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Ukraine Criticizes Austrian Minister Over Comments About EU Membership

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg attends a news briefing following talks with his counterparts from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Ukraine in Kyiv on February 8.

Ukraine has criticized Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg for opposing its membership in the European Union, saying such a move will weaken the bloc.

"We consider [his remarks] strategically short-sighted and not in the interests of a united Europe," Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said in a statement to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on April 24.

Schallenberg, a member of the conservative Austrian People's Party, told a conference a day earlier that the EU should not make Ukraine a candidate member at its June meeting and instead offer Kyiv "another path" forward in its relationship with the 27-member bloc.

The EU's executive arm in June may provide its opinion on Ukraine's bid to become a candidate to join the bloc, paving the way for a possible decision by leaders that same month.

A majority of countries in the bloc back Ukraine's desire.

However, such a move could be controversial, since Russia has frequently cited Kyiv's decision to forge closer ties with the EU and NATO as one rationale for its invasion of Ukraine.

Membership in the EU includes an obligation to assist fellow member states that are victims of armed aggression.

Ukraine has been slowly carrying out political and economic reforms since 2014, when it overthrew pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, in order to meet EU membership requirements.

The majority of Ukrainians support joining the EU.

With reporting by Bloomberg and Reuters

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Russia Calls Bulgaria's Decision To Expel Cleric 'Blasphemous,' Summons Ambassador

A Bulgarian lawmaker earlier this month called Archimandrite Vassian, whose secular name is Nikolai Zmeyev, “a representative of Russian intelligence in a robe.” (file photo)

Moscow has reacted angrily to Bulgaria’s decision to expel the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia, calling the move “blasphemous” and an “unfriendly” act as it closed the Russian Church in the Bulgarian capital in response.

The Russian state news agency TASS reported on September 22 that the Bulgarian ambassador to Moscow Atanas Krastin would be summoned for talks at the Russian Foreign Ministry over the expulsion of Archimandrite Vassian and two other clerics, both Belarusian citizens, for carrying out “activities directed against” the country's national security and interests.

Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security (DANS) said the three had worked to “purposefully influence the social and political processes in Bulgaria in favor of Russian geopolitical interests.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the clerics were summoned to Bulgaria’s immigration service on September 21 and were handed a notice to leave the country within 24 hours.

It added that the three were transported “like criminals in a vehicle with barred windows” back to the church to pack their belongings and added that they would be transported to the Serbian border.

Bulgarian authorities have not given any details on the whereabouts of the clerics.

“We are outraged and shocked by what happened,” the ministry’s spokeswoman Mariya Zaharova said in the statement, adding that the responsibility for the “rapid deterioration of Russian-Bulgarian relations lies entirely with the Bulgarian side.”

Russia's ambassador to Bulgaria, Eleonora Mitrofanova, added in an interview on state television that Russia would not take action directly against the Bulgarian Church in Moscow.

Archimandrite Vassian, whose secular name is Nikolai Zmeyev, was appointed by the Moscow Patriarchate as head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia in 2018 -- days after the Russian Patriarch Kirill visited Bulgaria.

Questions over Archimandrite Vassian have swirled around Bulgaria for several months.

Earlier this month, lawmaker Atanas Atanasov called the cleric “a representative of Russian intelligence in a robe.”

In December 2022, the Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia faced protests against the visit of a high-ranking representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, invited by Archimandrite Vassian.

The decision to expel the three clerics comes amid Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which the Russian Orthodox Church has supported.

The European Union imposed sanctions as a response to Moscow’s war, and Russia added the EU member states, including Bulgaria, to its list of “unfriendly countries.”

In 2022, Bulgaria, a member of NATO and the European Union, expelled 70 Russian diplomatic staff in a move that severely strained diplomatic ties between the two countries, which were close allies during communist times.

Azerbaijani Trade Unions Activist Arrested On Assault Charge

Afiaddin Mammadov

A Baku court ruled on September 21 to arrest a coordinator of Azerbaijan's Alternative Confederation of Trade Unions, Afiaddin Mammadov, and placed him to pretrial detention for two months. Mammadov was detained near his home in Baku on September 20 and charged with premeditated infliction of bodily damage and armed hooliganism after an unidentified man claimed Mammadov had stabbed him with a knife. He rejects the charge. If convicted, Mammadov faces up to eight years in prison. Also on September 21, another court in Baku handed a 30-day jail term to journalist Nurlan Qahramanli on a charge of the distribution of false materials, which the reporter also rejected. To read the original report by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, click here.


Russian Black Sea Fleet Headquarters Hit In Missile Strike As Zelenskiy Announces Joint Weapons Production With U.S.

At least one missile reportedly struck Russia's Black Seat Fleet headquarters, located at Sevastopol's port on the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula, on September 22. (file photo)

Ukrainian forces appear to have carried out a successful missile attack on Russia's Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol, located on the occupied Crimean Peninsula.

The Russian Defense Ministry wrote on Telegram on September 22 that a member of the military was killed when the city came under attack by cruise missiles.

“Russian air-defense systems shot down five missiles while repelling an attack on Sevastopol," the ministry said. "Due to the attack by cruise missiles, the historical building of the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet was damaged.”

RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, a regional outlet of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, reported on September 22 that three powerful explosions were heard in the city, which is home to a large port used by the Russian Navy.

Images on social media showed large plumes of smoke that appeared to be coming from Sevastopol's harbor and one photo showed heavy damage to what was claimed to be the Black Sea Fleet headquarters, which is located at the port.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Russian-installed governor of the Ukrainian peninsula illegally seized and annexed by Moscow in 2014, said in a series of Telegram posts that at least one missile launched by "the enemy" struck the Black Sea Fleet headquarters located at the port.

Razvozhayev warned residents of the city on the southwestern tip of the peninsula that “another attack is possible,” and urged them to stay in their homes and to not attempt to travel to the city center. He said that roads in the center had been closed.

“Those who are near the fleet headquarters, head to the shelters if you hear the siren,” he wrote. Razvozhayev also said firefighters were at the scene of the attack and that additional emergency forces were expected to arrive. In his latest post, the regional head said the situation was "under control" and that house-to-house inspections were under way to determine any damage.

Razvozhayev, who asked residents not to post photos or videos on social media, did not provide further details or mention casualties.

Kyiv did not immediately claim responsibility for the attack, which came a day after Russian artillery and missiles rained down on cities across Ukraine, killing at least five people.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmygal said on September 22 that Russia had restarted its systematic campaign of air attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure ahead of winter but that the country was better prepared this year.

"We understand that the stage of energy terror in this heating season has already begun," Shmygal was quoted as saying by Interfax-Ukraine. "We are much better prepared and stronger than we were last year."

Elsewhere on the Crimean Peninsula, whose recapture is a strategic goal of Ukraine's ongoing counteroffensive to retake occupied territory in its east and south, traffic on the Crimea Bridge was halted on two separate occasions on September 22.

The bridge, which links the peninsula to the Russian mainland and is a key supply route for Russian forces, is a frequent target of Ukrainian attacks.

Also on September 22, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that Ukraine and the United States have agreed to launch joint weapons production in a step that will enable Kyiv to start producing air-defense systems.

The announcement came as Zelenskiy wrapped up a visit to the United Nations in which he addressed the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week.

In his daily address to Ukrainians, Zelenskiy said the long-term agreement would create jobs and a new industrial base in Ukraine, whose economy has been devastated by Russia's invasion and war.

Kyiv has stepped up efforts to boost domestic weapons production as much as possible because of the huge demand for arms and ammunition.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's deputy prime minister confirmed on September 22 the departure of a second cargo vessel with grain from Ukraine's Chornomorsk sea port.

The Palau-flagged Resilient Africa vessel sails along the Bosphorus Strait past Istanbul on September 22.
The Palau-flagged Resilient Africa vessel sails along the Bosphorus Strait past Istanbul on September 22.

The vessel Aroyat "left the port Chornomorsk after loading 17,600 (metric tons of) Ukrainian wheat for Egypt," Oleksandr Kubrakov said on the X social media app, formerly Twitter.

This is the second bulk carrier that has entered the port of Chornomorsk "using the temporary corridor for civil shipping," he said, adding that the first was Resilient Africa, with 3,000 tons of wheat for Asia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on September 22 that "there is no progress" in the issue of reviving the Black Sea grain deal.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said any initiative to revive the grain deal that isolates Russia is not likely to be sustainable, adding that Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey will continue to discuss the deal.

Russia quit the agreement in July, a year after it was brokered by the United Nations and Turkey.

Peskov said no Putin-Erdogan talks have been scheduled, adding that "such talks can be arranged quickly if necessary."

With reporting by Reuters and RIA Novosti

Ukraine Allows Russia-Related Words To Be Written In All Lowercase

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk

Ukraine's National Commission of Language Standards has allowed for all letters in "Russia," "Russian Federation," "Russian Empire," "Moscow," and other related words to be written in lowercase. The commission said that with the ruling, such usage will not be considered a violation of Ukrainian language standards in unofficial documents. The move was made while taking into account the "heroic fight of the Ukrainian people for Ukraine’s independence," the commission said. The decision was made after Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk called on the formalization "of what Ukrainians are already doing." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.

Scores Of Detentions Reported In Yerevan As Protesters Aim To Oust Armenian Prime Minister

A protester clashes with Armenian police officers during a demonstration in Yerevan on September 21.

YEREVAN -- More than 80 people have been detained as anti-government protests continued in the Armenian capital on September 22.

Armenian police said after noon local time that 84 people had been detained and charged with disobeying police orders.

The developments came after opposition leaders called for street blockades and other protest actions to be held on September 22 in an effort to force Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian from power.

Protesters have vowed to continue their action until Pashinian is removed and have said they plan to disrupt a meeting of his cabinet expected later in the day.

Police, who have used stun grenades during clashes with demonstrators since protests began in Yerevan on September 20, had warned that they would implement "special measures" if the clashes continued.

Police reportedly detained one of the protest organizers, Andranik Tevanian, during the demonstrations on September 22. The former parliamentarian was released after being questioned by the Investigative Committee.

Tevanian said during demonstrations on September 21 that "with disciplined and united efforts" Pashinian's ouster as prime minister "will happen in a very short time, even within days."

Embattled Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian
Embattled Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian

Pahinian has come under criticism for the government's response to Azerbaijan's lightning offensive earlier this week against Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azerbaijani territory that has a large ethnic Armenian population.
Azerbaijan has claimed that the offensive, which it describes as an "anti-terrorist operation," has brought the breakaway region back under its control.

Pashinian told his government on September 22 that Yerevan would accept an influx of ethnic Armenians if they chose to leave Nagorno-Karabakh, but that such a massive resettlement would only occur if it became impossible for them to remain there.

Demonstrators have decried what they call inadequate government support for the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, while opposition leaders have announced plans to initiate impeachment proceedings against Pashinian.

As anti-government demonstrators blocked roads and assembled in Yerevan's central Republic Square on the morning of September 22, Pashinian expressed hope that ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh can remain there.

WATCH: Thousands of ethnic Armenians gathered at Nagorno-Karabakh's only airport where Russian peacekeepers are based. They were seeking protection and possible transit to Armenia following two days of fighting.

Ethnic Armenians Converge On Airport As 'Reintegration' Talks Held In Nagorno-Karabakh
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Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has reportedly indicated it envisages an amnesty for Armenian fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh who give up their arms amid a tentative cease-fire that stopped the fighting, which broke out when Azerbaijani forces launched a 24-hour military offensive on September 19-20.

"Even with regard to former militaries and combatants, if they can be classified in such a way, and even for them we are envisaging an amnesty or alluding to an amnesty as well," Hikmet Hajiyev, a foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev president, told Reuters.

Hajiyev also said that ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh have asked for humanitarian aid, which he said would begin to arrive on September 22. Media reports said at least four trucks with aid were seen headed toward Nagorno-Karabakh along the Agdam corridor that runs through Azerbaijan.

Hajiyev said that Baku seeks the peaceful reintegration of Karabakh Armenians.

The ethnic Armenian leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh said on September 22 that an agreement had also been reached for humanitarian aid to be trucked in from Armenia. The leadership said, however, that there had been no deal on security guarantees sought by Karabakh Armenians in exchange for giving up their weapons, or regarding a possible amnesty proposed by Baku.

On September 21, representatives of Azerbaijan and the ethnic Armenian leadership of the breakaway region failed to reach a breakthrough during closely watched "reintegration" talks in the western Azerbaijani city of Yevlax.

The two sides exchanged accusations and denials over reports of gunfire and apparent cease-fire violations in Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto capital, Stepanakert, but more meetings are expected.

Separatist leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh said in a statement following the meeting that they were ready to continue talks with Azerbaijani authorities.

"The parties especially stressed the need to discuss all existing issues in a peaceful environment, noting the readiness to continue meetings," the statement said.

Pashinian said on September 22 that the situation remains tense in Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but which has enjoyed de facto independence since breaking away in a war in the 1990s.

During a short but bloody war in 2020, Azerbaijan recaptured much of the territory as well as seven surrounding districts that had been controlled since the 1990s by ethnic Armenians with Yerevan's support.

Some 120,000 ethnic Armenians live in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Pashinian on September 22 expressed optimism that they can get a real opportunity to return to their homes. At the same time, Pashinian noted a dire humanitarian crisis continues in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In a nationwide address on September 21, Aliyev declared victory in the offensive launched by his forces on September 19 after Baku accused "Armenian sabotage groups" for two separate deadly explosions in areas of Nagorno-Karabakh that are under the control of Russian peacekeepers.

The same day, UN Security Council members including the United States, Turkey, Russia and France called for peace, while Armenian and Azerbaijani officials traded barbs.

Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoian, who called for the emergency meeting, accused Baku of an “unprovoked and well-planned military attack” and said Azerbaijan was likely to use force against civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh again unless prevented by global powers.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov countered by accusing Yerevan of spreading misinformation, insisting that Baku had carried out an anti-terrorism operation against Armenian forces.

The offensive was halted on September 20 after Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leadership accepted a cease-fire proposal by the Russian peacekeeping mission, although sporadic fighting has been reported.

Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Gegham Stepanian has said that at least 200 people, including 10 civilians, were killed and more than 400 others were wounded in the fighting.

RFE/RL could not independently confirm the casualty figures.

Azerbaijan's Prosecutor-General's Office on September 21 said that six Russian peacekeepers had been killed during Baku's military offensive, five "by mistake" by Azerbaijani forces and one by Karabakh Armenian fighters.

CPJ Urges Probe Into Threats Against Two Prague-Based Russian Journalists

The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on the Czech Republic to conduct a swift and thorough investigation into recent threats received by journalists at the independent investigative news website IStories and ensure the journalists’ safety. Between March and September, IStories received four threatening messages on the outlet’s website. The messages mentioned the names, addresses, and travel plans of reporters Alesya Marokhovskaya and Irina Dolinina, according to IStories. Both Marokhovskaya and Dolinina live in Prague, where most of IStories’ editorial staff relocated following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and subsequent criminalization of “false information” about the Russian military.

Afghans Who Recently Arrived In U.S. Get Temporary Legal Status

Afghans disembark from a U.S. Air Force aircraft after an evacuation flight from Kabul in Rota in southern Spain on August 31, 2021.

The Biden administration said on September 21 that it was giving temporary legal status to Afghan migrants who have already been living in the country for a little over a year. The Department of Homeland Security said in the announcement that the decision to give Temporary Protected Status to Afghans who arrived after March 15, 2022, and before Sept. 20, 2023, would affect roughly 14,600 Afghans. This status doesn't give affected Afghans a long-term right to stay in the country or a path to citizenship. It's good until 2025, when it would have to be renewed again. To read the original story by AP, click here.

U.S. Judge Hands Former Russian Gas Company Executive Seven Years For Tax Evasion

Mark Gyetvay

A former top executive at Novatek, Russia's largest independent natural gas producer, has been sentenced by a Florida court to more than seven years in prison for tax evasion.

Judge Joan Ericksen on September 21 sentenced Mark Gyetvay to 86 months behind bars after a jury in March found him guilty of making false statements to U.S. tax authorities, failing to disclose offshore accounts, and failing to file tax returns.

He was ordered to pay more than $4.3 million in restitution and fines.

Gyetvay, 66, served as Novatek’s chief financial officer for more than a decade and was the face of the company to its Western stock investors. He later became deputy chairman of Novatek’s management board.

An accountant who was born and grew up in New Jersey, Gyetvay joined Novatek in 2003 when it was a bit player in Russia’s gas market and received a small stake in the company.

The value of his Novatek stock surged over the years after French giant TotalEnergies and then later Gennady Timchenko, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, took large stakes in the fast-growing company.

Novatek was valued at around $5 billion at its initial public offering in 2005. It would reach about $80 billion at its peak in 2021.

By 2010, Timchenko, who is sanctioned by the West, had become Novatek's largest shareholder.

Novatek enjoyed preferential treatment due to Timchenko's ties to Putin, analysts have said. The company received large gas fields and the right to export liquefied natural gas.

Timchenko sold his stake in his holding company Gunvor shortly before the sanctions were imposed in 2014 following Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea.

Wealth Hidden

According to court documents and evidence presented at his trial, Gyetvay from 2005 to 2015 “concealed his ownership and control over substantial offshore assets and failed to file and pay taxes on millions of dollars of income,” the Justice Department said in a news release following his March conviction.

Gyetvay, who lives in Naples, Florida, worked as a certified public accountant (CPA) in the United States and Russia before joining Novatek.

Beginning in 2005, Gyetvay opened two accounts at a bank in Switzerland to hold assets amounting to more than $93 million, the Justice Department said.

“Over a period of several years, Gyetvay took steps to conceal his ownership and control over these funds, including removing himself from the accounts and making his then-wife, a Russian citizen, the beneficial owner of the accounts,” the department said.

Additionally, despite being a CPA, Gyetvay did not file his 2013 and 2014 U.S. tax returns and did not file documents on foreign bank accounts, as required, to disclose his control over the Swiss accounts.

As an American citizen, Gyetvay is required to pay U.S. taxes on his worldwide income, even if he spends most of the year in Russia.

At the time of his arrest in September 2021, Gyetvay called the charges “baseless” and said he had already settled them through a voluntary program. He vowed then to vigorously fight the charges.

Tensions High In Armenian Capital As Opposition Protesters Blame Government For Karabakh Defeat

Armenian riot police on duty amid a tense situation in Yerevan's Republic Square on September 21.

Tensions remained high in central Yerevan on September 21 as government opponents gathered to protest against what they say was inadequate support for ethnic Armenians in the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Opposition leaders called on protesters to block the main government building to disrupt executive sessions, with some calling for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian to resign. On September 20, separatist leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh were forced to agree to lay down their arms in the face of overwhelming Azerbaijani military actions. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, click here.

Thousands Of Russians In Latvia To Be Told To Leave

Russian citizens attend a Latvian language class in Riga. To continue living in the country, many Russian nationals must apply for permanent residence status and prove a decent knowledge of Latvian. (file photo)

Around 3,500 Russian citizens in Latvia will receive letters from the migration authority this week asking them to leave the country. The government body said on September 21 that they were people who hadn't submitted documents to extend a permanent residence permit or hadn't registered for a Latvian language test by September 1. They must leave Latvia by November 30, it said. An amendment passed by parliament in 2022 tightened residency rules for Russian citizens in response to Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. To continue living in Latvia, they must apply for permanent residence status and prove a decent knowledge of the Latvian language.

Kyrgyz Investigative Group Says Charity Led By President's Wife Received Foreign Funding

Kyrgyz first lady Aigul Japarova (file photo)

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz investigative group Temirov Live said a charity led by the Central Asian nation's first lady received enormous funding from foreign sources, even as the government seeks to adopt a law that would allow authorities to register organizations receiving financing from abroad or foreign nationals as "foreign representatives."

The investigative group said Aigul Japarova's Ene-Balaga Tirek (Mother-Child's Pillar) foundation received more than 9.1 billion soms ($102 million) from the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek last year.

Temirov Live also said Ene-Balaga Tirek received 563 million soms ($6.3 million) from a private medical institution owned by foreigners last year.

It added that the As-Safa Center, also owned by foreign nationals, provided the charity with technical and humanitarian aid worth of 1.3 billion soms ($14.6 million)

Japarova’s charity didn’t deny it received money from the Chinese Embassy, but insisted the amount was 9 million soms ($101,000) not 9.1 billion, and that it was used for social projects in the southern Batken region.

The foundation said other funds received were used on medical equipment, including wheelchairs, that had been distributed among people in need.

The foundation said it is ready to provide journalists with all necessary documents.

Temirov Live's founder, prominent investigative journalist Bolot Temirov -- who has extensively reported about corruption among government officials in Kyrgyzstan -- was deported to Moscow in November after a court ruled that he illegally obtained Kyrgyz citizenship.

Temirov, who held Kyrgyz and Russian passports, rejected the accusation and insisted the probe against him was launched after he published the results of his investigation suggesting corruption among top Kyrgyz officials.

Amnesty International Urges Tajik Government To Immediately Release Imprisoned Pamiri Minority Activists

Amnesty International has urged Tajik authorities to immediately release jailed activists from the Central Asian nation's Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO), which is home to the community known as the Pamiri minority. In its statement on September 21, Amnesty said the activists were "arbitrarily detained, tortured and unfairly convicted." Since May 2022, Tajik authorities have stepped up their ongoing crackdown on the GBAO residents, and imprisoned more than 200 activists, including journalists and rights defenders, on terrorism and extremism charges that domestic and international rights watchdogs call "trumped up."

EU Calls On Bosnian Serb Parliament To Reject Draft Law That Brands NGOs As 'Foreign Agents'

The law is to be adopted by the Bosnian Serb parliament at a session starting on September 26. (file photo)

The European Union on September 21 urged authorities in the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia to immediately withdraw a draft law that brands nonprofit groups funded from abroad as “foreign agents.” The law is to be adopted by the Bosnian Serb parliament at a session starting on September 26. The assembly is dominated by lawmakers who are close to the ministate’s separatist pro-Russian leader, Milorad Dodik. Critics say the draft law resembles a similar one adopted by the Russian Duma on the eve of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Media Watchdog Urges Belarus To Stop Using Extremism Legislation To 'Silence' Independent Reporting

Gulnoza Said, the CPJ's program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, said Belarusian authorities "should immediately repeal the country’s shameful extremism legislation instead of routinely using it against independent media and members of the press." (file photo)

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has urged the authorities in Belarus to stop using the country’s extremism legislation to “silence independent reporting” and allow the media to work freely.

The media watchdog's statement follows a decision by the authorities in Belarus to label the Belarusian Investigative Center (BIC), an independent investigative media outlet based in the Czech Republic, as “extremist.”

“By labeling the Belarusian Investigative Center as ‘extremist,’ the Belarusian authorities are once again seeking to intimidate and obstruct the work of an independent outlet known for its sharp investigations into alleged corruption in the country,” Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said in a CPJ statement.

“Belarusian authorities should immediately repeal the country’s shameful extremism legislation instead of routinely using it against independent media and members of the press.”

Belarus's independent media has been targeted amid an ongoing crackdown on civil society that started after mass unrest triggered by the "official" results of an August 2020 presidential election, which awarded authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term in office. The opposition and some Western governments have said the vote was rigged.

According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, more than 15 media outlets have been labeled as “extremist” in Belarus. The association itself was added to the list in March.

Belarusian authorities also have designated as “extremist” individual journalists, including three RFE/RL journalists -- Ihar Losik, Aleh Hruzdzilovich, and Andrey Kuznechyk.

In June 2022, Kuznechyk was sentenced to six years in prison on a charge of creating an "extremist" group.

Many other journalists, rights activists, and opposition figures have also been charged for extremism.

Organizations classified as extremist are banned from operating in Belarus and individual entrepreneurs and legal entities face up to three years in jail for displaying the logo of an organization deemed to be "extremist."

Anyone charged with creating or participating in an “extremist” group faces up to 10 years in prison, according to the Belarusian Criminal Code, with potential sentences of up to eight years for financing extremism and up to seven years for facilitating such activity.

Thousands -- including journalists, rights activists, and representatives of democratic institutions -- have been detained during the countrywide protests over the election results and there have been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown.

Lukashenka has refused to negotiate with the opposition and many of its leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country.

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

Family Of Iranian Teen Calls Off Memorial Amid Heightened Security Presence

Nika Shakarami's mother, Nasrin, stands beside her daughter's grave. (file photo)

Plans to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Nika Shakarami, a 16-year-old protester believed to have been killed by Iranian security forces during widespread protests last year, have been abruptly canceled amid an increased security presence around her grave site and the detention of several people who tried to come and pay their respects.

Nasrin Shakarami, Nika's mother, said in a post on Instagram that "problems" had forced the family to call off a memorial.

"I don't want to endanger the honorable citizens who intended to join us," she wrote, noting the severe consequences handed to those who have voiced dissent over the situation in Iran.

Aida Shakarami, Nika's sister, also took to Instagram, reporting an increased security presence around Nika's grave in recent days. She added that several individuals who tried to pay their respects were detained.

The 16-year-old Nika went missing during protests in September 2022 in Tehran over the death of Mahsa Amini, who died while in police custody for allegedly wearing her head scarf improperly.

In her last communication with her friends, she said she was being chased by security forces.

Eight days later, Nika's body was returned to her family. The official cause of death was cited as "multiple blunt force traumas" to the head, though authorities pushed the narrative that her death was a suicide.

The incident echoed what happened to Amini. Authorities have said she fell into a coma soon after her arrest because of health problems. But her family says she was in good health, while eyewitnesses said the 22-year-old was beaten during her arrest.

Amini's family was also denied access to her grave on the anniversary of her death on September 16.

Amjad Amini, Amini's father, was detained outside his home on September 16 and taken to the Intelligence Ministry in his hometown of Saghez for interrogation in what is widely seen as a thinly veiled attempt to keep him from going to his daughter's burial place.

The public anger at Amini's death has widely been seen as one of the biggest threats to Iran's clerical establishment since the foundation of the Islamic republic in 1979.

At least 500 people have been killed around the country since authorities began the current crackdown on her sympathizers, with thousands more detained or harassed.

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

Russian Anti-War Activist Gets Eight Years In Prison Over Online Posts

Russian activist Richard Rouz (file photo)

A military court in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg on September 22 sentenced anti-war activist Richard Rouz to eight years in prison on charges of justification of terrorism and distribution of false information about Russian armed forces involved in Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Rouz was arrested in April 2022. His wife, Maria Rouz, and their 8-year son fled Russia in December. Investigators say Rouz called in social media posts for President Vladimir Putin to be "liquidated" and posted materials allegedly related to atrocities that are believed to have been committed by Russian troops in Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

Updated

Bulgaria Expels One Russian, Two Belarusian Clerics Accused of Spying

Archimandrite Vassian is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Bulgaria. (file photo)

Bulgaria on September 21 said it was expelling one Russian and two Belarusian nationals for carrying out “activities directed against” the country's national security and interests.

The announcement followed a statement by the Russian Embassy in Sofia that said Bulgaria had expelled the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in the country, Archimandrite Vassian, and two other clerics.

Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security (DANS) said in statement that the three had worked to “purposefully influence the social and political processes in Bulgaria in favor of Russian geopolitical interests.”

The agency did not mention the full name of the expelled citizens. But the Russian national’s initials -- N.Z. -- match those of Archimandrite Vassian’s secular name -- Nikolai Zmeyev.

The three expelled individuals have been stripped of the right of residence and barred from entering Bulgaria for a period of five years.

Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova told the Russian state news agency TASS earlier on September 21 that the three clerics were summoned to the migration office and were told they had to leave Bulgaria because they “represent a threat to Bulgaria’s national security.”

In a statement published on its social media channels, the Russian Embassy in Sofia condemned the expulsion of the three clerics saying it was a “flagrant action.”

Earlier in September, Bulgarian lawmaker Atanas Atanasov said Archimandrite Vassian was “a representative of Russian intelligence in a robe.”

Atanasov’s comments followed reports that Archimandrite Vassian, using diplomatic status, was among three Russian diplomats expelled from neighboring North Macedonia earlier this month.

On September 16 Skopje said it ordered the expulsion of three Russians without mentioning their names or specifying the reasons.

In December 2022, the Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia faced protests against the visit of a high-ranking representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, invited by Archimandrite Vassian. The Russian Orthodox Church has supported Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

In 2022, Bulgaria, a member of NATO and the European Union, expelled 70 Russian diplomatic staff in a move that severely strained diplomatic ties between the two countries, which were close allies during communist times.

Russia Suspends Fuel Exports Amid Shortages

The cost of fuel has spiked in Russia amid inflation and an increase in international oil prices. (file photo)

Russia's government announced on September 21 that it had suspended exports of gasoline and diesel fuel to curb price hikes during harvest season amid reports of gasoline shortages in the country's south. The cabinet's press service called the move 'a temporary measure." A day earlier Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Novak said the government was ready for "radical measures" to curb fuel price hikes caused, among other things, by inflation and an increase in international oil prices. Since late July, the price of diesel fuel, which is widely used in Russia's agriculture sector rose by 25 percent. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

British Prosecutors OK Charges Against Five Bulgarians Suspected Of Spying For Russia

Bizer Dzhambazov (left) and Katrin Ivanova are among those who have been charged. (file photo)

Britain's Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said on September 21 that it had authorized espionage charges against five Bulgarian nationals -- three men and two women -- who are suspected of conspiring to spy for Russia. It said the five were trying to "collect information intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy" to damage Britain's interests and safety. Three of the group -- Orlin Roussev, Bizer Dzhambazov, and Katrin Ivanova -- were arrested in February and later charged with possessing false identity documents. They will appear in a Westminster Magistrates' Court on September 26, the CPS said.

Ship With Ukraine Grain Back In Turkey Under 'Humanitarian Corridor'

The Resilient Africa cargo ship left the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk on September 19.

The cargo ship Resilient Africa arrived off Turkey's Bosphorus Strait on September 21, the first vessel loaded with grain from Ukraine to sail in and out of the Black Sea using a temporary corridor. The ship left the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk this week with 3,000 metric tons of grain, Kyiv had said. Ukraine last month announced a "humanitarian corridor" to release ships bound for African and Asian markets, and to circumvent a de facto blockade after Russia abandoned a deal this summer that had guaranteed its exports during the war. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Pakistan Sets Election For January, Likely Without Imran Khan

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (file photo)

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on September 21 announced a general election for January, almost three months later than scheduled, removing political uncertainty over the timing to help salvage a falling economy. Elections in the politically and economically troubled nation were due to be held in November but delayed due to the fresh demarcation of constituencies under a new census. The election commission has already questioned the impartiality of the caretaker government led by Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar, who comes from a pro-military party, saying it appears to be aligned with the opponents of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Iranian Court Sentences Tajik National To Death Over Deadly Attack On Mausoleum

Rahmatollah Nouruzof (left), a Tajik national with admitted ties to Islamic State, sits in a courtroom with two other defendants on September 21.

Iran's judiciary has sentenced Rahmatollah Nouruzof, a Tajik national, to death over an attack on the Shah Cheragh mausoleum in the city of Shiraz last month that killed two people.

The head of the judiciary in Fars Province, Kazem Mousavi, said Nouruzof was the main suspect in the attack and that he had admitted to ties with Islamic State (IS).

Nouruzof, also known as Mostafa Islam-Yar, was charged with "waging war against God," "corruption on Earth," and "conspiring against national security" following his armed assault on the Shah Cheragh shrine on August 13. The Mizan news agency reported that he was sentenced to death on two of the charges.

The August attack on the Shah Cheragh shrine in Shiraz was the second of its kind within a year. While initial reports from the ISNA news agency cited four deaths and at least seven injuries in the attack, Mizan recently updated the death toll to two confirmed deaths and seven injuries.

The judiciary said on September 21 that two other minor suspects were “cleared of direct involvement in the crimes as they were unaware of the primary attacker's intentions.” They were sentenced to five years of discretionary imprisonment and expulsion from Iran.

The Shah Cheragh mausoleum in the city of Shiraz.
The Shah Cheragh mausoleum in the city of Shiraz.

A previous attack in October 2022, for which IS claimed responsibility, resulted in 13 deaths and left dozens injured.

Iran's Intelligence Ministry said in a statement on November 7, 2022, that the "main element directing and coordinating the attacks inside the country" was a citizen of Azerbaijan. It also reported the detention of 26 foreign nationals, primarily from Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, in the case.

In December, indictments were issued for five other individuals linked to the Shah Cheragh attack.

In early 2023, Shiraz's Revolutionary Court sentenced two of them, Mohammad Ramez Rashidi and Seyed Naeim Hashemi Qatali, to public execution. All five were identified as foreign nationals and members of the IS terrorist group. The remaining three people detained received lengthy prison terms.

The execution of the two Afghan nationals in July was met with concerns from human rights activists who questioned the fairness of the judicial process and the lack of evidence proving their guilt.

The Iran Human Rights group said the sentences issued to Rashidi and Qatali were not legally valid and were based on forced confessions. The two were hanged in a public execution on July 8.

Iran has seen a surge in executions this year, a trend that has drawn widespread domestic and international condemnation with critics saying that many judgements are rushed through the judiciary while "sham" trials and forced confessions are routine.

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

Top Russian Officer Among Troops Killed During Azerbaijan's Attack On Nagorno-Karabakh

Russian Captain First Rank (Colonel) Ivan Kovgan was reportedly killed when Azerbaijani forces opened fire at a vehicle transporting Russian peacekeepers on September 20. (file photo)

A top official from Russia's armed forces was killed during Azerbaijan's shelling of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh just two months after he was appointed to be the second in command of a Russian peacekeeping force in the region.

Captain First Rank (Colonel) Ivan Kovgan, the deputy commander of Russia's North Fleet submarine forces, was among Russian troops killed during Azerbaijan's "anti-terrorist" operation on September 20, according to the Club of Navy Submarine Veterans in St. Petersburg.

The group said Kovgan was killed when Azerbaijani forces opened fire at a vehicle transporting Russian peacekeepers. The 52-year-old had been appointed to the post of deputy commander of the peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh two months earlier.

The Kremlin said on September 21 that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev had a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which he offered his apologies and expressed condolences over the deaths of Russian military personnel during what Baku called “an anti-terrorist operation” in Nagorno-Karabakh.

"[Aliyev] emphasized that the most thorough investigation of what happened will be conducted and all responsible persons will face due punishment," the Kremlin's statement said, adding that Russian and Azerbaijani prosecutors are in contact to launch the probe.

Aliyev also expressed a readiness to provide the families of the deceased military personnel with financial support.

Media reports in Russia cited sources in Russian law enforcement on September 21 as saying that the commander of the Azerbaijani armed forces unit, whose subordinates were allegedly involved in the deadly shooting at the car with Russian personnel, was dismissed from his post and "first suspects have been detained."

The exact number of Russian troops killed in the attack remains unknown.

In November 2020, during the 44-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijani armed forces shot down a Russian military helicopter, killing two pilots.

Baku said at the time that the aircraft had been shot down “by mistake” and offered apologies to Russia.

Russian peacekeepers were brought in as part of a cease-fire agreement that ended the war after some 7,000 people lost their lives.

With reporting by Current Time, RFE/RL’s Russian Service, TASS, RIA Novosti, and Interfax

Death Toll In Blast Caused By Gas Leak In Residential Building In Moscow Region Rises To Seven

An explosion caused by a gas leak ripped through a nine-story apartment block in the city of Balashikha near Moscow on September 20.

Russian emergency officials said on September 21 that seven people, including two rescue workers, were killed after an explosion caused by a gas leak ripped through a nine-story apartment block in the city of Balashikha near Moscow a day earlier. With all rescue works at the site completed, officials said 27 people were injured, of whom eight were hospitalized. The explosion destroyed three levels of the building. Gas explosions occur frequently in Russia due to aging pipelines and infrastructure, as well as lax safety standards. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Amid Rumors About His Grave Condition, Another Unverified Video Surfaces Of Chechen Leader Kadyrov

A video posted on September 20 shows Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (front right) visiting his uncle at a Moscow hospital.

The Kremlin-backed leader of Russia's North Caucasus region of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has published a new video on social media amid speculation his health is failing and he had been hospitalized in a coma.

The video, published on Telegram late on September 20, shows Kadyrov, Russian lawmaker from Chechnya Adam Delimkhanov, and Kadyrov's envoy to the Kremlin, Bekkhan Taimaskhanov, in a hospital room visiting Kadyrov's uncle, Magomed Kadyrov.

An unidentified doctor in the room says Magomed Kadyrov has been in the clinic for two weeks and will stay in the medical institution for another two weeks, adding that "today is September 20."

No details were given about the hospital or the doctor who appears in the video. It was not possible to immediately verify the date of the video.

The Agentsvo.Novosti Telegram channel, however, identified the doctor as Kirill Kuchkin, a physician at the Central clinical hospital of the presidential directorate of Russia (TsKB) in Moscow, adding that Kuchkin declined to answer a question about the exact date of the footage.

The text under the footage says the video was taken at the TsKB, adding that Kadyrov visited his uncle in the hospital during his unannounced business trip to Moscow.

"I am alive and well and absolutely do not understand why, even in the case of when I am ill, such a fuss must be raised," the text says.

Reports about Kadyrov's worsening health and that he was being treated at the TsKB started circulating in Russia and Ukraine last week. Several opposition Chechen Telegram channels said later that Kadyrov was in a coma and suffering from kidney failure.

Last weekend, Kadyrov’s Telegram channel released a video showing him smiling and talking to the camera in an apparent attempt to counter speculation about his health.

The location and date of when that video, in which the 46-year-old autocrat speaks in a halting manner, was filmed also has not been verified.

Kadyrov, who has ruled Chechnya since 2007 with a cult of personality around him, is frequently accused by Russian and international human rights groups of overseeing grave human rights abuses including abductions, torture, extrajudicial killings, and targeting the LGBT community.

He has been one of the strongest allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin and brought many of his Chechen fighters to battle alongside Kremlin forces in the invasion of Ukraine. Some Chechen rebels are also fighting against Russian troops alongside Ukrainian forces.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on September 18 that he had no information on Kadyrov's state of health.

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