kept secret, several international media outlets reported that the Ukrainian president would travel on to Paris to meet French President Emmanuel Macron. The German broadcaster n-tv said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was headed to Paris as well to meet the Ukrainian leader.
Zelenskiy’s visit comes hours after U.S. President Joe Biden, in his annual State of the Union address to Congress on February 7, pledged U.S. support for Ukraine’s war against invading Russia for “as long as it takes.”
In a post on Twitter, Zelenskiy thanked Biden for his “powerful words of support.”
“Our values are the same, our common goal is victory,” Zelenskiy wrote.
Fierce fighting in the eastern part of Ukraine has spurred Kyiv to ask its allies for heavy weaponry given Russia's size and equipment advantage. Longer range weapons would allow Ukraine to push back harder than it has up to now, officials say.
On February 7, Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark pledged to provide more than 100 Leopard 1 battle tanks. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said 20 to 25 of the tanks would arrive by summer, about 80 by the end of the year, and at least 100 more in 2024. The three countries also promised to provide necessary training and support for the tanks.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, Ukrainian lawmaker Roman Kostenko, head of the parliament’s National Security Committee, said Russia was planning a new offensive in the eastern Donbas region and possibly in another “diversionary” area.
“The enemy is preparing an offensive,” Kostenko said. “Whether he will be able to attack or not remains to be seen.”
Russian forces carried out air strikes in the city of Kharkiv during the night, the head of the regional administration, Oleh Synyehubov, said. The strikes targeted an industrial area of the city and ignited a large fire. No casualties were reported.
Russian military officials said the strike targeted a “workshop” for upgrading drones.
With reporting by Reuters
Biden Calls Russia's 'Murderous Assault' Against Ukraine A 'Test For The Ages,' Says U.S. Will Stand With Kyiv
WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States is united in its support for Ukraine as it opposes the "murderous assault" of Russia's invasion and that Washington will stand with Ukraine "as long as it takes."
Speaking during his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, Biden said his government united NATO, built a global coalition, and stood against the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"We stood with the Ukrainian people," he said, as Kyiv's ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, looked on from the gallery.
"She represents not just her nation, but the courage of her people," Biden said.
The United States and other NATO allies have provided billions of dollars in military aid, including air-defense systems, to bolster Ukrainian forces. U.S. and European Union sanctions have also sought to impose a financial cost on Russia.
Biden noted that his address to lawmakers last year came days after Putin launched what Biden called a "brutal attack against Ukraine" and a test for the world.
"I spoke from this chamber one year ago, just days after Vladimir Putin unleashed his brutal attack against Ukraine -- a murderous assault, evoking images of the death and destruction Europe suffered in World War II," Biden said. "Putin's invasion has been a test for the ages, a test for America, a test for the world."
"Would we stand for the most basic of principles? Would we stand for sovereignty? Would we stand for the right of people to live free from tyranny? Would we stand for the defense of democracy?" Biden asked. "One year later, we know the answer: Yes, we would, and we did. We did."
WATCH: The Russian invasion of Ukraine evokes "images of the death and destruction Europe suffered in World War II," U.S. President Joe Biden said.
Biden called Putin's invasion a test for America that showed it would stand for the defense of democracy.
"Such a defense matters to us because it keeps the peace and prevents open season for would-be aggressors to threaten our security and prosperity," he said.
Some Republicans have been skeptical of military aid to Ukraine, but that was not the case when Republicans in the chamber, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, appeared to strongly support Biden's remarks.
"I have to say, I saw a lot more support coming from the Republican side of the aisle when he was speaking about Ukraine, particularly at the moment when he said, 'We are in it as long as it takes,'" Elizabeth Shackelford of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs told VOA.
"This is something that we have heard the Republican Party push back on specifically, saying that there wasn't a blank check for Ukraine," she added.
Late last year, Congress passed a spending bill that included $45 billion for Ukraine and NATO allies, which many House Republicans, including McCarthy, opposed.
Biden said the United States faces serious challenges around the world, but that in the past two years, democracies have become stronger while autocracies have grown weaker.
He did not mention Iran or Afghanistan in his remarks. Republicans have criticized his administration for trying to revive a nuclear deal with Tehran, as well as what they argued was a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Days after a Chinese surveillance balloon drifted across American airspace, leading to the cancellation of a high-profile trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Biden outlined where he sees the relationship with Beijing now.
The president said he remains open to working with China "where it can advance American interests and benefit the world."
"But make no mistake about it," he said. "As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country, and we did."
Some Republicans criticized Biden for not ordering the balloon shot down earlier as it traversed the country.
Biden argued that his administration had changed the narrative about how "the People's Republic of China is increasing its power and America was failing in the world."
"Not anymore," he said. "We made clear and I made clear in my personal conversations which have been many with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict."
With reporting by Cindy Saine of VOA
U.S. Charges Associate Of Russian Oligarch With Sanctions Evasion, Money Laundering
U.S. prosecutors have charged fugitive Russian citizen Vladimir Voronchenko with facilitating a sanctions evasion and money-laundering scheme connected to the assets of Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.
Voronchenko, who portrayed himself as a successful businessman, art dealer, and collector, and as a close friend of Vekselberg is accused of participating in the scheme in an indictment unsealed in federal court on February 7, the Justice Department said in a statement.
Washington imposed sanctions on Vekselberg in 2018 over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and again in 2022 over his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Voronchenko, 70, was accused of participating in the scheme by making payments to maintain four U.S. properties that were owned by Vekselberg, the Justice Department’s statement said.
Voronchenko was also charged with contempt of court for failing to comply with a grand jury subpoena requiring his personal appearance and testimony, the Justice Department added.
Federal agents served the subpoena in May. About nine days later, Voronchenko took a flight from Miami, Florida, to Dubai, and then went to Moscow, prosecutors said.
Before he was designated for sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), Vekselberg, a billionaire with ties to Russia’s mining industry, bought several properties in the United States through a series of shell companies.
The value of the four properties, including an apartment on Park Avenue in New York City and apartments on Fisher Island, Florida, is approximately $75 million. Federal agents searched the properties in September.
Voronchenko’s role in the scheme involved the hiring of an attorney in New York City in connection with the purchase of the properties, the Justice Department said. The attorney also managed the finances of the properties, including the payment of property taxes and other fees using U.S. dollar transactions from the attorney’s account.
U.S. prosecutors allege in the indictment that shell companies owned by Vekselberg sent approximately 90 wire transfers totaling approximately $18.5 million to the attorney’s account. At the direction of Voronchenko and his family member who lived in Russia, the attorney used the funds to make various U.S. dollar payments to maintain and service the properties.
After Vekselberg’s initial designation for sanctions in 2018, the source of the funds used to maintain and service the properties changed, and the attorney’s account began to receive wires from a bank account in the Bahamas held in the name of a shell company controlled by Voronchenko, Smile Holding, and from a Russian bank account held in the name of a Russian national related to Voronchenko.
Voronchenko is charged with conspiring to violate and evade U.S. sanctions, violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), conspiring to commit international money laundering, and international money laundering. Each of the charges carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
In a related indictment unsealed on January 20, the U.S. government said it charged two businessmen -- one Russian and one Briton -- with facilitating a sanctions evasion and money-laundering scheme in relation to a superyacht belonging to Vekselberg.
Spanish police seized the yacht following a request from the United States, which alleged that the vessel violated U.S. bank fraud, money-laundering, and sanctions statutes.
With reporting by Reuters
U.S. Approves Sale Of HIMARS Rocket Launchers, Ammunition To Poland
The U.S. State Department has approved the potential sale of long-range missiles and rockets to Poland in a deal valued at up to $10 billion, the Pentagon said on February 7. The sale comes as Kyiv praised U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) rocket launchers for battlefield successes such as destroying Russian warehouses and command posts. The package includes 18 HIMARS launchers, 45 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) missiles, and more than 1,000 Guided Multiple Rocket Launch System (GMLRS) rockets. Poland would not be able to transfer any of its ATACMS to Ukraine without approval from the United States. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Russia Asks Pink Floyd's Roger Waters To Speak At UN On Arms Shipments To Ukraine
Russia has asked Roger Waters, co-founder of the rock band Pink Floyd, to speak to the UN Security Council on February 8 at a meeting to discuss the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. Waters was criticized by supporters of Ukraine when he published an open letter in September arguing against the Western supply of weapons to Kyiv. "Let's see what he will say. He has a position and you will hear it tomorrow," said Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzia. The Security Council has met dozens of times since Russia invaded Ukraine but has been unable to take any action because Russia has veto power. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Fire Breaks Out At Drone-Making Factory In Latvia
A fire broke out on February 7 at a drone factory in Latvia that has built drones for Ukraine's military and NATO allies. Two dozen police cars, nine fire engines, and five ambulances rushed to the scene of the fire at the factory run by the U.S. company Edge Autonomy on the outskirts of Riga. The cause of the blaze was not known and no injuries were reported. "A high-risk fire has occurred in the production building, sparking a lot of smoke," the fire department said on Twitter, urging local residents to keep their doors and windows closed.
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